Archive for the ‘Literary Criticism’ Category

Monday Miscellany

Monday, March 31st, 2014

The Conclusion of Women’s History Month

woman readingAs Women’s History month ends, here are two commemorative lists:

14 Totally Badass Female Authors

Though many truly badass women authors are alive and working today, their stories aren’t yet finished. So as Women’s History Month draws to a close, we wanted to look back on some of the incredible literary women from history and remember how both their work and their lives broke new ground.

Read why Huffington Post thinks these female authors were totally badass:

  1. Louisa May Alcott
  2. Mary McCarthy
  3. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
  4. Nellie Bly
  5. Edith Wharton
  6. Zora Neale Hurston
  7. Edna St. Vincent Millay
  8. George Eliot
  9. Mary Wollstonecraft
  10. Carson McCullers
  11. George Sand
  12. Hannah Arendt
  13. Harriet Ann Jacobs
  14. Katherine Anne Porter

The 10 Best Thrillers and Crime Writing By Women

Though James Patterson might be the one getting 17-book deals for millions, some of the best writers of crime, thrillers, and mysteries have been women. Here are some of the best examples of these genres from the past century that will keep you reading past your bedtime (and possibly unable to sleep forever).

Among the authors Jessica Grose recommends here are Agatha Christie, Ann Rule, Edna Buchanan, and Patricia Highsmith.

Addition:

Australia’s literary cranky ladies

 

Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?

“WHAT’S your book group reading?” I say to a friend encountered on the street. Not: “Are you in a book group?” I have no idea whether Clara is in a book group. We’ve never talked about it. All the same, I just know. Why? Because it’s a safe assumption to make these days.

By some estimates, five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room or in a bar or bookstore or local library to discuss the finer points of “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” (A perfect number is hard to pin down because some people belong to two or three clubs, and of course, there’s no central registry of members.) Among them is Clara, whose book group even has a name: the Oracles. They’re reading “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner.

James Atlas learns why book groups aren’t just a fixture of New York City.

Top Literary Cities in the U.S.

What determines a city as ‘literary?’ It’s not enough to have a large library, unique bookstores, or be the birthplace of a famous writer. Nor is it enough to be one of the top literate cities in the United States  Most literary cities have a strong writing program at one of their numerous colleges and universities, as well as bookstores and institutions hosting event after event. If anything, a literary city is a blend of the historical, cultural, and modern parts of literature, encouraging and inspiring future generations to appreciate and take part in the literary world.

See what cities (other than New York City) Gabriella Tutino has chosen for this article in Highbrow Magazine.

On Literary Cravings and Aftertastes

In this unusual take on literary criticism, Allison K. Gibson describes her literary cravings during pregnancy:

While I was pregnant, I learned to follow my instincts — my hunger — to lead me to stories that would nourish me. And, as I learned from that first 3 a.m. craving for “The Night of the Curlews,” certain stories are meant to be savored so that the words continue to nourish long after the last sentence has been swallowed. The best stories leave an aftertaste.

10 Famous Writers Who Hated Writing

Writers are terrible procrastinators, and I’m pretty sure that’s because writing, although it can be exhilarating, is also just plain hard. Here author Bill Cotter, who has his own love-hate relationship with his profession, offers some (comforting?) remarks from writers including Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Virginia Woolf.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Cover: The Golden Thread

Book review: “The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing,” by Ewan Clayton

Anyone who loves books will be interested in this book, which tells the story of typography:

Writing matters, says Ewan Clayton, calligrapher, former monk, design and media professor and visual consultant to Xerox in Palo Alto, Calif., the folks who made the first networked home computer. Not just who cut the typeface, not just the letters and words. But the manner in which over the millennia we’ve inscribed, carved, painted, brushed, printed and now text them. Writing tells us how we inhabit our world, how we move through it and interact with each other.

Bring the literary giants of the great war to life

Thanks to Project Gutenberg and Oxford University’s poetry archive, the literature of the first world war has never been more accessible

As the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war approaches, many texts—including a few novels, “memoirs galore, and literary curiosities including propaganda by Arthur Conan Doyle”—are entering the public domain and becoming freely available.

The cold equations of ethics

On the University of Oxford blog Practical Ethics, Anders Sandberg considers an article by science fiction author Cory Doctorow about a couple of stories that feature ethical dilemmas:

By imposing the right boundary conditions an author can make even extreme behaviour moral. This makes for good stories, but they are not teaching us how to think well about the future since they depend on a contrived situation. Maybe such contrived situations could occur, but real situations have far less coherent contexts and hence make the moral issues far more non-trivial. Since well written stories are salient and memorable, we often use them as examples when reasoning about the real world… despite the risk of their conclusions being arbitrarily prescribed.

My own favourite example of this kind of induction of conclusions is Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which is often used as an argument that cognitive enhancement will not be good for people. However, the reason the protagonist suffers is that he and the world is written that way. While it makes for a good story it doesn’t help us think much about the nature of intelligence enhancement despite apparently giving us an argument.

This suggests that writers trying to be moral should do their best to refrain from overly constraining their fictional worlds in order to tell stories that actually help us think about acting morally in the real world.

Sandberg’s point that an overly contrived story that can lead to only one solution does not really help us learn to think ethically is an important one, since it’s easy to be taken in by such a literary work.

And be sure to look at Doctorow’s article, which Sandberg links to in his introduction.

10 Authors from Georgia You Should Read Now

Paste Magazine introduces its 50 States Project with a list of “10 contemporary authors from Georgia who are contributing to the evolving landscape of Southern literature.”

I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say that I haven’t heard of any of these authors. It’s time to expand my reading list.

What’s It Like Reading ‘Peyton Place’ Today?

This week, Thomas Mallon and Anna Holmes discuss what it’s like reading “Peyton Place” today, 50 years after the death of its author, Grace Metalious.

Opposite views of what this historic salient novel, whose title has become part of the common parlance, offers today’s readers.

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Literature & Psychology

Have you noticed how similar are the stories of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and Harry Potter? All three of these ordinary fellows set out on a long journey, fraught with danger, to undertake a task with a little help from their friends.

When Joseph Campbell examined the mythologies of the world’s major civilizations, he found this pattern of a heroic quest to be universal. Campbell laid out his findings in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, originally published in 1949. Since the book’s publication, this concept of the heroic journey has become the basis for understanding narrative storytelling and is therefore the perfect topic for beginning the conversation on Literature & Psychology.

In the preface to the original edition of Hero, Campbell wrote that his purpose was

to bring together a host of myths and folktales from every corner of the world, and to let the symbols speak for themselves. The parallels will be immediately apparent; and these will develop a vast and amazingly constant statement of the basic truths by which man has lived throughout the millennia of his residence on the planet. (p. xiii)

Campbell’s tool for understanding the symbolic language of the myths and folktales was psychoanalysis.

Campbell broke the hero’s journey down into three parts: (1) departure, (2) initiation, and (3) return. Here is a very abbreviated outline of the entire process. I encourage you to look into The Hero with a Thousand Faces, where Campbell explains how particular myths and tales from several cultures illustrate the heroic journey.

1. Departure, the call to adventure

The beginning of the quest, the call to adventure, is often a seemingly trivial occurrence, perhaps some kind of blunder. For example, a princess playing with a golden ball follows the ball when it rolls away into the forest; there she meets a frog. Campbell explains the call to adventure as “the awakening of the self”:

But whether small or great, and no matter what the stage or grade of life [of the character], the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand. (pp. 42-43)

It is possible for the destined hero to refuse the call, in which case his world deteriorates into a barren landscape representative of his lack of growth. But the character who has failed to answer the call will receive supernatural aid, usually from an old woman or old man who provides amulets or potions for protection against upcoming dangers. With such help from the personification of his destiny, the hero is able to proceed on his journey. He approaches the threshold he must cross, which separates his present, known world from the darkness and dangers of the unknown world beyond. Once he crosses that threshold, the “hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (p. 74).

2. Initiation

Having crossed the threshold, the hero encounters a strange world of trials and ordeals where his strength and persistence are tested. He often receives help from faithful companions and from the possessions given him by his supernatural protectors during the departure phase of his journey. He gradually gains knowledge as he faces and overcomes one obstacle after another. The attainment of knowledge is frequently symbolized by some valuable possession, such as the Golden Fleece that Jason of Greek mythology must obtain.

The world of trials, where the hero is figuratively tested, represents the mystic experience. This is the place where Campbell found psychoanalysis to be most helpful, for the frightening monsters and eerie landscapes the hero encounters here represent both the depths of the human psyche and the heights of transcendent religious experience, the world where the individual self dissolves into one being with the cosmos. The death of the self must precede the knowledge of cosmic unity. For this reason the hero’s journey is often spoken of as a death followed by rebirth, or the descent into hell and back.

3. Return

After attaining knowledge (or obtaining the valuable object that symbolizes knowledge), the hero must take it back home for the benefit of all. To do this he must cross the return threshold that separates the divine realm from the human world:

The realm of the gods is a forgotten dimension of the world we know. And the exploration of that dimension, either willingly or unwillingly, is the whole sense of the deed of the hero. The values and distinctions that in normal life seem important disappear with the terrifying assimilation of the self into what formerly was only otherness. (p. 188)

And having crossed the threshold back into the world of man, the hero faces yet another difficult task:

How render back into light-world language the speech-defying pronouncements of the dark? How represent on a two-dimensional surface a three-dimensional form, or in a three-dimensional image a multi-dimensional meaning? . . . How communicate to people who insist on the exclusive evidence of their senses the message of the all-generating void? (pp. 188-189)

Like Frodo Baggins, the hero returns as a different person than the one who initially left home. Having been reborn, he cannot simply take up his life where he left it. And the returned hero is not only different from the person he used to be; he is also different from everyone else who has not experienced his quest.

 

The myths and tales that Joseph Campbell analyzed come from ancient civilizations. In more modern literature the external journey to unknown lands often becomes an internal journey in search of self-knowledge and personal growth. Yet we continue to respond to the pattern of the hero’s journey, as evidenced by the enormous popularity of the Star Wars films, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (both books and films), and the Harry Potter series.

Cover: The Hero with a Thousand Faces

 

 

Reference:

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (New World Library, 2008). The Collected Works of Joseph Campbell.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, February 24th, 2014

The Best Book You’ve Never Read: ‘Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age’

On the Publishers Weekly blog Gabe Habash describes what can be an elusive concept, narrative voice:

Books that are voice-driven are, of course, dependent on the strength of the voice. Think about the best character-narrators you’ve read: maybe it’s Scout or Holden Caulfield or Humbert Humbert. Our favorite narrators have voices that we, as readers, have a desire to keep consuming; their words are as addictive as M&Ms. There’s a powerlessness, a relinquishing, involved when you read a great first-person book, when you fall head over heels–simply through the hypnotic rhythm of the narrator’s words, you choose to give up your own agency in untangling events for yourself and sort-of smittenly accept the narrator’s. The narrator, simply by virtue of his/her voice, gets you to listen.

Why We Can’t Get Enough of Twisted Marriage Thrillers

Gone Girl: cover

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

A new wave of bestselling novels depict the dark side of marriage with secretive husbands and betrayed couples. Lucy Scholes on what they reveal about matrimony today—and their literary ancestors.

A look at the popular appeal of novels like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. Scholes’s discussion of the literary history of this theme is informative. And, if you are as intrigued as I am by these psychological narratives, you’ll appreciate her list of forthcoming books in the same vein.

Farewell Bridget Jones – hello literary bad girls

The [U. K.] Guardian has news of another current literary trend:

With their descriptions of nights out gone wrong and no-holds-barred sexual encounters, a clutch of newly released novels are full of women behaving badly. From Zoe Pilger’s raucous debut, Eat My Heart Out, published this month, to Caitlin Moran’s semi-autobiographical How to Build a Girl, which aims to capture that “moment when you try to discover exactly who it is you’re trying to be”. In February Helen Walsh, whose 2005 novel Brass shocked reviewers with its frank depiction of twentysomething female sexuality, brings out her fourth novel, The Lemon Grove, an atmospheric story of middle-aged female sexuality. In May, Emma Jane Unsworth’s second novel, Animals, memorably described as “Withnail for Girls”, hits the shelves.

But what’s driving this new crop of female antiheroes? Unsworth, 35, who drew on her own friendships for Animals, a gloriously over-the-top account of female friendship, says it’s partially a desire for something new.

What’s Become of the So-Called Literary Bad Boy?

But all the literary news isn’t about the women, although this discussion is more about the persona writers create for themselves than about the characters they create on the page.

James Parker argues that all the great literary bad boys are in the past:

In 2014 we have bad-boy chefs (Bourdain, Ramsay), bad-boy priest-comedians (Russell Brand), bad-boy athletes (the demonic Uruguayan soccer player Luis Suárez). Inspiration and transgression are still tangled up for us, at some level. And it’s possible, I suppose, that some young wordslinger could come along and wring a new twist from the tired repertoire of writerly naughtiness — be a postmodern literary bad boy. But in the end, who cares?

Although these New York Times pieces are set up in the point-counterpoint format, Rivka Galchen’s argument doesn’t seem all that different from Parker’s:

And I would argue that certain traits we associate with the “literary bad boy” . . . have little to do with the genuinely countercultural thinking or the intelligently transgressive prose. Instead they are, upon inspection, just the fairly straightforward qualities of persons with more financial or cultural or physical power who exercise that power over people with less. There’s nothing “counter” about that, of course; overpowering in that way implicitly validates things as they are, and implies that this is how they ought to be. So I presume that when we value literary-bad-boy-ness — and there is a lot to value there — those traits wouldn’t be, if we thought about it, the essence of bad-boy-ness; those traits aren’t even distinctive. They’re just trussed-up versions of an unfortunate norm.

Book Review: Books as History by David Pearson. Obsolescence Guaranteed?

Here’s another wrinkle in the printed books vs. ebooks discussion, the book as object:

The book as object is part not only of the history of communication, but also of art and design.

A book can be altered, beautified or cherished in ways that produce unique objects worth preserving. Each generation leaves its marks: inscriptions, annotations, bookplates, new bindings, armorial stamps, defacements. Readers also often add useful details omitted in the texts. As such, printed books have their own histories which become part of our wider historical heritage and evidence base. Pearson argues that e-books and tablets simply won’t offer these unique, telling attributes.

The Coolest Places On Earth To Read A Book

You must see these 8 photos on Huffington Post. They might influence the plans for your next vacation.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, January 13th, 2014

I’ll be traveling for the next three weeks. Therefore, updates here will be sparse.

The 9 Best Books That Don’t Exist

From Publishers Weekly:

It’s time to make you really sad: here are 9 great books…that don’t actually exist. But while the world would certainly be a better place if they did exist (except #4 and probably #1), if you haven’t read the books they’re from, change that right away.

Commenters have some additions to this list, and I would add The Book of Counted Sorrows from the works of Dean Koontz.

16 Books To Read Before They Hit Theaters This Year

The list includes some big titles: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, The Giver by Lois Lowry, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

30 Books You NEED To Read In 2014

If you’re still drawing up this year’s reading list, Huffington Post has some recommendations from authors such as Karen Russell, Richard Powers, Lorrie Moore, Emma Donoghue, and Alain de Botton.

10 New Ways to Read in 2014 That Will Change the Way You Think About Books

From PolicyMic:

There’s no denying that the world of books is changing. But literature lovers are keeping up. Six years after the birth of the e-book reader Amazon Kindle, we’re no longer groaning about the death of traditional books. Even the most die-hard bibliophiles will admit that not only has technology not killed the book, but it also has extended literature’s boundaries by creating new forms — and has reached new audiences along the way.

Branch out and discover literature in all its hip, inventive, and tech-savvy glory this year, with our 10 reading resolutions that will change the way you think about and interact with books. Whether you’re a print-book fanatic or a Twitter fiend, there’s bound (pun intended) to be something in here for you.

10 Literary Blogs Every 20-Something Should Read

Also from PolicyMic:

The new literary generation is here, and it’s bored — bored with the New Yorker, bored with the New York Times, bored with the New York Review of Books.

We need new literary sustenance. We want writing by people who understand the tremendous attentional effort it requires to read more than three sentences of anything. We want a literary La La Land that gives us gifs and James Joyce in the same breath. Screw it — we want gifs of James Joyce.

While I look for those, take a look at these: The best — funniest, crassest, headiest, least boring, most addictive — literary blogs for 20-something readers and writers.

However, I don’t see why these recommendations should be limited to 20-something readers. I often read several of them myself, and I’m way past 29.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Why GR’s new review rules are censorship – Some thoughts

Late Friday (US time) Goodreads announced a change in review and shelving policy, and immediately started deleting readers’ reviews and shelves. In doing this they became censors. Limiting readers’ ability to discuss the cultural context of a book is censorship designed to promote authors’ interests.

young girl readingOver on Goodreads reader Emma Sea has lashed out against the site’s new policy and has engendered quite a lot of support from commenters. I lead with this entry today because at the heart of the controversy lies the question of exactly what a book review is and what a review should—and shouldn’t—contain.

As soon as I started reading Emma’s post, I knew that the reference to Orson Scott Card’s book Ender’s Game was coming. This very popular book is being made into a movie. Card himself is outspoken in his criticism of gays and gay marriage; as a result, many people have called for a boycott of the movie, even though the book does not deal in any way with gay rights.

So, in terms of book reviewing policy, the question becomes: Is it acceptable to refer to Card’s beliefs in discussions of Ender’s Game?

I have struggled with this very question myself. Ender’s Game is one of the best books I’ve ever read. And I grew up under the school of New Criticism, which holds that literary works should be judged on the basis only of their text, not of their author or of any other external social or cultural context. However, I have reached a point in my life when I believe it’s important for me to stand up and be counted in support of my values and beliefs. I certainly stand by Orson Scott Card’s right to hold and to state his beliefs, but I also reserve the same right for myself.

But the question still remains: Is it appropriate for me—or anyone— to mention a disagreement with Card’s stated beliefs in reviewing a book that does not in any way touch on the subject of those beliefs? I’d love to hear suggestions on how to resolve this dilemma.

Why I Believe I Should Stand Up and Speak Out

Because I keep finding stories, like these, about censorship:

30 Books You Should Read Before You’re 30

some books are best experienced at a certain age, like, say, “Catcher in the Rye.” If you pick it up for the first time when you’re far beyond puberty, you’ll likely wonder what all the hype is about. Likewise, there are certain books you should read in your 20s, due to the age of the characters or the intended audience — books like Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” or Christopher Hitchens’ “Letters to a Young Contrarian.”

There are also fantastic classics that may not have been assigned to you in school but that you should pick up ASAP simply because you’re missing out — books like Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” or “A Collection of Essays” by George Orwell.

Check out the 30 books we think you should read before you’re 30:

I’m not sure exactly why the folks at Huffington Post chose 30 as the magic age. I’ve read several of these recommended books in recent years, and I’m well over 30. In fact, I like to think that I probably got more out of reading these books precisely because of my maturity.

At any rate, this is a good list to use when you’re looking for the next book to pick up.

30 “Guilty Pleasure” Books That Are In Fact Awesome

All books are worth reading, obviously. But some books are slightly more “guilty pleasure” than “classic literature.”

Because you can never have too many good-books lists. . . .

Bookless Public Library Opens In Texas

An all-digital public library is opening today [September 14, 2013], as officials in Bexar County, Texas, celebrate the opening of the BiblioTech library. The facility offers about 10,000 free e-books for the 1.7 million residents of the county, which includes San Antonio.

I’ve always been a big fan of ebooks, but I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a bookless library. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

The Working Novelist: Writing and the Irrational

Something about the process of writing (and maybe art in general) pushes us toward the parts of ourselves and the world that we don’t totally understand.  Toward the grey areas, the uncertainty, the unsettled.

I don’t write fiction myself, but I’ve heard fiction writers say that sometimes a character will speak up on its own and take over the writing of the story. Here writer Alex Washoe describes how something similar happened to him:

When we read over what we’ve written – if we’ve surrendered ourselves at least a little to the process, to the “vivid and continuous dream” – we often find things we didn’t mean to include.  Stray details, odd comments, small actions – things that perhaps don’t seem to relate to the main action of the story.  Things that sometimes contradict what we thought we were saying.  The first tendency is always to delete these things, the smooth them over, to bring them in line with our plan.  And most of the time, that’s probably for the best.

But if we are willing to stay with these things, to hold them in our minds and find where they lead, they can sometimes open up dimensions of character and story – meaning – we never knew were there.  These stray details, these odd moments, these irrational tics push us away from what the conscious mind thinks it’s doing toward something a little less neat.

Readers, too, often find these little suggestive details in literature, and those details often deepen and enrich our understanding, whether we are aware of that process or not.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, July 29th, 2013

The Best Births In Literature

In honor of the birth last week of Britain’s Royal Heir, The Atlantic compiled this list of the five best birth scenes in literature.

Are there any others you’d add to this list?

Literature’s Fight Club

Cover: The Violet HourKatherine Hill, author of the recently published novel The Violet Hour, admits:

I have a thing for lovers’ quarrels—literary ones that is. There’s just nothing quite so dynamic, so conversant in so many emotional and moral registers, as a face-off between sworn intimates doing whatever it takes to win. It’s the proverbial car wreck, the horrific conflagration we can’t look away from, because the fire is actually kind of grand.

In college, I took a seminar called “Doomed Love in the Western World,” on troubled affairs throughout the ages: “Troilus and Criseyde,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Satanic Verses,” “The Human Stain.” For years after, everything I read seemed to extend the conversation of that class. Social worlds might change, but love would always find agonizing new ways to die.

So when I set out to write my first novel, I had a tradition in mind. How does doomed love look in today’s affluent America, which wants to have its cake and eat it, too? Lavish weddings and gender equity, marching side by side.

Read her account of lovers’ quarrels in works of literature such as D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and of how she incorporated this theme into her own novel.

The Quirky World of E-Reading Apps

Dismayed by the recent news that Barnes & Noble will no longer manufacture its ereader, the Nook, Nook owner Greg Zimmerman began:

looking at and experimenting with the various e-reader apps available for iPad, Android, and Windows tablets. What I discovered is that they are mostly similar — text and background are all customizable, and they all offer the ability to bookmark, highlight text, and take notes. But none of them is perfect. Each has a quirk or two that would prevent it from being my new go-to e-reading app.

Read his report on the following alternatives to the Nook:

  • Nook and Kindle reading apps
  • iBooks
  • Overdrive
  • Bluefire

Resurrected from the archives: timeless women’s fiction

For decades, the label “women’s fiction” has unfairly cubbyholed worthy books. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up recent reprints by Penelope Mortimer, E.M. Delafield and Shirley Jackson that showcase the nuance and insight of these novels.

Wright discusses the following books:

  • Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater
  • E.M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are
  • D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married
  • Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall and Life among the Savages

All have been recently reissued and therefore shouldn’t be difficult to find.

My Favorite Fictional Detectives

Author Martin Walker writes:

It is striking how closely literary fiction echoes real events. The trenches of the First World War gave us the anti-war novel. The Cold War gave us the golden age of spy stories, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The West had James Bond and John le Carre’s Smiley while the Russians had their Julian Semyonov. More recent events have given us the terrorist novel, with Tom Clancy straddling the sub-genres of terrorist nukes and terrorist bio-weapons.

But of all the genres, the detective story seems the most durable, perhaps because the tales are less about crime, more about character. For every cunning murder we recall, from death by icicle which melts to leave no traces to tea being stirred with an oleander twig, it is the detectives and the killers who stick in the mind.

From Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, the dance of detection is part of a dynamic that goes back to the dawn of humanity. The killer starts by being the hunter and then becomes the hunted.

His appreciation of detective fiction also incorporates the importance of setting. Check out his list of favorite fictional detectives, which includes most of the usual suspects as well as some lesser known ones.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, July 1st, 2013

The top 10 classic spy novels

Cover: In Spies We TrustFrom Joseph Conrad to John le Carré, intelligence historian Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones picks the fiction that best reveals the secrets of espionage

“So my selection of novels reflects the interests of a historian, and draws on both domestic and foreign espionage. They are “classics” in being of some antiquity, and because, in addition to being of literary merit, they tell us something of their era.”

A chronological list from The Spy; or, A Tale of the Neutral Ground by James Fenimore Cooper (1821) through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (1974).

Nancy Pearl Scours The Shelves For Books You Might Have Missed

Nancy Pearl, perhaps the world’s most famous librarian, discusses some of her under-the-radar reads: “books she thinks deserve more attention than they’ve been getting.”

Shakespeare’s plays to be retold by novelists

In a step that boggles the mind:

Hogarth, the Random House transatlantic fiction imprint, has today [June 27] announced an international project that aims to bring Shakespeare to a wider contemporary audience. The project, titled The Hogarth Shakespeare, will ask bestselling novelists throughout the world to retell his work in a more accessible prose form.

The first two novelists to sign on to the project are Jeanette Winterson, for The Winter’s Tale,  and Anne Tyler, for The Taming of the Shrew. Says Tyler, “I don’t know which I’m looking forward to more: ‘Delving into the mysteries of shrewish Kate or finding out what all the other writers do with their Shakespeare characters.”

Yet I have to agree with this:

many feel that, by altering the form of Shakespeare’s plays, the complex poetic language will inevitably be lost. The accessibility of Shakespeare might be enhanced, but has an integral part of the experience of reading one of his plays been removed?

The article briefly discusses other attempts at adapting Shakespeare’s work, including Charles and Mary Lamb’s 18th century prose summaries and popular television and film adaptations.

WRITING ON THE ETHER: Let’s Review Criticism

Porter Anderson’s piece is more drawn out than it needs to be but nonetheless offers an interesting take on the current state of literary criticism, a topic that has received much coverage lately.

Anderson provides lots of links to related material.

Method to the Madness

Contemporary master of the macabre Patrick McGrath discusses the difficulty of representing the chaotic thinking patterns of mental illness within a coherent narrative framework:

The verbal production of schizophrenics and other psychotic individuals might sound like language without discourse, a useful formulation, but for the novelist it’s not enough. A discourse — a coherent story — must be discernible within even the wildest ramblings of an insane narrator. Technically it’s a tough thing to get right. But madness is never arbitrary, never random in its manifestations — or its causes. The reader who’s been successfully enlisted as a kind of psychiatric detective will find herself engaged with minds blind to their own dysfunction, which makes them as rich in complexity as any in our literature.

Along the way he discusses some of his literary predecessors, including Edgar Allan Poe and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Placing Literature: Where Your Book Meets the Map

Andrew B. Williams and Katie C. Williams have started a database of literary scenes: “We hope to educate the audience about using literature as a way to explore place and to give people the opportunity to use their collective knowledge to help them and others appreciate their communities, both real and imagined.”

And they have opened the database for contributions: “now anyone with a Google login can enter scene information into our database or explore the literary scenes that take place in their community.”

It will be interesting to see how this project evolves.

Monday Miscellany

Monday, June 10th, 2013

Learning to learn: the heart of reading

woman readingAlly of Scoop.it (the curation service that I use for Literature & Psychology) describes how she went about learning to read for deep meaning. She based her strategy on an article by Maryanne Wolf, the John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts, and author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Although Ally focused on reading nonfiction, the process would be similar for someone wanting to explore a particular topic in literary texts—for example, fiction that deals with the relationships between mothers and daughters.

Do We Need to Be Told How to Read? 

cover: How to Read LiteratureAlso in the category of learning how to read, academic cultural critic Terry Eagleton has a new book out, How to Read Literature.

I haven’t read Eagleton’s book yet, though I have bought it and look forward to finding out what he has to say. But novelist William Giraldi has read How to Read Literature, and in this article he offers an unsympathetic evaluation. In their symbiotic relationship, such clashes between practitioners (writers) and theorists (critics) are often more informative than anything either alone has to say.

Can books make us better people?

And why do we want to read, anyway? One reason might be that literature makes us better people. Or does it?

This question has been another hot topic of debate recently in the literary world. In this article in the Christian Science Monitor Husna Haq recaps the argument and provides links to many of the articles she discusses. She concludes:

Nonetheless, the question remains – does literature make us better?

If we turn to literature itself and the nuanced messages it conveys, we may find that the answer, unlike the question, is not nearly so clear-cut and precise. Literature, after all, deals with the messy, the ambiguous, the muddled, and, we suspect, that’s just what we have on our hands with that deceivingly straightforward question.

Empathy-Free Entertainment

Noah Berlatsky tackles the same issue over at The Atlantic:

Art, we’re often told, encourages empathy. By watching or reading about different people, or different situations, we become able to understand and sympathize with a broader range of perspectives. Fiction connects you to other people—or as Chuck Klosterman said, “Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” There was even a study last year that found that “experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes.” Literature broadens you; science says so.

But he bases his argument on recent movies (and, in some cases, on the comics that inspired those movies) rather than on just literary texts. And in those works he finds a bleak message:

What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn’t about empathy or love. Instead, it’s about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.

Book Domino World Record: Seattle Public Library Launches Summer Reading In Style (VIDEO)

On a much happier note:

Seattle Public Library just set an unusual world record in its incredible flagship building: the world’s longest book domino chain.

Created to launch its summer reading program, 2,131 books were used in the service of this magical video that you can watch above, filmed on May 31st. Our favorite part? The silent summer readers sitting among the books as they quietly fell around them.

 

Monday Miscellany

Monday, May 27th, 2013

A Pearl Buck Novel, New After 4 Decades

Pearl S. Buck

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Big recent literary news is the discovery of a final novel by Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The manuscript was discovered in a storage unit in Texas. Buck’s son, Edgar S. Walsh, believes that Buck completed the manuscript for the book, The Eternal Wonder, shortly before her death from cancer in 1973.

Peter Conn, a professor of English and education at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote “Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography,” said that of Buck’s contributions, she most notably commanded the imagination of American readers with her descriptions of China.

“Pearl Buck strongly shaped Western and specifically American perceptions of China to an extent that had not been seen in the past,” he said. “She actually can make claim to a unique kind of cultural achievement, which is to prepare Americans for the increasingly tangled relationship we were going to have with China for the next 70 or 80 years.”

I Like Likable Characters

Novelist Jennifer Weiner participates in the latest dust-up among women writers:

Quick: What’s the most unforgivable sin a writer can commit in fiction? A writerly crime so awful that major, award-winning novelists are condemning it on the pages of Publishers Weekly and inveighing against it in The New Yorker? If you said lazy plotting, dull language, or cardboard-thin characters, well, shame on you. Currently, the most gauche thing a modern-day writer can do is write protagonist who is—-oh, the horror—-likable.

Why is likable worse than, say, boring, or predictable, or hackneyed or obscure? When did beloved become a bad thing? And, now that likable has become the latest code employed by literary authors to tell their best-selling brethren that their work sucks, is there any hope for the few, the shamed, the creators and consumers of likable female protagonists?

In this piece Weiner takes on both Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, and Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.

Apparently Weiner chooses to fight the stereotype that girls should play nice.

Beware of book blurbs

Warning: You can’t judge a book by the blurb on its back cover:

The Washington Post did not review Martin Amis’ latest novel favorably, but the book blurb suggests otherwise

New Research Tools Kick Up Dust in Archives

Read how smartphones and computers have changed the face of archival research.

The pros: Researchers have become more productive and can easily make their findings widely available.

The cons: Use of these tools raise issues of intellectual property protection and deprive institutions of income from document copying.