Melissa Ashley finds the origin of fairytales to “a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.” Fairytales “crystallised as a genre” in this time when women, sometimes as young as 15, were married off—often to men many years older than themselves—to protect family property. Women could not divorce, work, or control their inheritances. The conteuses’ stories “invited women to imagine greater freedom in their lives, to be their own authors of the most fundamental of all human endeavours – to be able to choose whom to love.”
In this age of #MeToo and disparagement of the Western literary canon as outmoded products from the minds of dead white guys, Dylan Brown argues that “there are, by my count, at least three old white guys (all of whom are alive!) who are still ‘safe’ to read.” Read why he finds the work of these three men “stands the test of time — even in these times. It is, in other words, enlightened despite their era”: Charles Portis (True Grit), Nicholson Baker (A Box of Matches), and Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler).
Six days before the publication of her first novel, Amber Cowie’s brother died. When she visited the room he had last inhabited, she sickeningly realized “the space was nearly identical to a scene I had written in my book.” Cowie found help in understanding her situation by examining the lives of writers Lois Duncan, who wrote about her daughter’s murder, and Shirley Jackson, whose last diary entries before her sudden death suggest she felt “a portending sense of loss and mystery.”
Jackson, Duncan and I created stories that both reflected and predicted the things that scared us the most.
Whether it came from a news report, travel blog, film or work of fiction, our understanding of these far-flung countries [China, Japan, Korea] is limited by what gets translated into our language. But who and what determines which voices and whose stories we get to hear? Whose voices are we not hearing?
Jen Wei Ting explains the responsibilities she feels as a translator.
When a friend insisted he read The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, Isaac Butler was dazzled by the book:
The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.
Yet when Butler tried to buy more of Ford’s works, he found they were out of print and mostly not available even in used copies. He set out to discover how Ford had written such amazing books and why he was so unknown today. Butler’s investigation into Ford and his works makes for fascinating reading. Best of all, his work resulted in an agreement to republish Ford’s work, beginning in 2020.
There is one form of power that has fascinated me ever since I was a girl, even though it has been widely colonized by men: the power of storytelling. Telling stories really is a kind of power, and not an insignificant one. Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.
Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”
A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.
Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:
A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.
A Christmas Carol:
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.
Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.
Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.
Emma by Jane Austen
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.
A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.
In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.
Mind Prey by John Sandford
The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.
Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.
A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.
The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton
What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.
Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”
I love a good mystery! Here mystery novelist John Verdon (his latest book is Wolf Lake, featuring NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney) offers a list of “ten remarkable works, each of which has a special appeal to my whodunit mentality”:
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason
The Crossing by Michael Connelly
I love that he has included literary classics as well as classic mysteries. And since I’ve only read four of these books (numbers 1,2, 8, and 10), I have yet some more titles to add to my TBR list.
While researching horror literature I came across this article by writer Christopher Shultz. Shultz addresses the snobbish discrimination between literary fiction and genre fiction (such as horror) to end up with a chronological list of 10 novels and short stories that use horror elements (dark subject matter, entities of a sinister and often supernatural nature, a sense of dread and terror) while also achieving standard criteria of literary fiction (complex characters, existential questions, and elegant prose):
‘Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley
“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin
“The Companion” by Ramsey Campbell
“The Paperhanger” by William Gay
‘Black Moon’ by Kenneth Calhoun
‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbot
I usually avoid horror, so I’ve only read three of these (numbers 1,2, and 4; and I’ve seen the film Rosemary’s Baby, if that counts). From Shultz’s descriptions I’m also thinking of adding numbers 5 and 10 to my TBR list.
In honor of Marcel Proust’s 145th birthday on July 10, six current authors comment on why his work remains so important today. Contributing authors are Siri Hustvedt, Francine Prose, Edmund White, André Aciman, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Mendelsohn.
Bryan Hurt interviews his friend Bonnie Nadzam, whom he describes as “someone who felt a dis-ease with conventional fiction and who sought to experiment and push against the boundaries of expectation and form.”
Nadzam is the author of two novels, Lamb (2011) and Lions (2016). Here are some of her statements about how and why she writes:
knowing a character is as complex a process as knowing myself. Both seem to involve a process of patience and observation, and of allowing space for unexpected things/motivations/behaviors to arise.
with Lions in particular, I did try to make the reader a character in this story, to the extent that the reader is tracking signs and assembling and telling stories alongside everyone else in the book. And everyone is mistaken; and also, by the end, everyone is also peculiarly exactly right.
I can’t just write fiction as though language were functioning and reliable. I also, however, don’t want to write heady philosophical fiction. So that means experimenting to find ways to drop into stories that are as unreliable as the language in which they’re written.
I suppose when I write fiction, it’s because there’s something I feel the need to express that I can’t get at intellectually.
Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, the blogging stat monkeys have delivered their report on how things went here at the Notes in the Margin blog during 2015. I’ll have my own, more detailed report ready early next month, but for now I offer you the stat monkeys’ findings.
“In 2015, there were 121 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 830 posts.”
Of the five most viewed posts this year, only two of them were written in 2015:
This post was my introduction to AbbieLu’s site Cafe Book Bean. In this post she defines what a saga is, then lists some of her favorite ones:
Gone with the Wind
Far and Away
East of Eden
The Thorn Birds
This post made me want to turn to my TBR shelves and grab a huge book to sink into. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until after January 1st to so indulge myself.) Overall, I love AbbieLu’s enthusiasm about books.
On The Invisible Event, an unnamed Invisible Blogger writes about classic crime fiction.
This post particularly attracted me because one of the many books on my TBR shelves is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That book, and hence this blog post as well, are good fits for my interest in Literature & Psychology.
I loved finding this blog post by Marilyn Armstrong because it, too, relates to Literature & Psychology. Like Marilyn, I find the concept of time travel fascinating, and I did not know about the book she discusses here, Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies.
Once again, travel has intervened (which is a good thing) and affected my blogging (not such a good thing). Since this report falls right in the middle of a two-week cruise, I will once again have to publish posts after I arrive back home, where I have reliable internet access.
This travel also means that my personal blog, Retreading for Retirement, has the heaviest concentration of entries.
The total of posts here may not equal the number of posts written last month because I occasionally publish the same post on more than one blog. However, I have included each post only once in my total word count.
Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman New York: HarperCollins, 2015 ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0
Consensus is that Go Set a Watchman is the manuscript that Harper Lee originally submitted to publisher J. B. Lippincott Company in 1957. Editor Therese von Hohoff Torrey, known as Tay Hohoff, deemed the novel not ready for publication, but she saw potential in the story. For two years Hohoff and Lee worked on revising the manuscript, which eventually evolved into To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. (Harper & Row bought Lippincott in 1978. Harper & Row eventually became HarperCollins, the publisher of Watchman.)
A comparison of Watchman and Mockingbird as literary works provides a lesson for both writers and readers in how fiction works.
Telling, Not Showing
The most common piece of advice offered to aspiring novelists is “show, don’t tell.” This means that the work must demonstrate characters’ qualities, not simply state them. Here’s a made-up example of telling:
Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe is angry with Mabel because she told him he needed to get a job right away.
Here’s how showing works to communicate Joe’s state of mind:
Joe and his wife Mabel sit across from each other at the kitchen table. Joe pounds his fist on the table as he leans in toward Mabel. “Nothing I do is ever good enough for you, is it?” he hisses. “Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I’d like to be able to count on a little support from you instead of just constant criticism.”
When a writer simply states that Joe is angry, readers are passive recipients of that information. But when a writer shows Joe acting with anger, readers participate in receiving that information by evaluating Joe’s behavior to understand it. Showing rather than telling engages readers by making them active participants in the reading experience.
Watchman does a lot more telling than showing. Here, for example, is the narrator telling us about the character of Atticus Finch:
Integrity, humor, and patience were the three words for Atticus Finch… . Atticus Finch’s secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching. His private character was his public character. His code was simple New Testament ethic, its rewards were the respect and devotion of all who knew him. (p. 124)
Compare this characterization with the one we receive in Mockingbird by hearing Atticus Finch defend Tom Robinson at trial and, later, by seeing him spend the night at the jail to protect his client from an angry mob. Those scenes make readers themselves respect Atticus Finch by demonstrating his character instead of just telling readers that other people respect him.
Narrative structure (see narrative with plot) is the order in which novelists reveal key events in relation to the times at which those events occurred. When authors need to present something that happened earlier than the novel’s present, they use flashbacks.
In the present time of Watchman, Jean Louise Finch is 26 years old. There are several times in the novel when she remembers events from her childhood, such as when she, her brother Jem, and their summer neighbor Dill used to play Tom Swift. These flashbacks engage readers by allowing them to observe the children directly, without the intrusion of a narrator telling readers what to think or believe. Because the flashbacks allow such direct observation, they are more interesting than anything that happens in the novel’s present time.
These flashbacks, which show rather than tell, contrast sharply with the predominantly plodding prose of the novel’s present. But they don’t have much to do with the rest of the novel. They do not help move the action of the present forward, and they do not resonate with other themes in the novel except, perhaps, in creating a general atmosphere of nostalgia.
Finding the Story’s Center
The flashbacks that feature the novel’s most engaging writing are the first indication of where the center of the real story lies: in Jean Louise’s childhood. This shift in time from Jean Louise’s adulthood in Watchman to Scout’s childhood in Mockingbird is the most significant—and the most effective—change from the earlier manuscript to the later novel.
Once the focus of the story changes from a 26-year-old Jean Louise to a six-year-old Scout, the moment of revelation must also change. In Watchman Jean Louise has her epiphany while spying on Atticus at a political meeting from the balcony of the county courthouse. Mockingbird retains the courthouse balcony setting but must change the nature of the revelation. Whereas the older Jean Louise observes what she considers her father’s hypocrisy, Scout and Jem realize the outstanding character of the father who had before seemed simply ordinary to them.
Relocating the center of the story to the children’s realization of their father’s courage and strength of character is what makes Mockingbird an essentially different book than Watchman. This is one reason why it is not necessary to reconcile the Atticus of Watchman with the Atticus of Mockingbird.
A second reason is that what we are dealing with is fiction. Watchman and Mockingbird are two different books. They are allowed to have different characters. Atticus Finch is not a real person.
Much of the discussion about Watchman has centered around whether Harper Lee was truly capable of agreeing to its publication. We may never know. But of one thing I am sure: Judged solely as works of art, To Kill a Mockingbird is a better novel than Go Set a Watchman. Looking at the two side by side provides a good picture for both writers and readers of how effective fiction works.