Photobombing the Canon: The Trouble With Novels About Writers

Earlier this week I read Adelle Waldman's The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., late to the party for this much-lauded 2014 novel about up-and-coming Brooklyn literati. Despite the book’s mountain of hype and its many substantial accolades, I found myself slogging through it, bored and uncomfortable, and finishing with a bad taste in my mouth. The cause was very specific, a pet peeve of mine that has torpedoed my experience of many a popular and/or critically acclaimed book: I find more and more that I cannot stand narratives about writers and/or academics.

It wasn’t always so. As a child and young adult, so many of my favorite fictional characters were writers--or best of all, aspiring writers with stars in their eyes who talked an awful lot about their literary hopes and dreams. I still have a special fondness for for these characters I met for the first time decades ago (particularly Little Women’s Jo March, though my childhood image for her is admittedly less Alcott’s prose and more Winona Ryder in the 1994 movie adaptation). But somewhere along the way as I grew up, something poisoned that well--and now it’s with a groan of disappointment that I learn that a novel’s protagonist is working on his own novel, or behind on her research for her dissertation, or procrastinating on planning a multi-city book tour. (Actually, maybe this is part of the problem--why is it that so many narratives of academia and/or the writing life seem to be about people who aren’t very good at living it, who spend more of their time staring into whiskey tumblers and rust-flecked mirrors than they do writing?)

This issue has kept me from engaging with many books, often by writers whose work I generally greatly admire, with Nathaniel P. just the latest in the trend. What exactly is it about these stories, writers writing about writers? Is a novel’s setting in academia a sign that it’s trying to photobomb the canon and unlikely to impress me with anything new or diverse in character or story? Does a writer-protagonist raise a red flag of creative desperation, an unwillingness on the part of the author to imagine lives different from their own?

In The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell’s a fictional literary critic says of a fictional novelist’s newest effort: “What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are fry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Mitchell’s writer-character-creating writer-character is a satire of the sub-genre, which I think these books often are supposed to be--maybe that’s part of the problem, too. How funny can it really be, the umpteenth time a novel by the literati, for the literati, skewering the literati hits the shelves? Is it the (meta-)author’s fault if I’m not laughing anymore, or mine?

Which, of course, is the other side of the question: is the problem mine? Is it just that I spent four years in college and three in graduate school, and I’ve logged enough hours in the academy to be burnt out on reading about it? Do have enough first-hand experience of the writer’s life now that I want to be transported somewhere else when I read? I said myself that I used to love writer-protagonists. That was back when I was young and needed the reassurance that people could be writers, needed the flash of recognition in someone as passionate, creative, and obsessive (to a relatively grievous fault) as Jo March. It was a matter of representation, having my dreams validated by seeing them play out on the page.

But if it’s that simple, why my turn against these kinds of stories? I’m an adult now, but writing is still an uncertain business, full of doubt and rejection tough spots. It still tends toward the solitary. Why wouldn’t I be just as happy to see the life I’ve chosen represented in the books I consume? I think it’s some combination of all the reasons I floated above, boiling down to this: the work of being a writer, the part of it I ache to recognize when I open a book for the first time, is no longer the simple mechanics--pounding out a word count and rubbing at ink-stained fingers. And it certainly isn’t the secondary tasks, the schmoozing and blurbing and social media branding and politics and misogyny-dodging. (This was my biggest obstacle with Nathaniel P. I know I was supposed to laugh. I couldn’t.) I think I’m looking for a subtler kind of recognition, an intangible flutter of kindred experience that can’t always be described in concrete parallels between my life and the characters’. For example, I find Andrea Barrett’s collection Ship Fever to be one of the best portraits of the writer’s mind I know--and it’s mostly about marine biology and the potato famine.

There are exceptions to every rule, including this one. But in general I’ve found that it’s just not exciting anymore to see a character write (or, more likely, put off writing). I know what that looks like. I think my core issue with writer-characters is that their stories are almost never subtle--the hand of the author hovering above the prose, clutching marionette strings. And you can’t have profundity without subtlety.