Not Always 100% Narrative and Dialogue

Bel Kaufman with Sandy Dennis, who starred in the movie version of Ms. Kaufman’s novel Up the Down Staircase.

We admire the ingenuity of authors who include nontraditional elements in their novels, even as that sort of thing can get a bit annoying when overdone.

Most novels of course consist solely of narrative prose and dialogue. The exceptions are when authors throw in poems or songs or letters or emails or texts or newspaper clippings or memos or lists or recipes or drawings or… 

All this can make a novel more interesting, but also less smooth to read. We might feel interrupted, thrown out of our page-turning zone. Especially if the non-prose, non-dialogue elements are long or frequent. It can be hard to leave the comfort of our usual reading habits.

I just read Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. It’s quite good — hilariously, frenetically, and at times movingly capturing the challenges faced by an idealistic new teacher in an urban high school where many students are troubled, classes are large, administrators are insanely over-bureaucratic, and supplies are in short…supply. But the semi-autobiographical 1964 novel is not always easy to get totally absorbed in, as it’s written entirely in the form of letters, lesson plans, student assignments, inter-school memos, meeting minutes, and so on. Still, a reader has got to hand it to Ms. Kaufman for creativity, for the social-justice bent in her best-selling book, and…for living an impressively long life, from 1911 to 2014.

Nontraditional elements didn’t significantly slow down another recently read book: J.K. Rowling’s Troubled Blood. That crime novel features many text messages (in bold type), but they’re brief — as text messages usually are. And the book’s full-page drawings by a police-detective character losing his mind are used sparingly. The texts and drawings definitely enhance the novel, as nontraditional elements can do.

Among the other novels that include nontraditional elements are A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, H. Rider Haggard’s She, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, to name just a few. Those Burney and Goethe novels are a reminder that a number of 18th-century novels feature plenty of correspondence between characters — the epistolary format.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme? Do you like or not like it when novels include lots of content other than narrative prose and dialogue?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — containing local news to be thankful and not thankful for on Thanksgiving — is here.

Some Blog Posts Have Staying Power

If you’re a blogger, I’m sure you periodically go “backstage” on your site to look at viewership statistics. When I do that, I see a recurring thing I’d like to mention this week.

My most-read posts at a given time are of course the most recent ones. But continuing to lurk in second, third, or fourth place every week and month is a piece I published three-and-half years ago — on June 3, 2018. You’d think most people would have read it by now, but WordPress users (perhaps newer ones?) keep finding it, as do people searching the Internet for that topic. 

The post is “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction,” and I guess it struck a nerve. Many people are fascinated with real and fictional women in the arts, and the 1800s certainly had plenty of iconic female authors and protagonists such as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, and their creations. Some male authors of that era created memorable women characters, too. All during a time that was sadly ultra-patriarchal.

In addition, the novel as a genre really came into its own during the 1800s — so there’s a LOT of interest in fiction books of that era. The large number of great, iconic 19th-century novels is hard to count. 

Anyway, here’s a link to that 2018 blog post, which I also cut-and-pasted after the next paragraph.

If you’d like to add any new comments about the 2018 post under today’s post, please do. And if you’re a blogger, which of your posts keep getting read the most — months or years after you first published them? Also, why are those pieces popular, if you have any theories about that.

Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

June 3, 2018

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand.

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, some of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another non-stereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about a coming “Greenway” and some local leaders treating my town’s library in a mean way — is here.

Novelists Who Will Not Be Pigeon-Holed

Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott and Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike in the TV series based on J.K. Rowling’s crime novels. (Photo by Steffan Hill.)

Some novelists do variations on a similar theme, book after book. Other novelists think pigeon-holing is “for the birds,” as the saying goes. This post will focus on the latter group of authors.

I’m currently reading Troubled Blood, the fifth in the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott crime series written by J.K. Rowling under the alias Robert Galbraith. Rowling is a prime example of a novelist who has avoided being put in a box. She of course first created the insanely popular Harry Potter series, but, after those seven books were done, went on to pen The Casual Vacancy novel that was wizard-less and not aimed at kid and teen readers. Then she switched to crime fiction — creating the novels starring private investigators Strike and Ellacott that are almost as page-turning as the Potter saga, with the added bonus of adult romantic tension. 

(A note: I’m dismayed with Rowling’s recently expressed anti-transgender beliefs — an unwelcome surprise from the otherwise open-minded, philanthropic author.)

Another living author who avoided pigeon-holing in her books is Margaret Atwood. Her first few novels mostly focused on then-present-day women, with a welcome feminist approach. Atwood kept that approach while periodically branching out into speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, etc.) as well as historical fiction (Alias Grace).

John Grisham? He made his name with riveting legal thrillers and such, including The Firm and The Client. But he occasionally diverges into other realms, with his baseball novel Calico Joe one example.

Among authors no longer with us, Alexandre Dumas’ adventure novels starred white protagonists even though Dumas himself had some Black ancestry. But he broke that mold once with Georges — still an adventure novel, but featuring characters of color in the main roles.

Also in the 19th century, much of Herman Melville’s fiction had a sea setting. Moby-Dick, of course, and also Typee, Redburn, White-Jacket, Billy Budd, etc. But Melville took another route with the compelling, controversial, land-based novel Pierre — and with the ultra-memorable short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” about an unusual Wall Street clerk.

Mark Twain’s work mostly starred boys and men, but his protagonist was female in the absorbing historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Well, perhaps the co-protagonist — Joan’s story was told through the lens of a male character.

John Steinbeck set most of his work in the U.S., and, more specifically, California. But his World War II novel The Moon Is Down took place in a European town occupied by the Nazis. Also, Steinbeck’s most famous books — The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden — are nearly 100% serious, but the social-justice-conscious author also displayed a terrific sense of humor in the seriocomic Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday.

Aldous Huxley is of course most known for his dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World. But before that, he wrote more “traditional” novels such as Point Counter Point.

Obviously, many novelists have also varied their approach by writing short stories, poems, plays, nonfiction, and so on, but I mostly stuck with different approaches to novels in this post.

Any authors you’d like to mention who broke their own mold?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which includes a post-mortem of a contentious Board of Education referendum as well as some potentially troubling library news — is here.

Stacks of Good Books Are Weighty from the Decade That Started With ’80

It’s been a while since I focused on a specific decade of literature, so today I’ll discuss…the 1980s.

At first thought, those 10 years don’t seem like an amazing period for fiction, but there were quite a few memorable novels published during that time. Just a coincidence? Maybe. Still, many ’80s authors were directly or indirectly influenced by that decade’s many political and cultural happenings — the conservative reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the seismic changes in the Soviet Union, far-right evangelical involvement in U.S. politics, continued racism and patriarchy (“thanks” in part to those evangelicals), the sick “greed is good” mentality (not just in the ’80s of course), the AIDS pandemic, MTV, the rise of personal computers, etc.

I just finished The Alchemist, a seemingly simple short novel (just 167 pages) that’s actually quite profound. Paulo Coelho’s 1988-published saga of young Santiago’s epic journey probably could have been written in almost any decade, but it had a certain ’80s vibe in the way it emphasized self-fulfillment — while also tweaking materialism and conventionality.

Masterful novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) told tales almost any reader could relate to while taking sobering looks at racism, misogyny, and more.

One could also include Blood Meridian (1985) in the previous paragraph, as Cormac McCarthy depicted a gang of depraved white-male murderers in the 19th-century American West — with many of their often-female victims Native Americans and people of Mexican descent.

Even Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) and its five “Earth’s Children” sequels — the first three of which came out in 1982, 1986, and 1989 — included strong references to racism (against Neanderthals) and sexism that were quite recognizable in the 1980s even though the series was set 30,000 or so years ago.

Getting back to misogyny in particular, Margaret Atwood put that on steroids with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) — which seemed unbelievable in the way it depicted a harshly patriarchal/hypocritically “religious” future U.S. society. But how unbelievable was it?

And in another women’s-rights area, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985) dealt frankly with the issue of abortion.

In the realm of “greed is good” (it isn’t), Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) included a problematic, ultra-wealthy family. (Is any ultra-wealthy family NOT problematic?)

Moving to the crime-thriller genre, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) and its initial sequel Polar Star (1989) had a lot to say about the Soviet Union and what led to its coming apart. 

Among many other memorable ’80s novels were Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (both 1989), Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988), Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers (1987), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (all 1985).

Also, William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983), W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the 1982 book that inspired the Field of Dreams movie), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert (1980), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (published in 1980 but written years earlier).

In addition, there was Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel The Bean Trees (1988), various Stephen King novels such as Misery (1987), Sue Grafton’s first seven alphabet mysteries (starting in 1982), etc.

Of course, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) is considered a quintessential ’80s novel, but I haven’t read it. Same with Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984).

And a number of novels waited until after the 1980s to at least partly address started-in-the-’80s issues such as AIDS, with one example being John Irving’s In One Person (2012). On the flip side of that time line, a certain 1949 George Orwell novel was set in…1984.

Last but not least, 1986 was when playwright/novelist Wole Soyinka became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. (The 1957 recipient, Albert Camus, was born in Algeria but is mostly associated with France.)

I’ve named only some of the 1980s novels I’ve read. What are your favorites from that decade, whether I mentioned them or not?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about the welcome results of a contentious Board of Education referendum — is here.