On Novels and Novelists

14 Women Writers Who Dominate The Universe Of Sci-Fi

For decades men dominated the world of science fiction. But, Maddie Crum reports, the tables have turned. Read why she things these women authors now dominate the field:

  • L. Timmel Duchamp
  • Emily St. John Mandel
  • Octavia Butler
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Nnedi Okorafor
  • Jo Walton
  • Hiromi Goto
  • Karen Joy Fowler
  • Tanith Lee
  • Alice Bradley Sheldon
  • Nalo Hopkinson
  • Karen Russell
  • Leonora Carrington
  • Sofia Samatar

Why you need an app to understand my novel

Iain Pears has always written complex books – his latest, Arcadia, has 10 separate story strands. To make his readers’ lives easier, he turned to interactive technology

Iain Pears laments, “What should be a simple task – write story, create software, publish – turns out to be anything but in practice.”

The author of An Instance of the Fingerpost, which my book club loved several years ago and which is on my list of books deserving a reread, explains that he undertook the project of both writing and producing an app for his latest work, Arcadia, because “I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage.”

His previous novels are all “complex structurally,” he explains, and since he wanted to write a book even more complex, he considered “how to make my readers’ lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure.”

In developing the software to aid readers, he writes, his main aim was “making the technology the servant of the story rather than its master.”

This is a fascinating look at how a writer attempts to use new technological tools as a way of expanding the possibilities of narrative. He compares his approach to the way the introduction of film influenced narrative: At first people simply set up cameras and recorded plays; only somewhat later did artists begin to explore the different possibilities that film offered to make a movie different from a stage performance.

Writing Arcadia did produce odd effects in ways that an ordinary book or ebook could not; scenes became more episodic and vignette-like; the demands of shifting from one point of view to another, and then to multiple ones in different worlds, required different ways of writing.

Arcadia will be published in Britain on September 3. A link at the end of this piece takes you to iTunes, where you can get the app.

Let authors take the quiet road

One question readers must always consider is how much they want to know about the author—or, more specifically, should what we know about an author influence how we react to or interpret a literary work?

This piece considers the case of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who eschews publicity so ferociously that most people don’t even know what she looks like.

Here writer Arifa Akbar wishes that more authors would follow Ferrante’s lead: “As Ferrante suggests, the book should surely be enough, though that is sadly not the reality for many pressured to deliver a performance after they have delivered their novel.”

11 Big Fat Debut Novels to Keep You Reading All Summer

Julianna Haubner writes:

While the classics have always had a reputation for intimidating length (Tolstoy, Dickens, I’m looking at you), we are now living in the era of an entirely new trend: the big, fat, juicy debut novel. Industry insiders (The Daily Beast and Vulture among them) have put in their two cents, but here’s ours: the bigger the better! Whether they’re fetching huge advances or sleeper successes, here are our favorite first-time tries that keep us reading past page five hundred.

These books are not all from the year. But read why she so enjoyed these authors’ big first novels:

  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  • City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

4 More Literary Lists, and Where I Stand on Each

One of the activities that my daily blogging challenge is cutting heavily into is reading. Since I’m not currently adding many new titles to my lifetime reading list, I’m turning to some other lists for a bit of consolation.

I think that for next year I’ll have to define for myself a serious reading challenge.

14 Women Writers Who Dominate The Universe Of Sci-Fi

I decided to start with Maddie Crum’s list of women science fiction authors for Huffington Post because I anticipated that I’d have my worst score here. I don’t read much science fiction. My reading in this genre is limited to the best known classics.

This is a list of authors rather than of specific books. I include in my tally the number of writers whose books I’ve read at least one of.

How many I’ve read: 4 of 14, or 28%

The percentage looks so much better than the actual number.

NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction & Fantasy Books

I don’t read much fantasy, either, but I hoped I might do better with this list because it includes some classics of literature.

How many I’ve read: 28, or 28%, which the web site tells me is in the top 37% of people who have participated.

At least I’m consistent.

The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

After two years of careful consideration, Robert McCrum has reached a verdict on his selection of the 100 greatest novels written in English.

Keep in mind that this list is from a newspaper in the United Kingdom.

If you want to know how McCrum made his choices, there’s a link to his discussion at the top of the page.

But I’m putting off the inevitable:

How many I’ve read: 48, or 48%

Darn. I was hoping for at least 50%. In my defense, I have enough of the ones I haven’t read on my list of classics TBR, so I at least give myself a pat on the back for knowing where my deficiencies lie.

BBC Believes You Only Read 6 of These Books…

I remember seeing something like this list by the BBC several years ago. Here’s List Challenges’s explanation:

Interestingly, the BBC never actually made this declaration. The list was created by an unknown individual and spread around the internet as a meme called The BBC Book List Challenge. It was probably loosely based on another list of books that was the result of a survey carried out in 2003 by the BBC in which three quarters of a million people voted to find the nation’s best-loved novels of all time.

The explanation ends with a link to BBC’s The Big Read – Best Loved Novels of All Time.

How many I’ve read: 58, or 58%, in the top 7%

Well, that’s more like it. Actually, I’ve read 58.3 of these works, since I read the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And a number of the books on this list that I haven’t yet read are on my list of classics TBR.

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How about you? How many of the books on these lists have you read?

“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Related Posts:

This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

10 Best Novels by Poets

Novelist and poet Naja Marie Aidt offers a list of novels “that bring a poetic sensitivity to language into the history of the novel.” She especially asks us to take a look at the work of the Danish poets included (the first two entries on her list), whom we Americans may not know about.

Read what she has to say about the use of language by the authors of these novels:

Azorno by Inger Christensen
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann
Insel by Mina Loy
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Harper Lee and Truman Capote: A Collaboration in Mischief

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThe recent publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, the original manuscript that eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, revived interest in the childhood friendship between Lee and Truman Capote. Soon there will be some new work by Capote as well. In October Random House will publish a collection of lost short stories by Capote that were discovered by Peter Haag, the owner of Capote’s German publisher, while he was doing research in the Capote archive at the New York Public Library.

And soon there will also be a middle-grade novel to introduce young readers to the childhoods of these friends who grew up to be two of the American South’s finest writers. Greg Neri has written Tru & Nelle, to be released next spring.

both [Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote] were oddballs who took refuge in detective novels, and they quickly bonded over their mutual love of Sherlock Holmes and the Rover Boys, spending long afternoons reading mysteries in their treehouse sanctuary. To entertain themselves, they started writing their own stories on her father’s Underwood typewriter, taking turns as one of them narrated while the other typed.

Maybe some budding writers will be encouraged to pursue their dreams by reading about two other children who loved reading and writing.

Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales

When Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm began collecting and writing down songs, stories, and folklore in the early 1800’s, they were working to preserve the authentic voices of the people. Under the influence of a Romantic movement calling for the unification of Germany, they collected these stories to save what they believed was authentic German popular culture.

In this article in The New York Review of Books, Marina Warner traces the history of Grimms’ folk and fairy tales. She notes how the tales have changed over time and what those changes suggest. Since fairy tales and folklore contain many of the archetypes found in later literature, this is a fascinating read for those interested in literary history and literary criticism.

Why Do I Love New York?

A Crime Writer’s Tour of the City That Never Sleeps

Linda Fairstein is an attorney turned novelist. She joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 1972 and headed the sex crimes unit from 1976 until 2002. She continues to consult as a sex crimes expert. Fairstein is the author of a series of crime novels featuring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. The most recent book, Devil’s Bridge, is #17 in the series.

In this article she describes why New York City is so fascinating for a crime novelist:

Yes, I love New York — and perhaps it’s because I’m a crime novelist that I’m fascinated by its dark underbelly and rich history, which keep me riveted and searching for new discoveries at every turn.

10 Novels with Multiple Narratives

Susan Barker’s novel The Incarnations traces 1,000 years of Chinese history through the reincarnations of two main characters. She explains why she likes novels with multiple narratives:

Truth is often a multiplicity of perspectives, and sometimes the more viewpoints and versions of events there are, the closer the reader gets to an overarching truth. I like the element of mystery these books can sometimes involve, the way the cogs in the reader’s brain have to grind to figure out connections between the various narrative threads.

I like novels narrated from multiple points of view for the same reason. I studied life stories, and I’m fascinated by the way different people experience the same event differently. You’ve heard the adage “There are two sides to every story.” In fact, there are as many sides to every story as there are participants in the event.

Here are the novels with multiple narratives that Barker recommends:

2666 by Roberto Bolano
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Great House by Nicole Krauss
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Here are a couple of books I’d add to the list:

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“Dune,” climate fiction pioneer: The ecological lessons of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece were ahead of its time

I know a lot of people who love Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’ve never read. But I’m going to have to pick it up soon, since Frank Herbert is the native son of our new home town, Tacoma, WA. We now live very near where the arsenic smelter that Herbert grew up with was located. Just last year a park not far from us was completely dug up for removal of arsenic-contaminated soil. New soil was put down, and the ball fields were reseeded and closed for a year for the grass to grow in.

In this piece for Salon Michael Berry discusses the significance of Dune as it turns 50. He hopes that the novel will take its rightful place in the annals of ecological fiction “now that there is a renewed interest in literature – science fiction and otherwise – that explores the effects of a changing global climate.” Berry concludes:

as “Dune” celebrates its golden anniversary, it stands as a piece of literature with far-reaching influence, inspiring new generations of readers, writers and scientists to look at their own planet in a different light.

On Reading

Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens

This article summarizes research into how we read differently on screens than in books. Of course not all screens are the same: A smartphone screen is much smaller than a laptop or desktop computer screen, a Kindle is different from an iPad. “But many researchers say that reading onscreen encourages a particular style of reading called “nonlinear” reading—basically, skimming.”

KindleResearch by Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University, has found that “sustained attention seems to decline when people read onscreen rather than on paper, and that people also spend less time on in-depth reading.” When we read on a computer, hyperlinks, ads, media (such as videos), and other text draws our attention away from the material we’re reading.

Any discussion of the difference between electronic devices and books must take into consideration the kind of material being read:

Nonlinear reading might especially hurt what researchers call “deep-reading”—our in-depth reading of text that requires intense focus to fully understand it, like the works of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.

I find reading nonfiction online much easier than reading fiction, particularly if the content I’m reading has been maximized for on-screen reading with headings dividing the sections.

One thing most researchers on this topic agree on is that “the screen-reading vs. traditional reading question has nuances that scientists have yet to fully understand.”

Ultimately, it may be that both print and screen have unique advantages, and we’ll need to be able to read equally well on both—which means keeping our distracted habits onscreen from bleeding into what we read on an e-book or paperback.

If you click on the link to this article, you’ll see that it contains two animated gifs comprising lines moving across the screen. Many commenters at the end of the article asked why these annoying distractions were included. Any content producer interested in actually exploring the question of how well we can read on screen surely would not have included these. For an article claiming to examine the science, this trick is disingenuous.

The 7 Types of People You See in EVERY Bookstore

If you choose to read printed books, Amy Sachs assures you that, when you go to the bookstore, you’ll find these seven types there as well:

  1. The Aisle-Sitter
  2. The People Who Make Themselves At Home
  3. The Kid Being Dragged by Parents
  4. The Kid Who Wants ALL THE BOOKS
  5. The Time Waster
  6. The Guy Who’s Only There For Coffee
  7. The Student

The article illustrates each of these categories with an animated gif. Unlike the annoying distractions in the article above, these at least pertain to the article’s content and are amusing to boot.

100 Must-Read Books on English: Essays, Writing, and Literary Criticism

According to the introduction, “Mixed in there are many superb books on journalism, film criticism, and literary theory.”

There’s a lot to choose from here, although some of them are more in the “must read” category than others.

HOW CHANGING YOUR READING HABITS CAN TRANSFORM YOUR HEALTH

Michael Grothaus writes that reading War and Peace during a downturn in his life “changed something in me. It’s almost impossible to explain why, but after reading it I felt more confident in myself, less uncertain about my future. I became more assertive with my bosses. I got back on the horse, so to speak.”

For an explanation of how this happened, he turns to Dr. Josie Billington, deputy director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool:

“Reading can offer richer, broader, and more complex models of experience, which enable people to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective and with renewed understanding,” says Billington. This renewed understanding gives readers a greater ability to cope with difficult situations by expanding their “repertoires and sense of possible avenues of action or attitude.”

And, according to Billington, the subject of the book doesn’t have to mirror one’s own life situation for this effect to occur. “People who read find it easier to make decisions, plan, and prioritize,” she says.

Grothaus also talked with Sue Wilkinson, CEO of The Reading Agency, a U.K. charity that develops and delivers programs to encourage people to read more.

“Reading for pleasure in general can also help prevent conditions such as stress, depression, and dementia,” says Wilkinson. “Research has shown that people who read for pleasure regularly report fewer feelings of stress and depression than non-readers. Large scale studies in the U.S. show that being more engaged with reading, along with other hobbies, is associated with a lower subsequent risk of incidents of dementia.”

To encourage yourself to read more and take advantage of the benefits of reading, Billington and Wilkinson offer these suggestions:

  1. Read what interests you, not what you think you “should” read.
  2. Find just 30 minutes a week to read.
  3. Create a challenge for yourself.
  4. Don’t stick with a book if you’re not enjoying it.

In my younger days I used to think that I had to finish every book I started. But about the time I turned 40 I realized that my reading life was nearly half over and I no longer had time to waste reading a book that wasn’t working for me. Admitting that it’s OK to put a book aside was tremendously liberating. Life is too short, and there are too may other books waiting to be read. I do, however, believe that I shouldn’t review a book I haven’t completed, although I do reserve the right to say I didn’t finish the book and to explain why.

The Virtues of Difficult Fiction

Cover: Cloud AtlasJoanna Scott writes “Complex literary works demand an effort from the reader that is becoming harder to justify, given the sink-or-swim pressures to make profitable products for a global marketplace.” But, she contines, fiction gives us knowledge: “This is the case that must be made for fiction if the genre is going to survive as an art.”

For support of this assertion, Scott turns to Virginia Woolf:

When we read actively, alertly,opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

And, Scott warns, “serious reading is in serious danger of being lost to future generations.” Although we may seem to be reading more, she writes, “The surprising problem arising in our culture is that good, active, creative reading is on the decline.”

In making her argument, Scott refers to the following books:

  • The Nearest Thing to Life by James Wood
  • Nobody Grew but the Business by Joseph Tabbi
  • Words Onscreen by Naomi Baron
  • Slow Reading in a Hurried Age by David Mikics

Finally, Scott reaches this conclusion: “Let’s not give up on the intricacies of ambitious fiction. Let’s not stop reading the kind of books that keep teaching us to read.” We should continue to challenge ourselves as readers by spending the time necessary for slow reading, for immersing ourselves in complex fictional worlds.

5 Common Reading Mistakes You’re Making That Could Ruin Your Literary Life

To end on a light note, I give you Emma Oulton, who believes that no hobby holds more potential pitfalls and perils than reading:

there are a ton of things that can go wrong when you’re reading. You might find out how the book ends. You might fall in love with a character who dies and breaks your heart so badly you can’t leave your room for weeks. You might have your nose so stuck in your book that you don’t look where you’re going, and then you trip over and a bookcase lands on you.

To avoid coming to such harm, do not commit these common reading mistakes:

  1. Googling the book you’re currently reading
  2. Telling somebody what you’re reading
  3. Not bookmarking responsibly
  4. Not bringing enough books on vacation
  5. Finishing every book you start

And, to lighten the mood even more, the article illustrates each one of these points with—you guessed it—an animated gif.

Happy reading!

On Novels and Novelists

E. L. Doctorow, The Art of Fiction No. 94

Novelist E.L. Doctorow, who died recently, participated in this interview with George Plimpton that was published in the winter 1986 issue of The Paris Review.

Here’s a quotation from Doctorow that I particularly like:

One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing… . The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.

Read the interview to learn how the oral history movement influenced Doctorow’s presentation of the protagonist in World’s Fair, how staring at the wall of his study lead him to the topic of Ragtime, and how he feels about the sufferings of writers.

The interview was held in front of a live audience at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York City. This transcript ends with questions asked by members of the audience.

Portlander Ursula K. Le Guin is Breathing Fire to Save American Literature

For more than 50 years now, Le Guin has used incisive critical writing and visionary, psychologically rich fiction to challenge orthodox beliefs—about gender, politics, religion, art—and generally emerged victorious. Far from mellowing her, age has only deepened her willingness to angle after the biggest fish in the pond.

Taylor Clark piece for Portland Monthly magazine features Portland, OR, writer Ursula K. Le Guin, whom Taylor characterizes as “indisputably a Portland writer, perhaps the Portland writer.” Born in Berkeley, where she attended high school with Philip K. Dick, she moved to Portland with her husband in 1958 when he took a position at Portland State University. She wrote a lot while her children were small but without much success. But in the mid 1960s she began a career of publications that “radically broadened our conception of what science fiction could do.”

In works like her 1969 breakthrough novel The Left Hand of Darkness and the “great, transfixing masterpiece, 1974’s The Dispossessed,” Le Guin “relentlessly turned sci-fi’s trappings into innovative new avenues to plumb deeper human conflicts.” But she has written in many other genres as well: poetry, children’s books, mainstream fiction, criticism, translations, and essays.

Read the article to find out why, today, Le Guin’s main concern is the treatment of literature as a commodity rather than as a form of art.

The Strange, Unsettling Fiction of James Purdy

Unsparing, ambiguous, violent, and largely indifferent to the reader’s needs, Purdy’s fiction seems likely to remain an acquired taste. But it is a taste worth acquiring.

Writing in The New Yorker, Jon Michaud discusses the fiction of James Purdy (1914–2009). Here’s why Purdy’s fiction is an acquired taste:

In his novels and short fiction, possibility and potential are always compromised. There is neither transcendence nor transformation. His characters do not grow or develop; they dwindle and unravel. Purdy saw Hawthorne and Melville, “two other Calvinists,” as his literary antecedents, and it is not hard to interpret some of Purdy’s protagonists as latter-day incarnations of Billy Budd and Young Goodman Brown: guileless innocents abused by the world’s depraved sinners.

Nonetheless, publisher Liveright last year released a collection of Purdy’s short stories, and this year they are republishing three of his novels, including Eustace Chisholm [and the Works], which, according to Michaud, “is probably the peak of Purdy’s career, the book of his to read if you’re only going to read one.”

Jason Segel: Reading David Foster Wallace was ‘one of the best experiences of my life’

An interview with actor Jason Segel, who plays the late author David Foster Wallace in the movie “The End of the Tour.”

The film The End of the Tour is a dramatization of Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky’s five days spent with writer David Foster Wallace at the end of Wallace’s book tour promoting his novel Infinite Jest. Wallace, who struggled for many years with depression, took his own life at age 46.

When actor Jason Segel read the screenplay for the film, he thought he didn’t have a chance at getting the part. But director James Ponsoldt wanted an actor who could portray Wallace’s humor, and he found in Segel a “thoughtful actor who understood comedy.”

Segel then began his own tour of Wallace’s works. He watched the tapes of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace and read Wallace’s essays. But for Wallace’s masterpiece, the tome Infinite Jest, Segel formed a book club:

“We did 100 pages a week,” Segel remembered, smiling. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.” The vast, experimental and thoroughly literary novel “is the most personal of [Wallace’s] works — he’s every one of the characters.” Segel described it as exploring themes of “pleasure, entertainment, achievement. It was David Foster Wallace trying to express a very fundamental crisis — we’ve been told that these things will satisfy us.”

“I hope the movie is an extension of the themes that he [Wallace] expressed,” Segel said. “It was approached with a lot of empathy and love.”

Lisbeth Salander is back: first plot details of The Girl in the Spider’s Web released

There’s good news for fans of Lisbeth Salander, the unstoppable hacker featured in the books known as Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. With the blessing of Larsson’s family, and despite criticism from his long-time partner Eva Gabrielsson, Swedish writer David Lagercrantz has finished the partial fourth novel in the series left on Larsson’s laptop at the time of his sudden death.

Scheduled to be released on August 27, the book’s title is The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Recently the book’s Swedish publisher, MacLehose Press, released what it called “key details” in the novel’s plot. It would be unfair of me to steal  The Guardian’s thunder, so I’ll only quote here that the book features a “criminal conspiracy [that] will very soon bring terror to the snowbound streets of Stockholm, to the Millennium team – and to Blomkvist and Salander themselves.”

Click that link and read the (little) further description of the book whose storyline has been a carefully guarded secret.

“Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

Related Posts:

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

Consensus is that Go Set a Watchman is the manuscript that Harper Lee originally submitted to publisher J. B. Lippincott Company in 1957. Editor Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known as Tay Hohoff, deemed the novel not ready for publication, but she saw potential in the story. For two years Hohoff and Lee worked on revising the manuscript, which eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. (Harper & Row bought Lippincott in 1978. Harper & Row eventually became HarperCollins, the publisher of Watchman.)

A comparison of Watchman and Mockingbird as literary works provides a lesson for both writers and readers in how fiction works.

Telling, Not Showing

The most common piece of advice offered to aspiring novelists is “show, don’t tell.” This means that the work must demonstrate characters’ qualities, not simply state them. Here’s a made-up example of telling:

Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe is angry with Mabel because she told him he needed to get a job right away.

Here’s how showing works to communicate Joe’s state of mind:

Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe pounds his fist on the table as he leans in toward Mabel. “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you, is it?” he hisses. “Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I’d like to be able to count on a little support from you instead of just constant criticism.”

When a writer simply states that Joe is angry, readers are passive recipients of that information. But when a writer shows Joe acting with anger, readers participate in receiving that information by evaluating Joe’s behavior to understand it. Showing rather than telling engages readers by making them active participants in the reading experience.

Watchman does a lot more telling than showing. Here, for example, is the narrator telling us about the character of Atticus Finch:

Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch… . Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. (p. 124)

Compare this characterization with the one we receive in Mockingbird by hearing Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson at trial and, later, by seeing him spend the night at the jail to protect his client from an angry mob. Those scenes make readers themselves respect Atticus Finch by demonstrating his character instead of just telling readers that other people respect him.

Narrative Structure

Narrative structure (see narrative with plot) is the order in which novelists reveal key events in relation to the times at which those events occurred. When authors need to present something that happened earlier than the novel’s present, they use flashbacks.

In the present time of Watchman, Jean Louise Finch is 26 years old. There are several times in the novel when she remembers events from her childhood, such as when she, her brother Jem, and their summer neighbor Dill used to play Tom Swift. These flashbacks engage readers by allowing them to observe the children directly, without the intrusion of a narrator telling readers what to think or believe. Because the flashbacks allow such direct observation, they are more interesting than anything that happens in the novel’s present time.

These flashbacks, which show rather than tell, contrast sharply with the predominantly plodding prose of the novel’s present. But they don’t have much to do with the rest of the novel. They do not help move the action of the present forward, and they do not resonate with other themes in the novel except, perhaps, in creating a general atmosphere of nostalgia.

Finding the Story’s Center

The flashbacks that feature the novel’s most engaging writing are the first indication of where the center of the real story lies: in Jean Louise’s childhood. This shift in time from Jean Louise’s adulthood in Watchman to Scout’s childhood in Mockingbird is the most significant—and the most effective—change from the earlier manuscript to the later novel.

Once the focus of the story changes from a 26-year-old Jean Louise to a six-year-old Scout, the moment of revelation must also change. In Watchman Jean Louise has her epiphany while spying on Atticus at a political meeting from the balcony of the county courthouse. Mockingbird retains the courthouse balcony setting but must change the nature of the revelation. Whereas the older Jean Louise observes what she considers her father’s hypocrisy, Scout and Jem realize the outstanding character of the father who had before seemed simply ordinary to them.

The Result

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdRelocating the center of the story to the children’s realization of their father’s courage and strength of character is what makes Mockingbird an essentially different book than Watchman. This is one reason why it is not necessary to reconcile the Atticus of Watchman with the Atticus of Mockingbird.

A second reason is that what we are dealing with is fiction. Watchman and Mockingbird are two different books. They are allowed to have different characters. Atticus Finch is not a real person.

Much of the discussion about Watchman has centered around whether Harper Lee was truly capable of agreeing to its publication. We may never know. But of one thing I am sure: Judged solely as works of art, To Kill a Mockingbird is a better novel than Go Set a Watchman. Looking at the two side by side provides a good picture for both writers and readers of how effective fiction works.

Blog a Day Challenge: July Report

After the chaos of my June blogging, in July my main goal was simply to get back into the habit of writing and publishing a post every day. At that I succeeded.

However, I did not work on my word for the year, story.

And I anticipate a bit more chaos in the upcoming weeks because we are taking a two-week cruise along the West Coast between Seattle and Alaska during the last week of August and the first week of September. Once again, both my internet connectivity and my free time will be limited. I am therefore not setting any specific goals other than to end up with a post for each day until the second week of September.

Here are my statistics for last month:

Number of posts written: 31

Shortest post: 210

Longest post: 1,770

Total words written: 22,340

Average post length: 721

I was happy to get my word count back up after June’s scant month. In fact, July’s total word count was the second highest of my seven months of this blogging challenge. And my average post length was the third highest; although I had seven posts of 1,000 or more words in July, I also had several shorter (500 words or fewer) posts as well.

Distribution of posts across my three blogs:

Because our two-week European vacation produced an inordinate number of posts to my personal blog, Retreading for Retirement, in June, in July I tried to even up the number of posts across the three blogs.

The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.

Last month’s featured post:

The Love-Hate Challenge

I’m featuring this post for several reasons:

  1. It was my longest post of the month.
  2. The topic is one I happened upon in a visit to someone else’s blog.
  3. The topic engaged me personally and therefore helped me concentrate on voice as I was writing.

scroll divider

Overall, I consider July to have been a good blogging month for me.

I’d love to hear your comments.

A List of Reading Lists

It’s hard to resist a list.

That’s probably why there are so many of them all over the internet. Another reason is that bloggers are encouraged to make use of the list format because it’s one of the most popular formats for blog posts.

For some reason, I’ve come across more lists than usual in just the past few days. Here, then, is a list of some of those reading lists. The subject matter ranges widely, so there truly should be something for everyone somewhere.

10 Books to Entertain, Inspire, and Encourage Young Feminists

Molly Lynch looks at books aimed at young women (though she doesn’t exactly define young) and finds that many feature women who define themselves not by their relationships with men but by the pursuit of their own passions in life. Also important, Lynch says, is that the female characters be fully drawn, complex enough to have doubts and fears while strong enough to overcome them.

The language of grief: Four books that will change how you read about loss

Lorraine Berry discusses four books that helped her cope with grief at a time when language failed her.

3 biographies that celebrate groundbreaking women

Mary Ann Gwinn, book editor for The Seattle Times, discusses biographies of three women “who were misunderstood, obscured or ignored: Mary Anne Lewis Disraeli, Svetlana Alliluyeva (Josef Stalin’s daughter) and Mary Wollstonecraft (and her daughter, Mary Shelley).”

In cold blood: 10 thrilling reads

In honor of the 60th anniversary of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, Sarah Gilartin put together this list for the Irish Times.

12 Series To Catch Up On Before The Next Book Comes Out

I have only heard of five of these series. Those of you who keep up with fantasy, science fiction, and romance will undoubtedly recognize more.

‘Paper Towns’ and 21 other books to read before you see the movie

I had not heard of Paper Towns, the novel by John Green (I just recently finished The Fault in Our Stars) whose movie version debuts today. But I did read Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places after finishing Gone Girl and am glad to read that a movie adaptation will hit theaters on August 7.

See what other books you’ll be able to see on screen in the near future.

14 Must-Read Novels About Books

I did better with this list than the previous one: I’ve read seven of these and have another one on my to-be-read shelf. But then I’m always on the lookout for books about books and the people who love them.

8 classic novels that will make you a better leader

I’m always interested in how literature intersects with other disciplines. This list was put together by Scotty McLennan, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, who teaches a course for MBA students called “The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry through Literature. Literature can “show you reality in a way that case studies and biographies and other things that are supposedly about reality can’t touch,” he says.

The Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2015

From more than 14,000 titles to be published this fall, Publishers Weekly has put together this list of the most notable books in the following categories:

  • fiction
  • mystery/thriller/crime
  • science fiction/fantasy/horror
  • romance/erotica
  • poetry
  • comics/graphic novels
  • memoir
  • literary essays/criticism/biographies
  • history/military history
  • politics
  • music
  • science
  • religion

There’s also a link in the opening paragraph to a list of noteworthy children’s and YA books to be published this fall.

On Novels and Novelists

The ghostwriter, the secret plot and a ‘grave-robbing’ Stieg Larsson sequel

You may remember that Swedish author Stieg Larsson dropped dead shortly after delivering the manuscript of the third novel in what has come to be called his Millennium trilogy. His long-time live-in companion, Eva Gabrielsson, said that his laptop contained a nearly completed manuscript of a fourth book in the series. She and Larsson’s family fought in the courts over possession of the laptop and its contents, but because Gabrielsson and Larsson were never married, his family got the prize.

Now comes word that the official launch of the fourth book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, will take place on August 27. (The Swedish title of the novel translates as That Which Doesn’t Kill Us.) The book has been written by Swedish author David Lagercrantz. Gabrielsson isn’t happy about the takeover of Larsson’s work:

“This is just business, because you know the publisher has been in financial crisis for a couple of years,” she says. “It’s all a question of money.”

Swedish publisher Norstedts is going to great lengths to keep the contents of the book a secret. Lagercrantz and the many translators all worked on laptop computers not connected to the internet, and the publisher is not issuing any advance copies. Critics and ordinary readers alike will have to wait until the official release date to find our what’s new in the life of Lisbeth Salander.

Every Grateful Dead Song Annotated in Hypertext: Web Project Reveals the Deep Literary Foundations of the Dead’s Lyrics

The online annotated Grateful Dead also includes “Thematic Essays,” a bibliography and “bibliography of songbooks,” films and videos, and discographies for the band and each core member. There may be no more exhaustive a reference for the band’s output contained all in one place, though readers of this post may know of comparable guides in the vast sea of Grateful Dead commentary and compendiums online, in print, and on tape… . the proliferating, serious study of their songcraft and lyrical genius shows us that they will, indeed, survive.

11 Science Fiction Books That Are Regularly Taught in College Classes

“College professors often reach for classic science fiction when they’re planning classes on literature, society or philosophy.”

The texts students are likely to find listed on their course syllabi include the following:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  3. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  4. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  9. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
  10. 1984 by George Orwell
  11. Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read Brave New World and 1984 in college and Frankenstein in graduate school. A few others I’ve read on my own: Slaughterhouse Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Neuromancer.

How many of these books have you read, either for a course or on your own?

Children’s classic ‘Watership Down’ is based on real science

Richard Adams’s famous novel Watership Down came along well after I was an adult, and I have yet to read it, although it’s on my Classics Club reading list. But I found it interesting that Richard Adams did not make everything up.

Rather, Adams based his novel on research done in Wales by Ronald Lockley in the 1950s. Concerned about the spread of a rabbit disease called myxomatosis, the British Nature Conservancy sponsored research into the life of rabbits. Lockley watched and recorded the behavior of rabbits living in a warren behind a glass window. Lockley published his findings first in a scientific journal, the Journal of Animal Ecology, in 1961. He then expanded the work into a book, The Private Life of the Rabbit, published in 1964.

Adams based much of his rabbit society on Lockley’s book, although the novel includes some anthropomorphization not supported by Lockley’s study. But Adams consulted Lockley, and the two became friends.

Doyenne or Jezebel, Ireland’s Edna O’Brien Is a Master

Lucy Scholes describes Irish author Edna O’Brien as “an astute chronicler of female interiority.” O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, was first published in 1960. But the focus of this article is O’Brien’s recently published The Love Object, a collection of 31 short stories that span her career.

According to Scholes, many of the female characters in these stories “are alienated due to a deep sense of unfulfillment, sacrificed to marriage or motherhood.” And “Many of the stories hinge on similar moments of realization that silently shake the very foundations of their subjects’ worlds.” Overall:

One of the wonderful things about The Love Object is how one can trace the developments in O’Brien’s career through its pages, watching the subtle shift between these earlier narratives of female experience and her later work that addresses the broader issues of Irish history and politics.

I keep discovering new authors whose works I’d like to read. So many books, so little time…