High school English teacher Sahar Mustafah writes that her students often ask when they’re going to read happy books.
Young people, quite naturally, equate “happy” with a safe, uneventful existence. Genocide, sexual assault, poverty, racism, climate change—it’s hard to find any reason to be excited about reading these subjects as a plot line. And the experience can be just as hard for a teacher to present to students.
“But I pose that books containing difficult issues or trauma are good for our youth. In fact, they’re downright essential,” Mustafeh counters. Her reasoning?
literature can increasingly shape empathetic, socially-conscious individuals. Shielding students from challenging texts because “there’s so much bad stuff already going on” only seeks to reinforce systems of power and inequity.
I’d argue that her power to connect with us in hard times arises not because her retired life shielded her from grief, pain, and fear—but because she knew very well what it was like to feel vulnerable, exposed, and anxious about the well-being of those she cared about.
Hadlow concludes: “What Austen really prizes is resilience” and “the self-discipline she insists upon as a means to survive” during hard times.
Perhaps you prefer Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College, discusses Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, “set in 1923, five years on from the global influenza pandemic that killed somewhere between fifty and a hundred million people.”
Woolf’s vivid description of a crowded metropolis right now, when our own cities’ streets lie empty, feels like something out of a fantasy novel. Yet Clarissa’s joie de vivre is mixed with a sense of latent dread: “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”
I’m including this article not just because it recommends five books. Novelist Emma Viskic and interviewer Cal Flyn also discuss the significance of crime fiction and the specious distinctions between crime fiction and literary fiction.
“What is the Great American Novel? Its existence as a singular volume is surely a myth, but what is the concept of the Great American Novel?” Annika Barranti Klein examines the history of the concept of the Great American Novel and tries to figure out what the term actually means.
The Edgar Awards Revisited, a series in Criminal Element, looks back at award winners not only in their own right, as outstanding novels, but as representative of the their time.
In fact, looking back on 1986, The Suspect may have been the least progressive choice, thematically or structurally, for the Edgar that year, its whydunnit format notwithstanding. Simon Brett’s A Shock To The System features a similar format but, as the British precursor to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, was perhaps considered as outre as its fellow nominee, Paul Auster’s metaphysical detective story, City Of Glass.
Rob Hart, author of the recently released novel The Warehouse, writes:
Recently I heard a pretty good explanation of the difference between a mystery and a thriller. A mystery is about what happened, and a thriller is about what’s going to happen.
But beyond that distinction, how do librarians and publishing professionals decide into which of many, many inter-related categories a given novel should be slotted? Readers of literary criticism know that the distinction between “literary fiction”—the high-brow, highfalutin stuff—and “mere genre fiction”—the low-brow, inferior stuff most of us love—is a perennial topic of discussion. But Hart here proclaims, “I really am a fan of mixing genres.” He offers a list of books that do just that: “I don’t know exactly what to call, other than very good books.”
While we may not be seeing an Obama book club any time soon, the former president provides a rare male voice in a largely female-dominated literary space helmed by the likes of Oprah [Winfrey] and Reese Witherspoon. Covering a wide range of genres, topics and authors, Obama’s recommendations certainly aren’t aimed specifically at male readers, but his voice has helped redefine a literary space often associated — however problematically — with a stereotypically “feminine” vision perhaps best embodied by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club.
Says Kayla Kibbe, “Obama’s book recommendations read less like an endorsement from a former world leader than a conversation with a close friend who would gladly lend you their own paperback.”
Biographer, poet, critic, and novelist Jay Parini addresses the rise of historical fiction over “the last few decades.”
A student of mine recently said to me in frustration: “I just can’t get interested in ‘made-up’ lives.” And I must admit, my own tastes have shifted over the decades away from invented lives. I think I speak for many when I say that it’s biographical novels—which are centered on actual lives and circumstances—that have found a more secure place in my reading (and writing) life.
And here’s why:
Fiction offers the one and only way we have to get into the head of somebody not ourselves. If this person is someone of interest for one reason or another, there is all the more reason to want to know them and their world more deeply.
And there is a truthfulness in fiction that is simply unavailable to the academic biographer.
Jennifer Szalai discusses What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price, an English professor at Rutgers University. The book is not so much about literary history or literary criticism as about the book as physical object and the experience of reading.
The knot of ambivalence contained in this book is appropriate, considering that her subject — “the history and future of reading” — is too enormous and various to speak with a single voice. Recalling an injury that a number of years ago made it hard for Price to read, she says her story “has that most bookish of structures, a happy ending.” This is Price the Book Historian talking; Price the Literary Critic seems to have a different and darker take. Later, reflecting on the desire to see fiction as therapeutic, she wonders how we might prepare for “that most literary of endings, an unhappy one.”
Genre is a term applied to different kinds of literature that can be defined by their subject matter, form, or technique. According to A Handbook to Literature, 7th ed., by William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman (Prentice Hall, 1996):
Genre classification implies that there are groups of formal or technical characteristics among works of the same generic kind regardless of time or place of composition, author, or subject matter; and that these characteristics, when they define a particular group of works, are of basic significance in talking about literary art. (p. 231)
Genre fiction originated in dime novels—cheaply printed paperbound books, originally sold for about 10 cents, featuring tales of crime or adventure. Two of the most popular types of dime novels were detective stories and tales of Western adventure by men like Buffalo Bill Cody.
Dime novels became popular with troops during the United States Civil War and remained popular until about the 1890s, when pulp magazines began to replace them. Like dime novels, pulp magazines were printed on cheap pulp paper and featured tales of adventure, love, or crime. Pulp magazines became especially popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Over time, several distinct genres of fiction developed to fill these publications:
tales of crime detection
tales of adventure, especially stories of espionage or travel to exotic fictional lands
Each genre had its own standards, including characters, plots, and writing styles.
Because each genre had characteristic contents and format, the term genre came to refer to formulaic writing. Today the term genre literature is often used pejoratively, with the sneering note of “mere genre fiction” used to distinguish works of popular fiction from more high-brow literature (I do not hold this view. In fact, one of the reasons why I didn’t finish my doctorate in English and American literature was that I didn’t agree with the note of snobbery that pervaded the academic study of literature.)
Sternbergh, Adam. The Blinds HarperCollins, 2017 ISBN 978–0–06–266134–0
Caesura, an isolated town in rural Texas, houses about 40 people who’ve all chosen to live there, though they no longer remember why. Some committed a crime, others witnessed one. But all they know now is that they agreed to live here before having certain crucial moments wiped from memory, then chose a new first and last name from two lists, one of famous movie stars and the other of former vice presidents of the United States. They also know the rules of their new life: no visitors, no contact with the outside world, and no return if they ever choose to leave.
The town, called The Blinds by its residents, has been receiving a trickle of new inhabitants every few months throughout its eight-year existence. When the novel opens, we meet Frances Adams, one of the original eight residents.
And then she hears a gunshot…
Just like that, the novel’s action is under way. Its progression incorporates elements of five literary genres:
That early gunshot produces a body, the traditional opening for a mystery. And the characteristic process of a mystery is to answer two questions: Who killed whom, and why? But a traditional mystery takes almost the complete book to play out. In The Blinds, we learn about the killer much earlier than we expect.
(2) Police Procedural
A police procedural, in some ways a subgenre of mystery, shows the steps a law enforcement officer takes to solve a crime. Although we meet Sheriff Cooper early in The Blinds, it’s Deputy Sidney Dawes who undertakes an investigation—one that involves the sheriff.
This is the genre that carries most of the weight of the novel. In many ways the town of Caesura and what happens there is straight out of the typical Western playbook.
First of all, we meet Sheriff Cooper. Like all the other town’s residents, he has chosen a new name for himself, and he chose Cooper after Gary Cooper, the actor who played a sheriff in many Western movies. Our Sheriff Cooper wears a badge and considers it his job to protect the residents of his town. Second, the town itself resembles a typical nineteenth-century Western town: isolated, located miles away from civilization, a self-contained microcosm of the world.
Third, the plot comprises that of a generic Western: strangers from outside—riding in black SUVs rather than on black horses—arrive and set into motion action that threatens to destroy the town’s equilibrium. And the climax of that action occurs in a shootout, just like the famous confrontation at the O.K. Corral. And for good measure, the person behind the existence of Caesura is Dr. Holliday.
(4) Science Fiction
Research scientist Dr. Holliday (who, unlike her Wild West namesake, is a woman) created Caesura as a laboratory for her experimentation with a technique that removes specific memories from the human brain. Her discussions with Sheriff Cooper late in the novel reveal her as an example of the genre fiction trope of the mad scientist, such as occurs in H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, published in 1896.
As does most science fiction, this element of The Blinds comprises the novel’s thematic material. Dr. Holliday’s experimentation takes to the extreme current scientific interest in brain science and in the nature of consciousness, of memory, and of self-identity. Can science truly change people by eradicating some of their memories, then giving them a new name? And if such changes could be made, who has the right to make them?
This novel also contains a bit of romance, but I’ll leave that for you to observe for yourself.
Like many contemporary works of fiction, The Blinds combines elements from several literary genres. A good part of the enjoyment of reading a novel like this is recognizing and appreciating how it both embraces and subverts those generic elements to create an original literary work.
Jennifer Weiner never passes up an opportunity to lament how the world of literary criticism mistreats authors (like her) and readers of popular literature. “Every once in a while,” she explains, “a literary novel becomes tremendously popular, transcending the typical sales for literary fiction and making its way onto bestseller lists.”
Those juggernaut books have a few things in common: they’re written by women; they are read (as is most fiction) mostly by women; and, as they ascend toward peak popularity, perhaps even winning a prize or two, some highbrow critic will announce that they are not literature at all but, in fact, sentimental trash, unworthy of a single honor or accolade, written by bad people and read by awful – or, at least, silly and stupid – fans.
She calls this process “‘Goldfinching’, after Vanity Fair’s 2014 yes-but-is-it-art interrogation as to whether Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning, mega-bestselling book The Goldfinch is or is not literature.”
Goldfinching isn’t about elevating good books at the necessary expense of bad ones. It’s about once more reminding the wrong kind of reader of just where she stands, and how little her enjoyment or endorsement matters.
You can follow Weiner’s article in depth by clicking on the many links she provides to examples of the disparagement of popular literature she provides.
For the record, I loved Tartt’s The Goldfinch, as well as Gone Girl, another of the novels whose criticism Weiner cites as examples that support her thesis.
This article picks up where Weiner left off in the previous article. The term popular literature usually occurs as a synonym for genre fiction, and that’s how Lincoln Michel uses the term here. As Michel puts it:
When we get into a debate like … “genre” vs. “literary,” we’ve wandered into the book world version of conservative vs. liberal. Arguments revolve around feelings, constantly redefined terms, and moving goal posts rather than any interest in truth or understanding.
Much of the problem with such debates stems from the lack of any specific and generally accepted definitions of terms like genre fiction and literary fiction. Like Weiner, Michel cites a lot of critics’ opinions about what those terms mean. He even crunches a lot of sales numbers in trying to determine what makes literature popular. He does all of that in order to draw the following conclusion:
If you are determined to compare popularity, at least do so with actual facts. But it would be far better if we focused less on popularity, and more on the wide range of amazing books from all genres and corners of the globe that are daily ignored for yet another think piece on already popular books.
What I like about this piece is that it gives me permission to dismiss the whole tiresome question of popular vs. literary fiction.
On his or her blog The Invisible Event, Invisible Blogger (IB) writes about classic crime fiction. In this post IB discusses what he or she calls “fair play detective stories”:
I think I’m relatively safe in saying that for many people the appeal of the detective story is the opportunity to have a go at fitting the puzzle together before the author explains all at the end (differentiating here from the crime novel or the thriller, which for brevity’s sake we’ll simply say have different intentions).
Like IB, I take the term fair play detective stories to mean those in which the attentive reader has as much chance of figuring out who the villain is as does the novelist detective. In fact, solving the puzzle is one of the biggest attractions of this type of story. So I agree with IB’s list of unacceptable requirements in such a novel:
“there must be sufficient declared clues and no deliberate narrative chicanery on behalf of the author in withholding something without appearing not to”
“burying the key information in a higgledy-piggledy mess of deliberately confusing cross-talk does not, to my mind, make it fairly declared”
no “specialist knowledge” or “esoteric knowledge” should be required for solving the crime
also not allowed is “nonsense invention – no poisons previously unknown to science, not-of-this-world unexplainable influences, or just plain old invention for the sake of surprise”
So what does make a novel a “fair play detective story”?
Put simply, if I get to the reveal of a detective novel and can see how each crumb along the path of reasoning to the solution was given to me to pick up and examine at my leisure then it’s a fair play puzzle.
Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.
A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
Some people attribute the increasing page count to e-readers, which do not emphasize the length of a book as visually as does a huge hunk of a printed book. One other possible explanation is that “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google,” says literary agent Clare Alexander. But, Alexander also says:
“I would argue that a countervailing force is also in play with the revival of interest in the short story (also reflected in a growing and excellent prize culture) or the brief but perfectly formed novel.”
This is one of those debates that just won’t go away. Here CBS News takes “a look at some of the science to consider before you spring for a Kindle, a Nook or a stack of new hardcovers” for someone on your holiday gift list.
Here’s a list of the major points. Be sure to read the explanations of the science behind each one.
Young, reluctant readers prefer e-readers
Reading on paper may boost retention
Paper suits readers with sleep problems and eye strain