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05 August 2009

The Author as Character

Right now, I’m working on a book in which Jane Austen appears as a recurring side character. I hadn’t originally intended to put Jane Austen in a book (that does sound a bit macabre, doesn’t it? like stuffing her into a box), but with my characters gallivanting around Bath in 1803, I eventually gave in to the inevitable. When I mentioned this to friends, the usual response, after the laughter and squealing noises, was a firm admonition not to make Jane Austen too nicey-nice. As my college roommate complained, the impulse all too often seems to be to conflate Jane Austen with the wimpier of her heroines, when, in fact, one imagined she’d the sort of person standing on the side of the Pump Room making snarky comments.

It’s true. When you read Austen’s letters to her sister, there’s a wonderful, barbed humor in there, nothing like the bonnets and gloves nicety we ascribe to her simply by virtue of her posthumous reputation.

All across the bookshelves of America and the UK, long-dead authors are finding themselves turned character, in works of fiction ranging from the more traditional quasi-biography-with-dialogue (in the Austen context, one of my favorite of these is Syrie James’ Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen) to departures under various subgenres, such as Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen detective series, in which the intrepid author goes about solving a series of crimes. I’ve even heard rumors that Austen is about to appear in a colleague’s work as a vampire slayer. Buffy, eat your heart out.

It’s not just Austen, although she seems to be the favored target. A few years ago, I read a mystery in which Virgil had been pressed into service as detective in Augustan Rome. To be fair, this is nothing new. Dante also used Virgil as character, conscripting him as guide through the layered landscape of hell. After that, a bit of light detection must have seemed a piece of cake to the old poet.

Given that I’m writing a book with an author in it (the extra author is for extra flavoring!), it seems hypocritical to complain about the practice. But there’s something about the author-as-character trope that, while it intrigues me, also makes me uneasy. Part of it has to do with the dividing line between the role of author as observer and author as person. In writing, authors serve as method actors, piping words into the voices of their characters that they themselves would never speak, crafting worlds which are meant to stand on their own, with no relation to the author’s own. In taking the author as character, do we, as my friends complained, make the mistake of confusing the author with her creation?

Nowhere was this made more clear for me than in a French movie about the life of Moliere, cleverly titled Moliere. Rather like Shakespeare in Love—only French—the film followed a young and dashing Moliere as he stumbled through the plotline of Tartuffe, only then, of course, to write Tartuffe. It was great fun (who doesn’t love long-haired men in seventeenth century costume with a few of Moliere’s one-liners thrown in?), a wonderful series of literary and seventeenth century in-jokes, but, in its own way, seemed to belittle Moliere’s creative genius by equating the worker too closely with the work, as if to suggest that the playwright must have lived it to write it. Of course, that wasn’t what they were trying to do; it was all done in good fun, very obviously intended as a literary never-never land. Fiction, in fact. But one wonders what Moliere would have thought.

What are your feelings on the idea of author as character?

14 Comments:

Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Ah, yes, a post that hits where I live. Jane Austen has a rather large supporting role in my time-travel novel BY A LADY (set primarily in Bath in 1801 and which -- in the interest of full disclosure -- Lauren blurbed for the cover, before we'd ever met, in cyberspace or in what I laughingly call real life).

I had fun with Jane, trying to keep her behavior correct both to period and to the elements of her biography. I was keen not to make her do anything she might not actually have done (and when some Janeites heard that there was a tantric sex scene in the novel, they were quick to jump on me, even though it is not Jane who is in the scene!) And in my novel, about 90% of Jane's dialogue came from her tongue or pen, whether from her juvenilia, letters, or novels. So it was a fun, for lack of a better word -- exercise -- to see if I could pull it off.

Lauren, can you give us a hint as to how you're writing your own version of Jane?

9:13 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I've always used authors as minor (sometimes off-stage) characters: the Marquis de Sade and Caron de Beaumarchais (who wrote The Marriage of Figaro) in THE BOOKSELLER'S DAUGHTER; William Blake in ALMOST A GENTLEMAN; practically the whole Shelley circle (not to speak of Lord Byron) in THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION; Benjamin Disraeli (who started as an author) in THE EDGE OF IMPROPRIETY.

I might also have some literary observations to make about this, but to be honest I'll just say that authors just bring out the squee-ing fangirl in me.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Looking at your list of authors, Pam, what strikes me about all of them is that I tend of most of them as personalities rather than authors, as historically more important in their own rights than for the works they created. I know that's a weird distinction to make, but when I think of Disraeli and Sade (would love to see the two of them at a dinner table!) I think of their actions, whereas, with Bronte or Hardy, I think of their books. It's a bit like the legal concept of the limited purpose public figure-- the more you put yourself out there, the more fair game you are for public representation.

2:12 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, no one could accuse your Jane of being wimpy! I have to go back and re-read "By A Lady". It's been too long.

I had an interesting problem in writing my Jane Austen book. Since it's part of the Pink Carnation series, I already have a very distinct tone and voice for the books. If I tried to be a hundred per cent true to Jane's own utterances, it would be like pasting someone's head into a picture-- you'd be able to see the edges and it wouldn't quite be the right size or shape. So I'm taking some liberties and adjusting her voice to fit with the voices of my other characters, while trying to stay as true as I can to the tone of her letters and the facts of her life. I'm just hoping the Janeites won't hate me for it....

2:14 PM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

I like it when the author/character seems true to the real person (I guess this is really how I feel about all real people being fictionalized), but I do find myself flinching at Jane the Vampire Slayer . . . I just can't see Jane the Vampire Slayer writing Persuasion (and wouldn’t Northanger Abby be a VERY different book if JA knew that real creatures of then night stalked the English countryside?).

2:34 PM  
Anonymous kathrynn dennis said...

I for one am all for it, especially if the writer can breathe some life into a "fictionalized" biographical account of an author's life, with the author as the main character...I want to know more about the Bronte's and others, but not necessarily through recounting researched facts. Put them in context, introduce me to the people in their lives and ya got me!

9:33 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Lauren, and very timely for me, as I just got back from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland where I saw the world premiere production of a fabulous new play called "Equivocation" by Bill Cain about Shakespeare, James I, the Guy Fawkes plot, and the writing of "the Scottish play." It was a brilliant play on a bunch of levels (exciting storytelling and fascinating philosophical discussions), but what really struck me in terms of this production is that the portrait of Shakespeare (the central character) really seemed like the man who might have written Shakespeare's plays. I felt the same about the Shakespeare in "Shakespeare in Love." What's more, both characters thought and talked like writers, which I find a lot of writer characters (whether fictional or based on real people) don't do, particularly in movies and tv (perhaps because the scripts aren't written by novelists).

I'm excited to read your book! Well, I'd be excited in any case, but Jane Austen as a character adds an extra layer. I can totally see her in the Pink Carnation world.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

p.s.

The actor characters in "Equivocation" also rang true as actors. There's a wonderful scene early on where they're rehearsing "King Lear" and complaining it doesn't make any sense (everyone's mad or pretending to be mad and no one's listening to anyone else). Richard Burbage says "if we got through his comedies-don't-have-to-be-funny period, we can get through whatever this is." :-).

There's another great line in a scene between Shakespeare and Robert Cecil where Cecil says "What's the word for a person who waits till the last minute? A..."

And Shakespeare replies, "Writer?" :-).

11:59 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, After hearing your recount some of the punch lines, I really want to see "Equivocation"! I wonder if it will be produced in NYC in the not-too-distant future. Do you know if the script has been published?

4:54 AM  
Blogger Janet Mullany said...

I'm currently writing Jane Austen in my WIP for the book I want to (and still do) call Blood Bath but which my publisher refers to as Immortal Jane. I was at first intimidated by it but I've figured out who Jane is at this point in her life in 1797--she's 21, has just received a first and humiliating rejection, and she's dealing with a grieving sister and trying to figure out exactly what her future holds. I'm enjoying it more than I thought tho I still feel I'm walking a tightrope. It's the first time I've written about a "real" person tho I hinted at them before. In my first book Dedication I had a Shelley-Byron composite character hit on my heroine.

7:33 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, "Equivocation" is going to be at the Manhattan Theater Club. Not sure when exactly, but I'd guess within the next year.

OSF has published the script. I bought a copy in the gift shop. I think you could get it online at www.tudorguild.org.

7:40 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Lauren, one of the reasons I disliked Becoming Jane so much was that I thought it reduced Austen's writing and her character to someone who just had a bad love affair. But I adored Shakespeare in Love, and I loved the portrait of Lytton Strachey in Carrington. I think it depend on how well done it is.

Janet, I'm so excited about your Immortal Jane series.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Jane Austen said...

There have been some very interesting Jane Austen books and movies coming out in recent years. At first I was completely into purchasing all of them and writing about them on my blog from the perspective of what would Jane Austen think of these. I know it's presumptuous to think that I could ever be Jane Austen, but as my blog character it works most of the time. I was very disappointed to find out that Amanda Grange has turned Darcy into a vampire and hope that the vampire/zombie/paranormal trend in fiction stops soon. Sometime I wonder if it's all too much....if we should just let Jane and her characters stand without the fan fiction. Then I think some of the fan fiction is quite good and I think Jane would be proud. Besides I don't have much room to talk since I'm currently writing an update of Northanger Abbey, which is funny since Persuasion is my favorite Austen. I thought it was about time someone mocked The Da Vinci Codesque genre that has apparently become super popular much like the original Jane mocked gothic novels.

Lauren I do enjoy your novels although the first is perhaps my favorite. I did enjoy that you brought a little Robert and Thomas Addis Emmet into the mix since I am one of Thomas' descendants. My cousin Amanda was the first Emmet born in Ireland since the Emmets had been kicked out.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

I have mixed feelings about this too. I believe firmly in "never say never," because I think the right author can pull ANYTHING off. But there are a lot of obstacles to pulling off author-as-major-character in a historical novel. Two of the main ones I see:


1) If the author is someone readers are familiar with, the risk is that each reader will already have a very personal image of what that author "is like," based on their very personal reading of the author's texts. It's hard to create a fictionalized version of the author that will resonate with a large number of readers--much harder, I think, than it is simply to incorporate another author's CHARACTER into your book--because the ways that people use clues in a book to construct the author's personality can be so idiosyncratic and subjective.

2. As a writer writing about a writer I admire, it's hard not to veer off into wish-fulfillment or hero-worship. (This isn't just true of author-characters, of course. I once read a historical novel about a Roman emperor where it was extremely clear that the author of the book had an EPIC crush on him. But I think the temptation is particularly strong with writer-characters because it's easy for us to identify with them, and because we're very likely to have authors we idolize.)

I just rewatched "Shakespeare in Love" a few days ago, and while I still enjoyed it AND liked the characterization of Shakespeare quite a lot, it was hard not to notice that the story is basically "Shakespeare Falls In Love With His Biggest Fan." I'm not sure where the wish-fulfillment in that IS, exactly--the screenwriter imagining himself as Shakespeare finding the girl who will finally appreciate his genius, or the screenwriter imagining himself (or imagining the viewer imagining herself, whichever) as the fan whose appreciation of the great man's work will win his love--but it's there somewhere, and I think it harms the story, a little. Because instead of the story being about Shakespeare-as-person, it's about Shakespeare-as-author and the heroine relates to him that way.

I'm not AGAINST wish-fulfillment in books, at all--I read and write romance, and I have as big a crush on Shakespeare as the next nerd. But it's important, as my critique partner says, to make the reader wish along with the character. And it's important that the wish-fulfillment not feel self-indulgent, and not get in the way of telling a strong story about characters that have lives and agendas of their own. And that can get extra tricky when writing about a real person you and your readers have strong feelings about.


In general, I've had much better experiences reading about historical authors as side characters in novels than as protagonists. I frequently love cameos like that.

That said, I'm excited to read your JA! I bet you can pull it off.

12:48 PM  

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