“Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

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Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

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

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.

The Result

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdRelocating 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.

Much of the discussion about Watchman has centered around whether Harper Lee was truly capable of agreeing to its publication. We may never know. But of one thing I am sure: Judged solely as works of art, To Kill a Mockingbird is a better novel than Go Set a Watchman. Looking at the two side by side provides a good picture for both writers and readers of how effective fiction works.

More on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

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.

Data Miners Dig for Answers About Harper Lee, Truman Capote and ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn 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.

Harper Lee and the hero’s journey

Cover: The Hero with a Thousand FacesCharles 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.

An Evening with the Real Scout Finch

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.”

How Go Set a Watchman Solves the Mystery of Harper Lee

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.

Atticus Finch Confronted What the South Couldn’t

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.

He continues:

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.”

America, Meet the Real Atticus Finch

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.

Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

You won’t envision Gregory Peck when you read what Atticus Finch has to say to his daughter late in this novel:

“You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” (p. 242)

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (p. 245)

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… . They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.” (pp. 246–247)

The hard work of reconciling this picture of Atticus Finch with the Atticus Finch that Peck portrays in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird raises an essential question about this newly released novel by Harper Lee: Is it possible to review Go Set a Watchman without reference to To Kill a Mockingbird?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try.

In Watchman, 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has been living for five years. She comes home for two weeks every year to see her father, Atticus Finch, whom she adores, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Henry Clinton, whom she has known since childhood. She usually travels by plane, but this year she takes the train. The view as she approaches her destination allows her to reconnect with the place where she grew up: “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful” (p. 6).

Jean Louise rolls her eyes over the Southern propriety of her Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, who never passes up an opportunity to explain that Jean Louise should stay home in Maycomb, get married and have children, and take care of her aging father. But she loses patience when her aunt invites some of the young women she grew up with over for coffee. After living in New York, Jean Louise cannot tolerate the narrow-mindedness of women who define themselves only in terms of their husbands and their children.

This scene crystallizes Jean Louise’s internal conflict: She loves and respects her father, but she no longer shares the beliefs and values that underlie the Southern way of life that he and Maycomb epitomize. Atticus, now 72, has always been her moral beacon. but she is shocked and disgusted when she sneaks into the courthouse and witnesses a political meeting at which both Atticus and Henry denounce Negroes and Jews. Jean Louise sneaks back out of the courthouse repulsed and sickened by the revelations of her father’s hypocrisy.

This pivotal scene of the coming-of-age story occurs very late in the novel. But it’s not just the novel’s pacing that’s off. The text doesn’t adequately prepare us for the depth of Jean Louise’s revulsion. We know that she has always loved and deeply respected her father for the values he taught her. So why is she so astonished now? How is it possible that she didn’t know her father held these views? She discusses her concerns with both her father and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, afterwards, but this backward attempt at explaining what should have come before her moment of realization falls flat. And the explanation is given in terms of political theorizing that doesn’t adequately address the emotional nature of her reaction.

The writing in Watchman is adequate though uninspired. There are several flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood that are more interesting than the present time of the book but that also do not cohere thematically with the novel as a whole. The late climax and quick resolution that doesn’t effectively resolve matters leave the reader jarringly unsatisfied.

scroll divider

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThat’s my review of Watchman without reference to Mockingbird. But it leaves out one question that cannot be ignored: How do we reconcile the Atticus Finch of Watchman with the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird?

Not to be flip, but there’s only one possible answer: We don’t. These novels are two separate works. Even if we accept that Watchman is an early draft of what later became Mockingbird, each novel should be read and evaluated separately, in its own right. Comparing them might say something about Harper Lee or about the two different time periods presented in the books, but the publication of Watchman does not change To Kill a Mockingbird at all.

As the Release Date of Harper Lee’s New Novel Approaches

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.

Harper Lee Receives Copy of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as Release Nears

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.

Looking for traces of ‘Mockingbird’ in Harper Lee’s hometown

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdJay Reeves writes for the Associated Press about crucial spots in Harper Lee’s home town of Monroeville, AL, that contributed to the setting in Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To see some of the sites, click through the slide show near the top of the page.

On Novels and Novelists

What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t, in the Town That Inspired “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn a long piece for Smithsonian Magazine, Paul Theroux describes a visit to Monroeville, AL, home of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird:

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.

What novelist Kent Haruf taught me about writing and life

Cover: PlainsongMichael 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.

10 influential pulp novels that are criminally good

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:

  1. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip Jose Farmer
  2. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
  4. John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  5. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  6. Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair
  7. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  9. No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett
  10. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

JK Rowling reveals why the Dursleys dislike Harry Potter so much

Harry Potter boxed setJ.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.

Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought – The New York Times

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.

Source: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought – The New York Times

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

Literary Characters Disturbing the Universe

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.

Cover: Broken for YouBroken for You by Stephanie Kallos

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.

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?

Harper Lee’s Condition Debated by Friends, Fans and Now State of Alabama – NYTimes.com

Now the State of Alabama has been drawn into the debate. Responding to at least one complaint of potential elder abuse related to the publication of “Watchman,” investigators interviewed Ms. Lee last month at the assisted living facility where she resides. They have also interviewed employees at the facility, called the Meadows, as well as several friends and acquaintances.

via Harper Lee’s Condition Debated by Friends, Fans and Now State of Alabama – NYTimes.com.

The debate over whether Harper Lee is capable of consenting to the publication of her first novel, the forerunner of To Kill a Mockingbird, has intensified.

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

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

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

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

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

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

Common Themes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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