Louise Erdrich won the fiction prize for her novel “The Night Watchman.” Here are the 2021 contenders for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, history and biography.
“Reading America through more than two centuries of its favorite books.”
In The New Yorker, Louis Menand takes on Jess McHugh’s book Americanon, which discusses “thirteen American books, from ‘The Old Farmer’s Almanac,’ first published in 1792, to Stephen R. Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,’ which came out in 1989.”
In looking at these thirteen self-help books, Menand writes:
In fact, McHugh disapproves of every one of the books she writes about. “Americanon” is, in effect, a critique of American society in the form of thirteen book reviews. It belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars.
According to Menand, McHugh “prefers, she says, ambiguity and change to the myth of a unified national narrative. But ambiguity and change are just the keywords in a different narrative.”
Attorney Susan Cole recognized the toll that trauma can take on children:
She began a decades-long examination of the links between education and childhood trauma, using her accumulating experience to identify “broader systemic failures that could not be addressed on a case-by-case basis,” as her husband, David Eisen, put it.
Constant stress and fear were more than just a distraction for students; their effect, she learned, was neurological, activating the fight-or-flight survival instinct permanently.
June is the annual celebration of Pride Month. Over the years I’ve sometimes been confused about how to use correctly the applicable terminology. I’m grateful to NPR for putting together this glossary of terms relating to gender identity.
Proper use of gender identity terms, including pronouns, is a crucial way to signal courtesy and acceptance. Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, compares using someone’s correct pronouns to pronouncing their name correctly – “a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that’s consistent and true to who they are.”
Programs offering an MFA (master’s in fine arts) in writing have proliferated.
The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing is a graduate-level degree earned by students who seek to pursue work as authors, editors, playwrights, or to teach at the college level.
The folks at BookBrowse have put together this discussion of the purpose of such programs. This article pertains to understanding the plot of the recently published novel The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz, but the content here is a general description and discussion for anyone who has ever wondered about these programs.
“The habit of not writing, it turns out, is sadly easy to acquire in a pandemic.”
I know I’m not the only person who had trouble focusing on reading and writing during the pandemic. With the arrival of the beginning of the end, Rachel Toor has some advice on how to get back into the swing of things.
Toor herself is an academic, a professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA, and her advice is directed toward other academics, whose professional lived are governed by the “publish or perish” mantra. However, I found her advice helpful also for a general audience, such as us book bloggers who may be struggling to get back to work.
My first book group was organized by the local branch of the county public library where I lived. I participated in the group for about 12 years and found some of my closest friends there. It’s something I sorely miss since relocating for retirement.
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
I’m leading with this list because June is Pride month “in honor of the LGBTQ+ community.”
The 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre rightly generated a lot of press coverage. This article from The Oklahoman discusses the efforts of Mary Parrish to prevent the story of what happened from disappearing.
Parrish was an African American journalist and teacher who in 1919 moved with her daughter Florence Mary from Rochester, New York, to Tulsa’s Greenwood. They fled their home and lost everything in the massacre, including her typing school in Greenwood.
Thanks to Mary Parrish’s great-granddaughter Anneliese Bruner, Parrish’s original account of the 1921 attack, The Nation Must Awake, is being republished.
There’s been a lot of recent press coverage about the various challenges currently facing the publishing industry. Aisling Twomey here summarizes some of the recent controversies and concludes:
It’s clear that publishing has a hard road ahead. The industry of gatekeepers needs to be accountable for the sustained inequality for authors. It also needs to address the ethics of its decisions around who to publish, and why. And along the way, it needs to treat its own workers better, too.
McKay Coppins, a staff writer for The Atlantic, reports:
[publishing] insiders have told me in recent weeks that the market for anti-Biden books is ice cold. Authors have little interest in writing them, editors have little interest in publishing them, and—though the hypothesis has yet to be tested—it’s widely assumed that readers would have little interest in buying them. . . . Facing a new president whose relative dullness is his superpower, the American right has gone hunting for richer targets to elevate.
This article takes quite a deep dive into the current state of the publishing industry:
We discovered that these two different ways of structuring publishers’ finances — conglomerate and nonprofit — created a split within literature, yielding two distinct modes of American writing after 1980. This essay characterizes the two modes, explains how the split between them happened, and illustrates the significance of this shift for the rise of multiculturalism.
Lisa Taddeo’s debut publication was the widely hailed nonfiction work Three Women (2019). Her second book is the recently published novel Animal, which Taddeo believes “finally shows the world who she really is as a writer.”
Taddeo experiences anxiety brought on, the article says, by the deaths of her parents and her own medical scares.
“When my parents died, it utterly reconstructed me as a human being,” she says. “It turned me into an animal, in a sense. And not an animal that kills, but a scared, skittering mouse that is constantly driving from one place to another to try to hide from her brain.”
One of the best novels I’ve ever read is Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz.
Here Rachel Cline interviews Schwartz, with an emphasis on Schwartz’s 2020 work Truthtelling: Stories Fables, Glimpses, which Cline says “is full of invention, soul, and wit, and also marks a departure from Schwartz’s earlier fictional work, as it explores aspects of choice and behavior that verge on the fantastic and surreal.”
About writing this book Schwartz says:
Until then my fiction, both stories and novels, had used a traditional realistic mode. Now, suddenly strange and eerie things were intruding. The stories seemed to swerve into a not quite logical world. The odd things that appeared — forgetting the existence of one’s mother, having a fit of hysteria on a subway, being thrown into an existential panic by a wrong number on the phone — were not impossible, but extremely unlikely. So unlikely that the stories came to occupy a formerly unexplored space between reality and imagination, or nightmare.
Here’s a third author interview that caught my eye this week: Carole Burns talks with Gish Jen:
For more than thirty years now, Gish Jen has been writing fiction that explores the American landscape while ranging across any boundaries expectations about literary fiction might try to impose: her five novels and many short stories are literary and entertaining; funny and serious; rich in characters with stories to tell. Whether she’s writing from the point of view of a Chinese American teenager in a primarily Jewish suburb, as in Mona in the Promised Land (1996), or the sharply observant and comic Hattie Wong in World and Town (2010), Jen creates characters who explore not just what it is to be American, but what it is to be human.
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.
This month we start with the winner of the 2021 Stella Prize, The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld. I had hoped to finish the book before writing this post, but, you know, life intervenes. However, I’ve read enough to know that the novel presents the stories of three women in three different time periods. The shadow of the Bass Rock looms large over each woman’s life.
1. As I was thinking about how to start this chain, I came across a description of Long Division by Kiese Laymon, published on June 1, which Lit Hub says depicts “One Mississippi town with two engaging stories in two very different decades.” Same place, different times.
2.Three Junes, Julia Glass’s debut novel (2002), takes place in the month of June in three different years over a 10-year span. Locations vary, but the time of year is the same, so same time, different places. This novel has been sitting on my TBR shelf for probably about 10 years.
3. A recent debut novel that I loved is The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. After receiving an MFA in writing, Johnson now studies American literature at Vanderbilt University.
4. The novel title Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has always intrigued me; someday I must read it. Its author is Lorrie Moore, who is on the English faculty of Vanderbilt University.
5. Coma by Robin Cook, a novel set in a hospital, “kickstarted a new genre–the medical thriller” (according to Goodreads) on its publication in 1977. The protagonist of this novel discovers that patients are purposely being put into a vegetative state so that their organs can be used for transplants. The bodies are stored, suspended from the ceiling, at the Jefferson Institute, an isolated, heavily guarded offsite facility.
6. The Institute (2019) by Stephen King is a more recent portrayal of such an imposing medical facility. King’s Institute is a place for kids with “special talents” such as telekinesis and telepathy.
Of all these novels, I’ve only read two (The Space Between Worlds and Coma). I think I’ll pass on The Institute, but I’ll try to get to the remaining three—as soon as I finish The Bass Rock, that is.
a totally unrelated note
Reader, 50 years ago today I married Mr. Notes in the Margin. Happy golden anniversary to the best guy in the world!
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
From Publishers Weekly:
The tumult of the past 15 months has exacerbated common mental health concerns, among them trauma, anxiety, grief, and isolation. PW spoke with authors and editors about the emotional scars of the pandemic, and how their forthcoming books offer empathy, community, and guidance.
From Amazon Book Review: “To celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite books dealing with mental health, and it’s no surprise that connection is the theme that runs through all of them.”
“Josh Cook Considers the Relationship Between Bookselling, Politics, and Free Speech”
Literary critic, novelist, and poet Josh Cook is a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This piece is an excerpt from his book The Least We Can Do: White Supremacy, Free Speech, and Independent Bookstores (Biblioasis, 2021).
Like many industries and institutions, booksellers have done a lot of work in the last few years in response to the Trump administration, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the #MeToo movement, and other events and forces for social change in our society. We’ve formed committees, hosted panels, and held training sessions and though all of that is important, I have almost never seen booksellers grapple directly with the economic, social, and moral consequences of selling books by white supremacists, fascists, misogynists, and other believers in objectively dangerous ideologies.
Sagal Mohammed discusses Jenkins’s adaptation, currently streaming on Amazon Prime, of Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel:
Thanks to Jenkins’ vigilantly balanced portrayal of excruciating racist violence and blissful joy, The Underground Railroad avoids accusations of exploiting Black trauma for which other shows — like Little Marvin’s Us-inspired horror series Them — have recently been criticized. But there’s no denying the emotional toll the show will take, particularly on its Black viewers.
Novelist Elizabeth Brundage describes how finding characters and getting to know them comprises the process of producing her novels. I found her explanation informative because, although she doesn’t use precisely this terminology, what she’s really describing is learning (actually, creating) their life story: “I set out to write about a person at a particular time in their life when something happens to create a shift in their world-view.”
“With our calendars cleared last year, many of us found more time to lose ourselves in books. Let’s hold onto that vibe this year.”
From Elisabeth Egan:
The summer of 2020 was a dud when it came to barbecues, vacations, family reunions, pedicures and swiping a lick from someone else’s ice cream cone. But there was one mainstay Covid couldn’t wreck: reading. For me, those empty, quiet nights were a reminder of the boredom that pushed me into the arms of books in the first place.
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
This publishing dust-up just won’t go away. Here the Wall Street Journal takes on the business angle, of companies forced to “address employee demands.”
And here’s an update on the other publishing story that won’t go away.
“From Sally Rooney to Raven Leilani, female novelists have captured the literary zeitgeist, with more buzz, prizes and bestsellers than men. But is this cultural shift something to celebrate or rectify?”
While a bit less immediate than the previous two stories, this is yet another pubishing issue that won’t go away.
Over the past 12 months, almost all of the buzz in fiction has been around young women: Patricia Lockwood, Yaa Gyasi, Raven Leilani, Avni Doshi, Lauren Oyler. Ask a novelist of any gender who they are reading and they will almost certainly mention one of Rachel Cusk, Ottessa Moshfegh, Rachel Kushner, Gwendoline Riley, Monique Roffey or Maria Stepanova. Or they will be finding new resonances in Anita Brookner, Zora Neale Hurston, Natalia Ginzburg, Octavia Butler, Ivy Compton-Burnett. The energy, as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, is with women.
Jessica Avery declares, “a ghost is never just a ghost.” A ghost “always represents something more than itself. Something that you try not to think about. Something unpleasant you try to ignore or repress until you can’t any more and it rises up to — quite literally — haunt you.”
Follow Avery’s dive into the world of ghosts and haunted houses, including The Haunting of Hill House.
Another literary issue I’ve been following recently is reader dissatisfaction with Goodreads and who or what might step up to replace it. StoryGraph had been in beta for a while as a possibility. Chris M. Arnone here reviews it for Book Riot.
The article includes directions on how to export your data from Goodreads and import it into StoryGraph, followed by discussion of its good points and shortcomings.
Let us know in the comments if you’ve tried StoryGraph.
Have you ever wondered why your favorite book hasn’t yet been made into a film or TV series? Literary Hub recently conducted a virtual roundtable discussion with several writers from the film/TV industry about “a process that for many, is mysterious.”
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
These stories about concerns over the publishing industry aren’t going away any time soon—nor should they: “the business of books has increasingly become a hothouse, generating controversies, Twitter feuds and scrambles to save face as existing power structures are challenged.”
Here Time magazine takes a look at three new novels that “navigate the thorny interior of the industry”:
- The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
- Who Is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews
- The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Since I love inventive fiction that bends or blends genres, this article about writers who started with romantic fiction and have branched into also writing mysteries, psychological thrillers, or domestic noir. Authors mentioned include Lisa Jewell, Tony Parsons, Paula Hawkins, Adele Parks, and Joanne Harris.
The Los Angeles Times reports on “a revamped program for the COVID-19 era” for putting writers to work modeled after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. The new program would “employ struggling writers and academics and create a national archive of work from our time.”
“Bookstagrammers Demand Publishers Pay Up”
“Bookstagrammers” are people with book-focused Instagram accounts. After the New York Times published a story about the impact TikTok’s book community is having on the publishing industry, Bookstagrammers spoke up:
The literary community on Instagram, particularly readers of color, objected to the Times’ erasure of their hard work and the willingness for publishing representatives to say, on the record, that they pay TikTokers for their publicity.
Prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic’s switch to digital texts for students, Naomi S. Baron, Professor of Linguistics Emerita at American University, has studied “how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning.” Specifically: “Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And are listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material?”
The answers to both questions are often “no,” as I discuss in my book “How We Read Now,” released in March 2021. The reasons relate to a variety of factors, including diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset and a tendency to multitask while consuming digital content.
Alex Shephard writes in The New Republic that publishers have for decades talked about themselves as “one of the most important protectors of speech in the country.” But now, he says, “Publishers have lost their grand narrative, and it’s not clear what will replace it.”
Shephard digs into the recent controversies involving publishers Simon & Schuster and W.W. Norton.
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
Rebeca Hussey here defines philosophical fiction as fiction that “encourages the reader to ponder big questions. It purposely provokes thought and debate.” Her list of philosophical fiction includes both contemporary and classic books.
Here’s a reprint of “a rarely seen essay” that is “a wry set of instructions Chandler issued to his assistant in the 1950s.”
“Assert your personal rights at all times,” he tells her, along with several other instructions that might sound strange but refreshing to most office workers today.
Pip Williams, author of The Dictionary of Lost Words, explains why and how she wrote this book, which examines the participation of women in the production of the daddy of dictionaries, The Oxford English Dictionary.
This is an excerpt from the recent book A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon, PhD. In this episode she explains why there was no official investigation of the murder of a woman named Apronia until her husband asked the emperor to look into it:
There was no representative of the state of Rome who would get involved in this case until Apronius took it to the emperor because, as far as the Romans were concerned, the murder of wives, children, husbands, or really anyone at all was absolutely none of their business.
A professor “who teaches people to teach kids to read” takes us on a tour of the “reading wars.” She looks at political involvement in the various controversies that have produced a sobering statistic: “two-thirds of United States 4th graders are reading ‘below grade level.’”
Nora Caplan-Bricker takes a deep dive into how the novels of Tana French use “the lust for property” to embody “the half-formed fears that hover at the edge of any mundane existence.”
“French’s fiction captures the talismanic power of a house as well as anything I’ve ever read,” she writes.
Children read longer books of greater difficulty during lockdown periods last year, and reported that reading made them feel better while isolated from the wider world, according to new research.
This news surprised me, but also warmed the cockles of my heart!
“The author recognized that humiliation is a kind of trauma—and that gentle humor could help neutralize it.”
A beautiful appreciation by Sophie Gilbert of children’s author Beverly Cleary, who died recently at the age of 104. Gilbert lauds the way Cleary “captured—sweetly, and with humor—all the ordinary ups and downs of childhood: sibling rivalry, misunderstandings, having a teacher who you can sense doesn’t like you.”
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
- Introduction to Life Stories
- “Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember
- Life Stories: The Personal Component
- 11 Novels That Feature Life Stories
- Literary Life Stories: The Character Biography
- “Gone Girl”: Forging a Life Story
- Life Stories: A Select Bibliography
- What Your Favorite Books Tell You About Your Writing
- Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson
- Moral Depth in Current Fiction
I was, like lots of other readers, bowled over by Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl when I read it shortly after its publication in April 2012. While I appreciated it simply as an engrossing story, what particularly struck me was how the book used the concept of life stories to communicate its meaning. This came the year after I received my doctorate in psychology, for which I wrote my dissertation on life stories.
My study of life stories focused on memoir and other autobiographical writing, all nonfiction. But Gone Girl hit me upside the head with the realization that an understanding of life story theory could enrich my understanding of fiction, too. Here’s how Flynn uses aspects of life story as the framework of the novel:
Summary: Life Stories
Coming from an academic background, I was intrigued to recognize how aspects of psychology emerge in literature.
The study of life stories (the technical term is narrative identity theory) addresses how we all tell—to both ourselves and others—the story of our life in order to give meaning to our experiences and to build our sense of self—our feeling of who we are as both a member of society and a unique individual.
I started writing on this topic back in 2014. To keep this blog post as short as possible, I’m embedding some earlier posts about life stories here.
Our life stories arise from our past and influence both our present and our future.
When we tell our life stories, we include events as we remember them. Other people present at the same events may remember them quite differently.
Once Gone Girl demonstrated to me how life stories can show up in fiction, I began seeing them almost everywhere.
I see aspects of Life Stories in Literature functioning across time in the books that interest me.
How Life Stories Work in Fiction
Fiction, in its broadest sense, examines the meaning of human existence by considering the two most basic questions each of us asks about ourselves:
- Who am I?
- Why am I here?
We compose our life story to find our purpose or place in the world. Life stories are psychologically complex because they comprise two seemingly paradoxical functions:
- to situate someone within a particular society or culture, in a specific place and a specific time
- to carve out someone’s individual or unique identity within the larger group
Fiction gives us the opportunity to watch, in a safe setting, how particular actions play out. Understanding how life stories work can enrich our experiences of reading fiction by allowing us to observe how characters act in particular situations and transferring the lessons those characters learn to our own lives.
Sometimes the life story is the major focus of a novel. Other times it’s a minor element that illuminates some other aspect of the novel.
Every minute of every day, behind the scenes, our self-narrative is deftly guiding our every decision based on what we gleaned, applying it to what’s happening now, and suggesting what we should (probably) do next.
Here’s a sampling of the themes that life stories can help us understand in fiction. These themes are like individual facets of a diamond: the meaning of one theme can reflect onto others. In fact, a single novel may illustrate more than one of these themes. I have broken this discussion down into themes for ease of discussion, but many themes may serve as reflections of each other and, like light from a cut diamond, produce a light greater than the sum of its individual parts.
The core of narrative identity theory is the individual’s exploration, discovery, creation, and understanding of self. The term narrative means a series of events told in chronological sequence—essentially a story. Popular culture has adopted the concept of life stories with phrases such as “the narrative of success” or the need to “change the narrative” in fields such as business, lifestyle, and personal development.
Young children remember some of their experiences, but people generally don’t begin to put those memories together to construct a life narrative until adolescence. Therefore, YA (young adult) fiction often emphasizes this aspect of life story. However, understanding or shaping one’s identity isn’t limited to adolescence but continues throughout one’s life time.
Fiction featuring adults therefore sometimes includes incidents in which characters try to focus, evaluate, explain, or even change their life path or sense of purpose. For example, the story in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird is so gripping that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the narrator is not the child Scout, but rather the adult that child has grown into. Her narration of what happened back when her father defended Tom Robinson explains how those events shaped her into the person she has become.
Older characters, those in the midst of that common malady known as mid-life crisis, sometimes engage in similar soul-searching. Anne Tyler’s 2001 novel Back When We Were Grownups begins with the memorable line “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered that she had turned into the wrong person.” The novel unfolds as this woman re-examines the purpose and significance of the life she has lived.
Finally in this general category of the search for identity, there are the negative examples, the warnings. All of the following novels demonstrate what happens when people don’t fulfill society’s expectations for them:
- Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899)
- Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905)
- Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952; later republished as Carol)
- Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac (1984)
- Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night (2015)
As the range of publication dates of these novels demonstrates, this theme recurs across time. The expectations of the current societies differ, but the fact that society expects people to live in appropriate ways endures.
Growing up is a process of socialization, and that process begins at home at an early age. We spend our early years learning how our parents, our first representatives of society, expect us to act. Some of this instruction is overt: “Good children share their toys and take turns.”
But some is much more subtle. In Beverly Cleary’s novel Beezus and Ramona, 9-year-old Beatrice (Beezus) Quimby finds her 4-year-old sister Ramona completely exasperating. One of Ramona’s exasperating actions is the frequent demand that Beezus read aloud Ramona’s favorite book, The Littlest Steam Shovel. Beezus can’t understand why Ramona loves this book so much. After all, “Girls weren’t supposed to like machinery.” This novel was published in 1955, a time when appropriate gender behaviors were well established: boys were supposed to play with tanks and trucks, while girls got dolls and dishes.
Scott O’Dell’s 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins includes the same gender assumptions. In this children’s novel Karana, age 12, gets left behind on a small island when the rest of her people decide to leave on a visiting ship. She realizes she’ll have to make everything she’ll need to survive, but she worries because her father has taught her that any weapons made by women will fail when used:
I wondered what would happen to me if I went against the law of our tribe which forbade the making of weapons by women—if I did not think of it at all and made those things which I must have to protect myself.
Fortunately, Karana is a brave girl. She makes the weapons and teaches herself how to use them.
Near the end of Beezus and Ramona, Beezus tells Ramona, “You can’t have jelly on your mashed potatoes, because you aren’t supposed to.” While current readers probably find this admonition less objectionable than the gender-based lessons, it still demonstrates that society expects children, as they grow up, to learn what they are “supposed to” and “not supposed to” do.
Children who grow up in an unstable home environment also learn lessons that will shape the rest of their lives. Novelist Paula McLain wrote recently about how her life in foster care, beginning at age 5, affected her later life:
A common type of stories told to young children is fairy tales, many of which function as subtle messages to teach children how to be in the world:
Much of what fairy tales give us are warnings about the people we encounter and the world we live in. We are told in fairy tales to be cautious of strangers, to be wary of those that may want to intrude into our lives, because we can never truly know what motives they may have.
Finally, dysfunctional-family variants have become a literary trope, particularly in the mystery and thriller genres, for examining how childhood memories and lessons mold us into the adults we become. A recent example is Girl A by Abigail Dean. The novel tells the story of the seven Gracie children, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of two mentally ill parents. Girl A, the narrator of the novel, is Lex Gracie, the oldest girl, second-oldest child, who was 15 when she managed to escape and summon help.
I remember very little about that time [immediately after the escape], and each of the memories seems exaggerated, as if I’ve taken somebody else’s story and imagined myself into the narrative.
The tale of the rescue of the children from the Gracie House of Horrors received extensive, sensationalized press coverage. Afterwards, the siblings were sent to separate families for adoption; they have not had much contact with each since.
Now, 15 years later, Lex is an attorney who must consult her siblings about settling the estate of their mother, who has died in prison. As she talks with each in turn, she realizes that each one of them has constructed his or her own version of a life story that explains what happened to them then and how they have lived their lives since.
And this brings up one very important feature of life stories: each person’s is unique. If you’ve ever reminisced with family members and discovered that each of you has a very different memory of some notable family event (something like The Year Grandma Forgot to Cook the Thanksgiving Turkey), you’ve experienced this phenomenon first hand. Different people remember the same event differently. There are as many sides to any story as there are participants in the event.
And a corollary of this is that no one version of what happened is any truer than the others. They are all significant and meaningful to the person who created them.
we are what we remember
Since we construct our life stories out of events as we remember them, the biggest threat to our sense of identity is amnesia, a major trope in psychological fiction. The best example is The Bourne Identity and sequels by Robert Ludlum. After the protagonist wakes up on a fishing boat with no memory of who he is or how he got there, readers follow along as he searches to fill in the blanks of his past and construct a new future. S.J. Watson’s novel Before I Go to Sleep follows a similar pattern as readers follow Christine’s journey of self-rediscovery.
While both Ludlum and Watson use the amnesia trope to set up a menacing, life-or-death situation, Liane Moriarty paints the story of recovering one’s identity with a lighter brush in What Alice Forgot. While loss of identity can be frightening and threatening, as it is for Jason Bourne and Christine, it can also offer an opportunity for renewed self-knowledge and acceptance, as it does for Alice.
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inside stories vs. outside stories
I’ve been saying that our life story builds our sense of self, but, if we’re honest, we all know that we have several selves. The biggest distinction is between our public self—the self we show the world—and our private, interior self. But we actually have many selves—we act differently at a job interview than at a wedding, at a dinner in the in-laws’ house than at a night out with our best friends. There is nothing wrong with such situational awareness and appropriate behavior.
But problems can arise when someone’s public and private selves diverge widely because underlying life stories can drive behavior despite the public face. This is probably the aspect of narrative identity theory most often explored by writers of psychological fiction.
One of the best examples of such a novel that I’ve read lately is The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.
Narratives featuring imposters could be considered a subgroup of inside vs. outside stories. Imposters can have many motivations for assuming a false identity. Like Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels, they may want a life that’s fancier, richer, and more empowered than their own.
Or the reason may be more mysterious, as in The Passenger by Lisa Lutz, which is divided into sections labeled with the names of the narrator’s various assumed identities. In this case the narrator’s reason for these frequent name changes drives the plot because, as interesting as her process for finding and taking on new identities is, what we really want to find out is why she has to live this way.
hidden identities and secrets
Another subgroup of inside vs. outside stories involves characters suppressing, hiding, or ignoring some part of their lives. Such novels allow readers to understand the causes and reasons for a character’s behavior.
The most powerful of these books illustrate the old adage “don’t judge other people unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” These novels help us develop compassion and empathy for others. Some of the most powerful examples I’ve read include Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson, Mystic River by Dennis Lahane, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4).
creating or controlling one’s own narrative
We now live in an era in which groups (such as women, indigenous people, refugees, and immigrants) whose voices have been silenced in the past are asserting their right to tell their own stories. One of the phrases that appears often in this context is “taking control of one’s own narrative.”
Julie Clark’s novel The Last Flight includes an example of how one woman uses this terminology. Claire Cook is married to the handsome son of a wealthy and politically powerful family. Claire’s husband thinks he owns her, body and soul, and controls her access to money, friends, and the outside world. Beneath the veneer of family and fortune, Claire must contrive an elaborate plot to escape, because no one believes her story of abuse. “If we don’t tell our own stories, we’ll never take control of the narrative,” she explains near the end of the novel.
Cultural appropriation, the question of who has the right to tell which stories, has been in the news a lot recently. This issue is a subcategory of controlling one’s own narrative. The controversy over the publication of the novel American Dirt in 2020 is a prominent example (scroll down to #2 for a recap).
“American Dirt” has also sparked an emotional discussion about how far the publishing industry still must go to more richly represent the scope and diversity of the Latino experience, said authors, literary agents and other industry figures in interviews. . . . It’s a discussion focused on a complicated question: Who gets to frame others’ stories, and how?—Daniel Hernandez
change your story, change your life
Individuals can’t change the events of their lives, but they can change how they react to them.
The events of your past are fixed. The meaning of your past is not.
The influence of every experience in your life is determined by the meaning you assign to it.
Assign a more useful meaning to your past and it becomes easier to take a more useful action in the present.—James Clear
This theme plays out in Australian author Jane Harper’s recent novel The Survivors. Kieran Elliott’s whole outlook on life changes when he learns the truth about a devastating event that occurred when he was a teenager. That new knowledge eases his guilt and allows him to step into his future life—marriage and fatherhood—as a new man.
presentation of alternate life options
One of the psychological functions literature can perform is to allow readers to observe what happens when a character does a particular action. Reading lets people play out different scenarios in a safe environment. Literature can also paint for readers a picture of what someone else’s life is like. Such observation can offer new possibilities or increase understanding of current situations.
One such new possibility is the coming together of previously isolated adults into an informal family that benefits them all. A couple of novels that demonstrate this happening are Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf and Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos.
Another area in which literature can help promote understanding is in the presentation of mental illness. Books that make an effort to present accurately the experience of people with various mental health issues include The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell, and Turtles All the Way Down by John Green.
Literature’s ability to demonstrate life scenarios is especially important in multicultural societies because it can encourage understanding, which in turn can increase compassion and empathy toward people who are different from ourselves. This was the basis behind much of the controversy over the publication of American Dirt, a novel that many Latinx authors said contains stereotyped characters and inaccuracies about the actual experiences of people who entered the U.S. from Mexico.
The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, also related to the issue of cultural appropriation, has arisen to advocate for the publishing industry to produce more books by refugees and people from ethnic minorities. Literature can also provide life-option scenarios for groups who have traditionally been marginalized by society, such as multiracial and non-heterosexual individuals. The need here is especially great for books aimed at young people searching for role models who mirror themselves as they develop their self-concept.
possible alternate selves
A more focused variant of alternate life options borrows the concept of multiple parallel universes from physics to explore the concept of other possible but unlived lives.
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but these recent novels have introduced me to the whole new world of alternate selves: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson.
highlighting turning points or major life decisions
Many people have had a significant life experience that makes them think of their lives in two parts: “life before _____” and “life after _____.” Such dramatic turning points often figure in literature because they force characters to adapt and accommodate. We expect to watch characters change because of these often traumatic events.
Such changes may be positive. Examples of novels in which post-traumatic growth occurs include Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman (scroll down to #4), The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.
Or such life-changing events might produce negative effects, such as in the second half of Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain.
where, when, and why/how lives intersect
Other significant life experiences involve meeting someone who has a great effect on us. This effect may be either good or bad. Some novels in which the effect is good are A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (scroll down to #4), A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, and How It All Began by Penelope Lively.
A meeting with someone that turns out badly is the stuff thrillers, particularly domestic thrillers, are often made of. A notable example is You by Caroline Kepnes. Other examples are The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda, The Pigman by Paul Zindel (scroll to the bottom), The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman, and Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell.
multiple points of view
The last 30 years or so have taught us that memory is slippery and that different people perceive and remember events differently. Along with these discoveries has grown the novel narrated from more than one perspective. The use of more than one point of view can create tension, suspense, and ambiguity.
Use of multiple perspectives has therefore become a staple of action books such as mysteries, thrillers, and spy novels. Examples include The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.
History is told by the victors or the dominant culture. For centuries this meant that history was written by men, with very little inclusion of women’s voices. A big movement in current literature aims to correct this error with books about historical events that present women’s perspectives to complement the existing record.
The first book I remember reading in this category is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which expands on the mere mention of Dinah in the Bible. Other titles include Circe by Madeline Miller, which gives voice to a character from Greek mythology, and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which narrates the death of Shakespeare’s only son from the perspective of his mother, about whom very little is known.
Writers are also now writing to insert another large group back into history: formerly enslaved peoples whose stories have been expunged from the dominant cultural narratives, for example, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad. Members of other groups whose lives don’t conform to the traditional normative dominant culture’s expectations also are speaking up, in both nonfiction and fiction, as discussed above under presentation of alternate life options.
The fictional use of life story elements can make characters more believable and compelling.
But this doesn’t mean that large numbers of writers have begun studying narrative identity theory in order to embed its various forms in their novels. Novelists have always been storytellers interested in how their fictional people understand themselves and interact with the world they live in.
And throughout its history, the novel has provided storytellers with the means to explore the human psyche. I’ve always been fascinated with the interrelationship between literature and psychology, and narrative identity theory provides the insight and terminology to express and explain that relationship.
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown
And the fallout continues over the allegations against Blake Bailey, author of the biography of Philip Roth that was canceled this week by publisher W.W. Norton.
A publishing executive’s rape allegation against the Philip Roth biographer sent shockwaves through the industry—and put the Times’ handling of it under the microscope. Book critic Dwight Garner, aware of the claim since 2015, says the accuser didn’t want him “to take any actions.”
Charlotte Klein, writing in Vanity Fair, asserts:
The Times’ level of promotion wasn’t unusual for a book positioned as a serious literary biography—and especially one about the late Roth, who represents a kind of fantasy of what it meant to belong to a certain generation of American male novelists—but the paper’s own scoop inevitably raised questions of who knew what and when.
“The Blake Bailey story shows publishing’s institutions once again working to protect men.”
In Vox, Constance Grady explains why the allegations against Blake Bailey “have swept across the literary world”:
in part, that’s because the story of the allegations against Bailey involves so many major publishing figures, culminating in an accusation of rape occurring in the home of one of the New York Times’s staff book critics. The story being told about Blake Bailey right now is one of publishing’s institutional power being put to the service of powerful men.
This article from August 2020 offers “five perspectives on race and Shakespeare” based on a PBS broadcast of Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing that “features an all-Black cast in New York City’s Central Park.”
The commentary is from from first-year college students who studied the performance shortly before their campus shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. “We hope that, just as the Public made new meanings of this old play, our voices can signal newer, younger, better ways of thinking about Shakespeare that help us uncover truth, gain empathy, and take responsibility for racism.”
Mariela Santos Muñiz writes about what she didn’t learn in grad school:
The textbooks that I had to use for my classes mostly presented one side of history — and they didn’t really include diverse perspectives. This was despite the fact that the U.S. is a diverse country. For one, I didn’t learn much about U.S. Latinx history while in school.
When she started contributing to Book Riot after graduation, she wrote articles that made her realize how much she hadn’t learned in school.
So, I started looking for books to reeducate myself. As part of this process, I changed how I chose the books that I read. This meant focusing on the author as well. Being able to see the world differently is about the subject matter, yes — but it’s also about who’s telling the story.
See some of her suggestions for “books that center the perspectives of people that are traditionally underrepresented and overlooked.”
“As the subject of no fewer than three biographies since her death in 1995, the popular writer lived a complicated, if fascinating, life. What was she really like?”
One of the items still on my list of literary projects to complete is a deep dive into the life and works of the fascinating Patricia Highsmith.
The writer was a collision of contradictions, a woman for whom every aspect of herself (including being a woman) demanded internal debate. In her private life, she swung dramatically between polar states of desire and disgust. Her personal journals that she kept her whole life — separate from what she called her “cahiers,” or notebooks in which she worked on her fiction — reveal a woman at the mercy of her emotional tides, drawn to the darkest corners of her psyche.
Novelist and book critic Lauren Oyler on taking risks, writing in the first person, managing self-doubt, and why she increasingly doesn’t have a good answer for “why we write.”
Lauren Oyler, author of the novel Fake Accounts, is here interviewed by Michelle Lynn King. Oyler says she created the first-person narrator of Fake Accounts because “I’m really interested in the issues of the first person narrator and the author in the time of the internet.”
About the concept of the unreliable narrator, she says, “We’ve all learned that everybody’s performing all the time and that the self is a fiction.”
What exactly is bookishness? Michael Seidlinger here defines it as “a person’s interest in maintaining nearness to books. It is a term derived from bookish, which is a label often applied to people who read a lot.”
Seidlinger examines the world of bookishness and how it manifests in today’s culture, from celebrity book clubs to Instagram influencers and companies that market items (clothing, candles, wall hangings, and throw pillows) to help people create their personal bookish persona.
© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown