What I’m Reading Wednesday

Basically every day on this blog is a what I’m reading day, but Wednesday is as good a day to do it as any. It is Odin’s day.

What I’m Reading Now

I’ve been in the middle of Independent People by Halldor Laxness for a while. It is a story of an Icelandic farmer around the beginning of the 20th century, but aside from a few mentions, it seems like it could be set any time from the founding of Iceland. It has a severeness and violence to the tone that suits the subject matter and setting. It is a very good read for trying to get in the right mindset to write about Vikings and medieval societies.

I am also reading a story a day or so from Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender. She is a master of the short story. She writes them with odd points of view and about people too strange for a novel. I rarely see the purpose of a short story (often I think they should either be a novel or the author should not have bothered), but with hers, I see the purpose of all of them. My favorite is the harrowing “End of the Line”.

What I Just Finished

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter and Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton, which I intend to write more about on Friday.

What I’m Reading Next

Well, this section will always be full of good intentions, but not much expectation of actually fulfilling them. The entries from last week still apply, and I should also pick up Don Quixote again, which was assigned for a class last semester. We read the first 230 pages for the class, but there is another 600 to go, and it is a masterpiece. A messy, hilarious masterpiece.

I saw The Man of La Mancha at an impressionable age, and whenever I pick up Don Quixote I end up with the songs in my head, as well as many romantic notions about the nobility of Don Quixote’s sort of fictional madness.

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The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I grew up on fairy tales. My father made sure to raise his daughters feminist and read to us from two books of women-centric fairy tales: The Maid of the North and Tatterhood.

Fairy tales are never benign, never safe, no matter how much life has been sucked out of them. Even Disney, though it needs to tack happy endings onto its renditions, removing the knives that stab the little mermaid’s feet, letting her live, still has to give us Ursula, and steal Ariel’s voice.

And how much less safe the early versions were–the wolf calls Red Riding Hood a slut and eats her up, the stepmother feeds her husband his son in a stew, the girl has to cut off her own finger to free her brothers. When there is a happily ever after, it is hard earned.

A movement has risen in the past twenty years to bring back the old, dangerous fairy tales. Collections like Snow White, Blood Red edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling in the early 1990s showcased the talents of fantasy writers who were starting to use fairy tale elements in their stories. (The genre of urban fantasy owes a lot to this movement.)

But before all of them, Angela Carter, in 1979, wrote The Bloody Chamber. In it she retells many fairy tales, some more than once. She keeps coming back to the wolf and the young girl, in the stories of Bluebeard, Little Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast, and various werewolf tales. Sometimes the girl turns the tables, sometimes she escapes, and sometimes she dies.

Carter manages to update the stories while keeping their essential, timeless, fairy-tale-ness. The story “The Bloody Chamber” is her retelling of Bluebeard, and is set in a world with phones and trains, but is still removed from all those things, and feels archetypal. “The Bloody Chamber” dwells on the luxury and wealth of Bluebeard’s home with a fantastical, overwhelming accretion of detail, until the reader, even knowing what we do about the ending of Bluebeard, is seduced by him and his surroundings.

The well-chosen detail is one of the chief pleasures of all of Carter’s tales. Fairy tales are known for their bare bones, a story stripped down to its essentials, but Carter shows that she can build a story with more flesh around those bones without compromising their nature. Many retellings since The Bloody Chamber owe something to her. When reading her “Beauty and the Beast” I recognized details that ended up in the Disney movie, especially that beautiful rose under glass.

Fairy tales are both dangerous and also rather conventional, in a way. They show danger, and the real consequences of danger, the cruel endings, but they also give us lessons and a pattern to follow. Sometimes a punishment seems to severe, but nothing happens without reason in a fairy tale. Little Red Riding Hood is eaten because she should not have trusted the wolf even a little. In one of Carter’s retellings, the wolf is the grandmother, a werewolf and witch, and Little Red recognizes her for what she is and kills her. Even in turning the story on its head, it still rewards the bold, and punishes the outre, the witch-creature, restoring order to the primitive town where it is set.

Carter brings a more literary feel to these tales than some of her successors in the genre. Sometimes the stories are almost like impressions of the original story rather than retellings, obliquely referring to the fairy tale, or dwelling only in the details and feelings of the tale, without much of the plot. The way she dwells on wolves and beasts is repetitive in a good way, giving a full perspective on what it means to be a wolf, and what it means to live where wolves are a danger. In Carter’s world, the wolf is always near, which is as true today as it was when these fairy tales were first handed down. Fairy tales remind us of that danger that we might like to forget.

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On Quitting

My friend Leta Blake wrote a great post of writing advice here, and I agree with almost all of it, but, of course, I want to talk about what I don’t agree with. Unlike her, I think that quitting is sometimes the right thing to do.

She opens the piece with this David Sedaris quote: “The only real advice you can give anyone is to keep writing.” And that is true, but keep writing what? Her final advice is “Finish your work.” Which is good advice to a point, but we have a limited amount of time and energy in this life, and always finishing a piece of writing is like always staying in a job until you’re fired or always staying in a relationship. It’s not always the best choice.

Sometimes it’s just not working. That doesn’t mean people should quit without really trying. But sometimes a piece of writing is just an exercise. Sometimes it’s a warm-up for something else. I don’t like short stories very much, so I feel like most of my short stories are that way.

Before I started working on The Viking Novel, I started many other novels. I always got about two-thirds through the story and entirely lost interest. Novels are a huge amount of work–even fluffy romances, even swashbuckling space operas. My calculation is that for every 10,000 new words, the difficulty of managing all the plot threads and characters gets twice as hard.

I don’t think quitting a piece of writing, especially something novel-length should be done lightly, without learning from the quitting. But it can and should be done. Things I learned from the novels I quit:

  1. Always begin a story with the end in mind, or it won’t go anywhere.
  2. Just because a genre seems easy or fluffy doesn’t mean it is easy to write. I’m more comfortable writing a door-stopper historical novel than a 220-page light romance.
  3. Write something you can feel proud of.
  4. Ask yourself: if you only had time to write one book in your life what book would it be? Write that book.

What would have happened if I’d finished that historical novel without an ending? Or that light fluffy romance? Or that other space opera romance? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be where I am now, working on a final draft of the book that I’ve been wanting to write for my whole life, the book I dreamed about. I would have taken a path that was both harder and less fulfilling.

Most things that are worth doing are hard, but not everything hard is worth doing, and that goes for writing too.

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Not A Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

One of my writing teachers used to ask what is at once a terrible and important question of the students in her novel-writing class: “What is the point of your book? Why should people read it?”

It is a terrible question, because in the throes of writing a book, putting as much effort into something as a novel takes, it’s easy to think, “Nothing, my book has no point.” Or, “People should read it to know the story.” But she is right that memorable books, the books that last in time and memory, are saying something more than just “here is a story.” Plenty of books do just tell a story, and they are fun books for a summer day, a beach read, a sick day, but they are not the books that climb inside us, and become part of who we are.

Her question was about themes and meaning–what important, unanswerable questions is the book wrestling with. The writer doesn’t always know when they begin, perhaps they should not even know, but they should know by the end. The book I have that is with an agent right now turns out to be about what sacrifices people make for freedom and for power. The book I’m researching and beginning the rough draft for is about how people live with their own hypocrisy in the face of moral challenges and death. I’m worried, though, that knowing that too soon will mean I put that theme too much in the front, at the cost of the story.

Books also engage with books that have come before. It is always a conversation.

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What I’m Reading Wednesday

If you don’t read, love to read, read widely and voraciously, I don’t believe you can be a writer, not of fiction anyway. Why else would you want to write fiction if you’re not in love with books? One of the best parts of going through an MFA program, for me, is encountering a wide variety of new books and authors to read.

This will be a new weekly feature, based on some of my friends’ blogs.

What I’m Reading

  • Christendom and Christianity in the Middle Ages by Adriaan H. Bredero for research
  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which is excellent, but I seem to be reading it slowly. It takes a bit too much concentration to read before bed, which is when I do my reading that is purely for fun.
  • Drown by Junot Diaz, recommended by some students in my MFA program when I asked for non-white short story writers
  • The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis–she is faculty at the NYU MFA program and her master classes have been very inspirational for me. I admire how she pushes and changes the short story genre.

What I Just Finished

  • The Medieaval Universities by Nathan Schachner–it’s always curious reading a history book that was written in the past. This was written in 1938, and compares the plight of foreigners in medieval towns to that of Jews in Germany, which, as an American in 1938, he could not have known how bad it would get. It was also informative about medieval universities, which were far more powerful than universities are today.
  • Religion for Atheists
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Hannibal as a Supernatural Show

This contains non-specific spoilers through episode 1.10.

I was not planning on watching Hannibal. I am not particularly happy with the profusion of serial killer narratives on TV lately. Often they just seem like an excuse for a gore fest, for the sexualized murder of women, for TV writers to display their worst impulses. I

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Stories Within Stories and The Rings of Saturn

The craft class I took this semester taught by Rick Moody was called “Ancient Forms”, and we’ve read literature from Homer to Cervantes. One of the themes of the class was how, at the beginning, all genres were one: a poem was a novel was a philosophical treatise was a history, and only as time went on did the forms and genres start to become differentiated.

Another theme we found is the prevalence of nested stories in early literature. A digression was not something to be feared, but something to be enjoyed in its own right. Originality of the whole story was not a key aim, so the artistry of the teller came in the quality of digressions and the way the story was told. Many of the works we read contained stories within stories within stories, which can be deadly boring in a work of modern literature, while in the works we read like

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