Category Archives: Literary Criticism

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

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

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

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

The Classics Club

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

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

Brief History of Gothic Literature

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

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

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

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

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

In a magazine article about the exhibition:

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

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Novelist Lev Grossman on Narrative

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

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

–Novelist Lev Grossman to interviewer Laura Miller

Monday Miscellany

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

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

In fact, he has been helping to reduce prejudice.

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

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

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

The Scourge of “Relatability”

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

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

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

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

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

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

See what books Nick Ripatrazone recommends for a transformative experience.

Book Buzz: ‘Ulysses’ to become virtual reality game

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

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

10 of the Most Depressing Places in Literature

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

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

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

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

Monday Miscellany

Anthony Burgess on James Joyce: the lost introduction

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

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

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

8 Actresses Who Brought Our Favorite Book Characters to Life

This is a good list, with insightful commentary:

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Tartt—But Is It Art?

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

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

Monday Miscellany

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the Shelfie

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

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

11 OF THE MOST REALISTIC PORTRAYALS OF MENTAL ILLNESS IN NOVELS

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 10 best (worst) dystopian fictions

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

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

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

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

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

Monday Miscellany

Hunt on to find Cervantes — Spain’s great writer

Cervantes
Cervantes
Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

Diversity, Authenticity, and Literature

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

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

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

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

Best sci-fi and fantasy novels of all time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters who make me rage

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

Are there any other literary characters you’d add?

Cover: The World Within

“The World Within”: Introduction

Literature & Psychology

 

The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

Cover: The World Within

 

The World Within was one of the first literary collections assembled to spotlight a psychological approach to literature. It couples a literary editor’s introductory remarks with analysis by a psychiatrist.

The literary editor was Mary Louise Aswell (1902-1984), a novelist and editor for Atlantic Monthly, Reader’s Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. In her foreword to The World Within, which she titled “The Wing of Madness,” Aswell wrote that writer Sherwood Anderson had written in his notebook, ”When I had been working well, there was a kind of insanity of consciousness.” Aswell continued, “Anderson was one of the first generation of writers to be profoundly influenced by the great explorer of man’s consciousness, Sigmund Freud. But the source of his genius, like that of the far greater writers who precede and follow him, was his intuitive insight, as Freud would have been the first to acknowledge” (p. viii). About a writer working at the time when The World Within was published, she said, “As part of his cultural heritage he has the work of Kafka, Joyce, Proust; of D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann and the writers of their generation who first interpreted Freud’s revolutionary concepts in the universal, human terms of art” (p.viii).

Frederic Wertham, M.D., (1895-1981) provided the psychiatric analysis for The World Within. He was born in Nuremberg, Germany, then studied medicine and literature at King’s College, London University, before and during the first world war. In England he became interested in Charles Dickens’s writings on social reform. After the war he received his medical degree from the University of Wurzburg in 1921 and conducted postgraduate study in Paris, Vienna, and Munich. In 1922 Wertham left Germany to work with Alfred Meyer at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He became an expert in forensic psychiatry and believed that the environment shapes individual human responses. In 1932 he moved to New York City, where he studied the effects of segregation on the lives of African American children.

Wertham studied psychiatry during the period when Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), a medical doctor, was developing the theories and method of psychoanalysis for the treatment of psychopathology. This same time period saw the beginning of the development of psychiatry as a scientific medical discipline. Freud’s theories came to dominate the field, and for Wertham psychoanalysis was synonymous with psychiatry. In his introduction to The World Within Werthem wrote that after World War I “Freud’s psychoanalysis gained a foothold with a wider audience both inside and outside the psychiatric profession. Freud’s knowledge of literature was prodigious. He explored not only the meanings hidden in the acts of persons but also those in the printed pages of books from the Greek classics to Dostoevsky. He was like an archaeologist who discovers the intact relics of an old bridge, a bridge built of myths and dreams. For the content of every neurosis is an individual myth. No wonder that this kind of psychiatry had in turn the greatest influence on literature” (p. xv). For this reason Wertham’s terminology seems strange to readers of today, for whom psychiatry usually means the use of drugs to treat mental illness.

Wertham also wrote in his introduction “Since ancient times the relationships between psychiatry and literature have been intimate and manifold, although up to the present they have remained largely unformulated” (p. xii). For him, historical myths and legends, such as ancient Greek mythology, represented timeless psychological truths that contemporary psychiatry was particularly suited to formulate: “What brings the science of psychiatry in the psychoanalytic era into such close and fruitful relationship with the art of literature is that psychoanalysis is analysis of a special kind. It does not delve into the mind to isolate disparate elements. Psychoanalysis always aims to relate the detail, the symbol, to the living organism as a whole. It is here that the research of the scientist and the search of the artist find a common ground. Great writers know how to give a unified picture of a whole personality through minute observation of a meaningful expression, a characteristic mannerism, or an unconscious habit” (p. xvi).

The World Within reflects the cultural world view of the time when it was published, a philosophical belief in the absurdity and meaninglessness of the world that had been nurtured by two world wars. Aswell called the time “this age of freedom from certainty” (p. vii). Americans know this attitude best from Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel The Catcher in the Rye. The literary works of Søren Kierkegaard, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus reflect a similar philosophy. Wertham referred to this time period in psychoanalytic terms: “The social crisis of our time has a close similarity to the emotional state in a neurosis: it is a want in the face of plenty. False ideals are instilled in people: for men, to produce and sell; for women, to reproduce and buy. Against this propaganda promoted by all the mass methods of modern communication, psychiatry and literature uphold the dignity of the individual in a changing world” (p. xxiv). His reference to changing gender roles as “false ideals” foreshadows The Second Sex (published in French in 1949 and in English translation in 1953) by French woman Simone de Beauvoir.

Wertham looked to literature for expressions of societal ills that needed treatment: “Literature is always—directly or indirectly, positively or negatively—a reflection of the deepest conflicts in the real life of the period” (p. xx). But he also looked to literature as a means of treating those ills, since it is in “the struggle on the frontiers of imagination where the progress of society takes place” (p. xxiv).

 

The World Within includes the following works:

  • “The Story of Serapion,” E.T.A. Hoffman
  • Notes from Underground (excerpt), Feodor Dostoevsky
  • “The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James
  • “The Orchid and the Bee” (from Cities of the Plain), Marcel Proust
  • “Metamorphosis,” Franz Kafka
  • “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” Conrad Aiken
  • “The Door,” E.B. White
  • “I Am Lazarus,” Anna Kavan
  • “The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote
  • “Caput Mortuum,” Edita Morris
  • “The Fury,” Robert M. Coates
  • “Mrs. Razor,” James Still
  • “Why I Live at the P.O.,” Eudora Welty
  • “Percy Grimm” (from Light in August), William Faulkner

From time to time I will report here on one of these works.

Monday Miscellany

The Conclusion of Women’s History Month

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

14 Totally Badass Female Authors

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

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

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

The 10 Best Thrillers and Crime Writing By Women

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

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

Addition:

Australia’s literary cranky ladies

 

Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?

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

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

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

Top Literary Cities in the U.S.

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

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

On Literary Cravings and Aftertastes

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

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

10 Famous Writers Who Hated Writing

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

Monday Miscellany

Cover: The Golden Thread

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

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

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

Bring the literary giants of the great war to life

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

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

The cold equations of ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Authors from Georgia You Should Read Now

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

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

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

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

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