(Yes, the rhyme is deliberate.) Well: is it Covid-19? Maybe it was, a bit. At first. People’s routines were upset, they felt anxious, under-stimulated, and possibly other things seemed more important. But what kind of excuses are those? Crap ones. More serious, possibly, is the furore over George Floyd’s death and racism in recent weeks. Not only has there been unrest in the US and the UK, which at times has seemed to threaten the very fabric of society, but also, black writers have been demanding a more prominent role. (I say black writers rather than ‘diverse writers’ because by far the most vocal writers have been black, and most of them seem to have been pointing specifically to under-representation by African-Americans (in the US) or Afro-British (in the UK).
What major federal policy has every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barak Obama agreed on? Answer: Advancing educational opportunity as a path to societal equality. They may have differed on how to expand schooling, but not that it was a goal to be achieved in order to reduce social inequality. Why then have the results not lived up to the promise? The answer is simple according to Fredrik deBoer: schooling can never produce social equality––not because we don’t spend enough or because teachers aren’t good enough. It’s because not all people are academically talented.
Marshaling studies that expose the raw underbelly of schooling’s failures on top of insights from his personal experience as a teacher, and capping that off with a measure of behavioral genetics, deBoer concludes, “as long as our education system creates winners, it will also create losers.”
I’ve recently finished reading Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, and mathematics professor Lee, the main character, continues to live on in my imagination. It’s as if he actually inhabits the external world and was intimately interacting with me during the time I read the book. Lee is Asian American, though his origins aren’t a main focus in the narrative, and it’s never made clear just where he was born. Still, though he ends up being an outsider at the university where he teaches and in his wider community, that stance seems more to do with his irascible personality and natural aloofness than with him being racially distinct.
Of course, you could argue that these qualities may be the result of Lee never quite fitting in because of his Asian origins.
It turns out I’m not the only one having trouble reading lately. The struggles to get through a book seem pervasive as so many of us shelter in place–even for hardcore bookworms.
READERS HAVING TROUBLE READING
With all the holes in my calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I’d be ripping through my library. Instead I find it hard to concentrate. So last month I asked if this sounded familiar.
It certainly did with most of my Facebook friends. Many reported having trouble reading as well. Most–many of them serious readers and some of them professional writers themselves–confirmed that they are having trouble concentrating on books these days.
I have yet to read an entire book during this pandemic
To my friend Nancy, having so much time to read ironically makes reading less precious, and less desirable.
Since I started my writing career almost a decade ago, I have dabbled in reading most genres–historical fiction, thrillers, horror, mystery, and so forth. Reading other authors’ works is vital to discovering one’s own style of writing, a process that constantly evolves. Literary fiction, which stands apart from genre fiction in that it tends to be more didactic and serious, has become my preference in terms of a favorite type of novel.
Literary fiction usually focuses on characters’ internal struggles, which resemble the conflicts of real life. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, protagonist Holden Caulfield dislikes fake individuals, who act superficially and represent one of the ills of society. He constantly brings up this theme of superficiality, which inevitably makes the reader dwell on it.
She didn’t do an MFA in Creative Writing, let alone a PhD. She didn’t even have a BA in it. Or in English. And yet Jane wrote the initial draft of Sense and Sensibility when she was 18, and had finished Pride and Prejudice by the time she was 20. Astonishing? Yes. So how did she do it? Did she follow the advice of the self-appointed writing gurus—who tell you that if you can’t do a degree in the subject, you need to attend expensive conferences, join writing groups, get professional editors? No, none of that. So how on earth did she learn her craft?
By reading and writing. I’m not an Austen scholar, but I know that in the late eighteenth century England’s public libraries had not yet been founded, so it’s fair to assume that most of her reading was done in her father’s library.
My new novel, When Enemies Offend Thee, was released on March 1—a happy, ebullient time until 11 days later when the governor of Pennsylvania closed all non-essential businesses, including bookstores, and issued a stay-at-home order for my part of the state. Consequently, my book launch party was canceled along with any readings and book signings I had scheduled for the foreseeable future. And so it remains.
I don’t know when I’ll be able to connect with readers in person, which is one of my favorite things about being an author. There’s nothing better than talking with readers about their thoughts on characters, motivations, and plot development.
And then there’s the challenge of letting readers know about When Enemies Offend Thee with no parties, signings, or readings.
Like many friends, I thought a small silver lining of the COVID-19 shut-ins would be a chance to do a lot of reading. I was wrong.
I’ve been shut in for about 6 weeks now, and I’m still only on book number two. I haven’t made much progress on my backlog of magazines and journals either.
It’s Not Just Me
It turns out I’m not alone. Many friends have reported the same problem. They have plenty of time, and yet it seems to be consumed by Zoom calls and cleaning, daily walks, and the treacherous task of getting groceries.
It’s hard to keep your mind on the books when CNN keeps featuring Dr. Fauci.
Plenty of Books
Part of the excuse is that libraries are closed.
A proliferation of reading lists has appeared since quarantine began: ‘comfort reading’ (Susan Hill), lists about pandemics, lists of new novels (nearly all by women) and so on. But isn’t this a good time to catch up on our serious reading? I recently mentioned to a friend, novelist David Joiner, that in The Pregnant Widow, the protagonist Keith Nearing manages to read practically the whole canon of the British novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in fact up to about 1920) during a single long vacation, while he stays at a castle in Italy with a bevy of nubile young women, one of them named Scheherazade. DH and Frieda Lawrence were once guests at the same castle, which happens to have an excellent English library.
I recently read the book Words as Eggs by Jungian analyst Russell Lockhart. The idea for the work, and the chapter from which the title comes, originated in one of Lockhart’s dreams. A voice in his dream said, “Do you not know that words are eggs, that words carry life, that words give birth?” (92). Lockhart later points out that this dream revelation isn’t exactly new in the larger scheme of things. In the beginning, it’s rumored that God spoke the world into existence: “the word is seed and gives birth to life and living things” (92). As eggs, words are constantly delivering new ideas and thoughts, filling our minds with possibilities and worlds we otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
A writer, I’m fascinated with anything to do with words and how they inform, form, and reform our surroundings—and us.
And I don’t just mean because you probably have more free time now, although there is that, of course. I can think of a number of other advantages of the enforced retreat we’re all taking, some practical, some emotional, and some (dare I say it?) spiritual.
First, you’re probably
less distracted. News on all topics apart from the virus is drying up. No more
endless debates about issues which enrage you! No need to respond to countless
messages in your social media feeds. And it’s much quieter. Last night I
stepped out of my house and couldn’t hear a single car. I live in a rural area
of Portugal, but even so, the silence was otherworldly. I called my wife
outside and the whole countryside seemed still and peaceful.
In Chances Are . . . the latest novel by Richard Russo, three friends are getting together on Cape Cod 44 years after they celebrated having graduated from college at the same location. Worthy of a full-length novel? Not until you discover that the co-ed who joined them on the prior occasion was never seen again after leaving the sea-side cottage the morning they all departed for unknown futures.
A mystery? Yes, but in the hands of Richard Russo what we
have is so much more than a whodounit. Russo’s skill at bringing the depth of
his characters’ beings to the surface and hooking us on them is what makes him
unique among modern novelists. He is able to keep us as much interested in
these average guys as does our anxiety to learn what happened to young Jacy.
What exactly is Delia Owens saying in her best-selling novel Where the Crawdads Sing? Perplexing events and characters in the story have caused readers to ask a lot of questions and have a lot of interpretations. Last November, I was fortunate to hear Owens speak in person about the novel, offering a few answers to all those questions.
for the story, she explained, started when she was a child in the state of
Georgia and her mother would send her out to explore the woods. As an adult,
while she was exploring the much larger wilds of Africa, she realized how
similar human behavior is to animal behavior. “We are both territorial,” she
said. “Also, females will abandon their young in times of severe stress.”
Have you written a book lately (or not so lately)? We’re still looking for authors to be interviewed on Late Last Night Books!
Looking for authors with stories to share
Once again, I am looking for authors who want help publicizing their new books or writing projects–or, as before, even a not-so-newly published book–in future blog posts. In my experience, getting your name and work “out there” is the most painful part of being a writer. I’m hoping this blog can help make that process a little less painful for others–especially writers (and that’s most of us) who don’t have well-funded publicity machines working on our behalf.
The podcast has become the author’s best friend as far as learning about marketing a book is concerned. In terms of keeping up with trends in the industry, this medium brings the author and anyone else that sells books up to speed.
Podcasts usually record a conversation, or question and answer session, with a host and one or two other experts. The consumer listens to them for free online. The conversation is easier to follow and more entertaining than, say, a lecture provided by one person. Everyone can recall fighting off sleep while trying to concentrate on a lecturer for forty-five minutes to an hour. Or how about those three-page articles in magazines that can be tiresome to follow? With their back and forth banter, podcasts are livelier and generally have a good sense of humor, making them the better method to learn the fast-changing world of book marketing.
A headline in today’s Guardian gushes: ‘Rathbone Folio Prize: Zadie Smith makes female-dominated shortlist.’ Now I like Zadie, and although I haven’t read her first story collection, Grand Union, I doubt that it’s unworthy. Still, I must admit (dare I?) that on reading “female-dominated shortlist” I did think, ‘Another one?’ And in case you wonder, as I did myself for a moment, if it were merely my impression that women writers have been dominating the prize shortlists lately, I did some research. These are the facts about a few major recent prizes:
Rathbone Folio Prize, 2020: 6/8 shortlisted writers are women
Booker Prize, 2019: 5/6 finalists were women
National Book Award Finalists, 2019: 4/5 finalists were women
National Book Critics Circle First Book Award, 2019: 6/7 finalists were women
Orange Prize for Fiction, 2019: 6/6 finalists were
Writing a memoir can be a most rewarding experience––one your
family and friends will thank you for having done. A memoir is your opportunity
to leave concrete documentation of your life in a form that is easily
accessible to present and future generations.
Every family has stories. That’s human nature. But all too often people have questions about the past they wish they had answers to when someone important to them is gone. You may have felt that way upon the passing of a parent, sibling or other significant person in your life. Don’t make your offspring wish they knew more about your family background or how you met your spouse or why you moved to a certain city.
Here are some reasons you might want to write your memoir:
- To share your life’s story with your offspring, other relatives and friends.
I’ve been so busy taking care of marketing demands for my three novels (Fling!, Curva Peligrosa, and Freefall: A Divine Comedy), and finishing up the creative writing workshop I’m teaching at the Fromm Institute of Lifelong Learning, that I haven’t had time to write new material, fiction or otherwise. Prose, especially non-fiction, is easy for me to produce. I can spin out words and sentences that end up making sense, as I’m doing here.
But writing fiction? It’s like digging a ditch or chipping away at the concrete of my brain to find a way back into a story. That’s why I usually have several projects in motion. I move back and forth between them. When I run into a dead end with one, I can enter a vein in another, carried along until something stops me again.
Last month I asked readers about the most unusual or challenging places they’ve ever tried reading. They came through with fantastic answers, confirming my hunch that diehard readers will read anywhere and everywhere.
Forget the Armchair
The “weird” reading spots I mentioned ranged from bathrooms to beaches, commuter buses to cliffs. Many people agreed–there are many more places to read in this world than armchairs and libraries. Beds and trains are among the top picks.
My friend Wheatleigh, for example, says his most unusual reading spot was probably the Shinkasen (Japan’s bullet train) while travelling at 200 mph. He did that a lot while living and working in Japan.
“Each station in Japan has a distinctive ‘eki ben‘ or station bento (lunch box),” he recalls.
Are you getting bored by so-called literary fiction these days? Perhaps finding it didactic, lecturing and hectoring—and terribly predictable? One of the results of the ‘liberal consensus’ which almost everyone I know shares, is that there is a great tribe of people who not only have the same views on nearly every issue, but also that this tribe, composed largely of academics and the intelligentsia, expects its writers to trumpet those views, and punishes writers who fail to do so. Writers have always been concerned with social issues like poverty, prejudice against women, certain social classes, and ethnic and other minorities; the difference is that nowadays, instead of investigating them, dispassionately, and allowing the reader to make up his or her mind, many writers are simply preaching: using fictional forms to promote an ideology.
One of the pleasures of being “retired” is having the time to discover new authors. I also discovered a new cheap way of doing this. My local library in Howard County Maryland has a shelf of books they are purging from their collection that are on sale for $2.00 each. And when you pay $2 for a book, you don’t feel you have to finish it if it’s not your cup of soup.
I’ll start with an author I discovered whose books who I’ll keep reading: Charles Finch. I bought Finch’s “An Old Betrayal,” the seventh in a series featuring Charles Lenox mysteries.
A test of an author’s writing craft is to pick up a book in the middle of the series and not feel lost or that you have to go back and read the others from the first onward.
The other day a blizzard blasted my husband’s daily walk in the woods. “Why not swim laps with me?,” I asked. (I was heading to the indoor pool across the street). He looked at me like I was insane. Didn’t I know that he cannot exercise without “reading,” i.e., listening to a book? And didn’t I know how hard it was to follow narrative while swimming laps?
I didn’t, though he may be right. I do enjoy audio accompaniment to exercise, but I have never tried stroking through a story. As a devoted and daily swimmer, I listen instead to music on my beloved swiMP3 (when it chooses to work). Some people might be able to synchronize swimming with reading—I’m just not one of them.
I was fortunate to have piano lessons when I was a girl. In Canada, if students are learning classical music, teachers usually follow the Royal Conservatory of Music progression from grades one through ten and utilize the books for each level. These lessons include theory as well as musical scores for students to progress in.
Very early, I decided that classical was not my preference, and, after I’d completed four grades of the Royal Conservatory program, I convinced my mother to send me to a teacher who could help me learn pop tunes. That involved learning how to chord so when I used sheet music of popular songs, I only had to read the right-hand score, improvising with my left hand using chordal variations.
Last month I asked people to share their favorite headstrong women of literature. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of responses–though many responses were not exactly women, and, in at least one case, perhaps not even human.
Among the top answers were the kinds I was expecting. They included authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, and Gertrude Stein who had written about strong, independent female characters and/or were notably strong and independent themselves. Some new names showed up on this list as well, including Jodi Picoult, Nora Ephron, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, and even HIldegard of Bingen.
Other responses were female characters who clearly knew their own minds and felt empowered to live accordingly.