I love reading mysteries because a well written mystery delves deeply into the depths of the human heart and psyche. I’m in partial agreement with Beth O’Brien, who says:

For me, the mystery books to read are personal. I want to know what happens to those directly affected. The family, the friends, the victims themselves. The general fiction section is where you’ll find the kind of mysteries I like.

GENRE KRYPTONITE: QUIET, PERSONAL MYSTERIES

She had me right up until that last sentence. While it’s true that some very good mysteries appear on the general fiction shelves, more often the best mysteries are found right where you’d expect them to be, on the mystery shelves. The main reason for this is that, once a writer has written a mystery and been categorized as a mystery writer, most book stores and libraries will continue to put all that author’s subsequent books in the same spot.

Like O’Brien, I don’t care for cozy mysteries (the kind in which, if the mystery were a play, the crime would occur off stage). And I’m not a big fan of the drawing room mystery, in which the sleuth, whether professional or amateur, gathers all the possible suspects in the drawing room and explains why each, one by one, isn’t the killer; the last person left is therefore the guilty party, and the sleuth proceeds to explain how the killer did the deed and how the clever detective figured the whole complicated mess out.

And I don’t like horror. I recently read two novels that were described as psychological thrillers that made me realize exactly what my definition of horror is: literature that uses a supernatural or inhuman phenomenon to deliver the promised twist at the end. (I’m not going to name those two novels so as not to spoil their endings for anyone who hasn’t read them yet.) It’s human motivation and interaction that I’m interested in, not goblins, demons, or other malevolent but external forces.

Finally, O’Brien says that she doesn’t like procedurals or courtroom dramas, and I disagree with her there as well. Procedurals, which pit a detective (who may or may not be a police investigator) against a bad guy or gal, frequently provide a look into the minds of both sides of that human equation. Courtroom dramas do the same, and often at the same time examine how the legal system works and how it affects human behavior.

Ultimately, though, O’Brien and I agree on the most basic appeal of a mystery. For her, it’s “about the people, the character development,” and I second that. The best mysteries are not pure plot, with one extreme event following another, careening off in seemingly endless directions. My purpose in reading a mystery isn’t to see what wild, unforeseen surprise the writer can throw at me. I read mysteries to learn about why people do what they do, how they interact with others, and what drives them. The best mysteries display as much character development as plot.

Here, then, are five mysteries that both interested and enlightened me. And you might want to click on the link to O’Brien’s article, where she offers five more.

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid

In the winter of 1963 in England, serial killers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady began killing children. Val McDermid uses this historical event as the starting point for her novel, in which a 13-year-old girl, Alison Carter, disappears in a small, rural English community distrustful of outsiders. The investigation falls to George Bennett, a young, newly promoted inspector. Although Alison’s body was never found, someone was convicted and executed for her murder. Despite this seemingly successful conclusion, the case continued to haunt Bennett for the rest of his career.

Decades later, Bennett tells the story of this case to journalist Catherine Heathcote. But just as Heathcote’s book on the case is about to be published, Bennett calls to tell her to stop. When he tells her he has new information but refuses to explain, Heathcote undertakes her own investigation of the case.

I’ve chosen this one of McDermid’s novels because it has stuck with me for years, but almost any of her books is worth reading, particularly her stand-alone novels. This book demonstrates how effective a procedural mystery can be.

Still Missing by Chevy Stevens

Annie O’Sullivan, a 32-year-old real estate agent, is about to close up an open house at the end of the day when a van pulls up. It’s been a slow day, and she hopes this last visitor might just be the buyer she needs. Instead, the van holds a psychopath who kidnaps Annie and holds her captive in a remote cabin for a year before she manages to escape. (This all becomes clear right at the beginning of the book, so I’m not giving anything away here.)

Annie narrates most of the book as recordings of her therapy sessions after her escape. The last part describes her efforts to re-integrate back into society after her terrible experience. As harrowing as this sounds, Still Missing is a story of survival and resilience that I still think about now, several years after reading it.

”M” Is for Malice by Sue Grafton

This novel, from the middle of Grafton’s alphabet mysteries featuring PI Kinsey Millhone, is one of the best. When a family patriarch dies and leaves his estate to be divided equally among his four sons, three of them hire Kinsey to locate their long-lost brother, the black sheep of the family, who has been gone for 20 years.

Kinsey is a good investigator, so find him she does. However, after witnessing the dysfunctional relationship between the other three brothers, she advises the prodigal son to consider carefully whether he wants to return to the fold with three men who would obviously rather split the inheritance three ways than four.

”M” Is for Malice aptly demonstrates how deftly Sue Grafton creates credible, complex characters and how the mind of an investigator can be just as compelling as the mind of a villain.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were childhood friends in a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston. But one day a strange car pulled up while they were out on the street and tried to pick them up. Sean and Jimmy didn’t get in, but Dave did. Dave later returned, but something had happened to him that drove him away from his friends and changed his life forever.

Years later, Dave Boyle is accused of killing Jimmy Marcus’s daughter, and Sean Devine is the police officer in charge of the murder investigation. This character-driven crime novel examines childhood, friendship, community, and the power of secrets. All the characters are sharply and complexly drawn in a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page.

There’s a good movie, but read the book first.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Mia Dennett, in her early 20s, is a well-liked art teacher at an alternative school in Chicago. She’s the daughter of a prominent but cold and demanding judge and a socialite mother. Mia’s family can’t understand why she chooses to live in the city instead of in their large home in a much safer suburban neighborhood.

When Mia’s not-too-steady boyfriend fails to meet her at a bar in the city one night, Mia leaves the bar with a stranger who calls himself Colin. A notorious criminal has hired Colin to kidnap Mia for him, but Colin soon decides to hide Mia in a remote cabin in Minnesota instead of turning her over to his employer. Mia’s disappearance isn’t discovered until Monday morning, when she doesn’t show up for work. Most of the narration shifts between several point-of-view characters—Mia’s mother, Eve; Gabe Hoffman, who’s in charge of the police investigation; and Colin—as the search continues with very few leads.

Such use of multiple points of view characterizes many works of contemporary fiction and reflects the fact that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the events. Novels that present several points of view show readers how different characters perceive the significance of events and how they interact with other characters. This approach to storytelling allows writers and readers to explore fully the deliciously messy and complex workings of human nature.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

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8 Literary Websites I’ve Discovered Recently

My explorations for Literature & Psychology have recently led me to these eight websites:

Modern Mrs. Darcy

I’ll let Anne explain the purpose of her blog:

I started this site to explore what it looks like to be an accomplished woman in our modern world. In Jane Austen’s day, when Elizabeth Bennet became the original Mrs. Darcy, it was a pretty straightforward question. It doesn’t seem quite so clear to me today.

I admit that I generally skim over the home and family discussions, since Anne and I are at decidedly different points in our lives. But I like reading what she has to say about books and literature.

For Reading Addicts

For Reading Addicts is brought to you by a team of literary-mad writers and editors, who propagate the pages with all the bookish info we can find. Whether it’s news, reviews or the latest releases you’ll find the lot around site making us a bookish hive for you buzzy bibliophiles.

There’s quite a commercial feel to this blog, with its Amazon affiliate program and its shop for literary T-shirts, mugs, and other items. But you can also find book reviews and reading recommendations here. You can also submit a book review of your own.

Culture and Anarchy

From the “about me” page:

I am Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University, where I teach modules on gender in literature, literature and nineteenth-century psychology, poetry, and Gothic. My research interests include Gothic, graveyard poetry, Pre-Raphaelitism in art and literature, lunatic asylums, and eighteenth and nineteenth century literature more broadly. I completed my Ph.D. at BCU, entitled ‘Christina Rossetti’s Fractured Gothic’, in 2010.

This blog contains an interesting mix of straight book reviews and pieces about literature and art, and literature and place.

WRITEROLOGY

I’m Faye. I merge the science of psychology with the art of storytelling and Writerology is the place I share all the lessons I’ve learnt over the years.

There’s a lot to explore here. The emphasis is on how writers can produce true-to-life characters through the application of psychological knowledge. There’s also material on writers and the creative life, and a workshop in which writers can enroll.

Everyday Reading

From the blog’s “about” page:

Welcome! I’m Janssen – reader, cook, mama to three little girls, and children’s librarian.

Everyday Reading is a family lifestyle blog focused on practical living for book-loving parents. Every weekday, I post about recommendations of books for adults and children, great recipes, daily style, and (very) simple DIY projects,

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if blogging had existed back when I was the mother of a young child. I imagine I might have been something like Janssen … well, the book part, at least. I wouldn’t have been comfortable posting pictures of me and my clothing.

As I said about the blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, I concentrate on the literary aspects here, since I no longer have a young child. However, I can see how someone with young children might be interested in children’s books and in how to build a child’s love of reading.

Stuart Vyse: Psychologist & Writer

About himself Stuart Vyse writes:

I am a behavioral scientist, teacher, and writer. I write the monthly “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer and personal essays in a variety of places—lately for the Observer, Medium, The Atlantic, The Good Men Project, and Tablet. I also blog very sporadically for Psychology Today.

Vyse adds, “I hold a PhD in psychology and BA and MA degrees in English literature and am a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.” He spent most of his teaching career at Connecticut College in New London, CT, where he was a professor of psychology.

Most of the entries here are links to Vyse’s work published elsewhere on the internet.

TeleRead

woman reading

TeleRead is for people who love books and gadgets. We write about Kindle-type e-readers, phones, tablets, other devices and apps in a practical way. TeleRead runs book news and reviews and keeps up with other media appealing to smart booklovers. Along the way, we strive to help narrow the digital and reading divides.

There’s a lot of information here: news, reviews of e-reading devices and apps, stories about writing and publishing.

Placing Literature

Placing Literature is a crowdsourcing website that maps literary scenes that take place in real locations. Anyone with a Google login can add a place to the literary database and share it over social media. Since its launch in May 2013, nearly 3,000 places from MacBeth’s castle to Forks High School have been mapped by users all over the world.

Use your current location to find literary places nearby. There’s also author spotlights and podcasts. Registered users can log in and describe a literary setting.

“Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s”

Most readers of Jane Austen name Pride and Prejudice as their favorite of her novels. But my favorite has always been Emma. I don’t remember whether Emma was the first Austen novel I read, but I do remember that it was the first novel that, when I had finished, I went back to the beginning and started reading all over again.

Emma coverI’ve read Emma several times more, but Carol J. Adams’s essay “Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s” introduced me to an aspect of the novel I had never noticed before: Adams argues that Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, has dementia. Of Emma Adams says:

how she behaved toward her father confirms, to my reading at least, Mr. Woodhouse’s cognitive impairment. Deciding what to send as a gift is only one of the many activities that Emma does to assist her father. She helps him stay oriented, does the conversational work for him, and plays a simple game with him rather than the more complicated ones she prefers.

Adams writes that she read or listened to Emma several times during the middle stages of her 92-year-old mother’s Alzheimer’s disease: “What started as entertainment soon became an important guide.” Adams continued to read books about her mother’s condition and “began a dialogue in my mind in which I used what I learned about Alzheimer’s to deepen my understanding of the novel, and Emma’s behavior to instruct me on caregiving.”

One of the criticisms most often leveled at Emma—the character, not the novel—is that she’s a rich, selfish, spoiled brat who amuses herself at the expense of other peoples’ feelings. It’s true that she does almost ruin the life of her friend Harriet by trying to arrange for her an unsuitable marriage. And she’s rude to another woman during the trip to Box Hill near the end of the novel.

But, for Adams, Emma demonstrates the casualties of caregiving: “When you lose your cool, it might not be with your care receiver, but some unlikely individual in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And, Adams points out, when Emma’s brother-in-law teases her about all her social engagements, Emma replies, “how very, very seldom I am ever two hours from Hartfield,” the Woodhouse home. Adams remembers how giddy she was with anticipation over two hours of freedom when she had arranged for someone else to stay with her mother for a while.

The neuroscience of how reading fiction affects our brains and our personalities, making us more empathetic, understanding, and compassionate, receives a lot of press. Adams’s story of how reading and rereading Emma helped her through a difficult time in her life is more straightforward:

I needed Emma as an example, to inspire me to be more patient, less judgmental. Caregiving books tell us how to behave; Emma showed me.

More Blogs on Literature & Psychology

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Tolstoy Therapy

Lucy, the blogger behind Tolstoy Therapy, writes on her About page:

I do not encourage reading over therapy or medication, and nor am I a clinician. I’ve personally found literature to be a great way to complement my therapy and self-care, but by no means do I think that it should be used alone when dealing with severe problems.

I cannot stress strongly enough how important this caveat is. Nothing you find on a web site should keep you from seeking necessary help from a mental health professional.

Lucy stresses that her blog describes her own experiences with reading. “I would recommend using books to help your wellbeing, but only when you are sure that you are receiving the support and guidance that you need as well.” Her posts include “Tips for Reading War and Peace and Getting Started with Leo Tolstoy” as well as recommendations like “18 Books for Winter.”

this space

From the site’s About page:

This Space exists to join the movement to destigmatise, without romanticising, mental health issues. It’s a space for everything from poetry to prose, from personal accounts to scientific pieces, and from fine art to comics. It does not exist to tell anyone what to do or how to feel, but we hope that what it will provide is an insight into a variety of perspectives on mental health, some relatable, some informative. No two people are the same, and no two people’s experience with mental health is the same. This Space is for respecting the individual and debunking stereotypes, and, through doing so, creating a community.

Most of “the team” behind this site are from England. The site solicits articles from readers about their own mental health experiences while allowing that “personal experience should not be declared as universally true.” Articles are labeled with “content warnings (CW) to denote potentially triggering content.”

the invisible event

On this site an Invisible Blogger, gender unspecified, discusses classic crime fiction at length.

The Stone and the Shell

Ted Underwood, who teaches English literature at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, here focuses on “applying machine learning algorithms to large digital collections.”

The name of the blog is drawn from a dream described in the fifth book of Wordsworth’s Prelude, where a shell seems to represent poetry, and a stone mathematics — or at any rate, “geometric truth.”

He doesn’t use the term digital humanities, but, if I understand that term correctly, it seems to be the process his work involves.

Electric Literature

This is more a digital magazine than a blog. Here’s how Electric Literature describes itself:

Electric Literature is a non-profit dedicated to amplifying the power of storytelling through digital innovation. Our mission is to ensure that literature remains a vibrant presence in popular culture by fostering digital innovation, supporting writers, building community, and broadening the audience for literary fiction. We believe the transformative experience of reading literature fosters empathy and explores the human condition like no other art form.

Electric Literature offers features, book discussions, and interviews.

How Fiction Works

Vanishing Point

This piece is a translation of a speech given by Swedish novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard on receiving a German literary award. Here the writer explains how reading fiction helps us to understand humanity in general by focusing our awareness on individual people.

What characterizes our age is “the sheer volume of images of the world” that allow us to see, almost instantly, an event that occurs anywhere on the planet: natural disasters, plane crashes, acts of terrorism. We see these images as we go about our day-to-day lives, and usually “we keep these different levels of reality apart:

Even the worst disasters are something I merely register, with varying degrees of horror, as if the world outside were a film, a play, a performance, of concern to me only in the most superficial manner.

Our lives are so bound up with the media:

which by its very nature creates remoteness, its narrative structures rendering every event equal, every occurrence identical, thereby dissolving the particular, the singular, the unique, in that way lying to us, or, put differently, fictionalizing our reality.

But occasionally “the two levels of reality converge and become one.”

And in our humanity, “there is a vanishing point.” It’s the point at which our perspective of the world shifts from definite to indefinite and back again. We see images of the mass of humanity, not of individual people. But novels provide the opportunity for the opposite movement:

if there is an ethics of the novel, then it is here, in the zone that lies between the one and the all, that it comes into force and takes its basis. The instant a novel is opened and a reader begins to read, the remoteness between writer and reader dissolves. The other that thereby emerges does so in the reader’s imagination, assimilating at once into his or her mind. This establishing of proximity to another self is characteristic of the novel.

The way in which the world of a novel takes shape in the reader’s mind “is special to the form.” In showing us “value of the particular and the singular,” novels act differently than the media, which push us to see humanity as a whole rather than as a collection of individual people.

Lorin Stein on the Power of Ambiguity in Fiction

woman readingLorin Stein is editor at The Paris Review, one of the world’s most respected literary journals. He has compiled an anthology, The Unprofessionals, of short fiction from the magazine that focuses on the work of a “new generation of writers under 40.” Most of these writers’ names will be unfamiliar to readers, but, according to Stein, their work represents “the best new writing he’s seeing today,” work that “locates a role for literary writing in our media-saturated 21st century.”

In this interview with Joe Fassler for The Atlantic, Stein describes this new kind of writing:

The stories that excite me most tend to have three qualities. First there’s a voice, a narrator who urgently needs to speak. Even if they never say “I.” Second, the narrator tries to persuade you that he or she is telling the truth. The third thing is, for lack of a better word, wisdom. A kind of moral authority, or at least the effort to settle a troubled conscience.

As an example of this new kind of writing Stein cites Denis Johnson’s story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” which was published in The Paris Review in 1989. In this kind of fiction, “the payoff here is emotional, not intellectual—I can feel it even if I can’t articulate it.” The story carries a meaning “that evades logical understanding but hits us in the heart.”

The key to the effectiveness of this type of writing, Stein says, is “you have to believe in the voice itself. The narrator has to exist as a steady reliable fact.” More specifically:

we’ve become interested in the fiction of the speaker. Interested, suspicious, aware. We might ask—in a way that our grandparents wouldn’t have asked—why someone is sitting down at the keyboard at a Starbucks and doing this? It’s no longer given why someone would tell a story on paper, or onscreen. It’s become a troubling question.

This type of fictional narrator has a dual nature:

When it’s done right, fiction provides the authority to speak about deep things; at the same time, it provides a shield, a mask. The mask lets you say things, talk about things, that you couldn’t ordinarily talk about. You don’t have to make sense in quite the same way.

In the works in the anthology Stein sees a new realism, “the truths we can’t tell except when we put on the mantle of this authority.”

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9 Blogs I’ve Discovered Through Literature & Psychology

Because I’m particularly interested in the intersection between literature and psychology, I curate Literature & Psychology, which I update regularly. Through this curation I’ve discovered a number of interesting blogs and web sites.

Classroom as Microcosm

Siobhan Curious describes herself as “a teacher, student and person.” She teaches college English and writes fiction (both novels and short stories). “She holds one undergraduate degree in English, one in second-language education, and a masters degree in English and creative writing. She is currently working on a masters in education.”

On this blog Siobhan Curious discusses not only teaching, but her own experiences as a reader and writer. There are lots of book reviews here, and she also links to her fiction.

I see that she hasn’t updated this blog since August, but I feel certain she’ll get back to work on it when she can. Between teaching, working on that second master’s degree, and writing fiction, I’m sure she has her hands full just now. Her archives go back to August 2007, so there’s plenty of material here to look at while waiting for her to reappear.

The Fiction Reboot and the Daily Dose

Dr. Brandy Schillace is chief editor of this two-pronged web site. I’ll let her describe it for you:

The Fiction Reboot | Daily Dose is a combined blog that promotes the medical humanities and intersections between self and story. Our mission: promote authors (fiction and non-fiction) and share perspectives about narrative, medicine, history, anthropology and sociology across cultures and disciplines. We seek to engage those working at the intersection, intrepid souls adding to our shared knowledge of what it means to be human.

Dr. Schillace is managing editor of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry and a research associate for the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. She writes both fiction and nonfiction.

Storycraft: Craft-based analysis for fiction writers

This is the blog attached to the main web site of novelist, essayist, and lecturer Tim Weed. He is a frequent presenter at writing workshops, and his blog reads like an ongoing workshop for authors. In clear and unpretentious language he explains topics such as how plot works and how good writers develop fictional character. He’s teaching authors how to write, but as a reader I also learn a lot about how to appreciate the writer’s process as I’m reading a novel.

The Literary Traveler

Francis and Linda McGovern founded Literary Traveler in 1998 with the following purpose in mind:

Literary Traveler is dedicated to the exploration of the literary imagination. We hope to bring you inspiring, informative articles about writers, creative artists, and the places that they lived and traveled.

Their web site features book reviews and general articles about literature, such as “From Page to Picture: The Dilemmas of Adaptation.” They also arrange literary tours. Some of the material here focuses on the relationship between writers and the places where they lived and/or worked.

Psychology And Cognitive Aspects Of Reading

This is a Flipboard collection of articles about “Psychology, cognitive psychology, neuroergonomics and many other research fields which affect a way we read.”

Book Movement

This site is aimed at book groups. Members can join for free and can create a private web page for their group. Other features include listings of top book club choices and book giveaways for book clubs.

Lovely Literature

Two aspiring writers blog about their relationship to all things literary. They post regularly. This is a good site to check if you’re interested in what ordinary people, as opposed to professional literary critics, think about particular books.

Interesting Literature

Welcome to Interesting Literature, an online library of all that is most interesting and captivating about literature. Here you’ll find fun facts, interesting research into writers and their work, and blog posts which seek to capture the most fascinating facets of the literary world.

The site is run by Dr. Oliver Tearle, Lecturer in English at Loughborough University in England.

open culture: The best free cultural & educational media on the web

Open Culture brings together high-quality cultural & educational media for the worldwide lifelong learning community.

Open Culture curates free “intelligent audio and video.” And boy, is there a lot of material here, including the following:

  • 950 free online courses from top universities
  • 675 free online movies
  • 550 free audiobooks
  • 600 free ebooks

Dan Colman, the lead editor, is the Director & Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, though the site is not associated with Stanford.

“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In 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

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This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

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

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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.

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

In his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot wrote “Do I dare/disturb the universe?”

Erin Haley looks at novels that present characters who dare to ask the same question as Prufrock. The main theme is independence, she says. Such characters “challenge the status quo.” Because challenging the status quo and seeking independence are classic undertakings of adolescence, many of the books about characters who dare to disturb the universe are in the YA (young adult) category.

Haley lists four books in which characters dare to disturb the universe:

  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
  • Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
  • And One for All by Theresa Nelson
  • Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

I’m only familiar with the first two books on her list; the first is a YA novel, while the second is not.

But the question of characters daring to disturb the universe got me thinking about my own reading. I wonder if all fiction doesn’t deal with this topic in some way or other. The basic requirement for fiction is conflict, and conflict usually involves challenging at least some aspect of the status quo.

Since disturbing the universe is just about a given in YA literature, I decided to look for adult books that explore the same concept. After a quick look over my most recent reading list, I’d include these novels on my own list of books featuring characters daring to disturb the universe:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

No matter what the topic, I usually turn to this classic novel to illustrate it. Not only does Atticus Finch dare to question the status quo by defending (both legally and literally) Tom Robinson, but Scout and Jem follow his example in their unusual relationship with Boo Radley, the town recluse.

Cover: Broken for YouBroken for You by Stephanie Kallos

The two women in Kallos’s first novel dare to disturb the universe by reaching out to each other and, in the process, by redefining the concept of family. This is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman

Here’s another Alice Hoffman novel. In this one a woman must rethink the meaning of her whole existence when she discovers that her current reality is based on a lie. It takes a lot of courage and strength to redefine yourself and rediscover what you believe in.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I can’t say much about this novel without giving away a critical plot point. What I can say is that the protagonist admirably rises to the occasion of living an unconventional life.

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

Would you be willing to betray social conventions if that were your only chance for living an independent life? The female protagonist of this novel said “yes.”

 

I’d love to hear what books you’d include on your own list. Please let us know in the comments section.

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.