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.”

On Reading

Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 7 Types of People You See in EVERY Bookstore

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW CHANGING YOUR READING HABITS CAN TRANSFORM YOUR HEALTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Virtues of Difficult Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

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

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

Telling, Not Showing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative Structure

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

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

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

Finding the Story’s Center

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

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

The Result

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

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

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