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7 Authors Who Wrote Themselves into Their Work

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grant / getty images

The best books cast a spell over readers, inviting them to forget that the world they’re invested in is the result of the author’s imagination. But this becomes exponentially harder to do when novelists decide to write themselves into their fiction, breaking the trance and reminding everyone there is no magic in the world. It’s somewhat cruel. Here are seven examples where fictional characters literally met their maker.

1. Stephen King

The prolific King considers the eight-volume Dark Tower series his magnum opus, with many of his other novels referencing characters or situations from the fantasy saga. In book six, Song of Susannah, King introduces himself as an author who is writing about gunslinger Roland’s road to the titular destination; the Crimson King repeatedly tries to kill King in an effort to stop the story from continuing. Adding meta on top of an already precarious pile of meta, he even attempts to rub out the author in 1999 via an automobile accident; the “real” King was seriously injured when a van hit him that same year.   

2. Grant Morrison

Celebrated comic book writer Morrison put DC’s little-known Animal Man title on the map when he broke the fourth wall and made the character cognizant of the fact that he was just a drawing on paper. In issue #25, Morrison appears as himself to engage in a dialogue with the hero, apologizing for what he perceives to be a lackluster job of writing his exploits. “There’s not enough space in your world,” he tells the character, voicing Morrison’s own critique of the comics medium. “Things have to be concise ... there’s no room for anything important.” When Morrison departs, Animal Man is, naturally, left without anything to say. 

3. Bret Easton Ellis

Ellis’s works of nihilism—American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction—awarded him a fair amount of notoriety. For 2005’s Lunar Park, Ellis decided to up the ante by starring in his own mock memoir. Though some parts echo reality (both real and fictional Ellis share a history of drug use), in Park, the author plunges off the deep end, engaging in an affair and inhabiting a haunted mansion. The response to the use of Ellis's alter ego was mixed, and The Boston Globe called it “wretched.” 

4. Clive Cussler

Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels revolve around a seafaring adventurer with a fleet of collectible cars; the requisite action, espionage, and intrigue ensue. Often, Pitt receives assistance from an older gentleman named Clive Cussler who offers equipment, advice, or clues. In a nod to Cussler’s bizarre insertions, the characters often don’t recall him from one novel to another.      

5. W. Somerset Maugham

Famed for Of Human Bondage and 1944’s The Razor’s Edge, Maugham appears in the latter to interact with several of his characters, including the tortured World War I veteran who has trouble finding meaning in life. In the text, Maugham sits down with him to act as an advisor on matters of spirituality; the conversation takes up an entire chapter, the result of Maugham traveling to India several years prior and becoming interested in meditative philosophy.      

6. Douglas Coupland

Having labeled an entire cultural divide with his breakout novel, Generation X, Coupland went on to establish a reputation as an explorer of humanity in a technologically-obsessed society. In 2006’s JPod, about a group of video game programmers fighting inertia, Coupland appears as himself, albeit a bit of a jerk: he steals data off a character’s laptop and implies he has a dead body to get rid of. Coupland’s appearance is foreshadowed in the novel’s opening line, where one character whines that “I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.” 

7. Philip Roth

Pulitzer Prize winner Roth, 81, has often used his work to explore how intertwined the author becomes with his prose. He lost the subtext with 1993’s Operation Shylock: A Confession, which features “Philip Roth” traveling to Israel and becoming preoccupied with an imposter—marking possibly the first time an author has written himself into one novel twice over. The real Roth and one of the fictional doubles both suffered a post-operative nervous breakdown as a result of a bad reaction to a sedative; Roth told press, tongue likely in cheek, that the book was not a work of fiction but that it was in his best interests to say so.

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P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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The Internet Archive is Making 62 Obscure, Out-of-Print Books Available Online
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Dozens of of obscure, out-of-print books are about to become much more accessible thanks to the Internet Archive, the digital archive of public domain media. But to do it, they’ll have to exploit a loophole in a controversial copyright law, as Ars Technica reports.

The Internet Archive is releasing the Sonny Bono Memorial Collection, a group of books from the 1920s and 1930s that are out of print, but still technically under copyright—meaning they’re extremely difficult to get a hold of.

The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act was a copyright extension law passed in 1998 to extend copyright protections to works published after 1923 (which would otherwise have already entered the public domain) by 20 years. Unfortunately, while Disney may be happy that Mickey Mouse still falls under copyright protections, that also means that less-famous books that are now out of print can’t be made available to the public. But a provision of the law provides for public access for research, allowing nonprofit libraries to distribute the works if they cannot be found elsewhere for a reasonable price.

A screenshot of an online collection of books from the Internet Archive
Screenshot, Internet Archive

The Internet Archive explains:

We believe the works in this collection are eligible for free public access under 17 U.S.C. Section 108(h) which allows for non-profit libraries and archives to reproduce, distribute, display, and publicly perform a work if it meets the criteria of: a published work in the last 20 years of copyright, and after conducting a reasonable investigation, no commercial exploitation or copy at a reasonable price could be found.

Libraries don’t tend to take advantage of the law because it takes considerable resources to track down which works are eligible. However, the Internet Archive collaborated with Elizabeth Townsend Gard, a Tulane copyright expert, and a pair of interns to find books that could be scanned and uploaded online legally. Gard has released guidelines for libraries based on this work to help other archives do the same.

The Internet Archive is starting out with 62 books published between 1923 and 1941 (meaning they’re within 20 years of their copyright expiring) and plan to release up to 10,000 more in the near future to be downloaded and read by online users. And the collection will grow each January as more books enter that 20-year window.

[h/t Ars Technica]


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