Literary Fiction

Happiness, as it exists in the wild—as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles—is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.
—  Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony
2

If you know John Darnielle at all, it’s probably because your a fan of his band, The Mountain Goats.  However, Darnielle’s first novel, Wolf in White Van (2014), was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, Universal Harvester, released last week, was described by Booklist as reading “like several Twilight Zone scripts cut together by a poet.” It’s an eerie literary chiller perfect to read during these dark winter nights.

Red = Rage. Ocean = Longing. Literary =

Every so often I have this conversation at a school visit.  

THE CAST:
STUDENT
ENGLISH TEACHER
ME  
THE SCENE:
After my presentation, a student drags a beleaguered English teacher to my side.  

THE CONVERSATION:
STUDENT (always with a rather mocking tone): So, Maggie, when you put red curtains in a scene, does that mean that the characters are angry and stuff?
ENGLISH TEACHER: That’s not quite—
STUDENT: —Because we are supposed to analyze all of these books and I don’t think any of the writers actually put in an ocean in the scene just so that two hundred years later we could read it and think the ocean stands for longing.
ENGLISH TEACHER: Sometimes a literary device—
STUDENT: I think we’re just looking for stuff that isn’t there. The writer just put in an ocean because the book TAKES PLACE BY THE BEACH. And the rest was invented by evil English teachers.
ENGLISH TEACHER: If I were evil, I'd—
STUDENT: —So, you’re the writer: do red curtains mean anger?
ME: Curtains do make me angry.

And then I was at LeakyCon, sitting in on a panel called “Is YA Literature?” to find out if I was writing literature, and this (summarized) conversation happened:
  
THE CAST:
A SMART YA WRITER
A SMART ADULT WRITER
ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER

THE SCENE:
The panelists have just been asked to define what is meant by literary fiction.  

THE CONVERSATION:
SMART ADULT WRITER: All I know is, I know literary fiction when I see it.
SMART YA WRITER: I got a look at the guidelines for assigned school reading and they suggested it be a book with enough content to be analyzed. Enough depth to support multiple interpretations.
ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER: I think literary is a ridiculous term and value is assigned by our readers, right here, right now: do they like it or not? There’s no such thing as a good book or a bad book. There’s a book that matters to a reader.

I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.

So I’m instead going to talk about the one thing that interests me about fiction: getting into your head and moving stuff around. I am in the business of changing people’s moods and making them see scenes the way that I see them and feel things the way I want them to be felt. You may consider me Very Interested in learning everything I can about doing all that more effectively.

Sometimes, dear reader, this is going to mean making the curtains red.

Please know that I’m not much for literary writing for the sake of literary writing. I enjoy a nice turn of the phrase, sure. I do enjoy picking apart novels to see what makes them tick. But my academic pleasure runs out very quickly (now there is the least sexy sentence I’ve ever written). As a writer, I am delighted to be given literary prizes, but they aren’t on my list of goals. I’m chiefly interested literary devices insofar as they allow me to more effectively get inside your head and move around the furniture.

 And they do. Allow me to demonstrate.

Here are two paragraphs from one of my favorite sequences from The Dream Thieves*:

 *these are not spoilery, although they are from the middle of the book, so if you want to be totally uninformed on the action of Book 2, I suggest you wander to another corner of the Internet.



External image



Oh, I had such

plans

for this party scene. I wanted the reader to see it just like I did. The all-encompassing luxury, warm and old and unquestioned. The complexity of the political world, the beauty of wealth, and the stagnation and corruption of old, unchallenged value systems. Adam, as my point-of-view character, is feeling and thinking about all of these things, and I wanted the reader to experience it with him.



I could have told the reader all of those things. Point blank. I could have gone with a barebones description of the driveway:

The circular driveway was packed with so many elegant vehicles that the valets had to turn cars away.



And then just had Adam muse in italics about his feelings on being there. But then you would only

know

it. You wouldn’t have

experienced

it. I wouldn’t really be getting into your head and moving things around unannounced. I’d be walking in, hanging up a mirror, then pointing and saying “there’s a mirror. It’s yours now.”



 Here’s another snippet from later:




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Okay, the curtains aren’t red. But the runner is purple. How noble!



Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists, trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of the glass, is

docile.

But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is

crazed

and

twisted

and

rakish

. Again, I could’ve just told you: on the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they are hot messes. But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion, figurative language … that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes. It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more successful I will consider that book. I also believe that sometimes that means making the curtains red.    

5

Let us celebrate one bright spot from 2016, which saw three African-American authors win major literary awards: Paul Beatty became the first American to win the U.K.’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Sellout, while Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award for Fiction for his bestselling novel, The Underground Railroad, and Ibram X. Kendi won the National Book Award for Nonfiction for his brilliant Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. All three works further the discussion on the very challenging subject of race in America, and gives us hope that this dialogue will expand and evolve in the future.

Haul I seem to be doing recently is buying books.

ig - chrissybooksandberriesbookblog

Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein goes up to the counter and looks the barista up and down. 

“How much do you weigh?” he asks.

“That’s very rude,” the barista replies.

Heinlein smiles and responds, “May I suggest investing in a sizable life insurance policy any time between now and February 3rd, 2019?” 

The barista stares at him blankly.

“Oh, and could I get three cranberry scones, please?”

TONI MORRISON

To coincide with the paperback publication of God Help the Child in April, we have redesigned Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison’s entire backlist. The covers were created in-house and aim to reflect the colour and energy of Morrison’s writing.

Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Sula are available now in Vintage paperback, with the rest of the series publishing over the next few months.

a dragon’s alternative to kidnapping princesses

There comes a time in every dragon’s life when they have the urge to become a legend. The most fearsome and famous of dragons have been stitched onto tapestries for snatching themselves the richest of princesses to barter ransom, besting battalions over a spit, and becoming legends remembered in hushed voices and candlelight. Said most fearsome and famous of dragons are emblazoned on rich threads of gold and scarlet because they have been skewered by a thousand knights’ arrows. There is no great gain from kidnapping royalty other than the attention.

But mountain caves can only fit one dragon at a time, and the woodland critters flee when you stretch out your wings in the sunlight for a breath of warm air. Your mother and her mother before her have gushed about the thrill of kidnapping princesses but it has been a long time since either of them have graced the earth. There comes a time in every dragon’s life when they realise that they are desperately lonely.

As there are a limited number of monarchies within close distance of your mountain range, it is plausible that another dragon has staked a claim on the royal daughter. There are several alternatives to princesses that a dragon can consider.

THE JESTER: It will not be as enjoyable as you think. Within ten minutes he will sweat the paint off of his face, and even you will cringe at how thick a mask he wears in court. You will not hear him laugh once, but then again, neither do anyone else. You best swallow him whole, as nothing terrorizes a town more than hearing the clown cry.

THE BEGGAR: The town will suddenly think of you less as a nuisance and more of a convenience. You can be rest assured that no one will come with pitchforks into your cave. But there is little thrill when no one puts up a fight, and the beggar–once he realizes that there is no one who will pray for him–will stop giving you one. One night you may find him crawling between your teeth himself, and he will not even scream when you snap your jaws in surprise.

THE BLACKSMITH: The danger is not what scraps of sharp metal he may have down his boot once you snatch him from his anvil. The danger is when he notices how your scales glimmer, and how the edges nick his skin. Your scales are your comfort and pride, but to the blacksmith they are bags of gold. Be warned–you may suddenly wake up to find your hide raw and bleeding, stripped bare of what protects you. And if you weep from the pain, humans and dragons alike will scoff. You have teeth, don’t you, they would say. Why didn’t you just guard yourself?

THE PRINCE: An unrecommended substitute. Princesses could charm you as they outwitted you, or share stories of their home life, could talk with you for hours and hours because no one in the castle would lend an ear to collectibles that are expected to be seen and saved and never heard. Princes, on the other hand, are accustomed to hold out their hand to demand what they want. They have never needed to bargain before, so they would drive swords up your snout before you could even introduce yourself.

THE KNIGHT: You may have kidnapped him, but your skin will crawl when you feel his eyes follow you around the cave, how he will lick his lips at the thought of you and press deeply against your leathery belly to picture how deeply his knife will sink in. Yes, he may have dropped his sword along the way, or left his spear in the armory, but the hunger never leaves the hunter. Knights depend on valor to become legends, and you are nothing but a trophy to be hung on the wall. You will be too afraid to fall asleep in your own cave.

THE MIDWIFE: You expect her to cry and faint in fear of you, but the midwife hollers at howling women and screaming babies to settle her stomach. You expect her to tremble at death, but she knows above all else how stalwart a life can be when it wriggles through the impossible. She is accustomed to clawing through blood and pain to seek even the smallest morsel of life. Do not resist; she will find that warm glow of life behind your iron scales and bellowing fire and see you for the frightened, needy creature that you are.

“The collection’s subtle, attentive prose and straightforward narrative style perfectly suit the low-profile civilian lives it explores (the only military personnel here have long retired). With the volume turned down, we lean in more closely, listening beyond what the refugees say to step into their skins.”

Ghost Stories: Vietnamese Refugees Wrestle With Memory in a New Book by the Author of ‘The Sympathizer’