Tag Archives: writers

#storycontinues roundup 15-21 august

Previously

Hardly anyone round these parts calls me by my daddy’s name. To them I’m Sophia Berengar, not Sophia Robillard, although, to be fair, that’s not incorrect; both names are mine. Legally, I’m Sophia Berengar Robillard, but to my family I’m “Sia.”

Oh, bother! I’m digressing once again. I’d offer my apologies, but you must understand this or nothing else will make sense. It’s important. Who I am today is bound up with who I was then — and all of it is tied to the secrets my family kept hidden.

Where was I? Oh, yes.

Uncle Peter was Mama’s brother. He was married to Aunt Lydia, who was what Mama called “delicate.” Whenever I pressed the issue, all Mama would say is that Aunt Lydia’s nerves were “shot all to pieces” and to let her alone. No one ever said why, though, and eventually we simply accepted it as a fact. Just as rain is wet and leaves fall in October, so Aunt Lydia was delicate.

#storystarters

The Bookish Miss has been bitten by a nifty little writing bug. It’s called #storystarters.

Yes, that’s a Twitter hashtag. It was started by @CliffordFryman, who wrote a book full of one liners entitled, aptly enough, Story Starters. The idea is to post one line ideas that can be used to jump start a story in 140 characters or less. (Actually, once you add in the hashtag it’s more like 125 characters or less.) Plot bunnies of the world, rejoice!

This has been surprisingly fun and easy. Here are my contributions:

Morning skinny latte? Check. Overpriced Manolo Blahniks? Check. Dead body in the tech conference room? Uh …

The sweltering air in the dark, windowless attic smelled of dust and mothballs.

All starfighter pilots are a little bit crazy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We have to be to do our job.

I was born, to begin with. Two minutes later, Grandpa Ebenezer dropped dead. Can you guess what my parents did?

Most old southern families have a few skeletons in the closet. We’ve got a goddamn graveyard behind the overcoats.

It was a tabloid hack’s luck that his very fictional story about political sexscapades would turn out to be horribly real.

Despite what the doctors kept telling her, in this place insanity really was contagious.

There was nothing left. Except everything was left. And those thrice-be-damned roses still covered the porch’s balusters.

Funny thing is, writing these down only served to purge a few of my ideas while others are stronger than ever. I think it may be time to start a new hashtag — #storycontinues — and pick up where one of these left off. One line of a story would be posted each day. But which one to choose?

Hmmm …

19th Century Working Women (as told by Rebecca Harding Davis)

In the young and industrializing United States, the effects of Republican Motherhood and what Jeanne Boydston termed the “pastoralization of housework” led to a new ideology among the emerging idle middle class. Broadly, this class saw itself as prosperous and virtuous; it saw the working classes, and working women in particular, as promiscuous at best and wicked at worst. Rebecca Harding Davis, herself a member of the middle class, used fiction to attempt to combat this stereotype and create empathy between the classes by introducing a working woman named Deborah in Life in the Iron-Mills. However, while Davis’ portrayal of Deborah was a short-term success, it ultimately failed because it reinforced the existing gender system.

Deborah is presented as the victimized working woman instead of the depraved and promiscuous slut. Both stereotypes are middle class creations, but Davis chose one over the other to criticize class inequalities and prejudice toward immigrants. Accordingly, Deborah is described as a new immigrant worn beyond her years, a hunchback and loyal and caring to a fault. Davis knew that in order for a middle class woman to empathize with her character, said character had to be the exact opposite of what the reader expected. Deborah is thus shown in a positive light — while the other women who work at the mills go off to party and drink, Deborah goes home to tend to her family, returning to the mills to deliver dinner to her brother. This similarity allowed middle class readers to view Deborah as human, creating a sense of empathy for those who are oppressed only by a capitalist system and not through any cause of nature.

Most Western ideological systems exist only by binary oppositions and the nineteenth-century gender system was no exception. In order to prove domestic bliss as a wife and mother was the ideal, the system needed something to define itself against. Under this ideology, women were, as Boydston wrote, “ill-equipped to venture into the world of nineteenth-century business”; if wives and mothers who kept to their houses were the ideal, then women who worked outside of the home were somehow abnormal. They were even considered not to be women because they displayed traits more commonly reserved for men, the “breadwinners” who dwelt in the duplicitous and cunning outside world. Women who sought employment outside the home were symbolic threats to this concept of manhood and male authority.

Reality however, as Davis knew, was very different; through Deborah, she presents a woman who had theoretical possibility to be any woman. Despite this, however, Deborah lives up to this idealized standard; she is the “victimized heroine” injected with a shot of harsh reality, a way for her to pacify her middle class readers while still managing to convey her message about class inequality. Davis exacerbates this implicit claim by redeeming Deborah in the end, showing her audience that all the working woman lacks to be live up to the middle class standard of womanhood is material goods. By humanizing Deborah, and by extension working women in general, she sets up the middle class standard as the norm.

Was this Davis’ intention? Possibly. Davis may have redeemed Deborah as form of polite and discreet mockery. It seems more likely, though, that Deborah’s redemption is another aspect added to create empathy — and in this Davis succeeded.

However, Davis was a middle class woman representing a working class woman; her representation was slightly off kilter from the ways in which working class women presented themselves. Fanny Fern was much more straightforward, her style blunt and succinct. She is angry, not philosophical. Nor does she merely want to invoke pity. Instead, Fern wanted to force the “rose colored glasses of ideology” from the faces of the middle class. These women, she argued, are laborers and they are still women.

Fern refused to draw a line between womanhood and labor. Instead, she and others posited that the “romance of labor” was a fiction and the girls of Lowell Mills, who received so much attention, were not so much laborers in hard industry but country girls of New England. Middle class society did not wish to see reality and so created a fiction that worked within their ideology. It was easier to see working women as women who could not or would not keep to their homes, instead of women working to support themselves or their families.

To give Davis her due, she did strip away the fiction to show the true horror and horrendous necessity of factory life. Unfortunately, she maintained the romance of labor via her ending. Any working woman would have known that intervention by a kindly Quaker was unlikely; within the realm of possibility, but highly improbable. Davis’ happy ending is not realistic, but it did appeal to her readers. Deborah’s constant and selfless suffering is rewarded with an elevation, via material goods, to the middle class through the intervention of a well-meaning middle class woman. It may have been a cry to the public to act, to alleviate the conditions of people working in the mills, but it ultimately reinforced middle class hegemony.

Erotica and Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin c. 1920s
(Wikimedia Commons)

“It is one thing to include eroticism in a novel or story and quite another to focus one’s whole attention on it.” — Anaïs Nin

Romance novels are the guilty pleasures of many women and, the Bookish Miss suspects, a few men. In fact, according to one report, the number of those novels being read is going up thanks to e-readers like Kindle and Nook.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this, mind you. Several scholars and writers, Eloisa James in particular, have made excellent arguments as to why romance novels remain not only popular but important — and those points are excellently made. However, it is one thing to read stories that encompass the erotic in and of itself (whether or not actual sexual acts are involved), and another to read something where the entire plot hinges on, or is designed to facilitate, erotic acts.

Anaïs Nin knew this. Much of her erotica reflects her subtle manipulation of what the reader expects, giving pieces of the story but not the whole, because her purpose was to create an atmosphere in which any character could operate. This is what titillates the reader of erotica — the peek into the life of a character who, in some respects, could be anyone. Thus the reader becomes the voyeur, subsumed in a maze conflicting feelings that ends with a certain vicarious form of emotional release.

Nin specialized in stories that deal in some way with the sexual awakening of a woman. Men do appear in these stories, even as the narrator in a few cases, but ultimately the limelight rests on a female character. In The Woman on the Dunes, for example, a sexually frustrated man finds release with a nameless stranger — but her recollection of an erotic experience in the past dwarfs the immediate encounter. Time and again, it is the story of women and their relationships with other women and men that predominate; the atmosphere and point of view are usually so well developed that few readers miss the lack of a well-defined male character.

Nin’s characters also run the gamut of female sexuality and experience. From the violently confused Lina in Lina, to the frigid Dorothy in Two Sisters, who finds pleasure only when it does not harm her sister, to the careless and promiscuous whore Bijou in The Queen, Nin’s female characters embody their sexuality even when trying to reject it. And perhaps that is one of Nin’s messages — even more important than the implied belief that only women can truly know women, Nin shows that these women can never dismiss their sexuality because it is rooted in their bodies.

Some academics and feminists find the idea of female sexuality being rooted in physicality troubling; others, liberating. So what does that mean for the reader?

For some, nothing, they enjoy the story and go on with life without contemplating why it resonates. Others take away the idea that sexuality is natural no matter who your partner may be, that problems happen and innocence irrevocably passes away to become a bittersweet memory.

On the other hand, because Nin’s characters are often shown as being mired in their bodies, as objects of sexual attraction, some take away the idea that she objectifies women. That said, the very depth granted to her female characters, and denied the male characters, would in a sense appear to objectify the men. Because it is usually a man who awakens a woman’s sexual and erotic feelings in Nin’s stories, readers could walk away assuming that men are ones with the power to do so.

However, turning this idea on its head is the way Nin’s female characters relate to men later on. The heroine of A Model, who first experiences erotic pleasure with a girlfriend while still in early adolescence, is sexually awakened by three men she later regards as “children” — which would oppose the idea that men have some sort of (unspoken) power. Men may awaken women, and may be considered adequate lovers, but a constant undercurrent throughout Nin’s stories is that men never fully understand a woman’s sexual and erotic needs once she becomes aware of her own desire.

Perhaps Nin meant to reaffirm the mystique of woman, while at the same time giving women a sense of personal superiority — that they are something that men can never really know.

For me personally, none of these things really come to mind. As I read the tales she wove, I’m struck by the depth of emotion and feeling that she conveys in so little space. Her work is sensuous in the full meaning of the word; she is not only erotic but tactile, you feel as if you are present in the story. Nin’s stories do more than tell the tale, they make the reader feel the sand beneath a character’s feet, smell the incense, see the wind blowing through the trees, taste the sweet wine and hear the sounds of an ecstatic lover.

This, then, is what makes Nin’s erotica singularly erotic. Despite her brevity she does not skimp on the details — and her stories are all the more intense for it.

the BBC’s top 100 books

About a month ago, The Written Nerd posted a list of the BBC’s Top 100 books. The instructions are as follows:

Copy this into your NOTES. Bold those books you’ve read in their entirety, italicize the ones you started but didn’t finish or read an excerpt. Tag other book nerds. Tag me as well so I can see your responses …

The Bookish Miss just couldn’t resist seeing how she stacked up, especially since her friend Elizabeth, over at Travels With Books, did it too.

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling (all)

5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

6. The Bible

7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte

8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell

9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy

13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

14. Complete Works of Shakespeare

15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20. Middlemarch – George Eliot

21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald

23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame

31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

34. Emma – Jane Austen

35. Persuasion – Jane Austen

36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere (this one is actually on my current to-read list!)

39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

41. Animal Farm – George Orwell

42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (wish I hadn’t!)

43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins

46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy

48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

50. Atonement – Ian McEwan

51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52. Dune – Frank Herbert

53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy

68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie

70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville

71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens

72. Dracula – Bram Stoker

73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75. Ulysses – James Joyce

76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78. Germinal – Emile Zola

79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

80. Possession – AS Byatt

81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker

84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery

93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94. Watership Down – Richard Adams

95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl

100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

This list includes some of the greatest books in the English (or any other) language — and if you haven’t read them, you should. Unfortunately, it also includes Dan Brown, who I wouldn’t even trust to write, let alone proofread, a menu.

However, I was surprised to see that nothing by Eudora Welty or Toni Morrison made the list. Welty I can sort of understand since she specialized in short stories (although her novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, won a Pulitzer in 1973), but I’ve always considered Morrison to be one of the best writers of the twentieth century. Morrison’s work, especially Song of Solomon and Beloved, rank right up there with others on this list. Both she and Welty are stupendous writers; their characters are real, and they deal with themes that stretch far beyond their stories’ plots. Both make the reader feel like they are part of the story.

Not sure why they didn’t make the cut and Dan Brown did, but I, personally, think both should have. For that matter, where are Katherine Anne Porter, Guy de Maupassant, Mary Shelley, O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe?

What other books were left off? Are there books you think shouldn’t have made the list?