“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.
Louise Adams discusses the history of the metaphor of eating as applied to reading. While the historical applications of the metaphor are informative, I’d like to focus on this point:
This metaphor, however, hasn’t always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as ‘devouring’ a book would have been an act of moral censure. The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. The unexamined language of ‘devouring’ idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished.
At the end of the article Adams comes back around to this same point:
The reading language of the past contains something precious that needs to be preserved, indeed celebrated, in the present. For centuries the rich contrasts of the reading-eating spectrum expressed a conviction that different kinds of reading mattered, and this conviction would serve us well in our media-fraught world. ‘Just reading’ is not good enough: we need to revive reading’s diversity. The language of digestion encourages slowed-down reading habits (along Slow Food lines). It reminds us to be more attentive to the subtle ways in which texts have been put together by their creators – to think before just bingeing upon pages.
In other words, she’s advocating that we slow down and consider while we’re reading.
I’m a big fan of the slow reading movement. Although I never thought about the literal application of eating as a metaphor of reading, I do understand the distinction between devouring a novel (consuming it whole, quickly) and digesting it (reading deliberately, slowly enough to appreciate and analyze how it works).
And I admit that I always think of this distinction when people brag about reading 100-150 books a year. I’m retired, and I still can’t read anywhere near that number. And sometimes I can tell from comments on sites like Goodreads and Amazon that commenters have merely skimmed the book because they criticize the author for leaving out points that are in fact in the text.
And see the next article for the latest research on “speed reading.”
Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, discusses the recent publication by Random House of Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison. In 1967 a fire at Ellison’s country house destroyed the manuscript he was working on, “the much anticipated and already belated follow-up to his 1952 début, ‘Invisible Man.’”
Young sees the publication of Selected Letters, which covers 60 years, “as another Ellisonian magnum opus, one necessarily unfinished.”
The publication of Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin in 2014 “opened the floodgates for new translations of Chinese science fiction. This, in turn, has made Ken Liu a critical conduit for Chinese writers seeking Western audiences, a literary brand as sought-after as the best-selling authors he translates.” Often Ken Liu has to proceed carefully because:
Some of the writers Liu translates use the framework of science fiction to explore the dystopian consequences of China’s rapid economic and technological transformation, setting a story in the distant future or on another planet in order to tackle taboo issues like the lack of social freedoms, the exploitation of migrant workers, government land seizures, economic inequality and environmental destruction. In an odd inversion, some of the stories he has translated into English have not been officially published in China, at times because of their politically sensitive nature.
Here Alexandra Alter interviews Ken Liu about his life and translation work for The New York Times.
When I posted about The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, I wondered how many people actually engage with the text of mysteries or thrillers instead of just skimming to find out how the story ends. Michaelides leads the reader along so scintillatingly that a large part of the pleasure of reading this novel lies in recognizing the significance of its stylistic details.
A good example of how this process works occurs early in the novel, when first-person narrator Theo Faber joins his wife, Kathy, an actress, at a bar: “I went to meet Kathy at the National Theatre café on the South Bank, where the performers would often congregate after rehearsal” (p. 45). Kathy is telling “a couple of fellow actresses” the story of how she and Theo met. “It was a story she enjoyed telling,” says Theo.
Kathy begins her story of the night she was at a bar with a guy she wasn’t really interested in “‘when suddenly it happened—Mr. Right walked in.’ Kathy looked at me and smiled and rolled her eyes. ‘With his girlfriend’” (p. 46).
“This part of the story needed careful handling to retain her audience’s sympathy,” Theo tells us.
Notice what is actually going on here. Kathy, an actress, is performing for her acting friends. This is a well rehearsed story that she enjoys telling with melodramatic effect.
Theo’s narrative of Kathy’s performance continues: “No, but . . . darling . . . seriously, it was love at first sight. Wasn’t it?” Kathy asks, turning to Theo.
“This was my cue,” Theo says. “I nodded and kissed her cheek. ‘Of course it was. True love.’”
Once again, notice what is actually going on here. Kathy is performing, but so is Theo. They have obviously told this story together several times. The statement “This was my cue” lets us know that he is in on the performance.
So Theo, like Kathy, is a performer. Maybe the entire narrative he’s telling in this book is a performance, too.
Theo’s story of coming upon Kathy telling her friends how they met ends, but he continues with his own memory of what happened later that night. Theo tells us that he and Kathy went back to his apartment and made love all night:
I remember so much white everywhere: white sunlight creeping around the edges of the curtains, white walls, white bedsheets; the whites of her eyes, her teeth, her skin I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent: ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue; a Geek goddess come to life in my hands. (p. 48)
It’s a dreamily descriptive passage. And it echoes something Theo has earlier described for us, the self-portrait she labeled Alcestis that Alicia painted in her studio while at home, under house arrest, awaiting trial. Here’s Theo’s description of the painting:
The painting is a self-portrait, depicting Alicia in her studio at home in the days after the murder, standing before an easel and a canvas, holding a paintbrush. She is naked. Her body is rendered in unsparing detail: strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins visible beneath translucent skin. . . . She is captured in the act of painting—yet the canvas is blank, as is her expression. (p. 9)
The whiteness of this mostly blank canvas mirrors the “so much white everywhere” of his description of making love with Kathy. Kathy’s skin is luminous, while the skin of Alicia’s self-portrain is translucent. Kathy’s skin reveals “occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface,” while the painting portrays “blue veins visible beneath translucent skin.”
By means of these descriptive echoes, Michaelides demonstrates that, from very early on in the narrative, Kathy and Alicia are associated in Theo’s mind. The two women are similar in another way as well: Kathy is an actress, and Alicia gives herself the name of a character in an ancient Greek play.
The metaphors of drama and acting run throughout the novel. Such thematic and verbal repetitions reinforce and drive the meaning of Theo’s narrative.
As the tension builds and the novel nears its end, Theo’s narrative becomes surrealistically chaotic, with no clear timeline and no smooth transitions from one place to another or from one grouping of characters to another. Chapters tumble one after the other toward the inevitable ending. But like the earlier examples, such stylistic significance is easy to miss if one is skimming rather than reading closely.
There are so many literary prizes that keeping them all straight becomes a problem. Who awards which ones, and what are the entry and judgment criteria? Here are descriptions of a few—Nobel Prize, National Book Award, Costa Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker, Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize)—along with descriptions of some recent winners of each.
Val McDermid is one of my favorite contemporary mystery writers. Here McDermid explains why she, along with a lot of other writers of crime fiction, think so highly of novelist Josephine Tey, whom McDermid describes as “a bridge between the classic detective stories of the Golden Age and contemporary crime ﬁction.”
“Questions of identity permeate her novels,” writes McDermid. Also, “Tey opened up the possibility of unconventional secrets” such as homosexual desire, cross-dressing, and sexual perversion: “a dfferent set of psychological motivations” than had been seen in Golden Age detective fiction:
Without Tey cracking open the door, I don’t know how easy it would have been for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell to have begun their own explorations of the darker side of human identity and sexuality. I know myself that reading Tey for the ﬁrst time was like taking a lungful of pure air. I realised that crime ﬁction could be so much more than the bloodless entertainment I’d been enjoying up to that point. And her work helped me to understand that I could write books that dealt with serious aspects of human behaviour within the conﬁnes of genre ﬁction.
Here’s yet another plug for the process of slow reading, which includes “giv[ing] yourself a little time to reflect on what you just read.” And such reflection need not involve a long, complicated process. The writer of this article includes a four-step summarization and reflection process and looks at some of the psychological evidence that supports its use.
“The Water Cure,” which comes out in the United States in January and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, joins a growing wave of female-centered dystopian fiction, futuristic works that raise uncomfortable questions about pervasive gender inequality, misogyny and violence against women, the erosion of reproductive rights and the extreme consequences of institutionalized sexism.
Alexandra Alter looks at the history of the dystopian fiction that women have been writing for decades and that continues into the political climate of the present.
I read Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer as a feminist commentary on the choices available to women at that time. To be taken seriously as a writer—something she desperately
wants—Jo is forced to face the sexist literary standards of her day. And as a character in a 19th-century novel, Jo is basically doomed to head to the altar, but Alcott makes her choice as subversive as she can.
Little Women argues that women’s lives are worthy of examination. Women’s stories deserve to be heard. Even when beloved female characters make disappointing choices, writing and sharing their stories is a feminist act.
Whenever I come across someone’s claim to have read 80, 90, or even 100 or more books in a year, I have to wonder how much they comprehended, appreciated, and now remember of those books. With so much current emphasis on productivity and life hacks, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that more is better when it comes to reading. I prefer to slow down when I read, to take enough time to appreciate the author’s style and subtlety and craft instead of getting to the last page so I can pick up another book.
Although I believe that I get more out of a novel when I read slowly enough to savor it, I wondered if other people have the same experience. So I did a little research.
Although I’m talking mainly about reading fiction here, there’s also some discussion of reading nonfiction and the differences between reading fiction and reading nonfiction.
John Miedema put together his book Slow Reading from research for a graduate course in library and information science. He defines slow reading as a voluntary practice done to increase enjoyment and comprehension of a text, a process that some people describe as “getting lost in a book.”
This book is about reading fiction. Here are a few quotations:
“A fictional work provides a sand box for imagining other identities and choices”(p. 56).
“Children can use fiction as a testing ground for their future selves. Is there any reason to stop this process when we reach adulthood? It is sad and a bit creepy to watch those adults who cease to imagine. It is as if their inner landscape is withering” (p. 57).
”Slow readers have a particular capacity to open up to new ideas, and allow the sense of self to be transformed” (p. 62).
In 3 Key Advantages of “Slow Reading” That Turbocharge Your Learning Gregg Williams, a marriage and family therapist, acknowledges that productivity drives a lot of what we do—we want to get more done, and we therefore have to work faster to become more productive. This drive is most apparent in our desire to consume as much information as possible. We read quickly so we can move on to the next book or article. According to Williams, fast reading may work in some circumstances, but real comprehension demands slow reading.
Williams describes his own experience with realizing how fast reading in fact slowed him down. It takes him a while to get around to the meat of his argument, but he ends up pointing out three advantages of taking time to read a text slowly:
Slow-reading uncovers “hidden” gems.
Stories lead to deeper truths.
Slow-reading adds to your web of knowledge.
He explains that “slow reading is also a very good idea whenever you are reading to understand any body of knowledge (for example, textbooks and popular nonfiction).” When you’re trying to learn something, slow reading saves you time in the long run because you can follow the logical flow of facts and associations.
In many cases fast reading may serve your purpose better than slow reading, Williams concludes. “The good news is that you can decide to switch between the two.”
Slow reading is related to what some others call active reading. Actively reading fiction requires slowing the reading process way down. In The medium is not the message Leah Price, who teaches English at Harvard, looks at the slow reading movement. Most proponents of this movement, she notes, are literary critics, who “care as much about form as about content.” She notes:
Ever since modern literatures were first taught at university a couple of centuries ago, their average professor has read at the same pace as her seven-year-old.
Reading slowly allows us to savor the words, to see and appreciate how the author has used techniques such as imagery and sentence structure to construct a story that resonates on several levels. When we read literature simply for its narrative sequence—first this happened, then that happened, and then the next thing happened—we miss all the artistic effort that the best writers put into crafting their tales. (For ideas on how to do such close reading, see How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Harper/Collins, 2003).
Tim Parks, novelist and Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, laments how much his students seem to miss when reading literature in A Weapon for Readers. He writes that we approach literature with too much reverence and therefore treat it uncritically:
If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity.
This reverence toward the written word, he says, came of age in the second half of the twentieth century and “is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins.”
Parks particularly noticed this attitude toward the sanctity of the written word when working with students studying translation:
I would give them the same text in English and Italian and ask them to tell me which was the original text. Or I would give them a text without saying whether it was a translation or not and ask them to comment on it. Again and again, the authority conveyed by the printed word and an aura of literariness, or the excitement of dramatic action, or the persuasive drift of an argument, would prevent them from noticing the most obvious absurdities.
Be sure to look at his examples of such absurdities, which make his point readily evident.
In wondering how to help his students become better readers,
I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive.
The result? “[I]t was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem”:
There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.
This transformation from “passive consumers of a monologue” into “active participants in a dialogue” describes the interaction between a reader and a literary text that is the basis of reader-response criticism. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978), Louise M. Rosenblatt calls this interaction “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In Rosenblatt’s terminology, the text is the written work and the poem is the meaning that the reader creates in interaction with the written words.
Arming ourselves with a pen and approaching a work of literature as our partner in an active exchange will allow us to focus on reading fiction as both an artistic and a pleasurable experience—also as a necessary experience, according to Parks:
For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed.
I read a lot of articles and web sites about reading, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the quotation—usually encased in a text box with a fancy frame—“No two readers ever read the same book.” This is a succinct statement of the hypothesis of reader-response criticism: Readers create their individual sense of meaning because they bring to the reading process their unique consciousness and set of personal experiences. I find that in order to produce this transactional process between the book and me, I have to slow down and take time to savor the reading process. And that’s why I read 40 books a year, not 100.