Let me say first that this was a large Zoom group, and the editor and author are both alumni of Selwyn, one of the colleges of the University of Cambridge, as I am. I did manage to ask one question. Since it was a private group I shall not name the figures, though you may be able to guess who they are, particularly the editor.
The editor founded one of the largest independent publishers in the world in the eighties, and has published Booker Prize winners and Nobel Prize winners. He also discovered JK Rowling–to whom he offered the princely advance of £1,500 for her first novel. (Her agent persuaded him to raise the offer to £2,500!) Many people in the meeting asked questions about how to find a publisher, whether an agent was necessary, and so on.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling, 2017, Maggie Stiefvater, Call Down the Hawk, & Tasha Suri, Empire of Sand, 2018
Fantasy fiction seems to be in the midst of a crisis. The content of recent novels is ripe with bizarre plots and characters––the more extreme the better. Of course, I’m basing this on a small sample, but it’s worth pointing out in hopes someone will read this and prove me wrong.
I couldn’t finish The Changeling, an award-winning novel. It is billed as a fantasy, but what makes it so is a macabre story line where the fantasy portion only appears half way through the book. The book’s title doesn’t make sense for over two hundred pages. The Changeling is really horror, not fantasy, fiction.
“She had discovered that this was the tragedy of being human: unlike every other living thing, each person lived alone inside themselves, always seeking to build a bridge from soul to soul but never really succeeding, at least not for a few shining moments, now and then.” –Carol Bird, A Home Worth Having, 2020.
The great human paradox. Anyone who has lost a loved one to death—and we all have—knows it is so. All human souls have the grief of loss in common, yet each of us must grieve alone. And because this paradox is so obvious in our lived experience, we try to transcend it. Failing that, which we invariably do, we deny it.
Is that why editors of fiction so often insist that human points of view must always be given in isolation from one another?
Last month I asked readers about favorite books on pandemics, plagues, exile, quarantines, and social isolation–on many of our minds for obvious reasons. This month I wanted to share the list of selections in case you have a bit of time on your hands.
Thanks to everyone who helped me build these lists. I’m looking forward to reading some of the selections as the lock-downs promise to continue. Then again, perhaps I’ll just keep plowing through Proust.
Fictional Books on Pandemics, Plagues, and Social Isolation
Here’s a short list of fictional books on pandemics, plagues, and other human tragedies that require quarantines and other forms of social isolation:
- The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. Ten young Italian aristocrats flee Florence to escape the bubonic plague and self-isolate in a secluded countryside villa telling stories, some tragic, some bawdy and irreverent.
It struck me recently that I still hadn’t read all of Shakespeare, and there was no real excuse. After all, I claim to be a writer, in English, and Shakespeare has been regarded as the prince of poets for four hundred years. It’s possible that in our benighted days, when even university curricula frequently try to teach identity politics—which means bombarding their students with woke authors of cool ethnicities and sexual persuasions, among other things—Shakespeare, as a Dead White Male from an evil colonial country, is considered irrelevant, or worse, pernicious. But quite apart from the fact that the man was surely gay or bisexual (it’s hard to imagine anyone who’s read the sonnets coming to any other conclusion) and that his plays are full of gender-fluid people, there are compelling literary reasons to read him too.
Call Down The Hawk is book one of The Dream Trilogy by fantasy author Maggie Stiefvater. Stiefvater has created a unique fantasy world in which there are dreamers who can create things in the real world––some times those dreams are under their control; sometimes not. Sometimes they dream duplicates of themselves, which can get complicated. Then there are those who are hunting the dreamers to kill them.
Stiefvater is a master at creating fantastic worlds. The problem to this reader is that the world overwhelms the story. The lack of a defined plot in the early chapters made my following the story a challenge. That’s an issue which only improves slightly as the story progresses.
That’s not to say she doesn’t create interesting characters as well as well as interesting possibilities.
Think of a movie or book you love where not a single character, not even the hero, is truly virtuous. For old-timers like me, “The Sting” (you know, starring Robert Redford) immediately comes to mind. For literary types, “The Talented Mr. Ripley” by Patricia Highsmith. Both are about con artists, though the crooks in “The Sting” are fun and are just ripping off illegal gamblers, where Mr. Ripley is, well, pretty much everything that personifies awfulness. The fact is that there are compelling anti-heroes for all literary tastes, the common ingredient being that we somehow end up rooting for them despite their criminality. What is the point of works like this–what are we supposed to do with them? Now that I’m working on a novel about a professional rumrunner during Prohibition (based very loosely on my grandfather), these questions are beginning to haunt me.
One “silver lining” of the COVID-19 pandemic has been time (dare I say too much time?) for reading. I am plowing through my library, and may even complete my lifelong quest to finish Proust. I’m also drawn to books about social distancing, pandemic-inspired and otherwise.
I know I’m not alone here. The movies and documentaries about plagues and pandemics topping Netflix’s lists make that obvious. So do recent book club suggestions to resurrect books like Love in the Time of Cholera and Station Eleven. So I thought it might be fun this month to see what other books about pandemics, plagues, quarantines, exile, and/or social distancing homebound readers have found.
Socially Distant Stories
As both an historian of medicine and science writer, I have many books about plagues and pandemics on my bookshelves.
Some of the finest thriller and crime writers of all time have come from the British isles starting with Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Ireland’s Tana French is on the path to joining the coterie of highly regarded contemporary mystery/thriller authors who include P.D. James, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, and Lee Child.
French has a unique story-telling style that may not suit all readers––particularly if your preference is for short, action-filled scenes. French constructs her stories as if building a castle, stone by stone.
Both novels I read had female protagonists struggling to following their intuition and not the rules set for them by their male counterparts. This is done without preaching which I appreciate.
In The Likeness French sets the story around a unique set of circumstances––the victim of a murder bares an uncanny resemblance to a former member of the Murder Squad, a specialist in going underground in disguise.
Speaking of self-suppressing heroines (well I was, anyway), consider the protagonist of Daphne Du Maurier’s blockbuster 1938 novel, Rebecca. This first-person narrator is so self-deprecating that she never thinks it worthwhile to reveal her name, though she makes it clear that it’s a memorable one. The Rebecca of the title is the first Mrs. Maximilian de Winter, the narrator’s predecessor in marriage to a handsome but brooding aristocrat a good 20 years older than his naïve new bride. The plot centers on the narrator’s sense of utter inferiority—to the point of self-erasure—in comparison to her husband’s formidable first wife. The novel’s ingenious arc is only incompletely evident in the multiple movie and mini-series versions made over the decades (the best and most famous of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film).
Do a narrator’s accent and voice necessarily enhance the audiobook experience, even if they differ from the author’s? Clearly some audiobook producers think so. But would the author agree? The reader/listener?
I pondered audiobooks and accents in last month’s blog (The Narrator’s Accent). It turned out that I wasn’t the only one with strong opinions on the subject.
Most people who responded turned out to be fans of accented audiobooks. In this month’s blog, I share some of their responses.
The Audiobook Experience
Is a regional accent helpful in creating atmosphere? Or does it restrict a listener’s imagination? Does it pull you out of the story because you are struggling to understand the words?
Most fiction writers don’t read much poetry, let’s be honest. I confess I don’t read much contemporary American poetry myself. So much of it is either incomprehensible–even to someone who has a higher degree in Creative Writing–or pretentious, or simply tedious in its insistence on the usual woke themes. However, this past few weeks I’ve been reading the Oxford Library of English Poetry, a three-volume anthology edited by John Wain, and have found it not only immensely pleasurable, but also, I believe, useful.
Let’s take the pleasure part first. This anthology contains no American verse, and as Wain himself admits, there have been many great American poets. If you were to make an anthology of the best verse in English, a number of them would have to be included: Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two obvious giants.
Alan Cheuse’s 1982 lyrical biography of John Reed is mistitled. While the title refers to Reed’s fellow travelers of the cultural and political upheaval that took place during the first decades of the 20th century, it is Reed’s life story that Cheuse has told no doubt because Reed in many respects was one of the main players in that era’s story.
Reed is best known for his Ten Days That Shook the World, the story of the Communist takeover of the Russian Revolution. Before travelling to Russia where he passed away in October 1920 from typhus, however, he had chronicled for alternative magazines like The Masses, the labor movement wars in the U.S. and the rise of the socialist movement in the U.S.
“She knew, to the moving of a feather, what she could do with him and what she could not. Her immediate wish was to enable him to draw all possible pleasure from his triumph of the day, and therefore she would say no word to signify that his glory was founded on her sacrifice.” –Anthony Trollope, Golden Lion of Granpère
Every inch the Victorian novelist, Trollope regarded female self-sacrifice as a cardinal virtue. And yet he was surprisingly ahead of his time–and ahead of other male writers–in exploring the problems of identity, self-worth and self-assertion among his female characters. He was sharply aware of the untenable and unethical oppression of women in patriarchal Victorian society. His scores of novels relentlessly explore this problem.
Oh no, I thought, as Dominic Hoffman read the opening lines of Yaa Gyasi‘s Homegoing with what struck me as an African accent. Thanks to the narrator’s accent, I am going to struggle to understand this audiobook. Plus I was miffed to hear a man narrating a book written by a woman and following a matrilineal lineage.
My next audiobook experience evoked similar reactions. In Say Nothing, Belfast actor Matthew Blaney uses a thick brogue to read Patrick Raddon Keefe’s “true story of murder in mystery in Northern Ireland.” This time whether the voice was recognizably male or female didn’t bother me, however: gender seemed less central to the narrative, which involves a woman’s kidnapping, plus backstory about the IRA during the Troubles.
Feud! This week one of my favourite authors, Martin Amis, said in an interview (in the Evening Standard, 21 October 2020) that he had not read the latest Booker Prize winners because ‘You don’t feel a literary push behind it. It’s politics, it’s sociopolitical considerations rather than literary like the Nobel.’ He also said that ‘To read your contemporaries, let alone your juniors, is an uneconomical way of dividing your reading time.’ So how did Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker winner, react to this?
Just two days later, in the same British newspaper, Evaristo lashed out: ‘Amis seems to belong to the school of privileged male writers of a certain generation who have benefited from a white, patriarchal society for decades.’
Are writing and sex connected?
Is there a connection between writing and sex? Between selling one’s skills as a writer and being a prostitute?
I opened the door to my husband’s psychoanalytic office, a neutral ground where I could meet with my own clients, writers (or potential writers) that needed help. I was about to enter into the complexities of narrative with a young man who would graduate from college soon as a computer major. Yes, the poor guy had been bitten—not by the Zika mosquito carrier but by the writing bug.
He’d emailed me for help after taking his first writing workshop with a fellow writer whom I know from an on-line critique group. She’d recommended me as a writing coach.
Does hearing a book meant to be read with the eye change the author’s intent—or your experience of the book? Have any books changed for you when you read them versus heard them or saw them as a movie?
I asked these questions in last month’s blog. The result was a lively Facebook conversation–and lots of strong opinions.
I’m Not Alone
Last month I noted a clear split in one of my book club’s regarding Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. Those who had read the book found it disorganized and could not identify with (or even identify) the protagonist. People who listened to Tom Hanks read the book (myself included) had no issues.
Are You Destined for Literary Success?
Just fill in our quiz, all you talented wordsmiths, and find out!
- How talented are you? Be brutally honest, babes! a. Off the charts – right up there with Dan Brown and Lee Childs b. No genius, but I know my craft, and work my ass off c. Martin Amis or Salman Rushdie would like my work if they knew it d. I don’t know crap about grammar or spelling, but hey, that’s what editors are for, right?
- How much training do you have in Creative Writing? a. Bachelor’s degree b. MFA c. PhD d. I went to a summer workshop and slept with one of the tutors
- Your social media presence a. rivals Kim Kardashian’s b.
Do you have too many books? I know I do. When I retired and downsized to a condo, I divided my book collection between the condo and a summer home with enough to fill multiple bookcases in each building. I even built a bookcase into a closet in the condo.
Some of you might be saying you can never have too many books, but why keep books you have already read and don’t intend to read again?
Okay, you might keep some books for professional, religious or family reasons, and if you have one signed by a famous author, you might be thinking about passing it on to your children or grandchildren. But what about those books you read so long ago you can’t remember what they were about?
Because I love reading novels and short stories, authors of fiction have always been my idols. I’ve met many of them at book signings and had the pleasure of interviewing several for this blog. For the most part, I’ve always found authors to be engaging and extremely gracious. But I’ve never been as excited about meeting an author as I was the day I met Betty Smith.
Smith’s novels were extremely popular in the mid twentieth century, although you don’t hear as much about them now. Her most famous novel, the one that earned her a place in the ranks of respected authors, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943 and recently named a PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick.
I’ve been trying to move more lately for health reasons. Instead of scribbling at my desk 10 hours straight—or curled up nose in book—I’m trying to walk whenever possible. That is changing my reading experience, inclining me to audiobooks. It’s also making me wonder: does hearing a book change the book?
Fighting the Audiobook Prejudice
I harp on audiobooks a lot in this blog. But the subject continues to intrigue me, undoubtedly because it’s such a big part of the reading experience these days. And I have to admit to a prejudice: I grew up thinking that reading with the eyes is somehow intellectually and morally superior to reading with the ears.
I recently finished reading Fielding’s chef d’oeuvre, Tom Jones, first published in 1749, and running to over 750 pages in the Norton Critical Edition—without the critical essays at the end. So by contemporary standards it’s a whopper, and that in itself may be why sufficient reason why so few people, apart from English Lit. students, have read it. (And have they? I suspect half of them merely skim it.) And yet, with some reservations, I very much enjoyed reading it, and benefited from the experience quite a bit. In this thumbnail review, I shall consider some of the reasons why people may shy away from it, and try to show what they’re missing.
First, it was written nearly three hundred years ago, so some will be wary of the ‘old English.’
Chosen by a book club I belong to, due to the volumes of praise attached to the front and back cover, I anticipated a more compelling story than The Little Stranger turned out to provide. I’ll try to explain why.
The Little Stranger is described as a modern gothic novel. The author inserts story elements that cannot be explained by standard logic––the vision of a ghost and events for which there is no rational explanation and for which Waters provides no justification.
Readers may feel comfortable with unresolved gothic tropes. I don’t. The key question is whether these elements are critical in determining the story’s outcome. If they are, all the more reason that I, as a reader, feel they need to be explained either by providing a rational cause or by a theory that says in this world, ghosts exist.