No Backstage Pass for Me, Thanks

When I was in junior high, I took a typing class (yes I am that old) for reasons I don’t really remember. I’m a fast typer now but, back then, I was hampered by my inability to leave typos and mistakes behind. I would un-type three times as much as I actually submitted later. And I still do this. The reason I bring this up is because the memory of my terribly finicky typing was the first thing that popped into my head when I read that Quarterly was offering bookish folk the opportunity to get an author-annotated hardback every month by subscribing to PageHabit.

I want no part of this.

This might sound unreasonable—and I’m willing to admit that I am being a titch bit unreasonable—but this kind of behind-the-scenes look into authorial intent and the writerly process is something I’ve been avoiding for years. (Ever since I graduated with my BA in Literature, to be honest.) I prefer to form my own opinions about what a book is trying to tell me without the author jumping in to tell me what they meant when they wrote it. And I love to argue with other readers about what a book’s meaning. Having the author’s definitive answer would settle the question too quickly for most readers.

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 7.21.07 PM
Richard van Mensvoort

The other reason I don’t want an author-annotated copy of a book is because it strikes me as seeing how the sausage is made. I just want to enjoy the finished product and I learned when I was an English major that analyzing the text or having someone tell you what a book mean took a lot of the magic out of it. Knowing that an author struggled with a particular stretch of dialog or that they moved scenes around would serve as a constant reminder to me that I was reading a bunch of squiggles on paper. The illusion of story is fragile enough; there are too few books that can completely transport me. When I read, I want to ride around on the narrator’s shoulders and forget about work, my illness, the cats getting up to who know’s what in the kitchen, etc. Seeing an author’s notes about how they arranged the squiggles on the page in front of me would throw off my reading groove.

What about you, gentle readers? Would you subscribe to PageHabit?

Reading in the Winter of Our Discontent

Normally, I don’t think too hard about why I read what I do because I enjoy non-cozy murder mysteries, stories about restarting civilizations after plagues, and similar depressing fare. Oh I can point to my enjoyment of intellectual and ethical puzzles, but it doesn’t quite absolve me of my love of dark novels*. But a recent essay by Jill Lepore for The New Yorker, “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” got me to wondering about why readers—not just me—have made dystopian novels bestsellers for decades.

aa6e4bb8651e50f2032ba52b8363d095
Der alte Bücherkasten, by Friedrich Frotzel

Lepore begins with a series of plot synopses that made me realize just how dark authors have gotten in catering to our tastes for fucked up societies. Then she introduces one of her theories about why dystopias have proliferated, writing “Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning. This year, the thunder is roaring.” It’s hard to argue with this. I’ve turned to Wodehouse and Ben Aaronovitch to cheer myself up since the inauguration because so many things have gone awry in my country. (But that’s another blog entirely.) If I could find a utopian novel to read (they’re increasingly rare, as Lepore points out), I know that reading it would make me more depressed about politics than the actual news. Reading a utopian novel now would probably just highlight how far things have gone astray from how I had hoped. Reading dystopias is depressing, sure, but they perversely cheer me up because at least things aren’t that bad.

So far, I can agree with Lepore that we’ve lost something by not encouraging more authors to write about how the future can be something wonderful to look forward to. But then she makes this statement in the last paragraph:

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.

I can’t agree with this. In addition to reassuring me that at least things are that bad, dystopias remind me of the power of human endurance and that the bad times don’t last forever (though they can last an awfully long time). It’s possible that she’s reading even darker dystopias than I have, but Lepore cites The Hunger Games—which I really enjoyed because the protagonist Katniss Everdeen embodied the virtues of endurance and justice. The message I got from Katniss’ story was not that life is suffering and government is cruel and oppressive. The message I got was that, when things are not right, you fight back as hard as you can while keeping your eyes open for cynical manipulation or destructive vengeance.

Utopias make for hopeful reading, but I notice that most (if not all) of them skip over the struggles it would take to arrive in the promised land of post-scarcity and equality. Dystopias are all about struggle and sorrow and suffering and, right now, I think we need to be reminded that the fight for a future utopia is always hard but worthwhile and absolutely necessary.

But if you need a break from the struggle, it’s totally okay to go read Wodehouse** for a bit.


* This makes recommending books to people at my library tricky because so many of them tell me they’re looking for something light and fun.
** Or your favorite comfort read. I’ll even help you find something to read.

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.

tumblr_ohz79pxrqm1qekfheo1_500
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.

ad106cc7ec36fed85a0d519d8f844da6
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

c4d9b3dfeb16997751b1490cb317bc61
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.

tumblr_nncirdbswl1torpkto1_540
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.

tumblr_ocjxeyl0lc1qdo62to4_540
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.

tumblr_o9yubtttsp1r5ml59o1_540
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.

4688a665e89841443c570bf459f61065
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.

tumblr_o6zcvimfmv1r4dip7o1_540
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.