“Knowing what people are expecting allows you to subvert the trope. Expectation is its own red herring, built right into your reader.”
Stuart Turton, author of the brilliant The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and newly released The Devil and The Dark Water, admits, “I’m obsessed by the structure of novels.” He particularly likes “books that cross genres and mess with the traditional way stories are told.”
Here Turton explains how he played with crossing genres to create the effects he wanted in his two novels.
This is a topic that fascinates me. Here are two blog posts I’ve written that deal with the topic from a reader’s rather than a writer’s perspective:
There’s a lot said and written about the importance of introductions in fiction, but not so much about endings. And for good reason: to discuss the adequacy or inadequacy of an ending, you have to give away the entire contents of the book.
Here Ron Charles, book reviewer for The Washington Post, takes on this subject. He cites a survey of Goodreads reviews done by the online retailer OnBuy.com , which yielded a list of the Top 12 Most Disappointing Endings. Charles also solicited comments from Post readers about the novel endings they’ve found most disappointing. His conclusion: “If there’s any common thread, it’s that the endings that offend us most appear in the books we love most.”
And while you’re reading Charles’s article, take advantage of the link offered whereby you can sign up for his weekly Book World newsletter. It lands in my inbox every Friday and is one of the highlights of my literary week.
Publisher’s Weekly offers the scoop on “the forthcoming tabletop game Mother of Frankenstein,” which “combines aspects of immersive theater, escape rooms, board games, puzzles, role-playing games, and parlor games in one package, making for a 15-hour playing experience.”
Good news indeed, as it seems we’re in for an extended period of pandemic isolation.
From the U.K. Guardian: “We know the heyday of the ghost story mostly as the province of men like MR James and Charles Dickens. But archivists are finding that some of the finest exponents were women.”
Read why the women pioneers in ghost stories who have been “effectively erased from history over the last century.”
This article on “the concentration of power in UK publishing” reports on the lack of diversity in the Booker Prize.
Author Jamie Harris writes that “The Booker is steeped in Britain’s colonial history” and is seldom awarded to writers published outside of London:
In a country where publishing is so concentrated in the hands of just a few conglomerates who have acquired some of Britain’s most successful small presses, the chances of British novelists who are neither English, nor published by major London publishers, winning seems to be getting smaller.
Reading comprehension, defined as the “ability to process and retain information from texts,” is something we usually think of as happening to children in their early years of school. But here Christine Ro reports on some recent research into enhancing reading comprehension for adults and offers some suggestions for doing so.
Unsurprisingly, some of her suggestions involve slowing down while reading and actively engaging with the text, for example, by annotating, all examples of slow reading.
Writer Sulari Gentill says that, since crime fiction “essentially tells the story of a crisis,” is has helped to prepare us for the world we all now find ourselves in.
This year we have already faced fire, flood and pandemic. We had fled our homes and been confined to them. And we have risen up against murder and prejudice. Each of those actions have required decisions about how to protect ourselves and those around us. They have been made in the face of real threats to personal safety.
I have written (here and here) of my love for Edna Buchanan’s crime novels set in Miami featuring Cuban-American journalist Britt Montero.
Before she turned to writing crime novels, Edna Buchanan was a crime journalist in Miami. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper work in 1986.
In this article Diana Moskovitz addresses the issue of how television, movies, and other elements of popular culture have helped create the current problem in the U.S. of police using unnecessary force to subdue suspects. This is an argument that isn’t new. I’ve seen many stories lately of how crime dramas such as Blue Bloods and the various iterations of Law & Order have shaped the public attitude that law enforcement only uses extreme measures to subdue criminals and force information out of them when absolutely necessary. These dramas have taught us to excuse such behavior as the necessary price society pays for protection and safety, the argument goes.
And, according to Moskovitz, Edna Buchanan is one of the well-known crime reporters whose work has contributed to this public attitude. Moskovitz is talking about Buchanan’s reportorial work here, not her novels. On rereading The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, the 1987 book about her reporting that made Edna Buchanan a nationally known figure, Moskovitz realized:
. . . how police positive it was. How it is littered with calls for tougher justice, using victims as props to demand harsher sentences, and how it ignored all the ways American society sets people up to break the law in the first place. How bad behavior by officers—even the one Buchanan briefly married—is condemned, but never really traced back to any larger issue. How Buchanan’s words have reinforced institutions that a growing American conscience believes are no longer, and perhaps never were, inherently good, or even necessary at all.
After the publication of The Corpse Had a Familiar Face, Buchanan became the public model for what a good crime reporter should do: “the Buchanan model is not, primarily, about police accountability. It’s about writing a story that leaps off the page with stunning details.”
Author Charlie Jane Anders writes in The Washington Post:
Sen. Kamala D. Harris was half right in her speech launching her 2020 presidential campaign when she said we need to address climate change based on “science fact, not science fiction.” The truth is, we need both. Science fiction has an important role to play in rescuing the future from the huge challenges we’re facing . . .
“Stories about climate change might be fiction, but they can help to sway people’s hearts and minds in a different way than a recitation of the undeniable facts,” Anders writes. “And because science fiction is the literature of problem-solving, our made-up stories about science and innovation can play an important role in helping us to regain our faith in our own ability to create change.”
Agostino Ramelli, a 16th-century military, “designed many contraptions for the changing Renaissance landscape.” One of his machines aimed at allowing users to read multiple books at one time. Although Ramelli never built the machine, its possibility has long intrigued people who study the history of the book.
This article from Atlas Obscura details how, in 2018, a group of undergraduate engineering students at the Rochester Institute of Technology set out to build the machine. It’s worth looking at the article just for the photos and illustrations, but the text is pretty intriguing as well.
“Our picks for immersive, escapist, or nostalgic reading—wherever you are”
If you still need more suggestions for reading to occupy yourself with during this pandemic, editors from The Atlantic have some suggestions, curated “with an eye toward stories that will resonate during a summer of continued social distancing and tentative reopenings.” They’ve “ loosely grouped them according to literary cravings you might have,” such as these:
I have avoided the zombie craze like the plague (pun intended), although I know that many other people find it indicative of current society.
And now zombies have achieved a certain degree of legitimacy. The Associated Press reports that the University of California, Irvine, is offering an online course about the AMC series The Walking Dead:
AMC says fans of the show know it’s about more than zombies: it’s about survival, leadership and adapting to uncertain situations. Topics addressed in the classroom will include the hierarchy of needs in a crisis, the physiology of stress and population modeling to predict a species’ survival.
It’s perhaps the nature of grown-up literature that it doesn’t all that often have villains, in the sense of coal-black embodiments of the principle of evil. And even when it does, it’s not always so easy to tell who they are. Is God the baddie, or Satan? Ahab, or the white whale?
Yet even writers as subtle as Vladimir Nabokov have spiced their work with a fiend or two. And here they are. We hope you’ll furnish a few more we missed.
This is a British list. I’m sure readers from other cultures have their own favorites from their native literary canon to add.
From Trish Foxwell, author of A Visitor’s Guide to the Literary South:
Stretching from Virginia to the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, and to the tip of Louisiana are some of this country’s most important literary landmarks. Notonly does a visit to the South reveal this region’s haunting beauty, it opens up a window into the lives of some of the nation’s most gifted authors, poets, and playwrights.To visit the landscape that inspired William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Thomas Wolfe, Edgar Allan Poe, and Tennessee Williams (just to name a few) is an unforgettable journey into the South’s storied literary legacy and the annals of American literature. While every corner of this region offers a fascinating collection of writers’ landmarks, here are my choices for the “Top Ten.”
An attempt to piece together the life of the notoriously reclusive Catcher in the Rye author JD Salinger, researched over the course of eight years in strict secrecy and including more than 200 interviews, is to be published as a biography on 3 September. A documentary film about the author will be released in the US the same week.
Arriving three years after Salinger’s death at the age of 91, The Private War of JD Salinger promises new insights based on accounts from his “World War II brothers-in-arms, family members, close friends, lovers, classmates, neighbours, editors, publishers, New Yorker colleagues and people with whom he had relationships that were secret even to his own family”, according to a description on Amazon. The author’s literary estate has remained resolutely silent.
For much of the nine years that Shane Salerno worked on his J.D. Salinger documentary and book, the project was a mystery worthy of the author himself.
Code names. Hidden identities. Surveillance cameras. Until 2010, when The Catcher In the Rye novelist died at age 91, only a handful of people were fully aware of what he was up to. Even now, with the release date of the film Salinger less than three weeks away, little is known about a production that draws upon more than 100 interviews and a trove of documents and rare photographs, and that promises many revelations about an author who still fascinates millions.
This second article promises that the film, to be released September 6, features “commentary from famous Salinger fans like Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, and John Cusack.” There’s also some background information about Salinger here, and you can watch the movie trailer.
From writers of canonical prestige, to the classics of our childhood, appetizing and iconic literary food moments are at the forefront of many of our best books. Here is a selection of some of the tastiest:
This list is drawn from British literature. Any suggestions for comparable scenes from American literature?
Priscilla Gilman describes her son’s early love of books:
As an infant, my son Benj was aloof and never wanted to cuddle with me, but if I read to him, he would snap to attention and listen avidly. He shunned toys and stuffed animals, preferring instead to surround himself with books. . . . But when Benj was almost 3, he was given a diagnosis of a rare disorder called hyperlexia: the ability to read at an early age coupled with difficulty with social interaction and verbal communication, and typically, although not exclusively, found in children on the autism spectrum. I was devastated to learn that Benj’s fondness for reading and reciting literature, which I’d taken to be impassioned and profound, was, in fact, a symptom of his disorder.
Read this entire piece for Gilman’s examination of hyperlexia and her discussion of how it has given her growing son an extraordinary appreciation for the inner workings of language.
You’ve probably heard that the Today show is starting up a new book club and that the first selection is The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon:
The 21-year-old phenom, whose book, “The Bone Season,” came out Tuesday, cites a variety of classics among her biggest influences. Characters like Lucy Snowe from Charlotte Bronte’s “Villette” helped her forge a path for Paige Mahoney, the female protagonist of “The Bone Season.”
Here Shannon recommends five dystopian novels that contributed to the creation of her own dystopian world.
It’s good to catch up with one of my favorite mystery writers, Sue Grafton, creator of private investigator Kinsey Millhone (rhymes with brimstone):
The next book will be “W” Is for Wasted. Grafton promises “z” will be for “zero” — and after she finishes that one, she’s taking a nap.
See some gorgeous shots of Santa Barbara, CA, here. This is the real setting that inspires Kinsey’s fictional home of Santa Teresa. Read about how certain parts of town have influenced Grafton’s creativity.
David L. Ulin, book critic for The Los Angeles Times, admits he’s not a gamer but acknowledges he is “interested in the narrative possibilities of role-playing games.” There are, Ulin writes, certain similarities between literature and these games, “beginning with immersion and the idea that every reader re-creates every book in his or her own image, just as a player determines, in a very real way, the outcome of a game.”
I’ve been thinking about this in regard to a new game, “The Novelist,” which is due to launch before summer ends. Designed by Kent Hudson, who spent a decade working on games such as BioShock 2, it’s an attempt to develop a different kind of game — quieter, more interior, with an outcome as ambiguous as a life. The protagonist, as GalleyCat reported Monday, is a novelist named Dan Kaplan, and players lurk like ghosts in the corners of a house he shares with his wife and young son, as he tries to balance the competing pressures of his world.
“There’s no winning or losing,” Hudson observed in an interview with the gamer’s guide Kotaku. “[M]y hope is that as you’re presented with the same fundamental question … over the course of the game, that you start to learn about your own values. And by the end … maybe your guy has written the greatest book ever but his wife left him and his kid is getting in trouble at school all the time. Well, I guess when push comes to shove, you’ve decided that career’s more important than family. Or vice versa.”
Novelist Megan Abbott considers the summer’s big scandal, Tampa, first novel of short-story writer Alissa Nutting:
Inspired by a real-life case, the story centers on Celeste Price, a serial predator of teenage boys who uses her job as a middle-school teacher to initiate an affair with a 14-year-old male student, with catastrophic results. Celeste’s first-person narration depicts with ceaseless energy her predations, and her remorseless, amoral response to the havoc that ensues.
Abbott finds Tampa‘s roots squarely “within the noir tradition in crime fiction”:
From the tabloid tales of James M. Cain through Jim Thompson’s deranged heroes all the way through to Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, noir is the terrain where compulsive behavior — characters who cannot stop themselves or restrain even their most taboo desires — is the subject, is in fact the expectation. Such behavior (or the longing that drives it) is the engine of the plot. It is a genre foremost focused on the elemental drives: desire, greed, hunger, rage, longing. Story then stems from the way these elementals can take over one’s life, becoming the drumbeat or the funeral beat to life. Characters are ruled by the circuit of wanting-needing-getting-wanting again. Addiction and compulsion don’t just call for action, they demand it. Often, there’s guilt over it, but sometimes, as in the darker corners of noir, the characters have surrendered to it or, like Jim Thompson’s center-less heroes, never fought it at all — they’ve embraced it. “Tampa” falls squarely in this latter tradition, with each sexual episode (this way, that way, on the desk, on the sink, in the car, alone or partnered, real and fantasy) emanating from the drive: I can’t stop myself. Why would I want to?
Abbott compares Tampa with Vicki Hendricks’ 1995 novel Miami Purity, describing how both portray gender reversals of classic noir texts. With further references to Nabokov’s Lolita and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Abbott examines how the authors portray emotional attachment—or the lack of–to create narrative distance that shapes our responses to these “transgressive female” characters.
NORMAN, Oklahoma: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature may be the most prestigious literary award in the United States that you’ve never heard of. In certain circles it is sometimes referred to as “The American Nobel” not just because of its reputation for quality but also because the judges have on several occasions selected a winner who went on to bag the illustrious Swedish literary prize. This November, another writer will receive the accolade (plus the $50,000 and silver eagle feather that goes with it) and added to the list of potential, if not likely, Nobel-winners at a ceremony at the University of Oklahoma. Publishing Perspectives took the opportunity to talk about the prize’s 44 year history — and this year’s nominees — with Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today, the journal that administers the prize.
I admit that I had never heard of this prize, which is “conferred solely on the basis of literary merit” as judged by an elite panel of judges who are all “acclaimed writers in own right.”
The short list for the 2013 prize has international scope:
Far and away the most famous nominee is Japan’s Haruki Murakami, who is up for his third nomination. Also nominated are: César Aira, the Argentine writer/translator; Mia Couto, a Mozambican poet and author; Duong Thu Huong, a Vietnamese novelist; Edward P. Jones, an American author; Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-born poet now resident in US; Chang-rae Lee, a South Korean-born author resident in US; Edouard Maunick, a Mauritian poet; and Ghassan Zaqtan, a Palestinian poet, novelist and editor. There are also numerous firsts among the nominees: never before have writers from Mauritius, Mozambique, Palestine, or Ukraine been nominated for the prize, meanwhile Jones is first male African-American writer to make the shortlist.
UCLA researcher Patricia Greenfield has long suspected that the environment around us influences our psychology – not in the classic sense that our family life or peer groups sway our behavior, but in a much broader way. Human psychology adapts differently, she theorized, to rural settings than to urban ones.
Rural living, with its subsistence economies, simpler technologies, and close-knit communities, demands of people a greater sense of deference to authority and duty to each other. Urbanization, on the other hand, generally comes with greater wealth and education, and complex technology and commerce. Adapt to life in a city, and a different set of values becomes more important: for starters, personal choice, property accumulation, and materialism.
. . .
Greenfield’s theory borrows from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. But the evidence mostly comes from literature, a collection of 1,160,000 English-language popular and academic books published between 1800 and 2000. If American culture and psychology grew more individualistic as the country urbanized, wouldn’t that transformation be clear in the words from American books (and the concepts that lie behind them)?
The ability to formulate this type of hypothesis results from the digitization of many, many books that allows for computer analysis of language usage. See the graphs in this article for illustrations of how Greenfield performed her analysis.
Katherine Hill, author of the recently published novel The Violet Hour, admits:
I have a thing for lovers’ quarrels—literary ones that is. There’s just nothing quite so dynamic, so conversant in so many emotional and moral registers, as a face-off between sworn intimates doing whatever it takes to win. It’s the proverbial car wreck, the horrific conflagration we can’t look away from, because the fire is actually kind of grand.
In college, I took a seminar called “Doomed Love in the Western World,” on troubled affairs throughout the ages: “Troilus and Criseyde,” “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Madame Bovary,” “Anna Karenina,” “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Satanic Verses,” “The Human Stain.” For years after, everything I read seemed to extend the conversation of that class. Social worlds might change, but love would always find agonizing new ways to die.
So when I set out to write my first novel, I had a tradition in mind. How does doomed love look in today’s affluent America, which wants to have its cake and eat it, too? Lavish weddings and gender equity, marching side by side.
Read her account of lovers’ quarrels in works of literature such as D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and of how she incorporated this theme into her own novel.
Dismayed by the recent news that Barnes & Noble will no longer manufacture its ereader, the Nook, Nook owner Greg Zimmerman began:
looking at and experimenting with the various e-reader apps available for iPad, Android, and Windows tablets. What I discovered is that they are mostly similar — text and background are all customizable, and they all offer the ability to bookmark, highlight text, and take notes. But none of them is perfect. Each has a quirk or two that would prevent it from being my new go-to e-reading app.
Read his report on the following alternatives to the Nook:
For decades, the label “women’s fiction” has unfairly cubbyholed worthy books. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up recent reprints by Penelope Mortimer, E.M. Delafield and Shirley Jackson that showcase the nuance and insight of these novels.
Wright discusses the following books:
Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater
E.M. Delafield’s The Way Things Are
D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle’s Book and Miss Buncle Married
Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall and Life among the Savages
All have been recently reissued and therefore shouldn’t be difficult to find.
It is striking how closely literary fiction echoes real events. The trenches of the First World War gave us the anti-war novel. The Cold War gave us the golden age of spy stories, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The West had James Bond and John le Carre’s Smiley while the Russians had their Julian Semyonov. More recent events have given us the terrorist novel, with Tom Clancy straddling the sub-genres of terrorist nukes and terrorist bio-weapons.
But of all the genres, the detective story seems the most durable, perhaps because the tales are less about crime, more about character. For every cunning murder we recall, from death by icicle which melts to leave no traces to tea being stirred with an oleander twig, it is the detectives and the killers who stick in the mind.
From Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty to Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, the dance of detection is part of a dynamic that goes back to the dawn of humanity. The killer starts by being the hunter and then becomes the hunted.
His appreciation of detective fiction also incorporates the importance of setting. Check out his list of favorite fictional detectives, which includes most of the usual suspects as well as some lesser known ones.
Some characters just have to exist in pairs: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Thing 1 and Thing 2.
Elizabeth Wein’s excellent novel Code Name Verity features a pair of female protagonists who think of themselves as a Sensational Team. In this article Wein introduces us to some of her favorite literary duos:
it was hard work narrowing down my teams, so I had to make myself some rules for a fair elimination process. Here’s the system I decided to follow. Each team would have to be a Dynamic Duo rather than a fellowship of three or more (that ruled out the Swallows and the Pevensies), and the pair’s involvement with each other had to further a plot unconnected with any potential romance between them (that ruled out Romeo and Juliet). I also decided that for the purposes of this list each pair of favourites needed to be the main characters in their own stories (that ruled out Fred and George Weasley).
I brainstormed a much longer list than I needed. When I looked it over to choose my top ten, I was amazed and also somewhat disgusted. There wasn’t a single pair of girls on the list. There were more stuffed animals than girls on the list. . . . I feel sure there are other pairs of girls out there besides my own, doing Sensational Literary Teamwork, but they don’t appear in any books I’ve read. Maybe that’s exactly why I make them up.”
Discussion continues over whether reading literature somehow makes us better people. This article reports on recent research out of the University of Toronto:
“Exposure to literature,” the researchers write in the Creativity Research Journal, “may offer a (way for people) to become more likely to open their minds.”
In other words, exposure to literature may make people more tolerant of ambiguity, a trait that in turn can help them avoid snap judgments, stereotypical thinking, and bad decisions.
Their results should give people “pause to think about the effect of current cutbacks of education in the arts and humanities,” Djikic and her colleagues add. After all, they note, while success in most fields demands the sort of knowledge gained by reading non-fiction, it also “requires people to become insightful about others and their perspectives.”
I’m usually skeptical of anyone who begins with a comment something like “I haven’t had this experience myself, but here’s what I think about it.” However, in this case I’ll give the writer, Evan Gottlieb, Associate Professor of English at Oregon State University, a pass. As he explains, since his professional life involves discussing literature with others, he feels he should spend the rest of his time attending to other interests.
Gottlieb may never have attended any book club sessions, but I have: countless book club gatherings over more than 20 years. And I can testify that the seven points he makes here are spot on. I especially like his second point, about keeping the discussion on topic:
2. Plot, character, setting, and style are the four basic formal elements of any novel. . . . As long as you are describing, considering, analyzing, or asking questions about one or more of these elements, you can be sure you are staying focused on the book that everyone (presumably) has read and gathered to discuss.
The manor house in which DH Lawrence set Lady Chatterley’s Lover is among a number of homes with literary connections currently on the market.
This article discusses several English properties with a literary connection currently for sale. There’s also an interesting discussion about whether a literary connection makes a property more or less valuable.
Even if you can’t afford one of these places, the pictures are lovely.
Dysfunctional families in literature run the gamut from amusing to chilling, but they all have one thing in common: they keep the reader glued to the page. After all, as readers, we may like the occasional dose of normal, but it doesn’t take long before we’re craving a touch of betrayal or a hint of deceit. Dysfunctional families in literature let us peek into the dark shadows of the psyche while keeping a safe distance.
Novelist Ingrid Thoft offers a slideshow of 10 such families.
When Gogol died in 1852, Ivan Turgenev, the man whom many in Russia were calling his successor, was arrested for writing an obituary in praise of the great writer. In fact, the official reason was a pretext. Turgenev had already displeased the tsarist authorities with his series of sketches of rural Russian life, published in the journal the Contemporary between 1847 and 1851, and collected in 1852 as Sketches from a Hunter’s Album.
This book, which it is claimed influenced Tsar Alexander II’s decision to emancipate the serfs in 1861, comprises vignettes of peasant life as observed by a landowning hunter much like Turgenev. Not even Gogol had presented such rounded portrayals of serfs before.
I’m embarrassed that I am just now, with installment #50, discovering this series in The Guardian. Fortunately, there are arrows at the bottom for navigating to “previous” and “next” articles.
A couple days ago, Ann Aguirre wrote a stirring blog exposing the ugly beast that resides in the science fiction field. According to Ann’s blog:
I’ve held my silence when I probably shouldn’t have. But I was in the minority, a woman writing SF, and I was afraid of career backlash. I was afraid of being excluded or losing opportunities if I didn’t play nice.
I don’t care about that anymore.
And she takes this issue very seriously, folks. You go, girl!