Dear We Need to Talk About Kevin…

FICTION – Shriver, Lionel

– Spawning

– What not to read while pregnant

– School violence

– Prosthetic eyeballs

Dear We Need to Talk about Kevin,

I’m not sure either of us got a fair shake during our time together. Look, I was what, seven months pregnant when we indulged in our little rendezvous? I mean, you are probably the WORST book for a pregnant woman to read. Not only are preggos notoriously emotional and moody, but you’re about the child from hell. I mean, way to freak the crap out of someone!

Kevin is basically Satan’s spawn from the time he’s in utero and his devilish proclivities culminate in devastating travesty.  So, as my little stranger is rolling around inside me, I’m reading about a kid who moves from petty acts of sabotage designed to antagonize his mother to outright violence against members of his family.

Needless to say, your gorgeous writing and unique storytelling style did little to soften the nerve-wracking experience of turning your pages. Crying out loud, almost nine years later and I STILL feel traumatized by your story!

So, although I don’t regret reading you, I can’t say that you’re one of my favorite books. Or that spending time with you was a pleasure. You’re not and it wasn’t. Our brief encounter was powerful, unforgettable, terrifying.

But that could have been just the hormones. I’m too scared to re-read you and find out.

With shaking hands,

RL

Sympathy V. Empathy and Why We’ve Become a Society of Sociopaths

First watch this video…

Now that you’ve watched that let me explain the rest of the title. I once told a friend during a debate on gun control that the U.S. was in the middle of a psychotic break. With all the violence we’ve experienced lately, it seemed as good an explanation as any. But I’ve since revised my opinion. I think instead the U.S. has become a society full of and ruled by sociopaths.

What?! You’re comparing the United States of America to “a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience”?

Yes. I am.

Think about it for a moment, the United States has never had a completely fixed personality. From its beginnings (as a part of the “known world” that is) it was a wilderness country filled with mysterious and unknown peoples whose identity was both foreign and frightening to the Europeans who came here. And what do human societies historically do with that which is foreign and frightening? Destroy, suppress, erase. Done. The first European explorers to this country tried and succeeded to impose their own personality on the landscape. Thus the fledgling United States became something like a pseudo-Europe/England. But, that personality was not genuine. And its fakery began to show as the years pressed on and the United States began to grow . Thus the Revolutionary War when we tried, desperately, to take control or our own destiny/identity.

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War we managed to form some sort of identity that still hung on to European/British sensibilities but had a certain flair label “American” ever since.

I think the closest we’ve ever come to having our very own  unique and  strong personality/identity, was the period between 1930 and the end of the 1960s. That identity, though, came with the psychotic strain of extreme racism and a paternal but smothering sexism. The fight against these two destructive forces ended that period in our history when we could fully claim a national identity (or at least, the white majority could).

Now, we are seeing the results of not having replaced that lost identity with anything more inclusive and healthy. Rather than the races being closer and working towards common goals, there seems to be MORE division and more distrust (in my opinion, this distance and resentment seems to be fueled by a few individual, albeit destructive, agencies, who shall remain nameless). Women continue to fight for equal rights, but the opponents have taken on a nasty, sneaking quality. In fact, some of our greatest opponents are other women. Women who denigrate our worth – the so-called “Mommy-wars” is a good example of that. Women who cheapen womanhood and our ability to contribute to the world. And, most sneaky of all is the  pseudo-feminists, who cry wolf and rape for every possible gesture while ignoring the huge strain men themselves are now under in this sociopathic society.

Empathy is a quality of higher thought that often gets confused with sympathy, as evidenced by the video above. It is my belief that we, as a society, have drifted so far from each other and from our own selves, that we no longer know how to show/feel empathy. And that is the basis for the crazy violence we are seeing now. If the perpetrators of those mass shootings (I refuse to name them here) had been able to feel empathy, do you think they would have gunned down all of those innocent people? My god, witless teen girls made a Facebook page for one of these criminals because he’s just “oh so dreamy.” Our politicians sit in state houses and our nation’s capitol playing with OUR lives but have completely lost the ability to think and act with genuine regard for our struggles and needs. Countless movies, video games, even books celebrate the sickness in society. Not examine it, CELEBRATE it. And all these “role models” influence us, our young most of all. Teenagers, who already are struggling to claim their own personality and deal with confusing and chaotic thoughts, when not taught empathy become perfect vessels for sociopathic monsters.

If our country as a whole was able to feel empathy anymore, would we not have more responsible laws governing us? And I don’t mean just guns. I mean EVERYTHING! From owning a pet to drilling for oil.

On the other hand, it is easy to SHOW sympathy. When confronted with a grieving/hurting person, a pat on the back and some reasonable advice and our duty is done. We can walk away with a grim look on our face and think, “Well, I did my best.” All the while, that other person’s troubles get lighter and lighter, more unreal, the further we get from him/her. After every mass shooting, we as a society have gasped in horror, put comments on line saying we are praying for the victims and their families etc. But if we really empathized with the victims of these tragedies, we would have changed our society after Columbine and made sure this NEVER happened again. We would have looked at our own children and realized with stomach-sickening certainty that it’s only a matter of time before a sociopathic cretin enters MY child’s school and brings mayhem and death. The America of long ago, the one that still had SOME sense of identity would have struck out and defended. Would have fought to end this madness.

People saw the horror of slavery and rose up to end it (for whatever reasons you want to claim, but we don’t have legal slavery anymore, do we?). People saw the unjust and viciousness of Jim Crow laws and ritualized racism. Brave souls stood up to that awful system and brought it down. Women, tired of being overlooked, down-graded, and misunderstood, stood in ranks and said, “NO MORE!”

Do you think these people did all that just for themselves? No. The leaders of these fights looked into the future and saw the hundreds of thousands of generations, who would be forced to live in misery, and empathized. They acted against injustice so we could have better lives.

Nowadays, rather than fight these evil forces, we simply CHANGE ourselves in order to fit into the aftermath of what we endure. We become a little more paranoid and frightened when we send our children out the door. We subsume our rage when faced with a GENUINELY race-fueled crime, either because we don’t want to be seen as racists ourselves or we don’t want to be led astray again by those who declared EVERY crime race-fueled. Women become exactly what we’ve fought so long against – objectified nobodies, who depend on men’s sexuality to make a living. Men become ashamed of their masculinity, believing it makes them appear sexist apes, and so deny it.

All of this identity shifting and discarding, coupled with our inability to feel empathy anymore, has led to the disastrous times in which we find ourselves. Touching someone, in real life, has become an uncomfortable and distasteful thing to do. Saying, “I don’t have any answers, but tell me your grief,” is seen as weak and ineffectual. Instead, we shovel “professional” advice down each other’s throats and thus make the grief-stricken person feel even more alone. FEELING another person’s pain seems beyond us. We’ve distanced ourselves from each other, via the internet, to the point where no one seems real anymore and suffering is just a meme to click our tongue over and pass along.

I’ll end here with another Startling Poem:

Destruction by Charles Baudelaire

At my side the Demon writhes forever,
Swimming around me like impalpable air;
As I breathe, he burns my lungs like fever
And fills me with an eternal guilty desire.
Knowing my love of Art, he snares my senses,
Appearing in woman’s most seductive forms,
And, under the sneak’s plausible pretenses,
Lips grow accustomed to his lewd love-charms.
He leads me thus, far from the sight of God,
Panting and broken with fatigue into
The wilderness of Ennui, deserted and broad,
And into my bewildered eyes he throws
Visions of festering wounds and filthy clothes,
And all Destruction’s bloody retinue.

A Genre Writer’s Manifesto: Or, Why Genre Fiction is Every Bit as Legitimate as Literary Writing

It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.
—Jack Kerouac, WD

I have been reading articles about this struggle in the literary world between genre and literary fiction. I think it a little hysterical to call it a “war” but as the distinctions between the two DO effect many people in a material way, it’s fair to call it a problem. While there are figures in the world of genre writing who have risen to the status of titan (Neil Gaiman and Stephen King come to mind) even they are sneered at by the literary community as hacks or “just genre writers.” They are certainly not artists as defined by snooty book reviewers and awards committees.

One article I’ve read recently is ‘s rather snide contribution to The New Yorker (go figure). Steven Petite’s take on the subject is a bit less biased, but I would say still wrong-headed. In it, he says:

The main reason for a person to read Genre Fiction is for entertainment, for a riveting story, an escape from reality. Literary Fiction separates itself from Genre because it is not about escaping from reality, instead, it provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses.

While this might be true of certain readers and certain works from both camps, I think it is dismissive to say the sole purpose of genre fiction is to escape reality or that literary fiction’s only function is to take you on an emotional odyssey. The truth is, there is no trademark on either goal and a good writer in literary or genre fiction SHOULD be able to accomplish both things with one piece of writing. Think I’m asking too much? That’s fine, but I think readers ask TOO LITTLE of a book when they forgive atrocious writing because a fantasy epic has a good plot. I think readers ask TOO LITTLE of a literary novel that employs gorgeous, poetic prose but basically rambles through a nonsensical plot like an old man with Alzheimer’s. The best writers of any type, stripe, or era have complete control of their craft, message, and characters. They are the gods of their little realms and exercise their power with authority and a view towards how their stories will ripple through the world.

Allow me to demonstrate my point with some examples of modern (20th century or later) authors/books who manage to tell a ripping yarn and still employ beautiful, emotional language. This is by no means an exhaustive list and reading tastes are subjective so you might disagree with my picks. If so, drop your own picks in the comments.

Fantasy

rose  9780451450524_p0_v1_s260x420

Fantasy is my home genre. I live and breathe there. I’ve read some truly bad fantasies and I have met some fantasy books/stories that were as everlastingly beautiful as anything a literary author can pen. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle leaps immediately to mind.

I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, although I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret.

Poetic, ethereal but, at the end of day just a damn fine story, this modern fairytale deserved more accolades than it received.

Another stand-out in fantasy are the novels of Patricia A. McKillip, particularly Winter Rose.

Winds shook me apart piecemeal, flung a bone here, a bone there. My eyes became snow, my hair turned to ice; I heard it chime against my shoulders like wind-blown glass. If I spoke, words would fall from me like snow, pour out of me like black wind.

Well-drawn characters make this another example of how fantasy can be just as emotionally compelling as any literary novel.

Horror

exoricist  hill house

I might as well do the polar opposite of my favorite genre and cover horror. Lately, I have tried to delve more into the horror genre because these authors know how to build suspense and keep you on the edge of your seat. Everyone attempting to write fiction should have at least a passing acquaintance with horror for the knowledge you can glean.

All that being said, horror is probably the most overlooked genre-fiction subcategory. I think because it often employs so many shock factors, people tend to dismiss it as “pure entertainment.” That stance is as wrong-headed as can be, though. During times of fear and extreme stress our true natures are revealed. So, you could say horror writers, the good ones, possess the keenest understanding of human nature and what emotion causes us to do.

The Exorcist by William Blatty is a quintessential horror novel in that it explores not only what we do in the midst of our fear, but what becomes of our most cherished beliefs when faced with the unimaginable.

Yet I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us . . . the observers . . . every person in this house. And I think—I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial; as ultimately vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy.

If I do have experience in the horror genre, it is more on the ghost-story end. Some of the most frightening movies I have watched or books I’ve read had no blood, no gore but were haunted by my own imagination as it was manipulated by an author’s words. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson gets into you as any good book should and it wrings emotion from you in icy-cold drops.

Science-Fiction

road  skin  forest

I’m kind of a faux sci-fi fan. I can’t really get into the hard stuff, though I have delved into that arena for the betterment of my soul (namely Cyteen). It baffles me how much derision is hurled at science-fiction since it is one of the oldest literary traditions we have, next to fantasy. Utopia, The Blazing World, Frankenstein, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1984, Fahrenheit 451 these are all books lauded as classics. They have influenced countless writers – generations of wordsmiths. Yet science-fiction suffers under a bastardly reputation in the literary community.

I suppose none of the snoots who look down their noses at science-fiction take into account that The Road by Cormac McCarthy is actually a science-fiction novel. It imagines a world after a mysterious apocalypse and examines what happens when people let go of their humanity – and what some are willing to sacrifice to hold on to it. Fantastic book that blows apart genres and stays with you YEARS after reading it, perhaps forever.

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

Another science-fiction work by a purportedly “literary” author is Under the Skin by Michel Faber. A haunting parable and a chilling reflection on what it means to label a group as “the other.” I haven’t seen the recent movie rendition of this phenomenal book, but from the trailers it is little to nothing like Faber’s original. Do yourself a favor and just read the book.

I do have to add a third book to the science-fiction a category. Electric Forest by Tanith Lee is a phenom, even in a realm where the fantastic is made believable. A psychological thriller as much as a science-fiction yarn, this book totally debunks the idea that science-fiction cannot compete with literary novels.

Reeling in frantically, two men jerked the gut up from the ocean, and the fish was dragged after to land violently on the apron. It was a double-tailed cody, the edible variety. Sea-bright, blue-silver, it flung itself along the concrete. White blood splattered from its mouth around the hook. The crowd on the apron laughed and shouted as they waited for it to die.

Western

 dove  grit

Another genre I am not as well-versed in as I should be. However, I tore through Lonesome Dove and was literally panting at the end. A mammoth book that gives Song of Ice and Fire a run for its money in regards to messy, complicated characters and bad, bad, BAD guys (yet has none of the fat of that bloated series. Oops! Was that out loud).

If you want one thing too much it’s likely to be a disappointment. The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds and buttermilk—and feisty gentlemen.

And then there is True Grit by Charles Portis. Damn, but that is a good book! Bare as bone, cutting as broken glass.

But I had not the strength nor the inclination to bandy words with a drunkard. What have you done when you have bested a fool?

Mystery/Thriller

rebecca  full dark

I know mysteries and thrillers are not the same genre. However, I don’t have enough experience in either to give you two solid books in each category so I am smooshing them together. Did I mention my home genre is fantasy?

Anyway, the mystery/thriller sub-category, much like horror has often been overlooked and dismissed as not serious writing. Pfft! One of the reasons I don’t read a lot of mystery is I feel I’m not smart enough! I can’t pick up the little tell-tale clues, follow the embedded leads. I am pretty much always surprised by the end.

Now, I concede that a great deal of the mysteries/thrillers being offered these days seem like pure junk. Poorly written and not so “thrilling.” That doesn’t mean NO ONE has/is putting out intelligent, thoughtful and emotionally devastating fiction in this sub-category.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier has the atmospheric dampness of a great ghost story with the shady characters of a mystery. A true touchstone of the mystery genre, in my opinion.

If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.

Despite the fact Stephen King is referred to as the master of horror, he has penned some amazing thrillers. One of them is not even a book but a short story found in his Full Dark, No Stars collection. “A Good Marriage” struck me with how deftly King constructed the story, kept my breath bated, and made his characters both real and larger-than-life. He is in the peak of his powers with this story and, even if he had never written anything else, “A Good Marriage” it would have forever branded him, in my mind, as a literary force to be reckoned with.

You could not turn off love- even the rather absent, sometimes taken for granted love- the way you’d turn off a faucet. Love ran from the heart and the heart had it’s own imperatives.

Romance

outlander  circle

I’ve put this category off till last simply because I had difficulty coming up with two entries. Romance is the one fly in my manifesto’s ointment. While I’ve read a great deal of romance and love books that contain romance as a subplot, it is too often mishandled when romantic love serves as the center piece of the story.

However, I managed to pull a couple of examples out of my hat because, like it or not, genre fiction DOES trump all those silly ideas that it can’t be emotionally deep, poetic, and intellectually challenging.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon genre bends at every turn. Time-travel, romance, adventure, historical. You name it and it’s probably made an appearance in Gabaldon’s groundbreaking series.

I continued staring at him, dumbstruck. Whatever I had been expecting, it wasn’t this. Seeing my openmouthed expression, he continued lightly. “When I asked my da how ye knew which was the right woman, he told me when the time came, I’d have no doubt. And I didn’t. When I woke in the dark under that tree on the road to Leoch, with you sitting on my chest, cursing me for bleeding to death, I said to myself, ‘Jamie Fraser, for all ye canna see what she looks like, and for all she weighs as much as a good draft horse, this is the woman.’

The many books of Maeve Binchy are renowned for their sweet romances. But, I think it telling that the author herself once said, “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.” That one word “confident” lifts Binchy’s work from mere romance into a higher realm of human exploration. Circle of Friends, in particular, upped the ante for Maeve Binchy fans, in that it did not have a typical happily-ever-after ending. It’s ending is happy, but not in the way romance novel formulas would have us believe it SHOULD have ended.

Who knows what light housework means? One nun’s light could be another nun’s penal servitude.

 

Now that I’ve gone through the different MAIN sub-categories (there are dozens if not hundreds of sub-sub-categories one could explore) of the genre-fiction umbrella, let’s look at some literary novels that defy the belief that literary novels have to be opaque and difficult to read to be good. Despite what some novelists and literary critics would have us believe and some readers willingly swallow, reading a novel should not give you a headache. Challenge you, yes. But when you have read the same page twenty times and STILL cannot make out what it means, that’s a problem. And not a problem of the reader’s mental capabilities. It breaks my heart when I read a review of a book where a reader condemns him/herself as “not smart enough” to comprehend an author’s work. What the hell is the point of your book if people can’t get it? What are you writing for if you can’t reach and relate to readers? That whole idea that novels need to baffle, confuse, and belittle readers infuriates me. No one says you have to write on a middle school level, or lower to have people understand your work. You don’t have to dumb down your writing. Just make sure you’re not writing poetic fluff that obscures your story, distorts your characters, or muffles the power of your dialogue.

I won’t take quite as long on these books since most people acknowledge their value, but these are some literary novels I enjoyed for their lucid storytelling, poetic language, amazing characters, and all-around brilliance:

mountain

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!’

revolutionary

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.

purple

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. She let out her breath. I loves Harpo, she say. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.

reader

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

It wasn’t that I forgot Hanna. But at a certain point the memory of her stopped accompanying me wherever I went. She stayed behind, the way a city stays behind as a train pulls out of the station. It’s there, somewhere behind you, and you could go back and make sure of it. But why should you?

2595138

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love.

kevin

We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

In a country that doesn’t discriminate between fame and infamy, the latter presents itself as plainly more achievable.

fog

The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

The truth is life is full of joy and full of great sorrow, but you can’t have one without the other.

wonders

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

My Tom died as babies do, gently and without complaint. Because they have been such a little time with us, they seem to hold to life but weakly. I used to wonder if it was so because the memory of Heaven still lived within them, so that in leaving here they do not fear death as we do, who no longer know with certainty where it is our spirits go. This, I thought, must be the kindness that God does for them and for us, since He gives so many infants such a little while to bide with us.

And that, my friends, is my take on this whole “war” between literary fiction and genre fiction.