Tuesday, September 24, 2013

8 Novels for the Aspiring Writer

If one subject fascinates writers, it's becoming a writer. And so, here is a list of novels about writers, writing, and reading with much to offer to every aspirant to the literary profession. I've left out, as usual, a few of the more obvious and frequently cited novels about writers and writing, like Pale Fire, and I've included a number of novels that are usually dismissed as juvenile and definitely don't deserve to be.

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
Without a doubt, one of the best-known and most beloved books about an aspiring writer is Louisa May Alcott's classic novel and, while it's inspired many generations of girls to want to write, it's often dismissed as merely a children's novel. The evolution of Jo's writing from the macabre and sensational to the tender and profound is both funny and enlightened, a nostalgic treasure for all of us who "scribbled" when we were young. And as I've already discussed in a previous post, it's a milestone for feminists.

The Neverending Story - Michael Ende
A phantasmagoria of metaphysics, philosophy, and ecstatic imagery, Michael Ende's fantasy masterpiece is about Bastian, a fat, unpopular, and not particularly brilliant boy, who cuts class so that he can read a forbidden book. That book turns out to be The Neverending Story, which starts out as the story of Atreyu on a quest to save Fantastica and the Childlike Empress, but slowly draws Bastian into itself until he himself is creating the story. Ende's novel demands to be reread and it offers new revelations with every perusal.

The French Lieutenant's Woman - John Fowles
Brilliantly blending historical fiction, literary criticism, and philosophical reflection, this novel tells the story of Sarah Woodruff, a Victorian woman abandoned by her French lover, who fascinates Charles Smithson, engaged to be married to Ernestine. Fowles does not write a straightforward narrative, rather offering the reader multiple endings and interpretations, throwing out clues and red herrings, and even appearing as a character himself. This novel offers all the pleasures of a Thomas Hardy novel with the intellectual games and intertextuality of Umberto Eco's novels and criticism.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Francoise de Graffigny
This novel is told from the point of view of an Incan princess, kidnapped by the Spanish conquistadors, rescued by the French, and brought to Europe as a curiosity. Zilia records her trials and thoughts first with an Incan method of knot writing and then with European writing, grappling with the traumatic parting from her native world and her budding ambitions as a writer. Significant both for its sympathetic and complex portrait of a Native American and its fiercely feminist politics, Letters from a Peruvian Woman is essential reading for all women aspiring to be writers.

The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing
Anna Wulf is a writer living in London in the 1950s, struggling to synthesize four notebooks (on her memories of Southern Rhodesia, her involvement in the Communist party, material for an autobiographical novel, and her emotional life and dreams) into one work - the golden notebook. As Anna delves deeper into her project, the lines between reality and fiction begin to disappear, as the act of writing becomes the act of living. Lessing's novel explores Communism and Stalinism, the Cold War, the developing feminist movements and the politics of sex, maternity, work, and, most of all, writing.

Atonement - Ian McEwan
On the eve of World War I, Briony Tallis witnesses a sexual encounter between her sister, Cecilia, and Robbie, the son of the family housekeeper, misconstrues it, and wreaks havoc on both of their lives as a result. The novel is ultimately a meditation on the reasons a writer writes and what is accomplished by writing. By far, McEwan's finest work to date, Atonement is heartrending, poignant, and exquisitely written.

Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, Emily's Quest - L. M. Montgomery
Though other Montgomery heroines have literary ambitions, notably Anne Shirley and Sara Stanley, Emily Byrd Starr is the one that follows her desire for success the furthest and hardest. She is also the most like Montgomery herself. An exceptional rendering of the child's voice (and later the adolescent's) and an astute portrait of an emerging writer are only part of what makes these books so wonderful. Emily is one of those rare characters who becomes a real friend to her readers

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Another book that has inspired countless young girls to write, Jean Webster's oft-maligned epistolary novel is certainly dated, but nonetheless delightful. Judy Abbott is an orphan given the chance to go to college, provided that she write regularly to her anonymous patron. Ornamented with comic sketches, Judy's letters chronicle her personal and artistic growth, and in particular her rigorously self-imposed reading and writing regimen. I disagree with critics who have deride the book as "anti-feminist" - Judy is independent, staunchly practical, and determined to be self-sufficient.

(As an aside, I'm almost positive that My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, which was made into a fabulous film by Gillian Armstrong, deserves to be on this list, but it is out of print and I have not yet located a copy.)

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