Writers writing about writers: the fact that there’s a lot of it about should perhaps come as no surprise. From the likes of Jack Torrance in The Shining to Paul Morris in Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, writers in fiction are often skewered: preening, blocked, dejected creatures who’ll receive their comeuppance – or salvation – one way or another.
At the Novelry, we hothouse writers from the twinkling of an idea through to a publishing-ready novel with our online writing courses. We are blessed with saintly writers, but we do love an author horror story. In the books below you’ll find accounts of literary theft and false authorship, washed-up novelists fading to nothing on college campuses, and a fine array of supersize egos. Ma, you’ll also find hope: people discovering their place in the world through writing and that happiest of endings – a sparkling book deal.
1. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
Grady Tripp is a professor at a Pittsburgh university, with a predilection for drink, drugs and extra-marital affairs. He’s also a struggling novelist, failing to finish the long-awaited – and currently just enormously long – follow-up to his last award-winning book. As Grady says, “I had the depressing thought, certainly not for the first time, that my novel might well survive me unfinished.” When Grady’s flamboyant editor Terry Crabtree comes to town for WordFest weekend, cue a caper that is as funny as it is poignant.
2. The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
When down-on-his-luck author Jacob Finch Bonnet takes up a new teaching role at a Vermont college he is under-prepared, uninterested, and feeling impostor syndrome to his very bones. He soon encounters his worst nightmare: an extravagantly confident student possessed of an idea for a novel that is so remarkable that even Jake despairingly admits, “the worst writer on the planet could not mess up a plot like this”. Before too long, the stars align for Jake to make his ill-advised move. The killer plot is now his, and glittering success soon follows. But will it last? Spoiler: no.
3. Bunny by Mona Awad
Warren University’s MFA programme is known for its “experimental approach to narrative”. Its first all-female fiction cohort consists of Samantha, a self-professed outsider, and four “Bunnies”, a tight-knit group of sickly-sweet rich girls. When the Bunnies extend the paw of friendship to Samantha, she can’t figure out whether it’s genuine or comes with cruel intentions; Dopotutto, they’re not backwards in coming forwards with their peer review, dubbing her work “wilfully twisted” and “aggressively dark”. Soon Samantha is invited to the Bunnies’ extra-curricular “workshops”, where the boundaries between fact and fiction, nightmare and reality blur.
4. The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
When creative writing tutor and decidedly average writer Joe Castleman says to his student Joan, “You have no conception of how good you are” it’s a perfect moment of foreshadowing in a novel that’s as much about sexual politics as it is about the writing life. When we meet Joan, invecchiato 64, she’s accompanying her husband, now a celebrated writer, to pick up “the Helsinki prize” – and she’s finally had enough of him. As the novel tracks back through their past together, readers will wish that Joan had come to this realisation sooner.
5. The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker
Marcus Goldman’s first novel was a stratospheric hit and since then he’s been enjoying every minute of it, with adoring readers wherever he goes. The only problem is that there hasn’t been much time to write the follow-up, and deadline after deadline has gone whooshing by. But now his publishers are getting mad, there are threats of a lawsuit, and the only person who might be able to help him out of this sticky spot is his former college writing professor, Harry Quebert. Quebert invites Goldman to stay at his oceanside house in New Hampshire to get that novel finished. But Goldman’s wordcount plans go awry when the corpse of a teenage girl is discovered on Harry’s property, buried alongside the manuscript for Quebert’s famed novel, The Origin of Evil. It falls to Goldman to clear his prof’s name – motivated, perhaps in part, by the promise of a million-dollar advance for the resulting book. Murder and megabucks: now there’s a cure for writer’s block.
6. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Jo, the second eldest of the March sisters – and Alcott’s alter ego – is smart, independent, and happiest when she’s at her writing desk, dressed in her ink-stained “scribbling suit”. Enduring an early setback on her road to published authordom (take one slighted sister, add a cherished manuscript and a roaring fire), Jo eventually turns pro, earning hard cash for her “sensation” stories. But when she’s shamed by a high-handed intellectual – reader, she married him; Alcott, what were you thinking? – Jo struggles to find her voice, first abandoning her gothic thrills for moralistic yarns, before toying with children’s fiction, then declaring herself temporarily out of the game until she’s accrued more life experience. “I like good strong words that mean something,” says Jo, and generations of readers have loved hers.
7. Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
As creative writing professor at an undistinguished liberal arts college, Jason Fitger is frequently asked to pen letters of recommendation for his students and assorted colleagues. A year’s worth of such letters makes for an epistolary novel that gives a brilliantly comic insight into the politics, frustrations and occasional joys of academia, as well as a teasing study of a man on the ropes. His sign-off to the very first letter captures the tone of a novel that manages to be uplifting, despite the disappointments that its hero faces: “In sadness but looking to the future.”
8. The Retreat by Mark Edwards
Cash-strapped and lonely, grieving the loss of her husband and daughter, Julia Marsh opens her rural home as a venue for writing retreats. Enter Lucas Radcliffe, a successful horror writer with a tragic past and a severe case of writer’s block. As Lucas and Julia forge a bond, he becomes determined to solve the mystery of her missing daughter. But this corner of deepest, darkest Wales is holding its own secrets, leading Lucas to delve into local folklore, and a sequence of eerie events ratchets up the fear-factor. It will leave you thinking twice about booking your own writing retreat.
9. Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
One of 12 stories in Adichie’s 2009 collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, here we meet Ujunwa, a Nigerian woman who’s won a place on a retreat for the fictional Lipton African writers’ prize. The organiser is Edward Campbell, who announces himself “an Oxford-trained Africanist”. Ujunwa’s alarm bells are already ringing as she arrives at a resort for affluent foreign tourists – all of whom are white. Over the course of the retreat she confronts not just the self-important Campbell’s lasciviousness, but also his absurd proclamations of what “authentic African” writing should – and shouldn’t – be. Ujunwa, whose writing we’re treated to throughout the story, makes for a luminous heroine.
10. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
Twenty-three-year-old Nathan Zuckerman arrives at the home of his literary hero, the famous recluse EI Lonoff. Initially starstruck, the ambitious Nathan – an alter ego for Roth who would feature in eight further novels – wants not just to learn from the man who embodies creative integrity, “a giant of patience and fortitude and selflessness”, but become his “spiritual son”. Luck’s on Nathan’s side as a snowstorm means his visit is extended. He is enthralled and enchanted – not least by the figure of Lonoff’s assistant Amy Bellette, a Jewish immigrant whose enigmatic identity gives The Ghost Writer the propulsive energy of a mystery novel, as well as being a tender, comic story of mentor and mentee.