Nov 24, 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests by Sarah WatersThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Like the parted kimono, the sounds were unsettling; the silence was most unsettling of all. Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms — as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.
She adjusted her pose on the mat, took hold of her cloth, and rubbed hard at the floor.
Set in 1922, The Paying Guests tells the story of Frances Wray, a single woman in her mid twenties who’s struggling to adjust to the post-war world. Like many other impoverish genteel families, Frances and her mother live in a mostly empty house they can hardly afford to keep, and which is full of pictures of the deceased. The Great War took Frances’ two brothers, and when her father died of a stroke, Frances and her mother discovered that the family money was very nearly gone. The household staff was dismissed, and to her mother’s distress Frances started doing the housekeeping and cleaning herself. But even then it’s difficult to make ends meet, and so the two decide to take in lodgers — or, as the neighbours delicately put it, “paying guests”: Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young couple of the nascent “clerk class”.

The years around the Great War, however, weren’t only a time of losses: Frances also fell in love with Christina, a girl she met at a suffrage march. But neither Frances’ nor Christina’s family reacted well to the fact that the two were lesbians, and the resulting tensions drove them apart. Frances remains friends with Christina, and sometimes visits her in her flat in Bloomsbury — a welcome respite from suburban Champion Hill. But the life the two could have lived together seems to her forever gone. Frances, who during the War “believe in transformation” and that “nothing could ever be the same”, feels trapped in her current life; but her growing intimacy with Lillian Barber slowly begins to show her new possibilities. Until, that is, an unexpected turn of fate tries the two nearly beyond endurance.

As Jenny said: Sarah Waters, why are you so good at being a writer? I loved The Paying Guests. I loved the detail, the slow build up of tension, the deft portrayal of growing intimacy, the social insight. I thought it was especially interesting that the first part covered some of the same territory as The Little Stranger. It’s set in a different period and examines the shockwaves of a different war, but both are novels about people trying to make sense of a quickly shifting social world. As in her previous novel, Sarah Waters writes about the everyday manifestations of class with delicacy and incisiveness. We learn about the subtle shifts in standing that the Barbers’ move to Champion Hill bring to both them and the Wrys; we watch Mrs Wry’s anguish over her daughter being “reduced” to doing manual labour; we see Frances herself, a suffrage activist who longs for a different world, struggle with changes that go against the worldview within which she was raised.

The Paying Guests is, then, a novel about social upheaval, but it’s also very much about the disappointment of women who found themselves caught in a forceful attempt at a return to “business as usual” after the war. It’s not unusual for periods of quick and intensive change to be followed by backlash: change leads to anxiety, which leads to desperate attempts to revert it, which leads to a greater than usual policing of social behaviours. This kind of scrutiny is very much a part of Frances’ environment in Champion Hill, and it’s part of why she longs to escape it. Frances, who was once arrested for throwing a shoe at an MP, feels forced back into the role of the dutiful daughter, who spends her evenings reading companionably or playing cards with a mother she’s not particularly close with. The pressure is of course not only external — Frances longs to escape, but she also struggles to make sense of what it would mean to leave her mother. Would Mrs Wry be okay? Would Frances herself be okay? Would such a decision make her a degenerate and unfeeling daughter? Is putting herself first something a woman like Frances could ever allow herself to do?

And then there’s the love story at the heart of The Paying Guests. Every time I read Sarah Waters, I’m newly awed by her ability to capture the charged space between two people. Frances and Lillian come together against the odds, and Waters captures the initial curiosity, companionship, tenderness, sexual tension and erotic fulfilment between the two with amazing skill. Eventually their relationship is tested by the corrosive power of fear and doubt, but it’s interesting how there are hints of that from the very beginning:
But their hands met as they did it, and they twitched away from each other; everything between them was wrong, off kilter. The hilarity of the past hour, the beauty-parlour silliness, the slipping in and out of clothes—it had all evaporated.
Or, worse than that, it had all, Frances supposed, become suspect, become charged and tarnished by her confession. Lillian was tidying away the scissors and the combs now, looking almost angry. Frances had never before seen her look anything but open and kind. Was her mind running backward? Was she remembering odd incidents between Frances and herself, the Turkish delight, the chivalry, Frances chasing away her admirer from the band-stand? Was she thinking that Frances had seen him off in order to take his place?
Was that what Frances had done?
This final sentence is, I think, particularly striking, and it gets at something The Paying Guests does especially well. It captures the fact that Frances and Lillian are doubly vulnerable because being two women in love is something outside of what society recognises as legitimate. Frances knows that nearly everyone would reduce their relationship to something lewd and base, to something tarnished, and it often takes all her strength not to let those voices get inside her head. In the face of what the two eventually go through, it takes a lot for them to be open and trustful and find their way back to each other. Seeing Frances reject the view that what she and Lillian share is tainted and compromised by default and that the two therefore deserve punishment was the act of subversion I so desperately hoped for in this novel.

The Paying Guests can be divided into two parts: before and after the dramatic event that dominates the novel. The tone changes from quiet and mostly preoccupied with the slow-build up of intimacy, character development and subtle social observations to, well, unputdownable suspense. But in answer to the question Jenny poses, I didn’t find the Event too Eventy. I didn’t feel, for example, the way I did when I read Year of Wonders, a mostly quiet novel that suddenly veers into high drama in a way that feels tacked on. In this case I liked where the story went, but to explain why I’ll have to get into details that will inevitably give the plot away. Which is to say—

There will be spoilers from this point onwards.

I was rooting for Frances and Lillian all along. It seemed clear to me that Leonard’s death was self-defence, though I understood how they came to doubt it, and each other. And I was fascinated by how the event and its aftermath destroyed the remaining of Frances’ illusions of a well-ordered world. When an innocent man is accused of killing Leonard, Frances initially believes that there’s no way he will be hanged, because after all he didn’t do it — surely this fact will surface and that will be that. But the young man in question matches most people’s idea of what the killer must be like all too well — and that, Frances realises, bears far more weight than the facts.

In a similar way, people like Frances and Lillian have no legal recourse. The two wrestle and wrestle with whether they should come clean about what happened, but their fear for their lives wins in the end. I was cheering for them not to get caught because it was evident that they couldn’t possibly expect a fair trial. Frances might have been protected by her class, but the two are doomed because they’re women, because they’re gay, because Lillian sought out an abortion. The court of public opinion would convict them from the start, and the law would soon follow. The odds are so overwhelmingly stacked against them that their only hope is in deception. The main ethical question Frances and Lillian grapple with, then, is less about telling the truth and more about what they can and can’t live with. They can, though with effort, live with not going to prison for killing Leonard in self-defence; watching an innocent man be hanged on their behalf is another matter altogether.

I loved every page of The Paying Guests, but it was the ending that elevated it to an extraordinary novel for me. I suspect that a lot of other writers would have felt the need to dole out narrative punishment to Frances and Lillian, and I confess that I was on tenterhooks about whether or not Sarah Waters would until the very end. Oh me of little faith! Perhaps it’s because she was written truly heartbreaking novels like Affinity, but still, I should have remembered that this is Sarah Waters. It matters to me to see characters like Frances and Lillian “make one small brave thing happen”, and I was thrilled that this was exactly what we got.

Oh, and what an ending it was:
I can’t. They were a queer two words by which to be reunited: a statement of failure, Frances though, as much as of love. But they were like the two words that the jury had brought back: the moment she heard them she began to shake, to imagine if they had not been said.
Lillian saw, and put a hand over hers; and presently the trembling passed away. They didn’t try to speak again. They learned together by an inch—that was all it took, after all, to close the space between them. Would it be alright, wondered Frances, if they were to allow themselves to be happy? Wouldn’t it be a sort of insult to all those who had been harmed? Or oughtn’t they to do all they could—didn’t they almost have a duty—to make one small brave thing happen at last?
My heart. My poor, poor heart. It very nearly exploded, in the best possible way. As I said above, I read this as Frances and Lillian’s rejection of the idea that women like them have unhappiness coming, and that was lovely to see.

Other bits I liked:
All this time, [Frances] had imagined herself to be entirely without hope, but she had had hope, she realised: it had all been pinned on this moment, when at last, after so many weeks, the boy would have the chance to put his own case, clear up every scrap of confusion. But how could he possibly do it? How could anyone have done it, in that crushing, unnatural place, with so many greedy eyes on them, and with everyone present save herself and Lillian convinced of their guilt?

She began to walk. The rain had turned into a fine drizzle, and the pavements were slimy. Her boots began to let in the filthy water at once. But as she made the long journey home to Champion Hill she felt what she had tried and failed to feel the day before: she looked at the city and was sick with love for it, sick with yearning to remain a part of it, to remain alive and young and unconfined and bursting with sensation. Her tired muscles began to ache, but even the ache was dear to her, even the blisters on her heels. She'd be a thing of aches and blisters for the rest of her days, she thought; she'd ask for nothing, trouble no one; if only they’d let her keep her life.
They read it too: Reading the End, Rhapsody in Books, Shelf Love, Novel Readings, Booklust

(You?)

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Nov 21, 2014

Orange is the New Black: Power in Numbers

Orange is the New Black cast
Orange is the New Black: Power in Numbers
The Netflix series Orange is the New Black tells the story of Piper Chapman, a thirty-two year old woman who is sent to prison for fifteen months for having transported drug money a decade before. Piper is an upper middle-class New Yorker who was about to marry her boyfriend Larry and start a business with her best friend Polly; her offense comes to light because her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause, allegedly names her in her own trial. During her time in Litchfield Prison, Piper gets to know her fellow inmates — a large group of women from a variety of backgrounds — and reassess her relationships with Larry and Alex, as well as her current path in life.

I keep returning to my friend Aarti’s post on diversifying our reading (which goes for our media consumption in general): she tells us that only a wide range of stories can possibly hope to capture the variety of experiences of people who belong to underrepresented groups, and remind us that, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so well put it, there’s danger in relying on a single story. I bring this up again because Orange is the New Black’s diverse cast of characters has often been at the centre of critical discussions of the show — obviously with good reason. Before I go on to explain why I loved it, I would like to engage with some of the arguments I’ve come across.

Orange is the New Black: Piper and Alex

One of the first things I read about Orange is the New Black was an essay by Roxane Gay included in Bad Feminist, in which she argues that all the praise the series has received for being diverse goes to show how empty of stories featuring women of colour our cultural landscape really is. Gay is someone I very much look up to, and I could see her point that in the end, this is still a series where a white woman is the hero and the women of colour who surround her are mostly supporting characters who only appear in relation to her (though I think this is something that eventually changes, but I’ll get there in time). Additionally, Allison Samuels says in this moving piece that racial inequality in the criminal-justice system in America is too big an issue for her to be able to enjoy a series about black women in prison, no matter how critically acclaimed it is.

These are two positions I absolutely respect. The way we respond to the stories we encounter is informed by who we are, which is why I think it’s important for me to acknowledge that when I say that I loved Orange is the New Black and its array of stories about women, I do so as a white European lady who doesn’t have to live with the daily knowledge that people who look like me are unjustly incarcerated, or routinely killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I enjoyed it, in short, from a position of privilege. My love for this series is shaped by my context, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s important to me to be upfront about it and bear it in mind.

Orange is the New Black: Nicky

The perfectly legitimate problems critics like Gay or Samuels point out are in part due to the fact that Orange is the New Black is the popular and critically acclaimed diverse series featuring women we currently have. Again we go back to my favourite motto: all the stories, please. All the stereotypes Orange is the New Black may fail to subvert bear more weight because of our poor cultural landscape; all the things it may get wrong would grate less if there were more stories out there about a wide range of women.

Having said this, I still think Orange is the New Black’s greatest strength is the large number of women it presents us with. While it’s perfectly true that in our current media landscape a story about people of colour in prison runs the danger of becoming a single story, the series manages to give us nuance within that set-up, largely because it highlights the individual stories of so many different women. I remember reading a quote from a cast member many months ago (which, typically, I can no longer find) about how amazing the sheer number of women on set was. This was exactly how I felt as a viewer: ladies everywhere! It made my heart sing.

Orange is the New Black: Alex

There are a lot of women in Orange is the New Black, and there’s power in numbers. There are middle-class women and poor women; Latina women, black women, and Asian-American women; a trans woman played by the amazing Laverne Cox; older women; immigrant women; lesbian, straight and bisexual women; women coping with illnesses; and so on. The large cast helps ease the pressure to be all things to all people that inevitably befalls characters from underrepresented groups. The fact that there is, for the most part, more than one of them allows the focus to shift to these women’s individuality. This was wonderful and refreshing, and it’s something I always want to see more of in my media.

At the end of the series’ first season, Piper Chapman is given reasons to reassess her tendency to focus so much on how other people’s actions are likely to affect her, as well as on the potentially reductive and dehumanising consequences of this approach. I thought this was an interesting narrative choice, especially because of how it’s put into practice the following season. Orange is the New Black changes in noticeable ways from season one to season two, and the greatest change has to do with the point Roxane Gay makes in her essay. The focus moves away from Piper herself, and Orange is the New Black shifts from a story with a large supporting cast to a true ensemble series. We get more episodes that delve into different women’s back stories, and while Piper remains a key character, there are plenty of narrative arcs that don’t revolve around her, giving the rest of the characters more room to grow in complexity.

Orange is the New Black: Alex and Piper cuddling

In fact, I would say that Piper’s realisation that seeing herself as central to the story of Litchfield Prison is a result of her privilege is, in a nutshell, the plot arc of the first season. This was heartening to see, especially as Orange is the New Black often deals with issues of inequality. To give you another example, it’s noticeable from the very beginning that the fact that Piper is white and middle-class affects her experience in prison. Not only is she perceived differently (her counsellor, Mr Healey, constantly reminds Piper that she’s “not like those other women”), but she has resources and contacts on the outside that other women don’t necessarily have. Race and class divisions inform life in prison at every turn, and this is something Piper gains a better understanding of as the series progresses.

It’s also clear from the start that Orange is the New Black is committed to humanising its characters. Litchfield is a low security women’s prison, and we learn via flashbacks that a lot of the inmates were convicted for drug-consumption related offenses, for political protest, for self-defence against abusers — in short, for offenses in which their contexts play a large role. Many of the characters are women who were placed in positions of powerlessness and exploitation, or where they otherwise had very limited choices; Orange is the New Black approaches their stories with understanding and care. This is of course important — but I think it’s equally important that it’s not universally true. As J.M. Suarez points out in this Pop Matters piece,
While television has embraced the male antihero wholeheartedly, the women who exist alongside them are often vilified or dismissed as annoying, shrill, or just plain unnecessary. Either because writers choose to write women in such a way, or because audiences read them that way, it’s important to point out just how groundbreaking the representation is on Orange Is the New Black.
Orange is the New Black: Taystee and Poussey

For example, about halfway through season two one of the central characters is revealed to have committed a crime I personally find terrifying, and to which my immediate reaction is to recoil in horror. Although this revelation changed how I perceive this character, I nevertheless appreciated the fact that she had been humanised beforehand. As Suarez points out, this approach to female characters is still not something we see very often, and I enjoyed seeing a woman be allowed this level of ambiguity. Miss Rosa, too, is an anti-hero in a way that is usually reserved for men, and I loved the episodes that delved into her backstory. We don’t often get stories where women get to tread on ethically dubious terrain without being horribly punished for it in ways men are not.

Misogyny is often at the centre of the difficulties the women of Litchfield Prison have to deal with, and I appreciated that the series tackled this directly. The men who work at the prison — Mr Healey, Mr Caputo, Bennett and Mendez — are all complicit in inequality in different ways. One of the most sophisticated aspects of the series is that it understands sexism in structural ways that go beyond each individual character’s niceness or lack thereof. Healey, for example, is capable of acts of kindness, but he’s also a terrifying character who relies on traditional gendered power structures. Healey is at his most comfortable when his position of power over women allows him to be magnanimous — his The End of Men speech, his homophobia, and his outburst at his (female) counsellor are all part of this pattern. A world in which the comfort and wellbeing of women is not dependent on men like him choosing to be kind (but, crucially, having the power to withdraw that kindness) is not a world of which he can make sense.

Orange is the New Black: Bennett and Daya

Bennett is another interesting case. I hope and trust that the series will go on to show the dark underbelly of his relationship with Daya more and more clearly. He’s the “nice” one as opposed to Mendez, but hopefully the series won’t shy away from showing that sexual encounters between guards and inmates are always rape for very good reasons. You can’t give meaningful consent when the power differential between the two parties is so stark. I think there have been hints in that direction already — for example, Daya telling him “You wear the uniform, you call the shots” — and I really hope we’ll see more of that in season three.

Of course, none of this is to say that Orange is the New Black doesn’t sometimes mess up. I wasn’t a big fan of the Vee storyline in season two, for example, exactly because I felt it veered away from the structural approach I described above to present us with a simplified Big Baddie. Additionally, although there’s an understandable social reason why all the series’ main black women but Sophia and Poussey were lured into Vee’s gang, I did think it detracted some from the power in numbers I so liked about the series. Most disappointing of all (spoilers) was the revelation that Vee had orchestrated RJ’s shooting by a white police officer. We live in a world where black young men are frequently killed by white police officers without other black people plotting to make it happen, and where there’s no shortage of denial and victim-blaming surrounding that. This means I can’t approach a twist like this comfortably, or fail to see it as damaging — for much the same reasons why I give woman-manipulates-everyone-with-false-rape-allegations stories the stink eye every time.




But really, I just can’t overstate my appreciation for the fact that Orange is the New Black presents us with an overwhelmingly female universe. Needless to say, this means that relationships between women take centre stage. That they are never portrayed as subordinate to relationships with men is refreshing and amazing (and again we go back to our poor storytelling landscape). The friendships and romances in Orange is the New Black are rich and messy and human: if they’re sometimes complicated, it’s because people are complicated, not because the series is relying on toxic and damaging assumptions about how women interact. These women experience ups and downs; crises and moments of connection; tension and intimacy; conflict and reconciliation; gestures of support and joy. Like all the friends I’ve discussed the series with so far, I’ve had my heart completely and utterly stolen by Taystee and Poussey. But I also loved Red and Nicky and their surrogate mother and daughter dynamics; Red and Norma; the wild ride that is Piper and Alex; Alex and Nicky; Daya and Gloria and Aleida; Sophia and Sister Ingalls; Watson and Yoga Jones. They all develop emotional ties that matter, and the series shows us this plainly and unapologetically.

I loved Orange is the New Black because I found it human and moving and funny; smart and engaging and mostly aware of its potential pitfalls; and most of all because it was choke-full of women I loved getting to know. I watched the first two seasons compulsively, and I absolutely can’t wait for the third. I hope it will stick to the ensemble approach it introduced in season two, that it will have lots more Alex, and that, as I said above, it will continue to explore the implications of the power differential between Daya and Bennett.


I wanted to finish by asking any fellow Orange is the New Black fans, who’s your favourite lady? Personally I adore Nicky, Sophia, and most of all Poussey. I hope we get plenty of episodes about them in the next season.

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Nov 18, 2014

Non-Fiction November: Ten Books by Writers of Colour

Non-Fiction November Logo
Non-Fiction November: Ten Books by Writers of Colour
As part of the third week of Non-Fiction November, our host Rebecca asks us to consider the following questions:
What does “diversity” in books mean to you? Does it refer to book’s location or subject matter? Or is it the author’s nationality or background? What countries/cultures do you tend to enjoy or read about most in your nonfiction? What countries/cultures would you like nonfiction recommendations for? What kind of books besides different countries/cultures do you think of as books of diversity?
As Rebecca says, there are several different ways to approach the topic of diversity in non-fiction. But because over the past few months I’ve been trying to focus on reading more books by authors of colour, that’s the angle I’m going with here. Inspired by Aarti’s excellent Diversiverse Genre Spotlight series, I thought I’d list ten non-fiction books by writers of colour I desperately want to read.

I know I’ve said this before, but I find lists useful for a few different reasons. First, because the world is not a level playing field, and therefore moving away from the default (which is currently books by white men) takes effort, watchfulness and deliberation. It’s very easy to stick to a white male literary diet if you’re not paying attention, simply because these are the books you see everywhere. This doesn’t happen because the best books will “naturally” rise to the top, but because the world is structured to privilege the voices of people we see as authoritative and to push everyone else to the margins. It doesn’t take malicious intent for this to happen; all it takes is distraction. Secondly, lists can be a reminder of just how much there is out there, on such a wide range of topics. As Aarti points out in her post, writers of colour write about far more than race. Obviously I’m interested in books about race; there are always several on my wishlist and some made it onto this list. But it’s important to remember that as pervasive as racial oppression is, it’s not the total sum of the experiences of people of colour or the only topic they write about.

Without further ado, here they are — ten exciting non-fiction books I really want to get my hands on.

  • We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


    I know this is only a short essay, but it’s Adichie! On feminism! I saw it in a bookshop recently and it took all my willpower to walk away without a copy (I had bought a lot of books that week). But it’s only a matter of time until I cave, especially with Jenny’s review adding to the temptation.

  • The Emperor of Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee


    Mukherjee’s “Biography of Cancer” sounds fascinating, if also like a difficult read. I keep eyeing it at the library (and have even borrowed it and returned it unread a couple of times), and one of these days I’ll have to make time for it. A fellow blogger is again to blame for this one — this time Meghan, who wrote a great review a few years back.

  • The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi


    I enjoyed Reading Lolita in Tehran and expect good things of Nafisi’s take on “why fiction is important in a democratic society”.

  • A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life by Allyson Hobbs


    The blurb tells us that “this revelatory history of passing explores the possibilities and challenges that racial indeterminacy presented to men and women living in a country obsessed with racial distinctions”.

  • The Locust and the Bird: My Mother's Story by Hanan Al-Shaykh


    Hanan Al-Shaykh writes about her mother, Kamila, who grew up in Lebanon in the 1940’s and 1950’s. What draws me to it the most is that it seems to be a compassionate, humane account of why Kamila had to leave her children behind to escape a life where she felt suffocated. After PS: Be Eleven, of course I crave more stories with this kind of understanding.

  • Being Mortal by Atul Gawande


    A book about “how medicine can not only improve life but also the process of its ending”, and entirely Raych’s fault.

  • Black Berry, Sweet Juice: On Being Black and White in Canada by Lawrence Hill


    I recently finished Lawrence Hill’s Blood: A Biography of the Stuff of Life, which I really enjoyed and hope to review at some point. I especially liked the book’s exploration of racial identity and of the biological myths that still surround our understanding of race, so it only makes sense to go on to read the book Lawrence devoted entirely to the topic.

  • The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America by Thomas King


    Speaking of awesome Canadian writers of fiction and non-fiction, Thomas King is another person who writes brilliantly about negotiating identity. His The Truth About Stories was illuminating, and I expect the same of this.

  • One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina


    I think I first heard of this memoir via Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is friends with Wainaina and recommended it when I saw her speak. The book is about Wainaina’s experience of growing up in Kenya, and I’ve seen it praised repeatedly for the unique writing.

  • Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison


    Lastly, we have “a learned, stylish, and immensely persuasive work of literary criticism” where Morrison “shows how much the themes of freedom and individualism, manhood and innocence, depended on the existence of a black population that was manifestly unfree—and that came to serve white authors as embodiments of their own fears and desires”.
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    Nov 16, 2014

    …and then I met Nick Hornby and it was awesome

    Signed and dedicated copy of More Baths, Less Talking
    …And then I met Nick Hornby and it was awesome
    Last week I got to cross another name off my mental list of authors I’d really like to meet someday: I went to see Nick Hornby talk about his new novel, Funny Girl, and also be smart, funny and insightful about writing and reading and TV and pop culture.

    Nick Hornby’s work is really important to me, and the event reminded me of all the reasons why. I can’t think of a person who’s had a greater influence on what I try to do on this blog (I’ve had, after all, a quote of his in my “About” section pretty much from the start). It’s not that my writing style is anything like his — he does monthly Believer columns that interweave his thoughts on the several books he read with personal details, and which are perhaps best described as bookish personal essays; I mostly write about one book at a time, and don’t have the writing chops for a more personal approach (or at least I haven’t managed to make it work so far). However, the principles behind what he does have hugely shaped my approach to writing about books. The point of departure of his criticism, the assumptions he questions, the reading myths he won’t buy into: these are all things that have influenced me, both in blogging and in my library work. Most of all, the humane, inclusive and welcoming nature of his criticism is something I strive for every single time I sit down to write.

    Funny Girl is a historical novel set 1964 about “the birth, life and death” of a 60s sitcom, and the main characters are a team of writers and actors involved in its creation (there was a lot of TV chatter at the event that I think would have made Amy happy, but we’ll get to that soon). Hornby said that one of the reasons why he wrote it is that he’s become very interested in team creative work, partially due to his experience of working in movies: he wanted to capture the “amazing joy” of collaborative work, the magic that happens when everything goes right and several minds coming together manage to create something larger than the sum of its parts, and also the possible tensions that might drive people apart and cause creative teams to break up. This is an interest of mine as well, and I’m very intrigued by this aspect of the novel.

    He added that another reason was his growing interest in women’s stories, which he can trace to writing the script for the amazing An Education (and more recently to adapting Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín). When he was working on An Education, he was very drawn to this story of a teenage girl whose life was circumscribed by being a girl in 1961 and by other people’s ideas of what that meant. Digging into these limitations and what it was like to live with them was stimulating in a way he hadn’t anticipated, and he got to explore that further when writing about Sophie in Funny Girl. Sophie is a former Miss Blackpool who moves to London to try to make it as a comedy actress, and who has to deal with people’s assumptions about what women can and can’t do.

    Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
    Needless to say, I want this book.

    Hornby laughed when the chair of the event asked him why he’d made the closest thing to an antagonist in Funny Girl a “stuck-up critic”: he said he feels that more and more we are moving towards an acceptance that popular culture is culture, but in the 1960s these divisions were very marked, and he wanted to write about that. TV, a medium he loves, had yet to conquer the respectability it’s edging towards now, and the question “Is This Art?” was actually given serious consideration. He also said he’s interested in the transformations in how long-form TV is regarded we’ve seen in the past decade or so: the place it occupies in our culture now both in terms of critical regard and of popular engagement is akin to that of the serialised Victorian novel.

    Later on, in answer to a question about whether 60s sitcoms were “better” than contemporary TV, he explained why he’s suspicious of this kind of nostalgia. As Bob Dylan put it, “Of course the past is better; there’s more of it”. We romanticise the past because what we see of it is what stood the test of time, and then we compare that carefully selected sample to a nebulously defined “now”. He’s also wary of the idea that light entertainment has been getting worse and worse. We do have exploitative reality TV now, but we used to have minstrel shows. The only thing that causes him some anxiety is the thought that the people who make certain TV shows (or any other form of entertainment) might go “Oh, they’ll watch anything” and adopt an approach where they don’t work at the limits of their creativity because they look down on “the masses” that consume what they create. But as long as creators continue to do their best possible work — work that trusts the intelligence of its audience — he doesn’t see a problem. He still is, he said, “enough of a populist” to believe that people’s entertainment choices are not a major cause for concern.

    Hornby also answered a question about an apparent brouhaha over some comments he made at the Cheltenham Literary Festival (I think that the fact that I managed to miss this entirely means I’m making good life choices). He explained that what outraged people was the fact that he said, not for the first time, that he believes you should put down books that feel like a chore and go read something else. Obviously this doesn’t mean he thinks people should never challenge themselves and only go for what’s “easy”, however you define that, nor that they shouldn’t bother with anything “highbrow”. The point is that reading is all about “forming connections with books” and feeling engaged and alive; because we all have limited time, we have a right to prioritize whatever it is that causes us to feel that spark of connection.

    He went on to argue against what Stefanie aptly called the reading-as-broccoli approach the other day: reading shouldn’t be a difficult and unpleasant task you put yourself through because it’s “good for you”. As I’ve said about a hundred times before, I agree. Again, this doesn’t mean we should give up on anything challenging — only that the challenge has to feel personally meaningful. For example, he “eats up David Kynaston’s social history with a spoon”; these are dense books, but they mean something to him. As he’s been saying in his Believer columns for years, for reading to be embraced by more people we need to accept that it’s okay for us to find whatever is meaningful for us instead of sticking to an arbitrarily defined canon of “important” works. In sum: read what makes you feel alive. I can’t think of better parting words.


    Terrible phone photo again. Sorry!

    When my turn to have my book signed came, I thanked Nick Hornby for all the great books he’s introduced me to over the years (he was, after all, the reason why I read What Good are the Arts? and Let’s Talk About Love, just to name two examples). He laughed and said he suspects that’s where his true talent lies: he’s a book recommender first. I explained I also love his fiction, which I do, but his Believer columns have given me so much. May they long continue.

    Next name to cross off the aforementioned mental list: SARAH WATERS! I shall report back.

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    Nov 14, 2014

    The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

    The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore Ms Magazine Wonder Woman for President cover

    I’m at Lady Business today with my contribution to Comics and Super Women Theme Week: a review of Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I found the book a bit confused in its main argument, but there were still sections that were really interesting to read. Head over to find out why!

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