Fan of sci-fi? Psychologists have you in their sights



Liu zishan via Shutterstock

Gavin Miller, University of Glasgow

Science fiction has struggled to achieve the same credibility as highbrow literature. In 2019, the celebrated author Ian McEwan dismissed science fiction as the stuff of “anti-gravity boots” rather than “human dilemmas”. According to McEwan, his own book about intelligent robots, Machines Like Me, provided the latter by examining the ethics of artificial life – as if this were not a staple of science fiction from Isaac Asimov’s robot stories of the 1940s and 1950s to TV series such as Humans (2015-2018).

Psychology has often supported this dismissal of the genre. The most recent psychological accusation against science fiction is the “great fantasy migration hypothesis”. This supposes that the real world of unemployment and debt is too disappointing for a generation of entitled narcissists. They consequently migrate to a land of make-believe where they can live out their grandiose fantasies.

The authors of a 2015 study stress that, while they have found evidence to confirm this hypothesis, such psychological profiling of “geeks” is not intended to be stigmatising. Fantasy migration is “adaptive” – dressing up as Princess Leia or Darth Vader makes science fiction fans happy and keeps them out of trouble.

But, while psychology may not exactly diagnose fans as mentally ill, the insinuation remains – science fiction evades, rather than confronts, disappointment with the real world.

The case of ‘Kirk Allen’

The psychological accusation that science fiction evades real life goes back to the 1950s. In 1954, the psychoanalyst Robert Lindner published his case study of the pseudonymous “Kirk Allen”, a patient who maintained an extraordinary fantasy life modelled on pulp science fiction.

Case studies from the edge.
Schnoodles blog, CC BY

Allen believed he was at once a scientist on Earth – and simultaneously an interplanetary emperor. He believed he could enter his other life by mental time travel into the far-off future, where his destiny awaited in scenes of power, respect, and conquest – both military and sexual.

Lindner explained Allen’s condition as an escape from overwhelming mental anguish rooted in childhood trauma. But Lindner, himself a science fiction fan, remarked also on the seductive attraction of Allen’s second life, which began to offer, as he put it, a “fatal fascination”. The message was clear. Allen’s psychosis was extreme, but it showed in stark clarity what drew readers to science fiction: an imagined life of power and status that compensated for the readers’ own deficiencies and disappointments.

Lindner’s words mattered. He was an influential cultural commentator, who wrote for US magazines such as Time and Harper’s. The story of Kirk Allen was published in the latter, and in Lindner’s book of case studies, The Fifty-Minute Hour, which became a successful popular paperback.

Critical distance

Psychology had very publicly diagnosed science fiction as a literature of evasion – an “escape hatch” for the mentally troubled. Science fiction answered back, decisively changing the genre in the following decades.

What if Hitler had written science fiction?
Amazon

To take one example: Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972) purports to reprint a prize-winning 1954 science fiction novel. The novel is apparently written, in an alternate history timeline, by Adolf Hitler, who gave up politics, emigrated to the US, and became a successful science fiction author and illustrator. A fictional critical afterword explains that Hitler’s novel, with its “fetishistic military displays and orgiastic bouts of unreal violence”, is just a more extreme version of the “pathological literature” that dominates the genre.

In her review of The Iron Dream, the now-celebrated science fiction author Ursula Le Guin – daughter of the distinguished anthropologist Alfred Kroeber – wrote that the “essential gesture of SF” is “distancing, the pulling back from ‘reality’ in order to see it better”, including “our desires to lead, or to be led”, and “our righteous wars”. Le Guin wanted science fiction to make strange the North American society of her time, showing afresh its peculiar psychology, culture, and politics.

In 1972, the US was still fighting the Vietnam War. In the same year, Le Guin offered her own “distanced” version of social reality in The Word for World is Forest, which depicts the attempted colonisation of an inhabited alien planet by a macho, militaristic Earth society intent on conquering and violating the natural world – a semi-allegory for what the USA was doing at the time in south-east Asia.

The Vietnam War reimagined.
Wikipedia, CC BY

As well as repudiating the worst parts of the genre, such responses implied a positive model for science fiction. Science fiction wasn’t about evading reality – it was a literary anthropology which made our own society into a foreign culture which we could stand back from, reflect on, and change.

Rather than ask us to pull on our anti-gravity boots, open the escape hatch and leap into fantasy, science fiction typically aspires to be a literature that faces up to social reality. It owes this ambition, in part, to psychology’s repeated accusation that the genre markets escapism to the marginalised and disaffected.The Conversation

Gavin Miller, Senior Lecturer in Medical Humanities, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Anniversaries spark renewed readings of South Africa’s celebrated Sol Plaatje



Flowcomm/Flickr/Sol Plaatje House Museum

Chris Thurman, University of the Witwatersrand

Over the last decade, inquiry into the life and work of South African writer, intellectual and politician Solomon T. Plaatje has been spurred by a series of hundred-year anniversaries.

In 2010 it was the centenary of the formation of that dubious political and geographical structure, the Union of South Africa, which would shape the focus of Plaatje’s many projects until his death in 1932. It was also in 1910 that he founded his second Setswana-language newspaper, Tsala ea Becoana.

Two years later, Plaatje was one of the eminent group who formed the South African Native National Congress, which would later become the African National Congress (ANC). In 2012, when the ANC celebrated its centenary, Plaatje’s name was often cited, although he has been more readily associated with a cosmopolitan, erudite – “elitist”? – strand in the ANC that did not fit with the populist brand emphasised by the party in the shift from Thabo Mbeki’s presidency to Jacob Zuma’s.

There was another hundred-year anniversary in 2016, this time of the publication of Native Life in South Africa. The book was Plaatje’s seminal response to the passage of the Natives Land Act of 1913. This notorious piece of legislation set a traumatic tone for the dispossession, segregation and violent oppression that would characterise late-colonial and apartheid South Africa as the 20th century wore on.

Here was Plaatje in strident “Give back the land!” mode, an appealing figure to those advocating for more radical approaches to redressing the disenfranchisement of black South Africans.

The South African Native National Congress delegation to England, June 1914. Left to right: Thomas Mapike, Rev Walter Rubusana, Rev John Dube, Saul Msane, Sol Plaatjie.
Unknown photographer/Wikimedia Commons

The year 1916 is also significant in the field of Plaatje studies because it was when he contributed his short bilingual English-Setswana essay “A South African’s Homage” to the Book of Homage to Shakespeare.

Here again, we have the paradox of Plaatje writ large. The “Homage” signals his future undertaking as a translator of Shakespeare’s plays into Setswana. He saw this as complementary work to his wider promotion of the language. Yet his affinity for Shakespeare cannot be disconnected from his attachment to Britain and to its empire, his role indeed as an imperial apologist, which can seem difficult to reconcile with some of his other political and literary credentials.

To make sense of this requires a deeper understanding of Plaatje’s historical context as well as his life’s trajectory, and the people, convictions, accidents and circumstances that shaped it. Happily, this is made possible by historian Brian Willan, who has chosen Plaatje as the main focus of his own life’s work and who knows his subject better than anyone else. Willan wrote a biography of Plaatje in 1984. The book seemed definitive until, in 2018, Jacana Media published his Sol Plaatje: A Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932.


Jacana Media

A magisterial biography

“Magisterial” is a word too often applied to biographies that don’t quite merit the moniker. But in the case of Willan’s book it is entirely apt. This may not be the final word on Plaatje. Nevertheless, it is a text to which all future scholars and researchers working on Plaatje will have to refer.

At almost 600 pages it is an encyclopaedic tome, documenting Plaatje’s life and times in rich detail. The true achievement of the book, however, is that it manages to do this in an engaging manner and with a prose style that – while never “chatty” – imagines a kind of conversation with the reader.

One can follow the chronological narrative, through 18 chapters marking out distinct periods in Plaatje’s astonishingly productive life. Alternatively one can dip into and out of its pages, navigating its riches via the index, or even flipping idly between phases and themes.

Fortunately, Willan is neither zealous nor jealous when it comes to his subject. His collaborations with other scholars have yielded fruit in various other Plaatje-oriented publications. In 2016, Wits Press published a collection of essays on Native Life co-edited by Willan, Bhekizizwe Peterson and Janet Remmington.

Mhudi gets a new collection

Later this year, Jacana will publish a similar collection, co-edited by Willan and fellow Plaatje biographer Sabata-mpho Mokae, focusing on Plaatje’s novel Mhudi. I am fortunate to be one of the contributors to this volume.

Mhudi appeared in 1930 after an exhausting 10-year battle to get it into print. So 2020 marks another centenary of sorts.

First edition of Mhudi, Lovedale Press.
Blessing Kgasa/Kanye Records Centre/Twitter

What are we to make of this novel, with its eponymous heroine and her husband Ra-Thaga, whose lives coincide with major colonial-era clashes in the first half of the 1800s?

It seems, by turns, to be an imperial romance and an allegory that is critical of empire; a naïve vision of interracial cooperation and a reminder that history is relentless in its cycles of violence.

Is it an affirmation of tribal tradition, or a feminist riposte to patriarchal culture? Is it a patchy experiment in need of an editor, or a genre-busting proto-postmodern pastiche influenced as much by oral narrative traditions as by the polyvocality of Shakespearean drama?

What is beyond question is the significance of Mhudi as the first novel in English by a black South African writer.

The next wave

Strandwolf’s new edition of Mhudi.

The novel’s original publisher, Lovedale Press, sadly faces the prospect of closure. But it is encouraging to note that other independent publishers have committed their resources to keeping Mhudi current. Blackman Roussouw’s Strandwolf imprint has brought out a new edition. Jacana also has plans to publish another edition alongside Willan and Mokae’s critical volume on the novel.

It is to be hoped that, by the time we reach the centennial celebration of Mhudi being published by Lovedale (1930) and the centennial commemoration of the author’s death in 2032, the new wave of scholarship on Plaatje will have challenged readers to grapple with this enigmatic, protean polymath anew.The Conversation

Chris Thurman, Associate professor, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Books in a post-f@#^ world. Are we all sworn out yet?



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Donna Mazza, Edith Cowan University

Warning: this piece features frequent coarse language that may offend some readers.

Since Adam Mansbuch’s 2011 bestseller, Go the Fuck to Sleep, book titles have been swearing profusely to grab audience attention. The author followed up on the winning formula with You Have to Fucking Eat and Fuck, Now There Are Two of You.

Book covers compete with a barrage of information and images, so it’s no wonder many writers resort to shock tactics. It works. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck is testament to this, selling 2 million copies and translated into 25 languages. Without the “Fuck” this would very likely have been a different story.


Microcosm

Presumably hoping to ride on the back of this success, upcoming releases include Fuck Happiness and The Middle Finger Project.

In the English language, at least, fuck and other words on the more extreme end of profanity are the last frontier of using language to shock. In 2020, we find ourselves in a place of extremes so they come in quite handy.

But with so many fucks on book covers, where do writers go from here to express our fear, horror, rage and disgust?

Heard it all before

Eventually we become desensitised to the overuse of words. Shit, a taboo for older generations, is now so lacking as an obscenity it is written on the covers of notebooks and pencil cases available in stationery chain stores popular with schoolchildren, such as Typo.

According to a 2019 ABC study of 1,538 subjects, Australians are seeing and hearing more coarse language than they did five years ago, both in the media and in public.

“In line with this normalisation of coarse language, concerns relating to the use of coarse language in the media have diminished over time,” the study found. Of people studied, 38% were offended by coarse language on TV, radio or the internet in 2019, compared with 47% in 2011.

Go the Fuck to Sleep grabbed the attention of parents worldwide.

Tennis, one of the last bastions of politeness, does constant battle with players like Nick Kyrgios who rack up massive fines for dropping the F-bomb on the court.

Fines, like detention, seem to be on the train that has left the station when you consider reputable online booksellers currently carry almost a hundred books with fuck in the title. Most of these are self-help books, because we are, obviously, quite fucked and need help, and cookbooks, such as Yumi Stynes’ The Zero Fucks Cookbook. Kitchens seem to be a hotbed of fucks, a trend set some time ago by Gordon Ramsay.

Meaning and language are in a constant evolution and can act as a moral barometer. Expressing the fears and horrors of her times 200 years ago, author Mary Shelley created a “fiend”, formed through “unspeakable” horrors. Some initially derided the work as “disgusting”, but the extremes of her Frankenstein left an impact on literature and society of mythic proportions, without resorting to profanity or cheap tricks. She left the unspeakable to our imaginations, yet it broke boundaries and challenged our understanding of life and human nature.


Penguin

In 1959, the unabridged edition of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published with several instances of fuck. The edition was banned. In 1963, fuck was included in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, triggering complaints to schools, libraries and the police.

Taboos and standards are forever in flux and younger generations always seek a boundary to break through. In our times of consumption and greed, we are eating our way through those boundaries at a great rate, along with as many of the Earth’s resources as we possibly can.

What now?

Several hundred book covers later, fuck is completely worn out.

Sure, there is still coarser language that will work for a few years until it also becomes a meme; until we wear it out as a book title or, perhaps, if we think too hard about what it means and how we might use it.


Hardie Grant

Language can only evolve creatively with a dynamic culture, deep education and critical practitioners of the literary arts, within and outside of the academy. Words are weapons; they are our way of making sense of life and without them we are unspeakable.

Language and how we use it really matters. It creates knowledge, culture and community. If we are to navigate our way through the future and avoid reaching a place of anarchy, we need a language for it.

Resorting to coarse language on book covers could be a symptom of society’s collective misery, but it could also be attributable to the starvation of the arts by government and a desperate need to grab readers’ attention. If literature loses the power to shock then it loses an important mode of engagement, according to postcritical theorist Rita Felski. It’s enough to make you want to swear and curse and scream. Unfortunately, as a word to save for extremes, we have really fucked up fuck.


Donna Mazza’s new novel has an f-word in the title but it’s Fauna.The Conversation

Donna Mazza, Senior Lecturer in Creative Arts, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Finished Reading: Dirk Pitt (Book 5) – Vixen 03 by Clive Cussler


Vixen 03 (Dirk Pitt, #5)Vixen 03 by Clive Cussler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Finished Reading: Dirk Pitt (Book 4) – Raise the Titanic! by Clive Cussler


Raise The Titanic!Raise The Titanic! by Clive Cussler
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Peter Handke Nobel Prize controversy: Literature can’t be judged on esthetics alone



Demonstrators protest the awarding of the 2019 Nobel literature prize to Peter Handke in Stockholm, in December 2019.
Stina Stjernkvist/TT News Agency via AP

Ervin Malakaj, University of British Columbia

Austrian writer Peter Handke received the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. The award is for “a writer’s life work,” and Handke has written novels, travelogues, theatre plays, screenplays and poetry.

Hundreds protested the award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall. This was not an isolated protest.

Literature laureate 2019 Peter Handke gives his speech during the Nobel banquet at Stockholm City Hall, on Dec. 10, 2019.
Anders Wiklund/TT News Agency via AP

The announcement of the award generated public uproar.

Handke’s critics say some of his published work has advanced and fuelled genocide apologetics and they point to his choice to speak at the 2006 funeral of Serbian ethno-nationalist politician Slobodan Milošević. When Milošević died, he was on trial facing 66 charges including for crimes against humanity and genocide.

The controversy has spurred long-standing debates about where stories come from, who is responsible for them and what it means as a writer to bear witness to truth — and also, which persons or institutions have the authority to do so.

These events unfolded at a time of rising ethnonationalism across Europe.

Sustained dissent

Handke’s controversial book, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia (translated from German), attracted particular criticism.

The publisher of the English-language 1997 translation describes the book on its jacket as both a “sensitive and nuanced meditative travelogue through Serbia,” and a “scathing criticism of western war reporting.”

In the book, Handke writes: “all too many of the reporters on Bosnia and on the war there … are not only proud chroniclers, but false ones.” In his search for a “common remembering” he writes: “To record the evil facts, that’s good. But something else is needed for a peace, something not less important than the facts.”

Handke’s Nobel nomination particularly inflamed journalists and survivors of the Srebrenica genocide, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in July 1995, during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. Various intellectuals, as well as the broader public voiced their dissent about Handke receiving the award on Twitter following the award announcement.

The bigger context is that some perpetrators denied findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (sometimes referred to as the Hague Tribunal, based in The Hague, Netherlands) — and the tribunal documented atrocious strategies to conceal crimes, such as moving mass graves. Denials of the Srebrenica genocide continue today.

Media reported that Emir Suljagić, a survivor of the Srebrenica genocide who wrote Postcards from the Grave, said after the announcement of Handke’s award: “I am in Stockholm to protest the award being given to a man who negates my suffering and the suffering of so many others.”

During a press conference in December, Handke did not provide direct answers to questions about the controversy.

Committee and academy defend decision

In an Oct. 10, 2019, press release, the Swedish Academy announced it had awarded Handke the Nobel for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Following the protests and uproar, both Swedish Academy and Nobel Committee for Literature members defended the decision.

Two academy members wrote in a Swedish newspaper that Handke had “definitely made provocative, inappropriate and unclear statements on political issues,” but added: “The Swedish Academy has obviously not intended to reward a war criminal and denier of war crimes or genocide.”

In an op-ed, writing as an individual, one of the members of the committee said Handke in his writing was “radically unpolitical,” according to a story from Agence France-Presse. British Broadcasting Corp. reported that another member said: “When we give the award to Handke, we argue that the task of literature is other than to confirm and reproduce what society’s central view believes is morally right.”

Suhrkamp Verlag, Handke’s publisher, circulated a defence of his work following the controversy, but did not release it publicly, journalist Peter Maass wrote in The Intercept.

Many statements in defence of the award echo earlier French and British 20th century literary criticism.

Evaluating the text’s language alone?

The French philosopher Roland Barthes’s influential 1967 essayThe Death of the Author” served to elevate literary work and its language. Barthes wrote: “It is language which speaks, not the author.”

For French philosopher Michel Foucault, the author is a kind of scribe who commits language to paper. The implication is that the author is writing down the realities of the world outside. In his view, “the function of the author is to characterize the existence, circulation and operation of certain discourses within a society” — meaning, ideas and messaging, as he elaborated in his 1969 essay “What is an Author?

Before them, T.S. Eliot proclaimed in 1919 that writing “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

As feminist literary scholar Cheryl Walker has noted, independence-of-the-text critiques have to a certain extent helped “liberate the text for multiple uses,” like re-reading canonical texts from critical feminist perspectives.

But such critiques have also been at odds with literary traditions on the margins.

Historically, the significance of lived personal and collective experiences have been central features of texts by women, Black, Indigenous and people of colour, queer or transgender writers.

These literatures, their readers and their institutions of criticism have long resisted calls to separate author, text and political or social impact.
They have have asserted either that the personal is political or that perspective is situational — and rejected the notion that literary work can considered unpolitical.

Award fuelled ethnonationalist politics

Critics of Handke’s receipt of the Nobel award challenge the notion that Handke’s literary work can be evaluated apart from its political implications.

Bosnian-American author Aleksandar Hemon has questioned what he calls the academy’s belief in a “literature safe from the infelicities of history and actualities of human life and death.”

PEN America issued a statement decrying the academy’s support for Handke, saying the body is “dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide.”

Among the alarming developments in the Handke affair has been the news that the award fuelled far-right ethnonationalist sympathies.

How or if the Swedish Academy will respond to these developments as the public demands it approach the award more cautiously remains to be seen. It seems unlikely that it will rescind Handke’s award.

But the academy is implicated in this affair no matter what.The Conversation

Ervin Malakaj, Assistant Professor of German Studies, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three things historical literature can teach us about the climate crisis



Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870.

David Higgins, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, University of Leeds

New novels about climate change – climate fiction, or cli-fi – are being published all the time. The nature of the climate crisis is a difficult thing to get across, and so imagining the future – a drowned New York City, say; or a world in which water is a precious commodity – can help us understand what’s at stake.

This is unsurprising in these times of crisis: fiction allows us to imagine possible futures, good and bad. When faced with such an urgent problem, it might seem like a waste of time to read earlier texts. But don’t be so sure. The climate emergency may be unprecedented, but there are a few key ways in which past literature offers a valuable perspective on the present crisis.

1. Climate histories

Historical texts reflect the changing climatic conditions that produced them. When Byron and the Shelleys stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, the literature that they wrote responded to the wild weather of the “year without a summer”.

This was caused largely by the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora the previous year, which lowered global temperatures and led to harvest failures and famine. Literary works such as as Byron’s “Darkness”, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal anxieties about human vulnerability to environmental change even as they address our power to manipulate our environments.

Many older texts also bear indirect traces of historical climate change. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton complains that a “cold climate” may “damp my intended wing” and prevent him from completing his masterpiece. This may well reflect the fact that he lived through the coldest period of the “Little Ice Age”.

Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with Skaters, c. 1608.
Rijks Museum

Even literature’s oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC), contains traces of climate change. It tells of a huge flood which, like the later story of Noah in the Old Testament, is probably a cultural memory of sea level rise following the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.

These historical climatic shifts were not man made, but they still provide important analogues for our own age. Indeed, many cultures have seen human activity and climate as intertwined, often through a religious framework. One of the ironies of modernity is that the development of the global climate as an object of study, apparently separate from human life, coincides with the development of the carbon capitalism that has linked them more closely than ever.

2. How we view nature

Reading historical literature also allows us to trace the development of modern constructions of the natural world. For example, the Romantic ideal of “sublime” nature, which celebrated vast, dramatic landscapes like mountains and chasms, has influenced the kinds of places that we value and protect today in the form of national parks.

When we understand that such landscapes are not purely natural, but are produced by cultural discourses and practices over time – we protect these landscapes above others for a reason – we can start to debate whether they can be better managed for the benefit of humans and non-humans alike.

Past ideas of ‘sublime’ nature have bled into the landscapes we protect today.
Hendrik Cornelissen/Unsplash, FAL

Or consider how in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the work of nature writers such as Thomas Bewick, Charlotte Smith and Gilbert White played a powerful role in promoting natural theology: the theory that evidence for God’s existence can be found in the complex structures of the natural world. Past literature has also been crucial in disseminating new scientific ideas such as evolutionary theory, which understood natural phenomena as entirely secular. Literature does not just reflect changing views of the natural world; it shapes them.

Studying historical texts helps us to understand how modern cultural attitudes towards the environment developed, which in turn allows us to perceive that these attitudes are not as “natural” or inevitable as they may seem. This insight allows for the possibility that today, in a time in which our attitude towards the environment could certainly improve, they can change for the better.

3. Ways of thinking

Some of the attitudes towards the natural world that we discover in historical literature are contentious, even horrifying: for example, the normalisation of animal cruelty portrayed in books such as Black Beauty.

But we can find more promising models too. Voltaire’s poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, for example, has been used to think about the ethics of blame and optimism in responses to modern disasters, like the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.

Reading past literature can also help us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. Samuel Johnson commented of the natural descriptions in James Thomson’s poems The Seasons (1730) that the reader “wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses”. Amid the frenzied distractions of modern life, the work of authors like Thomson, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare can help us to slow down, notice and love nature.

Historical literature can remind us of our own vulnerability to elemental forces. The famous depiction of a storm in King Lear, for example, mocks Lear’s attempt:

In his little world of man to out-scorn
The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.

Shakespeare might appear to aestheticise dangerous weather, but the play reminds us that the storm is far bigger and messier than any human attempt to represent and interpret it.

Lear and the Fool in the storm, Ary Scheffer, 1834.
Folger Shakespeare Library, CC BY-SA

At the same time, literature can remind us of the need to take responsibility for our own impacts upon the environment. We may not want to follow pre-modern and early modern literature in viewing climate change as divine punishment for bad behaviour. But when Milton suggests that it was the fall of man that brought in “pinching cold and scorching heat” to replace the eternal spring of Eden, his narrative has clear figurative resonance with our present crisis.

Historical literature can show us how writers responded to climate change, trace how they influenced modern ideas about nature, and reveal valuable ways of relating to and thinking about nature. The climate crisis cannot be addressed only through technological solutions. It also requires profound cultural shifts. To make those shifts requires an understanding of past ideas and representations: both those that led to our current predicament and those that might help us address it.The Conversation

David Higgins, Associate Professor in English Literature, University of Leeds and Tess Somervell, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

I’m a novelist – and this is why I choose middle-aged women as the heroes of my crime thrillers



Motortion Films via Shutterstock

Emily Bernhard Jackson, University of Exeter

Mystery is the bestselling genre in literature. Crime/mystery fiction, to give the genre its full title, beats inspirational, science fiction, horror and apparently even romance to take the top spot.

And why not? There’s someone for everyone in crime/mystery – elderly lady sleuths, amateur Palestinian sleuths, professional Belgian sleuths, thoughtful Scottish police officers, embittered Scottish police officers, damaged Irish police officers, weary Scandinavian police officers, former army officer detectives, amateur girl detectives, sad drunk amateur girl detectives. There’s even a detective who partners up with a skeleton.

What there doesn’t seem to be much of in mystery fiction, however, is female detectives who begin detecting in middle age (two cases in point: Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski was 32 when we began to follow her adventures, while Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta was 36). Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.

But it’s a surprise if you’re a woman in your 40s who is beginning to write mystery novels – which not so long ago I was. And while it’s a cliche that people write what they know, when I decided to write a mystery I entered into that cliche wholeheartedly. I started writing mysteries in my 40s – and I made my detectives two women in their 40s.

Two middle-aged American women and a dead man in a bowl of Vichyssoise.
Amazon

But while I designed my detectives in part to mirror myself, I also chose their age for entirely different reasons. For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.

This decision is a small one, but for me it engaged with a question I’ve long struggled with, the question of what, intellectually, literature is supposed to do. Should it report on the world as it is, or should it model the world as it might – could, should, would – be?

Angry women

Recent fiction may not have been filled with middle-aged women, but it has been filled with angry ones. It’s jam packed with dystopian models of female repression and with women and men implacably set against one other: look at Naomi Alderman’s The Power, Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. As I began to create my fictional world, I was troubled by the question of whether these outpourings of rage, all justified, all earned, are enough.




Read more:
Review: The Testaments – Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale


In one way this literature is unquestionably good: female rage is something else culture has assiduously avoided considering for centuries, and during those centuries women have been subjugated, silenced, used and abused in ways that deserve outpourings of anger.

The sleuths return.
Amazon

Nor is this landscape of female repression changing quickly, and there is value in forcing it before readers’ eyes. In a recent article for The Guardian about the Staunch Prize, the new award for the best crime/mystery novel that does not feature violence against women, the novelist Kaite Welsh wrote that she wouldn’t “sanitise my writing in service of some fictional, feminist utopia … my work lies in marrying my imagination with the ugly truth”. This is an important argument.

Modeling the future

But while I don’t care about the absence of feminist utopias, I do care about the absence of writing that models the future we want. What will it be like, the world we’re striving for where the playing field is level and men and women are just people being people together? I believe that we can only imagine based on what we’ve seen, and that it’s part of literature’s job to help us see what doesn’t yet exist but could.

For this reason, although I grounded my novels firmly in the present (well, Death in Paris is set in 2014 and The Books of the Dead in 2016), I made some specific choices about that present. In my books, every person in a powerful position is a woman. Department heads and doctors, sources of knowledge and implacable foes: all are female.

More importantly, as far as I was concerned, no one draws attention to that. It’s so normal as to be unworthy of note. Nor does anyone comment on the fact that both my detectives are childless, and one remains happily unmarried in her mid-40s. Both of these detectives are heterosexual, but I made that decision so I could give each a husband or boyfriend who sees them as an intellectual and emotional equal, and for whom that equality is also the norm. The women in my books have and enjoy good sex, and they have and enjoy good conversations – almost none of them about men.

My books are full of oversights and omissions, and I’m far from satisfied with them. But what I aimed to do, and am still trying to do, is to augment the justifiable depictions of anger, the honest depictions of ongoing brutality and violence against women, with a small model that allows for a morsel of hope.The Conversation

Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English, University of Exeter

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Megan Gail Coles’s novel teaches us that love means we #BelieveWomen



‘Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club,’ is an extraordinary debut novel set on Valentine’s Day in St. John’s during a blizzard.
(House of Anansi Press)

Linda M. Morra, Bishop’s University

If there are different kinds of love, then there are different kinds of novels too — and Megan Gail Coles’s Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, shortlisted for CBC’s annual battle of books, Canada Reads 2020, is the kind that’s best read as a tough-love pre-Valentine warning.

It’s just not a feel-good, heart-warming, Eat, Pray, Love kind of book, the type some reach for when in need of romantic inspiration.

Structured around three courses served, appropriately, on Valentine’s Day at a restaurant in St. John’s, NL, this book is divided into three acts, during which time it introduces — then makes plain the logic of connection between — several characters. The book then shows how their lives slowly and painfully unravel throughout the day.

If you bear in mind that Valentine’s Day originated in the Roman festival Lupercalia, when women were paired off with men by way of a lottery, you will be closer to the mark in terms of what Coles’s novel is about and what it attempts to achieve.

She assumes an “uncomfortable” approach to her subject, to call to attention what it means to be a disempowered subject — as a woman often is.

In my research, I’ve examined how public institutions and regulatory bodies approached the archival materials of different women writers in Canada: E. Pauline Johnson, Emily Carr, Sheila Watson, Jane Rule and M. NourbeSe Philip, as examples. Their interactions show how early 20th-century women’s voices were often suppressed because of sexist, racist or heteronormative tendencies, and their narratives susceptible to disappearing.

And because, to be frank, it is often uncomfortable to hear what women’s lives have to say.




Read more:
Playing detective with Canada’s female literary past


Invigorating anger

Megan Gail Coles arrives on the red carpet before the Giller Awards gala ceremony in Toronto in November 2019.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Coles’s extraordinary debut novel, however, moves well past discomfort, tentative attempts at self-scrutiny and accountability, and calls for forgiveness. Forget discomfort: depending on how you identify and on your experiences, this novel could elicit either deep mortification or an invigorating anger that blazes, at moments, into real rage.

Before I explain the logic for my own emotional response, allow me also to add that this novel, a 2019 Scotiabank Giller finalist, is not for the faint of heart. Anyone who thinks their heart (or moral courage) is feeble should probably move along. Go on, find an Elizabeth Gilbert book to curl up with instead.

Or train your heart to be prepared for the emotional wreckage.

Charged blizzard

The novel’s narrative shifts from one point of view to another, revealing intersections between characters and carefully mapping the place, its social networks and divides, manifested in class, urban-rural and racialized identities that converge and then clash in the restaurant’s highly charged atmosphere.

In its evocations of Newfoundland, Coles has located herself among a vibrant tradition of writers, including Michael Crummey, Lisa Moore, Michael Winter and Donna Morrissey. Each of these writers takes on the people and sense of place in unique ways, and Coles adds a dazzling new voice.

In the novel, a blizzard is also a form of pathetic fallacy. St. John’s is seen here in January 2020.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

The conflict is set against a blizzard — a nod to the St. John’s climate, but also a form of pathetic fallacy, mirroring the internal strife of several characters. Their growing bitterness and trauma mean they make decisions, usually bad ones, that give rise to the novel’s mounting tensions.

The novel opens with the warning that “this might hurt a little” (thank you, Megan), but this is polite understatement. The first few pages belie the warning and read as deliciously irreverent, as if someone pushed the Maritimes’ Anne of Green Gables into a mud puddle.

Increasingly, however, the tone shifts, ultimately transforming into a thorny, visceral, unrelenting narrative, somewhat reminiscent of Moore’s writing — one that does not shirk from disclosing the brutal realities of what it means to be a vulnerable woman in contemporary western society.

‘ACES’

Being a “vulnerable woman” in this book is a redundancy, since it really is a question of degree; however, there are women who are more vulnerable and suffer more than others.

Take Iris, the central female character. She works at the restaurant to overcome obstacles, particularly financial ones, that prevent her from pursuing her studies as an artist — but those obstacles also include familial traumas. Mulling over scientific data about “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or “ACES,” she dryly notes that she “has a pocket full” of them and later that the existing moment is “the worst hand she has ever been dealt.”

That “pocket full” does not portend a good outcome; rather, she is “snarled” by John Fisher, the chef and her boss, a predator who, “like an angry rival fisher,” “reels” her in “hand over fist over hand over fist.” His apparent emotional offerings are a pretence, just out of reach of Iris’s grasping hands.“

Coles’ compassion and scathing judgement often vie for centre stage, never quite cancelling the other out. You may wish, for example, to judge George, whose class, racialized white privilege and protective father shield her (yes, her) from those who prey on the vulnerabilities of women like Iris, and whose selfish, self-absorbed tendencies are less than charming.

But the moment you may feel tempted to judge her too far — and she does warrant some — Coles reminds you that George too wrestles with being identified as a “pathetic childless woman” who does “the backbreaking emotional labour of two humans:” her own and her husband’s, incidentally a member of the metaphorical “local coward gun club” to which the title alludes.

These characters may be flawed, but the writing is not. The polyphony of voices is animated and remarkable. The prose is fresh, street-smart and savvy — taking clichés and even mashing these back into proper service as poetry.

Critical conversations

The narrative is timely, in view of the recent debacles and critical conversations that have surfaced in relation to the #MeToo movement, what it means to #BelieveWomen or those that inform the field of CanLit.

‘Refuse: Canlit in Ruins,’ edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak and Erin Wunker.
(Book*hug Press)

As an example, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins addresses the controversies that have animated the literary scene, and tackles gritty issues like rape culture and forms of domination and exploitation. Increasingly, we are all being invited to consider the responsibilities and connections we need to assume in the face of disclosures women make about their life stories.

One character, Olive, a young Indigenous woman, is directly asked at the novel’s outset: “So who are your relations?” Even as she comes to embody the resilience of women — their agency in times of chaos — the novel suggests readers consider that question, over and over again.

The Local Coward Gun Club fearlessly counters assumptions about sex, gender, class and racialized privilege about intersectional narratives, and demands that we look full in the face at the ways and number of times women and others have been injured; the number of times they have been disavowed when they have asked for help; the number of times they have been ignored, victimized or blamed instead of being supported.

The novel will demand that you, the reader, be accountable.The Conversation

Linda M. Morra, Full Professor of English, Bishop’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.