Last Week’s Links

OCTAVIA BUTLER AND AMERICA AS ONLY BLACK WOMEN SEE IT

It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Julie Sedivy looks at the development of social intelligence over centuries by comparing medieval literature with novels of today. Medieval literature discusses what characters do with almost no consideration of how those characters felt about their actions or their motivations. Current literature (by which she means fiction—short stories or novels), in contrast, often focuses more on characters’ feelings than on their actions. This difference illustrates what Sedivy calls “Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities.”

Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

Sedivy writes that in medieval literature people are “constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing,” but without the author drawing much attention to such processes. These early authors present characters’ mental states through direct speech or gestures. “The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”).”

This approach to emotional representation began to change between 1500 and 1700, “when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy.” The soliloquies of Shakespearean characters such as Hamlet illustrate this change, which early literature specialist Elizabeth Hart attributes to the advent of print and the increase in literacy it prompted. The ability to reread and study printed passages prompted “a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”

Among these new cognitive skills was “the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability.” Mentalizing ability grew along with the emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sedivy reviews psychological research into how reading current fiction enhances readers’ mentalizing ability. She concludes that literature that trusts readers’ ability to recognize clues and draw inferences about characters’ motivations most effectively nurtures and sharpens readers’ understanding of characters’ mental states. The benefits are most obvious when study participants read “ literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.”

And this process of reading challenging literature to improve mentalizing ability is circular: Reading challenging literature sharpens one’s mentalizing ability, and that improved mentalizing ability makes one an increasingly skillful reader of literary characters’ inner lives.

When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational.

THE BOOKISH LIFE: HOW TO READ AND WHY

This article by Joseph Epstein is a good follow-up to the article above. “By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place.”

Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.

After admitting that there exists no definitive list of the good, the beautiful, the important books, Epstein continues, with much humor, to expound on the joy he has found in the bookish life.

Hell at the bottom of the heart: Hell at the bottom of the heart

Tyler Sage on Ross Macdonald: the man who added psychological insight to the hard-boiled thriller

While for Raymond Chandler and other early noir writers “the detective story was a tool for laying bare the unspoken realities of American life, in which dreams of prosperity and freedom collided with corruption, abuse of power and modern social conditions,” Ross Macdonald turned such concerns inward: “his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young.”

Sage quotes from one of Macdonald’s notebooks: ““Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.”

Sage here analyzes the 18 Lew Archer novels Macdonald wrote over 27 years, “a handful of which are as good as the genre has to offer.”

THE 10 BOOKS THAT DEFINED THE 1960s

Literary Hub is running a series called A Century of Reading comprising lists of books that defined each decade from the 1900s “to the (nearly complete) 2010s.” Series writer Emily Temple explains:

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered.

Since I came of age in the 1960s, this one particularly caught my eye. I’d say Temple has nailed the decade pretty well with her 10 choices. And beneath the chosen books is a HUGE list of other relevant books from that time period. So many memories—and suggestions for further reading—and rereading.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

14 Women Writers Who Dominate The Universe Of Sci-Fi

For decades men dominated the world of science fiction. But, Maddie Crum reports, the tables have turned. Read why she things these women authors now dominate the field:

  • L. Timmel Duchamp
  • Emily St. John Mandel
  • Octavia Butler
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Nnedi Okorafor
  • Jo Walton
  • Hiromi Goto
  • Karen Joy Fowler
  • Tanith Lee
  • Alice Bradley Sheldon
  • Nalo Hopkinson
  • Karen Russell
  • Leonora Carrington
  • Sofia Samatar

Why you need an app to understand my novel

Iain Pears has always written complex books – his latest, Arcadia, has 10 separate story strands. To make his readers’ lives easier, he turned to interactive technology

Iain Pears laments, “What should be a simple task – write story, create software, publish – turns out to be anything but in practice.”

The author of An Instance of the Fingerpost, which my book club loved several years ago and which is on my list of books deserving a reread, explains that he undertook the project of both writing and producing an app for his latest work, Arcadia, because “I had reached the limit of my storytelling in book form and needed some new tools to get me to the next stage.”

His previous novels are all “complex structurally,” he explains, and since he wanted to write a book even more complex, he considered “how to make my readers’ lives as easy as possible by bypassing the limitations of the classic linear structure.”

In developing the software to aid readers, he writes, his main aim was “making the technology the servant of the story rather than its master.”

This is a fascinating look at how a writer attempts to use new technological tools as a way of expanding the possibilities of narrative. He compares his approach to the way the introduction of film influenced narrative: At first people simply set up cameras and recorded plays; only somewhat later did artists begin to explore the different possibilities that film offered to make a movie different from a stage performance.

Writing Arcadia did produce odd effects in ways that an ordinary book or ebook could not; scenes became more episodic and vignette-like; the demands of shifting from one point of view to another, and then to multiple ones in different worlds, required different ways of writing.

Arcadia will be published in Britain on September 3. A link at the end of this piece takes you to iTunes, where you can get the app.

Let authors take the quiet road

One question readers must always consider is how much they want to know about the author—or, more specifically, should what we know about an author influence how we react to or interpret a literary work?

This piece considers the case of Italian author Elena Ferrante, who eschews publicity so ferociously that most people don’t even know what she looks like.

Here writer Arifa Akbar wishes that more authors would follow Ferrante’s lead: “As Ferrante suggests, the book should surely be enough, though that is sadly not the reality for many pressured to deliver a performance after they have delivered their novel.”

11 Big Fat Debut Novels to Keep You Reading All Summer

Julianna Haubner writes:

While the classics have always had a reputation for intimidating length (Tolstoy, Dickens, I’m looking at you), we are now living in the era of an entirely new trend: the big, fat, juicy debut novel. Industry insiders (The Daily Beast and Vulture among them) have put in their two cents, but here’s ours: the bigger the better! Whether they’re fetching huge advances or sleeper successes, here are our favorite first-time tries that keep us reading past page five hundred.

These books are not all from the year. But read why she so enjoyed these authors’ big first novels:

  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  • We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  • City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  • A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
  • The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski