Tag Archives: Alice Munro

Thoughts on Alice Munro’s Latest

ImageI spent most of December (and even a few days in January) taking my sweet time through Alice Munro’s latest collection of short stories, Dear Life. It’s a very rich book and, as always with short story collections of this quality, I look forward to revising its stories in the future. Short fiction, like poetry, demands rereading. In the meantime, I can still offer a few thoughts about what may very well turn out to be Munro’s last collection. 

In fact, I was already familiar with two of the stories in Dear Life before I read the book. I try to get a copy of the New Yorker to read when I’m traveling, and I was lucky enough to fall upon Munro’s “Corrie” when I took the train in England in the fall of 2010 and then “Amundsen” when I first flew over to Vancouver last August. While both these stories are very different in tone, they are representative of Dear Life because of their focus on relationships and solitude. Charles May has offered a very thorough analysis of “Amundsen” on his blog, in which he suggests that the story illustrates the cultural and societal divides between the world of men and the world of women. “Corrie,” on the other hand, is the sparsely told story of a woman who’s life is made hollow by the man she loves. 

Old age is a crushing presence in many of these stories. “Pride” explores companionship in old age and the things a person must leave as the surrounding world changes. “In Sight of the Lake” is a dizzying, closely narrated story about memory and confusion. While these two stories should resonate very strongly with the author’s own reality, they are in fact the least successful in the book because of their structure; their endings seem a little forced and artificial, which is unusual for Munro. But then, “Dolly,” about an ageing couple who get into an odd argument when they come in contact with the poet husband’s old lover, is a perfectly balanced piece of fiction, at once tragic and funny.

As usual, Munro excels at characters. A few light details or lines of dialogue are all we require from her as readers to recognize exactly what kind of people she is writing about. For instance, in “Train,” the collection’s longest story, Munro manages to stitch together several periods in a man’s life with a considerable number of coincidences by the sheer force of the fascinating, quirky, very real character she is exploring, while withholding the basic information that any other writer would give away immediately. Honestly, I wish I knew how she does it. 

All in all, Dear Life didn’t quite move me as much as Munro’s 2009 collection Too Much Happiness. The stories here seem more varied in voice and content, which could be a good thing, except it makes the whole seem disparate—like a bunch of material was pulled together to make a final book. Like music albums, Munro’s other books tend to form coherent clusters of stories, even if these stories aren’t necessarily linked. Charles May has suggested that the first story in Dear Life, “To Reach Japan,” (which by the way is a brilliant piece of fiction as a stand-alone), might be an earlier story that Munro had never published. Another of the best stories in this collection, “Gravel,” with its revisiting of a childhood death through the lens of memory, seems to have been pulled right out of Too Much Happiness, in which death and violence feature prominently.

One of the most interesting features of Dear Life is that the four last stories are grouped together under the header “Finale.” Munro tells us that these stories, only one of which had been published before, in the New Yorker, are autobiographical in feeling more than in fact. Independently, these pieces are snapshots, moments in Munro’s childhood, half understood at the time and mostly focused around her mother. Read together, however, the pieces create an intriguing yet quiet effect; they circle the same facts and feelings, the same reality, in order to produce what is essentially the inception of everything Alice Munro has ever written. If Dear Life is indeed Munro’s last book, then we as readers couldn’t have asked for a more fitting ending.

At Home, Abroad

How does one make a home out of a foreign place?

That is, essentially, the question that Tim Parks asks in his 1992 (sort of) memoir, Italian Neighbours. The author is a journalist, novelist, translator, and teacher. He moved to Italy to work, and, of course, live. Italian Neighbours recounts his arrival in a small town in the Veneto called Montechio, where he discovered Northern Italian culture and traditions through the lens of his neighbours and fellow villagers, whom he found to be characters of infinite peculiarity.

I initially discovered Tim Parks through his excellent blog posts and articles on the New York Review of Books. His recurring theme—you could call it a kind of obsession—is the influence of global (and specifically, American) literatures on smaller, national literatures. He thinks that all national literatures are getting more and more similar; they include less culture-specific details, so that they can be more easily translated and sold in other countries. Conversely, American literature of the Jonathan Franzen type is becoming increasingly popular abroad because it provides a compendium of things that belong to the coveted, American lifestyle. While Tim Parks may not be entirely right, his arguments are certainly interesting.

Italian Neighbours shows off the author’s interest in culture and cultural differences. It is, in fact, a book length exploration of the dilemma we face everyday: things we love are always accompanied by things we love less. So, Tim Parks loves Italy: he loves the subtleties of its language, the luscious generosity of its food and wine, the ritualization of village life… But all the time, he despises the religiosity, the hypocrisy, the bad taste in home decorating, the corruption. It is in this incredible dilemma that the book takes on all its meaning, and its humour, as it alternates between scenes of rapturous appreciation and others of frustrating ridiculousness. Parks’ sharp sense of observation and efficient yet colourful prose style serves him well in shedding light on all the rich details of daily Italian life.

I bought Italian Neighbours last year in England, at the London Review Bookshop, where I spotted another book of his in the window. At the time, I knew Tim Parks as a critic, but I had no idea he wrote books (he’s actual quite prolific, both in fiction and non-fiction). I searched the shelves for his other books and found many, like his booker-shortlited 1997 novel Europa, and then discovered Italian Neighbours, which caught my eye because of its beautiful cover, in the travel-writing section. I brought it back home to Montreal with me but never picked it up again until last week, in preparation for my great move to the West Coast for grad school. Indeed, in the last two days, I’ve exchanged a suburban family home in Montreal for a shared flat in a lively Vancouver neighbourhood. It seemed logical to read about being a stranger in a city, and making that city your home.

Those of you who know me well will have now asked yourselves two questions of drastic importance: how many books did you bring with you? and what did you plan to read in the plane? The answer to the first question is that I tried to learn from past mistakes by not bringing too many books to Vancouver with me, because I know that I’ll end up buying a bunch here. I brought only two books along: Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, in a 2011 World Book Night edition that G. got when we were in England, and The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that I began and never finished during a backpacking trip in the Balkans in 2009. The Dostoevsky was my plane read, although I’m moving through it at snail pace, as usually occurs when you’re settling in and you have lots of others things to think about. Luckily, my travels coincided with the publication of a new short story by Alice Munro in the New Yorker, “Amundsen.” I bought the magazine at the airport and dived into the story with relish during the flight. It was beautiful, as always, and themes of  movement and displacement also made it directly relevant. 

By the way, I didn’t finish Italian Neighbours. And it’s not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time before my departure. So I’ll pick it up again when I return in December, and finish it then. If you think that undermines everything I wrote about the book, think again: Tim Parks himself believes that even good books sometimes deserve to be dropped before the end—sometimes, you’ve just had enough. But that’s definitely a discussion for another time.


Photo credits: Randolph Quan.

If you’d asked me, a few years ago, who my favourite living writer was, I would’ve answered without hesitation: Ian McEwan. Circa 2007, McEwan was at the summit of his art and eminence as a novelist: Atonement, probably his best book, had just been turned into a brilliant movie (directed by Joe Wright, starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy), Saturday, his novel about post-9/11 Britain, had been published in 2003 and  confirmed his skill in dealing with contemporary state-of-the-nation feelings, and he had just published a beautiful novella, On Chesil Beach, which was shortlisted for the Booker. Moreover, McEwan had managed to bridge the tricky gap between literary and commercial fiction; his books were on university reading lists and bestseller lists alike.

I read McEwan for the first time that year after seeing the film version of Atonement around Christmas. The truth is, I was probably seeking for a film adaptation of book to fall in love with; the previous Spring I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, only to be severely disappointed by the film version, which I’d had so many hopes for. Then came Atonement: beautifully directed, it had important things to say about art, contained big themes like love and war, and its ending was heart wrenching without being melodramatic. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, recommended it to everyone around me, and read the book over Christmas. The novel provided me with a literary mirror for the film. I found it just as great; it had everything I looked for in a book: compelling story, complex characters, beautiful writing. Most importantly, it felt literary (I’d been careful to buy the original paperback with the indignantly bored little girl on the cover, not the movie tie-in edition), which was essential to me at a time when I as trying to define myself as a reader of real literature, but still liked my books to be compelling. I was hooked on McEwan.

When school finished that Spring I read through Saturday, a strange novel that follows its neuro-surgeon protagonist, Dr. Perone, through an ordinary weekend day that turns out to be extremely unordinary. Saturday is a tour-de-force in its ability to manipulate the reader: at the beginning, I thought the story advanced very slowly, with lots of flashbacks and filler material and very little going on, but halfway through the novel I realized how attached I’d become to Perone and his family. By the end, when this family is threatened, the novel turns into a page turner because the McEwan has successfully built an emotional attachment between the reader and his characters. Then, in the fall, I read On Chesil Beach in a couple of days, and the same trick operated: very little actually happens for pages, except you get so close to the characters that by the time the story reaches its climax—a conversation on the beach between two newly-weds who misunderstand each other on the deepest level—I was sitting on the edge of my chair, breathless, whispering words of encouragement and disappointment, depending on what was being said. Again, I was thrilled with the beauty and efficiency of the language, and at how much complexity and characterization McEwan could concentrate in so few pages.

McEwan is a realist. He said so himself at a recent lecture he gave at Harvard (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend—my invitation got lost in the mail), entitled “The Lever: Where Novelists Stand to Move the World.” He’s very careful in his descriptions of places and things and events in order to recreate the right setting for his novels, be it modern-day London or Dunkirk in 1940. Of course, the precepts of realism requires that you describe the real world as faithfully as you can, down to the right constellation, the right brand of cigarette. It’s true that McEwan does this; some passages in his work are almost frustrating in their attention to detail, their desire to describe everything in detail. But where he is truly remarkable is in his ability to stretch reality to its limits, by placing his characters at the edge of normality, in situations that throw them completely off-balance. Sometimes, as in Atonement, where a little girl’s lie threatens to destroy the lives of two lovers, the results are stunning. Other times, as with the two loony lawbreakers in Saturday, coincidences seem a little bit exaggerated and the plot, like dough stretched too tightly between two hands, becomes torn. Yet as Alice Munro once said of another author, the writer always wins in the end. This is especially true of McEwan: even when he carefully walks you through a plot that seems implausible, he usually catches you with the elegance, restraint, and creativity of his writing. Usually. 

There are still those who argue in favor of early McEwan (see the hilarious book trailer for Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story), but I have a feeling that, in some time, when McEwan will have passed away (although I wish him long life!) and critics look back on his work, the three novels of his I first discovered—Atonement, Saturday, On Chesil Beach—will be considered his best. Here’s a writer at the top of his form, perfectly in control of his art, but still discovering things about writing, experimenting with voice and form and plot. Previously, McEwan had written a lot of books—just under a dozen, by my count—including two collections of short stories. Among these were Enduring Love, which still ranks among some of his best work (I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say), The Innocent (a kind of emotional spy-novel, set in Berlin during the Cold War), and his booker-winning Amsterdam, which frankly is not great by any standard (the conclusion seems to be that 1998 was a very bad year for fiction in English). McEwan’s early work earned him the nickname “macabre,” because of his unrestrained descriptions of gore. In The Innocent, for example, the main character needs to get rid of the body of someone he’s accidentally killed; a very long description of how to cut up a corpse into pieces and carry these pieces out of an ensues (a scene, as it turns out, that he now regrets). McEwan became relatively well-known in the 90s, but this was nothing like the stellar reputation he would gain in the early 2000s with the three books I mentioned above.

Then he published a new novel, Solar, in 2010, which I looked forward to and took a break from school readings to enjoy. Except I was disappointed. McEwan knew what he was doing in this novel—which is a kind of satire about climate change, featuring a ruthless, obese, nobel-prize winning physicist—but he knew it too well. The writing is too polished and self-conscious, the plot seems stretched, and the humor falls flat. The novel is so neat it feels dead. McEwan will be publishing a new novel this summer, Sweeth Tooth, a return to the spy genre he’d flirted with in The Innocent. An excerpt, entitled “Hand on the Shoulder,” about a young woman’s recruitment into MI5 by professor and lover in Cambridge in the 1970s, was published this week in The New Yorker. It provides usual McEwan fare: light irony, play with memory, importance of authenticity, interesting descriptions of food and sex… But again, I felt a little short-changed when I read. In an effort to make everything seem logical, plausible, McEwan describes emotions in too much detail; plot points are sold paragraphs in advance, so all you’re left to wallow in as a reader are feelings. And feelings only go so far. Am I evolving as a reader? or is McEwan really regressing as a writer? If the answer to the latter question is yes, then McEwan’s writer’s career fits into what Rick Gekoski has recently described as a usual curve of ascent into maturity and descent until death. Most author’s, Gekoski argues, rarely publish their best work last. But there are exceptions—Philip Roth, Henry James—and perhaps McEwan will count among them. Only time will tell. 

International Women’s Day (in Books)

Alice Munro

It’s International Women’s Day, and some ripples can be felt in the literary world as, for instance, the longlist for the Orange Prize for Fiction (the only literary prize judged by women that considers novels written exclusively by women) has been unveiled today. This year’s list presents the usual wide array of nationalities and genres, with a preponderance of historical fiction (although that seems to be something of a trend in prize nominations these days).

I think this day is a great opportunity to give female writers some love, so I wanted to share my thoughts on three women writers I adore. The first is Alice Munro, a Canadian short story writer whom I constantly mention on Twitter and who’s been a very important inspiration for me. Munro is a very wise and very humble writer, who continues to produce excellent stories with a remarkable consistency. If you don’t know much about her, I would recommend that you buy her Best Stories volume, but also that you check out this article her friend and fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood wrote about her in The Guardian.

Diana Athill

I’ve also written before about my second subject, the British editor and writer Diana Athill, whose memoirs remain among the most funny and moving books I have ever read. In her volumes of memoir Athill offers a true master class in writing, and also an honest portrayal of her life as a woman. I haven’t read her latest book, Instead of a Book (the title is a nod to her first book of memoirs, Instead of a Letter), which is a selection of letters she sent to the American poet Edward Fields over the span of 30 years, but I mean to pick it up very soon.

As for my third pick, I consider her one of the great underread writers of the 20th century: Elizabeth Bowen. Bowen wrote a large number of exquisite novels from the 1920s to the 1960s, and many of them are masterpieces of authorial voice and human psychology. I’d never heard of her before university but she now ranks among my favorite writers. In fact, I like to think that if I were to complete a PhD thesis (which I won’t), I would write it on Bowen because I believe her prose can undergo rigorous examination and study and still remain beautiful.

Elizabeth Bowen

These three women have written about many things and many kinds of people, but where they excel is in their portrayal of women in all stages of life. They write about bright-eyed, perspicacious girls who peer into the world of adults and feel it’s sharp sting—like Athill, humiliated in front of the stable-boy whom she is in love with as a girl in Yesterday Morning. They write about disillusioned young women who take their fates into their own hands, like the female protagonists in Bowen’s To the North. They write about middle-aged women who recognize their faults and rebel against those who would constrain them—Munro’s women are nieces (“Connections”), daughters (“The Moons of Jupiter”), wives (“The Bear Came Over the Mountain”), lovers (“Corrie”), and  mothers (“Deep Holes”) in this situation, for better or for worse. The write about quirky, charming, resolved old women, which they have themselves become (or, in Bowen’s case, became before she died in 1973). Here are three truly first-rate writers. 

So, which are female writer are you going to pick up and celebrate today? 

Long & Short: The Return of the Novella

The original, 1937 cover for Of Mice and Men

I write “return” with a degree of critical care. Did the novella ever leave? If yes, why had it gone? Or maybe it was never really big at all, and therefore isn’t making a return so much as a début. All of this is unclear to me. But what has become definitely apparent is that there’s been a recent surge in interest for novellas. The form is infamously tricky to define, of course. A novella is supposed to be book-length, because it can be published on its own, but not quite novel-length. But then, does the novella exist at all? Maybe it’s just a long short story, or else a short novel. In terms of content and form — this has nothing to do with length — I have certainly found this true on some occasions. Some novellas, like Ethel Wilson’s “Tuesday and Wednesday” and “Lily’s Story,” which are collected in her Equations of Love, feel like short stories that have been inflated. In terms of emotional resonance and narrative breadth, they remain, well, a little short. Other novellas, like James’ The Aspern Papers, are much shorter than novels, but pack the punch of longer, more ambitious works.


Some clues as to the return of the novella:

To begin with, there was Julian Barnes’ first Booker victory in October with The Sense of and Ending, which was the shortest book on the shortlist, and has been called a novella by some. Also, last year, the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris inaugurated the Paris Literary Prize to celebrate the novella, which is awarded to a work of fiction between 20,000 and 30,000 words. And let’s remember how much ink was spilled a few years ago about Robert Bolano’s posthumous masterpiece 2666, which is really 5 interlinked novellas. Also, the American short story genius Jim Shepard’s most recent collection, You Think That’s Bad, contained a novella titled “Gojira, King of the Monsters”, which was also published separately as a stand-alone book. As for publishing houses, Penguin has of course recently had a lot of success with elegant collections of short books: Penguin Great Ideas, Penguin English Journeys, Penguin Great Loves… Last year, they came out with Mini Modern Classics, 50 short pieces of fiction, published as their own, lovely little books, to celebrate 50 years of Penguin Classics. What’s great about the selection is that the editors have generally chosen little-known stories; letting them stand on their own gives them some well-deserved visibility. To be fair, a lot of the stories that make up the books in the series are actually short stories, not novellas. Moreover, from what I can see most of the volumes collect more than one story. Borges’ The Widow Ching—Pirate, for instance, also includes 5 other stories from the Argentine master. The design for the collection is very nice, playing off the silver, black, and white of the traditional Penguin Modern Classics, with much bigger author pictures on the back covers. Penguin has also released 5 production videos for the series: they’re great fun to watch.

More directly novella-related, perhaps, Melville House, which is becoming increasingly renowned for great books and great designs, has published a collection of books called The Art of the Novella, featuring, among many others, Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf, The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville, and 5 different stories entitled The Duel (by Casanova, Checkhov, Conrad, von Kleist, and Kuprin). The whole series is a great idea, and is perfectly executed: the choice is varied and classic, and the designs are remarkably simple and fresh. Their selection is sometimes a little wobbly in terms of form, however: I’m not entirely sure The Hounds of the Baskerville, for instance, is usually considered to be a novella, but that’s another story…

All this attention on novellas is wonderful; for one thing, novellas are awesome. They’re short enough to be read in a few sittings and to be quite focused aesthetically, but they’re also long enough that they have the time to creep into the brain of the reader; they cut out their own space and demand that their issues be addressed. I have a short-standing theory that the act of reading happens en deux temps. Maybe this only happens to me, but I feel like I always need a short period of adaptation when I start reading a book, not really to get used to the characters and the setting so much as to adjust my reader’s ear to the rhythm of the writer’s voice and the linguistic rules of the book’s universe. I believe this is why I can’t immerse myself completely in a book and read long swaths of it in one sitting until I’ve passed a certain point (sometimes this point comes early, sometimes later, never after the midway point) — then all is well and I can drive on to the end, perfectly attuned to the story’s music. The advantage with novellas is that they’re so short and well-formed that even a reading en deux temps can occur quickly. You can begin with two or three short sittings to start immersing yourself in the world of the story bit by bit, like a swimmer gradually dipping his limbs deeper and deeper in cold water, and then finish off the rest of the story in a single, smooth dive. The novella invites you to do all of that in one day, or even a few hours. Ideally, I would suggest leaving a night’s sleep in the middle to allow the shift to occur and finish the novella the next day — it makes the experience last longer. 

Long-winded, baggy novels are great, but I have a particular fondness for the tight focus of short books. Among my favorite novellas are Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Alice Munro’s “A Queer Streak”, Mann’s Death in Venice, James Joyce’s “The Dead”, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, Henry James’ “The Lesson of the Master”, Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Disinherited”, Maupassant’s Boule de Suif, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Some of these straddle the line with the short story or the novel, but the long and short of it is that they’re just the right length. Plus, they’re all exquisite and quick to revisit. Between lengthy dinners and short shopping sprees, why don’t we all dip into a novella for the Holidays? Happy reading!

Old Ladies’ Fiction

Muriel Spark: Older lady extraordinaire.

I’ve recently been working on a personal writing project that involves a number of female characters of a rather advanced age. To inspire myself, I’ve been plunging into a few books in which old ladies figure prominently, in order to see how one goes about writing about them. Old ladies may seem like a little bit bland, as far as subjects go, but I’ve found they can be really instructive, interesting characters, with lots of good stuff hidden away if you know where to look. And, of course, there’s nothing like going to the masters to see how it’s done.

It’s struck me that some authors are very good at writing about old age, while others are really good at doing children. Think of how pitch-perfect Briony is in the first part of Ian McEwan’s  Atonement, as the little girl who sees things and interprets them in her fantasizing, childish mind. The scenes in which Briony interacts with her cousins, the flirty Lola and the twins Pierrot and Jackson, are particularly sharp and witty. A writer who consistently inserts children, usually little girls, in her stories is Elizabeth Bowen. There’s nothing adorable, or even vaguely witty, about her children however; they’re usually eerily quite and observant, and lie on the fringe of the action. With their budding, confused reactions to the world around them, they serve as foils of innocence to the adult characters and their deceits and manipulations.

As for the writers who are good at depicting old age, Alice Munro comes to mind, probably because she’s become a charming old lady herself. Another one is Margaret Atwood, whose careful descriptions of the narrator’s failing, aging body in The Blind Assassin feel so painfully real. The main advantage of writing about an older character is having all these layers to access, because the character has lived through so much. The writer can then delve into the past, these memories and experiences, peeling away the layers in order to reveal meaning. The Blind Assassin, with its layered, russian-doll style storytelling, works in exactly that way. Another book I love about an aging woman is Love, Again by Doris Lessing, which tells the story of a widow in her sixties who falls in love (and the deep, sensual stirrings that involves) all over again. It’s a very beautiful, intense book, which depicts the emotional strain of infatuation and longing vividly, although the story fell away a bit at the end. Lessing is, of course, a fascinating old lady herself, unassuming and frank to the point of bluntness. You’ve only got to see this video of her being told she’s just won the Nobel Prize for literature, in 2008, to see just how charmingly honest she can be. “One can only get as excited as one can get.”

Love, Again's cover has an elegant simplicity and frankness which mirrors both the book, it's author.

One of the old lady novels I read recently is a British classic: Memento Mori, but Muriel Spark. The novel begins most wonderfully with a group of elderly people in London receiving mysterious phone calls. “Remember you must die,” says the voice, and then hangs up. It doesn’t take much else to get the elders fussing and plotting, blackmailing each other and toying with their testaments. What makes the novel interesting is how they all remember or find out about old secrets that had better remain in their dusty cupboards. The novel’s action revolves around the phone calls themselves, but all the reading pleasure comes out of this gossip passed over and picked at by all the characters.  Memento Mori provides a fast-paced, hilarious read, full of insane characters that come to life on the page in all their flawed glory. There are no mild, sweet old ladies letting themselves quietly crumble away here. These women are fighters: “Being over seventy,” one of them remarks, “is like being engaged in a war. All our friends are going or gone and we survive amongst the dead and the dying as one a battlefield.” 

I love this vintage cover for Memento Mori. It's just as elegant and fun as the novel itself.

The second book I turned to was Reading in Bed, by Sue Gee, which isn’t really about old women so much as about older women — bright, modern, well-read professionals somewhere in that healthy, comfortable place between middle and old age. Except lots of not so good things are happening to Georgia and Dido, the two friends at the center of the book. One copes with the death of a husband, her narcissistic 20 year old daughter, and a demented old relative out in Sussex; the other with possibly fatal health problems, a husband showing dangerous signs of infidelity, and a daughter in law who refuses to fit in with her “perfect” family. Lots of drama here. So much drama you never really get attached to the characters because so many terrible, moral-quaking things are being thrown at them from all sides. Sue Gee’s prose could saved the book from being disappointing — it’s loud and full of voice, the narrator oddly present and carefully colloquial — except the intrusions become a little bit annoying halfway through, as if the narrator is constantly trying to convince the reader to sympathize for the characters by constantly pitying them. Poor Georgia. Poor Dido. All in all, I think the whole thing didn’t hold together properly because it sounded too soft and desperate. In the end, the story blew away rather uninterestedly. Just like so many things in real life, actually — except novel can’t be too much like real life, or else they wouldn’t be interesting.

Even with a crafted style and a nice title, Reading in Bed wasn't all I thought it would be. Too bad. The cover is pretty feminine, however; maybe I wasn't the target audience.

Of Titles

Michel de Montaigne. His titles were bit repetitive, but at least they were straightforward.

Like a book, a blog needs a title — and preferably a good one.

A good title, of course, is a complicated thing. It has to reveal something about the content without saying too much, it has to be easily remembered without being obvious, and it has to sound smart without being obscure or pedantic. Titles for smaller works — a single blog post, an essay, a short story — are probably easier to find because they are headers for a more narrow field of inquiry. Influential essay writers like Montaigne or Francis Bacon solved the title by problem several centuries ago by taking the subject of their text and slapping the word “Of” before it: “Of Sleeping”, “Of Moderation”, “Of Fear”, “Of Travel”, “Of Drunkenness”, and so on.

Titles for longer pieces of writing or collections are trickier, because they have to encompass a sometimes very broad array of subject matters. Short story collections, like CDs, often reuse the title of one of the stories (or songs) comprised within it as the title of the whole. Alice Munro, for instance, has done this for virtually all of her short story collection; and since she has a knack for good titles, the result is usually excellent,

When a title's that good, you don't even need an image on the cover.

like Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage or The Moons of Jupiter. Or else, like Annie Proulx, they use a title that fits in some way with the general trend of all the stories, and add an ugly, literal subtitle underneath just to make sure you know exactly what the book is about: Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3.

Some books have really good titles. They make you want to read them, they make you feel connected to the book before you’ve even picked it up. Some of my favorites are Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Varieties of Exile by Mavis Gallant, Risky Business by Al Alvarez, Somewhere Towards the End (Like Alice Munro, Diana Athill always has beautiful titles for her books: Instead of a Letter, Stet, Yesterday Morning, Don’t Look at Me Like That) Other books have not so good titles: Ian McEwan’s latest book Solar, Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, 2666 (You can’t say this one without sounding like a you have a speech impediment), I’m not entirely sure why I don’t like them, I just find they sound bland, or obvious. It has nothing to do with the books themselves; and to be fair, there are some much worse book titles out there. All genres considered, I think the worst is probably The Duchess, her Maid, The Groom, & Their Lover, an erotic novel by Victoria Janssen — although Carlton Mellick III’s The Haunted Vagina is definitely up there. Tangentially, I’d like to add that I tend not to like books that are entitled after their main characters. I really find it’s the least creative way to name your novel. For instance, Dickens’ working title for Little Dorrit was Nobody’s Fault — imagine how much better that would’ve been! Using a protagonist’s name as the title of a book also frustrates me because, unless your character becomes embedded in pop culture (like David Copperfield or Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), then it’s sometimes very difficult to tell which name on the book cover is the author’s and which is the title — take the Pulitzer-winning Oliver Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.

Probably the worst book title in history.

Hemingway, as the compulsive perfectionist that he was, unsurprisingly spent a long time deciding on the titles for his books. When he had finished writing something, he would sit down and come up with a list of possible titles, and the select the best one. His technique seemed to work well, since he came up with some of the most memorable titles of the 20th century, like The Old Man and the SeaThe Sun Also Rises, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I inspired myself somewhat from Hemingway’s method in finding the title for this blog. I had a brainstorming session with my girlfriend in which we came up with some very bad ideas (Logophagist, Alphabetist, The Reading Lamp) and some rather good ones (Bibliology; or The Science of Book-Loving, I’d Rather Be Reading, BookLust). The title we finally chose, Book’s End, emerged as a world play on a “book end”, the staple of every bibliophile’s wall shelves (lest his books fall off and get damaged… and maybe also hurt someone).

I wanted this blog to be first and foremost a place, a kind of haven where readers and book lovers could go to, get informed, and participate in a conversation about literature and books in general. Book’s End is that place, like a dead end (except very much alive) for bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs and “bibliologists”, and casual readers too. Book’s End is also a specific reminder that books do, indeed, end. Luckily, you can always pick up a new one (or an old one) afterward and keep on reading. In a broader sense, the title is also a warning, in the age of Internet, Amazon, GoogleBooks, and E-Readers, that the “Book” as we know and define it — a concept and an object which so many of us still cherish very strongly — is changing very quickly indeed.

And so, let the book-blogging begin!


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