Books about books: Self-referential or self-indulgent?
Elizabeth Prater | Monday, October 2, 2023
When I decided to start a column at The Observer during my freshman year of college, I remember staring at the question on the application asking what the title and nature of my proposed column would be.
While columns can be as broad as personal musings, I knew I wanted to follow a central thread of thought throughout my writing. I naturally thought about the act of writing itself. As such, I centered my column around the world of literature. While books are integral to most of my articles, I also attempt to connect the literary content to contemporary events to make it applicable to a wider audience.
The first column I wrote was in response to headlines I had seen during COVID-19 about a surge of demand for media focusing on pandemics. I analyzed some literature, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” and Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” to see why people were drawn to these seemingly analogous pandemic narratives.
I have also written a response piece to Notre Dame’s ranking in the U.S. News & World Report in 2022 and connected it to the literary genre of dark academia, commented on the surge of book-banning policies and connected Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” to the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball weight room disparity.
In short, even when talking about contemporary issues, I constantly reference books and writing itself.
I am likely influenced by the types of books I consume. Many of my favorite kinds of books feature the love of storytelling in the narrative. Young Briony Tallis of “Atonement” is a budding author whose craft arguably creates the form of McEwan’s novel. For many years growing up, “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak was my favorite book. It follows the protagonist Liesel’s comfort in literature while living in Germany during World War II.
Books centered around books can be the result of the protagonist being an author himself (e.g. Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s ”Misery”) or the protagonist being a bibliophile (e.g. Amory Blaine in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise”).
Even in the non-fiction genre, texts such as “The Library Book” by Susan Orlean have gained lots of traction in the publishing world. The book features a fire that occurred in 1987 at the Los Angeles Public Library.
While I enjoy reading these kinds of books, there have been critiques towards the debatable oversaturation of this theme in the market. A recent article argues that this trope is “done to death” — referencing in particular King’s works, as well as Ian McEwan, Louisa May Alcott, etc.
Author Chris M. Arnone argues the trope is done merely because “it’s easy, not because it’s the right or best or only option,” except for when the book demands the main character to be an author for the type of critique it is making (e.g., R.F. Kuang’s novel “Yellowface” which explores racism and authorship in the publishing industry). The writer as a protagonist is a character who requires no further research nor meticulous characterization. The inner dreams and goals of the fictitious writer are blended with the real-world scribe.
The platitude of “write what you know” seems to have an asterisk when it comes to writers penning stories about writers. The roadblocks and fears that many characters face in book-centered tales can be viewed as “projections of their creators’ anxieties,” like Victor Frankenstein’s monster who can be read as the corporeal projection of the creator’s own grotesque nature.
While this projection of the author onto the protagonist may be true, does that necessarily make the writing lazy? Is writing about writing self-referential or merely self-indulgent — a form of egocentrism that is celebrated amongst the ivory tower of publishing?
In addition, books that contain many allusions to other books can become elitist and create barriers for people who are not as actively engaged in the literary scene. It takes the novel, an arguably accessible form of knowledge and narrative, and places it in a hard-to-reach place. Furthermore, these considerations make me question to what extent it is in the layperson’s domain to critique the methodology of a novelist’s characterization.
It may seem trite to focus a column on this niche consideration. However, in light of rising discussions of different forms of representation in literature, as well as my own column’s literary focus, it makes me question how this form of narrative either flourishes or falls short. While I won’t attempt to stake a claim to the solution in the short space of this column, the paradox lends itself to asking: what is the purpose of the novel? Perhaps more largely, why do we tell the stories that we tell?
Elizabeth Prater is a senior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies. She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the Pacific Northwest and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out to [email protected] or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.