I wrote a review recently (it’s not yet published) of Kevin Canty’s Winslow in Love, a novel about a poet. I was struck by how readily I accepted that the novel’s protagonist Winslow was a good poet, even though I couldn’t read his poetry; I became interested in the question of how Canty got me on board using only indirect evidence of Winslow’s talent. The most direct way, but perhaps the most foolhardy (even if Canty were a poet as well as a novelist), would have been to let the reader actually read Winslow’s poems. It surprised me how few books I could think of, among the many books about writers out there, that use this device. I thought of two: Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which isn’t about the poem’s author but its critic, and A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which is also more about the scholars studying the poets whose work appears than about the poets themselves. There must be more, I thought. So, as you may remember, I opened the question up to the readers of About Last Night.
The flood of email that followed, supplemented by blog posts at Tingle Alley, Critical Mass, and Sheila O’Malley, was gratifying. As I posted back then, it soon became clear that John Irving’s The World According to Garp was the widely-read, well-known book I should have thought of. But many others were also mentioned:
Boris Pasternak, Dr. Zhivago
Stanislaw Lem, The Cyberiad
David Markson, Springer’s Progress
Carol Shields, Swann
Richard Flanagan, Gould’s Book of Fish
Jorstein Gaarder, Sophie’s World
Honore de Balzac, Lost Illusions
Stephen King, The Dark Half
Stephen King, Misery
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift
Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
Jasper Fforde, Thursday Next series
Anthony Burgess, Enderby tetrology
Paul Auster, Oracle Night
J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello
Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Tobias Wolff, Old School
Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Andre Gide, The Counterfeiters
Philip Roth, My Life as a Man
Percival Everett, Erasure
Elliott Baker, A Fine Madness
Wyndham Lewis, Self-Condemned
Stephen King, The Body
George Gissing, New Grub Street
Booth Tarkington, Penrod
Lydia Davis, The End of the Story
James McCourt, Time Remaining
Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs
Cathleen Schine, Rameau’s Neice
Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Hermann Broch, The Sleepwalkers
I can’t vouch that all of these fit the description, since I’ve read only a few of them. (To clarify the description, I was thinking of writing with professional aspirations, not diaries or letters, which are far more common; epistolary novels have a healthy body of criticism all their own.) A couple of correspondents had further thoughts on the device that I thought worth sharing. Aaron Haspel from God of the Machine echoed my own thinking on the subject, but more eloquently:
Most novelists have more sense than to try to recreate their characters’ work. The recreation usually proves a disappointment, especially if the writing character is supposed to be a great genius, as he so often is. It’s tough enough to write well in your own voice, let alone in someone else’s. This is why in Franny and Zooey Salinger wisely confines himself to Seymour Glass’s juvenilia. Pale Fire succeeds because John Shade is a mock-genius and the 999-line poem is a burlesque.
It’s certainly a giant risk. For all but the most skilled and imaginative authors, writing a character’s writing is probably the quickest way to destroy that character’s credibility as a writer. If you really succeed at producing a sustained sample of good fictional writing, you expend the toil of writing, say, a book and a half for the credit and recompense of writing only one. And you risk leaving your readers high and dry; if the book-within-the-book is all that great, they may feel cheated not being able to read the whole thing. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Irving gives us a short story by Garp, something reproducible in its entirety. My friend Joshua Kosman, classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is extremely edifying not only on Garp, but on the topic at large:
The obvious example is John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which not only includes a complete piece of Garp’s fiction, but makes it the basis of his entire career as a writer. It’s a pretty daring stunt, I always thought. Think about it: Young Garp sets out to become a writer, and first makes his name with a short story called “The Pension Grillparzer.” Thereafter his career has some ups and downs, and he has periodic crises of confidence, etc. But whenever he’s in doubt, someone will say to him, “But look–you’re an amazingly good writer! After all, you wrote ‘The Pension Grillparzer’! So don’t give up!” In other words, the entire notion of him as a writer is predicated on his having turned out this one terrific short story. And Irving includes in the novel the entire text of ‘The Pension Grillparzer,’ and–it’s incredibly good. Whew!
In fact, I have a category I collect of narrative works that conform to this pattern. It’s a very small and select list. The criteria are: 1) The work contains within it another work, either complete or in part, that is actually created and displayed, not merely described. 2) The artistic success of the inner work is essential to the plot of the outer, and 3) the artistic judgment that is required by the outer narrative is in fact correct (i.e., ‘Pension Grillparzer’ really is as good as the characters in The World According to Garp all think it is).
The founding members of this class are Garp and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger,” which is about a guy who wins a singing prize contest by inventing a song that somewhat conforms to and somewhat transcends the rules of the medieval singing guild. You actually hear the song being created line by line, and damned if it isn’t every bit as phenomenal as the plot of the opera demands. There was a third work in this category, but I’ve forgotten now what it is.
One that notably doesn’t make it, by the way, is Woody Allen’s Crimes & Misdemeanors. You may remember that he plays a filmmaker whose career is going nowhere and who’s very bitter about it. And late in the film, you actually see a piece of the film that the character has been working on all this time–and it’s horrible! But of course since it’s Woody Allen, who clearly can’t distinguish between good films and bad ones, there’s no way to know whether that’s intentional or not.
Anyway, to return to the original query: Another example, but less on point than Garp is Steven Millhauser’s wonderful first novel, Edwin Mullhouse. Dunno if you’ve ever read it, but it’s a sort of Pale Fire-esque thing about two eleven-year-old boys, one of whom is writing the biography of the other. Edwin’s magnum opus, a novel called “Cartoons,” isn’t actually reproduced, but there’s about a 10-page description of it that is breathtaking.
Wow–we can only hope that Joshua’s full-length article about the phenomenon will eventually appear! He’s thought about this a lot more than I have. To answer his question, I haven’t read Edwin Mullhouse, but I’ve enjoyed some of Millhauser’s other books. Little Kingdoms contains one of my favorite short stories, “Catalogue of the Exhibition,” which tells the chilling gothic tale of a fictional Romantic-era painter’s life and loves through the sole means of catalog descriptions of his paintings. Millhauser makes you really “see” the paintings, rendering his story roughly the visual equivalent of the novels listed above.
Finally, a commenter at Tingle Alley showed me the way to the wonderful Invisible Library, a site that seems, sadly, not to be actively updated any longer. It provides an extensive catalog of “books that only appear in other books,” and a generous list of related links and references. Among the latter is a link to Max Beerbohm’s essay “Books within Books,” which provides me with the epilogue for this very long post:
I am shy of masterpieces; nor is this merely because of the many times I have been disappointed at not finding anything at all like what the publishers expected me to find. As a matter of fact, those disappointments are dim in my memory: it is long since I ceased to take publishers’ opinions as my guide. I trust now, for what I ought to read, to the advice of a few highly literary friends. But so
soon as I am told that I “must” read this or that, and have replied that I instantly will, I become strangely loth to do anything of the sort. And what I like about books within books is that they never can prick my conscience. It is extraordinarily comfortable that they don’t exist.