Tag Archives: Karen Joy Fowler

A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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Nationalism and Literary Prizes

122 Man Booker 2O14The Man Booker Prize was opened up to all novels written in English for the first time this year. It also opened a can of worms. Journalists began to write as if it were meaningful to refer to national fiction. They warned us that British fiction is not what it used to be. It was suggested that our national honour, or something, is impugned by the American prizewinners. You would have been forgiven for thinking that British fiction is in danger of being taken over, swept aside, overwhelmed. The Yanks are coming!.

Did the Yanks come?

In the event, the new rules for the Man Booker Prize meant that two Americans got to the shortlist of six: Karen Joy Fowler with We are all Completely Beside Ourselves; and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. The announcement of the shortlist allowed journalists to reassure us about the issue they had raised. Warnings of an American wipeout had been exaggerated. The winner was an Australian, Richard Flanagan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

131 Flanagan MBP

Sarah Churchwell was on the panel of judges for the Prize. She made this comment in the Guardian Review, following the announcement of the winner this week:

The Booker Prize has already had more than its share of controversy this year: first over changing the rules to allow any author writing in English to enter, a phrase that has been widely interpreted to mean “Americans”. As an American myself, I don’t find the prospect of Americans joining things especially horrifying. I have always thought nationality a strange eligibility requirement for literary prizes: readers don’t care what passports an author holds. That’s literature’s entire point: it lets us traverse boundaries.

More MB Prize controversies

  1. whether the judges skim read the 156 submitted novels – Sarah Churchwell says they don’t!
  2. the role of the judges to correct the institutional sexism of the publishing industry and of reviewers – is sexism revealed by longlisting only three out of 13 writers (although 2 of the six shortlisted)?

Other Literary Prizes

The revised rules set off journalists’ concerns about other prizes as well. In March George Saunders won the new Folio Prize. Jane Gardam was the only British writer who made the shortlist.

  • Red Doc by Anne Carson (Canada)
  • Schroder by Amity Gaige (America)
  • Last Friends by Jane Gardam (UK)
  • Benediction by Kent Haruf (America)
  • The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner (America)
  • A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (Ireland)
  • A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (America)
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (America)

131 A girl cover105 Baileys Women'sAnd what about the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction? A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, from Ireland, was also shortlisted for this prize, and it won. It’s a very good book. The others came from a reassuringly wide range of female writers:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
  • Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia)
  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (India-America)
  • The Undertaking by Audrey Magee (Ireland)
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (America)

Crisis, what crisis?

AS Byatt was quoted in the fuss about standards in national literature: she was a judge for the Folio Prize and a previous Man Booker Prize Winner herself (Possession), in short a grande dame of British literature. The sub injected urgency into the headline:

IS BRITISH FICTION IN CRISIS? AS Byatt bemoaned the lack of exciting UK authors being published today.

A little further down this piece we were given more detail. The American books, she told us, were ‘inventive and beautifully written. I don’t have the feeling of that kind of energy any more.’ The implication is that the energy is lacking in UK fiction.

Actually AS Byatt is making a point about publishers, and how in the UK publishers are more interested in making money than promoting literature. Who gets published? Who nominates novels for prizes? It’s the publishers. Publishers take note of prizes so they can be very important in a writer’s career. We should note that independent publishers are doing a great deal to promote high quality fiction in the UK.

We might add that one reason for any domination by US writers over British ones in the merry-go-round of prize winning is quite simply down to one fact: there are many more of them. Britain is a tiny country within the English-writing world.

So in conclusion the winners are …

Why should readers care about the nationality of the writer of prizes? We don’t! I’m with Sarah Churchwell, the nationality of the author is irrelevant. Prizes matter to publishers because they make money, and to writers, because the publicity means that more people will buy and read their novels. Readers like me, like prizes because they tell us who the industry, the small world of publishing believe are the best writers. I want to get knowledge about and access to good quality fiction. Prizes help, but they are not the whole story.

 

Do you have any views on the state of British fiction, or nationality in fiction writing? Or literary prizes?

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We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

It’s nearly time for the media go wild about the Man Booker Prize. The shortlist will be announced on 9th September and the winner on 14th October. Already controversy is brewing. There has been gender-talk. Only three books by women were on the longlist of ten:

  • 122 Man Booker 2O14How to be both by Ali Smith
  • The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
  • We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.

Only two of the six judges were women.

And there has been discussion about national writing, since the prize was opened this year to all novels published in English. Have we been swamped by American fiction? Is British fiction lacking in energy as AS Byatt a Guardian piece called Is British fiction in crisis? A careful reading of her comments suggests that she was criticizing the publishers for failing to find anything exciting to publish, latching on to successful self-published titles instead. I doubt whether it even meaningful to talk about national fiction? I’m going to leave that discussion for a later post.

122 We are allNow on with my thoughts about one of long-listed book by a female, American writer. I’ll start with a ‘spoiler alert’. There is an important plot element that is not confirmed until a quarter of the way through the novel. I don’t believe it will spoil your enjoyment of the novel if you read on. But I have warned you. Come back later if you prefer!

The Narrator, Rosemary, is a sharp young American, who tells us early on that she has lost both her sister, Fern, and her brother, Lowell. Their disappearance is linked. You don’t learn until p 77 that Fern is a chimpanzee, introduced into the family as part of a psychology experiment in the 1960s. The brother leaves to join animal right demonstrators. The FBI are looking for him.

While Fern is with them (about 5 years) Rosemary and her family are subject to observation, to the presence of grad students, to theorising, to comparisons (as Fern and Rosemary are the same age). But when Fern is sent away Rosemary learns to keep quiet about all that, especially as her mother more or less has a nervous breakdown.

As soon as she learned to talk Rose never shut up. People always said to her to talk less. But through the family events she has learned to hide anything of significance. Here is the paragraph after Rose, now 15 years old, has heard where Fern went, for the first time in nearly ten years.

At dinner, I adopted my usual strategy of saying nothing. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back after you have gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time I’d come to see that it was usually your best course of action. I’d come to silence hard, but at fifteen I was a true believer. (p126)

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan - from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

Photo: Chimp at Los Angeles zoo, by Aaron Logan – from http://www.lightmatter.net/gallery/Animals/chimp

The action picks up when Rose goes to university in Davis, California, where her brother was last seen. She learns that Fern has been kept in a cage since she left them, and has grieved as much as she has because she was not able to integrate well with other chimps.

The action of the novel follows Rose as she gradually she makes some kind of sense and accommodation to all this family stuff. It provides an interesting exploration of the nature of animal and human-animal communication, and of human-human communication. You can be subjected to a battery of tests but miss the point, about the importance of love for another.

The voice of the narrator is feisty, clever, self-deprecating, like Bee in Where’d you go, Bernadette? (Maria Semple). Some of the scenes are hilarious (such as the mayhem in the cafeteria in the first chapter) and some of the characters are filmic (Ezra, the apartment block manager with aspirations, like the janitor from Scrubs, and Harlow who spreads chaos everywhere). But much of the wiseacre script is designed to reveal the heart of this book at a slow pace, and to show the reader that Rose is a girl who is struggling with facing the truth.

Here’s an example of Karen Joy Fowler’s style in the novel. Rose’s suitcase went missing on her flight from back from her parents’ home in Indiana. The airline delivers the wrong one. It’s all part of the complicated plot, because the suitcase contains … well never mind.

I was just about to call the airlines yet again, demand that they produce my real suitcase and take the pretender away, when Harlow showed up with a different idea. Harlow’s different idea was to pick the lock on the suitcase we did have, open it, and see what was inside. We would not take the stuff. That went without saying. But it was inconceivable to her that we’d return the case without even looking. Who knew what a strange case from Indiana (assuming it had come from Indiana) might contain. Gold Doubloons. A heroin-stuffed doll. Polaroids of some Midwestern city council in flagrante. Apple butter.

Wasn’t I curious? Where was my sense of adventure? (p 142)

In this passage we can see how Harlow and Rose are such different characters, and how Rose’s caution contrasts with Harlow’s rashness. You can hear the conversation between them as they consider the possibilities of the suitcase. And you see that despite her dangerous attitude, Harlow is on the side of the good people. And you can enjoy the list of possible contents. And what is revealed is even more imaginative, and you will have to read the book to find out what it is, and the part it plays. (You see how I have picked up the habit of hiding things from Rose?)

122 JA Book ClubI was surprised to learn that Karen Joy Fowler also wrote The Jane Austen Book Club. That was a clever book, a fun and creative spin-off for ‘Janites’, which I enjoyed. We are all completely beside ourselves is on a different level. I found myself admiring the research undertaken, (not just into primate material, but also about the context in which those experiments took place) as well as the development of the plot and the characters.

You can find an interview with Karen Joy Fowler on the Man Booker Prize 2014 website.

Have you read this? What were your reactions? Do you think it should be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Please comment below.

We are all completely beside ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013) published by Serpent’s Tail; Longlisted for Man Booker Prize 2014; Winner of the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

 

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