Literary Links

Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers

Joe Pinsker looks at the question of “why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t.” Here’s no surprise: “a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.”

How Reese Witherspoon became the new high priestess of book clubs

“Since Reese’s Book Club launched in 2017 in partnership with the actress’s media company, Hello Sunshine, it has become an industry phenomenon with the power to catapult titles to the top of the bestseller lists.” According to the article, “Reese really picks the books.”

The Loser-Spy Novelist for Our Times

James Parker, a staff writer for The Atlantic, praises English novelist Mick Herron on the publication of his latest novel, Joe Country. “Mick Herron writes about the broken spies sworn to protect today’s broken England,” the article’s subtitle proclaims.

“Like John le Carré—with whom he has been much compared—Herron is obsessed with that area of human experience, that area of the human brain, where paranoia overlaps with an essential, feral vigilance.”

Read Editor Carmen Maria Machado’s Intro to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

cover: he Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

Here’s another look at the age-old, ever-recurring question of the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

This omnivorous selection of stories chosen by series editor John Joseph Adams and World Fantasy Award finalist Machado is a display of the most boundary-pushing, genre-blurring, stylistically singular science fiction and fantasy stories published in the last year. By sending us to alternate universes and chronicling ordinary magic, introducing us to mythical beasts and talking animals, and engaging with a wide spectrum of emotion from tenderness to fear, each of these stories challenge the way we see our place in the cosmos.

Orphans and their quests

Harvard Ph.D. candidate Manvir Singh discusses what he calls the sympathetic plot, which pervades world literature and controls how we respond to stories. One common trope of the sympathetic plot is the story of orphans, “parentless protagonists [that] are everywhere.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

SCI-FI DOESN’T HAVE TO BE DEPRESSING: WELCOME TO SOLARPUNK

Welcome to solarpunk, a new genre within science fiction that is a reaction against the perceived pessimism of present-day sci-fi and hopes to bring optimistic stories about the future with the aim of encouraging people to change the present. The first book that explicitly identified as solarpunk was Solarpunk: Histórias ecológicas e fantásticas em um mundo sustentável (Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastic Stories in a Sustainable World), a Brazilian book published in 2012. In 2014, author Adam Flynn wrote Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto.

Tom Cassauwers reports that this new genre began to take off in 2017.

Listen up: why we can’t get enough of audiobooks

Audiobook sales are booming. This article looks at the inevitable question: “is there really a measurable difference between reading with the eyes and ‘reading’ with the ears?”

Crime writers mystified by Colm Tóibín’s criticism

Colm Tóibín recently revived the age-old, snobbish distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction by declaring “I can’t do any genre-fiction books, really, none of them. I just get bored with the prose. I don’t find any rhythm in it. It’s blank, it’s nothing.”

WHEN CRIME AUTHORS WRITE NON-CRIME BOOKS

Lisa Levy discusses eight books by “crime authors moonlighting in other forms of literature.”

Bonus: for another take on enjoying literature that crosses genres, see A Book You Didn’t Know You Needed.

Enjoying Literary Classics

I came across two pieces about enjoying works of literature that have stood the test of time. 

1. Please Take This Summer to Become Obsessed With The Group 

Mikaella Clements writes about her enjoyment of Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group, published in 1963 and set in 1933, which she describes as “alarmingly modern”:

Though its politics are deeply rooted in the 1930s—the novel addresses the idea of the New Woman, the optimism of socialism before WWII and the Eastern Bloc, and the rise of fascism—it is as much about the feminist movement of the 60s and the pitfalls of cultural movements that posit themselves as revolutionary and instead find new ways to minimize, cage, and hurt women.

2. LAURA LIPPMAN: MY 35-YEAR LOVE AFFAIR WITH MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR

Novelist Laura Lippman discusses Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar, “which I have re-read every year for almost 35 years.” She calls it “a unicorn of a book—a so-called women’s novel, written by a man, that takes its heroine very seriously.” 

Lippman says that she doesn’t know whether Marjorie Morningstar is a great book. “But it is a serious book that finds a big, sprawling story in what seems like a small, narrow life. More novels, even crime novels, should dare to do the same.”

The Rise of Rural Noir

When we hear the word “noir,” our minds flash to black-and-white movies driven by hard-boiled, big-city detectives. But in the 21st century, a new genre of crime fiction has risen from the swamps, mountains, and suburbs of the South. Norris Eppes interviews seven rural noir masters to make sense of a thrilling literary genre that rings true to our region.

The authors interviewed here are Brian Panowich, Ace Atkins, Karin Slaughter, Attica Locke, Tom Franklin, James Sallis, and John Hart.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Lots of interesting literary-related articles this week.

Crime writers react with fury to claim their books hinder rape trials

The Staunch prize was founded in 2018 to honor a thriller ““in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” This article reports on the many writers, including Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah, who refute the accusation that their books influence the outcome of trials involving violence against women.

ON ‘THE GIRLS’ IN THE TITLE

The Staunch prize was founded as an antidote to what many cultural and literary critics decry as the trend of “girl books,” typified by works such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Such books, the criticism goes, treat women as objects and glorify acts of violence against women such as stalking, gaslighting, sexual harassment, and rape. Novelist Nina Laurin, who has used the word girl and the related words sister and wife, in her book titles asks, “why do these concepts continue to capture the imagination all these years after this titling trend began?” She argues that< while such words call up certain stereotypes:

In the “girl” books, however, the female characters are also ruthless killers, kick-ass vigilantes, and skilled manipulators. The wives spy, snoop, and poison, and the mothers don’t always know best.

A TV Critic Who Has Seen the Small Screen Become Huge

Jennifer Szalai discusses the book I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by TV critic Emily Nussbaum. Szalai says that Nussbaum unashamedly “treats television as art in its own right” rather than approaching it as a lesser art form.

Judith Krantz Was the Most Important Writer of the 20th Century

Kelly Faircloth praises Judith Krantz, who died last month, as someone who “wrote highly popular commercial fiction that encapsulates her era, the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.”

Krantz’s books are often dismissed as trash, but as any archeologist will tell you, there are few resources so valuable for reconstructing a historical era as a nicely overflowing dump. 

7 Books about What Happens when Your Identity Falls Apart

Abigail N. Rosewood, author of If I had Two Lives, has spent much of her life moving around, not living in any one place for longer than five years. This transitory life has given her many different layers of identity that she sometimes has trouble stitching together. Here she offers a list of “seven works of art that investigate powerful psychic ruptures.” 

They are not easy books and they shouldn’t be. Like most great works of literature, they ask difficult questions⎯How does a psychic split happen? Can a person survive it? How many masks can one wear before getting crushed beneath their weight? Is coherency an illusion?

A Universe of One’s Own

Nicole Rudick looks at the stories collected in the Library of America’s recently issued volume The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Lisa Yaszek. 

It encompasses the genre’s pulp years (1926–1940) and the so-called Golden Age (approximately 1940–1960), and ends just before the emergence of feminist SF in the 1970s. The anthology dispels the commonly held belief that women didn’t participate much in science fiction before the Seventies and argues that a category of fiction often thought to be socially retrograde, technologically fetishistic, and poorly written is in fact rich in style and humanity. 

Literary Links

Here are some of the articles that got me thinking over the past week.

On Impact

Stephen King experienced (celebrated doesn’t seem like the appropriate word) an anniversary last week: 20 years since the automobile accident that nearly killed him. He wrote this article for The New Yorker a year after the accident.

The Weird, Twisted Science of Blake Crouch’s Sci-Fi Thrillers

Cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

I loved Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and have just read (though not yet reviewed) his newly released novel, Recursion, which this interview calls “another particle collider of narrative ambition.” In the interview for Goodread Crouch discusses “the new book, the nature of memory, and the cosmic implications of déjà vu.”

How Has the Internet Changed Book Culture?

On June 12 the Center for Publishing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies in conjunction with Publishers Weekly hosted a PubTechConnect event entitled  “Book Lovers on the Internet: Connecting with Readers in Digital Ways.” 

The group discussed a wide range of internet-focused book-related topics, including whether the internet has changed literary culture for the better or worse, how to effectively use social media to talk about (or promote) books online, how book criticism has changed in the digital era, and which authors were best at using social media as part of their work or brand.

“If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach.”

“Never let anyone tell you there are no words”

We all process grief in different ways. For Jayson Greene, who lost his two-year-old daughter due to a freak accident, it was to take pen to paper. The result is Once More We Saw Stars, a memoir so moving and powerful, it “[restores Greta] ever-so-briefly to the world.” Here, Greene argues that there are words to express unimaginable loss, and how healing it can be to use them. 

Comfort by Ann Hood is another memoir written under similar circumstances.

A DISCUSSION ON WOMEN IN CRIME FICTION

Two veteran women crime writers, Rene Denfeld and Gilly Macmillan, “discuss the wave of new women crime writers—and if being a woman has changed how they write about violence and crime.”

Denfeld says, “Writing about violence can be a way for us to explore what it means, where violence comes from, and what we can do to prevent it.”

Both writers emphasize the need for fully developed characters on both sides of the violence equation, both the victims and the perpetrators. Since women have historically suffered the effects of violence, the current push of crime fiction written by women aims to demonstrate resilience rather than simply victimization. 

Macmillan says, “Crime fiction can delve deep into current societal issues and does it best when those issues strike a universal chord, giving us an opportunity to connect with readers in a very visceral way.”

Jennifer Weiner was right about sexism, media and women writers: “We were told we were lying”

Author Jennifer Weiner has “spent nearly a decade challenging the elitism and sexism of book publishing and criticism. Her new novel, “Mrs. Everybody” is a culmination of Weiner’s work as both a storyteller and a truth-teller, a sweeping multigenerational family saga against a backdrop of 70 years of women’s history.”

In this interview in Salon she discusses her new novel, Mrs. Everything, a multigenerational novel about women and families, and the inequality between men and women in the publishing industry.  

Here are some of Weiner’s major points:

  • “women’s stories can be big stories, even though we are not taught to think of them that way.”
  • “We read men in school and we were taught that that was Literature, with a capital L. We read books by men. Men did not grow up reading books by women in school and believing that that was literature.”
  • “I wanted readers [of Weiner’s latest novel, Mrs. Everything] to think about the importance of naming things. How once you’ve got a term for something or a word for something or a language for something, that’s when you can start to solve it. That’s when you can start to fix it.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?