As a fiction writer, I often ask myself why people read novels and how can I convince them to read mine? That question occurred to me again recently when I finished a novel that had me questioning why I read fiction. The book was engaging enough. The writer was competent and had created characters that seemed believable (though that isn’t necessarily a criterion for me). There was enough tension to keep me reading in order to discover more about these lives I had immersed myself in. But the experience felt flat, and I wondered why I had spent several precious hours on something that wasn’t more satisfying.
So why do I read? For me, reading isn’t necessarily to escape my daily life.
Money. Religion. Fidelity. Those are supposedly the top issues that destroy relationships. But for some bibliophilic couples, a more challenging issue is how to arrange the books.
My husband and I share most values, or so we’ve always believed. We have a common religious and educational background. Our lifestyles and life goals are compatible. We even survived a 3-week bicycle trip through 1980’s China before we decided we could spend a life together What we failed to realize, however, was that combining our two book collections would be harder than combining our finances.
It turns out many of our friends, usually academics and/or writers, share this problem. People who love or use or need books turn out to care quite a bit about how to shelve them.
As my first post on Late Last Night Books, I thought I’d introduce myself.
So hi there! My name is Hannah, and I am currently working toward my master’s degree in Bath, UK. Bath Spa University has an amazing MA program called Writing for Young People. Yes, the obvious answer to your question is—I’m loving it.
Even though I earned my BA in General Creative Writing, I focus on young adult literature. It’s what I write, read, and love. There are often stigmas surrounding writers who choose to write for young adults. People believe that YA is not true art or is mindless reading. But I beg to differ. If you look at some of the amazing literature that has come out of both the Middle Grade and Young Adult genres, you’ll be quite surprised at the social change they are making, as well as the beautiful literature they are writing.
Last year Roz Morris interviewed me on the subject of creative writing courses, specifically, and more generally, how to learn to write. It was a long conversation, so we’ve divided the interview into four parts. This is Part One.
Roz Morris is a professional writer, editor and
blogger. She is the author of the Nail
Your Novel series, as well as the novels My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form Three. She is also the author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction, (for which I
interviewed Roz in this blogzine exactly one year ago, January 26th,
2018). She teaches masterclasses for The
Guardian newspaper’s writing classes, and has ghost-written bestselling
Aminatta Forna, Happiness (2018)
Happiness is a story of subtle changes. Aminatta Forna’s protagonists, an African psychiatrist specializing in trauma and an American naturalist, meet by accident on a bridge in London. Coincidence repeats and a relationship is built over a relatively short time period of time based on open-mindedness, shared natures, and eventually physical attraction, but what is this story about? Forna seeks to keep us interested in the slow evolution of these characters’ relationship by weaving each person’s past in with present events––which include the search for a lost child, dealing with the needs of a former lover institutionalized for dementia, and being tuned into a city populated by foreign nationals, foxes and escaped pet birds.
At one point, the
psychiatrist, whose name is Attila, suggests happiness might be found in a
village in Cuba which is cut off from that island’s poor infrastructure.
Years ago, I met a woman who was slim, attractive, and swimming laps in a pool. Then I learned she was 91 years old. Ninety-one! She became my role model for someone who is 90 years old, and I used that image in developing the amateur detectives in my mystery series featuring the 90s Club at Whisperwood Retirement Village.
Then I submitted drafts of my chapters to critique groups. My 90-year-olds needed to be feeble, they said. Blind, deaf, using a cane or walker, wheelchair-bound, dribbling Pablum. That’s what 90-year-olds did. I disagreed and started collecting articles about people who were 90 and older running marathons, dancing, winning tennis matches, writing books, working, even learning to read for the first time.
My husband’s dream vacation is in Estonia. I kid you not. He loves Estonia for its visionary e-democracy, Why e-democracy would make Estonia a great place for a vacation eludes me, but I understand that for a political scientist like my husband, the country deserves respect.
Now, though, I may have to give Estonia some respect of my own. It turns out that Estonia tops the list of European countries that read the most.
World Book Day Statistics
I learned this intriguing fact about Estonia from new statistics released by Eurostat last spring for World Book Day. The chart above shows the fascinating numbers, gleaned from a survey conducted between 2008 and 2014 on people from aged 20-74 in 15 European Union countries.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL! WE’LL SEE YOU HERE AGAIN IN EARLY JANUARY.
Now that the days are dwindling and the nights are long, it’s a good time to reflect on those who light candles for the rest of us. We were in St. Petersburg, Florida, walking in its historic neighborhood when we first came upon the Little Free Library in someone’s front yard. It was actually a small, colorfully painted wooden box with glass doors, and it rested on a pedestal about four feet high. Inside were a selection of books with a sign saying, “Take a book. Leave a book ” We’d never seen such a thing before. Since then, I’ve come across these boxes elsewhere, even in my own neighborhood in Columbia, MD. There are over 75,000 Little Free Libraries across the globe.
I can no longer deny that the holiday season has pounced down upon us, and we are once again compelled to give gifts to everyone we know. If I have to give presents to all those rascals, then, dadgummit, I’ll make them, or try to make them, read. So, I asked some of my literary friends to offer titles of books that they would recommend as holiday gifts. Most of them protested that my request is unfair, because a book gift is a personal affair: Doesn’t it demand intimate knowledge of the particular gift receiver’s literary taste? Should we mention classics or recent titles? Can I suggest my own books or ones by my associates? Can I really give books to total strangers?
I opened the I Ching at random this morning and came up with #38, K’uei / Opposition. The commentary says it is common for two opposites to exist together, needing to find relationship. I realize an opposition is being set up just in the act of writing my memoir Drop Out: my inner writer will be observing everything I do closely and recording what she finds valuable. I’m reminded of a review of Journey into the Dark: The Tunnelby William Gass that appeared in The New York Times Book Review:
Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course. That’s one of the reasons for writing them: to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To The Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire.
I once wrote a novel inspired by coincidences. It was great fun–though hardly original. Metafiction, fantasy, fairy tales, and any number of other genres often require coincidence. Some even delight in riffing on it.
Often, though, we have to limit coincidence in fiction, particularly realistic fiction. Inexplicable interconnections and concurrences may seem contrived. Genre novelists—and Charles Dickens, for that matter—are routinely pecked apart for stories that are too perfect too be true, filled with dei ex machina and separated-at-birth twins reuniting on the altar or mothers rediscovering offspring on the other side of the world.
Even so, fiction often aims to tell the story of real life. And, real life is filled with coincidence, or at least what seems to be coincidence to unbelievers.
At a recent book club meeting, one of our members remarked that because the club had such mixed feelings about the novel Exit West, it likely wouldn’t become a classic. “A classic,” he said, “has to have good writing, characters we care about, a good story, and a deeper meaning.” Since we couldn’t agree about the characters or the writing, Exit West fell short.
A lot of scholars, writers, editors, and others in the literary world have defined “classic literature,” and doing a little research on the subject, I found that most of the definitions are similar to what my book club member suggested. Mark Twain had the most succinct definition—“a book which people praise and don’t read”—but assuming novels are read, I think the true standard for classic is that the novel has stood the test of time.
For decades I’ve been preaching it to myself and others: writing routines don’t have to be long. Devote just an hour every day to writing, even if you cannot get beyond a few words, or you’re writing nonsense. If you can’t write a word, at least read or think about your writing.
Don’t underestimate the power of an hour.
Just do it. It works. I wish I practiced what I preached more regularly. But I fully believe it nonetheless.
One of my novels in progress is an attempt to cope with fear and chaos in our current political climate. Without revealing too much, it envisions a near future when a certain political figure and that person’s supporters have been effectively (but non-violently!) neutralized by virtue of magical spell. The stakes and conflict of the story derive from the threat that this enchantment will come undone.
It’s a kind of absurd story, by design. It may be a little silly, a little satirical, and a lot wish fulfillment. Sadly, I’ve been working on it for about a year, now, and am only half way through the first draft. I’m not a full-time writer, alas. When I am discouraged in my progress, or distracted by my day job, I have to find ways to motivate myself.
Confession: The last resolution I made that I stuck to was about seven or eight years ago, when I resolved to stop buying clothes that needed dry cleaning. I’ve been very happy with the way that turned out, as all the clothes in my closet are now hand or machine washable—which saves time, money, and is better for the environment. Usually though I don’t make New Year’s resolutions because I believe if you want to change something, change it now. Research shows the resolutions you make on New Year’s Eve usually don’t last.
Yet this year I’m ready to make a New Year’s resolution, even though I’m two months early. My first New Year’s resolution is to buy books only by small and university presses, and my second resolution to buy books through my local bookstore Starline Books or directly from the publisher.
Speaking in a BBC interview recently, Fay Weldon described the current publishing market, emphasizing that it was dominated by women readers, who demanded women protagonists—and, increasingly in the #OwnVoices era, women authors. Ms. Weldon’s advice for male writers: use a feminine pseudonym.
As far as I could tell, this wasn’t a joke. It’s somewhat ironic, surely, after the prejudice against women writers prevalent in the nineteenth century—consider Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charlotte Bronte, who all published anonymously or with masculine pseudonyms—that the exact same prejudice has returned, apparently, in reverse. (In spite of the much-vaunted inclusivity and diversity that we all value nowadays: maybe it doesn’t include men?) In case you think that Ms. Weldon is exaggerating the difficulty faced by men getting their fiction published, or even read, consider this: one of my male writer friends has told me that he intends to adopt a feminine pseudonym (independently of me bringing up the subject) and another is considering submitting his next novel with a woman as co-author.
“This is a work of genius, a metaphor-studded treasure chest filled with wisdom for anyone willing to go look,” says author and entrepreneur Seth Godin of David Leddick’s little gem I’m Not for Everyone. Neither Are You. A few chapter-ette titles will give you the idea. “There is no lasting comfort in a safe landing. Better to stay in flight…and embrace impermanence.” “In confrontation, never answer the way people expect you to.” “He was a man and I like that in a person.” (Leddick is gay, remember.) “He doesn’t want to give up everybody for somebody.” This chapter-ette begins by saying, “This applies more to men than to women. And not just gay men.” “A child says nothing matters, but it takes an adult to say it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.” And consider this quote from one chapter-ette: “The language you speak has much to do with your personality.
Steve Davenport is the Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Illinois. He’s the author of two books of poetry: Uncontainable Noise (2006) and Overpass (2012). His “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” published first in Black Warrior Review and later packaged as a New American Press chapbook, is listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007. His chapbook Nine Poems and Three Fictions won one of The Literary Review’s 2007-2008 Charles Angoff Awards for Outstanding Contributions in a Volume Year. Steve’s literary criticism includes work on Jack Kerouac and Richard Hugo.
Ron Cooper: Nice to see you again, Steve. Tell us a bit about where you grew up, were educated, etc.
Steve Davenport: Glad to be here, Ron.
As a pre-TV child (television arrived in Calgary in the early 50s, about ten years after it appeared in the U.S.), radio dramas fed my imagination: Boston Blackie; Suspense Theatre; and The Green Hornetcome immediately to mind. Though they provided the plot and dialogue, I was able to supply the images myself, far more dramatic than what any TV director could create. In my young mind, Boston Blackie was the white knight in spite of a name that implied otherwise. Evenings spent shivering in front of a radio, shivering from glorious fear and not cold. The room crackling with drama—suspense. And I was an important participant: the program needed myimagination to give it life.
At some point in those early years, someone sold my parents a set of the Books of Knowledge.
In the movie The Wife, a jaded middle-aged female novelist takes aside a talented young writer at a Smith College reading and says to her: “Don’t do it.” The aspiring student writer stands her ground, insisting that “a writer needs to write.” The older woman sighs. “A writer needs to be read,” she says.
I understand both sentiments. A writer does need to write. But, oh, how often it feels pointless, when publishing is so hard, when all-too-soon even the published book feels as impactful as a rock settling to the bottom of the sea!
Writers face an inordinate amount of rejection as they pursue their craft. I’ve often thought there ought to be workshops at writers’ conferences on how to handle rejection letters. If we’ve been sending out queries frequently, we must have developed a thick skin or sense of humor. As my friend, a realtor says, the best response to rejection is to say, “Next?” Here are some truths about rejection.
My friend Robby managed her family restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. When they needed another server, she interviewed several and was particularly impressed by a woman named Sue. Sue was hired, but after several weeks, Robby noticed Sue wasn’t earning the tips she should. After a discussion, Sue turned in her notice and left.
Although I’ve been an avid reader most of my life, I have never joined a book club. Until now.
In years past, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the reading pace of a club or the selections wouldn’t appeal to me and I would miss out on reading books I really wanted to read. But then I uprooted my life, moved to a new state, and decided to be open to whatever reasonable opportunities came my way. One of the first opportunities I saw was a book club in my new community, so I plunged right in.
Now here I am, trying to understand the workings of my particular book club and how to be a good contributor.
What book is top on your bucket list of books? What book have you always wanted to read but somehow never have? And what book would you feel incomplete without reading?
The English publication of the volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle coincides with a renewed interest in “auto-fiction,” also known as the autobiographical novel. While I have read and enjoyed several of these works of auto-fiction, my favorite is Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, which seemed to draw on some auto-fiction elements, but also used other literary devices such as image patterning and developing character arcs, while incorporating motifs of class, politics, art, motherhood, friendship, and feminism.
Since finishing the Neapolitan series I’ve found myself wanting to read more novels that span generations, placing themselves in historical context, in which history itself (just as Ferrante’s working class post-war Italy) becomes a character. Three recent novels fit this bill, and I recommend them to anyone desiring epic historical novels that educate as well as entertain.