If you want to publish a truly subversive novel, have a main character who’s fat


Beth Younger, Drake University

Banned Books Week, held this year from Sept. 25 to Oct. 1, is an annual event designed to draw national attention to the harms of censorship. Created in 1982 by the American Library Association in response to a growing number of “challenged” books in schools and libraries, the week is really about celebrating the freedom to read.

Much of the practice of book banning takes the form of challenging a book deemed subversive and objectionable, with profanity or sexual content often the book challengers’ source of ire.

These days, such campaigns can elicit an eye roll: everyone knows that teens are regularly exposed to profanity and sex online and on TV. (Rather than try to ban books, a better approach is to instead teach media literacy so young people are better able to contextualize what they’re exposed to.)

The problem is that when you go after books for swears or sex, you might also be threatening books that are truly subversive: the ones that confront our unconscious biases, whether it’s weight or race, and question the way we tend to think about ourselves and others. One frequently challenged book – Rainbow Rowell’s 2013 young adult novel “Eleanor & Park” – does just that.

Challenged in Minnesota

“Eleanor & Park” is a romance novel about two misfits who become friends, fall in love and endure the cruelties of the world: abusive parents, poverty and bullying.

The same year it was published, a parent group in the Anoka-Hennipin school district in Minnesota tried (and failed) to get the book removed from the curriculum and school libraries. But they did manage to get the author’s visit to Anoka High School canceled.

Citing 227 instances of profanity, the parents alleged that “Eleanor & Park” was “littered with extreme profanity and age inappropriate subject matter that should never be put into the hands and minds of minor children, much less promoted by the educational institutions and staff we entrust to teach and protect our children.”

What are we afraid of?

Banning books in the United States is nothing new, and there’s a long history of trying to prevent people (mostly kids and teens) from reading things some think they shouldn’t read.

It seems that the only thing worse than sex or the “f word” in young adult literature is being a lesbian. Depicting a gay couple got copies of Nancy Garden’s 1982 lesbian romance novel “Annie on My Mind” burned on the steps of the Kansas City School District headquarters in 1993.

Young adult author Judy Blume.
Carl Lender/flickr, CC BY

Judy Blume’s books are famous for pushing the “decency” envelope. Her 1972 novel “Forever…” is also frequently banned for sexual content and for profanity. (Pretty much yearly since its publication, “Forever…” has been challenged by Focus on the Family or The Christian Coalition.)

But there’s another aspect to “Forever…” that’s rarely discussed: It has a fat character who has lots of sex. Sybil is often seen as a foil to the main character Katherine, a rail-thin control freak who loses her virginity deliberately and with purpose.

Sybil is the other side of the body image spectrum: She’s fat and “has been laid” by six guys. At least she gets to have sex, which is pretty uncommon for a fat girl in 1972 young adult fiction. (And there’s a penis named Ralph in the book, yet another reason to read this classic.)

But “Forever…” is an extreme outlier. The way the media depicts fat characters – and fat people – has been a problem for generations. In 2011 NPR aired a piece on fat stereotypes in pop culture. The report dissected the typical fat character in TV shows and films: someone “self-loathing” and “desperate to be loved.”

Of course, the lives of fat people aren’t much different from those of thin people. But you wouldn’t know that from the way fat bodies are portrayed on TV and in film. Research on “weight bias in the media” suggests that most representations of fat people in media are stigmatizing. More research suggests that shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “More to Love” reinforce anti-fat bias rather than fat acceptance.

We were all teenagers once

This is why “Eleanor & Park” is so refreshingly different.

Like many protagonists in young adult novels, Eleanor is a teenager who’s desperate to be an adult so she can escape her awful circumstances. But while the parents trying to ban the book pounced on the profanity, they ignored one of the novel’s biggest triumphs: Eleanor is fat. Yes, Eleanor is a fat female protagonist in a young adult romance novel and she’s in love – she even has a cute boyfriend named Park.

The cover art for Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Eleanor & Park.’
Amazon

As author John Green wrote in a review of the novel, “…the obstacle in ‘Eleanor & Park’ is simply the world. The world cannot stomach a relationship between a good-looking Korean kid and Big Red.” (Big Red is Eleanor’s nickname.)

Last year, Buzzfeed writer Kaye Toal penned a beautiful personal essay about discovering Eleanor in an airport bookstore. Part of what struck Toal as significant about Eleanor is that she is fat yet is not required to become thin or change in order to be loved. Despite the recent increase in fat characters appearing on television and in movies, many of them are required to change in order to be accepted. Not surprisingly, another study published in 2013 connects the prevalence of the “thin ideal” in popular literature to low self-esteem in female readers.

Letting Eleanor be fat and be loved is much needed in today’s climate of “the obesity epidemic” and misplaced concerns with fatness. Park loves Eleanor; she loves him back. A simple story, but with a difference. Eleanor’s fat is not really a crucial aspect of her being. She doesn’t need to be fixed.

That’s what makes this lovely and painful novel subversive – and what makes efforts to ban it all the more misguided.

The Conversation

Beth Younger, Associate Professor of English & Women’s and Gender Studies, Drake University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Junk – the book that launched the young adult novel


Gillian James, University of Salford

At the Hay Festival on June 2, Melvin Burgess received the Andersen Press Young Adult Book Prize Special Achievement Award for his novel Junk, first published 20 years ago. Since then, the young adult novel has come of age.

Burgess and his publisher, Andersen Press, took a risk when Junk was first released in 1996, when books for teenagers were hardly as gritty as the typical dystopian fare of today. A book about drug addiction and prostitution aimed at “young adults” was then a very daring thing, and many thought that this was a book that was simply too depressing for the market and would languish on the library shelves. It was, after all, one in which 14- and 15-year-olds take high risks, living away from home in a squat and fuelling their heroin addiction through theft.

Actually, it didn’t languish on the library shelves at all. It became a bestseller and was translated into 28 languages. Unsurprisingly, it received some negative commentary, but as Burgess himself has pointed out (in the latest edition of Junk), most of that came from people who had not read the book. There was also plenty of positive commentary: “An honest, authentic look at the drug culture,” said Time Out. “May just be the best YA book ever,” thought Robert Muchamore. “It is the real thing – a teenage novel for teenage readers,” argued The Scotsman. Burgess was awarded the Carnegie medal for Junk in 1997.

Melvin Burgess.
Gill James, Author provided

As its title hints, it’s a grim story, and now slightly dated. The young people involved have to make phone calls from phone boxes and have little access to computers. Yet the main characters, Gemma and Tar, are believable and rounded. The addiction is real. Homelessness is still an issue. It was Burgess’s aim to tell an authentic story but by his own admission, “authentic is informative”.

Teen or young adult?

Arguably, the young adult and the young adult novel have existed for some time. Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens and even Goethe featured them and wrote them, of a kind. The Bildungsroman, or coming of age story, was aimed at all ages (think David Copperfield).

More recently, in the 1970s, Judy Blume and Christine Nöstlinger wrote for the older teen. These books featured some of the challenges facing young people: growing sexual awareness, peer pressure and the need to take responsibility for the world. But the young people in these novels do not take such high risks as Burgess’s characters nor is the description of their activity as explicit. Not quite (young) adult.

The term “young adult” did not come into common parlance until sometime after the appearance of Junk (though some educationalists have used the word since 1957 when the Young Adult Library Division, now known as the Young Adult Services Association (YALSA), was formed).

The bookshop chain Ottakar’s relabelled their teen fiction “young adult” in 1999. Waterstone’s changed the description back to “teen fiction” in 2006. At this point, the book-producing industry could not quite define what was meant by “young adult”. But Junk is often considered to have launched the Young Adult novel. Burgess may not have seen this as permission to write for this newly defined reader. He just wanted to write that particular story. Now he admits, however, that “the time was ripe for YA to grow up, and I was the right person in the right place at the right time”.

Other writers began to write for this newly defined reader. Kate Cann and Louise Rennison started writing what might be termed “Chicklet-Lit” – chick lit for a slightly younger readership. Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Waite gradually started writing for older teenagers. Several vampire and other paranormal romance books began to appear.

Pushing boundaries

Other novels by Burgess push boundaries, too: Lady, My Life as a Bitch (2001) tells the story of a girl who becomes a dog and enjoys being promiscuous. Doing It (2003) is a frank examination of young male sexuality at the same time as showing the vulnerability of his three main characters. Nicholas Dane (2009) raises the issue of abuse but Burgess keeps the protagonist human. The Hit (2013) includes drugs again and violence on the streets of Manchester (yet is really about something else).

The young adult novel, after all, is a story told by one invented young adult (Burgess and many other writers of young adult literature are certainly not young adults) to another. In Junk, Burgess uses a series of close first person narratives, most of them from the point of view of two main characters. He offers us a character closeness, high stakes and risk-taking in our young people that was innovative at the time. After Junk, these were identified as traits of the young adult novel. He also offers us the young adult’s voice:

Maybe if I get off, I’ll get back with Gemma again. I know, I know. She didn’t chuck me because I was using … I was as clean as a whistle at the time, more or less. But you have to have hope.

Junk is 20 years old – and it still speaks to us. As Malorie Blackman, former Children’s Laureate, says in her introduction: “It may not be real but as with every great fictional story – every word is true.”

The Conversation

Gillian James, Senior lecturer in English and Creative Writing, University of Salford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to write a best-selling novel


Andy Martin, University of Cambridge

So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …

Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).

But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.

It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.

Cigarettes and coffee

He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.

Lee Child and Andy Martin in NYC.
Jessica Lehrman, Author provided

Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.

Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.

Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”

Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.

Look Ma, I’m a writer

To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.

Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus.
Mosman Library, CC BY

And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5” with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.

Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”

Elmore Leonard at the Peabody Awards.
Peabody Awards, CC BY

Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).

This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.

Art is theft

But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.

“So!“ you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.


Andy Martin in conversation with Lee Child is part of the Cambridge Literary Festival on April 14.

The Conversation

Andy Martin, Lecturer, Department of French, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Writing for good in the contemporary novel of purpose


Alice Robinson, Melbourne Polytechnic

Anchor Point (2015), by Alice Robinson.
Author provided

In March 2015, when the days remained long and hot, so dry that the paddocks around my house were tinder, my debut novel Anchor Point was published.

The events of the novel occur under pressure from exponential environmental fragility and climate change.

As 2015 has worn on, cooling, growing bitter, as the rain failed to arrive, I’ve been invited to speak and write on the idea that “writing for good” – writing to enact positive social change – is a valid and important thing for fiction writers to do. A session at the upcoming National Young Writers’ Festival speaks to this topic.

I am deeply touched by the inherent optimism in this notion: that writers and artists who direct their work toward the prevailing issues of the time can somehow alter the real world, for the better.

The lineage of writing for good

Literature is constructive as well as reflective, and there is certain power in this.

Historian and literary critic David Masson, in British Novelists and Their Styles (1859), observed the development of novels written out of “contemporary earnest”:

We have to report, as characteristic of British novel-writing recently and at present, a great development of the Novel of Purpose.

This trend, of course, was not limited to Britain, but it certainly grew in strength across the nineteenth century.

Literary scholar Amanda Claybaugh, in her book The Novel of Purpose: Literature and Social Reform in the Anglo-American World (2007), finds that such nineteenth-century novels sometimes related to social reform movements and sometimes did not. Yet all took their “conception of purposefulness” from the desire to change society.

Fiction can underwrite understandings of what is deemed desirable and appropriate by a given culture; what is unacceptable, what is feared and abhorred. Novels rising from moments of conflict and hardship sharpen focus on the inequalities and struggles of those times.

In doing so, such narratives raise awareness of key social issues and potentially move the culture toward empathy, understanding, change – or else underscore unfortunate cultural resistance, the failure of those things to eventuate.

A literary history

Many examples of this phenomenon already exist in literature across the world.

Author Alice Walker at the 2005 premier of Oprah Winfrey’s Broadway musical The Colour Purple.
Keith Bedford/Reuters

The Colour Purple (1982), Alice Walker’s gruelling novel of gender inequality and racism in 1930s Georgia, was published in the early 1980s. It simultaneously showcases conditions for black women before the civil rights movement and draws attention, by comparison, to the shortcomings of contemporary race and gender relations in the movement’s wake.

More recently, Dave Eggars’ novel What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006) lays bare the heartbreaking difficulties and deep resilience of the refugee experience. It portrays the life of one Sudanese “Lost Boy” fleeing his nation’s civil war for the United States.

Children’s author John Marsden.
Glen Woodhead/AAP

In an entirely different kind of book, John Marsden addresses the refugee experience. His poignant and distressing illustrated work for children, Home and Away (2008), sits within the Australian context.

These texts exert complex cultural pressure around contemporary issues, inviting the reader to inhabit the terrible, but authentic, experiences they portray.

Such books write into the heart of historical and current difficulties with intrinsic hopefulness, spotlighting dark times so that they can be seen clearly for what they are.

In contrast, dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), P.D. James’ The Children of Men (1992) and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now (2004), to name a few of my favourites, wrestle with the future.

Literary possibilities

Offering visions of frightening social, political and environmental breakdown, such novels convey the fear that our legacy will be danger and unrest, the future a terrifying context where humanities’ core qualities – capacity for kindness, compassion, cooperation – will be tested, even altogether razed.

So often these speculative narratives arise from periods of perceived genuine threat to our real-world way of life: slavery; industrialization; the spectre of nuclear obliteration; the AIDs epidemic; the digital revolution. By portraying perilous imagined futures, dystopian narratives help illuminate the cultural anxieties of the present day.

This is also true of the climate change novels currently surfacing in Australia and globally. According to UCLA Journalism and Media Fellow Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, in her article Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre (2013), the threat of climate change has become:

too pressing [for authors] to ignore, and less abstract, thanks to a nonstop succession of mega-storms and record-shattering temperatures.

Some novels, like Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Jane Rawson’s A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) and James Bradley’s Clade (2015) imagine grim social, political and humanitarian crises that could arise in response to profound degradation of the natural world.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.
Stephen Hird/Reuters

Others, like my own, are set in the early stages of environmental and systemic breakdown, when there remains a narrow possibility for turning things around.

Either way, just as the threat of nuclear war felt imminent in the 1950s, making way for the anxious cultural sense that bombs could drop at any moment, climate change is also imminent – and this is reflected in the stories we are telling.

But unlike the threat of life in a radioactive world, the impacts of climate change are now actual, and inevitable. While science can tell us what climate change is likely to look like in various regions from an ecological perspective, we just don’t know for sure what our lives will be like as significant change comes to pass.

Writing for the future

A work of fiction is a guess, a possible response to a question we have no other way of answering.

As another hot summer looms, as I contemplate my little children who stand to inherit the issues we are now failing to adequately address, as I turn in disgust from the governmental inertia around climate change in Australia, it feels clearer now than ever before that fiction writing alone cannot alter the collision course with disaster we seem determined to create.

A firefighter battles an out-of-control bushfire in Western Australia in 2015.
DFES WA/AAP

Whatever optimism there may be inherent in the ability of writing to enact meaningful change in the world, it seems both a heavy duty to bestow to individual practitioners, and too little too late.

When I think of writing for good in the context of writing about climate change, I see that there is power in fiction’s capacity to illuminate unknown futures for those living now, to show what life might be like in climatically altered circumstances, how they could be survived. I see that there is good, also, in recording our cultural despair in fiction as a message to those in the future.

We once imagined the perils of your experience, and we are sorry.

The National Young Writers’ Festival takes place in Newcastle, October 1-4. Details here.

The Conversation

Alice Robinson, Lecturer in Creative Writing, Melbourne Polytechnic

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Radical, young, Muslim: the Arab-Australian novel in the 21st century


Matt McGuire, University of Western Sydney

Earlier this year Michael Mohammed Ahmad was voted one of Australia’s Best Young Writers by the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH). The 2015 list, which included Maxine Beneba Clarke, Omar Musa, Alice Pung, and Ellen Van Neervan, was described by the SMH’s Linda Morris as a group of “outsiders writing about what it is to be an outsider”.

It is, however, Ahmad’s insider account of what it means to be Arab-Australian in the 21st century that singles out and distinguishes his work. Melbourne University professor Ghassan Hage described Ahmad’s literary debut, The Tribe (2014), as “an astonishing novel”. Angelo Loukakis, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, lauded the book’s insistence upon a community that is immanently “worthy of art”.

In an interview on The Conversation in January, Ahmad said:

For the last two decades the representation of Arab-Australian Muslims has been coloured by media reports of terrorist conspiracy, sexual assault, drug-dealing and drive-by shootings. I wrote The Tribe in an attempt to step beyond these limited and simplistic images. I wanted to offer a complex and humanising portrayal of my community and culture which, as we have all learnt in recent months, is playing an increasingly important role in contemporary Australian society.

I wrote The Tribe for Australians.

Published by Giramondo Press in 2014, the novel presents the world through the eyes of a child called Bani. Through Bani, we are introduced the House of Adam, three generations of a Muslim family that fled the civil war in Lebanon and emigrated to Australia in the 1980s.

The book certainly offers a stunning counter-punch to what Ahmad has outlined regarding the mainstream media representations of Arab-Australian experience and the current obsession with stories of radicalisation and the threat of homegrown terrorism.

But how does it achieve this? And what does it tell us about the role of fiction as a tool for thinking about the most challenging social and political questions of our time?

At a base level, the sheer time and energy required to read a novel renders it uniquely capable of the kind of sustained and complex forms of attention such issues deserve. This is especially pertinent, given the increasing pressure placed upon our attention by the over-stimulating, hyper-technologised culture of the 21st century.

Ahmad deploys the child narrator to afford readers a privileged form of access to the community he wishes to write about. Throughout the book Bani hides under beds, peeps through keyholes and eavesdrops on adult conversation. All of which make him, and the reader, party to a secret and strange universe.

The child’s gaze renders Tayta, the grandmotherly matriarch of the family, a semi-sacred presence, a tangible connection to the ancient culture left behind in Lebanon. Through the child’s eyes we see the father Jibreel as a towering character, a terrifying authority figure and the rock upon which the family is built.

Of course, such child-focalised narratives have a rich and distinguished literary history. We might think about Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1837) holding a mirror to Victorian age, or Jim Hawkins, the perilous protagonist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), or Scout, who provides the moral compass in Harper Lee’s landmark novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

In her review of The Tribe, Maxine Beneba Clarke criticised Ahmad’s reliance on this device, highlighting the naivety of Bani and his inability to carry a family saga like The Tribe. In my view, Clarke missed the point.

Ahmad’s narrative deliberately shifts between the child’s perspective and that of the older Bani who, from the perspective of his twenties, looks back to the world of his childhood. Such versatility allows The Tribe to expose the casual sexism, internalised racism and occasional misogyny of the community in which Bani grows up.

It also allows the book to take a more adult perspective, philosophically weighing up the sense of rootedness and deep connection that characterises so much of this world. Arab-Australian identity, we learn, is not some singular, homogeneous label. Rather it exists as a spectrum and contains more complexity and diversity than the mainstream media allow.

In this sense, we might well think of Bani and Ahmad as radical young Muslims – they defy expectations, challenge stereotypes, and disrupt clichés. The Tribe acts as both a love letter to the Australian Lebanese community and an attempt to submit it to form of critical scrutiny, one that is as honest and forthright as it is meaningful and sympathetic.

In fashioning the novel around three episodes – a birth, a marriage and a death – Ahmad implicitly questions the shallow materialism and rampant individualism of contemporary Western culture. As The Tribes’ huge cast of characters wanders in and out of its pages, we come to realise the intimacy and richness of such extended communities and think afresh about what it means to live a rich and fulsome life.

Through his unassuming narrator, Bani, Ahmad asks us to reconsider who, in fact, are the insiders and who are the outsiders within modern Australia, this most multicultural of modern nations.

The Conversation

Matt McGuire is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at University of Western Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The third book – Harper Lee may indeed have another ace up her sleeve


Lynda Hawryluk

We all love a good mystery. So what are we to make of claims and counterclaims currently playing out in the media about a possible “third book” in Harper Lee’s body of work, a companion piece to her classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and the newly-released Go Set A Watchman (2015)? Is a third book possible?

Well, yes, it is.

In 1966, the Hanover County School Board in Richmond, Virginia declared To Kill a Mockingbird “immoral literature” and sought to have it banned from all school library shelves in their county. Still riding high on the success of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, but becoming jaded with and tired of the demands of public life, Lee nevertheless provided a response to the heated discussion being played out in the local newspaper in that county, beginning by explaining the reports she’d heard from Richmond had made her wonder if any of “[the board] members can read”.

She continued:

I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enrol the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Lee’s rapier wit and somewhat dark humour is not unlike that of the young Scout Finch’s innate rebelliousness and deep sense of justice, which many readers have already have seen playing out again in Go Set A Watchman, through Jean-Louise’s (the now grown-up Scout) conflicted relationship with her father, Atticus Finch.

This relationship, and particularly the rendering of Atticus Finch as a rather more complex man with segregationist overtones, has created in would-be readers and fans somewhat of an ethical dilemma – read the book, and risk tarnishing the image of one of the most beloved characters in American letters.

Atticus Finch is a man exalted like no other, particularly for one who’s occupation is a lawyer, and oft-cited as the reason many join the legal profession.

Real-life influences

Lee’s father AC Lee was also a lawyer, and it is to him both To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are dedicated, along with Lee’s sister Alice, a lawyer with the distinction of having been the oldest practising lawyer in Alabama, only retiring a year or so before her death at 103 in November 2014.

While a respect for the law and a keen sense of justice ran in the family, it was Harper Lee who backed away from practising, leaving university just shy of a law degree to move to New York City to focus on writing. There are obvious commonalities between the portrayal of Jean-Louise in Go Set A Watchman and what we think we know of the life of Harper Lee, and it is through these close readings that we are given our only real glimpse at the writer herself.

Choosing a life away from home and the family trade seems characteristic of the strong-willed woman who wrote that blistering retort to the school board, and is evident in the index of Charles J Shields’ unauthorised biography, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee (2006).

Under “Lee, Nelle Harper”, we find entries for: “Athleticism” (p. 77, 78), “Drinking of” (22, 99, 129, 185, 270), “Foul mouth of” (76, 78), “Humor” (89, 97, 112) and, tellingly, “Nonconformism of” (33, 35, 39, 55, 61, 76-77, 84, and 237).

Lee’s carefully guarded private life is one of the few things over which she has retained a sense of ownership. One only has to witness the almost distressed and soul-searching reactions to the re-imagining of Atticus Finch being played out across social media and in news columns to understand that To Kill A Mockingbird is a book that in many ways belongs to us now, not Lee.

Competing versions

Charles J Shields’ biography contains many references to the previous versions of To Kill A Mockingbird, and they are revealing, especially in light of claims there may be one more version of this much-loved and revered text.

We learn much about the labour Lee performed under the watchful eye of editor Tay Hohoff. The descriptions in Shields’ book of the “drafts, titles and revisions” refer not only to the extensive editing and revision the manuscripts were subject to, but also the progressive titles, with Go Set A Watchman being first offered to editors in 1957.

Go Set A Watchman is recorded on index cards from the publisher’s office as being received, and Lippincott’s (the publisher) staff track the manuscript’s development over time.

There followed a series of suggestions to an uncommonly compliant Lee, and this resulted in the shift in perspective to what we now know is Jean-Louise as a 26-year-old in Go Set A Watchman, to Atticus in the next full manuscript submitted. Chapter 5 of Shields’ unauthorised biography describes the next iteration of the novel in the chapter title: Atticus becomes To Kill a Mockingbird.

Atticus, then, would be the mysterious “third” book (chronologically, it would be the middle book of three). Hohoff’s name should figure largely in the eventual discussion of the changes made to the manuscripts, especially given the furore over the depiction of Atticus in Go Set A Watchman, and claims from Hohoff’s granddaughter that the editor would not have approved of the publication of Go Set A Watchman.

The new Atticus Finch

It seems evident that Hohoff’s steady hand guided Lee to a more flattering and progressive portrayal of Atticus Finch, one that may sit somewhere in the more moderate middle, if the manuscript of Atticus ever comes to light.

This is, by all accounts, the man AC Lee became later in life, and one Harper Lee enjoyed a good relationship with, developing a deep admiration for her father, as evidence by the dedications of both her best-selling books to him.

Perhaps in this third version of the man – in Atticus – readers would find, as Jean-Louise does (and as Harper Lee seemed to), a sense of balance and an acceptance of their differences. In the last pages of Go Set A Watchman we see this, with Jean-Louise helping the increasingly frail Atticus Finch into a car, expressing her love to him in words and yet thinking of him as “her old enemy” (p. 178).

There’s a quiet, devastating reference to her brother there too but then the dark Lee humour rears up and bites the reader, lest the scene lull us into a false sense of sentimentality.

Where Lee may have once responded with fiery retorts to a perceived slight against her work, the once rebellious nonconformist has been able to settle into something resembling acceptance – of her fame, of her status as a writer, of her life away from the limelight, which has regardless led to further scrutiny.

Questions still remain about the discovery and publication of Go Set A Watchman, including Lee’s participation and the role of her lawyer. It’s all part of what long time friends have described as the “delicious mystery” of Miss Lee.

Lee may still have one more ace up her sleeve, but Go Set A Watchman has already achieved some of what To Kill A Mockingbird did, both polarising and uniting readers – and leaving us ultimately wanting for more.

See also:
A long-lost friend reborn: what we can expect from Go Set a Watchman

The Conversation

Lynda Hawryluk is Senior Lecturer in Writing at Southern Cross University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The byte may destroy the book but the novel isn't over yet


Camilla Nelson, University of Notre Dame Australia

In This Will Destroy That, also known as Book V, Chapter 2 of Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo presents his famous argument that it was the invention of the printing press that destroyed the edifice of the gothic cathedral. Stories, hopes and dreams had once been inscribed in stone and statutory, wrote Hugo. But with the arrival of new printing technologies, literature replaced architecture.

Today, “this” may well be destroying “that” again, as the Galaxy of the Internet replaces the Gutenberg Universe. If a book is becoming something that can be downloaded from the app store, texted to your mobile phone, read in 140-character instalments on Twitter, or, indeed, watched on YouTube, what will that do to literature – and particularly Hugo’s favourite literary form, the novel?

Caricature of Hugo by Honoré Daumier (1849).
Wikimedia Commons

Debates about the future of the book are invariably informed by conversations about the death of the novel. But as far as the digital novel is concerned, it often seems we’re in – dare I say it – the analogue phase. The publishing industry mostly focuses on digital technologies as a means for content delivery – that is, on wifi as a replacement for print, ink, and trucks. In terms of fictional works specifically created for a digital environment, publishers are mostly interested in digital shorts or eBook singles.

At 10,000 words, these are longer than a short story and shorter than a printed novel, which, in every other respect, they continue to resemble.

Digital editions of classic novels are also common. Some, such as the Random House edition of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), available from the App store, are innovatively designed, bringing the novel into dialogue with an encyclopaedic array of archival materials, including Burgess’ annotated manuscript, old book covers, videos and photographs.

Also in this category is Faber’s digital edition of John Buchan’s 39 Steps (2013), in which the text unfolds within a digital landscape that you can actually explore, albeit to a limited degree, by opening a newspaper, or reading a letter.

But there is a strong sense in which novels of this sort, transplanted into what are essentially gaming-style environments for which the novel form was not designed, can be experienced as deeply frustrating. This is because the novel, and novel reading, is supported by a particular kind of consciousness that Marshall McLuhan memorably called the “Gutenberg mind”.

Novels are linear and sequential, and post-print culture is interactive and multidimensional. Novels draw the mind into deeply imagined worlds, digital culture draws the mind outward, assembling its stories in the interstices of a globally networked culture.

For the novel to become digital, writers and publishers need to think about digital media as something more than just an alternative publishing vehicle for the same old thing. The fact of being digital must eventually change the shape of the novel, and transform the language.

Charles Dickens, not at his laptop.
Wikimedia Commons

Far from destroying literature, or the novel genre, digital experimentation can be understood as perfectly in keeping with the history of the novel form. There have been novels in letters, novels in pictures, novels in poetry, and novels which, like Robinson Crusoe (1719), so successfully claimed to be factual accounts of actual events that they were reported in the contemporary papers as a news story. It is in the nature of the novel to constantly outrun the attempt to pin it down.

So too, technology has always transformed the novel. Take Dickens, for example, whose books were shaped by the logic of the industrial printing press and the monthly and weekly serial – comprising a long series of episodes strung together with a cliffhanger to mark the end of each instalment.

So what does digital media do differently? Most obviously, digital technology is multimodal. It combines text, pictures, movement and sound. But this does not pose much of a conceptual challenge for writers, thanks, perhaps, to the extensive groundwork already laid by graphic novel.

Rather, the biggest challenge that digital technology poses to the novel is the fact that digital media isn’t linear – digital technology is multidimensional, allowing stories to expand, often wildly and unpredictably, in nonlinear patterns.


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Novelistic narratives – as we currently know them – are sequential, largely predicated on the presence of a single unifying consciousness, and designed to be read across time in the order designated by the author.

Last year, this presented a serious problem for many would-be readers of David Mitchell’s short story The Right Sort, a fictional work composed of 280 tweets, sent out in groups of 20, twice a day, for seven days. Frustrated readers complained that they couldn’t catch the tweets – that half the narrative had gone missing in the digital ether.

It was basically far more comfortable reading the printed version via the link in the Guardian – where readers found a beautifully turned albeit somewhat conventional short story, whose major concession to its digital environment was that it was composed of short scenic snatches 140-characters long.

Another difference between digital and print technologies is that the printed novel encourages private reading, whereas digital readers tend to share their experiences in networked, highly social environments.


Bluestar Tam

Today, even authors of traditional novels are expected to maintain an online presence for themselves. In order to publish a book, you need a hashtag, a Facebook page, a blog tour, a book trailer on Vimeo or YouTube and a Twitter account.

Much was made of the potential for this type of media to supplement a novelistic text when Richard House’s “digitally augmented” thriller The Kills (2013) was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But potential exists for this kind of interaction to go beyond merely “augmenting” a novel, to integrating with, and actually expanding it.

In the not-too-distant future, digital novels will find themselves expanding horizontally across platforms, and readers may well be finding themselves interacting with, transforming, and even contributing the content.

This may well be the moment when the walls of literature (as we know it) come tumbling down. Yet, the scathing critic might do well to remember that Dickens was revolutionary in his day, not only for charting the course of serialisation, thereby making literature popular and accessible, but also for making ordinary people the subject matter of his writing.

One novel that gives you a glimpse of what the digital novel might turn out to be is The Silent History (2014), created by Eli Horowitz – best known as an editor at the New York based literary journal McSweeneys – in collaboration with Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett.

The Silent History (2014).
Vintage Digital, part of Vintage Publishing.

The story is set in the second quarter of the 21st century, when children begin to be born who fail to develop the necessary cognitive functions to acquire, understand or use language. The prose is dazzling, the characters, and their predicaments are moving, and just as importantly, the digital aspects of the book are set deeply in its design.

They are not only present in its themes – though these aptly deal with the problem of communication – but also in its collaborative structure, and interactive details.

The Silent History is available in print and ink, but it was originally developed as an app. The written sections of the text – called “Testimonies” – which contain the main trajectory of the story, were uploaded sequentially, along with a variety of mixed-media elements, including video and photographs.

One of the striking aspects of the work is its capacity to grow through user-generated content. The writers gradually expanded the “Testimonies” through the inclusion of “Field Reports” – that is, short narratives submitted by readers and other writers.

These can only be unlocked using the map on your mobile or tablet device at a specific location – a bit like a GPS-activated and endlessly proliferating instalment of Dickens.

The digital novel wasn’t on show at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, but there are clear signs that this counter cultural curiosity is edging its way into the literary mainstream. But the wary can rest assured. Despite Hugo’s protestations, architecture wasn’t destroyed by the printing press. It was only transformed.

So too, the novel isn’t over yet.

The Conversation

Camilla Nelson is Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at University of Notre Dame Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.