Contemporary Books, 2000, 314 pages, C$23.95 hc, ISBN 0-8092-9904-6
Writers are a strange breed.
Even accounting for the usual diversity of characters, temperaments and manias distributed more-or-less evenly across the human bell curve, writers have long been considered among the most eccentric specimen of our species. Part of this reputation is due to the demands of the job: not many entirely sane people can sit down and string words together for months in order to produce a text of respectable length. Most authors are not mad, but most of them are abnormal.
But then again, like modern-day bloggers, writers have long been in a privileged position to chronicle their own eccentricities and those of their other writer acquaintances. Other professions such as, say, tailors, might have been collectively just as bizarre, but haven’t had the chance to accumulate a written pedigree for hundreds of years.
In any case, Aubrey Dillon Malone’s Stranger Than Fiction will quickly convince you, if that remained to be done, that writers are indeed a strange caste. This little-known quasi-novelty book is a collection of thematic lists about writers and their habits, from “Five writers involved in tragic accidents” to “Five writers who were vegetarians”. It doesn’t stop there, of course: “Fifteen writers who were spies”, “Thirty authors’ famous last words”, “Ten writers put to death by the state”, “Five writers’ phobias”, “Ten Shakespearian insults”, the all-time classic “Ten writers who went insane” and much, much more…
Writer/journalist Malone has done an admirable, often hilarious job at compiling some of these lists. Often ribald -if not downright obscene-, Stranger Than Fiction pulls no punches and digs deep in literature’s dirty closets. There is trivia here for everyone, and enough quotable material to make you a certifiable bore at your next office party. It’s not a unique book (as I write this, I’m midway through Robert Hendrickson’s similar collection The Woodsworth Book of Literary Anecdotes, though Stranger Than Fiction was far more entertaining than Hendrickson’s uneven collection.) but it’s a good one, with something like 300 lists in one handy paperback-sized hardcover.
My main quibble stems from ignorance: I’m a child of the sci-fi ghetto and so my grasp of classical literature isn’t as good as it should be. I was rather embarrassed to learn things I should have known about a few very-well-known writers. Still, it’s a fair criticism to remark that Stranger Than Fiction is concentrated mostly on the “respectable” English canon, with often perfunctory attention to other literatures. As a confirmed SF buff, I can proudly claim that our writers are as interesting as the mainstream ones. Yet Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick are conspicuously absent, while Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke share a paltry three mentions. (On the other hand, have I mentioned the great index-by-authors? Yep; you can use this book as reference!)
Stranger Than Fiction is, in many ways, a tribute to the quirkiness of writers, those magnificent madmen (and madwomen too!) without whom our shelves would be so much poorer. It’s a crash-course in English literature, an amusing entertainment, a great source of anecdotes and a pretty nifty discussion piece by itself. It would make a great gift for any avid reader in your neighborhood.