Last year, when Bob Dylan was named winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was surprised. I had never really noticed the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature before, although several of my friends had been involved in scientific or political projects that had been recognized by their respective committees. An even bigger surprise came last week, when Kazuo Ishiguro was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It seemed that, in recognizing Dylan and then Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize committee had finally decided that instead of getting me to read the works of Laureate’s past they should just award the prize to whomever I happened to be reading or listening to in the mid-’00s.
I decided a couple of days ago to go back over the books that I read this year to try to establish, largely for myself, a kind of top ten that were books I would recommend to others. It was more difficult than I expected – I read very few novels that really stuck with me this past year, so it became mostly non-fiction, which is unusual for me. Some of the things on this list feel like filler because I could only get about five books I absolutely loved if I cut out books that I’d re-read (perhaps I should have included Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, though). I originally planned to post this list to Twitter and Facebook, but as I reflected on them and what they meant to me, I found a lot more depth than I had expected. Thus it has become a blog post. The books are presented in roughly the order in which I read them, not in any way intended to be a ranking based on relative enjoyment or quality.
- Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit
I think that, if I’d got around to reading Solnit’s Hope In the Dark (it’s primed on my kindle), it would have made this list rather than Men Explain Things to Me. That’s not to say that Men Explain Things to Me didn’t affect me, but the thing that has really been going through my head the past few weeks/months are Solnit’s reflections on despair and optimism (both, in her interpretation, forms of certainty cause for inaction) and hope, which promises the possibility of a good outcome if one works towards it, in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness”. I’ve see a lot of people since November talking about embracing despair, not giving in to hope, but I think they use ‘hope’ the way Solnit uses optimism. Reflecting on this alongside my (joint-)favourite film of the year, I came up with an example:
OPTIMISM: The Empire has built a Death Star, but let’s wait and see if they actually use it, it could be fine.
DESPAIR: The Empire has built a Death Star! We must disband the Rebellion and go back to living in fear!
HOPE: The Empire has built a Death Star. Let’s try to steal the plans and blow that shit up.
The last one is what we need right now. Perhaps not the ‘blowing shit up’ part, but definitely the resistance. We need hope, an aim, a motive, not to give in to the worst possible outcome and let the Empire destroy us.
- The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore
I don’t make much of a secret of the fact that I tend to prefer the history of comic books to the actual comic books themselves. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is concerned as much with the creator of Wonder Woman (and the women on whom she was based) than the actual history of the comic book character and her use and abuse over the past 75 years (which could have dovetailed nicely with Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminist Once, discussed below), but it’s still a fascinating history of a comic book icon. At the time of reading I found it paralleled Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Romantic Outlaws, which I read in 2015, in that it chronicled the ways in which supposedly progressive men can be blind to the experiences of women. I think that this remains a significant barrier in progressive circles; I suspect that, if we looked at the Democratic Party and the support given to Barack Obama and Bernie Sandars but not to Hillary Clinton, we might find that it is one of the sources of the current problems in the world today.
- The Birthday of the World – Ursula Le Guin
Of course Ursula le Guin makes it onto a list of my favourite books from any year; and this year I read the last of her Hainish/Ekumen stories. This collection contains many stories that reflect on change over time, particularly “The Matter of Seggri”, and the idea that progress is gradual but happens. It is, I would say, optimistic more than hopeful. But that is perhaps doing it, and le Guin, a disservice. This year I also listened to the audiobook of The Dispossessed, which I originally read in 2012, and reflected on its message that progress, equality, and freedom are on-going projects, ones that require work and maintenance. The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and I thought about what undermines the utopianism of Anarres, the anarchist society of the novel. It is, perhaps, that the society was optimistic – “we have created an anarchist society, therefore we are free and equal” – rather than hopeful – “we have created an anarchist society, through which we can strive for freedom and equality”. “The Matter of Seggri” is far behind the utopias of The Dispossessed, but one might look on it as a hopeful tale, where the difficulties and struggles of Seggri past are overcome as it progresses towards a more equal society.
I didn’t read many novels this year, as a proportion of the books I read, and few of them really stuck with me in the way that a lot of the non-fiction did. Besides Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, these two novels were the most thought provoking.
Were I being completely honest, I would admit that the novel that most affected me this year was Way Down Dark by James Smythe; it doesn’t make the list because the effect was negative. Perhaps I had already been down because of the referendum bullshit but Way Down Dark is the first thing I can date this year that made me really despair. It was so hopeless and bleak that it put me off reading for a while afterwards, and may explain why I read so few novels after it. As I reflected in my Goodreads review of A Calculated Life, it is possible that I enjoyed it so much because I had not enjoyed the previous, overlong, stodgy book that I read. Looking back, perhaps it was also because I followed it up with Way Down Dark.
- The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America – Thomas King
The Inconvenient Indian stands apart from many of the other things that I read in 2016. I didn’t – couldn’t – review it on Goodreads, I couldn’t think how to encapsulate what it made me think and feel. I still can’t. What I can say is that it has made me reflect on some of the other histories that I read, both for my research and for pleasure, and how they discuss Indians, and colonialism, and colonization. They do not often come across all that well. Perhaps the most important key theme of the book is that of betrayal – how Native and First Nations people have constantly be betrayed by the promises and treaties that colonial Canada and the United States of America make with them. It has made me notice how far in the background Native rights are in most discussions of progressive politics in both the USA and Canada, and how easily they can be discarded once a ‘progressive’ party wins an election, but also how progressive media consistently ignores or marginalises Native peoples – or depicts them with tropes and clichés, as a people that belong in and to the past (King’s ‘Dead Indians’).
The Inconvenient Indian was published in 2013, towards the end of the Harper era (although obviously that was unclear at the time). One might have thought that with Justin Trudeau’s election things were looking better and that now, when I think about The Inconvenient Indian, I am hopeful that the cycles of mistreatment have come to an end. But 2016 has not been that kind of year. In fact, when I jokingly commented in December 2015 that Trudeau’s flip-flopping regarding his statement that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film was a poor indicator for his time as Prime Minister, I didn’t expect to be proven as right as I have been this past year. It’s difficult, because as a spousal immigrant in Canada the Liberal government has improved things for me, and for those who come after me, in the ways in which they have changed the application procedures and decreased the waiting times. But the government has still betrayed its promises to First Nations people, still allowed more pipelines to be built, still isn’t prioritising missing and murdered First Nations women. The Inconvenient Indian actually provides the best check to my hopeful side in what has happened since it was written and since I read it.
I listened to a few audiobooks by comedians this year and Mindy Kaling’s were the best. It’s difficult to fit this into the narrative of hope, optimism, and despair that I’ve established throughout this account. I can reflect on the (optimistic) jokes in the first part of The Mindy Project season 5 that assume Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election. But I think that, mostly, I like to think that a funny, successful person wrote a couple of books that I really enjoyed.
- Death’s End – Cixin Liu
I have some reservations about recommending Death’s End, especially as it is the third part of a trilogy of exceptionally long novels. The first, The Three-Body Problem, was fantastic; the second, The Dark Forest, began terribly but ended well. The trilogy is certainly worth reading if you can cope with the misogyny. But, in a way, it is even bleaker than Way Down Dark. Throughout the trilogy humanity goes through stages of hope and despair, trying to find new ways to survive, sometimes just about holding on. Despair, it seems, is the best course of action. Indeed, it is clear at some points that hope and optimism – or at least, attempting to stifle despair – causes more problems for humanity than it solves.
- Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era – Michael Kimmel
Like The Inconvenient Indian, Angry White Men was published in 2013 but remains a pretty solid explanation of how what happened in 2016 happened, three years before it actually, uh, happened. This book details the circumstances in which the anguish of white men is turned to anger, and how it is directed against those who are coming up from beneath them rather than against those above them who hold them down. It also provides the handy term ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to explain how men react to no longer being the centre of attention.
While I do not think that Kimmel is guilty of the blindness to women’s suffering that I attribute to William Moulton Marston or the men in the lives of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, I found that my interest in the failings of supposedly feminist men were not met by this book. It’s a topic that I find a lot of interest in because it is something that I feel myself and that I am trying to be self-reflective. It doesn’t really fall within Kimmel’s remit, which is to look at the angry masculinity of a certain kind of man, but I think that the entitlement of progressive men also needs to be considered, even though it is yet to be aggrieved.
As with The Inconvenient Indian, subsequent events have affected how I react to Angry White Men three years after its original publication. Kimmel is a little over-optimistic in his conclusions. His implication is that we don’t actually have to do anything; these men are in decline and will eventually be drowned out. That doesn’t seem to have actually happened; in fact, it seems like the harmful forces that take advantage of these men’s anguish have managed to do so to an extraordinary degree. But the book offers me hope, even if that hope is fragile: that those who have gained rights will not back down; that the lack of progress over the next few years will show these angry white men that their optimism has been misplaced; that left-wing movements can take over where right-wing ones have previously held sway. Ultimately, it shows me that there is a way through this darkness; it’s just that the way through needs to challenge the right, admit how neoliberal economics have failed, and to hold fast to the importance of the rights that have been gained over the past decades. It’s a sliver of hope, but it is there.
- We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement – Andi Zeisler
The last book that I read this year, and one on which I am still mulling. It will have been written with some awareness of what might happen in 2016, but was published before much of it happened; but there is still a tone of hope in the dark as Zeisler presents a difficulty in a modern progressive movement and reflects on how to make the best out of it. But the part which made me the most hopeful was a section in which Zeisler discusses the attacks on female bodily autonomy under the Bush administration in the early ‘00s, and the way in which 9/11 was used to prevent criticism of the government. Zeisler comments that subsequently, social media has created connections and support networks between women so that it is more difficult to feel as alone as one could in the early ‘00s. Here, again, is a shred of hope. As Kimmel concluded, women and minorities are not suddenly going to back down and forget that they are still treated unequally; under Bush, the spectre of terrorism and the lack of social media made it difficult to challenge attacks to past gains, but in the next few years such a defence might be possible. It’s not much, but it’s there. Again, it is why hope (understood to mean looking for solutions) is better than optimism or despair (assuming an outcome, positive or negative). The fight will get more difficult, but it will not become impossible.
In a way, I found Zeisler’s focus on the co-opting of ‘feminism’ as an identity among right wing and capitalist women such as Sarah Palin rather than on how some men use this identity as an excuse to get at women (to Explain Things to Them, as it were) more disappointing than Kimmel’s lack of discussion on the topic, as it perhaps fits better with the theme of her book. It connects We Were Feminists Once with The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Romantic Outlaws; men continue to use ‘feminist’ as an identity or gold star, especially young men, as a way of showing their ‘wokeness’, or how they are Good For Women. It is outlined well in this BuzzFeed article, which describes these men as ‘thirsty male feminist[s]’. It is worth a read, and a salient reminder that if one is a man who wishes to enact feminism then one must be careful of pitfalls, the most prominent one being dictating feminism to women and girls rather than using their position among men as a way of promoting feminism and respect for women and other genders among those of us who benefit from the patriarchal dividend. For me, next year will partially be about how to put one of Zeisler’s main points – that feminism is something that you do, not something that you are – into action in my own life. I’m still thinking about how I might do that. But I remain hopeful.
The narrative voice in fiction relates to a number of other issues which I find exceedingly interesting. The most important of these is the approach the novel takes to the subjective nature of reality, the fact that events differ when recited from a different point of view. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, or the short stories on which it is based, but I have neither seen the film nor read the stories. This tells a story from a number of narrative perspectives, each shining a different light on events, each story slightly different. I am getting ahead of myself. The point is that the narrative voice is incredibly interesting and yet I doubt that many authors put much thought into their use of voice. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Would some things be better in a different voice to the one in which they are told? These are some of the questions which have been on my mind recently.*
Reading back over an old diary/notebook of mine recently I came across my discussion of this theme on 6th August 2010. I read it out to my girlfriend, and she told me about a story by a friend of hers which she had read recently which had been written in the first person. It was clearly a very personal piece, she told me, and she had questioned her friend’s decision to write it in the first person. Her reason for the questioning was the issue of “show, don’t tell” and its relationship to the emotions of the narrative voice. Her basic argument was that in the first person feelings can be stated, whereas in the third person they have to be carefully shown. The issue of “show, don’t tell” is a complicated one, which will come up a few more times I think, but I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of it now. I think that it is a good guideline, but believe that there are some things which need to be shown and others which need to be told. The key is to know which, and to have a reason.
My preference has usually been for the third-person narrative. As of August 6th 2010 I had read 32 books that year of which 12 had been, at least in part, first person. One of these was the book Gateway by Frederik Pohl, which has become a byword for bad first-person narratives in my mind not due to any explicit problems with the book, but because I could not stand the narrator, Robinette Stetley Broadhead. This isn’t really a legitimate reason – you can dislike main characters in third person narratives, although in those circumstances it is less likely to be so strongly rubbed in your face. I wonder if this is a guide: if your main character is likable, then you can get away with first person narrative. Emilio Sandoz, one of the main protagonists in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, is very likable, but he could not be the narrator for two reasons: the first is that he would have to be an unreliable narrator; the second is that the book contains a mystery.
This brings me to the first “legitimate” use of the first person: the investigator. Crime novels are perfect examples of an opportunity to use the first person narrator, for when there is a mystery to be solved who is better to take you through it than the person charged with solving it? In 2010 my first example was China Miéville’s The City and The City; another would be Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and any number of others. For the Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, we cannot solve the mystery as quickly as Holmes does – that would be too easy – and so Conan Doyle uses Watson as a medium through which we see the events, gather all the evidence, but who is equally stunned by Holmes’ deductive powers as we are. Taking us through the path to a discovery – this is a use of the first person.
Then there is the narrator who knows something which we do not – and who often tries to hide it. Gateway falls into this category; another book I read in 2010 which does is Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is essentially the story of a revelation, which must be revealed by the individual who received the revelation. A further dimension of this is the unreliable narrator. I have only read one/four books which are explicitly known to have an “unreliable” narrator, which are Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. I think these will need a re-read before I can comment fully on this use of the first person. The naive narrator, however, is aptly presented in The Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss Everdeen is so painfully unaware of her own circumstances at times that it’s hard not to shake your head and wonder at her.
A couple more thoughts emerge from The Hunger Games. I think that Suzanne Collins is fairly brave, especially in Mockingjay, not to push Katniss into every event of importance in order to show it. She allows some things to be told. We are taken by surprise, and we don’t know everything because Katniss doesn’t, even if we sometimes have more insight than she does. On the other hand, Katniss often has to explain things about her world which she shouldn’t have to do, unless she knows to whom she is talking (i.e. us, in the far past of her world) about which she gives no other indication. The finest examples of first person literature must be those when the audience is known, and it is believably the reader. Addressing the reader and pulling them in – “Call me Ishmael” – is the trick to the first person, it seems to me.
The Hunger Games and The Book of the New Sun also fall into a category of books which are the “first person historical narrative”; in these cases a major figure from a historical period is discussing the events which they lived through. In my opinion, regardless of what Graves himself says about them, one of the most interesting examples of this are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I read I, Claudius from Christmas day 2006 to an early point in 2007, but had to stop reading Claudius the God as I was studying Roman history I.vi, from Caesar to Claudius, at the time, and it was terribly confusing. But Graves was (very, very) well read in his Roman history, and I believe Claudius is made to highlight the fact that he makes a conscious decision contrary to that of the (real human being) Caius Julius Caesar when he choses to write in the first person. This, it seems, is an admission of bias, and of a subjective perspective on the history through which Claudius lived – and indeed, who else could have seen through Clau-Clau’s act of always playing the fool but the man himself? You wouldn’t trust a historian who told you he was not an idiot unless it was the man himself, prooving the contrary.
Once we are this far back in history it seems no greater difficulty to leap to the first example of a first-person narrative in the western literary tradition: Books 9 through 12 of The Odyssey, in which the travels of the hero are recited by the man himself. We cannot say whether or not there is any element of the unreliable narrator in “Homer”‘s consciousness – after all, we know Odysseus sits down and converses with gods, as he does with Athena when he returns to Ithaca. But we can interpret it as such now – Odysseus is the only survivour of the Ithacan ships which departed Troy ten years earlier; there are no voices to counter his account. If there is a modern literary novel based on this premise I would really, really like to read it, so please let me know.
The Odyssey follows a narrative structure which was common in the epistolary novel; that is the narrative-within-a-narrative. One of my first encounters with this method was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which features a framing narrative by a Mr. Lockwood, who in turn recites the story which was told to him by the housekeeper at the Grange, Nelly Dean. It is questionable how successful this is, as Nelly is places in several scenes where perhaps one might not expect a nursemaid to appear; it does, however, allow for a great deal of speculation about what Cathy and Heathcliff got up to when she wasn’t around.** Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein also uses the device of diaries and reporting-direct-speech within letters etcetera to tell the story. This is perhaps the best way to use multiple-first person narratives, short of the means used in Rashomon and the short stories on which it is based, which I still haven’t read, even though it’s been more than an hour.
The alternation of narrative viewpoint is a feature I still find strange in novels. The first novel in which I came across this feature was Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. I cannot tell you the reason why it was used in this book, or the sequels which followed it. I could understand if there were two separate first person accounts, that of Takeo and that of Kaede, but there are not – Takeo has a voice, Kaede has a third person narration. But it isn’t told in any really different way, except that Takeo calls himself “I” and Kaede does not. I also ought to point out that I don’t like either of these characters, although I did enjoy the series. Especially the end of the third book, for some reason. The short story “The Tain” by China Miéville changes voice in this way, with one character acting as a first person narrator type figure, which I dubbed “the expositionist” in my diary, on the basis that he sets the scene against which the third person narrative is told. I did find the first person narrative more interesting in this case though, and I wasn’t really that concerned with the third person protagonist.
Christopher Priest’s Inverted World uses this mode in a particularly effective way. The topic of the book is, in some ways, the subjective nature of reality and the way in which our perspectives are changed. I can’t go into any more details without risking spoiling the plot of the book, but there is a good reason for the person change and it is used well.
A final, bad use of the first person must be the “wish-fulfillment” first person. This is where the author inhabits the character about which they are writing and thus the character receives a great deal of favour and will often be infuriating – to me at least. In 2010 I read a fun fantasy story called Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin which essentially fulfilled this. It wasn’t a terrible thing, except that it wasn’t “for me”, and as I said on 6th August 2010: “I do find Severian’s [Book of the New Sun] claims about the beauty of the women he encounters as infuriating as Raine [Magic Lost, Trouble Found] lusting over the men in her life.” A real concern on this front would be the Twilight series – but I must be fair, and I haven’t read them, so I cannot comment.
It seems to me that the third person narrative is the norm, and I would expect this to be the natural way in which to tell a story and an alternative choice is just that – a decision to do something different. But it seems as if so many books in the nineteenth century were first person, that this actually seems to be the norm. That The Iliad is third and it is not until The Odyssey that we have an extensive first person narrative suggests that it is foolish to think one is more “normal” than the other. But it is certainly the case that in my experience third person narratives are more common, and so I’m not so sure that I have that much to say about them.
The advantage is that multiple points of view, or the omniscient narrator following more than one character, becomes more possible and believable to follow. There’s no question why a third person narrative changes protagonist from time to time, and some uses of the third person take the view from inside a character’s – or several characters’ – head. But the depth of this is limited, if the “show, don’t tell” risk is not to leach into the third person narrative, at least for emotions, too. My girlfriend seemed to think that there was more art to the third person, as you have to find ways to show emotions which you can tell in the first; I would argue that what you tell in the first is not necessarily the truth, unless you show it to be. But this is not the be-all and end-all of the choice of voice.
I wonder sometimes about the choice of voice. Why, for example, aren’t the Harry Potter books told in the first person, when most of what we see is through Harry and not (for example) Hermione or Ron? In this case, I think it is a question of the ability to relate to the character. Harry is a lot more believable as an “everychild” in the third person, rather than telling a unique story. We can empathise with his feelings without having them shoved down our throats. Do I think this was a conscious choice on the part of J.K. Rowling? I seriously doubt it, to be honest. Why would she have considered this, if Harry sounded to her in the third person?
My girlfriend questioned her friend’s use of the first person, and I think, if you are a friend of a person writing a book or short story who is reading it, it might be worth asking them about their use of voice. They might not have thought about it, and you might make them really self-conscious about it so that they have great difficulty writing. Uh, but don’t let that put you off. It might stimulate some interesting thoughts in their writing. Or it might just be that the story sounds better to them in the voice it’s in – that is their decision, and it’s unlikely to be a mistake if it feels right to them. First person, third person – their choice of voice is all about finding their own voice, and that is the best way to write.
* I have never read a book in the second person, so I am not going to mention it again in this blog. But that is also interesting and everything, of course, although it’s also really weird.
** They were totally doing it, FYI.
I’m a little pressed for time again today, so I will be basically copying some things which I’ve been writing in my physical diary here today. Yesterday and today I read a few short stories, and I’m going to post my thoughts about them here.
The Ceiling Is Sky – Suzanne Palmer (Interzone #234)
The overall idea of this story – contrasting working for a living with sacrificing everything to find yourself – was quite well suited to the world created in which it happened. However the clumsiness of some of the expository dialogue and a tendency to tell rather than show meant that it was a little difficult to read. There were also some elements to the story which were a little beyond belief – all the houses are equipped with euthanasia buttons, and these are on open display and just have to be pressed, by anyone? But the intent was good even if the world was a little unbelievable and sloppily drawn.
In the Bleak Midwinter – Philip Reeve (here)
Philip Reeve has an advantage over the other short stories which I’ve been reading because he is doing so in an established world, using established characters, which I have read not that long ago, and if you go back in his blog a few entries you’ll see the entry where he mentions me showing him around my college when he visited Oxford in November. The characters are well-written because we know so much about them already – would the descriptions of Shrike been so effective to someone who knew nothing about stalkers? I cannot say. But, on the other hand, this story was written for people who read his blog, is beautifully illustrated by one of his friends, and has been provided for free on the internet. It’s the kind of thing that you want to see established writers do to embrace the internet, and it encourages you to continue to support them. It also helps that the story was great, too.
A Light In Troy – Sarah Monette (Clarksworld Magazine #1, online here)
I was expecting this story to be about Troy, a subject very close to home for me, but it wasn’t, so that was a relief. The title is clearly intended to make one think of Troy (I supposed that the heroine was Andromache until it became clear that this was not mythical Greece, but something else) but it does deal with a conquered people, the enslavement of a woman once noble, and a glimmer of hope and the possibility of decency amongst conquerors. If not exactly about redemption it was perhaps about renewal, and recovery. It was nice, and that was good in something so short.
I have several ideas for further blogs (such as the one about ebooks which I will probably write tomorrow, and in which I will comment on this old blog by Philip Reeve upon which I just stumbled; and one about the point of celebrating New Year, which I guess will be Saturday) so hopefully I will carry it on even after this blog-a-day stretch has ended. I have to skip Sunday as I will be at a friend’s post-New Year’s Eve all day, but perhaps Monday.