e.l. doctorow

E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015)

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was (and still am) a huge fan of E.L. Doctorow. One of the first “adult” books I ever read was his. I picked up a paperback copy of Ragtime at a library book sale back when I was a kid, and was blown away—more by the novel’s narrative technique than by the story. Doctorow did things in that book that I didn’t know you could do in fiction. He eschewed quotation marks. He blended fictional characters with real-life figures doing fictional things. He presumed to speak as narrator for an entire period in history in a fearless manner.

I was never in love with history class at school, but I probably learned more about America and Americans by marching my way through Doctorow's bibliography. He was clearly fascinated with U.S. history, and how a writer could exploit and subvert the expectations of using historical material. In every book, you could almost feel him saying, “Yeah, I know this is supposed to be history, but it’s fiction first. Get out of the way—I’m writing here."

One of the best profiles of him I’ve ever read appeared in the New York Times Magazine back in 1985. You can read the whole thing here, but I’ve always liked this quote:

"Henry James has a parable about what writing is,'' Doctorow says. ''He posits a situation where a young woman who has led a sheltered life walks past an army barracks, and she hears a fragment of soldiers' conversation coming through a window. And she can, if she's a novelist, then go home and write a true novel about life in the army. You see the idea? The immense, penetrative power of the imagination and the intuition."