So you need to write a literary analysis…

This week I’m borrowing from the other side of my life, the English professor side.

I’m hoping that putting this post out there will help a few students avoid those “free essay” web sites or CliffsNotes they might otherwise be tempted to borrow too much from. (In case you’re not sure: YES, that’s considered plagiarism. It’s not as if you were planning to cite them, right?)

I know how bewildering it can be to face a literary analysis assignment. A lot of professors and teachers have their own unspoken preferences about how a book report or literary essay or critical essay should be constructed. If you pay attention, you can tell what they are, because all their lectures about literature you read in class will do exactly that.

Seriously. I once took an undergraduate poetry class with a poet at UMass. Every single lecture pointed out the homoerotic qualities of whatever poems we were reading, or at least what they had to say about being a man. I assume there must have been some female poets represented in his syllabus, but I can’t remember any. And don’t get me started about the creative writing professor who just had to do a public Freudian analysis of everything we wrote for his class.

Your high school English teacher probably pushed you to do Formalist or New Criticism — to analyze the piece in terms of its literary techniques: characterization, plot, setting, mood, foreshadowing, irony, symbolism, and theme. Doing that helped you learn those terms.

Of course, I fear this is also how we get students who think that authors spend their days cruelly plotting ways to “hide” obscure things in their writing. That’s not really how it works.*

So how do you figure out what to write? In my college classes, if I ask for a literary essay I just want you to use evidence to argue some point about the text. You must find textual evidence in the piece — and possibly in criticism or historical sources or biographical sources that you will also cite — to make a case for some interpretation or another.

In other words, pretend you’re a lawyer trying to make a case that a piece is this or that (“Pride and Prejudice is not just a romance, but a critique of women’s economic status in Regency England”). Or think of yourself as a detective uncovering certain aspects of the text that others might not notice (“Mansfield Park suffers from Austen’s own ambivalence about vitality vs. propriety”). Instead of forensically investigating a crime scene for clues to the perpetrator, you’re forensically examining a text looking for clues to what it means, why it matters, or why it was perpetrated written.

Really at a loss? Try reader response. Just relate aspects of the piece to your own life or beliefs in whatever way you want. The nice thing about it is that you can’t be wrong. You may not be particularly right, either — and personally I tend to bar my students from this one because it’s just too easy to bullshit and I’m trying to get them ready for higher-level courses.

Anyway, I had the great fortune of actually taking a class in literary criticism with the wonderful Prof. John Sitter at UMass, so by the end of that I was at least dimly aware of what was possible. Years later, in an effort to explain all the major options for my students without spending a whole semester on it, I came up with the attached downloadable quick guide to the most common critical approaches. You are welcome to use it or share it in your own classroom or studies, assuming you’re not an educational publisher who’s planning to make some moola with it. Just copy it as-is, please.

Ways to analyze a literary work

This is just an image -- download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

This is just an image — download the PDF above if you want to print this at high resolution.

Hope it helps. And if it does, I’d love to hear about it.

*Oh, and about that idea that authors are hiding things on purpose…

I suppose some authors might quietly plot to stuff things into their books to torture future English students, but generally speaking I think authors are more interested in 1) making whatever point they’re trying to make, and 2) selling books.

If authors do use symbols, for example, it’s not out of a desire to be difficult, but because things generally considered “symbols” tend to crop up unconsciously as they write. Or, they might use symbolic elements very deliberately, but only because they are hoping it will help you “get” whatever point they’re trying to make.

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

Contookut River in Peterborough, NH

For example, you could do a whole literary analysis of the symbolic role of water in my first book, The Awful Mess. Was I thinking about this possibility while I wrote it? Hell, no.

I knew I wanted the river at the beginning to be going the ‘wrong’ way, and, yes, I knew those two characters in the first scene were going to head the wrong way, too. But mostly I’d just always thought the Contookut River in Peterborough, New Hampshire was kind of charmingly funky that way. (It flows north, which I hadn’t realized some rivers do before I moved there.) Was that a symbolic connection? Yeah, maybe, vaguely, but it was more to do with exactly where I had first imagined that scene taking place.

Not until after I’d gotten quite a ways into the manuscript did I realize that water sure was popping up a lot. And water is sometimes used as a metaphor for sexuality … and life … and rebirth, as in baptism. And so, yes, once I saw it was there I did play with it a bit, and that’s even how I found my ending. I even got the point that I wished somebody hadn’t already used the title A River Runs Through It. But did I plan it that way from the beginning? Nope. Sadly, I’m not that clever. (My original idea had nothing to do with water as metaphor. It had to do with an arcane principle of web design that nobody knows as metaphor. FAIL!)

Anyway, at least I know I don’t need to worry about The Awful Mess ever being taught in high schools. There’s far too much sex!

Quick reminder

At the end of the month, a random member of my subscriber list gets a gift card. So if you were thinking of signing up and haven’t yet, now’s a good time. Though if you win, it will be a bit like the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The old standbys — books I will recommend to anyone

Choosing books for people can be a lot like choosing art for people. It’s fairly hit-or-miss trying to find something that is exactly to their taste.

But I get asked for book recommendations fairly often, and I have a few standbys that I’ll mention to just about anyone because I am almost certain they will be enjoyed.

I’m sure you have some, too, including some I’ll miss here, so feel free to share them in a comment! (For example, I still haven’t yet read Lonesome Dove or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both are on my shelf, waiting in my loooooong queue of Books Not Read Yet.)

But the books I have read — and recommend even to people I don’t know well — are these:

Cover of I Capture the CastleI Capture the Castle 

Young Cassandra wants to be a writer and thus can see the romance of living in a derelict castle because her father’s writing block is impoverishing them all. Then new neighbors move in, and life gets even more romantically interesting.

The summary may not sound like much, but this is simply one of the most charming books I’ve ever read. It will make you smile and it will make you laugh, and you will just hate to get to the end of it and have to let these characters go.


GuernseyCoverThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The only problem with always wanting to recommend this book is that I can never remember the title correctly. It’s an epistolary novel (i.e. told in letters) that gives us a peek at a close-knit community on the island of Guernsey (off the coast of the UK) during German occupation in World War II.

There’s slow-building romance, hunger, danger, comedy, and lots and lots of charm. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t enjoy this book.


Cover of The Monk DownstairsThe Monk Downstairs

Okay, I’ll admit that this one may annoy people who are committed atheists OR people who are really piously Christian, but most others should enjoy the slow romance of tired single mom Rebecca, working hard to keep her life together, and runaway monk Michael, who’s flipping burgers at a McDonalds and living in her downstairs apartment.

I include it because if you’re here I assume you found some enjoyment in The Awful Mess, and because I just love this combination of romance, theology, and comedy.


And that’s it for this week. It’s actually harder to pick out books I’d expect everyone to love than I thought. Of course, there are many others I might recommend to someone who enjoys romance and can cope with science fiction elements (The Time Traveler’s Wife) or can handle a sad ending (Little Bee) or doesn’t mind literary prose (Housekeeping), or is already familiar enough with British classics to appreciate a spoof (Cold Comfort Farm).

In fact, as I wrote this, I kept coming up with subcategories:

  • Books for people who love Jane Austen
  • Books for Episcopalians, or at least progressive Christians
  • Books for people who appreciate literary prose
  • Books for people who appreciate a tragic ending
  • Wonderful memoirs
  • Books about writers and writing
  • Books for people who enjoy British comedy
  • Books for people who enjoy American comedy
  • Books that will introduce you to Southern literature

So, I have plenty to write about in the future, if I go in that direction. Feel free to let me know what categories you’d be most interested in. (And if nobody’s interested, I guess that’s good to know, too. Ha!)

I’m also opening this spot to occasional guest posts from other writers who would like to write a “Showing some love to ____________” blog post about a favorite (preferably not already incredibly popular) writer’s work, or something else you love that would be of interest to the kind of readers and writers who are likely to be found here. (And yes, of course, you can plug your own book at the same time.) So if you’d like to take part in that, just let me know through the contact form or below.

Happy reading!

P.S. I’d still love your vote for The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire for 2015 Readers’ Choice Award in contemporary/literary/general fiction at BigAl’s Books and Pals. Voting closes March 28, US Mountain Time. While you’re there, check out the fine nominated indie fiction and nonfiction across a whole bunch of categories.

 

 

 

 

 

The addictive joy of “shipping”

Although I write stand-alone novels, I have spent a great deal of my life enthralled by various ongoing fictional relationships, whether in books or on television. There’s something uniquely addictive about watching a relationship unfold over multiple installments, instead of in one big gulp.

Is this because it mimics real life, where two people meet and might have to dance around each other for quite some time before they realize they belong together? Or is it because there’s a sense, when you see characters over multiple installments, that you are actually getting to know them the way you get to know real people?

Of course, it’s a very one-sided relationship. They don’t have a clue about you. But that makes it incredibly easy. There they are in your life, at regular intervals, consistently entertaining you. Meanwhile, you can wear sweatpants and never worry about whether the house is clean or you have spinach in your teeth. Nor do you need to worry whether they have anger issues, designs on your checking account, sexually transmitted diseases, or a deep-seated desire to axe you in your sleep.

So fictional characters are safe, you think … at least until you notice you’ve turned into the reader/viewer equivalent of a crack whore.

The risk is much higher today, especially with streaming services that make entire series available on demand. If it weren’t for my absolute refusal to turn on the television before 6pm, I could lose entire days! As it is, I still sometimes lose entire evenings.

For years now I have actively avoided TV shows when I hear people talk about them as addictive. I avoided Lost. I avoided Bones and House and Breaking Bad.

When I was a kid a show would be on once a week. At most, once a day. There were only five channels on the television, but I found plenty to suck me in. I shipped for Fess Parker’s luscious Daniel Boone and his wife, and John and Victoria on High Chaparral. I also had a thing for Barnabas Collins and Victoria Winters.

Spock and Kirk in a nutshell - Imgur

From http://imgur.com/gallery/SI6h3U9

As a teenager, I went gaga for Spock. Not that he was particularly great for shipping, unless the friendship between Spock and Kirk counted. But I suppose it did for me, even though I never saw that crossing over into what shippers call slash (i.e. Kirk/Spock – K/S, for short.)

In high school, my friends and I went mad for Ross and Demelza. (Poldark is being remade now and I’m glad — Winston Graham’s fine saga deserves another round of popularity.) My friend Julie and I devoured the books and used to reenact favorite scenes with a tape recorder.

Another fictional series I got interested in after a television miniseries was Conrad Richter’s The Awakening Land trilogy The Trees, The Fields, and The Town. Sayward and Portius were wonderful, and I swallowed those three books like candy. It wasn’t TV, but possibly just great cover art that led me to another addictive trilogy, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter novels. And if I hadn’t been so fond of Aragorn and Arwen, I doubt I would have plowed through The Lord of the Rings as fast as I did. (This was decades before Viggo Mortensen made Aragorn way cuter than he is in the books.)

File:Arwen-aragorn.jpg

From http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/File:Arwen-aragorn.jpg

A religious friend recommended Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries as good writing with Christian themes back when I was first exploring Christianity. I don’t think he had any idea how compelling I would find Lord Peter Wimsey, especially his eventual relationship with Harriet Vane. Star Trek had launched me into reading science fiction and fantasy, and these books got me started reading mysteries – but only if they have strong romantic threads. I still consider the relationship between Lord Peter and Harriet one of the most satisfying fictional relationships I’ve ever read. It could not have been as rewarding if it had all happened in one novel.

In the world of television around this time, I got addicted to silly Remington Steele and Scarecrow and Mrs. King. And when Star Trek: The Next Generation came along I shipped passionately for Picard and Crusher from the very first episode. That passion inspired a long correspondence with TNG’s producer, the lovely Jeri Taylor, which eventually allowed me to do amazing Trekkie things like tour the sets and eat in the Paramount commissary. I even sold an (uncredited) story idea to Star Trek: Voyager, where I dutifully shipped a little for Janeway and Chakotay before I finally lost interest. If I hadn’t been married, with a full-time job and a baby, I might have tried to parlay that initial sale into an actual television writing career, but I knew how all-consuming that that kind of work was, so I didn’t.

It's more accurate to say XF Fandom created the word "shipping" -- to distinguish shippers from "noromos" who didn't want all that anguished attraction. From  ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/550072541961425904/

Mulder and Scully may be the reason THE WORD “shipping” exists — to distinguish “shippers” from “noromos,” who didn’t want their stories bogged down by all that anguished attraction. From ttps://www.pinterest.com/pin/550072541961425904/

My mother got me addicted to The X-Files and Mulder and Scully. I loved those two, but that show eventually annoyed me so profoundly that I also started writing and publishing fanfic for it – something made so much easier by the new Internet than it had been before.

Another fictional couple caught me in their grip about that time, because while I was writing The Awful Mess I was keeping my eyes open for fiction featuring Episcopal priests. The Rev. Clare Fergussen and Russ Van Alstyne of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s mysteries can still cause me to drop everything for the next installment.

My Star Trek genes re-activated yet again when I discovered Star Trek: Enterprise, which I’d missed when it was actually on the air because I had a kid to put to bed and no time to chase down its weird movements on the TV schedule. (Jeri had moved on by then.) It was uneven, like all the Treks, but I loved that crew and Trip Tucker and T’Pol in particular. Like the original series, it ended far too soon. I wanted more.

trip_discovers_fanfic_avatar2 And so I wrote more. A lot more. I have put Trip and T’Pol together in scene after scene after scene (and yeah, occasionally the other characters, too). I recently totaled my fanfic.net output: 522,274 words. That’s at least five or six novels right there.

bed_shirt_avatarOn one level, this was absurd. Star Trek is a very recognizable universe, so I can’t just tweak my stuff and try to sell it the way 50 Shades of Gray was sold. (That started out as Twilight fanfic.) I should have put all that energy into work I could actually make some money from someday, even though I’d had a lot of nibbles but no bites from an agent. But, honestly? Fanfic kept my writer’s ego alive through all those rejections.

It was also great training. I got the discipline of writing regularly, the tougher feedback that comes from sharp writing pals, a chance to experiment, and an opportunity to roll with reviews and reviewers that were mostly kind, but definitely not always so.

Rude but effective. From AngelCosta78: http://41.media.tumblr.com/8cb7350090904ccb2f5b57cc9d498e70/tumblr_mpy1wvenEI1rtrs3mo3_1280.jpg

Rude but effective. From AngelCosta78: http://41.media.tumblr.com/8cb7350090904ccb2f5b57cc9d498e70/tumblr_mpy1wvenEI1rtrs3mo3_1280.jpg

Today, I’m not really addicted to any TV couple. I used to religiously watch the stylish Castle (though I never bothered with repeats), but Kate Beckett went gaga over a wedding dress a year or two ago and I haven’t watched it since. Defiance is entertaining, but I’m willing to simply watch it unfold. House of Cards has addictive qualities, but who can ship those awful people?

Readers sometimes tell me they’d like to see more of Mary and Winslow from The Awful Mess. I have written a (recently much expanded) prequel I’m about to make available to members of my mailing list, but I kind of hate to do anything else to those two. (Didn’t they already suffer enough to get to their happy ending?) As for Molly and David in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire, I think I left them where they needed to be left.

Right now I’m in the midst of turmoil with another couple in Bardwell’s Folly, but I don’t expect to stay with them for more than one novel, either. (If you want to read the first two chapters of that before anyone else does, do make sure you sign up for my mailing list.) And then I have a play to write, and then another stand-alone novel in mind.

But after that, or possibly even before that, I’m beginning to wonder whether coming up with a series of some kind might not be a good idea. It would give me a chance to play with a long relationship over multiple installments. And it might give me a writing income closer to the income of your typical low-level drug dealer, as opposed to your typical starving novelist.

Except… to stretch out a romance over multiple installments, there has to be an A plot that leaves the reader feeling some sense of satisfaction at the end of each episode (or book). Otherwise, they’re likely to feel cruelly tortured by egregious cliff hangers and unresolved sexual tension stretched out beyond all reason. (Cue X-Files theme music.)

Perhaps that is why so many great couples come from genre fiction — historical sagas, Westerns, vampire tales, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction and fantasy. Yes, people are falling in love, but their number one job is usually something more pressing, like finding murderers, saving the universe, or fighting off the bad guys. Just plain old romance over multiple volumes tends to devolve into soap opera. (Cue Downton Abbey.)

Do series even exist in women’s or literary fiction? I suppose Jan Karon’s Mitford novels do this — Father Tim and Cynthia take a long time to come together while the various problems of the people of Mitford get charmingly presented and resolved. (An agent once won my heart by telling me The Awful Mess was like the Mitford novels, “only better.” He still didn’t think he could sell it, though.) There are probably others, but I can’t think of any. Can you?

Who are your favorite ongoing fictional couples? Who’s your crack?

Showing some love to … Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym

Novelist Barbara Pym (1913-1980). From the home page of The Barbara Pym Society.

If you don’t know who Barbara Pym is, you’re missing out. I’m going to give you a quick introduction here in the hope that you may enjoy her books as much as I have.

(This is the debut of a new series of blog posts in which I share some of my appreciation for my favorite authors or books or other cool things out there. My theory is that if you’re curious enough about my stuff to pop in here, you’d probably like some recommendations of stuff I like. I may be inviting some fellow authors to guest post in this series, too.)

If you love Jane Austen for her social commentary and not just her romance, you’re likely to love Pym. Like Jane Austen, Pym was English, though she was born over 130 years later. Both write about gentlewomen in distress. Their heroines struggle for dignity and love in a society that has little concern for single women of limited means.  Many of their heroines have either seen a reduction in their status, or are at great risk of it.

Austen and Pym are also both very, very funny.

In Austen’s novels, a love-match to a good man of property is what signals the heroine’s ultimate triumph. In Pym’s novels, first published mostly in the.1950s and 60s, there is not always that definitive a resolution, but there are certainly plenty of romantic longings, and much finely observed social comedy along the way.

Pym finds both delight and absurdity in the rituals of daily life. Her characters are often fellow parishioners in the local Anglican Church (either in villages or London neighborhoods) or anthropologists on the hunt in one way or another. Her men are caddish or hapless but somehow still appealing. Her supporting women exhibit various degrees of thoughtlessness, clumsiness, competitiveness, or eccentricity, while her heroines strive to maintain a sort of cheerful, desperate dignity.

Pym’s take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Here she is in probably the first book I ever read of hers, Excellent Women:

Perhaps there can be too much making of cups of tea, I thought, as I watched Miss Statham filling the heavy teapot. Did we really need a cup of tea? I even said as much to Miss Statham and she looked at me with a hurt, almost angry look, ‘Do we need tea? she echoed. ‘But Miss Lathbury…’ She sounded puzzled and distressed and I began to realize that my question had struck at something deep and fundamental. It was the kind of question that starts a landslide in the mind. I mumbled something about making a joke and that of course one needed tea always, at every hour of the day or night.

Jane and Prudence might have been next, or perhaps A Glass of Blessings, but I really became enthralled when I got to An Unsuitable Attachment.

In the weeks that had passed since she had met Rupert Stonebird at the vicarage her interest in him had deepened, mainly because she had not seen him again and had therefore been able to build up a more satisfactory picture of him than if she had been able to check with reality.

Ha! It boggles my mind that this was the novel, after six others found publication, at which her publisher and all other British publishers balked, sending Pym into an exile from her readers that she found baffling and distressing, as any author would. She didn’t stop writing, though.

Where to start reading Pym probably depends on your tastes, but if they are anything like mine, do not begin with either The Sweet Dove Died or Quartet in Autumn, the more modern novels that she published after both Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil called her “the most underrated novelist of the century” and rescued her from obscurity. These are not typical works of hers and definitely not my favorites, though I do not regret reading them.

My favorite Barbara Pym novel of all — and I am probably in the minority in this — is A Few Green Leaves, the one she rushed to finish before she died of breast cancer in 1980. In this village story, a lonely anthropologist longs for a close relationship with any man, though the sweetly hapless local vicar is clearly a better sort than another potential candidate. As in many Barbara Pym novels, love and the local parish are a source of both comedy and pathos, but their treatment strikes me as more affectionate here than in any of her other books.

There are many other books I haven’t even mentioned, of course. Crampton Hodnet was released posthumously, but it was an early one by a younger Pym and it’s quite funny.

I can’t help reflecting that if Barbara Pym had hit that brick wall with the publishers in our time, she could have turned to self-publishing to keep her loyal  fans reading. (Of course, I suppose we could also worry that she might have published the first draft of Some Tame Gazelle too soon and never gotten properly edited or found a wider audience at all.)

If you can’t find Pym in your local bookstore or library, you can find her in the online bookstores today, though not all of her books are still in print, or even available on Kindle, at least in the United States. I hope that is changing, since I do see a few available that way. It doesn’t make sense to me that in a world gone so crazy for Jane Austen (who well deserves it), Barbara Pym isn’t at least fully in print.

Pym’s work also strikes me as great fodder for some fine comedic British costume dramas set in the 50s, like Call the Midwife only less sappy. I’m surprised no one has done it yet (unless they have, and they just haven’t made it to the United States). I do think she could be a little hard to translate onto the screen as fully as one might like, because so much of the humor is going on in people’s heads. Occasionally breaking the fourth wall a la Frank Underwood in House of Cards (but, of course, not at all like Frank Underwood in House of Cards) might help.

(If there is anyone out there who wants to pay me handsomely to have a go at it, just let me know.)

Barbara Pym's take on everyday social transactions is hilarious. Click To Tweet

If you’ve read Pym, let me know your favorites. If you have another favorite little-known or out-of-print author, I’d love to hear about that, too!