It’s starting to feel like spring the morning that the Dinky, the shuttle that runs between Princeton Junction and Princeton University, deposits us on the edge of campus. There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, but the students milling past us are ambitiously channeling summer, bare arms and legs, flip flops and black and orange athletic gear. We’ve cut the timing a bit close, so my friend and I are frantically checking every single map on the path to East Pyne Hall, the site of our 12:30 class, English 222. The official course title is “Fanfiction: Transformative Works from Shakespeare to Sherlock” — essentially, a class I’d have given anything for as an undergrad.
To some extent, fanfiction has always had a place in the English classroom. The history of literature is one of reworking and retelling stories, especially prior to our modern conception of authorship. Popular media narratives often portray fan fiction — using someone else’s books, TV shows, films, or real-life personas, among other things, as the starting point for original fiction — as cringe-worthy scenes of sentimentality and/or sex between superheroes or vampires or all five members of a certain floppy-haired boy band. I and plenty of others have worked to ground the historically marginalized practice in “literary” precedent — favorite examples of authors explicitly refashioning others’ works include Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, both of which I first studied in a classroom.
But fanfiction as we conceive of it today isn’t quite the same as Rhys tilting the focus of Jane Eyre to the “madwoman in the attic.” Modern fanfic practices are communal, with roots in mid-20th century sci-fi magazines. They’ve grown up through paper zines and collating parties to message boards and digital archives, fanfiction.net and LiveJournal, Archive of Our Own (AO3) and Tumblr and Wattpad. There are broad conventions that link the millions of people reading and writing fanfiction today (the vast majority of whom are wholly uncompensated for their hours of labor, enormous fanfic-to-traditional publishing deals like 50 Shades of Grey and After aside). Transformative fans share a language — tropes and kink memes and rec lists and OTPs — and in any given corner of fandom, stories talk to one another in fascinating ways.
Fandom has a growing place in higher education: fan studies, a several-decades-old interdisciplinary field that focuses on fans and their practices, often sits within media studies or the social sciences. I had the privilege of attending the Fan Studies Network conference in London last autumn, where I heard a lot of interesting papers about people who really love stuff and the complicated ways they engage with that stuff. Fan scholars study fanfiction, certainly, but often with a focus on the communities that create it. Fanfiction as literature — reading and potentially critiquing living, (usually) amateur authors and the way they talk back to pop culture’s texts — is a relatively new prospect in the literature department. But as a former English major who furtively split her adolescent reading between Victorian novels and Harry Potter slashfic, reading fanfiction for credit would’ve been a dream come true.
My friend and I make it to the lecture hall just in time, and as we take our seats, the professor, Anne Jamison, makes introductions. She’s wearing a pair of leggings printed with the wallpaper from the living room of 221B Baker Street from the BBC’s Sherlock, complete with that yellow smiley face; I covet them deeply. I met Anne online, in the Sherlock fandom a little over a year ago, while I was trying to make sense of the furor surrounding Series 3. I read her book, Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, flipped out over it, and interviewed her for a piece I wrote owning up to my fannish investment in the show. We met in-person in England last summer, and now I had the luck to be back across the Atlantic the semester she’d be visiting Princeton from the University of Utah. Even better, the semester she’d be teaching a class on fanfiction.
“I first got interested in online fan culture because of teaching,” Jamison told me. “I was fascinated by the kinds of in-depth close readings and debates I saw fans of Buffy doing online, and they seemed to find it fun. I wanted my students to think being smart and critical could be fun, so I paid attention.” If you’ve ever spent an afternoon writing a 2,000-word close reading (in fandom, you’d call it a “meta”) of a TV show “for fun,” you definitely understand. The boards led Jamison to fanfiction, and she was struck by the ways that fic writers were engaging with the source material. “I’m eager for students to see creative work and critical work as interrelated,” she said. “I incorporated creative assignments in literature and theory classes long before I’d ever heard of fanfiction, so it was very natural to include fanfiction as part of curriculum.”
The cynical side of me expected to hear that a fanfiction class in an Ivy League English department would’ve been met with criticism from the old guard — walking down the halls of my college English department a decade ago, you’d regularly hear a typewriter clacking away, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t being used to pen fanfic. But she hasn’t encountered professional backlash at Princeton or back home in Utah. “I’m sure there are people who think that but they haven’t told me about it — not my colleagues,” she said. “I get more pushback on YA and, frankly, on Victorian women’s poetry than I do on fanfic. Nothing can match the snideness with which male scholars of modernism tend to regard Victorian poetry by women.” But she stressed that she’s a tenured professor, a luxury that some fan studies scholars, many of whom are independent, aren’t afforded. “It gives me a kind of intellectual and professional freedom that is quickly disappearing.”
Jamison isn’t teaching this particular session of English 222: the guest lecturer is Dr. Lori Hitchcock Morimoto, a fan studies scholar who has come up from Virginia to talk about her area of expertise, transnational fandom, in which she asks questions like, “What happens when people from one place or culture become fans of something from another — especially if that thing already has a robust local fan culture?” I see these inquires daily on her Tumblr with the tag “transnational fandom FTW” — Morimoto is another Sherlock friend and I’ve spent the past year relying on her for nuanced global perspectives of the show, and of fandom and cultural consumption more broadly. There’s no one else on the Internet I’d turn to to analyze Benedict Cumberbatch in a kimono, which is about as high a compliment as I can bestow.
Morimoto grounds this particular lesson in the personal, describing moving from the U.S. to Hong Kong at a young age and being exposed to Western pop culture through the lens of East Asian media. She’s set the class critical texts as well as some fanfiction, specifically a crossover that puts Hong Kong star Leslie Cheung in the fictionalized world of the Japanese story Onmyouji. After the lecture the students split and attend discussion sessions — precepts, in Princeton lingo — and the conversation ranges from revisiting last week’s topic (bronies) to the new reading and issues surrounding clashing cultural perspectives in fandom.
Jamison skillfully manages the exchange, pushing in the right places and sitting back in others. Later she tells me, “It is a very diverse class in all kinds of ways — from ethnic background to major to level of prior fanfic experience, from people who grew up in Harry Potter fandom to people who had never read a fic before. So far everyone has found something to interest them or is doing a great job faking it.” On the day that my friend and I sit in, no one seems to be faking it, because the level of interest is clearly on display: the students are spirited and engaged, and it’s heartening to hear everyone talk about fandom and fanfiction the way they’d talk about broad themes in literature, or about any one traditionally published novel.
But fanfiction is not a traditionally published novel, and bringing it into the classroom offers up some new and challenging prospects. To understand these challenges, it helps to know a bit about the dynamics that have governed a lot of fanfiction communities over the past few decades, particularly as they became increasingly visible online. In the early days of online fandom, rights holders — the authors and corporations that owned the characters people were playing with — had a lot less understanding of (and patience for) fanfiction: Harry Potter fic archives, for example, were getting cease-and-desist letters from Warner Brothers for copyright infringement. Many authors were careful to brand their stories with legal(ish) disclaimers, something like, “This work is for fun, not for profit, and I own none of these characters.”
This conversation has shifted drastically in the past five years: many media corporations encourage fandom — after all, fans are a guaranteed enthusiastic audience for your product — but the monetization of some fan works has made the whole prospect trickier, usually hashed out on a case-by-case basis. Stephenie Meyer has sanctioned E. L. James, but plenty of writers, notably George R. R. Martin and Anne Rice, still speak out strongly against fanfiction. (Or Diana Gabaldon, the author of the Outlander series, who has sort of confusingly compared fanfiction to such things as “someone selling your children into white slavery” and “seducing” her husband.)
Because of legal concerns and the broader negative perceptions of the practice, the vast majority of fanfic writers use pseudonyms. I have read stories of people losing jobs when bosses discovered they wrote fanfiction; in Fic, a contributor describes her interest in Twilight fanfiction being used against her in divorce proceedings. The modern web is a less pseudonymous place than it was even five years ago, and some of this has bled over into online fandom, but pseudonyms still reign. Fanfiction is becoming increasingly exposed in the mainstream media, from the deeply positive — Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, for example — to the deeply negative, like far too many instances of celebrities being asked to read fanfiction for comic effect. Every bad article written at the expense of “rabid” fangirls puts fans on the defensive, and rightly so. But it can make fanfiction writers, who write for fun and not for profit, protective of their practices and their privacy — something that’s virtually impossible to achieve when publicly posted on the web.
No fanfiction writer wants to be mocked. But do any of them want to be taught in a university classroom? Common practice allows for fanfiction writers to ask for positive feedback only — “no flames, please” or “no concrit,” short for constructive criticism. But an academic setting is often a critical space. Jamison has thought a lot about this question: where she once asked fanfic writers for permission to teach their work, she usually doesn’t now, though she continues to give students strict guidelines for behavior towards these stories in the context of the class. “Part of the reason I stopped asking was because of strong feelings I have about what it means to enter the public sphere,” she told me. “And publish something — whether for money or not. I think the professional-amateur divide is important, but I don’t think amateur status absolves you from all accountability or public comment.” Her syllabi are carefully crafted — “I have never worked so hard on a syllabus,” she says — and she tries to stick to widely-known source material or works that can stand alone: much of the trick of fanfiction is getting the connections between the original and the remix, and without context, not all works hold up. Fandom is not necessarily populated with people angry or uncomfortable having their works taught: many of the authors Jamison features tell her they’re happy to wind up on her syllabus.
But there are plenty of people within fandom who believe fanfiction has no place in the classroom at all: to remove a work from its “intended” context and divorce it from a largely unwritten set of rules is a violation for many fan writers. A few weeks into the semester, another university-level fanfiction class sent shock waves through some corners of fandom — in many peoples’ view, it violated these rules. This class was 3,000 miles away, at the University of California Berkeley, in a student-run pass/fail course that initially asked participants to read fanfiction from a wide variety of sources and then leave constructive criticism — even when it wasn’t asked for or welcome.
The course was brought to broader attention by a fic writer named waldorph, one of the authors featured on the syllabus, when she noticed that her Star Trek story was receiving comments she later described as “bizarrely tone-deaf, condescending, rude, and more than that, completely out of step and touch with all fannish norms.” Waldorph wrote a Tumblr post and it spread rapidly — many people were outraged that these stories were being engaged with this way. “Fandom writes for fandom,” she told me later. “We write for ourselves and our friends, and I certainly don’t think to myself ‘how will this be reviewed by a litcrit class?’ when I hit ‘post’ on AO3…The reality is that the way fandom gets interacted with is changing. The best we can do is be kind to each other and support each other when something like being required reading happens.”
The fallout from the revelation was swift and quickly spiraled away from the point of origin. Some authors didn’t mind being on the syllabus, but some certainly did. And one unique facet of fan fiction — that students were commenting on these stories, thereby directly interacting with authors (who are regularly in conversation with their readers) — underscored a major source of tension. “Instead of me being in a situation where I become tangentially aware that my works are being used/quoted/whatever and me just laughing and shrugging it off,” she said, “they were coming into my space and interacting directly with me.” The students running and participating in this course were mostly fans themselves, but they didn’t adhere to the “no concrit” rule that waldorph and many other fan writers live by. “My philosophy in navigating fandom is: ‘don’t be a dick,’” she said. “Don’t leave a nasty comment, just back-button out. If you can’t be kind about something you’ve read, don’t engage with it, and certainly don’t make that person feel bad about the thing they worked on.”
For the professors teaching fanfiction and fandom, sorting out these boundaries presents an enormous professional and ideological challenge, but they resist an “us versus them” kind of dichotomy, something waldorph also worked against as she analyzed the situation. The Internet is built on confirmation bias: it is easier to see the like-minded than not, especially in a place like fandom, which can often serve as a retreat from the stresses of daily life or a place to make genuine connections based on shared interest alone. But it’s not a monolith, and that often gets lost in the discourse. “Fandom encompasses a real diversity of cultures,” Morimoto told me. “Cultures of social class, of gender, of sexuality, cultures of race, of language, of role…I think we do fandom a disservice by a singular emphasis on community.” Jamison echoed this idea when I asked her about the Berkeley course. “I think it is important to acknowledge that those were student instructors who were active in fandom and based on their experiences in fandom, they thought what they were doing was in keeping with fandom practice, from what I understand. There is no one ‘fandom.’”
Sometimes it’s hard for me, a long-time fanfiction reader who’s never been brave enough to post her own fix — and I have written thousands of words over the years — to wrap my head around the idea of fanfiction being a closed community that can’t stomach criticism. The broader Internet can be a scary place to send out your words. When my colleagues and I publish articles on the web, with open comment threads beneath them and links to Twitter accounts where anyone can direct attacks, we wade into the mire — but then, we do so with full knowledge of that mire. And I haven’t been brave enough to post that fic — fandom, our connections to the characters and stories we really, really love, can feel so personal. Fiction is deeply personal, too. I want to protect fanfiction from unwanted outside attention — and I want to sing its praises to the world.
In the vast sea of fanfiction, much of it obviously varying in quality, there is some extraordinary writing happening, stuff that belongs in a university classroom, side by side with the classics. It’s a genre that works in new and interesting ways, and it deserves to be studied in loving detail. Mainstream attention of fanfiction isn’t going to go away — and it’s quickly ceasing to be a punch line, something I could never have predicted even five years ago. It will be taught and studied in future classrooms across the country — the only question is how.
Image Credit: Flickr/kaffeeringe
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.
If you like Fall, you like October. It’s the height of the season, the fieriest in its orange, the briskest in its breezes. “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers,” exclaims the irrepressible Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. “It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” October at Green Gables is “when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson” and “the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths;” it’s a “beautiful month.”
Katherine Mansfield would have disagreed. October, she wrote in her journal, “is my unfortunate month. I dislike it exceedingly to have to pass through it — each day fills me with terror.” (It was the month of her birthday.) And Gabriel García Márquez’s biographer notes that October, the month of the greatest disaster in his family history, when his grandfather killed a man in 1908, “would always be the gloomiest month, the time of evil augury” in his novels.
Some people, of course, seek out evil augury in October. It’s the month in which we domesticate horror as best we can, into costumes, candy, and slasher films. Frankenstein’s monster may not have been animated until the full gloom of November, but it’s in early October that Count Dracula visits Mina Harker in the night and forces her to drink his blood, making her flesh of his flesh. It’s in October that the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the season, leaving Jack Torrance alone for the winter with his family and his typewriter in The Shining, and it’s in October that his son, Danny, starts saying, “Redrum.”
Can you domesticate horror by telling scary tales? Just as the camp counselor frightening the kids around the fire is likely the first one to get picked off when the murders begin, the four elderly members of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, who have dealt with the disturbing death of one of their own the previous October by telling each other ghost stories, prove anything but immune to sudden terror themselves until they trace their curse to a horrible secret they shared during an October 50 years before — just after, as it happens, another kind of modern horror, the stock market crash of 1929. In the odd patterns that human irrationality often follows, those financial terrors, the Black Thursdays and Black Mondays, tend to arrive in October too.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the month of harvests and horror.
The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1867)
Those planning to celebrate National Novel Writing Month next month can take heart — or heed — from Dostoyevsky, who, having promised a publisher the year before that he’d deliver a novel by November 1866 or lose the rights to his works for nine years, didn’t begin writing until October 4. He handed in this appropriately themed novel with hours to spare.
Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878)
Scholars may argue whether Keats wrote the sonnet that begins, “Bright star! would that I were steadfast as thou art” in October, or even whether it was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne, but there is no doubt that on October 13, 1819, in a letter that wasn’t published until nearly 60 years later, he wrote to Miss Brawne, “I could be martyr’d for my Religion — Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you.”
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James (1904)
James had modest aims for the wittily unsettling tales, often set among the libraries and ancient archives that were his professional haunts, that he wrote to entertain his students at Eton and Cambridge. But their skillful manipulation of disgust has made them perennial favorites for connoisseurs of the macabre.
Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919)
Oddly, one effect of Russia’s October Revolution was to modernize the calendar so that, in retrospect, it took place in November. But wherever you place those 10 days, Reed, the young partisan American reporter, was there, moving through Petrograd — soon renamed Leningrad — as history was made around him.
The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz (1950-52, 2004)
October is of course the month of the Great Pumpkin (whose arrival Linus didn’t anticipate until 1959), but it was also on October 2, 1950, when Shermy said to Patty in the very first Peanuts strip, “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown! How I hate him!”
Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956)
The leaves are turning red, brown, and yellow in the small New England town, while the sky is blue and the days are unseasonably warm: it must be Indian summer. But let’s hear Metalious tell it: “Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle.”
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
It’s a dark and stormy October night when Meg comes downstairs to find Charles Wallace waiting precociously for her with milk warming on the stove. Soon after, blown in by the storm, arrives their strange new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, “her mouth puckered like an autumn apple.”
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)
The October wedding in Jamaica of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason, which plays a peripheral role in Jane Eyre, takes center stage in Rhys’s novel, in which Rochester greets his doomed marriage with the words, “So it was all over.”
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970)
“Gentlemen,” New York screenwriter Helene Hanff wrote to the London bookshop Marks & Co. in October 1949, “Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books,” the first note in a cross-Atlantic correspondence that has charmed lovers of books, and of bookselling, ever since it was published two decades later.
Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975)
The first day of October is the date of Mr. Victor Hazell’s grand shooting party, which means that it’s also the day on which Danny and his “marvelous and exciting father” conspire to ruin that piggy-eyed snob’s plans with the aid of a hundred or so tranquilized pheasants.
The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (1979)
There’s no particular reason to read The Dog of the South in October except that it begins in that month, when the leaves in Texas have gone straight from green to dead, and Ray Midge’s wife, Norma, has run off with his credit cards, his Ford Torino, and his ex-friend Guy Dupree. Any month is a good month to read Charles Portis.
“The Ant of the Self” by ZZ Packer (2002)
Packer’s short story uses 1995’s Million Man March as the backdrop for Roy Bivens Jr. and his son Spurgeon — “nerdy ol’ Spurgeon” — who, on an ill-fated mission to sell some black men some birds at the march, work out a more elemental drama of fatherhood and ambition.
Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (2004)
On a fall night in Harlem, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Brown recorded a show that turned him from a chitlin’-circuit headliner into a nationwide star, an event whose abrupt intensity was put brilliantly in context in Wolk’s little book, one of the standout entries in the marvelous 33 1/3 series.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
The landscape McCarthy’s father and son travel has been razed of all civilization, calendars included, but as their story begins, the man thinks it might be October. All he knows is that they won’t last another winter without finding their way south.
Image Credit: Pixabay
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
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Novels that venture into the minds of multiple characters, or sprawl into a number of different eras, satisfy the greedy reader in me; I want as much access to the writer’s fictional world as I can get my hands on. I still recall the scene of Levin with his scythe, nestled like a secret beneath many pages of Anna Karenina — ahh, I thought, what a kaleidoscopic universe Tolstoy is offering me. This access is partly why I loved The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and why I’m looking forward to tucking into Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon. (See also: my love for The Wire, or for gossip.) Tell me everything, that’s my motto.
Or that’s my motto…sometimes. I also like a svelte novel with a narrow aperture, its focus sharp and expert. These books venture immeasurably inward. Sometimes a single character’s story, told under the constricts of a clearly delineated span of time, reveals something deep and startling. It’s why The Great Gatsby persists.
It’s no wonder, though, that small-scale books inspire unauthorized sequels or spin-offs. A good novel asks questions as well as answers them, and at its end readers are left to consider the events therein, and also all that didn’t make it onto the page. If that reader is a writer, he might take matters into his own hands. Jean Rhys offered Jane Eyre’s Bertha a chance to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea, and in Finn, John Clinch explored the life of Huck’s father. And let’s not forget how much fan-fiction has been written about Bella and Edward. A besotted reader doesn’t want the story to end.
It’s in that spirit that I’ve collected a short list of the spin-offs I’d like to see. Please feel free to add your own wish-list in the comments. Perhaps we’ll inspire someone to get writing…
1. Eloise’s mother from Eloise
When I was younger, I didn’t wonder much about the parents of Eloise, the six-year-old heroine who lives with her British nanny in the Plaza Hotel, putting sunglasses on her dog Weenie and combing her hair with a fork. Now when I read the book to my son, I think about them a lot. It’s wealth that allows Eloise’s mother to neglect her daughter, and it’s the mother’s absence that haunts the book. What do we know of the woman? Eloise tells us that she is 30 and has “a charge account at Bergdorf’s.” Her mother knows Coco Chanel, and has AT&T stock and “knows an ad man whatever that is.” Sometimes she goes to Virginia with her lawyer. Eloise’s father is never mentioned. (Is the lawyer Eloise’s dad, and Eloise just doesn’t know it?) I’d love to read a novel narrated by Eloise’s mother. She’s a rich fuck-up, to be sure, maybe a functioning alcoholic with a penchant for Bloody Marys at breakfast and champagne every afternoon. She loves her daughter, but can’t stand to be around her for more than a few minutes. She jets off to Milan, to Paris, forgetting to remember her offspring back in Manhattan. There would definitely be a strange and/or degrading sex scene involving the owner of The Plaza.
2. Easter from State of Wonder
There are so many magnetic, compelling characters in Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, a knock-out of a beach read if you’re looking for something to take to Hawaii this summer (poor you). The character I want to read more about, however, is Easter, the native deaf boy who accompanies Dr. Swensen on her trips into and out of the jungle, and who ignites protagonist Marina’s maternal instinct. (He also almost gets squeezed to death by an anaconda, so there’s that…) This gentle and goofy kid was adopted into the Lakashi tribe, but is actually a descendent of a nearby cannibalistic tribe, a fact that comes to bear at the end of the novel, when Marina must make a gut-wrenching choice that calls into question Easter’s destiny. I’d love to see him a few years from this point, and I think someone — Patchett herself, perhaps? — could write a challenging and compelling first-person narrative for Easter that echoes Faulkner’s Benjy, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Adah, the silent daughter from The Poisonwood Bible.
3.The Monkey from Portnoy’s Complaint
When my book club discussed Alexander Portnoy’s nearly 300-page potty-mouthed and hilarious rant a few years ago, one of our members said she’d like to read a novel called The Monkey Speaks, which would tell the story of Portnoy’s ex-girlfriend, the shiksa underwear model who used to earn more money in an hour than her “illiterate father would earn in a week in the coal mines of West Virginia.” I agree. I am dying to read a report from this “pathetic screwy hillbilly cunt,” perhaps one that includes a Rashomon-style retelling of her threesome with Portnoy and Lina, the Italian whore with, according to The Monkey, tremendous tits. Men aren’t the only ones who need analysts.
4. Sirena from The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud’s newest novel is like a Zoe Heller and Vladamir Nabokov mash-up, with its narrator — single, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge — telling a circuitous and unreliable tale of her love for and obsession with the Shahids, a worldly and exotic family whose presence in Nora’s life magnifies how lonely, predictable and stale her days have become. At the center of the story is Sirena, the wife and mother in the family, whose success as an artist inspires, entices, and provokes Nora. If Sirena got her own novel, I’d of course long to hear her version of the events that Nora recounts with such fastidiousness. It would be more fitting and poignant, however, if Nora were barely present, meriting no more than a paragraph. And I’m sufficiently enamored of and repelled by Sirena to want a whole book with just her, her, her.
5. Richard from Treasure Island!!!
Sara Levine’s wickedly fun novel is narrated by an f-ed up young woman who leaves her job as a clerk at the Pet Library in order to pursue a life like Jim Hawkins’s in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. She steals the Library’s parrot (Richard) and proceeds to be ghastly toward her family, her boyfriend, and to the poor bird. Just because Richard repeats inane phrases like, “It’s big, it’s hot, it’s back!” doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a rich inner life worthy of a novel. By the book’s end it’s intimated that the bird has witnessed a lot, and, my lord, do I want to know what his little black beady eyes saw before he — oh, but I shouldn’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it.
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“I’m not going to win.” Those words came by email from The Lotus Eaters author Tatjana Soli on being shortlisted for Britain’s oldest literary prize. Recent winners of the James Tait Black Award include A.S. Byatt, Ian McEwan, and Graham Swift. Earlier winners read like an all-time literary greats list: E.M. Forster. Margaret Drabble. Nadine Gordimer. Evelyn Waugh. In its almost 100-year history, very few debuts have won, much less ones written by Americans.
The Lotus Eaters, as happens so often with first efforts, almost never saw its way into print. The story — about the Vietnam War, told from the perspective of a female photojournalist — was written, and revised, and submitted and rejected. And rewritten. And rejected. And rewritten again. By agents. By editors. Soli was told that Vietnam was considered a niche audience, all military and all male, and that a woman’s perspective, not a soldier’s, would be too limiting. The Lotus Eaters sold to St. Martin’s Press for a modest advance some ten years after Soli first conceived it — and then this quietly understated debut began attracting fans with pretty big pulpits.
Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times the day before The Lotus Eaters was published, called it “haunting” and “quietly mesmerizing” – and that was just the opening two lines of the review. That weekend, it gained raves on the cover of The New York Times Book Review and in The Washington Post. It went on to become a New York Times bestseller, was named a notable book of the year by the Times and the ALA, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. Still, Soli was as surprised as anyone when it was shortlisted for the James Tait Black.
And then it won.
Soli is back this fall with a second novel, The Forgetting Tree, about Claire Baumsarg, the complicated matriarch of a California ranching family, and Minna, the enigmatic young woman who comes to take care of Claire as she battles cancer. I had a chance to chat with Tatjana about her second novel, the James Tait Black, and what she’s up to next.
The Millions: While The Forgetting Tree is clearly a Tatjana Soli book — the gorgeous language, the plumbing of complex characters in challenging circumstances — it is also a departure from The Lotus Eaters. It’s set in contemporary California peacetime rather than 1970s Vietnam War, and it includes a larger cast of characters. Did you consider doing something closer to the first novel? How did this story come to be the one you chose to write about?
Tatjana Soli: I spent such a long time working on the first novel, doing tons of research, that I really wanted to get as far away as possible from both a war novel and a historical one. It was draining subject matter. Although you are writing fiction, there is the additional burden of historical accuracy that also made the writing process less free. I did write more short stories about the war that I couldn’t resist doing, extra material that didn’t find its way into the book, but I knew none of the material had enough heft for another novel.
As far as the second book, it’s mysterious how the subject matter seems to pick you, but I live surrounded by the old citrus orchards of Southern California so that setting spoke to me, or rather how those orchards are disappearing spoke to me. I wanted to write about a character who mourns that change and is angered by it. Although plenty happens from the outside, the second book is more character-driven.
My interest in the clash and misunderstandings between cultures definitely comes from where I live, and it’s been a huge influence in both books. I think there is the same concern for how one lives in both books. How does one bear witness during war? How does one overcome tragedy in a very personal, private life? Those were issues that compelled the writing.
It’s hugely disconcerting that you work blinkered as a writer — thinking you are on to fresh material — only to realize after the fact that you’ve returned to the same themes. I tell my students that you cannot control what you write, but only how you write and communicate that vision. The vision is out of your control.
TM: “The vision is out of your control.” I love that, and it makes me think of another parallel in the two novels, which is that the main characters in each — Claire and Minna both in The Forgetting Tree, and Helen, the American photojournalist in The Lotus Eaters — have left the worlds they grew up in to live elsewhere. Place is incredibly important in both novels, too. Not to get all psychobabble about it, but I know your mother immigrated to the United States with you when you were a child. Is that experience, do you suppose, involved in that subject matter choosing you?
TS: Well, I don’t want to get psychobabble in reply, but I can’t imagine anything more boring than writing about my own experiences. The way I look at it is that all of us, writers and non-writers, are a product of what happens to us. But for the writer, experience creates unique areas of sympathy. The types of stories that call out to you and not someone else. I was born in Salzburg, Austria, and came to the United States as a child, so being displaced is something that I have experience with, and displacement happens to be a major, worldwide phenomenon of our century. Due to wars, poverty, discrimination, genocide, or even opportunity, for whatever reason, lots of us are far from home, and we are probably never going back.
Wide Sargasso Sea is a major text in The Forgetting Tree. I remember my writing professor in college recommending for me to read it. She said, “This book will change you.” I think she meant that you will always question the accepted text afterwards, in this case, Jane Eyre. But what it did for me is make me want to be a writer. I totally got Jean Rhys from the first lines: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.” Rhys was always on the side of the underdog, the outsider. She was born in Dominica and spent most of her life in Europe, primarily in England, which she claimed to hate. In the last part of Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s confinement in England is terrifying. I can picture Rhys reading Jane Eyre the first time and shaking her head: No, this isn’t the way it is.
It’s funny because I can put these ideas together retrospectively, but I never was conscious of it as I was writing. Even on my third novel that I’m working on now, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but again it’s about characters far from home.
TM: You open The Forgetting Tree with another character far from home in a sense: Octavio, who is if not a Mexican immigrant himself then a man who is steeped in that culture, at home on the farm but not necessarily in the world of the whites who own it. And you make some interesting choices in the book, starting with revealing in the prologue a tragedy that informs the events of the novel — told from Octavio’s point of view. We also see Octavio in the book’s closing, but much of the rest of the story is told from two other perspectives: Claire’s and Minna’s. Was the book structured this way from its inception, or did it evolve in the writing process?
TS: Those choices all evolved during revision. During my first drafts, I usually write whatever seems to have heat to it, whatever seems important, even if I’m not sure how to fit it in. My revision process then is a very deliberate distancing exercise — trying to think of how to present what I have to the reader. So I move things around. If I’ve done my job right, I’ve communicated that excitement to the reader. I struggled a great deal with the secret at the heart of The Forgetting Tree, how not to reveal it, and yet not make it a trick, and so the shifting viewpoints evolved naturally.
I never outline because the way my mind works, the outline rules out all other possibilities. I’d like to talk myself out of this conviction, but there it is. Lately, I’ve been playing with the idea of shapes, or movements, that represent either the whole novel or a part of it. Let me give you an example. Recently, I read Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, and I thought the ending was magnificent. Afterwards, when I heard him speak, he said he had this idea for the ending of holding these fuzzy flowers, like dandelions, and letting the wind scatter all those little seed heads in every direction. As soon as he said that, I recognized the feeling I got reading that last chapter. Somehow visualizing instead of outlining short-circuits the critic inside.
TM: Can you tell us a little about where Minna — who is one of the most fascinating characters I have read in a long time — came from? She doesn’t appear until 100 pages into the book. Was she in your mind when you started writing?
TS: Minna was there at the very beginning, but she was such a loaded character that I knew the stage would have to be set for her appearance. Claire would have to have gone through enough and be ready for that relationship. I also knew that she would be hiding her identity. Again, living in a very multicultural area of the country, I see how even open-minded people can live for years around a person from another culture and not understand what their life experience has been. They make assumptions. One example. I had jury duty. The case involved a man from a Central American country being accused of a fairly serious crime by a family from the same country. None of them spoke English well enough to understand the court proceedings, so interpreters were ordered for both sides. Suddenly we get into these long stories told by each side. It seems the man was a type of healer; he talked at length about some of the spells or incantations he performed. Well, the interpreters, the lawyers, the judge, no one knew what to do with this. They thought this guy was crazy. Then it came out that the family had actually hired him as a healer — they accepted the validity of these practices he was talking about. It was part of their culture. The whole case just broke down. The whole apparatus of Western justice fell apart.
TM: Fascinating. And The Forgetting Tree is very much about healing, with the tree of the title playing a role. Minna, not long after she meets Claire, calls the farm “a God place” that could heal Claire if she allowed it to. “Maman said trees healed you,” she says. At that point Claire is very skeptical of this, just as I imagine that jury was skeptical, but it isn’t the end of the magic — or the superstitions, anyway. Can you talk about how the “voodoo,” as Claire’s daughter Lucy calls it, came into the story, and what kind of research you did in shaping it?
TS: I actually enjoyed the research for that the most. There is a long tradition of Western fascination with vodou rituals, and there are many books about outsiders attending ceremonies, both in Haiti and in Haitian communities in the United States. Of course there are all the silly movies that play up the sensationalistic aspects, and they mostly get it wrong — things like putting spells on people and having zombies running around. I’m certainly not an expert, but mostly the rituals seem to be a combination of Christianity, brought by the French, and African myths and beliefs. During the most oppressive years of colonialism, vodou ceremonies were outlawed because they were a way for the people to empower themselves.
I’m not so concerned with questions such as is it real, but rather what is the effect? This was one aspect of the average person’s life in Haiti that they could take pride in. The vibrant Haitian folk art comes from priests and priestesses of the religion. Much of the music is associated with these ceremonies, and protest songs grew out of this tradition. In a country with a high illiteracy rate, songs were the main way to communicate. During the Duvalier years, popular bands would have their protest songs banned. Breaking the ban could mean imprisonment or death. So none of this was the Disney stuff we usually associate with vodou.
Minna, of course, grew up with this from a mother who had early on distanced herself from such “primitive” beliefs, but had returned to her roots eventually. Minna, in her survival instinct, uses the accouterments of the religion for her own purposes. Part of it is to make the world around her familiar, part of it is to obscure.
TM: Will you tell us a little about what’s next for you?
TS: I’m about two-thirds done with my next novel. It’s a comic one about a group of Californians on a South Sea island. I wanted to have a new challenge from the first two books. This is lighter in tone and has a large cast of characters. It’s been a fun experience so far.
TM: And will you indulge the rest of us in a moment of living vicariously? What was it like to learn — after working so long and hard on both writing The Lotus Eaters and finding a publishing home for it — that you’d won the James Tait Black?
TS: It was an out of body experience to be sure. No one, here or in England, was giving me any kind of odds. My mom and I booked a flight so that we could attend the ceremony because truly it was such an honor just to be nominated. It’s been won by Graham Greene (one of my all-time writer heroes) and D.H. Lawrence, as well as contemporary writers such as Salman Rushie, Zadie Smith, and Cormac McCarthy. Awards are always a lottery, but it was hugely affirming. The honest truth is that once it’s over, you forget about it. You go back and struggle over each page. The writing doesn’t get the least bit easier. It’s like a really incredible vacation — you go return to your real life. The biggest lesson I learned through the whole publication process is that whatever happens, good or bad (and there will always be a fair share of both), you go back to the page. That’s where reality is for a writer.
The trilogy currently sitting atop the New York Times bestseller list is in many ways a fascinating one, the sort of Cinderella story that gives journalists a chance to make wild guesses about the future of publishing. E L James’ Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels began on the Internet, evolved into e-books, were printed by a small Australian press, and, just a few weeks ago, were finally picked up by a traditional big publisher, Vintage, which paid seven figures at auction for the North American rights. It wasn’t a risky bet; the biggest trouble has reportedly been keeping physical copies on the shelves.
The book is notable, too, because to some degree, it’s forced erotica into the mainstream conversation. Much of the coverage of Fifty Shades of Grey has focused on sex: women are passing around the novels at spin classes and telling the Times how nice it is to be able to read porn and talk about it with friends. (“It’s relighting a fire under a lot of marriages,” one woman said.) But then there are the books’ origins: the trilogy started on FanFiction.net, as a story entitled “Master of the Universe,” in which James’ main characters, Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, were called Bella Swan and Edward Cullen. It was Twilight AU, or Alternate Universe fan fiction, wherein Stephenie Meyer’s innocent girl and vampire were re-imagined as innocent girl and manipulative billionaire. The story eventually morphed into something more original — and “Masters of the Universe” was removed from the web — but the threads remained. “The book emerged from the steamy land of fan fiction,” said Jason Boog, discussing the legal and ethical questions for NPR. “Fifty Shades of Grey has opened the box underneath Pandora’s bed, and we need to decide what to do with the sexy publishing trend hidden inside.”
Why, when discussing fan fiction, do journalists often sound like anthropologists discovering some long-lost tribe — and a somewhat unsavory and oversexed one at that? To be fair, Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel, but it represents a mere fraction of this “steamy land.” Let me take a crack at it: fan fiction is original work with largely unoriginal foundations, in which writers take established fictional worlds and spin them into something else entirely. Outside of all of the various fandoms, and even occasionally within them, a few assumptions seem to prevail: that there is something inherently embarrassing about fan fiction, that it’s cause for anonymity and secrecy, and that it is overwhelmingly pornographic — and often seriously, creepily pornographic. There’s plenty of that stuff, sure, but then, there’s plenty of original erotica out there, too. It’s all a sliver of something much larger. For every story that puts Harry, Ron, and Hermione in some kind of BDSM threesome, there are a thousand stories in which they manage to save the world without having any sex at all.
The literary establishment seems divided on the subject — those who even notice fan fiction, at least. (It’s here that we can part ways with Fifty Shades of Grey, which, as a romance novel, doesn’t really fall under the purview of the “literary establishment” — and the blurry dividers between genres are a wholly different discussion.) Writing for TIME last year, Lev Grossman mercifully skipped the baffled anthropologist shtick: the piece was clearly the work of a super-fan, and he laid out the basics with a great deal of affection. Fan fiction is “still the cultural equivalent of dark matter,” he writes. “It’s largely invisible to the mainstream, but at the same time, it’s unbelievably massive.” (FanFiction.net, the largest fanfic site in the world, has more than two million users and nearly 600,000 Harry Potter stories.) Grossman continues:
Fan fiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.
Some authors seem to love the conversation, but some, for legal or creative reasons, seriously hate it. Grossman highlights a few of its vehement detractors, like Orson Scott Card, Anne Rice, and George R. R. Martin, who says on his website that, “Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out.”
But writers have been lifting and borrowing and refashioning characters, worlds, and settings since people began putting stories down on the page. Grossman draws a line between literary influences, allusions, and homage and the world of fan fiction: he highlights 1966, the year in which Star Trek premiered and Trekkies were, in turn, born, and in which two great literary heists were published: Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The latter pair were “written for profit, and they’re adorned with the trappings of cultural prestige; true fan fiction has naught to do with either one.”
I’m just not sure we need the distinction — and I’m not sure that it helps. Nearly every work of fan fiction on the Internet is accompanied by a disclaimer, some variation on “This story was not written for profit, and these characters are not my own.” But it’s copyright law at the heart of that, and to suggest that these writers have no interest in “the trappings of cultural prestige” creates a stark division between fan fiction and its literary counterparts. I have a deep respect for the devotion of fans, and I can certainly understand why one would write a story for love rather than for money. But it’s a multi-faceted world: many of these writers just want a different — and sometimes, a better — way into a story. Hasn’t literature has been doing that for centuries?
There’s fan fiction lore surrounding King Arthur and Don Quixote, but we find easier analogies with modern-day fan culture say, a few hundred years ago, when the novel as we know it was born. Copyright laws had been on the books since the seventeenth century, but the most successful eighteenth and nineteenth century writers watched helplessly as their characters were baldly lifted and reworked into sequels or just plain rewrites — and then sold to the public at a fraction of the price. Charles Dickens, already a victim of intellectual pirating across the Atlantic, watched domestic copycats put out seriously poor imitations of his books with dismay: “I have not the least doubt that these Vagabonds can be stopped,” he wrote. “They must be.”
This was pure plagiarism, meant to harm and to generate profit, not to elevate Dickens’s words. But a century earlier, Samuel Richardson found Clarissa, which he was publishing in installments, to be the subject of positive and somewhat extraordinary fannish speculation. Two sisters, Lady Bradshaigh and Lady Echlin, exchanged dozens of letters with Richardson, urging him to change the course of the novel (basically, they wanted to cut out the rape and death). In The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, Carol Houlihan Flynn writes of Bradshaigh contacting Richardson: “Assiduously scribbling over the margins of all the volumes of the novel, she first writes him after finishing volume 4, cajoling, flirting, excoriating, loving, hating, but always admiring her torturer.” Her sister took things further: “Lady Echlin…seems more professional in her investment into the passions of Clarissa, and literally rewrites the novel…Richardson received and of course rejected her alternative ending, but they debated the critical differences in at least forty letters.”
The nineteenth century saw fans skipping correspondence with recalcitrant authors and writing their own endings for books that they loved, including the novels of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and, most notably, Arthur Conan Doyle, who made the mistake of killing off Sherlock Holmes and whipping the detective’s admirers into a frenzy. The practice continued through the first half of the twentieth century, until the 1960s, when the term “fan fiction” was coined and the literary tradition merged with our current ideas of fandom — science fiction, “cult” television shows, terms like “continuity” and “canon” gaining significance in the process. As the Internet became pervasive, fan fiction communities grew and spread exponentially.
But the past half-century also played host to a lot of self-conscious borrowing and refashioning across literature: authors began to look for silences in the canon and probed the neglected perspectives they found there. Some post-colonial literature could easily be categorized as fan fiction. The most famous of these is Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which follows Jane Eyre’s “madwoman in the attic” all the way back to the Caribbean. Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête draws the colonial themes out of The Tempest with an essentially direct re-writing of the play. J. M. Coetzee’s Foe exists within the confines of Robinson Crusoe, placing another character on the island with Crusoe and Friday, and explores ideas of authorial voice in the colonial narrative.
Outside post-colonialism, dozens of books fall within the realm of “parallel novels,” many of which take minor characters and expand their worlds. Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs emerges from Great Expectations; Geraldine Brooks looks for the absent father of Little Women in March. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours offers us two subgenres of fan fiction: the AU of the modern-day Clarissa, Richard, and Sally, and the RPF — that’s Real Person Fic — of the Virginia Woolf passages. With RPF, you’re not writing about Aragorn and Legolas’ lost adventures anymore — it’s Viggo and Orlando on the set, and who knew they might be an item? Every biopic that takes factual liberties could be classified as such, and the same could be said for plenty of books, from Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James) to Ron Hansen’s Exiles (Gerard Manley Hopkins) to Julian Barnes’ Arthur & George (our old favorite, Arthur Conan Doyle).
So what’s the difference? Isn’t all of this just a bunch of variations on the same theme? Why does fan fiction’s stigma persist — and why are remixes and mash-ups, analogs in the art and music worlds, accepted, even celebrated? There’s something about the written word that limits all this unfettered refashioning, something that makes people more protective of their work. It’s the fear of plagiarism, perhaps, or the way that for many people, a character can feel so much dearer than a beat or an image ever could. But fan fiction — and all of its literary counterparts, however you classify them — comes from a place of love and admiration. Some people see a corner of a fictional world waiting to be explored; others just want to exist in the world past the last page of their favorite novel. After all, who among us hasn’t felt that way, closing the back cover of an amazing book and wishing that the author had given us a little bit more?
I don’t recall actually seeing Mary Poppins as a child, but I was aware of the film somehow because for a period of time (perhaps as short as a few concurrent nights, grown through the expansive memory of childhood into years) I suffered a recurring nightmare featuring that nanny extraordinaire. It always began as an ordinary dream, about baseball or swimming or driving the General Lee or whatever it was I dreamed of in those days. But at some point Mary Poppins would fly overhead on her umbrella, look toward the “camera” of the dream to deliver a cackle, then fly off, turning whatever pleasant fantasy I’d been having into terrifying chaos. Everything in the dreamworld became darker; trees died, I got lost and left behind in a grim landscape, and I fell victim to all sorts of other horrible things I’ve managed, thankfully, not to remember so clearly.
I regularly told this story to my students on the first day of a cultural studies seminar on monsters I taught for several years, because beyond the instant class bonding that came, at my expense, from laughing at such a peculiar neurosis, my history with Mary Poppins illustrates something about the power of monsters. We are all familiar with the bogey man in our closets and the clawed creatures under our beds, waiting for us to set a bare foot on the floor or to fall asleep without a night light left on for protection. My somnambulant rendition of Mary Poppins creeps from the same fissures in supposedly shared meaning that make Santa Claus terrifying to some children while beloved by others, or allows the clown to be both a figure of fun and of fright. There is, I suppose, no reliable way of predicting the things that will scare us. It was just my dumb luck that a kind-hearted and magical nanny, of all possible monsters, was the one to work her way up through the cracks in my childhood mind.
The video features an eerie, horror movie-style soundtrack with scenes from Mary Poppins recombined to create a trailer for the story of a creepy, wicked woman flying around London on an umbrella, emerging from a dark and gloomy skyline to terrorize small children. In other words, it’s my own childhood fear made larger than life, first in the diminutive window of YouTube’s viewer and later on the classroom screens where I showed it. It’s the secrets of my psyche uncovered and shown to the world in all their absurdity, turning my personal and previously private misinterpretation of a children’s film into a public spectacle, as if Rule had reached into my mind and pulled his video out. It’s easy to see how such a hybrid, piratical medium as the mashup insists on the “death of the author,” but in this case it also risked the death of the viewer from fright.
The intent of Rule’s video may not be to actually frighten instead of amuse, or to do more than demonstrate how recutting footage — like interrupting a dream — can alter its meaning or mood. To turn a cheerful children’s classic into horror is comically ironic, and for those already familiar with both the tropes of movie trailers and the story of Mary Poppins (likely a majority of American moviegoers), it probably is more funny than frightening. Even for me, reminded as I was of genuine childhood terrors long ago left behind, that comic irony wasn’t lost. What makes my nanny-fear so hilarious and humiliating is its absurdity, because I know Mary Poppins should be comforting, not frightening. I used it as an example in class for that reason, to demonstrate that monsters come from many places: from high and low culture, from shared cultural anxieties, from racial, sexual, and economic constructions of the Other, and — in my case — from some unidentifiable and ridiculous corner of the mind that perhaps, as Ebenezer Scrooge explains his own unwelcome ghosts, has eaten a bad jot of mustard.
Rule’s mashup is more than ironic humor, however, and it is more than the coincidental depiction of personal fears that gives power to this relatively new — at least in its ease of production — form of expression. After seeing King Kong in 1934, Jean Levy recalled his childhood fears of ape-men appearing at his windows, a fear he and I shared, though for me it came in the form of King Kong lifting Darth Vader to my third floor window so the evil Jedi (this was early in the series, before we knew Darth Vader’s depths) could come in and “get me.” Of his own pithecophobia Levy writes,
I saw again trait by trait a remarkable detail of my familiar nightmares, with the anguish and the atrocious malaise which accompanies it. A spectator, not very reassured, would like to leave, but one makes him ashamed of his pusillanimity and he sits down again. This spectator, it’s myself; one hundred times, in my dream.
Levy’s “familiar nightmare” was born in the subconscious social, sexual, and racial anxieties that made the giant ape Kong so potent and so sublimely terrifying, which is to say the film succeeded because it showed its audience something they were, all of them, simultaneously terrified of in a graspable, metaphorical, menacing form. It’s telling that we have a word for “fear of apes” — pithecophobia — but no word for “fear of nannies.”
The collective unconscious, or at least our shared fears and fantasies, has always been the lifeblood of cinema: audiences need to share a reaction to make the film and the experience of seeing it work. And, more pragmatically, to make such an expensive undertaking as film worth financing and troubling over at all. “Scary Mary Poppins” is something different, a low-budget, low-stakes (and likely low-profit) exercise in new media. Distributed online, produced with affordable, accessible software and tools, the mashup does not need to make its appeal as universal as a blockbuster does. In this short, public embodiment of my childhood nightmare lies all the possibility of the Web for transformative, responsive, and reflexive creative work: the potential for every viewer to be frightened in his or her own private way even if each must cut their own version of every film.
Certainly cinema (and literature, and visual art, and so on) have always been subject to individual responses and interpretations. And authors of fan fiction have long made characters and stories their own, writing in the interstices and silences, whether to critical acclaim like that found by John Gardner’s Grendel and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, or to local accolades only in the archives of fanfiction.net. But there is something in the monster story, all monster stories, that makes it particularly appropriate and, in fact, vital for such reimaginings to occur again and again. They are intended to frighten, and require flexibility if they are to retain their power to do so across temporal and cultural difference, so monster stories, cinematic and otherwise, are ripe for remakes upon remakes, for an apparently endless stream of classics reproduced every year as dozens of new renditions of familiar archetypes appear on screens large and small, and on pages where Elizabeth Bennet battles the undead after centuries not troubling herself about zombies.
As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes in the essay (from Monster Theory) that was the first assigned reading of my seminar,
No monster tastes of death but once. The anxiety that condenses like green vapor into the form of the vampire can be dispersed temporarily, but the revenant by definition returns. And so the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.
The monsters are always among us, because no matter how tightly we shore up the windows and nail shut the doors, we always create some new cracks through which they can come. And sometimes those cracks are the wires and Wi-Fi waves of the Web.
Image: Canon in 2D/Flickr
The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence.
Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure?
Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and — possibly, we’re not sure — herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us.
And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget:
Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption:
The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie.
In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier?
Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to?
There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author:
Jan 2 – “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.”
Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.”
Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.”
Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected:
“In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.”
With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot.
What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view.
A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males:
Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven
Ann Patchett, Run
Susan Choi, A Person of Interest
Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad
Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories
Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories
On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly.
In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!)
Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn’t cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him.
Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction.
How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately” male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze.
In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no.
(Image: Male/Female – Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_’s photostream)
I love the disturb-factor in classic literature. Once you’re out of the classroom, much fun can be had by viewing an older book with a contemporary gaze–analysis and history be damned. Pick up Pamela by Samuel Richardson, for instance: the eponymous heroine escapes the sexual advances of her employer, Mr. B., time and time again…only to fall in love with and marry him by the book’s end. Attempted rape: so hot. When a girl says no, she really means maybe. Too bad, though, that Pamela is so dull. I don’t think I could stand another go at it, even with all the life lessons therein.
I’m thinking of Pamela these days because I just finished re-reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё. Oh the Brontё sisters! I haven’t yet read Anne’s books, but based on this comic, I think I might like them. Charlotte and Emily, meanwhile, were deeply weird, and they (or, okay, their protagonists) were into some deeply weird men. They remind me of that friend–we all have that friend–maybe you are that friend–who consistently falls in love with assholes. Just dump him already, we think!
And, Mr. Rochester, if he isn’t an asshole, he’s a psychopath–or, simply creepy and duplicitous. I can’t believe he was voted most romantic literary character in a British poll last year. That’s messed up. Are they kinkier in England? (The Telegraph article on the subject, by the way, mentions that the results were revealed at a literary festival, where “guests were served pink champagne by scantily-clad waiters.” Oh dear.)
Let’s consider some points against old Edward, shall we?
1. We should just get the big one out of the way. Dude keeps his first wife locked up. He never lets her out, if he can help it. “Bitch is crazy!” he cries, but that is no excuse.
2. Not only does Mr. Rochester lock Bertha up, he keeps her a secret from everyone in town–including Jane! After the truth has come out (at the altar, no less, minutes before he’s about to marry–or “marry”–Jane), Rochester insists that he was planning to tell his new wife the truth after a year and a day of marriage. Sure you were, Edward, sure you were.
3. Adele, Mr. Rochester’s little French ward, might possibly his daughter, but, you know, her mom slept around, so he’s not entertaining that notion very seriously. He’ll be her benefactor, sure, but he will never ever be her dad.
4. When Mr. Rochester has the rich guests staying with him at his estate, he goes off to attend to some business or other, and in his absence, a gypsy fortune-teller comes to read the fortunes of the ladies. Jane goes to see said gypsy in the dark library, and remarks that the woman’s face “is a strange one. It looked all brown and black: elf-locks bristled out from beneath a white band which passed under her chin, and came half over her cheeks or rather jaws.” The gypsy talks mostly of Mr. Rochester, and, surprise, surprise, she IS Rochester. That’s right, Jane’s boss has dressed up in drag, and put on a little minstrel make-up, and asked the house’s governess to kneel before him. “I wonder with what feelings you came to me to-night,” she/he says. Why Jane doesn’t throw up in her mouth a little when she discovers his little game is beyond me.
5. When dressed as a gypsy, Mr. Rochester tells Jane that he’s engaged to be married to one of the women visiting, Blanche Ingram. Later, after Jane has confessed her love, he admits that his engagement to Miss Ingram was only a ruse to get Jane to react. He basically says, “I wasn’t really going to marry her! just wanted you to be jealous, little fairy of mine!” No matter how much of a pill Miss Ingram is, and she is a pill, this charade just seems cruel.
6. At the end of the book, Rochester is blind and maimed from the fire that ultimately destroyed Thornfield Hall and killed Bertha. (He does rescue the servants and tries to rescue his wife–I’ll give him that.) But once Jane has declared that her love for him still remains, he reveals that for the past year, he’s been wearing the pearl necklace (ahem) he had given her during their engagement. Some might call this romance, I call it a problem (by morton here). I wouldn’t be surprised if Rochester likes to wear Jane’s underwear, too. Or, let’s be honest: Bertha’s.
7. Mr. Rochester is ugly. Before you start to yell at me, let me say this: I love that the heroine of this novel isn’t good looking. That’s interesting, refreshing, and complicated. But, you know, if a man is ugly, he has to have one hell of a personality. And if he’s going to have a fake history and a secret wife, he needs to be smokin’ hot to get away with it. (Two words: Don. Draper.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jane Eyre. Its story–part Gothic tale, part romance, part first-person confession–is beguiling. Its heroine–independent yet innocent, obsessed with stories and weak to the power of them–is complex and believable. And the prose will have you underlining every other page:
I desired liberty; for liberty I gasped; for liberty I uttered a prayer; it seemed scattered on the wind then faintly blowing. I abandoned it and framed a humbler supplication, for change, stimulus: that petition, too, seemed swept off into vague space; “Then,” I cried, half desperate, “grant me at least a new servitude!”
He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the ax-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end…
Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m ready to finally check out Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, which I’m told gives the first Mrs. Rochester the humanity she deserves. I should also get to The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, for I’m sure they can provide some context for and interpretations of this beloved classic. I’m curious what Mr. Rochester, and the abiding love readers have for him, means.
A friend who has long since gotten out of the literary scholarship racket was once, briefly, quite intent on writing a dissertation entitled “Parrots, Pirates, and Prostheses.” I have a vague recollection that the argument was to involve something about how pirates seem often to lose hands, legs, and eyes, and that along with their inanimate prosthetics (wooden legs, hooks, eye patches – if, indeed, eye patches count), they also have animate ones like parrots and monkeys. I am not quite sure where this argument was going. There was, however, an excellent plan to, at the defense of this unwritten dissertation, have a parrot, on the shoulder of the writer, declaim the defense.Though this dissertation (sadly) remains unwritten, it did generate a list of parrot books. Everyone’s favorite genre! Behold:Flaubert’s A Simple HeartKate Chopin’s The AwakeningRobinson Crusoe by Daniel DefoeCharles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (Scrooge recalls Crusoe’s Poll in the first stave)Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian BarnesVirgina Woolf’s The Widow and the Parrot (this fable-like tale has been published as an illustrated children’s book)Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (Cap’n Flint)20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne (parrot hunting!)Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (Aunt March has a parrot who tells Laurie, “Go Away. No boys allowed here.”)Gertrude Stein’s “The Good Anna” in Three Lives briefly features a parrot.Saki’s story “The Remoulding of Groby Lington”Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (which features a haunting scene of a parrot on fire)Willa Cather’s beautiful Shadows on the Rock (Captain Pondaven’s African parrot Coco, who sings songs and drinks brandy in warm water)Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop (at least, I remember vaguely)