No publisher in its right mind will try to sell you something you've never seen before. Just look at the frenzied rush to clone The Da Vinci Code: Skip down the New York Times best-seller list a few steps and you come to The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, a thriller about deciphering a Renaissance text.
When Tracy Chevalier's 1999 novel Girl with a Pearl Earring -- about Jan Vermeer's housemaid, the model for his eponymous painting -- became a best-seller, it was everybody's job to figure out why, and an answer like "good writing" seemed a pretty good way to lose that job. Vermeer, da Vinci -- maybe having a few real-life historical figures in the mix lends literary fiction an extra dose of ... what? Gravitas? Reality? Would Dan Brown's thriller have sold half as well if it were called The Painty McPainterson Code? Almost the entire population of 1930s New York shows up in Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Virginia Woolf is a featured player in The Hours, Michael Cunningham's wildly popular 1998 riff on Mrs. Dalloway.
Today you can't swing a dead celebrity at the bookshop without hitting, um, another dead celebrity, more even than were assembled by Ted "Theodore" Logan and Bill S. Preston Esq. in the immortal film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. The merest glance down the best-seller list gives you a taste of all the Vermeers in new books: Philip Roth's The Plot Against America posits an alternate history in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh became president in 1940 instead of FDR. Byron and the Shelleys show up in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Alfred C. Kinsey in T.C. Boyle's The Inner Circle, Isaac Newton in Neal Stephenson's The System of the World.
Francisco Goldman's sweeping historical love story The Divine Husband features Cuban revolutionary poet José Martí as a major catalyst for its ex-nun heroine. There's Erica Jong's Sappho's Leap, William Randolph Hearst in Olaf Olafsson's Walking Into the Night, Elizabeth I in Philippa Gregory's The Virgin's Lover (said lover is her master of horse, which shouldn't remind anyone of Mrs. Brown), Liz's dad Henry VIII in Beatrice Small's Philippa, and General Sherman in both John Jakes' Savannah and Philip Lee Williams' A Distant Flame. Neil Pollack's Never Mind the Pollacks casts his fictional self as a Lester Bangs-style music critic getting intimately involved with every major figure in rock history from Elvis to Kurt Cobain.
It's not just "literary" fiction that is gravedigging for characters. Much weirder is the trend in mysteries to cast great authors as amateur detectives, because, after all, they had a lot of time on their hands. Budding private dicks include Geoffrey Chaucer in Philippa Morgan's debut Chaucer and the House of Fame, Christopher Marlowe in Louise Welsh's upcoming Tamburlaine Must Die, Robert Louis Stevenson (in Samoa!) in Alberto Manguel's Stevenson Under the Palm Trees. Then there's Oakley Hall's Ambrose Bierce and the Trey of Pearls, a sequel to Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades and Ambrose Bierce and the One-Eyed Jacks. Harold Schechter's third Edgar Allan Poe mystery, The Mask of Red Death, came out in August, and Susan Wittig Albert started a new mystery series starring Beatrix Potter this month with The Tale of Hill Top Farm. That Mopsy always looked a little shifty.
Having the fictional clink glasses or knock boots with the flesh-and-blood is far from a new thing. Fact and fiction have been interwoven in fact (and indeed in fiction) from the very beginnings of literature. Gilgamesh was a real guy, and the Trojan War actually happened. The Persian king Xerxes shows up in Aeschylus' The Persians, the oldest surviving Greek tragedy, and Plato's Symposium pits Socrates against Aristophanes and Alcibiades.
But of course none of these are novels. A case has been made for the ancient Egyptian Story of Sinuhe as the earliest novel, as early as 1875 BCE, about a servant of real-life king Amenemhet I. More commonly given that distinction, Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji (circa 1000 CE) was a historical novel, though the characters in it are fictional -- a distinction muddied in Liza Dalby's historical novel The Tale of Murasaki four years ago. Don Quixote, the first European novel (six centuries later than Genji), includes an encounter with real-life bandit Roque Guinart. Quixote will meet his maker, Miguel de Cervantes, in Julian Branston's The Eternal Quest next January. What would War and Peace be without Napoleon, The Prince and the Pauper without Edward VI, or The Three Musketeers without Cardinal Richelieu?
Maybe we want a little fact in our fiction because "we live in fictitious times," as Michael Moore said at the 2003 Oscars, the same year Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious brother Donald were nominated for the Adaptation screenplay. Now Jon Stewart, host of fake news program The Daily Show, summons the moral authority to lambaste the hosts of Crossfire for their disingenuity. There's some comfort in knowing Colm Tóibín's novel The Master fictionalizes the life of Henry James, when Edmund Morris inserted himself as a fictional character into his Reagan biography Dutch and the dialogue in Bob Woodward's otherwise factual Plan of Attack is invented for dramatic effect. There's something awfully true-to-life about not knowing which parts are made up.
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