Categories
Discussion Fiction Personal Reading

Your Favorite Book Might Be My DNF . . . and Vice Versa

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You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.


“One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”

“There’s no accounting for taste.”

“Different strokes for different folks.”

I occasionally see the novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn listed on someone’s list of best novels ever read. I understand that the novel’s themes of family, love, and normality make it appeal to a lot of people, but I just could not get past the notion that anyone—even someone fictional—would purposely engineer birth defects in order to create a bigger and better freak show.

Cover: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

But I did learn from Geek Love. What this novel taught me is that I don’t need to finish every book I start. I was around 40 when I ran into it and still thought that once I had started a book, I was obligated to finish it. I had seen Geek Love described as imaginatively inventive or something and thought I might enjoy it. I gave it about 100 pages, but I simply couldn’t get past that revolting premise. 

Geek Love was the first novel I DNF (did not finish).

cover: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Fast forward about 25 years. I see a post by a blogger complaining about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. The blogger has written something like “I had to stop reading this book. Nobody could have as much trauma in his life as Jude had.” And my heart nearly breaks.

Because, you see, A Little Life is on my list of the top five novels I’ve ever read.

More recently, I saw a comment somewhere by a person who complained “I couldn’t finish The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. It wasn’t making any sense.”

Cover: The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

I knew I should have bitten my tongue and moved on, but I just couldn’t. I loved that book. (This novel truly is imaginatively inventive.) So I gently suggested that the confusion was a big part of the book’s meaning and all would become clear at the end. A while later I received an email informing me of a reply to my comment. The reply went something like this: “Well, that may be so, but I’m not finishing it.” 

This time I did bite my tongue and move on. But I thought, “Too bad. It’s your loss.”

Different strokes for different folks, and so on and so forth.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Personal Reading Writing

My Reading & Writing Goals for 2021

What I Learned from COVID-19

illustration: 2021 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2021 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.


I keep reading things like “I can’t wait to be done with 2020 and move on to 2021.” Do most people truly believe that merely taking one calendar off the wall and hanging up another one is going to change their day-to-day existence? Such magical thinking. Reality doesn’t work that way. The truth is still out there.

As I write this post in the first full week of January, we are in our 44th week of lockdown. (The last social event we attended was a monthly lunch excursion to a restaurant on March 6, 2020.) Even with the good news of the arrival of vaccines, I expect we won’t see any substantive change in our daily lives until July 1, 2021, at the earliest. I’m preparing for another six months, at least, just like the previous nine months:

Reading reduces stress levels—there’s scientific evidence for that. But stress levels also reduce reading. Anxiety ruins your focus, wipes out your short-term memory, makes you thick-headed, makes you jittery. You can’t keep track of who’s who or what they said or what it means. Stress, maybe especially the kind of stress we’ve all been going through where everything seems like the end of the world, also wrecks your equanimity and sense of proportion: being unable to read, if you’d previously thought of yourself as a reader, makes you feel monstrously guilty for what seems, to your addled brain, like a towering failure. You can’t read, so you are ashamed, so you can’t read, so you are ashamed.

Jess Zimmerman

Looking back on how well I fulfilled my reading plan for 2020 made me realize that the year well illustrates the validity of the old proverb  “Man plans. God laughs.” And there are some lessons to be learned from this realization.

The biggest lesson is that, since we probably won’t see significant change in our current situation for at least half of this new year, the whole notion of a plan feels irrelevant. Last year I had my whole year’s reading planned out, month by month. But when COVID-19 hit and brought with it heightened anxiety along with reader’s and writer’s block, I was only able to get back to reading by ditching the plan. I allowed myself to stand in front of my TBR shelves and look for the book that called to me the loudest. I kept up that process, sometimes letting one book lead me to the next, at other times finding a new book to set me off on a different chain of association.

I have therefore decided not to use the label of plan at all for 2021. Instead, I’m going to focus on some goals that will still be possible no matter which particular books I may read. For example, one part of my plan for last year was to use the Blog Discussion Challenge to motivate me to write some substantive blog posts. Even though I didn’t meet my original quota, I was able to write about just about anything—including a look at why I was having trouble reading and writing—and call it a discussion post. So this year I’m going to talk about reading and writing goals instead of a reading and writing plan.

After looking at last year’s plan, I’m describing this year’s goals in relation to last year’s in two major areas:

  • I. Elements I’m keeping from last year
  • II. Elements I’m dropping from last year, replacing, or adding

I. Elements I’m Keeping from 2020

Most of these are general challenges and goals.

1. Goodreads Challenge

I did make last year’s goal of 55, but I had to rush and include a couple of particularly short works. I’m therefore going to dial my challenge goal back to 50 books, a number I think I can more easily achieve.

2. The Classics Club

Although I had good intentions last year, I didn’t come even close to my goal of crossing six books off my Classics Club list.

I’m going to cut back this year’s goal to four and hope for the best.

3. 2021 Book Blog Discussion Challenge

I signed up for the 2020 Discussion Challenge to motivate myself to write substantive posts on literary topics. Despite not writing as many discussion posts as I had wanted to (because, you know, COVID-19), I enjoyed working on the 12 that I did manage and was pleased with the results. I’m therefore signing up for the 2021 Discussion Challenge  with the goal of writing one discussion post per month.

II. Elements I’m Dropping, Replacing, or Adding

For 2021 I’m taking the focus off reading exclusively and incorporating the intention to write about more of the books I read. Not every book I read warrants a review on the blog, but many do, and I need to make more of an effort to discuss those. For me, writing seems to take some time; thoughts swirl around in the unconscious before percolating to the surface of awareness. It’s too easy for me to finish reading one book, then immediately pick up another one without going back to revisit the first one again.

The first process, to receive impressions with the utmost understanding, is only half the process of reading; it must be completed, if we are to get the whole pleasure from a book, by another. We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting.

—Virginia Woolf, How Should One Read a Book?

I will need to follow through and return to each previous book to finish the reading process. And this emphasis on writing may have a secondary effect of influencing me to choose more meaty books to read so that they’ll be ones I’ll want to review. 

Here, then, is a new goal I’m adding for 2021:

4. to review 50% of the books I read on this blog

I’m also adding another reading goal this year:

5. to read more of my TBR books

Here is my current TBR shelf of Book of the Month editions I haven’t gotten to yet:

The shelf contains 22 books, with two more to be added as soon as my January box arrives. And those are just my Book of the Month books. Several other shelves contain books I’ve been wanting to read for some time, including Where the Crawdads Sing, All the Light We Cannot See, The Hours, Crime and Punishment, A God in Ruins, and Trust Exercise.

I do not acquire books haphazardly; I chose every book on these shelves for particular reasons. They’re all good books that I want to read.

When I jettisoned the calendar part of last year’s reading plan at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing myself to choose whatever book I wanted to read next proved to be a tremendously freeing experience. Suddenly reading became an adventure again, not just some productivity goal to tick off on a to-do list.

This rediscovery of the joy of reading convinced me not to include a specific reading calendar in this year’s goals. I still have several reading projects I’m interested in pursuing, so I’m keeping the list of projects, but I’m treating them as possibilities rather than requirements tied to specific completion dates.

I’m beginning 2021 with an emphasis on my analysis of horror literature. As the year progresses I’ll move on to other projects such as these:

  • comparison: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf & The Hours by Michael Cunningham
  • a deep dive into the life and works of Patricia Highsmith, the centenary of whose birth will be on January 19, 2021
  • a look at evil children in literature
  • a rereading of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout followed by a reading of the sequel, Olive, Again
  • a study of some novels featuring Older Adults in Literature
  • a rereading of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale followed by a reading of the sequel, The Testaments

But my overall goal for 2021 is to enjoy being a free-range reader and to share that reading joy on this blog.

How about you?

Do you make annual reading plans? If you do, what’s on your list for 2021?

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Literature & Psychology

Re-Examining My Stance on Horror

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Introduction

Ever since I started Notes in the Margin back in the late 1990s, I’ve been saying that I don’t like, and therefore don’t read, horror literature, particularly books about vampires, werewolves, and zombies. However, lately I’ve read several articles about horror that have convinced me it might be time for me to re-examine my position on reading it. After all, the whole world is currently experiencing a particular kind of horror.

This summer, as the world was thrown into uncertainty by a pandemic and our collective sense of normalcy was lost, readers flocked to horror novels, propelling tales of terror onto bestseller lists in a way the genre hasn’t seen in decades.

Michael J. Seidlinger

I understand that vampires, werewolves, and zombies can function as metaphors for the state of human existence. I just don’t like reading about them. I can’t really explain why, just as I can’t explain why I don’t like liver. I just don’t. 

But I do like a good ghost story

I recently read and enjoyed The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. In her discussion of the difference between thrillers and horror, Anna Gooding-Call says that this novel is horror rather than a thriller because it involves actual ghosts. And that makes me wonder if there are other kinds of horror literature that I might like as well.

What Is Horror Literature?

To start at the beginning: What is horror literature?

The New York Public Library Literature Companion defines it this way:

Horror story: “A story designed to frighten its readers. Fear may be evoked through some combination of supernatural and fantastic elements, the suggestion of violence, the macabre, and psychological torments, the latter particularly important as many writers have exploited the dark and profoundly terrifying reaches of the reader’s own mind. Its roots are intertwined with those of the Gothic novel; the two genres emerged in the 18th century as a form of amusement that thrilled through terror” (p. 650).

The website Literary Terms offers a similar definition:

In literature, horror . . . is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience—in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror. The term’s definition emphasizes the reaction caused by horror, stemming from the Old French orror, meaning “to shudder or to bristle.” . . . Horror feeds on audience’s deepest terrors by putting life’s most frightening and perplexing things—death, evil, supernatural powers or creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft—at the center of attention.

Most of the definitions of horror that I’ve read are descriptive: horror literature creates an overall atmosphere of feeling that can range from generalized dread to outright fear. As Anna Gooding-Call puts it, “The goal of horror is to evoke existential terror, disgust, or revulsion. If it’s eerie, it’s horror. Look for lots of supernatural goings-on and big metaphorical statements about society.”

A salient characteristic of horror literature is that it presents dualities, things that both attract and repel us. Just as people can’t resist slowing down while driving past a bad accident on the highway, we can’t look away. Horror literature produces the ambivalent feeling of both pleasure and disgust.

During my research about horror I found particularly interesting discussions about the overlap between what we commonly call literary fiction and horror literature. Christopher Shultz offers a list of 10 novels, ranging chronologically from Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus (1888) by Mary Shelley to The Fever (2014) by Megan Abbott, “that effectively utilize horror elements.” 

Marc E. Fitch goes so far as to say that all literature is based on horror:

Literary fiction, while often embracing a wider range of human emotion and experience [than horror], is built on a foundation of suffering, despair and the prospect of each individual’s approaching death. Death—and the forms it takes—is the ultimate human fear.

Much literary fiction, Fitch argues, “[causes] us to confront our mortality through the everyday tragedies of life.” Fiction deals in our feelings of guilt, remorse, and unfulfilled longing. “Literary fiction, in its attempt to confront reality, is built on a foundation of insanity, meaninglessness, brutality and death.”

I find Fitch’s view of literature and life overly pessimistic, but I sympathize with his notion that literature often examines human imperfections in our efforts to understand and cope with the realities of existence.

But I agree with the notion that there’s a close relationship between crime fiction and horror. I read a lot of mysteries and psychological thrillers, and many of those books, with their emphasis on fear, push right up close to the boundaries of horror fiction. I didn’t realize just how close the two genres (crime fiction and horror) can be until I read Anna Gooding-Call’s article about the differences between thrillers and works of horror.

Max Booth, III, also appreciates the close relationship between crime fiction and horror:

the great thing about these two genres is, they so often tend to blend beautifully together. When I think of crossover genres, horror and crime are perfect companions. They’re the peanut butter and jelly of genres. Sure, you can have one without the other, but . . . they blow your mind when you combine them. 

Among the books Booth discusses in his article about horror-crime crossovers is Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris, the novel that provides the backstory of one of recent literature’s most notorious villains, Hannibal Lector: “it’s the way Thomas Harris portrays the Red Dragon’s voice that cements this one as a perfect horror/crime crossover.” I have read Red Dragon and found it riveting, but I continue to refuse to read (or see the movie) The Silence of the Lambs because I don’t want to read about cannibalism. 

One of my particular areas of interest is the intersection between literature and psychology and what literature can teach us about psychology. The Silence of the Lambs appeals to me because of its purported psychological interplay between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling. But despite the book’s appeal, I’m not going to read it because I don’t think I could stomach the cannibalism.  (My stomach feels queasy from just writing about it.)

And here I think I’ve finally found out what I wanted to know when I began thinking about horror literature: given the relationship between thrillers/mysteries and horror, I need to understand exactly where my boundaries between them lies. Max Booth’s article has helped me begin to figure that out. 

I’ve read two of the other books Booth discusses, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and In the Woods by Tana French. He calls both dark thrillers, and I certainly agree. But neither of them bothered me the way thinking about reading The Silence of the Lambs bothers me. Booth’s description of French’s book applies here: “There is always a hint of something … deeper going on in her books. . . . We’re dipping our toes in the possibility of something cosmic happening, but we’re never actually taking the full dive.” 

At the other end of the spectrum is the other book from Booth’s list that I’ve read, Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 novel Behind Her Eyes. As Booth acknowledges, you can’t say much about this novel without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that this is the novel that prompted me to think about what horror literature is and isn’t. Although I see this title on a lot of lists of horror works, I don’t classify it as horror. Thinking about this novel doesn’t make me queasy, as The Silence of the Lambs does. It just makes me angry. I know that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can do here. If you’re curious, read the book (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).

creepy ghost and spooky house: Thoughts on Horror
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Why Horror Appeals to Us

If horror literature makes us feel uncomfortable emotions like fear and disgust, why does it appeal to readers so much? Michael J. Seidlinger explains the appeal this way:

readers continue to turn to horror to confront reality, as well as for a good old-fashioned, albeit terrifying, escape. It helps when the escape gives readers the chance to trust in the narrative and know well that the horror on the page is far more controllable than the horror outside their front doors.

Or, as Xavier Aldana Reyes writes, “With horror novels and films, you know you’re experiencing fear in a safe space that you ultimately control.” 

But Reyes also writes, “In a sense, what scares us most about horror is often ourselves, where our minds will take us, which is coloured by our experiences and tastes.” And this is the experience that all literature gives us, the opportunity to learn about ourselves by watching what fictional characters do.

In fact, Reyes’s discussion of horror arrives exactly at the heart of where literature and psychology intersect:

There’s nothing more fearful than the mind; it’s where all our fears collect. When you’re experiencing fear through the psychology of someone whose grasp on the world is already compromised by their circumstances, that makes it even more powerful. The scariest of literary horrors are, in my view, not just conceptual, but also linguistic. They activate something personal. And that’s why horror is both shareable and private.

Books to Read

Reyes’s point about horror as a personal experience reinforces my earlier suspicion that I need to examine my own limits in terms of what horror I care to read. I think I’m still not terribly interested in zombies, werewolves, or vampires, and I know I don’t want to read pure gore (splatterpunk) such as a title like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre suggests. From my research, I’ve compiled a list of five recent novels that may allow me to probe further my horror comfort zone. 

The descriptions here are from Goodreads, followed by my reasons for choosing each book. 

1. Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents, all of whom are rich or famous or both. These are the only rules for Jules Larsen’s new job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile and mysterious buildings. Recently heartbroken and just plain broke, Jules is taken in by the splendor of her surroundings and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.

As she gets to know the residents and staff of the Bartholomew, Jules finds herself drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who comfortingly, disturbingly reminds her of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day, when Ingrid disappears.

Searching for the truth about Ingrid’s disappearance, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s dark past and into the secrets kept within its walls. Her discovery that Ingrid is not the first apartment sitter to go missing at the Bartholomew pits Jules against the clock as she races to unmask a killer, expose the building’s hidden past, and escape the Bartholomew before her temporary status becomes permanent.

I enjoyed Sager’s two earlier books, The Last Time I Lied and Final Girls. But I put off reading the last two (this one and Home Before Dark) because the descriptions sound as if they may feature supernatural elements.

2. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

. . .

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.

I heard of this novel in relation to the HBO series based on it. I’m particularly interested in reading the book to see how it uses horror elements as symbols (personifications?) of racism in U.S. society.

3. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.

. . .

Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.

This book has gotten almost universally good reviews. But I particularly want to read it because I’ve read a couple of articles in which the author insists that the novel is gothic horror. This book most likely illustrates the relationship between horror and the gothic novel.

4. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north from London to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and most dreadfully–and for Kipps most tragically–The Woman In Black.

The Woman In Black is both a brilliant exercise in atmosphere and controlled horror and a delicious spine-tingler–proof positive that this neglected genre, the ghost story, isn’t dead after all.

As I said at the beginning, I like a good ghost story. This book also has roots in the gothic novel genre.

5. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager

In the latest thriller from New York Times bestseller Riley Sager, a woman returns to the house made famous by her father’s bestselling horror memoir. Is the place really haunted by evil forces, as her father claimed? Or are there more earthbound—and dangerous—secrets hidden within its walls?

This is the other Riley Sager novel that I’ve hesitated to read. (See entry #1.) Here’s another potential ghost story as well as the trope of a writer as character.

Study Notes

Articles mentioned in This Post

Booth, III, Max. “20 Essential Crime and Horror Crossovers”

Fitch, Marc E. “Literature Is Built on a Foundation of Horror”

Gooding-Call, Anna. “Thriller vs. Horror: Your Guide”

The New York Public Library Literature Companion, ed. Anne Skillion (New York: The Free Press, 2001)

Reyes, Xavier Aldana. “The Scariest Books”

Seidlinger, Michael J. “Bookish Trend: Horror Returns From the Dead”

Shultz, Christopher. “Where Lit-Fic and Horror Converge: Ten Literary Chillers”

Additional Resources

Andrews, Jazlyn. “Unable to Turn Away: Exploring Inescapable Experiences of Horror”

Jones, Stephen Graham. “How Horror is the Puppet of Your Own Terror”

McCormack, J.W. “Interview with Brian Evenson” in The White Review

Temple, Emily. “10 Works of Literary Horror You Should Read”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion

How I Use Goodreads

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


I occasionally come across articles criticizing Goodreads. The latest one is “Why Goodreads is bad for books.” I’m always surprised at the vehemence with which some people criticize Goodreads. Sure, the platform is owned by one of the biggest retailers on the planet and therefore doesn’t have much incentive to improve. But as I read this article, I suddenly realized why I don’t feel a great deal of animosity toward Goodreads: I use the features I find helpful and ignore the rest. 

I don’t rely on Goodreads as my main way of keeping track of the books I read. Whenever I click on “my books,” I get a list that doesn’t in any way correspond to the order in which I’ve read these books. I’m sure there’s a way to filter and rearrange the display of my books, but I’ve never bothered to figure it out because I have a database program that includes all the books I’ve read since about mid-1991. That’s where I keep the record of books I’ve read and when I read them. This program easily generates my annual list of titles read.

But I still enter every book I read on Goodreads for other reasons. Here’s a look at the functions of Goodreads that I use and how I use them.

Annual Book Challenge

It took me a few years to develop a feel for what’s a reasonable expectation of how many books I can comfortably read in a year, but now I’ve become good at it. I enjoy setting my number at the beginning of each year and then following my progress as the year wears on.

(Right now I’ve completed 82% of this year’s challenge and am 2 books ahead of schedule, so yay for me.)

Reading Stats

I also enjoy looking at the stats in my challenge report.

(As of right now, I’ve read almost exactly the same number of pages that I read in all of last year. Thank you, 1Q84.)

Negative Reviews

I have a no-spoiler review policy on this blog and generally try to avoid negative reviews here. However, I do think that sometimes we can learn from reading a bad book just as we can learn from reading a good one. When I just can’t resist pointing out what I think is poor writing, I put it on Goodreads because their review platform will hide passages marked as spoilers (meaning that readers have to click to read the spoiler). 

Book Cover Images

I get all my book cover images from Goodreads. I like that it offers cover art for all formats so I can choose the proper illustration for hardcover, paperback, audio, or ebooks.

And About the Star Rating System

The rating scale of one to five stars gets a lot of criticism, and I generally agree. On a scale of one to five, the midpoint is 2.5, which means that’s the rating an overall mediocre book should receive. Yet there is no 2.5 rating. So do we round down to two stars or up to three stars?

I don’t use star ratings on all the books I record on Goodreads, but when I do use them I often suffer the rounding-down or rounding-up dilemma. In general, I prefer to give verbal evaluations rather than just number ratings to the books I read.

How about you?

Do you use Goodreads? If you do, how do you like it? What features do you especially like or dislike?

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion How Fiction Works

How to Recognize an Unreliable Narrator

2020 Discussion Challenge

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You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Here’s a question that comes up periodically on literary sites:

I’m having trouble reading books with unreliable narrators. How exactly do you know a narrator is unreliable?

When I saw the question again recently, I realized that, although the question gets asked a lot, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an answer.

It’s a hard question to answer for two related reasons:

  1. The discussion requires specific examples as illustration.
  2. Naming the source as an unreliable narrator gives the whole thing away.

Since I try to keep this blog free of spoilers, I’m going to try to answer the question without citing specific texts. So please put up with my silly, contrived examples. Most of them I’ve completely made up, and others I’ve lifted and generalized from real sources.

But before we start, some definitions. A narrator is the one telling the tale. Sometimes narrators inadvertently deceive readers, such as children who report events that they are too young to understand the meaning of. These are called naive narrators. But unreliable narrators fail to provide readers with adequate information from which to make inferences and judgments. Sometimes these narrators may be a bit naive (that is, they may not provide certain information because they don’t know it), but most often—and, most interestingly—unreliable narrators deceive readers for their own purposes.

The considerations here aim to help you uncover the willfully unreliable narrators, the ones that have some personal reason for controlling the information they dole out to readers. Remember, though, that these narrators may be lying to themselves as much as to the readers. 

Here are some examples that suggest a narrator may not be telling you the whole truth. 

Inconsistent Details

“What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.” 

As with people in real life, often the first indication that a narrator is deceiving us is an inconsistency in details over time. Sometimes these inconsistencies involve seemingly small details: “My mother died when I was five years old” vs. “My mother died when I was in high school.” Other times the differences may comprise whole chunks of the narrator’s life story, such as education, work experience, and marital history.

Inconsistent details are often the first and most tell-tale indications that things in this narrative may not be as they seem.

Unexplained Details

I recently read a thriller in which the narrator said, almost as an aside, “My husband handed me my medication and a glass of water to swallow the pills with.” This struck me as odd, but it wasn’t until the second time she said the same thing that all my alarm bells went off:

  • What exactly is this medication?
  • What disease or condition is it used to treat?
  • Why is her husband (who is not a doctor or nurse) dispensing this medicine to her? Why isn’t she in charge of her own medication?
  • What are the possible side effects of this medication?
  • What are the potential effects of taking either too much or too little of this drug?

What isn’t being said is often just as important as what is being said. Ask yourself the questions and examine the narrative’s lack of answers.

Title: How to recognize an unreliable narrator
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The Narrator’s Interactions with Other Characters

A narrator’s interactions with the novel’s other characters may suggest reasons for his behavior. Does the narrator act arrogant toward some characters but subservient or fearful toward others? Why? 

Sometimes other characters, particularly minor ones whose number of appearances is limited, may feature in the novel for the primary purpose of providing some other viewpoint against which to measure the narrator’s actions. One novel I read not too long ago involved a first-person male narrator who became fascinated by, then obsessed with a woman visiting his town. Near the end of the novel his female family friend tells him, “My father and I tried to tell you her behavior was suspicious.” This remark provides an external yardstick against which readers can evaluate the narrator’s reaction to the visitor. This minor character lets us know we were right in our suspicions about the narrator, that other people shared our concern over how he fell under the influence of this visitor.

Change in Narrator’s Voice

How the narrator acts, thinks, and speaks over the course of the novel can also clue readers in to an unreliable narrator. A narrator may start out sounding logical and rational, but narration that gradually becomes more chaotic and desperate could indicate a decline in the narrator’s mental state. 


Writing an effective unreliable narrator challenges writers’ skills. The author must sprinkle suggestions that raise our suspicions over the narrative like salt, while at the same time planting enough red herrings to keep us guessing and turning the pages.

Recognizing unreliable narrators is just as challenging for readers as creating them is for authors. You can’t skim or speed read here. Slow, careful reading, paying attention to every detail and asking unanswered questions, is necessary to recognize when a narrator isn’t playing straight with you. 

The most skilled authors dish out their clues about the nature of the narrator slowly and subtly. Appreciating that process and recognizing an unreliable narrator can be one of the most satisfying rewards of reading fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Personal The Classics Club

CC Spin #23: A Change of Plan

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fancy scroll

Earlier this month the Classics Club announced a return of its spin, in which we make a numbered list of books, then read the book on our list with the number chosen at random. Initially I welcomed the exercise, because I have been  having trouble reading and writing in the current pandemic. I hoped this spin would help me break out of that slump by compelling me to read and write about a particular book.

But my heart sank when the lucky number was called because my book with that number is Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. I originally put this novel on my Classics Club reading list because it is generally acknowledged as Faulkner’s masterpiece, the book that encapsulates his literary vision of the American South. I knew that reading it would be challenging yet rewarding.

And therein lies the problem with having Absalom, Absalom! come up for me right now. While this novel is acknowledged to be Faulkner’s masterpiece, it is also universally acknowledged to be a difficult novel to read. It’s dense with biblical and mythological allusions, a story peopled by archetypal characters comprising a multigenerational family saga of interlocking stories.

In other words, reading Absalom, Absalom! requires a lot of patience and concentration, two qualities that I’m still short on, although I have been slowly improving in those areas. I’m afraid undertaking this project now would be counterproductive because I can’t give it the extended, intense focus it requires. I’m afraid the effort would end up frustrating me enough to force me either to do a sloppy job with it or to give it up altogether. 

I’d rather save Absalom, Absalom! for a time when I’ll be able to give this difficult project my best shot. For that reason I’ve decided that I’m not going to read Faulkner’s novel for this spin.

Instead, I’m going to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, another book on my Classics Club list. I first read this book probably about 40 years ago, and I’ve been wanting to reread it for quite some time. I know what to expect and what I’m looking for in this book. I’m eager to reread this book and welcome the opportunity to do so now.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Older Adults in Literature

Moral Depth in Current Fiction

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Introduction

I came upon Adam O’Fallon Price’s article The Subjective Mood, in which he laments the lack of moral depth in current fiction, back in February. I included it in a literary-links round-up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I find a lot of moral depth in most of the fiction I read. 

Price’s piece made me think about the interplay between plot and character in fiction because of its correlation between plot and moral depth.

What is moral depth in fiction?

Price describes moral depth as the quality in a novel that doesn’t merely settle for telling a story but “also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality.” He explains further:

over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

This definition feels misleading because books don’t think; people do, both authors and readers. “What the book thinks” means exactly what? 

Price correlates moral depth with plot, writing that “so many of these books are boring”:

The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this?

And there’s that troublesome concept of “what the book thinks” again.

But perhaps Price’s best description of the lack of moral depth is this extended passage:

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

What does “recent fiction” mean?

Price avoids a specific definition of what he means by the phrases contemporary novels and recently published novels, but he does offer this: “Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago.”  Waldman’s novel carries a copyright date of 2013, so let’s assume that, in general, he’s talking about novels published since 2013.

In considering the cause of the lack of moral depth in recent fiction, Price gives us this disingenuous explanation: “the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet.” 

It has been a long time since I heard anyone give this knee-jerk reaction to explain everything that’s wrong with modern society. Blaming the loss of moral depth on the internet only underlines even more finely how imprecise Price’s terminology is.

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

Here are four novels, all published after 2013, that contain moral depth. Oh, and not one of them is boring.

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

In a world in which quantum physics allows scientists to explore parallel universes, physics teacher Jason Deesen pursues answers to the questions “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?”

In his pursuit Jason makes several choices and deals with their consequences as he searches for the answer to the most basic questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Who do I choose to be?” In this way, Dark Matter directly contradicts Price’s description of a lack of moral depth:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

This novel follows the lives of seven people over the course of a four-day murder trial. Through the use of multiple points of view, Miracle Creek allows all participants to tell their stories and explain how they ended up at the place where a terrible tragedy caused the deaths of two people.

In the moral depth that Price misses in current fiction, “Action and choice occasions a moral dimension.” This novel attains that moral dimension by giving all the major characters the opportunity to tell their stories.

If your notion of moral depth is passing judgment, you’ll find that in this novel. The perpetrator is identified and duly punished by law. But if your notion of moral depth is to examine and understand choices people make within the complex circumstances their lives have offered them, you’ll find that here as well. Moral depth doesn’t get much deeper than this.

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

Price laments the loss of “the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative.” Our Souls at Night presents exactly that in its story about two widowed older adults who seek caring and companionship in each other’s company within the confines of their small-town existence.

Like Miracle Creek, this little (179 pages) novel takes a big look at the preconceptions of conventional morality to examine moral choice in the context of individual characters’ lives.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

In this novel the aging actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life and career, but she’ll only tell it to one person, the struggling, little-known young journalist Monique Grant. It’s a story featuring ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an example of a life review in fiction. The concept of life review comes from an area of psychology known as narrative identity theory. Many older adults, as they approach their life’s end, engage in life review, the process of understanding and accepting the life they’ve lived. 

In his description of the lack of moral depth he finds in current fiction, Price writes:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the telling of the story is both the significant action and the facing of the consequences of actions made earlier in life.

(Another example of life review in fiction is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. For more information about life stories in literature, click here.)

Conclusions

To find recent novels like these, one has to be willing to look for them. Dark Matter is straight-up science fiction, while Miracle Creek, because it features a murder, likely sits in the mystery section of bookstores and libraries. I’ve often written that I like mysteries and thrillers because the best of them deal with what it’s like to be human in the world. Readers who spurn genre fiction will never find these gems.

Also, we find the books we need at the times in our lives when we need them. Price says in his article that he’s 44. I have nearly 30 years on him, and for that reason books that feature older adult characters coming to terms with their lives draw my attention. The best of those novels carry the moral depth that accompanies the wisdom of their characters.

Books don’t think, but good books make people think. Throughout its history the novel has been the literary form that probes the questions of how individuals relate to the societies they live in. My guess is that as society evolves, novelists will continue to find ways to explore its moral complexity through fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Groups Bookstores Discussion

Life in an Independent Bookstore Near Seattle

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Coronavirus Diaries: I Own a Bookstore. I Don’t Know How Much Longer We Can Survive.

I live in Tacoma, WA, about 30 miles south of Seattle, the epicenter of the coronavirus influx into the United States. This article in Slate therefore caught my eye and seems appropriate to pass on since it’s about books.

Laurie Swift Raisys, owner of Island Books in Mercer Island, WA, points out a fear that all business owners must face when nobody is going out shopping: 

As a business owner, you rely on the community and the people that come in and shop at your store in order to pay your bills and pay your employees. Last week was incredibly stressful, and this week has been very stressful, and I don’t really see an end in sight right now.

But what pulled at my heartstrings even more than the purely economic complications of this medical emergency is the community impact:

We’re a community gathering place. Our slogan is “Real people, real books, real community,” and we’ve been around 46 years. My husband grew up on the island, and I worked part time for a number of years as a contractor. My contract ended one year and I decided I was going to do something different. I’d always wanted to own an island business, because I love this community. Everyone knows your name. They know your kids.

Raisys explains that several of her customers are over 60, the demographic most at risk from this particular virus. These people have been ordering by phone or email, and she has been dropping off books at their homes.

Further, “People are hibernating, and it makes it hard for us as a place of community. You cannot be in the business of social distancing, as they’re calling it, when you are a place that people come to for book clubs.” Often, book club represents the sum total of people’s social life, especially older people’s.

It’s easy to lose sight of aspects like this when we’re focused on more immediate health concerns. “It’s a small town, and they [residents] support when they can,” Raisys writes, but this disease is bound to have severe long-term effects after the immediate crisis is over.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Literature & Psychology

The Interplay of Plot and Character in Fiction

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Which is more important in fiction: plot or character? Novels that engage in complex characterization are often called character-driven stories or character studies, while books heavy on fast action and unexpected turns of events are called plot-driven novels. But even in character studies the characters still have to DO something (even if all they do is think), and even in plot-driven novels someone must be DOING all that action. 

Plot and character are like love and marriage: You can’t have one without the other. 

This is true no matter what kind of fiction you’re reading. Some people distinguish between literary fiction and genre fiction, a distinction in which the term genre fiction refers to format-specific categories such as mystery, thriller, science fiction, horror, and romance. The term is usually used pejoratively, to suggest that literary fiction is somehow better than “mere genre fiction.”

But all fiction requires characters who do something, and the best works of fiction, whether literary or genre fiction, hit the sweet spot of combining complex characterization with interesting plotting. 

I gravitate toward mysteries and thrillers because I think that some of the most thought-provoking fiction—novels that explore the extremes of what the human heart is capable of—slots into those genres.

I often hear that crime fiction is just plot-driven entertainment—that unlike literary fiction, or even general fiction, it doesn’t examine the human condition. The truth is you can’t write crime fiction without examining the human condition and the society of a place or time. If a writer doesn’t understand the very elements that led someone to desperation, to the ultimate bad choice of taking another life, he can never write a convincing antagonist. Villains are not just bad people, they’re often in an untenable situation and see no other way out.

Dianne Freeman

Thriller author Karin Slaughter, when asked what makes for a good thriller, replied, “Character has to matter as much as plot. If they’re not equally strong, then no one really cares what happens.”

But while the question of whether character or plot is more important may be moot, the question of which comes first in an author’s writing process can yield some interesting results. 

Queen of suspense Mary Higgins Clark reportedly scanned the New York City tabloids every morning looking for story ideas, a suggestion she was looking for unusual plot twists.

In contrast, Tana French begins with characters:

I don’t outline at all, actually. In fact, I can’t really figure out what’s going on myself until I’ve been writing the characters for a while. I don’t even know “whodunit” until I’ve been writing long enough to know who might kill someone, and for what reasons.

But in the end, plot and character work hand in hand. 

For me, the best thrillers are a combination of plot and characterization. There is nothing better than a thriller I absolutely can’t put down. That said, it isn’t everything; I also want to feel something for the characters in the books I read. If I don’t, then ultimately I won’t care what happens to them in the end. They also need to feel authentic.

thriller writer Mary Kubica

Plot + character = story, and good stories keep us reading.

We read on because we love the characters but also because we want to know how the story plays out. There are mysteries to be solved here, genuine puzzles that keep us questioning to the very end.

Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Fiction

Is the Locked-Room Mystery Obsolete?

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As a subgenre of the mystery or detective-fiction genre, the locked-room mystery, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century, has long fascinated both writers and readers. But at least one critic asserts that the format has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. However, five recent novels demonstrate how writers continue to find ways to apply the traditional formula to create works that continue to challenge and entertain readers.

The locked-room mystery presents a story in which a crime, usually a murder, has been committed in a setting that seemingly offers no way for the culprit to exit the crime scene. Imagine a corpse found inside a room with no windows or method of entry and exit other than a single door, which is locked from the inside. Literary historians generally credit Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as the first such story.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1939, Agatha Christie first published her own version of the locked-room mystery, now known as And Then There Were None. In her story several characters are summoned to a mansion on a small rock island with no other dwellings or inhabitants. The only way to get to the island is by catching the only row boat available at a nearby coastal village. A bad storm blows up and prevents the small boat from sailing across the channel over the weekend. Meanwhile, on the isolated island, the guests turn up dead, one by one.

Agatha Christie went on to perfect her own variant of the locked-room mystery, the country-house mystery. In these stories, several characters assemble in a remote country house that is then cut off from the outside world by some type of storm involving either giant snow drifts, road-blocking huge fallen trees, or washed-out bridges. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests. 

Prolific mystery author and critic Christopher Fowler has argued that the modern age of instant communication and unlimited information access forces mystery writers to up their game:

Gone are the days of the snowed-in, bridge-down, lines-out country house murder, where everyone dutifully assembles in the library to unveil the killer.

Christopher Fowler

Yet these five recent novels demonstrate how writers are finding new ways to use the locked-room mystery formula to create suspenseful, satisfying novels.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

cover: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In Larsson’s 2005 novel, wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger hires researcher and journalist Mikael Blomkvist to dig into the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, more than 40 years earlier. Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker but a troubled young woman now at the mercy of the Swedish welfare system because of the government’s need to protect the identity of her Soviet-defector spy father. 

Both the character development and the plotting of this novel are so complex and enthralling that it’s easy to forget that the opening situation, the circumstances of Harriet’s unexplained disappearance—on a day when an accident closed the bridge connecting the Vanger island estate to the mainland—is a locked-room mystery set up.


No Exit by Taylor Adams

cover: No Exit

I have explained my criticisms of this 2019 novel in my review, linked above. Nonetheless, I commend Adams for undertaking the challenge of writing a locked-room mystery novel. 


In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

cover: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In this 2015 novel, Nora hasn’t seen Clare for 10 years, when they were teenagers and Clare orchestrated the break-up of Nora and her boyfriend, James. Then, out of the blue, Nora receives an invitation to Clare’s hen do (bachelorette party). Ware uses elements of the locked-room format to heighten tension and produce suspense in this wild ride of a gothic thriller.


The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

cover: The Escape Room

The Escape Room (2019) begins with two parallel narratives: the first-person account by Sara Hall of her job at a large, high-pressure financial firm, and the third-person look at four business associates in an elevator participating in a corporate trust-building exercise. As the two narratives alternate, suspense increases for both readers and the four people trying to figure out how to escape from the elevator.


The Lost Man by Jane Harper

cover: The Lost Man

I’ve saved the best for last.

Nathan Bright returns to his family’s vast cattle station in Australia for the funeral of his brother, Cameron. Did Cameron commit suicide, or was he murdered? The authorities and the family ponder this question out where only one road leads through town and the nearest neighbors live many hours’ drive away in either direction. Brilliant Australian writer Jane Harper sets this, her third novel (2019), in the Australian Outback, the biggest locked-room on the planet.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown