The link below is to an article that takes a look at the latest update of the Kindle for iOS app.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at speed reading.
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There have been several attempts over the years to make a movie out of DM Thomas’s critically acclaimed 1981 novel, The White Hotel. But despite the involvement of such giants of the screen as David Lynch, Bernardo Bertolucci, Terrence Malik and David Cronenberg – who made a name for himself as a director who can adapt so-called “unfilmable books” – the novel has this far proved resistant to film adaptation.
In the absence of a film version, the book was recently adapted for radio by the BBC, directed by Jon Amiel and based on a screenplay written by the late Dennis Potter in the 1980s.
DM Thomas himself wrote in 2004 about the tortuous and sometimes tortured battle over screen rights for his novel, but apart from the saga over rights – so familiar to any novelist whose work has pricked the attention of film-makers – what was it about the book itself that meant a radio adaptation succeeded when film adaptations have failed?
There are a number of media, cultural and economic conventions that can explain this. But, in general, books that have been called “unfilmable” are books that are hard to read: weighty, ponderous, abstract, complex, convoluted, labyrinthine, densely allusive and excessively long. Or books that treat terrifying, horrifying, revolting or repulsive subjects.
The White Hotel is a difficult read – for a start there’s the unreliable, psychologically disturbed, potentially hallucinating narrator, whose obscene and surreal narratives are followed by representations of horrific historical events and natural disasters. The book’s sections shift jarringly across textual forms and styles – rational, psychoanalytic case notes melt into mythological explorations of psychological symbols. Stories of strange mental states jolt into collective, realist histories. It’s a challenging read.
By contrast, mainstream film conventions require a clear narrative structure and a degree of temporo-spatial logic and continuity. They tend not to favour excessively “talky” screenplays, preferring to tell their stories through visuals and structure them via editing.
These and other reasons that books have been considered unfilmable have been widely discussed. They include historical sprawl (Gabriel Garciá Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude), multiple worlds (Stephen King’s Dark Tower series), too many characters (David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest), and multiple unreliable narrators who confuse the story (Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves).
Some novels are written with a stream of consciousness that keeps the story inside a character’s head (James Joyce’s Ulysses and Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters); there may be lack of clear plot and dynamic action (Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), fantasies too elusive for film’s special effects (H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness), or a book may be too distressing or obscene to visualise realistically (Art Spiegelman’s Maus and The White Hotel).
Satisfying the censors
Censorship has also limited the number and scope of books that are allowed to be filmed – as films are more tightly controlled and censored than books. The reasons for this tighter control of visual images have ancient roots in Judaic, Islamic and Protestant Christian religions which represent the word as divine and the visual image as profane.
Their legacy persists in secular censorship practices. The US Motion Picture Production Code (MPCC) of 1930 ruled that: “The latitude given to film material cannot … be as wide as the latitude given to book material,” because “a book reaches the mind through words merely; a film reaches the eyes and ears through the reproduction of actual events”. It concluded that:
The mobility, popularity, accessibility, emotional appeal, vividness, straightforward presentation of fact in the films makes for intimate contact on a larger audience and greater emotional appeal. Hence the larger moral responsibilities of the motion pictures.
The MPCC advocated censoring films more stringently than books because film “reaches every class of society”, while other arts have their “grades for different classes”.
Even following the relaxation of the MPPC and similar censorship laws in other nations in the late 20th century, these considerations persist. When James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was made into a film by Joseph Strick in 1967, it remained banned in Ireland until 2000, whereas the book was never officially banned in Ireland.
Million dollar question
When David Cronenberg filmed William S. Burroughs’s so-called unfilmable Naked Lunch (1959) in 1991, and was criticised for not being faithful to the book, he retorted that a “straightforward adaptation”, featuring all of the book’s far-flung locations and representing its most shocking scatological and sexual passages would “cost US$100m and be banned in every country in the world”. So the book could be filmed, but it could not be financed or pass film censorship laws.
Financing and censorship are interconnected: films have to reach a much larger audience than novels or radio plays to turn a profit, and must therefore appeal to the mainstream. BBC Radio 4 has a much smaller audience and can appeal to other demographics on other radio channels.
For all of these reasons, a word-only adaptation for the niche audience of BBC Radio 4, aired on a Saturday afternoon – a time when listener numbers are close to being the lowest of the week – clearly offered an economically viable and socially acceptable venue for transmitting this brilliant and challenging novel in another media form. For this, at least, we must be grateful.
While browsing for recipes online, I found this: “Give your Friday night fish and chips an Asian twist with tempura-battered cod and a spicy wasabi tartare sauce.” Sounds delicious? Perhaps – but more exciting to me is the use of the second person possessive. “You” and “your” in the typical recipe are markers of inclusivity and universality – they include us all. The expectation is that everyone eats fish and chips on a Friday so everyone will be enticed by this fusion-tinged variation.
When we consider a common location for the second person voice – the self-help text – matters become complicated. Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (2018), to take a recent controversial example, appears to behave like the recipe. In the declared pursuit of “a shared cultural system” in which people “act in keeping with each other’s expectations and desires”, Peterson uses the second person in a universalising way.
If everyone follows his imperatives – a typical example being: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today” – the implication is that the result will be order, harmony, contentment. The illusion of inclusion (for it is only an illusion) is bolstered by the liberal use of the first person plural: “we”. In my opinion, Peterson isn’t really giving advice – he is luring the reader into complicity with his neoliberal, individualist, masculinist world view. Observations such as “you must be prepared to do anything and everything, in case it becomes necessary” merely reassert Peterson’s male authority. Any supposedly shared beliefs are those of the marketplace.
Sympathy for the devil
Reading Peterson, one is reminded, bizarrely, of Scottish writer Iain Banks’ use of the second person in his 1993 novel Complicity, in which the reader is tempted towards sympathy with the views of a serial killer. The difference is that Banks’ narrative style encourages the reader to put themselves directly into the situation being described:
Then the door closes and they are there in front of you and in that instant you see him turned slightly away, putting his briefcase down on the table beside the answermachine … You swing the cosh and hit him very hard across the back of the head…
This demands that the reader reflects on the ethics of sympathy and complicity and questions the values being espoused. Complicity is a well-known novel – but the second person in literature is rare enough to be a curiosity.
One of the reasons for this might be that, if used very extensively – as in Paul Auster’s memoirs Winter Journal (2012) and Report from the Interior (2013) – it can feel forced, awkward and, frankly, irritating: “Until that morning, you just were. Now you knew that you were.” Whether or not – as critics such as Irene Kacandes have argued – the second person enhances reader involvement, overuse can feel like a form of harassment from someone trying too hard to get into your head.
Auster gestures toward universality, claiming in Report from the Interior that he writes not because “you find yourself a rare or exceptional object of study, but precisely because you don’t, because you think of yourself as anyone, as everyone”. This is disingenuous: the experiences he describes are too personal and specific to be universal – and to assume they are is presumptuous. Even if he is trying to gain distance from himself by using the second person, Auster is still talking only to another version of himself. After all, “you are still who you were, even if you are no longer the same person”.
Talking with yourself
Karl Geary’s 2017 coming-of-age story, Montpelier Parade, works in a similar way to Auster’s memoirs – the adult writer addresses a youthful self, adding sage, gently ironic reflections with hindsight: “You were the hero in your dream of saving her.” The irony derives from differing levels of experience and knowledge, but again the reader watches from a distance as the narrator talks to himself.
In both Auster’s and Geary’s texts, narrators compare themselves to who they were yesterday, as Peterson recommends. What is revealed is an idea of literary selfhood closer to the strong, adaptable second person of the self-help book than we might expect.
By contrast, the most effective second person literary narratives are those which deliberately satirise the self-help text. In Lorrie Moore’s 1985 collection, Self-Help, the stories The Kid’s Guide to Divorce and How are moving precisely because they show that the second person does not instruct or help in practical ways. All it does is catalogue the sadness, the multiple disappointments of a person’s everyday life: “You will meet another actor. Or maybe it’s the same one. Begin to have an affair.”
Likewise, Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013) begins by acknowledging the paradox of self-help books. “You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author” – and then goes on to admit that “the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good”.
Slippery can indeed be good. In fact, the power of Moore’s and Hamid’s stories is their paradoxical nature. They show that individual experience is messy and that it is not amenable to generic recipes for success, and they are more inclusive and universal for doing so. It is easier to relate to a narrator who turns out not to have all the answers – one who, like Hamid, realises that every “you” is different.
Used in such ironic, ambiguous ways, the second person becomes a powerful tool because it reminds us that, as Canadian philosopher Lorraine Code argues, “persons essentially are second persons”. No matter how clear my sense of self, I am always somebody’s other. You may well have found that yourself.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the length of books/ebooks – are books/ebooks getting longer?
The links below are to reviews of ‘Thomas Cromwell – A Life,’ by Diarmaid MacCulloch.
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The link below is to an article that looks at how to organise your ‘to be read’ books.
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The links below are to articles reporting on the withdrawal of Haruki Murakami from the 2018 New Academy Prize in Literature.