Literary Links

These are some of the literature-related articles from around the web that caught my eye over the past week.

Quartzy    HALF OF ALL TRANSLATED BOOKS IN THE US COME FROM JUST NINE COUNTRIES

This one caught my eye because I’m trying to read more books translated from other languages this year. 

The good news: “In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture.”

The bad news: “Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China).”

These statistics are significant if one’s aim in reading more translated works is to learn about new cultures. European books, even though from other countries, are still western-civilization centric. Yes, they will teach us about other cultures, but not about the other cultures that are most different from out own, specifically eastern and African. This article points out that “only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.”

The New York Times   A Glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s Original Manuscript for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

A look at how “the ‘big’ book she [Virginia Woolf] thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.”

The Guardian   Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’

The author of the recently released novel Lost and Wanted laments “the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science.”

The New York Times    When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished

It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie. (He was having an affair with a younger woman; the public did not know this, but his wife definitely did.) No one knew where Christie was for almost two weeks.

Literary Hub   What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography

Lance Richardson, currently working on a biography of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) discusses the challenges of what he calls “a bifurcated archive” comprising both physical items and digital files. The differences between these two types of materials “will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories” and biographies.

The Seattle Times   ‘No-No Boy’ went from unknown book to classic thanks to UW Press and Asian American writers. Now, it’s at the center of a controversy

This is a local story for me, but it has wider interest because of its tie to copyright law and the David-and-Goliath issue of a small academic (University of Washington) press vs.the publishing giant Penguin Random House. The book in question also keeps alive the story of the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The author, John Okada, was “a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp.”

The New York Times   Naomi Wolf’s Publisher Delays Release of Her Book

The recent controversy over “Outrages” highlights the perils that publishers face in a competitive market where juicy nonfiction books that feature explosive claims can command the highest sales but are sometimes not vigorously fact-checked or vetted in advance of publication.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Here are some of the articles about the world of literature that caught my eye recently.

The New York Review of Books  “Truth, Beauty, and Oliver Sacks”

Simon Callow reviews Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks, the second posthumous collection of Sacks’s essays, most of which were published in The New York Review.

the editors have fashioned the book in such a way that we are left with an image of the author that is extraordinarily touching—not lacking in his habitual energy and driven curiosity, but somehow vulnerable, even fragile.

brainpickings   “The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature”

Maria Popova discuses Oliver Sacks’s book Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales.

Esquire   Anthony Bourdain Remembered Is a Stunning Tribute to the Late Chef”

A look at the book, put together by CNN, that “includes photos and messages from Barack Obama, Eric Ripert, Jill Filipovic, Ken Burns, Questlove, José Andrés and others who worked with Bourdain.”

The Guardian   “The Heartland review – fascinating study of schizophrenia”

“Award-winning writer and former mental-health nurse Nathan Filer redefines our understanding of the illness.” A review of The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia by Nathan Filer.

The Amazon Book Review   “Talking with Neil Gaiman about ‘Good Omens’”

Neil Gaiman talks about adapting Good Omens, the novel he co-authored with Terry Pratchett, 30 years ago. (Pratchett died in 2015.) The 6-episode adaptation is currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

Esquire    “Central Park Five Prosecutor Linda Fairstein Has Responded to When They See Us Backlash”

Should now-successful-crime-novelist Linda Fairstein be held responsible for the later-reversed conviction of the Central Park Five?

CityLab    “Writers Are More Prolific When They Cluster”

Despite the stereotype of authors toiling away in lonely solitude, a new study finds that British and Irish writers clustered in 18th- and 19th-century London and were more productive as a result. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Here’s a short entry for this busy holiday week.

In Fiction, It Was the Year of the Woman

An interesting look at the bulk of novels published this year:

They didn’t launch any franchises — no “girl”-titled blockbusters and probably no future Jennifer Lawrence vehicles — but collectively, they dominated a shrunken literary ecosystem. Each week it seemed that a promising new novel emerged that reimagined fiction — for politics’ sake, for literature’s sake, for the sake of expanding whatever the hell fiction might become in an age when Twain’s old maxim about the truth being stranger is tragically truer than ever. Not every one of these novels will become a “relevant classic,” but this year they spread their roots so far and deep that they essentially choked off the usual white, male suspects.

And I particularly like the writer’s conclusion: “ This golden age of women’s fiction is the resistance that we didn’t know was coming to save us.”

The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?

Rebecca Makkai, author of the novel The Great Believers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, addresses the questions “Is it really okay to talk about art right now? To leave the real and broken world behind and talk about fictional ones?”

I also like her conclusion:

Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.

This is how we keep fighting. This is how we survive.

ON JUNK SCIENCE, POP FORENSICS AND CRIME FICTION

Andrew Case writes that, while journalists and lawyers have for years been exposing the unreliability of analyses of spatter patterns, shell casings, shoe prints, and tire marks, “nowhere is discredited science more alive than in crime fiction.” Since I read a lot of crime novels, I was interested in his analysis.

Case notes that in 2009 a panel from the National Academy of Science concluded that “No forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” Case argues:

Junk science doesn’t just lead to wrongful convictions—it contributes to the already-enormous racial disparity in wrongful convictions in this country. Skepticism towards pattern evidence is not just for scientists and lawyers, but for anyone interested in reducing racism in our criminal justice system.

In the world of crime fiction, Case argues, a plot based on such methods of analysis

can descend into bad storytelling. Our age is complex. Solutions are rare. And stories that reflect that complexity will seem more true. Crime may be down, but most crimes still don’t get solved—the clearance rate for major index crimes for the NYPD last quarter was only 33%. Stories that reflect this reality are in turn more compelling.

He advocates instead for stories “ filled with surprises and twists grounded in human psychology, not whether a fingerprint or a bullet magically solved a crime.”

Goodreads Choice Awards: An annual reminder that critics and readers don’t often agree

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles discusses the seemingly eternal conflict between high-brow and low-brow taste in literature.

After serving as a judge on several literary contests — from the National Book Critics Circle to the Pulitzer — I’ve come to believe that the best measure of the legitimacy of a book prize is the vibrancy of the discussion it inspires. The terms “best,” “favorite,” “acclaimed” and “popular” are slippery, but they aren’t useless. If awards don’t tell us anything definitive about the books themselves, they certainly indicate something illuminating about the era. Notice, for instance, that 17 of this year’s 21 Goodreads Choice Awards were won by women. (Ian McEwan famously observed, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”)

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Five Writing Tips from Tana French

I usually stay away from tips aimed specifically at writers, but I found some of French’s tips here useful for readers as well as writers, especially what she has to say about characters:

There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women.’ There’s only the individual character you’re writing… . If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes.

30 BOOKISH POSITIVE LIFE QUOTES SHORT ENOUGH TO WRITE ON YOUR MIRROR

If you need some inspirational life advice, here’s a collection by writers of all kinds and time periods, from Lewis Carroll to science fiction writer John Scalzi.

Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship

The last good literary hoax story I remember surrounded James Frey’s supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces, that turned out to be mostly fictionalized. That was back in 2006, “and the publicity turned Frey’s name into a synonym for memoir fraud,” writes Louis Menand. In this article Menand examines the history of literary authorial fraud and how it fits into the current world of performance identity and the clamor for authorial authenticity.

I have forgotten how to read

For a long time Michael Harris convinced himself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate him from our new media climate – that he could keep on reading in the old way because his mind was formed in pre-internet days. He was wrong.

Harris, an author himself, explains that “when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served.”

And that’s not all. The way he reads now has influenced the way he writes:

Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get.

So he aims to get back in touch with the way he used to read:

Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind. Those solitary journeys are all the more rich for their sudden strangeness.

8 Old-Lady Novels That Prove Life Doesn’t End at 80

Novelist Heidi Sopinka writes, “older women in literature … arguably represent one of the most underwritten aspects of female experience. Even when they do manage to get into a book, they almost exclusively face sexism for being ‘unlikeable.’”

When “the image of a 92-year-old woman, vital, working, came into [her] head,” Sopinka wrote her début novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, around that character. While working on the novel, she “began seeking out an old-lady canon”:

It wasn’t female aging that fascinated me as much as I wanted to swing into the viewpoint of a woman who had lived a long complicated life, deeply occupied by her work. I began to think of my book as a coming-of-death novel… .

Weirdly, the closer I delved into the closed-in days of looming death, the more I learned about living. Still, there is such a fear of female power in our culture that older women are ignored or infantilized, as though they are somehow less complex than us even though they are us, plus time.

Here she offers a list of eight books that are “unafraid to take on the full measure of a woman’s life”:

  • The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  • The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
  • Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  • Stet by Diana Athill
  • Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois
  • Writings by Agnes Martin

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Can Going to a Museum Help Your Heart Condition? In a New Trial, Doctors Are Prescribing Art.

Art museums offer quite a few side benefits for visitors—from a venue for classes, lectures, film screenings and concerts to a place to grab a meal, conduct academic research or shop for reliably odd presents in the gift store. But now, one might add to that list museums as a medical treatment for asthma, cancer, diabetes, dementia, eating disorders, heart disease and a number of other physical and cognitive ailments. The medicine, according to a number of doctors, is the art itself.

Two thousand doctors who are members of Médecins francophones du Canada will each be able to write 50 prescriptions a year for patients to attend the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for free. (Regular admission costs 23 Canadian dollars.)

Many in the medical field understand the benefits of art, dance, music and writing on those suffering from cognitive and physical impairments and, in fact, a century’s worth of clinical research has been conducted on the benefits of the arts in healthcare, according to Naj Wikoff, a faculty member of Lesley University’s Institute for Arts & Health and vice-president of the San Diego-based National Organization for Arts & Health.

The article offers a history of programs which use exposure to art in various forms to treat mental and physical ailments.

I Wrote an Historical Novel About the JFK Assassination. I Was Shocked By What I Found.

Lou Berney, author of the recently published novel November Road, details the findings of his research for writing the book. (I have this book on my TBR shelf but haven’t read it yet.) Because there have been thousands of books written about the main characters involved in the assassination—John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jack Ruby—Berney explains, he decided “to steer clear of the main players and focus instead on the edges of the assassination, on characters whose lives are changed, and threatened, by the death of the president.”

The official Warren Commission Report concluded that there was no conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination. Yet many conspiracy theorists believe that the KGB, the mafia, or the CIA—or perhaps all three—was involved. After his research Berney concluded that “the facts themselves are almost as incredible” as the conspiracy theories.

my perspective on my novel was profoundly altered by the discovery of all those secret government schemes and cover-ups, of organized crime woven tightly into the very fabric of American politics, of so many astoundingly colorful characters and a president who was so reckless in his personal life. I opened the door to that world, walked through, and never looked back.

PAPER FOR BOOKS IS GETTING HARDER TO COME BY: WHY THE BACKBONE OF PUBLISHING MAY MAKE BOOK PRICES RISE

With gift-giving season approaching, booksellers are gearing up for seeing more traffic through their doors and at the registers. But this year, more than any year in recent memory, booksellers are increasingly worried about whether there will be enough copies of the biggest titles.

With all the talk about ebooks killing print books, I was surprised to read how much the rising cost of paper may contribute to the cutback of printed books. I never thought about how much the cost of paper influences not only the price but also the availability of books. This is a fascinating look at what’s usually a behind-the-scenes aspect of the publishing industry.

Laura E. Weymouth on Insightful YA Fantasy Novels that Explore Mental Health

Even before I went back to school for my doctorate in psychology, I was interested in how mental illness is portrayed in fiction. Here’s a list from novelist Laura E. Weymouth of five YA novels that “explore life with mental illness.”

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

8 Tips For Overcoming ’Reader’s Block’

I can’t remember ever encountering reader’s block. My own problem is usually the opposite: other life duties that prevent me from spending as much time as I’d like to spend reading.

Nevertheless, Emily Petsko asserts:

“Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable …

Of the eight approaches she offers to overcoming reader’s block, I especially endorse #5. In fact, I think the liberating discovery—which hit me at about age 40—that I don’t have to finish every book I start is probably the reason why I’ve never felt reader’s block. If a book isn’t doing something for me, I simply put it aside and pick up something else.

Which is another reason for keeping one’s bookshelves well stocked with unread books …

Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work … better? Why we need difficult books

This year’s Booker-winner Milkman has been criticised for being challenging. But are we confusing readability with literary value?

Sam Leith argues that “ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.” The criterion by which a novel should be judged is “how successfully it answers whatever challenge it sets itself.”

Leith quotes novelist Nicola Barker on why some novels are difficult: “Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.” Fiction becomes difficult when it attempts to engage with a world that isn’t always straightforward, coherent, or manageable. The metaphor Leith uses to convey the benefits of tackling a difficult book is that of a challenging mountain hike: The hike is difficult, but the amazing view at the top is worth the effort.

The article ends with a list of “ten difficult books worth reading” compiled by Lara Feigel.

Criminal profiling doesn’t work. TV shows should maybe stop celebrating it

I admit to watching avidly every episode of Criminal Minds, even though one of the team’s solemn pronouncement of “We’re ready to give the profile” almost always makes me laugh. Dylan Matthews wonders why popular culture continues to feature criminal profilers when “ It’s a real, honest-to-God bummer, but criminal profiling doesn’t appear to work. At all.” He cites research that concluded that experts “do only slightly better than random people at predicting traits of offenders” and that “profiling is a ‘pseudoscientific technique,’ of limited if any value to investigators.”

And, Matthews continues, all this emphasis on psychological profilers may be detracting from efforts in areas that psychology could effectively help with, most notably predicting future events:

The social consequences of being able to forecast the future better are immense. “If we could improve the judgement of government officials facing high-stakes decisions — reducing their susceptibility to various biases, or developing better methods of aggregating expertise — this could have positive knock-on effects across a huge range of domains,” Jess Whittlestone notes. “For example, it could just as well improve our ability to avert threats like a nuclear crisis, as help us allocate scarce resources towards the most effective interventions in education and healthcare.”

Future Fiction

Sarah LaBrie arrives at a definition of future fiction by examining several contemporary novels:

  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Here’s how LaBrie describes her notion of future fiction:

If My Year of Rest and Relaxation serves to capture a moment in history, novels like The Mars Room and The Overstory might be examples of a kind of future fiction, one that teaches readers to think of themselves as elements of larger systems. They might help set the foundation for a literary fiction that regains its place in a political conversation from which it has long been dismissed. If Powers’s and Kushner’s novels do nothing else, they show us that fiction, more powerfully than any other technology, provides a map for navigating the world even at its most confusing and unbearable.

I’m guessing that LaBrie would say these novels fit Sam Leith’s description (above) of difficult books.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

THE SIMPLE JOY OF REREADING TO BREAK A READING SLUMP

Julia Rittenberg has a confession to make:

I used to have a great deal of anxiety around keeping up with others’ reading paces. Social media heightened my awareness of reading habits, and worries that my own were woefully behind. I would be unable to choose a new book to read, so my anxiety would continue to build. Consequently, I would stop reading altogether (outside of schoolwork) for months at a time.

A result of her reading slump was that she continued to document on social media books she wanted to read instead of reading more books.

When her TBR stacks of books “deemed Culturally Important [began] to feel a bit like homework,” she rediscovered her reading mojo by rereading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. This book reminded her why she likes reading so much and helped her overcome her reading slump. Now, instead of avoiding books she doesn’t especially want to read, she has a stack of books she’s itching to read, all because she reread an old favorite that continues to inspire her.

Like most readers, I’ve often felt that I’ll never be able to keep up with all the new, interesting, publicly touted books that seem to come out almost daily. But my reading slumps are usually triggered more by simple time constraints than by an inability to find a book that grabs me. (See my tsundoku .) However, I have, more than once, chosen to get back into reading by rereading an old favorite book that reminds me how powerful reading can be.

How about you?

What methods do you use to help dig your way out of an occasional reading slump”

READING WHILE CHRONICALLY ILL OR, THE BOOKS WILL WAIT

Abby Hargreaves’s reading slump was quite different from Julia Rittenberg’s. After two family deaths prevented her from reading for pleasure, she discovered that she had a chronic disease that drained both her time and her energy.

Reading while chronically ill (and, in those first several months, still actively grieving the loss of my only sibling and grandmother) was near impossible. Though I craved the escape of a good book, I just couldn’t manage it. There was the holding of the book, which took physical effort, and paying attention to the plot, which required mental strength. Since I lacked both of these things, reading anything substantial was pretty out of the question.

And from this experience she learned a valuable lesson:

Reading can be a wonderful escape, but it need not add extra pressure to our lives. You can’t read on empty—be kind to yourself. Be well, when you can. And read when you’re ready. The books will wait.

And the comments on this article suggest that Hargreaves’s message resonates with others.

20 DEBUT WORKS OF FICTION BY WOMEN OVER 40

It’s not unusual to come across lists of young writers, particularly young women writers. While these lists showcase young people’s achievements, where are the opportunities for older people, particularly older women who may have had to postpone undertaking a writing career while focusing on the more traditional expectations for women: caring for a home and children?

But, according to Jenny Bhatt:

there are also many successful examples to serve as role models and provide ongoing inspiration for older writers—or aspiring writers of any age.

Below is a list of women writers who debuted works of fiction at or after the age of 40 and went on to achieve even more success. While not exhaustive, it shows clearly that women writers are not past their prime after a certain age. In fact, many are not even “late-bloomers”—they have simply deferred publishing due to family or career commitments. But the most striking aspect that unites all of these works is how each incorporates the collected, distilled wisdom, a lifetime of reading, and the sheer radicalism that could not have been possible for a younger writer.

Enjoy Bhatt’s list, which includes the following authors:

  • Penelope Fitzgerald, age 60
  • Mary Wesley, 71
  • Harriet Doerr, 74

50 MUST-READ BOOKS WITH UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

Oh, I do love me an unreliable narrator: Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Here’s a treasure trove of books with unreliable narrators, including many of which I’ve read and a whole bunch of new ones for me to add to my reading list.

How about you?

Do you enjoy reading a story told by an unreliable narrator? Which of the books listed here have you read? What other unreliable-narrator books do you recomment?

THE APPEAL OF THE TIME-TRAVEL ROMANCE

I find the trope of time travel fascinating; see, for example, 13 + 1 Books That Feature Time Travel.

in this article Alyssa Fikse examines time travel as a recurring trope in romance:

In particular, time travel and other time-related complications pop up again and again. Whether they’re communicating via time bending mailbox (The Lake House), kept apart by centuries as a plastic centurion (Doctor Who), or powered by genetic anomalies both charming (About Time) and devastating (The Time Traveler’s Wife), this obstacle has long been a popular stalwart in the romantic canon.

Specifically, she asks, “What keeps us climbing back into time machines or touching ancient stones in search of romance?” She concludes that the time-travel romance remains such a robust subgenre because it shows us that love can truly conquer all:

Can your wife find you despite being separated by centuries and continents? No? Well, we have this particular fantasy for that.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

OCTAVIA BUTLER AND AMERICA AS ONLY BLACK WOMEN SEE IT

It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Julie Sedivy looks at the development of social intelligence over centuries by comparing medieval literature with novels of today. Medieval literature discusses what characters do with almost no consideration of how those characters felt about their actions or their motivations. Current literature (by which she means fiction—short stories or novels), in contrast, often focuses more on characters’ feelings than on their actions. This difference illustrates what Sedivy calls “Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities.”

Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

Sedivy writes that in medieval literature people are “constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing,” but without the author drawing much attention to such processes. These early authors present characters’ mental states through direct speech or gestures. “The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”).”

This approach to emotional representation began to change between 1500 and 1700, “when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy.” The soliloquies of Shakespearean characters such as Hamlet illustrate this change, which early literature specialist Elizabeth Hart attributes to the advent of print and the increase in literacy it prompted. The ability to reread and study printed passages prompted “a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”

Among these new cognitive skills was “the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability.” Mentalizing ability grew along with the emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sedivy reviews psychological research into how reading current fiction enhances readers’ mentalizing ability. She concludes that literature that trusts readers’ ability to recognize clues and draw inferences about characters’ motivations most effectively nurtures and sharpens readers’ understanding of characters’ mental states. The benefits are most obvious when study participants read “ literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.”

And this process of reading challenging literature to improve mentalizing ability is circular: Reading challenging literature sharpens one’s mentalizing ability, and that improved mentalizing ability makes one an increasingly skillful reader of literary characters’ inner lives.

When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational.

THE BOOKISH LIFE: HOW TO READ AND WHY

This article by Joseph Epstein is a good follow-up to the article above. “By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place.”

Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.

After admitting that there exists no definitive list of the good, the beautiful, the important books, Epstein continues, with much humor, to expound on the joy he has found in the bookish life.

Hell at the bottom of the heart: Hell at the bottom of the heart

Tyler Sage on Ross Macdonald: the man who added psychological insight to the hard-boiled thriller

While for Raymond Chandler and other early noir writers “the detective story was a tool for laying bare the unspoken realities of American life, in which dreams of prosperity and freedom collided with corruption, abuse of power and modern social conditions,” Ross Macdonald turned such concerns inward: “his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young.”

Sage quotes from one of Macdonald’s notebooks: ““Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.”

Sage here analyzes the 18 Lew Archer novels Macdonald wrote over 27 years, “a handful of which are as good as the genre has to offer.”

THE 10 BOOKS THAT DEFINED THE 1960s

Literary Hub is running a series called A Century of Reading comprising lists of books that defined each decade from the 1900s “to the (nearly complete) 2010s.” Series writer Emily Temple explains:

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered.

Since I came of age in the 1960s, this one particularly caught my eye. I’d say Temple has nailed the decade pretty well with her 10 choices. And beneath the chosen books is a HUGE list of other relevant books from that time period. So many memories—and suggestions for further reading—and rereading.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Introduction to Reading Other Women

At a time when female “others”—black, brown, and yellow—together constitute the largest block of the world’s population, their persistent invisibility to Westerners not only means they are overlooked in the present moment, but that they are consistently erased from the historical record.

Rafia Zakaria reacts against “the challenges that arise from a Western literary canon that, despite decades of feminist intervention, remains largely male and white” with a look at key texts that have helped her in her “own self-fashioning as a lettered woman of color.” In her series Reading Other Women in Boston Review she undertakes “a journey into complexity, into the lives and literary worlds of those who are challenging their own marginalization through the power of the story.” While “little brown girls” must undertake such a reading journey out of necessity, Zakaria hopes that the “Western reader must choose to do it.”

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHERS? SPOILER ALERT: WE DO

On The Many Visions of Voyeurism in Crime Fiction

Claire Fuller, whose novels include Swimming Lessons, discusses the frequent presence of characters she calls watchers in crime fiction, “ staring via two-way mirrors, spying through surveillance cameras, peeping from behind trees, and peering through train and car windows” at other characters. But, she adds, we as readers are staring at the watchers just as those watchers are looking at other people. “Does that make us in some way complicit in the crimes committed between these pages?” Fuller asks.

be careful who you’re judging when you’re horrified by a fictional watcher or voyeur, and remember that readers—you included—could be considered guilty of the same crime.

The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature

These writers are embracing a more elastic literary form — the novel — and a number of recent works, often genre-bending as well as gender-bending, have won critical acclaim.

In The New York Times Peter Haldeman discusses recent works of literature that, “[I]n a field previously dominated by memoir and genre fiction (sci-fi, young adult), [includes] a number of first novels with more purely literary designs — including playing with genre — [that] are getting attention.” The works discussed here include the following:

  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
  • Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
  • Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Little Fish by Casey Plett
  • The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

Read how these authors are bending and blending literary types and genres to create new forms to portray new narratives of being.

The Draw of the Gothic

Halloween was last week, but I’m still coming across interesting articles about all the usual trappings of that holiday. Here Sarah Perry explains why “[t]o understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel.” Perry explains how the term gothic, originally applied to architecture, came to be applied to literature that “repels and appeals in equally fervent measure.”

The Scene of the Crime: A Guide to 100 Years of Crime Fiction

I make no secret of the fact that I like mysteries, and I read a lot of them. So I enjoyed this journey down memory lane by John Wilson (who is just my age) of his own love of and history with reading mysteries. There’s a bit of a Christian-theology overtone in his account that I do not share, but he seems just as fascinated with the ways mysteries probe the human condition as I am.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Awards Introduction: 6 Literary Prizes and a Few Winning Books We Love

There are so many literary prizes that keeping them all straight becomes a problem. Who awards which ones, and what are the entry and judgment criteria? Here are descriptions of a few—Nobel Prize, National Book Award, Costa Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker, Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize)—along with descriptions of some recent winners of each.

VAL MCDERMID DREAMS OF A LOST JOSEPHINE TEY MYSTERY

Val McDermid is one of my favorite contemporary mystery writers. Here McDermid explains why she, along with a lot of other writers of crime fiction, think so highly of novelist Josephine Tey, whom McDermid describes as “a bridge between the classic detective stories of the Golden Age and contemporary crime fiction.”

“Questions of identity permeate her novels,” writes McDermid. Also, “Tey opened up the possibility of unconventional secrets” such as homosexual desire, cross-dressing, and sexual perversion: “a dfferent set of psychological motivations” than had been seen in Golden Age detective fiction:

Without Tey cracking open the door, I don’t know how easy it would have been for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell to have begun their own explorations of the darker side of human identity and sexuality. I know myself that reading Tey for the first time was like taking a lungful of pure air. I realised that crime fiction could be so much more than the bloodless entertainment I’d been enjoying up to that point. And her work helped me to understand that I could write books that dealt with serious aspects of human behaviour within the confines of genre fiction.

Science Says This Is the Simplest Way to Remember More of What You Read

Here’s yet another plug for the process of slow reading, which includes “giv[ing] yourself a little time to reflect on what you just read.” And such reflection need not involve a long, complicated process. The writer of this article includes a four-step summarization and reflection process and looks at some of the psychological evidence that supports its use.

Read on!

How Feminist Dystopian Fiction Is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety

“The Water Cure,” which comes out in the United States in January and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, joins a growing wave of female-centered dystopian fiction, futuristic works that raise uncomfortable questions about pervasive gender inequality, misogyny and violence against women, the erosion of reproductive rights and the extreme consequences of institutionalized sexism.

Alexandra Alter looks at the history of the dystopian fiction that women have been writing for decades and that continues into the political climate of the present.

YES, LITTLE WOMEN IS A FEMINIST NOVEL — AND HERE’S WHY

Kathleen Keenan writes:

I read Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer as a feminist commentary on the choices available to women at that time. To be taken seriously as a writer—something she desperately

wants—Jo is forced to face the sexist literary standards of her day. And as a character in a 19th-century novel, Jo is basically doomed to head to the altar, but Alcott makes her choice as subversive as she can.

She concludes:

Little Women argues that women’s lives are worthy of examination. Women’s stories deserve to be heard. Even when beloved female characters make disappointing choices, writing and sharing their stories is a feminist act.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown