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Discussion Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

Announcing Life Stories in Literature

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.


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I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.

—Oliver Sacks

Introduction

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.

Autobiographical narratives have an interesting history in personality psychology. The idea behind this approach is that when individuals tell their life stories, they reveal the underlying themes that reflect their sense of identity over time. Think for a moment about how you would tell your story. When would it start? What would be your major organizing principles? How would you distill your many years of life experiences into, say, a 30- or 60-minute retelling to someone else? Ordinarily, researchers trying to grasp your identity from this story would look for major themes, such as relationships or worklife, high points and low points (and why), and the extent to which your sense of self tends to coalesce and be easily recognizable.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

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:

  1. Who am I?
  2. 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:

  1. to situate someone within a particular society or culture, in a specific place and a specific time
  2. 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.

Lisa Cron

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.

identity

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. 

. . . self-awareness and narrative intelligence overlap to a considerable degree. We have a natural inclination to think of ourselves—our past, present, and future—as an ongoing story.

We make sense of the world by ordering events into narrative forms. We also make sense of ourselves in the same way, by ordering experiences into meaningful sequences.

Frank Tallis

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:

  • Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899)
  • Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952; later republished as Carol)
  • Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (1984)
  • Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night (2015)

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.

family

decorative plate that says "Home is where your story begins"

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:

At 18, when I aged out of the system, all I wanted was to reinvent myself as quickly as possible. Given a chance, I think I would have crawled out of my own skin, or even seared off my fingerprints. Whoever that throwaway girl was, I didn’t want to be her any longer.

Paula McLain

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.

Cynthia Pelayo

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.

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Infographic: Life Stories in Literature / Characteristics of Life Stories: They give meaning to our experiences. They create our sense of self and identity. They explain our past and shape our present and future. They evolve throughout our lives. They demonstrate that different people remember the same event differently.

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. 

In my view, the fascination for psychological thrillers can be explained in part by the fact that they deal with one of the last unexplored universes of all, one we carry right inside us: the human mind.

Sebastian Fitzek

One of the best examples of such a novel that I’ve read lately is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.

imposters

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.

Though we frequently see women’s rape and bodily harm on screen and in literature, what we don’t often see is women’s anger in response to such violations. And this erasure of rage can paint both the trauma and the victim’s reactions as “unbelievable.”

Rachel Zarrow

cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation, the question of who has the right to tell which stories, has been in the news a lot recently. This issue is a subcategory of controlling one’s own narrative. The controversy over the publication of the novel American Dirt in 2020 is a prominent example (scroll down to #2 for a recap).

“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?

Daniel Hernandez

change your story, change your life

Individuals can’t change the events of their lives, but they can change how they  react to them. 

The events of your past are fixed. The meaning of your past is not.

The influence of every experience in your life is determined by the meaning you assign to it.

Assign a more useful meaning to your past and it becomes easier to take a more useful action in the present.

James Clear

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. 

“That idea of an alternative life, parallel life, alternate universes, has always haunted me . . . It haunts a lot of us who are refugees from Vietnam, what our lives could’ve been, and so I think that sense saturates my fiction and my nonfiction.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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. 

Such changes may be positive. Examples of novels in which post-traumatic growth occurs include Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman (scroll down to #4), The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

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 Girl by Mary Kubica and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.

rewriting history 

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.

Women’s History Month, declared each March by a presidential proclamation, began as an effort by five women, most of them teachers, to “write women back into history.”

ABC News

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.

fancy scroll

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. 

Since most writers intend for their fictional characters to be proxies of their human counterparts, it arguably makes sense to examine and understand their characters through many of the same scientific models used by psychologists to understand real people. More specifically, the field of personality psychology is likely to be especially illuminating because writers characterise their fictional personae by describing their thoughts, feelings, motivations and behaviours – the exact same set of factors that psychologists see as making up personality.

Kira-Anne Pelican

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Censorship Discussion Publishing

What a Crazy Week in Publishing!

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.


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.

‘There Is a Tension There’: Publishers Draw Fire for Signing Trump Officials

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.

Simon & Schuster Employees Submit Petition Demanding No Deals With Trump Administration Authors

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.’”

Norton Takes Philip Roth Biography Out of Print

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.’”

The Philip Roth biography is canceled, Mike Pence’s book could be next — and publishing may never be the same

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.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Audiobooks Discussion Ebooks Reading

Do You Read More Than One Book at a Time?

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The question of whether people read more than one book at a time comes up often on book-related media. I’ve noticed that the people who post the question and then go on to answer it most often write about why they read multiple books simultaneously. Many people just ask the question without including any discussion, but the ones who do include their answer with the question are usually people who read more than one book at a time.

That’s just an unscientific observation of mine. I haven’t kept any records or hard statistics on the subject. But I’m going to assume I’ve observed correctly for the purpose of discussion here, because I wonder why simultaneous readers tend to ask and answer the question most often. 

Perhaps these readers ask and answer the question because they somehow feel that reading several books at once is a habit that needs justification. They frequently explain that they have different books in different formats (print, audiobook, ebook) going at the same time. Some read books in different categories (i.e., fiction and nonfiction) at the same time, or works in different genres (i.e., fantasy and historical fiction).

Or maybe these readers are really bragging: “I’m smart enough to keep several books going at one time,” as if the capability of keeping more plates spinning is an assertion of reading prowess. A more gracious interpretation would be that moving between different stimuli is how they keep their engagement with reading fresh and rewarding.

I firmly believe that reading is a highly personalized experience: different strokes for different folks. There are no right or wrong ways to read. Whatever works for you is what you should do.

In answering the question of whether I read more than one book at a time, I fall somewhere in the middle. I prefer to immerse myself in one book at a time. I don’t want to be reading two novels simultaneously and have to remind myself which one’s protagonist is an orphan and which one’s protagonist, at age 37, still lives at home with Mother. I like to consume characters’ stories whole.

However, I sometimes have an audiobook going at the same time as either a print book or audiobook. The reason for this is practical: I can’t turn the pages of a print book while I’m folding laundry or vacuuming. Those are activities that audiobooks were invented for. I am, though, choosy about audiobooks. I pick works that I think I won’t need to flip back through several pages to follow the story line of. The shortcoming of audiobooks is that it isn’t easy to isolate specific passages that I may want to reference in a review.

How About You?

Do you read more than one book at a time? 

Or maybe you prefer this question: Do you think that the question of reading more than one book at a time is meaningless, pointless, useless?

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction Personal Reading

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

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“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

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.


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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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

Categories
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