Authors as characters

I have for some time been obsessing about the idea of authors writing about themselves as characters in their books. By that I don’t simply mean having a character that represents the writer, perhaps an alter-ego like John Updike’s ‘Henry Bech’ or Charles Bukowski’s ‘Henry Chinaski’, but rather authors encountering themselves as characters in their own story.

I remember reading in the Guardian Review a few weeks ago that in literature this author-as-character device usually comes across as pretentious, why, after all, should authors feel the need to try and write themselves into their stories?

Author-as-character books I have read include, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, where Paul Auster appears as a writer encountered by the main character; Breat Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, the story of how Bret Easton Ellis descends into madness, terrorised by characters from his earlier novels (particularly Patrick Bateman, American Psycho) and Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, pitches JSF as one of the main characters who contribute to the narration of the story. Finally, Jorge Luis Borges not only appears in some of his short stories but also questions and explores the relationship (and duty?) that an author has to his writings and readers.

I am always on the lookout for stories that follow this formula and my reading list includes the likes of: J.D. Coetzee, Summertime; Philip Roth, Operation Shylock and Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and Michel Houellebecq’s soon to be published book, all of which feature their authors as characters. What I especially like about this author-as-character idea, though, is the attempt by the writer to step outside of himself and in so doing challenge us, the reader, into stepping outside of ourselves. (When a story takes a ‘u-turn’ the reader must follow.)

I love the idea of authors reinventing themselves as characters and playing with the reader’s expectations of what a writer should be. After all, authors are already alive in their works, often inadvertently lingering in the back of our minds, created through our reading of their books, interviews, biographies et cetera. In some sense authors are already characters, created by us and our preconceptions: a character that creates but does not partake. By becoming a character in the story, however, the authors can define themselves in a new way and challenge the notion that they are merely the source of the story, but rather that they also play an active part in it, not only through their writings, but through their being. They pose questions such as what is real and what is fiction? Which ‘self’ of the author is the real one?

For now I’ll just keep feeding my obsession and hoping to discover something that I am not quite sure actually exists. I guess at the heart of this obsession is the philosophy/paradox of being able to create anything through our mind, being blessed with an endless imagination but at the same time being a prisoner of this freedom of our mind. A Sisyphian battle with and against ourselves, probably never to be won. It is a work in progress, this philosophy of mine, but I admire authors who it seems, at least to me, are willing to take on this fight and if it comes across as pretentious, so what?

First posted on The Ran$om Note which covers everything from cutting edge music reviews to dog walking blogs, art, culture and new world musings.



About hombremediocre

Publisher, bibliophile, writer, traveller and general culture aficionado. (My favourite punctuation mark is the em dash.)
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3 Responses to Authors as characters

  1. Dru says:

    There’s a similar (perhaps) idea, in the other direction, in Flann O’Brien’s ‘At Swim-Two-Birds’, where the characters in the works of one of the book’s characters, Trellis the author, attempt to wrest control of their own destinies from him…

  2. Amelie Nothomb does this in most of her books and Yann Martel has done it too. I find it interesting, kind of a play on the whole obsession about whether or not autobiographies/memoirs are actually “true” and it certainly makes for a believable first-person narration. I like your thoughts on the subject. I’ll have to look out for some of the books you mention.

  3. Hi guys, thanks for the comments, really interesting.

    @Dru I must admit I have not read any Flan O’Brien but shall have a look. I like the concept and am raking my brain to try and remember a book with a similar story I might have come across. ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler’ by Italo Calvino takes the whole concept to a new level by making the reader one of the main characters. Really interesting and been meaning to write a blog about it for some time. You read it?

    @Noseinabook I have not heard of Anelie Nothomb so will check her out. I have only read ‘Life of Pi’ by Martel and until his most recent novel I thought his other work was officially ‘non-fiction’. I guess my post is very much concerned with works of ‘fiction’ where they implement this but it is a thin line between that kind of fiction and non-fiction. Will Self’s ‘Walking to Hollywood’ is similar to what you are talking about. In a way I think it is the natural progression of ‘post-modernism’…What do you think?

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