Rebeca Hussey here defines philosophical fiction as fiction that “encourages the reader to ponder big questions. It purposely provokes thought and debate.” Her list of philosophical fiction includes both contemporary and classic books.
Pip Williams, author of The Dictionary of Lost Words, explains why and how she wrote this book, which examines the participation of women in the production of the daddy of dictionaries, The Oxford English Dictionary.
This is an excerpt from the recent book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon, PhD. In this episode she explains why there was no official investigation of the murder of a woman named Apronia until her husband asked the emperor to look into it:
There was no representative of the state of Rome who would get involved in this case until Apronius took it to the emperor because, as far as the Romans were concerned, the murder of wives, children, husbands, or really anyone at all was absolutely none of their business.
A professor “who teaches people to teach kids to read” takes us on a tour of the “reading wars.” She looks at political involvement in the various controversies that have produced a sobering statistic: “two-thirds of United States 4th graders are reading ‘below grade level.’”
“The author recognized that humiliation is a kind of trauma—and that gentle humor could help neutralize it.”
A beautiful appreciation by Sophie Gilbert of children’s author Beverly Cleary, who died recently at the age of 104. Gilbert lauds the way Cleary “captured—sweetly, and with humor—all the ordinary ups and downs of childhood: sibling rivalry, misunderstandings, having a teacher who you can sense doesn’t like you.”
I was, like lots of other readers, bowled over by Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it shortly after its publication in April 2012. While I appreciated it simply as an engrossing story, what particularly struck me was how the book used the concept of life stories to communicate its meaning. This came the year after I received my doctorate in psychology, for which I wrote my dissertation on life stories.
My study of life stories focused on memoir and other autobiographical writing, all nonfiction. But Gone Girl hit me upside the head with the realization that an understanding of life story theory could enrich my understanding of fiction, too. Here’s how Flynn uses aspects of life story as the framework of the novel:
Summary: Life Stories
Coming from an academic background, I was intrigued to recognize how aspects of psychology emerge in literature.
The study of life stories (the technical term is narrative identity theory) addresses how we all tell—to both ourselves and others—the story of our life in order to give meaning to our experiences and to build our sense of self—our feeling of who we are as both a member of society and a unique individual.
I started writing on this topic back in 2014. To keep this blog post as short as possible, I’m embedding some earlier posts about life stories here.
Our life stories arise from our past and influence both our present and our future.
When we tell our life stories, we include events as we remember them. Other people present at the same events may remember them quite differently.
Once Gone Girl demonstrated to me how life stories can show up in fiction, I began seeing them almost everywhere.
I see aspects of Life Stories in Literature functioning across time in the books that interest me.
How Life Stories Work in Fiction
Fiction, in its broadest sense, examines the meaning of human existence by considering the two most basic questions each of us asks about ourselves:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
We compose our life story to find our purpose or place in the world. Life stories are psychologically complex because they comprise two seemingly paradoxical functions:
to situate someone within a particular society or culture, in a specific place and a specific time
to carve out someone’s individual or unique identity within the larger group
Fiction gives us the opportunity to watch, in a safe setting, how particular actions play out. Understanding how life stories work can enrich our experiences of reading fiction by allowing us to observe how characters act in particular situations and transferring the lessons those characters learn to our own lives.
Sometimes the life story is the major focus of a novel. Other times it’s a minor element that illuminates some other aspect of the novel.
Every minute of every day, behind the scenes, our self-narrative is deftly guiding our every decision based on what we gleaned, applying it to what’s happening now, and suggesting what we should (probably) do next.
Here’s a sampling of the themes that life stories can help us understand in fiction. These themes are like individual facets of a diamond: the meaning of one theme can reflect onto others. In fact, a single novel may illustrate more than one of these themes. I have broken this discussion down into themes for ease of discussion, but many themes may serve as reflections of each other and, like light from a cut diamond, produce a light greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The core of narrative identity theory is the individual’s exploration, discovery, creation, and understanding of self. The term narrative means a series of events told in chronological sequence—essentially a story. Popular culture has adopted the concept of life stories with phrases such as “the narrative of success” or the need to “change the narrative” in fields such as business, lifestyle, and personal development.
Young children remember some of their experiences, but people generally don’t begin to put those memories together to construct a life narrative until adolescence. Therefore, YA (young adult) fiction often emphasizes this aspect of life story. However, understanding or shaping one’s identity isn’t limited to adolescence but continues throughout one’s life time.
Fiction featuring adults therefore sometimes includes incidents in which characters try to focus, evaluate, explain, or even change their life path or sense of purpose. For example, the story in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird is so gripping that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the narrator is not the child Scout, but rather the adult that child has grown into. Her narration of what happened back when her father defended Tom Robinson explains how those events shaped her into the person she has become.
Older characters, those in the midst of that common malady known as mid-life crisis, sometimes engage in similar soul-searching. Anne Tyler’s 2001 novel Back When We Were Grownups begins with the memorable line “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person.” The novel unfolds as this woman re-examines the purpose and significance of the life she has lived.
Finally in this general category of the search for identity, there are the negative examples, the warnings. All of the following novels demonstrate what happens when people don’t fulfill society’s expectations for them:
As the range of publication dates of these novels demonstrates, this theme recurs across time. The expectations of the current societies differ, but the fact that society expects people to live in appropriate ways endures.
Growing up is a process of socialization, and that process begins at home at an early age. We spend our early years learning how our parents, our first representatives of society, expect us to act. Some of this instruction is overt: “Good children share their toys and take turns.”
But some is much more subtle. In Beverly Cleary’s novel Beezus and Ramona, 9-year-old Beatrice (Beezus) Quimby finds her 4-year-old sister Ramona completely exasperating. One of Ramona’s exasperating actions is the frequent demand that Beezus read aloud Ramona’s favorite book, The Littlest Steam Shovel. Beezus can’t understand why Ramona loves this book so much. After all, “Girls weren’t supposed to like machinery.” This novel was published in 1955, a time when appropriate gender behaviors were well established: boys were supposed to play with tanks and trucks, while girls got dolls and dishes.
Scott O’Dell’s 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins includes the same gender assumptions. In this children’s novel Karana, age 12, gets left behind on a small island when the rest of her people decide to leave on a visiting ship. She realizes she’ll have to make everything she’ll need to survive, but she worries because her father has taught her that any weapons made by women will fail when used:
I wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself.
Fortunately, Karana is a brave girl. She makes the weapons and teaches herself how to use them.
Near the end of Beezus and Ramona, Beezus tells Ramona, “You can’t have jelly on your mashed potatoes, because you aren’t supposed to.” While current readers probably find this admonition less objectionable than the gender-based lessons, it still demonstrates that society expects children, as they grow up, to learn what they are “supposed to” and “not supposed to” do.
Children who grow up in an unstable home environment also learn lessons that will shape the rest of their lives. Novelist Paula McLain wrote recently about how her life in foster care, beginning at age 5, affected her later life:
A common type of stories told to young children is fairy tales, many of which function as subtle messages to teach children how to be in the world:
Much of what fairy tales give us are warnings about the people we encounter and the world we live in. We are told in fairy tales to be cautious of strangers, to be wary of those that may want to intrude into our lives, because we can never truly know what motives they may have.
Finally, dysfunctional-family variants have become a literary trope, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres, for examining how childhood memories and lessons mold us into the adults we become. A recent example is Girl A by Abigail Dean. The novel tells the story of the seven Gracie children, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of two mentally ill parents. Girl A, the narrator of the novel, is Lex Gracie, the oldest girl, second-oldest child, who was 15 when she managed to escape and summon help.
I remember very little about that time [immediately after the escape], and each of the memories seems exaggerated, as if I’ve taken somebody else’s story and imagined myself into the narrative.
The tale of the rescue of the children from the Gracie House of Horrors received extensive, sensationalized press coverage. Afterwards, the siblings were sent to separate families for adoption; they have not had much contact with each since.
Now, 15 years later, Lex is an attorney who must consult her siblings about settling the estate of their mother, who has died in prison. As she talks with each in turn, she realizes that each one of them has constructed his or her own version of a life story that explains what happened to them then and how they have lived their lives since.
And this brings up one very important feature of life stories: each person’s is unique. If you’ve ever reminisced with family members and discovered that each of you has a very different memory of some notable family event (something like The Year Grandma Forgot to Cook the Thanksgiving Turkey), you’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. Different people remember the same event differently. There are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the event.
And a corollary of this is that no one version of what happened is any truer than the others. They are all significant and meaningful to the person who created them.
we are what we remember
Since we construct our life stories out of events as we remember them, the biggest threat to our sense of identity is amnesia, a major trope in psychological fiction. The best example is The Bourne Identity and sequels by Robert Ludlum. After the protagonist wakes up on a fishing boat with no memory of who he is or how he got there, readers follow along as he searches to fill in the blanks of his past and construct a new future. S.J. Watson’s novel Before I Go to Sleep follows a similar pattern as readers follow Christine’s journey of self-rediscovery.
While both Ludlum and Watson use the amnesia trope to set up a menacing, life-or-death situation, Liane Moriarty paints the story of recovering one’s identity with a lighter brush in What Alice Forgot. While loss of identity can be frightening and threatening, as it is for Jason Bourne and Christine, it can also offer an opportunity for renewed self-knowledge and acceptance, as it does for Alice.
Pin This Post
inside stories vs. outside stories
I’ve been saying that our life story builds our sense of self, but, if we’re honest, we all know that we have several selves. The biggest distinction is between our public self—the self we show the world—and our private, interior self. But we actually have many selves—we act differently at a job interview than at a wedding, at a dinner in the in-laws’ house than at a night out with our best friends. There is nothing wrong with such situational awareness and appropriate behavior.
But problems can arise when someone’s public and private selves diverge widely because underlying life stories can drive behavior despite the public face. This is probably the aspect of narrative identity theory most often explored by writers of psychological fiction.
One of the best examples of such a novel that I’ve read lately is The Silent Patientby Alex Michaelides.
Narratives featuring imposters could be considered a subgroup of inside vs. outside stories. Imposters can have many motivations for assuming a false identity. Like Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels, they may want a life that’s fancier, richer, and more empowered than their own.
Or the reason may be more mysterious, as in The Passenger by Lisa Lutz, which is divided into sections labeled with the names of the narrator’s various assumed identities. In this case the narrator’s reason for these frequent name changes drives the plot because, as interesting as her process for finding and taking on new identities is, what we really want to find out is why she has to live this way.
hidden identities and secrets
Another subgroup of inside vs. outside stories involves characters suppressing, hiding, or ignoring some part of their lives. Such novels allow readers to understand the causes and reasons for a character’s behavior.
The most powerful of these books illustrate the old adage “don’t judge other people unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” These novels help us develop compassion and empathy for others. Some of the most powerful examples I’ve read include Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson, Mystic River by Dennis Lahane, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4).
creating or controlling one’s own narrative
We now live in an era in which groups (such as women, indigenous people, refugees, and immigrants) whose voices have been silenced in the past are asserting their right to tell their own stories. One of the phrases that appears often in this context is “taking control of one’s own narrative.”
Julie Clark’s novel The Last Flight includes an example of how one woman uses this terminology. Claire Cook is married to the handsome son of a wealthy and politically powerful family. Claire’s husband thinks he owns her, body and soul, and controls her access to money, friends, and the outside world. Beneath the veneer of family and fortune, Claire must contrive an elaborate plot to escape, because no one believes her story of abuse. “If we don’t tell our own stories, we’ll never take control of the narrative,” she explains near the end of the novel.
“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews. . . . It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?
This theme plays out in Australian author Jane Harper’s recent novel The Survivors. Kieran Elliott’s whole outlook on life changes when he learns the truth about a devastating event that occurred when he was a teenager. That new knowledge eases his guilt and allows him to step into his future life—marriage and fatherhood—as a new man.
presentation of alternate life options
One of the psychological functions literature can perform is to allow readers to observe what happens when a character does a particular action. Reading lets people play out different scenarios in a safe environment. Literature can also paint for readers a picture of what someone else’s life is like. Such observation can offer new possibilities or increase understanding of current situations.
One such new possibility is the coming together of previously isolated adults into an informal family that benefits them all. A couple of novels that demonstrate this happening are Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos.
Another area in which literature can help promote understanding is in the presentation of mental illness. Books that make an effort to present accurately the experience of people with various mental health issues include The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, and Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.
Literature’s ability to demonstrate life scenarios is especially important in multicultural societies because it can encourage understanding, which in turn can increase compassion and empathy toward people who are different from ourselves. This was the basis behind much of the controversy over the publication of American Dirt, a novel that many Latinx authors said contains stereotyped characters and inaccuracies about the actual experiences of people who entered the U.S. from Mexico.
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, also related to the issue of cultural appropriation, has arisen to advocate for the publishing industry to produce more books by refugees and people from ethnic minorities. Literature can also provide life-option scenarios for groups who have traditionally been marginalized by society, such as multiracial and non-heterosexual individuals. The need here is especially great for books aimed at young people searching for role models who mirror themselves as they develop their self-concept.
possible alternate selves
A more focused variant of alternate life options borrows the concept of multiple parallel universes from physics to explore the concept of other possible but unlived lives.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but these recent novels have introduced me to the whole new world of alternate selves: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson.
highlighting turning points or major life decisions
Many people have had a significant life experience that makes them think of their lives in two parts: “life before _____” and “life after _____.” Such dramatic turning points often figure in literature because they force characters to adapt and accommodate. We expect to watch characters change because of these often traumatic events.
Or such life-changing events might produce negative effects, such as in the second half of Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain.
where, when, and why/how lives intersect
Other significant life experiences involve meeting someone who has a great effect on us. This effect may be either good or bad. Some novels in which the effect is good are A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4), A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, and How It All Began by Penelope Lively.
A meeting with someone that turns out badly is the stuff thrillers, particularly domestic thrillers, are often made of. A notable example is You by Caroline Kepnes. Other examples are The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda, The Pigman by Paul Zindel (scroll to the bottom), The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman, and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell.
multiple points of view
The last 30 years or so have taught us that memory is slippery and that different people perceive and remember events differently. Along with these discoveries has grown the novel narrated from more than one perspective. The use of more than one point of view can create tension, suspense, and ambiguity.
Use of multiple perspectives has therefore become a staple of action books such as mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. Examples include The Good Girlby Mary Kubica and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.
History is told by the victors or the dominant culture. For centuries this meant that history was written by men, with very little inclusion of women’s voices. A big movement in current literature aims to correct this error with books about historical events that present women’s perspectives to complement the existing record.
The first book I remember reading in this category is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which expands on the mere mention of Dinah in the Bible. Other titles include Circe by Madeline Miller, which gives voice to a character from Greek mythology, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which narrates the death of Shakespeare’s only son from the perspective of his mother, about whom very little is known.
Writers are also now writing to insert another large group back into history: formerly enslaved peoples whose stories have been expunged from the dominant cultural narratives, for example, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. Members of other groups whose lives don’t conform to the traditional normative dominant culture’s expectations also are speaking up, in both nonfiction and fiction, as discussed above under presentation of alternate life options.
The fictional use of life story elements can make characters more believable and compelling.
But this doesn’t mean that large numbers of writers have begun studying narrative identity theory in order to embed its various forms in their novels. Novelists have always been storytellers interested in how their fictional people understand themselves and interact with the world they live in.
And throughout its history, the novel has provided storytellers with the means to explore the human psyche. I’ve always been fascinated with the interrelationship between literature and psychology, and narrative identity theory provides the insight and terminology to express and explain that relationship.
And the fallout continues over the allegations against Blake Bailey, author of the biography of Philip Roth that was canceled this week by publisher W.W. Norton.
A publishing executive’s rape allegation against the Philip Roth biographer sent shockwaves through the industry—and put the Times’ handling of it under the microscope. Book critic Dwight Garner, aware of the claim since 2015, says the accuser didn’t want him “to take any actions.”
Charlotte Klein, writing in Vanity Fair, asserts:
The Times’ level of promotion wasn’t unusual for a book positioned as a serious literary biography—and especially one about the late Roth, who represents a kind of fantasy of what it meant to belong to a certain generation of American male novelists—but the paper’s own scoop inevitably raised questions of who knew what and when.
“The Blake Bailey story shows publishing’s institutions once again working to protect men.”
In Vox, Constance Grady explains why the allegations against Blake Bailey “have swept across the literary world”:
in part, that’s because the story of the allegations against Bailey involves so many major publishing figures, culminating in an accusation of rape occurring in the home of one of the New York Times’s staff book critics. The story being told about Blake Bailey right now is one of publishing’s institutional power being put to the service of powerful men.
This article from August 2020 offers “five perspectives on race and Shakespeare” based on a PBS broadcast of Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing that “features an all-Black cast in New York City’s Central Park.”
The commentary is from from first-year college students who studied the performance shortly before their campus shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. “We hope that, just as the Public made new meanings of this old play, our voices can signal newer, younger, better ways of thinking about Shakespeare that help us uncover truth, gain empathy, and take responsibility for racism.”
Mariela Santos Muñiz writes about what she didn’t learn in grad school:
The textbooks that I had to use for my classes mostly presented one side of history — and they didn’t really include diverse perspectives. This was despite the fact that the U.S. is a diverse country. For one, I didn’t learn much about U.S. Latinx history while in school.
When she started contributing to Book Riot after graduation, she wrote articles that made her realize how much she hadn’t learned in school.
So, I started looking for books to reeducate myself. As part of this process, I changed how I chose the books that I read. This meant focusing on the author as well. Being able to see the world differently is about the subject matter, yes — but it’s also about who’s telling the story.
See some of her suggestions for “books that center the perspectives of people that are traditionally underrepresented and overlooked.”
“As the subject of no fewer than three biographies since her death in 1995, the popular writer lived a complicated, if fascinating, life. What was she really like?”
One of the items still on my list of literary projects to complete is a deep dive into the life and works of the fascinating Patricia Highsmith.
The writer was a collision of contradictions, a woman for whom every aspect of herself (including being a woman) demanded internal debate. In her private life, she swung dramatically between polar states of desire and disgust. Her personal journals that she kept her whole life — separate from what she called her “cahiers,” or notebooks in which she worked on her fiction — reveal a woman at the mercy of her emotional tides, drawn to the darkest corners of her psyche.
Novelist and book critic Lauren Oyler on taking risks, writing in the first person, managing self-doubt, and why she increasingly doesn’t have a good answer for “why we write.”
Lauren Oyler, author of the novel Fake Accounts, is here interviewed by Michelle Lynn King. Oyler says she created the first-person narrator of Fake Accounts because “I’m really interested in the issues of the first person narrator and the author in the time of the internet.”
About the concept of the unreliable narrator, she says, “We’ve all learned that everybody’s performing all the time and that the self is a fiction.”
What exactly is bookishness? Michael Seidlinger here defines it as “a person’s interest in maintaining nearness to books. It is a term derived from bookish, which is a label often applied to people who read a lot.”
Seidlinger examines the world of bookishness and how it manifests in today’s culture, from celebrity book clubs to Instagram influencers and companies that market items (clothing, candles, wall hangings, and throw pillows) to help people create their personal bookish persona.
It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.
This month we begin with Beezus and Ramona in memory of its author, Beverly Cleary. This 1955 novel introduces one of Cleary’s beloved characters, Ramona Quimby, through the eyes of her five-years-older sister, Beezus.
I always find writing about children’s literature difficult, probably because I’m so far removed it. Although I did enjoy reading this beloved children’s book for this month’s exercise, I’m going to have to stick to adult books for my excursion here.
1. The obvious place to start is with the sister connection. In The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy, 18-year-old Mary Chase and her much younger sister, Hannah, hit the road for a cross-country journey after their mother dies and leaves them penniless. Suspense builds as the two chase a better life. I like the pun in the title.
2. Another book about sisters with a pun in the title is The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman. The book narrates the stories of three sisters in the Story family. At the center of these stories lies the never-talked-about day when the oldest sister, at age 11, grabbed her 8-year-old sister out of a kidnapper’s car and jumped into the car to take her place.
3. There are lots of books about sisters, but I think I’ve written about several of them in an earlier 6 Degrees post. So I’m going to switch things up now with a story of a brother and a sister: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. Hamnet and Judith are twins, the children of Agnes and her mostly absent, never-named husband who’s away in the city writing the plays that will eventually cement his place in literary history. When Judith comes down with the deadly plague in 1596, her brother cannot bear to be separated from her. He sleeps next to her to comfort her, then sickens and dies.
4. And now we turn to brothers. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger features two brothers, 16-year-old Albert and 12-year-old Odie O’Banion, who, along with two friends, take off in a canoe after a frightful occurrence at the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota. The year is 1932, and the country is still in the throes of the Great Depression. As the four companions travel down the river looking for a better life, Albert focuses all his attention on protecting his kid brother.
5. Not all brothers are as close as Albert and Odie O’Banion. In The Lost Man by Jane Harper, Nathan Bright is the oldest of three brothers. When the middle brother’s suspicious death brings Nathan back to his family’s vast cattle station in the Australian outback, he is forced to remember and re-examine the relationships between the three boys and their father in this “deeply atmospheric” novel.
6. Over the past 14 months my husband and I have nearly exhausted the movie libraries of a couple of streaming services. One of the movies we watched recently was Affliction (1997), starring Nick Nolte, Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe, and James Coburn. The story line involves two brothers who have had very different lives after growing up with an abusive father. Intrigued by the story, I discovered that the film is based on the novel Affliction by Russell Banks. I haven’t read this novel yet but have tracked down a copy from a used book store and am awaiting its arrival.
This month’s list has taken lots of siblings on lots of journeys. Where did your 6 Degrees journey take you?
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.
Between the post-publication recall of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth and the cancelation of contracts for upcoming political books, my head is spinning. This will probably be quite a rambling discussion, because I am truly of two minds on these kinds of issues.
The New York Times reports that, after “backing out of a deal with Senator Josh Hawley, a prominent supporter of former President Donald J. Trump,” Simon & Schuster has announced that it will publish two books by former Vice-President Mike Pence. On Monday many staff members at S&S presented a petition to management demanding the company end the deal with Pence. The authors of this article also talked with others in the publishing industry, including management at other publishers, literary agents, and public relations firms.
In another era, book deals with former White House officials were viewed as prestigious and uncontroversial, and major publishers have long maintained that putting out books from across the political spectrum is not only good for business but an essential part of their mission. In today’s hyperpartisan environment, however, Simon & Schuster has become a test case for how publishers are trying to draw a line over who is acceptable to publish . . .
According to the article, many publishing insiders now “acknowledge that there are certain ideological lines that they won’t cross. Some said they wouldn’t acquire books by politicians or pundits who questioned the results of the presidential election. Another bright line is working with people who promoted the false narratives or conspiracy theories that Mr. Trump espoused.”
It’s tempting to think of this issue as a blatant example of censorship, but it is not. As the S&S employees wrote in a letter accompanying their petition to management: ““Let’s be clear: the First Amendment protects free speech from legal encroachment. It in no way calls for publishing companies to publish all viewpoints.”
The same issue came up in March when the company that controls publication of works by Dr. Seuss announced that it would no longer publish six of his works because of their racist imagery. The government may not stop dissemination of certain ideas, but publishing companies—which are, after all, businesses—are free to choose what products they make and sell.
On the other hand, who gets to decide what ideas are appropriate for publication and what ones aren’t? In the current climate that calls for more diversity in publishing, these difficult questions call for specific answers.
The Wall Street Journal offers a more focused look at the business angle of the dispute between Simon & Schuster employees and writers, and management:
An employee petition at Simon & Schuster demanding that the company stop publishing authors associated with the Trump administration collected 216 internal signatures and several thousand outside supporters, including well-known Black writers. . . . The petition demands that the company refrain from publishing a memoir by former Vice President Mike Pence. The letter asks Simon & Schuster not to treat “the Trump administration as a ‘normal’ chapter in American history.”
“Among the more than 3,500 outside supporters, according to a letter accompanying the petition, were writers of color including Jesmyn Ward, a two-time winner of the National Book Award for fiction.”
The employee pushback against Mr. Pence’s book underscores the challenges publishers face in releasing politically sensitive books that are commercially attractive. Major publishers generally want to give a platform to authors with a range of viewpoints, but don’t want to alienate portions of their workforce or customer base.
The petition and letter were submitted to Simon & Schuster Chief Executive Jonathan Karp and Dana Canedy, “publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint.” In reply, “Mr. Karp last week said in his internal letter that Simon & Schuster’s core mission includes publishing ‘a diversity of voices and perspectives.’”
The other major publishing story currently playing out is the recall of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography “following allegations that Mr. Bailey sexually assaulted multiple women and behaved inappropriately toward his students when he was an eighth grade English teacher.”
Bailey’s biography of Roth was published earlier this month (April 2021) and has been widely promoted by the publisher. Norton is also discontinuing printing, distribution, and promotion of Blake Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned (2014).
The New York Times quotes Julia A. Reidhead, president of Norton:
“As a publisher, Norton gives its authors a powerful platform in the civic space. With that power comes the responsibility to balance our commitment to our authors, our recognition of our public role, and our knowledge of our nation’s historic failure to adequately listen to and respect the voices of women and diverse groups,” Ms. Reidhead wrote.
Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of the literary organization PEN America, told the Times that Norton’s action “risked establishing a new, troubling norm that could narrow the range of ideas and information available to readers.”
Bailey has denied the allegations, and his lawyer “called Norton’s response to the allegations ‘troubling and unwarranted.’”
Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, typically has a sensible take on literary matters, so I’ll let him have the last word here: “I think this week marks a sea change in publishers’ interest in their authors’ behavior.” He continues:
new voices are starting to assert a different set of judgments about what they think is important, valid and entertaining. . . . Books are not wholly self-contained creations; they retain their moral and financial connections to their authors. Ignoring those connections and pretending that a book floats in a vacuum is the privilege of people protected from discrimination, erasure and assault. . . . The bold professionals who are standing up to their management will fight to bring us books from authors who for too long were excluded or diminished while publishers prided themselves on their pure liberal values.
What Do You Think?
1. Should books by insiders from the previous administration be published? If they are published, will you read them?
I certainly have no interest in reading a book by Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, or any of the other people involved in devaluing the press or promulgating white supremacist or insurrectionist activity. But should those books remain unpublished?
2. What about books written by authors of questionable repute?
Since this is the USA, we should assume someone is innocent until proven guilty. But in cases where allegations are made before a book comes out, shouldn’t a publisher be responsible for examining the situation before giving a writer and public platform? And I’m especially bothered when some of the allegations involve predatory treatment of children.
“The next wave of crime fiction could help shape the public imagination of what a world where police weren’t in charge of public safety could look like.”
Historically, crime fiction has portrayed the police as heroes. But that vision of law enforcement is becoming hazier for the general public, and for most communities of color, it was never accurate at all.
The observance that crime fiction has contributed to a glorification of police and their policies is not new, but it is now particularly timely. Here Amy Suiter Clarke, author of the recently published novel Girl, 11, calls upon authors of mysteries and thrillers to write books that “imagine the world as it could be, not as it is.”
Mya Nunnally describes her work as a sensitivity reader: “I offer my thoughts on how writers portray characters who share my own lived experiences.”
The book industry’s endeavors to publish more diverse books means that many authors are incorporating into their books more characters that differ from themselves. Despite authors’ best efforts at research, “there’s a chance that they’ll miss something about the experience simply because they haven’t lived it themselves. When writing about experiences outside their own, I find that most authors simply don’t know what they don’t know. They aren’t familiar with damaging tropes, perhaps, or didn’t realize that what they wrote is tapping into a stereotype.”
Nunnally describes this work as “both rewarding and exhausting.” She convincingly documents the importance of such work and hopes that sensitivity readers “can become a commonplace component of the publishing industry.”
I loved Alex Michaelides’s debut novel The Silent Patientand was delighted to hear that that his second novel, The Maidens, will come out in June.
As the author’s name suggests, he grew up surrounded by Greek tragedies and mythology. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, which he wrote during the COVID-19 lockdown: “There is nothing like being locked in your apartment to concentrate your mind!”
Last week’s links featured a piece about experimental fiction (though I prefer the term inventive fiction), and here’s another one. Author Rebecca Watson, author of little scratch, “recommends five of the best experimental novels and explains why a writer might choose to bend the rules—and to what effect.”
In little scratch, Watson attempts to demonstrate how the main character moves through an ordinary day interacting with the outside world while simultaneously carrying on an interior conversation with herself examining a trauma she’s concealing. She explains, “experimental writing needs an openness and willingness from a reader, to go beyond what you might be used to.” The whole purpose of this kind of writing, she says, “is to help immerse the reader further in the story.”
Sonora Jha, author of “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” recommends fiction in which men grapple with gender expectations
“One big, yawning gap in literature and culture . . . is the tale of the man who encounters and overcomes his own male fragility and entitlement,” Sonora Jha writes. She offers a list of “seven novels and short stories in which we do encounter such men (and one teenaged boy).” The authors of these works “place their characters within the struggle and watch them squirm. Some of these characters make it to the other side and others don’t.”
In her introduction to this list, Laura Maylene Walter, author of the novel Body of Stars, calls herself “a skeptic who doesn’t read horoscopes in my daily life.” But, she continues, “hand me a work of fiction about astrology or psychics, and I’m captivated.”
Many of the books on this list examine issues surrounding the topics of fate, free will, the future, and alternate life possibilities.
Jamie Canaves recently realized that she’d been “rushing through books as fast as I could to get to the next one on my can’t-wait-to-read-it TBR, and also trying to break the previous year’s number of how many books I had read.” And I had the same realization when I read this description.
She had this realization during 2020 and decided to change her reading life at the beginning of 2021 by asking herself three questions: “Why are you doing this? What is the point? Is it adding to the enjoyment of your reading life?” And, she reports, her reading life has greatly improved this year: “I guess I just needed to get myself back to reading for enjoyment and not some weird imaginary sport.”
Dismayed that reading had nearly disappeared from her busy life, freelance writer and editor Rachel Charlene Lewis developed a new habit: She now sets her alarm so that she can read in bed—even before brushing her teeth or making that first cup of coffee—for an hour in the morning.
Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, profiles Zora Neale Hurston for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “As a budding anthropologist, the storyteller began to find her way.”
This article is adapted from King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.
Books that talked about racism and racial justice — or told the stories of people of color or the LGBTQ community — were among the most challenged as inappropriate for students in 2020, according to a survey by the American Library Association.
The article concludes with the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2020.
Imagine a phone call featuring an electronic voice telling you that your child has been kidnapped and you need to pull together some huge sum of money to get the child back unharmed. I used to think that would be one of the most horrifying calls parents could ever receive.
But I was wrong, as I learned when I read The Chain by Adrian McKinty. In that novel the call that Rachel Klein receives doesn’t simply demand money. In order to get her daughter Kylie back, Rachel most pay a ransom AND kidnap another child to take Kylie’s place. Rachel must become a monster who inflicts pain on another family in order to save her own. Watching Rachel’s transformation into that monster was a painful experience, yet I had no doubt that, in the same situation, I would do exactly the same thing.
McKinty, Adrian. The Chain
Hachette Audio, 2019
Kidnapping is a standard trope of the thriller genre, but McKinty’s addition of the chain aspect, forcing a basically good person to do something unquestionably bad, is a brilliant psychological plot twist. I could imagine a writer thinking “Having your child kidnapped is an awful experience, but what would make that experience even worse?” Having the insight to imagine that scenario in a novel is the mark of a good writer.
But wait, there’s more. How would the protagonist who transformed herself into the monster who could plan and carry out the kidnapping of another child react to what she had done? I’m pretty sure that if I had managed to get my own child back safely, I’d probably keep my head down and hope that I never got caught.
But Rachel Klein is stronger than I. She decides that the people behind the chain must be stopped so that never again will anybody have to go through what she has experienced.
The second section of The Chain details Rachel’s investigation and pursuit of the behind-the-scenes culprits. This second section is not nearly as good as the first part. The villains are so over-the-top that they quickly become comic caricatures, and the plot soon ratchets up into high melodrama.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, I give McKinty credit for the effort of examining fully the character of Rachel Klein. The Chain would have been a good enough thriller with only the story of how Rachel saves Kylie, but the effort of the second part, the effort to go deeper into Rachel’s motivation and characterization, raises my overall evaluation of the novel.
It’s the psychological aspects of literature that have always most fascinated me. I don’t just want to see what people do in certain situations; I want to understand why they choose to do what they do instead of doing something else. For me, characterization is always more important than plot, although characterization and plot are inextricably intertwined.
No matter what twisted situations they may find themselves in, people do what they do because of who they are.
Because of this interest in why people do what they do, learning about psychology has, over the years, helped me to understand and fully appreciate how fiction portrays the workings of the human mind and heart. To illustrate what I mean, here are five articles I’ve come across recently that fascinated and informed me.
The April 4, 2021, issue of The New Yorker features “ a selection of pieces on the mysteries and intricacies of psychoanalysis.” This is the portal page for the collection, where you’ll find links to the following stories:
“The Impossible Profession,” published in 1980, in which Janet Malcolm profiles an engaging psychoanalyst practicing in Manhattan and examines the history of the profession.
“God Knows Where I Am,” in which Rachel Aviv writes about what happens when patients with mental illness reject their diagnoses and treatments.
“Anatomy of Melancholy,” in which Andrew Solomon offers a moving account of his lifelong struggle with depression.
“Brain Gain,” in which Margaret Talbot explores the curious world of neuroenhancing drugs.
Although psychoanalysis, the approach to understanding the mind spearheaded by Sigmund Freud, is no longer the force in psychology that it once was, it still permeates the language and sets the stage for other psychological approaches.
This profile of novelist Paula McLain explains how all her works of fiction have been “the bridge out of a childhood spent in foster care.”
McLain’s recently published novel, When the Stars Go Dark, features a protagonist, a female detective, who grew up in foster care and is still running away from some demons of her past. In the article McLain says this novel is “more intimate and tells the truth more than my memoir,” Like Family (2003).
I haven’t read this novel yet, but I look forward to reading it. Although a work of fiction must stand on its own merits, knowing McLain’s relationship to this material will enhance my understanding of and reaction to the themes in When the Stars Go Dark.
Five Books offers lists of the best books on many subjects chosen by experts on each topic.
We turned to some of the most eminent psychologists working today for their book recommendations. Psychology may not have all the answers, but it can help you have a better understanding of yourself and others; what motivates thoughts, feelings, and actions.
This is the portal to the site’s lists on several branches of psychology. You’ll find links to topics such as the following:
“The psychologist taught us that what we remember is not fixed, but her work testifying for defendants like Harvey Weinstein collides with our traumatized moment.”
For much of the twentieth century, scientists believed that memories were recorded in our brains like films on tape that could be rewound and played back. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is responsible for the current concept that memories are reconstructed, not replayed:
“Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature.”
According to this article, “In the past forty-five years, she has testified or consulted in more than three hundred cases, on behalf of people wrongly accused of robbery and murder, as well as for high-profile defendants like Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, and the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape, in 2006.”
“Loftus’s career has been defined by her recognition that the language we use to describe an event will change the way we remember it.” Despite the reputation Loftus has developed by testifying for the defense of witnesses such as Harvey Weinstein, her work has revolutionized the way we now think about memory. And since memory is the basis for our creation of our sense of self, knowledge of her work can help us understand human identity, motivation, and behavior.
“Power posing, grit and other trendy concepts are scientifically unproven but have become enormously popular by offering simple solutions to deeply rooted social problems.”
Journalist Jesse Singal takes on concepts such as power posing and grit that populate the world of TED Talks and corporate training seminars. Such ideas, which originate in the field of social psychology, are usually ill defined and unproven, he argues. They often offer “what are, in effect, quick fixes for complex and enduring societal problems like inequality and bias.”
his article is adapted from Singal’s recently published book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.
The problem with such concepts that capture public attention is that they often offer a single, simple answer to societal, cultural, and historic issues that, beneath the surface, are much more complex and multifactorial than they may appear on the surface.
A novel written by a good storyteller can often present a much fuller picture of such complex issues. For example, Liz Moore’s novel Long Bright River offers a picture of an urban area blighted by long-term job loss, poverty, drug addiction, and crime.
Gal Beckerman, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, talks with Lynn Novick and Ken Burns about their three-part series on Hemingway currently airing on PBS. The documentary filmmakers were drawn to Hemingway because of his complex status as both an influence on generations of writers and an example of toxic masculinity.
“It’s easier to find meaning in fiction than in the senseless mass killings of our reality, which seem to render the critical perspective pointless, even silly, at times.”
Maya Phillips, a critic for the New York Times, writes that she finds comfort in critiquing artistic presentations: “Even in the bleakest stories, there’s order and logic, perhaps even justice, if not in the realm of the story itself then at least in the artist’s imagination.” But with the recent spate of mass shootings, “it has felt pointless, even silly, to analyze fictional stories when real people are dying.”
“My critical faculty fails me now, as I contemplate the real world,” Phillips writes.
“Melissa Febos was struggling to write a book about surviving American girlhood. Mystery fiction presented a solution.”
Melissa Febos details the problem she had while writing her recently published essay collection, Girlhood:
The premise of my book, which detailed the devastating and ordinary harms done to girls in this country and aspired to answer them with strategies of undoing that harm, had become an unsolvable mystery. I knew who the perpetrator was, but not how to stop or outpace him.
To solve her problem and power through the writing of her book, she read through lots of mysteries. She provides the list here: Febos’s Mysteries for Feminists with High Standards. “These books . . . gave me the same pleasure that Nancy Drew had, but with the added satisfactions of good writing, queer and Black characters, and layers of smartly delivered cultural critique.”
On Wednesday [April 7, 2021], the Women’s Prize Trust reaffirmed its choice to longlist the novel “Detransition, Baby” by author Torrey Peters, who is trans, for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, a day after the Wild Woman Writing Club published an open letter denouncing the nomination.
The opening paragraph of this article, quoted above, contains a link to the letter of denunciation. Read more about the controversy here. There’s also a link to a review of Detransition, Baby in the Los Angeles Times.
“For As Long As There Have Been Printed Books, There Has Been Marginalia”
Ah, the history of marginalia, or “things in the margin.”
“Annotation was both ubiquitous and habitual by the 1500s, not long after the invention of the printing press and growth of print culture,” write Remi H. Kalir and Antero Garcia in this excerpt from their new book, Annotation.
It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.
This month we start with the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by the Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart. The novel was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.
Goodreads describes Shuggie Bain as “an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction.” The novel features the story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain as he navigates his childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Shuggie’s father is a philandering taxi driver; his mother, Agnes, keeps up her dignity by maintaining a well-put-together exterior to cover up a turbulent internal struggle fueled by alcohol. Various readers describe the novel as gritty, bleak, depressing, and totally worthy of its Booker Prize. They also warn that the book is written in the dialect of Glasgow, which can make it difficult reading for people unfamiliar with the language.
I had the novel queued up on my Kindle but have decided to put it aside—at least for now—after taking a look at the difficult-to-read language.
1. I recently read The Long Drop by Scottish writer Denise Mina, also set in Glasgow. This historical novel tells a story of a night of pub-crawling that contributed to the conviction of Peter Manuel, a notorious serial killer who was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1958. The long drop of the novel’s title is a method of hanging that aims to prevent the act from becoming a gruesome spectacle:
The long drop method snaps the neck between the second and third vertebrae. Done properly, death is instantaneous. It is a careful calculation of weight, height and muscle tone.
2. Philip Ashley, the narrator of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, remembers when hanging was purposefully made a gruesome public spectacle, as he tells us at the opening of the novel: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not anymore, though.” The memory of seeing, at age 7, the corpse of a convicted man left hanging as a warning to all about how a life of crime ends, comes up repeatedly throughout the novel as Philip ponders whether Rachel, the widow of Philip’s beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose, had a hand in his death.
3.Daphne du Maurier also wrote The House on the Strand. Written and set in the late 1960s, the novel features Dick Young, who accepts the offer of a vacation at the ancestral home in Cornwall of Magnus Lane, his long-time chum. There’s only one stipulation with the offer: Dick must test an experimental drug that Magnus has been developing. The drug transports Dick back to the fourteenth century, where he observes the daily lives of the people living in the area. It isn’t long before Dick is irresistibly drawn to this alternate life, which he finds much more fascinating than his own.
4.Micaiah Johnson’s recently published debut novel, The Space Between Worlds, also features a character drawn to experience alternate lives. In a future in which travel is possible between variant versions of the same world in the multiverse, Cara searches for a place she can call home, a place where she feels she belongs.
5. In American literature, the prototype of the protagonist looking for a place to call home is the young misfit in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. His efforts take him on a raft down the Mississippi River before he decides that he’ll “light out for the territories” to get away from all the forces trying to civilize him.
6.This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it also features children fleeing an oppressive situation in a canoe headed for the Mississippi River. This 2019 novel has been on my TBR shelf since it came out, and I continue to come across glowing recommendations for it.
So this journey through 6 Degrees of Separation has brought me to a resolution: I’m going to pick up This Tender Land instead of Shuggie Bain as my next read.