On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler

Man in Hole: Turning novels’ plots into data points

Dan Piepenbring reports for The Paris Review on an example of digital humanities, or the application of big-data crunching to literary analysis:

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Piepenbring emphasizes that the definition of plot Jockers uses is different from the one readers usually think of:

a book’s plot isn’t necessarily about conflict and resolution, but emotions, which “serve as proxies for the narrative movement,” as Jockers writes.

This conception of plot allows Jockers to use sentiment analysis, which looks at specific words as “sentiment markers,” or words that indicate either positive or negative sentiment. Piepenbring gives examples from Jockers’s lists of both positive and negative words and includes a couple of the charts produced by the research. In the end, Piepenbring concludes that such research

suggests that plot is at once more subtle and more obvious than we’d expect—less a product of preconceived conflict and more indebted to a writer’s style and characters. Never has the question “What happens in it?” been more vexed.

The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels

I have to say that this title seems presumptuous to me. We’ve only completed 14 years of this century, and already we’re choosing its best novels? Let’s append so far to this analysis.

BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari polled several dozen book critics, including The New York Times Book Review’s Parul Sehgal, Time magazine’s book editor Lev Grossman, Newsday book editor Tom Beer, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin, C Max Magee, founder of The Millions, Booklist’s Donna Seaman, Kirkus Reviews’ Laurie Muchnick and many more. We asked each to name the best novels published in English since 1 January 2000. The critics named 156 novels in all, and based on the votes these are the top 12.

Read what the critics have to say about these novels:

  1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).
  2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003).
  3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009).
  4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004).
  5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001).
  6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000).
  7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010).
  8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012).
  9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).
  10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).
  11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000).
  12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002).

I’ve read half of these, although I have three more on my TBR (to be read) shelf.

Harper and Alice Lee, a story of two sisters

The recent announcement that the first novel Harper Lee wrote, the precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, will be published this summer produced lots of coverage. Among the news reports about how the manuscript was discovered and whether Harper Lee is competent to agree to its publication emerged this story of sisters Harper Lee and Alice Lee, the author’s attorney and protector.

Philip Sherwell writes in the U.K.’s Telegraph that the controversy over the newly discovered novel has “ thrown a spotlight on the remarkable bond between the two sisters, neither of whom married or had any known romantic interests; one who could not wait to leave Alabama, the other who never left.” According to Sherwell, Mary Murphy, who made a documentary film and wrote a book about the Lee sisters, says “there was a strong maternal feel to Alice’s protective approach to Nelle, 15 years her junior.”

The teenaged Alice helped care for her baby sister. Alice then went off to study law and became one of the first women to graduate from law school in the Deep South. Alice Lee joined her father’s law firm, Barnett, Bugg and Lee. As a young woman, Harper Lee left Monroeville, Alabama, for New York City to pursue a career as a writer. But Harper returned to Monroeville regularly over the years. When in town, she stayed with Alice in the family house. Harper returned to Monroeville permanently after a stroke in 2007.

Alice Lee continued to practice law until age 100. She died last November at age 103.

Margaret Atwood visits West Point for a frank conversation on gender, politics and oppression

Salon’s Laura Miller describes a recent trip with Margaret Atwood:

The entire first-year class of cadets at West Point had read her 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for a literature course. The 75-year-old author agreed to speak to the assembled plebes (as first-year students at the military academy are called) after lunching with them on mac-and-cheese under the gothic arches of the campus’ vast, Hogwartsian mess hall.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a not—too-distant, theocratic dystopian future in which years of environmental pollution has made most women infertile. The novel’s main character, known as Offred (for “of Fred,” the man whose household she belongs to) is a handmaid, one of the few remaining fertile women. Her job is to provide Fred with a child through a ritualized act of surrogate copulation. “In this future, women must wear color-coded, body-concealing robes and are not allowed to hold jobs outside the home, to own property, to live on their own or even to read.”

Miller explains how the first-year cadets had come to read The Handmaid’s Tale:

Lt. Col. Naomi Mercer, the assistant professor and course director responsible for assigning “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which was paired with the Ursula K. LeGuin story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”), talked about her choice. Mercer, an Iraq War veteran, is also the author of a forthcoming book on feminist science fiction from the 1980s, “Toward Utopia.” “The Army has real gender issues, still,” she said. Reading a book like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “at least creates a vocabulary to talk about those issues. It was very prescient.”

“Perhaps most striking, given Mercer’s hopes for a new vocabulary, was that all of the questioners were male, and none of them asked about the status of women in Gilead,” the setting of the novel, Miller notes. However, as Miller and Atwood waited for their departure car, one young man approached Atwood to sign his book. And he also had a question: “He couldn’t help but notice that some of the worst treatment the novel’s female characters receive comes at the hands of other women.”

“That’s true,” Atwood said. “That’s how these things work. All dictatorships try to control women, although sometimes in different ways. And one of the ways they control any group is to create a hierarchy where some members of the group have power over the others. You get those people to control their own group for you.”

A Conversation with Jonathan Franzen

When novelist Jonathan Franzen visited Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, Susan Lerner, an MFA candidate, interviewed him for the university’s journal Booth.

Please read the entire article. Here are some highlights from Franzen’s replies to Lerner’s questions:

On the difference between fiction and personal essay:

I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive.

On memoir:

There are only two things that can make memoir really good. One of them is great material that is true, stuff that does not require embellishment or invention. Stuff that is just strong and a great story in itself. If you’ve got that, why not write a memoir? There’s value added simply because it’s a memoir. There’s value added in terms of reader impact because the reader knows these amazing things really happened to you. The other thing is if you’ve got a great voice, if you’ve got a great tone going, then even if the story is not there, the combination of the value added from its being nonfiction and the pleasure of the tone or voice can add up to something, …

On whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA (young adult) literature:

Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity.

In literature, new attention to old age, dying

“In the past four months, three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have released novels that walk their characters right up to the valley of the shadow of death,” writes Mary Carole McCauley in The Baltimore Sun. She looks at how authors portray old age and death in the following novels:

  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

McCauley looks at the history of how death has been presented in fiction since the 1960s. Anthony Wexler, who recently earned his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University with a dissertation on late life in literature, says:

humanities professors didn’t begin treating late life as worthy of scholarly inquiry until a 1975 conference on the topic at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. But momentum didn’t begin building until 1992, when the term Vollendungsroman was coined to refer to literature about the completion or winding down of life.

McCauley attributes that shift in attention to the baby boomers and to medical advances that now keep people alive longer. Wexler adds that aging studies now incorporate literature by novelists such as Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, and the British novelists Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and Kingsley Amis. “Watching authors fight that battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.”