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.”

On Reading

The universe within.

This is not an example of outstanding writing. But I can’t help but warm to someone who can write this:

While reading you create a universe within you where your characters talk and move through breathtaking landscapes and everything is as unique as you and your imagination are.

You become the container of that universe where the book comes to life. You give life to something bigger than you, you become THE LIFE for your characters which exist only as long as you keep imagining them.

Read what else Daniel Scott has to say about reading, including why he’s never read an e-book and why he prefers to buy new rather than used books.

Nonfiction can appeal to youngsters who appear to be nonreaders

kid with booksI’m not trained in teaching children how to read, but I do usually hear about kids’ graduation to chapter books as a milestone in their process of learning to read. And my impression is that most of those chapter books are fiction. In this article Susie Wilde proclaims:

Children who appear to be nonreaders are often nonfiction readers. While fiction demands the sequential flow, factual books permit stop-and-go reading.

It makes sense to me that some children may in fact prefer reading nonfiction rather than fiction, just as some adults do. According to Wilde, there are now many books available for those children. Read her recommendations for children in the following age groups: 3–5, 4–8, 8–11, 9 and up.

Reading with your ears: do audiobooks harm or help literature?

I have been a big fan of audiobooks since they first became available. My husband and I started by renting titles that came in boxes of several cassette tapes from Books on Tape. Now we’ve upgraded to downloadable books from Audible. It’s now also possible to borrow audiobooks electronically from many public libraries.

I’ve always believed that listening to an audiobook “counts” as having read the book as long as I listened to the unabridged version.

In this article in The Guardian Claire Armitstead wonders “if the oft-maligned rise of spoken word recordings isn’t actually improving our understanding.” She writes that hearing a recorded version of Colm Tóibín’s novel Nora Webster after she had read the book made her understand how the author “weaves a manner of thinking into a manner of speech, so that a whole era and society are contained in the narrator’s broken reporting of spoken sentences.”

Armitstead quotes from critic Harold Bloom, who believes that listening to audiobooks does not allow the whole cognitive process that reading from printed pages does, and from writer Neil Gaiman, who says that dismissing audiobooks is “just snobbery and foolishness.”

On this page you can listen to some audio versions of stories.

I continue to love audiobooks because they make me feel that I’m not wasting precious time when I listen while, driving, folding clothes, or plodding on the treadmill. However, I usually choose mysteries or thrillers to listen to rather than literary fiction. If I know I’m going to want to savor a writer’s style, I’ll read the book on either printed or ebook format.

And speaking of ebooks…


KindleI recently discovered this site, which deals with all things pertaining to e-books:

TeleRead is for technogeeks who love books—and booklovers who love gadgets. We write about Kindle-type ereaders, 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.

You’ll find all kinds of articles here, including reviews of specific books and of e-reading gadgets as well as a list of sources for free e-books. There’s also information aimed at librarians and at authors interested in producing e-books of their work.

On Reading

Is Google Books Leading Researchers Astray?

Google Books, “a searchable digital archive of millions of texts spanning the history of the printed word,” can allow scholars to analyze the history of language and culture. But a recent published paper by three data scientists from the University of Vermont claims that the basic design of Google Books makes mapping such cultural trends impossible.

One problem with Google Book’s approach to indexing works is that it archives only one copy of a book. Finding a book listed only once obscures the popularity of best sellers, which libraries characteristically own a large number of to reflect the public’s high demand.

In this article several scholars contribute their own additional concerns about Google Books, at least when its used as a sole source of information. See why the author of the article concludes, “ Ultimately, we might have to recognize that Google Books simply isn’t a great research tool, however appealing it might be.”

The Work of Fiction and the Fiction of Work

The habit of reading fiction is training for friendship and responsible citizenship. A healthy society requires its members to utilize the novel’s three gifts: empathy, imagination, and knowledge. Reading fiction puts us in the habit of wanting to know more about people, treating people as people rather than just as statistics with reductive labels slapped on them. In a world where workers are treated like machines and corporations are treated like humans, we need a novelist’s sense of story in order to hold onto our own identity and to respect the common humanity of our fellow workers, all of us struggling for the necessities of life and a dream or two besides.

How 3 New Kids’ Books Help Cope With Traumatic Events

Writing for Time, Sarah Begley looks at how three new books help middle-grade readers learn about and deal with real-world problems:

  • Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate portrays how an imaginary friend helps a boy whose family faces the imminent possibility of homelessness—again.
  • The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin presents a girl who obsessively throws herself into research about a specific kind of jellyfish to understand the drowning death of her friend, a strong swimmer.
  • The Nest by Kenneth Oppel features a boy whose baby brother is born with multiple congenital problems.

Begley reports that books like these are important even for children who aren’t facing such problems because the stories model resilient behavior and help kids better understand their peers. “What’s critical for all young readers, whether or not they are struggling, is that they discuss things with their parents after reading,” she writes.

6 Ways Reading And Watching Science Fiction Makes You A More Ethical Person

Science fiction, a type of speculative fiction that imagines what people and their world might be like in the future, is gaining in popularity. This article looks at six ways in which reading and watching science fiction can make us more moral or ethical people:

  1. Sci-Fi Has Always Been Focussed On Moral Messages
  2. It’s Is Made For Taking On Current Issues In A Subversive Way
  3. Imagination And Morality Are Heavily Linked
  4. Sci-Fi Lets Us Talk About Ideas More Freely
  5. The Concept Of Aliens Helps People Push Us Past Prejudice
  6. “What-If” Thinking Is Good For Moral Brains

3 Key Advantages of “Slow Reading” That Turbocharge Your Learning

Productivity drives a lot of what we do—we want to get more done, and we therefore have to work faster to become more productive. This drive is most apparent in our desire to consume as much information as possible. We read quickly so we can move on to the next book or article. Fast reading may work in some circumstances, but real comprehension demands slow reading.

In this article Gregg Williams, a marriage and family therapist, describes his own experience with realizing how fast reading in fact slowed him down. It takes him a while to get around to the meat of his argument, but he ends up pointing out three advantages of taking time to read a text slowly:

  1. Slow-reading uncovers “hidden” gems.
  2. Stories lead to deeper truths.
  3. Slow-reading adds to your web of knowledge.

He explains that “ slow reading is also a very good idea whenever you are reading to understand any body of knowledge (for example, textbooks and popular nonfiction).” When you’re trying to learn something, slow reading saves you time because you can follow the logical flow of facts and associations.

In many cases fast reading may serve your purpose better than slow reading. “The good news is that you can decide to switch between the two.”

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”.

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?

On Novels and Novelists

10 Best Novels by Poets

Novelist and poet Naja Marie Aidt offers a list of novels “that bring a poetic sensitivity to language into the history of the novel.” She especially asks us to take a look at the work of the Danish poets included (the first two entries on her list), whom we Americans may not know about.

Read what she has to say about the use of language by the authors of these novels:

Azorno by Inger Christensen
The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann
Insel by Mina Loy
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Harper Lee and Truman Capote: A Collaboration in Mischief

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThe recent publication of Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, the original manuscript that eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, revived interest in the childhood friendship between Lee and Truman Capote. Soon there will be some new work by Capote as well. In October Random House will publish a collection of lost short stories by Capote that were discovered by Peter Haag, the owner of Capote’s German publisher, while he was doing research in the Capote archive at the New York Public Library.

And soon there will also be a middle-grade novel to introduce young readers to the childhoods of these friends who grew up to be two of the American South’s finest writers. Greg Neri has written Tru & Nelle, to be released next spring.

both [Nelle Harper Lee and Truman Capote] were oddballs who took refuge in detective novels, and they quickly bonded over their mutual love of Sherlock Holmes and the Rover Boys, spending long afternoons reading mysteries in their treehouse sanctuary. To entertain themselves, they started writing their own stories on her father’s Underwood typewriter, taking turns as one of them narrated while the other typed.

Maybe some budding writers will be encouraged to pursue their dreams by reading about two other children who loved reading and writing.

Rescuing Wonderful Shivery Tales

When Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm began collecting and writing down songs, stories, and folklore in the early 1800’s, they were working to preserve the authentic voices of the people. Under the influence of a Romantic movement calling for the unification of Germany, they collected these stories to save what they believed was authentic German popular culture.

In this article in The New York Review of Books, Marina Warner traces the history of Grimms’ folk and fairy tales. She notes how the tales have changed over time and what those changes suggest. Since fairy tales and folklore contain many of the archetypes found in later literature, this is a fascinating read for those interested in literary history and literary criticism.

Why Do I Love New York?

A Crime Writer’s Tour of the City That Never Sleeps

Linda Fairstein is an attorney turned novelist. She joined the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 1972 and headed the sex crimes unit from 1976 until 2002. She continues to consult as a sex crimes expert. Fairstein is the author of a series of crime novels featuring Manhattan prosecutor Alexandra Cooper. The most recent book, Devil’s Bridge, is #17 in the series.

In this article she describes why New York City is so fascinating for a crime novelist:

Yes, I love New York — and perhaps it’s because I’m a crime novelist that I’m fascinated by its dark underbelly and rich history, which keep me riveted and searching for new discoveries at every turn.

10 Novels with Multiple Narratives

Susan Barker’s novel The Incarnations traces 1,000 years of Chinese history through the reincarnations of two main characters. She explains why she likes novels with multiple narratives:

Truth is often a multiplicity of perspectives, and sometimes the more viewpoints and versions of events there are, the closer the reader gets to an overarching truth. I like the element of mystery these books can sometimes involve, the way the cogs in the reader’s brain have to grind to figure out connections between the various narrative threads.

I like novels narrated from multiple points of view for the same reason. I studied life stories, and I’m fascinated by the way different people experience the same event differently. You’ve heard the adage “There are two sides to every story.” In fact, there are as many sides to every story as there are participants in the event.

Here are the novels with multiple narratives that Barker recommends:

2666 by Roberto Bolano
The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
Great House by Nicole Krauss
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Here are a couple of books I’d add to the list:

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“Dune,” climate fiction pioneer: The ecological lessons of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece were ahead of its time

I know a lot of people who love Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’ve never read. But I’m going to have to pick it up soon, since Frank Herbert is the native son of our new home town, Tacoma, WA. We now live very near where the arsenic smelter that Herbert grew up with was located. Just last year a park not far from us was completely dug up for removal of arsenic-contaminated soil. New soil was put down, and the ball fields were reseeded and closed for a year for the grass to grow in.

In this piece for Salon Michael Berry discusses the significance of Dune as it turns 50. He hopes that the novel will take its rightful place in the annals of ecological fiction “now that there is a renewed interest in literature – science fiction and otherwise – that explores the effects of a changing global climate.” Berry concludes:

as “Dune” celebrates its golden anniversary, it stands as a piece of literature with far-reaching influence, inspiring new generations of readers, writers and scientists to look at their own planet in a different light.

On Reading

Everything Science Knows About Reading On Screens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 7 Types of People You See in EVERY Bookstore

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Virtues of Difficult Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading!

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

Related Posts:

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

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

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

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

Telling, Not Showing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narrative Structure

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

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

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

Finding the Story’s Center

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

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

The Result

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

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

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

On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

All-TIME 100 Novels

Way back in January 2010 Time magazine drew up a list of “the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME”: All-TIME 100 Novels:

The parameters: English language novels published anywhere in the world since 1923, the year that TIME Magazine began, which, before you ask, means that Ulysses (1922) doesn’t make the cut.

Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman used this approach in drawing up the list:

Grossman and I [Lacayo] each began by drawing up inventories of our nominees. Once we traded notes, it turned out that more than 80 of our separately chosen titles matched. (Even some of the less well-known ones, like At-Swim Two Birds.) We decided then that we would more or less divide the remaining slots between us. That would allow each of us to include books that the other might not have chosen. Or might not even have read. (Ubik? What’s an Ubik?) And that would extend the list into places where mere agreement wouldn’t take it.

They end by acknowledging that there are many titles not included “that we’re still anguishing over.”

I never did anything with this list when it first came out, but I come across references to it often enough that I thought it time to do the math.

This is the key to my list:

Books I’ve read: 45

Books that are on my classics reading list: 3

A – B

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

I read this in college in a course on the contemporary novel.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it as either a junior or senior high school. It was the book that made me realize how all the pieces of a well-crafted novel fall together.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

I read this in graduate school.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Like just about every other American kid, I read this in high school.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I read this when my daughter was young. It’s more of her generation than mine, but I wanted to be able to talk about it with her.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I read this with a book group when the paperback edition came out.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I can’t believe I still haven’t gotten to this one.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’ve read this one twice: It’s that good. (The first time was for a book group; the second time was on my own.)

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I read this one for my in-person classics book group.

C – D

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Catch–22 by Joseph Heller

I read this on my own early in my college years.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve read this several times, most recently about a year ago for my in-person classics book group.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

One of my book groups read this not long after it came out.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This one’s on my personal to-be-read list.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I can’t remember if we read this in high school or if I just think we did because I’ve heard of it so much.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Deliverance by James Dickey

I read this one after seeing the movie.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

F – G

Falconer by John Cheever

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

I read this one on my own soon after college.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I read this in college.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read this in college, again in graduate school, and again a few years ago before the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio was released.

H – I

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I read this one several years ago in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of American literature.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Herzog by Saul Bellow

I read this one in a course on contemporary literature in college.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I read this after seeing the PBS version starring Derek Jacobi.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I read this in a college course.

L – N

Light in August by William Faulkner

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve read this twice, once in a college course and again later on my own.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

We also read this one in high school.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

I devoured this one on my own soon after graduating from college.

Loving by Henry Green

Although I haven’t read this, it looks like one I would enjoy.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

I read this one in college in a course on the history of the novel. I reread it on my own many years later.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Money by Martin Amis

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This one is on my TBR list.

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

Native Son by Richard Wright

I read this in an introductory literature course in college.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read this one quite a few years ago when I decided that I should become at least a little familiar with current science fiction. I was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed it as a modern quest story.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I read this one not long after it came out.

1984 by George Orwell

Again, this is one that I read, probably along with every other American kid, in high school.

O – R

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I read this one on my own when I was filling in the gaps in my reading of American classics.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I read this one on my own while in college during the 1960s.

The Painted Bird Jerzy Kosiński

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

I read this one while on a Nabokov reading kick between my junior and senior years of college.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

I read this one in college.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Another one that I read while in college in the 1960s.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

I’ve read this one twice, on my own both times.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I’ve read this one at least three times, the latest time within the last year or so for my in-person classics book group.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

This one I read soon after publication. A friend gave me a hardcover copy for Christmas.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

This one is waiting on my TBR shelf.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I read this one recently for the online Classics Club.

S – T

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Here’s yet another classic that I read on my own during college in the 1960s.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I also read this one during my mid-life attempt to introduce myself to contemporary science fiction. I liked this one, but I liked The Diamond AGe even more.

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

I read this once in college and once again much later.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

This is one I read not long after it came out.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I read this several years ago for a book group.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

One of my book groups read this quite a few years ago.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I don’t remember when I first read this, but I’ve reread it many times over.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read this in a college course.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

U – W

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Watchmen by Alan Moore,

White Noise by Don DeLillo

I haven’t yet read this one, but it’s on my TBR shelf.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jeanne Rhys

This is the August selection for my in-person classics book group, so I’m counting it as read because I’ll be reading it in the next couple of week.

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And what have I learned from doing this assessment?

First, I’ve read fewer than half (45) of these “all-time best” novels. Even if I read and add to the total the titles on my classics club reading list, I’ll still be under half (48).

Second, of the listed novels that I have read, I read most of them in my high school, college, and early adult years. Maybe I had better radar then for good books. But I suspect that the real reason is that many newer books haven’t yet had time to prove themselves as classic novels and therefore are not included in this list. (One notable exception to this speculation is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.)

Third, however I look at the situation, one thing is clear: I have A LOT more reading to do.