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.
Where do fictional characters come from? I’ve been asking myself that question for as long as I’ve been writing, but the complete answer still evades me. The process is as mysterious as the origins of life itself, maybe even more so. At least we know that life on earth evolved from some primordial soup. But what concoction serves as the foundation for those who inhabit our stories?
Seeds come to mind. Seeds give birth to plants and other living things. Humans start as a kind of seed. And so do our creations. As writers, we have experienced multiple settings and experiences. We’ve connected with many different types of people. All of those contacts can provide us with material that we sift through, plant in our fictions, and watch grow.
Let’s face it: plenty of writers are rubbish. I’m afraid I despise, deplore, or simply detest quite a lot of them. They include:
Writers with no sense of humour;
Writers who think they mustn’t offend anyone;
Writers who believe the purpose of fiction is to edify their readers;
Smug, self-righteous, or sententious writers;
Writers with an overt or covert political agenda (especially the latter);
Writers who are toadies, lickspittles and arse-kissers;
Writers who admire (or pretend to admire) other writers because they are successful;
Writers who believe that an MFA or PhD in Creative Writing qualifies them to write;
Writers who believe that a writer’s colour, religion, sexual orientation, sex (or gender!) qualifies anyone to write;
Writers who whine about their white privilege;
Writers who don’t bother to learn the rules of English usage or spelling;
Writers who don’t think it’s important to read the canon;
Writers who think the canon needs to be decolonised;
Writers who think it’s necessarily important to read the latest literary prize winners;
Writers who are ignorant of history and philosophy;
Writers who think their drug experiences are interesting;
Writers who believe that their experiences as victims is fascinating and important;
Writers who despise other writers because they are not, or were not, morally pure;
Writers who follow the latest trends and write for the market;
Writers who think that their ‘platform’ is important;
Writers who believe that writers are essentially social engineers;
Writers who are certain that their values and views are correct;
Writers who can’t think for themselves (at the current time, the majority, sad to say);
Writers who watch more TV or movies than read books;
Writers who want the writer’s ‘lifestyle’;
Writers who think their job is always to be kind;
Writers with no imagination (a surprisingly large proportion);
Writers with no ear for language (incredibly, the majority, whether ‘literary’ or otherwise);
Writers who think literary agents know more about literature than they do;
Writers who believe that the world needs their novel;
To sum up: Writers who are not artists, but hacks or halfwits.
Did you know that “Refusenik” Natan Sharansky and his supporters played a major role in bringing down the Soviet Union? Sentenced in 1978 to 13 years of forced labor for the crime of being a leader of the international human rights movement and seeking to emigrate to Israel, Sharansky’s refusal to confess to his “crimes” became a touchstone in the West for those opposed to the totalitarian regime’s repressive policies at home and abroad.
Once freed, Sharansky became a leader in Israel. He helped form a political party that gave voice to Russian émigrés, served in two governments and was chairman of the Jewish Agency for nearly a decade. His record, personal appearances and writings should have made him a bigger star than he is today.
(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