A Statue is to History as a Facebook Profile Picture is to Life

This week’s bit of string: A doctor and a gentleman

In Central Park, a statue pays homage to Dr. J. Marion Sims, a pioneer of gynaecology who founded the New York Women’s Hospital, the first hospital expressly for women. He is described on the statue’s plaque as a philanthropist who advanced the reputation of American medical practice throughout the world. This influential doctor is also memorialised elsewhere, including on State House grounds in South Carolina.

Unfortunately, Dr. Sims is also known for his sadism. He made his scientific advances by experimenting without anaesthetic on slave women in the nineteenth century. As protester Seshat Mack notes in this New York Daily Post article, ‘he was a man who recognized the humanity of black slaves to use them for medical research about the human body — but not enough to recognize and treat their pain during surgery.’

A statue is a melodramatically posed likeness of a single person, often designed and made decades after their death. That is not history. People advocating the relocation of confederate statues aren’t trying to erase history; they’re giving voice to a more authentic one. It’s not a question of whether Dr. Sims and the confederacy existed, but of whether they deserve honour.

I’m not suggesting history is relative and that people can take from it what they want to. I’m saying it’s big, and that people will try to take from it what they want. We have to constantly watch out for that.

Worthy Monuments

With their ability to portray multiple facets of an event, maybe books are some of our more effective memorials. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin when I was ten, already intrigued by the period. The idea of the Underground Railroad drew me; the excitement of escaping slavery. Even after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which doesn’t exactly gloss things over, I could not have grasped the magnitude of people for whom there was no escape. It’s still hard to imagine the despair of living in that situation for generations.

Purposefully rusted metal monuments in Gheluvelt Park
Gheluvelt WWI Memorial. Each column represents two months of the war, while just one centimetre of height represents 500 casualties.

What statue, memorial, or even work of literature can convey the suffering of possibly millions of slaves?

Comparatively speaking, I have not much considered the stories of confederate soldiers: ordinary, often poor men persuaded or conscripted into a horrific war. Some of the statues being removed are also memorials to those men, engraved with names of the town’s dead. Does bravery for a bad cause still deserve honour? It’s easy to imagine that a lot of those names refer to decent people, so I sympathise that those memorials mean something to their descendants.

But they aren’t the only piece of history. Some confederate statues are put up on former slave auction site. Hang on, who sacrificed what here? Surely the ones in chains, sold to bolster a white economy, should be remembered. It makes sense to relocate confederate statues to museums or private collections. Government and municipal buildings may sometimes showcase only one side of history, but let’s attempt not to use such a jagged-edged fragment of it.

Meaningful Memorials

In Bristol, UK, near where I now live, a venerable music hall is soon to be renamed. It was called Colston Hall, after a city benefactor (or at least, after the street that’s named after him). However, that philanthropist was also heavily involved in the slave trade, instrumental in the kidnapping of 85,000 Africans.

Cascading pools in the footprint of the World Trade Center
Ground Zero

I have enjoyed shows at Colston Hall. Those bands and memories will still exist under a new venue name. And I’m happy for the change. Who really wants to say, ‘Well, you may have been oppressed and brutalised by something for generations, but I wasn’t, so who cares?’

I doubt many people attending concerts at Colston Hall will notice the name change. Before the renaming campaign, most of us didn’t have a clue who Colston was. Similarly, how many times do we encounter a statue in a park or town centre and actually read the informational plaque, however sparse and biased? There’s not so much honour in being a statue, loved more by pigeons than anyone else.

These days monuments tend not to be statues. We’ve moved on in our attempts to portray the gravity of a tragic event. The World War I memorial in Gheluvelt Park, Worcester, represents the number of casualties in every month of the war. It introduces a staggering sense of scale. Other recent monuments encourage reflection. The pools at Ground Zero and Oklahoma City—my uncle called the latter the most memorable thing he saw in an entire cross-country trip.

Could there possibly be such a memorial to slaves? Could we replace the likenesses of individual confederate figures with a confederacy monument that recognises its bravery yet also the brutal ugliness of its cause? I suspect a truly effective version of either one of those things would be more than just a statue.

Stories Worth Translating

This Week’s Bit of String: Language barrier in a cafe

My favourite cafe gets crowded during lunch hour. I managed to grab one of the little tables upstairs, but diagonal to me a woman and her late-teen son and daughter sat on one end of a longer wooden table while an older couple sat with their little granddaughter on the other end.

The grandparents only spoke French. They were visiting their bilingual granddaughter. The woman opposite could speak very little but English.

This did not stop her talking to her unknown tablemates. First she noted that she and the elderly Frenchwoman had the same colour iPhone case. ‘Rose gold. Rosé?’ Ah, the transcendent powers of technology.

Table at window with street view of Stroud.
Occasionally treating myself to a lunch hour of writing and yumminess at Woodruffs Organic Cafe.

Then she did her best to tell the couple about the local village where she and her children lived. ‘It’s very old, very pretty—yes, jolie? It’s jolie, I think? And hills, lots of hills. Mond, montes? Hills?’

It occurred to her that if only her sister were around, the difficulty would be solved. ‘My sister—ma soeur—she speaks—how do you say speaks in French? How do you say fluently?’

And on like this for some time. She felt the need to convey to them, battering against the language barrier, that her mother had first become a grandmother at a younger age than the woman herself now was.

I started to wonder whether the woman was just desperate not to talk to her own children, who sat politely, murmuring hopeful foreign phrases to bolster her floundering. Why was it necessary to tell the French couple these things? Surely France has hilly villages. Surely it has young grandmothers. We already see it has rose gold iPhone cases.

Women in Translation

August is Women in Translation Month, raising awareness of women who write in other languages, and women who bridge the gap between us. Just this year I’ve read three books written and translated by women: Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent (translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon), The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette), and Human Acts by Han King (translated from Korean by Deborah Smith).

All three of these books were excellent, telling memorable tales in haunting voices. The stories they told were distinctive to their countries. They were slices of history or current events. I felt better educated by each, and not a little fortunate to live in a nation with small problems in comparison.

In other words, I was reading about our differences. Some of the issues described in each book: relationships, job insecurity, health problems—are human problems we all deal with, but they were sharply twisted by the different type of political chaos in each case.

So I wondered, what about our similarities? Are those worth talking about sometimes?

Translation Pre-Requisites

Translated works are subject to the whims of the market, as much as other books are. Jade Boyd, who earned her Masters in translation at the University of Bristol, reminded me when I asked about the process that usually a book would first be successful in its native language before its publishers invest in translation.

This means that a translated book must first meet the standards all our books are (theoretically) held to. I summed them up a few weeks ago, but to echo that again: a striking setting, unique voice, and original hook are important.

Glass monument with names of murdered Jews in a park in Paris.
Holocaust memorial in Paris at the Place René Viviani. My own attempt at translation: “Read their name; your memory is their monument.”

With the translated books I’ve read recently, the author’s nationality and culture were pivotal in achieving those three essentials. So it’s not surprising, really, that different stories are the ones being told.

And as I said before, that’s a good thing. We want to hear new stories, to learn other histories, and we certainly want them told in their Own Voices. But while we seek out differences, we must not be blind to similarities, or to perceptions. Jade enlightened me about the concept of habitus: ideas and dispositions conditioned by our surroundings and upbringing, which influence how we interpret things.

Translators are trained to be aware of their own habitus as they work. I doubt the mass markets are, though. Was a South Korean tale of rebellion and the breakdown of societal structure big news because it contradicts our stereotypes of the region? Was The Queue a successful import because it portrays secular Middle Eastern protagonists more than Muslim ones?

We should watch for the influence of habitus as we venture into foreign literature. When we read about struggles in distant lands, let’s consider whether we prefer characters to be quite different from us, perhaps so we can tell ourselves it would never happen here. Is that healthy, or realistic? Is it interfering with our ability to empathise?

For more reading during Women in Translation month and beyond, there are great recommendations in this Women Writers Network chat, and on Rita Gould’s blog. You can follow the WITmonth hashtag on Twitter, and there’s also this fascinating insight into translation from Lucy North on Bookwitty.

Many of those offerings look intriguing and wonderful. My next stop, however, might be Asleep or The Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto. Their blurbs don’t play up foreign settings, but rather present stories of relationships and inner turmoil that might end up being surprisingly recognisable. Something a little similar for a change.

Happy explorations, everyone!

How Do They Get Away With It?

This Week’s Bit of String:

‘When he offers me a ring—any day now—it had better have a four-figure price tag. If it’s tacky or gold, I’m not touching it.’ The senior boasted to a couple of us freshmen, curling her lip as she watched her alleged almost-fiance bantering with the younger students.

He was a student himself, so how he managed to scrape enough funds for a ring, I’m not sure. I didn’t know either of them well. Maybe, friendly as he seemed, he’d let her down before, so she needed a deposit on her love. Or he could have had a hidden source of wealth–possibly something she’d helped him scheme to get, a Macbeth-type plot they both colluded in.

At the time, I was chronically single, and the girl’s demands rankled. Why did she have a partner when I did not? How did she get away with such an unyielding attitude?

I’ve been considering the balance of demands and the possible merits of being artistically unyielding as I query agents on behalf of my novel, The Wrong Ten Seconds. I’ve had kind, personal, so-close-but-not-quite rejections from very big agents. It’s nearly time to try a few more.

Before I do, I want to adjust the first couple of pages. We all know how important those are, and I’m not naive enough to think I can do whatever I like with them.

First Page Requirements

If you are also a writer, you’ve probably done a tonne of research on this already. Here are just a couple of sample blogs on how to, or how not to, write a great first page. Your story must feature in its opening:

*A sympathetic and intriguing protagonist

*No more than two characters; avoid overload.

*Unique voice

*Accessible, appealing style

*An indication of setting that is, again, simultaneously exciting yet familiar, clearly conveyed yet concisely described.

*At least a sense of the conflict or need driving the action. That’s the hook.

Statue of Lady Macbeth, trying to clean her soiled hands.
Lady Macbeth statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon. A ruthlessly unyielding but endlessly captivating character.

How do we perform that balancing act between introducing excitement yet setting the scene and not overwhelming the reader? How do we introduce something original while keeping it conventional enough so the agent spots its appeal to a wide market? What if, as in my novel, the inciting action takes place in a somewhat crowded place so you have to introduce a few characters while enabling it all to kick off in a timely fashion?

Honestly, I don’t know. We each have our own first pages we need to write; our own beloved characters and settings to sell, our own ever-evolving hooks and our own special styles and voices to develop. To get there, we practise constantly, and weigh every phrase.

At the point when this challenge feels more impossible than rewarding, I sometimes fall prey to some mental whining. I think about the many books I’ve read, classic or contemporary, which haven’t followed those rules and made excessive demands of the reader. Does that happen to anyone else?

Rule Breakers

When I pick up a book, I don’t expect to be gripped instantly. I know the story’s engine takes a few pages to go from naught to sixty. Apart from reading on my bus commute, my big reading time is on the treadmill, and I always ensure I’m a chapter or two in before I take a book running. Otherwise it will never take my mind off the Herculean effort I’m sweating out.

So why do other people expect instant gratification? And what about all those cases where it takes more than a page or two before anything really happens?

Pink toilet, basin, and bidet set offered free on a lawn
‘Good shit: FREE!’ Maybe I should use that in my query letter?

Looking at this sample roundup of great first lines, many of them are beautiful, or quirky, but not necessarily exciting. Great opening lines don’t have to be super suspenseful. I put Margaret Atwood and Louis de Bernieres in my list of most reliable openers. One of their books I could probably take on the treadmill from the first line (and Lee Child, but shh don’t tell).

These writers have proved their worth and can take as much time as they like to spin their tale. But what about novice ones that have hit it big? A few times I’ve picked up an acclaimed book only to find myself trudging through it. Even if the first sentence is interesting, the plot ends up creaking with excessive padding, as if it’s waddling forth in a sumo suit. Ahem, The Miniaturist…

The book may be so gritty it doesn’t offer a single tolerable character—Casual Vacancy, anyone? Or so edgy it’s almost unintelligible.

That last is my current problem. I’m reading A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear Mcbride, and I’m struggling. I like a challenge, and unique stylistic choices can be great. But usually there’s a reason for them, as in Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, for example, where the switching between present and past tense narration is confidently, briefly alluded to in the narrator’s own self-analysis. But in the case of McBride’s prizewinning novel, the haphazard language and lack of complete sentences for 205 pages straight (I’m really counting them down) has no discernible link to the main character’s voice. If anyone else has spotted it, please do let me know.

This isn’t to say the book’s not effective. Sure, I’m a bit jealous, but I have to admire Ms. McBride for her unyielding loyalty to her ideas. She screwed her courage to the sticking post. And although I don’t think the inscrutable character or somewhat conventional plot will linger with me, the language. Does. Sharp pebbles river rolling through mind. Stale tired breath against.

Still, even if I wanted to attempt it—how would I ever get away with it?

Are the Best Characters Bad?

This Week’s Bit of String: Kindergarten boyfriends

I fell in love with a kindergarten classmate, pretty much because he helped me out of my smock in Art class. He played rough at recess and made fun of the other kids sometimes. Still, for the next couple of years I proudly let him haul me to a back corner of the library or under the slide for a kiss.

Once I tried to explain something to him in class, and he rolled his eyes and cut me off: ‘Shut up, dear.’ I thrilled inside, that he’d called me dear.

See, I didn’t like him because he could be uncouth and unpleasant. I liked him despite those things.

I believe it’s that way with characters too. This week marked the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone being published. As the series developed, Snape —‘Professor Snape, Harry’—and even Draco emerged as fan favourites among many beloved characters. However, I doubt many readers liked them in the first or second books.

My theory is, we enjoy reading about unpleasant characters because they’re different from ourselves, and they thicken the plot. But most of us only love those characters when they’ve got something else going for them. What do you think?

After all, ‘badness’ comes in different shades. So without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce…

The Scale of Badness
  1. The rehabilitated
    These characters are recovering from terrible pasts, but often end up being quite good, out of guilt. Think of Magwitch from Great Expectations; Sonia from Crime and Punishment; Cassie and maybe St. Clare too, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Adam and (later) Cal in East of Eden.
Rose
‘Roses have thorns, they say…’

2. The cheeky buggers and grumpy gits
They’re not particularly pleasant, but they’re funny about it. They may be a little tortured inside, trying to hold the world at bay, or they may just be too cool for school. I’d put Yossarian here, and Rhett Butler.

3. The rebels
They have a bad reputation, but they aren’t really hurting anyone. A lot of the girls from Girl, Interrupted would be here. Anna Karenina, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Elphaba, Kevalier and Klay.

4. The bullies
They’re mean, but usually ignorant of, or indifferent to, their effect on people. When forced to confront the consequences, they may make excuses and shy away from remorse—but they’ll probably also stop. I’ve got one of these bullies in my book, and I believe through most of JK Rowling’s books, this is the category for Snape.

5. The desperate
These characters are in the opposite trajectory to Category 1 characters. Instead of powerful guilt moving them to be good, aching need moves them to be bad, possibly very bad. Raskolnikov starts out here, before moving throughout Crime and Punishment towards being a 1. Most villains probably fit here, too: Francis Davey in Jamaica Inn, Bob Ewell in to Kill a Mockingbird, Lady Macbeth.

6. The sadists
It’s rare to find characters who actively enjoy inflicting pain. They’re more commonly found in genre fiction. We’re talking Voldemort, or various serial killers from psychological thrillers.

Tipping the Scales

These categories aren’t distinct; their borders are fuzzy and crossable. And we writers have tools to tinker almost any type of ‘bad’ character and endear them to readers.

First, we give them backstory. Let’s face it, who isn’t a sucker for a character who’s had a tough life?

Second, we can give them a sense of humour. A little banter can help someone get away with a lot. (Joss Whedon is the boss of writing dastardly yet hilarious villains.)

Sunset-lit chapel
Even churches love sinners. They’d be pointless without them.

Third, give the character a degree of self-awareness. If they’re doing something hurtful, let them be conflicted about it or feel badly afterwards.

Finally, let them love. Love is the ultimate redeemer; all is forgiven once we know a person is capable of it. Sure, Snape was brave, but it’s his ‘Always’ that weakens readers’ knees.

‘Give Me Your Misfits, Your Rejects…’

These tricks manipulate readers to accept characters’ unsavoury actions, even if they don’t ameliorate the consequences. We need all the tricks we can get because chances are, we’ll keep writing about people who fall somewhere on The Scale.

There’s nothing wrong with good characters. They can be nuanced too. But we deal in accessibility and believability, and those require imperfection.

My novel Artefacts tackles religious differences. During a brief conversation, the Christian character (by no means perfect), argues for his beliefs:

              ‘Jesus actually was human, and divine, so that’s as accessible as it gets, right?’
              But He never sinned, Helen thought. Being human would be a cinch without guilt.

The guilty—whether that guilt is perceived, exaggerated, heavy or nagging—they are the ones whose stories beg to be told.

As I think this through I picture something like the Statue of Liberty. A writer stands at the foot of a giant, formidable yet beckoning Muse that guards vast frontiers of story. There at the entry point, we hold signs like Emma Lazarus’s poem: ‘Give me your misfits, your rejects, your hunched and shamed yearning for redemption.’

Do you see it too?

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.”’