What good is literature? What’s it for? Why do we study it?
High school English students used to ask me that all the time.
I told them that reading novels and short stories, especially classics, would give them an edge on Jeopardy.
Today I’m going to tell the truth.
Once upon a time, the library I directed sponsored a scholarship contest for seniors going on to post-high school education—$100 for the best essay on the subject, “A Book That Changed My Life.”
One student wrote about Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about a young woman’s descent into depression. At her lowest point, she attempts suicide and is hospitalized. With treatment, her condition improves. The book ends with her preparing to have an interview to determine whether she can leave the hospital. It’s suggested that she will go on to live a normal life.
About The Bell Jar, the girl wrote that she had once seriously contemplated suicide. After reading the novel, however, she abandoned the thought and had hope for her future.
Another student wrote about Judy Blume’s Forever. Katherine, who is preparing for college, falls in love with Michael and begins a sexual relationship with him. They’re sure they’ll be together forever. Later, Katherine becomes attracted to another boy. She sees that her relationship with Michael is limiting. She breaks up with him. She realizes that she can get over the break-up and knows she will go on to have other relationships in the future.
Disclaimer: I believe that teenagers should be allowed to read widely. I believe teens are capable of reading at a deeper level than many adults give them credit for. But when I read Forever in a graduate course in library school, I was horrified. The sex scenes are graphic, and the protagonist’s main concern is her sex life. No, no, absolutely not.
Then I read the girl’s essay. What she took from the novel: “I love my boyfriend, but I learned I have to be responsible for myself, and not depend on somebody else to take care of me. I carry the book in my purse all the time,” she wrote.
One novel convinces a teenage girl not to commit suicide; another shows a girl that she must be responsible for herself.
So what is literature for?
I apologize for being flippant. The next time I’m asked what literature is for, I’m going to be serious.
The following is a guest post I wrote for the Bullet Books Speed Readsblog. In it I explain what an author does when she discovers she doesn’t have a clue about what she’s writing about. I also include a link to a book trailer, but you have to read to the end of the post to find that.
There are many rules for writers. Two of the major ones: Write what you know and write what you love.
I was pleased that Stabbed, which I co-wrote with Manning Wolfe, was set in Vermont. I love vacationing there: mountains and trees, summer wildflowers and narrow, winding roads, rainstorms and starry nights, white frame churches and village greens.
In Chapter 1, Dr. Blair Cassidy, professor of English, arrives home one dark and stormy night, walks onto her front porch, and trips and falls over the body of her boss, Dr. Justin Capaldi. She jumps back into her car and calls the sheriff. The sheriff arrives and . . .
What happens next? Who takes charge of the investigation? The sheriff? Or the state police? What do their uniforms look like? Where do rail lines run? What’s the size of a typical university town? And a typical university? And several other details not gathered during a typical vacation.
I didn’t know, so, new rule: Write what you learn. Research. Research. Research. The best mystery authors have been avid researchers.
Agatha Christie, for example, is known for her extensive knowledge of poisons. As a pharmacy technician during World War I, she did most of her research on the job before she became a novelist. Later she dispatched victims with arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, digitalis, belladonna, morphine, phosphorus, veronal (sleeping pills), hemlock, and ricin (never before used in a murder mystery). In The Pale Horse, she used the less commonly known thallium. Christie’s accurate treatment of strychnine was mentioned in a review in the Pharmaceutical Journal.
Francis Iles’ use of a bacterium was integral to the plot in Malice Aforethought.His character, Dr. Bickleigh, serves guests sandwiches of meat paste laced with Clostridium botulinumand waits for them to develop botulism. If Dr. Bickleigh had been as knowledgeable about poisons as his creator, he wouldn’t have been so surprised with the consequences.
Among modern authors, P.D. James is known for accuracy. Colleague Ruth Rendell said that James “always took enormous pains to be accurate and research her work with the greatest attention.” Before setting Devices and Desiresnear a nuclear power station, she visited power plants in England; she even wore a protective suit to stand over a nuclear reactor. Like Christie, James used information acquired on the job—she wrote her early works during her nineteen years with the National Health Service—for mysteries set in hospitals.
Most authors don’t go as far as standing over nuclear reactors in an attempt to get it right, but sometimes even the simplest research is time-consuming. And, even the most meticulous researchers make errors.
Dorothy L. Sayers was as careful in her fiction as she was in her scholarly writing. But she confessed in a magazine article that The Documents in the Case contained a “first-class howler”: A character dies from eating the mushroom Amanita muscaria, which contains the toxin muscarine. Describing the chemical properties of muscarine, Sayers said it can twist a ray of polarized light. But only the synthetic form can do that—the poison contained in the mushroom can’t.
Most readers don’t forgive big mistakes. And why should they? Thorough research is a mark of respect for readers. And sometimes, getting the facts straight in fiction has consequences the author can’t predict. Christie’s The Pale Horse is credited with saving two lives: In one case, a reader recognized the symptoms of thallium poisoning Christie had described and saved a woman whose husband was slowly poisoning her; in the second, a nurse who’d read the book diagnosed thallium poisoning in an infant. The novel also credited with the apprehension of one would-be poisoner.
As to Stabbed—Well, we don’t expect it to save lives or help catch criminals. I knew Vermont, but I didn’t know Vermont criminal procedure. Now, readers will come out knowing what the uniform of the Vermont State Police looks like and what happens at a courtroom arraignment.
And choosing the murder weapon was easy. We considered the book’s title and – well, d’oh – no more research was required.
I didn’t sleep well last night and as a result am as dumb as a box of rocks today. My husband came home with a “temporary” flip phone to replace the flip phone I lost (I think it’s really Under Something), and I told him I had to keep my phone number because I’m incapable of remembering any new numbers, even when I get plenty of sleep. It’ll take several hours to two business days for them to arrange for the new number.* I also have to think carefully before saying or writing my new address. I scramble the numbers. Anyway, this may turn out to be a disjointed post, but it won’t be the first.
David and I saw the latest adaptation of Little Women two weeks ago. I’d read glowing reviews but had also heard some viewers are conflicted, haven’t decided what to think.
I loved it. Absolutely loved it.
I’m embarrassed, sort of, to admit I’ve never read the book. I’ve skimmed it. But, as high school freshmen say, I saw the movie—the one made in the ’90s, and I loved it, too. I’ve also seen the version in which Katherine Hepburn played Jo. And the series aired on PBS a couple of years ago.
I’ve read three or four of Alcott’s other novels. In the sixth grade, I read Alcott’s Eight Cousins–and recently found the book report I did on it–and its sequel, Rose in Bloom. The latter was very affecting; I cried when that poor young man died in an alcohol-induced accident, but that’s what happens to young men who’ve been spoilt by their mothers and as a result are wild and even their Cousin Rose can’t reform them. Rose then fell in love with her medical doctor Cousin Mac, whom she’d always thought of as “the worm”; that’s what happens to women in novels of that period. I think Mac was a doctor. Or a medical student. He was Serious and Responsible. So was Rose.
At the end of Little Women, Alcott marries Jo to a teacher and scholar, as the director does at the end of the movie—hurrah for faithful adaptations—but the movie makes clear that Jo did so reluctantly. The director allows viewers to infer that Alcott was just as reluctant. But she wanted the book to sell, and the public wouldn’t have accepted a spinster who goes to New York to publish or perish.
A documentary that aired a few years ago on PBS includes the reading of a letter Alcott wrote refusing a proposal of marriage. It was hilarious. I’m glad I wasn’t the would-be groom who received it.
The movie’s one flaw is that the story is not told in chronological order. I think the format works perfectly. But the movie jumps back and forth in time without adequate transition from scene to scene. Viewers unfamiliar with the story might have trouble following along.
I also have a concern about the script, which applies to all the LW feature films I’ve seen—the characterization of Marmee. In this movie and the one made in the ’90s, she’s depicted as a cheerful, youthful feminist, neatly and attractively dressed, rather perky. In the PBS series, she looks older, as if she’s raising four daughters on a tight budget, with a husband away at war, and a seriously ill daughter, and mid-19th century housework that affords no time for idleness. She’s happy, but not perky, and she often looks tired. “Housekeeping,” wrote Louisa May Alcott, “ain’t no joke.” She knew. At one point, while her impractical philosopher father discussed and wrote about ideas, his wife and daughter worked as domestics.
When David and I got to the ticket window, we were told there were only three seats available, first row. We took the two on the far aisle. I hadn’t sat on the front row since I saw Toby Tyler when I was nine. Fortunately, the seats reclined, so I didn’t get a crick in my neck from looking up at an 88-degree angle. There were four people, including David and me, on the front row, the other two on the opposite aisle. At least half of the reserved seats were empty.
David commented afterward that there weren’t many young(er) people in the audience. No, the majority had gray hair, or at least visible wrinkles. Post-Boomers don’t know, or want to know, I guess, about Little Women. It’s all Game of Thrones, or whatever. Since retiring and losing the school’s subscription to Booklist, I don’t know anything about recent publications. My latest read was written in 1908. It was delightful. More about that later.
The other movie—there was a trailer—was a new Dr. Doolittle. It’s a 2020 adaptation. I think Robert Downey, Jr. is as cute as a bug, but I’ll skip this one. There’s so much noise (chaos) I couldn’t hear the animals talk, except for one little bear, or something, lying on his back and crying, “I’m too pitiful to die.” I think that was what he said. He was on board a ship in a terrible storm on the open sea.
I once cried something like that when I was on board a cruise ship in choppy waters. Nine other relatives and me, celebrating Thanksgiving in style. First night out, a norther hit. The next morning, when I phoned for someone to come attend to the carpet, the man in housekeeping, or whatever they call it, said, “You bomited in your room?” Yes, I bomited in my room. Which was better than the rest of the revelers, who were bomiting in the halls. That afternoon, they had to give me an injection of phenergan and pills to take every three hours, after which, because I was blissfully unconscious, I stopped wailing to my travel-agent cousin/roommate, who that morning had brought me a Sprite and abandoned me to my fate, “I’m going home. When we find land, you get me a plane ticket or I’ll walk home.”** The next day, we walked to the market in Cozumel and I bought some earrings.
Well, sorry for the disgusting story, but when I saw that poor little bear, that’s what I thought about. He might have just been afraid, but I suspect he was plain old seasick.***
*It might be a burner phone, which will come handy for research when I put one in a mystery, or if I myself decide to do something untoward.
**Her leaving was heartless but for the best. An optimist, she kept saying I would be fine tomorrow and I was not going home. Mal de mer is misery enough. Victims do not need the added affliction of cheerful healthy people.
***Those patches work. The next cruise, I went prepared.