I don’t know about you, but I have trouble keeping up with the terminology used to describe some of the new kinds of literature. Here Caitlin Hobbs explains that the term cyberpunk, which has its roots in science fiction, “didn’t gain traction as a recognized genre, or even a literary movement, until the release of Neuromancer [by William Gibson] in 1984.” Since then, the term has expanded to include films and videogames in addition to books.
“For something to be considered cyberpunk it must be set in some futuristic setting, have advanced tech (like cybernetics) juxtaposed with a social order that’s either in the process of breaking down or has already done so.”
“How Counterfactual Realities Make Us Better Thinkers”
Books like Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal introduced the notion of storytelling as a survival technique humans developed over eons of evolution. This excerpt from Framers: Human Advantage in an Age of Technology and Turmoil by Kenneth Cukier, Viktor Mayer-Scönberger, and Francis de Véricourt carries on that discussion:
Salt and sugar light up the human appetite in a primal way; stories do the same thing for our minds. They are a platform to contemplate scenarios of alternative realities and how humans act within them. They help us evaluate options and prepare decisions. In this way, they expand and improve our framing skills.
Anna Sebba considers how the fate of Ethel Rosenberg has continued to inform literature:
although the story of the Rosenbergs’ trial and execution has proved fertile ground for many other artists, composers, and playwrights, it is the conflicting images of Ethel herself that have made her so irresistible as a tragic figure. The way she continues to defy labeling as mother, wife, sister, daughter, Communist, or would-be opera singer has penetrated the American consciousness deeply. It is this complexity that has encouraged audiences to project her, more often than the dramatically less interesting, more predictable Julius, into works of fiction, even where she was originally absent from the script.
“The silly idea that a fictional character’s statements reflect an author’s actual beliefs is spreading.”
I don’t always agree with Laura Miller, but I always admire her boldness and audacity. Here she writes, “I know some will consider Hilderbrand’s and McQuiston’s obeisance to be a sign that the ‘toxic drama’ that prevails on YA Twitter—in which ambitious reviewers-cum-influencers revile authors for failing to toe extremely fine and perpetually changing lines on race, gender, and other sensitive issues—has spread to the world of commercial adult fiction.”
I’ve always been very careful about quotations since they’ve become frequent material for blogging and social media posts. Almost every time I come upon a quotation used this way, the author’s name is given but with no indication of the source of the exact words. If I can’t cite the exact source of a quotation, I don’t use it.
And I also know the difference between things writers say in their own voices, such as in interviews or bylined articles, and things they put in the mouths of their fictional creations to advance characterization. The fact that a character in a novel says something does NOT mean that the author believes the same thing.
But, as Miller here laments, “While it’s perplexing that people who are always rhapsodizing about how much they love reading can be so very bad at it, the truth is that the incentives for interpreting a book’s meaning in the worst possible light are high.”
“The ‘Scarlet Letter’ author’s short stories are like a Puritan ‘Twin Peaks’”
A century before H.P. Lovecraft (inspired by Hawthorne’s novel The House of the Seven Gables) depicted New England as a realm of terror and dread, Nathaniel Hawthorne was on the case, mining the region’s history for insights into the mind’s darker corners. Chiefly remembered today for The Scarlet Letter, that bane of high school curricula, Hawthorne’s highest achievements are actually found in his short stories. There, he examines the supposed innocence of the early American character, finding the darkness that lies beneath.
“Christine Mangan Recommends Fiction that Honors and Upholds the Genre’s Enduring Legacy”
The Gothic, then, has been a particularly significant place for women, as, erased from the pages of history by a patriarchal lens, this genre has served as a space for female writers to reclaim history, a space to examine such matters as marriage and subjugation, the female body and autonomy. Topics that remain relevant today and often find their ways into mysteries, thrillers, horror, all of which ultimately locate their roots in what Gothic was and continues to be—a place where marginalized voices have space to write their cultural anxieties, as tropes are borrowed and reinvented and repurposed for the changing era in which they are written.
“In an era that fetishizes form, Oates has become America’s preëminent fiction writer by doing everything you’re not supposed to do.”
Joyce Carol Oates, one of the most prolific of all contemporary authors, recently turned 83. In this New York Times profile Leo Robson writes:
Among contemporary American fiction writers—and, since the deaths of Philip Roth and Toni Morrison, she possesses a strong claim to preëminence—Oates most clearly displays what Henry James called “the imagination of disaster,” a faculty or frailty she often gives to her creations.
“All Seasons Press, led by two industry veterans, backs right-wing authors as mainstream houses face growing disputes over editorial decisions.”
The reckoning within the publishing industry continues to roil: “Two veteran book-publishing executives have teamed up to launch a conservative publishing house called All Seasons Press LLC as ideological debates roil a book industry increasingly fueled by demand for political titles.”
“Reading America through more than two centuries of its favorite books.”
In The New Yorker, Louis Menand takes on Jess McHugh’s book Americanon, which discusses “thirteen American books, from ‘The Old Farmer’s Almanac,’ first published in 1792, to Stephen R. Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ which came out in 1989.”
In looking at these thirteen self-help books, Menand writes:
In fact, McHugh disapproves of every one of the books she writes about. “Americanon” is, in effect, a critique of American society in the form of thirteen book reviews. It belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars.
According to Menand, McHugh “prefers, she says, ambiguity and change to the myth of a unified national narrative. But ambiguity and change are just the keywords in a different narrative.”
Attorney Susan Cole recognized the toll that trauma can take on children:
She began a decades-long examination of the links between education and childhood trauma, using her accumulating experience to identify “broader systemic failures that could not be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” as her husband, David Eisen, put it.
Constant stress and fear were more than just a distraction for students; their effect, she learned, was neurological, activating the fight-or-flight survival instinct permanently.
June is the annual celebration of Pride Month. Over the years I’ve sometimes been confused about how to use correctly the applicable terminology. I’m grateful to NPR for putting together this glossary of terms relating to gender identity.
Proper use of gender identity terms, including pronouns, is a crucial way to signal courtesy and acceptance. Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, compares using someone’s correct pronouns to pronouncing their name correctly – “a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that’s consistent and true to who they are.”
Programs offering an MFA (master’s in fine arts) in writing have proliferated.
The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a graduate-level degree earned by students who seek to pursue work as authors, editors, playwrights, or to teach at the college level.
The folks at BookBrowse have put together this discussion of the purpose of such programs. This article pertains to understanding the plot of the recently published novel The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, but the content here is a general description and discussion for anyone who has ever wondered about these programs.
“The habit of not writing, it turns out, is sadly easy to acquire in a pandemic.”
I know I’m not the only person who had trouble focusing on reading and writing during the pandemic. With the arrival of the beginning of the end, Rachel Toor has some advice on how to get back into the swing of things.
Toor herself is an academic, a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA, and her advice is directed toward other academics, whose professional lived are governed by the “publish or perish” mantra. However, I found her advice helpful also for a general audience, such as us book bloggers who may be struggling to get back to work.
My first book group was organized by the local branch of the county public library where I lived. I participated in the group for about 12 years and found some of my closest friends there. It’s something I sorely miss since relocating for retirement.
The 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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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:
Who am I?
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:
to situate someone within a particular society or culture, in a specific place and a specific time
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Pin This Post
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.
One of the best examples of such a novel that I’ve read lately is The Silent Patientby Alex Michaelides.
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.
“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?
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.
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.
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 Girlby Mary Kubica and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.
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.
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.
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.
And the fallout continues over the allegations against Blake Bailey, author of the biography of Philip Roth that was canceled this week by publisher W.W. Norton.
A publishing executive’s rape allegation against the Philip Roth biographer sent shockwaves through the industry—and put the Times’ handling of it under the microscope. Book critic Dwight Garner, aware of the claim since 2015, says the accuser didn’t want him “to take any actions.”
Charlotte Klein, writing in Vanity Fair, asserts:
The Times’ level of promotion wasn’t unusual for a book positioned as a serious literary biography—and especially one about the late Roth, who represents a kind of fantasy of what it meant to belong to a certain generation of American male novelists—but the paper’s own scoop inevitably raised questions of who knew what and when.
“The Blake Bailey story shows publishing’s institutions once again working to protect men.”
In Vox, Constance Grady explains why the allegations against Blake Bailey “have swept across the literary world”:
in part, that’s because the story of the allegations against Bailey involves so many major publishing figures, culminating in an accusation of rape occurring in the home of one of the New York Times’s staff book critics. The story being told about Blake Bailey right now is one of publishing’s institutional power being put to the service of powerful men.
This article from August 2020 offers “five perspectives on race and Shakespeare” based on a PBS broadcast of Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing that “features an all-Black cast in New York City’s Central Park.”
The commentary is from from first-year college students who studied the performance shortly before their campus shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. “We hope that, just as the Public made new meanings of this old play, our voices can signal newer, younger, better ways of thinking about Shakespeare that help us uncover truth, gain empathy, and take responsibility for racism.”
Mariela Santos Muñiz writes about what she didn’t learn in grad school:
The textbooks that I had to use for my classes mostly presented one side of history — and they didn’t really include diverse perspectives. This was despite the fact that the U.S. is a diverse country. For one, I didn’t learn much about U.S. Latinx history while in school.
When she started contributing to Book Riot after graduation, she wrote articles that made her realize how much she hadn’t learned in school.
So, I started looking for books to reeducate myself. As part of this process, I changed how I chose the books that I read. This meant focusing on the author as well. Being able to see the world differently is about the subject matter, yes — but it’s also about who’s telling the story.
See some of her suggestions for “books that center the perspectives of people that are traditionally underrepresented and overlooked.”
“As the subject of no fewer than three biographies since her death in 1995, the popular writer lived a complicated, if fascinating, life. What was she really like?”
One of the items still on my list of literary projects to complete is a deep dive into the life and works of the fascinating Patricia Highsmith.
The writer was a collision of contradictions, a woman for whom every aspect of herself (including being a woman) demanded internal debate. In her private life, she swung dramatically between polar states of desire and disgust. Her personal journals that she kept her whole life — separate from what she called her “cahiers,” or notebooks in which she worked on her fiction — reveal a woman at the mercy of her emotional tides, drawn to the darkest corners of her psyche.
Novelist and book critic Lauren Oyler on taking risks, writing in the first person, managing self-doubt, and why she increasingly doesn’t have a good answer for “why we write.”
Lauren Oyler, author of the novel Fake Accounts, is here interviewed by Michelle Lynn King. Oyler says she created the first-person narrator of Fake Accounts because “I’m really interested in the issues of the first person narrator and the author in the time of the internet.”
About the concept of the unreliable narrator, she says, “We’ve all learned that everybody’s performing all the time and that the self is a fiction.”
What exactly is bookishness? Michael Seidlinger here defines it as “a person’s interest in maintaining nearness to books. It is a term derived from bookish, which is a label often applied to people who read a lot.”
Seidlinger examines the world of bookishness and how it manifests in today’s culture, from celebrity book clubs to Instagram influencers and companies that market items (clothing, candles, wall hangings, and throw pillows) to help people create their personal bookish persona.
“The next wave of crime fiction could help shape the public imagination of what a world where police weren’t in charge of public safety could look like.”
Historically, crime fiction has portrayed the police as heroes. But that vision of law enforcement is becoming hazier for the general public, and for most communities of color, it was never accurate at all.
The observance that crime fiction has contributed to a glorification of police and their policies is not new, but it is now particularly timely. Here Amy Suiter Clarke, author of the recently published novel Girl, 11, calls upon authors of mysteries and thrillers to write books that “imagine the world as it could be, not as it is.”
Mya Nunnally describes her work as a sensitivity reader: “I offer my thoughts on how writers portray characters who share my own lived experiences.”
The book industry’s endeavors to publish more diverse books means that many authors are incorporating into their books more characters that differ from themselves. Despite authors’ best efforts at research, “there’s a chance that they’ll miss something about the experience simply because they haven’t lived it themselves. When writing about experiences outside their own, I find that most authors simply don’t know what they don’t know. They aren’t familiar with damaging tropes, perhaps, or didn’t realize that what they wrote is tapping into a stereotype.”
Nunnally describes this work as “both rewarding and exhausting.” She convincingly documents the importance of such work and hopes that sensitivity readers “can become a commonplace component of the publishing industry.”
I loved Alex Michaelides’s debut novel The Silent Patientand was delighted to hear that that his second novel, The Maidens, will come out in June.
As the author’s name suggests, he grew up surrounded by Greek tragedies and mythology. I’m looking forward to reading his new novel, which he wrote during the COVID-19 lockdown: “There is nothing like being locked in your apartment to concentrate your mind!”
Last week’s links featured a piece about experimental fiction (though I prefer the term inventive fiction), and here’s another one. Author Rebecca Watson, author of little scratch, “recommends five of the best experimental novels and explains why a writer might choose to bend the rules—and to what effect.”
In little scratch, Watson attempts to demonstrate how the main character moves through an ordinary day interacting with the outside world while simultaneously carrying on an interior conversation with herself examining a trauma she’s concealing. She explains, “experimental writing needs an openness and willingness from a reader, to go beyond what you might be used to.” The whole purpose of this kind of writing, she says, “is to help immerse the reader further in the story.”
Sonora Jha, author of “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” recommends fiction in which men grapple with gender expectations
“One big, yawning gap in literature and culture . . . is the tale of the man who encounters and overcomes his own male fragility and entitlement,” Sonora Jha writes. She offers a list of “seven novels and short stories in which we do encounter such men (and one teenaged boy).” The authors of these works “place their characters within the struggle and watch them squirm. Some of these characters make it to the other side and others don’t.”
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.
McKinty, Adrian. The Chain
Hachette Audio, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
“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.
“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.
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.