Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Reading

Learning From All the Genres

In honor of upcoming NaNoWriMo, I’m here as your friendly neighborhood multi-genre writer to remind you that your fiction can benefit greatly from studying multiple genres.

 

What can a fiction writer learn from poetry?

Why the beginnings and ends of things matter

How identity affects your voice, your expression, and your world

Meter, musicality, rhythm

How to use imagery like you would a scalpel, or a needle, or a broom

 

What can a fiction writer learn from screenwriting?

Story structure (mythic structure)

How to follow an image or symbolic prop through a story

Thematic through-lines, the “spine” of story

How to incorporate complex world building without excess exposition

 

What can a fiction writer learn from comics?

Story structure: manga in particular often uses kishotenketsu

How to manipulate time

Isolating the important moments of a story/doing scene breakdowns

Character design: how physicality of characters can connect to their personalities/arcs

Innovative idea generation

 

What can a fiction writer learn from nonfiction?

Figure out where the narrative structure is in a nonfiction book. There is one. That is why nonfiction books are interesting.

Then go read Mary Rufle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey and have some feelings. Okay? Okay.

 

Reading List Update

Remember back in the day, when I posted this 2015 Reading Challenge?

At nearly halfway through the year (and not halfway through the list, unfortunately), I thought I’d revisit it and talk about a few of the books I read.

“A Memoir”

washuta coverMy Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta

Elissa Washuta wrote a memoir before age 30, which means she has an urgent story and an urgent need to tell her story. I particularly appreciate the way in which she tells it: fragmented, a fifteen-part “Cascade Autobiography” that’s interspersed with dialogues, statistics, essays, bibliographies, text message conversations, and an imagined Law and Order: SVU episode. The themes of the book–mental health and medication, balancing a split ethnic identity, Washuta’s relationship to sex and her body–are repeated and layered throughout the text. The shape of the book captures the content of the book in an interesting way. Reading her story is putting together the pieces of a collage that extends past the boundaries of the page. Elissa and I are the same age. Something about her prose captures not only her story, but our generation in a way that’s much bigger than her or I alone.

 

“A Book a Friend Recommended”

9780756410193_TheBookof_Phoenix_JK.inddThe Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

My friend M.M. Jordahl recommended this Nnedi Okorafor book, which is a prequel of sorts to her World Fantasy Award-winning novel Who Fears Death. It’s about a group of genetically modified humans, lab created superheroes of a sort, called speciMen, who live imprisoned in a tower. The story is set in the near-ish future, and tells the story of the end of the world as we know it. It’s an interesting take on “superhero” tales, not the least because of the conversation the story has with colonialism and oppression. (There is a woman named called HeLa because she was grown from the cells of Henrietta Lacks, for example.) The powers of the metahuman/superhero people are not your typical DC knockoffs; I appreciate not only the powers but how they work together. Towards the end of the novel, it becomes clearer that this book is setting up for Who Fears Death, even though The Book of Phoenix was written second. Even without a Greek Theater-style denouement, I think The Book of Phoenix belongs on the classics shelf of the Superheroish Sci-Fi genre, along with books like Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human. (I think reading this book alongside Sturgeon’s 1953 novel would be quite interesting.)

 

“A Book Your Mother Loves”

braiding-sweetgrass-web-book-coverBraiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is a collection of beautiful essays about nature, science, and Potawotomi/other Native cultures. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes passionately about plants, drawing from wisdom of western academic science and wisdom of her ancestors and culture. Where some would separate the two, she combines them. She writes with great urgency about our connection to the environment we live in, as well as doing in-depth portraits of many plants, studying their connection to the environment, to people, to each other.
I’m not all the way done with this book yet. I’m about halfway through. I love it, though, and I see why my plant-loving biologist mother loves it, too. The essays are beautiful and I find myself needing to absorb them slowly–one every few weeks at most. They’re gorgeous little environmental koan that I can drop into the pool of my earthly meditations.

 

“A Book That Scares You”

life changing tidy coverthe life-changing art of tidying up by Marie Kondo

As an afficianado of horror and the occult, I find it satisfyingly ironic that this little, unassuming volume scares the shit out of me. It does. To bring things full circle, I am reading this book because Elissa Washuta, with whom I am friends on Facebook, was singing its praises. This is a book that teaches you how to tidy. It’s scary because I can’t just read it. I have to also do the thing. By which I mean, tidy my entire life in one fell swoop.

Here’s the (heavily paraphrased) basic premise of Marie Kondo’s tidying philosophy, the “KonMari Method”: Tidy once. 1. Get rid of all your shit that doesn’t “spark joy.”  2. No, really, ALL your pointless/joyless shit. This will probably be upwards of half of your possessions. She’s got a list and a method that makes a lot of damn sense. 3. Designate a place for the remaining things. 4. A place for everything; everything in its place.

She’s not actually anti-stuff. She just advocates letting stuff leave you when it’s fulfilled its purpose or no longer serves you. She’s got a charming, Shinto outlook of stuff, i.e. greet your house. Thank your stuff for helping you. Bid a font farewell to the stuff you’re getting rid of. Appreciate and admire the joy-sparking stuff that remains.

***

For the record, here’s my list thus far:

reading challenge markedAll of these count as “A Book You’ve Never Read Before” and “A Book by a Female Author.”

Moving Beyond The Canon

Or No, I’m Not Saying We Should Stop Reading Moby Dick.

panels from Jeff Smith's Bone; Thorn falls asleep when Bone reads Moby Dick

It really is okay to like Moby Dick.
(from Jeff Smith’s canonical comic, Bone)

In literary circles, one often finds the concept of the literary canon floating around. It’s a set of books, which have never been defined officially to the best of my knowledge, that are, like, The Books That Shaped Western Civilization. They’re the type of books that Real Deal Writers Should Have Read Already. (*cough*) And while there are some titles that frequently show up, from classical to modern, it’s not a really set text. Even Wikipedia isn’t sure what’s in the Western Canon, and merely offers a list of links to other people’s lists.

One of the most frequent critiques of any of these lists, though, is that they are overbearingly filled with dead white European guys. In fact, the 60-volume “Great Books of The Western World” set published in the US by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952 contains works by four women: Jane Austen, George Elliot, Willa Cather, and Virginia Woolf. There are no writers of color represented. The product was also sort of an albatross around Encyclopedia Britannica’s neck in that it sold poorly and later got criticism for not only being a Dead White Euro Guy bible, but also it was apparently quite hard to actually read because of the formatting…in essence, it was more of a 60-volume status symbol than anything else.

Spines of the Great Books series

BOW BEFORE THE PHALLI OF HISTORY
photo: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk a bit about the etymology of “canon” with help of our old friend the Oxford English Dictionary (which you can log into with your library card number, hooray). “Canon” originally meant a law or decree laid down by the Roman Catholic Church’s ecclesiastical council. Later it morphed from meaning just church law to specifically which books of the Bible were officially okay to worship… As the OED says, “The collection or list of books of the Bible accepted by the Christian Church as genuine and inspired. Also transf., any set of sacred books; also, those writings of a secular author accepted as authentic.”

To me, this begs the rather large question of what “genuine” and “authentic” mean in this context; furthermore, “genuine” and “genius” share a word root: gignere (to beget) gives us gen- as in genital, generate, genuine, genius. Thus, I find myself spiraling back around to the notion of “genius” as a thing that writers may or may not have. And going back to the OED, “genius” was originally one of the types of Roman ancestor-ghosts, basically a tutelary or attendant spirit. There were also genii loci, or spirits of place. Djinni are related to genii. Overall: a genius was an external thing that might influence you or live within your spirit. This meaning was still used in Europe for centuries thereafter, but came to imply more of a spirit within a person–shoulder angels and shoulder demons, for example. At some point, perhaps the 1600s, genius began to be used as “Natural ability or capacity; quality of mind; attributes which suit a person for his or her peculiar work.” (definition 7b, OED)

So I propose that perhaps we are only geniuses because of our family of influence–our canon. Not The Canon, but a canon for each person, wherein they converse with their literary tribe. That’s not to say that one should not be reading Moby Dick, but rather than one should read canonical works that pertain to one’s own work and literary quest, keeping in mind that barriers to publication reflect social barriers in general. There are voices that are easier and harder to come by, and it’s worth reading a little of everything.

For example, if I were to shortlist *my* fiction and poetry canon (because comics, nonfiction, and film are a whole different ball game and I don’t have all day), it would go something like this:

  • Plato, The Symposium
  • Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
  • The I Ching
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji
  • Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy
  • Collected poems of Jelaluddin Rumi
  • Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
  • Pretty much the entire Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library (full disclosure: I have only read the Grimms, Andersen, Italo Calvino’s Italian Tales, Aranasev’s Russian Tales, Japanese Tales, Indian Tales, and Latin American Tales from this specific series)
  • Thomas More, Utopia
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • William Shakespeare: The Tempest, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, MacBeth, King Lear
  • Christina Rosetti, “Goblin Market”
  • Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
  • William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
  • G.K. Chesterton, Alarums and Discursions
  • H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
  • Lynd Ward, God’s Man
  • Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
  • Nella Larsen, Passing
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
  • The poetry of Gregory Corso
  • Ursula LeGuin, Earthsea series
  • Howard Schwartz, Lilith’s Cave
  • The Arabian Nights, trans. Haddawy
  • The poetry of Anne Sexton
  • Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
  • Toni Morrison, Beloved
  • Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye
  • Tamora Pierce, Tortall series
  • Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Was a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby
  • Kate Berenheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
  • Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox; The Icarus Girl
  • The collected works of Terry Pratchett
  • Patricia Lockwood, Motherland, Fatherland, Homelandsexuals

 

I could go on. This feels incomplete and I’m sure I’ve forgotten many important things. I realize I need to read more fiction by black writers. And I didn’t really get into the poetry I like, either. Or go very far in depth with all the sci-fi and fantasy and dystopian stuff. I realize I do have a lot of dead white euro guys on there. While that’s not wrong, I’m working to fill in the gaps in the rest of my canon, which is an ever-changing creature, much like my own work.

What’s in your canon?
Tell us in the comments, friend.

Reading Habits

I’ve always been a ravenous reader. I think often of the type of reader I was as a little kid (precocious), school-aged kid (my consequences for neglecting chores was that my mom would take away my Redwall books), and a teen (avid). I certainly thought often about reading as a college student or grad student, because school more or less prescribed a major portion of my reading. My first semester of grad school reading list still makes me swoon a little bit.

But I’m not only out of school at this point, I’m no longer in a 9-5 day job (or a 7:30-4:30 one, in my case, for many years). I’m thinking of all the times and places I read as an adult: I used to read over my lunch break. Currently I read before bed for 10-30 minutes pretty much daily, and in sporadic larger bursts that sometimes get coupled with naps. I read at coffee shops. I read for my comic book review podcast, Trade Secrets!

And honestly, I don’t read a whole ton these days, which is sort of sad. Not fiction, anyway. I read the heck out of some comics. But! I have a lovely reading challenge that I will attempt for 2015, to try and spice things up, give me some blog post fodder, and serve as a reminder to read a dang new book every now and then instead of having the unread pile of shame and the sad pile of borrowed books that I haven’t yet gotten ’round to. Also I went to Elliott Bay the other day for actual research for design purposes and ended up with three books following me home, so…yeah. I know the hunger is there. I need to strategically feed it, instead of durdling around endlessly on the Internet.

reading challengeNot a perfect list, but a fun one. (I promise to read fiction for at least half of the list.) So here’s to more reading in 2015! It’s a beautiful way for a writer to stock the pond and fill the well, as Natalie Goldberg puts it.

I’m one of those ridiculous people who enjoys “reading like a writer,” i.e. breaking stuff down in terms of craft. So when I write about these books, expect one part me viscerally reacting to them, and one part me breaking down some specific craft things that I find interesting.

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