With not one, but two novels featuring Jane Austen, one featuring the ghost of Dorothy Parker, and a third about Virginia Woolf and her sister hitting shelves soon, it seemed like a good time to survey the entire “writer-as-character” subset of novels.
As it turns out, there are many sub-categories in this world. We have the ever-popular wife or mistress of famous male writer formula, the famous-writer-as-detective, the famous writer cameo in a literary novel to offer wisdom, the meta-novel about a character with the same name as the writer, the “secret lost romance” story of a famous writer, and the famous writer as ghost. And then there are those books that we just know contain juicy, thinly-veiled portraits of other writers.
As for the most popular fictionalized writers? No surprise to see a ton of Shakespeares, Austens, Dickenses and Brontës scampering with pens through the pages of other peoples’ novels. But a graphic-novel Susan Sontag? Cranky Robert Frost? Witty Alexander Pope? These are some of the delights we uncovered for your reading pleasure.
Jane Austen’s First Love, Syrie James
James, a specialist in novelizing writers’ lives, dug into Austen’s to find a possible love interest who has never been played by James McAvoy on the big screen!
Dorothy Parker Drank Here, Ellen Meister
In the forthcoming sequel to Farewell, Dorothy Parker, Parker’s ghost is still roaming the halls of the Algonquin, meddling in the affairs of its residents. Coming this February!
Jane Austen and the Twelve Days of Christmas, Stephanie Barron
In this newly released installment, detective Jane gets sleuthing to solve a cozy Christmas mystery. You guessed it: a guest at a Yuletide party is knocked off, and the killer is among the invited. As, of course, is Jane Austen.
Vanessa and Her Sister, Priya Parmar
The Hours, Michael Cunningham
Cunningham’s beloved novel intertwines the life of Virginia Woolf with those of two of her spiritual descendants. Later, its film adaptation gave Nicole Kidman a chance to wear That Nose.
The Inferno, Dante
Even back in the Renaissance, Dante was writing Virgil into his epic poem. They took a tour of the underworld together, and it was pretty memorable.
The Master, Colm Tóibín
Tóibín penned this high-minded exploration of Henry James’ relationship to artistic failure, success, and his own deeply repressed sexuality.
The Scandal of the Season, Sophie Gee
Alexander Pope gets fodder for “The Rape of the Lock” in this delightful novel of Jacobite and sexual scheming among the aristocracy.
Nothing Like the Sun, Anthony Burgess
Anthony Burgess’ exploration of Shakespeare’s “love life” predates Shakespeare in Love by quite some time.
Z, Therese Anne Fowler
Hard to be literary-minded without obsessing over the glamorous, tragic, deeply felt lives of the Fitzgeralds. This novelistic reimagining of Zelda’s biography includes appearances from sometime pals Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway.
The Paris Wife, Paula McClain
For this recent addition to the “wives of famous male authors” sub-genre, McClain was inspired after re-reading, in A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s words about his first wife, Hadley Richardson: “I wished I had died before I loved anyone but her…”
Daphne, Justine Picardie
Daphne DuMaurier’s life and her own obsession with the Brontës juxtaposed with a young writer’s obsession with DuMaurier, with lots of passionate correspondence, of course.
Studio Saint-Ex, Ania Szado
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry didn’t just write The Little Prince — he also was the point in a love triangle between two competing fashionistas. This is their story.
Becoming George Sand, Rosalind Brackenbury
A young academic’s rather pedestrian love affair is juxtaposed with George Sand’s scandalous and great romance with Chopin.
Drood, Dan Simmons
Drood features Victorian “sensation novelist” Wilkie Collins, his mentor Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, and a whole lot of darkness and mystery. Blimey.
Under the Wide and Starry Sky, Nancy Horan
Yet another wife-of-a-novelist novel. The novelist in question is Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of early genre novels Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His wife is an older, famously passionate American woman who strongly influenced his work.
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
This contemporary novel follows a troubled a character who, by all accounts, is closely based on David Foster Wallace (although he’s a brilliant scientist instead of writer). Eugenides swore it was a coincidence, but Slate’s critic wasn’t having it: “He’s a hulking, attractive guy who alternates between silence and bursts of intellectual virtuosity. He chews tobacco. He wears a bandanna. He’s David Foster Wallace,” wrote Michael Agger.
Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella
J.D. Salinger, eccentric recluse writer, is a character in this novel. He threatened to sue when the book was adapted to become Field of Dreams, so the real-life cranky writing legend became cranky writing legend Terence Mann, played unforgettably by James Earl Jones.
The Book of Salt, Monique Truong
A stream-of-consciousness novel that views the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas through the eyes of their Vietnamese cook, Binh.
Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron, Stephanie Barron
In which Austen is a detective and Byron provides her mystery.
Old School, Tobias Wolff
Wolff imagines a boarding school where writers like Robert Frost and Ayn Rand and, of course, Papa Hemingway offer advice both awesome and awful.
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Readers delight in the fact that Scout Finch’s cousin and sometime bestie, Dill, is a fictionalization of Lee’s cousin Truman Capote as a boy.
See Under: Love, David Grossman
Grossman’s novel creates an alternate ending for writer Bruno Schulz (who was actually killed by Nazis). In Grossman’s tale, Schulz turns into a fish and swims away.
The Poe Shadow, Matthew Pearl
One of the originators of detective fiction stars in his own detective story? Be still, my tell-tale heart.
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
Alexander Pope is one of many writers, both mentioned by real name and disguised, who flit in and out of Woolf’s epic gender-bending, time-spanning opus.
Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel
Bechdel explores relationships with literary mothers like Adrienne Rich and Virginia Woolf, as well as her real one.
Fantomas vs.the Multinational Vampires, Julio Cortázar
In this genre-bending graphic meta-novel, Cortázar himself is joined by Susan Sontag and Octavio Paz in his fight for justice.
Solsbury Hill, Susan Wyler
Emily Brontë’s ghost, literal and figurative, haunts a young fashionista visiting the moors in this recent Wuthering Heights paean.
City of Glass, Paul Auster
Important male novelists really like to write meta-novels featuring themselves as characters, huh? This is a good one of those.
The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth
Roth’s first Nathan Zuckerman novel includes one character who’s an amalgam of Henry Roth and Bernard Malamud, and another who is possibly Anne Frank living on in secret — and possibly merely a projection.
Jane Bites Back, Michael Thomas Ford
Your introduction to the Jane Austen-as-vampire sub-sub-genre novel. Not to be confused with…
Jane and the Damned, Janet Mullany
… the Jane Austen as vampire slayer novel.
The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl
One of Pearl’s beloved literary mysteries, this one features detectives on the trail of Dickens’ missing last manuscript, interspersed with scenes from the author’s ill-fated American tour.
Jack Maggs, Peter Carey
More Dickens, but po-mo: this novel is a sort of reversed Great Expectations narrated by the Magwitch figure, with a Dickens stand-in himself trying to steal the story as it unfolds
Ahab’s Wife, Sena Jeter Naslund
What happens after your husband becomes obsessed with THE WHITE WHALE and dies? This book tries to answer that question. The Times review said; “the captain was, as she knew him, a pretty decent older guy — forward-thinking, a proto-feminist and good in bed — until his violent encounter with the mysterious underwater mammal induced in him a condition that today could probably be solved with a prescription for Viagra.”
AngelMonster, Veronica Bennet
A YA novel about the young Mary Shelley on the verge of writing Frankenstein. I’m actually surprised there aren’t, like, a billion of these.
The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, Syrie James
James is another writer who specializes in recreating the lives of our favorite authors, this time through an ultra-passionate look at Brontë’s diaries and love interests. Not to be confused with…
Emily’s Ghost, Denise Giardana
This novel of the Brontë sisters hews as close to facts as it can, and despite possibly manufacturing love quadrangles for them, is highly recommended for devotees of the sisters’ Gothic fiction.
Operation Shylock, Philip Roth
Master meta-fiction from Roth, featuring “Philip Roth” as well as Claire Bloom and Aharon Applefield, in a highly improbable scenario.
Loving Will Shakespeare, Carolyn Meyer
Back to the past. This purports to tell the untold story of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s misunderstood wife. Not to be confused with…
Mistress Shakespeare, Karen Harper
… which tells the story of the woman who really loved Will Shakespeare, not like that goddamn shrew, Anne Hathaway
Fall of Frost, Brian Hall
Cranky, brilliant Robert Frost in his later years is the subject of Hall’s gorgeous, difficult novel
The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald
A tale of the German Romantic poet Novalis and his love for a 12-year old dullard (yep!), this is the rare entry where the writer-as-subject is somewhat obscure, but the novel about him is considered one of Fitzgerald’s best.
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Jerome Charyn
So many writers and their secret lives! This novel pries into the story of the white-wearing, diminutive Dickinson, who as we know rarely went downstairs.
The Archivist, Martha Cooley
A tussle over T.S. Eliot’s final letters provides fodder for a rumination on literary gatekeeping, insanity, gender, and the Holocaust.
Wintering, Kate Moses
A look at Plath’s last days of brilliant creation and slide into desperation, which were both happening at once.
A Quiet Adjustment, Benjamin Markovits
Annabella Milbanke was married to Lord Byron only briefly, and this is her novel: “Although Markovits asks us to spend relatively little time in his company, Byron’s depredations come through loud and clear: to know him is to dislike him. Luckily, Annabella stands at the center of the narrative — a beautifully drawn character, portrayed with moral clarity as well as complexity,” said the New York Times.
Passion, Jude Morgan
The women of the Romantic era, from Mary Shelley to Keats’ paramour Fanny Brawne to a bevy of Byron mistresses (of course), come to life in this novel.
Shadow-Box, Antonia Logue
Boxers like Jack Johnson and poets like Mina Loy and William Carlos Williams commingle in Northern Irish writer Logue’s acclaimed novel of love, writing, politics, and prizefighting.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
Saving the best (or, at least, most dense) for last. Byatt’s gargantuan novel about the romance between two Victorian poets whose lives and work are based closely on Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti — and the modern-day scholars racing to write about them.