Psychological Text Analysis

Shakespeare’s Plays Reveal His Psychological Signature

A hot trend in literary criticism is the use of computers to analyze text, a field known as digital humanities. Recently Ryan Boyd, a graduate researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, and James Pennebaker, the Liberal Arts Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the university, conducted one such analysis to determine whether Shakespeare wrote a play whose authorship has been disputed for centuries. Their results have been published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The play in question is Double Falsehood, published in 1728 by Lewis Theobald. Theobold claimed that he based this play on three original manuscripts by Shakespeare that were later destroyed in a library fire. The true authorship of the play has been disputed since its publication. Some scholars believe that Shakespeare was the true author, while others think the play was an original work by Theobold that he tried to pass off as an adaptation. Although today no author would want to pass off an original work as an adaptation from another author’s work, Theobold would have benefited at the time from an association with Shakespeare.

Boyd and Pennebaker used text-analyzing software to establish psychological profiles of the Shakespeare, Theobold, and John Fletcher, who sometimes collaborated with Shakespeare:

“Research in psychology has shown that some of the core features of who a person is at their deepest level can be revealed based on how they use language. With our new study, we show that you can actually take a lot of this information and put it all together at once to understand an author like Shakespeare rather deeply,” says researcher Ryan Boyd.

They examined 33 plays by Shakespeare, 12 by Theobald, and 9 by Fletcher. The software examined the use of function words (such as pronouns, articles, and prepositions) and words that represent various content categories (such as emotions, family, sensory perception, and religion). The software analyzed the themes present in each of the works to create a thematic signature for each author.

The researchers also had the software examine how “categorical” the writing in each work is:

Categorical writing tends to be heavy on nouns, articles, and prepositions, and it indicates an analytic or formal way of thinking. Research has shown that people who rate high on categorical thinking tend to be emotionally distant, applying problem-solving approaches to everyday situations. People who rate low on categorical thinking, on the other hand, tend to live in the moment and are more focused on social matters.

By combining the thematic signature with the categoricalness of the writing, the researchers created a psychological signature for each author. They then analyzed the text of Double Falsehood who determine which of the three writers was the most likely author of the play. When they analyzed the disputed play by acts, the results suggested Shakespeare as the most likely author of the first three acts, and either Shakespeare of Fletcher as the likely author of the fourth and fifth acts. They concluded that Theobold’s influence on the text appeared to be minor.

By using measures that tapped into the author’s psychological profile, Boyd and Pennebaker were able to see that the author of Double Falsehood was likely sociable and fairly well educated — findings that don’t jibe with accounts of Theobald as well educated but also rigid and abrasive.

Together, these findings clearly show that exploring the psychological dimensions of a literary work can offer even deeper insight in the process of textual analysis.

Also see the University of Texas at Austin news release Shakespeare Wrote Contested Play, Suggests Psychological Text Analysis.

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”

The Joan Didion Documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock — Kickstarter

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live is the first and only documentary being made about Joan Didion. While her writing is fierce and exposed, Joan herself is an incredibly private person. We have the privilege to know Joan as a subject and also as a member of our family. Our director, Griffin Dunne, has known Joan his entire life. Joining Griffin as co-director is award-winning filmmaker, Susanne Rostock.

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live traces the arc of Joan’s life through her own writings, and in her own voice. Our film will tell Joan’s story through passages she has chosen and will read aloud from her work, as her friends, family, colleagues and critics share their accounts of her remarkable life and writing.

via The Joan Didion Documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock — Kickstarter.

Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

The Classics ClubGothic literature features characteristics such as magic, mystery, chivalry, horror, clanking chains, ghosts, and dark castles to create a spooky atmosphere rife with foreboding and possibility. Over time Gothic emphasis changed from reliance on these external trappings for their own sake to a focus on the inner workings of the human psyche that the Gothic atmosphere represents. Shirley Jackson’s deliciously creepy 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle demonstrates the power of the Gothic in the hands of a master craftsman.

Brief History of Gothic Literature

The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), set in a medieval castle featuring dark stairways, mysterious rooms, trap doors, and underground passages. Between 1789 and 1797 Anne Radcliffe wrote five romances, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho, that helped make the form popular. Radcliffe emphasized setting and story over character.

As the Gothic novel spread across Europe, it became the backdrop against which authors examined the relationship between humans and the supernatural, with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) perhaps the best known example. Gothicism also influenced other literary forms, particularly poetry of the romantic period in works by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. In the United States Charles Brockden Brown took up the form of the Gothic novel with Wieland (1798) and five subsequent romances.

Early Gothic novels focused on creating a spooky setting appropriate for a story of suspense, dread, foreboding, and, finally, terror. As Gothicism developed, it incorporated elements of the psychological that allowed a focus on character as well as on setting, as evident in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Still later works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) employ literary devices that developed from the Gothic novel.

The British Library is currently presenting an exhibition entitled Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination:

Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.

In a magazine article about the exhibition:

Lead curator of the exhibition, Tim Pye, says: “Gothic is one the most popular and influential modes of literature and I’m delighted that Terror and Wonder is celebrating its rich 250 year history. The exhibition features an amazingly wide range of material, from stunningly beautiful medieval artefacts to vinyl records from the early Goth music scene, so there is truly something for everyone”.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the CastleJackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Penguin Books, 1962

Mary Katherine, known as Merricat, Blackwood is the first-person narrator of the story. In the opening paragraph she tells us that she is 18 years old and that she lives with her sister Constance: “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p. 1).

This final sentence of the opening paragraph signals the story’s Gothic emphasis. Although Richard Plantagenet could be any one of several English noblemen, context suggests that Merricat is referring to England’s King Richard III (1452–1485), who is famously believed to have ordered the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London. The themes of murder and a family power struggle emerge from this reference. These themes and Merricat’s admitted fondness for a deadly mushroom sharpen our expectations and foreshadow the rest of the story.

Gradually the backstory emerges: Six years earlier the rest of the Blackwood family had died of arsenic poisoning during a family dinner. The dead included Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood (Constance and Merricat’s parents), the girls’ 10-year-old younger brother, and their aunt, whose husband, Uncle Julian, their father’s brother, became very ill but recovered. Uncle Julian was damaged both physically and mentally by his brush with death. Now wheelchair-bound, he lives with Merricat and Constance and is completely dependent on Constance, who takes care of him while her sister largely watches.

Merricat was not at the dinner table that fateful night because she was being punished by having to spend the night in her room without any dinner. That dinner included berries, on which the diners sprinkled sugar that had been laced with arsenic. Suspicion fell on Constance, who did not eat berries and therefore didn’t get sick. She was tried and acquitted of the murders.

This brief outline of the backstory illustrates Jackson’s use of Gothic elements. In addition to the emphasis on death and the sense of foreboding and further impending doom, there are also Gothic overtones in the characterization of Merricat. She goes into the village twice a week for supplies, mostly food and library books, because Constance is agoraphobic. But Merricat must make a game of the trip, with rules about where she should walk and how she should act: “I forced my hands to be still and made a rule for myself: Whenever I saw a tiny scrap of paper I was to remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian” (p. 16). In addition to all her rules for herself, Merricat also buries things around the family property for good luck and even tacks a book up on a tree as a protective talisman. Such actions are examples of magical thinking, the belief that thinking is the same as doing. Magical thinking is normal in young children, who believe that their thoughts and desires cause events that happen around them. But the persistence of magical thinking in the 18-year-old Merricat suggests a deranged mind, another common Gothic element.

Merricat also continues the belief, apparently learned from her parents, that the Blackwoods are better than the villagers and should maintain their distance to avoid contamination from the less worthy:

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it… . whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villages belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them. (p. 8)

Mr. Blackwood put up a fence all around the property and fastened it with a padlock. Merricat makes a ritual out of unlocking and relocating the gate when she leaves the house and when she returns from the village. The Blackwoods’ geographical isolation reflects their feelings of superiority and their fear of the masses:

I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks; that was always the picture I had in my mind—birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws. (p. 10)

Merricat’s narration of her family’s isolation from the villages bleeds into another Gothic element of the story, its setting. The isolation of the large Blackwood house, fenced off from the everyday world and fortified by Merricat’s magic, fits right into the Gothic picture. Jackson also uses setting to call up another work of late Gothic literature:

The Rochester house was the loveliest in town and had once had a walnut-panelled library and a second-floor ballroom and a profusion of roses along the veranda; our mother had been born there and by rights it should have belonged to Constance. (p. 4)

The Rochester house alludes to Mr. Rochester’s huge house, with his deranged wife hidden upstairs, in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.

Gothic features continue as the plot of We Have Always Lived in the Castle unfolds. The precipitating crisis of the book occurs when Constance and Merricat’s cousin, Charles Blackwood, their father’s brother’s son, arrives to disturb the status quo of their existence. As the only remaining male heir, he intends to take over the family mansion and the family fortune. Merricat ratchets up her magic to protect her existence. When a fire breaks out at the house, the volunteer firefighters arrive to try to put it out. That is, after all, their job, even if they don’t like the Blackwoods, the fire chief insists. A truly macabre scene, suggestive of a Satanic ritual, develops as the townspeople implore the firefighters to let the house burn, then set to smashing and looting whatever the flames don’t destroy.

The fire obliterates the top floor of the house. Afterwards, Constance and Merricat continue to live in the small kitchen area while vines overgrow the top. Whereas Merricat had earlier spoken of their home as the house, now she describes it this way: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p. 177). Finally, the story comes full circle as the house turns into the isolated, creepy castle characteristic of Gothic literature and all the foreboding of impending doom foreshadowed at the beginning comes to fruition.

 

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Addendum

See also Happy 250th, Ann Radcliffe:

It’s 250 years since the publication of The Castle of Otranto, an anniversary prompting both a British Library exhibition (Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination) and a linked BBC Gothic season. It is Horace Walpole’s only novel that you see on entering the exhibition, and with which Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC4 series, The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour (which ends on3 November), began.

Another 250th anniversary, of Ann Radcliffe’s birth, goes unmentioned, an omission reflecting her curious marginalisation in both celebrations – “the great enchantress”, as Thomas De Quincey called her, does figure, but mainly as the hapless novelist (vapid and trashy, you infer) sent up in Northanger Abbey. For the British Library display, the problem looks to be the absence of a visual legacy, of Radcliffe manuscripts and film adaptations; for Graham-Dixon, it may be the absence of a penis. His blokeish version of early literary gothic consists of chaps like Walpole, William Bedford, Thomas Chatterton, Blake and De Quincey, with the equally colourful Mary Shelley as token woman, and their manly wrestlings with political and industrial revolution, masculine identity and urbanisation in turn influence the Victorians.

Novelist Lev Grossman on Narrative

Lev Grossman: My depression helped inspire the Magicians trilogy – Salon.com.

I think literary critics — of whom you’re one and I’m another — are much better at describing beauty on the sentence level than we are at talking about the grace of a narrative twist or wonderful pacing or the thrilling tension that a well-put-together narrative gives you. I feel like we’re not very good at praising that. We don’t have a good critical language for it. I think that’s why books with that kind of narrative flare lag behind the more non- or anti-narrative novels in critical reputation.

–Novelist Lev Grossman to interviewer Laura Miller

Monday Miscellany

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Harry Potter boxed setSure, Harry Potter destroyed the evil Lord Voldemort. But, aside from making lots of money for book publishers and film studio/theme-park conglomerates, what has the wizard done for us lately?

In fact, he has been helping to reduce prejudice.

That’s the conclusion of research just published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. It finds that, among young people, reading J.K. Rowling’s book series—and, crucially, identifying with the lead character—can reduce bias toward stigmatized minority groups.

We’ve seen a lot of studies about how reading fiction can increase self-understanding and empathy, but now there’s scientific evidence that it can also reduce prejudice.

Tom Jacobs does a good job here of explaining this research and comparing it with earlier research on whether reading literature can reduce racism.

The Scourge of “Relatability”

What do people mean when they say that they relate to a character in a literary work? Rebecca Mead tackles that question in The New Yorker:

Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was “relatable,” she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of “relate”—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as “relatable” began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of “relatable”—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry.

With bold insight Mead differentiates between identification with a character—an active process in which the reader engages with the artistic work—and relating to a character—a response in which the “reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play.” Relatability is a mere self-reflection, while identification requires “the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy.”

Send Yourself Flying: 3 Books For An Out Of Body Experience

Characters don’t need to become better people by the final page of a book, but I do hope they change. I read to experience another world, and characters are often most tangible when they undergo transitions.

In some books, that change is an actual physical transformation. Characters stop being human, and become transfigured. If the writer is successful, they pull the audience into that metamorphosis. Here are three books about characters not bound by their bodies.

See what books Nick Ripatrazone recommends for a transformative experience.

Book Buzz: ‘Ulysses’ to become virtual reality game

James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the greatest books in literature, and it is also one of the hardest to read. Irish filmmaker Eoghan Kidney is crowdfunding a creative solution to this problem: A virtual reality video game that allows the reader to experience the book as the protagonist.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this. I really don’t.

10 of the Most Depressing Places in Literature

“here are a selection of other depressing places and the writers they inspired,” including Dickens’s London, Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey, and Truman Capote’s Holcomb, Kansas.

The Goldfinch: who should direct and star in the movie?

The excitement surrounding The Goldfinch seems to have no end in sight. When it’s not it being lauded with the Pulitzer prize, it’s crowds flocking to see the original artwork by which Donna Tartt’s novel was inspired, or articles praising the book as one of the best of the year. Now the inevitable movie version is on its way – it doesn’t even have a director, a screenwriter or a cast yet, but at this rate it’s becoming one of the most hyped movies-to-be of the year.

Check the comments section to see answers from U.K. readers to The Guardian’s questions.

Monday Miscellany

Anthony Burgess on James Joyce: the lost introduction

Written in 1986 as the introduction to a Dolmen Press edition of ‘Dubliners’ illustrated by Louis le Brocquy, but never used, this brilliant essay, recently found among the papers of the author, who died in 1993, appears here for the first time

Happy Bloomsday! (June 16, the day during which Leopold Bloom takes his famous walk around Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses.)

And The Irish Times offers a perfect way to celebrate by reading this essay about one of Joyce’s other most famous works.

8 Actresses Who Brought Our Favorite Book Characters to Life

This is a good list, with insightful commentary:

  1. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, The Grapes of Wrath
  2. Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  3. Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger, Harry Potter
  4. Winona Ryder as Jo March, Little Women
  5. Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, The Silence of the Lambs
  6. Sissy Spacek as Carrie, Carrie
  7. Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice
  8. Helena Bonham Carter as Marla Singer, Fight Club

Shakespeare, magical realism and “House of Cards”: A conversation between authors Alexi Zentner and Téa Obreht

Alexi Zentner’s new novel, “The Lobster Kings,” is set in a lobster fishing village and focuses on Cordelia Kings. Inspired by “King Lear,” Zentner’s second novel is the story of Cordelia’s struggle to maintain her island’s way of life in the face of danger from offshore and the rich, looming, mythical legacy of her family’s namesake.

“The Lobster Kings” has already been getting raves from Ben Fountain, Stewart O’Nan and the Toronto Star, which said “Zentner displays more talent and controlled craftsmanship in ‘The Lobster Kings’ than many other writers will manage in a career’s worth of novels.”

Alexi and Téa Obreht (“The Tiger’s Wife”) met recently to talk about “The Lobster Kings’” inspiration and influence, Shakespeare, writing outside your voice, and the way myth and magic work in fiction.

In Salon, two authors hold a wide-ranging discussion on how and why they write fiction.

It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?

No one denies that Donna Tartt has written the “It novel” of the year, a runaway best-seller that won her the Pulitzer Prize. But some of the self-appointed high priests of literary criticism—at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review_—are deeply dismayed by The Goldfinch_ and its success.

We couldn’t have a week without a controversy within the halls of literary criticism. In this article for Vanity Fair Evgenia Peretz looks at the high-brow critics’ negative reactions to a novel that the public seems to love.

Monday Miscellany

When the Water’s Too Cold, Something Else to Dive Into: A Critic’s Survey of Summer Books

As for this summer’s brand-new reading, if there’s one overriding motif, it’s this: the crazier, the better.

Here’s a whole long list of recommended summer reading.

Norman Mailer’s A Fire on the Moon: a giant leap for reportage

On the eve of the 45th anniversary of the first man on the moon, Geoff Dyer explains why Mailer’s historic account, written with typical gusto and urgency, is an exemplar of the New Journalism

Rise of the Shelfie

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Elaine Showalter discusses the latest book from literary historian and critic Phyllis Rose:

Rose describes the results in The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a contribution to the hybrid literary genre of the shelfie—part literary criticism, part memoir. While the combination of books she read was unique and fresh, the genre of reading-memoir is not new, and indeed Rose may have helped invent it, in 1997, with her radiant The Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time, along with Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (1996) and Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life (1998). There have been many more, including one of the latest to gain attention, Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014).

11 OF THE MOST REALISTIC PORTRAYALS OF MENTAL ILLNESS IN NOVELS

The 11 novels listed below talk candidly of mental illness, too. Sometimes the veil of fiction permits authors to tell even truer stories — they can write without worrying about their own reputations or the reactions from their family members. Their books give us a deeper understanding of mental illness and the way we deal with mental illness in our culture. They also do what all great literature should do — let us get to know and care about the characters as people.

One of my pet peeves about some novels is their careless portrayal of mental illness. See why Rebecca Kelley thinks these 11 novels accurately present mental illness:

  1. MRS. DALLOWAY BY VIRGINIA WOOLF (1925)
  2. TENDER IS THE NIGHT BY F. SCOTT FITZGERALD (1934)
  3. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE BY J.D. SALINGER (1951)
  4. THE BELL JAR BY SYLVIA PLATH (1963)
  5. I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN BY JOANNE GREENBERG (PEN NAME: HANNAH GREEN) (1964)
  6. DISTURBING THE PEACE BY RICHARD YATES (1975)
  7. ORDINARY PEOPLE BY JUDITH GUEST (1976)
  8. SHE’S COME UNDONE BY WALLY LAMB (1992)
  9. THE HOURS BY MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM (1998)
  10. THE PASSION OF ALICE BY STEPHANIE GRANT (1998)
  11. THE MARRIAGE PLOT BY JEFFREY EUGENIDES (2011)

‘WE WERE LIARS’ AND 8 OTHER BOOKS YOU’LL LOVE IF YOU WERE SHOCKED BY THE TWIST IN ‘GONE GIRL’

Readers during the summer of 2012 were captivated by the twists and turns of Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl. As we lead up to the release of the movie adaptation, we’re looking for other books that can give us the same chills and surprises. This summer the surprise ending everyone will be talking about is E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (Delacorte).

In addition to We Were Liars, Caitlin White suggests eight other novels that will satisfy your craving for a good thriller.

The 10 best (worst) dystopian fictions

It’s still a subset of a subset today (speculative fiction > science fiction > dystopia), but it’s also a buzzword that’s thrown around in conversations about tech, privacy, net neutrality, climate change, politics, and just about any other hot-button topic. That said, with its popularity at an all-time high, instances of people misusing the term “dystopian” are way up, too.

Dystopian literature is specifically a hyperbolic view of a familiar society — one that exaggerates social ills in order to make a point about society’s flaws. It’s also the opposite of utopian literature, creating a world in which the supposed “ideal society” is actually the worst idea possible, ultimately leading humankind to ruin.

In Wired, Devon Maloney provides “a canon of the most influential dystopian texts of the past century — what they contained, who wrote them, what they criticized”:

  1. 1984 (also Brazil) (1948)
  2. The Trial (1925)
  3. Brave New World(1932)
  4. I, Robot (1950)
  5. Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  (1968) (served as the source material for Blade Runner)
  7. The Terminator films (1984-?)
  8. The Handmaid’s Tale  (1985)
  9. Parable of the Sower  (1993)
  10. District 9  (2009)

For each item on the list Maloney includes a brief section called “Why it matters today.” He also breaks down the list interns of themes such as environment and class inequality.

Monday Miscellany

Hunt on to find Cervantes — Spain’s great writer

Cervantes
Cervantes
Source: Wikipedia

Miguel de Cervantes, Spain’s greatest writer, was a soldier of little fortune. He died broke in Madrid, his body riddled with bullets. His burial place was a tiny convent church no larger than the entrance hall of an average house.

No more was heard of the 16th century author until the rediscovery of a novel featuring an eccentric character called Don Quixote rescued him from oblivion.

By then, nobody could remember where his grave was. Four centuries later, Spain intends to do the great man justice.

Diversity, Authenticity, and Literature

Preeti Chhibber, who works in marketing for HarperCollins, writes on BookRiot that “there are inherent racial issues that exist inside publishing a book with multicultural themes written by a person who doesn’t have a historical connection to that culture or race.” For example:

A few weeks ago, the news broke that Simon & Schuster would be publishing a prequel to Gone With the Wind, called Ruth’s Journey. This book is going to be about Mammy. This book is going to be written by a 73-year-old white man named Donald McCraig.

There are, she says, really two issues here: “The first issue is diversity. The second issue is authenticity of voice.”

We want diverse characters written by everyone, and we want enough writers of color that come to mind just as easily as white authors. We have to stop defaulting to white writers, from both the publisher’s and the reader’s perspective. And we have to stop seeing multicultural characters as an anomaly. I want to see those characters in my literary fiction, in my sci-fi, in my historical fiction. And I want stories of their lives and their cultures.

Best sci-fi and fantasy novels of all time

The Telegraph [U.K.] presents the best books from the science fiction and fantasy genres

This is quite a varied list. Since I don’t read a lot of fantasy or science fiction, I was surprised at how many of the books on this list I’ve read.

And be sure to look at the comments, which will suggest many more titles to add to your TBR list.

“Well actually, in the books…” 15 differences from text to TV in Game Of Thrones

No matter what the title under discussion, book lovers almost inevitably say, “The book was better than the movie.”

But visual media—film and television—are very different from books, because our brains process written and visual material differently. Therefore, changes from the book in the film or TV versions are often necessary for a successful adaptation.

Of course there are also times when the film or TV version makes wholesale changes in the book that aren’t necessary for the adaptation between formats. For example, in his film of David Baldacci’s novel Absolute Power, Clint Eastwood changed the whole story line. The reason? Eastwood starred as the lead character, who is killed about midway through the book. This plot change wrecked the whole point of the book. But it’s no surprise that Eastwood would not want the character he portrayed eliminated so early. Hence the change.

I have not read Game of Thrones nor watched the HBO series. Nevertheless, I found this discussion of differences between the books and the TV shows informative. What do you think?

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters who make me rage

Over at Lovely Literature bloggers Ashley and Anne have each compiled a fun list of despicable characters.

Are there any other literary characters you’d add?