Okay, I did not read every single one of the 294 lives profiled in this 797-page book. But I read a fair few and was fascinated. John Sutherland has selected an historical sampling of major and who-was-that? authors who write in English. (I think that was the criteria–didn’t read any whose work is translated into English.) He claims that these writers have produced work that holds up for at least a century–but the brief bios are not uniformly enamored of the mad, disorderly, drunken, colorful, retiring, religious, impecunious, imaginative lot. Lives of the Novelists is a good read, to be attempted in a marathon or savored in bits over time. I would love to add it to my bookshelves to peruse at leisure. Sutherland has saved us a lifetime of research and pulled aside a curtain on novels and writers who might have been forgotten.
There are quite a few women included–yay!–but not nearly as many as men. Lots of white guys, of course, but not exclusively the pale and privileged. You could argue forcefully for those left out and fill another volume with them–if you had years to devote to the task. You could also just enjoy the story of Aphra Behn–free spirit, spy, playwright, novelist of exotic fiction set in locales like a Surinam slave plantation. You could relish the dish about all the du Mauriers–a made-up patronym that replaced the pedestrian surname Busson and allowed the family to give itself airs about forced exile, until the fabrication was exposed. James Joyce studied medicine in Paris but left after a year, considered becoming a professional singer and abandoned that idea, too. Ian Fleming wrote a James Bond book each year after the publication of the first, Casino Royale, until his death. He also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Alice Sebold was brutally raped while in college and her memoir Lucky and her novel The Lovely Bones are now staples of university classes on victim fiction. Sutherland doesn’t think much of her subsequent writing.
These very short “lives” are a glimpse of the person behind the fiction–some glimpses are mere sketches because so little is known. But it is compelling to see what formative years and experiences were like, who was influenced by whom and which motivation drove writers to the long labor of producing a book. For a very large number of them the inspiration was cold hard cash–not much has changed in nearly 400 years. Market forces determined what would sell; talent turned more than a few of those scribbles into art. Great classics languished unsung for years. Potboilers made their authors rich but were soon forgotten. Writers published any way they could: good connections, serialized in broadsheets, self-published, slipped through under a nom de plume. A messy business for messy lives, and often messy books. Somehow, that’s reassuring.
Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives John Sutherland | Yale University Press 2012