Reading in Flow

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Flow and the Reading Process

If you’ve ever had the experience of getting lost in a good book, you’ve experienced flow. Csikszentmihalyi’s general characteristics of flow describe this experience. The key to flow is complete absorption in an activity. For readers, the flow experience means that they enter a new reality, the world they create from the text.

woman readingOne characteristic of reading in flow is that we gradually enter the fictive world we’re reading about. All sense of awareness of the real world around us slips away as we enter a new dimension. In other words, reading in flow occurs outside of our conscious awareness. As soon as we start to think about what is happening, we are bounced out of the fictive world back into our real world. For this reason the process of reading in flow is difficult to talk about and even more difficult to study. Nevertheless, researchers continue to try to devise ways of studying how we read. Here’s a summary of their hypotheses about how the reading process works.

Gerrig has extensively studied the cognitive processes involved in the reading process. He uses the phrase narrative world to refer to the situation model readers create while reading. Like Rosenblatt, Gerrig sees reading as a transactional process: The reader interacts with the text to construct the narrative world, and the narrative world completes the transaction by reconstructing the reader. This mutual exchange becomes a continual process through which the reader creates and revises the situation model as long as the flow experience continues. This process takes place outside of conscious awareness.

In creating the narrative world, the reader interacts with verbal clues provided by the text. These textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention by activating some of the “magnetic fields,” what Csikszentmihalyi calls the “bits of information” stored in the brain. The textual clues forge associations between these various mental constructs, and from these associations the reader continuously constructs the narrative world through what Copland calls cognitive mobility. These processes move both backward and forward in the sense that readers are able to hold in abeyance contrary or ambiguous suggestions of meaning that later details may either confirm or preclude.

One means by which textual clues focus and direct the reader’s attention is foregrounding, the use of “unusual linguistic features … to place emphasis on the form of the text, prompting a fresh perspective on the meaning of the text (Emmott, Sanford, & Dawydiak, p. 206). Aspects of foregrounding include direct juxtaposition of concepts, linguistic techniques such as simile and oxymoron, and stylistic techniques such as rhythm, rhyme, sentence length, sentence structure, and paragraph length.

The field of psycholinguistics attempts to study foregrounding by examining depth of processing as a way to determine the amount and kind of detail readers notice while reading. The main method for examining depth of processing is anomaly testing, which presents readers with questions such as this one: “After an aircrash, where should the survivors be buried?” Most readers, according to Emmott and colleagues, will consider the question of where burial should occur without noticing that survivors would not be buried at all. This is an example of shallow processing.

A newer experimental technique for studying depth of processing, the text change detection method, presents study participants with a textual passage, withdraws the passage for an interval of 100 to 500 milliseconds, then presents a text passage again. In some cases the second passage of text is identical to the first (control condition), while in other cases the second passage differs from the first by one word. Participants are asked whether the second passage is the same as or different from the first. Using this technique, the researchers found that stylistic devices (such as sentence structure and paragraph formatting) often used to foreground details did increase readers’ depth of processing. However, the researchers also found that, contrary to their expectation, narratological cues (such as an announcement that upcoming events were important or surprising) decreased rather than increased the amount of detail that readers noticed.

Another method that literary texts use for focusing the reader’s attention is conceptual blending, described by Copland and by Freeman. In conceptual blending, elements from two different domains are brought together in a way that highlights both their similarities and their differences; in creating the blend, readers construct a third entity that incorporates both the similarities and the differences. Through this “typically unconscious process” (Copland, p. 140) readers constantly build and rebuild their situation model of the narrative world: “the theory of conceptual blending is particularly powerful in revealing the ways in which the embodied mind articulates the many dimensions of human experience … through language” (Freeman, p. 107).

Both of these textual techniques for focusing readers’ attention—foregrounding and conceptual blending—work through defamiliarization and refamiliarization. Both techniques present readers with two items, A and B. By associating A with B, the text leads readers to see A in a new and different way. In other words, the text causes readers to defamiliarize themselves with their usual, or automatic, concept of A and then to construct a revised concept for A that includes the new element acquired from the comparison with B; this latter process is called refamiliarization. Through these interlocking processes of defamiliarization and refamiliarization, readers continuously create and re-create meaning from the text. Such cognitive processes produce the intentional ordering of consciousness that Csikszentmihalyi says constitutes flow.

In general, the cognitive processes at work during reading in flow probably are similar in all people. However, as reader-response literary theory hypothesizes, all individuals bring their own personal history of experiences to their reading. (Also see Rosenblatt ). Miall proposes that what directs each person’s unique transaction with a given literary text is affect, or emotion. He defines affect broadly:

For the purpose of this article I will understand affect to denote the subjective experience of emotions and feelings, including (necessarily for my argument) feelings that have little or no cognitive content but which operate immediately as judgements, preferences, and the like. (Beyond the Schema Given)

He further describes three characteristics of affect: (1) it is self-referential; that is, it allows readers to apply experiential and evaluative aspects of their self-concept to the task of reading; (2) it enables cross-domain categorization of text elements in processes such as foregrounding and conceptual blending; and (3) it is anticipatory and prestructures a reader’s understanding of the meaning of a text early in the reading process.

Other researchers also point out the role that affect plays in reading. For example, van Peer reports that studies have shown that an accumulation of foregrounding devices has an affective impact on the reader. Freeman says that any theory about how the reading process works must account for both intentionality and feeling. Gold writes that literature allows our brains to combine memory, language, and emotion: “The defining characteristic of fiction and poetry, the power of literature to influence, entertain, help and illuminate, resides in its ability to call forth feeling along with thought in the reader” (p. 19). Affect works, according to Miall, by activating in the reader “vectors of concern” that resonate with the reader’s current concerns about the self.

Another condition that Csikszentmihalyi identifies as necessary for flow is a balance between the demands of the task and a person’s skill level. Both Csikszentmihalyi and Gerrig suggest that all people without some form of brain impairment (organic brain disorder or attentional deficits) have the cognitive processes necessary for experiencing narrative worlds—or reading in flow. Many people read in flow naturally, without any special training beyond the rudiments of learning to read. However, it is possible to court flow and to become more proficient at it by studying techniques of literary criticism and, perhaps more important, by reading widely.

The example of a reader who finds a rose in a fictive world may explain how the flow process of reading functions and can be enhanced. The rose has become a common literary symbol for love because its beautiful appearance and pleasant aroma suggest the positive attributes of the human emotion of love. But the same stem that supports the beautiful flower also bears, lower down, thorns meant to protect the flower from being picked. The beautiful flower thus becomes associated with the potential pain involved in trying to obtain it. Logically, this new attribute contradicts the previous pleasant associations of the rose, but affectively most readers comprehend the aptness of this symbol for the mixture of pleasure and pain involved in love. In addition, a rose eventually opens too wide and surpasses its point of fullest beauty; the petals of the full-blown rose soon begin to die and fall off, further suggesting that, like all living things, the perfect rose contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Moreover, readers who know other literary works that present a rose as a symbol of love—such as Robert Burns’s famous poem “My love is like a red, red rose” or William Faulkner’s story “A Rose for Emily”—will make associations between the rose imagery in those works and the current image. In this way the current appearance of the rose will acquire additional layers of symbolic resonance for readers whose previous exposure to literature provides them with many available concepts for rose.

Benefits of Reading in Flow

Although Csikszentmihalyi believes that achieving the flow state is its own reward, there are, nevertheless, benefits of reading in flow. Some researchers look to brain functioning to explain how reading enhances readers’ lives. Miall, for example, says that because the brain’s right hemisphere appears to play an important role in mediating one’s self concept and also in literary response, “literature may offer one of the most significant vehicles for development and change in the self.”

Joseph Gold, who is both a licensed therapist and a professor of literature, believes that reading narrative fiction contributes to personal development in two ways: (1) by activating the pre-frontal cortex and the temporal lobes, the major language centers of the brain, and (2) by assisting in the building of personal identity in narrative form. It is fiction’s ability to engage both cognition and affect that gives it its power to help us “reorganize and rethink our ways of seeing and thinking about things” (p. 36). Such reorganizing and rethinking is called reframing, and it allows us to imagine alternative contexts. As Copland explains, the mental processing that occurs during reading acts as “a mental gymnasium in which through reading, we can exercise new modes of being in the world and new modes of world-making” (p. 158).

Reading can especially help readers in dealing with negative feelings and negative self-concept issues by placing such feelings in a critical context with other feelings and ideas; this new context allows readers to better understand those negative feelings. By taking readers outside of immediate experience, fiction can give them the distance necessary to understand and control a situation. On a more concrete level, Nell writes that reading can provide the opportunity for “the covert rehearsal of real-life coping strategies” (p. 245). The extent to which a work of literature can transform a reader’s concept of self depends upon the concerns that result from that reader’s prior experience.

Bibliography

Copland, S. (2008). Reading in the blend: Collaborative conceptual blending in the Silent Traveller narratives. Narrative, 16(2), 140–162. Retrieved June 28, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.

Emmott, C., Sanford, A. J., & Dawydiak, E. J. (2007). Stylistics meets cognitive science: Studying style in fiction and readers’ attention from an interdisciplinary perspective. Style, 41(2), 204–224. Retrieved June 29, 2008, from Academic Search Elite database.

Freeman, M. H. (2006). Blending: A response. Language and Literature, 15(1), 107–117. Retrieved February 6, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

Gerrig, R. J. (1998). Experiencing narrative worlds: On the psychological activities of reading. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. (Original work published 1993)

Gold, J. (2001). Read for your life: Literature as a life support system. Markham, Ontario, Canada: Fitzhenry & Whiteside. (Original work published 1990)

Miall, D. S. (1989). Beyond the schema given: Affective comprehension of literary narratives. Cognition and Emotion, 3(1), 55–78. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/688/0/Beyond_s.htm

Miall, D. S. (1995). Anticipation and feeling in literary response: A neuropsychological perspective. Poetics, 23, 275–298. Retrieved October 20, 2007, from http://cogprints.org/40/0/NEUROLIT.htm

Nell, V. (1988). Lost in a book: The psychology of reading for pleasure. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rosenblatt, L. M. (1978). The reader, the text, the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

van Peer, W. (2007). Introduction to foregrounding: A state of the art. Language and Literature, 16(2), 99–104. Retrieved May 4, 2007, from Sage Publications Online database.

 

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler

Man in Hole: Turning novels’ plots into data points

Dan Piepenbring reports for The Paris Review on an example of digital humanities, or the application of big-data crunching to literary analysis:

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Piepenbring emphasizes that the definition of plot Jockers uses is different from the one readers usually think of:

a book’s plot isn’t necessarily about conflict and resolution, but emotions, which “serve as proxies for the narrative movement,” as Jockers writes.

This conception of plot allows Jockers to use sentiment analysis, which looks at specific words as “sentiment markers,” or words that indicate either positive or negative sentiment. Piepenbring gives examples from Jockers’s lists of both positive and negative words and includes a couple of the charts produced by the research. In the end, Piepenbring concludes that such research

suggests that plot is at once more subtle and more obvious than we’d expect—less a product of preconceived conflict and more indebted to a writer’s style and characters. Never has the question “What happens in it?” been more vexed.

The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels

I have to say that this title seems presumptuous to me. We’ve only completed 14 years of this century, and already we’re choosing its best novels? Let’s append so far to this analysis.

BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari polled several dozen book critics, including The New York Times Book Review’s Parul Sehgal, Time magazine’s book editor Lev Grossman, Newsday book editor Tom Beer, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin, C Max Magee, founder of The Millions, Booklist’s Donna Seaman, Kirkus Reviews’ Laurie Muchnick and many more. We asked each to name the best novels published in English since 1 January 2000. The critics named 156 novels in all, and based on the votes these are the top 12.

Read what the critics have to say about these novels:

  1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).
  2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003).
  3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009).
  4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004).
  5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001).
  6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000).
  7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010).
  8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012).
  9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).
  10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).
  11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000).
  12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002).

I’ve read half of these, although I have three more on my TBR (to be read) shelf.

Harper and Alice Lee, a story of two sisters

The recent announcement that the first novel Harper Lee wrote, the precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, will be published this summer produced lots of coverage. Among the news reports about how the manuscript was discovered and whether Harper Lee is competent to agree to its publication emerged this story of sisters Harper Lee and Alice Lee, the author’s attorney and protector.

Philip Sherwell writes in the U.K.’s Telegraph that the controversy over the newly discovered novel has “ thrown a spotlight on the remarkable bond between the two sisters, neither of whom married or had any known romantic interests; one who could not wait to leave Alabama, the other who never left.” According to Sherwell, Mary Murphy, who made a documentary film and wrote a book about the Lee sisters, says “there was a strong maternal feel to Alice’s protective approach to Nelle, 15 years her junior.”

The teenaged Alice helped care for her baby sister. Alice then went off to study law and became one of the first women to graduate from law school in the Deep South. Alice Lee joined her father’s law firm, Barnett, Bugg and Lee. As a young woman, Harper Lee left Monroeville, Alabama, for New York City to pursue a career as a writer. But Harper returned to Monroeville regularly over the years. When in town, she stayed with Alice in the family house. Harper returned to Monroeville permanently after a stroke in 2007.

Alice Lee continued to practice law until age 100. She died last November at age 103.

Margaret Atwood visits West Point for a frank conversation on gender, politics and oppression

Salon’s Laura Miller describes a recent trip with Margaret Atwood:

The entire first-year class of cadets at West Point had read her 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for a literature course. The 75-year-old author agreed to speak to the assembled plebes (as first-year students at the military academy are called) after lunching with them on mac-and-cheese under the gothic arches of the campus’ vast, Hogwartsian mess hall.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a not—too-distant, theocratic dystopian future in which years of environmental pollution has made most women infertile. The novel’s main character, known as Offred (for “of Fred,” the man whose household she belongs to) is a handmaid, one of the few remaining fertile women. Her job is to provide Fred with a child through a ritualized act of surrogate copulation. “In this future, women must wear color-coded, body-concealing robes and are not allowed to hold jobs outside the home, to own property, to live on their own or even to read.”

Miller explains how the first-year cadets had come to read The Handmaid’s Tale:

Lt. Col. Naomi Mercer, the assistant professor and course director responsible for assigning “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which was paired with the Ursula K. LeGuin story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”), talked about her choice. Mercer, an Iraq War veteran, is also the author of a forthcoming book on feminist science fiction from the 1980s, “Toward Utopia.” “The Army has real gender issues, still,” she said. Reading a book like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “at least creates a vocabulary to talk about those issues. It was very prescient.”

“Perhaps most striking, given Mercer’s hopes for a new vocabulary, was that all of the questioners were male, and none of them asked about the status of women in Gilead,” the setting of the novel, Miller notes. However, as Miller and Atwood waited for their departure car, one young man approached Atwood to sign his book. And he also had a question: “He couldn’t help but notice that some of the worst treatment the novel’s female characters receive comes at the hands of other women.”

“That’s true,” Atwood said. “That’s how these things work. All dictatorships try to control women, although sometimes in different ways. And one of the ways they control any group is to create a hierarchy where some members of the group have power over the others. You get those people to control their own group for you.”

A Conversation with Jonathan Franzen

When novelist Jonathan Franzen visited Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, Susan Lerner, an MFA candidate, interviewed him for the university’s journal Booth.

Please read the entire article. Here are some highlights from Franzen’s replies to Lerner’s questions:

On the difference between fiction and personal essay:

I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive.

On memoir:

There are only two things that can make memoir really good. One of them is great material that is true, stuff that does not require embellishment or invention. Stuff that is just strong and a great story in itself. If you’ve got that, why not write a memoir? There’s value added simply because it’s a memoir. There’s value added in terms of reader impact because the reader knows these amazing things really happened to you. The other thing is if you’ve got a great voice, if you’ve got a great tone going, then even if the story is not there, the combination of the value added from its being nonfiction and the pleasure of the tone or voice can add up to something, …

On whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA (young adult) literature:

Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity.

In literature, new attention to old age, dying

“In the past four months, three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have released novels that walk their characters right up to the valley of the shadow of death,” writes Mary Carole McCauley in The Baltimore Sun. She looks at how authors portray old age and death in the following novels:

  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

McCauley looks at the history of how death has been presented in fiction since the 1960s. Anthony Wexler, who recently earned his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University with a dissertation on late life in literature, says:

humanities professors didn’t begin treating late life as worthy of scholarly inquiry until a 1975 conference on the topic at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. But momentum didn’t begin building until 1992, when the term Vollendungsroman was coined to refer to literature about the completion or winding down of life.

McCauley attributes that shift in attention to the baby boomers and to medical advances that now keep people alive longer. Wexler adds that aging studies now incorporate literature by novelists such as Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, and the British novelists Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and Kingsley Amis. “Watching authors fight that battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.”

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.

On Reading

I love Mark Zuckerberg’s book club: Unpacking his quest for literary meaning

I had seen references to Mark Zuckerberg’s book club but, despite being a fan of both books and book clubs, I wasn’t much interested in learning about it. But Laura Miller, senior writer for Salon and a self-described “book-recommender,” was. Most of the hype about the book club came from the publishing industry, she says, and compared Zuckerberg to Oprah Winfrey as a celebrity whose promotion of a title can sell a lot of books.

But Miller’s true interest in Zuckerberg’s book club, at least in this article, lies elsewhere:

But far more intriguing is the emerging portrait of Mark Zuckerberg as a reader. He is diligent, even driven, setting himself the challenge of reading and discussing a new book every two weeks, despite what must be a pretty full schedule as the CEO of the most popular social networking site on the planet.

Despite the fact that Zuckerberg’s own review of Naím’s book “reads like an uninspired term paper,” Miller writes, “personally I find his quest for meaning kind of touching.” She looks at Zuckerberg’s first selection, Moisés Naím’s The End of Power, alongside his recently announced choice for the second book, Steven Pinker’s 830-page tome The Better Angels of Our Nature. They are both hefty works of nonfiction that she thinks appeal primarily to middle-age men. Since women are the primary buyers and readers of novels, Miller hopes “he’ll expand the books he reads beyond nonfiction.”

If you’re interested in digging deeper into Zuckerberg’s book club, this article ends with links to several related pieces.

Popular TV Series and Movies Maintain Relevance as Novels

Alexandra Alter looks at:

a flourishing but often unappreciated pocket of the publishing world: tie-in novels. Writers have produced novels based on the terrorism drama “Homeland,” the British crime series “Broadchurch” and J.J. Abrams’s sci-fi series “Fringe,” and more titles are coming soon.

Tie-in novels continue to produce revenue related to long defunct television series such as like Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Murder, She Wrote. Yet, despite the ability of these novels to make money, “ in literary circles, these books have often been ignored or sneered at as mere merchandise rather than art.” But that attitude is changing:

Lately, however, this long-maligned subgenre has taken on a patina of respectability. New writers are flocking to the form as television, in its new golden age, becomes an increasingly significant cultural medium. Rather than summarizing familiar stories, many tie-ins deliver original plot lines and subtle character development that go beyond what fans already know.

Writers of tie-in novels even have their own professional organization, the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers, which has about 250 members. Most of the writers say that they are not afraid to change some aspects of the television show or movie because their aim is to write a good novel rather than simply to produce a memento of the source material. Nonetheless, Alter reports, the job of writing tie-in novels “still has its drawbacks. The writers often labor under impossible deadlines; the pay is modest; and writers typically have no claim to the intellectual property rights.”

What Happened to Experimental Writing?

Even though the title mentions writing, I’m including this article here because I think the writer is really talking about experimental literature, a topic that readers are just as interested in as writers.

In a piece with an experimental structure (numbered paragraphs), Susan Steinberg riffs on experimental writing:

4. I am often asked what makes writing experimental, how one knows to classify work as such. In graduate school, now aware that all of my work would be funneled into this category, I accepted the difference and armored myself with a few rules. Experimental writing a) had to be inventive or had to bend or advance or subvert preexisting approaches to writing, b) had to seriously take into account the possibilities of form and/or structure and/or syntax and/or language, and not just content, and c) could not just look different on the page.

Be sure to read the whole essay on how and why Steinberg undertakes to experiment with her writing. Or take a look at her recent book, Spectacle.

15 Things Only Contemporary Literature Lovers Know, Other Than The Fact That Rules Don’t Matter

Laura I. Miller admits that, as an undergraduate literature student, she was originally committed to reading the traditional canon, those hidebound works by “dead white guys”: “These were the kinds of authors who earned respect in the literary world.” Then, in a graduate creative writing class, she discovered contemporary literature: “I learned that everything I’d been taught about writing wasn’t even close to gospel.”

For some good reading recommendations, see the 15 lessons that reading contemporary has taught her:

  1. [No] Subject Is Taboo.
  2. Point of View Is Flexible.
  3. All Voices Are Valid.
  4. Structure Knows No Limits.
  5. Apocalypses Are Hot!.
  6. You Might Not “Get It,” and That’s Okay.
  7. Mixed Media Is All the Rage.
  8. Time Is Not Linear.
  9. Slang Is All Good.
  10. Non-Human Perspectives? Why Not?!.
  11. Genre Tropes Are Up For Grabs.
  12. There Will Be Depth.
  13. Gender Roles Suck.
  14. Print Is Alive and Well.
  15. Small Presses Rock.

Of Miller’s 15 points, these three resonate the most with me because they all relate to structure as an important characteristic in contemporary literature:

2. Point of View Is Flexible.
One of the dicta of classical literature was that a work must have unity, and one area that demanded such unity was point of view. This meant that whatever point of view opened a book must continue throughout the entire work. But now we know that there’s more than one way to look at an event or an idea, and that realization has led to the frequent necessity of multiple points of view, because …

3. All Voices Are Valid.
There are as many sides to any story as there are participants; therefore, to understand a story fully we must look at all sides. This realization has lead to some fascinating books employing multiple points of view (e.g., An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Possession by A. S. Byatt, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins).

8. Time Is Not Linear.
Because multiple narrators cannot all tell their stories simultaneously, contemporary authors interested in multiple points of view often experiment with structure to incorporate the all. A good example of this is David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Cloud Atlas. Many contemporary thrillers and mysteries also play with structure as their narration switches between the stories of the hunter and the hunted.

Three thousand reasons to choose your reading carefully

Beulah Maud Devaney muses in The Guardian on finishing her 1,000th book:

Assuming I live into my 90s (which my penchant for pasties and panic attacks suggests is unlikely), I will read just over 3,000 books in my lifetime – which doesn’t seem like an especially high number.

Noting that her aunt died of cancer at age 50, Devaney realizes that the reading time left to her is not unlimited and asks:

But what is a worthwhile read? If we can calculate how many books we will read in an uninterrupted lifetime, at what point should we draw the line? Life is short and books are long. We don’t get to read many of them and I’m starting to realise that some books don’t deserve to be among my theoretical 3,000. Life is too short for Martin Amis. Life is too short for Ayn Rand. Life is too short for 1,000-plus pages of Infinite Jest and life is too short to give Philip Roth another chance. I’m beginning to suspect that life might be too short for Virginia Woolf and John Updike. I’m undecided on whether life is long enough for George Eliot, but it’s definitely too short to miss out on Octavia Butler’s work because of being busy trying to like Joseph Heller.

Here’s part of her answer:

The books that deserve a place among my remaining 2,000 reads are those with an idea that excites me… . I’m going to spend more time reading authors I enjoy and relate to, either because of their use of language (Jackie Kay, Toni Morrison, Monique Roffey, Andrea Levy and Orhan Pamuk) or their subject matter (Jenni Fagan, Jhumpa Lahiri, HG Wells and Kazuo Ishiguro). In short; I’m going to demand more from the books I read. I’ve got 2,000 books left to read, at best, and I intend to be ruthless in choosing them.

I used to think that I had to finish every book I started. But sometime around my 40th birthday I, too, realized that the reading time left to me was not unlimited, since I had reached the midpoint of my expected lifespan. It was time to make my reading count, a commitment that has intensified since I’ve reached retirement age.

This is a main reason why I joined The Classics Club.

What about you? At what point in your reading life are you now? And what personal guidelines do you have for choosing which books to read and which ones to pass over? Do you finish every book you start? If not, how much do you have to read before you make the decision to stop? Please let us know in the comments.

Classics Club Spin #8: “Revolutionary Road”

Related Post:

rev roadYates, Richard. Revolutionary Road
Original publication date: 1961
Rpt. Random House, 2008
eISBN 978–0–307–45627–4

This novel is most often described as an anti-suburban tract, a condemnation of the life of conformity and veiled unhappiness that flourished in the U.S. after World War II. And it is that. But it’s also much more, because that vision is too simplistic. The serpent in the paradise where Frank and April Wheeler buy a house on Revolutionary Road arises from the geography of the human heart as much as from its suburban Connecticut location, where a serpent of cars continually moves along nearby Route 12.

Frank and April met in New York City, where they enjoyed a carefree life together while planning their ideal future. “According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon” (p. 65). To accommodate their altered lives, they found a starter home in a western Connecticut suburb, but the serpent has already entered their lives: “The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees; and what if it did take time? Who could be frightened in as wide and bright, as clean and quiet a house as this?” (p. 41).

The novel begins in 1955, two years after the Wheelers’ move to the house on Revolutionary Road. Frank and April are both about to turn 30. They have the requisite two children: Jennifer, age 6, and Michael, age 4. Frank has a corporate office job that he hates and, like most men in his neighborhood, takes the train into Manhattan every morning while April stays home and cares for the children and the house.

In the novel’s opening vignette, Frank attends a community theater group performance in which April, who attended “one of the leading dramatic schools of New York” (p. 9), stars. When one of the male players becomes so nervous that he can’t go on and the female stage manager has to stand in for him, the performance falls apart. Even April can’t save it. The incident becomes a source of humiliation for April and foreshadows the collapse of their lives.

This theatrical failure is significant because both Frank’s and April’s lives are based on acting. Frank in particular is always posing as someone, assuming a particular persona. He spent his early twenties “wearing the proud mantles of ‘veteran’ and ‘intellectual’ as bravely as he wore his carefully aged tweed jacket and washed-out khakis” (p. 27). His face has “an unusual mobility: it was able to suggest wholly different personalities with each flickering change of expression” (p. 15). He performs life according to his own mental projections of how he should speak and act, as if seeing himself on stage or in a movie. After an afternoon assignation with a woman from the office, he wonders if he should apologize to her: “the very last thing in God’s world he wanted to do was apologize Did the swan apologize to Leda? Did an eagle apologize? Did a lion apologize? Hell, no” (p. 138). And April vacillates between a vague desire for something more satisfying from like than the role of the sensible middle-class housewife that she simultaneously works at projecting.

The serpent eating away at the Wheelers’ suburban lives is unfulfilled desire, the inability to make their everyday lives conform to their grand yet vague dreams of themselves. In his twenties Frank

“hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit. Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways? He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field” (p. 29).

After moving to the suburbs Frank continues to locate what’s wrong with the world in others, never in himself: “It’s all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity” (p. 81). He never loses the sense of his own superiority:

“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were” (p. 27).

It’s April who comes up with a new plan to allow Frank to discover the as yet unarticulated self he dreams of becoming. They will move to Paris. She will get a secretarial job to support them and leave Frank free to find himself. Ironically, April sees her getting a job as a way both to free herself from her housewifely existence and to allow Frank to escape the drudgery of his job. But, like their earlier grand plans, this one, too, proves impossible.

In the end, suburbia is not the cause of their unhappiness but rather the place where it unfolds. There’s a remarkable ambivalence here, for who of us has not had bigger plans that we’ve been unable to fulfill. Between the imagined vision and its achievement snakes reality. We understand the Wheelers’ dreams at the same time as we foresee the inevitability of their downfall.

The Best Books I Read in 2014

I read 43 books this year, for a grand total of 12,695 pages. The longest was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which weighs in at 771 pages.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are the 10 best:

Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life
Fergus, Jim. One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
French, Tana. Faithful Place
Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling
Galbraith, Robert. The Silkworm
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Joyce, James. Dubliners
O’Nan, Stewart. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road

After compiling this list, I realize that only one, The Circus Fire, is nonfiction. Although I always read more fiction than nonfiction, I don’t think recall any recent year in which nonfiction was so sparsely represented.

*Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling

How about you? What were the 10 best books you read in 2014?

Personal Challenge: A Blog Post a Day in 2015

I woke up a couple of days ago with this thought: I should challenge myself to write a blog post every day during 2015.

I dismissed this thought right away because such a huge commitment seems like setting myself up for failure. Why not just commit to writing a post a day for the month of January? I asked myself. And if that works out, then do it for another month.

But the more I thought about the year-long challenge, the more it excited me. First of all, I know that some of my best ideas arrive just when I wake up. Sleeping allows my conscious mind to pull what it needs out of the chaos of the unconscious. I’ve learned to trust these awakening thoughts, just as I’ve learned to trust my intuition. Second, setting this goal certainly aligns with my recent decision to focus on my own writing. Finally, this challenge would allow me to distribute content across my three blogs:

On the day when I woke up with this thought, I looked throughout the day for ideas to write about. I was surprised and encouraged at how many opportunities I found.

I should emphasize that I don’t intend to write a post a day on each blog, just a post a day for any one of them.

Therefore, I’ve decided to go for it and challenge myself to write a blog post a day in 2015. I could just make a secret pact with myself to try to accomplish this, but I’m formalizing the challenge here to create accountability. I’ll be much less likely to let myself slide if I’ve made a public announcement.

Meeting this challenge will offer a lot of benefits for me right now:

  1. A writer is someone who writes, and this challenge will force me to actually write instead of just thinking about writing.
  2. Looking for something to write about each day will make me more aware of what I’m doing and of what’s happening in the world around me.
  3. Looking all around me for topics will help me distribute content among all three blogs; I’ve been neglecting my personal blog, and it therefore now badly needs some refreshing.
  4. I know from experience that the more I write, the easier writing becomes.
  5. Completing this challenge will demonstrate that I can write every day, not just when I’m in the mood or have nothing else to do instead.
  6. Keeping up with this challenge will help me to practice, practice, practice my writing.

I will allow myself this condition up front: I know there will be times when I can’t publish a post every day, either because I won’t have internet access or I won’t want to announce publicly that I’m not at home. My commitment is to write a post every day, even if I have to publish it, backdated, later.

So, who’s in with me?

Who will accept the challenge of a blog post a day in 2015?

Grab the logo here:

post a day logo

(Right click on the image, save to your computer, then upload to your web site.)

P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, Elena Ferrante, Robert Louis Stevenson, classic mysteries, Hollywood authors

PD James: in quotes

A list of quotations about writing and mysteries from British mystery novelist P. D. James, who died recentlyat the age of 94.

Here’s my favorite from this list:

I love the idea of bringing order out of disorder, which is what the mystery is about. I like the way in which it affirms the sanity of human life and exorcises irrational guilts.

Ruth Rendell, novelist: “Fictional characters are never as complex as a real person”

An interview with another British mystery novelist, Ruth Rendell, who also publishes under the name Barbara Vine.

The interview is quite short. Here’s the part that gives the article its title:

Which fictional character most resembles you?

I don’t think there is a fictional character who resembles me because fictional characters are not real! We, people, are so very, very complicated that no matter how well drawn a fictional character is, they can’t get anywhere near as complex as a real person.

Elena Ferrante, Author of Naples Novels, Stays Mysterious

More on the elusive Italian novelist:

In her most extensive interview in years, Ms. Ferrante, who publishes under a pseudonym and has never revealed her identity, addressed her choice of anonymity — or “absence,” as she called it. In an interview conducted by email and through her publisher, she disputed the oft-circulated notion that she might be a man. “My identity, my sex, are found in my writing,” Ms. Ferrante wrote in Italian in response to written questions conveyed by her longtime Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who said the writer had declined to grant an in-person interview.

My First Book: “Treasure Island”

What a treat! Narrative reprints an 1894 essay by Robert Louis Stevenson about his break-through novel, Treasure Island.

Classic mysteries every fan should read

To keep the mystery theme going, Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox mystery series, asks:

Why are we so captivated by mystery novels? Maybe it’s the puzzle, the chance to watch the detective chase clues and try to beat him to their meaning. Maybe it’s the chance to look at darkness from a safe distance – a darkness that might feel more real, ironically, than the ugly blare of Nancy Grace, because the best mystery novels are about how human beings actually act at the worst moments in each other’s lives, not about yelling sensational details.

See what five works he thinks are “the ones I think every single book lover should read.”

Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors

According to Hollywood Reporter:

These writers — ranked in order of influence — whose books are source material for more than 300 movie and TV projects, have helped rake in billions in box office and revenue, and prove every day that originality, above all else, still matters.

See who else is on the list besides the ones that seem obvious—J. K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, Stephen King, Suzanne Collins.

Jodi Picoult, Luanne Rice, and Russell Banks

This post introduces a new category of entries here, On Novels and Novelists. This category features articles and interviews that focus on how writers create their fiction and on how critics interpret fictional works.

Jodi Picoult discusses the facts of fiction

In a recent lecture at Carnegie Mellon University, best-selling author Jodi Picoult described the research she does for her novels.

Picoult explained the research that went into her latest book, Leaving Time.

The book touches upon elephants’ expression of grief, which the protagonist’s mother studied before she disappeared. “Ultimately, this is a book about how the people who leave us never really do,” Picoult said. “And I began to dive into the world of elephants, knowing I was going to use it as a metaphor, so tonight what I’m going to be telling you about is everything you wanted to know about elephants and more.”

She even traveled to Botswana to meet with researchers who track elephant migration.

Given the amount of research Picoult does, why does she write fiction instead of nonfiction, the more usual vehicle for conveying information?

“There’s something that fiction can do that nonfiction cannot,” Picoult said. “A lot people will not address a controversial subject in nonfiction, but they pick up a novel, and they think they’re being entertained, and almost by accident, by the time they close that last page, they realize they are being forced to re-evaluate whatever opinions they have when they started the book…. Where I believe that nonfiction has the obligation to chronicle the past and what has happened, fiction has the opportunity to change minds, change the future, and change the course of what will happen.”

Author Luanne Rice ’77 channels the emotional turmoil of life into best-selling fiction

Luanne Rice’s writing career suggests that sometimes you CAN tell a book by its cover:

Most of her 31 novels feature breezy titles, like “Dream Country” and “The Perfect Summer,” with covers featuring softly hued images of young women staring off toward the sea. Those perusing bookshelves might be quick to classify them as “beach reads,” but with those pastel-colored sunsets come turbulence and unpredictability. It’s the prevailing metaphor of Rice’s fiction — and her life.

A beach cottage that her grandparents built in Old Lyme, Connecticut, is the inspiration for the fictional Hubbard’s Beach, the setting of many of her novels.

“I’m interested in the way people live on the edge, the borderline. There’s something about stepping off that intrigues me,” she says. “Also, there’s hardship and beauty — the light and the tides and the currents of things that are swept in and swept away.”

Rice attended Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. The college’s location allowed her to watch and ponder the ocean: “I wrote a lot of short stories at school sitting in my dorm room and hearing the foghorns.” Her father’s illness and death forced her to leave before graduating.

After her father died, Rice spent three months on a schooner studying whales. The majority of her 20s were spent in New York City, cleaning houses to make money, falling in love, and rubbing shoulders with the literary elite, including her late friend and mentor, New Yorker critic Brendan Gill.

Her first published novel was Angels All Over Town in 1985. Her next novel, Crazy in Love, put her on the literary map and was made into a television movie starring Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand, Bill Pullman and Gena Rowlands.

Throughout her career Rice has used the ups and downs of her own life as the source of her fiction: “Rice admits she uses her writing as a way to ‘figure it all out,’ working out her issues in the pages of her books.”

Rice equates writing to breathing. It’s the way she takes life in and makes sense of it, and she encourages others to do the same. “When you’re writing, don’t think about what your mother’s going to think, what your teacher’s going to think,” she says. “Let yourself be scared, without boundaries.”

Russell Banks: Literary devotion

Russell Banks, whose work has distilled blue-collar dreams into moving, sometimes violent, portraits of struggle and loss, will deliver Harvard Divinity School’s 2014 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality Nov. 5 at Sanders Theatre.

Banks’ novels include “Continental Drift” (1985), “Affliction” (1989), “The Sweet Hereafter” (1991), “Rule of the Bone” (1995), “Cloudsplitter” (1998), and “Lost Memory of Skin” (2011). Last year he published a collection of stories, “A Permanent Member of the Family.” His Ingersoll Lecture is titled “Feeding Moloch: The Sacrifice of Children on the Altar of Capitalism.”

In this interview Banks, age 74, discusses his early apprenticeship in the writing of fiction: “I think when you’re a young writer you kind of need three things: a mentor, and you need to find a way to stay out of the economy if you can to buy time, and you need your peers and your contemporaries too.”

Since the lecture Banks will deliver is at the divinity school, there are questions here about his own religion and spirituality:

I’m aware that there are certain spiritual, if not religious longings in the characters that I write about and care about, and there’s a desire among my characters, as there probably is in myself as well, to find some kind of spiritual reality and meaning in the world that surrounds us. But it’s extremely difficult for me personally and therefore extremely difficult for most of my characters as well. I think that’s a common dilemma and quest as well. But I don’t have an agenda or a religious commitment that I am trying to dramatize and use fiction for. In a way, fiction for me is a way of discovery and a process that allows me to find out, to penetrate and then to find meaning in some aspect of human life which is deeply mysterious to me. And I can enter that mystery in a way through my work that I can’t really enter in any other part of my life. And I suppose in a way that’s a spiritual quest, but it isn’t driven by a specific, spiritually defined question.

Ghosts and Other Literary Horrors

 

For weeks we’ve been building up to Halloween with lists and tales about the spookiest and scariest stories ever written. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James is one of the best known ghost stories in the English language. Part of the reason this novella is so famous is that it leaves unspecified the exact nature of the horror it portrays.

critical museStudents and scholars alike continue to address the issue of what that horror is. This continued response to try to define the “portentous evil” at the center of his story is something James purposely engineered. Here’s how he described the task he faced in writing The Turn of the Screw:

What, in the last analysis, had I to give the sense of? Of their [characters Miss Jessel and Peter Quint] being, the haunting pair, capable, as the phrase is, of everything—-that is of exerting, in respect to the children, the very worst action small victims so conditioned might be conceived as subject to. What would be then, on reflexion, this utmost conceivability?—a question to which the answer all admirably came. There is for such a case no eligible absolute of the wrong; it remains relative to fifty other elements, a matter of appreciation, speculation, imagination—these things moreover quite exactly in the light of the spectator’s, the critic’s, the reader’s experience. Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough, I said to myself—and that already is a charming job—and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy (with the children) and horror (of their false friends) will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications. (p. 538)*

James knew that no evil he could specify would be as portentous as the personal notion of evil all readers harbor within their imaginations.

Kyle Fowle makes a similar point in his discussion of Why the horror of Stephen King’s words doesn’t translate well to film. Fowle says that King’s more dramatic works (e.g., Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile) make better films than do his horror novels because “Film is a visual medium, and the horror genre often demands a tangible menace”:

King’s horror fiction often focuses on internal threats, those that can’t be seen or predicted. His best novels explore very human fears and anxieties, elements that are difficult to bring to a visual medium. The novel isn’t inherently a superior storytelling medium (we’ve moved past that reductive argument long ago, especially with the second Golden Age of Television), but it does seem more suited to King’s particular take on horror, where the internal, human terrors are privileged over the external ones… . [film] demands an external, visible threat, one that can make an audience jump, shiver, or scream; such a necessity runs contrary to what makes King’s novels so poignant.

“King’s best horror books,” Fowle concludes, “… explore one of our most potent fears: the fear of ourselves.”

Yet popular culture continues to present us with all kinds of hideous creatures. In From Daleks to Zombies: What Monsters Mean to Us, Anna North talks with the authors of three recent books:

  • Justin Richards, author of Doctor Who: The Secret Lives of Monsters
  • David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror
  • Stephen T. Asma, author of On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

According to Skal, “we can read the dominant worries of an era in its monster stories” because “monsters recast collective anxiety in fictional form.” Asma offers some examples:

Christians in medieval Europe were “worried about temptation and pleasures of the flesh” and believed that “if you’re weak morally and impure, if you give in to your carnal desires, then that opens the door for the demon to enter and take you over,” he said. “If you let your guard down at all, this evil realm is just waiting.”

Asma further believes that monsters can offer us catharsis:

Horror films, he explained, can give us a controllable way to experience “these deeper fears that we ordinarily repress.” We can “take our monsters off the chain, let him howl at the moon a little bit, and then you can put him back on the chain after the movie’s over,” he said. “I think monster culture has therapeutic aspects to it.”

Whereas Henry James and Stephen King may favor an indistinct evil, monsters such as Frankenstein, Godzilla, vampires, and zombies graphically present what society most fears. In the end, though, they serve the same function as the less directly represented:

“With all the best monsters,” [Richards] added, “you can see something of yourself in them.”


*From the Preface to The Aspern Papers; The Turn of the Screw; The Liar; The Two Faces. Reprinted in The Critical Muse: Selected Literary Criticism, ed. Roger Gard (New York: Penguin Books, 1987), pp. 537–539.