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Moral Depth in Current Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

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Introduction

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

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

What is moral depth in fiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does “recent fiction” mean?

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

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

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

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

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

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

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

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

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

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

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

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

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

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

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

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

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

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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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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Audiobooks Last Week's Links Life Stories in Literature Literary History Older Adults in Literature Reading

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

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Personal Story Writing

What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing

My major life activities are reading (usually fiction) and writing (always nonfiction). So I’m delighted when I come across something that combines the two: something like Marcy McKay’s writing challenge What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing. Marcy runs The Write Practice, a web site and newsletter aimed at fiction writers, but even though I write nonfiction, I often find her insights helpful. But this one I just have to try. I’ve been saving it, and today is the day.

Here’s Marcy’s four-stop process and my responses.

1. List your five favorite books. Write them down as fast as possible. Don’t overthink this. Just trust your instincts and write. If need be, make two separate lists: one for fiction and the other for nonfiction.

Five Favorite Novels:

Five Favorite Works of Nonfiction:

2. Find the common themes on your list. Are you drawn to redemption, self-discovery, forgiveness, good versus evil, transformation, love conquers all or triumph of the human spirit? It doesn’t have to be something boiled down to one word or even one theme. Just look for the common denominators between your books.

Common Themes:

  • the search for family
  • self-discovery
  • the search for personal identity
  • enduring and learning from painful personal experience
  • making meaning in one’s life
  • the meaning of love

3. Reflect on the stories from your childhood. What are the most important moments of your formative years, growing up? Happy or sad, think back on them all, then write them down.

I do not feel comfortable publicizing the events of my formative years here, but I do incorporate them, in a general way, in the next section.

4. Study the overlapping links between your lists. It is where your most powerful inner stories reside. These are the stories of your heart. If your lists do not connect and you’re struggling with your writing, this may explain the problem… . You should be telling stories you fell compelled to write. That’s where your passion lies.

My childhood included disrupted family life fraught with much verbal and emotional abuse. There were, however, spots of light that showed me other possibilities did exist.

People talk about “finding themselves,” but this exercise has made me realize that we don’t find or discover our self as much as we create it. Many years ago I realized that I had lived much of my life in an attempt to define myself in negatives, in saying what I am NOT—such as “I am not a victim.” When I realized this, I thought it was, well, a very negative thing to do, a negative way to live my life.

But doing this exercise has made me realize that such concentration on negatives—what I am not—is not truly a negative approach to life because understanding what I did not want to be helped me to become, or create, the self and the life I wanted. Acknowledging who I did not want to be enabled me to create the identity I wanted, one that embodies the values and beliefs I’ve come to hold dear because of the knowledge I’ve gained from my personal experiences.

In my recent focus on improving my writing I’ve frequently come across the concept of “finding one’s writing voice.” This phrase always bothered me in some vague way because it suggests that we’ve somehow lost our writer’s voice. But I now realize why I dislike the whole notion of “finding our voice.” We don’t find our voice, we create it, just as we don’t find or discover our self but rather create it.

Marcy says that this exercise helps us look at our inside stories vs. our outside stories. Our inside stories are the ones we carry internally, whether we’re aware of them or not. These stories often come from our childhood experiences and influence both how we think of ourselves now and how we behave in the future as we attempt to conform to the internal notion we have of ourself. Some children grow up feeling loved, accepted, and encouraged; those children move forward with confidence and a sense of self-worth and potential achievement. But other children grow up being told that they’re bad and that they’ll never become any better or accomplish anything; those children tend to live out their lives fulfilling this self-concept that they’ve incorporated into their sense of identity.

It is possible, however, to transform and transcend the identity story that our previous experiences have given us. One way to do this, the way that I have pursued all my life without even knowing why, is to read. These outside stories can show us other life possibilities and can thereby encourage us to edit our inner story.

My great thanks to Marcy for this exercise that can help us understand ourselves better and appreciate ourselves more. Doing this exercise can change your life.

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

Life Stories: A Select Bibliography

 

Aftel, Mandy. The Story of Your Life: Becoming the Author of Your Experience (Fireside, 1996)

Atkinson, Robert. The Gift of Stories: Practical and Spiritual Applications of Autobiography, Life Stories, and Personal Mythmaking (Bergin and Garvey, 1995)

Estrade, Patrick. You Are What You Remember: A Pathbreaking Guide to Understanding and Interpreting Your Childhood Memories (Da Capo, 2006)

Feinstein, David and Stanley Krippner. The Mythic Path: Discovering the Guiding Stories of Your Past—Creating a Vision for Your Future, 3rd ed. (Innersource, 2006)

Frank, Arthur W. Letting Stories Breathe: A Socio-Narratology (University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Funder, David C., Ross D. Parke, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Keith Widaman, eds. Studying Lives Through Time: Personality and Development (American Psychological Association, 1993)

Hendricks, Jon, ed. The Meaning of Reminiscence and Life Review (Baywood, 1995)

Linde, Charlotte. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence (Oxford University Press, 1993)

McAdams, Dan, Ruthellen Josselson, Amia Lieblich, eds. Identity and Story: Creating Self in Narrative (American Psychological Association, 2006)

McAdams, Dan P. Power, Intimacy, and the Life Story: Personological Inquiries into Identity (Guilford, 1988)

McAdams, Dan P. The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (Guilford, 1993)

Olney, James. Memory and Narrative: The Weaving of Life-Writing (University of Chicago Press, 1998)

Progoff, Ira. Life-Study: Experiencing Creative Lives by the Intensive Journal Method (Dialogue House, 1983)

Rainer, Tristane. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1997)

Singer, Jefferson A. Memories That Matter: How to Use Self-Defining Memories to Understand and Change Your Life (New Harbinger, 2005)

Stone, Elizabeth. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us (Transaction Publishers, 2004, rpt. 2008)

Taylor, Daniel. Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories (Bog Walk Press, 2001)

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

“Gone Girl”: Forging a Life Story

 

Related Posts
* Introduction to Life Stories
* “Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember
* Review of The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen
* Life Stories: The Personal Component
* 11 Novels That Feature Life Stories
* Literary Life Stories: The Character Biography
* Life Stories: A Select Bibliography

Gone Girl: cover
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Flynn, Gillian. Gone Girl
Random House, 2012

Spoiler Alert
This discussion contains spoilers for both the book and the film Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

I can’t think of any novel that features the concept of life story more prominently than Gone Girl. Author Gillian Flynn deftly uses variations on the life story theme as elements of both plot and character development.

In Part One we meet Nick Dunne as a first-person narrator. Soon we learn, along with Nick, about the apparent disappearance of his wife, Amy Elliott Dunne, on that day, their fifth anniversary.

As this section unfolds, we learn that Nick is less than perfect. He lies to the police about his alibi because, we eventually find out, he doesn’t want to reveal his affair with one of his students at the local college. Like the police, we begin to suspect Nick. Some of the most damning evidence against Nick is Amy’s diary entries that reveal a woman afraid that her husband is planning to kill her. In this opening section Flynn uses Amy’s diary, the record of her life story, as a plot element to arouse suspicion and doubt and thereby to create suspense.

Then in Part Two we meet Amy in person. She, too, is a first-person narrator, and she begins by giving us her checklist of 33 items of how she “did everything”:

I can tell you more about how I did everything, but I’d like you to know me first. Not Diary Amy, who is a work of fiction (and Nick said I wasn’t really a writer, and why did I ever listen to him?), but me, Actual Amy. What kind of woman would do such a thing? Let me tell you a story, a true story, so you can begin to understand.

To start: I should never have been born.

Amy introduces herself to us by telling her life story. Her mother had had five miscarriages and two stillbirths before, unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously, giving birth to Amy, who lived. Although Amy always felt superior to the seven babies who died, she also felt jealous:

They get to be perfect without even trying, without even facing one moment of existence, while I am stuck here on earth, and every day I must try, and every day is a chance to be less than perfect.

Amy’s parents even commandeered her life story to produce the Amazing Amy series of books, which made them rich. But those books didn’t rejoice in the real Amy they had. Instead, the books portrayed a child nearly perfect in every way, an amazing child that they were immensely proud of.

Constantly trying to be perfect, Amy admits, is “an exhausting way to live. I lived that way until I was thirty-one.” But her life changed when she met Nick:

Nick loved me… . But he didn’t love me, me. Nick loved a girl who doesn’t exist. I was pretending, the way I often did, pretending to have a personality. I can’t help it, it’s what I’ve always done: The way some women change fashion regularly, I change personalities.

When she met Nick, she was trying out the persona of the Cool Girl. But eventually that persona became too much for her to maintain. She dropped it and showed Nick “a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging than Cool Amy.” But Nick did not like Real Amy. “So that’s how the hating first began.”

As this section continues, we learn that Amy has been planning her disappearance, her way to punish Nick, for a year. The key element in her plan is the fake diary she wrote, backdated to build the picture of a woman gradually coming to fear that her husband planned to kill her.

Once we learn that Amy’s diary, which we had relied on as evidence in Part One, is fake, Flynn’s use of life story changes from a plot element to an element of character development. Through Amy’s different stories we have met Narrator Amy, Diary Amy, and Cool Girl Amy. When we finally meet the real Amy … . But you’ll have to see her for yourself.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Quotation Story

Life Stories

“Every person is defined by the communities she belongs to.”

― Orson Scott Card, Speaker for the Dead

Categories
Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Reading Writing

Literary Life Stories: The Character Biography

 

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Although the concept of life story originated in the field of psychology, where it pertains to real people, every major fictional character also has a life story. Good writers create memorable characters by building a character’s full life story before beginning to write their novel or short story. The character’s life story then becomes the back story against which the novel unfolds. By looking at some guidelines for writers about how to create characters, readers can learn how to evaluate and appreciate the writer’s craft.

Mia Botha instructs writers on creating their work’s main character, or protagonist, in an article appropriate entitled The Character Biography:

All authors start with an idea. It could be plot first or character first. It doesn’t matter. But, if something happened, it happened to someone. And this is where my character biography begins. I start out with perhaps a paragraph of the things I know about this person. I add details as my first draft progresses.

The character biography, Botha writes, contains three parts:

  1. the physical.
  2. the sociological.
  3. the psychological.

She says that she writes down the character’s biography before starting her novel, then rereads and, if necessary, rewrites it every few thousand words as her manuscript progresses.

Every protagonist needs an antagonist to provide the conflict necessary for a story to develop. Nancy Fulda advises writers on the types of possible antagonists, commonly known as villains, in Variations of Villainy:

Villains have their own priorities, goals, fears and aspirations. The more effectively you demonstrate these differences to the reader, the more compelling and believable your villains will become. The old adage, “Everyone’s the Hero of His Own Story” applies here.

Fulda describes five “basic personality types which frequently appear in villainous characters.” But while it’s useful for writers to know these basic types, Fulda points out, the types often overlap. It’s the writer’s job to flesh out these types with enough details to create a fully developed character. Readers will look for such details when evaluating whether a character is credible within the context of the novel.

When creating villains, it’s helpful to ask the same questions one asks when creating protagonists. What does this person yearn for? What does she fear? What is the best thing that could possibly happen to her? What can she least afford to lose?

For story purposes, a villain exists to oppose the protagonist. But for believability purposes, the villain exists as a being in his own right. Take time to discover who he is, and your stories will be richer for it.

Of course, not every detail of the character’s back story will find its way into the novel, but the writer must know those details in order to choose which ones to include. Great authors, says Botha, “know what is important for the reader and the story.”

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Fiction Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology

Life Stories: The Personal Component

 

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We all carry around a life story that expresses who we are and that contains our sense of identity. Introduction to Life Stories discusses how cultural influences such as religion, fairytales, and generally accepted codes of behavior contribute to the formation of our life story. This post explains how personal experiences also shape our life stories, then looks at an example of life story at work in the novel The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen.

Cultural influences pervade our lives so subtly that we learn them without being consciously aware that we know them—for example, heterosexual love, the notion of mothers as primary caregivers, which professions are appropriate for boys and which for girls. But grafted onto cultural templates for expected behavior are lessons learned, either implicitly or explicitly, from personal experiences.

story plateThe personal component of our life story begins in the home. Our families teach us some lessons explicitly, such as instruction in specific religious beliefs that influence our outlook on the world and our own place in it, or expectations about achievements in school, athletics, or other activities. Some families also create stories about the children that become part of each individual’s identity: “This is Kathy. She’s the smart one. This is Cindy. She’s the pretty one. This is Jake. He’s the family comic.” Family stories like these may originate as descriptions of young children. But the life story not only describes our past and present situation, but also influences future behavior. Once cast in these roles, Kathy, Cindy, and Jake will probably continue to act so as to fulfill these expectations.

But some lessons that we learn at home and absorb into our life story are not stated so openly, such as the old Smothers Brothers refrain “Mom always liked you best.” Children who feel they are not loved as much or treated as fairly as a sibling will incorporate this belief into their life story. Or children of verbally abusive or emotionally distant parents will learn to keep quiet or to retreat from the adults’ presence. Conversely, children whose families encourage them to express opinions and ask questions will incorporate these supportive experiences into the identity story they create for themselves.

We begin to construct our life story in adolescence but continue to revise it throughout our lives as we have more experiences. Our childhood experiences form the basis of our life story, but later experiences can alter our story and send us off on a different path.

Sarah Pekkanen uses life story as the skeleton for her novel The Opposite of Me. The main character, Lindsey Rose, has spent her entire adult life climbing the corporate ladder. At age 29 she’s on the brink of a big promotion at her high-level ad agency in Manhattan when a sexier colleague wrests away the position by using her feminine charms to land a huge account. When a moment of indiscretion with a male colleague gets Lindsey fired, she flees, hurt and humiliated, to her parents’ home in Maryland. When she arrives home, Lindsey finds her fraternal twin sister, the beautiful model Alex, in the midst of planning a wedding to her wealthy and handsome Prince Charming.

Because Alex is the pretty sister, Lindsey has relentlessly worked since childhood to make herself the smart sister. But away from the corporate world Lindsey begins to recognize and appreciate aspects of herself that she had suppressed in her career pursuit. When she can’t line up another ad agency job, she signs on to work for a local woman who provides personal matchmaking services to clients, a position that allows Lindsey gradually to retire her power suits and begin to cultivate a more relaxed personal style and flair. In this way Lindsey illustrates one of the most powerful aspects of life story: Change your story, change your life.

Although the concept of life story originated in the field of psychology—where it is called “narrative identity theory”—and pertains to real people, it can also be useful in understanding fictional characters. As Sue Grafton’s fictional detective Kinsey Millhone says, “There’s something inherent in human nature that has us constructing narratives to explain a world that is otherwise chaotic and opaque. Life is little more than a series of overlapping stories about who we are, where we came from, and how we struggle to survive.”*

*Sue Grafton, “W” Is for Wasted (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013, p. 59)