There are two books I consider to be “Great American Novels”, and one of them is To Kill a Mockingbird. (The other, by the way, is A Confederacy of Dunces.)

So you might think I’d be excited that a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is being released. But I’m not.  It strikes me as bizarre, more than anything else.  Supposedly, Harper Lee wrote this book–entitled Go Set a Watchman–prior to MockingbirdAccording to Wikipedia: “It was set aside when her editor suggested that she write another novel from the young Scout Finch’s perspective. The manuscript was then lost for many years, until being rediscovered by her lawyer in the fall of 2014.”

Now, how could they possibly misplace the sequel to one of the most famous books written in the last half-century for this long? If that’s actually true, it suggests that somebody screwed up royally. This article says “Lee’s lawyer found it affixed to an original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird.” Huh. An original typescript of To Kill a Mockingbird. Where was this typescript? Something like that would very valuable, even if it had no other forgotten sequel attached to it.  So I would presume it would have been kept somewhere safe in the years since Mockingbird became one of the most famous books in the world.  And I would think whoever was keeping it would have been careful to keep it in good condition, and thus noticed the other book attached to it long before now.

But it seems crazy to me that, even after it became one of the most widely-read books in American history, even after it was made into an award-winning movie, Lee’s editor never thought to say “hey, what about that other book you were working on? Since evidence suggests people like your writing, maybe you ought to give that one a go.”

It strikes me as very, very hard to imagine that people in the book business are that sloppy.

So, what else might have happened?  Did Harper Lee get conned into agreeing to release something she didn’t want to release, as this article suggests? Did they have somebody else write it and have Lee agree to put her name on it?  I have no idea, but the whole thing looks weird.

That being said, I’ll probably buy the book.

For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis.  The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.

It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes.  Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.

It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it.  That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them.  Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill.  It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.

One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”.  This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless.  And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”.  I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out.  The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs.  Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.

I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people.  I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.

Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.

A friend of mine told me about the great themes of literature. The idea is that most great books, movies, etc. all have at least one of the following  themes.  She and another friend had come up with two of them–they suspected there was a third, and I’ve included the suggestion I cooked up. Here are the categories:

  1. “Love Conquers All”–Pretty much all happy endings fall into this category. The Harry Potter series practically had this embossed on every page. In Star Wars it’s a little less obvious, but it’s still there.  It can be different kinds of love–romantic, familial, platonic.  I’d say To Kill a Mockingbird is a “love conquers all”, in the sense of a sort of universal, fraternal love between all people (Yeah, that makes the book sound way more gooey than it really is.) Jane Eyre also falls into this category as an example of romantic love conquering all. And for the record, every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta except Yeomen of the Guard and The Grand Duke is in this category also. I’m not sure how bittersweet love stories like Casablanca fit in here–the love story doesn’t wind up exactly where the leads get what they want, but it’s not really a tragedy, either.
  2. “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall”–This is the category for tragedies.  In Greek tragedy, “The Gods” or “Fate” are “City Hall”, and the stories end badly when people try to fight against their will.  Chinatown, one of my favorite movies, is almost the epitome of the “ya can’t fight city hall” genre (e.g. the line ‘He owns the police!” at the end.) Dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four usually end up being in this category as well.  I think your really good horror stories–like Lovecraft’s best–fall into this as well, with unexplainable, powerful supernatural forces standing filling the role of “city hall.” But the concept can be extended psychologically–in Macbeth, city hall could be either the supernatural forces of the witches or Macbeth’s own failings as a person.  I guess this is because tragic stories have a feeling of inevitability about them, and that’s what makes them feel tragic.  Most of Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category.
  3. “The Cake is a Lie”. Most thrillers and twist endings fall into this category by default.  (I took the name from the famous line in the video game Portal.) This is the category for stories where things aren’t as they seem.  The Repairer of Reputations, as well as most unreliable narrator stories–e.g. The Turn of the Screw–are in this.  But also any story where a major element is that characters are deceiving others, or themselves.  This is where I think The Grand Duke fits as well, because everyone is pretending to be something else.  Most “meta” narratives fall into this category, because they are about illusion and deception.  I’d argue that the game Spec Ops: The Line has one foot in this camp, and one in the “ya can’t fight city hall” camp. Works with ambiguity and room for multiple interpretations fit in this category as well.

What do you think, readers? Any suggestions for things that fit these categories? Anything that doesn’t fit any of these categories?  Are the categories themselves nonsensical?


I just finished reading the novel In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck.  It is about a strike by fruit pickers in 1930s California. The two main characters are Communist revolutionaries who organize and lead the striking workers.

It is instructive to compare the book with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which I analyzed earlier this year. That book is socialist propaganda, cut and dried.  The perspective of In Dubious Battle is also sympathetic to the communists,  but Steinbeck is a much more nuanced writer than Sinclair, and so he is able to give more thought to the philosophical issues underlying the strike. The character of the Doctor alone is more interesting than anybody in The Jungle, and his ambivalence about the strike raises legitimate questions that Sinclair would never consider.

What I find interesting is that, even though it is a much better piece of literature than The Jungle, it’s not nearly as well-known, or as effective a tool for social change.  Perhaps good literature is bad propaganda, and vice-versa.

Like the other Steinbeck book I have written about, Of Mice and Men, there is an undercurrent of misogyny in this book.  The only major female character is sweet, but very dim.  Other female characters are mentioned only in passing as background elements.  It’s definitely a book about men and stereotypically “manly” things—Steinbeck always describes cars in loving detail, for instance.

I’m not going to give many more details because, well, basically I already have given you the plot summary—it is about a strike.  It’s more about the behavior of the participants than about any specific events in the strike.  I recommend reading it, and forming your own opinion. I will say that it explores the idea of charisma as a force for motivating groups of people, something I love to write about.

Lastly, a bit of trivia: In Dubious Battle is one of President Obama’s favorite books, according to this article (Via Wikipedia).

Lovecraft’s sketch of Cthulhu. Image via Wikipedia.

Longtime readers may know that I, like most sci-fi/fantasy enthusiasts, enjoy the works of of H.P. Lovecraft.  Apart from his racial views–which are thankfully absent from most of his better stories–I like his writing,  his evocative settings and memorable, unique monsters.

That said, his plots frequently aren’t as good as they could have been.  The Shadow Out of Time needed to have the middle third edited out.  The second half of The Whisperer in Darkness gives away a certain critical plot twist way too early.  The Dunwich Horror is just bad.  Ironically, though Lovecraft wrote critical essays and letters asking for subtlety in horror fiction, his own stories often failed do this, and would clumsily reveal too much detail about his creatures.

The Call of Cthulhu is probably his single most famous work.  In fact, his Cthulhu creation may be more famous than he himself is, being a sort of shorthand for the ultimate evil in certain circles.

The problem is, Call of Cthulhu isn’t a very good horror story.  Well, to be fair, the first two-thirds of it are.  The opening paragraph is one of my favorite quotes in all literature.  But then we have the last third… (I’m about to spoil the story, so be warned.)

Part of the problem of the last third of CoC is that the first two parts are so good.  Lovecraft builds up to the horror gradually, hinting and letting his narrator–and by extension, the reader–glimpse and guess rather than just outright explaining  what Cthulhu is.  With all this weighing on his mind, we come to the the adventure of Second Mate Johansen.

The mere fact that anybody even found R’lyeh in the first place is a problem.  It would have been better if its existence had only been guessed at–perhaps in “old legends telling of a weird island that has since vanished”, or something along similar lines.  Having somebody actually find it eliminates a key element that is often underused in horror, but of which Lovecraft ought to have been cognizant: that is the element of uncertainty, of wondering if all the narrator’s suspicions might be merely incipient madness.

Even worse is the part where the sailors actually witness the awakening of Cthulhu.  No matter how overwrought Lovecraft makes his prose, he can’t possibly make this monster live up to the hype he’s given it.   So, it was a big dragon-squid, was it?  That’s… somehow disappointing.

But the worst of all; the fatal flaw that almost ruins the story for me, is what happens next: the last surviving sailor makes it back to his ship and rams Cthulhu with it.   And this actually forces Cthulhu to retreat!

This is just awful horror writing.  This Elder-God, this unspeakably powerful, incomprehensibly awesome creature can be defeated by one guy with a boat?  Why not just have the Navy station a battleship out there and repeat this every time the Great Old One becomes troublesome?  Actually, that’s not even necessary, because it apparently only wakes every few “vigintillion” years anyway, which means Johansen probably has saved humanity for the rest of its existence. This is such a classic mistake, there’s even a page on TVTropes named for it: “Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?

I think Lovecraft must have realized this was pretty weak, so he tried to imply at the end that the cultists (here are those blasted racial ideas of his creeping in) were going to sabotage all efforts at learning about the existence of Cthulhu or R’lyeh.  But the problem with that is, the cultists are repeatedly shown to be incompetent throughout the story. Johansen and his crew-mates were able to defeat their sentry ship without even realizing what they were doing.

All in all, what an awful way to ruin a potentially terrifying monster!  The lesson for aspiring writers: if you invent a Terrifying, Scary, Nearly Omnipotent Monster, don’t ruin it by letting it be defeated  easily.  And it’s best not to actually show it in action at all, but rather to just show hints of it.

As I mentioned here, I’ve been planning to read some John Steinbeck books.   I haven’t gotten to The Grapes of Wrath yet, but I recently read Of Mice and Men.  It’s very well-written, and effective at describing the scenes and characters. The first and last chapters especially do a good job painting an evocative scene for the reader.  The dialogue is also very good—Steinbeck captured rural, uneducated dialect convincingly while still making it flow naturally, so as to be readable.

The story itself is tragic, and indeed, I was duly depressed at the end of it.  But I couldn’t get past one thing about the tale: the vague undercurrent of misogyny. Curley’s wife—no name, just “Curley’s wife”—is treated as not really even a person.  By Steinbeck’s own admission, she is “not a person, she’s a symbol.” This dehumanization is quite evident in the book, and I found it rather disturbing.

There also is a heavy implication that her ultimate fate is her fault. I mean, who can blame her for flirting with the farm workers, considering what a jerk her husband is? And yet George, who is supposed to be a sympathetic character does blame her for it.  I can’t really decide if this is author’s perspective, or just the character’s perspective, though.

Steinbeck’s quote above notwithstanding, there is some attempt to humanize the character at the end, so it may be the point is just that the farm workers have misogynistic attitudes.  (Interestingly, I notice that the Of Mice and Men article on Wikipedia is in the category “misogyny”, even though no reason for this is given in the body of the article.)

However, it is still a very well-written and powerful  book.  I read that Steinbeck wrote it so that it could be either read as a novel or performed as a play.  That’s a very interesting idea, and I can definitely see how it could be easily adapted to the stage, although I don’t know if the quiet, melancholy nature scenes at the beginning and end could be translated to the stage effectively.

Weird article in The Daily Beast by a writer called Frank Bill.  Idea is that men are not manly enough these days, so there are fewer manly novels about manly things.

What I don’t know is what he means by “masculine writing”.  Does he mean subject matter–wars and hunting? There are books about those things. Or choice of words–short, blunt sentences?  Like Hemingway, who did both.

Tough to gut it out through lots of words.  Have to fight your way through dense jungles of adjectives and adverbs, hunt down the meaning.  Cut out useless bits.  More manly to use short sentences, or fragments.  But that has drawbacks, too. Can be hard to follow the logic.

Probably, fewer men read than women. So topics are chosen accordingly.  It’s tough, but you have to man up, grit your teeth, and realize that probably, they’ve already won the war for dominance of the bookshelves.

Thingy had a great idea on her blog last week. The idea is to take one basic scenario and then write it in the style of different authors. Be sure to read her post first. I loved it, and I just had to try a few of my own. But read Thingy’s original post and get the aforementioned “gist” before you read mine.

H.P. Lovecraft (Cosmic Horror)

Into the blasphemous January gale stepped Jack Wilmarth.  By the banks of the inconceivably ancient Massachusetts river, he surveyed the queerly-shaped yews.  At length, he selected a log and aimed with his axe a blow at it, but the bizarre atmosphere of that eldritch locale distracted him, and he chose an unfortunate angle and wounded his thumb.  As the wound spread onto the snow, he turned to behold a strange motor approaching along the ancient mountain paths trod in antiquity by the native tribes…

P.G. Wodehouse (Humor)

“What ho, what ho—it seems young Jack has made a frightful fool of himself!”

“Indeed, sir?”

“Well, the young buffoon seems to have gone out for a bit of a ramble and thought to himself he’d try his hand at wood-chopping—you know, like those frightful blighters who go about in check shirts and great hats do—but it seems he rather gave the wood a bit of miss and hit his own hand instead.  Caused a bit of a scene on the snow, I mean to say!  Must’ve looked like the first scene of A. Christie’s latest, I should think!”

“Most distressing, sir.”

“Yes, well, if his fiancée hadn’t happened by in her car so they could biff off to hospital, I think we might have found ourselves reading about the poor fish in tomorrow’s obituaries.  Still, all’s well that ends well, what?”

“Indubitably, sir.”

Ayn Rand (Objectivism)

The weak, contemptible looter Jack was far too incompetent when he stepped out of the cabin to chop wood.  He was weak-willed, and incapable of realizing Man’s natural superiority over nature, and so foolishly cut his thumb and bled deservedly in the snow.  For he had failed to comprehend the eternal philosophical truth that…

[5,000 similar words omitted.]

…he raised his head to see a beautifully-made automobile approaching through the wood, demonstrating Man’s mastery of metal to conquer the Earth.

Thomas Hardy (Tragedy)

Jack made his egress from the small-gabled forest cabin of round logs, with a view to perhaps building a fire to warm him and heat his comestibles.  But alas, it is often the case that Fate will frustrate the efforts of mortals endeavoring to improve their situation, and so he was dismayed to injure his thumb on the instrument he used for the task.  He saw the snow around him turn crimson, and glanced up to see a vehicle in the lane beyond the cabin, but it passed him by.  It is ever so that cruel Fortune will present to us the means of salvation, only to just as quickly snatch them away…

(A Role-Playing Video Game)

[Set Player Name.  Player name = “JACK”]

[You see a door inside the cabin. Open it? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Exits to snowy morning scene.  You see an “Axe of Unbeatable Strength” Use? Y/N]

[JACK chooses “Y” Damage: self = 10 x 2 CRIT. Damage: Log = 0.  HP – 20]

[Play cinema scene of car pulling up.]

I get uneasy when I read academic literary analysis that focuses heavily on what elements of a story are supposed to symbolize.  Symbolism is definitely a device that artists use, and to some extent all art is trying to say something about “life, the universe, and everything” by using its own elements as representative of some larger idea.

So, we know symbolism is used.  What we don’t always know is what the author was symbolizing or why, and unless they explicitly say so somewhere, the only way to figure it out is through educated guesswork.  And sometimes, we don’t even know if s/he was trying to symbolize anything.

This being so, it’s awfully easy to make up almost any symbolism you like and call it an analysis.  Let me give you an example of what I mean, with a faux-analysis I just made up of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Grand Duke:

The Grand Duke is an allegory about the failure of democracy.  It shows the rightful ruler of the state of Pfennig-Halbpfennig deposed by the rabble (actors–commonly considered a “low” occupation then.) The actors, on taking over the government promptly seek to “revive the classic memories of Athens at its best”. The ancient Greek theme is chosen to represent Democracy because it was in ancient Greece that Democracy was created.

The ultimate theme of the story is how Democracy–a.k.a. mob rule–ruins the Aristocracy.  The fake aristocrats hired by the Prince of Monte Carlo are the most obvious example of this.  In the end, order can only be restored when the rightful ruler is placed back in charge.

This interpretation does rely on actual evidence from the play–the actors who take over really do dress as ancient Greeks, the commoners who attempt to impersonate aristocrats are portrayed as buffoons, and the opera ends on a happy note only when the original Duke resumes his reign. So, I think this is a theoretically possible interpretation.

Is it actually likely that this is what W.S. Gilbert had in mind when he wrote it, though?  Highly doubtful.  It seems much more likely that he had the characters remake the government in the image of ancient Athens because he had worked up a clever song about it, and he made the Prince of Monte Carlo’s entourage an uncouth band because he thought it was funny.  Anyone familiar with the piece will have  a hard time believing it was trying to make any major statement about forms of government.

People say authorial intent doesn’t matter, and to an extent they’re right–I can believe that people would insert certain ideas in stories without being conscious of it.  But when you have symbolism that, however “logical” it seems, takes you so far away from the obvious character of the work in question that it gives you pause.

I remember reading about the theory that L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an allegory about the Populist movement.  There is a lot of detail in this theory, and it is pretty thorough, but there’s no evidence that Baum intended it.  According to Wikipedia “it is not taken seriously by literary historians”.  I wonder why.  They take flimsier theories seriously.

As you know from this post, I enjoy alternate interpretations that run contrary to the creator’s ideas.  but still, no matter how plausible you make the case, at a certain point you have to acknowledge it when your interpretation takes you far from what the author originally meant.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but me and a friend happened to be talking about our disappointment with the Harry Potter series.  I think talking about J.K. Rowling’s new book was what started it.  We agree that 6/7 of the series is quite good.  But the last 1/7 is a different story.

The series starts out magnificently, the first 60% or so being among some of the finest adventure epics I’ve ever read.  In the second half, it gets weaker, but still very, very good.  But it culminates in an inexplicable and unforeseeable disaster that tarnishes the whole thing.  It is the 2007 New England Patriots of Y.A. fiction.

The first four books combine adventure, humor, horror and mystery into an excellent package.  The climactic scene in the fourth book where Voldemort rises again gives me chills every time I read it.  The next two books are not as good—they have more pointless teenage angst, and seem less tightly-plotted and well-edited than the previous ones.  But they’re still quite good.

And then, alas, we come to book seven.  The best thing about it is the cover.  (In fact, the quality of Harry Potter books is inversely proportional to the quality of their cover art.)

This book is a mess.  There is no gentler way of putting it.  Early on we have the inexplicable alteration in Remus Lupin’s personality.  Why he would suddenly become so reckless makes really no sense for the character, except, I guess, to set up a tearjerker fate for him and Tonks.  It doesn’t work for me; it feels like the character just wildly altered his personality for no reason.

Then there is there is the posthumous destruction of Albus Dumbledore’s character.  Now, I like the idea of a seemingly generic, stock character (kind, wise teacher) turning out to be more unique and interesting.  Theoretically, it sounds like a good idea.  But it doesn’t work with Dumbledore, because it comes too late in the story, and moreover it takes too much time away from developing other characters.  Which leads me to my next point…

The marginalization of Severus Snape is another weird error, compounded by the fact that he got all the advance hype, and yet was barely in the book save for one flashback chapter.  Snape is by far the most interesting and complicated character in the series, but he gets largely ignored and instead we get “The Dirty Life and Times of Albus Dumbledore”, or whatever it was.

This is all pretty bad so far, but I might have liked the book despite it all.  What ruins it for me are the following catastrophic things.

First and foremost: The pointless introduction of the Deathly Hallows, which just confuse everything and add even more MacGuffins on top of the already hard-to-keep-track-of Horcruxes.  The first six books were spent setting up the Horcrux plot thread; the Deathly Hallows just show up out of left field.  They are a magical device too far.

This is closely related to the problem that the Deathly Hallows, particularly the Elder Wand, are governed by a set of byzantine laws that seem designed arbitrarily for dramatic effect.  And even for dramatic effect, they fall short.  The entire book  hinges on Dumbledore’s “final plan” going awry, Voldemort not studying his Wizarding law, and Potter just happening to disarm Malfoy at the right moment.  Not on Potter learning something, or having courage; it’s just sheer luck.  Realistic, I guess, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  (Jenny Sawyer wrote a review when the book came out that addresses this in a bit more detail.)

Finally, in the atrocious epilogue, I don’t understand how it is that no one seems to have learned that Slytherin house creates vastly more problems than it solves, and that it really should be abolished.  Here they are, with the old rivalries still maintained, despite the fact that Slytherin’s Founder buried a giant monster under the school, his “heir” tried to conquer the world, and all but two of the people who are known to have attended Slytherin have been evil.  (Even Snape and Slughorn aren’t exactly model citizens, but they keep it from being uniformly bad.)

But no, nobody cares, and they are still admitting people into Slytherin, effectively sorting all the little maniacs into one isolated group, cut off from the rest of the school.  I would have tweaked the Sorting Hat’s algorithm to distribute the evildoers into the other houses, where they might be reformed, or at least restrained.

There are other flaws as well–the extremely dull camping trip (and the attendant return of pointless teenage angst), the comical ineptitude of Voldemort and his minions, the unbelievable ease and speed with which the entire Ministry of Magic converts from being a liberal democracy into an authoritarian regime.  (Did all Ministry of Magic employees get a memo “You’re all going to be Nazis now”?) but these could be overlooked, if not for all the major flaws mentioned above.

All this adds up to a disaster.  The characters are inconsistent, which makes them hard to care about.  The MacGuffins and plot devices pop up everywhere, and are not really connected to each other in a meaningful way.  The climactic battle between Potter and Voldemort is resolved by a quirk of wizard law, an ending which would be very well in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, but not so good in an epic high-fantasy novel.

Star Wars fans moan endlessly about how “the prequels ruined Star Wars“.  Putting aside that I like the prequels, I never understood how the creation of a new movie could somehow retroactively ruin previous ones.  But I can sort of feel that way with Harry Potter thanks to Book Seven.  It sort of dulls the appeal of the whole series for me.  It probably shouldn’t, because I can still go back and read the brilliant Chamber of Secrets and it is every bit the tightly-plotted magical thriller that it was before Deathly Hallows was even written.  But, the fact remains, I have not bothered to revisit any of the other Potter books since Hallows, and I suspect my lack of motivation to do so is because of the awful finale.

When you criticize something popular, people usually respond with: “could you do better?”  Fortunately, I don’t have to.  The good people at “How It Should Have Ended” have already supplied an answer to that question: