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
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Review: “Go Set a Watchman”
- Compendium on “Go Set a Watchman”
- More on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
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 (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.
Relocating 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.
Reactions to Harper Lee’s recently published aren’t going away any time soon. Here are some more that I’ve collected. Again, this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but here I’ve included only those pieces that add something new to the discussion rather than just echoing what has already been said.
I offer very short summaries of these articles here. I encourage you to follow the links and read the entire articles for a thought-provoking look at how Go Set a Watchman has entered our national consciousness.
In 2013 Jan Rybicki and Maciej Eder released software capable of comparing word patterns across different books. Rubicki and Eder, both affiliated with universities in Krakow, Poland, have used their software in search of the persistent rumor that Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Harper Lee, wrote at least parts of her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird.
By comparing Mockingbird with two of Capote’s works, In Cold Blood and The Grass Harp, the researchers have concluded that in the scene in which Scout and Jem are attacked on their way home from a school performance, the writing style has more in common with Capote’s than with Lee’s:
The researchers aren’t declaring that Mr. Capote wrote the passage but say that at this fraught moment in the narrative, Ms. Lee may have been subliminally using words as Mr. Capote did—or she may have been pulled off her typical authorial voice for some other reason.
Further, in an examination of Go Set a Watchman, “the scholars similarly did not find any parallels between writing by Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote, nor any signs of a strong editor.”
This is an informative article for anyone interested in data mining in the emerging field of digital humanities.
Charles Kinnaird poses the interesting theory that the differing portrayals of Atticus Finch in Mockingbird and Watchman illustrate Harper Lee’s life considered in light of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey as presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey, and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Although Watchman has been published much later than Mockingbird, it was apparently written first, then heavily edited into Mockingbird. Therefore, Kinnaird is correct in looking at the novels in this order.
Sarah Galo reports on a reading by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the famous 1962 film version of Mockingbird, of Watchman. Badham told the audience that she thinks Mockingbird came at a perfect time for our country and Watchman has done the same, in light of recent events:
she emphasized the importance of reading both of Harper Lee’s books in light of the “major things” that have come up in the past few weeks. “It all comes down to education. I tell the schools all the time, and I make the kids say it and then scream it: The root of all evil is ignorance.”
Boris Kachka writes for Vulture that Watchman is
a crucial biographical document. For every question it raises about its profoundly famous and private 89-year-old author, it also answers a mystery or two about Lee’s life and motivations.
Like other writers who look for the progression from Watchman to Mockingbird, he sees the recent publication as a measure of how Lee’s views about her hometown of Monroeville, AL, changed as she spent her early adult years in New York working at becoming a writer.
Harper Lee’s lingering Civil War ghosts: “Go Set a Watchman” is “a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South”
In an interview with Salon, African American literature professor Angela Shaw-Thorburg of South Carolina State University talks about what Atticus Finch now represents.
About Mockingbird Shaw-Thorburg says:
when I read the novel, and think of it from my students’ perspective, I realize there’s not a lot of space given to black voice in that novel. It’s supposed to be a novel about race, about civil rights, but it’s a conversation between white people… . I’ve never seen it as a big statement about the humanity of black people, and how we need to fight for justice for black people. It’s about supporting the status quo.
And about the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Watchman she says:
It’s almost schizophrenic: On one hand we have an Atticus who says he’s all for justice, on the other hand he goes to Citizens Council meetings. I think this is a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South. It’s part of our DNA. We have racism, but we get really upset if people are rude and crude. The two novels together are an accurate view of where we are as Southerners.
This article includes a link to Angela Shaw-Thornburg’s own review of Watchman in Southern Literary Review.
In this piece in Time magazine Ralph Eubanks addresses the issue of the differences between the two versions of Atticus Finch:
The reason the Atticus of Mockingbird is iconic and the one in Watchman feels alien is because as Lee reworked Watchman into Mockingbird, she tapped into a key component of Southern culture: the need for folk heroes and mythic figures. It is through the folklore of the South that the region places a mirror up to its virtues and failures.
Like any Southern liberal of his generation, Atticus does not challenge the foundation of Jim Crow privilege, even though he is actively defending a black client and trying to show his fellow white citizens to learn how to walk in another man’s shoes. He knows that he cannot convince a jury to treat Tom Robinson as an equal. So, Atticus Finch was a man of his time rather than a man before his time.
And finally: “In Watchman, Atticus becomes part of the forces in the South that Lee wrote Mockingbird to counteract.”
Eubanks believes that Watchman should not have been published now but should have been left “to be discovered and studied by scholars as an artifact after Lee’s death.”
Michael Bourne is a staff writer at The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. Calling Mockingbird “a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era,” he goes on to say, “Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature.”
Bourne has a lot more to say. But what I take issue with—as I said in my review of Watchman—is the notion that the two different Atticus Finches are real people whose contradictory portrayals must be explained to restore sense and balance to our universe.
The two men are literary characters. Each one exists only in his own book, not in both. We may discuss what the two different representations of Atticus Finch say about Harper Lee’s vision, about the times in which she wrote or in which Mockingbird is set, or about what Watchman has to say about current American society. But neither novel’s portrayal of Atticus Finch is better or more realistic or more accurate than the other. We each may, for whatever reasons, prefer one Atticus over the other, but that preference says more about us than it does about Atticus, that imagined fictional character.
Near the end of Watchman Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, asks her:
“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.
I will continue to love the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Watchman has not introduced me to the “real” Atticus; it has introduced me to another, different Atticus. Compare the books, but don’t treat them as dueling biographies about the same historical person. Atticus Finch is a literary character, not a flesh-and-blood person.
I have finished reading Harper Lee’s newly released novel Go Set a Watchman and am collecting my thoughts. I read it slowly, taking copious notes. Probably like most people, I tried to read it in two mutually exclusive ways simultaneously: both with and without To Kill a Mockingbird as a touchstone. Figuring out how to evaluate it most fairly is indeed a conundrum.
While still working on my own discussion of the book, I offer you a compendium of articles that I began assembling a day or two before the publication date of Watchman, July 14. I have not read most of these pieces because I want to come to my own conclusions first.
I’m sure that there are spoilers galore in many of these articles, so I leave it up to you to decide whether to tackle these pieces before you read the novel for yourself or to wait until later.
I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive. I’m sure there are many other articles out there, but these are the ones that I’ve come across.
Publishers Weekly comments on early reviews of Go Set a Watchman, including those in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. Includes links.
From Publishers Weekly:
From midnight release parties, to film screenings, to daylong read-a-thons, check out our photos of how bookstores around the country rang in the on-sale date of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the biggest publishing event of the year.
The revelation will probably alter readers’ views of “Mockingbird,” a beloved book that has sold more than 40 million copies globally and has become a staple of high school curriculums. It could also reshape Ms. Lee’s legacy, which until now has hinged entirely on the outsize success of her only novel, published 55 years ago.
Entertainment Weekly gives the novel a grade of D+. And most of the commenters seem to agree.
Tonja B. Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney, is changing her story.
More as the plot continues to thicken:
Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter, the woman at the centre of the mysteries surrounding Go Set a Watchman’s publication this week, has broken her silence. In a lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal, she intimates that there may be a third novel by Lee residing in a safe-deposit box in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama.
Harper Lee’s lawyer, who negotiated the deal over this week’s controversial launch of Go Set a Watchman, was allegedly far more intricately involved in searching for the manuscript years ago than previously disclosed, the Guardian has been told.
The story of how Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — guided Harper Lee through a two-year revision process that eventually turned Lee’s original manuscript into To Kill a Mockingbird.
Several writers reflect for Publishers Weekly on how To Kill a Mockingbird “affected everything from their ideas about race and humanity to their choice of profession.”
From the New Republic:
This piece is the first in a three-part series we’ll be publishing this week on Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.
This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman.
On this page you’ll find a link to other entries in this series on Bookriot.
In this piece Jessica Tripler describes her hesitancy to jump into the new book because “I personally question whether Lee is capable of consenting to or understanding what is going on.”
This article itself is a compendium, with excerpts from major reactions to the novel from sources including the New York Times, The Guardian, and NPR.
From the Wall Street Journal, a consideration of how teachers must revamp their lesson plans about To Kill a Mockingbird in light of Go Set a Watchman.
From the New York Times, a good companion piece to the Wall Street Journal article:
Fans of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a book widely read by students in the United States — are reeling from the revelations that a beloved character, Atticus Finch, is portrayed as a racist in Lee’s recently released second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”
For many teachers, this presents a conundrum in how the fictional character is taught in classrooms. How will the new book affect or change the way “To Kill a Mockingbird” is taught in middle and high school English classes?
This is the introductory page that links to discussions written by several people.
Megan Garber for The Atlantic:
Go Set a Watchman is a threat not just to readers’ heroic idea of Atticus Finch, but also to the many, many children who have been named in his honor.
In an op-ed this week in The Wall Street Journal, Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, hinted at a third, as-yet-unpublished novel. And a friend of the author, who is also a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, spoke to CNN about a possible fourth book.
This possible fourth book is supposedly a nonfiction study of Rev. Willie Maxwell, who was suspected in the deaths of various relatives.
Amy Weldon, a native of Alabama, a fiction writer, and a professor of English at Luther College in Iowa, discusses the writing process by looking at Watchman as an early draft of Mockingbird.
An opinion piece by Osamudia R. James, professor of law at the University of Miami, where she writes and teaches about education, race and the law, and identity.
This [Atticus Finch] is a perfectly acceptable hero, living and breathing in the kind of fictional world that many people, including myself, prefer. The problem is that Lee can’t have it both ways. Mockingbird is on a different literary plane than Watchman, and the two can only meet awkwardly, which is precisely what HarperCollins has demonstrated by grafting Watchman onto Mockingbird. They cannot work together in any meaningful sense; one cannot cast a new light on the other, except in the way an apple sheds light on an orange by being, well, different.
As the July 14th publication date of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, approaches, she is much in the news. Here are a couple of representative articles.
Alexandra Alter and Serge F. Kovaleski report in the New York Times on an “intimate lunch” held on June 30 at which Harper Lee received the first copies off the presses of her new novel, Go Set a Watchman. The reporters did not attend the lunch but were briefed by Lee Sentell, the director of the Alabama Tourism Department, who was present.
There has been lots of controversy since the discovery of the lost manuscript about whether Harper Lee, who is 89 and nearly blind and deaf, was capable of agreeing to its publication. Sentell told reporters that when Lee was asked if she had ever expected this novel to be published, she replied, “Of course I did, don’t be silly.”
If you haven’t followed the story of doubts about how the manuscript was discovered and set for publication, this article contains links to the _Times_’s previous coverage.
To see some of the sites, click through the slide show near the top of the page.
Claire Fallon writes in the Huffington Post:
Let’s be honest: Too many series and franchises are reworked and rebooted until there’s simply no life left in them. As much as fans may clamor to spend more money on another Dune book, for example, they’re more likely than not going to be disappointed by the lackluster result, which only serves to taint the otherwise acclaimed series. We need to learn to say goodbye before we’re entirely ready, instead of waiting until a brand has fully worn out its welcome.
Here are the seven series she lists:
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
- The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
- The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
- Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
A quick reading of the comments suggests that many people misunderstood the point of this article. Several commenters list books and series that they say are awful. Some of the authors mentioned are Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child.
But I don’t think Fallon is writing about books that shouldn’t have been written in the first place. I think she’s concerned about books and series that have become so beloved by readers that it’s painful to watch someone else—some lesser writer—keep on writing inferior additions to the set. At least that’s how I feel about franchises such as Harry Potter, the Millennium trilogy, Little House, and Hitchhiker’s Guide.
How about you?
Here’s another long read, and I have to admit that much of it is way over my head for now. Bram E. Gieben looks at the Netflix Original series Sense8 in relation to the work of author Philip K. Dick and series creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski:
The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).
I include this piece because it prompted me to add Sense8 to my Netflix list. The next long weekend that comes up I hope to spend watching several episodes of the series to see if I can make sense of them.
Care to join me?
Riffing on Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event, Katherine Brooks lists 13 authors she thinks would have written good fiction for adults:
After all, according to a 2012 study conducted by Bowker Market Research, 55 percent of the people buying fiction geared toward young adults are, actually, just adults. And they’re, actually, reading the books for themselves.
See why Brooks wishes these 13 authors had written fiction for adults:
- Beverly Cleary
- Walter Dean Myers
- Zilpha Keatley Snyder
- Katherine Paterson
- Mary Pope Osborne
- Gail Carson Levine
- Maurice Sendak
- Madeleine L’Engle
- Ellen Raskin
- Chris Van Allsburg
- and 12. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
- Lois Lowry
Brooks also lists as runners-up S. E. Hinton and E. L. Konigsburg.
“What do we make of a bad book, written late-career, by an acclaimed author?” asks Colton Valentine, who moves on to discuss Milan Kundera’s recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance. According to Valentine, critics almost universally have described this novel as “out-of-touch, sexist, and, worst of all, banal.”
But, Valentine argues, late-career novels such as this must be approached not in isolation, but in the context of everything the author has written before. In particular, Valentine makes sense of Festival of Insignificance by comparing it with what Kundera had to say in his best known novel, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
And this is the approach we should take to the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s second novel:
In a few weeks, Harper Lee will release Go Set a Watchman, a book that will inevitably fail to live up to its predecessor but that need not be written off. Broadening our mindset – fitting the novel into a larger textual legacy – may not redeem it. But that mindset can, at least, provide a stimulating exercise, a more productive and respectful way to think about the late works of the greats.
Monroeville is like many towns of its size in Alabama—indeed the Deep South: a town square of decaying elegance, most of the downtown shops and businesses closed or faltering, the main industries shut down. I was to discover that To Kill A Mockingbird is a minor aspect of Monroeville, a place of hospitable and hard-working people, but a dying town, with a population of 6,300 (and declining), undercut by NAFTA, overlooked by Washington, dumped by manufacturers like Vanity Fair Mills (employing at its peak 2,500 people, many of them women) and Georgia Pacific, which shut down its plywood plant when demand for lumber declined. The usual Deep South challenges in education and housing apply here, and almost a third of Monroe County (29 percent) lives in poverty.
Theroux’s piece anticipates the July 14th publication of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in which a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns home and reminisces about the trial of Tom Robinson that occurred 20 years earlier (the trial depicted in Mockingbird.) Ever since the announcement of the discovery and publication of this manuscript, Harper Lee’s only other novel, there has been speculation about whether this novel will be as good as her first.
There’s also been speculation about whether the second novel, set 20 years after the first, will portray a Maycomb essentially different. Or will it provide the same Southern vision?
And that’s the odd thing about a great deal of a certain sort of Deep South fiction—its grotesquerie and gothic, its high color and fantastication, the emphasis on freakishness. Look no further than Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell, but there’s plenty in Harper Lee too, in Mockingbird, the Boo Radley factor, the Misses Tutti and Frutti, and the racist Mrs. Dubose, who is a morphine addict: “Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.” This sort of prose acts as a kind of indirection, dramatizing weirdness as a way of distracting the reader from day to day indignities.
In a bit more than a week we’ll find out if Go Set a Watchman, written long ago but published only now, is an anachronism in an age when “few Southern writers concern themselves with the new realities” of poverty, education, and race relations in the American South.
Michael Rosenwald, a reporter for the Washington Post, talks about what novelist Kent Haruf meant to him. Rosenwald enrolled in Haruf’s beginning fiction class at Southern Illinois University in 1993, six years before the publication of Plainsong, Haruf’s break-out novel.
Storytelling, I’d learn, is about what happens next, and this story, about what happened after I met Kent, proves that what he taught me about stories is true: They have the power to exalt and transform. In this story, a little-known writer — gentle, fatherly, good — shapes a young man’s life, becomes renowned and never changes.
Although Haruf wrote fiction and Rosenwald concentrated on nonfiction, the two remained close:
After the success of “Plainsong,” Kent moved back to Colorado to write full time. I’d call him now and then. We began e-mailing, teasing each other about football, sharing news of what we’d read lately. And I began to see him more and more in my life. He was in the stories I pursued about ordinary people, in the strands of dialogue I’d hear and jot down, in the kindness I’d extend to students asking for advice. “Find your Kent,” I’d tell them.
Such a moving tribute to Haruf, who died last November. May we all find our own Kent.
Pulp fiction is called that because it first appeared in the early 20th century in fiction magazines published on cheap paper made from wood pulp. Read why Molly Lynch recommends these pulp fiction novels:
- Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip Jose Farmer
- Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
- Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
- John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
- Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair
- Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
- No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett
- Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
J.K. Rowling may have finished the Harry Potter series, but she apparently can’t quite let it go. In a piece for her web site Pottermore, she explains the back story of the Dursleys’ dislike of their nephew Harry and the reason why Aunt Petunia does not offer Harry any work of kindness in the final novel of the series.
Here Alison Flood fills in the history of Harry’s relationship with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, for those of us who have forgotten some of the details.
On the eve of the most anticipated publishing event in years — the release of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” — there is yet another strange twist to the tale of how the book made its way to publication, a development that further clouds the story of serendipitous discovery that generated both excitement and skepticism in February.
In his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot wrote “Do I dare/disturb the universe?”
Erin Haley looks at novels that present characters who dare to ask the same question as Prufrock. The main theme is independence, she says. Such characters “challenge the status quo.” Because challenging the status quo and seeking independence are classic undertakings of adolescence, many of the books about characters who dare to disturb the universe are in the YA (young adult) category.
Haley lists four books in which characters dare to disturb the universe:
- The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
- Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
- And One for All by Theresa Nelson
- Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
I’m only familiar with the first two books on her list; the first is a YA novel, while the second is not.
But the question of characters daring to disturb the universe got me thinking about my own reading. I wonder if all fiction doesn’t deal with this topic in some way or other. The basic requirement for fiction is conflict, and conflict usually involves challenging at least some aspect of the status quo.
Since disturbing the universe is just about a given in YA literature, I decided to look for adult books that explore the same concept. After a quick look over my most recent reading list, I’d include these novels on my own list of books featuring characters daring to disturb the universe:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
No matter what the topic, I usually turn to this classic novel to illustrate it. Not only does Atticus Finch dare to question the status quo by defending (both legally and literally) Tom Robinson, but Scout and Jem follow his example in their unusual relationship with Boo Radley, the town recluse.
The two women in Kallos’s first novel dare to disturb the universe by reaching out to each other and, in the process, by redefining the concept of family. This is one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.
Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman
Here’s another Alice Hoffman novel. In this one a woman must rethink the meaning of her whole existence when she discovers that her current reality is based on a lie. It takes a lot of courage and strength to redefine yourself and rediscover what you believe in.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
I can’t say much about this novel without giving away a critical plot point. What I can say is that the protagonist admirably rises to the occasion of living an unconventional life.
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
Would you be willing to betray social conventions if that were your only chance for living an independent life? The female protagonist of this novel said “yes.”
I’d love to hear what books you’d include on your own list. Please let us know in the comments section.