What novels feature the written works of their own characters?
December 6, 2009 1:09 PM   Subscribe

What novels worth reading exist in which writers appear as characters and we actually get to read their writings within the novel itself?

Bonus points if, say, a character writes short stories, and then we see a full short story by that character. I'm also curious as to whether a script by a character has appeared within a novel about that character.

I'm not interested in novels where a character orally recounts a story and we read about that.
posted by Sticherbeast to Media & Arts (61 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Several Stephen King books come to mind, like the original novella for Stand By Me.

Another interesting book, which I recommended just recently in an AskMe, is Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted.
posted by mannequito at 1:11 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're talking Stephen King, then Misery is the one to look at. Although the entire Misery Returns novel is not in the book, you get quite a lot of it.
posted by saffry at 1:13 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: You might be interested in Pale Fire.
posted by Durin's Bane at 1:15 PM on December 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

Nabokov's Pale Fire.
posted by fearthehat at 1:17 PM on December 6, 2009

In John Irving's The World According to Garp there is an entire, I think, short story, by the main character. If On A Winter's Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino plays with the author/reader, but it is not "direct" story - more like a puzzle of who is writing what, who is reading what.
posted by bwonder2 at 1:17 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 1:20 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Confederacy of Dunces rocked in this regard.
posted by zia at 1:22 PM on December 6, 2009

Garp does, in fact, contain an entire short story written by Garp called "The Pension Grillparzer".
posted by elsietheeel at 1:25 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds does that at the very start, and then gets two or three levels more recursive. Hard to summarize!
posted by xil at 1:26 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin alternates chapters between recollections of the protagonist and the autobiographical novel written by her sister.
posted by FuManchu at 1:31 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ian McEwan's Atonement.

You may also want to check out the Wikipedia article on metafiction.
posted by lilac girl at 1:35 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Also by Percival Everett: Erasure.

How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

Possession and The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:36 PM on December 6, 2009

I'm not sure if this counts, but in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, the author shows up as a character, making his role known to one of the story's character's, Kilgore Trout. The entire novel up to the point of Vonnegut's intercession could be viewed as a story within itself.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 1:40 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.

My favorite book.

Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse, about the life of a child novelist, is also wonderful.
posted by yamel at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew
posted by Joe Beese at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2009

Martin Amis's Money features a character who is a writer, also named Martin Amis, and he represents some aspects of Amis-the-real-author-of-Money himself.

I second the recommendation to research metafiction.
posted by fantine at 1:46 PM on December 6, 2009

John Crowley's Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land
posted by bewilderbeast at 1:46 PM on December 6, 2009

Richard Russo's "Straight Man" starts off with an article from a college newspaper written by the main character. It also has a couple more little article type things within the book. Very funny, too. It's not particularly serious fiction, but the main character covers that point within the book in talking about his own writing.
posted by The Potate at 2:13 PM on December 6, 2009

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder has a lot of this, though explaining it would give the whole thing away.
posted by divabat at 2:16 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: The Adrian Mole books include many excerpts of his attempts to be a great writer (especially the later books, which have bits of his short stories and novels).
posted by cadge at 2:19 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Most of Judith Moffett's Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream is an autobiographical novel written by the protagonist, with chapter-by-chapter annotations from another character who features in the story. Neat stuff, I just finished re-reading it while waiting for the sequel to ship.
posted by asperity at 2:20 PM on December 6, 2009

The Navidson Record and the Whalestoe Letters in House of Leaves.
posted by cog_nate at 2:24 PM on December 6, 2009

There is at least one short story by Anne Frank in Anne Frank's diary, maybe even more than one.

In fact, there are several versions of her diary because she started to rewrite her diary entries after hearing on the radio that war diaries might be published after the war. So the original diary by Anne Frank contains another diary by a not-quite ficitonal character called Anne Frank who also writes fiction, namely her short stories, which are fictionaly stories within a real-life story within a diary. (Some of her stories were published in a book called Tales from the Secret Annex.)
posted by amf at 2:26 PM on December 6, 2009

Response by poster: So many great answers here.

Poking around Wikipedia for examples of this has turned up the marvelous term "poioumenon," which is when "the central narrative is set forth as being the author's original story but it is really about interweaving reality and fiction."

It's also funny that the first answer out of the gate was Stephen King - I asked this question, in part, because I've just begun The Dark Tower series, although obviously King is not the only person who does this. I'm especially eager to read Blind Assassin, Edwin Mullhouse, and Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream.

Keep 'em coming!
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:34 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Paul Auster does this in The New York Trilogy.

Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper, though, is probably the most inventive and vivid example I've read so far. And I say this as someone who has read an embarrassing amount of metafiction.
posted by farishta at 3:12 PM on December 6, 2009

It's not a book and there isn't a story to read, but Stranger than Fiction's central plot device is that the lead character can hear the film's narrator, who is also a character in the film and who is experiencing writers' block as she tries to move the story forwards.
posted by autopilot at 3:16 PM on December 6, 2009

More A. S. Byatt - don't forget Babel Tower.
posted by nangar at 3:19 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: John Barth's GIles Goat-Boy contains an entire play based on Oedipus (translated into the fictional universe of the book).

Kirsten Bakis's Lives of the Monster Dogs contains extended excerpts from an opera.

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series contains a complete play, Eschatology and Genesis.
posted by dfan at 3:22 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Michael Winter is an excellent Canadian writer whose books are chained together in a curious way. Winter's book One Good Last Look is a series of stories about Gabriel English, a semi-autobiographical character. In the stories, Gabriel is working on an autobiographical novel. Winter's then wrote the novel This All Happened, which is supposed to be the autobiographical novel that Gabriel was working on in the first book. In This All Happened, Gabriel is working on an historical novel about Rockwell Kent; Winter then followed up This All Happened with The Big Why, an historical novel about Rockwell Kent. Winter's most recent book, The Architects Are Here, is another novel featuring Gabriel English, though I can't remember if it contains any clues about what the next book might be.
posted by oulipian at 3:30 PM on December 6, 2009

If memory serves, there is something of this in the Illuminatus! trilogy vis-a-vis the Ayn Rand parody work "Telemachus Sneezed."
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 3:34 PM on December 6, 2009

John Irving repeats the trick in "A Widow for one year", where one of the chapters is a short story 'by' the main character Ruth Cole, entitled "The red and blue air-mattress". Serious metafictional contortions going on here, as she writes it for translation into German as her contribution to a German news magazine's series (or competition?) of stories with this title commissioned from well-known authors, and it was originally published for real by Irving as his contribution to a German news magazine's commissioned series (or competition?) of stories with this title commissioned from well-known authors.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:44 PM on December 6, 2009

William Golding's The Princess Bride does this quite well. Golding presents the fairy-tale as an older work that he is merely abridging, rather than an original tale. If you read his introduction and post-script of the text he frames the entire narrative in this fictional autobiography where he has a poor relationship with his son, which slowly improves over the years.

Of course it's all fiction, Golding doesn't even have a son, but it's still a fantastic way to frame a story.

Also, more examples of wonderful metafiction framing technique.
posted by robotot at 4:07 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Philip Dick's Man in the High Castle features a novel within the novel that is the mirror image of the outer novel. The outer novel is about an alternative reality where the Allies lost WWII and the inner book is a similar science fiction novel which is set in a reality very similar to our "real" world. The novelist of the inner novel is not a major "on-screen" character but does show up at one point. I haven't read it in a few years and can't remember if we get to read actual passages from the inner novel or if the characters just discuss it.
posted by octothorpe at 4:20 PM on December 6, 2009

There's an entire genre (if you want to call it that) dedicated to the idea of a story recounted as a series of letters: the epistolary novel.

My favorite of these: Saul Bellow's Herzog.
posted by lex mercatoria at 4:23 PM on December 6, 2009

i just read 'the selected works of t s spivet',
in which you see t s's maps and read a chapter from his mothers book.
posted by compound eye at 4:24 PM on December 6, 2009

The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, the book inside George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Christopher Priest's The Prestige is the alternating diaries of the two main characters.
posted by kirkaracha at 4:42 PM on December 6, 2009

Kundera does this often in Unbearable Lightness of Being, describing how he thought of his characters from within the parameters of the text, writing that they are "born of a stimulating phrase or two or from a basic situation. Tomas was born of the saying 'Einmal ist keinmal.' Tereza was born of the rumbling of a stomach."
posted by zoomorphic at 5:04 PM on December 6, 2009

Vonnegut also did it in Slaughterhouse-Five, which opens with the narrator visiting another WWII survivor and promising to tell the story, albeit in his own quirky way. That story includes the narrator as a self-insert cameo.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:37 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: The Golden Notebook by Dorris Lessing is a novel about a writer who wrote a novel about a writer. Both these writers reflect aspects of Dorris Lessing's own life experience and of each others, and you get to read excerpts of both writers' fiction. It's quite a tour de force, and while some people don't care for it for various reasons, many consider it one of the most important novels of the last century.

You'll also learn a fair amount of mid-century cultural history from it.
posted by alms at 6:09 PM on December 6, 2009

I third The Blind Assassin (probably my favorite Atwood) and would add David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System - a book very much about how the stories we tell define us - which features numerous samples of the protagonist's boyfriend's writing.
posted by naoko at 6:20 PM on December 6, 2009

Oh, and something that is perhaps slightly different from what you're looking for but may also be of interest is Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger. - if I recall correctly, it basically asserts that all of Salinger's Glass Family stories are in fact fictionalized accounts of the family by Buddy Glass, or something to that effect. I really did not care for this one, though.
posted by naoko at 6:28 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: In Laurence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (four novels whose plots sort of fold into each other and can be read in any order) the main narrator is a writer. He turns his own account of events into a manuscript -- and later another character goes through it with a red pen, basically, adding all the details the author didn't know. Brilliant!

Also, another main character in the book is a famous author (fictional, of course) named Pursewarden whose work is constantly quoted at length by the other characters.

Also another character, Justine, is the subject of much gossip in the city of Alexandria because her ex-husband wrote a "novel" that is actually a (supposedly) non-fictional account of their marriage. It too is quoted at length at various times throughout the series, as various men probe it for insights into Justine's character.

For maximum impact, I recommend you read the books in the order they were written in: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. Really beautifully prose-y books with excellent characters and relationships and many unfolding mysteries. Probably one of the most enjoyable reads I've ever had.
posted by hermitosis at 7:04 PM on December 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Erasure by Percival Everrett is really good.
posted by OmieWise at 7:08 PM on December 6, 2009

The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland has at least a couple of layers of this, if I'm remembering right.
posted by SoftRain at 8:08 PM on December 6, 2009

Er--William Goldman wrote The Princess Bride. William Golding wrote The Lord of the Flies.

The idea of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as written by the author of The Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin, Darkness Visible is quite an intriguing one.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 8:39 PM on December 6, 2009

Best answer: Jonathan Carroll has a fictional moviemaker named Weber Gregston, and several of Carroll's books feature narration of scenes from his movies.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:06 PM on December 6, 2009

Can't believe that nobody has mentioned House of Leaves yet.

Half the book is an unreliable narrator first-person narrative, and the other half is the book that the narrator wrote/transcribed/compiled.
posted by Afroblanco at 9:29 PM on December 6, 2009

Eighteenth-century epistolary novels (hey, letters are works written by characters, right?). In Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, the villain intercepts a sequence of letters and forges replies to both parties, which may interest you.
posted by ms.codex at 9:33 PM on December 6, 2009

A new young adult novel does this beautifully: The Wandora Unit by Jessy Randall is about a group of high school students who (among other things) create a poetry magazine.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:03 PM on December 6, 2009

The White Hotel begins with a poem that is written onto the score of an opera by one of the characters. It's one of my favourite books.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:45 AM on December 7, 2009

The recent bestseller The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a cute, heartwarming example of an epistolary novel.

(It's been mentioned above, but I can't recommend AS Byatt's Possession enough. Absolutely wonderful.)
posted by bookgirl18 at 7:04 AM on December 7, 2009

The Witch of Portobello is written as a series of interviews about a true event. Sort of a novel within a novel type thing.
posted by frecklefaerie at 8:38 AM on December 7, 2009

Must the metawriting be fiction? The Historian has extensive sections of memoir written by one of the main characters. I believe I Know This Much Is True uses a similar device but it's been a long time since I read it so I'm not certain.
posted by lunasol at 8:48 AM on December 7, 2009

In Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed one of the characters writes and presents a history of the main character's ancestor (a feminist prison warden, pretty interesting) and it is a plot point and contained within the book.
posted by hepta at 9:56 AM on December 7, 2009

Vanishing Point by David Markson, described by David Foster Wallace as"pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country," is a novel that contains a character, known only as Author who is struggling to transform shoe boxes of notes written on index cards into a novel. Much of the novel contains fragments taken form these note cards. See also: his Reader's Block (about a reader wondering what to do with his fictional Protagonist) and This Is Not a Novel.

The main character of Harry Mathew's The Journalist starts to keep a record of his every day life which begins to take stranger and stranger turns. The book contains many of these journal entries (His novel My Life in CIA is about a writer named Harry Matthews).
posted by tallus at 1:00 PM on December 7, 2009

tailus, you are confusing Vanishing Point with Wittgenstein's Mistress in regards to the DFW quote. Nitpicky, I know, but what would we be without correcting every little thing on the internet :P
posted by thepalephantom at 1:35 PM on December 7, 2009

Cervantes speaks to the reader about writing the "history" of Don Quixote.
posted by Houyhnhnm at 4:03 PM on December 7, 2009

Cervantes speaks to the reader about writing the "history" of Don Quixote.

That's a different trope (and a very frequent one); the idea that the fictional work is actually a factual history is not the same as an imbedded (fictional) writer whose notional "work" is reproduced within the work itself.

There are some truly crazy "selections from the protagonist's memoir" within Hadrian VII by Frederick Rolfe a/k/a Baron Corvo.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:18 PM on December 7, 2009

In Amy Sohn's Run Catch Kiss, the protagonist is a sex columnist, and some of her columns appear in the book.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:02 PM on December 7, 2009

A new young adult novel does this beautifully: The Wandora Unit by Jessy Randall is about a group of high school students who (among other things) create a poetry magazine.

Oh gawd, that reminds me of another: A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag has a plotline where two kids decide to do a class project on the most obscure poet they can find so that nobody else can show them up by knowing more about the guy than they do. It turns out the poet they chose, a guy named Gavin Gunhold, was hit by a bus after writing his first poem, so they write a bunch more poems of "his" in order to finish the assignment.

So you've got a real writer telling a story about two fictional characters who are telling a lie in which this guy wrote a lot of poems, and you get to read the poems. (I think that makes them metametafictional?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:12 PM on December 7, 2009

Not exactly what you're asking for, but well worth a read:
Diary of a Bad Year by JM Coetzee.
posted by SebastianKnight at 10:08 AM on December 8, 2009

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