First Novel, my seventh, is all about first novels (and other stuff). My narrator, a creative writing tutor, tries to help students write their debuts while struggling with his own second novel. Meanwhile he pores over photos of writers’ rooms in a certain newspaper searching for validation in the form of a glimpse of his own first novel on someone else’s shelves.
Here are his top 10 first novels, listed alphabetically by author:
Here’s an interesting sketch of prolific author Joyce Carol Oates, who will turn 75 in June.
Oates, who has been called a quintessentially American author, grew up in upstate New York, one of three children of a factory worker and a housewife; she was the first of her family to graduate from high school and she writes out of a kind of homesickness for the farms, fields, and creeks of that place. Some of Oates’s most memorable novels have strong female characters—The Grave Digger’s Daughter and Mudwoman, to name two. “I sometimes conflate myself and my [paternal] grandmother and/or my mother. I put generations together,” she says. Though violence is a frequent theme in Oates’s work, she says she grew up on the “periphery” of it, never experiencing it herself. Her great-grandfather, however, killed himself in front of her grandmother and intended to take the child’s life as well. Oates’s mother, Carolina, was abandoned when she was young. Oates learned about the experience when O, the Oprah Magazine approached her and other women writers to interview their mothers for an article. Oprah, whom Oates calls “an American original,” had chosen We Were the Mulvaneys as her book club selection, and so Oates agreed to do the piece. Her mother, well into her 80s at the time, had never before spoken about her past, and she wept as she told Oates by telephone how her biological mother had given her away, that “she didn’t want her”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
That science is amoral.
That the universe exists in black-and-white.
That women are scary. And sexy, too, just like the bomb itself.
A fictional M.D. will not reduce your fever, but she or he might reduce your boredom. That’s because many medical protagonists — whether general practitioners or something else — are quite interesting. They’re often not liberal arts types, but, heck, non-liberal arts types can be compelling characters, too.
Also of interest is seeing how fictional physicians interact with fictional patients, and how these doctors manage their fictional personal lives while working long hours. Plus we can’t help comparing literature’s doctors to our own doctors. Are these made-up medical people as compassionate and dedicated, or as egotistic and mercenary, or as competent or not-so-competent as the real-life medical people we visit?
Read what Dave Astor has to say about doctors in fiction, from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary to John Grisham’s The Client.
It gave us Colin Firth in a clinging, wet shirt and inspired Bridget Jones to sing “I’m Every Woman”. Jane Austen’s “own darling child”, or Pride and Prejudice as it’s known to you and me, is a brand all of its own. It has inspired more spin-offs than almost any other book in history, and has ballooned into a multi-million-pound industry. Pretty impressive, considering it turns 200 years old this month.
As enthusiasts, academics, authors and film-makers across the globe celebrate the bicentenary of the novel’s publication in the next few weeks, experts suggest “cult Austen” is only going to get bigger. Its market, they say – which until now has consisted largely of Britain, the US and Australia – is expanding. China, India and Russia are starting to swot up on all things Austen. Visitors are flocking to visit her home, Chawton in Hampshire, to read the sequels and travel to the locations where adaptations of her works were filmed.
Notes on all kinds of artistic endeavors inspired by Pride and Prejudice.
Researchers at Liverpool University believe that reading classic works of literature, particularly Shakespeare, “had a beneficial effect on the mind, by catching the reader’s attention and triggering moments of self-reflection.”
Using scanners, they monitored the brain activity of volunteers as they read pieces by Shakespeare, Wordsworth, TS Eliot and others. They then “translated” the texts into more “straightforward”, modern language and again monitored the readers’ brains as they read the words. Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.
Scientists were able to study the brain activity as readers responded to each word and noticed how it “lit up” as they encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure. This “lighting up” of the mind lasted longer than the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear and encouraging further reading.
The classics also produced self-appraisal in readers:
The research also found that poetry, in particular, increased activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with “autobiographical memory”, helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they had read.
One aspect of the research compared the reactions in volunteers’ brains when reading the work of, among others, Wordsworth, Henry Vaughan, John Donne, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Eliot, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes and when reading paraphrases of the poetic passages. Reading of the original passages
caused a greater degree of brain activity, lighting up not only the left part of the brain concerned with language, but also the right hemisphere that relates to autobiographical memory and emotion.
Activity is this area of the brain suggests that the poetry triggers “reappraisal mechanisms” causing the reader to reflect and rethink their own experiences. “Poetry is not just a matter of style. It is a matter of deep versions of experience that add the emotional and biographical to the cognitive,” said Prof [Philip] Davis [an English professor who worked on the study].
“The next phase of the research is looking at the extent to which poetry can affect psychology and provide therapeutic benefit.”
Freelance writer and photographer Kristina Pino provides a heads-up on some upcoming films. “This list isn’t about the likes of Ender’s Game, Hunger Games, Carrie, The Great Gatsby, The Host, and others. It’s about the ‘little guys.'”
Call it the Fifty Shades bump — literally. BabyCenter has released their yearly list of most popular baby names and — shocker! — the Class of 2030 will be seeing a lot more Anastasias and Greys. Wait, Greys? Yes, readers. When bestowing a Fifty Shades-inspired moniker on their child, parents chose not Christian, but Grey. The name saw a 20 percent jump from last year. On the girls’ side of things, Anastasia rose ten percent, while Ana climbed 35 spots.
And for snooty readers who think the book is always better than the movie, Christina Oppold has some news:
Sometimes we take our lives as readers too seriously. Even if we flit between the highbrow and fluffy beach read, it is easy to think of books as somehow being superior to movies. But storytelling is all connected. From the camp fire to the Blue Ray DVD, from stone tablets to digital ink; what thrills the balletomane bores the cinephile. Each new medium follows on the heels of what came before; it breathes new life in to sharing our stories and each is belittled by the supporters of what came before.
We read not for the sake of the book as a physical object but for the stories within that move us. Embrace the story no matter how it was conveyed to you.
Feast your eyes on these! Book Riot has collected photos of some gingerbread houses inspired by books. See reproductions of Hogwarts, The House of the Seven Gables, and Alice in Wonderland, among others.
If you’ve finished baking all the cookies, wrapping all the presents, and addressing all the cards, you can fill your time with reading. And since you’ve probably already exhausted your budget, GalleyCat has recommendations for Christmas reading that won’t cost you anything.
Now, Pinterest and Martha Stewart would have us believe that any jackass with twenty minutes to spare can fashion a plethora of magical holiday décor using only pipe cleaners and sheer force of will, but we recognize the spuriousness of those claims. That’s why, in an attempt to assess the actual difficulty of each project for the kind of people who would never dream of signing up for a Hobby Lobby credit card, we assembled a diverse crew of craft-challenged friends, filled them with mulled wine and spiked eggnog, then let them loose with only the instructions provided by the internet. Here’s how it went. Learn from our mistakes then have a go at making do-it-yourself gifts for the writers and book lovers in your life.
This is a silly argument in the 21st Century in the middle of an economic downturn. Most writers can’t even afford to live in these cities anymore. We are all dedicated to one of the least lucrative careers in the world, and it is downright reckless to argue that we should live in two of the most expensive cities in the country.
So don’t despair if you’re a writer who doesn’t live in either NYC or LA. Boog has some suggestions for how to connect with other writers, no matter where you live.
Though not about Christmas, this item is timely nevertheless because it deals with another of those seasonal occurrences, the annual “best books I read this year” list.
At Book Riot Brenna Clarke Gray admits that, about what books she read for pure pleasure this past year, “I haven’t the foggiest.” She then asks readers to explain if and how they keep track of their reading. I’m interested in this topic because I have kept a computerized record of my reading since July 1991. I’ve used various programs over that time. Through the miracles of exporting and importing, my reading journal even weathered the transition from the wasteland of Windows to the Mecca of Mac. (My recipes, however, were not so lucky.) At the end of every year I use a filter in my database program to choose all the books I read that year, then export the list to an Excel spreadsheet so that I can alphabetize the list by either title or author. That list allows me to decide easily which books were my favorites.
I’d be interested to hear if and how you keep track of the books you read. So far, most of the respondents to Gray’s request favor Goodreads. I’ve been on Goodreads for a while now but haven’t yet tried generating any lists from my data there. Some of Gray’s commenters say they have used Goodreads for their lists, though, so I’ll probably give that a try this year and see how it compares with the list from my database. How about you?
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.
This article elicited the following very clever response from Amanda Nelson over on Book Riot:
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.
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:
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.
Speaking of lists, The Atlantic offers this one: “our favorite lists in literature, from short to impossibly long, from lists that catalogue items to those that follow the train of imagination. Check out the literary lists we think are the funniest, most revealing, most interesting, or flat-out strangest” from the following works:
The White Album, Joan Didion
I Remember, Joe Brainard
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Ulysses, James Joyce
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Italo Calvino
Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
The Hundred Brothers, Donald Antrim
“Project for a Trip to China,” from I, etcetera, Susan Sontag
“Descriptions of Literature,” Gertrude Stein
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
“The Glass Mountain,” from Sixty Stories, Donald Barthelme
I haven’t been this literarily excited in a long, long time. One of my favorite authors, Val McDermid, has been chosen to update Jane Austen’s least well known novel, Northanger Abbey, for a modern audience:
Northanger Abbey is the story of the gothic novel-obsessed 17-year-old Catherine Morland, a girl who “read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives”. Leaving her home for the sophisticated world of Bath, she falls in love with Henry Tilney, only for a host of romantic entanglements to occur, particularly when she visits his home of Northanger Abbey – where, far from her imaginings “the breeze had not seemed to waft the sighs of the murdered to her; it had wafted nothing worse than a thick mizzling rain”, and where she goes on to suppose Henry’s father to have murdered his mother.
Here’s how McDermid explains her approach to the task of bringing a “frisson of fear” to Austen’s novel:
“At its heart it’s a teen novel, and a satire – that’s something which fits really well with contemporary fiction,” said McDermid. “And you can really feel a shiver of fear moving through it. I will be keeping the suspense – I know how to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. I think Jane Austen builds suspense well in a couple of places, but she squanders it, and she gets to the endgame too quickly. So I will be working on those things.”
McDermid’s adaptation will be published in spring 2014 by HarperCollins.
I used to feel compelled to finish every book I started, even if I wasn’t enjoying it. But my approach changed about the time I turned 40, when I decided that life was too short to waste reading books that weren’t speaking to me. I remember very clearly the first book I decided not to finish: Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. My library catalog gives the book’s copyright date as 1989, and I think I tried to read it soon after it came out. And I know a lot of people love this book. And yes, I know what symbolism is. So please don’t attack me if this is one of your favorite books. I just found the whole premise distasteful and refused to finish it.
I was therefore interested when Publishers Weekly blogger Josie Leavitt asked when readers give up on a book. Here’s her answer to that question:
I read too many books to feel compelled to finish all of them. I give most books a fair shake, at least a hundred pages, unless it’s truly awful. I define truly awful as something that is poorly written, when all I can see are the errors. I don’t even mind reprehensible characters, as long as the writing flows well. There are books that will take me literally months to finish because I don’t want to spend too much with it, but I’m still curious about how it ends. I will often start another book while I trudge through the other book.
Right now there are more than 30 responses to Leavitt’s question in the comments section of the blog, most of them thoughtfully good answers.
Oh, I guess I should add that I never review a book that I haven’t finished reading. If I start a book but don’t finish it, you won’t hear about it here (well, OK, except for my confession about Geek Love).
So, when do YOU give up on a book? Let us know in the comments section here.
For this list Evers “decided to restrict it to traditional homes in novels – ie buildings in which fictional characters live. With regret, therefore, I’ve had to leave out William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Richard Ford’s Haddam, Patrick Hamilton’s The Midnight Bell, Joan Didion’s house in The Year of Magical Thinking, every home that Alice Munro has ever described, not to mention the prisons, bars and hospitals that are as much homes as they are establishments.”
He describes houses from novels such as Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, and Beloved.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is a psychological categorization tool based on the theories of Carl Jung. If you don’t know your type, this page includes links for finding out more about how this assessment works and what the results mean.
I’m an INFP myself, a group that includes some insanely small percentage of the population (~2%), so I was surprised to read this: “Interestingly, many protagonists and authors are INFPs due to the type’s creative, introspective nature, so don’t take offense if you’re matched up with a villain or a sidekick.” And the literary character who matches that type is Anne Of Green Gables, and I can live with that.
We often hear about the necessity to engage young boys in reading here in the U. S., but apparently the U. K. has the same problem. Here children’s author and former teacher Michael Morpurgo offers some suggestions for getting children, and boys in particular, to enjoy reading:
1.Why not have a dedicated half hour at the end of every school day in every primary school devoted to the simple enjoyment of reading and writing.
2. Regular visits from storytellers, theatre groups, poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and librarians from the local library.
3. Inviting fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers into school to tell and read stories, to listen to children reading, one to one. The work of organisations such at Volunteer Reading Help and Reading Matters are already doing great thing to help young people and schools.
4. Ensuring that the enjoyment of literature takes precedence, particularly in the early years, over the learning of the rules of literacy, important though they are. Children have to be motivated to want to learn to read. Reading must not be taught simply as a school exercise.
5. Parents, fathers in particular, and teachers, might be encouraged to attend book groups themselves, in or out of the school, without children, so that they can develop a love of reading for themselves, which they can then pass on to the children.
6. Teacher training should always include modules dedicated to developing the teachers’ own appreciation of literature, so that when they come to read to the children or to recommend a book, it is meant, and the children know it. To use books simply as a teacher’s tool is unlikely to convince many children that books are for them, particularly those that are failing already, many of whom will be boys.
7. The library in any school should have a dedicated librarian or teacher/librarian, be well resourced, and welcoming, the heart of every school. Access to books and the encouragement of the habit of reading: these two things are the first and most necessary steps in education and librarians, teachers and parents all over the country know it. It is our children’s right and it is also our best hope and their best hope for the future.