Books within books: the bestsellers we’ll never get to read

An author obsessed with an imaginary fiction, bodice-rippers in Stephen Kings Misery, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy … why do writers love to write about writing?

In David Quantick’s new fiction, All My Colors, Todd Milstead, a budding novelist with delusions of grandeur, a vastly inflated sense of his own talent and a photographic memory, recalls a book he once read- word for word- called All My Colors by Jake Turner. But to Todd’s characteristic ferocity , nobody else has heard of this volume; he asks his wife, his friends, the bookshops, the libraries but All My Colors, and Turner, appear to exist only in Todd’s imagination.

What’s a fighting novelist who suspects his genius will never be recognised by an uncaring world to do? Why, write the book that doesn’t seem to exist from memory, and pass it off as his own.

Kudos to Quantick’s authorial chops- and not really a astonish from the former NME journalist and writer for Tv demonstrates such as The Thick of It and The Day Today- for constructing us feel for the unlikeable Todd as he gets in style over his head when the book he was not clever enough to write becomes a runaway bestseller, then plunges him into nightmarish horror as the chickens come home to roost.

Books about books- especially nebulous, ethereal, uncertain books- are always a great joy. Stephen King has regularly written about novelists, whether unfortunate Paul Sheldon’s bodice-rippers in Misery, or 1989 fiction The Dark Half, where it’s not roosting chickens but flying sparrows that are the problem for protagonist Thad Beaumont. Written as a response to the ” revelation” that King had written previously under a pseudonym( Richard Bachman ), The Dark Half follows Beaumont as he publicly “buries” his pen-name, George Stark, in order to leave behind his successful career in thrillers to concentrate on more literary works.

‘ Space is big. Really big. You simply won’t believe how vastly, staggeringly, mind-bogglingly big it is’ … The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Photograph: Photo 12/ Alamy Stock Photo

The pursuit of highfalutin literary renown never objective well- not for Quantick’s Todd( endure painful Tv interviews ), King’s Beaumont( whose alter ego comes alive, in murderous style) or Paul Sheldon( whose bid to kill off his beloved character Misery Chastain doesn’t end well, at least not for his ankles ).

Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale concerns a biographer’s attempt to write the life story of reclusive author Vida Winter; during her research, the biographer discovers a rare transcript of Winter’s volume Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation- which only contains a dozen narratives, triggering a search for the missing one. While Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, contains not only a book within a book, but a volume within that as well: framed as the memoirs of one Iris Chase, Atwood’s novel contains extracts from a fiction called The Blind Assassin, purportedly written by Iris’s dead sister Laura, which in turn contains a story of the same name told by a science fiction writer.

The idea of books that have never been written, or should never have been written, form the basis for many fictional libraries. Jorge Luis Borges- once a librarian himself- situated his 1941 short story The Library of Babel in a bibliophile’s dream: a universe hosting every single book that has ever been written, or ever will be. And Richard Brautigan, best known for his counter-cultural classic Trout Fishing in America, has a library of unpublished run- from childish scrawlings in crayon to meandering memoirs of mundane lives- at the heart of his novel The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. Similarly, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic series features a library, under the watchful eye of Lucien, that contains all the books ever dreamed about.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is about a volume of the same name, written by the fictional Julian Carax, which Zafon’s young protagonist obtains from the fictional Cemetery of Forgotten Books, hidden away in Barcelona in the years after the Spanish civil war. And HP Lovecraft peppered his cosmic horror fiction with judicious mentions of the Necronomicon, a terrible book of sorcery and terror- perhaps the polar opposite to Douglas Adams’s cheerful The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, found in his comic fiction of the same name.

What’s your favourite book you’ve never read- and sadly aren’t ever likely to?

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