With the publication of Arthur Phillips’s playful, complicated novel The Tragedy of Arthur, featuring a character named Arthur Phillips; and the publication of the late David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, which includes a character named David Wallace; not to mention past novels such as Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock, featuring a Jewish novelist character named, well, you get the idea, I have to wonder: what’s the deal?

My initial thoughts lead me to suspect it’s mostly a male deal.  Please, reader, correct me on this if I’m wrong. Can you think of a novel by a woman in which a character bears the writer’s name, or at least a version of her name?  Did Doris Lessing ever write a book with someone in it named Doris Lessing, or Doris Lesser, or Loris Dessing?  Is there a Joyce Carol Oates book I’ve missed that features a woman named Joyce Carol Oates, or Joy Skarolotze?

And if not, why not?

Or perhaps, more to the point, why are men drawn to putting themselves in their novels in overt ways?  Is it somehow a variation on the old “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” song about male and female genitalia:  “Some are fancy on the outside.  Some are fancy on the inside…?”  Do men need to strut their stuff more directly in a novel?  I actually think all novels are, in their own way, examples of stuff-strutting.  It’s not that women don’t appear in their own work, but they may do so in quieter ways. They may not go all postmodern and feel the itch to share the joke with the class and create a puzzle, a Chinese box.  Instead, they might be happy to be the cat on the windowsill that’s just contentedly eaten a bird and still has a bit of feather and blood on its chin; or perhaps they know, in their heart of hearts, that they are the monstrous dictator of a violent, imaginary nation.  It’s just that it doesn’t necessarily occur to them to give either the cat or the dictator the writer’s name.

Or maybe, even more radically, women writers less frequently feel the desire to “put themselves in the book” directly or even indirectly.  Maybe they don’t always need to “be” there, exactly, but simply want to have their sensibility make a meaningful appearance, in some form or other.  As Zadie Smith has said, she writes to express her way of being in the world.  I am very hesitant to say that women writers do one thing, and male writers do another.  It’s a reductive way of viewing the world, but certain trends have emerged.  I know that the use of a writer’s name in a novel might mean something very different from the use of another writer’s name in another novel.  But perhaps when men include a version of their name, which can take the form of a blustery in-joke, a desire for the meta, for something cryptic and elusive, a code to be cracked, a mirror to be held up, and for the self never to really leave the premises, they really are writing to show their way of being in the world.

I guess, in a way–but only in a way–I envy them.  Which is why I am in the early stages of a novel featuring a woman novelist named Peg Holitzer.  She is exactly like me, only evil.

When will I finish it?  Don’t hold your breath.

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