Literary Links

The Million Basic Plots

Novelist and screenwriter Ned Beauman laments the existence of the website TV Tropes, which breaks down the plots of all forms of popular-culture storytelling into such minute parts as to prevent him from coming up with any original plot elements.

I don’t write fiction but I love reading it, and I read a lot of it. The fact that “there’s nothing new under the sun” has never bothered me as a reader. What I look for when reading is how an author puts together various story elements to create an original work of art.

Reading will supposedly make you a better person. That’s not the real reason to pick up a book.

About all those reported studies claiming that reading makes us more empathetic and compassionate, Mark Athitakis, in The Washington Post, says, “Ugh.” He bases this opinion on his own experience with an emotional rough patch that left the perfectionist part of himself anxiety ridden and unable to read. 

What finally helped him through that time was a copy of Sidney Sheldeon’s 2000 novel The Sky Is Falling left in the lobby of his apartment building: “It was reassuring in a way, to be in such a world. What I valued was the simple happening-ness of life. The book reknitted my conception of reading, demonstrated that it wasn’t a stoic march to edification but a way to be open to experience.”

WHEN MEN NARRATE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS

I read a lot of mysterie and psychological thrillers. The usual trope set-up for these novels is a woman under duress, whose carefully constructed current life is about to be ruined by some ex who shows up and threatens to expose all her secrets. In this article crime fiction critic Lisa Levy discusses seven novels that turn this trope upside down by having a man narrate the story.

Annotate This: On Marginalia

How could I pass up this article on a web site called Notes in the Margin? (I initially wanted the title Marginalia, but that domain name was already taken.) 

Here Ed Simon, Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, declares “in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one.”

One of the reasons for seeking out used books is the possible discovery of marginalia:

Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.

Murder, We Wrote

The depiction of homicide in popular culture is continuously evolving, and our ceaseless fascination with these narratives says something about us. Human nature being what it is, we can’t ask “where is murder going?” without also asking “where are we?”

Brian Phillips discusses popular culture’s fascination with murder, particularly as featured in “the wave of psychological thrillers often lumped together under the heading of “Girl books”—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, and so forth.”

I’m a novelist – and this is why I choose middle-aged women as the heroes of my crime thrillers

Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter, discusses why, when she started to write crime novels in her 40s, she made her detectives two women in their 40s. “Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.” But, she adds, she didn’t create her detectives simply to mirror herself:

For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.

Jackson says she created her detectives to offer a model of a world in which the choices to remain single and not to have children as normal enough to be unremarkable. Published under the name Emilia Bernhard, Jackson’s novels include Death in Paris and The Books of the Dead

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Monday Miscellany

Hogwarts Is in Your Head, Harry: Conspiracy Theories About Literature

Harry Potter
Warner Bros.

Emily Temple weighs in over at The Atlantic:

Sherlock Holmes and Watson are lovers, Winnie the Pooh is a mental-illness allegory, and other theories that might forever alter your favorite books.

There was a pretty fascinating article over at Salon earlier this month, in which Greg Olear argues that Nick Carraway, the narrator of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, was gay and in love with the novel’s eponymous character. Though a Google search indicates that Olear’s not exactly the first person to think of this, I admit I’d never considered the idea before, and his arguments are pretty persuasive. The article got me thinking about the other theories and alternate interpretations that are floating around about classic literary characters. Below, an investigation, and perhaps a few sides of characters you’ve never seen before.

Now we all know that I’m a student of the intersections between literature and psychology, but, well, it’s just too easy to get carried away with this kind of thing once you get started.

Writers writing about writing: ‘Why We Write’

Joan Didion had it right. In her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” originally published in the New York Times Book Review, she lays out the template in no uncertain terms: “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions — with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating — but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

David L. Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times, describes the newly released Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Writers on How and Why They Do What They Do, edited by Meredith Maran.

See what writers including Mary Karr, Sara Gruen, James Frey, Susan Orlean, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Walter Mosley and Armistead Maupin have to say about their craft.

The Art of Marginalia

I, of course, could not pass up an article about the act of writing notes in the margins of books.

In addition to a neat photo of a well marked-up book, Jocelyn Kelley includes links to two other articles from the New Yorker and the New York Times.

16 Great Library Scenes in Film

When news broke last week that Dan Brown’s new novel will center on some sort of mystery surrounding Dante’s Inferno, I immediately began hoping that there is a nutty, fun scene of Robert Langdon racing around a library just like he raced around the Louvre in The Da Vinci Code.

And because I am who I am, it got me thinking about great movie library scenes that already exist. At first, I thought the list would be pretty short, but you know what? Hollywood loves a library. Some combination of ambiance, seclusion, hidden knowledge, and the sheer beauty of shelves upon shelves of books make libraries a fantastic film setting.

Jeff O’Neal, the editor of Book Riot, was surprised to find 16—SIXTEEN!—noteworthy library scenes in films.

Can you think of any that he left out?

The Best Coffee Mugs for Book Lovers

banned books mug

With Valentine’s Day coming up fast, here’s a whole cupboard full of gift suggestions.

This one is my favorite.

Silent reading isn’t so silent, at least, not to your brain

The blogger at Neurotic Physiology, who says she has a Ph. D. in physiology, discusses some recent research into whether “silent reading” is truly silent to our brains. The study she’s describing involved only four participants (but there are good reasons for the small sample size, as NP explains) and is therefore quite limited. But the results are interesting:

What’s particularly new about this study is that it not only shows that silent reading causes high-frequency electrical activity in auditory areas, but it shows that these areas as specific to voices speaking a language. This activity was only present when the person was paying attention to the task. The authors believe that these results back up the hypothesis that we all produce an “inner voice” when reading silently. And it is enhanced by attention, suggesting that it’s probably not an automatic process, but something that occurs when we attentively process what we are reading. And the next time you read silently, remember that it’s not quite to silent to your brain.

Be sure to read the comments. They’ll have you contemplating the reading voice in your own head.

The Nuclear Monsters That Terrorized the 1950s

What would a visiting alien learn from Them!, Godzilla, and Attack of the 50-Foot Woman?

People who want to talk about the jumpy, kitschy, gloriously lurid movie genre we now know as 1950s sci-fi usually start with Susan Sontag. This is not because Sontag is a bug-eyed alien or 50 feet tall but because she wrote, in 1965, the definitive essay on Cold War dystopian fantasy: “The Imagination of Disaster.” “We live,” she claimed in that piece, “under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.” The job of science fiction was at once to “lift us out of the unbearably humdrum … by an escape into dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings” and to “normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it.”

In other words, a good horror/fantasy/sci-fi flick provides a healthy dose of escapism, but it also keeps one eye fastened on what we wish to escape from.

Katy Waldman examines some of these classic movies and lists some conclusions we might draw from them:

  1. That science is amoral.
  2. That the universe exists in black-and-white.
  3. That women are scary. And sexy, too, just like the bomb itself.

Monday Miscellany

Some interesting takes on the literary world this week.

Out of Touch: E-reading isn’t reading

Slate caused quite a stir recently with its publication of this excerpt from Andrew Piper’s recent book Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012):

Amid the seemingly endless debates today about the future of reading, there remains one salient, yet often overlooked fact: Reading isn’t only a matter of our brains; it’s something that we do with our bodies. Reading is an integral part of our lived experience, our sense of being in the world, even if at times this can mean feeling intensely apart from it. How we hold our reading materials, how we look at them, navigate them, take notes on them, share them, play with them, even where we read them—these are the categories that have mattered most to us as readers throughout the long and varied history of reading. They will no doubt continue to do so into the future.

Understanding reading at this most elementary level—at the level of person, habit, and gesture—will be essential as we continue to make choices about the kind of reading we care about and the kind of technologies that will best embody those values. To think about the future of reading means, then, to think about the long history of how touch has shaped reading and, by extension, our sense of ourselves while we read.

KindleThis article elicited the following very clever response from Amanda Nelson over on Book Riot:

“E-Reading Isn’t Reading”: A GIF Response

 Slate has published an article called “Out of Touch: E-Reading Isn’t Reading,” which was actually an excerpt from Andrew Piper’s book, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times. The article takes the physical book fetish vs. e-reader debate into a new level of absurdity, pulling in St. Augustine and Aristotle to defend the author’s personal preferences about how he ingests books. Since I’ve already used words to express how ridiculous the idea that e-books aren’t “real” is, I’ve decided to come at my response to this article in a different way: with funny pictures.

WELCOME TO THE LITERARY CEMETERY

If you want to know where your favourite author ended up after their death then The Literary Cemetery should provide you with all the information you need. The writers listed on The Literary Cemetery cover all genres, eras, nationalities and styles – the only thing that they all have in common is that they are no longer with us physically, but they live on through their work.

Here, for example, is the grave of J. M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan:

grave of J. M. Barrie

Duly Noted: The Past, Present, and Future of Note-Taking

Sebastian Stockman, who teaches at Emerson College in Boston, reports on TakeNote, a conference dedicated to the history, theory, practice and future of note-taking, held recently at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

I found the most interesting part of this article to be the comments on the future of note-taking:

Bob Stein, the founder of The Institute for the Future of the Book, had some thoughts about how we might combat this disease. “The idea that reading is something you do by yourself is very, very recent,” Stein said.

His institute created Social Book, a platform for annotating books with your friends. Stein wants us to reimagine the book as less a physical object than a “place to congregate” and social reading as a communal experience of annotation, rather than “me telling you what I’m reading, and taking out a little snippet and then you going to Amazon and buying it.”

Stein gets more radical: He suggested an author’s own annotations might provide an ideal path through that author’s text — a road map for skimming.

There’s a link for the future publication of the conference notes at the end.

Great Gumshoes: A Guide to Fictional Detectives

Here’s a great article on fictional detectives, followed by a list of literary detectives not to be missed.

The list includes several characters you’ll find reviewed right here on Notes in the Margin:

What other fictional detectives would you add to the list?

 

New Material Added to Notes in the Margin

A busy summer prevented me from posting regular updates to the main site of Notes in the Margin. But I’m finally back with a new installment of the following materials:

Cover: Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace
Nonfiction Notes: Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace

Nonfiction Notes

Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

 

Fiction Notes

The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkanen

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Two by Val McDermid

The Donald E. Westlake Page

The Richard Stark Page