I don’t know about you, but I have trouble keeping up with the terminology used to describe some of the new kinds of literature. Here Caitlin Hobbs explains that the term cyberpunk, which has its roots in science fiction, “didn’t gain traction as a recognized genre, or even a literary movement, until the release of Neuromancer [by William Gibson] in 1984.” Since then, the term has expanded to include films and videogames in addition to books.
“For something to be considered cyberpunk it must be set in some futuristic setting, have advanced tech (like cybernetics) juxtaposed with a social order that’s either in the process of breaking down or has already done so.”
“How Counterfactual Realities Make Us Better Thinkers”
Books like Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal introduced the notion of storytelling as a survival technique humans developed over eons of evolution. This excerpt from Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Scönberger, and Francis de Véricourt carries on that discussion:
Salt and sugar light up the human appetite in a primal way; stories do the same thing for our minds. They are a platform to contemplate scenarios of alternative realities and how humans act within them. They help us evaluate options and prepare decisions. In this way, they expand and improve our framing skills.
Anna Sebba considers how the fate of Ethel Rosenberg has continued to inform literature:
although the story of the Rosenbergs’ trial and execution has proved fertile ground for many other artists, composers, and playwrights, it is the conflicting images of Ethel herself that have made her so irresistible as a tragic figure. The way she continues to defy labeling as mother, wife, sister, daughter, Communist, or would-be opera singer has penetrated the American consciousness deeply. It is this complexity that has encouraged audiences to project her, more often than the dramatically less interesting, more predictable Julius, into works of fiction, even where she was originally absent from the script.
“The silly idea that a fictional character’s statements reflect an author’s actual beliefs is spreading.”
I don’t always agree with Laura Miller, but I always admire her boldness and audacity. Here she writes, “I know some will consider Hilderbrand’s and McQuiston’s obeisance to be a sign that the ‘toxic drama’ that prevails on YA Twitter—in which ambitious reviewers-cum-influencers revile authors for failing to toe extremely fine and perpetually changing lines on race, gender, and other sensitive issues—has spread to the world of commercial adult fiction.”
I’ve always been very careful about quotations since they’ve become frequent material for blogging and social media posts. Almost every time I come upon a quotation used this way, the author’s name is given but with no indication of the source of the exact words. If I can’t cite the exact source of a quotation, I don’t use it.
And I also know the difference between things writers say in their own voices, such as in interviews or bylined articles, and things they put in the mouths of their fictional creations to advance characterization. The fact that a character in a novel says something does NOT mean that the author believes the same thing.
But, as Miller here laments, “While it’s perplexing that people who are always rhapsodizing about how much they love reading can be so very bad at it, the truth is that the incentives for interpreting a book’s meaning in the worst possible light are high.”
“The ‘Scarlet Letter’ author’s short stories are like a Puritan ‘Twin Peaks’”
A century before H.P. Lovecraft (inspired by Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables) depicted New England as a realm of terror and dread, Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the case, mining the region’s history for insights into the mind’s darker corners. Chiefly remembered today for The Scarlet Letter, that bane of high school curricula, Hawthorne’s highest achievements are actually found in his short stories. There, he examines the supposed innocence of the early American character, finding the darkness that lies beneath.
“Christine Mangan Recommends Fiction that Honors and Upholds the Genre’s Enduring Legacy”
The Gothic, then, has been a particularly significant place for women, as, erased from the pages of history by a patriarchal lens, this genre has served as a space for female writers to reclaim history, a space to examine such matters as marriage and subjugation, the female body and autonomy. Topics that remain relevant today and often find their ways into mysteries, thrillers, horror, all of which ultimately locate their roots in what Gothic was and continues to be—a place where marginalized voices have space to write their cultural anxieties, as tropes are borrowed and reinvented and repurposed for the changing era in which they are written.
“In an era that fetishizes form, Oates has become America’s preëminent fiction writer by doing everything you’re not supposed to do.”
Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific of all contemporary authors, recently turned 83. In this New York Times profile Leo Robson writes:
Among contemporary American fiction writers—and, since the deaths of Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, she possesses a strong claim to preëminence—Oates most clearly displays what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster,” a faculty or frailty she often gives to her creations.
“All Seasons Press, led by two industry veterans, backs right-wing authors as mainstream houses face growing disputes over editorial decisions.”
The reckoning within the publishing industry continues to roil: “Two veteran book-publishing executives have teamed up to launch a conservative publishing house called All Seasons Press LLC as ideological debates roil a book industry increasingly fueled by demand for political titles.”
The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre rightly generated a lot of press coverage. This article from The Oklahoman discusses the efforts of Mary Parrish to prevent the story of what happened from disappearing.
Parrish was an African American journalist and teacher who in 1919 moved with her daughter Florence Mary from Rochester, New York, to Tulsa’s Greenwood. They fled their home and lost everything in the massacre, including her typing school in Greenwood.
Thanks to Mary Parrish’s great-granddaughter Anneliese Bruner, Parrish’s original account of the 1921 attack, The Nation Must Awake, is being republished.
There’s been a lot of recent press coverage about the various challenges currently facing the publishing industry. Aisling Twomey here summarizes some of the recent controversies and concludes:
It’s clear that publishing has a hard road ahead. The industry of gatekeepers needs to be accountable for the sustained inequality for authors. It also needs to address the ethics of its decisions around who to publish, and why. And along the way, it needs to treat its own workers better, too.
McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic, reports:
[publishing] insiders have told me in recent weeks that the market for anti-Biden books is ice cold. Authors have little interest in writing them, editors have little interest in publishing them, and—though the hypothesis has yet to be tested—it’s widely assumed that readers would have little interest in buying them. . . . Facing a new president whose relative dullness is his superpower, the American right has gone hunting for richer targets to elevate.
This article takes quite a deep dive into the current state of the publishing industry:
We discovered that these two different ways of structuring publishers’ finances — conglomerate and nonprofit — created a split within literature, yielding two distinct modes of American writing after 1980. This essay characterizes the two modes, explains how the split between them happened, and illustrates the significance of this shift for the rise of multiculturalism.
Lisa Taddeo’s debut publication was the widely hailed nonfiction work Three Women (2019). Her second book is the recently published novel Animal, which Taddeo believes “finally shows the world who she really is as a writer.”
Taddeo experiences anxiety brought on, the article says, by the deaths of her parents and her own medical scares.
“When my parents died, it utterly reconstructed me as a human being,” she says. “It turned me into an animal, in a sense. And not an animal that kills, but a scared, skittering mouse that is constantly driving from one place to another to try to hide from her brain.”
Here Rachel Cline interviews Schwartz, with an emphasis on Schwartz’s 2020 work Truthtelling: Stories Fables, Glimpses, which Cline says “is full of invention, soul, and wit, and also marks a departure from Schwartz’s earlier fictional work, as it explores aspects of choice and behavior that verge on the fantastic and surreal.”
About writing this book Schwartz says:
Until then my fiction, both stories and novels, had used a traditional realistic mode. Now, suddenly strange and eerie things were intruding. The stories seemed to swerve into a not quite logical world. The odd things that appeared — forgetting the existence of one’s mother, having a fit of hysteria on a subway, being thrown into an existential panic by a wrong number on the phone — were not impossible, but extremely unlikely. So unlikely that the stories came to occupy a formerly unexplored space between reality and imagination, or nightmare.
Here’s a third author interview that caught my eye this week: Carole Burns talks with Gish Jen:
For more than thirty years now, Gish Jen has been writing fiction that explores the American landscape while ranging across any boundaries expectations about literary fiction might try to impose: her five novels and many short stories are literary and entertaining; funny and serious; rich in characters with stories to tell. Whether she’s writing from the point of view of a Chinese American teenager in a primarily Jewish suburb, as in Mona in the Promised Land (1996), or the sharply observant and comic Hattie Wong in World and Town (2010), Jen creates characters who explore not just what it is to be American, but what it is to be human.
It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.
This month we start with the winner of the 2021 Stella Prize, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. I had hoped to finish the book before writing this post, but, you know, life intervenes. However, I’ve read enough to know that the novel presents the stories of three women in three different time periods. The shadow of the Bass Rock looms large over each woman’s life.
1. As I was thinking about how to start this chain, I came across a description of Long Division by Kiese Laymon, published on June 1, which Lit Hub says depicts “One Mississippi town with two engaging stories in two very different decades.” Same place, different times.
2.Three Junes, Julia Glass’s debut novel (2002), takes place in the month of June in three different years over a 10-year span. Locations vary, but the time of year is the same, so same time, different places. This novel has been sitting on my TBR shelf for probably about 10 years.
3. A recent debut novel that I loved is The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. After receiving an MFA in writing, Johnson now studies American literature at Vanderbilt University.
5.Coma by Robin Cook, a novel set in a hospital, “kickstarted a new genre–the medical thriller” (according to Goodreads) on its publication in 1977. The protagonist of this novel discovers that patients are purposely being put into a vegetative state so that their organs can be used for transplants. The bodies are stored, suspended from the ceiling, at the Jefferson Institute, an isolated, heavily guarded offsite facility.
6.The Institute (2019) by Stephen King is a more recent portrayal of such an imposing medical facility. King’s Institute is a place for kids with “special talents” such as telekinesis and telepathy.
Of all these novels, I’ve only read two (The Space Between Worlds and Coma). I think I’ll pass on The Institute, but I’ll try to get to the remaining three—as soon as I finish The Bass Rock, that is.
a totally unrelated note
Reader, 50 years ago today I married Mr. Notes in the Margin. Happy golden anniversary to the best guy in the world!
Rebeca Hussey here defines philosophical fiction as fiction that “encourages the reader to ponder big questions. It purposely provokes thought and debate.” Her list of philosophical fiction includes both contemporary and classic books.
Pip Williams, author of The Dictionary of Lost Words, explains why and how she wrote this book, which examines the participation of women in the production of the daddy of dictionaries, The Oxford English Dictionary.
This is an excerpt from the recent book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon, PhD. In this episode she explains why there was no official investigation of the murder of a woman named Apronia until her husband asked the emperor to look into it:
There was no representative of the state of Rome who would get involved in this case until Apronius took it to the emperor because, as far as the Romans were concerned, the murder of wives, children, husbands, or really anyone at all was absolutely none of their business.
A professor “who teaches people to teach kids to read” takes us on a tour of the “reading wars.” She looks at political involvement in the various controversies that have produced a sobering statistic: “two-thirds of United States 4th graders are reading ‘below grade level.’”
“The author recognized that humiliation is a kind of trauma—and that gentle humor could help neutralize it.”
A beautiful appreciation by Sophie Gilbert of children’s author Beverly Cleary, who died recently at the age of 104. Gilbert lauds the way Cleary “captured—sweetly, and with humor—all the ordinary ups and downs of childhood: sibling rivalry, misunderstandings, having a teacher who you can sense doesn’t like you.”
I was, like lots of other readers, bowled over by Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it shortly after its publication in April 2012. While I appreciated it simply as an engrossing story, what particularly struck me was how the book used the concept of life stories to communicate its meaning. This came the year after I received my doctorate in psychology, for which I wrote my dissertation on life stories.
My study of life stories focused on memoir and other autobiographical writing, all nonfiction. But Gone Girl hit me upside the head with the realization that an understanding of life story theory could enrich my understanding of fiction, too. Here’s how Flynn uses aspects of life story as the framework of the novel:
Summary: Life Stories
Coming from an academic background, I was intrigued to recognize how aspects of psychology emerge in literature.
The study of life stories (the technical term is narrative identity theory) addresses how we all tell—to both ourselves and others—the story of our life in order to give meaning to our experiences and to build our sense of self—our feeling of who we are as both a member of society and a unique individual.
I started writing on this topic back in 2014. To keep this blog post as short as possible, I’m embedding some earlier posts about life stories here.
Our life stories arise from our past and influence both our present and our future.
When we tell our life stories, we include events as we remember them. Other people present at the same events may remember them quite differently.
Once Gone Girl demonstrated to me how life stories can show up in fiction, I began seeing them almost everywhere.
I see aspects of Life Stories in Literature functioning across time in the books that interest me.
How Life Stories Work in Fiction
Fiction, in its broadest sense, examines the meaning of human existence by considering the two most basic questions each of us asks about ourselves:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
We compose our life story to find our purpose or place in the world. Life stories are psychologically complex because they comprise two seemingly paradoxical functions:
to situate someone within a particular society or culture, in a specific place and a specific time
to carve out someone’s individual or unique identity within the larger group
Fiction gives us the opportunity to watch, in a safe setting, how particular actions play out. Understanding how life stories work can enrich our experiences of reading fiction by allowing us to observe how characters act in particular situations and transferring the lessons those characters learn to our own lives.
Sometimes the life story is the major focus of a novel. Other times it’s a minor element that illuminates some other aspect of the novel.
Every minute of every day, behind the scenes, our self-narrative is deftly guiding our every decision based on what we gleaned, applying it to what’s happening now, and suggesting what we should (probably) do next.
Here’s a sampling of the themes that life stories can help us understand in fiction. These themes are like individual facets of a diamond: the meaning of one theme can reflect onto others. In fact, a single novel may illustrate more than one of these themes. I have broken this discussion down into themes for ease of discussion, but many themes may serve as reflections of each other and, like light from a cut diamond, produce a light greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The core of narrative identity theory is the individual’s exploration, discovery, creation, and understanding of self. The term narrative means a series of events told in chronological sequence—essentially a story. Popular culture has adopted the concept of life stories with phrases such as “the narrative of success” or the need to “change the narrative” in fields such as business, lifestyle, and personal development.
Young children remember some of their experiences, but people generally don’t begin to put those memories together to construct a life narrative until adolescence. Therefore, YA (young adult) fiction often emphasizes this aspect of life story. However, understanding or shaping one’s identity isn’t limited to adolescence but continues throughout one’s life time.
Fiction featuring adults therefore sometimes includes incidents in which characters try to focus, evaluate, explain, or even change their life path or sense of purpose. For example, the story in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird is so gripping that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the narrator is not the child Scout, but rather the adult that child has grown into. Her narration of what happened back when her father defended Tom Robinson explains how those events shaped her into the person she has become.
Older characters, those in the midst of that common malady known as mid-life crisis, sometimes engage in similar soul-searching. Anne Tyler’s 2001 novel Back When We Were Grownups begins with the memorable line “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person.” The novel unfolds as this woman re-examines the purpose and significance of the life she has lived.
Finally in this general category of the search for identity, there are the negative examples, the warnings. All of the following novels demonstrate what happens when people don’t fulfill society’s expectations for them:
As the range of publication dates of these novels demonstrates, this theme recurs across time. The expectations of the current societies differ, but the fact that society expects people to live in appropriate ways endures.
Growing up is a process of socialization, and that process begins at home at an early age. We spend our early years learning how our parents, our first representatives of society, expect us to act. Some of this instruction is overt: “Good children share their toys and take turns.”
But some is much more subtle. In Beverly Cleary’s novel Beezus and Ramona, 9-year-old Beatrice (Beezus) Quimby finds her 4-year-old sister Ramona completely exasperating. One of Ramona’s exasperating actions is the frequent demand that Beezus read aloud Ramona’s favorite book, The Littlest Steam Shovel. Beezus can’t understand why Ramona loves this book so much. After all, “Girls weren’t supposed to like machinery.” This novel was published in 1955, a time when appropriate gender behaviors were well established: boys were supposed to play with tanks and trucks, while girls got dolls and dishes.
Scott O’Dell’s 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins includes the same gender assumptions. In this children’s novel Karana, age 12, gets left behind on a small island when the rest of her people decide to leave on a visiting ship. She realizes she’ll have to make everything she’ll need to survive, but she worries because her father has taught her that any weapons made by women will fail when used:
I wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself.
Fortunately, Karana is a brave girl. She makes the weapons and teaches herself how to use them.
Near the end of Beezus and Ramona, Beezus tells Ramona, “You can’t have jelly on your mashed potatoes, because you aren’t supposed to.” While current readers probably find this admonition less objectionable than the gender-based lessons, it still demonstrates that society expects children, as they grow up, to learn what they are “supposed to” and “not supposed to” do.
Children who grow up in an unstable home environment also learn lessons that will shape the rest of their lives. Novelist Paula McLain wrote recently about how her life in foster care, beginning at age 5, affected her later life:
A common type of stories told to young children is fairy tales, many of which function as subtle messages to teach children how to be in the world:
Much of what fairy tales give us are warnings about the people we encounter and the world we live in. We are told in fairy tales to be cautious of strangers, to be wary of those that may want to intrude into our lives, because we can never truly know what motives they may have.
Finally, dysfunctional-family variants have become a literary trope, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres, for examining how childhood memories and lessons mold us into the adults we become. A recent example is Girl A by Abigail Dean. The novel tells the story of the seven Gracie children, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of two mentally ill parents. Girl A, the narrator of the novel, is Lex Gracie, the oldest girl, second-oldest child, who was 15 when she managed to escape and summon help.
I remember very little about that time [immediately after the escape], and each of the memories seems exaggerated, as if I’ve taken somebody else’s story and imagined myself into the narrative.
The tale of the rescue of the children from the Gracie House of Horrors received extensive, sensationalized press coverage. Afterwards, the siblings were sent to separate families for adoption; they have not had much contact with each since.
Now, 15 years later, Lex is an attorney who must consult her siblings about settling the estate of their mother, who has died in prison. As she talks with each in turn, she realizes that each one of them has constructed his or her own version of a life story that explains what happened to them then and how they have lived their lives since.
And this brings up one very important feature of life stories: each person’s is unique. If you’ve ever reminisced with family members and discovered that each of you has a very different memory of some notable family event (something like The Year Grandma Forgot to Cook the Thanksgiving Turkey), you’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. Different people remember the same event differently. There are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the event.
And a corollary of this is that no one version of what happened is any truer than the others. They are all significant and meaningful to the person who created them.
we are what we remember
Since we construct our life stories out of events as we remember them, the biggest threat to our sense of identity is amnesia, a major trope in psychological fiction. The best example is The Bourne Identity and sequels by Robert Ludlum. After the protagonist wakes up on a fishing boat with no memory of who he is or how he got there, readers follow along as he searches to fill in the blanks of his past and construct a new future. S.J. Watson’s novel Before I Go to Sleep follows a similar pattern as readers follow Christine’s journey of self-rediscovery.
While both Ludlum and Watson use the amnesia trope to set up a menacing, life-or-death situation, Liane Moriarty paints the story of recovering one’s identity with a lighter brush in What Alice Forgot. While loss of identity can be frightening and threatening, as it is for Jason Bourne and Christine, it can also offer an opportunity for renewed self-knowledge and acceptance, as it does for Alice.
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inside stories vs. outside stories
I’ve been saying that our life story builds our sense of self, but, if we’re honest, we all know that we have several selves. The biggest distinction is between our public self—the self we show the world—and our private, interior self. But we actually have many selves—we act differently at a job interview than at a wedding, at a dinner in the in-laws’ house than at a night out with our best friends. There is nothing wrong with such situational awareness and appropriate behavior.
But problems can arise when someone’s public and private selves diverge widely because underlying life stories can drive behavior despite the public face. This is probably the aspect of narrative identity theory most often explored by writers of psychological fiction.
One of the best examples of such a novel that I’ve read lately is The Silent Patientby Alex Michaelides.
Narratives featuring imposters could be considered a subgroup of inside vs. outside stories. Imposters can have many motivations for assuming a false identity. Like Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels, they may want a life that’s fancier, richer, and more empowered than their own.
Or the reason may be more mysterious, as in The Passenger by Lisa Lutz, which is divided into sections labeled with the names of the narrator’s various assumed identities. In this case the narrator’s reason for these frequent name changes drives the plot because, as interesting as her process for finding and taking on new identities is, what we really want to find out is why she has to live this way.
hidden identities and secrets
Another subgroup of inside vs. outside stories involves characters suppressing, hiding, or ignoring some part of their lives. Such novels allow readers to understand the causes and reasons for a character’s behavior.
The most powerful of these books illustrate the old adage “don’t judge other people unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” These novels help us develop compassion and empathy for others. Some of the most powerful examples I’ve read include Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson, Mystic River by Dennis Lahane, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4).
creating or controlling one’s own narrative
We now live in an era in which groups (such as women, indigenous people, refugees, and immigrants) whose voices have been silenced in the past are asserting their right to tell their own stories. One of the phrases that appears often in this context is “taking control of one’s own narrative.”
Julie Clark’s novel The Last Flight includes an example of how one woman uses this terminology. Claire Cook is married to the handsome son of a wealthy and politically powerful family. Claire’s husband thinks he owns her, body and soul, and controls her access to money, friends, and the outside world. Beneath the veneer of family and fortune, Claire must contrive an elaborate plot to escape, because no one believes her story of abuse. “If we don’t tell our own stories, we’ll never take control of the narrative,” she explains near the end of the novel.
“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews. . . . It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?
This theme plays out in Australian author Jane Harper’s recent novel The Survivors. Kieran Elliott’s whole outlook on life changes when he learns the truth about a devastating event that occurred when he was a teenager. That new knowledge eases his guilt and allows him to step into his future life—marriage and fatherhood—as a new man.
presentation of alternate life options
One of the psychological functions literature can perform is to allow readers to observe what happens when a character does a particular action. Reading lets people play out different scenarios in a safe environment. Literature can also paint for readers a picture of what someone else’s life is like. Such observation can offer new possibilities or increase understanding of current situations.
One such new possibility is the coming together of previously isolated adults into an informal family that benefits them all. A couple of novels that demonstrate this happening are Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos.
Another area in which literature can help promote understanding is in the presentation of mental illness. Books that make an effort to present accurately the experience of people with various mental health issues include The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, and Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.
Literature’s ability to demonstrate life scenarios is especially important in multicultural societies because it can encourage understanding, which in turn can increase compassion and empathy toward people who are different from ourselves. This was the basis behind much of the controversy over the publication of American Dirt, a novel that many Latinx authors said contains stereotyped characters and inaccuracies about the actual experiences of people who entered the U.S. from Mexico.
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, also related to the issue of cultural appropriation, has arisen to advocate for the publishing industry to produce more books by refugees and people from ethnic minorities. Literature can also provide life-option scenarios for groups who have traditionally been marginalized by society, such as multiracial and non-heterosexual individuals. The need here is especially great for books aimed at young people searching for role models who mirror themselves as they develop their self-concept.
possible alternate selves
A more focused variant of alternate life options borrows the concept of multiple parallel universes from physics to explore the concept of other possible but unlived lives.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but these recent novels have introduced me to the whole new world of alternate selves: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson.
highlighting turning points or major life decisions
Many people have had a significant life experience that makes them think of their lives in two parts: “life before _____” and “life after _____.” Such dramatic turning points often figure in literature because they force characters to adapt and accommodate. We expect to watch characters change because of these often traumatic events.
Or such life-changing events might produce negative effects, such as in the second half of Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain.
where, when, and why/how lives intersect
Other significant life experiences involve meeting someone who has a great effect on us. This effect may be either good or bad. Some novels in which the effect is good are A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4), A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, and How It All Began by Penelope Lively.
A meeting with someone that turns out badly is the stuff thrillers, particularly domestic thrillers, are often made of. A notable example is You by Caroline Kepnes. Other examples are The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda, The Pigman by Paul Zindel (scroll to the bottom), The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman, and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell.
multiple points of view
The last 30 years or so have taught us that memory is slippery and that different people perceive and remember events differently. Along with these discoveries has grown the novel narrated from more than one perspective. The use of more than one point of view can create tension, suspense, and ambiguity.
Use of multiple perspectives has therefore become a staple of action books such as mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. Examples include The Good Girlby Mary Kubica and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.
History is told by the victors or the dominant culture. For centuries this meant that history was written by men, with very little inclusion of women’s voices. A big movement in current literature aims to correct this error with books about historical events that present women’s perspectives to complement the existing record.
The first book I remember reading in this category is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which expands on the mere mention of Dinah in the Bible. Other titles include Circe by Madeline Miller, which gives voice to a character from Greek mythology, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which narrates the death of Shakespeare’s only son from the perspective of his mother, about whom very little is known.
Writers are also now writing to insert another large group back into history: formerly enslaved peoples whose stories have been expunged from the dominant cultural narratives, for example, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. Members of other groups whose lives don’t conform to the traditional normative dominant culture’s expectations also are speaking up, in both nonfiction and fiction, as discussed above under presentation of alternate life options.
The fictional use of life story elements can make characters more believable and compelling.
But this doesn’t mean that large numbers of writers have begun studying narrative identity theory in order to embed its various forms in their novels. Novelists have always been storytellers interested in how their fictional people understand themselves and interact with the world they live in.
And throughout its history, the novel has provided storytellers with the means to explore the human psyche. I’ve always been fascinated with the interrelationship between literature and psychology, and narrative identity theory provides the insight and terminology to express and explain that relationship.
“The next wave of crime fiction could help shape the public imagination of what a world where police weren’t in charge of public safety could look like.”
Historically, crime fiction has portrayed the police as heroes. But that vision of law enforcement is becoming hazier for the general public, and for most communities of color, it was never accurate at all.
The observance that crime fiction has contributed to a glorification of police and their policies is not new, but it is now particularly timely. Here Amy Suiter Clarke, author of the recently published novel Girl, 11, calls upon authors of mysteries and thrillers to write books that “imagine the world as it could be, not as it is.”
Mya Nunnally describes her work as a sensitivity reader: “I offer my thoughts on how writers portray characters who share my own lived experiences.”
The book industry’s endeavors to publish more diverse books means that many authors are incorporating into their books more characters that differ from themselves. Despite authors’ best efforts at research, “there’s a chance that they’ll miss something about the experience simply because they haven’t lived it themselves. When writing about experiences outside their own, I find that most authors simply don’t know what they don’t know. They aren’t familiar with damaging tropes, perhaps, or didn’t realize that what they wrote is tapping into a stereotype.”
Nunnally describes this work as “both rewarding and exhausting.” She convincingly documents the importance of such work and hopes that sensitivity readers “can become a commonplace component of the publishing industry.”
I loved Alex Michaelides’s debut novel The Silent Patientand was delighted to hear that that his second novel, The Maidens, will come out in June.
As the author’s name suggests, he grew up surrounded by Greek tragedies and mythology. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, which he wrote during the COVID-19 lockdown: “There is nothing like being locked in your apartment to concentrate your mind!”
Last week’s links featured a piece about experimental fiction (though I prefer the term inventive fiction), and here’s another one. Author Rebecca Watson, author of little scratch, “recommends five of the best experimental novels and explains why a writer might choose to bend the rules—and to what effect.”
In little scratch, Watson attempts to demonstrate how the main character moves through an ordinary day interacting with the outside world while simultaneously carrying on an interior conversation with herself examining a trauma she’s concealing. She explains, “experimental writing needs an openness and willingness from a reader, to go beyond what you might be used to.” The whole purpose of this kind of writing, she says, “is to help immerse the reader further in the story.”
Sonora Jha, author of “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” recommends fiction in which men grapple with gender expectations
“One big, yawning gap in literature and culture . . . is the tale of the man who encounters and overcomes his own male fragility and entitlement,” Sonora Jha writes. She offers a list of “seven novels and short stories in which we do encounter such men (and one teenaged boy).” The authors of these works “place their characters within the struggle and watch them squirm. Some of these characters make it to the other side and others don’t.”
In her introduction to this list, Laura Maylene Walter, author of the novel Body of Stars, calls herself “a skeptic who doesn’t read horoscopes in my daily life.” But, she continues, “hand me a work of fiction about astrology or psychics, and I’m captivated.”
Many of the books on this list examine issues surrounding the topics of fate, free will, the future, and alternate life possibilities.
Jamie Canaves recently realized that she’d been “rushing through books as fast as I could to get to the next one on my can’t-wait-to-read-it TBR, and also trying to break the previous year’s number of how many books I had read.” And I had the same realization when I read this description.
She had this realization during 2020 and decided to change her reading life at the beginning of 2021 by asking herself three questions: “Why are you doing this? What is the point? Is it adding to the enjoyment of your reading life?” And, she reports, her reading life has greatly improved this year: “I guess I just needed to get myself back to reading for enjoyment and not some weird imaginary sport.”
Dismayed that reading had nearly disappeared from her busy life, freelance writer and editor Rachel Charlene Lewis developed a new habit: She now sets her alarm so that she can read in bed—even before brushing her teeth or making that first cup of coffee—for an hour in the morning.
Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, profiles Zora Neale Hurston for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “As a budding anthropologist, the storyteller began to find her way.”
This article is adapted from King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.
Books that talked about racism and racial justice — or told the stories of people of color or the LGBTQ community — were among the most challenged as inappropriate for students in 2020, according to a survey by the American Library Association.
The article concludes with the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2020.
Gal Beckerman, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, talks with Lynn Novick and Ken Burns about their three-part series on Hemingway currently airing on PBS. The documentary filmmakers were drawn to Hemingway because of his complex status as both an influence on generations of writers and an example of toxic masculinity.
“It’s easier to find meaning in fiction than in the senseless mass killings of our reality, which seem to render the critical perspective pointless, even silly, at times.”
Maya Phillips, a critic for the New York Times, writes that she finds comfort in critiquing artistic presentations: “Even in the bleakest stories, there’s order and logic, perhaps even justice, if not in the realm of the story itself then at least in the artist’s imagination.” But with the recent spate of mass shootings, “it has felt pointless, even silly, to analyze fictional stories when real people are dying.”
“My critical faculty fails me now, as I contemplate the real world,” Phillips writes.
“Melissa Febos was struggling to write a book about surviving American girlhood. Mystery fiction presented a solution.”
Melissa Febos details the problem she had while writing her recently published essay collection, Girlhood:
The premise of my book, which detailed the devastating and ordinary harms done to girls in this country and aspired to answer them with strategies of undoing that harm, had become an unsolvable mystery. I knew who the perpetrator was, but not how to stop or outpace him.
To solve her problem and power through the writing of her book, she read through lots of mysteries. She provides the list here: Febos’s Mysteries for Feminists with High Standards. “These books . . . gave me the same pleasure that Nancy Drew had, but with the added satisfactions of good writing, queer and Black characters, and layers of smartly delivered cultural critique.”
On Wednesday [April 7, 2021], the Women’s Prize Trust reaffirmed its choice to longlist the novel “Detransition, Baby” by author Torrey Peters, who is trans, for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, a day after the Wild Woman Writing Club published an open letter denouncing the nomination.
The opening paragraph of this article, quoted above, contains a link to the letter of denunciation. Read more about the controversy here. There’s also a link to a review of Detransition, Baby in the Los Angeles Times.
“For As Long As There Have Been Printed Books, There Has Been Marginalia”
Ah, the history of marginalia, or “things in the margin.”
“Annotation was both ubiquitous and habitual by the 1500s, not long after the invention of the printing press and growth of print culture,” write Remi H. Kalir and Antero Garcia in this excerpt from their new book, Annotation.
Addison Rizer, a self-declared “avid Kindle reader,” writes, “I am curious about the ways reading ebooks changes the way we interact, and review, the novels we consume.”
The article contains lots of references, with links, to both scientific studies and popular sources. However, the discussion is unfocused; it includes discussion of viewing both art works and films in addition to reading books. Also, Rizer talks about screens, which could mean either a dedicated ebook reader (e.g., Kindle, Nook) or a laptop/desk computer computer screen. But reading on these three types of screens is decidedly different experiences. In fact, even reading on a Kindle differs from reading the same ebook with the Kindle app on a tablet (such as an iPad).
Actor and screenwriter Emily Mortimer delves into Nabokov’s 1959 novel Lolita and how it managed to escape the obscenity laws of the era:
to my knowledge, no criminal case was ever brought against “Lolita,” which is surprising given that it appeared in the world at a time when literature was far from safe from the clutches of the obscenity laws, and given that it’s still the most shocking, sensational thing you’ve ever read.
“Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer for his debut, ‘The Sympathizer,’ recognition that was great for his career and bad for his writing. Now he’s back with its subversive sequel, ‘The Committed.’”
After winning the Pulitzer Prize, Nguyen turned into what he calls “a public intellectual” who was “suddenly in demand as a speaker, panelist, late-night TV guest and op-ed writer, speaking up for refugees and immigrants at a time when both groups were being demonized.” But the demands of that public persona prevented him from writing fiction for a year.
Initially, Nguyen didn’t set out to write a series about a disillusioned spy. But when he finished “The Sympathizer,” he had grown attached to his sardonic narrator, whose voice came to him so naturally that it feels like his alter ego.
“In his novels, Alfred Hayes explored what he saw as noir’s central concern: the inability to feel the reality of your own life, or anyone else’s.”
Vivian Gornick writes about the work of Alfred Hayes, a reporter, screenwriter, novelist, and poet who died in 1985 and who “has recently become something of a passion for those who find in his writing the mastery that makes a work of literature take up a permanent place in a reader’s inner life.”
Carolyn Kellogg reviews Appropriate: A Provocation by poet and writing professor Paisley Rekdal for the Los Angeles Times: “her basic thesis is that culture is situated in its moment; careful consideration of where each of us is in that moment informs what we create, how we read, what literature is lifted up and what is left out.”
“Our ideas about which narratives are important, sane, or credible depend on what we see reflected in culture”
Rachel Zarrow argues that we must encourage survivors of trauma to tell their stories and we must listen to the stories they tell if we are to understand their experience. Although Zarrow focuses on survivors’ stories of sexual assault, her message applies to people who have experienced other traumas as well, such as political oppression, famine, war.
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.
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).
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.
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.