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  • Monique Alice 5:30 pm on 2015/10/16 Permalink
    Tags: allen ginsberg, , in the wings, , , peter orlovsky, samuel clemens, , vladimir nabokov   

    The Most Influential Literary Spouses 

    When true literary geniuses leave their mark on the writing world, they often make it seem effortless. We mere mortals are left to ponder, “How is it that one person wrote War and Peace when I can barely get out of the house wearing matching shoes?” But it all begins to make a little more sense when we consider how many iconic writers had a partner working diligently behind the scenes to keep everything together. The spouses below have helped to inspire, encourage, motivate, and critique their partners’ work all the way to the top—and for that, we owe them a debt of gratitude. Read on for some of the most influential better halves in the history of the written word.

    Olivia Clemens
    Anyone who has ever read Mark Twain (or Samuel Clemens, as his wife likely referred to him) can tell you his writing is as close to perfection as it gets. As it turns out, this is due in no small part to his wife Olivia’s contributions. Her upper-crust education and shrewd sensibilities conspired to make her an excellent editor, but that wasn’t her only input. Mrs. Mark Twain also helped temper her husband’s gregarious nature when appropriate, adding a depth and sensitivity to his work that only enhanced its narrative power.

    Leonard Woolf
    Virginia Woolf is one of the most celebrated authors in history, especially impressive considering the many barriers women faced in the world of writing in her day. Classics like A Room of One’s Own shine a light on some of these challenges, as well as Woolf’s battle with mental illness. Throughout all of her ups and downs, her husband, Leonard, was there to support her. As Leonard dabbled in writing himself, he and Virginia eventually opened a publishing company together that went on to print not only the couple’s work, but the work of other celebrated artists of the day. Woolf tragically took her own life, but gave Leonard credit for her happiness and success until the very end.

    Sofia Tolstoy
    When Sofia Behrs wed the 34-year-old Leo Tolstoy, she was just 18 years old. The couple would weather 48 years together, and they weren’t always the happiest. In Sofia’s later published diaries, she talks often of her husband’s lack of emotion toward her, as well as his willingness to leave the household and childrearing grunt work in her hands. In addition to her more mundane tasks, Sofia endlessly transcribed Tolstoy’s writing—and consistently said she was awestruck by her husband’s brilliance. Despite her grievances about his shortfalls as a husband and father, the wife of the man who wrote Anna Karenina remained truly dedicated to Tolstoy’s work until nearly a decade after his passing in 1910.

    Tabitha King
    With nine titles to her credit, Tabitha King is an accomplished author in her own right. Before she began her own writing career, though, she was a one-woman cheer squad for husband Stephen. When the Master of Horror’s career was in its infancy, its future was uncertain. Famously, while writing the manuscript for his first novel, Carrie, King became discouraged and chucked the pages into the trash. It was Tabitha who fished the beginnings of the now iconic novel out and helped polish it into the gem we know and love. It’s safe to say both now support each other in the writing of their respective novels.

    John Gregory Dunne
    Perhaps the seminal literary powerhouse couple, Joan Didion and John Dunne were inseparable for the entirety of their 40-year marriage. John Dunne’s work didn’t gain popularity until the 1980s, but before that time, he might have been referred to as the president of the Joan Didion fanclub. He was known for boring dinner guests and anyone else who would listen with an exhaustive singing of his wife’s praises. Although the Didions’ marriage was not without its faults, it withstood the test of time. One does have to wonder whether each would have reached the literary peaks they did without the undying support of the other.

    Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald
    Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and F. Scott Fitzgerald led a famously wild lifestyle, complete with more than its fair share of excesses and debauchery—their frequent fights were infamous. One can guess that at least a few such fights were due to F. Scott’s relatively regular plagiarism of Zelda’s diary entries and other writings, which he casually assimilated into his own novels with nary a credit in sight. Zelda also functioned as a sounding board for her husband’s work, and he often gave her the final say in matters of style and form. Though he was brutally critical of her writing, Zelda continued to defend and espouse the virtue of her husband’s work until well after his passing.

    Vera Nabokov
    One can imagine the process of writing Lolita must have been fraught with self-doubt. If the book’s reception by many as a profane bit of scandalous pulp is any indication, it was a hard road. Vladimir Nabokov is said to have nearly given up on the manuscript many times, and likely would have if not for the intervention of devoted wife Vera. Vera functioned alternately as editor, agent, critic, and cheerleader for her husband. She even stood in for him occasionally in his role as a lecturer at Cornell when his schedule got too packed. The pair were married for 50 years, and hardly left each other’s sides during that time.

    Peter Orlovsky
    Though Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg were prevented from legally marrying, they were together for nearly 40 years and considered themselves partners for life. The beatnik pair were as influential on each other’s work as they were on the culture at large, frequently encouraging and inspiring one another to strive for greater achievements. Orlovsky’s lesser-known (but brilliant) poetic works were championed by Ginsberg, and Orlovsky is said to have been the muse for many of Ginsberg’s classic works.

    Who are your favorite literary power couples?

  • Jeff Somers 8:00 pm on 2015/08/20 Permalink
    Tags: , experimental fiction, footnotes, , literary experimentation, , , vladimir nabokov,   

    Consider the Footnote: Why Don’t More Authors Use This Powerful Tool? 

    Novels can be roughly divided into two broad categories. You have your books that simply seek to tell a good story1, and you have your novels that attempt to do something new and unexpected. Every month brings us dozens of books that keep us turning pages with their expert use of tension, twists, and character development, and an equal number that take all the traditions of the form and toss them out the window, challenging us to learn to read in new ways2.

    Whether you deem an “experimental” or “postmodern” novel a success depends on what you get out of it: entertainment and awe? Or rage and frustration, and the lingering desire for a refund? While a traditional story well-told, will always succeed on at least one fundamental level, an experimental novel can fail a million times, in spectacular ways3. For every The Mezzanine, a book that inventively plays with reader expectations and traditional structures4, there are a dozen attempts that emerge from their author’s laptops practically begging us to perform a mercy killing. Even then, some of the most reviled novels will always have their fans. No literary experiment can ever be a complete failure5.

    Naturally, some are more successful than others. Found a new way to structure your novel so the sequence of events is a complex, jeweled puzzle box? Fantastic! Figured out how to write a novel without using the letter “E”? Slightly less exciting, though certainly impressive. One service these books render is to identify new tools and techniques that can be appropriated by less-cutting edge authors and repurposed, slowly subsumed into the standard toolbox.

    How this applies in the literary world: a hundred years ago, genius authors began experimenting with stream-of-consciousness narratives; a century later, every high school kid with literary ambitions ponderously writes a stream-of-consciousness story and feels super smart, though all they’ve done is taken a tool that was forged for them decades earlier and used it (probably very, very poorly6).

    Writers use a lot of tricks to forge new ground in their fiction. They play with typesetting and fonts and design, breaking free of the constraints of language. They enforce arbitrary constraints on themselves to push themselves to think in different patterns. They borrow techniques and lietmotifs from other cultures. One favored trick is the use of tools and styles of academia and research: the formal language, the list of references, the deeply researched and realistically rendered background information, and other physical facets of a report or journal article7. And one of the most interesting and powerful tools popularized by fiction writers of the 20th and 21st centuries is the footnote (or endnote). In fact, the footnote is possibly one of the most powerful, flexible storytelling tools absorbed into the novelist’s toolbox in recent years8. They can be used in a wide variety of ways to produce a wide variety of effects, grounding the story in reality or undermining its moorings. They can add depth or complexity, mislead or clarify9. The footnote is a powerful, thoroughly postmodern device in fiction.

    Which leads to the question: if this is how it works, then how come it is so seldom used?

    The Power of the Footnote

    The footnote’s power derives from its disruptive nature10. When you read fiction, you’re allowing yourself to be fooled. If it’s written in the first-person, you believe you’re privy to the point-of-view character’s thoughts and feelings. Third-person narratives are a bit easier; you can imagine you’re reading someone’s writings on a subject, or that the narrator’s voice is a godlike, all-seeing presence11.

    Whatever the narrative scenario, you have to suspend disbelief to buy into it. A footnote or endnote drags you out of that trance and forces you to break the connection—essentially, it breaks the fourth wall12. This is one reason authors who use footnotes in their fiction are sometimes accused of showboating: the footnote can feel akin to a writer suddenly leaping into your room through a window and dancing around waving her arms, shouting “look at me! LOOK AT ME!” The footnote purposefully plays up the artificiality of the reading experience, allowing the author to intrude on their own narrative13.

    In other words, it’s disruptive, and when used creatively can add an exciting energy to any story. Footnotes function in at least four distinct ways: providing supplementary information that goes beyond the narrator’s point of view, adding meta-commentary on the story itself, telling a completely distinct and separate story, and serving as simple entertainment.


    Some books, like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, use footnotes very traditionally. Christopher, the narrator, is very intelligent, but socially challenged and quite possibly somewhere on the autism spectrum, and his approach to his life is one of rigorous logic and deduction in place of the “normal” human abilities of empathy and reading social cues14. As a result, the book is littered with footnotes in which Christopher explains concepts and follows thoughts in logical—but often surprising—ways15. The footnotes are traditional in the sense of providing information to the reader that isn’t naturally found in the narrative, but they also serve a world-building function, in that they make the reading experience similar to Christopher’s own thought process, with his hyperactive imagination running in several directions at all times.

    In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, the footnotes are also employed in world-building, but in a more general sense, expanding areas of the story and character backgrounds that are nonessential but enrich the experience. It’s entirely possible to read the novel while skipping the footnotes altogether, and the reader will not suffer any loss of comprehension in terms of plot16.

    Separate but Equal

    Footnotes are also used to explore related but wholly separate stories. Instead of merely providing interesting references or background information, or to better establish the world of the novel, the footnotes in books such as Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao actually offer additional narratives. In Pale Fire, the footnotes are ostensibly commentary and gloss on a lengthy poem by the fictitious poet John Shade, but in reality, they allow the author of the footnotes (the equally fictitious Charles Kinbote) to tell a rambling story of his own that involves Shade (whose poem he acquires after Shade’s murder), the deposed king of invented country Zembla, and an assassin hunting the king who accidentally kills Shade instead. Confused? Historically, you’re not alone. Nabokov uses footnotes to write a hypertextual book that can be read in a variety of ways: either as direct commentary on the poem itself, as a completely separate narrative read in order, or by jumping around from footnote to footnote, piecing the story together in whatever order appeals to you.

    Diaz’s novel offers alternative narratives that are not exactly essential to the main story. They deepen and expand, continue the work of developing characters, and offer fascinating background information. However, reading the footnotes is in some sense optional—you can read the book without once referring to the footnotes and come away with a perfectly sound understanding of the story, the characters, the themes, and the allusions. What Diaz does by breaking much of the background information into footnote form is challenge the reader to consider the value of that information: how essential is it? If the primary story is clear and complete without footnotes, what do you lose by not reading them? Interestingly, the two portions of the book can be read separately: each describes a single world and a single story in different ways, from different angles, ultimately making both deeper and richer17.

    Parallel Lines

    Footnotes in novels like Infinite Jest and House of Leaves operate in entirely different ways. In Infinite Jest, the footnotes seem at first to function solely as universe-expanding background information. As the novel progresses, they become longer and more complex—eventually even the footnotes have footnotes—until we hit the infamous Footnote 324, which is seven pages of small type the length of an entire chapter if printed in normal-sized font. The footnotes in Infinite Jest are so numerous and varied in content, some of them begin to take on a wholly separate nature, more or less a parallel narrative that tells its own story18.

    Wallace uses the footnotes (technically, endnotes, as they are gathered at the end of the book) to control the reading experience even more tightly than most authors. The author is always in charge, of course; they choose when to provide information, when to introduce characters and events—they control everything we experience as a reader. In Infinite Jest, Wallace goes one step further; he literally stops you whenever he thinks it prudent and forces you to go to the back of the book—to displace, reorient, and then follow his new line of thought for as long as he wants. It’s an exercise in control that’s remarkably powerful, especially when he takes you out of a complex story and leads you down a lengthy aside, only to dump you back where you left off. It’s a bit more ominous when you consider the novel’s Macguffin: the mysterious Entertainment no one can stop watching, shadowing the control Wallace is trying to exert over his readers19.

    For the ultimate rabbit hole of footnotes, we turn to House of Leaves, in which Mark Z. Danielewski uses footnotes not simply to produce a disruptive effect, or exert control over his readers, but to purposefully build three distinct narratives—to make his book larger on the inside than it at first appears, as they would take up many more pages if set in the same typeface as the “main” plot. Consider that this is but the first sign the titular house is something more than a house—it’s measurably larger on the inside than should be possible—combined with the potential interpretation of the title House of Leaves as a metaphor for a book. Your head just exploded, and Danielewski is made happy.

    Footnotes add dimension to fiction of all sorts (Wallace used them extensively in shorter works), and yet they aren’t used often. Reasons for this could be simple: they add a layer of formality that could prevent some readers from absorbing a story—passages that would be happily devoured if placed on the page in the perfect spot become homework assignments. And some folks regard footnotes in fiction as an affectation of postmodernists who value form over content, or who don’t mind being annoying.

    The disruptive nature of the footnote is also an argument against it. As enriching as they are as a literary technique, not every tool is right for every job. Disruption can be enervating and exciting—but it can also be frustrating and distancing. Still, let’s take a moment to consider the eerie power of the footnote to transform and elevate a work of fiction.

    1. As opposed to all those novelists who seek to tell a story badly, I suppose. I guess I’ll start apologizing for these sorts of things now.[back]
    2. I don’t know about you, but I find novels that have contempt for me to be strangely exciting.[back]
    3. Except as a doorstop, as almost every experimental novel ever written is approximately the size and mass of a small galaxy.[back]
    4. Still waiting for the thrilling film adaptation of a novel that takes place entirely during an escalator ride from one floor to another. Soundtrack would be one piece of music. OSCARS HERE WE COME.[back]
    5. Even this one.[back]
    6. You can probably change that to certainly.[back]
    7. As it turns out, academia says “right back at you” to fiction.[back]
    8. If we’re discussing the Fifty Shades of Grey books, of course, the terms ‛powerful’ and ‛flexible’ have very different meanings. Also, now that we think about it, ‛absorbed.’[back]
    9. They can also be used purely as entertainment, in the form of hilarious asides to the reader.[back]
    10. See? Annoying, isn’t it.[back]
    11. Much like the voice that urged me to write this essay, and keeps assuring me I am hilarious and also very smart.[back]
    12. Except you, right here, right now, because you are reading an essay, not a book. Although science tells me that by this point it probably feels like you’ve been reading this forever.[back]
    13. Trust me: This footnote idea felt clever when I started.[back]
    14. In other words, he’s a writer. SELF BURN.[back]
    15. In the theater adaptation of the novel, this is handled in a fun way by having Christopher promise to explain how he solved a particular test question after the play has ended. After the cast has taken their bows, Christopher bounds back onto the stage and regales the audience that has remained with a spirited explanation of a geometry problem.[back]
    16. Just like this essay, amiright?[back]
    17. Imagine if E.L. James chose to do this from Christian Grey’s point of view instead of publishing Grey. Sure, the original trilogy would be 15,000 pages long, but the immersion would be 100%, resulting in societal breakdown and leading directly to the scenarios depicted in the Mad Max films.[back]
    18. In fact, some people earnestly advise you to buy a paperback copy of the book and rip it in three: The main narrative into two equal shares, and then the endnotes, then tape the endnotes to the first half and read it, then tape it to the second half and read it. This not only gives you the classic aura of Literary Hobo (hot), it spares you the back strain of carrying that book around.[back]
    19. Unlike this essay, which you likely stopped reading ten minutes ago. Hello?[back]

  • Jeff Somers 3:00 pm on 2015/05/21 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , portnoy's complaint, , , vladimir nabokov   

    The 5 Worst Mothers in Literary History 

    As Philip Larkin wrote in the Greatest Poem of All Time (GPAT): “Man hands on misery to man/It deepens like a coastal shelf/Get out as early as you can/And don’t have any kids yourself.” This doesn’t hold true for every parent, but it certainly would’ve been good advice to give to any of the mother monsters listed below. Take our quick and terrifying tour through some of the worst mothers in literary history, and feel grateful all over again for your own.

    Margaret White (Carrie, by Stephen King)
    Most people concentrate on the monstrous teens in King’s iconic novel, the cool kids who torment Carrie until she has history’s worst psychotic break. But the kids aren’t the villains of this story, and neither is Carrie: it’s her awful, awful mother. How awful? Not only is everything—including the conception and birth of her own daughter—a sin to Margaret, she also seems to believe disciplining a child should involve locking her in a closet. Constantly. Margaret White is one of the few mothers who completely and richly deserves her terrible fate.

    Charlotte Haze (Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov)
    While Charlotte Haze isn’t the brightest bulb in the literary universe and might be excused for not noticing Humbert Humbert is, how shall we say this, a predatory criminal, her true monstrosity becomes clear when you look a little deeper. Charlotte is enamored with Humbert not because she craves love or companionship, but because she wants “the finer things” and believes Humbert, with his European manners and fussy, academic airs, can provide them for her. She doesn’t so much not notice his attentions towards Lolita as ignore them lest they ruin her chances for a “good life” she can barely define.

    Corrine and Olivia (Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews)
    The brilliant trick of V.C. Andrews’ novel about incest, greed, and spectacularly bad parenting is that it initially presents Olivia, the grandmother, as the true Monstrous Mother, and Corrine, the mother, as a goodhearted parent who is guilty of incredibly poor decision-making but not true evil…then it slowly turns the tables, not by making the grandmother a better person but by making Corrine the worst person. Poisoning your children slowly (while forcing them to hide in the attic) in order to assure your inheritance is actually more horrible than locking them in closets for days on end. At least Carrie got to attend gym class from time to time.

    Fiona Brewer (About a Boy, by Nick Hornby)
    Sometimes a humorous novel can distract us from the horrible people populating it, as with Nick Hornby’s touching, funny, and somewhat disturbing story of an awkward, unhappy boy and a slick, unhappy man. Fiona Brewer initially seems a bit strange in an amusing way, and fiercely protective of her son—but then you realize she attempted suicide in a way that pretty much guaranteed her son would walk in on her cold, dead body, and that most of his social anxiety and awkwardness is due to her own cynical view of the world. In the end, Fiona does not completely belong in the Hall of Fame for bad mothers, for she rallies over the course of the book to demonstrate true love for her son, which leaves her a long way from the sullen, unhappy, and resolutely selfish woman we meet in the beginning.

    Sophie Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
    If it isn’t a standard belief that mothers should not stand outside the bathroom while their sons defecate and then demand they not flush so their output can be examined, then by gum, it should be. Sophie Portnoy is the sort of mother only novelists and psychiatrists can imagine, a woman so smothering and domineering she’s at the root of all her son’s “complaints”—including the (frequently awful and disturbing) sexual ones, which push her well into Monstrous Mother territory despite the black humor surrounding her every utterance and action in Roth’s infamous novel.

    So there you have it—the Injustice League of Bad Mothers. Which fictional moms did we miss?

    Shop all fiction >
  • Rebecca Jane Stokes 7:00 pm on 2014/07/14 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , i capture the castle, , , , , louisa may alcotte, , , revolutionary road, richard yates, , , the host, , vladimir nabokov, ,   

    10 Characters Who Ended Up With The Wrong People 

    Little Women

    Very often we turn to books for the satisfaction of a love story well told. If it’s done right, we get all swoony, clutch the tomes to our winsome bosoms (or winsome pectorals, as the case may be), and sigh over the perfection and delicious unreality of a fictional love affair. I may really dig a dude in a real life, but him spontaneously being all Edward Fairfax Rochester and telling me about an invisible cord connecting our ribs is, I can almost guarantee, never going to happen.

    To that end, I’ve always had a soft spot for books where the “perfect love story” doesn’t turn out to be so perfect after all. I know I’m not alone in this. Every reader gets a wonderful shiver of schadenfreude each time a pairing between characters goes south and goes south HARD. Here are 10 characters who ended up with absolutely the wrong people:

    1. Jo March and Professor Bhaer (Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott)
    Okay, I can feel the masses ready to string me up on high for this one, but I’m standing by it. Oh sure, Jo and the Professor are a sweet, modern couple and I kind of dig them, and everybody knows accents are sexy, but none of this matters because LAURIE. He loved Jo most of his life, and you know the feeling was mutual. That said, while I always wanted to be a Jo, I am probably closer to being an Amy, so I guess I should be grateful.

    2. Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen)
    A girl’s gotta eat, BUT AT WHAT COST? Marriage to a pompous, socially climbing, sniveling parson = not worth it. I want an alternative version of P&P where Charlotte takes up a life walking the streets of London solving crimes while deep undercover as a prostitute. It would be all about female empowerment and also Jack the Ripper.

    3. Cassandra Mortmain (I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith)
    To be fair, there’s something admirable and noble and sweet and real about our narrator Cassandra ending up on her own and learning that a broken heart doesn’t mean the end of love altogether. Still, when a good chunk of a novel has been dedicated to Cassandra falling for her sister’s then-fiance, you can’t help but feel slightly cheated by the ending.

    4. Harry, Hermione, and Ron (The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling) 
    I tend to be a Hermione and Ron apologist, but if even J. K. Rowling admits that it should have been Harry and Hermione, then who are we mere plebes to argue with her wisdom?

    5. Frank and April Wheeler (Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates)
    Frank and April Wheeler’s totally borked dynamic eventually leads to disasters we won’t discuss here, because spoilers. Frank and April clearly weren’t meant to be together, or if they were, the timing was off and the repressive culture of the age shot their union in the foot before it even had a chance to trot. One could argue that without their cataclysmic pairing the book wouldn’t exist, to which I respond: DON’T CARE TOO DEPRESSING.

    6. Romeo and Juliet (Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare)
    They literally die because they are mad at their parents. Are they smitten with each other? Totally. But are they also infants with poor impulse control? Oh very much so.

    7. George and Martha: (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, by Edward Albee)
    Just a word of wisdom for the collected masses reading this post—if you and your partner both have significant drinking problems and a shared semi-delusion of a child, it’s best to get out before one of you starts breaking the furniture, you dig?

    8. Charles and Camilla (The Secret History, by Donna Tartt)
    Fraternal twins Charles and Camilla take a beyond warped page from George R.R. Martin’s books when it comes to how twins feel about each other. In their pants. No, just…no.

    9. Lolita and Humbert: (Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov)
    I have one word for you, and it rhymes with shmedophilia. Also, everybody dies. *Drops mic, walks away, sassy and triumphant*

    10. Wanda and Ian: (The Host, by Stephenie Meyer)
    Look, I get that love is about more than just the physical body, but the body is a big part of it—especially at first. So forgive me if I give Wanda and Ian the side-eye. We get it Wanda, your love for Ian surpasses the physical. Doesn’t erase the fact that you are making out with him using basically a corpse’s mouth. Barf.

    What fictional characters do you think ended up with the wrong people?

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