Fiona Mozley, the author of Man Booker shortlisted and Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted Elmet, wrote her debut novel while travelling between Peckham, in South London, and her nine to six job in Central London. She missed the landscape of northern England, which is where she grew up and where Elmet is set. Jotting down notes on her smartphone and laptop, she attempted to evoke this landscape during her daily commute, allowing a temporary respite from the daily grind.
Though we seldom see people writing on trains, many commuters read or browse aimlessly on their smartphones. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer of The Millions, spoke of her subway writing habit in “Writing on Trains.” “With a combined total of six hours spent on a subway a week, it felt like extra time,” she says. Mandel sought out other writers who wrote on trains, including memoirist Julie Klam and novelist Joe Wallace. Klam appreciated the need to beat the clock and get down thoughts before her station, as opposed to the long hours she’d spend writing at home on her Mac.
Many authors cite smartphones and the Internet as hindrances to creative writing. When Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, he did nothing but write from nine am to 10.30 pm for four weeks, during which time he wouldn’t go near his phone or email. In his popular book On Writing, Stephen King suggested writers eliminate distraction; “There should be no telephone in your writing room,” he wrote, “certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.”
Analogue writing setups of the past would offer fewer opportunities for distraction; the view from the open window and the kettle perhaps being the most enticing. Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan still write their first drafts longhand, while Cormac McCarthy still types his manuscripts on an Olivetti Lettera 32.
When used productively, modern day technology can be transformed from a creativity-killing distraction to a convenient tool to note down those epiphanies or observations that would otherwise be forgotten.
If Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World holds any truth, modern technologies will soon become more integrated into our daily life. “You could essentially in the not too distant future, tweet thoughts,” Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University tells Herzog. “So not type your little tweet, but think it, press a button, and all of your followers could potentially read it.” One day we might be able to transcribe words directly from our minds onto the page. The importance of writing, in the traditional sense, is evolving. Perhaps the romantic notion of putting a pen to paper might start to wane, as we see the value of being able to pluck ideas straight from the unconscious mind.
Unlike many in her field, Fiona Mozley embraced the convenience of technology. “When I started writing Elmet I used a Chromebook–one of those cheap laptops made by Google, which require the use of online apps,” she tells me. “That meant that the only word-processor available to me was Google Docs. That made it very easy to write on either my laptop or my phone as it was all the same document.”
“I find variety to be a real aid to writing,” she continues. “If I’m in a rut, I find the best remedy is moving to another location or altering my media. So if I’ve been writing for a while on my computer and I get stuck, I’ll go and pick up a pen and paper, or vice versa. The phone writing is really just tied to that overall process.”
The author wrote the first few paragraphs of her debut novel in spring 2013. She had just visited her parents for the weekend in West Yorkshire, a region previously known as Elmet, a Celtic Kingdom, between the fifth and seventh centuries. It was early on a Monday morning and she was returning to London by train. The importance of trains and train tracks in Elmet is emphasized even in the opening paragraphs:
I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count railroad ties and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked.
I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear the voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through wood. And the lick of flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste. I keep to the railways track. I hear an engine far off in the distance and duck behind a hawthorn.
“The novel is all about isolation and marginalization, and being invisible in plain sight,” explains Mozley, “so it’s important that there are the trains running from London to Edinburgh just meters away from the little house in the copse, but none of the people on those trains knows anything about the lives being led there.”
While writing the early sections of her first draft, Mozley was working for a travel company in Central London and would jot down ideas on her smartphone during her journeys to and from work. Mozley says:
the sentences and paragraphs I wrote on my phone during my commute were very useful for keeping up the momentum. Sometimes when you’re writing–particularly if you’re working full time–you can have periods of writing nothing at all. Even if I found myself unable to write full sections, jotting ideas down on my phone meant that I felt a constant sense of progression.
Later in the writing process, Mozley got a MacBook and started using the popular writing app Scrivener. “It’s designed specifically for long writing projects, whether they’re novels or PhDs,” she says, “I find it to be a useful way of organizing chapters, drafts and research. There is an accompanying app for phones called Scrivo, which I also have. However, I don’t write much on my phone anymore because I don’t have a daily commute.”
Despite its contemporary context, reading Elmet, one cannot fail but notice that otherworldly quality. Writing the novel was a means of escapism for Mozley, who was not particularly content living in London. She elaborates:
London is a wonderful city, but it is a very difficult place to live unless you have an incredibly high salary or you come from a rich background. I have friends from university who still live there, who will never be able to afford a flat or house that they don’t share with several others. When I lived in London, there were five of us sharing a house and we didn’t have a communal living area because we’d had to turn it into an extra bedroom. For a while I shared a bedroom with a friend to keep the costs down. This kind of thing is typical, and while you could say that it’s normal or acceptable when you’re straight out of university, this is the kind of situation that my friends will be in for the foreseeable future, into their forties or even beyond. These are people with degrees from the University of Cambridge, and people who have good jobs – they’re just not lawyers or bankers. I left London a few years ago and returned to Yorkshire, where I have a much better quality of life. It would be a shame for London, however, if all the writers and artists are forced out. With Elmet, I wanted to experiment with the idea of a rent strike. I wanted to toy with the idea of all renters getting together and refusing to pay their landlords. They all just decide to live in their houses for free.
As a university graduate with no formal qualification in creative writing, and without external incentives or a deadline, the writing of Elmet came from within. It was something to distract from Mozley’s daily commute and financial hardships. She initially wrote with no long-term goals of publication:
I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, so I wrote Elmet in order to have something outside of myself to think about. I guess you could call it “writing as therapy,” but it ended up being much more public. The otherworldly quality was always deliberate. Although it’s a contemporary novel, some of its major concerns are the thrall of history, the weight of the past, and the ways in which those things inform contemporary ways of life.
That deliberate otherworldly quality is effective in that we can imagine what lies beyond the train tracks and the fields that once belonged to the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet; and we can for a moment feel what the narrator Daniel sees and feels. Flexibility regarding the process enabled the author to record her astute observations and ideas with whatever she had to hand, as she felt them. As a consequence, the fictional Elmet feels like a world fresh from the unconscious mind.
While Elmet was still a work in progress, Mozley took on a role at a literary agency, where she realized that books are written by people not too different from herself. “In a way, I think I had always felt so removed from the sorts of people who become professional writers that it almost seemed like a fantasy profession,” she explains, “like ‘sorcerer’ or ‘superhero,’ not something that people actually did.” After working at the agency, however, writing professionally seemed a more attainable, realistic goal. Now writing with readers in mind, Mozley thought about what she wanted to convey to readers with Elmet:
I like fiction that provokes a sensory response. I wanted to address a number of issues in Elmet, and I would like to make people think, but primarily I want to make people feel. I’m fascinated by the idea that you can write words on a page that someone else goes on to read, and then that person might laugh out loud, or sweat with anticipation, or their breathing might quicken. I love the idea that fiction can have a physical response.
Mozley’s taste in literature is eclectic, to say the least. Her favourite opening to a novel is found in A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, while one of her favorite endings is in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. “I also read a lot of medieval literature, which unfortunately a lot of people find to be quite inaccessible,” she says. “I suppose Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight might be a good place to start because there are lots of modern editions. It’s not my favorite, though. That would probably be a short Middle English narrative called Cheuelere Assigne, which contains bestiality, swan transformations, and family drama.”
Upon leaving the literary agency, Mozley returned to her hometown of York, where she combined working part-time in a book shop with a doctorate in Medieval Studies.
With this new found confidence, a willingness to write using everything she had at hand at every opportune moment, and the tone imparted to her by the historical documents she worked with during her PhD, Mozley brought us Elmet—a lyrical novel that speaks simultaneously of a country for which I have nostalgia as an expatriate, and a place that seems to belong to the realm of dreams. John, described as a giant, has built a house with his own hands in an isolated wood set in the rugged landscape of rural Yorkshire. He earns money through underground fights, which he seldom loses. He protects his children, the narrator Daniel and his elder sister Cathy, from the real world, which at times seems cruel and unjust. Together they roll cigarettes, hunt for their food—tend to the house as their father goes out for days on end. As readers, we come to realize that their ancient way of life is threatened by the land ownership laws of modernity. And all of this takes place beyond the rail tracks, across the fields, in a place to which you or I will unlikely ever venture.
Fiona Mozley is currently halfway through her second novel. “I’m not saying much,” she says, “but I will say that it is very different from Elmet!”
Imagine organizing a small get-together, a few friends and acquaintances at a neighborhood bar. It’s all very low-key. The day comes; friends arrive. You order cocktails. You chit-chat. In walks the President of the United States, with secret service, trailed by a herd of photographers. Suddenly, you are at a very different sort of party.
So it was with my journey into the world of nuclear weapons. I started researching and writing my book in 2008; we were not, then, living under threat of nuclear temper tantrum. The possibility that someone might actually use an atomic weapon again was a comfortably remote risk. I wasn’t dealing with current events; I was just interested in the people who made nuclear war a possibility—people who ended up with immense power not because they craved it but because of particular skills and talents they had. With this distance, I could do the research necessary to write about them without having nightmares.
A lot has been written about nuclear war. I have a shelf of history, biography, and popular science books about the weapons, their creators, and their evolution. From the newly re-popular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Cat’s Cradle, Red Alert (inspiration for Dr. Strangelove) to Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a rich fiction of the arms race and the post-apocalyptic landscape, heavily steeped in satire and speculation. Through all this, one can come to know an awful lot about the types of explosions humankind has learned to set off, and just how destructive they might be.
It is one thing to have that kind of knowledge when it’s all a thought experiment. It’s something else entirely when leading experts agree the chances are, once again, non-trivial. Now that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have arrived, I am at a very different sort of party.
This decade has seen some wonderful literary novels set after apocalyptic events. Think of Station Eleven (pandemic), and of Gold Fame Citrus (catastrophic drought). If we stretch the decade a little, we get the unspecified but possibly nuclear apocalypse of The Road. These books deal intimately with the aftermath of a dreaded event. There is very little room for comfort, and they don’t traffic in the will-it-or-won’t-it anxiety that we live with in the real world; in these books, it will. It did. And it’s every bit as bad as we thought. I can only imagine that writing that kind of book is like staring into the sun.
I don’t have the stomach for that. Instead, I wrote around the edges of disaster. My book is pre-apocalyptic; it is set in this world, not in the one that may come. The central question is not what it will be like when it arrives, but rather what does the mere possibility, the capability, do to us? It’s still a novel about the possible end of the world as we know it, but its approach to that topic is oblique. And my disaster of choice was one that seemed, unlike drought or pandemic, remote and unlikely. It was behind us, not ahead. It was a safe choice.
Now the world has taken that safety away. It has catapulted my comfortably distant topic into startling relevance. It has left me with more information than I really want, in this environment, about exactly what a nuclear war would entail. Those details I spent so long collecting are fodder for the nightmares I thought I was avoiding, triggered every couple of weeks by some fresh story on the news.
The first book I read, before this project was really underway, was Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. In it, Dyson recalls time spent with the great physicist Richard Feynman, who had originally refused to work on the bomb and acquiesced only so Adolf Hitler wouldn’t get it first. He remembered Feynman sitting on the hood of his jeep in the desert, joyfully banging on a set of bongo drums to celebrate the success of the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb ever exploded. Not long after, Feynman turned his back on military work, realizing that, in Dyson’s words, “he was too good at it and enjoyed it too much.”
Next, I dove into American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had downloaded the audiobook; I listened to it walking around in bright sunshine on the campus of the University of Arizona, where I was getting a master’s degree. As his life went on, Oppenheimer was clearly haunted, and he, in turn, haunted me. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head when I walk up the mall in the middle of the campus, among the palm trees and the oblivious undergraduates.
These were men who were responsible, in a startlingly direct way, for the fate of our world. They knew just exactly how much trouble we were in—because they helped put us there. They felt, evidently, that they had to. But did they? Clearly, both came to doubt that as their lives went on and they had to live with it. This is something, at least. My head might be full of kilotons, of radiation burns, of calculations about radius and wind speed, but at least I don’t have choices to make about any of this. Whether we survive this has nothing to do with me.
A few years later, deep into the writing process, I was living in Helena, Mont., where there wasn’t much to do in the winter if you don’t ski. One snowy Saturday I went to an estate sale, for something to do. It was largely picked over by the time I arrived, but I found, in a back room—it must have once been the study, though there was no furniture—a treasure trove. There was a whole wall of books with titles like Explaining the Atom (published 1947), Early Tales of the Atomic Age (1948) and The New Force (1953). I took home a paper grocery bag full for $5. Going through them that night, I noticed that inside the cover flap of Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards (1974), someone had underlined the following: “The design and manufacture of a crude weapon is no longer a difficult task,” and “The authors evaluate current methods of guarding materials and find them inadequate.”
The house had belonged to one of Helena’s wealthy old families, and the matriarch had lived there until the end. I have no way to know the nature of her obsession, if it was even hers, or if the collection had belonged to her husband who—you know these things when you live in a city of 40,000—had died a few years earlier. Maybe it had once been his; maybe she, in her last lonely years, had gone through each chilling volume, reading the passages he’d marked, to take some small comfort in the fear of something that, unlike the condition of the grand old house whose floors had started to rot, or her famously strained relationship with her daughter, or the idiots taking over the local city council, she couldn’t do a damn thing about.
Here, I found anxiety not just of the scientists, but of a fellow reader who had amassed this collection a generation before I was born, when the threat had also been real. A reader who must have found some comfort in this area of study, some pleasure. A reader who, given the context in which I had acquired her books, had lived and died in a world that, without regard to her worry, had survived every threat to its existence.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
How can science fiction writers invent aliens and entire planets but not include multifaceted characters of color in their fiction? At The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky discusses the genre’s equality problem and analyzes how race is viewed in everything from The Left Hand of Darkness to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. “When that future unthinkingly reproduces current inequities, it seems like both a missed opportunity and a failure of imagination.”
Recently J.K. Rowling dropped a bombshell on the smoking remnants of one of the fiercest shipping wars of the last decade: “I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” It’s from an interview conducted by Hermione herself, Emma Watson, excerpted in the Sunday Times; the full article, in an issue of Wonderland Magazine guest-edited by Watson, came out on Friday. (The words “publicity stunt” may be floating around, but that kind of speculation is useless.) The ladies, bafflingly, “agree[d] that Harry and Hermione were a better match than Ron and Hermione,” Ron wouldn’t be able to satisfy Hermione’s needs, and the pair as she wrote them would need relationship counseling. And then the internet exploded.
OK, first of all, JKR, please just stop. Is the most aggravating thing about all of this the fact that Hermione doesn’t belong with either of these jokers? Was there literally anyone else for her to get with? (Rowling’s shoddy math suggests possibly not; despite the insistence in an early interview that “there are about a thousand students at Hogwarts,” there remain just eight Gryffindors in the matriculating class of ’98, suggesting no more than three dozen in the entire year, a whole house of which remain irredeemably, mustache-twirlingly evil despite seven books in which to write convincing moral ambivalence and complexity. But I digress.)
But also, JKR, please just stop — for reasons that have a lot to do with literature. Because the weirdest thing about the statement is the “wish fulfillment” bit, which I’ve seen interpreted many different ways, none of them satisfactory. My read of it is accompanied by this question: how is a writer setting down a plot from her head wish fulfillment? Forced, sure — this certainly wasn’t the only instance where it seemed that Rowling was stifled by the tyranny of the outline she mapped out more than a decade before penning The Deathly Hallows. (I spent years wondering how the hell the final word would, as promised, be “scar,” though by the time I got to the last page of the epilogue I was too infuriated to care.)
This isn’t the first time that Rowling has “revealed” further details about her characters, as if she is their publicist rather than their creator. The Dumbledore announcement was, admittedly, totally awesome, for the political ramifications at the very least. But Rowling seems insistent on undercutting her authorial intent, or her position as omniscient narrator, the sort of “I would have loved for this to happen” statement, it’s like, really? I was under the impression that you were making all the things happen. (The full article in Wonderland—or the full interview, excerpted at Mugglenet — is worth a read for its continued, almost amplified strangeness — Rowling speaks of being shocked to see the filmmakers depicting things she hadn’t written but was feeling about the characters, like the scene between Harry and Hermione in the tent in the first installment of The Deathly Hallows. “Yes, but David and Steve — they felt what I felt when writing it,” Rowling tells Watson, referring to the director and screenwriter. “That is so strange,” Watson responds. Yes — this whole thing is so strange. It feels like there’s a simultaneous disregard for the concept of subtext and the idea that the characters were driven by something other than Rowling’s own fingers. “JKR, I think, probably is still in mystical mode when talking about her characters and work,” Connor Joel said to me in a Twitter conversation. “Which can be OK…sometimes.”)
Is a writer allowed to have regrets? Certainly. Is she allowed to air them publicly? I mean, yeah, it’s a free internet, why not? Do I want to hear a single additional word about the world of Harry Potter from J. K. Rowling that is not in the form of another book? Unless she is going to travel via Time-Turner to the past and personally validate all of my ships, no, not particularly — though that’s just me. (On second thought, no, not even that: sometimes the joy of delving into subtext is that it remains, well, sub.) The night all this came out (my new BFF) Anne Jamison kicked off a round of hilarious authorial regrets on Twitter, collected here. (For example: “‘I realize I made generations believe instant antipathy is a valid basis for ideal marriage,’ sighed Ms Austen, ‘I just thought he was hot.’”)
All joking aside, these tweets got me thinking: how often has this sort of thing happened in the past? Is there something fundamental in the author/reader relationship that feels like it’s being abused in Rowling’s admissions — or is she just following a long tradition of regretful writers undermining their own authority via statements after publication? Initial research suggests that some of the most famous writers haven’t stayed as faithful to their own original texts as I might have guessed. I mean, these examples aren’t exactly the same (I can hear you saying this, even now!), and that might get at what feels so incredibly strange about the “wish fulfillment” idea that Rowling’s putting forth. But regrets are regrets, and once the pages are printed — and even with all the revisions and retractions in the world — there’s essentially no going back. Here are five authors who had a variety of regrets and later said they really wished they’d done things differently — and, in many cases, went on to try to actually do things differently, to varying degrees of success:
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Oliver Twist’s greedy, villainous employer, Fagin, is most famously marked by his Jewishness, via every derogatory stereotype in the history of man and by outright assertion: references as “the Jew” outnumber “the old man” in the original text nearly ten-to-one. There was no doubt in Dickens’s mind, nor that of many of his mid-Victorian counterparts, that this was totally fine, that Fagin’s crimes fell right in line with his background: he stated later, by way of (really poor and blatantly anti-Semitic) defense, that “that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew.” But in 1860 Dickens sold his house to a Jewish couple and befriended the wife, Eliza, who wrote him later to say that the creation of Fagin was a “great wrong” to the Jewish people. Dickens saw the light, albeit in a sort of, “Well, some of my best friends are Jewish!” sort of way, and began stripping out references to Fagin’s religion from the text, as well as the caricature-like aspects: at a reading of a later version, it was observed that, “There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted.” But was it too little too late? After all, the original depiction of Fagin has endured through the centuries. Dickens tried, anyway. “There is nothing but good will left between me and a People for whom I have a real regard,” he wrote. “And to whom I would not willfully have given an offence.”
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Typee, Melville’s first novel and the most popular during his lifetime, is described as “one of American culture’s more startling instances of a fluid text.” There appears to be no definitive version of Typee — the sort of book that makes you question just how definitive anything you read really is. “All texts are fluid,” writes John Bryant, a scholar who’s done extensive work on Typee, examining its states of flux. “They only appear to be stable because the accidents of human action, time and economy have conspired to freeze the energy they represent into fixed packets of language.” Some of the changes — which were made over the course of half a century, from the first drafts Melville penned fresh off the high seas to the final years of his life — came from pressures from critics and his publishers: disparagement of missionary culture, expanded upon in first drafts, was largely removed in subsequent editions. Some requests for changes, including a toning down of the ‘bawdiness’ of earlier editions, took place decades later, when Melville was an old man — “Certain passages were to be restored, a paragraph on seaman debauchery dropped, and ‘Buggery Island’ changed to ‘Desolation Island,’” writes Bryant, though not all of these changes were honored in the posthumous edition. Bryant has developed a digital edition to view the fluid text as a whole, though perhaps even that can’t — and shouldn’t — answer the question of whether one version or another can be called the definitive text.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald, a man prone to last-minute editorial regrets: he sent a telegram to his publisher as The Great Gatsby was going to press, asking to change the title to Under the Red, White, and Blue. It arrived too late. He’d wavered so much on the title already — amongst a dozen other suggestions, he’d been set on Trimalchio in West Egg for a good while. But Tender is the Night suffered, in his opinion, from problems far larger than what was printed on the dust jacket. It was published in 1934 to poor critical and public response, and Fitzgerald set to work figuring out why it didn’t work. When it was reprinted two years later, he wanted to make minor changes and clarifications, and wrote that, “sometimes by a single word change one can throw a new emphasis or give a new value to the exact same scene or setting.” But he soon decided it wasn’t a “single word” — it was the entire structure: “If pages 151-212 were taken from their present place and put at the start,” he wrote to his editor at Scribner, “the improvement in appeal would be enormous.” He set to work slicing apart the novel — physically — and rearranging it in the order he felt it was now meant to be, the narrative now chronological rather than reliant on flashback. The copy is on display at Princeton, with Fitzgerald’s penciled note written inside the front cover: “This is the final version of the book as I would like it.” After Fitzgerald’s death, Malcolm Cowley decided to try to fulfill these editorial wishes, rearranging the book based on the notes and cut-up version. But people weren’t any more interested in this version than the first, and in the intervening half-century, the original has endured.
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If the biggest disappointment of 2015 will be the fact that almost nothing resembles the 2015 bits of “Back to the Future” (what’s sadder — no hoverboards or no magical pizzas?), it speaks to the risks of setting a sci-fi novel in the not-so-distant future. When Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, first published in 1947, were reissued fifty years later, the stories’ chronological start date was just two years away. Bradbury and his publisher made the call to bump up the timeline by three decades, 2030-2057, and made some additional editorial changes while they were at it. The timeline shift isn’t unique in science fiction: Wikipedia’s got a poetically-titled “List of stories set in a future now past,” which reveals that Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep also got a thirty-year bump. It’s an interesting question, and one that may crop up more and more as time goes on: does reading about some sort of alien “future” that’s now a few years in the past take a reader right out of the story? Isn’t there some joy in imagining Bradbury imagining 1999 in 1947, a vision of the future from that precise point in the past?
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And then what to do if an author wishes the entire book had never been written? One famous example: “J.D. Salinger spent 10 years writing The Catcher in the Rye and the rest of his life regretting it,” Shane Salerno and David Shields assert in their recent biography. But Salinger’s dissatisfaction appeared to stem from the extraordinary amount of unwanted attention he received for it over the years. But what about Anthony Burgess, who wrote about A Clockwork Orange in his Flame into Being: The Life and Work of D. H. Lawrence, published in 1985:
We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me until I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation, and the same may be said of Lawrence and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
Lawrence died decades before the obscenity trials placed his book at the center of the moral questions of literature and society. Burgess had decades to witness the unraveling of the “misunderstandings” of the novel he will always be most remembered for. As for its merits as a work of literature? He also described it as “too didactic to be artistic.” Ah, well. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of a book and its characters. Even, I suppose, the author himself.
What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.
This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Shannon Cain will be the featured author throughout the week.
Shannon Cain will never be convicted of excessive reverence.
My father is a literature professor, retired. Emeritus. Charles Dickens was the genius at the center of my childhood. If Dickens were alive and in need of a baggage handler or someone to suck his dick, my dad would have been the man for the job. (from “The Nigerian Princes”)
This penchant for the subversive syllogism is one of the many pleasures of Cain’s story collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, which won Pittsburgh Press’s Drue Heinz Prize for 2011. Making her debut in her early forties, Cain came to fiction writing via an energetic first act that included political activism, work for philanthropies and non-profit organizations, and parenting. She’s also the recipient of an NEA grant, and with Lisa Bowden, the co-editor of Powder, a book of writings by women military veterans.
The title of Cain’s story collection is polymorphously suggestive, teasing the reader into attempted decodings in reaction to the individual stories. Some of my attempts: “The awkward pressure of domestic arrangements.” “The revelatory power of embarrassing situations.” In its context in the title story, the phrase has to do with a character’s complicity in her own idealization, but the collection invites us to think about the title more expansively. In an interview for Arizona Public Media, Cain asserts she writes about people living on the margins of society, not necessarily the economic or racial margins, but the behavioral ones. She’s interested in people who make decisions which get them into trouble.
Often, both the behavior and the trouble are sexual in nature, and sexual politics are one of the collection’s major concerns. Cain describes herself as “a proud feminist-leftist bisexual loudmouth,” whose literary models are James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, and Nadine Gordimer. However, the collection is anything but polemic. Instead it’s gentle, compassionate, and funny. It’s not driven by a sense of grievance or injustice, but by a politics of empathy, and what it offers us is not indictment of how things are so much as an alternate vision of how things might be. It’s not fiction that makes a political argument, but fiction that reifies a political vision. What my family used to say about my grandmother goes equally well for Cain. She never fights: she only conquers.
Perhaps because the first and last stories are about women energetically playing both sides of the field, bisexuality has a strong enough presence in the book to push the reader towards thinking about it as metaphor. In literature, bisexuality often signals the writer’s interest in notions of androgyny, gender confusion, or flexible identity. That’s not Cain’s beat: she’s interested in inclusion, in what might be declared in-bounds for any or all of us. She’s less about sexual Independence Day than sexual Christmas morning. Cain also cites Kurt Vonnegut as an influence, and it’s easy to think that she’s ringing changes on Welcome to the Monkey House in a number of places. The Necessity of Certain Behaviors works the second wave of the sexual revolution of the sixties chronicled by Vonnegut.
Cain shares Vonnegut’s love of deflating the pompous, as seen in the quote at the top, from the story “The Nigerian Princes.” Cain also shares Vonnegut’s love of social topsy-turvydom. For example, in the same story, the narrator uses his best male friend as a reverse beard, pretending that they are lovers (he is in fact heterosexual) in order to keep his parents from pestering him for the grandchildren.
“The Queer Zoo” takes topsy-turvydom a step further:
There’s no actual policy at the Queer Zoo against hiring straight people; that would be illegal. Sam is alert to rumors about the existence of other hetero employees, but so far none have turned out to be true.
Sam cleans cages. Primates, birds, elephants. No, not cages: enclosures. At the Queer Zoo, the word “cage” is forbidden. Sam’s girlfriend, Teri, says he underestimates his coworkers, that he ought to come out, already, that they’re more open-minded than he gives them credit for. But it would be absurd, after all this time, to admit he isn’t gay.
One of Sam’s charges is to care for a group of Bonobos, the subspecies of chimpanzee famous for their bisexuality. But the chimps are not presented as an object lessons in ideal behavior: anything but. Instead, Sam begins to feel protective of the one chimp who doesn’t want to live as if it’s five minutes before the end of the world in a sixties novel. The story works its way towards an unexpectedly touching Bladerunner-esque ending that leaves us asking questions about the ethics of normative pressure, no matter from which angle it may come.
“There is a boy and there is a girl. Jane sees the girl on Tuesdays and Fridays, and she sees the boy on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The other three nights, she sleeps by herself in her big, firm, bed.” “This is How it Starts” is the first story of the collection, and, minus the second-person address, it’s reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help in its wry and wistful account of young love in New York. Cain’s comic tonal strategies are similar to Moore’s. Both of Jane’s lovers slowly crank up the pressure on Jane to take their mutual activities from the status of a twice-weekly racquet-ball date to something resembling a normal relationship.
The boy walks beside her, all the dogs at her side. There is silence, during which she assumes his thoughts have moved on to football or food. But at the next doorway, he says, “Lousy pay is why they invented rent control.” His eyes flicker upward, in the direction of her apartment.
In evolutionary terms, her job at this moment is to encourage him. Her girl instinct is clear about this. She is supposed to say something to spark further comments regarding shared domesticity.
Like Moore, Cain is interested in the divided consciousness. We know the idea that’s occurring to Jane, but there is a conspicuous failure of one part of her mind to endorse the observation of the other.
In the wrong hands, the comedy of comparison could go Seinfeld very quickly. Did you ever notice how in bed, woman are all like THIS but men are all like THIS? But the language is delicate, specific, and original. “She ponders instead the unfair advantage of girls over boys. Their adaptable body parts, and their ability to say what they mean.”
Again, the title keeps pushing at us to look for patterns. What certain behaviors are so damn necessary? Jane’s female lover confronts her and pushes her to make a choice. Jane’s habitual response is to deflect, to avoid.
She looks for something relevant to say, some piece of information, something that will not require her to form a sentence containing any of the same words the girl has just used. She looks for a small fact, a clarification. What she ends up with is this: “The dog was a gift.”
Later, on the same page, it’s the boy who wants a heart to heart.
“I’m going back to my wife,” the boy says. They are sitting at the dinette table. Normally he would be gone by the end of her first dog [walking] shift but today she comes home to eggs on the table.
She pushes her plate away. “This is my great-grandmother’s china. It’s antique.”
In the end the story isn’t about the pleasures and pitfalls of liking both oysters and snails. Jane’s bisexuality is a given of the situation, almost a sleight of hand trick, and a clever diversion from the story’s true line of inquiry, which has to do with Jane’s capacity for commitment and intimacy, with her readiness for adulthood. As we eventually learn, Jane’s most significant relational axis is not the romantic engagement of equals but the vertical one of parents and children, and she ends the story on the phone with neither the boy nor the girl but her mother. It’s worth noting the collection features nearly as many pairs of mothers and daughters as it does lovers.
In another interview at The Short Review, Cain says that the number one thing she wants to know from her readers is, “Did I go too far?” Too far in what direction? The book is anything but angry: she’s not working Kathy Acker’s side of the street. Despite the collection’s glorious cover featuring perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing protuberant breast in the history of publishing, the stories aren’t stealth attempts to double as titillation. Writing about sex isn’t the same as writing erotica — Cain isn’t working Susie Bright’s side of the street either. What is sexual freedom pushing against, in this collection? Perhaps in a nation whose Puritan roots are omnipresent, there’s no need to overtly state what the enemy is.
The closest the collection comes to defining its opposite is in “The Steam Room,” the story that does go the furthest, at least in terms of how much trouble it dishes out to its main character. In its opening scene the protagonist Helen is caught masturbating in the YMCA steam room by two “after-school Bible Clubbers.” But lest we read any Manichaean confrontation into this, the story quickly makes it clear that the girls are not cardboard fanatics, and Helen has only herself to blame for getting caught with her pants down. “‘Don’t think it’s not a sickening feeling,’ she confessed. ‘I’m sickened.'”
Helen’s “expensive orgasm” and subsequent public humiliation threatens to land her in jail and is potentially devastating to her husband’s political career. The story is hardly cynical or flip about either of those consequences, but while protestors camp in front of her house holding candles and banners that proclaim, “The Wages of Sin are Death,” an odd thing happens: friends, family members, and complete strangers begin to privately share their own stories of sexual misbehavior and shame with her. Because she’s been caught “jilling off,” she becomes a kind of psychic shame-free zone for others. It’s as if the world keeps failing to draw the most elementary conclusions from high school health class. Everybody likes to get off, so why do we have to expend so much effort concealing it? Welcome to the monkey house.
Good fiction is an invitation to ponder the hologrammatic relationship between the part and the whole. How does this image, or phrase, or sentence, or scene somehow incarnate its parent vessel? How does our take on the intentions of the book inform the way we read its components? Jane, of “This is How it Starts,” is an artist who paints on glass, which necessitates a seemingly backwards approach. “She must paint her foregrounds first… she must put blush on a cheek before she paints a cheek.” The image is slyly suggestive of the process of fiction itself: details have a way of creating stories around themselves, and the act of writing is often a quest to discover why some mental snapshot or fragment of language is exerting such relentless pressure on the writer’s cerebral cortex. The passage also directs us to look at the way human lives are driven by small details, by contingency.
One final return to that pesky multivalent title: here it is in its natural environment.
In the city where she’s from, Lisa knew a man named Bennett with full Greek eyelids, a cynical urban grin, and unappeasable curiosity about Lisa’s feelings. Some mornings while she showered they’d pretend she wasn’t aware he was watching her through the vinyl curtain, which was clear but tinted a flattering pink. Her selection of the curtain was deliberate. In the city where she is from, people in love understand the necessity of certain behaviors.
The more time I’ve spent with the title, the less it seems like code, and the more straightforward and irreducible it’s become. I think most of us have often wished for a flattering pink bathroom curtain ourselves, perhaps one we could wrap around our souls. I know I have. “The Necessity of Certain Behaviors” which ends the collection, has a whiff of magical realism about it. Lisa, with the absolute minimum of explanation, leaves Bennett and ends up in a mountain village in a foreign country, where she settles into a life of jealousy-free sex with both a male and female lover. The magic lies not so much in the unexplained oddities of the village (where are the children and old people, and how come they don’t have broadband yet?) as in the absence of emotional mess and trauma. In this village, all sexual attachments are allowed to run their course without anyone locking themselves in the bathroom or hiring a lawyer. That’s one flattering pink curtain.
For more on Shannon Cain, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.