On Novels and Novelists

Writing Tips: James Lee Burke

Usually I would put writing tips from a big-time author under the heading “on writing” rather than “on novels and novelists.” But I’m including these tips from one of my favorite mystery writers, James Lee Burke, here because he has written them out as an essay rather than a list of bullet points.

I’m going to summarize them as a list here, but I encourage you to click on the link above and read the essay as he wrote it.

  • “If [a person] writes for the love of his art and the world and humanity, money and success will find him down the line.”
  • “The best teachers are the books and poems and plays of good writers. For me, that was Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
  • “I recommend that a beginning writer find a group, either at a community college or university or city library or church, it doesn’t matter, so he can share his work with others.”
  • “The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday.”
  • “If you keep a manuscript at home, its failure is guaranteed.”
  • “You write about what you know. You also write about injustice and you write to make the world a better place.”
  • “I believe talent comes from outside oneself. I also believe it’s a votive gift… . I believe humility in a writer is a necessity rather than a virtue.”
  • “A great artist finds his voice and then uses it in ways others do not.”
  • “If I have learned any wisdom as a writer, it is to say thank you to the people who have helped me on the way.”

The Secret History of One Hundred Years of Solitude

As Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50, Paul Elie interviews the author’s agent for Vanity Fair. The author died in April 2014, but “interest in Gabo and his great novel is surging.” Elie describes Solitude as “everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time—from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie to Junot Díaz.”

This article is the story of how Carmen Balcells, who had just sold the English-language rights to García Márquez’s work to U.S. publisher Harper & Row, became the author’s “representative in all the world” for the next 120 years. It’s also the story of how, over 18 months, Garcia Márquez worked obsessively on the manuscript of what would become his signature work.

“Magic realism” became the term for García Márquez’s violation of natural laws through art. And yet the magic of the novel, first and last, is in the power with which it makes the Buendías and their neighbors present to the reader. Reading it, you feel: They are alive; this happened.

Read the story of “ the first book to unify the Spanish-language literary culture, long divided between Spain and Latin America, city and village, colonizers and colonized.”

How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction

Emma coverAs I’ve written before, Emma is my favorite of Jane Austen’s novel. In this article John Mullan explains how that novel, written in 1814, “was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction”:

it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. In Emma, she is.

This novel presents a new kind of storytelling, a new relationship between author, character, and reader: “Emma is not telling her own story. We both share her judgments and watch her making them.” Only in the early 20th century did critics begin consistently using a name for this new technique, free indirect style or free indirect discourse:

It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.

Now I realize why, when I finished reading Emma for the first time, I turned back to the first page and started all over again. This is the kind of authorial technique that rewards a rereading—or several.

What’s Your Favorite Poem?

I don’t read much poetry, and that’s a shame. If you, like me, could benefit from some poetic recommendations, here’s a list of favorite poems from several writers, including Julian Barnes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alan Cumming, and Junot Díaz.

Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York | Books | The Guardian

One midwinter in 1950s New York, Harper Lee went to stay with friends. Little did she know she was about to receive the gift of a lifetime…

Source: Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York | Books | The Guardian

3 Blogs I’ve Loved Recently

Thanks to a recent WordPress Daily Prompt for today’s post:

Give some love to three blog posts you’ve read and loved in the past week, and tell us why they’re worth reading.

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(1) SAGA SATURDAY I

This post was my introduction to AbbieLu’s site Cafe Book Bean. In this post she defines what a saga is, then lists some of her favorite ones:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • Far and Away
  • East of Eden
  • The Thorn Birds

This post made me want to turn to my TBR shelves and grab a huge book to sink into. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until after January 1st to so indulge myself.) Overall, I love AbbieLu’s enthusiasm about books.

(2) #48: The Kings of Crime – II: Jim Thompson, the King of Clubs

On The Invisible Event, an unnamed Invisible Blogger writes about classic crime fiction.

This post particularly attracted me because one of the many books on my TBR shelves is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That book, and hence this blog post as well, are good fits for my interest in Literature & Psychology.

(3) ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

I loved finding this blog post by Marilyn Armstrong because it, too, relates to Literature & Psychology. Like Marilyn, I find the concept of time travel fascinating, and I did not know about the book she discusses here, Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies.

I hope I’ll be able to find a copy of this book!

On Novels and Novelists

To give and reconcile: Lois Lowry discusses childhood, importance of fiction

In a recent talk at Bowdoin College in Maine, award-winning author Lois Lowry discussed how her books in many ways reflect her own life:

In a winding narrative of her life story, Lowry intertwined personal anecdotes, beginning with her childhood, with their parallels in the subject matter of her subsequent novels. She told of her first novel, “Autumn Street,” which was inspired by her life as a child in Pennsylvania.

Reporter Surya Milner reports that it became clear from students’ remarks that one of the features of Lowry’s work that they most appreciate is “a style that, at times, integrates harsh or uncomfortable realities with the familiar comfort of childhood.”

Lowry said that her own experience taught her “how profoundly affecting a book can be for a kid at a particular time in his or her life.”

75 Years After Steinbeck Sailed, a Boat Is Readied to Go Back to Sea

In 1950 John Steinbeck and his friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, along with a crew of four sailed a wooden boat, the Western Flyer, down the coast from California to Mexico. They spend six weeks collecting marine specimens. Steinbeck wrote a book, The Log From the Sea of Cortex, published in 1951, about their experiences. The trip also provided the outline of the character Doc in Cannery Row.

John Gregg, a geologist and businessman from California, bought the boat for $1 million this year and is having it restored at a boatyard in Port Townsend, WA. Restoration of the badly damaged boat as a science education vessel will require an additional $2 million.

The restoration is a labor of love for Gregg:

When he was 11 and growing up in southern Georgia, a bookmobile carrying a copy of the book came to his neighborhood. That one book, Mr. Gregg said in an interview on the Flyer’s deck — the air full of the scent of pine tar, gulls cawing on the waterfront — turned him into a scientist and a lover of boats at the same time.

Plans call for the boat to be sea-ready by 2018. In the meantime, juniors and seniors from Port Townsend High School are studying Steinbeck’s books about boats and fishing: Cannery Row, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, and The Pearl. The literary unit will also include visits to the boatyard to study the boat and its history.

Ross Macdonald at 100

The Santa Barbara Independent celebrates one of the city’s most famous residents:

On the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday, the great detective novelist Ross Macdonald is poised to enter into his greatest period of renown since the 1970s, when his books were international best-sellers and he was on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

Ross Macdonald, pseudonym for Kenneth Millar, was one of the most influential writers in the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction. Born in 1915, Millar was raised mainly in rural Canada. He first came to Santa Barbara, CA, in 1946 and settled permanently there in the 1950s.

This long article analyzes the work of Macdonald, which has influenced many other writers, including Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Richard North Patterson, and Jonathan Kellerman.

Fortunately, Macdonald’s singular voice as a writer has not been silenced. His effortlessly flowing prose, his intuitive feel for the human condition, and his enduring integrity ensure that his work will continue to be read by people who care about what the detective novel can accomplish. The combined publication of the 1950s crime novels, the Archer short stories, and the Welty-Macdonald letters constitute a treasure trove for readers, those new to Macdonald and those returning to his works, those interested in detective fiction and those simply interested in great prose.

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 Novels and Novelists

Out with vampires, in with haunted houses: the ghost story is back

Just in time for Halloween (or shortly thereafter), here are several new ghost stories:

It has been supplanted in recent years by vampires, witches and other monsters, but now the good old-fashioned ghost story is back with a bang, with everyone from debut novelists to established literary stars such as David Mitchell and Gillian Flynn hoping to raise the hairs on readers’ necks this Halloween.

Read here about the following upcoming publications:

  • The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
  • Slade House by David Mitchell
  • Little Sister Death by William Gay
  • Rawblood by Catriona Ward
  • The Watchers by Neil Spring
  • The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
  • The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

“A good ghost story asks the reader to examine the horror within – but it’s in a safe and contained way,” says Catriona Ward. See what the other authors mentioned here have to say about why they have written a ghost story and why they think readers enjoy ghost stories.

Edna O’Brien: from Ireland’s cultural outcast to literary darling

Ed Vulliamy profiles Irish author Edna O’Brien. Now 84, O’Brien has not always been appreciated in her native land. Her “first and great novel,” The Country Girls was hailed in London, where it won the Kingsley Amis award, but banned in Ireland. This difference in the reception of her book, Villiamy writes, “etched the course of O’Brien’s life.”

Vulliamy explains how O’Brien’s relationship to Ireland while living and writing abroad played out. He places her squarely within the context of other Irish writers:

The extent of the Irish domination of literature in English during the 20th century – per capita – is staggering. From a country of its size, consider: Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Stoker, Wilde, Beckett, Synge, O’Casey, Butler, Flann O’Brien, Heaney, Trevor – and it continues in Mahon, Banville, McGahern and Tóibín.

Jonathan Franzen’s Crackling Genius

In a long article for the New York Times, Rachel Kushner visits Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz, CA. Having just finished reading Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, Kushner wanders through a conversation with Franzen about the background of the novel.

Read here how Kushner and Franzen meandered through topics that include Catholicism, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, East Germany, Edward Snowden, capitalism, and the death of Franzen’s cousin—“how this cousin made sense of his difficult life.”

Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: Never-Before-Seen Pictures of Truman Capote, Taken by David Attie

Eli Attie, son of photographer David Attie, describes how he found previously unknown photos his father had taken of Truman Capote in Brooklyn, NY.

Eli Attie wrote the afterword for _ Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir_ by Truman Capote, with the lost photographs of David Attie, to be published on November 3, 2015.

Andy Weir on his strange journey from self-publishing to Hollywood

I haven’t read Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, but I loved the movie. (I saw it in 3-D, which I highly recommend.) I knew the general story of how the work had come into being: how Weir did massive amounts of research, published it serially online, then crowdsourced some of the science concepts to make the science part of science fiction incredibly accurate.

Here writer Sara Vilkomerson explains how the main character, botanist Mark Watney, came into existence:

He’s a lovable character who’s part Han Solo, part MacGyver…and one big part Andy Weir. “My theory is that every protagonist is someone the author wants to be or who the author wants to screw,” says Weir, 42. “Just so we’re clear, Mark Watney is who I want to be. He has all the qualities I like about myself magnified without any of the qualities I dislike.”

This article appeared in Entertainment Weekly in November 2014, just as production on the film version of The Martian was commencing.

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

Sci-fi legend Neal Stephenson says it’s getting harder and harder to predict the future

Neal Stephenson is one of the biggest names in science fiction writing. Here, Drake Baer admits that he was “stoked” to talk to Stephenson and ask him, “What do you think is going to happen to human society in the near future?”

It’s a good question, given that many observers have pointed out that the future Stephenson described in Snow Crash (1992), Reamde (2011), and other novels has already begun to materialize.

Good science fiction “supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place,” Stephenson wrote. “A good [science-fiction] universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers … such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.”

Yet, despite his visionary abilities, Stephenson insists that he’s not concerned with predicting the future in his books. The point, he tells Baer, “is simply to tell good stories.”

Margaret Atwood, Digital Deep-Diver, Writes ‘The Heart Goes Last’

Margaret Atwood is another writer of science fiction whose futuristic work often feels prophetic. Her recently released novel The Heart Goes Last grew out of her interest in new forms of digital narrative. She began the project three years ago as an online serial for Byliner, but it soon grew into a novel.

Initially, Ms. Atwood planned to publish a single e-book with Byliner. But she got absorbed in the story and was intrigued by the process of shaping a narrative in full view of the public, building in cliffhangers and plot twists to keep readers coming back. She described it as a high-tech version of 19th-century serialized works like Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers.”

As Atwood got increasingly more involved in the narrative, she and her publisher, Nan Talese, agreed that she should stop publishing serially online and hold the evolving novel for later print publication. The online publication experiment ended in May 2013 after four episodes.

She occasionally bristles when her books are billed as science fiction. Instead, she describes her futuristic stories as works of “speculative fiction,” and argues that her plots depict plausible scenarios rather than fantasy tales.

Guardian Live: Richard Flanagan on love, life and writing

Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s career has produced six novels, five nonfiction works, and two films. Here he tells _The Guardian_’s Marta Bausells what he’s learned over those years:

  • Story is everything
  • All the great love stories are death stories
  • Research is overrated
  • The chaos as at the heart of things
  • You shouldn’t look for morality in literature
  • A novel without structure is a jellyfish pretending to be a shark
  • The moment you know everything about a character, you’ve created a caricature

The reading list of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Over on For Reading Addicts, Kath reveals F. Scott Fitzgerald’s recommended reading list. He reportedly dictated this list to a nurse while he was recovering from alcoholism in 1936.

You’ll have to click on the link to read the list. It’s fairly long. While I’ve read about three of the titles and have heard of a few more, there a a lot of books here I’ve never even heard of.

How about you? What do you think of Fitzgerald’s suggestions? How many of the books on his list have you read?

Hemingway in Cuba

Now that relations between the U.S. and Cuba have been restored, Robert Manning, executive editor of The Atlantic, looks back on an interview with Hemingway published in 1965.

By the time I got the opportunity to meet him, he was savoring the highest moment of his fame – he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature – but he was moving into the twilight of his life. He was fifty-five but looked older, and was trying to mend a ruptured kidney, a cracked skull, two compressed and one cracked vertebra, and bad burns suffered in the crash of his airplane in the Uganda bush the previous winter. Those injuries, added to half a dozen head wounds, more than 200 shrapnel scars, a shot-off kneecap, wounds in the feet, hands, and groin, had slowed him down.

Brew yourself a big cup of coffee or tea—or, if you’d rather invoke the spirit of Hemingway, pour yourself a good stiff drink—and curl up with this piece of literary history.

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.”

4 More Literary Lists, and Where I Stand on Each

One of the activities that my daily blogging challenge is cutting heavily into is reading. Since I’m not currently adding many new titles to my lifetime reading list, I’m turning to some other lists for a bit of consolation.

I think that for next year I’ll have to define for myself a serious reading challenge.

14 Women Writers Who Dominate The Universe Of Sci-Fi

I decided to start with Maddie Crum’s list of women science fiction authors for Huffington Post because I anticipated that I’d have my worst score here. I don’t read much science fiction. My reading in this genre is limited to the best known classics.

This is a list of authors rather than of specific books. I include in my tally the number of writers whose books I’ve read at least one of.

How many I’ve read: 4 of 14, or 28%

The percentage looks so much better than the actual number.

NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction & Fantasy Books

I don’t read much fantasy, either, but I hoped I might do better with this list because it includes some classics of literature.

How many I’ve read: 28, or 28%, which the web site tells me is in the top 37% of people who have participated.

At least I’m consistent.

The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

After two years of careful consideration, Robert McCrum has reached a verdict on his selection of the 100 greatest novels written in English.

Keep in mind that this list is from a newspaper in the United Kingdom.

If you want to know how McCrum made his choices, there’s a link to his discussion at the top of the page.

But I’m putting off the inevitable:

How many I’ve read: 48, or 48%

Darn. I was hoping for at least 50%. In my defense, I have enough of the ones I haven’t read on my list of classics TBR, so I at least give myself a pat on the back for knowing where my deficiencies lie.

BBC Believes You Only Read 6 of These Books…

I remember seeing something like this list by the BBC several years ago. Here’s List Challenges’s explanation:

Interestingly, the BBC never actually made this declaration. The list was created by an unknown individual and spread around the internet as a meme called The BBC Book List Challenge. It was probably loosely based on another list of books that was the result of a survey carried out in 2003 by the BBC in which three quarters of a million people voted to find the nation’s best-loved novels of all time.

The explanation ends with a link to BBC’s The Big Read – Best Loved Novels of All Time.

How many I’ve read: 58, or 58%, in the top 7%

Well, that’s more like it. Actually, I’ve read 58.3 of these works, since I read the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And a number of the books on this list that I haven’t yet read are on my list of classics TBR.

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How about you? How many of the books on these lists have you read?