Blog Archive for Personal Thoughts

17 Jul 2012

Spoiler Alert: Stories Can’t be Spoiled

2 Comments Personal Thoughts

Smart women know that the greatness of a novel is rarely about what happens–it’s the why and how that draw the reader in.

In fact, research shows that knowing what happens doesn’t detract from the reader’s experience. A report published in Psychological Science states that “story spoilers don’t really spoil stories and that readers significantly preferred spoiled  over unspoiled stories.” Although the research is clear, there are still some of us who don’t want our endings revealed.

Nonetheless, we can think of many novels that expose the ending up front. One in particular comes to mind: Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. By the time the reader has finished the first few pages, she already knows what happens. The brilliance and the beauty of the story is found in the relationship between a falsely-accused man and his reluctant teacher. There are many other examples, and if you like historical fiction then clearly you are comfortable knowing how the story ends.

Most books (like movies and plays) can be boiled down to a handful of plots. The surprises and excitement lie in the details and in the way the story unfolds. The truth of the matter is that there are hundreds of ways to tell the same story, and often authors re-tell a story from a different point of view. Think about Genesis and Adam and Eve, then Paradise Lost–then East of Eden; not to mention the hundreds of stories about sibling rivalry (a must-read is Ethan Canin’s novella “Batorsag and Szerelem.” Consider Jane Eyre and The Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys), and perhaps even Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot; and last, King Lear and A Thousand Acres (Jane Smiley). The point is that smart women want to witness transformation of character and this rarely depends on the logistics of the story.

Where do you stand on this issue? Do you stop your friends mid-sentence so they don’t tell you what happens? Or does knowing how it all ends relieve you as the researchers report? Let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

02 Jul 2012

Summer Slog: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

No Comments Book Club Notes, Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts

Last summer one of our reading groups decided to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which we abandoned after much fretting and conversation. It was just too heavy for the lighter fare most smart women look for in their summer selections. Plus, any book with 96 pages of footnotes requires the kind of dedication few of us have at any time of year.

While Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall couldn’t be more different from Infinite Jest, it is a real slog. The historical novel, to its credit, opens with flair and drama as the reader witnesses the brutal beating a young Thomas Cromwell endures from his father: “So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you, an eel?” His parent asks. He trots backward, gathers pace, and aims another kick.”

Well, it’s pretty sad when the highlight of a book comes on page 1. Even though Thomas grieves when his beloved wife and two daughters die during one of England’s summer plagues, the reader feels no pain. The narration is bogged down by detail, fact, and piles of names. Many of the characters have the same name (Thomas, Anne, Henry, Mary, Jane) and several have titles which Mantel uses interchangeably with his or her given name. This makes it nearly impossible to know who we are reading about without constantly flipping back to the five pages where she lists the ‘cast of characters’ followed by the family trees of the Tudors and the Yorks. Any time the reader gets some momentum going, the narration shifts and some confusion arises.

The novel is centered on the rise of Cromwell from son of a blacksmith to chief minister to Henry VIII, but several characters seem to compete for the main role. At times it is hard to know whether the focus is on the Archbishop of York (also known as the Cardinal and Wolsey), Henry VIII, or Anne Boylen. Midway through the 600 page tome some clarity arises, but by then the reader is simply worn out.

Summer reading should enhance our knowledge of the world and expose us to new ideas, thoughts and experiences. But, we don’t need to suffer to achieve the growth. As Richard Ford says, “I put down most books, unfinished. Most books aren’t very good, and there’s no reason they should be.” Not to say that Wolf Hall isn’t a good book. It did win the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It has much to recommend it, especially if you love British history. But, as a compelling narrative you can really sink your teeth into, Wolf Hall doesn’t cut it.

If you have read Wolf Hall and want to share your point of view, please provide a comment.

11 Apr 2012

Are Women Writers Taken Seriously?

No Comments Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts

Annie Dillard wrote, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then–and only then–it is handed to you.” Writers, both male and female, know this. The process can be a mean, exhausting task, but it’s part of the job description.

Interestingly enough, Dillard does not discriminate between male and female authors in The Writing Life; on the contrary, she draws liberally on the experiences of all writers as she describes their sometimes grueling challenges. Nonetheless, many smart women readers seek balance in their authors, trying to spend equal time with writers from both genders.

One of our reading groups this year made a conscious decision to read only prize winning authors, eight in all, four men and four women. We are nearing the end of our journey with only Nadine Gordimer left on the roster, and none of our women disappointed us (Didion, Sontag, and Oates were the others). So, when we read Meg Wolitzer’s essay, “The Second Shelf: Are there different rules for men and women in the world of literary fiction?” we took note of her questions.

Wolitzer begins her essay by asking: “If The Marriage Plot had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention?” It’s a good question, but considering that Eugenides draws on Jane Austen, a women writer who is taken seriously, it’s hard to answer anything but ‘yes.’ And if you have read Amy Waldman’s The Submission or Nicole Krauss’s History of Love or Great House (just to name a few recent titles), then you know that there are serious, well-received contemporary women authors.

Yet, Wolitzer makes an interesting point: “The top tier of literary fiction–where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters into the public imagination and current conversation–tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male.” What do you think? Is there a gender bias in literary fiction and how a work is received? Let us hear from you.

21 Mar 2012

Book Club Challenges: Part III

No Comments Book Club Notes, Personal Thoughts

The novel is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. –Annie Murphy Paul

If reading fiction is the ideal way to “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,” then belonging to a book club is the quintessential social experience. Smart women grow through the exploration of what we are reading while we deepen our bonds with one another.

Yet, the success of a reading group depends on the goodwill of its members. It is important to listen, to engage, and to respect one another as we work together to gain greater understandings of the fiction at hand.

Maintaining this positive experience is sometimes a challenge, so we offer a few suggestions:

  1. Set aside social time. We are always eager to see one another and catch up on what’s been happening in each other’s lives. However, this may overshadow the reason we are meeting—to discuss a specific book. So, the best approach is to begin each meeting with a dedicated social time (say twenty to thirty minutes). Then, when you sit to discuss the book, you can maintain your focus. Make a commitment to this clear demarcation between social and discussion time. And, as a courtesy to one another, arrive at your meetings on time.
  2. Read with a purpose. While you are reading, ask yourself questions. What is the book about? What are the significant themes? Which characters are compelling and why? Does the work have flaws? Write some of your thoughts and take them to your meeting. Be prepared and take your reading seriously (this also means finishing the book before the discussion).
  3. Select books in advance. How does your book club select the readings? Do you pick one book at a time or do you establish a list for your season? Is your group flexible and encourage reading that you wouldn’t ordinarily select, or do you limit yourselves to contemporary fiction, as an example? Is the purpose of reading as a group more social or intellectual, and does this impact the books you pick? Regardless of your response, it makes good sense to follow some kind of model. This eliminates the need to spend much of your time talking about what you are going to read and allows you to dedicate your meeting to the book you are currently reviewing. It is helpful to appoint one member as “the keeper of the list,” and this person can document new titles for the next round of selections.
  4. Pick a moderator. Some groups hire a facilitator to keep the discussion on track. But, you can do this yourselves. For each discussion, identify one group member who will prepare the questions and lead the conversation. The moderator also is responsible for keeping the group focused and minimizing sidebar conversations.
  5. Be kind to each other. Challenges will arise in our book clubs. Some members will dominate a discussion, arrive late, or insist on a particular point of view. Some will fail to read or finish the book. Be open and truthful with one another when these issues arise. Be direct and address your concerns kindly and clearly in the best interest of maintaining a healthy group dynamic.
We are interested in issues that have arisen in your reading groups. Please share with us by clicking on ‘comment’ at the top of this blog.

I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see.–John Burroughs

21 Feb 2012

Smart Women and Literary Judgment

3 Comments Book Reviews, Personal Thoughts, What You Should Read

“The older I get, the more I’m convinced that a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character.” This is a curious remark coming from Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections and Freedom) who himself has been the subject of much discussion. (Bear in mind that Franzen called Michiko Kakutani, the esteemed book critic, “the stupidest person in New York City.”) Nonetheless, Franzen’s point is worth exploring, which he does brilliantly in his New Yorker essay “A Rooting Interest.”

For smart women, it is a compelling question: Do we have to like a character to appreciate a work of fiction? And, do our feelings about an author have anything to do with forming a literary judgment? In honor of Edith Wharton’s 150th birthday, this is a good question to consider since both the writer and her characters have stimulated great conversations.

At the heart of Franzen’s exploration  is whether or not a reader can be sympathetic to characters created by an author for whom they may have a negative predisposition. (Again, remember the brouhaha when Franzen rejected Oprah’s invitation to her show? Then again, did anyone have sympathy for the characters in The Corrections?) In the essay, Franzen focuses primarily on Edith Wharton who was well known for her arrogance. Franzen provides two examples: “She was the kind of lady who fired off a high-toned complaint to the owner of a shop where a clerk refused to lend her an umbrella,” and an image recounted by her biographer (RWB Lewis) where Wharton is “writing in bed after breakfast and tossing the completed pages on the floor, to be sorted and typed up by her secretary.”

But where the essay gets interesting is when Franzen delves into the question of whether a reader has to like or sympathize with a character to like the novel itself. He compares the sympathetic Lily Bart (The House of Mirth) to the highly unsympathetic Undine Spragg (The Custom of the Country). Lily Bart is “an angel of grace and sensitivity and lovability. Undine Spragg is the spoiled, ignorant, shallow, amoral and staggeringly selfish product of the economically booming American hinterland.”

If you’ve read both novels (which if  you haven’t you  must!), you might agree that The Custom of the Country is the more powerful, more memorable, and definitely the juicier of the two.  This is where we think Franzen answers his own question—a reader does not have to like either the author or the character to absolutely love a book. And based on the enduring power of Edith Wharton, ‘liking’ doesn’t seem to have much to do with it. What smart women need is an authentic experience that speaks to her in a distinct literary voice. Do you agree? Let us hear from you.