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Literary Links: Life Stories in Literature Edition

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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.

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

If We Want Historical Stories About Women, We’ll Need to Read Between the Lines

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.

“I wanted to write about people who had not left behind their own accounts of their lives,” Ms. Dunmore wrote in The Guardian in March. “Their letters have been lost, their pamphlets have not been preserved, their money has not amounted to an inheritance and they had no epitaphs. Historical record does not know them, but fiction can imagine them.”

—Sam Roberts in his obituary of historical novelist Helen Dunmore

Shameful

“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.

The Tragedy of Self: The Millions Interviews Makenna Goodman

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?”

For All The ‘Survivors’ Who Don’t Survive

“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.

Is America a Racist Nation? I Am Sikh and Tired

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.

The Inheritance of Books and Patriarchal Narratives

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.

We Become the Stories We Tell: The Millions Interviews Kirstin Valdez Quade

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.

On the Counterintuitive Appeal of the Literary Time Loop

“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.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Life Stories in Literature Publishing Television

Literary Links

THE GREAT RIGHT-WING PUBLISHING DIVIDE WIDENS

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.”

Why Everyone You Know Suddenly Has Main Character Syndrome

“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.”

Pain on the page: is this the end of the hysterical, ill woman of literature?

“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.

Intimate Strangers: Reading Airport Essays During a Pandemic

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. 

Do you?

TV’s hero cops are under scrutiny. But ‘Bosch’ knew the system was broken all along

In this interview author Michael Connelly and actor Titus Welliver discuss the Amazon series Bosch, based on Connelly’s series of novels. The final season of the TV series is now streaming.

Titus Welliver on playing detective Harry Bosch: “He’s got a flawless moral compass. His credo is, ‘Everybody counts or nobody counts.’ Can you get more centered than that?”

I’m proud to wear my Harry Bosch shirt.

T shirt that reads "Everybody counts or nobody counts. --Harry Bosch"

Living Memory

“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 to retire from writing beach reads in 2024

“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.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Fiction Last Week's Links Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Publishing Story

Literary Links

Cyberpunk: Everything You Did (and Maybe Didn’t) Want to Know

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.”

On the Evolutionary Uses of Storytelling

“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.

 Where Gender-Neutral Pronouns Come From

“People tend to think of they, Mx., and hir as relatively recent inventions. But English speakers have been looking for better ways to talk about gender for a very long time.”

Michael Waters offers a history of the long search for language that steps outside the traditional, normative binary of man/woman, his/her.

The Many Fictional Afterlives of Ethel Rosenberg

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.

Bogus Social Media Outrage Is Making Authors Change Lines in Their Books Now

“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.”

Move Over, Poe—The Real Godfather of Gothic Horror Was Nathaniel Hawthorne

“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. 

On the Evolution of Female-Driven Gothic Narratives: A Reading List

“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.

The Unruly Genius of Joyce Carol Oates

“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. 

New Book Publisher Caters to Conservative Voices It Says Are Being Silenced

“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.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Publishing Reading Writing

Literary Links

Hard Times: Mental Health Books 2021

From Publishers Weekly:

The tumult of the past 15 months has exacerbated common mental health concerns, among them trauma, anxiety, grief, and isolation. PW spoke with authors and editors about the emotional scars of the pandemic, and how their forthcoming books offer empathy, community, and guidance.

Unforgettable reads focusing on mental health

From Amazon Book Review: “To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite books dealing with mental health, and it’s no surprise that connection is the theme that runs through all of them.”

How Booksellers Were Complicit in the Resurgence of White Supremacy and the Rise of Donald Trump

“Josh Cook Considers the Relationship Between Bookselling, Politics, and Free Speech”

Literary critic, novelist, and poet Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This piece is an excerpt from his book The Least We Can Do: White Supremacy, Free Speech, and Independent Bookstores (Biblioasis, 2021).

Like many industries and institutions, booksellers have done a lot of work in the last few years in response to the Trump administration, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the #MeToo movement, and other events and forces for social change in our society. We’ve formed committees, hosted panels, and held training sessions and though all of that is important, I have almost never seen booksellers grapple directly with the economic, social, and moral consequences of selling books by white supremacists, fascists, misogynists, and other believers in objectively dangerous ideologies.

Barry Jenkins On Avoiding The Exploitation Of Black Trauma In “The Underground Railroad”

Sagal Mohammed discusses Jenkins’s adaptation, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel:

Thanks to Jenkins’ vigilantly balanced portrayal of excruciating racist violence and blissful joy, The Underground Railroad avoids accusations of exploiting Black trauma for which other shows — like Little Marvin’s Us-inspired horror series Them — have recently been criticized. But there’s no denying the emotional toll the show will take, particularly on its Black viewers.

Serious Trouble: Writing Character-Driven Thrillers

Novelist Elizabeth Brundage describes how finding characters and getting to know them comprises the process of producing her novels. I found her explanation informative because, although she doesn’t use precisely this terminology, what she’s really describing is learning (actually, creating) their life story: “I set out to write about a person at a particular time in their life when something happens to create a shift in their world-view.”

Did the Pandemic Change Summer Reading for Good? I Hope So.

“With our calendars cleared last year, many of us found more time to lose ourselves in books. Let’s hold onto that vibe this year.”

From Elisabeth Egan:

The summer of 2020 was a dud when it came to barbecues, vacations, family reunions, pedicures and swiping a lick from someone else’s ice cream cone. But there was one mainstay Covid couldn’t wreck: reading. For me, those empty, quiet nights were a reminder of the boredom that pushed me into the arms of books in the first place.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Announcing Life Stories in Literature

illustration: 2021 Discussion Challenge

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

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


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

—Oliver Sacks

Introduction

I was, like lots of other readers, bowled over by Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it shortly after its publication in April 2012. While I appreciated it simply as an engrossing story, what particularly struck me was how the book used the concept of life stories to communicate its meaning. This came the year after I received my doctorate in psychology, for which I wrote my dissertation on life stories.

My study of life stories focused on memoir and other autobiographical writing, all nonfiction. But Gone Girl hit me upside the head with the realization that an understanding of life story theory could enrich my understanding of fiction, too. Here’s how Flynn uses aspects of life story as the framework of the novel:

Summary: Life Stories

Coming from an academic background, I was intrigued to recognize how aspects of psychology emerge in literature.

The study of life stories (the technical term is narrative identity theory) addresses how we all tell—to both ourselves and others—the story of our life in order to give meaning to our experiences and to build our sense of self—our feeling of who we are as both a member of society and a unique individual.

I started writing on this topic back in 2014. To keep this blog post as short as possible, I’m embedding some earlier posts about life stories here.

Our life stories arise from our past and influence both our present and our future.

When we tell our life stories, we include events as we remember them. Other people present at the same events may remember them quite differently.

Once Gone Girl demonstrated to me how life stories can show up in fiction, I began seeing them almost everywhere.

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

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

I see aspects of Life Stories in Literature functioning across time in the books that interest me.

How Life Stories Work in Fiction

Fiction, in its broadest sense, examines the meaning of human existence by considering the two most basic questions each of us asks about ourselves:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Why am I here?

We compose our life story to find our purpose or place in the world. Life stories are psychologically complex because they comprise two seemingly paradoxical functions:

  1. to situate someone within a particular society or culture, in a specific place and a specific time
  2. to carve out someone’s individual or unique identity within the larger group

Fiction gives us the opportunity to watch, in a safe setting, how particular actions play out. Understanding how life stories work can enrich our experiences of reading fiction by allowing us to observe how characters act in particular situations and transferring the lessons those characters learn to our own lives.

Sometimes the life story is the major focus of a novel. Other times it’s a minor element that illuminates some other aspect of the novel.

Every minute of every day, behind the scenes, our self-narrative is deftly guiding our every decision based on what we gleaned, applying it to what’s happening now, and suggesting what we should (probably) do next.

Lisa Cron

Here’s a sampling of the themes that life stories can help us understand in fiction. These themes are like individual facets of a diamond: the meaning of one theme can reflect onto others. In fact, a single novel may illustrate more than one of these themes. I have broken this discussion down into themes for ease of discussion, but many themes may serve as reflections of each other and, like light from a cut diamond, produce a light greater than the sum of its individual parts.

identity

The core of narrative identity theory is the individual’s exploration, discovery, creation, and understanding of self. The term narrative means a series of events told in chronological sequence—essentially a story. Popular culture has adopted the concept of life stories with phrases such as “the narrative of success” or the need to “change the narrative” in fields such as business, lifestyle, and personal development.

Young children remember some of their experiences, but people generally don’t begin to put those memories together to construct a life narrative until adolescence.  Therefore, YA (young adult) fiction often emphasizes this aspect of life story. However, understanding or shaping one’s identity isn’t limited to adolescence but continues throughout one’s life time. 

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

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

Frank Tallis

Fiction featuring adults therefore sometimes includes incidents in which characters try to focus, evaluate, explain, or even change their life path or sense of purpose. For example, the story in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird is so gripping that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the narrator is not the child Scout, but rather the adult that child has grown into. Her narration of what happened back when her father defended Tom Robinson explains how those events shaped her into the person she has become.

Older characters, those in the midst of that common malady known as mid-life crisis, sometimes engage in similar soul-searching. Anne Tyler’s 2001 novel Back When We Were Grownups begins with the memorable line “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person.” The novel unfolds as this woman re-examines the purpose and significance of the life she has lived. 

Finally in this general category of the search for identity, there are the negative examples, the warnings. All of the following novels demonstrate what happens when people don’t fulfill society’s expectations for them:

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

As the range of publication dates of these novels demonstrates, this theme recurs across time. The expectations of the current societies differ, but the fact that society expects people to live in appropriate ways endures.

family

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

Growing up is a process of socialization, and that process begins at home at an early age. We spend our early years learning how our parents, our first representatives of society, expect us to act. Some of this instruction is overt: “Good children share their toys and take turns.” 

But some is much more subtle. In Beverly Cleary’s novel Beezus and Ramona, 9-year-old Beatrice (Beezus) Quimby finds her 4-year-old sister Ramona completely exasperating. One of Ramona’s exasperating actions is the frequent demand that Beezus read aloud Ramona’s favorite book, The Littlest Steam Shovel. Beezus can’t understand why Ramona loves this book so much. After all, “Girls weren’t supposed to like machinery.” This novel was published in 1955, a time when appropriate gender behaviors were well established: boys were supposed to play with tanks and trucks, while girls got dolls and dishes. 

Scott O’Dell’s 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins includes the same gender assumptions. In this children’s novel Karana, age 12, gets left behind on a small island when the rest of her people decide to leave on a visiting ship. She realizes she’ll have to make everything she’ll need to survive, but she worries because her father has taught her that any weapons made by women will fail when used:

I wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself.

Fortunately, Karana is a brave girl. She makes the weapons and teaches herself how to use them.

Near the end of Beezus and Ramona, Beezus tells Ramona, “You can’t have jelly on your mashed potatoes, because you aren’t supposed to.” While current readers probably find this admonition less objectionable than the gender-based lessons, it still demonstrates that society expects children, as they grow up, to learn what they are “supposed to” and “not supposed to” do.

Children who grow up in an unstable home environment also learn lessons that will shape the rest of their lives. Novelist Paula McLain wrote recently about how her life in foster care, beginning at age 5, affected her later life:

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

Paula McLain

A common type of stories told to young children is fairy tales, many of which function as subtle messages to teach children how to be in the world:

Much of what fairy tales give us are warnings about the people we encounter and the world we live in. We are told in fairy tales to be cautious of strangers, to be wary of those that may want to intrude into our lives, because we can never truly know what motives they may have.

Cynthia Pelayo

Finally, dysfunctional-family variants have become a literary trope, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres, for examining how childhood memories and lessons mold us into the adults we become. A recent example is Girl A by Abigail Dean. The novel tells the story of the seven Gracie children, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of two mentally ill parents. Girl A, the narrator of the novel, is Lex Gracie, the oldest girl, second-oldest child, who was 15 when she managed to escape and summon help. 

I remember very little about that time [immediately after the escape], and each of the memories seems exaggerated, as if I’ve taken somebody else’s story and imagined myself into the narrative.

The tale of the rescue of the children from the Gracie House of Horrors received extensive, sensationalized press coverage. Afterwards, the siblings were sent to separate families for adoption; they have not had much contact with each since.

Now, 15 years later, Lex is an attorney who must consult her siblings about settling the estate of their mother, who has died in prison. As she talks with each in turn, she realizes that each one of them has constructed his or her own version of a life story that explains what happened to them then and how they have lived their lives since. 

And this brings up one very important feature of life stories: each person’s is unique. If you’ve ever reminisced with family members and discovered that each of you has a very different memory of some notable family event (something like The Year Grandma Forgot to Cook the Thanksgiving Turkey), you’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. Different people remember the same event differently. There are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the event.

And a corollary of this is that no one version of what happened is any truer than the others. They are all significant and meaningful to the person who created them. 

we are what we remember

Since we construct our life stories out of events as we remember them, the biggest threat to our sense of identity is amnesia, a major trope in psychological fiction. The best example is The Bourne Identity and sequels by Robert Ludlum. After the protagonist wakes up on a fishing boat with no memory of who he is or how he got there, readers follow along as he searches to fill in the blanks of his past and construct a new future. S.J. Watson’s novel Before I Go to Sleep follows a similar pattern as readers follow Christine’s journey of self-rediscovery.

While both Ludlum and Watson use the amnesia trope to set up a menacing, life-or-death situation, Liane Moriarty paints the story of recovering one’s identity with a lighter brush in What Alice Forgot. While loss of identity can be frightening and threatening, as it is for Jason Bourne and Christine, it can also offer an opportunity for renewed self-knowledge and acceptance, as it does for Alice.

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

inside stories vs. outside stories

I’ve been saying that our life story builds our sense of self, but, if we’re honest, we all know that we have several selves. The biggest distinction is between our public self—the self we show the world—and our private, interior self. But we actually have many selves—we act differently at a job interview than at a wedding, at a dinner in the in-laws’ house than at a night out with our best friends. There is nothing wrong with such situational awareness and appropriate behavior.

But problems can arise when someone’s public and private selves diverge widely because underlying life stories can drive behavior despite the public face. This is probably the aspect of narrative identity theory most often explored by writers of psychological fiction. 

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

Sebastian Fitzek

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

imposters

Narratives featuring imposters could be considered a subgroup of inside vs. outside stories. Imposters can have many motivations for assuming a false identity. Like Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels, they may want a life that’s fancier, richer, and more empowered than their own. 

Or the reason may be more mysterious, as in The Passenger by Lisa Lutz, which is divided into sections labeled with the names of the narrator’s various assumed identities. In this case the narrator’s reason for these frequent name changes drives the plot because, as interesting as her process for finding and taking on new identities is, what we really want to find out is why she has to live this way.

hidden identities and secrets 

Another subgroup of inside vs. outside stories involves characters suppressing, hiding, or ignoring some part of their lives. Such novels allow readers to understand the causes and reasons for a character’s behavior. 

The most powerful of these books illustrate the old adage “don’t judge other people unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” These novels help us develop compassion and empathy for others. Some of the most powerful examples I’ve read include Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson, Mystic River by Dennis Lahane, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4).

creating or controlling one’s own narrative

We now live in an era in which groups (such as women, indigenous people, refugees, and immigrants) whose voices have been silenced in the past are asserting their right to tell their own stories. One of the phrases that appears often in this context is “taking control of one’s own narrative.” 

Julie Clark’s novel The Last Flight includes an example of how one woman uses this terminology. Claire Cook is married to the handsome son of a wealthy and politically powerful family. Claire’s husband thinks he owns her, body and soul, and controls her access to money, friends, and the outside world. Beneath the veneer of family and fortune, Claire must contrive an elaborate plot to escape, because no one believes her story of abuse. “If we don’t tell our own stories, we’ll never take control of the narrative,” she explains near the end of the novel.

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

Rachel Zarrow

cultural appropriation

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

“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews. . . . It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?

Daniel Hernandez

change your story, change your life

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

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

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

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

James Clear

This theme plays out in Australian author Jane Harper’s recent novel The Survivors. Kieran Elliott’s whole outlook on life changes when he learns the truth about a devastating event that occurred when he was a teenager. That new knowledge eases his guilt and allows him to step into his future life—marriage and fatherhood—as a new man.

presentation of alternate life options 

One of the psychological functions literature can perform is to allow readers to observe what happens when a character does a particular action. Reading lets people play out different scenarios in a safe environment. Literature can also paint for readers a picture of what someone else’s life is like. Such observation can offer new possibilities or increase understanding of current situations. 

One such new possibility is the coming together of previously isolated adults into an informal family that benefits them all. A couple of novels that demonstrate this happening are Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos.

Another area in which literature can help promote understanding is in the presentation of mental illness. Books that make an effort to present accurately the experience of people with various mental health issues include The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, and Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.

Literature’s ability to demonstrate life scenarios is especially important in multicultural societies because it can encourage understanding, which in turn can increase compassion and empathy toward people who are different from ourselves. This was the basis behind much of the controversy over the publication of American Dirt, a novel that many Latinx authors said contains stereotyped characters and inaccuracies about the actual experiences of people who entered the U.S. from Mexico. 

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, also related to the issue of cultural appropriation, has arisen to advocate for the publishing industry to produce more books by refugees and people from ethnic minorities. Literature can also provide life-option scenarios for groups who have traditionally been marginalized by society, such as multiracial and non-heterosexual individuals. The need here is especially great for books aimed at young people searching for role models who mirror themselves as they develop their self-concept.  

possible alternate selves

A more focused variant of alternate life options borrows the concept of multiple parallel universes from physics to explore the concept of other possible but unlived lives. 

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

Viet Thanh Nguyen

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but these recent novels have introduced me to the whole new world of alternate selves: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. 

highlighting turning points or major life decisions 

Many people have had a significant life experience that makes them think of their lives in two parts: “life before _____” and “life after _____.” Such dramatic turning points often figure in literature because they force characters to adapt and accommodate. We expect to watch characters change because of these often traumatic events. 

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

Or such life-changing events might produce negative effects, such as in the second half of Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain.

where, when, and why/how lives intersect

Other significant life experiences involve meeting someone who has a great effect on us. This effect may be either good or bad. Some novels in which the effect is good are A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara  (scroll down to #4), A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, and How It All Began by Penelope Lively.

A meeting with someone that turns out badly is the stuff thrillers, particularly domestic thrillers, are often made of. A notable example is You by Caroline Kepnes. Other examples are The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda, The Pigman by Paul Zindel (scroll to the bottom), The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman, and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell.

multiple points of view

The last 30 years or so have taught us that memory is slippery and that different people perceive and remember events differently. Along with these discoveries has grown the novel narrated from more than one perspective. The use of more than one point of view can create tension, suspense, and ambiguity.

Use of multiple perspectives has therefore become a staple of action books such as mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. Examples include The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.

rewriting history 

History is told by the victors or the dominant culture. For centuries this meant that history was written by men, with very little inclusion of women’s voices. A big movement in current literature aims to correct this error with books about historical events that present women’s perspectives to complement the existing record.

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

ABC News

The first book I remember reading in this category is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which expands on the mere mention of Dinah in the Bible. Other titles include Circe by Madeline Miller, which gives voice to a character from Greek mythology, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which narrates the death of Shakespeare’s only son from the perspective of his mother, about whom very little is known.

Writers are also now writing to insert another large group back into history: formerly enslaved peoples whose stories have been expunged from the dominant cultural narratives, for example, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. Members of other groups whose lives don’t conform to the traditional normative dominant culture’s expectations also are speaking up, in both nonfiction and fiction, as discussed above under presentation of alternate life options.

fancy scroll

The fictional use of life story elements can make characters more believable and compelling.

But this doesn’t mean that large numbers of writers have begun studying narrative identity theory in order to embed its various forms in their novels. Novelists have always been storytellers interested in how their fictional people understand themselves and interact with the world they live in. 

And throughout its history, the novel has provided storytellers with the means to explore the human psyche. I’ve always been fascinated with the interrelationship between literature and psychology, and narrative identity theory provides the insight and terminology to express and explain that relationship. 

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

Kira-Anne Pelican

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Review

How Learning About Psychology Helps Me Understand Literature

Imagine a phone call featuring an electronic voice telling you that your child has been kidnapped and you need to pull together some huge sum of money to get the child back unharmed. I used to think that would be one of the most horrifying calls parents could ever receive. 

But I was wrong, as I learned when I read The Chain by Adrian McKinty. In that novel the call that Rachel Klein receives doesn’t simply demand money. In order to get her daughter Kylie back, Rachel most pay a ransom AND kidnap another child to take Kylie’s place. Rachel must become a monster who inflicts pain on another family in order to save her own. Watching Rachel’s transformation into that monster was a painful experience, yet I had no doubt that, in the same situation, I would do exactly the same thing.


Cover: The Chain, Adrian McKinty

McKinty, Adrian. The Chain

unabridged audiobook

Hachette Audio, 2019

ISBN 9781549183416

Recommended


Kidnapping is a standard trope of the thriller genre, but McKinty’s addition of the chain aspect, forcing a basically good person to do something unquestionably bad, is a brilliant psychological plot twist. I could imagine a writer thinking “Having your child kidnapped is an awful experience, but what would make that experience even worse?” Having the insight to imagine that scenario in a novel is the mark of a good writer.

But wait, there’s more. How would the protagonist who transformed herself into the monster who could plan and carry out the kidnapping of another child react to what she had done? I’m pretty sure that if I had managed to get my own child back safely, I’d probably keep my head down and hope that I never got caught. 

But Rachel Klein is stronger than I. She decides that the people behind the chain must be stopped so that never again will anybody have to go through what she has experienced. 

The second section of The Chain details Rachel’s investigation and pursuit of the behind-the-scenes culprits. This second section is not nearly as good as the first part. The villains are so over-the-top that they quickly become comic caricatures, and the plot soon ratchets up into high melodrama.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, I give McKinty credit for the effort of examining fully the character of Rachel Klein. The Chain would have been a good enough thriller with only the story of how Rachel saves Kylie, but the effort of the second part, the effort to go deeper into Rachel’s motivation and characterization, raises my overall evaluation of the novel.

fancy scroll

It’s the psychological aspects of literature that have always most fascinated me. I don’t just want to see what people do in certain situations; I want to understand why they choose to do what they do instead of doing something else. For me, characterization is always more important than plot, although characterization and plot are inextricably intertwined.

No matter what twisted situations they may find themselves in, people do what they do because of who they are.

Because of this interest in why people do what they do, learning about psychology has, over the years, helped me to understand and fully appreciate how fiction portrays the workings of the human mind and heart. To illustrate what I mean, here are five articles I’ve come across recently that fascinated and informed me. 

Sunday Reading: The Psychological Realm

The April 4, 2021, issue of The New Yorker features “ a selection of pieces on the mysteries and intricacies of psychoanalysis.” This is the portal page for the collection, where you’ll find links to the following stories:

  • “The Impossible Profession,” published in 1980, in which Janet Malcolm profiles an engaging psychoanalyst practicing in Manhattan and examines the history of the profession.
  • “God Knows Where I Am,” in which Rachel Aviv writes about what happens when patients with mental illness reject their diagnoses and treatments.
  • “Anatomy of Melancholy,” in which Andrew Solomon offers a moving account of his lifelong struggle with depression.
  • “Brain Gain,” in which Margaret Talbot explores the curious world of neuroenhancing drugs.

Although psychoanalysis, the approach to understanding the mind spearheaded by Sigmund Freud, is no longer the force in psychology that it once was, it still permeates the language and sets the stage for other psychological approaches.

Paula McLain Wrote a Thriller — and This Time, It’s Personal

This profile of novelist Paula McLain explains how all her works of fiction have been “the bridge out of a childhood spent in foster care.”

“My childhood was like a war that wouldn’t end,” she said. “I didn’t feel safe in my body. I didn’t see a way out or a way through. I was ashamed of my story; it seemed to point to something terribly wrong with me.”


—Paula McLain

McLain’s recently published novel, When the Stars Go Dark, features a protagonist, a female detective, who grew up in foster care and is still running away from some demons of her past. In the article McLain says this novel is “more intimate and tells the truth more than my memoir,” Like Family (2003). 

I haven’t read this novel yet, but I look forward to reading it. Although a work of fiction must stand on its own merits, knowing McLain’s relationship to this material will enhance my understanding of and reaction to the themes in When the Stars Go Dark.

The Best Books on [Various Branches of] Psychology

Five Books offers lists of the best books on many subjects chosen by experts on each topic.

We turned to some of the most eminent psychologists working today for their book recommendations. Psychology may not have all the answers, but it can help you have a better understanding of yourself and others; what motivates thoughts, feelings, and actions.

This is the portal to the site’s lists on several branches of psychology. You’ll find links to topics such as the following:

  • social media and political polarization
  • evolutionary psychology
  • behavioral science
  • character development
  • mindset and success
  • violence
  • coping with failure
  • happiness
  • cruelty and evil
  • productivity
  • meditation
  • mindfulness
  • emotions
  • burnout
  • clinical psychology
  • cognitive neuroscience
  • autism
  • forensic psychology
  • sports psychology
  • consciousness
  • self-help novels
  • grief
  • gender
  • personality
  • teenage mental health

How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory

“The psychologist taught us that what we remember is not fixed, but her work testifying for defendants like Harvey Weinstein collides with our traumatized moment.”

For much of the twentieth century, scientists believed that memories were recorded in our brains like films on tape that could be rewound and played back. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is responsible for the current concept that memories are reconstructed, not replayed:

“Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-­like creature.”

According to this article, “In the past forty-five years, she has testified or consulted in more than three hundred cases, on behalf of people wrongly accused of robbery and murder, as well as for high-profile defendants like Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, and the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape, in 2006.”

“Loftus’s career has been defined by her recognition that the language we use to describe an event will change the way we remember it.” Despite the reputation Loftus has developed by testifying for the defense of witnesses such as Harvey Weinstein, her work has revolutionized the way we now think about memory. And since memory is the basis for our creation of our sense of self, knowledge of her work can help us understand human identity, motivation, and behavior.

The False Promise of Quick-Fix Psychology

“Power posing, grit and other trendy concepts are scientifically unproven but have become enormously popular by offering simple solutions to deeply rooted social problems.”

Journalist Jesse Singal takes on concepts such as power posing and grit that populate the world of TED Talks and corporate training seminars. Such ideas, which originate in the field of social psychology, are usually ill defined and unproven, he argues. They often offer “what are, in effect, quick fixes for complex and enduring societal problems like inequality and bias.”

his article is adapted from Singal’s recently published book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.

The problem with such concepts that capture public attention is that they often offer a single, simple answer to societal, cultural, and historic issues that, beneath the surface, are much more complex and multifactorial than they may appear on the surface. 

A novel written by a good storyteller can often present a much fuller picture of such complex issues. For example, Liz Moore’s novel Long Bright River offers a picture of an urban area blighted by long-term job loss, poverty, drug addiction, and crime. 

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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

Moral Depth in Current Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

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

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


Introduction

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

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

What is moral depth in fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does “recent fiction” mean?

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

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

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

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

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

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

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

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

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

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

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

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

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

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

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

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

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

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Life Stories in Literature List Literature & Psychology Memoir Personal Reading

10 Reading Regrets of 2019

Yesterday I came across the article Readers’ Regrets: The Books We Wish We Read in 2019. It prompted me to take a look at my own shelves for the books I regret not having read in 2019. Here are 10 of them, listed in no particular order.

(Links that describe the book are to either Goodreads, Amazon, or the book’s publisher.)

Normal People by Sally Rooney

cover: Normal People

The description of the author’s “brilliant psychological acuity” drew me so quickly to this book that I bought a hardcover copy soon after its publication. 

Alas, that book still stands on my shelf, expectantly.


Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

cover: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Although I’m not—nor have I ever wanted to be—a therapist, I’m interested in psychology. I even went back to school at age 57 and got a Ph.D. in general psychology. I bought a copy of this book because it promises to scratch two of my itches: (1) a look at psychology that can inform my study of literature (fiction), and (2) an effort to read more nonfiction. The book still has a prominent place on my nonfiction TBR shelf.


In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

cover: In the Dream House

This book was published only recently (November 5, 2019), so I don’t have a copy and don’t feel too guilty about not having read it yet. Although my first literary love is fiction, my second-favorite type of book to read is memoir (nonfiction). (My focus of study in my Ph.D. program was life stories.) This story of Carmen Maria Machado’s experiences in “an abusive same-sex relationship” has gotten consistently good reviews, so I hope to read it soon.


Circe by Madeline Miller

cover: Circe

As a college classics major, I was immediately drawn to this novel featuring a figure from classical Greek mythology. I ordered a copy from Book of the Month Club when this title was chosen as BOTM book of the year for 2018. It still sits on my BOTM shelf along with a few others as yet unread.


The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin

cover: The Fifth Season

This book, originally published in 2015, recently drew my attention when I decided that I should at least try to read and appreciate some fantasy. For the record, I have read and loved Lord of the Rings twice and all of the Harry Potter books. This novel consistently appears on lists of good fantasy, so I’ll start here. I put it on the Christmas book wishlist that my daughter, who LOVES fantasy, requested, so it my show up at my house soon. 


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

cover: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

This book hits two of my sweet spots: it’s a novel about life stories:

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

This book is also on just about everybody’s list of the best books of 2019, which makes it call my name even more loudly.


All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

cover: All This Could Be Yours

All This Could Be Yours is a timely, piercing exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power; it shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.

A dysfunctional family with hidden secrets: how could I resist? I recently bought the Kindle edition when it was on sale.


Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

cover: Ask Again, Yes

This is another title that comes up on almost all the best books of 2019 lists:

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next 40 years. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while haunted by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.


The Need by Helen Phillips

cover: The Need

This promises to be a psychological thriller that deals in suspense and features family secrets along with an examination of the meaning of motherhood: “The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives.”


 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

cover: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I had this novel, translated from Polish, on my radar even before it received the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?

I bought a hardcover copy soon after the English translation was published in August 2019, and it still has a place of honor right at the end of my TBR shelf.


© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

‘Your throat hurts. Your brain hurts’: the secret life of the audiobook star

If you think narrating audiobooks is a dream job because all you have to do is sit there and read, you’d be wrong. Way wrong. Read all about the complex matters of matching specific books with appropriate readers, of preparing, and of carefully avoiding extraneous noise in the recording studio. At the end of the article is an added bonus of a short history of talking books.

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall
The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall

Writer Alison B. Hart rediscovers the joy of reading for pleasure—“ that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story”—by reading Anne of Green Gables aloud to her 8-year-old daughter.

Giving life experience its due

Older adults, particularly older women, often feel invisible, ignored and completely misunderstood by the younger world moving quickly around them. This article by Peter McDermott showcases several Irish authors whose recent novels feature older adult characters. There’s much insight here. For example, McDermott asked about younger authors portraying older characters:

Asked about possible pitfalls in depicting older characters, [Caoilinn] Hughes [the 34-year-old author of Orchid & the Wasp (2018)] said they would be exactly the same as a “writer can fall into when writing any character: undermining their humanity through lazy writing by privileging assumption over observation.”

Joan Didion’s Early Novels of American Womanhood

This article caught my eye because, although I’ve read quite a lot of Didion’s nonfiction, I haven’t read any of her fiction. 

What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do: marry, have children, and keep her marriage together, despite the inevitable philandering, despite her other hopes and dreams. Didion’s women have an image in mind of what life should look like—they’ve seen it in the fashion magazines—and they expect reality to follow suit. But it almost never does. In Didion’s fiction, the standard narratives of women’s lives are mangled, altered, and rewritten all the time.

Women’s writing began much earlier than supposed, finds academic

Scholarship has generally dated the first writing by English women to about the 12th century. But here Alison Flood discusses a new book, Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond 650-1100, by Diane Watt that places the emergence of women’s writing much earlier, in the 8th century. “Watt, a professor at the University of Surrey, lays out in the book how some anonymous texts from the period were probably created by women, and contends that men rewrote works originally produced by women.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literary History Literature & Psychology Review The Classics Club

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg. Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, in “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown