Oral history is older than written history. Homer’s early epics the Iliad and the Odyssey were transmitted orally long before they were written down. Here Sarah Rahman describes how oral history has progressed into the present. For centuries the important stories of marginalized peoples have been transmitted orally in the face of barriers based on illiteracy caused by lack of education, race, caste, gender, or sexuality. Current oral history projects, Rahman writes, are efforts “to listen, to include, and to understand.”
Five Books is a website that offers curated, scholarly recommendations for good books on all sorts of topics. Here Rosie Wilby, who has researched the psychology of love and relationships, recommends five books that showcase LGBTQI love. “LGBTQI stands for ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and intersex.’”
About 45 years ago I completed the coursework though not the dissertation for a doctorate in English. There were many reasons for my decision to leave academia, but one of the most important ones was my dissatisfaction with the elitism and disdain for ordinary readers. Everyone in the department, both faculty and students, felt they, the educated, were the only ones who could read literature correctly. There was complete disdain for what the rest of the world considered “literature.”
I was therefore delighted to come across this article by Richard Hughes Gibson, an associate professor of English at Wheaton College. Using an essay by Virginia Woolf as a basis, Gibson describes what he calls the “Idiosyncratic School” of reading, “the company of writers and educators who celebrate the powers and particularities of lay readers.” For Woolf, Gibson writes, “reading should be a self-directed exercise, governed by our own tastes and filtered through our distinctive imaginations and life experiences.”
Lately I’ve come across several articles by novelists about how they have transformed their own trauma into fiction. Here Nicole Bokat describes how her medical experiences informed how she created Natalie Greene, the protagonist of her lates novel, The Happiness Thief:
eventually, writing about the happiness industry caused a reckoning in me. Digging into the perilous moments, figuring out what they meant, could be a way out of the heartbreak and fear that the pressure to be positive could never achieve. These experiences could be put to use as I created my character, Natalie, who’d lived through her own devastation.
“Ruminations on what drives decent, ordinary folks to write about murder and mayhem.”
Writer John David Mann explains how he went from writing “nice, quiet nonfiction books about agreeable things” like leadership, motivation, and personal development to “putting [himself] into the shoes of a sociopath as he coolly dismembered his shrieking victim before tossing him off a boat into the jaws of a waiting tiger shark.”
Laura Sackton describes how discovering a small indie press by falling in love with the books it publishes has made her a more adventurous reader: “This is what’s so exciting about getting to know an indie publisher. I’m more likely to read books I might not have otherwise picked up. I’m more likely to take risks on books outside my go-to genres.”
“The financial promise of email newsletters has launched countless micropublications — and created a new literary genre.”
I admit that I receive a number of these newsletters every day, although I stick to the free versions. But many of them also offer a paid version that promises to be even bigger and better than the paltry version that I’m reading.
I’m a frequent advocate of slow reading. Here Robert DiYanniis, professor of humanities at New York University, explains “how to increase your enjoyment of literary works, how you might amplify literature’s value, and savour more fully the pleasures of language and form, of idea and insight that works of literature offer.”
In this excerpt from Stories Are What Save Us: A Survivor’s Guide to Writing about Trauma, David Chrisinger discusses the types of stories he has found to be most useful in helping people deal with trauma.
In “Cruel Optimism,” [literary scholar and cultural theorist Lauren] Berlant moved from theorizing about genres of fiction to theorizing about “genres for life.” We like to imagine that our life follows some kind of trajectory, like the plot of a novel, and that by recognizing its arc we might, in turn, become its author. But often what we feel instead is a sense of precariousness—a gut-level suspicion that hard work, thrift, and following the rules won’t give us control over the story, much less guarantee a happy ending.
In The Guardian, Stephen Moss profiles Matt Haig, “novelist, self-help guru, periodic endurer of depression and anxiety.” Haig’s most recent book, The Comfort Book, is “a collection of aphorisms and inspirational stories of survival against the odds” born of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in May when I worked at pulling together all the many threads of appreciating life stories in literature, I wrote that once I realized how life stories function in fiction, I began to see them everywhere in the novels I read. But my realization didn’t end with novels. I also began to see that much of the literary criticism I read includes elements of life stories, even if the authors didn’t specifically mention this concept.
Here are some of those articles of criticism I’ve collected over the last few months, along with my interpretation of how they pertain to the common themes of how life stories function in literature.
Brigitte Dale, a graduate student in history at Yale who focuses on uncovering women’s stories, explains why women’s stories are missing from history: “But for a few conspicuous outliers (think: Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette), women were widely overlooked until the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s.”
For centuries, men have written history and have systematically omitted accounts by and about women. “It has always been up to women ourselves to make sure our stories are not forgotten,” Dale writes. And this is why many of the authors who have recently written imaginative renderings of the lives of female historical figures (Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, Madeline Miller’s Circe, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet) are women—women intent on rewriting history to include the stories of the other half of the human population.
“Women who write about their pain suffer a double shaming: once for getting injured, twice for their act of self-exposure”
I discovered narrative identity theory, or the study of life stories, through nonfiction, particularly the lack of historical women’s stories. My early studies centered on the sparse early works of autobiography by women and then extended into the more recent proliferation of women’s memoirs.
Much more recently I began to explore how applying aspects of narrative identity theory to fiction informs and deepens my understanding and appreciation of novels. I’ve found this to be particularly true with contemporary novels about how women navigate lives that represent changing roles and societal expectations for women.
In this scholarly article Katherine Angel, head of the MA in Creative and Critical Writing in the Department of English, Theatre and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, at the University of London, writes about the concept shame and how women experience it in their lives. “Shame has long been an instrument of oppression, a way of regulating and policing the behaviour of women, of queer people,” she writes.
Women who dare to write about their shame over an experience such as being sexually assaulted suffer a double does of shame, Angel writes: first for the experience itself and, second, for talking about it. Both senses of shame pertain to a woman’s sense of self.
I will always defend the right of every woman to tell her story, to write her words, to utter her speech. But it pains me that women’s speech is so often promised as the stepping-stone towards greater equality, while this very equality is so often rendered ineffective by forces that so easily coexist with a celebration of women’s stories; by policies that consistently make women socioeconomically vulnerable; that fail to protect women from domestic violence, economic precarity, racial violence, or transmisogyny.
In her conclusion Angel asks, “What would it be like, I wonder, if women didn’t have to detail their pain and shame in order for their inequality, and the violence done to them, to take up its due place in the landscape? At the moment, we have the worst of both worlds: a fetishisation of our stories, and a stagnant social reality, in which progress is not only impeded but is rolling back.”
While Angel seems to be talking mostly about women’s memoir writing here, I find the same questions valid for the many female novelists now writing about all aspects of women’s lives. The tendency to belittle women’s concerns and shame those who express them raises some specious (and annoying) complaints, for example the regularly recurring discussion about why so many fictional women characters are just so plain unlikeable.
So I find this article relevant to several life story themes, particularly creating/controlling one’s own narrative, hidden identities and secrets, and presentation of alternate life options.
J.A. Tyler recently interviewed Makenna Goodman about her novel The Shame. I haven’t read this novel, but its title caught my eye because of the previous article. Here’s Tyler’s description of the story:
In Vermont, Alma and her family tend chickens and sheep, make maple syrup, and harmonize with the land. And while it seems idyllic, when her husband leaves each day to teach at a nearby college, Alma vacillates between raising their children and feeling utterly trapped. She’s constantly questioning if she is good enough, if she is doing everything right, and The Shame is a record of her breaking point.
And Tyler’s first question to Goodman is what the word shame means to her and to Alma. Goodman replies, “Shame is a human emotion, something everyone feels at one point or another, and in some cases is a determining factor in how we interpret the stories about our lives, a metric which we often use without knowing.” But, she adds, “titles are just teasers, or suggestions, and I don’t hold it too tightly.”
This is a short but packed interview, and I encourage you to read through it because Goodman refers to so many life story themes:
Identity: “In my mind the book is about the tragedy of self, more than anything.”
Creating/controlling one’s own narrative: “For Alma, I see it as her reclaiming the narrative of her life.”
Change your story, change your life: “I think there is . . . [an] acknowledgement of a story that needs to change. I hope readers will interpret the ending as a beginning of a new one, perhaps the same story, told again, told differently. Isn’t that the case with life?”
“By writing a character who shares my trauma, I found a path forward even though she couldn’t”
I was drawn to this brave piece by fiction writer Shawn Nocher, author of the recently released novel A Hand to Hold in Deep Water because it illustrates how an author transmutes life experience into fiction. Nocher emphasizes that her fictional character’s story is not the same as her own, but the very fact of writing the novel rescued her from the trauma she experienced in childhood.
I don’t find that Nocher’s experience exactly fits with one of the themes of life stories I’ve found in literature, but it is a testament to the healing power of writing.
It also reminds us that fictional material may have origins in the author’s own experience but is not necessarily a direct narrative of that experience. We should not interpret a character’s statements as the author’s truth.
This piece is not directly related to literature, but I include it here because it illustrates how concepts inherent in the study of life stories have been embraced by popular culture.
Vishavjit Singh describes some of his personal experiences under the hashtag #StopAsianHate:
While stories have been carriers of these infectious ideologies, stories can also be a force for slowly undoing the generational damage of racism. We are swimming in a sea of stories — in our conversations, in our books, and on our screens. . Who gets to create and tell these stories is of paramount importance. Stories have to be armed with truth. Stories have to represent our incredible diversity. Stories have to pierce through our contradictions, follies, and shortcomings.
I couldn’t agree more. He’s right about the power of stories and about the importance of telling one’s own story.
Senjuti Patra, who was born and raised in a small town in India, lovingly describes the family book collection she inherited from her grandfather and father. “But as I grew up, I began to notice a marked gap in my family’s collection – almost all books were written by upper caste men (the Indian equivalent of the dead white guy).”
As a result, she “began to prioritize stories by and of those oppressed by the caste system and a heteronormative social structure. For I had seen in the casual casteism and sexism of the men I used to look up to, and in the misogyny that I internalized as a young reader, the perils of undiversified reading.”
She wonders “what our bookshelves would have looked like if patriarchy had not deprived us of half of our inheritance. . . . I look for the stories of my female ancestors in the scant historical studies that focus on them, and in historical fiction.” In her search to diversify her reading, she apparently understands the need for rewriting history and for seeing presentations of alternate life options. In reading about people from cultures different than our own, we broaden our view of what it means to be human in today’s multicultural world.
In another interview from The Millions, Nick Ripatrazone talks with Kirstin Valdez Quade about her experience of expanding a short story from her 2015 collection Night at the Fiestas into a novel, The Five Wounds.
Quade says, “My novel is about healing from the wounds of the past, and part of that healing requires looking closely at oneself and one’s place in the world and the hurts we have caused.” She adds, “I’ve always been interested in engaging with myth and folklore in my fiction.”
When the interviewer said, “I believe that we become the stories we tell—even the ones that are fiction,” Quade replied, “I think you’re exactly right that we become the stories we tell.”
The Five Wounds encompasses the year after the birth of a baby. Quade says, “I didn’t know how they’d navigate the first year of Angel’s baby’s life, and I wrote to find out.” I haven’t yet read this novel, but I’m interested to find out how these characters handle their turning points or major life decisions.
“Catriona Silvey Wonders Why We Don’t Mind Retreading Common Ground”
Silvey opens this article with a look at Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life, in which Ursula Todd is born over and over again on the same day. Silvey tells us this novel illustrates “a particular kind of narrative: a time loop, where the protagonist repeatedly relives a day, a week, or in Ursula’s case, a lifetime.” Silvey observes that “the past decade has seen an explosion of time loop stories across books . . . , films . . . , and television.”
Silvey, a linguist and novelist, believes readers like this type of narrative because it allows them to infer meaning from the similarities and differences of the various iterations: “we construct meaning via an active process of inference: extrapolating beyond what is explicitly said to build a larger understanding. Inference is what makes reading pleasurable.”
Silvey writes that she used the literary time loop in her debut novel, Meet Me in Another Life. And, as this title indicates, part of the appeal of such a narrative structure is that it allows the consideration of possible alternative selves.
I have a list of every book that I’ve read since July 1991. I started keeping it on my very first computer, an IBM PCjr. Over the years I’ve managed to maintain the list through several computer and computer program changes, including the biggest computer move I ever made: the jump from Windows/PCs to Mac.
But one thing I’ve never been able to track effectively is upcoming releases I definitely want to read. Here, prolific reader Liberty Hardy offers several suggestions on how to do this.
Extrovert Michael Colbert explains how the HBO adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s 2011 novel The Leftovers is helping him learn to live with life after COVID:
The Leftovers portrays all the ways this return is abnormal, messy. The show’s outlook is somewhat pessimistic: maybe we’ll never go back to the way we were. Yet I find comfort in Mapleton, watching people muddle through their new normal.
“WW Norton withdrew Bailey’s Roth biography after a series of allegations about its author. As generational conflict rages in the book world and across culture, we ask: who decides whether we can separate the art from the artist?”
Yes, this is yet another installment of the publishing story that won’t go away. But this question of separating the artist from the art is one that has nagged at me since long before the Philip Roth biography brouhaha.
W.W. Norton, the U.S. publisher of the Bailey biography of Roth, withdrew the book shortly after publication and announced that it would pulp the remaining copies. Vintage, the book’s U.K. publisher, announced that it would not withdraw the book but would continue “assessing the situation closely.” Here’s how The Guardian, a U.K. newspaper, assesses the situation:
What’s clear from the silence is that withdrawing the book, and also not withdrawing it, are hugely sensitive issues. They plug into a range of contemporary debates about censorship, moral responsibility, freedom of expression, corporate governance, social justice, due process, workplace safety, and the ongoing critique of so-called toxic masculinity, among others.
But my question goes back to way before all these social and moral issues. I came of age, literarily speaking, back in the 1970s, when New Criticism was still the dominant force in academic literary study. The bedrock of New Criticism is that a literary work stands on its own, completely dissociated from its creator. The meaning of the work comes only from what the work itself contains, not what the author personally believes, feels, or espouses outside that particular piece of created work. This approach therefore forestalls any criticism of the book because of the personality or morality of its author, although discussion of themes such as misogyny in the work are possible with explanation and textual support.
I guess there are really two theoretical levels of evaluation going on here. The first level involves evaluation of and reaction to Roth’s fiction itself. On this level New Criticism is very clear: You can look for evidence of misogyny in the novels themselves, but you can’t condemn the novels because you’ve read that the author treats women badly. But we reach a second level when we evaluate the merits of a biography written about a public figure, such as an author like Philip Roth. While it’s certainly up to critics to point out if a biographer has not created a complete picture of the subject, I’m not sure that criticism of a published biography warrants an end to publication and the destruction of all remaining copies.
Or maybe it’s true that there really is no such thing as bad publicity?
However, I take no issue with Jason Guriel’s lamentation of how much he misses old-fashioned browsing of media content, both in those long-gone video houses called Blockbuster and, more recently, bookstores and even libraries shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s a heads-up call from Publishers Weekly: “Explorations of class, race, and sexuality play into many of this fall’s notable fiction debuts, including a novel about a young Black woman working in financial services, a South Korean gay romance, and more.”
Carianne King talks with Rivka Galchen, whose latest novel, Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, portrays the trial of Katharina Kepler, mother of mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler. King describes the book this way:
A reimagination of the trial of Katharina Kepler, told in her voice, it’s a novel about the power of narrative over rational, or factual, truths that plays with layers of belief. In all of these ways, it’s a 17th-century witch novel that feels especially relevant for our fractured, divided, complicated times.
Galchen explains why she found Katharina to be a captivating character:
I also connected Katharina to women in my life—older women who don’t read the room, who are really smart, really capable, but who rub people the wrong way, or who people process weirdly because they have their own norms and their own way of doing things.
Alex Marshall introduces us to Dara McAnulty, 17, of Northern Ireland, whose book Diary of a Young Naturalist won last year’s Wainwright Prize for nature writing. Marshall says that McAnulty is open about his autism and even started writing because of it: “‘I need to write, to process what’s going on,’ he said, ‘otherwise everything’s just banging around in my brain causing damage in there.’”
A promotional event for a book examining the role slavery played leading up to the Battle of the Alamo that was scheduled at the Bullock Texas State History Museum on Thursday evening was abruptly canceled three and a half hours before it was scheduled to begin.
“Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick confirmed he called for the event to be canceled.”
Last week I talked about how much I like Michael Connelly’s books about detective Harry Bosch and the Amazon Prime series based on the novels. Here Mike Avila talks with the cast and producers of the Amazon series, which he calls “well regarded for its crime noir aesthetic as well as its attention to detail regarding police work. . . [and] also adored by a passionate fanbase for its thoughtful characterization.”
Ann Powers reports for NPR on Joni Mitchell’s album Blue, which came out in 1971, with an emphasis on its storytelling:
the creative process is as mundane as it is miraculous. It’s dribs and drabs and then a rush and then back to staring at the ceiling, wondering if the rush will come back. Blue is an album about working through something — a heartache, people say. But it’s just as much a document of the process of sharing that heartache, an inquiry into personal storytelling itself. Until Blue, Mitchell was getting there, but she hadn’t wholly figured out what she alone could say. That’s because what each person alone can say is, in its pure state, incommunicable. Stories are what get left behind as their tellers keep living and evolving. They’re always inconclusive.
I’ve just begun reading Kelsey McKinney’s recently released debut novel, God Spare the Girls, which is an out-of-my-comfort-zone book for me (more on that in a later post), so I was drawn to this reading list that promises some good books. And a bonus for me is that I haven’t read any of these books. How about you?
Here’s a different approach to literary discussion: “In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.”
Check this out if you’re interested in the relationship between literature and mythology.
Gene Seymour admits to a fascination with “alternate reality” stories. As much as Seymour likes such stories, he worries that someone might mistake Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad for “honest-to-Pete factual data”:
one of the dividends of alternate history, when it’s rendered well, is how it can illuminate actual things and events that happened in the past and quite often linger on in the present. To be drawn into such stories doesn’t mean you’re being taken. Sometimes, they wise you up.
First-wave feminists focused on the burning issue of their day — suffrage. The second wave is focused on cultural critique. Our motto is “the personal is political,” and what could be more personal, or more provocative, than sex?
One problem: We can’t agree on what, exactly, feminist sex is.
If you’re still keeping up with the publishing hubbub, here’s another story on the formation of a new publishing company being started by a couple of conservative industry executives, “Louise Burke, a former top publisher at Simon & Schuster, and Kate Hartson, the former editorial director at Hachette Book Group’s Center Street imprint.”
“Main Character Syndrome” exists only in the overactive — and healthily deluded — minds of the internet’s many self-identified protagonists. But while Main Character Syndrome — a situation wherein people think of themselves as being the top-billed star of the feature film that is their regular lives — might sound like the kind of distorted sense of reality digitally averse boomers warn everyone under the age of 30 about, Main Character Syndrome is also an important coping technique — and it’s how we’ve collectively chosen to process this past year.
Michelle Santiago Cortés examines the social-media memes that have developed around our tendency to think of our life story as a movie. “Main character memes cut across platforms to unveil the shakiness at the core of our identities, the kind of uncertainty that only a hero’s journey can cure.”
“Women over the centuries have not always expressed their own pain in art and literature. More often, they have had it expressed for them by men,” writes Arifa Akbar. But now, she continues, “That has changed and a tide of contemporary writers is offering correctives to the fantasies, often in first-person memoir form and with a note of urgency.”
Akbar looks at “a paradox at the heart of the old myth of sick femininity”:
illness is seen to be built into biology – emanating from the womb, ovaries and menstrual blood itself – but also, perversely, suspected of being “all in the head”. The figure of the hair-pulling hysteric is born out of this paradoxical distrust and is strewn across the literary and medical canons.
Annelise Jolley reports that during the pandemic “I’ve been missing airports and airplanes. I don’t just miss them for the adventure they imply; I also miss the casual proximity to strangers these in-between spaces invite.”
To help her “articulate what, exactly, I miss about being crammed up next to the passenger in seat 18B,” she turned to some of her favorite airport essays.
What drew me into this piece is the reference to “favorite airport essays.” I can’t say that I have any of those.
“Black archivists, activists, and artists are fighting for justice and ethical remembrance — and reimagining the archive itself.”
Megan Pillow fears what will get lost in the documentation of all that happened during 2020:
What I didn’t find in these early pandemic archives was Breonna Taylor’s story. And her story—not just of her death, but of her life as an essential healthcare worker and a Black woman, part of a demographic that has been devastated by systemic racism across healthcare, politics, science, and law enforcement—is central to our country’s pandemic narrative. What many pandemic archive projects are missing is something Black archivists across the country and members of the Breonna Taylor justice movement already know. The COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement are not separate occurrences: protest is being enacted and lived through the crisis.
“Elin Hilderbrand, known as the queen of the beach read,” has decided to stop writing her signature novels in 2024 because “I feel myself coming to my natural end of my material.”
For her next literary life, she wants to become a book influencer. ““You will not find anybody who reads more critically than a writer. . . . I really feel like book influencing should be done by writers. And so I should be that person.”
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.”
“Reading America through more than two centuries of its favorite books.”
In The New Yorker, Louis Menand takes on Jess McHugh’s book Americanon, which discusses “thirteen American books, from ‘The Old Farmer’s Almanac,’ first published in 1792, to Stephen R. Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ which came out in 1989.”
In looking at these thirteen self-help books, Menand writes:
In fact, McHugh disapproves of every one of the books she writes about. “Americanon” is, in effect, a critique of American society in the form of thirteen book reviews. It belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars.
According to Menand, McHugh “prefers, she says, ambiguity and change to the myth of a unified national narrative. But ambiguity and change are just the keywords in a different narrative.”
Attorney Susan Cole recognized the toll that trauma can take on children:
She began a decades-long examination of the links between education and childhood trauma, using her accumulating experience to identify “broader systemic failures that could not be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” as her husband, David Eisen, put it.
Constant stress and fear were more than just a distraction for students; their effect, she learned, was neurological, activating the fight-or-flight survival instinct permanently.
June is the annual celebration of Pride Month. Over the years I’ve sometimes been confused about how to use correctly the applicable terminology. I’m grateful to NPR for putting together this glossary of terms relating to gender identity.
Proper use of gender identity terms, including pronouns, is a crucial way to signal courtesy and acceptance. Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, compares using someone’s correct pronouns to pronouncing their name correctly – “a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that’s consistent and true to who they are.”
Programs offering an MFA (master’s in fine arts) in writing have proliferated.
The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a graduate-level degree earned by students who seek to pursue work as authors, editors, playwrights, or to teach at the college level.
The folks at BookBrowse have put together this discussion of the purpose of such programs. This article pertains to understanding the plot of the recently published novel The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, but the content here is a general description and discussion for anyone who has ever wondered about these programs.
“The habit of not writing, it turns out, is sadly easy to acquire in a pandemic.”
I know I’m not the only person who had trouble focusing on reading and writing during the pandemic. With the arrival of the beginning of the end, Rachel Toor has some advice on how to get back into the swing of things.
Toor herself is an academic, a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA, and her advice is directed toward other academics, whose professional lived are governed by the “publish or perish” mantra. However, I found her advice helpful also for a general audience, such as us book bloggers who may be struggling to get back to work.
My first book group was organized by the local branch of the county public library where I lived. I participated in the group for about 12 years and found some of my closest friends there. It’s something I sorely miss since relocating for retirement.
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.
“From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?”
While a bit less immediate than the previous two stories, this is yet another pubishing issue that won’t go away.
Over the past 12 months, almost all of the buzz in fiction has been around young women: Patricia Lockwood, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, Avni Doshi, Lauren Oyler. Ask a novelist of any gender who they are reading and they will almost certainly mention one of Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Kushner, Gwendoline Riley, Monique Roffey or Maria Stepanova. Or they will be finding new resonances in Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston, Natalia Ginzburg, Octavia Butler, Ivy Compton-Burnett. The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.
Jessica Avery declares, “a ghost is never just a ghost.” A ghost “always represents something more than itself. Something that you try not to think about. Something unpleasant you try to ignore or repress until you can’t any more and it rises up to — quite literally — haunt you.”
Follow Avery’s dive into the world of ghosts and haunted houses, including The Haunting of Hill House.
Another literary issue I’ve been following recently is reader dissatisfaction with Goodreads and who or what might step up to replace it. StoryGraph had been in beta for a while as a possibility. Chris M. Arnone here reviews it for Book Riot.
The article includes directions on how to export your data from Goodreads and import it into StoryGraph, followed by discussion of its good points and shortcomings.
Let us know in the comments if you’ve tried StoryGraph.
Have you ever wondered why your favorite book hasn’t yet been made into a film or TV series? Literary Hub recently conducted a virtual roundtable discussion with several writers from the film/TV industry about “a process that for many, is mysterious.”