My Recent Browsing History

Here are some of the recent articles that have caught my eye.

Is the human brain hardwired to appreciate poetry?
George Saunders: what writers really do when they write
Storyhealing

Literature can enthuse medicine, and medicine can inspire literature. They are complementary treatments for being human.

The Stubborn Optimist

Following the persevering example of the writer and activist Grace Paley

THE ILLNESS AND INSIGHT OF ROBERT LOWELL

A new book is the first to bring clinical expertise to the poet’s case. What does it reveal about his work?

Did Jane Austen die of arsenic poisoning? Maybe. Maybe not.

On Novels and Novelists

Writing Tips: James Lee Burke

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

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

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

The Secret History of One Hundred Years of Solitude

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

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

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

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

How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Your Favorite Poem?

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

“Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

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

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

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

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

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

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

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

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

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

Time to read a good long book

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

Here are her suggestions:

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

Truth Clothed in Fiction

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

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

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

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

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

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

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

Monday Miscellany

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards

The Coretta Scott King Book Award was founded in 1969 in honor of the late Mrs. Coretta Scott King, wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for her passion and dedication to working for peace. The awards are given to “outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values.” Created by the American Library Association, this page provides a variety of resources, including a section on the history of the award and a list of all past award winners. Another great facet of this page is the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Donation Grant. The goal of this program is to increase children’s access to books by building the libraries of nontraditional institutions that provide services to children. Within Resources and Bibliographies, a series of educational materials related to multicultural and diversity resources and collections are also available.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2014. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

Oxford African American Studies Center: Focus on Women and Literature

The Oxford African American Studies Center has created this website to house its comprehensive collection of scholarship documenting the many and varied experiences that make up African and African American history and culture. Along with over 10,000 articles, 2,500 images, and 200 maps, the site features an excellent “Focus On” series each month, in which the editors compile various short articles, picture essays, and links on a designated topic. The Focus on Women and Literature is particularly noteworthy. Here, visitors can explore the life and works of influential women in American literature, from Phillis Wheatley to Toni Morrison. The site can be easily navigated by subject or by specific biography, with suggestions for related sources and content provided in each section. Additionally, curious visitors will find links to all of the previously featured subjects within the series, ranging from African Americans in Science and Technology to Black Homesteading in the American Western Frontier.

From The Scout Report, Copyright Internet Scout 1994-2014. https://www.scout.wisc.edu/

New Jane Austen manuscript criticises ‘men repeating prayers by rote’

A newly uncovered manuscript in which Jane Austen writes of men reciting prayers unthinkingly could shed light on the gestation of one of her novels.

The scrap of paper features a fragment copied out by the author from a sermon written by her brother, the Rev James Austen.

Now conservation experts are painstakingly lifting the snippet from the book it is stuck into so scholars can read the mysterious words she wrote on the back.

The passage in Austen’s handwriting, dating from 1814, states: “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our Prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding – certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning.”

This reflects a theme that she wrote about in her novel Mansfield Park, which was published in the same year.

The Road Back: Frost’s Letters Could Soften a Battered Image

Few figures in American literature have suffered as strangely divided an afterlife as Robert Frost.

Even before his death in 1963, he was canonized as a rural sage, beloved by a public raised on poems of his like “Birches” and “The Road Not Taken.” But that image soon became shadowed by a darker one, stemming from a three-volume biography by his handpicked chronicler, Lawrance Thompson, who emerged from decades of assiduous note-taking with a portrait of the poet as a cruel, jealous megalomaniac — “a monster of egotism” who left behind “a wake of destroyed human lives,” as the critic Helen Vendler memorably put it on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in 1970.

A preview of The Letters of Robert Frost, “a projected four-volume edition of all the poet’s known correspondence that promises to offer the most rounded, complete portrait to date.” Harvard University Press will begin publishing the collection in late February.

Author Jonathan Lethem: Feminism seems so self-evident

Some writers would rather do anything but discuss their own work. Not Jonathan Lethem. A wiry bundle of passionate and lucid self-analysis, the guy can talk. And talk.

I’m waiting at his publisher’s office near the Thames when he swoops in from the rain, ready to bat for the British release of his new novel, Dissident Gardens. A postwar family saga about Rose Angrush, a Jewish communist in Lethem’s native New York, it’s a funny, often filthy book with a heavy subject – the slow death of political alternatives to capitalism after Stalin tainted Marxism.

For a writer who lifts tropes from science fiction and superhero comic strips, it feels like a gear change. His 2003 novel, The Fortress Of Solitude, featured two boys who procure a magic ring that enables them to fly. One reviewer ordered Lethem to grow up.

‘It’s like I took his advice, right?’ he laughs. Not really, he says, preppy in neat specs and trim blazer. ‘I turn 50 in a couple of weeks. It’s kind of funny the idea that I might have suddenly matured, as if everything up to this point was a retarded adolescence and – like the Hulk – I shook it off and became this mature novelist.

‘If you were to put my work into a really super-deliberate two-word synopsis, you might call the whole project “against escapism”. Ideology in Dissident Gardens is like the flying ring in The Fortress Of Solitude. It’s the thing that doesn’t help you live in the world.’

William S. Burroughs at 100: Exploding Five Major Myths

William S. Burroughs, literary scourge of the banal and the boring, best known as the author of the still outrageous Naked Lunch (1959), would have turned 100 on February 5.

Whether as novelist, essayist, painter, filmmaker, recording artist, mystic, expatriate, psychological patient, Scientologist, Beat progenitor, plagiarist, punk music godfather, anti-censorship activist, queer hero, science-fiction guru, junkie, media theorist, advertising model — or accidental murderer — the figure of Burroughs (1914-1997) casts as many shadows as the limits of each of these labels.