Literary cannibalism

Maud first remarked on the trend back in May: “What’s with the endless stream of fictionalized books about authors?” Then, last Monday, she asked Steve Elliott about it in her interview with him:

But I’m troubled by the way publishing houses are turning up their noses at fiction. There’s an obsession in publishing now with non-fiction. And many of the novels that are published seem to focus on dead authors or to rework classics like Moby-Dick. Those can be great books… but as a group they start to seem formulaic. I’ve come to believe that writers often get at the greatest truths when they take their lives, or at least the emotional marrow of them, and bend them beyond recognition, into a new kind of non-literal truth.

The next day she remarked on the proliferation of novels about Henry James, specifically.

Now Caryn James, writing for The New York Times, chimes in with a roundup of examples including David Lodge’s Author, Author, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Jon Boorstin’s The Newsboys’ Lodging-House, Clare Boylan’s Emma Brown, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Kate Moses’s Wintering, and several novels by Emma Tennant. While Caryn James admires Toibin’s book, she dismisses the others as “literary cannibalism.” Echoing Maud’s thoughts, she notes “Novels and poems exist precisely because their authors didn’t want to explain themselves in straightforward terms, yet most reinventions try to solve the dead writer’s personality like a puzzle.”


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