Last Week’s Links

How Stephen King Made Pop Culture Weird

If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Even my new hometown of Tacoma, WA, likes to call itself weird, as does Portland, OR, in the photo above.

Lincoln Michel explains that these are not isolated occurrences:

If you haven’t heard, “weird” is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.

He singles out King because “Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King’s impact on pop culture.” This article caught my eye because one of my recent reads was King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel alternate-history romance (“genre-bending,” although “genre-blending” would be more accurate) that kept me spellbound.

A theory of creepiness

If you’ve been hanging out around Notes in the Margin for a while, you’ve heard me say that I don’t read books about zombies, vampires, or werewolves. Even though I know these unnatural beings can be potent metaphors for contemporary life, I just don’t like them.

But, until I came across this article, I had never examined my revulsion with these creatures until I came across this article, which made me realize I dislike zombies, vampires, and werewolves because of their creepiness:

creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

In this article David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of the Human Nature Project, examines psychological theories in looking to answer the question “Why the enduring fascination with creepiness?”

Bending Mind and Time: 6 of the Best Time Travel Books

11_22_63I’ve always been fascinated by the use of time travel as a literary device. Matt Staggs begins this brief article with a look at the new book Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, a scientist’s look at representations of time travel in popular culture and science. Staggs then discusses five of the best known novels featuring time travel:

  1. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
  2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

He concludes:

In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.

RELENTLESSLY RELEVANT: The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

I’ve long thought that, with the possible exception of “The Turn of the Screw,” the works of Henry James shouldn’t be studied until graduate school. James’s insight into the human psyche is so subtly complex that only people with a lot of life experience can understand and appreciate it.

Paula Marantz Cohen, Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, uses the recent issuance of a stamp honoring Henry James by the U.S. Postal Service as a springboard for this article. Cohen sees James’s “dense and difficult” late writing — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all written between 1902 and 1904 — as a bridge from the Victorian era into modernity (the age of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and then, further, into our age of postmodernism:

His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, … and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

There is an indeterminacy with respect to truth that his later work supports in such an aggressive way that it becomes a worldview. Words, normally meant to communicate, are deployed more as obstacles to communication than as facilitators to it. The fragmented nature of his dialogue leaves meaning unresolved between characters (he describes them as continually “hanging fire”).

Cohen writes that James’s characters “were always trying to make the most out of situations and see the best in people through their imaginative flexibility — to salvage meaning to some positive, creative end.” However, she laments, in academia this process became subverted into giving truth “purely provisional meaning based on what the speaker wants to relay and the listener/reader wants to hear.” The result “betrays the ideals of [James’s] moral imagination. And yet his great later writing can be seen as its precursor.”

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

2 Big Books That Disappointed Me

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I’ve been writing a lot about Big Books lately. Since I no longer continue to slog through books that don’t engage me (although I’ll give a Big Book, one of more than 500 pages, 100 pages to win me over), I don’t have a long list of Big Books I didn’t like. I don’t review books I don’t finish and only seldom report on books that I gave up on.

However, here are two Big Books that I did finish and didn’t like.

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb
Paperback, 768 pages

hour first believedI picked up this book really wanting and expecting to like it because I was so taken with I Know This Much is True. However, there’s so much wrong with this novel that it’s hard to know where to begin discussing it.

The book centers around a married couple, high school English teacher Caelum Quirk and his wife Maureen, a nurse. When Caelum discovers that Maureen is cheating on him, he attacks the other guy with a pipe wrench. In an effort to repair their lives, the Quirks move to Littleton, Colorado, where Maureen gets a job as school nurse at Columbine High School. And if you think you can see where this story is going, you’re right.

A few people I know said they refused to read this book because they didn’t want to revisit the terrible massacre at Columbine. In fact, in remarks at the end of the book Wally Lamb apologetically addresses his decision to use that event as a plot point. I don’t object to his use of this event. What I object to is the point of view he chose with which to narrate it. In the book Caelum has returned to his family home in Connecticut to check on an aging family member when the attack occurs. He tries to reach Maureen by phone while she covers in a closed cabinet listening to the gunfire. Afterwards, we learn more about the massacre as Caelum researches it to help himself understand Maureen’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once Lamb had chosen to write about Columbine, I felt that, to do the issue justice, he should approach it in first person, through the eyes of the person who experiences it in the book, rather than obliquely, through someone reporting on the event and on his wife’s reaction to it.

The couple decide to get away from the scene of the trauma and move back to Caelum’s Connecticut home. Eventually Maureen, unable to overcome her demons, goes to prison for vehicular homicide. And here the story pivots into sole focus on Caelum. SPOILER ALERT: In an obvious deus ex machina move, Lamb eliminates Maureen from further consideration.

In this second half of the novel, Caelum discovers a cache of letters from the 19th century that sets him a crusade to discover his now deceased mother’s true identity and background. He lets a feminist scholar use the letters for her dissertation, a long portion of which appears in the novel. Either half of the book could have been a novel in its own right, but jamming the two together makes this novel a structural nightmare, even though the two parts deal with some of the same themes. Add a few wobbly, far-fetched attempts at symbolism—praying mantis, butterfly, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—and you have a book that never would have been published if its author were not already a well established figure.

This book looks like an attempt to apply the formula that worked so well in I Know This Much is True to another novel for which the formula is inappropriate. I would have given up on this book long before I reached the end if it hadn’t been a selection for one of my book clubs. I wasn’t surprised when just about everyone else in the club said they also didn’t like it.

A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe
Hardcover, 742 pages

man in fullAuthor Tom Wolfe is a Big Figure: Goodreads describes him as “our prime fictional chronicler of America at its most outrageous and alive.” Big Figures write Big Books, such as this one that deals with a number of contemporary themes: real estate development, boom vs. bust, shady deals, the politics of college sports, the life of the corporate elite, and racism in the U.S.

The book features Charles Croker, a former college football star who now, in late middle age, owns a large quail-shooting plantation where he schmoozes with the corporate and political elite. Croker also owns a huge but half-empty new office tower and the load of debt associated with it. As real estate tanks in Atlanta, Croker attempts to juggle his enterprise to keep himself afloat.

This is the book that taught me the lesson of not passing judgment until I’ve finished a book. Wolfe’s writing is so vivid and clever that he kept me interested in these characters and the situations they dig themselves into for most of the book. However, most of those situations are so complex and definitive that there really is no way out of them. Wolfe painted himself into a corner and could not find a suitable ending: the book runs out of steam and peters out. Perhaps it’s fair to say that it’s enough for an author like Wolfe to point out society’s problems without having to suggest solutions to them, but Wolfe is such a good storyteller that the failure to provide an adequate ending here irritated me. After I had told a few people that I was enjoying the book as I was reading it, I then had to tell them that I was disappointed in the way it ended. Now I wait until I’ve finished a book to recommend it.

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What Big Books (of 500 or more pages) have you read that disappointed you?

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

Joyce Carol Oates: ‘People think I write quickly, but I actually don’t’

Joyce Carol Oates, often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters,” recently talked with writer Hermione Hoby for The Guardian. At age 77, Oates has written more than 100 books and has been a Pulitzer finalist five times.

What Hoby calls “a pronounced gothic streak” runs through much of Oates’s fiction. Hoby explains why by quoting a passage from the afterword to Oates’s 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque:

“We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”

Hoby says that Blonde, Oates’s fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s interior life, is often regarded as her best novel. My book club back in St. Louis read it several years ago and loved it. We also read and loved her novel We Were the Mulvaneys, which remains one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

Michael Connelly Chooses ‘The Long Goodbye’ for WSJ Book Club

Prominent mystery writer Michael Connelly has chosen Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye for the Wall Street Journal Book Club. Connelly credits this book with launching his writing career. He was majoring in construction engineering in college when he saw Robert Altman’s 1973 film adaptation of the novel. He bought all of Chandler’s novels, read them back to back, then changed his major to journalism and creative writing.

Amazon Series: BOSCHAlthough Connelly has written some stand-alone novels, he is best known for his fictional detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. The Bosch novels are the basis for Amazon’s series Bosch, starring Titus Welliver. The series’ second season will be released this year.

There’s a link in this article for joining the WSJ Book Club, but I think you have to be a subscriber of the paper to sign up.

Inside Lisa Genova’s medical best sellers

Lisa Genova was trained as a neuroscientist, but she has left that career behind to write full time. She self-published her first novel, Still Alice, and sold it out of her car trunk because she couldn’t land a literary agent or publisher. That book was eventually picked up by a major publisher, and Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of the lead character in the film version.

Still Alice tells the story of a Harvard neuroscientist who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. While most writing about Alzheimer’s features the point of view of care givers, Genova’s novel portrayed the experience of the patient. Genova has written three more books about neurological conditions: Love Anthony, about autism; Left Neglected, about traumatic brain injury; and Inside the O’Briens, about Huntington’s disease. Her next novel, she says, will be about ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

10 underrated novels from great authors

Sure, you’ve heard of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but what about Pudd’nhead Wilson? Read about this less well known work of Mark Twain, along with underrated novels by the following writers as well:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Cormac McCarthy
Haruki Murakami
Edgar Allan Poe
George Orwell
Stephen King
Graham Greene
James Salter
Richard Yates

J.K. Rowling reveals statue she marked after completing ’Harry Potter’

J.K. Rowling recently revealed on Twitter that she defaced a statue in her Balmoral hotel room after finishing the final volume in her Harry Potter series. See the evidence here.

A good sport about the whole thing, the Balmoral has renamed the room the J.K. Rowling Suite and protected the statue inside a glass case. This is certainly a case of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Herman Wouk Says He’s A ‘Happy Gent’ At 100

Herman Wouk has written a lot of famous novels, including The Winds of War and The Caine Mutiny, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Now, at age 100, he’s issued a spiritual memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.

It’s a memoir, he says, that “sums up what it means to be a writer.”

On Novels and Novelists

10 Famous Authors’ Favorite TV Shows

In an era when it’s impossible to open a web browser without stumbling across another “Is television the new novel?” piece, we couldn’t help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw-style, just what our favorite writers watch in their spare time.

See what shows the following authors like:

  • Zadie Smith
  • S.E. Hinton
  • Lorrie Moore
  • Stephen King
  • Bret Easton Ellis
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Roxane Gay
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Joyce Carol Oates

And since not all of these writers are from the U.S., here’s an opportunity to learn about some television shows you may not know.

What Ray Bradbury’s FBI File Teaches Us About Science Fiction’s Latest Controversies

Separate FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests by the Daily Beast and MuckRock unearthed Bradbury’s files in 2012. Though they received some coverage at the time, Boing Boing, the Register, and MuckRock have discussed the documents this week, focusing to their charming anachronisms and other period peculiarities. Ultimately, however, those documents stand out most for what they reveal about the state of science fiction today.

Jacob Brogan here takes a quick look at what informants had to tell the FBI about Bradbury and his writings back in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite fears that science fiction might become “a lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies,” Brogan asserts that Bradbury’s popular success was not driven by any ideology, “a communist one least of all.” Instead, Brogan writes, science fiction has always been about looking at what’s wrong with the world and imagining how to make it better.

“Science fiction’s latest controversies” referred to in the article’s title involve division in the ranks of science fiction writers and award judges, some of whom see “an elitist wave of liberal propaganda” overtaking the genre. This article includes lots of links to more material about these controversies on the web for those who wish to delve further into the issues.

But, Brogan reminds us, the FBI documents pertaining to Ray Bradbury are

important reminders that science fiction invites us to see and think in new ways. It’s not always ideologically inclined, but it has rarely strayed far from the political.

Ursula K. Le Guin on myths, Modernism and why “I’m a little bit suspicious of the MFA program”

Here Scott Timberg talks with Le Guin, a grand dame of both science fiction and fantasy, about her newly issued book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. A significantly revised version of a work originally published in 1998, this book, Timberg says, “is not something any aspiring fiction writer should ignore.”

Steering the Craft originated in a workshop about the nuts and bolts of writing that Le Guin conducted for writers in the 1990s. She said that a lot of writers didn’t “have the vocabulary of the very elements of [their] work – which is how the English language is put together, and what constitutes a sentence and a non-sentence and so on.”

Read the rest of the interview—it’s short—to find out why she thinks writers should read the work of Virginia Woolf and why she is “a little bit suspicious of the MFA program” as a way for writers to practice their craft.

Why Knopf Editor in Chief Sonny Mehta Still Has the “Best Job in the World”

OK, Sonny Mehta is not a novelist, but as editor in chief of the Knopf publishing house, he’s deep into the world of books and writers.

In this short piece Dave Eggers profiles Mehta, for whom “the unique delight in discovering a great unpublished work hasn’t diminished.”

Stephen King wins Edgar award for killer thriller Mr Mercedes | Books | The Guardian

“He represents a plausible evil; it’s impossible not to hear echoes in his story of other troubled young American men who have opened fire in crowded schools or cinemas, as King peels back the layers to understand how a killer like Brady is formed,” said the Observer review of the novel, quoting King’s lines: “The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

Source: Stephen King wins Edgar award for killer thriller Mr Mercedes | Books | The Guardian

I wrote about Mr. Mercedes here.

On Novels and Novelists

Harlan Coben: ’Every successful author still has to treat it as a job’

An informative article on one of my favorite writers of thrillers, Harlan Coben. And a very successful writer he is:

He’s written 27 novels, seven of them New York Times No 1 bestsellers. He has 60m books in print in 41 languages, and his advances are well into seven figures. He’s won the big three in mystery awards – the Edgar, the Shamus and the Anthony. The blockbuster French film based on his novel, Tell No One, was nominated for nine Cesars.

Coben lives with his family—a pediatrician wife and four children—in northern New Jersey, USA. He has set many of his popular books in places similar to his suburban home:

Coben says he intentionally draws upon life in his own town in northern New Jersey for his novels. “I like to set my novels in places that are seemingly placid, places that are the fruition of the American dream– house, 2.4 kids, two-car garage – and show how fragile that is.”

Relationships of all types figure strongly in his books: between friends, partners, spouses, parents and children.

For more information on Coben, see my post about his 2011 visit to the St. Louis County Library.

Novelist Pat Conroy starts new chapter with opening of fitness gym

Well known author Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, Prince of Tides) gave up drinking and began dieting about three years ago, at his doctor’s urging. Now he’s starting a fitness gym near his home in South Carolina. The 69-year-old writer explains why:

I’m doing it because there are four or five books I’d like to write before I meet with Jesus of Nazareth, as my mother promised me … and I can’t write them unless I’m healthy.”

How Has Publishing Changed in the Digital Age for Book Authors?

Writer Alan Cheuse declares that the “current situation for a writer appears quite distinct from any other moment since the birth of modern publishing in the early 19th century… . The link between writer and reader has morphed into a rapidly changing field of play.”

He says that marketing a book has now become as “complicated and problematic as the writing of the book itself.” He acknowledges that he has had to learn how to use social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, to spread the news of the publication of his latest novel, Prayers for the Living. He has also written for a blog he seldom used to visit in hopes of building name recognition for himself among readers.

Another difference between the current publishing process and the previous one that he lived with for decades involves getting his book reviewed:

As fewer and fewer reviews appear in newspapers and magazines, more and more come out online. But for the ordinary reader—let’s call her the civilian reader—most of the Internet reviews never cross her horizon.

Even many established writers feel bewildered in this brave new publishing world, Cheuse writes:

It takes as much work to promote a book as to write one, is what it feels like, as much work just to get a new book in this range of certainty as it does to have put in the years to compose it.

Novelist’s journey melds Zen Buddhism, storytelling

Terrence Petty reports on a presentation and interview by novelist Ruth Ozeki during a week she spent recently in Portland, Oregon, as artist-in-residence for Literary Arts. Ozeki’s spiritual companion is a Zen master named Dogen, who has been dead for nearly 800 years. Petty reports:

Dogen has a purpose: to get humans to slow down and think about their actions at every moment and not rush through the days. Be aware. Be alive.

Ozeki was raised in Connecticut by a Japanese mother and an American father. When she was three years old, her Japanese grandparents visited. She was surprised one day when she entered a room and found them sitting in Zen meditation. Interested to find out more about her Japanese heritage, she received a fellowship to study Japanese literature at Nara Women’s University in Japan after her 1980 graduation from Smith College. She later became more serious about meditation as her own parents aged and died.

Ozeki’s latest novel, A Tale for the Time Being, takes its title from an essay by Dogen. The magic in the book expresses her spiritual beliefs:

Words vanish, ghosts appear, characters change shape, and time does weird things. These metaphysical elements come right out of the box of Buddhist principles, intended to convey messages that all things are interconnected, nothing is permanent, and there is no abiding self… . She uses literary techniques that seek to collapse time and space in the readers’ imagination. The effect on readers can be similar to what practitioners of Zen feel as they sit in meditation.

Ozeki was ordained a Zen priest in 2010. She and her husband live on an island off of British Columbia, and last year she completed two months of head monk training at a Zen community in Vancouver, BC.

Celebration of Southern Literature: Jill McCorkle on ‘Life After Life’ And Death

This page introduces the audio program of an interview with novelist Jill McCorkle. Her most recent novel, Life After Life (not to be confused with another recent novel of the same title by Kate Atkinson), deals with the often uncomfortable subject of talking about death.

Set in a North Carolina retirement home, Life After Life was inspired by her father’s death, and she spent more than 10 years working on it. The novel is narrated from multiple points of view and contrasts the way dying people view themselves with the observations of others.

Jill McCorkle lives with her husband in Hillsborouth, NC. She is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tufts, Brandeis, and Harvard. She currently teaches creative writing in the MFA program at North Carolina State University and at Bennington College Writing Seminars.

Kevin Macdonald to Direct Stephen King Mini-Series ’11/22/63’

Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 is a hefty tome: just under 850 pages in hardcover. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf since shortly after it came out, but I haven’t read it yet.

Now comes word that streaming subscription service Hulu is looking to get into the original content game, like Netflix and Amazon, with a nine-episode mini-series based on the book. King’s novel features a modern-day high school English teacher who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Actors currently signed up for the project are Chris Cooper, Lucy Fry, George MacKay, Leon Rippy, Cherry Jones, James Franco, Sarah Gadon, and Daniel Webber.

The article doesn’t state when the production is expected to air.

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”

On Novels and Novelists

Stephen King: The Rolling Stone Interview

According to interviewer Andy Greene, this interview in Rolling Stone is the first in-depth one Stephen King has given since a van accident nearly killed him 15 years ago.

Known as the master of horror, King has long wished to be known as “a writer,” not “a horror writer.” Greene asks King about the genre question early in their discussion:

I have to say this: To a degree, I have elevated the horror genre.

Few would argue with that.

It’s more respected now. I’ve spoken out my whole life against the idea of simply dismissing whole areas of fiction by saying it’s “genre” and therefore can’t be seen as literature. I’m not trying to be conceited or anything. Raymond Chandler elevated the detective genre. People who have done wonderful work really blur the line.

In this same vein, King speaks out against elitist “gray eminences in literary criticism” who, he says, don’t want to understand works that have popular appeal.

He also offers his views on life’s big issues, such as religion, God, heaven, the afterlife, and the future of humanity. And here’s what he has to say about evil: “Evil is inside us. The older I get, the less I think there’s some sort of outside devilish influence; it comes from people.”

King talks a bit here about the public reception of his books and how he feels about the movie adaptations of his novels. Here’s his answer to the question of which book he thinks is his best:

Lisey’s Story. That one felt like an important book to me because it was about marriage, and I’d never written about that. I wanted to talk about two things: One is the secret world that people build inside a marriage, and the other was that even in that intimate world, there’s still things that we don’t know about each other.

This is a long interview, and King touches on lots of other topics: politics, money, television shows, his writing process, and his drug and alcohol addiction.

And now I know why I hated The Tommyknockers so much: “The Tommyknockers  is an awful book,” says Stephen King.

Fuminori writes noir, but not as we know it

Fuminori Nakamura has won many of the major literary prizes in Japan and is quickly making the same kind of impact in the English-speaking world. His third novel to be translated into English, “Last Winter, We Parted,” is out now. It’s a tense, layered story centered around a young writer commissioned by his editor to write about photographer Yudai Kiharazaka, in prison for murdering two women.

According to this article in The Japan Times, Fuminori’s newly translated novel:

is full of stylistic flourishes and structural experimentation. There are textual games throughout the book, as it switches from archived letters to internal monologue to reported speech to notes from a diary and chains of tweets. It’s a book that keeps its secrets until the last page, playing games with the reader. Structurally it’s a Mobius strip.

His characters seldom have a backstory because, as the author explains, “My characters are often people who are adrift in the world.” He’s interested both in characters who separate themselves from the world and in what happens when those characters come together.

“I think of myself as writing pure literature,” he says. “I’m interested in the secret depths of humanity. I focus much more on describing the psychological state. I think that by writing from the side of human darkness, I might be able to write about those secret depths.”

This novel also explores the nature of creativity, art, and literature because “art does have a terrible side,” he says.

Elena Ferrante: the global literary sensation nobody knows

Elena Ferrante is an Italian novelist who was born in or near Naples. She seems once to have been married; she may have lived in Greece; she appears to be a mother. Or so we think. In our self-promoting, Twitter-saturated age, Ferrante is an outlier, an author who wishes to remain totally private. She refuses face-to-face interviews, has only given a handful of written ones (a few of her letters have been published), and makes no personal appearances; no photographs of her have been published. In 1991, shortly before the publication of her style-defining first book, Troubling Love, Ferrante sent a letter to her editor, explaining that she would not be promoting it: “I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.” Anonymity, she thought, would preserve “a space of absolute creative freedom”, a freedom all the more necessary because her books stick “a finger in certain wounds I have that are still infected”.

Even though I don’t have to feel guilty about not having heard of this writer, I do begin to feel guilty about all the titles I must put on my ever-growing list of books-to-be-read.

The Neapolitan series, which is Ferrante’s most ambitious project to date, represents an evolution in her work. Three of the expected four novels have been published in English: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and, now, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Taken together, the novels span some 50 years, chronicling the life-long friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elena Greco. With them, Ferrante has written both a capacious story of Elena’s coming of age – Elena, who has become a novelist, is the narrator – and a social novel explicitly dealing with Italian politics and history where the earlier work confined itself to internal psychic dramas.