Inclusion Versus Appropriation

This Week’s Bit of String: A thriving literature festival in a tiny Cotswolds town.

Hawkesbury Upton hosted its third annual literature festival last week, featuring among many other events a panel on ‘Writing About Difference.’ I went along to hear seven people who had written about firsthand experiences with disability or chronic illness. They were carers or had disabilities themselves, writing in fiction or nonfiction, poetry or prose, for children or adults.

The Inevitable Appropriation Question

Someone asked the panel how they feel about other writers with less personal experiences, writing about characters who have disabilities or illnesses. Concerns over appropriation and mainstream publishers’ sidelining of ‘Own Voices’ are prominent, particularly following Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech at Brisbane Writers Festival last year.

The panel generally responded that it’s necessary to have some knowledge. If you don’t have it, get it. If you’re not sure, ask someone to check. Moderator Dan Holloway emphasised the importance of sensitivity. ‘If you see no risk that you will offend, then you’re not the right person to write this.’

House up for auction in Hawkesbury Upton
I couldn’t resist taking a few photos while in Hawkesbury Upton.

We need to be aware of our characters and the resonances they carry. We may think we’re being grand and inclusive, but assuming that we’re portraying something correctly could be arrogant. If we’re taking the time to fully consider what our characters have gone through, if we’re getting to know and love them as we should, we’ll be aware of the risks and take precautions to avoid them.

A couple panelists seemed dazed by the question, and it occurred to me that in a way, making this an issue is selfish of us. Some of the speakers care for children with disabilities and parents with dementia, and spouses with mental illness, all at once. They don’t have time to assuage our artsy worries. We must ensure we don’t see them as potential plot devices, existing only to provide feedback on what we write about their difficulties.

‘Help us…’

The Hawkesbury Upton session got awkward when a prim older woman in the front row posed directed a question Jo Allmond and her grown up daughter Jess Hiles. Jess writes children’s stories based on her experiences living with learning disabilities, and gives educational talks. Despite these achievements, Jo had just told us that sometimes when she accompanies Jess to appointments, the professional will take one look at Jess, assume she can’t communicate, and speak solely to her mother.

‘But why shouldn’t they assume she can’t communicate?’ the front row woman asked. ‘She looks different, you’ve said as much yourself. If I were to approach any of you others on the panel,’ she addressed Dan and Thomas Shepherd, who’s written a novel called Mr. Tumnall and also happens to have Aspergers, ‘and speak to you as if you were normal, you’d take offence, even though you look normal. It seems to me that people in your situations almost want to be offended. Obviously we can’t expect you to wear a label informing us of your capacities, but how can you expect us to know them? Help us, we need you to help us.’

Rustlings from the audience, fixed smiles from the panel. I immediately detected the acute, uniquely English fear behind the woman’s question: For the love of God, don’t let me embarrass myself by offending somebody. I felt for her a little bit. I know people enslaved to that fear.

However, she neglected to think, even in the presence of these exceptional people facing terrible struggles, that worse fates can befall someone than embarrassment. In obsessing over her desire not to be perceived as offensive, she was genuinely offensive.

Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton
Tulips in Hawkesbury Upton.

While the speakers reassured her that basic, respectful communication (Good morning, isn’t the sunshine lovely today?) probably won’t bother anyone, the woman decided her point hadn’t been fully made. She wasn’t getting the help she wanted.

‘But you’re communicating for your daughter right now!’ she informed Jo. ‘She’s clearly not able to respond without you.’

Now, that’s crossing a line. I could see where the first question came from, misguided though it may have been. But how can someone insist that a person right in front of them is unresponsive, after being told that’s disrespectful and untrue? Jo and Jess had been answering in tandem, and let’s not forget that there are nonverbal means of communication.

‘Everyone’s Disabled’

So there was more backlash to that one. The panel kept impressively cool. Another lady in the audience, pink-cheeked and breathlessly earnest, stated, ‘I would like to suggest that we’re all disabled, we’re all restricted in some way.’

The audience liked this, and murmured assent. I wish I’d caught the panel’s faces at that moment, because the well-intentioned sentiment bothered me, and I imagined it might have bothered them.

Certainly, we all have problems. That’s why we need empathy! But a disability or chronic illness is a specific type of challenge. We wouldn’t say to a widow or widower, ‘Well, we’ve all lost somebody.’ We wouldn’t tell a refugee, ‘Well, we all have to relocate at some point.’ Okay, a few people might. But I don’t think that lovely woman would say those things.

So let’s not appropriate other people’s problems in perhaps an effort to diffuse our embarrassment or sense of survivor’s guilt.

How Can We Actually Help?

Buy and read books from all sorts of writers and listen to their Own Voices. Jo Allmond worked with another of the speakers, Joy Thomas, to publish Silent Voices, a wonderful volume of poetry from often overlooked people coping with disability. Thomas Shepherd’s book Mr. Tumnall sounds clever and intriguing. Check out Dan Jeffries’ memoir of coping with a rare medical condition, and don’t miss the children’s series Jess Hiles created, Jess the Goth Fairy. Follow Dan Holloway’s incredible Dandelion Project. Read Debbie Young‘s blog and books to see how a talented writer with first-hand experience depicts the journey of her family members with Type 1 Diabetes.

Stone pig statue and milk bottle outside Hawkesbury Upton door
A small town still life outside a Hawkesbury Upton door.

And as always, when we write let’s use well-rounded characters, and let them drive the story rather than be single-issue flagposts. LISTEN, observe, research. We should be doing that anyway, with any issue.

In my stories a few people happen to have mental illness or disability. Those are just parts of them; they have completely unrelated experiences that delight and move them. Because I’ve spent so much of my working life close to amazing people who cope with these challenges, it’s inevitable they’ll appear in my writing.

In The Wrong Ten Seconds, for example, the main character’s wife, Harriet, is paralysed and speechless after a stroke. He and his daughter struggle to care for Harriet’s physical needs while treating her mentally if nothing has changed. It’s a difficult balance, and one that writers about difference try to carry out. As the daughter says: ‘If we keep pretending Mum’s not in the state she’s in, don’t we risk minimising what she’s going through?’

Finally, let’s not seek a simple answer or a quick reassurance on this issue. Disabilities are tough–thankfully, the people who cope with them are often tougher. The balance between including diverse characters and appropriating those experiences from diverse writers never should get easy, so we need to maintain high sensitivity, and keep listening.

 

Liberal Arts: Where Do All the Bleeding Hearts Go?

This Week’s Bit of String: Crosses made of sliced cheese

For Easter when I was in kindergarten, my mother cut slices of processed cheese and bologna into crosses, chicks, and egg shapes to share with my class. The school found this contribution offensive. I remember her crying over it, as she hung up laundry. We lived in a very small, seemingly homogenous New England town, but it couldn’t accommodate her humble gesture of religious expression.

As writers, we hate feeling voiceless, we hate for minorities to feel voiceless, and we should hate for religious communities to feel voiceless. I’m not endorsing the narrative of the American ‘War on Christianity.’ There’s no comparison to what a lot of BAME or LGBT people have suffered. But have you noticed a dearth of well-rounded religious characters in literature? Could this absence be feeding the fear we ‘liberals’ have of conservatives? Could it be curtailing our empathy?

Perpetuating Literary Stereotypes
Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral, October 2015

I’d like to see characters like my mother in literature. Someone with unparalleled patience, raising the four children she gave birth to in five years, and working for over two decades with special needs students, often at least sixty hours a week—while dutifully living out beliefs some might view as intolerant. Someone who believes abortion is murder but who was devastated by Christian leaders’ support of a racist President who condoned sexual assault.

Instead, it feels as if religious characters in fiction are generally incarnations of Archdeacon Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Hugo’s villain, tormented by hidden lusts, was probably a shocking revelation at the time. I’m not sure the prototype still is. In films and books, do we not at this point expect the Republicans and evangelicals to be baddies?

Admittedly, there have been appalling religious figures throughout history. One can understand the rage against clergy in, for example, Irish fiction such as The Glorious Heresies, or The Secret Scriptures. And in America especially, Christian culture, perhaps partly out of a sense it’s not welcome in the mainstream, has isolated itself to produce its own books on its own presses.

This isolation becomes cyclic. The church is the kid on the playground who has to keep his clothes clean, so he doesn’t join in football. The other kids assume he doesn’t want to play anyway—especially if he tells them they’re getting too dirty—and he resents them carrying on without him, and the gulf widens. So mainstream literature and heavily conservative, Christian literature may seem to prefer the separation. But if we consider ourselves liberal, should we ignore a whole subset of our culture?

Studies on Liberalism Versus Conservatism

Before justifying the alienation by saying Republicans are ignorant, are overly attached to their beliefs, and probably hate us too much to engage, consider these intriguing studies.

Research shows that conservative minds are more attuned to fear. Is this a cause or a symptom of conservatism? Scientific American describes how mounting scientific evidence of conservative risk awareness could explain their stereotypical attachment to rules and even nationalism.

St. Cyr's Church on Stroudwater Canal
St. Cyr’s Church on Stroudwater Canal, Palm Sunday 2017

It also explains their tendency toward idea-driven storytelling. While some conservative commentators like this one on The American Conservative website remind their fellows that using literature to mould public morals ‘leads to art becoming a mere tool, a means to an end, rather than an end in itself,’ a group will find that irrelevant when they perceive themselves under threat. Republicans (who got eighty percent of evangelical support in the presidential election) are completely in control of the American government, but fundamentalist Christians believe in Heaven and Hell. The majority of people they meet are eternally damned. If they have any compassion, they’ll try and save them with everything they do, every word they write. How could they care about trivial things like character development and artistic expression?

Here’s another surprise from a wonderful study described in The Guardian, in which literature professors researched thousands of Goodreads profiles and found over four hundred books which conservative and liberal readers frequently liked in common. Encouraging, but when they looked at the reviews, they found conservative readers were ‘more generous’ and used ‘less negative or hateful language’ than many of the liberal reviewers. We liberals can be snobby and cynical—who would have thought?

In Twitter discussion, science fiction writer Grace Crandall observes that we tend to detect biases against us: liberals see conservative bias, while conservatives see liberal bias. We’d all rather be wronged than in the wrong. But we have to rise above that as artists, and try to understand each other, as she suggests.

What is Conservatism, Really?
Church and phone booth
Juxtaposition in Dursley, Christmas 2016

Everyone’s conservative about some things, and liberal about others. We all have things we don’t want to change, and things we seek to explore and improve. Micah Mattix, in the American Conservative article, reminds us genuine conservatism is ‘deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved.’ Skepticism of contemporary culture is not exclusive to Republican-leaning authors.

Indeed, when we write we should examine any stereotype, even the idea that Republicans are always grouchy old white men. We write to conquer fear, perhaps our own fear of being voiceless, and it’s always worth finding characters to give voice to. There are Republicans and/ or evangelicals who strive valiantly to live up to their own standards, even if these standards manifest themselves in ways that look strange to us. In my book Artefacts, two of the protagonists are Christians, trying to establish friendships outside the church despite being convinced their acquaintances are hellbound. Religious characters don’t always have to be so dramatic; I liked the pastor and the churchgoing protagonist in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. They were portrayed as normal people, with normal family and livelihood struggles, who happened to have a bit of faith. That’s incredibly rare in a current book, and why should it be? We’re writers. We can take on anything.

How to Write a Classic

This Week’s Bit of String: Risky book rescue

Induction week at my new job. We’re told to introduce ourselves with quirky facts.

A woman who immigrated from Russia once ran into a burning building to rescue a book. It was a rare, century-old encyclopaedia of horses.

Of course, my quirky fact is that I’ve written a novel (or two or three…). I practise my elevator pitch on them. The youngest newbie among us, who’s apparently won baton-twirling competitions, says, ‘I’d definitely read that.’ I assure them it’s worth saving from an inferno.

There’s a man in the group who’s never seen a single Star Wars film. I wonder if he feels left out because of the constant references to it. I’ve been wondering the same about people who have never read the classics. Is foundational knowledge of literary classics worthwhile? Does it help one better appreciate other arts and literature? What does it mean to be a classic, anyway, and might we write one ourselves?

Defining Classics

With help from Merriam-Websters, we can construe classics broadly if we choose. A classic sets a high standard in a particular form—any form. Therefore, Star Wars might not be a classic like Citizen Kane or Casablanca, but it can be a classic Sci-Fi film, and books from any genre can be classics, too.

Brighton hotel on the site of Dickens' favourite inn.
I’m the sort of classics nerd who photographed this monstrous Brighton hotel just because its Blue Plaque told me Charles Dickens enjoyed staying on this site.

The strictest definition applies to literature of ancient Greece. These works influenced Shakespeare, who arguably enabled the evolution of most fiction. They are more pervasive than some might realise, frequently revived in cinema and even young adult books, plus forming the basis of our vocabulary with phrases such as siren, Oedipal complex, and Achilles heel.

In the Twittersphere, Leslie Scott gave me this wonderful definition: ‘If I instantly think “I want my kid to read this” … it’s a classic. There has to be a life lesson I need to share with my child.’ This allows classics a personal nature: we choose our own individual canon.

It also brings up another necessary quality: Classic literature conveys, often with impressive (if intimidating) scope, its originating time period. The Iliad tells us about political and religious alliances of ancient Greece. Bleak House portrays socioeconomic Victorian issues, even lampooning religious charities, and depicting the plight of women to an extent.

When contemplating which books we want out children to read, we also consider what we want them to learn from the times in which we’ve lived.

Updating Classics

So what books do we read today that might become classics of the future? Claire King, while admitting classic literature can be interesting from an ‘art history perspective,’ feels contemporary literature is more resonant. I agree there is a more accessible, sincere vein in today’s literature (including Claire’s gorgeous book The Night Rainbow). But do they resonate only with our contemporaries, or humanity throughout the ages?

With an increasing push for literature to be inclusive of social class, sexual preference, and ethnicity, today’s great works could have more staying power. The lack of diversity in some classics makes them seem ‘dull and patriarchal,’ Rita Gould tweets. Classics should be broad enough to at least acknowledge all aspects of a society.

Classic Features:

Characters: The protagonist should be particularly memorable, strong, and the perfect messenger. Elizabeth Bennett, Harry Potter, even flawed Miss Havisham or Macbeth are unforgettable because their roots are clearly mapped, forcing us to wonder if we, too, could be swayed.

'Nevermore' Jack o'Lantern inspired by Poe's The Raven
I’ve also been known to nerdily base jack o’lanterns on classics.

Setting: A classic boldly recreates its location. It will devote pages, almost give the setting its own voice. The Congolese jungles of The Poisonwood Bible; Arundhati Roy’s portrayal of Kerala in The God of Small Things, shown through children’s eyes without glossing over political unrest.

Message: It’s tricky to balance with character, and is perhaps what puts people off the original classics. A classic must convey an idea. In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s characterisation suffers for being idea-driven, but the message about love’s (or infatuation’s) power lives on. More contemporary writers like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, etc, better strike the balance.

Scope: We may groan at their size, but classics use their heft to diligently represent their culture. It enables Tolstoy to follow up on characters of various social status in Anna Karenina (although I’m still miffed he barely bothered mentioning the eponymous heroine in the last section). It enables Michael Chabon to interweave characters of diverse races and proclivities in Telegraph Avenue.

Detail: While covering broad topics and sweeping settings, a classic also offers telescopic detail rendering its populace and landscape vivid—including cultural landscape. Contemporary writers aren’t shy about teasing references to society’s peculiarities, and nor were traditional ones.

A bit of string: Most classics take their great shape from the slightest twist. Modern examples—the discovery of an unsent letter in Byatt’s Possession, the demise of a cheeky parrot in Love in the Time of Cholera—are slimmed proportions of ancient Greek ones: Paris falling for Helen, Jocasta heeding a prophecy about her infant son.

There are more options for defining classics, as listed in this excellent New York Review of Books article. Put together, by writers of any time period, they make books we hope our children will cherish, books worth saving from the ravages of time—and fire. What are the classics of your life?

 

Let’s Write About Sex, Baby

This Week’s Bit of String: What circumference and cucumbers have in common

The first literacy group I led consisted of four fairly proficient Year Seven readers. In one task, they had to construct vocabulary words out of individual sound chunks. ‘Circumference’ was one of those words.

The second syllable drew giggles from the boy with the most tumultuous home life. I informed him, ‘That’s a very important sound chunk. Just think, without “cum” in our cucumbers, we’d only have cubers!’

He literally fell off his chair laughing.

Hopefully with that one remark I communicated four things: It’s okay to acknowledge sex, it’s okay to laugh about sex, we can even be fairly clever with it, but we don’t have to go on about it forever.

Perhaps sex scenes in literature should follow similar guidelines. We all know that sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly. But it’s such an important part of life, it figures in almost every story, whether in the background or upfront. How much should it be detailed? Do graphic scenes enhance or detract from literature?

Sex as a Genre
Reading in Stokes Croft
Reading in Stokes Croft

This past weekend I had a terrific time reading at a Stokes Croft Writers event in Bristol, built around the theme of ‘bad erotica.’

Now, I don’t actually read erotica, much less write it. But I’d written a piece called ‘The Hornet,’ which dripped with innuendo. So, that worked. A few of the others were more explicit, and they were all engaging and often quite funny, clearly written by talented humorists and wordsmiths.

It’s a privilege to laugh about sex, and to laugh about it together in a room full of people. To me, it felt like an intellectual release, if not a physical one.

Some of the descriptions were a bit cheesy, or a bit gross. But let’s face it, sex can be too. Right? I admire people, in any genre, who take on this, erm, sticky subject.

Sex in the Classics

Going back a century or two, you don’t find many explicit sexual scenes in literature, for obvious societal reasons. But where would many of those classic stories be without such escapades going on in the background? Bleak House, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Anna Karenina, even Pride and Prejudice.

It makes sense that as twentieth century literature pushed towards greater honesty with the reader, sex became featured more bluntly.

However, there’s also an emphasis in contemporary literature on showing rather than telling; on pared descriptions and enhanced subtlety. In a way, that might serve to cloak lengthy, open sexual scenes.

I’m okay with that personally, since my aims in reading are much broader than satisfying any physical desire. But it interests me how the dichotomy between honesty (including a wilfulness to shock) and sparsity affect our ability to write about sex.

Crafting Sex Scenes

Writing about sex needs to be approached like any other aspect of a story: fearlessly but thoughtfully.

Books on shelves
‘Of course I shouldn’t tell you this, but…She advocates dirty books!’

Surely the key to creating sex scenes that aren’t hopelessly daft is to stay in character. Continue using language the character would use. Include only details that further the plot and the message the character wants to convey.

An article in Lit Hub provides an interesting survey of writers who pen effective sex scenes. ‘Many great novels portray sexual encounters as an inseparable part of the extraordinary ordinariness of daily life….as bodily, emotional experiences that inform each character’s unique sense of what it means to be alive.’

Contrasting scenes in Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, or Louis de Bernieres’ The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts (that mango scene!), each give sexual encounters from different points of view and/ or at different stages in a character’s timeline. Those differences are marked in the tone and the coverage of the encounter.

One somewhat explicit scene I’ve written is told by an adolescent boy annoyed with his older stepbrother’s noisy nighttime antics on the sofa and determined to stop it. He encounters the scene:

There had to be more to sex than this. Piggy grunts. Flab dangling, limbs twitching, glowing orangey-pink in the light of the last lamp standing. Weren’t they getting sliced by old potato chip pieces? No, those chips must be soggy now.’

With that point of view, I’m freed from having to dwell long on the subject, but at the same time, I get to tell it like it is. Hopefully I’ve managed to strike that balance between leaving some to the imagination, and realistically, fully portraying my character.

How have you addressed writing about sex? Are there any writers you feel are particularly good at it?

 

 

Size Matters: Short Stories vs. Novels

This Week’s Bit of String:   A cat in a bin

A few years ago, a man couldn’t find his cat. Luckily, he’d rigged CCTV outside his house, and he found that a woman passing by had stroked the cat, then picked it up and put it in his wheelie bin.

The outraged owner shared the video in a quest to identify this dastardly villainess. Once named, the woman received death threats from every corner of this United Kingdom.

Remember that?

Turned out the woman had been walking home from visiting her dying father. She always said, ‘I just didn’t know what I was thinking.’

It doesn’t bear thinking about what could have happened if the cat’s owner wasn’t hooked on surveillance. But we all do bad things. We just don’t get CCTVed doing them. Would we want our entire lives judged by a misdeed that took a few seconds?

Following the Thread
Warren Falls, VT
Warren Falls, Vermont: The big picture

Operating on that principal question, I began a short story back in 2011 about an upstanding man who, under stress, does something misconstrued as animal cruelty. But I never finished it.

It wasn’t suited to be a short story because there were too many questions. How did the disgraced culprit cope with the aftermath, and how did it affect his family? What about the person who publicised the transgression; did they regret provoking such bad will?

Last year I snowflaked it into a novel using this story planning technique, and wrote a draft in six months. So this particular Bit of String, when I pulled at it, revealed not a 2000-word competition entry, but an intricately plaited novel that I will edit and query this summer: The Wrong Ten Seconds.

Differences of Dimension: Length and Depth

I conducted a little Twitter poll this week to see what some of my fellow writers prefer: writing flash fiction, short stories or novels. The answer was resoundingly in favour of novels, with writers commenting that they enjoy fostering the ‘depth of character’ a novel requires (thanks to Libbie Toler), and the ‘total immersion in both the world and the plot.’ (Thanks to Donna Migliaccio.) I prefer novels myself, because I can let my characters go a little more. And they’re just easier.

A Writer’s Digest article on the difference between the two fictional forms proposes a test of theme: ‘If you feel your story will be more a journey than a statement, you may be leaning toward a novel.’ I suppose that when I started my short story version of The Wrong Ten Seconds, I was trying to make a statement. But that then inspired me to accompany the characters on their journey, so it became a novel.

Differences of Possibility
Warren Falls, Vermont
Warren Falls, Vermont: Close-Up

In current literary culture, it’s not fashionable to use writing to make statements. We’re supposed to show, not tell, aren’t we? That’s what makes short stories so difficult. Convey an idea, but don’t preach. Create sympathetic characters in very few pages. The advantage of writing a short story, perhaps, is some freedom in the ending. As Chris Power wrote for The Guardian, ‘Novelists are expected to tie up loose ends, whereas the short story writer can make a virtue of ambiguity.’

To me, that is the defining reason that makes an idea a short story rather than a novel. How much do I want to know about the end? It comes back to the What Ifs. When there’s a single central question, and I can’t bear to probe too far, I write a short story. Cowardly, isn’t it? While I find short stories artistically more challenging, emotionally I can stop them from taxing me as much as novels do. I didn’t need to decide, for example, what ultimately happened to Hannah and her son Jack in ‘The Apocalypse Alphabet.’ The statement was already made.

Differences of Literary Elements?

Short stories are more difficult for some of us because they still require all the ingredients of a novel. Plot, character, message, setting; they must be there, but condensed. It’s like these two photos: each picture has the same things in them—water, rocks, a person/ people—but one is close-up. That’s the short story, see. And because it’s zoomed in, those elements have to be damn near flawless.

Thanks to condensing those literary elements, the short story packs a powerful jolt. I love the way Joanna Carter, who’s written successfully in both literary forms, described the difference between short stories and novels at one of Bristol’s Novel Nights last summer: ‘A short story is a skeleton bursting from the closet. It’s raw, a moment of truth. A novel has to put flesh on those bones.’

Both relevant, both exciting. Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you find either one more challenging to write?

2016 Reading Round-Up

What were your favourite literary journeys of 2016? Please let me know what you think of mine; we bookworms must support each other as we gasp through tedious ‘real life’ like fish out of water.

It’s always tricky to narrow down my top ten, in order of how much I loved them. 10 indicates a terrific read and 1 means I nearly perished of bereavement when the book ended. I’ve cheated a little by adding two spaces for special categories:

Favourite Non-Fiction read: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

I read this intriguing book as research for writing The Wrong Ten Seconds. Ronson interviews quite a few people who played different roles in recent ‘Internet shaming’ scandals. Other hot issues are implicated as well, such as political correctness and safe spaces, while Ronson tries to remind us of our humanity in the process.
‘We all carry around with us the flotsam and jetsam of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities, and who knows what will trigger them?’

Favourite Young Adult read: Ptolemy’s Gate, the conclusion of the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Cork on pebble beach in Brighton
Brighton: Rusted champagne corks on the beach

This trilogy is unique and challenging, splitting the POV between an arrogant, unlikeable (yet somewhat sympathetic) teenage boy who is also a magical prodigy, and the ancient but never old daemon that he conjures. Bonus: the daemon cheekily educates us on his experiences and the history of this parallel wizards’ universe through the use of footnotes.
‘A dozen more questions occurred to me. *Not to mention 22 possible solutions to each one, 16 resulting hypotheses and counter-theorems, 8 abstract speculations, a quadrilateral equation, 2 axioms, and a limerick. That’s raw intelligence for you.

Novels

10. Twenty-Six Degrees by Rebeccah Giltrow
I’ve been privileged this year to buy and read a handful of books by writers known to me, and this one is quite a feat. It’s not an easy read, because the 26 characters Giltrow unflinchingly examines are often unsavoury. She also challenged herself by making the book lipogrammatic: each of the 26 stories is told with the omission of a different letter. Giltrow explains this in the Afterword, making us consider how influential a single letter is:
‘Maxwell has to speak in the present tense because he doesn’t have use of the letter D, and talking about herself is impossible for Beth without the letter I. Zoe can’t question anyone, Larry can’t thank anyone, Charlie can’t love anyone.’

9. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
We all know unhappy families are different, thanks to Tolstoy, but this one is especially different. The parents are flawed but fascinating in their intelligence, their artistic creativity, and their principles. Plus the wild landscapes they all traverse… In fact, were they truly unhappy?
‘I told Mom I would protect the Joshua tree from the wind, and water it every day so it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special. It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.’

Gnome reading on Langland Bay coastal path
A gnome reads contentedly by the seaside in Langland Bay, Swansea

8. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
Another one that’s not for the faint of heart (or stomach), this novel transports us into a 17th century plague town. A friend gave it to me to help with my self-sufficiency research for Society of the Spurned. The struggle of these townspeople is narrated by a young woman who somehow maintains her strength and clarity of purpose, and made it impossible for me to give up on the dark tale.
‘“At first, I borrowed his brightness and used it to see my way, and then gradually, from the habit of looking at the world as he illuminated it, the light in my own mind rekindled itself.”’

7. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
I’ve meant to read this for years, and it didn’t disappoint. I love the vast ranges of characters he invents, and the good humour with which he portrays most of them. Bleak House’s themes of charity and gratitude don’t lose their resonance.
‘There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.’

6. This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes
I read this because I loved her novel May We Be Forgiven. Similarly, in this book Homes takes a somewhat aimless protagonist, throws disaster his way, assembles a diverse conglomeration of new friends for him, and sends him bumbling along to rediscover himself. I love meeting the different characters through her down-to-earth observational style. She lets them reveal the neuroses of modern America:
‘“Do you ever feel like you need to see someone, just to make sure they still exist?”
‘“That’s what people talk about when they’re having a nervous breakdown. Does having the nervous breakdown make you wonder about that, or does wondering about it give you the nervous breakdown?”’

5. Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
Another favourite writer of mine, who really knows how to pull a story together. Atkinson goes more deeply into more characters’ thoughts than Homes does, and so many of their bemused, confused reactions to current times echo my own, from disappointment in English people, to deriding The Da Vinci Code, to the idea that today’s problems aren’t really that new. I’ve thought about starting a KateAtkinsonSaidItNotMe hashtag, but that’s perhaps a bit long.
‘It felt like the same world as ever to Tracy. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer… The Victorians would have recognised it. People just watched a lot more TV now.’

4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The twists in this story gave me the biggest shocks I’ve had in a while. Waters writes her own version of a Dickensian epic-type story about orphans and thieves, both poor and relatively wealthy, and modernises it with strong female protagonists struggling for autonomy. She also manages to narrate the same events twice, through the perspectives of two characters, without seeming repetitive or implausible.
‘But I thought desire smaller, neater; I supposed it bound to its own organs as taste is bound to the mouth, vision to the eye. This feeling haunts and inhabits me, like a sickness. It covers me, like skin.’

 

Dislodged roots
Books should be like trees, with a wild, beautiful system of roots

3. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
What’s not to love in a book about a hard-working writer who sometimes gets to holiday in the Vermont mountains and lakes? I found the protagonist’s work ethic inspiring, and the outdoor adventures and routines took me back to my home country. There are many great quotes from this book, but I absolutely love this toast between the protagonist (probably a version of Stegner himself) and his friend:
‘Let us be unignorable.’

2. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I fell for this fully on the second or third page, when Steinbeck described digging in his corner of California’s Salinas Valley and encountering evidence of oceans and glaciers as well as rock and soil. I’m not a geologist, but that image drew me in with its promise of deep layers. I felt for every one of the characters, especially the Hamilton clan, and was devastated by their tragic end. Sam Hamilton became my new hero.
‘But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

1. Possession by A.S. Byatt
This book is the culmination of all my favourite themes from this year and beyond. Feminine autonomy, love’s limitations, art and artifice, the drive to write and create. If ever a book deserved the Booker prize, this one did—and actually won it, too. Who would have thought?
‘“I have always supposed poetry to be a cry of unsatisfied love—my dear—and so it may be indeed—for satisfaction may surfeit it and it may die.”’

2016: Nothing But a Number

The general consensus seems to be that 2016 was a particularly rubbish year. It’s a bit facile, though, to assume recent international disasters sprouted randomly in response to the page-turn of a calendar.

Attack of Trump Man: children's book
Saw this children’s book in a Cardiff shop at the end of 2015. Attack of Trump Man. Was it a sign?

As writers, we tend to reject such premises, and to root around for causes. With minimal detective work we can see that Brexit and the Trump election were a long time coming, thanks to economic disparity, normalising of white supremacist ‘alt-right’ rhetoric, mainstream media obsequiousness, the hubris of established party politicians…I could go on.

The cancer that killed various celebrities was proliferating in their cells before. The citizens of Aleppo have been suffering for years; politically oppressed perhaps for decades. Extrajudicial killings of black people and the militarisation of police was already going on, racial bias and mistrust of law enforcement existing since before the United States signed the Declaration of Independence.

I bear no ill will towards 2016. I’ve watched it be rather kinder than its predecessors to those dearest to me. But I feel trepidation at saying I’ve had a decent year, because who knows what strife or loss germinates as I write this. The same is true for all of us. I only hope the hard work I’ve done this year, particularly in my writing, will later blossom into more success. (Although unfortunately, hard work in actual paying jobs seems to guarantee me very little security, particularly this year.)

Spring leaves and broken windows
Looking from the broken windows of 2016 to the fresh leaves of 2017…Or maybe I just liked this picture.

I’m always fascinated by stories which use the tiniest misstep to accelerate into a wicked tango of tragedy. Stories such as Atonement, Nicholas and Alexandra, and the novel I finished reading the other day, Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. These books give me a sense of awe as I contemplate their what-ifs. In my own work, I’ve laid out a similarly inevitable, escalating path in my novel Artefacts, as characters’ niggling insecurities feed off each other until they reach monstrous, crippling stature.

This year I wrote a new novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds, in which a man’s reckless deed becomes a viral video. Disaster ensues—not chaos, because it’s a particularly sequenced chain of events as other characters are drawn in. I’ll be editing my quite rough draft of The Wrong Ten Seconds in spring 2017, aiming to tighten up that chain.

Next year’s other plans—not goals, because I’m actually going to do these things—have their roots in projects from this year. I’ll finish my current novel, Society of the Spurned. I wrote the first half during November for NaNoWriMo. After editing The Wrong Ten Seconds, I’ll research and query agents.

A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division cast
The amazing cast for last September’s production of A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division

Then I’m going to expand my one-act play, A Night at the Armoured Cars Sub-Division, to a full-length one. That’s the bit I’m most excited about. Starting to explore playwriting last January and February, developing an unconventional but exciting premise, and then having it performed in September in its current short form, were highlights for me this last year. Reading at the November Stroud Short Stories event was another exciting moment.

Bank Cafe, Dursley
Preferably, I’ll be working relentlessly while sitting on a comfy couch scoffing posh cups of mint tea and the occasional brownie, such as here in Dursley’s Bank Cafe.

There have been plenty of rejections. I will need to work relentlessly, to read and improve and network. I’m fortunate to have support from my extremely discerning brother—my number one reader—plus a warm and talented local writers group, loads of inspiring connections on Twitter, and a husband who knows how to set up websites.

And of course, I have my beloved characters to motivate me. For example, Charlie’s expression of my general philosophy, in The Wrong Ten Seconds: ‘Suffering adds a whole new depth to beauty.’

And the words of Helen’s brother in Artefacts: ‘Sure, we all make our own beds. But we don’t have to lie there forever! If we don’t like the bed we’ve made, we can jump on it. We can throw the covers off and tear up the sheets!’

The possibilities are endless. I just have to keep my eyes and ears open, to gather bits of string until I find myself entangled in the next project. What threads will you be pursuing in the new year?

The Whole Story, and Nothing But the Story

This Week’s Bit of String: A swimmer’s happiness

Once I was at the town pool when a group of adults with learning difficulties were brought for a swim. A young man stood in the shallow end, his fingers prancing over the waist-high surface of the water, and declared, ‘I am EXACTLY happy. Right now, I am exactly happy.’

One like graffiti
Let’s not overstate things. One like will do. (Graffiti in Bristol)

His words have stayed with me for years. In literature, though, no self-respecting author would allow a character to be so straightforward. We’re supposed to give readers evidence of emotion, not outright testimony. Show, don’t tell. Leave something to the imagination. But how much?

Last week I lamented the heavy-handedness, the lack of nuance, in a couple of pieces deemed ‘Literature’ by the GCSE exam board. As I researched that post, I found articles both advocating and opposing subtlety, which I’ve continued to explore this week.

How hidden should messages and motives be in literature?

In Defence of Subtlety

Iconic writers from the post-modern to contemporary age favour rendering the author invisible in his or her own work. Ernest Hemingway described his Theory of Omission in the 1930s, insisting writers leave out as much of their own experience as possible. John McPhee summed the theory up for the New Yorker: ‘Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.’

Why? Joanna Scott, in a comprehensive piece for The Nation last summer, rounded up critics and authors to extol ‘The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.’ I particularly liked her quotes from David Mikics, who’s written a book called Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He praised the ‘tactile and palpable
sense of a material object being worked on,’ explaining that reading challenging texts not only exercises creativity and patience, but also nurtures a love for the versatility of words and the layering of meaning.

butterfly-window-reflection
Honestly, who wants to see the photographer’s reflection? Butterfly window in Chalford, Gloucestershire

The word subtle itself, I discovered, is rooted in the Latin term for finely textured, just as the modern word text is derived from the Latin term texere; to weave. A text is meant, then, to have various components intermingling. It’s meant to be a challenge to take apart.

My characters often don’t say precisely what they feel, because how often do we in real life? I use dialogue, and try to minimise internal commentary, so readers can inhabit the action, watching it unfold. Here’s a scene from Artefacts, between a married couple on what becomes a climactic morning:

‘Where’s the peanut butter?’

‘In the top left cupboard.’

Mike opened a door. ‘It’s just dishes in here.’

She cleared her throat. ‘That’s the, um, right one.’

‘No,’ he snapped. ‘It’s my right, but it’s the cupboards’ left.’

‘Yes…the peanut butter is in the cupboard on your left.’

So it was. Mike set it on the counter with a bang. ‘That’s the opposite of what you said a minute ago. It’s like the difference between saying “Stage left” and “to the left of the audience.” You should know that.’ He spread peanut butter onto his toast with such vigour the surface cracked.

She handed him his trousers without looking at him. ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you to look in a left or right anything before, or has your entire life been on a stage?’

Against Subtlety

There are other things to learn from reading, however, apart from interpretive skills and quiet resilience. I wrote a couple weeks ago about books that have changed my thinking, and those haven’t always been subtle (although certainly well-written and multi-layered).

Slate editor Forrest Wickman wrote a thorough piece Against Subtlety: The Case for Heavy-Handedness in Art, pointing out that our obsession with ‘highbrow,’ subtle literature stems from elitist ideas at the start of the twentieth century. He cited DH Lawrence writing: ‘There should be again a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd. The herd will destroy everything.’ Much of art that has affected change, Wickman argued, is not coy or cryptic. It’s communicating a clear message: Something has to give!

brass-handle-reflection
There’s always some reflection…

He has a point. Why let a character speak up if you don’t let them say what they think really happened?

Last week, Helen Marten won the Turner Prize for her art, ‘labyrinthine works’ which critics have compared favourably to puzzles, while also praising ‘the emotionally provocative nature’ of her pieces. Earlier this year, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. His lyrics are sometimes obscure, but his perhaps most memorable song, Blowing in the Wind, poses very blunt, if beautifully phrased, questions about what the hell human beings allow to happen to each other. So balance and juxtaposition are allowed, and perhaps should be encouraged.

I like giving my brain a workout on big, tricky books. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic to intrigue me. But I expect to understand them better as the story unfolds. Any story is a character’s journey from one state of mind to another, and I want to accompany them, if not in their pocket, then at least in a neighbouring vehicle or a surveillance helicopter. And often, as we travel through a story, what starts as subtle and composed may begin to fray as the stakes get higher, and emotions may bleed through more strongly. Those shouldn’t repel us; they should draw us in even more.

After all, just because that one man in the swimming pool stated his feelings clearly, I never lost interest. I still wonder about him. Did he measure all his feelings in precise percentages? Was it a coping mechanism, or part of his genetic makeup? Were there things that made him exactly angry, or exactly sad?

There are always more layers. Always more questions.

GCSE Curriculum: Is It Literature?

This Week’s Bit of String: A Student’s Holiday Mix-Up

‘Miss, aren’t you excited about Christmas? Remember, Jesus died then!’

It was one of those teaching moments when you need Rewind and Slow Down buttons. ‘You mean He died just before Easter,’ I said.

‘No, He was born at Easter; that’s why there’s eggs everywhere, and baby animals. We celebrate Him getting killed at Christmas, by hanging stuff on trees.’

My student, in his first GCSE year at the time, had misinterpreted these symbols and traditions. But he legitimised it with evidence.

The real reason dinosaurs went extinct...
There’s a sign like this in our school library.

These days we hear of fake news, false equivalency, and other such ‘post-truth’ terms. Dangerous as those are in the political realm, the literary world has operated on a somewhat post-truth basis for some time—with the essential caveat that you cite passages to support your claims.

Evidence-gathering and interpretation are essential skills we get from studying literature. Interpreting characters’ motives, which builds empathy and social skills; plus interpreting the culture and time period the author belongs to.

In the UK, Year 10 and 11 students (aged 14-16) must earn a General Certificate of Secondary Education in Literature. The national exam board offers a limited range of literary works for students to be tested on: one of six selected Shakespeare plays, one of seven nineteenth century novels, one of twelve dramas or novels written since 1914 (by British authors only), and one themed ‘cluster’ of fifteen poems. Adolescents spend two years studying these four works, and then take the exam.

The list of literature options changed controversially two years ago, dropping American classics such as Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. After the fuss kicked up over the changes, do the remaining options qualify as literature?

Interpreting Characters
school-bathroom-graffiti-spoilers
Found in the girls’ toilet in the Art/English corridor. ‘George shoots Lennie.’ ‘Piggy and Simon die…’

To me, several of the GCSE offerings lack character depth. I haven’t read all of them, and I don’t dislike any of them. I’m just not sure they’re literature. An Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers share upper class villains, while several other books such as Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have quite clear-cut ones as well. Scrooge and Mr. Darcy undergo transformations, but their paths are quite obvious. There’s not a lot of mystery on why they change; students need do no serious detective work to examine it.

The most interesting characters are probably the plethora of bystanders and enablers in these tales: Mr. Bennett neither humouring nor challenging his wife’s ridiculous behaviour and Mrs. Lintott apparently looking the other way regarding her beloved co-worker’s paedophilic tendencies; the animal subjects of Animal Farm and the other boys on the Lord of the Flies Island.

Probing the motives of those who get caught in the action and end up almost unwittingly serving as catalysts is particularly relevant today, as far-right factions take hold in more governments. What drives a Macbeth and a Dr. Frankenstein? Let’s hope the exam board will encourage that sort of discussion.

Interpreting Culture and History

I don’t think Americans are going to suffer for no longer being represented in the GCSE curriculum; we’re not exactly a silent, repressed minority. The requirements for modern literature include stories by second-generation immigrants, and some about immigrants, too, plus Curious Incident, about a boy on the autism spectrum. And there are plenty of plots that highlight (sometimes glaringly, as in the aforementioned Inspector Calls and Blood Brothers) issues surrounding class and socioeconomic status.

It’s a decent start. Each one has its own argument to pick with the world, as I previously noted Salmon Rushdie said books must do. Each one attempts to harrow us a little bit, with various degrees of effectiveness.

books-fight
Spotted in an alley in Lewes. That’s right: books fight.

Teacher Tom Payne, writing in The Telegraph (which also, being The Telegraph, gave Conservative then-Minister of Education an opportunity to defend the changes in literature choices), raised this concern: ‘does this [rule that post-1914 literature studied must originate from the British Isles] mean that the question of Britain and its former empire has to be examined from the perspective of these islands? After all, much of the best literature on the subject comes from the lands Britain colonised: the Empire writes back.’
This is a good point. The removal of OMAM and TKAM disappointed me because I’d seen white students infatuated with the ‘n-word.’ Often, their perspectives matured after reading Of Mice and Men, as they realised the actual conditions from which the word derived its power; the threat and malice behind it. It’s important to keep those issues present in the literature we teach adolescents, because recognising others’ suffering, often at the hands of our own governments and even at benefit to ourselves, is an essential argument to keep putting before the world. And as fake news proliferates, the classics set a standard for us that’s not easily misinterpreted.

Let There Be Dark

This week’s bit of string: Fourteenth century ploughing techniques

Stories are like a box of chocolates; some of us can’t resist the dark ones. I don’t mean dark as in using horror elements, but rather the darker aspects of real life, from brutal struggles and current events.

I sometimes fear that writing ‘dark’ stories may put off readers who seek literary escapism. How do we justify putting serious issues into our work?

Dark stories need tough heroes/heroines to blaze through them. After all, fiction is only as sad as its characters, just as life is only as sad as we feel.

Utilising Juxtaposition

There are so many elements to a story: plot, setting, characters, tone, dialogue… And there can be different degrees of darkness to each element. For example, Catch-22 has a horrific wartime plot, but the tone is humourous. Cruel deeds may unfold against a bright summer setting, as in L’Etranger (one of the bleakest books I’ve ever read).

We don’t use these contrasts to dilute the message. Rather, the idea is to illuminate and emphasise it. Interweaving tragedy with comedy can sharpen it with the shock of the unexpected.

Church steeple glowing at the end of a dark alley
I don’t think this church steeple would have looked nearly as impressive if I hadn’t approached it through an abandoned dark alley.

We can create characters that suffer terribly, but perhaps they have a sense of humour about it. We all know people like that in real life.

My first published story, ‘The Meek Inherit,’ portrayed a small snapshot of Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. But I used a fiercely imaginative, independent Haitian girl’s point of view, which imbued it with a sense of hope. Through her, I could bring attention to Haiti’s misfortunes, but also to the resourcefulness of its people. ‘How dull reading would be,’ Robert Burdock commented in his review, ‘if every story had a Disney ending.’

Instigating Change

After I read my story The Apocalypse Alphabet at Stroud Short Stories’ event recently, a couple of very talented writers spoke to me afterwards and described the story as harrowing. I began to apologise, but they said, ‘No, no, it’s important to be harrowed sometimes. If that’s a word!’

Harrowed is a word, as it turns out. The word harrow comes from a medieval Dutch word for rake, and a harrow, thusly, is a spiky tool that pulverises soil before planting. A painful process, no doubt—which then contributes to yielding useful crops.

Good fiction has the power to shake us up, jolt us awake, and change our habits. I can think of two books I’ve read in recent years that have altered my thought patterns. Marina Lewycka’s novel Two Caravans honestly and wittily brings attention to the plight of migrant workers in the UK, including some working under dreadful conditions at a chicken packaging plant. Since reading this novel, I only use free-range chicken products, because it made me realise: companies that mistreat animals for profit will most likely mistreat human workers, as well.

The second book was James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. This tormented, semi-autobiographical book about an adolescent boy desperate to win his religious father’s approval honed my awareness about the legacy of slavery for generation after generation of African Americans. I was struck by the fact that Baldwin’s grandmother had been a slave, and her first children had been taken from her and sold. His writing made me consider the devastating impact this would have on a person’s ability to love and form familial bonds later on—and this would then impact her children, and their children, and so forth.

Lamppost illuminated in wooded park
Let there be dark, that the light may show up against it. Stratford Park, Stroud

It’s not easy to be shown the dark underbelly of the bloated, overfed privilege some of us enjoy. But I believe we can learn from it. And fiction is particularly placed to do that, because it opens up our imaginations. Imagination doesn’t merely lead to escapism, it can lead to empathy as well, which as I’ve previously discussed, is the key to changing the world.

So, what books have harrowed you to the point of growing new crops, so to speak? How much dark reality do you find acceptable in a story?  Personally, I’m a realist. I like any happy endings to come out of a recognisable version of the world. I love Margaret Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin, in which a man tells his mistress a tale with various dark twists involving slavery and sacrifice, but sets it against a dazzling background of an ancient city on a distant planet.

His lover whispers, ‘”Why are you telling me such a sad story?”’

‘”I tell you the stories I’m good at,” he says. “Also the ones you’ll believe. You wouldn’t believe sweet nothings, would you?”’