The Book Club

The Author as Earnest Undergrad

Dear Jim,

Your latest entry was so helpful and informative, it reminded me that a straightforward nonfiction account of a person and a novelistic rendering of the same person are two very different things–and if I really want to learn about somebody famous, I’ll go for the straightforward nonfiction account every time. You say it’s especially hard in China right now, due to potential censorship and lack of a tradition, to write a novel that really takes on a well-known historical figure. I believe you, but I would add that pressures of a different sort make it hard to write a novel about a famous figure in the United States. Hard to write a good novel, that is; it’s true that well-intended but mediocre ones abound. I’m thinking for instance of one of the more highly regarded historical novels of recent years: Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks, who not coincidentally wrote an enthusiastic blurb for the back cover of Becoming Madame Mao. Banks’ exploration of the relationship between the abolitionist John Brown and his overzealous, weirdo son Orin is more ambitious, thorough in its details, alert to its political context, and more nuanced in its judgments than Min’s look at Mao and Jiang. But when you read it, you get the same sense that the novelist doesn’t always ask quite enough of his or her imagination. Banks and Min both begin and end with a premise, an explanation for the Famous Person’s behavior that basically comes down to reductive psychology (John B. drove his children so hard he gave them hang-ups about sex, Jiang would do anything for love); it’s not so different from the kind of analysis you get to hear every night on A&E’s Biography–in fact it’s slightly less subtle, because at least on Biography the Famous Person’s accountant or cousin tells you about the weird sex habits or the love hunger and then the show moves on, whereas in the novels these tics are made to bear the mighty weight of history.

The fact that both novelists start out with a thesis and then proceed to demonstrate it lends their work a slightly academic air, as if they were undergrads doggedly following through on an assignment. At the same time, you feel them leaning on the iconic value of their heroes for significance, even glamour. I mentioned Evita and Sunset Boulevard yesterday not just because of the obvious parallels to Jiang’s story, but because Anchee Min’s writing often reminds you of a screenplay, a blueprint for a visual entertainment, more than a novel. At her best she provides nicely paced, evocative texture, complete with fade-ins and fade-outs, for scenes she’s read about in history books; she isn’t writing a novel so much as a novelization of the movie in her mind. And here you have the peculiar confluence of pressures in the American market that I was referring to earlier: a weird marriage of earnest academic thinking, the stylistic influence of movies and TV, and the commercial calculation that people are more likely to buy a book about a famous person, or at least a fictional character linked to a famous event, than to some poor anonymous schmo. But I don’t want to dwell on the negative here. Among recent historical novels Caleb Carr’s The Alienist had more originality going for it, Toni Morrison’s latest had more import, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain had more of a story. Anyway, if I’m right that the popularity of books like Becoming Madame Mao is something of a fad, by definition, the fad will one day pass. When it does, in a few years, novelists who want to push historical fiction further can look to a wide array of models for inspiration, from Gore Vidal’s treatment of Lincoln (far from perfect as a novel but jaunty and playful with ideas), to Stendhal’s rousing Charterhouse of Parma, to Don DeLillo’s haunted Libra (not immune to the famous-people-are-automatically-interesting syndrome that afflicts Becoming Madame Mao, but otherwise so fierce it doesn’t matter) to Gabriel García Márquez’s miraculous One Hundred Years Of Solitude, which invented new ways to convey the very passage of time in words.

This list is hastily assembled, and obviously incomplete–and anyway the best historical novel will feel unlike any others. I just wanted to end on an up note what was, for me, a very pleasurable dialogue. I learned from your expertise, but I also appreciated your sensitive reading.

All best,