To start, a list of the books I enjoyed very, very much:
I expected to like Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, not only because she is my friend, but because I only made her be my friend after reading her genius nonfiction on this very website. However, I did not like the book. That puny, superficial word doesn’t portray my experience with this powerful, singular work. Never! The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation. Of course! This is what parenting a young child is like! The novel begins, “I am staring out the window of my office thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.” Its brilliance never lets up.
My favorite nonfiction book of the year was Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. In her book, Garbes shares her personal experiences as a pregnant person and mother, and balances these with larger investigations into the history and science of reproduction, pregnancy loss, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. Her writing is accessible and compassionate, and filled with wonder at the miracle of the female body. (I get it! The placenta, for instance. HOLY SHIT.) Garbes’s project takes on political weight as it becomes increasingly clear how the medical and scientific communities have ignored and/or devalued women, especially black and brown women, which is perhaps why it’s taken this long to get a book this good.
This summer I found myself about to get on a plane without a book. The horror! I ran into the nearest Hudson Gum and Magazine Store and bought the first novel that looked the least egregious. I have to admit, I wasn’t planning to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but I’d read and not cared for a previous novel of his, and the premise, about a writer trying to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by accepting every literary invitation to come his way, and thus traveling the world, sounded annoying. Writers! Who cares? Well, turns out, I do. Less was by such a delight: funny and moving, with paragraphs that made me weak. The writing made me at once jealous and full of joy. Everyone and their mom has read this book, but if you’ve resisted, please just give in and read it. Here’s a taste: Greer describes a jellyfish as “a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water.” Negligeed. Isn’t that perfect?
For professional events, I re-read two books that I had the pleasure of reading for the blurb-industrial-complex the year before: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Celt’s second novel takes its inspiration from Vladimir and Véra Nabokov’s famed marriage: it’s got sex, intrigue, a vicious all girls boarding school in 1920s New Jersey, and lines like, “On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they’re not.” It’s delicious and smart and I want HBO to adapt it into a mini-series. O’Connell’s is a collection of funny, irreverent, cry-fest-inducing essays about becoming pregnant by accident at age 29, and follows her pregnancy and the beginning of her son’s life. Yep, another motherhood book, and a necessary one. In the tradition of A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, And Now We Have Everything doesn’t hold a single thing back in its mission to convey the mindfuckery that is becoming a parent for the first time.
I read these and many other wonderful books in 2018 all by my lonesome: in the bath or in bed or over lunch, or, as mentioned, on an airplane. My favorite reading experience, however, occurred with another person—my son, who turned seven in June. Most of the time, since I am busy putting his sister to bed, or making school lunches, or hiding in the corner with my phone, he reads alone or with his dad. However, a few times this year, I took over. Have you recently read a chapter book to a child? Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they wipe their snot on your shoulder. Sometimes they pace the room as you narrate. Sometimes you have to argue about the division of labor (in our house, it’s supposed to be two pages per person, back and forth). The experience is different from reading a picture book, for there is no shared visual to comment upon; it’s a comforting alone-together feeling, each of us projecting images inside our own brains as we read from the text.
Together we’ve read Because of Winn-Dixie, and the first Harry Potter, and began the new translation of The Odyssey (but, I admit, stalled out at Book 3). My favorite book I got to read with him, though, was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love the beauty of the sequel, the more famous Little House on the Prairie (there is an image of the stars in the sky that pretty much ruined me…), but Wilder’s racist depiction of the Osage Indians—and the fact that the family is taking their land—is, though an important history lesson, not my favorite book to share with my kid.
Little House in the Big Woods, however, takes place in Wisconsin, before the family moves to “Indian Country” and it offers some of the same pleasures as the later, more problematic books, including detailed-yet-simple descriptions of their everyday tools and domestic duties. We learn how Ma colors the butter with some carrot-soaked milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary get a pig bladder to toss around like a ball, and how to smoke some Venison in the hollow of a tree. Wilder’s prose is clear and easy for a young reader, but it’s not without its poetry. The final paragraphs are the best thing I read all year:
“She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Reading these words, I recalled what it was like to be a child, to be seven again, my son’s age. I didn’t just think about it, I felt it.
What a gift reading is.
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
A few days after the funeral, my older son, Josh, now 30, went on a shopping trip with my wife. He brought back a liter of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. I thought about it for a few seconds and said, “You know, I think that’s the first bottle of hard liquor we’ve ever had in our house.”
He looked up and replied, “You do realize that’s not normal,” the implication being that our example had, at some earlier juncture in his life, led him into thinking the occasional drink was some sort of moral failure.
He’d probably also discovered that living among four thousand or so books wasn’t exactly the American norm, either. That’s the way it is among families. Children absorb the culture of their homes and only later in life gain the distance to question it. Parents, either consciously or unconsciously, inculcate their values and loves. For much of my younger son’s 26 years, I tried to pass to him my love of reading literature.
Zachary, four years younger than Josh, wasn’t averse to giving a book a try. He read the opening of my copy of Jonathan Lethem’s backgammon-hustler novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, and enriched my understanding of it by explaining the backgammon meaning of the term “blot.” He wasn’t a contrary sort, in general. If we asked him to join us on a family trip, he was always game. He’d pack a bag minutes before leaving, often with odd choices (no shorts for Florida, a shortage of socks for California). We always reminded him to take a toothbrush, which is why, when I recently looked through his backpack, I found five of them. When we told him to grab something to read, he’d toss a book into his pack. But he’d spend the entire airplane ride playing games on his phone or, when he could find it, his old Game Boy. The exceptions were puzzle books. For instance, he would take a break from his phone to rip through five or 10 word jumbles. I just checked the bookshelf of his room and found a Teach Yourself Sudoku book my wife had given him some years ago. It’s not exactly dog-eared, but six of the novice puzzles are complete in his clumsy handwriting, before he must have jumped to the final section labeled “expert,” where he had solved five before, I presume, heading back to his electronic diversions.
Like the bulk of his generation, Zach spent endless hours reading and watching video clips online, eclectically, but he was particularly intent on the strategy of the games he most loved: Magic: The Gathering, backgammon and poker. He taught himself to count cards in blackjack and dabbled with it at area casinos.
Not that the absence of extended reads was ever a source of conflict. It wasn’t even a consideration in our constellation of common interests: once or twice a week, tennis; avidly following University of Wisconsin Badger and professional sports; binge-watching recorded Jeopardy, TV serials and action movies; playing trivia at our favorite local sports bar. Still, in the way fathers have with sons, he apprehended the gap between us in this particular area and must have rued it. Perhaps I should have addressed it directly and tried to make sure it didn’t end up on that inevitable list we sons compose of our shortcomings in our father’s eyes. But there was time aplenty for that.
I remember the only time he got excited about going to a bookstore. Poker pro Phil Hellmuth, a native of our hometown, Madison, Wisconsin, was on a book tour for his memoir, Bad Beats and Lucky Draws. I took Zach, who was 13, and his older brother, then 17. We waited in a long line with our copy, and Zach was delighted when Hellmuth scrawled, “To Josh and Zach, good luck, do it.” But I don’t think he ever got around to reading it. He would spend time with the daily paper (mostly for sports and the puzzles), but I never saw him, not once, curled up in a corner reading a novel. In this he had plenty of company. An NEA survey found that only 36 percent of American males read literature even occasionally.
When Zach was in grade school, we had concerns about his progress. He was fantastic in some things, particularly mathematics. But he seemed to have some troubling problems. He often failed to understand directions, especially when they were multi-step. Testing at school showed he had verbal processing issues—he wasn’t able to absorb and remember the narrative lines of extended stories. He seemed adept at compensating. I suspect he got by in his high school and college literature courses through a reliance on watching the movies and SparkNotes.
The bookcase in his bedroom is stuffed with our rebuffed attempts and partial successes. My wife discovered that he would spend time with highly visual, episodic books. Hence the Guinness Book of World Records, A Year in Sports (2005) and Top Ten of Everything 2009. Less successful were the door-stopping Harry Potter books (which he, at best, dipped into) and young adult novels whose movies he would later enjoy, including The Hunger Games and The Spectacular Now. I can’t find a copy of the one novel he would occasionally and proudly note as his reading triumph, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I suspect I slipped that one into the donation pile for the local library sale.
My own sense was that his verbal comprehension problem prevented him from absorbing and retaining enough information to make a novel understandable. A bookmarked page from the previous day would be like another reader starting a book in the middle—baffling and frustrating. He once told me that he had never ever been able to translate a descriptive passage into a mental picture, no matter how simple or vivid the language. I remember feeling sad about this, but helpless, too, like discovering your child is uncoordinated or has no ear for music. Movies were never such a problem—not only because of the visual elements but because they could be absorbed in a sitting. He was an avid film fan and would often slip quotes from them into conversation, assuming you’d recognize them instantly. Once in a team meeting at his insurance company, someone made the mistake of uttering the question asked of the Gary Oldman villain in Leon the Professional: “What do you mean everyone?” And Zach screamed, “EVERYONE!”—a response which was naturally met with some puzzlement.
When he was in middle school, my wife and I imposed what in retrospect must have struck him as a draconian rule. Henceforth he would need to balance his computer time with reading time. After a frustrating couple of days, he finally erupted with a protestation that there was “nothing to read.” I asked if he’d be interested in a book centered on a boy with similar interests, which at the time were primarily computer games. He gave me what for him was a resounding affirmation: “I guess so.”
Our first stop, our neighborhood Barnes & Noble, was a whiff. The Borders (this was 2005) suggested Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which a young gamer finds himself defending mankind against an alien invasion. We tried, but it didn’t stick. What we needed, I felt, was a realistic novel in which the protagonist aspires to be a great computer gamer—in other words, a sports novel with gaming as its activity. We found stacks of novels about soccer kids, football kids, basketball kids, but not one in which the main character played computer games, in spite of the fact that there were thousands of gaming kids for every quarterback or point guard.
Fine, I told Zach. I’ll write it. The end result was In Real Life, a novel about a gifted math student who aspires to join the lucrative world of professional esports, then centered in South Korea. I started drafting it in 2005, finished a version in 2007, and got a terrific agent in 2008. It steadily collected rejections over the next few years (although many were kind and indicated serious attention). In 2012, after my agent had given up and I’d run out of hope, the book was picked out of the slush pile by an editor at Tuttle Books in Vermont, a midsize publisher with a special interest in East/West topics, as part of their launching a young adult line. By then, Zach was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where he would graduate with a degree in economics in 2014.
Sometime before his graduation, I had given Zach a manuscript copy and later, during his senior year, an uncorrected proof. To his credit, he spent time with these despite his reading challenges, although it was a running joke between us for years afterward, when he was at loose ends, that “maybe I should go ahead and read the ending of your book.” Instead, he continued to spend his time online, honing his gaming skills. He became a nationally ranked backgammon player and a successful poker player, joining his brother in Las Vegas in the summer of 2017 to fulfill a longtime dream of playing an event at the World Series of Poker.
By then, much of his non-computing time was spent immersed in thick binders, the study guides to the first of the series of actuary tests required for certification. He had passed two, and in the early months of 2018 was beginning to work his way through the guide to the third four-hour test, studying topics such as “Put-Call Parity,” “The Binomial Model of Replicating Portfolios,” and “Modeling Stock Prices with the Lognormal Distribution.” He was also working full time for a local insurance company, gaining the industry experience needed to break into the actuary field.
He never had the chance to finish my book or take the third actuary test. Near midnight on Saturday, April 21, he was struck by a car in the parking lot of the local bowling alley which had hosted a poker tournament. The EMTs were there in minutes, but they never got a pulse. We buried him on Wednesday, April 25, in a cemetery just a few blocks from our home. His best friend rose to the occasion with a remarkable tribute. I wrote a eulogy for him, highlighting his many loves and wonderful traits, with some fancy literary devices, including an extended metaphor. It probably would have sailed over his head, although he would have never criticized it. He never criticized anyone, except himself, which he did regularly and profanely, particularly if he misplayed a move in an online game of backgammon or Magic. The absence of this voice, this presence, overwhelms our lives.
I’ve started to move a few of his books to our Little Free Library, even though each one opens my already riven heart. I think about the occasion of each gift and recall his expression, the same one he made as a youngster when we’d place a sample of some exotic food on his plate, say a few leaves of artichoke or a spear of asparagus. The look of sad accusation, of exposing ourselves to inevitable disappointment as his eagerness to please was overcome by an ask beyond his power to grant.
Image: Flickr/Dean Hochman
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
As Upworthy-style headlines sweep the internet, aiming to snag as many clicks as possible by pandering to as many whims and obsessions as possible, the dignified mystery of the great book title stands in stark contrast. The Upworthy headline had been widely satirized on other websites and social media, including some folks applying them to book titles, so my Millions colleague Nick Moran and I were inspired to muse as well — what if books were whorishly titled, optimizing our search engines rather than our imaginations, rather than leaving us to discover who Oliver Twist was or who was proud and who was prejudiced?
Leave your own optimized book titles in the comments or on twitter with the hashtag #litworthy.
Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s daughter is barely a week old, and little North “Nori” West is already a household name. Yet despite endless commentary about the unconventional moniker, the literary origins of North West have yet to be revealed.
The obvious association is Hitchcock’s beloved film, North By Northwest, but this title is actually derived from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw,” Hamlet muses to Guildenstern. In modern English, the troubled Prince of Denmark thinks he’s one fry short of a Happy Meal when the breeze blows north or north-west.
Is Kimye aware of the literary connotation of their baby name? Probably not, or they wouldn’t have associated their daughter with mommy issues and madness as fickle as the wind. The unique name, and its surprising Shakespearean association, bring up a fascinating question about the cultural legacy a baby inherits solely based on its name.
Certain names are forever tainted by their literary heritage. Jezebel couldn’t shake its association with the shameless wife of Ahab — until, perhaps, the feminist blog came along and reappropriated the name. Both Romeo and Lothario are inextricably linked to passionate seducers, one sincere, the other unscrupulous. Names derived from strong women in Shakespeare’s plays like Miranda and Portia are fairly common, but Ophelias are rare (Unless they’ve all gotten themselves to a nunnery, as Hamlet suggested.) Then there’s Lolita, a name practically synonymous with a sexually advanced, nymph-like young woman (So why don’t we call pathetic old guys infatuated with younger women Humbert Humberts? Just wondering.)
If some names are tainted, then others are forever blessed by their bookish
background. Is it any surprise that literary names like Phineas (A Separate Peace) and Atticus (To Kill a Mockingbird) have taken off in recent years? Who doesn’t want to bestow upon their child a Pavlovian response from strangers who automatically find their child attractive, wise, honest or dignified because of a book they read in ninth grade? And would an ironic little hipster like Ebenezer be the equivalent of naming a child Miser or Greed? (There actually are 70 people named Greed, according to the Census). I won’t even ask about Quasimotos. Somewhere in Brooklyn, there may be one being born right now.
Interestingly, for girls the names of precocious and whimsical yet feminine characters like Matilda, Madeline, and Alice have become perennial favorites — but not their feistier and more assertive literary sisters, Pippi and Eloise. I guess most parents don’t want daughters sliding down banisters and rejecting basic social norms. It’s no wonder the names of strong women in literature — Tolstoy’s Natasha, Morrison’s Sula, Larsson’s Lisbeth — carry a certain lyricism, fierceness, and sensuality that make them both intriguing and dangerous. Often these characters come to be known more closely than the hefty volumes they inhabit.
Then there are names whose connotations are transformed along with the popularity of a particular book. My generation knows Hermione from Harry Potter, but those prior knew her from The Winter’s Tale (J.K. Rowling probably knew what she was doing, naming a precocious young sorcerer after a Shakespearean character magically “resurrected” after being dead for 16 years.)
Which brings up another trait of literary naming: the cannonical tip of the hat. Claire Messud’s dollhouse-crafting Nora in The Woman Upstairs is clearly piggybacking on Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In doing so, Messud invokes the magic of her literary ancestors and creates depth of character before the book even begins. On that note, could any writer name a character Holden or Nathan without readers thinking the author was referencing Caulfield or Zuckerman?
Perhaps names in the titles of books — especially those from childhood — have the most lasting influence over how these names are perceived. Harriets must always wear glasses and are probably undercover agents; Annes are plucky and face difficult obstacles in faraway places like Green Gables and Amsterdam. Sheilas, well, they’re just great.
There’s the rare situation where the overwhelming popularity of a name can all but erase its literary connotations. The influx of Emmas (it was the second most popular baby name in U.S. for girls in 2012) has totally diminished its relevance to Ms. Bovary and Ms. Woodhouse in my mind. The first time I read The Merchant of Venice, Shylock’s daughter Jessica threw me for a loop. I thought her name simply didn’t have enough gravitas for Shakespeare, since it is one I associate with popular blonds and B-list actresses.
Some names are just plain obvious in their symbolism. Name a character Adam if you want him to be an everyman. Marys and Maggies are innocent and likely to get devoured in sci-fi or deflowered in literary fiction. Katherines, and now Katniss, are heroine types. Just as certain names in literature connote good and others evil, the concept is fairly often seen off the page too. The suggestion that Tamerlan, a common name in the Caucuses, be retired after the Boston Bombings was a culturally tone-deaf suggestion, but it spoke to the type of personal biases that many of us have with names. I admit to initially feeling slightly prejudged against guys with the same name as certain ex-boyfriends, and when I first started dating my current boyfriend, Lenny, the only other Lenny I knew was the protagonist in Super Sad True Love Story. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was setting myself up for heartbreak (We’re doing just fine, thanks.).
North West is what’s being called a concept name. Will it spawn a generation of Word Smiths and Harry Pitts? Putting Green? Old MacDonald? Cupcake Baker anyone? Names might carry the baggage of their literary predecessors, but what about a phrase? Little North’s legacy will likely be shaped by so many other factors, and to suggest a child’s destiny is exclusively shaped by his or her name is bunk. My prediction is that North West will be a force of nature. After all, wasn’t it the Bard who said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
When I was twelve, I read a lot. I read novels in the cafeteria over chicken patties while my friends traded folded-paper fortune tellers, and I read novels on the bus ride home while my friends relocated to seats with travelers who would talk to them. I read novels while I walked home from the bus stop, and for half hour stretches in the bathroom until my legs had fallen asleep. There never seemed a good point at which to put down the book, pull up my pants and relocate to a chair, so I stayed seated.
The books I read today can still inspire this total preoccupation, but more rarely. Often, I only have an allotted hour or so to read before I have to turn off my light and play slave to my impending alarm clock. My “real” life is never far from mind; reading is just a part of my day. But last night I lay in bed with Mockingjay, the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, not reading but devouring the book, transported not only to the fictional world of Panem, but to the years when I always read like this: flopping from back to stomach as the hours passed, jumping at every creak of the house, and finishing late, late at night, reluctant to release my hands from the book and a delicious disorientation that would be gone by morning.
My former self understands these feelings, and happily, so does my cousin’s son, Will. I know he reads like this because I’ve seen him, shooing his football-toting friends away at the beach because he can’t abandon Harry, Ron and Hermione at such a crucial moment. He’s got an English-teacher-turned-college-professor for a mom, and an older brother tossing worn copies of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson his way, so he’s been reading for a while now, and he’s got discriminating taste. He’s the recent recipient of Cedar Mountain Primary School’s Accelerated Reader Award, but the prize is incidental. Kid’s got a love of the game.
With Twilight and The Hunger Games securing a vast readership among the young and older, Will and I are not an anomaly as we sit and excitedly discuss Harry Potter, he ten and me twenty-three. As we’re working our way from The Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows with great attention to both cherished and forgotten detail, he’s the book-club I didn’t have as a twelve year old Madeline L’Engle addict. We started talking because I was hoping to glean a few book recommendations from him to write about, and so I’m taking notes. Exhibiting his careful attention to fellow readers and his strong loyalty to story, our conversation is punctuated by uncertain pauses preceding each recounting of a momentous plot twist. “I don’t know if you should write this in case anyone hasn’t read it yet,” Will warns me.
That is one of the great appeals of young adult literature: there is so much plot to spoil. Storytelling is paramount here, and the sheer imagination of the author is so awesome that enjoyment overpowers any hint of farfetchedness. And while, yes, the Harry Potter books are about wizards, our own Muggle concerns are reflected in the struggle of good against evil, and the difficulty we sometimes have distinguishing the two. In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, the best young adult fiction today embraces universal themes and compelling moral ambiguity. These stories captivate our attention because they are adventures in the deeper dramas that inform human experience. They are life and death stripped of daily distraction.
As we sit over a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Will and I try to articulate what we love about this series and about The Hunger Games. It is difficult to express the emotionally charged relinquishing of reality and the fervor and flush that comes with truly inhabiting a fictional world. “Just the idea of the book,” he shrugs, stumped. “Just the story.”
With imaginative and driving plots that are both similar and alien to your everyday world, in the really good books, the characters are rich and complicated, but when they are not, it doesn’t really matter. They are doing, and you are reading as fast as you can.
Of course, one of the reasons you can read this fast is that the language doesn’t always delight your synapses or persuade you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile. When I’m reading Collins’ writing, I’m not savoring a sentence like I do when I’m reading Michael Chabon. The plainspoken pulse of The Hunger Games doesn’t beg a reread like the poetry of The God of Small Things, or set you still like a scene of Cormac McCarthy’s. But I’m not reading Mockingjay for those reasons. I’m reading to find out whether the Capitol mutations bred deliberately to hunt Katniss are going to tear her to pieces before she manages to kill President Snow.
Books hinging on this level of intensity burn a haze that muddles your Muggle world and your Hogwarts world. As in a dream, you have no difficulty surrendering to the unrealities: the story holds you. Sometimes it holds you merely until an unwelcome interruption by your real life, but sometimes it lingers after the book is closed, unwilling to be relegated back to fiction. Young Will confesses to me that Harry Potter’s unlikely entrance into wizardry clung to him in this way. “I was really hoping that when I turned eleven I would be found to be a wizard. I felt that it was so real. I thought that maybe J.K. Rowling was a wizard… and I kept on feeling that. But then, after I read the next series that I really liked, I didn’t feel that anymore, and I knew that it was definitely, one hundred percent fake. But… it really seemed real. The whole way.”
The yearning in Will’s voice brings me back to my own youthful reading of the Harry Potter books, with a swift and sudden nostalgic ache. For Will isn’t yet eleven, and the force with which he instructs me on the odds against his dormant wizardry has the hardness of a person reprimanding himself for a foolishness. He isn’t waiting for his eleventh birthday. He knows better. But maybe this is why reading these YA books can be such a wholly captivating experience for adults. We have no choice but to surrender our reasons to the terrors and beauties of a make-believe world. And it really seems real.
Day three, ten a.m.: no sleep last night. Nothing else seems substantial anymore except for the words on the laptop screen. The backs of my eyeballs feel prickly, suggesting complete and unforgiving fatigue. My brain went AWOL hours earlier and I keep omitting words like ‘a’, ‘an’, ‘or’, and ‘of’ from sentences. Yet I am ecstatic—an intense happiness burgeoning in me from too much caffeine, too little sleep, and having just spent two and a half days in a dream world of my own creation. As of right now, I am a novelist.
Three days from midnight to midnight: write as much as you can, wherever you wish; this is the International 3-Day Novel Contest. The average finished entry is between twenty and thirty thousand words. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is about 77,000 words. Thus, the finished result is more novella than novel, but all the same, a grand effort considering the timeframe.
Back to day one: The Setup. The contest allows prior planning of plots and characters. Oops. I snatch at ideas, desperate for anything. How about an alien abductees’ support group? Brilliant—very Fight Club. (Didn’t Graham Greene once say, “Writing is a form of therapy”?) Having a vague idea for a plot, I engage in the writing process. Many authors talk of losing themselves in the “zone”. They make it sound as if the words write themselves. I wish. Midnight arrives and the word count is a contemptible 4,500 words. The zone has eluded me. The 3-Day Novel Contest is held annually in early September on the Canadian Labor Day long weekend. In 1977, a writer’s group in Vancouver accepted the challenge for the first time.
The contest has been running ever since. According to the organizers, the 3-Day Novel Contest has been called a “fad,” an “idle threat,” a “great way to overcome writers block,” and “a trial by deadline.” It opposes the notion that novels take eight years of angst to produce. Most entrants recognize that winning is secondary to finishing with a complete novella and no nervous breakdown.
Day two: The Complication. Fatigue and patchy concentration lead to self-doubt. The successful 3-day novelist, like an athlete, must tailor his diet for maximal alertness. Red Bull, orange juice, pancakes, dark chocolate, Indian takeaway, Pepsi, bananas, Canadian Club and Cola: nothing helps. (I thought only my characters were delusional alcoholics.) Back in the fictional world, my imaginary small town is rocked by a grim discovery at the local fishing hole: a young woman’s body. Worse, the deputy sheriff believes my protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is the killer. Did she do it?
Have you ever read a novel and wondered if even the author knew where it was going? Trust me, they don’t. In this masterpiece, characters change their motivations more frequently than their underwear. Fortunately, by midnight on the second day, I have managed to reach 10,000 words. My eyes close and my head hangs as I nearly drift off, still sitting upright on the sofa, laptop in front. Here is where the true writers are sorted from the wannabes.
To do nothing but write for seventy-two hours requires dedication and a lack of distractions. Some contestants book hotel rooms for the isolation. Budget writers have been known to lock themselves in the bathroom for the entire three days. Eccentric tactics are not unheard of amongst even the elites; Stephen King wrote his breakout novel, Carrie, on a typewriter in the cramped space of his laundry room. There are reports from contestants of exhaustion overcoming rationality. As one contestant’s testimonial states, “On the second day I was hanging out the window, shouting at the neighbor’s dog to be quiet. My neighbor doesn’t have a dog.”
Day three: The Resolution. I force my eyes open and resolve not to sleep for the final twenty-four hours. After two days spent hunched over, my ribs now feel bruised and tender. However, a transformation has taken place within me. Time skips by without realization as a state of manic hyperactivity consumes me. Two hours are lost when I think only ten minutes has passed. (Agatha Christie purportedly entered trance states while writing.) Here lies the true value in entering this masochistic contest. First, the enjoyment derived from losing oneself in the writing process is exaggerated in such an environment. Second, your most common mistakes and over-used sentence structures become woefully apparent by midway through this event.
My partner awakens in the morning, concerned to find I have not moved in eight hours. She feeds and tends to me with great sympathy. Feeling the fatigue, my problems now are clarity and plot progression. 3-Day Novels are famous for logic holes; this is when the murder victim from page three magically returns for the Vegas wedding at the end. The author must battle against sleep deprivation, sugar highs and lows, mood swings and headaches, successfully tying up every thread of their story. No easy task by day three. However, the word count is rising and I ponder how the career novelists do this for a living.
Stephen King typically writes first drafts in under three months. Enid Blyton produced nearly 800 books in forty years as a novelist. Reputedly, she consistently achieved 10,000 words a day at one point in her career. The first draft of Hemingway’s The Torrents of Spring was written in little over a week. Better yet, Samuel Johnson reportedly wrote Rasselas in under a week to earn the money to pay for his mother’s funeral. Evidently, speed does not necessarily impair quality. That is why the first prize of the 3-Day Novel Contest is publication.
Sunset: The Epilogue. The end approaches for both the deadline and the novel. Many competitors get to this point, throw in a surprise ending two chapters earlier than expected, and find a warm bed to clamber into. I struggle on, realizing it is time to forgo any semblance of editing or proofreading. The climax arrives with a twist that I had not planned or foresaw until the words appeared on my screen. Bang! Gunshots sound out in abundance. The deputy sheriff is found holding the clichéd smoking gun. (Wait… it was him? Really?) The death of the hero’s ex-girlfriend has ruined all hope of a happy ending. Or has it? In an all too convenient twist, it turns out that there are aliens with advanced medical technologies who can resurrect my love interest. No time to change the cheesy ending, midnight is fifteen minutes away. I type my hasty ending paragraph of explanatory exposition and save the document. 97 pages. 20,000 words. As I put my book and myself to bed, I smile. The contest may not have been judged yet, but one decision has already been made: next year, I will do it all again.
Fortunately, Sean Di Lizio’s memories are hazier than his diary and he will be competing again in this year’s event. The 2010 International 3-Day Novel Contest will be held on September 4-6. To enter, download a registration form from the official website.
[Image credit: Joelk75]
Guardian literary editor Robert McCrum has compiled an odd and rather subjective book list, collecting what he describes as “books that still speak volumes about the time in which they were written.” The list contains some obvious entries – we are taught in school that Nineteen Eighty-Four was not just a dystopian fantasy but a stark portrayal of the time’s prevailing years as well as some less well known (to me at least) selections like 1967’s The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. But the list falls apart somewhat as it approaches the present day with McCrum anointing some of the last decade’s blockbuster bestsellers – Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first Harry Potter, and The Da Vinci Code – and falling prey to the notion that the deluge of press these books have received will amount to something in the eyes of future historians looking to view our time through the lens of literature.