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.


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.

More on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

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

Reactions to Harper Lee’s recently published aren’t going away any time soon. Here are some more that I’ve collected. Again, this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but here I’ve included only those pieces that add something new to the discussion rather than just echoing what has already been said.

I offer very short summaries of these articles here. I encourage you to follow the links and read the entire articles for a thought-provoking look at how Go Set a Watchman has entered our national consciousness.

Data Miners Dig for Answers About Harper Lee, Truman Capote and ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn 2013 Jan Rybicki and Maciej Eder released software capable of comparing word patterns across different books. Rubicki and Eder, both affiliated with universities in Krakow, Poland, have used their software in search of the persistent rumor that Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Harper Lee, wrote at least parts of her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

By comparing Mockingbird with two of Capote’s works, In Cold Blood and The Grass Harp, the researchers have concluded that in the scene in which Scout and Jem are attacked on their way home from a school performance, the writing style has more in common with Capote’s than with Lee’s:

The researchers aren’t declaring that Mr. Capote wrote the passage but say that at this fraught moment in the narrative, Ms. Lee may have been subliminally using words as Mr. Capote did—or she may have been pulled off her typical authorial voice for some other reason.

Further, in an examination of Go Set a Watchman, “the scholars similarly did not find any parallels between writing by Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote, nor any signs of a strong editor.”

This is an informative article for anyone interested in data mining in the emerging field of digital humanities.

Harper Lee and the hero’s journey

Cover: The Hero with a Thousand FacesCharles Kinnaird poses the interesting theory that the differing portrayals of Atticus Finch in Mockingbird and Watchman illustrate Harper Lee’s life considered in light of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey as presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey, and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Although Watchman has been published much later than Mockingbird, it was apparently written first, then heavily edited into Mockingbird. Therefore, Kinnaird is correct in looking at the novels in this order.

An Evening with the Real Scout Finch

Sarah Galo reports on a reading by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the famous 1962 film version of Mockingbird, of Watchman. Badham told the audience that she thinks Mockingbird came at a perfect time for our country and Watchman has done the same, in light of recent events:

she emphasized the importance of reading both of Harper Lee’s books in light of the “major things” that have come up in the past few weeks. “It all comes down to education. I tell the schools all the time, and I make the kids say it and then scream it: The root of all evil is ignorance.”

How Go Set a Watchman Solves the Mystery of Harper Lee

Boris Kachka writes for Vulture that Watchman is

a crucial biographical document. For every question it raises about its profoundly famous and private 89-year-old author, it also answers a mystery or two about Lee’s life and motivations.

Like other writers who look for the progression from Watchman to Mockingbird, he sees the recent publication as a measure of how Lee’s views about her hometown of Monroeville, AL, changed as she spent her early adult years in New York working at becoming a writer.

Harper Lee’s lingering Civil War ghosts: “Go Set a Watchman” is “a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South”

In an interview with Salon, African American literature professor Angela Shaw-Thorburg of South Carolina State University talks about what Atticus Finch now represents.

About Mockingbird Shaw-Thorburg says:

when I read the novel, and think of it from my students’ perspective, I realize there’s not a lot of space given to black voice in that novel. It’s supposed to be a novel about race, about civil rights, but it’s a conversation between white people… . I’ve never seen it as a big statement about the humanity of black people, and how we need to fight for justice for black people. It’s about supporting the status quo.

And about the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Watchman she says:

It’s almost schizophrenic: On one hand we have an Atticus who says he’s all for justice, on the other hand he goes to Citizens Council meetings. I think this is a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South. It’s part of our DNA. We have racism, but we get really upset if people are rude and crude. The two novels together are an accurate view of where we are as Southerners.

This article includes a link to Angela Shaw-Thornburg’s own review of Watchman in Southern Literary Review.

Atticus Finch Confronted What the South Couldn’t

In this piece in Time magazine Ralph Eubanks addresses the issue of the differences between the two versions of Atticus Finch:

The reason the Atticus of Mockingbird is iconic and the one in Watchman feels alien is because as Lee reworked Watchman into Mockingbird, she tapped into a key component of Southern culture: the need for folk heroes and mythic figures. It is through the folklore of the South that the region places a mirror up to its virtues and failures.

He continues:

Like any Southern liberal of his generation, Atticus does not challenge the foundation of Jim Crow privilege, even though he is actively defending a black client and trying to show his fellow white citizens to learn how to walk in another man’s shoes. He knows that he cannot convince a jury to treat Tom Robinson as an equal. So, Atticus Finch was a man of his time rather than a man before his time.

And finally: “In Watchman, Atticus becomes part of the forces in the South that Lee wrote Mockingbird to counteract.”

Eubanks believes that Watchman should not have been published now but should have been left “to be discovered and studied by scholars as an artifact after Lee’s death.”

America, Meet the Real Atticus Finch

Michael Bourne is a staff writer at The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. Calling Mockingbird “a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era,” he goes on to say, “Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature.”

Bourne has a lot more to say. But what I take issue with—as I said in my review of Watchman—is the notion that the two different Atticus Finches are real people whose contradictory portrayals must be explained to restore sense and balance to our universe.

The two men are literary characters. Each one exists only in his own book, not in both. We may discuss what the two different representations of Atticus Finch say about Harper Lee’s vision, about the times in which she wrote or in which Mockingbird is set, or about what Watchman has to say about current American society. But neither novel’s portrayal of Atticus Finch is better or more realistic or more accurate than the other. We each may, for whatever reasons, prefer one Atticus over the other, but that preference says more about us than it does about Atticus, that imagined fictional character.

Near the end of Watchman Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, asks her:

“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.

I will continue to love the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Watchman has not introduced me to the “real” Atticus; it has introduced me to another, different Atticus. Compare the books, but don’t treat them as dueling biographies about the same historical person. Atticus Finch is a literary character, not a flesh-and-blood person.

On Novels and Novelists

7 Book Franchises We Really Need To Say Goodbye To

Claire Fallon writes in the Huffington Post:

Let’s be honest: Too many series and franchises are reworked and rebooted until there’s simply no life left in them. As much as fans may clamor to spend more money on another Dune book, for example, they’re more likely than not going to be disappointed by the lackluster result, which only serves to taint the otherwise acclaimed series. We need to learn to say goodbye before we’re entirely ready, instead of waiting until a brand has fully worn out its welcome.

Here are the seven series she lists:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  3. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
  4. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  5. The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
  6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

A quick reading of the comments suggests that many people misunderstood the point of this article. Several commenters list books and series that they say are awful. Some of the authors mentioned are Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child.

But I don’t think Fallon is writing about books that shouldn’t have been written in the first place. I think she’s concerned about books and series that have become so beloved by readers that it’s painful to watch someone else—some lesser writer—keep on writing inferior additions to the set. At least that’s how I feel about franchises such as Harry Potter, the Millennium trilogy, Little House, and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

How about you?

The Wachowskis’ Sense8 Is the Philip K. Dick Adaptation We Always Wanted

Here’s another long read, and I have to admit that much of it is way over my head for now. Bram E. Gieben looks at the Netflix Original series Sense8 in relation to the work of author Philip K. Dick and series creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski:

The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).

I include this piece because it prompted me to add Sense8 to my Netflix list. The next long weekend that comes up I hope to spend watching several episodes of the series to see if I can make sense of them.

Care to join me?

13 Children’s Book Authors Who Would Have Written Beautiful Fiction For Adults Too

Riffing on Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event, Katherine Brooks lists 13 authors she thinks would have written good fiction for adults:

After all, according to a 2012 study conducted by Bowker Market Research, 55 percent of the people buying fiction geared toward young adults are, actually, just adults. And they’re, actually, reading the books for themselves.

See why Brooks wishes these 13 authors had written fiction for adults:

  1. Beverly Cleary
  2. Walter Dean Myers
  3. Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  4. Katherine Paterson
  5. Mary Pope Osborne
  6. Gail Carson Levine
  7. Maurice Sendak
  8. Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Ellen Raskin
  10. Chris Van Allsburg
  11. and 12. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
  12. Lois Lowry

Brooks also lists as runners-up S. E. Hinton and E. L. Konigsburg.

How To Read A Bad Book By A Great Author

“What do we make of a bad book, written late-career, by an acclaimed author?” asks Colton Valentine, who moves on to discuss Milan Kundera’s recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance. According to Valentine, critics almost universally have described this novel as “out-of-touch, sexist, and, worst of all, banal.”

But, Valentine argues, late-career novels such as this must be approached not in isolation, but in the context of everything the author has written before. In particular, Valentine makes sense of Festival of Insignificance by comparing it with what Kundera had to say in his best known novel, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And this is the approach we should take to the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s second novel:

In a few weeks, Harper Lee will release Go Set a Watchman, a book that will inevitably fail to live up to its predecessor but that need not be written off. Broadening our mindset – fitting the novel into a larger textual legacy – may not redeem it. But that mindset can, at least, provide a stimulating exercise, a more productive and respectful way to think about the late works of the greats.

On Novels and Novelists

Here’s Why Famous Authors Chose Their Fake Names

For as long as there have been books, there have been authors disguising themselves behind pseudonyms. Some do it for political reasons, others for personal concerns, and some simply for the joy of mischief. In any case, pseudonyms are a tpower tool for writers, allowing their pens to say what perhaps their mouths couldn’t.

Sara Boboltz has put together information on authors who have used the following pseudonyms:

  • Robinson Crusoe
  • Voltaire
  • Stendhal
  • George Sand
  • Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Lewis Carroll
  • George Eliot
  • Mark Twain
  • Joseph Conrad
  • O. Henry
  • Pablo Neruda
  • Isak Dinesen
  • George Orwell
  • Claire Morgan
  • Ayn Rand
  • Stan Lee
  • Victoria Lucas
  • Toni Morrison
  • Lemony Snicket

Remembering Kent Haruf

Gary Fisketjon was Kent Haruf’s long-time editor at Knopf. Here he talks about their friendship and Haruf’s last novel, Our Souls at Night, the writing of which seemed to carry the writer through the final months of his life:

So this was why his mood had lightened over these months when he sounded like himself again. It is, after all, what writers do — they write. In his last interview, Kent describes the importance of concentration, and it seems to me he was a master of it, that this is what powered his ability to reveal, as he hoped to, “the fundamental, irreducible structure of life, and of our lives with one another.”

Haruf finished the copyediting of this last novel just days before his death in November 2014. Our Souls at Night is available now.

The Best William Gaddis Novels

Joseph Tabbi’s outstanding new biography of postmodern master William Gaddis, Nobody Grew But the Business, is a fascinating look at a well-known reclusive writer. It also reveals that much of Gaddis’s writing was autobiographical, and that Gaddis mined his 20 years in corporate America, as well as his own family history, for characters, themes, and stories. Tabbi ranks Gaddis’s novels.

There’s something sad about encountering an author only after his or her death. But there’s something exhilarating as well, because now we have a whole new body of work to pick up and get to know.

Here’s some advice on tackling the work of William Gaddis, whom biographer Joseph Tabbi describes as “a writer who can change how a reader looks at the world.”

“No writer is better than Gaddis at portraying the corporatization of America,” Tabbi says. Read why he recommendations tackling Gaddis’s output in this order:

  • J R (1975)
  • The Recognitions (1955)
  • Carpenter’s Gothic (1985)
  • A Frolic of His Own (1994)
  • Agapē Agape (2002)

Why write a collaborative novel? Well … why write alone?

Buddies Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite have recently published their first collaborative novel, War of the Encyclopaedists. Robinson is a MacDowell Colony fellow and a Yale Younger Poets Prize finalist. Kovite, an infantry platoon leader in Baghdad in 2004–2005, attended NYU law school and is now an Army lawyer and fiction writer.

In this piece they address the question of why they co-wrote a novel, a question they say seems to be based on the assumption that writing one’s own novel would be a greater achievement. Read the story of how their collaboration lead to this conclusion:

And yet here we are, awaiting the publication of our debut novel. It’s almost too difficult for us to believe. Without Chris’ drive, organization and friendly harassment, Gavin would never have made the time to contribute. And without Gavin’s contributions, Chris would be staring into the void. It was writing a novel together—a novel with its fair share of buoyant humor, but weighted with the melancholy and trepidation of growing up—that deepened our friendship and changed the course of our lives. In learning how to write vulnerable characters, we strengthened our empathy muscles, and learned how to be vulnerable to each other.

The new reign of writing from Spain is far above the plain

Eileen Battersby invites you to say Si Si to great writing from Spain, the mother country of a magnificent global literature, and salutes Hispabooks, a Madrid publisher commissioning English translations of contemporary classics

Archaeologists and anthropologists recently announced the discovery of the grave of Spanird Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616), author of literature’s first novel, Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha. Using this announcement as a springboard, Eileen Battersby writes in The Irish Times about Cervantes, the father of Spanish literature, and the literary tradition he inspired.

Her list “conveys some idea of their artistry and stylistic panache as well as their flair for very human stories with Everyman narrators” and includes authors whose work has now been translated into English:

  • The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse by Ivan Repila, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Pushkin Press, London)
  • All is Silence by Manuel Rivas, translated from the Galician by Jonathan Dunne (Vintage, London)
  • Life Embitters by Josep Pla, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Archipelago Books, New York)
  • Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (MacLehose Press, London)
  • Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Pushkin Press, London)
  • The Stein Report by Jose Carlos Llop, translated from the Spanish by Howard Curtis (Hispabooks, Madrid)
  • The Birthday Buyer by Adolfo Garcia Ortega, translated from the Spanish by Peter Bush (Hispabooks, Madrid)
  • Uppsala Woods by Alvaro Colomer, translated from the Spanish by Jonathan Dunne (Hispabooks, Madrid)
  • The Faint-Hearted Bolshevik by Lorenzo Silva, translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler (Hispabooks, Madrid)

Battersby’s list and descriptions offer readers a good opportunity to stretch their boundaries and try reading something from another country and culture.

On Novels and Novelists

10 authors who excel on the internet

If you love literature, here’s your chance to connect with some of the most technologically savvy writers:

a few [writers] are using the etherland as a canvas for experimentation and play. They have moved their storytelling, wit and insight from page to pixel, winning fans and readers in the process.

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Paulo Coelho
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Teju Cole
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Gary Shteyngart
  • Haruki Murakami
  • David Mitchell
  • Veronica Roth

What I particularly like about this list is that it proves that technology isn’t just for the young and the hip.

10 Best Dark Books

Here’s Publishers Weekly’s introduction to this article:

Amelia Gray’s wonderfully dark story collection Gutshot features a giant snake bisecting a town and a man, afraid of losing his beloved, soothed by her detached sensory perceptions. Gray, a master of haunting storytelling, picks 10 of her favorite books.

And here’s Gray’s introduction to her list:

Whether it’s borne out of some kind of bizarro escapism or the desire to see the dark mind confirmed and confined on the page, the urge to read and write dark fiction has been steady in my life. Here are ten books that have left their mark on my mind and my work.

I don’t like straight horror, but most of Gray’s choices here seem to pertain more to the dark depths of the human heart rather than to supernatural or unnatural machinations.

Read why she’s been influenced by the following books:

  1. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
  2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. Life Is With People by Atticus Lish
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
  8. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
  9. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain
  10. Bird by Noy Holland

I do, however, disagree with one of her choices, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That’s the book that made me decide, many years ago, that I don’t have to finish reading every book that I start.

Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter

I have loved the work of Kent Haruf ever since I read his 1999 novel Plainsong, which became his most popular work. That novel dealt with life on the plains of Colorado, in the fictional town of Holt. Two subsequent novels continue the story.

Haruf died last November at age 71. He completed one last work before his death:

Normally, it took him six years or more to write a novel. But in a rush of creative energy, he wrote a chapter a day. Roughly 45 days later, he had finished a draft of his final novel, “Our Souls at Night.”

Also set in Holt, Colorado, but otherwise unrelated to the earlier novels, this novel focuses on finding love late in life. Its inspiration was Haruf’s relationship with his wife, Cathy.

Our Souls at Night will be released on May 28. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

Can’t wait for “True Detective 2″? Dive into Ross Macdonald’s California noir masterpieces

The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone

Noir-heads and private-eye fans have long known that the detective novels of Ross Macdonald hit a sweet spot between plot-driven pulp writing and character-driven literary fiction. Inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett (especially “The Maltese Falcon”), taught about symbolism by W.H. Auden, hailed by Eudora Welty for “serious and complex” work, he wrote 18 novels driven by the gloomy, ambiguous detective Lew Archer.

Scott Timberg interviews Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan for online magazine Salon. Says Nolan:

He felt that the character of the detective was really not the most important character in the books. In fact, he started out thinking the perpetrator was of more interest than the detective — there was opportunity for tragedy, with the criminal — but in later years, he felt the victim was the most important or significant character.

Timberg also quotes Salon music and culture critic Greil Marcus, who has read all of Macdonald’s books:

“If you read Macdonald’s psychoanalytic mysteries in order, as the theme took on greater and greater power for him, the feeling that comes up builds book by book: that just as the reader is scared to reach the ending, so is Lew Archer, and so is Ross Macdonald.”

Top 10 (unconventional) ghosts in literature

Author Judith Claire Mitchell examines the function of ghosts in literature in this piece for The Guardian:

When Barry Hannah, the late novelist of the American south, taught fiction workshops, he would begin by writing those two words on the blackboard. All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is. As a student of Hannah’s back in the day, I took these words to heart. Literary ghosts didn’t have to scare; what they had to do was haunt.

“In literature,” says the writer Tabitha King, “the ghost is almost always a metaphor for the past.” This is true for literal ghosts who manifest in graveyards, and it’s true for figurative ghosts who are no more substantive than insistent memory.

Here’s Mitchell’s list of “the phantoms that kept me turning pages, the ones I never forgot when I finished the book”:

  1. Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
  2. The highboy in Alison Lurie’s “The Highboy”
  3. Holiday in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
  4. A missing child in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia
  5. Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
  6. The parrot in Robert Olen Butler’s Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot
  7. Americans like me in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior
  8. The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
  9. Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  10. Any of the demons in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons

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.