Authors in books

Art & Culture

I have for some time been obsessing about the idea of authors writing about themselves as characters in their books. By that I dont simply mean having a character that represents the writer, perhaps an alter-ego like John Updikes 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 Austers 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-Foers 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 Houellebecqs 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 readers 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 Ill 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?

Check out Matthias Mueller’s excellent Cultural Constellations blog