David Kipen writes in the Los Angeles Times that Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers Project introduced “Americans to their multifarious, astonishing, broken country.” Could a similar program help pull the U.S. out of the coronavirus crisis?
To put it gently, 2020 is not 1935. The notion that a consortium of individuals can coordinate on anything like the level that a strong, organized federal government seems difficult to imagine. The sense of shared national endeavor that midwifed the Writers Project feels like a relic from another millennium.
Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, reflects upon society’s sociopaths, the people with “absolutely no conscience.” About “1 in 25 people, 4 percent of us, are sociopaths,” she writes.
Here she examines how sociopaths “appear in literature, where unimaginable things are vividly imagined and portrayed.”
This isn’t the first list like this I’ve seen, but, just in case you need a good Big Book, here’s CNN’s “list of suggested epic reads. They’re all widely acclaimed as classics (or future classics) by readers or critics. And they’re all big, honking doorstops — most of them more than 1,000 pages — that ought to keep you busy for a while.”
While some people need a long book to occupy themselves during self-isolation, others have trouble concentrating and focusing for extended periods. For them, there are shorter books like those listed here.
If you’re one of the people having trouble concentrating long enough to read effectively, take heart: You’re not alone. Here Constance Grady interviews Oliver J. Robinson, a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.
Elisabeth Thomas, author of the recently published gothic thriller Catherine House, writes:
As a little girl, I dreamed of being trapped in a gothic castle; well, here I am, trapped. I’ve been ordered to shelter in place, so I’m sheltering in place. I live in a small apartment with warm yellow walls and African violets on the sill — hardly a romantic gothic manor. But somehow this apartment has become a haunted house, and I am the ghost.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the world will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but my speculations are mostly social and political. I know absolutely nothing about economics beyond balancing my checkbook, which is why I took particular notice of this article from Five Books.
As we deal with the economic fallout of coronavirus, what lessons can economic theory and economic history teach us as we navigate the months ahead? Ricardo Reis, professor of economics at the London School of Economics—and consultant to both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve—recommends four books and one article to help us think through the economic challenges posed by Covid-19.
“If you’ve never read his books, here’s where to start.”
Because I abhor horror, I avoided Stephen King’s books for a long time. I did once decide (in my early 30s) that I should probably give him a try and read The Tommyknockers, an experience that validated my assessment.
However, both Stephen King and I have changed in the intervening years. I still avoid straight horror, but I have enjoyed several of King’s not-so-horror works, e.g. Hearts in Atlantis, Bag of Bones, Misery, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Mr. Mercedes, and 11/22/63.
If you’ve never read Stephen King’s works or have read only a few, here’s a list of suggestions to get you started in the following categories:
“I Want to Read a King Classic”
“I Want to Drive Into the Skid”
“I’m a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”
“Actually, I’m Not a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”
“I Have Time to Begin an Epic Journey”
“I Want Pure Suspense”
“I’m Looking For a Big Fat Read”
“I Want a Great Crime Novel”
“I Want a Deep Cut”
I especially appreciated the entry under “I’m a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”:
It’s fine to not like scary things! That doesn’t mean you can’t read some Stephen King. Though he’s most famous for his horror novels and stories, at this point he has written a significant amount outside of the genre. Early in his career — less than a decade after the publication of his debut novel “Carrie” — King released “Different Seasons,” a collection of four novellas. Three of them have nothing to do with the supernatural. Two of them were adapted into top-tier King movies: “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” became, well, you know, and “The Body” was filmed as “Stand By Me.” Both are set in Maine in the early 1960s, and both give a sense of how lovingly King can draw his characters
In addition to his skill at characterization, King is also a master of description. If you’re an aspiring writer looking to write great description, check out King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
“Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied),” writes Ed Simon in this survey.
the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. . . . Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing. . .
Covering works by early religious writers through authors such as Thoreau and Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, and J.D. Salinger, Simon writes, “Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.” He associates this principle with the rise of the novel as a literary form that allows readers to live temporarily within interior space, the worlds a particular text creates within their heads.
Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes:
In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.
“The virus is rewriting our imaginations,” he writes, because it has awakened our realization of the significance of our place in history. “We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters.”
“Since novels like [The Haunting of] Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and short stories like “The Lottery” made Jackson one of America’s most famous horror authors, critics and Hollywood have tried to get to the heart of what makes Jackson’s work so enduringly scary,” writes Emily Alford.
Alford examines both the works themselves and film adaptations to arrive at her answer: “her work’s simplest theme: madness is born of too much time alone.”
To help me break out of a reading slump at the onset of the COVID-19 health emergency, I turned to the books I’ve always trusted to draw me in: thrillers. These three books were among the first I read at that time.
While you can never go wrong with a book by Harlan Coben, the other two didn’t serve me quite so well. I had a twitchy, uneasy feeling while reading both The Holdout and Before She Knew Him. There were specific reasons why both of those books bothered me, and I’ll try to talk about those reasons without giving away too much information in my reviews.
But I’d like to include a caveat here for my comments on those two books: I was reading them during a time of general upset and unease, and it’s possible that general feeling affected my reactions. Part of what bothered me pertained to the subject matter of each, but perhaps I would have faced them with more equanimity under more normal circumstances.
The Boy From the Woods by Harlan Coben
Coben, Harlan. The Boy From the Woods Grand Central Publishing, 2020 ISBN 978-1-5387-4814-5
The novel opens with a news story from April 18, 1986, about a feral boy, between 6 and 8 years old, found living in the woods in New Jersey.
Then the narrative moves forward to April 23, 2020. Soon we meet the formidable Hester Crimstein, well-known and powerful defense attorney who has appeared in Coben’s earlier books. Her teenage grandson, Matthew, seeks Hester’s help in finding out what happened to his friend, Naomi Pine, who has stopped coming to school and doesn’t answer her phone.
When the boy was discovered in the woods 34 years earlier, he was found because he used to come visit 6-year-old David, Hester’s son, in the woods behind the Crimstein house. Hester and her husband long ago gave up the big house to David’s family, where Matthew and his mother continue to live since David’s death in a car crash 10 years earlier. Hester knows that, to find Naomi, she’ll need the help of the boy from the woods, known as Wilde.
but this book’s emphasis on characters made it a comforting reading experience during the current health pandemic. All of the characters in this novel care about other people and want to help them. Wilde is a particularly interesting character, even if his backstory does challenge credulity a bit. And I especially appreciated a subplot involving the 70+-year-old Hester and the local sheriff.
The novel’s ending suggests the possibility that we might meet Wilde again. Whether that happens or not, The Boy from the Woods gave me comfort during troubling times.
Moore, Graham. The Holdout Random House, 2020 ISBN 978-0-399-59177-8
Ten years ago, 15-year-old Jessica Silver disappeared. When her teacher, Bobby Nock, is tried for her murder, everyone expects a quick conviction. But juror Maya Seale doubts his guilt and manages to convince the other jurors to acquit Nock.
Now, for the tenth anniversary of the Silver murder trial, a news channel plans to reassemble the jurors for a documentary. Maya, now a defense attorney herself, originally refuses to participate but reluctantly agrees when one of the original jurors, Rick Leonard, claims to have evidence that Nock was in fact guilty.
When Rick is found murdered in Maya’s hotel room the first night of the documentary reunion, Maya quickly becomes the prime suspect and is soon arrested and charged. She is represented by a distinguished attorney from the law firm where she works. Although he insists that she stay away from the case and leave the investigation to the firm’s team, Maya just can’t leave things alone.
About four years ago I served on a jury for a murder trial. The experience was emotionally draining, but I was impressed and soothed by how seriously all the jurors took their responsibility. Initially we did not all agree, but the discussions always remained civil and focused on the evidence.
There are lots of potential plot complications and red herrings in The Holdout that keep the story moving. But because of my own jury experience, I felt uncomfortable reading most of this novel. Everything that happens after Maya is charged felt outlandishly wrong. If I hadn’t been a juror myself, I probably would have accepted the story, in which all the pieces eventually fit neatly together, at face value. Instead, I found the story melodramatically improbable.
Swanson, Peter. Before She Knew Him William Morrow, 2019 ISBN 978-0-06-283815-5
Henrietta (Hen) and her husband Lloyd have recently moved into a house in suburban Boston, where they hope to live a quiet life. Hen, an artist, has rented studio space nearby where she can work on the children’s book illustrations she’s been hired to do and on her own etchings. Since she’s finally found medication that works to control her bipolar disorder, she’s hoping to get her career back on track.
When the neighbors Matthew and Mira invite Hen and Lloyd over, Hen doesn’t want to go but agrees to placate Lloyd. Hen is instantly drawn to Matthew when she sees him, although she doesn’t know why. When she sees an object displayed on the mantel in Matthew’s study, she begins to suspect he’s a serial killer.
I picked this book up because I’d read Swanson’s earlier novel, The Kind Worth Killing, and found it intriguing. But I became wary of Before She Knew Him right away with the revelation of Hen’s bipolar disorder.
I’m opposed to the use of mental illness as a mystery/thriller trope, and it shows up early here when Hen tells the police her suspicions about Matthew. It’s easy to dismiss the theories of a crazy woman, after all.
As it turns out, this novel goes well beyond the simple usage of bipolar disorder as characterization. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but the whole basis for the rest of the story—for why the novel’s title is Before She Knew Him—makes no sense to me.
There is a need for realistic fictional portrayals of how characters struggle to deal with mental health issues, but those portrayals should focus on otherwise well developed characters who happen to live with mental illness. Before She Knew Him doesn’t do that in any meaningful way.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.
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 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
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
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
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
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.)
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.
From the U.K. comes news that “Book sales have leapt across the country as readers find they have extra time on their hands, with bookshops reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction.” Sales are also up for longer books such as Hilary Mantel’s recently released The Mirror and the Light as well as older long books, including The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
When we were initially introduced to the idea of staying home, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity to tackle some of the longer works on my TBR shelf, like Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages, exclusive of endnotes), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pages, exclusive of notes), Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages), and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (568 pages). But that plan didn’t turn out very well.
After about a week and a half of being unable to read anything other than news stories, I was finally able to read books once again. But I’ve been sticking with my backlog of mysteries and thrillers, as I still don’t have the ability to focus on something more demanding for a long time. So all of those Big Books will still be on my shelves waiting for me long after the current health emergency has passed.
However, I can also see the appeal of something long by less demanding than Ulysses. I’ve heard several people mention rereading the Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings, both of which sound like excellent choices for these unsettled times. But I won’t be going there until I’ve made a lot more progress on my backlog of Book of the Month goodies.
Over the past several years there’s been a lot of discussion about the number of books with the word girl in the title:
Girl is the perfect word for inspiring curiosity and fear in psychological thrillers: since the Bible, or the Greek myths, the protection of girls has been paramount to holding a society together. Girls, after all, become women, and women birth and raise the next generation, keeping civilization going. So the question here is not why did girl instantly become so popular, but how it reflects on our cultural preoccupation with keeping women—made even more impotent and infantilized by being labeled girls—under patriarchal control.
Here Lisa Levy discusses eight such books, with particular emphasis on how these books and their characters reflect the effects of patriarchy and misogyny.
Here Jessica Moor addresses the same general topic but with a more focused emphasis: how the normalization of the violent man coexists with another standard trope, the beautiful dead girl.
no matter how fascinating the machinations of a random killer seem, they cannot be more chilling than the reality that, for women, the most dangerous place in the world is not a bar or a dark alleyway or a deserted forest. It’s their own home.
Esquire has some suggestions of “literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety.” The list comprises mostly fiction, but there’s a wide enough range that everyone can probably find at least one or two appealing books.
Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?
Dennis Drabelle has some suggestions for how PBS can provide U.S. audiences some dramas from their own literary heritage.
“Across the industry, publishers are releasing titles by authors who were previously marginalized or entirely lost to history.”
The critical and commercial success of these titles is a result of a combination of factors: initiative on the part of writers’ families or estates; changing leadership within the publishing industry; and a willingness among modern readers to engage with unknown texts.
The whole point of a mystery is to create a plot so suspenseful that the reader can’t put it down—which is exactly what I needed, to get back into reading. A terrible crime has been committed (usually a murder) and a detective or amateur sleuth then applies logic to figure out who did it, what happened and why until the perpetrator is brought to justice.
Laura Hilgers turned to mysteries for comfort after her divorce.
Los Angeles has been the locus of crime fiction for nearly 100 years. Here’s a discussion of some of the novels, characters, and authors LA has produced as well as speculation about what kinds of novels the current health crisis will give rise to.
If you want to use your time at home to broaden your literary horizons, let Annika Barranti Klein be your guide. She offers links to free online stories, plus the names of a novel or two, in the following categories:
second world/high fantasy
And yes, she includes definitions in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, what some of these terms mean (e.g., eldritch, low fantasy, second world/high fantasy, portal fantasy).
there’s a certain kind of isolation that makes for a vivid reading experience — when the protagonist is quite literally all alone, whether by circumstance or choice, either struggling to be seen or hoping to disappear even further. The novel, after all, is the perfect medium for that message, the only art form in which an interior monologue doesn’t regularly come off as hokey. If you’re into that kind of thing, and want to grapple a little harder with the bizarre swaddling effect that COVID-19 has had on our ability to simply stand close to another human, here are nine books that offer insights into the wild terrain of the isolated mind.
Although I’ve heard of Anna Kavan—mostly through occasional references to her works—I know nothing about her. But I’ll have to change that, after reading this profile in the New Yorker. She examined the nature of identity, both in her writing and in her personal life.
Not long after being discharged from a Swiss sanitarium, in 1938, the English writer Helen Edmonds, who was born Helen Woods and had published six novels as Helen Ferguson, replaced her long brown locks with a neat blond bob and started calling herself Anna Kavan. The name was borrowed from the protagonist of her most autobiographical novels, “Let Me Alone” (1930) and “A Stranger Still” (1935), and chosen, at least in part, because it echoed the name of the writer who inspired the shifts in literary approach that accompanied her change of identity: Franz Kafka. It was in this new guise—born-again avant-gardist—and under this new name that she became known to the Home Office (as a registered heroin addict); to her most important publisher, Peter Owen; and to a small but avid readership.
I have carried on a 30+-year love affair with audiobooks, but I know many people who still either don’t like listening or insist that listening isn’t the same as reading. Here author Victoria Helen Stone explains how, after a rocky start, she came to appreciate audiobooks after learning how to listen to podcasts.
Sinéad Gleeson, author of the essay collection Constellations, discusses the nature of this collection, a series of essays that each stands on its own but that also work together to create a whole:
You can pick up an essay collection, read one, and then ditch the whole thing. It can be read in any order, anti-chronologically, and still fit together. The book’s title—Constellations—happened for a couple of reasons. I began thinking of objects that are whole but comprised of several distinct things. Each essay is a unit. They are autonomous entities in their own right, but are part of a larger framework. A constellation seemed like an obvious choice—especially because I loved astronomy as a kid, and spent a lot of timing seeking out Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper.
If you’re looking for something constructive to occupy all this time you’re spending at home, Atlas Obscura has some suggestions:
IF TIME AT HOME HAS you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.
“In the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human.”
the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also—in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague—an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.
Jill Lepore burrows into plague literature over the centuries.
Soon after I read about a librarian who had settled her fourth-grade son on the couch with a copy of Little House in the Big Woods, I came across this article in which Rebecca Mead hails the book as “a manual for self-sufficient social isolation.”
Luckily, books still exist, and can be their own vehicle for connection. And what better reading material for right now than books where the characters are, in some way, alone? None of these are dystopian (at least not in the traditional sense), but are instead characterized by protagonists with complex interior lives who are either isolated (in some way that’s not about a contagion) or fiercely independent, or both.
During this febrile period, I’ve found myself longing for a different kind of timeframe, in which it would be possible both to feel and to think, to process the intense impact of the news and perhaps even to imagine other ways of being. The stopped time of a painting, say, or the dilations of the novel, in which it is possible to see patterns and consequences that are otherwise invisible. Art has begun to feel not like a respite or an escape, but a formidable tool for gaining perspective on what are increasingly troubled times.
From Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Stephen King’s The Stand and Ling Ma’s Severance, stories about pandemics have – over the history of Western literature such as it is – offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.
I live in the greater metropolitan Seattle area, which was the first site of infection of COVID-19 in the United States. This was therefore one of the first areas to cancel in-person classes and move to online education and to encourage remote working for non-essential employees.
With all these additional people online during the day, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the length of time web pages take to load. Of course things were worse back in the first days of modems and dial-up internet, but still . . . . The New York Times reports on this issue with a more national focus.
Molly Odintz, senior editor for CrimeReads, explains why she’s taking refuge in reading Scandinavian thrillers:
Not because thrillers are low-brow. They take immense thought to create. But they don’t—and this is key—take commensurate mental energy to consume. They are the kindest art form, because they do the work for the consumer, allowing us a break from fretting about our very real woes so that we can worry, safely, for the fates of fictional characters instead.
two novelists, Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum, are promoting their colleagues with an ambitious initiative called A Mighty Blaze. Anyone can participate in the conversations on A Mighty Blaze on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram about new releases, but for authors wanting their books to be signal boosted on these platforms, there are a few requirements: the book has to be traditionally published for adult readers, and the author’s book tour has to have been canceled.
“As a result of the new coronavirus crisis, sales at downloadable audiobookstore Libro.fm and online Bookshop.org have soared. Both digital stores collaborate with independent booksellers and return a share of the sales back to them.”
“Read and discuss War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space. Starting March 18, join us for a free virtual book club—a moment each day when we can gather together as a community. #TolstoyTogether.”
In order to encourage reading and classroom read-aloud experiences, and to support schools and public libraries forced to close by the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, Penguin Random House is permitting teachers, librarians and booksellers to create and share story time and read-aloud videos and live events, according to the following guidelines:
Since such presentations normally violate copyright law, Ron Charles of the Washington Post calls this “a generous offer.” If you plan to take advantage of the offer, be sure to read all the guidelines, including the one about later removing the presentation from the social platform’s archives.
As film crews have quickly shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a domino effect has befallen Hollywood’s working class. A range of people from actors to lighting directors, drivers and grips to administrators, painters, hair stylists and caterers, now suddenly find themselves out of work.
I’m picking up on a search for substance, for movies that have the settled and solid quality of classics (despite the narrow assumptions on which such classicism is based)—movies serious enough for the mood, compelling enough to provide ready distraction, and confident enough to look beyond the troubles that they evoke. Here are some of the movies that I’ve been grateful to watch in the past few stressful days.
Alice Nuttall makes the case that “Suicide and self-harm are serious topics, and ones that are absolutely necessary for literature to tackle – but carefully, thoughtfully, and in a way that avoids harming any vulnerable readers.”
The article provides several links to further discussions of this topic.
With the recent release of the new film Emma, Hillary Kelly explains why Austen’s novel is “not a story of a young woman who makes her way up in the world through a lucky combination of strong character, bright intellect, and an estate-owning love match, but one of a bored 20-year-old sprite whose family ‘has no equals’ in the town of Highbury, but whose days have little to fill them.”
The book publishing industry last week learned the potency of pushback — that bad business decisions have consequences and that lower-level employees have more power than for which they’d previously been given credit.
The term speculative fiction means different things to different people. Here’s science fiction and fantasy writer Ken Liu’s definition:
to me, speculative fiction is generally the type of fiction that uses the technique of literalizing some aspect of reality that we usually speak of as metaphorical. By making that aspect literally true—by making that metaphor literally true—we are able to gain a different perspective and understanding of reality.
Jacqueline Alnes talks with Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of true-crime book The Third Rainbow Girl, “about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter.”
Questions of “the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all” are significant in journalism and in nonfiction writing. In the book, Alnes writes, “Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject.” According to Alnes, Eisenberg inserts herself into the narrative as someone who cares about the region where the crime occurred and can therefore discuss some of the expectations and stereotypes of the people who live there. “In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.”
Myriam Gurba was among the first to call out the novel American Dirt, published in January 2020, as “a novel filled with stereotypes of Mexicans.” She is one of the founding members of Dignidad Literaria, a group that arose out of the American Dirt controversy to demand more representation of people of color in publishing.
Here she explains, “As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.”
“Reflections on my father’s novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, in the age of American Dirt”
Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, writes, “With the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my father was the first novelist in modern history to be accused of cultural appropriation.”
And, she continues, “That experience, and what he made of it, reflects complicated truths about mid-century American culture, and maybe offers some guidance for our own contentious times.”
Despite the publishing industry’s continuing dominancy by white men, Kristin Iversen finds some reasons for hope:
While it’s still hard to say what will or won’t be a best-seller, there are a couple of things that are promising when it comes to publishing’s future: One is that most of the last decade’s best-selling books were written by women, and another is that the majority of the people reading multiple books each year are also women. And so it follows that if there’s one prevailing theme in the literary world right now, it’s that the industry’s most influential members — from behind-the-scenes publicity powerhouses to the biggest authors to prominent critics to podcast hosts to, you know, supermodels — are overwhelmingly women.
Read here about the women Iversen sees as the sources of these hopes.
Travis M. Andrews discusses the recent HBO adaptation of King’s The Outsider by focusing on “one of the primary challenges in adapting King’s work: taking something so interior (in this case, doubt) and making it visual.”
Joanna “Trollope is the queen of contemporary women’s fiction and seems to be wired to the anxieties of a devoted, predominantly female, readership. The complexities of life and love cascade through novels that have confronted lust, adoption, divorce, infidelity and the changing nature of the modern family.”
In this piece for the Guardian Claire Armitstead weaves together a short biography, references to Trollope’s novels, and an interview with the author.
Here’s my favorite quotation from Trollope: fiction “can be a physical confessional: when you’re within the covers of a book, you can admit to all kinds of things that you can’t otherwise. It’s also where you learn about the rest of human life and where you get your most profound experience of life – except from actually living it.”