You Can’t Write Literature

In his Nobel acceptance speech (which he did not deliver in person), Bob Dylan compared himself to Shakespeare. This was not an attempt at self-aggrandizement. Rather, Dylan was pointing out that neither of them set out to write Literature. Literature happened while they were thinking about other things:

When [Shakespeare] was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” (Source)

Literature, I think, is something that exists because we all think it does. A work only becomes literature by acclaim because it captures something about the human experience in a unique and arresting manner. After all, there’s a reason why no one can agree on what belongs in the canon: we all value different subjects and styles.

Robert James Gordon

There’s a long-standing stereotype about American writers on a quest to write “the great American novel.” I imagine that if a writer actually set out write Literature, they would either give themselves a terminal case of writers’ block or end up with a pastiche of all the great works…and it would be unreadable. It would have no soul.

While I still have a beef with the Nobel Literature Prize committee, I completely recognize how difficult it is to select one writer (of whatever genre, even song apparently) from the entire world to recognize. They are a relatively small group of humans trying to affix the Literature label to a living writer’s work. They don’t have a hundred years of hindsight to support their decision.

I hate you (in fiction)

There have been a lot of interruptions in my reading lately. First, there was the sinusitis. Then, there was the election. Now, there’s Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White and a library conference. Until I finish that almost 900 page honker, I won’t be able to post reviews. In the meantime, though, I have bookish thoughts for you all. This little rant is inspired by the behemoth I am currently reading.

Joan Llimona i Bruguera

The Crimson Petal and the White begins with a literary device that I loathe: the second person perspective. The narrator plays at being Virgil, guiding “You” through the dank, insalubrious streets of 1870s London. This device is supposed to provide immediacy by trying to get readers to imagine themselves inside the story as observers, even actors in some stories. This has never worked for me. Instead of immersing me in the story, all the second person does is constantly remind me that I’m looking at letters on a page and, in the words of Katie Oldham, “vividly hallucinate” for “hours on end.”

Once I got through the first few chapters of The Crimson Petal and the White, the Virgilian narrator cooled it with the second person and I was finally able to sink into the novel. (The fact that I was on a plane for three hours also turned out to be wonderful for my concentration.) When I had some time yesterday to reflect on my dislike-then-actually-quite-enjoy reaction to this book so far, I realized that I much prefer it when I get to recreate the setting in my own head, choosing what to pay attention to or ignore myself rather than being told by a narrator. The narrator does pop up later in the book but only to deliver snarky asides that had me snorting at inappropriate moments.

The other issue I have with the second person is that, with a few exceptions like The Crimson Petal and the White, the only time I see this device cropping up is in literary fiction or in stories written by immature authors. (By immature I mean they haven’t really grown into their craft.) Second person is tough to pull off, I’m told, though I’ve yet to see it used successfully. Like purple prose, second person perspective makes me think a writer is more interested in literary pyrotechnics than in telling a good story.

Am I being too hard on second person? It’s possible I’m judging it too harshly because I much prefer to learn about a character’s psychology or a setting than be an actor in a story myself. I really don’t like literary techniques that remind me I’m reading. It always feels like I’m being evicted from a book when I run across something like the second person, narrators breaking the fourth wall (unless it’s metafiction, but then I’m prepared), or clumsy world-building. I like to be immersed in a fictional world, but only if I do the heavy mental lifting myself. That way, the story becomes uniquely mine. The second person just screws that up for me.

Nobel Notes

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue

Bob Dylan, 1960s

I had three conversations today that started with someone asking, “Bob Dylan?” Since I work in a library and today the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, we all knew what the questioner meant. Usually when the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced, I have to go the author’s Wikipedia page to learn who the hell they are before I start buying all the books we don’t have by that previously unknown author. This year, everyone knew the winner’s work.

What many of us didn’t know, was why Dylan won the prize. I’ve been seeing articles predicting the winner for about a week now. The lists have included perennial favorites like Philip Roth, Adunis, and Haruki Murakami. (My personal recommendation is for Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin to get the prize, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in the top 10.) Each announcement is accompanied by a brief explanation about why they are unique, valuable, and deserving of global recognition for their art. There are, as far as the rest of us not on the nominating committee know, no set criteria for the award as long as the author put words to a page. This is the first time the award has gone to someone who put music to the words on the page.

My usual complaint about the Nobel for Literature is that, more often not, an obscure European who is read by a vanishingly small audience wins the prize. The award has always gone to someone very gifted, but I’ve always thought that a global award should take into account all of the voices of the world. My complaint is different this year. I know Bob Dylan’s work and am a big fan. But how is he relevant now? There are so many writers who’ve been published in recent decades who write about the events and movements that are shaping us now. Dylan spoke for (and still does, I suppose) for another generation.

Perhaps my complaint about Dylan is the same as my usual complaint after all. He wrote and sang for a specific time, place, and audience that doesn’t exist anymore. His audience is bigger than the one for Patrick Modiano, Herta Müller, or Tomas Tranströmer—so I guess Dylan is a more deserving winner than the obscure Europeans by my criteria. Still, I feel that other authors deserve the win more. Atwood and Le Guin write for woman, for humanity, for our possible futures. Murakami writes for a disconnected but also hyperconnected generation. Adunis writes about the turmoil of the Islamic world. All four are writing about the way we are now (and have been for a few decades). But hell, if Dylan can win, maybe there’s hope for genre writers yet.

What I do like about the Nobel Prize for Literature is the way it sends the bookish internet into a tizzy. “Who won?!? Who???” Then everyone brings out their list of who should have won and why (see above), yells at each other on twitter for a few days, then settles down. Most of the time, the bookish internet is quietly talking about new books, small scandals, and our own pet interests in literature. The squabbling about the Nobel for Literature is something that unites us all—at least for a bit.

Where my critics at?

While reading Amy Hungerford’s article “On Refusing to Read,” which described how curiously blind literary scholars can be of anything happening in the wider world of books outside of their own interests, I was struck by the author’s assertion:

Articles beget other articles; the rising generation of scholars making their way as assistant professors knows that writing about a relatively well-known author or work will make it much easier to get their scholarship published. And so the cycle begins.

Hungerford makes frequent mention of how popular fiction and contemporary fiction are ignored by scholars, either for the cynical reason she described above or because of the sheer volume of new books coming out.

One might think that young scholars would be eager to carve out new territory. After all, it’s getting mighty hard to say something new about Hamlet. But I can see the general timidity of literary scholars (young and old) and critics every year. One of the professors of an advanced English course likes to use a new work of contemporary fiction every fall and spring. Newer fiction feels like less of a slog than canonical literature and students like it—until it comes time to do their research paper. Every time I teach a workshop on library research for this class, without fall, we run up against a resounding lack of literature.

Geraldine Sy

Oh I can find a few articles here and there if a book or its author have won awards. Mid-twentieth century science fiction is growing a respectable body of research. That said, it frustrates me no end that critics and scholars mostly refuse to touch popular fiction. There’s no reason for it other than academic laziness (as Hungerford says, albeit more politely) or snobbery. After all, Dickens, Shakespeare, the Brontës, and the vast majority of authors in the canon were the popular fiction of their day. There’s no reason for snobbery as long as a book is original, interesting, and well-written.

Hungerford’s advice to scholars who play it safe with their reading and scholarship by sticking to what the mandarins of criticism and publishing say they should read is to:

In the face of a multitude of books curated most often by the profit motive, it is incumbent upon those somewhat protected from market imperatives — that is, scholars paid by universities to spend their time reading and thinking and teaching and writing — to stuff the omelet deliberately. To do that, we will all need to scour the shelves for the most delicious ingredients, and also set some loudly touted ones aside.

I like the idea of scholars bucking the norms and seeking out good literature in whatever genre it might be found. If the discipline can get critical mass (sorry about the pun) for contemporary fiction, I imagine that scholars could uncover a wealth of information about how our culture copes with identity, displacement, gender fluidity, sexuality, and a whole host of other topics that older literature could often only discuss with subtext.

In refusing to read, we’re all missing out.

The Bookish Gamble; Or, Keep Publishing Weird

Profits from 20 percent, maybe even 10 percent, of books support the 80 percent or 90 percent that don’t sell. So some publishers think relying solely on instinct is just not enough. (Lynn Neary)

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, because I didn’t know how to write it without frothing over into incoherent bookish ranting. I read Neary’s piece from NPR weeks ago (linked above). In it, she writes about publishers using data collected from ebook readers to decide which books are more likely to be successful in the future. Neary does her best to be even-handed about using data this way, quoting the founder of a reading analytics company about editors using the data to take a chance on a book that their bosses might not like.

Alicia Martin

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention to major publishing over the last couple of years knows that this isn’t happening. How many young adult dystopias did we see coming from publishing houses after the success of The Hunger Games? How many The Da Vinci Code look-a-likes? Publishing is already savvy to trying to recreate success.

No wonder independent and smaller publishing houses have been getting more attention lately. As Nathan Scott McNamara argues in The Atlanticindependent presses have become the place to find more experimental, weirder, and diverse books. The indies are more willing to take a chance on books than the big publishers.

I worry that the use of reading data will homogenize publishing even more. Already, I purchase most of my books from Amazon and rely on interlibrary loan at my library to get my reading material, simply because my local bookstores don’t stock what I want. I read book reviews from a variety of professional and amateur sources because so few of the most-hyped books interest me. (On a related note, Tim Parks wrote a piece in The New York Times about the effect of literary festivals championing a select few titles makes it harder for literature-in-translation to get more than a toehold in the English-reading world.)

Relying on literary agents and editors isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than letting data drive what gets published. In the end, I think what I’m really worried about is something Haruki Murakami warned us about:

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.


Warm Fuzzies for a Shitty Week

It’s been an awful week, for the United States, for the world. Opening my Facebook and twitter feeds this past week has lead to anxious googling more often than not as I learn who the “thoughts and prayers” are going to now. But! There were two news stories this week that helped restore a bit of my faith in humanity. Both of them are about libraries.

Liz Climo

Because libraries are public places, they have become a place for people who have no where else to go. Some communities might ban the homeless, but the San Francisco Public Library and libraries in New York have added hours and resources to help visitors find jobs, housing, and counseling. Ignore the stereotypes that journalists like to trot out about shushing and “not just about books” and read about these wonderful libraries.

As I read these stories, I thought about the shootings in the news every day and about the trainings we’ve had at my library about dealing with difficult patrons. I don’t want to be afraid of people, always on my guard. The libraries in San Francisco and New York are proof that if we keep the doors open and help each other, instead of turning people away because something bad might happen, we are all the better for it.

Reading in a divided country

It’s becoming harder and harder to stick to the bookish parts of the internet. The news gets increasingly disturbing and, really, one shouldn’t stick one’s head in the sand and hope it all blows over. All the anger I see on the faces of people at Trump rallies or hear in the things that people are shouting at immigrants in America and Britain lets me know that it’s not going to blow over any time soon. The other thing all this anger tells me is that reading diversely is more important than ever. We are in more dire need of empathy for each other than I think we’ve ever been in my lifetime.

Denis Chiasson

Part of the magic of reading is how a good story can transport us into the mind of someone who lives very differently from ourselves. The librarians and readers I follow online have used this property of literature to respond to tragedies and hatred in the best way we know how: by creating reading lists.

Of course, the challenge is to get these recommended books into the heads of people who most need a dose of empathy. The angriest people I see on the news are people who, I think, have drawn up boundaries of frustration, misinformation, fear, and any number of other negative emotions around themselves. Pushing a book on someone who is not ready to listen is guaranteed to fail. My reading advice to my fellow Americans and other readers in divided countries is to keep trying, however. Watch for curiosity. Look for openings where a timely suggestion might be well-received.

Whatever you do, don’t stop reading yourself. It might seem like more important things are going on in the world than reading something you’ve had on hold from the library for ages. Reading broadly can keep your eyes open and keep at bay the fear of the Other and the Different. We need that now.


Starting in the Middle

In a recent episode of Overdue (Episode 108: Preacher vol. 1 and 2), host Andrew asked what the point of an in media res beginning was when the author had to include so many flashbacks to the protagonists’ pasts? Why not just start the story earlier in the timeline? Andrew’s questions got me thinking about the use and overuse of one of the oldest literary devices in fiction.

Rodney Smith

In medias res means to begin in the middle of the action. The narrator plunges us right into a battle or a trial or some other conflict. The reader is bewildered until they get their feet under them enough to know why the characters are where they are. Having a character facing down the barrel of a gun or having learned some shocking fact immediately raises the stakes; we have to pay attention to what comes next because we know where it will all end up. It’s a wonderful way to immediately create narrative tension.

Another reason to start in medias res is that the story proper can commence closer to the climax of the plot. Flashbacks can provide just enough backstory to help us understand a character or explain something about the characters’ world, rather than starting in the protagonist’s childhood before leaping into the present of the plot. The narrator can leapfrog through a character’s life, only stopping at the parts that are necessary to explain the conclusion. Big jumps in time are tricky to pull off without a peek ahead at where the story is going. Without that peek, a reader like me will immediately start to question why we needed to back in time as far as the narrator took us.

Because there are sound structural reasons to start in medias res, the device has become overused. It’s a cliché in the fantasy genre to start with a prologue that is incomprehensible until many chapters into the book. (This isn’t quite what happens with Preacher, as described on Overdue. Rather, the through lines of the plot and subplots are meandering enough that it’s hard to figure out what to pay attention to.) But having characters and plots that require a lot of background to understand will make a reader (again, like me) wonder why the narrator began in medias res because I’ll be too busy trying to figure out what is going on the prologue and not letting the story just play itself out. Essentially, deploying an in medias res incorrectly will violate Kurt Vonnegut’s rule about wasting the reader’s time.

Choosing the right moment to commence the narrative is a delicate decision. If one has to include a lot of flashbacks to make the characters’ understandable, perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning and use a lot of foreshadowing. Deciding on the structure of a story is fundamental to creating that story. It determines who the audience sympathizes with. It determines what the audience will pay sharp attention to. It determines what the audience’s expectations will be.

The Great [Name of Country] Novel

At the request of a reader I can never turn down*, I spent a couple of hours going through my Goodreads list of books I can remember reading for books that a) can help the reader learn more about a country** and b) are actually written by someone from that country. Finding books that satisfy the second condition are hard enough when you’re looking for titles not written by Americans or Brits. Finding books that satisfy the first condition turned out to be devilishly difficult.

Still from the 2006 film, The Painted Veil, based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel.

The longer I scrolled through my list and the longer I hunted for world literature reading lists, the more I started to wonder if it was even possible to write a book that could capture a nation. As I put books on the list I was compiling, I was tempted to add a few American novels (like The Barbarian Nurseries or some Flannery O’Connor). But while these are novels that depict American life, they only show American life in certain places at certain times. I know this because I’m an American who paid attention in history class. I also know enough Russian history to know that the books I suggested for that country depict, similarly, specific locations in Russia at specific points in Russian history.

The thought that I could find books that can give even the most general of top-level views of a country just shows how ignorant I am of global history. Further, if a book did try to stick to the overview, I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be very good. I know I’ve criticized books in the past for not making use of their settings; these books might be set anywhere, any when, for all we know. The idea that a book can encapsulate a country, in retrospect, is a little insulting to other countries. If Americans can’t agree on a book (or even a short list) of Great American novels, it’s ridiculous to expect another county (most of which have been around a lot longer than the US) to do so.

Of course, I’m not going to abandon the project. (After all, I’m putting this list together for my mom.) But I think I’m going to have to add the caveat that these books are just a taste of life in other countries, in other times, and just keep adding more and more books from all over the world.

* My mom. Most librarians I know, including myself, carry on being librarians when we’re off the clock. We can’t help it.
** I wasn’t surprised to learn that I’ve read a lot of books by American, United Kingdom, and Russian writers. I was surprised to learn how many Nigerian writers I’ve been reading in the last year or so. No brownie points for me, though, as these are only four nations out of almost 200.

Read before banning

Along with the most frequently cited reasons for challenging and banning books—sex, language, violence, “unsuited to age group”—the phrase I most often see in news articles when a book is removed from a library is that the challengers have “not read the book.” In a recent book banning, at Pasco Middle School in Florida, it appears that no one read the book apart from a few students. Just this week, a committee for the school banned The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. Jeffrey Solochek reports for the Tampa Bay Times:

Wolff, the Pasco Middle principal, said the book landed on his school’s shelves in October as a supplemental purchase because the school hadn’t spent all its materials funds. He said an assistant principal and a teacher picked it based largely on their knowledge of the PG-13 movie of the same name and the publisher’s description.

Later, Solochek writes:

Neither person [who challenged the book] read the book. Neither did the long-term substitute teacher, a retired district educator, who assigned the novel to her class of 22 children without any descriptions or warnings to the children or their parents.

Wolff said the teacher had only partly read the book before handing it out, and then notified him later that there might be concerns coming from parents. That came about the same time that parents began complaining last week.

Usually, reports of book challenges and banning send my blood pressure rising, but this one had my eyes rolling, too. Librarians and library staff, in order to defend these books, we need to know what we’re defending.

When I see notes that challenges have not read a particular book, but objected to specific passages or references, I am reminded of the importance of reading before discussing something. After all, content might be king, but context is emperor. As Chbosky himself put it:

“The entire book is a blueprint for survival,” Chbosky told last year. “It’s for people who have been through terrible things and need hope and support. The idea of taking two pages out of context and creating an atmosphere as perverse is offensive to me — deeply offensive.” (qtd. in Solochek)

Without understanding the context of the “offensive” content, it’s impossible to have an intelligent discussion of what the book is really about. Because no one at the Pasco Middle School read the book (except, possibly, some students), I worry that the continuing debate over the book will miss the importance of The Perks of Being a Wallflower. So much of young adult literature, especially the classics, are books that provide “hope and support,” as Chbosky puts it. The teen years are a tough time for so many reasons and taking away a book that can help teens process the issues in The Perks of Being a Wallflower just removes one more useful resource.

Martlet Illustration

I also sincerely believe that if potential book challengers actually read their targets from cover to cover before they try to get the books off the shelf, they will realize the value of books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower. A book that is still read almost 20 years (or more, for some books) after it was published is a book that still teaches and comforts; such a book deserves a place on library shelves.