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

Best Books of 2018

The Best Books of 2018

Amazon got us started off back in early November with its many best books lists. This page is the portal on which you’ll find links to lists of best books in many different categories.

Best Books of 2018

This is The Washington Post ’s portal into its lists of books in the following categories:

  • the top 10 outstanding books
  • The 10 best thrillers and mysteries of 2018
  • The 5 best romance novels of 2018
  • The 5 best science fiction and fantasy novels of 2018
  • 50 notable works of nonfiction in 2018
  • 50 notable works of fiction in 2018
  • The biggest book news of the year
  • The 10 best book adaptations to hit screens in 2018
  • The 10 best graphic novels of 2018
  • The best children’s books of 2018
  • The 5 best audiobooks of 2018
  • The 5 best poetry collections of 2018

PW’s Best Books 2018

This is the portal into Publishers Weekly’s list of the year’s best books in lots of categories.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People named Waterstones book of the year

NPR’s Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2018’s Great Reads

This page presents a whole lot of book covers with a sidebar in which you can choose to filter (e.g., “for art lovers,” “historical fiction”) what type of books you want to see. If you hover your mouse over a particular cover, a pop-up box will appear with a link to more information about the book.

If you find this approach overwhelming, as I did, you can check out BookBub’s report on the NPR choices here.

THE BEST AUDIOBOOKS OF 2018

From BookRiot, a list generated by its followers.

LIT HUB’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2018

59 BOOKS THAT YOU SHOULD PROBABLY READ SOME TIME IN 2019

The Best Books of 2018

After complaining of being woefully behind on her reading, The New Yorker staff writer Katy Walkman offers a list of nine best books of 2018:

To me, each of the titles below represents an energizing alternative to the ripped-apart illogic of our contemporary reality. Even the most disorienting novel is a reminder that you are more than a frayed nerve ending flailing across the Internet—that you, a somewhat coherent person, exist. Each one of these books does what Alexander Pope said wit can do: it “gives us back the image of our mind.”

21 Books Recommended by Librarians in 2018

Suggestions by librarians from all across the United States.

Goodreads Choice Awards 2018

What distinguishes these awards from most others is that they are voted on by readers, not critics. This is the portal into the listings of winners in several categories:

  • fiction
  • mystery & thriller
  • historical fiction
  • fantasy
  • best of the best
  • romance
  • science fiction
  • horror
  • humor
  • nonfiction
  • memoir & autobiography
  • history & biography
  • science & technology
  • food & cookbooks
  • graphic novels & comics
  • poetry
  • debut author
  • young adult fiction
  • young adult fantasy
  • middle grade & children’s
  • picture books

OUR FAVORITE CRIME BOOKS OF THE YEAR

The 62 Books That Won Our Hearts and Minds in 2018

From CrimeReads.

The Best Reviewed Books of 2018: Mystery, Crime, and Thriller

Literary Hub generated this list by aggregating data from the major reviews of this year’s crime and thriller releases.

The Most Inspiring Books of All Time, According to BookBub Readers

This isn’t your typical end-of-the-year best books list, but not including it here would seem like a sin. “There are times in life when we need a spark of inspiration, hope, or encouragement,” and these books provide just that, according to BookBub readers.

In Fiction, It Was the Year of the Woman

And here’s another not-so-straightforward list of some of the year’s best books, this one with a cultural emphasis:

there has been a grassroots pushback against hot-take nonfiction — one led, of course, by women. 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.

The 10 Best Books of 2018

Reinvented auto-fiction, gripping essays, and last stories from a renegade master.

30 OF THE BEST BOOK SUBSCRIPTION SERVICES IN 2018

here are 30 of the best book subscription services that are available as of the end of 2018.

After Reading Hundreds of Titles, These Are Our 15 Favorite Books of 2018

From the staff of O, the Oprah magazine:

Our favorite books draw on politics and the news, whether via wrongful incarceration, #MeToo, or the divide between generations. But they also totally captivate us with gorgeously-crafted sentences, their singular take on modern stories, and their insouciance.

Guardian best books of 2018: across fiction, politics, food and more

This list from the UK’s The Guardian naturally focuses on British literature. This link is the portal page for further listings in the following categories:

  • fiction
  • crime & thrillers
  • graphic novels
  • children & teenagers
  • science fiction & fantasy
  • poetry
  • showbusiness
  • memoir & biography
  • music
  • food & drink
  • sport
  • stocking fillers
  • politics
  • ideas & science
  • nature

Best Books of 2018

From Book Riot.

And finally … it seems only appropriate to end this list of best books of 2019 (although there will probably be one more such list) with a look forward to next year:

The Books We Can’t Wait To Read In 2019

A list by Olivia Ovenden for Esquire.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

What I’ve Been Reading on Writing About Literature

Since reading and writing about books is my primary activity, I’ve recently been reading some articles on reading and writing about books

(1) 38 Years on Books: The Essential Michiko Kakutani Reader

One of the biggest recent events among book people was the retirement of Michiko Kakutani, who had been the chief book critic of the New York Times for 38 years. She was a touchstone for both writers and readers. Her judgment could make or break a new book’s reputation, so authors lived in fear of her. Many readers would choose their reading material on the basis of her reviews, though some chose books because she recommended them and others chose book because she panned them.

I admit that I often found her reviews baffling. Nonetheless, she was a force in the book-reviewing world, so I’ve bookmarked this article and am slowly working my way through the samples. According to the article:

Together they represent a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.

(2) What the Departure of the _Times_’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

The compendium of examples above was put together by the New York Times, so I wanted to see what other reviewers and cultural critics had to say about Kakutani’s departure. In this piece Boris Kachka discusses Kakutani’s “growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic.”

With Kakutani’s departure, Kachka declares:

an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me.

But does the end of the Kakutani era at the New York Times have any significance for a personal book blogger like me? I’ve periodically looked at her writing, although I never wanted to emulate it because, as Kachka writes:

There wasn’t much personal presence on the page, either. You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” … Even her overuse of specific ten-dollar words and her occasional parody reviews were exceptions that proved the rule: a limited quiver of quirks standing in for a colorful voice. “I used to call them her book reports,” says [Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. “They were quite formulaic and they weren’t always subtle…”

One quality I’ve been trying to develop is how, after a long academic career, to reinsert myself into my discussions of the books I read

But Kakutani had one quality that her colleagus praised: they regarded her as “a straight shooter with few axes to grind.” As such a large cog in the publishing machine, Kakutani would have had many opportunities to nurture personal grudges and to engage in their expression. That’s one advantage to being a lonely personal blogger: I can base my opinion of a book on how good I think it is rather than on whether I like the author or am likely to bump into the author at some social event.

According to Kachka, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the Times, described Kakutani as “an intellectual who can synthesize many strands of both culture and politics in a way that I haven’t seen.” That’s another quality of her work that’s worth emulating, since literature is a cultural artifact that mirrors the culture from which it arises.

(3) The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

John Maher reports for Publishers Weekly on the consolidation taking place at the New York Times books desk. These changes, which included the paper’s buy-out of long-term chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, constitute an effort to move, finally, out of the outdated print modality into a new print/online world:

Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’ weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

After the reorganization, the Books staff did research into what kinds of book coverage readers wanted to see in the paper:

That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s _The Underground Railroad_—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

I welcome this change from dictating what people should read to understanding what people actually do read.

(4) The case of Stephen Greenblatt

Discovering this article lifted a great weight off my shoulders. I grew up when New Criticism dominated literary studies. This approach to theory and criticism pounded all sense of personal involvement in reading out of us. From the description of Michiko Kakutani’s lack of any personal voice—and since she’s less than 10 years younger than me—I’m betting that she got her literary training under New Criticism as well. I’ve been working hard to insert myself back into my writing about literature.

In this article Bruce Bawer explains how Stephen Greenblatt was a frontrunner in the development of New Historicism, the critical darling that supplanted New Criticism. According to New Historicism, literature is

not the path to a transhistorical truth, whether psychoanalytic or deconstructive or purely formal, but the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formulations… . Where traditional “close readings” [in the New Critical mode] tended to build toward an intensified sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial.

New Historicism developed shortly after I left my graduate studies in English and American literature, so I missed it. I’m glad I finally found it, as it very well describes my belief that literary works are societal constructs that individual readers respond to on the basis of their unique combination of learning and life experience.

Now, I return to my own writing about literature with a clearer understanding of what I want to communicate.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

As Far As Your Brain Is Concerned, Audiobooks Are Not ‘Cheating’

I love audiobooks; they enable me to read while plodding along on the treadmill or doing chores around the house. I’ve always thought that listening to a book instead of reading it is not cheating as long as I listen to the unabridged version.

And now I feel validated:

This question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.

Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews

Book critic Jennifer Senior writes:

Now, as a person who writes reviews for a living, I am curious to know: How do professional authors handle unsparing criticism, written in just a few days or weeks, of something they’ve toiled over for years?

She put this question to her friend, Curtis Sittenfeld, “author of “Prep,” “American Wife” and most recently, “Eligible,” a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” Read here how Sittenfeld feels about reviews of her books.

Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’

I’m always interested in ways in which literature crosses over into everyday life. Here’s one example:

In 2002, the Supreme Court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled. But it gave states a lot of leeway to decide just who was, in the language of the day, “mentally retarded.”

Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called “the Lennie standard.” That sounds like a reference to an august precedent, but it is not. The Lennie in question is Lennie Small, the dim, hulking farmhand in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The article ends with remarks by Thomas Steinbeck, son of author John Steinbeck.

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

If you don’t yet know Maria Popova’s astounding brainpickings, you’re in for a treat. Here she discusses “the significance of books and the role of reading in human life [that] comes from Neil Gaiman in a beautiful piece titled ‘Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.’”

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

Writing Tips: James Lee Burke

Usually I would put writing tips from a big-time author under the heading “on writing” rather than “on novels and novelists.” But I’m including these tips from one of my favorite mystery writers, James Lee Burke, here because he has written them out as an essay rather than a list of bullet points.

I’m going to summarize them as a list here, but I encourage you to click on the link above and read the essay as he wrote it.

  • “If [a person] writes for the love of his art and the world and humanity, money and success will find him down the line.”
  • “The best teachers are the books and poems and plays of good writers. For me, that was Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
  • “I recommend that a beginning writer find a group, either at a community college or university or city library or church, it doesn’t matter, so he can share his work with others.”
  • “The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday.”
  • “If you keep a manuscript at home, its failure is guaranteed.”
  • “You write about what you know. You also write about injustice and you write to make the world a better place.”
  • “I believe talent comes from outside oneself. I also believe it’s a votive gift… . I believe humility in a writer is a necessity rather than a virtue.”
  • “A great artist finds his voice and then uses it in ways others do not.”
  • “If I have learned any wisdom as a writer, it is to say thank you to the people who have helped me on the way.”

The Secret History of One Hundred Years of Solitude

As Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50, Paul Elie interviews the author’s agent for Vanity Fair. The author died in April 2014, but “interest in Gabo and his great novel is surging.” Elie describes Solitude as “everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time—from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie to Junot Díaz.”

This article is the story of how Carmen Balcells, who had just sold the English-language rights to García Márquez’s work to U.S. publisher Harper & Row, became the author’s “representative in all the world” for the next 120 years. It’s also the story of how, over 18 months, Garcia Márquez worked obsessively on the manuscript of what would become his signature work.

“Magic realism” became the term for García Márquez’s violation of natural laws through art. And yet the magic of the novel, first and last, is in the power with which it makes the Buendías and their neighbors present to the reader. Reading it, you feel: They are alive; this happened.

Read the story of “ the first book to unify the Spanish-language literary culture, long divided between Spain and Latin America, city and village, colonizers and colonized.”

How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction

Emma coverAs I’ve written before, Emma is my favorite of Jane Austen’s novel. In this article John Mullan explains how that novel, written in 1814, “was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction”:

it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. In Emma, she is.

This novel presents a new kind of storytelling, a new relationship between author, character, and reader: “Emma is not telling her own story. We both share her judgments and watch her making them.” Only in the early 20th century did critics begin consistently using a name for this new technique, free indirect style or free indirect discourse:

It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.

Now I realize why, when I finished reading Emma for the first time, I turned back to the first page and started all over again. This is the kind of authorial technique that rewards a rereading—or several.

What’s Your Favorite Poem?

I don’t read much poetry, and that’s a shame. If you, like me, could benefit from some poetic recommendations, here’s a list of favorite poems from several writers, including Julian Barnes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alan Cumming, and Junot Díaz.

3 Blogs I’ve Loved Recently

Thanks to a recent WordPress Daily Prompt for today’s post:

Give some love to three blog posts you’ve read and loved in the past week, and tell us why they’re worth reading.

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(1) SAGA SATURDAY I

This post was my introduction to AbbieLu’s site Cafe Book Bean. In this post she defines what a saga is, then lists some of her favorite ones:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • Far and Away
  • East of Eden
  • The Thorn Birds

This post made me want to turn to my TBR shelves and grab a huge book to sink into. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until after January 1st to so indulge myself.) Overall, I love AbbieLu’s enthusiasm about books.

(2) #48: The Kings of Crime – II: Jim Thompson, the King of Clubs

On The Invisible Event, an unnamed Invisible Blogger writes about classic crime fiction.

This post particularly attracted me because one of the many books on my TBR shelves is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That book, and hence this blog post as well, are good fits for my interest in Literature & Psychology.

(3) ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

I loved finding this blog post by Marilyn Armstrong because it, too, relates to Literature & Psychology. Like Marilyn, I find the concept of time travel fascinating, and I did not know about the book she discusses here, Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies.

I hope I’ll be able to find a copy of this book!

On Reading

If you enjoyed a good book and you’re a woman, the critics think you’re wrong

Jennifer Weiner never passes up an opportunity to lament how the world of literary criticism mistreats authors (like her) and readers of popular literature. “Every once in a while,” she explains, “a literary novel becomes tremendously popular, transcending the typical sales for literary fiction and making its way onto bestseller lists.”

Those juggernaut books have a few things in common: they’re written by women; they are read (as is most fiction) mostly by women; and, as they ascend toward peak popularity, perhaps even winning a prize or two, some highbrow critic will announce that they are not literature at all but, in fact, sentimental trash, unworthy of a single honor or accolade, written by bad people and read by awful – or, at least, silly and stupid – fans.

She calls this process “‘Goldfinching’, after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature.”

Goldfinching isn’t about elevating good books at the necessary expense of bad ones. It’s about once more reminding the wrong kind of reader of just where she stands, and how little her enjoyment or endorsement matters.

You can follow Weiner’s article in depth by clicking on the many links she provides to examples of the disparagement of popular literature she provides.

For the record, I loved Tartt’s The Goldfinch, as well as Gone Girl, another of the novels whose criticism Weiner cites as examples that support her thesis.

When Popular Fiction Isn’t Popular: Genre, Literary, and the Myths of Popularity

This article picks up where Weiner left off in the previous article. The term popular literature usually occurs as a synonym for genre fiction, and that’s how Lincoln Michel uses the term here. As Michel puts it:

When we get into a debate like … “genre” vs. “literary,” we’ve wandered into the book world version of conservative vs. liberal. Arguments revolve around feelings, constantly redefined terms, and moving goal posts rather than any interest in truth or understanding.

Much of the problem with such debates stems from the lack of any specific and generally accepted definitions of terms like genre fiction and literary fiction. Like Weiner, Michel cites a lot of critics’ opinions about what those terms mean. He even crunches a lot of sales numbers in trying to determine what makes literature popular. He does all of that in order to draw the following conclusion:

If you are determined to compare popularity, at least do so with actual facts. But it would be far better if we focused less on popularity, and more on the wide range of amazing books from all genres and corners of the globe that are daily ignored for yet another think piece on already popular books.

What I like about this piece is that it gives me permission to dismiss the whole tiresome question of popular vs. literary fiction.

#42: Defining ‘Fair Play’ in detective fiction

On his or her blog The Invisible Event, Invisible Blogger (IB) writes about classic crime fiction. In this post IB discusses what he or she calls “fair play detective stories”:

I think I’m relatively safe in saying that for many people the appeal of the detective story is the opportunity to have a go at fitting the puzzle together before the author explains all at the end (differentiating here from the crime novel or the thriller, which for brevity’s sake we’ll simply say have different intentions).

Like IB, I take the term fair play detective stories to mean those in which the attentive reader has as much chance of figuring out who the villain is as does the novelist detective. In fact, solving the puzzle is one of the biggest attractions of this type of story. So I agree with IB’s list of unacceptable requirements in such a novel:

  • “there must be sufficient declared clues and no deliberate narrative chicanery on behalf of the author in withholding something without appearing not to”
  • “burying the key information in a higgledy-piggledy mess of deliberately confusing cross-talk does not, to my mind, make it fairly declared”
  • no “specialist knowledge” or “esoteric knowledge” should be required for solving the crime
  • also not allowed is “nonsense invention – no poisons previously unknown to science, not-of-this-world unexplainable influences, or just plain old invention for the sake of surprise”

So what does make a novel a “fair play detective story”?

Put simply, if I get to the reveal of a detective novel and can see how each crumb along the path of reasoning to the solution was given to me to pick up and examine at my leisure then it’s a fair play puzzle.

The big question: are books getting longer?

Richard Lea reports in The Guardian:

Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.

A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.

Some people attribute the increasing page count to e-readers, which do not emphasize the length of a book as visually as does a huge hunk of a printed book. One other possible explanation is that “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google,” says literary agent Clare Alexander. But, Alexander also says:

“I would argue that a countervailing force is also in play with the revival of interest in the short story (also reflected in a growing and excellent prize culture) or the brief but perfectly formed novel.”

Books vs. e-books: The science behind the best way to read

This is one of those debates that just won’t go away. Here CBS News takes “a look at some of the science to consider before you spring for a Kindle, a Nook or a stack of new hardcovers” for someone on your holiday gift list.

Here’s a list of the major points. Be sure to read the explanations of the science behind each one.

  • Young, reluctant readers prefer e-readers
  • Reading on paper may boost retention
  • Paper suits readers with sleep problems and eye strain
  • E-books help the visually impaired
  • Avid readers tend to prefer reading on paper

On Novels and Novelists

Think “The Exorcist” Was Just a Horror Movie? The Author Says You’re Wrong.

Here’s an outstanding piece of creative nonfiction about William Peter Blatty, author of the 1971 bestseller The Exorcist, made into a blockbuster movie that remains on most lists of quintessential horror movies.

I remember hearing back when the book came out that it was based on an actual exorcism performed by a Catholic priest in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. But for me, like most other people caught up in the book/movie mania, the supernatural aspects of the story supplanted any religious meaning or significance. This article documents Blatty’s deep Catholic faith, burnished during his attendance at the Jesuit institution Georgetown University in the late 1940s.

In this piece Eddie Dean looks at Blatty’s life story, including his time at Georgetown and later as a Hollywood writer. But all of that is background for Blatty’s latest book, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death, released earlier this year by “the conservative publisher Regnery.” In a book that Dean describes as “part memoir and part argument,” Blatty, now 87, describes reassuring and welcome messages that he and his wife periodically receive from their son, Peter, who died in 2006 at age 19. As Blatty explains:

“For so many people of faith,” he says, “our belief in life after death is often a very intense hope—more than a full knowledge of fact—and this book gives them some tangible evidence. My task was to prove to readers that they could trust my word that these things happened. If I wanted to make stuff up, it’d be light years more dramatic than most of the things I’ve experienced.”

This is a great story that demonstrates, Dean says, “Much of what you thought you knew about The Exorcist is wrong.”

The Next Joan Didion?

Ruth Galm, author of the novel Into the Valley, has been compared to Joan Didion, whose early pieces contain “an almost uncanny sense of place that she brings alive” in writing.

In this informative she reveals much about her writing experience and interests. Read, among other facts, why and how the following writers have influenced her work:

  • William Faulkner
  • Jean Rhys
  • Joan Didion

John Irving wrestles with memory in ’Avenue of Mysteries’

Writer Graydon Royce reports on an interview with novelist John Irving, 73, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The discussion centers on Irving’s latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries:

It is a book about the strength of memory, the mystery of faith, the weariness of age and the caprice of fate. He has spliced together two stories: the present-day trip of writer Juan Diego to the Philippines to carry out a favor to a lost friend, and Juan Diego’s dreams and memories of his childhood, living on the dumps of Oaxaca, Mexico, with a cast of characters that includes his sister, Lupe, who reads minds.

Although this story is different from his others, Royce says, it deals with the same themes that Irving has presented during his more than 40-year career. According to Royce, Irving “sees himself as a 19th-century novelist, dedicated to plot, characters, narrative. He has griped for many years about modern writers who consciously construct wordplays that can be understood only by other writers.”

Here’s my favorite Irving quotation from this article:

“The most autobiographical element in any of my novels is psychological. I do not write about what’s happened to me. I write about what I’m afraid of.”

Visit Ramona Quimby’s Portland

Beverly Cleary grew up in an old farmhouse about 50 miles southwest of Portland, OR. She translated her knowledge of Portland into fictional settings in her books about Ramona Quimby, Beezus, and Henry Huggins.

Here’s a list of real places from the books that you can visit the next time you find yourself in Portland.

On Reading

She swoons to conquer

Batya Ungar-Sargon, who has a Ph.D. in the eighteenth century novel, asks, “Readers of romance fiction enjoy tales of alpha males and forced seduction. Could they still be considered feminists?”

In 2013, Americans spent $1.08 billion dollars on romance novels, which represented a whopping 13 per cent of the adult-fiction revenue – double what literary fiction brought in the same year. And unlike many other forms of entertainment, romance sales were undisturbed by the economic downturn of 2008, a year in which reportedly one in five Americans read a romance novel.

With the eyes of a literary historian and critic, Ungar-Sargon examines romance novels from their early origin in the development of the novel as a distinct literary form through Fifty Shades of Grey and other contemporary manifestations. Why do romance novels continue to outsell every other sliver of the publishing pie in an age when “no means no” and men are encouraged to share housework and child-rearing duties?

Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740 is widely considered one of the first novels; it’s also a romance, complete with a young heroine readers root for, an alpha male for her (and the reader) to fall in love with, and a happy ending. In historical contexts in which women were disenfranchised socially, legally, and financially, the domain of love was the only context in which they could be desired, worshipped, and adored: “Unlike other genres, which treat women as accessories or plot devices to motivate a male hero, here women are the plot.”

This genre continues to thrive because, as one woman who reads 150 romance novels a year explains, the main drawing points of the novels are:

the tension, the drama, and most importantly, the ending. Other genres have tension and drama, but only romance guarantees the H E A [Happily Ever After ending] – an implicit promise that the payoff will be worth it, that the pain will transform into pleasure.

My summary here doesn’t do justice to the depth of Ungar-Sargon’s article. Read her analysis of how contemporary romance novels have come to represent women’s acknowledgement of their own sexuality and their negotiations around the imprecise concept of sexual consent.

27 Seriously Underrated Books Every Book Lover Should Read

BuzzFeed crowdsourced this list of favorite underrated books. The list features authors from
Jules Verne and Louisa May Alcott up to current publications.

Although I had read a few of these and had heard of several more, I still found several books to add to my gargantuan reading list.

And the inclusion of one book that I stopped reading more quickly than usual and another one (Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah) that I and almost everyone else in my book group did not like reminded me that personal taste is indeed very personal.

How many of these books have you read? Which ones will you add to your own TBR (to be read) list? Which of them did you like or dislike? And what other titles would you add to the list?

Murder she wrought

Female thrill-killers are rare in crime fiction. Why is it hard to imagine a woman who murders for pleasure not revenge?

Most crime fiction featuring women presents them as private investigator, police officer, lawyer, or victim. Here Melanie McGrath, author of both nonfiction and crime fiction, examines why most crime novelists avoid woman characters who kill for pleasure:

They’re a rare breed in crime fiction, yet readers seem fascinated by their fictive potential. Most often they’re seen as purely literary creations, the inventions of a writer’s dark mind. Readers want to see women thrill-killers in fiction without necessarily believing they exist in real life. In many reader’s minds, they inhabit the same category as vampires or superheroes.

Women who commit violence in crime fiction usually do so for revenge or to rid themselves of an abusive partner.

McGrath considers biological, psychological, and neuroscience approaches to explaining why, in both crime fiction and real life, men commit more violence than women.

Like most storytelling, crime fiction cleaves more readily to myth than to reality. Plus it’s a conservative genre (though its creators might not be), concerned with restoring order and equilibrium. Even at its more experimental limits, it tends to play with stereotypes, not discard them.

Gone Girl: cover
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Yet, says McGrath, for decades novelists have been creating evil and selfish women characters like Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s enormously popular book Gone Girl:

Amy Dunne has helped spawn a new sub-genre of crime bitch-lit. Women (and men) have shown themselves to be eager consumers of the kind of unprincipled, amoral, selfish anti-heroines typified by Flynn’s creation, and it’s surely only a matter of time before male writers feel confident enough to follow suit.

Author Q & A: Sven Birkerts on writing as meditation and the ‘infiltration’ of technology

Joan Silverman interviews Sven Birketts, director of the Bennington Writing Seminars in Vermont:

Birkerts, who’s best known for “The Gutenberg Elegies,” his 1994 lament about the future of reading in an electronic age, has spent the last two decades thinking and writing about how technology affects us. Though he’s no Luddite, he worries about what we gain, and lose, as technology increasingly dominates modern life.

Feminists sneaking into bookshops to leave ‘gender-busting’ bookmarks inside children’s books

From the U.K.:

A group of feminists in Cheltenham has been sneaking into stores and leaving “gender-busting” bookmarks inside children’s books that are specifically for boys or girls. The bookmarks are hand-made, with slogans including: “Celebrate her brain, not her beauty”; “Boys don’t have to be gruff, tough or rough”; and “Let girls and boys be kids”.

On Novels and Novelists

10 Famous Authors’ Favorite TV Shows

In an era when it’s impossible to open a web browser without stumbling across another “Is television the new novel?” piece, we couldn’t help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw-style, just what our favorite writers watch in their spare time.

See what shows the following authors like:

  • Zadie Smith
  • S.E. Hinton
  • Lorrie Moore
  • Stephen King
  • Bret Easton Ellis
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Roxane Gay
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Joyce Carol Oates

And since not all of these writers are from the U.S., here’s an opportunity to learn about some television shows you may not know.

What Ray Bradbury’s FBI File Teaches Us About Science Fiction’s Latest Controversies

Separate FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests by the Daily Beast and MuckRock unearthed Bradbury’s files in 2012. Though they received some coverage at the time, Boing Boing, the Register, and MuckRock have discussed the documents this week, focusing to their charming anachronisms and other period peculiarities. Ultimately, however, those documents stand out most for what they reveal about the state of science fiction today.

Jacob Brogan here takes a quick look at what informants had to tell the FBI about Bradbury and his writings back in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite fears that science fiction might become “a lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies,” Brogan asserts that Bradbury’s popular success was not driven by any ideology, “a communist one least of all.” Instead, Brogan writes, science fiction has always been about looking at what’s wrong with the world and imagining how to make it better.

“Science fiction’s latest controversies” referred to in the article’s title involve division in the ranks of science fiction writers and award judges, some of whom see “an elitist wave of liberal propaganda” overtaking the genre. This article includes lots of links to more material about these controversies on the web for those who wish to delve further into the issues.

But, Brogan reminds us, the FBI documents pertaining to Ray Bradbury are

important reminders that science fiction invites us to see and think in new ways. It’s not always ideologically inclined, but it has rarely strayed far from the political.

Ursula K. Le Guin on myths, Modernism and why “I’m a little bit suspicious of the MFA program”

Here Scott Timberg talks with Le Guin, a grand dame of both science fiction and fantasy, about her newly issued book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. A significantly revised version of a work originally published in 1998, this book, Timberg says, “is not something any aspiring fiction writer should ignore.”

Steering the Craft originated in a workshop about the nuts and bolts of writing that Le Guin conducted for writers in the 1990s. She said that a lot of writers didn’t “have the vocabulary of the very elements of [their] work – which is how the English language is put together, and what constitutes a sentence and a non-sentence and so on.”

Read the rest of the interview—it’s short—to find out why she thinks writers should read the work of Virginia Woolf and why she is “a little bit suspicious of the MFA program” as a way for writers to practice their craft.

Why Knopf Editor in Chief Sonny Mehta Still Has the “Best Job in the World”

OK, Sonny Mehta is not a novelist, but as editor in chief of the Knopf publishing house, he’s deep into the world of books and writers.

In this short piece Dave Eggers profiles Mehta, for whom “the unique delight in discovering a great unpublished work hasn’t diminished.”