It is never faint praise in literary criticism to say of a book that it had to be written. This one did, and Jeremy Rosen has admirably captured the rise of what he calls the novel of “minor character elaboration” (hereafter MCE), from Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) and Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) to Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (2001) and Ursula K. LeGuin's Lavinia (2008)—rewritings of Charlotte Brontë, William Shakespeare, Margaret Mitchell, and Virgil, respectively. The tactic of writing back to the canonical forebear has consolidated itself since the heady days of the metafictional 1960s and the multicultural 1980s into a marketable genre of twenty-first-century publishing. So goes the central line of Minor Characters Have Their Day; it provides the basis for a definitive treatment of the case.

But Rosen has more than this story to...

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