What a character: writers in fiction

With the Dublin Writers Festival kicking off this week, here are 10 great books with writers as their subject

Fri, May 16, 2014, 01:00

Unless, Carol Shields (2002)

Canadian author Shields’s final novel is narrated by writer Reta Winters and examines the role of women in society and literature. Reta’s youngest daughter Norah has left home and taken to the streets, refusing to engage with her family. Norah sits on a street corner in silent protest with a sign marked “goodness” stuck to her chest, her mother unable to figure out what has caused the extreme change in her daughter. Highlighting that the lives of women are often ignored or considered trivial, particularly the work of female writers in the predominantly male circles of literary criticism, Unless also looks at the role of writing in a society as a whole. In one of several angry and unposted letters that Reta writes to a journalist, she complains how female writers are denigrated as “the miniaturists of fiction”, a phrase knowingly employed by Jane Austen centuries before.

The Master, Colm Tóibín (2004)

Tóibín’s fifth novel takes a real-life writer as its subject, depicting the world of American author Henry James in the final years of the 19th century. Dictating his life as a writer to a stenographer, a portrait is drawn of the artist as a lonely genius, a figure that both desires and abhors isolation. Themes of sexual repression, inwardness and control are explored in the book, which won the Impac prize for Tóibín and was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Homing in on four years of James’s life, The Master begins with the humiliating failure of his play Guy Domville in 1895.

All Names Have Been Changed, Claire Kilroy (2009)

The great writer Patrick Glynn is the focus of Claire Kilroy’s third novel, a man whose talent and reputation attracts students to a writing course in Trinity College. Among these is Declan, an introverted and frustrated emerging writer whose hero Glynn soon falls off his pedestal, helped along by copious amounts of alcohol in 1980s Dublin. Irritable, lecherous and entirely uninterested in teaching, Glynn is adored by his small group of mature students, who often turn against each other in a bid to impress. Chapter titles – Amongst Women, The Butchered Boy, The Importance of Being Earnest – give the nod to other Irish writers, with quotations from literature and song used to break up the text.

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