On a recent afternoon I rode home from the subway station on a local bus as I do every workday. Looking up from my book for a moment as we passed the high school, I spotted a very old man on a very small bike — child-sized, smaller than my seven year old’s. His knees stuck out like pinched wings and the tallest point of the frame rose hardly as high as his thighs. He rode slowly and I doubt he had any choice, with the tiny bike wobbling and his own wiry frame swaying above it as he pumped himself up the steep hill of the sidewalk in the darkening winter light of near-dusk.
He was only in sight for a couple of seconds, just long enough for the bus to slide by, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever see him again or if I do, around town, I doubt he’ll again be on that bike in that spot in that particular gray cast of weather and time. I might spot him somewhere else and not know it, without that whole scene to recognize him by. It was a perfect moment, though: a whole story captured and crystallized in one glimpse, piquing my curiosity about who he could be and what brought him to being a grown man on a child’s bike in the center of town on that particular day. Was he headed to the bank, or the library, or bar? Had he fixed the bike for a grandchild and gone out to test the repair before giving it back, or was he simply taking a ride on a bike of his own?
It’s the stuff of fiction, the lives we glimpse in peripheries of our own, whether those we observe in mysterious passing or those we pull from thin air. But when we pull those lives to the center to tell their stories, what do we put in their place? Too often it seems to be nothing, making so much of the fiction I read feel claustrophobic with no sense of other lives mattering at the edges and no impression of a world deeper and wider than those parts inhabited by the central characters we’re asked to attend to. Fiction can show us an individual, idiosyncratic mind, or at least the semblance of one in the tangled, rambling, multivocal chaos of our own thoughts in lieu of the tidier, deliberate narratives we’d like to imagine our intentions and actions to be. Outside ourselves, though, there are so many others going about actions and intentions and baffling, beautiful lives of their own, riding tiny bicycles uphill and yelling hilarious non-sequiturs of half-conversation into their phones on the bus and — because those others aren’t always human — chasing each other in circles as three squirrels are doing outside my window just now. Perhaps none of those amount to much narrative potential apart from being cast as metaphors in the shadow of a more dominant plot, but I want to be reminded of those active edges when I read stories.
Or watch them, because I can’t help wondering in every action movie: what happens to the anonymous drivers whose cars smash together when the hero and villain race through in a destructive chase? Or the broken neighborhoods left behind after the hero and villain throw bombs or fireballs or whatever their weapons of choice. We never linger long enough with our camera eye to see those collateral damages tallied; we never see those drivers and their passengers — their children, their pets, their spilled cups of coffee and broken bones — emerge from crashed cars. We never learn if their insurance covers the damage and injury, or if they lose jobs and opportunities and miss weddings of favorite nieces after the crash makes them late to wherever they’re headed. It would be hard to suspend disbelief well enough to enjoy the car chasing action at all if we were reminded so many lives had been wrecked along with the anonymous vehicles. Those films wouldn’t work if we had to consider the people who clean up the mess and live with the consequences and loss in the background of the more dramatic scenes we’re meant to focus on exclusively, never mind the quagmires of denied insurance claims and downward spirals of ongoing misery the action might cause. But there’s a lot of life at those edges, too much to be simply erased by the speed with which our hero’s car races away.
I can’t say I’m a fan of Austin Powers, but that film includes two of my favorite moments in cinema. Almost includes, I suppose, because both were cut from the U.S. release and only offered as deleted scenes on the DVD. Each of them follows the violent death of one of Dr. Evil’s henchmen, the first crushed by a steamroller and the second “decapitated by an ill-tempered mutated sea bass.” Each scene shows the bad news being broken to his family or friends, revealing the wider networks those marginal characters exist in and that they were individuals rather than abstract scraps of collateral damage. The scenes are played for humor, of course, because it’s that kind of movie. But they’re inherently, unavoidably sad (maybe that’s why they were cut?) and pull the rug out from under the genre’s conceits. Or, to be more accurate, the genre being parodied, because imagine how much less enjoyable and escapist James Bond or Jason Bourne’s exploits would be if we had to think about the trail of garage and hospital and funeral bills behind them.
That kind of attention to the edges, a disruptive attention that makes the periphery no longer peripheral at all but powerfully central, is one of the qualities that puts J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence among the best novels I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. In far more earnest and poetic fashion than Austin Powers, Ledgard takes seriously all the lives in his novel, from the ostensible protagonists — a would-be couple separated by distance and circumstance — to terrorist kidnappers to deep ocean microbes. The microbes matter no less to the novel and no less to the reader (at least to this reader) than the humans do. That’s not because the human lives are devalued but because Submergence keeps us mindful of the long view of time and the broad view of life. The novel leads us to ask why we are so focused on the “love story,” or on the suffering of one or two short-lived humans, when there are millions of other living things in the world, many of which are suffering and surviving in their own ways, all of which are as deeply fascinating and rich and worthy of our attention as human politics and romance. I’ve seen Ledgard refer to his desire to write what he calls “planetary fiction,” an intention I feel most keenly in that sense of time and scale and of treating all life as significant whether at the anthropocentric center of our expectations or on the more complex margins of the story he seems to be telling.
I hoped to bring a similar kind of attention to my own novel Fram, by acknowledging the lives and stories that fall by the wayside of stereotypically macho, action-oriented genres like spy thrillers and Arctic explorers’ accounts. What’s going on elsewhere to make those exciting quests possible? What are we not being given as readers in order to keep us turning pages? Real polar explorers were supported by their partners in any number of ways, as Kari Herbert writes of in Polar Wives: The Remarkable Women behind the World’s Most Daring Explorers, either in person or from a distance. But the lives of those women were no more defined by absent men than their husbands’ were defined by pure rugged individual toil despite the presence of support staff. Those women existed — and this is so obvious it hardly bears saying — entirely in their own right, as did everyone else who allowed those explorers to be “self-made men,” the Matthew Hensons of history. Not locked away for years at a time awaiting their returning conquerors in passivity, but busy being alive. As entrenched in their own stories as the families of Dr. Evil’s henchmen or J.M. Ledgard’s microbes.
As were the indigenous locals explorers employed or exploited to steer them across the ice, or in the case of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North to play the role of “noble savage” for southern audiences unlikely to ask who “Nanook” really was as he comically gnawed on a phonograph record, an iconic scene I’ve inserted into my own story in reconstituted form. Not to replace one voice or view with another but to remember, always, that there are more stories than we can tell at one time or fit onto one page. We’re always going to leave some untold or unsatisfying as we rush past them in the pursuit of narrative tension and fulfilling plots and rapid page-turning. The least we can do is to keep a reader aware other stories aren’t being told as a consequence of the one we’ve chosen to focus on and how we’ve chosen to tell it. That a desire for action and excitement, and the tidiness that serves them so well, often results in overlooking the extended outcomes of stories for the sake of narrative satisfaction. An erasure, perhaps, that flows off the page into culture at large.
It’s frustrating sometimes, for many of us, to be reminded of the stories that matter apart from our own and that we might be complicit in pushing them out to the margins. Anyone who has followed news of Ferguson and #GamerGate and so many other painful public narratives in recent months already knows how difficult those conversations can be. But so what? The difficulty is our sign it matters and that we need to get better at it. Considering the stories we tell and how we tell them is one place to start, even if it frustrates readers or even distracts them, and perhaps there are ways for us to write that make such frustration and distraction meaningful. “Planetary fiction,” as Ledgard calls it, but we might also call it humane and attentive. We might call it mindful.
There are novels like Wide Sargasso Sea and Wicked and Mary Reilly that retell stories we know from new angles, and there are whole worlds of fanfiction letting new voices speak, as Anne Jamison’s recent book Fic demonstrates so well. But it’s the voices that speak from the edges of even those stories that interest me most, the further possibilities even retellings create, and the ways our attention might always be split between the story we’re being offered and awareness of those we are directed away from by the necessity of moving ahead. It’s not that we are somehow required to tell every possible story — though perhaps, at its best, social media is getting us closer in its banal, beautiful way — or to tell stories other than the ones we’re personally, mysteriously drawn to tell. But maybe doing better at reminding our readers and viewers there are other stories that might be told instead will encourage more people to tell them, to move the edges into the center, and encourage those in positions of influence to offer a platform without dismissing them as stories “nobody wants” while leading others still to listen to them with more attention.
Image Credit: Flickr/Dyrk.Wyst.
The literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don’t do as well is consider “average” or “real” readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn’t be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I’m advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown’s unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins’s “It” imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends.
So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can’t—readers speaking in their own voices.
Don’t be fooled by the Seattle’s Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group’s tepid “yes” and a two-hour time limit.
At least I didn’t have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it’s now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback’s plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books.
My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that “reading is a real passion of mine.” Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. “Books put me right in the moment,” she says. “The story, the characters, the period stuff.” (Dan Brown elicits an “eh”—he’s “outlandishly far-fetched,” in her nice phrase.)
I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King (“The cheeseburger of American lit,” as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn’t heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to “What do you read?” and “Why do you read?”: “mystery.” Another guy admits he reads “whatever’s in the airport.”
Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as “eclectic.” Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for “inspiration” and “this stuff” (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for “relaxation.” But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren’t in the habit of talking about books. “I’ll read anything” is the easiest answer to questions you don’t regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that’s it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre.
People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. “I didn’t pay too much attention in school,” she says, “so I like to read about our nation’s history.” Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone “with a checkered past.” Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he’s got a different job, now, and “it’s been harder to find the time.”
Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads “all kinds of stuff”—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don’t ask her about the movies: “The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work.”
This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you “put your own spin on things” and “escape from the real world,” in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don’t appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in “criminology and anthropology.” Books provide her with “details and depth that the TV shows just can’t match.”
Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. “I just love the way she writes,” she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences.
But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of “mysteries and romances,” reads the New York Times Book Review “religiously.” And… that’s it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS’s Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because “they don’t look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they’re too worried about trends.”
No one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors’ official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out “if you like X, you’ll really like Y” recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire’s Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let’s give the last word to Mary Anne: “I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren.”
On one of the sinks in the Borders’ bathroom, I found someone’s forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained:
The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy and Charles Bukowski’s Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them.
*Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it’s clear that my heart was always in the right place.
[Image credit: Kevin Dooley]
It was a battle between an evangelizing visionary and a sage defender of the past, perhaps the first big tussle in the great sorting out of publishing’s new look in the digital age.This was 2006, when Wired Magazine technology evangelist Kevin Kelly wrote about the helter skelter future of books in the digital age. In the New York Times Magazine, Kelly looked at then still nascent book scanning efforts, and extrapolated a future that sent a shiver through writers, editors, publishers, and many readers:Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.Later he added:[Authors] can sell performances, access to the creator, personalization, add-on information, the scarcity of attention (via ads), sponsorship, periodic subscriptions – in short, all the many values that cannot be copied. The cheap copy becomes the “discovery tool” that markets these other intangible valuables.At the annual Book Expo, keynote speaker John Updike responded, heaping scorn: The economic repercussions of this paradise of freely flowing snippets are touched on with a beguiling offhandedness, as a matter of course, a matter of an inexorable Marxist unfolding.Everyone reveled in the literary throwdown at the time (Gawker called it a Crossover Nerdfight). There was no “winner,” however, and neither Kelly nor Updike was proven right, but there are some interesting new developments to contemplate.When Kelly wrote of “remixed” books, many were aghast, envisioning zombified, soulless collages, based on the desecrated works that had been co-opted for profit. They may have been right about the zombie part: At least one book remix has caused quite a stir this year. According to Publishers Weekly, there are “more than 600,000 copies in print of… Jane Austen mashup, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” A graphic novel version is in the works, as is a sequel, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Even though this recent example looms large, when you start thinking about it there is a rich history of literary remixes. At the Vromans Bookstore Blog, Patrick Brown recently compiled a thorough exploration of the topic in response to J.D. Salinger’s lawsuit over an unauthorized sequel to his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Though that remix is not looking particularly auspicious, Patrick notes the many venerable and successful remixes that have come before it, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked to a pair of recent books by Maile Meloy. Brown doesn’t mention it, but you can even go all the way back to the “first” novel, and look at Don Quixote’s second part as an inspired calling out of unauthorized “copycat” versions of the book. It’s entirely plausible to make the case that literary history is in many ways a history of literary “remixes,” and, as Kelly has suggested, current, ever-stricter copyright regimes are an artificial impediment to this free flow of ideas.Returning to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, silly as it may be, one wonders if the book’s success doesn’t prove there is an appetite – in our heavily remixed, mashed up culture – for freer rein to be afforded writers who want to experiment in this vein. It’s also clear that the public domain offers an unending font of material for those inclined to use it (for a more highbrow example, think of the relationship between Tom Stoppard and Shakespeare). Meanwhile, the Salinger case would seem to indicate that when it comes to books under copyright and the cross-linking, clustering, and reassembling that Kelly prophesied, we are still very much at the whim of the copyright holder.Kelly’s other point – that of a new business model for writers that relies not on selling the book but on using the book to sell “access” to the writer, has been taken up enthusiastically by another Wired guy, Chris Anderson, who has written an entire book on this topic, Free. Anderson is “selling” (read: giving away) the book under this model and his ideas have caused media types quite a bit of heartburn.Interestingly, the backlash to Anderson’s book seems to be resonating (to me, anyway) much more than the book itself. The unfortunate revelation that Anderson had lifted substantial passages for the book from Wikipedia suggests that in a world where writers don’t get paid for writing and information wants to be free, the writing itself is almost beside the point as compared to the ancillary, profit-making schemes that can surround the “author as brand” idea. This criticism would only seem to be confirmed by Anderson’s explanation that there was an oversight in citing the copied passages properly.With a new novel coming soon from our greatest literary recluse, I wonder too whether a flourishing of the idea that authors make money from selling “access” and not books would mean that we could never have another Pynchon or McCarthy or DeLillo whose works alone tower above any notion that they might experiment with alternative revenue models.In the end, there are some elements out of the Kelly/Anderson view of the future of publishing that remain compelling. The remixed book is an important idea that need not be villainized or trivialized, particularly as digitization provides new opportunities for experimentation. The notion of “free,” meanwhile, seems far more potentially damaging in that whole swathes of literary culture are not particularly compatible with the “authors selling access” model. However, if you believe that good writing is always worth something to somebody, you don’t have much to worry about.
You may have noticed that the search box on Amazon recently added an “auto-complete” feature. So if you start typing in letters, it starts suggesting things that begin with those letters. It’s probably safe to assume that it suggests the most frequently searched words, so, if we look at Amazon’s book section we can type in letters and discover, for each letter of the alphabet, the most popular searches on Amazon. Or, if you like, the ABCs of Amazon (a peek into the reading habits of America and, like it or not, a primer for what’s popular in the world of books):Angels & DemonsBreaking Dawn (The first of several Stephenie Meyer appearances)Charlaine HarrisDan Brown (no surprise here)Eclipse (Another for Meyer)FreakonomicsGREHarry Potter (as if there was any doubt)ISBN number search (funny because ISBNs work in the search box)James PattersonKindle (natch)Lora LeighMy Sister’s Keeper (by Jodi Picoult)Nora RobertsOutliers (by Malcolm Gladwell)Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Zombies!)QuiltingRenegadeStephenie MeyerTwilight (more Meyer)UgliesVampire (You can chalk this one up to Meyer too)WickedX-MenYogaZane(Amazon has been known to personalize and regularly adjust its results, so your Amazon alphabet may vary.)