Many writers report vivid experiences of ‘hearing’ the voices of the characters they create and having characters who talk back to them, rebel, and ‘do their own thing’. It’s an experience described by a wide range of authors from Enid Blyton, Alice Walker, Quentin Tarantino and Charles Dickens through to Samuel Beckett, Henry James, Hilary Mantel and many more.
Writers’ Inner Voices is a collaborative research project between the Edinburgh International Book Festival and Durham University’s Hearing the Voice which set out to examine the ways in which writers and storytellers experience their characters. This website provides details of what we discovered, explanations for what might be going on, and creative writing exercises based on the research.
“Readers have collected their favorite literary lines for centuries. Now compiling a portable word scrapbook is easier than ever.”
If you like to collect notes and quotations from books you’ve read, this article is a gold mine. After a short history of the commonplace book, J.D. Biersdorfer has some suggestions for various apps and programs that can help you keep a digital commonplace book. Keeping track of stuff like this is what computers do best, so why not take advantage of their power?
In the acclaimed 1963 The Feminine Mystique, Friedan tapped into the dissatisfaction of American women. The landmark bestseller, translated into at least a dozen languages with more than three million copies sold in the author’s lifetime, rebukes the pervasive post-World War II belief that stipulated women would find the greatest fulfillment in the routine of domestic life, performing chores and taking care of children.
Meredith Maran looks at “a few of Hollywood’s most important behind-the-scenes movers, shakers and connection-makers — agents, scouts, managers and execs” contributing to the great number of literary adaptations making their current way from the page to the screen.
Kira-Anne Pelican, a psychologist and script consultant, here advises fiction writers on how to use psychology to create complex, compelling characters. What she has to say can also inform readers reviewing and analyzing literary works.
“Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind imagines the world after a global disaster, but its real subject is white entitlement.”
[Alam] has an interior barometer exquisitely calibrated to signifiers of social class: fashion houses, just-trendy-enough restaurants, interiors detailed with the loving eye of a copywriter for a high-end furniture catalog. His interest lies in taxonomies of race and class, not in generating the reader’s empathy or evoking an emotional response. Lacking the capacity for deep reflection, his characters drift along in their bubbles, so perfectly self-absorbed that the other people in their lives are all but invisible . . .
What intrigued me most about this list is the format. Writer Neema Roshania Patel asked “Torrey Peters, author of “Detransition Baby,” which came out on Jan. 12,” to name a book she is looking forward to this year, then asked the author of that book for a recommendation, and so on.
“I spoke with 10 female authors by the end of the chain, and together, they brought me down an exciting path of novels — plus a collection of poetry, a book of essays, a memoir and even a journey to the cosmos.”
I was attracted by this article’s title because, well, it’s George Saunders, but also because I’ve always had a very tenuous relationship with comedy. Growing up, I did not find the Keystone Cops and the Three Stooges funny at all. This article didn’t really help me sort out my concept of comedy, but, hey, it’s George Saunders talking about writing.
I haven’t read it yet, but House of Leaves has been on my TBR shelf for a while now because I’m always intrigued by descriptions of books with unusual structures. Here Melissa Baron discusses what she calls “fiction’s coolest niche genre: the weird and unconventional world of ergodic literature.” She pares the definition down to “books or digital text that use unusual methods to tell their stories,” but you’ll have to read the rest of the article to even begin to understand what the term means.
And I just moved House of Leaves several places upwards on my TBR list.
Michael Dirda finds that reading “serious literary fiction . . . [can] be exceptionally draining.” So, when he needs a break, he turns to nonfiction: “even a dry-seeming nonfiction category like ‘books about books’ — a librarian might label them ‘studies of print culture’— can be dangerously fascinating.”
Read what books about books he has especially liked recently.
Jonathan Kellerman, a former practicing clinical psychologist, created the fictional psychologist Alex Delaware in the novel When the Bough Breaks, published in 1981. Now at nearly 40 novels, the Delaware books comprise “the longest-running contemporary American crime fiction series.”
Here Kellerman discusses how, in Alex Delaware, he aimed to create a portrait of an ordinary person who works in the mental health profession. Kellerman laments that most other fiction continues to present mental health professionals in terms of two clichés: “evil shrink/screwed-up shrink. Sometimes a combination of both.”
German thriller writer Sebastian Fitzek discusses why he writes psychological thrillers: “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.”
Christine Hume, author of “Saturation Project,” recommends modern stories that turn patriarchal folklore on its head.
At the end of story-telling is myth-making: exhausted, stripped down narrative, pure grammar crystalized into affect. And when it’s good . . . Myth-structure holds the power to awaken us to our own history and also to make ourselves into strangers.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.
Ever since I started Notes in the Margin back in the late 1990s, I’ve been saying that I don’t like, and therefore don’t read, horror literature, particularly books about vampires, werewolves, and zombies. However, lately I’ve read several articles about horror that have convinced me it might be time for me to re-examine my position on reading it. After all, the whole world is currently experiencing a particular kind of horror.
I understand that vampires, werewolves, and zombies can function as metaphors for the state of human existence. I just don’t like reading about them. I can’t really explain why, just as I can’t explain why I don’t like liver. I just don’t.
I recently read and enjoyed The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. In her discussion of the difference between thrillers and horror, Anna Gooding-Call says that this novel is horror rather than a thriller because it involves actual ghosts. And that makes me wonder if there are other kinds of horror literature that I might like as well.
What Is Horror Literature?
To start at the beginning: What is horror literature?
The New York Public Library Literature Companion defines it this way:
Horror story: “A story designed to frighten its readers. Fear may be evoked through some combination of supernatural and fantastic elements, the suggestion of violence, the macabre, and psychological torments, the latter particularly important as many writers have exploited the dark and profoundly terrifying reaches of the reader’s own mind. Its roots are intertwined with those of the Gothic novel; the two genres emerged in the 18th century as a form of amusement that thrilled through terror” (p. 650).
In literature, horror . . . is a genre of fiction whose purpose is to create feelings of fear, dread, repulsion, and terror in the audience—in other words, it develops an atmosphere of horror. The term’s definition emphasizes the reaction caused by horror, stemming from the Old French orror, meaning “to shudder or to bristle.” . . . Horror feeds on audience’s deepest terrors by putting life’s most frightening and perplexing things—death, evil, supernatural powers or creatures, the afterlife, witchcraft—at the center of attention.
Most of the definitions of horror that I’ve read are descriptive: horror literature creates an overall atmosphere of feeling that can range from generalized dread to outright fear. As Anna Gooding-Call puts it, “The goal of horror is to evoke existential terror, disgust, or revulsion. If it’s eerie, it’s horror. Look for lots of supernatural goings-on and big metaphorical statements about society.”
A salient characteristic of horror literature is that it presents dualities, things that both attract and repel us. Just as people can’t resist slowing down while driving past a bad accident on the highway, we can’t look away. Horror literature produces the ambivalent feeling of both pleasure and disgust.
During my research about horror I found particularly interesting discussions about the overlap between what we commonly call literary fiction and horror literature. Christopher Shultz offers a list of 10 novels, ranging chronologically from Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus (1888) by Mary Shelley to The Fever (2014) by Megan Abbott, “that effectively utilize horror elements.”
Literary fiction, while often embracing a wider range of human emotion and experience [than horror], is built on a foundation of suffering, despair and the prospect of each individual’s approaching death. Death—and the forms it takes—is the ultimate human fear.
Much literary fiction, Fitch argues, “[causes] us to confront our mortality through the everyday tragedies of life.” Fiction deals in our feelings of guilt, remorse, and unfulfilled longing. “Literary fiction, in its attempt to confront reality, is built on a foundation of insanity, meaninglessness, brutality and death.”
I find Fitch’s view of literature and life overly pessimistic, but I sympathize with his notion that literature often examines human imperfections in our efforts to understand and cope with the realities of existence.
But I agree with the notion that there’s a close relationship between crime fiction and horror. I read a lot of mysteries and psychological thrillers, and many of those books, with their emphasis on fear, push right up close to the boundaries of horror fiction. I didn’t realize just how close the two genres (crime fiction and horror) can be until I read Anna Gooding-Call’s article about the differences between thrillers and works of horror.
the great thing about these two genres is, they so often tend to blend beautifully together. When I think of crossover genres, horror and crime are perfect companions. They’re the peanut butter and jelly of genres. Sure, you can have one without the other, but . . . they blow your mind when you combine them.
Among the books Booth discusses in his article about horror-crime crossovers is Red Dragon (1981) by Thomas Harris, the novel that provides the backstory of one of recent literature’s most notorious villains, Hannibal Lector: “it’s the way Thomas Harris portrays the Red Dragon’s voice that cements this one as a perfect horror/crime crossover.” I have read Red Dragon and found it riveting, but I continue to refuse to read (or see the movie) The Silence of the Lambs because I don’t want to read about cannibalism.
One of my particular areas of interest is the intersection between literature and psychology and what literature can teach us about psychology. The Silence of the Lambs appeals to me because of its purported psychological interplay between Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling. But despite the book’s appeal, I’m not going to read it because I don’t think I could stomach the cannibalism. (My stomach feels queasy from just writing about it.)
And here I think I’ve finally found out what I wanted to know when I began thinking about horror literature: given the relationship between thrillers/mysteries and horror, I need to understand exactly where my boundaries between them lies. Max Booth’s article has helped me begin to figure that out.
I’ve read two of the other books Booth discusses, Dark Places by Gillian Flynn and In the Woods by Tana French. He calls both dark thrillers, and I certainly agree. But neither of them bothered me the way thinking about reading The Silence of the Lambs bothers me. Booth’s description of French’s book applies here: “There is always a hint of something … deeper going on in her books. . . . We’re dipping our toes in the possibility of something cosmic happening, but we’re never actually taking the full dive.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the other book from Booth’s list that I’ve read, Sarah Pinborough’s 2017 novel Behind Her Eyes. As Booth acknowledges, you can’t say much about this novel without giving too much away, so I’ll just say that this is the novel that prompted me to think about what horror literature is and isn’t. Although I see this title on a lot of lists of horror works, I don’t classify it as horror. Thinking about this novel doesn’t make me queasy, as The Silence of the Lambs does. It just makes me angry. I know that’s cryptic, but it’s the best I can do here. If you’re curious, read the book (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).
Why Horror Appeals to Us
If horror literature makes us feel uncomfortable emotions like fear and disgust, why does it appeal to readers so much? Michael J. Seidlinger explains the appeal this way:
readers continue to turn to horror to confront reality, as well as for a good old-fashioned, albeit terrifying, escape. It helps when the escape gives readers the chance to trust in the narrative and know well that the horror on the page is far more controllable than the horror outside their front doors.
Or, as Xavier Aldana Reyes writes, “With horror novels and films, you know you’re experiencing fear in a safe space that you ultimately control.”
But Reyes also writes, “In a sense, what scares us most about horror is often ourselves, where our minds will take us, which is coloured by our experiences and tastes.” And this is the experience that all literature gives us, the opportunity to learn about ourselves by watching what fictional characters do.
In fact, Reyes’s discussion of horror arrives exactly at the heart of where literature and psychology intersect:
There’s nothing more fearful than the mind; it’s where all our fears collect. When you’re experiencing fear through the psychology of someone whose grasp on the world is already compromised by their circumstances, that makes it even more powerful. The scariest of literary horrors are, in my view, not just conceptual, but also linguistic. They activate something personal. And that’s why horror is both shareable and private.
Books to Read
Reyes’s point about horror as a personal experience reinforces my earlier suspicion that I need to examine my own limits in terms of what horror I care to read. I think I’m still not terribly interested in zombies, werewolves, or vampires, and I know I don’t want to read pure gore (splatterpunk) such as a title like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre suggests. From my research, I’ve compiled a list of five recent novels that may allow me to probe further my horror comfort zone.
The descriptions here are from Goodreads, followed by my reasons for choosing each book.
1. Lock Every Door by Riley Sager
No visitors. No nights spent away from the apartment. No disturbing the other residents, all of whom are rich or famous or both. These are the only rules for Jules Larsen’s new job as an apartment sitter at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile and mysterious buildings. Recently heartbroken and just plain broke, Jules is taken in by the splendor of her surroundings and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.
As she gets to know the residents and staff of the Bartholomew, Jules finds herself drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who comfortingly, disturbingly reminds her of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew is not what it seems and the dark history hidden beneath its gleaming facade is starting to frighten her, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day, when Ingrid disappears.
Searching for the truth about Ingrid’s disappearance, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s dark past and into the secrets kept within its walls. Her discovery that Ingrid is not the first apartment sitter to go missing at the Bartholomew pits Jules against the clock as she races to unmask a killer, expose the building’s hidden past, and escape the Bartholomew before her temporary status becomes permanent.
I enjoyed Sager’s two earlier books, The Last Time I Lied and Final Girls. But I put off reading the last two (this one and Home Before Dark) because the descriptions sound as if they may feature supernatural elements.
2. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.
. . .
A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.
I heard of this novel in relation to the HBO series based on it. I’m particularly interested in reading the book to see how it uses horror elements as symbols (personifications?) of racism in U.S. society.
3. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
After receiving a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from a mysterious doom, Noemí Taboada heads to High Place, a distant house in the Mexican countryside. She’s not sure what she will find – her cousin’s husband, a handsome Englishman, is a stranger, and Noemí knows little about the region.
. . .
Her only ally in this inhospitable abode is the family’s youngest son. Shy and gentle, he seems to want to help Noemí but might also be hiding dark knowledge of his family’s past. For there are many secrets behind the walls of High Place. The family’s once colossal wealth and faded mining empire kept them from prying eyes, but as Noemí digs deeper she unearths stories of violence and madness.
This book has gotten almost universally good reviews. But I particularly want to read it because I’ve read a couple of articles in which the author insists that the novel is gothic horror. This book most likely illustrates the relationship between horror and the gothic novel.
4. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north from London to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and most dreadfully–and for Kipps most tragically–The Woman In Black.
The Woman In Black is both a brilliant exercise in atmosphere and controlled horror and a delicious spine-tingler–proof positive that this neglected genre, the ghost story, isn’t dead after all.
As I said at the beginning, I like a good ghost story. This book also has roots in the gothic novel genre.
5. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
In the latest thriller from New York Times bestseller Riley Sager, a woman returns to the house made famous by her father’s bestselling horror memoir. Is the place really haunted by evil forces, as her father claimed? Or are there more earthbound—and dangerous—secrets hidden within its walls?
This is the other Riley Sager novel that I’ve hesitated to read. (See entry #1.) Here’s another potential ghost story as well as the trope of a writer as character.
I don’t write fiction, but I read a lot about and talk with people who do. I’m always fascinated when fiction writers say that a character either appeared and demanded to be written about or appeared to object when the writer wrote the character in a particular way.
Here’s a fascinating look by John Foxwell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English at the U.K.’s Durham University, into how writers experience this phenomenon. Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018.
“. . . the more researchers delve into thought and imagination, the more difficult it is to say exactly how much control over our thoughts and actions any of us actually have – and to what extent the control we feel we have is an illusion.”
“For decades, a white woman’s memoir shaped our understanding of America’s first Black poet. Does a new book change the story?”
Elizabeth Winkler reports on the life of Black poet Phillis Wheatley and examines a new book, The Age of Phillis, by poet and professor Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. In her book Jeffers attempts to understand the only version of Phillis Wheatley’s life, written 50 years after the poet’s death, by Margaretta Matilda Odell, a white woman who claimed to be a “collateral descendant” of Susanna Wheatley of Boston, owner of slave Phillis.
Michael Dirda writes that over the past two months “I’ve been sorting and culling the vast number of books I’ve accumulated in a lifetime of reading and collecting.” The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a “persistent feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger and mild despair,” but he hoped that going through 300 boxes of books and deciding which to keep and which to part ways with would give him a feeling of control.
“However, making these decisions has turned out to be harder than I expected.”
Read some of the dilemmas he faces in deciding which one of multiple copies of the same book he should keep.
Here’s a big topic I’m still trying to get my head around: Tim Parks sets out to answer the question “Why do we categorize novels?” In the article linked here he explains how he found similarities between a number of authors, all of whose works center around the question of belonging to a particular group.
But this is only the first article. There are three more articles in the series, each dealing with another such category. (This introductory article contains a link to the entire series.) Parks constitutes his categories as “clearly defined hierarchies of value, or centers of interest, generating distinct, or at least recognizable, types of plot and character interaction.”
Over the course of the four articles Parks arrives at four fictional categories, or fiction that centers around one of these four “distinct value systems”:
stories focused on the characters’ relations to the community (belonging)
around conflicts between indulgence and renunciation (goodness)
around a tension between the craving to be free and a need to feel protected (liberty)
those related to winning and losing: confidence and inadequacy, strength and weakness, complacency and resentment, envy and emulation, seducing and succumbing, jubilation, but also wise resignation (power)
So if you’re spending some of your pandemic downtime categorizing and rearranging your book shelves, why not give Parks’s system a try?
“The one-sitting novel isn’t just something you can read in one afternoon—it’s something you should read in one afternoon. The one-sitting novel is perfectly structured to be consumed as a complete, transporting experience, whether that’s a breakneck ride through a thrilling narrative, or a slow, dreamy fog that envelops your mind as you page through,” writes Adrienne Westenfeld for Esquire.
I was attracted to this list mainly because my ability to focus over extended periods of time has been hampered by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 world. Westenfeld says the upper limit of her choices here is 250 pages, which seems appropriate for a book to be read in one day.
If you need a truly feel-good story—and who doesn’t need one of those right now?—read about how one teacher in Tennessee helped pilot a project that has boosted primary students’ reading comprehension and made them eager and excited about reading.
Vivienne Woodward looks at some books that manipulate our sense of time. The inspiration for this essay is the way COVID-19 lockdown has affected her perception of time:
One of the things reading fiction makes clear is how many ways there are to use and manipulate time. This period of quarantine has made me think about the art of time in my own life in a new way; it has forced me to wake up every day and make more deliberate choices about how I will spend it. Perhaps the way we experience reality is not so different from the way writers construct narrative. Joan Didion famously said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If we take her word on that, then let’s make better study of one of the most malleable narrative elements we have: time.
This is the fifth installment in Lisa Levy’s examination of why so many crime novels feature the word girl: “Girls are the easiest characters to put into peril and the ones with whom the audience is most likely to sympathize.”
There are links to the first four installments near the beginning of the article.
The title of this article comes from a comment writer Lee Child made when he recently turned over the writing of the Jack Reacher series to his brother Andrew Grant.
“Creating a long-running series featuring a much-loved character can be both a blessing and a curse,” Alison Flood says here. Read how some authors, including Sara Paretsky, Attica Locke, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, and Michael Connelly, have dealt with their long-term relationships with their fictional creations.
If you follow the topic “reading” on any social media platform, you’ve undoubtedly seen the statement “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.” Here Mik Awake declares, “Book-hoarding is less cute if you think of it as book-privatizing.”
As far back as the novels in Oates’s Wonderland Quartet, such as “Expensive People” (1968) and “them” (1969), which received the National Book Award fifty years ago this fall, Oates has deployed her zeal for revision to forge a style of rousing roughness. Her dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, many of them set in western New York, forgo an air of cool mastery in favor of a kind of cultivated vulnerability, an openness to engulfment.
Because I like mysteries and thrillers, I’m always interested in any article that includes them in its title. Here Tammy Cohen, author of six psychological thrillers, lists five of her favorites by other authors.
Cohen also offers an inclusive definition of the genre psychological thriller:
The psychological thriller explores our internal state, our internal fears, our relationships, the way we see ourselves in our domestic world, in our small world, interacting with the people around us. And it plays on our fears about things that could go wrong within that sphere. It doesn’t have to be domestic, but it usually takes place within a small group, which gives it that claustrophobic feeling.
Her definition well explains why I find that such novels explore most fully the darkest depths of the human heart and mind.
High school English teacher Sahar Mustafah writes that her students often ask when they’re going to read happy books.
Young people, quite naturally, equate “happy” with a safe, uneventful existence. Genocide, sexual assault, poverty, racism, climate change—it’s hard to find any reason to be excited about reading these subjects as a plot line. And the experience can be just as hard for a teacher to present to students.
“But I pose that books containing difficult issues or trauma are good for our youth. In fact, they’re downright essential,” Mustafeh counters. Her reasoning?
literature can increasingly shape empathetic, socially-conscious individuals. Shielding students from challenging texts because “there’s so much bad stuff already going on” only seeks to reinforce systems of power and inequity.
I’d argue that her power to connect with us in hard times arises not because her retired life shielded her from grief, pain, and fear—but because she knew very well what it was like to feel vulnerable, exposed, and anxious about the well-being of those she cared about.
Hadlow concludes: “What Austen really prizes is resilience” and “the self-discipline she insists upon as a means to survive” during hard times.
Perhaps you prefer Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College, discusses Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, “set in 1923, five years on from the global influenza pandemic that killed somewhere between fifty and a hundred million people.”
Woolf’s vivid description of a crowded metropolis right now, when our own cities’ streets lie empty, feels like something out of a fantasy novel. Yet Clarissa’s joie de vivre is mixed with a sense of latent dread: “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
I’m including this article not just because it recommends five books. Novelist Emma Viskic and interviewer Cal Flyn also discuss the significance of crime fiction and the specious distinctions between crime fiction and literary fiction.
“What is the Great American Novel? Its existence as a singular volume is surely a myth, but what is the concept of the Great American Novel?” Annika Barranti Klein examines the history of the concept of the Great American Novel and tries to figure out what the term actually means.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.
I came upon Adam O’Fallon Price’s article The Subjective Mood, in which he laments the lack of moral depth in current fiction, back in February. I included it in a literary-links round-up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I find a lot of moral depth in most of the fiction I read.
Price describes moral depth as the quality in a novel that doesn’t merely settle for telling a story but “also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality.” He explains further:
over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.
This definition feels misleading because books don’t think; people do, both authors and readers. “What the book thinks” means exactly what?
Price correlates moral depth with plot, writing that “so many of these books are boring”:
The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this?
And there’s that troublesome concept of “what the book thinks” again.
But perhaps Price’s best description of the lack of moral depth is this extended passage:
But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.
What does “recent fiction” mean?
Price avoids a specific definition of what he means by the phrases contemporary novels and recently published novels, but he does offer this: “Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago.” Waldman’s novel carries a copyright date of 2013, so let’s assume that, in general, he’s talking about novels published since 2013.
In considering the cause of the lack of moral depth in recent fiction, Price gives us this disingenuous explanation: “the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet.”
It has been a long time since I heard anyone give this knee-jerk reaction to explain everything that’s wrong with modern society. Blaming the loss of moral depth on the internet only underlines even more finely how imprecise Price’s terminology is.
4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth
Here are four novels, all published after 2013, that contain moral depth. Oh, and not one of them is boring.
Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch
In a world in which quantum physics allows scientists to explore parallel universes, physics teacher Jason Deesen pursues answers to the questions “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?”
In his pursuit Jason makes several choices and deals with their consequences as he searches for the answer to the most basic questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Who do I choose to be?” In this way, Dark Matter directly contradicts Price’s description of a lack of moral depth:
It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.
Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim
This novel follows the lives of seven people over the course of a four-day murder trial. Through the use of multiple points of view, Miracle Creek allows all participants to tell their stories and explain how they ended up at the place where a terrible tragedy caused the deaths of two people.
In the moral depth that Price misses in current fiction, “Action and choice occasions a moral dimension.” This novel attains that moral dimension by giving all the major characters the opportunity to tell their stories.
If your notion of moral depth is passing judgment, you’ll find that in this novel. The perpetrator is identified and duly punished by law. But if your notion of moral depth is to examine and understand choices people make within the complex circumstances their lives have offered them, you’ll find that here as well. Moral depth doesn’t get much deeper than this.
Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf
Price laments the loss of “the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative.” Our Souls at Night presents exactly that in its story about two widowed older adults who seek caring and companionship in each other’s company within the confines of their small-town existence.
Like Miracle Creek, this little (179 pages) novel takes a big look at the preconceptions of conventional morality to examine moral choice in the context of individual characters’ lives.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid
In this novel the aging actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life and career, but she’ll only tell it to one person, the struggling, little-known young journalist Monique Grant. It’s a story featuring ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant.
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an example of a life review in fiction. The concept of life review comes from an area of psychology known as narrative identity theory. Many older adults, as they approach their life’s end, engage in life review, the process of understanding and accepting the life they’ve lived.
In his description of the lack of moral depth he finds in current fiction, Price writes:
It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.
In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the telling of the story is both the significant action and the facing of the consequences of actions made earlier in life.
(Another example of life review in fiction is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. For more information about life stories in literature, click here.)
To find recent novels like these, one has to be willing to look for them. Dark Matter is straight-up science fiction, while Miracle Creek, because it features a murder, likely sits in the mystery section of bookstores and libraries. I’ve often written that I like mysteries and thrillers because the best of them deal with what it’s like to be human in the world. Readers who spurn genre fiction will never find these gems.
Also, we find the books we need at the times in our lives when we need them. Price says in his article that he’s 44. I have nearly 30 years on him, and for that reason books that feature older adult characters coming to terms with their lives draw my attention. The best of those novels carry the moral depth that accompanies the wisdom of their characters.
Books don’t think, but good books make people think. Throughout its history the novel has been the literary form that probes the questions of how individuals relate to the societies they live in. My guess is that as society evolves, novelists will continue to find ways to explore its moral complexity through fiction.
Hendricks, Greer & Sarah Pekkanen. An Anonymous Girl St. Martin’s Press, 2018 ISBN 978-1-250-13373-1
Jessica Farris, age 28, works as a freelance make-up specialist, lugging her product cases all over Manhattan and barely earning enough to get by. On a typical Friday night Jessica overhears Taylor, one of her college-student clients, tell her roommate that she won’t be getting up early enough the next morning to participate in the psychological survey she’s signed up for. “It pays $500,” Taylor casually says.
With a couple of distractions Jessica manages to see the appointment information on Taylor’s phone and decides to take Taylor’s place the next morning. After all, she needs the money.
When Jessica shows up at the appointed place and time the next morning, a young man greets her and explains that he’s the research assistant for Dr. Shields, a psychiatrist who’s conducting a morality and ethics research project. He directs Jessica to a seat in a classroom where an open laptop awaits.
Jessica is surprised to find out that she’s the only person scheduled for that time slot. She’d be more surprised if she knew that Dr. Shields was watching her complete the questionnaire through the computer’s camera. Some of the questions make Jessica squirm in her seat just a bit.
While watching Jessica from the next room, Dr. Shields recognizes something she needs in the young woman, even though she knows this woman isn’t the scheduled Taylor. Watching Dr. Shields watch Jessica, the reader suspects the psychiatrist’s observation applies to herself as much as to her research subject.
But the reader sees everything.
This novel is unusual in its use of two first-person narrators. Jessica and Dr. Shields speak in alternating chapters, and the reader soon has no trouble recognizing which one is speaking. Jessica’s narrations are conversational and straightforward, while Dr. Shields’s use of passive verbs (e.g., “the door is opened to you,” “your coat is hung up,” “a gift is offered”) peg her as a researcher and academician. Dr. Shields at first uses this type of language only sparingly, but she uses it progressively more frequently as the novel develops.
As Dr. Shields asks her to perform more actions as part of the ethics research project, Jessica becomes suspicious. She continues to do as asked, though, because Dr. Shields pays her handsomely and Jessica needs the money to help her family pay for her handicapped younger sister’s special needs.
When Dr. Shields introduces Jessica to her husband, Thomas Cooper, also a psychotherapist, Jessica realizes there’s more to this psychological experiment than she originally thought.
By now Jessica knows she’s in way deeper than she ever imagined possible. Will she be able to figure out what exactly is going on and how to protect herself?
It would be easy to read this novel as simply an engaging thriller, but, as suspenseful as it is, it also examines serious underlying moral issues of human existence: truth, responsibility, loyalty, betrayal, trust, love. How these moral questions play out will determine if anyone emerges unscathed from this psychological experiment.
Mary Ann Lund, associate professor in Renaissance English literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, discusses Robert Burton (1577-1640) and his The Anatomy of Melancholy, “the most pervasive and elusive of Renaissance diseases.”
“One of the great achievements of The Anatomy of Melancholy is to draw together the collective wisdom of nearly two millennia on a condition that was alluring and dangerous in equal measure.” Lund writes “melancholy came to be seen as a European epidemic” during the 16th and 17th centuries.
2018 was “a rough year” for college professor and academician Carole Bell. She made several significant life changes during 2019 to help herself overcome isolation, depression, and anxiety, and one of those changes involved “reading intentionally and reading as self-medicating and self-soothing.”
In the end, I read 403 books in 2019, not counting the few I abandoned or partial reads of the academic books I read select chapters from for research. I also wrote 50 book reviews, sent one to a popular blog and had it accepted it for publication. The bottom line: I had been in a funk, and I read my way out. Reading is no substitute for therapy. And I did some other things along the way like find a critique partner and a writing coach, train for a half marathon, and run my best time. But as it had on other occasions before, the biggest internal change began with books.
“The coronavirus outbreak feels like something out of a science fiction — or horror — novel. Indeed, novelists have been imagining scenarios like this for centuries,” write Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar in The Washington Post. Read their discussion of several pandemic novels that may offer readers “a fascinating what-if thought experiment.”
I don’t emphasize often enough the importance of close reading for fully understanding and appreciating works of fiction. Here Yash Raaj explains how he uses outside resources to understand fully a novel’s setting—both time and place—and how the setting “interacts with characters.” This approach to reading literature allowed him to see “how literature branched into history, sociology, etc., connecting these disciplines in one text.”
Moreover, this habit has brought out a new side to me as a reader. I have learned how to arm myself with information, which is highly necessary in an era of social media activism. Careful reading certainly adds an edge and displays a streak of awareness accumulated through literature.