I don’t write fiction, but I read a lot about and talk with people who do. I’m always fascinated when fiction writers say that a character either appeared and demanded to be written about or appeared to object when the writer wrote the character in a particular way.
Here’s a fascinating look by John Foxwell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English at the U.K.’s Durham University, into how writers experience this phenomenon. Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018.
“. . . the more researchers delve into thought and imagination, the more difficult it is to say exactly how much control over our thoughts and actions any of us actually have – and to what extent the control we feel we have is an illusion.”
“For decades, a white woman’s memoir shaped our understanding of America’s first Black poet. Does a new book change the story?”
Elizabeth Winkler reports on the life of Black poet Phillis Wheatley and examines a new book, The Age of Phillis, by poet and professor Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. In her book Jeffers attempts to understand the only version of Phillis Wheatley’s life, written 50 years after the poet’s death, by Margaretta Matilda Odell, a white woman who claimed to be a “collateral descendant” of Susanna Wheatley of Boston, owner of slave Phillis.
In turbulent times, culling my book collection gave me the illusion of control. Then the dilemmas began multiplying.
Michael Dirda writes that over the past two months “I’ve been sorting and culling the vast number of books I’ve accumulated in a lifetime of reading and collecting.” The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a “persistent feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger and mild despair,” but he hoped that going through 300 boxes of books and deciding which to keep and which to part ways with would give him a feeling of control.
“However, making these decisions has turned out to be harder than I expected.”
Read some of the dilemmas he faces in deciding which one of multiple copies of the same book he should keep.
Here’s a big topic I’m still trying to get my head around: Tim Parks sets out to answer the question “Why do we categorize novels?” In the article linked here he explains how he found similarities between a number of authors, all of whose works center around the question of belonging to a particular group.
But this is only the first article. There are three more articles in the series, each dealing with another such category. (This introductory article contains a link to the entire series.) Parks constitutes his categories as “clearly defined hierarchies of value, or centers of interest, generating distinct, or at least recognizable, types of plot and character interaction.”
Over the course of the four articles Parks arrives at four fictional categories, or fiction that centers around one of these four “distinct value systems”:
- stories focused on the characters’ relations to the community (belonging)
- around conflicts between indulgence and renunciation (goodness)
- around a tension between the craving to be free and a need to feel protected (liberty)
- those related to winning and losing: confidence and inadequacy, strength and weakness, complacency and resentment, envy and emulation, seducing and succumbing, jubilation, but also wise resignation (power)
So if you’re spending some of your pandemic downtime categorizing and rearranging your book shelves, why not give Parks’s system a try?
“The one-sitting novel isn’t just something you can read in one afternoon—it’s something you should read in one afternoon. The one-sitting novel is perfectly structured to be consumed as a complete, transporting experience, whether that’s a breakneck ride through a thrilling narrative, or a slow, dreamy fog that envelops your mind as you page through,” writes Adrienne Westenfeld for Esquire.
I was attracted to this list mainly because my ability to focus over extended periods of time has been hampered by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 world. Westenfeld says the upper limit of her choices here is 250 pages, which seems appropriate for a book to be read in one day.
If you need a truly feel-good story—and who doesn’t need one of those right now?—read about how one teacher in Tennessee helped pilot a project that has boosted primary students’ reading comprehension and made them eager and excited about reading.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown