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Points of View

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I checked in at the Booking Through Thursday blog, which is the host for a weekly book meme or blogging prompt. Here is this week’s prompt:

Which is better (or preferred) … stories with multiple character points of view? Or stories that stick to just one or two at most? And, why?

I don’t have a preference as long as the story is coherent. I do understand why authors choose to write a mystery or historical fiction in multiple points of view for the suspense factor. When I begin a book, I want to know the relation of the narrator to the action of the story—whether the narrator is, for instance, a character in the story, or a voice outside of the story.

Personal stories often require a tight POV to really understand the nuances of that personal struggle. Epic tales tell a bigger picture story and often require multiple people to show all sides. If the story is about a person and their journey, close and single POVs (third or first) can be a great choice, because they allow you to really get into the head of that character and focus on their problem. A story about a situation, be it a quest, a war, a terrorist attack, might be better told through the eyes of characters who can see all sides of it. A good example from recent reading is After Her by Joyce Maynard.

Multiple POVs can be tricky because when a novel has a lot of them, it can be a red flag of a premise novel. So unless every person who is telling the story has a solid reason for being there, it’s best o be without that narrator. If the only reason is because “you can’t show that part of the story any other way” then you might want to reconsider. If there’s no goal driving that character, or nothing in particular happens to him/her, then the story will fall flat. Multiple POVs work best when each POV brings something unique to the tale. A fresh perspective, goals of their own, a subplot that connects to a larger theme that encompasses the entire story. The reader cares about that POV, even if all they care about is to see them get what they deserve. A recent example that exemplifies multiple POV is Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw.

[299] The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – Selina Hastings

” The truth was rather different: in fact Maugham was remarkably unchanged by his success, although inevitably his level-headed manner struck some observers as a form of vanity. He was pleased by the acclaim, of course, but he had worked hard through ten long years to achieve it and he saw very clearly the nature of that achievement: he has discovered a knack, a facility for writing light comedy that audiences found amusing; it was an ability he rated very highly, nor did he see himself continuing with it for very long . . . ” [5:118]

For many years after the passing of at one time the most famous writer in the world, W. Somerset Maugham’s life story has not been fully told. In his late years not only did he destroy all letters of correspondence with friends, he also issued mandatory notices to literary executors that no biography should be authorized. Throughout his life an appearance of conventionality was of profound importance to Maugham. For the first time a definitive account of the celebrated literary figure’s extraordinary life is made possible, in literary excellence that the subject probably would approve, by Selina Hastings. Granted unprecedented access to Maugham’s most personal correspondence, Hastings portrays the secret lives, passion, and betrayal—the great deal out of his outwardly respectable life that he was determined to conceal.

The irony was that he himself never experienced what he described as ‘the bliss of requited love.’ Expert at covering his tracks, Maugham left little documentary evidence of specific attachments; nevertheless there are numerous signs—references casually made in letters, fictional versions lightly disguised—of his love affairs and of an emotional neediness only partly hidden behind the reserve. [5:115]

For a man who from childhood had been wholly deprived of love and emotional security, financial stability became a vital substitute. But in other personal facets, he succumbed to an acute emotional vulnerability to which adolescent trauma predisposed him. Behind the social and career triumphs, which placed him among political and literary illuminaries, his marriage to Syrie Wellcome, a manipulative society woman who ensnared him with pregnancy, was a disaster.

The frequent scenes Syrie staged, the endless reproaches, the daily testing, and questioning of Maugham’s feelings for her, maddening to him . . . The fact that she was in love made her desperate for any show of affection. It also made her physically demanding . . . [8:238]

Behind this painted veil of a marriage (which existed merely on paper since Maugham was always on the leave to travel), despite the lack of felicity and harmony, Maugham was able to cultivate many affairs with men, including his great love and soul mate Gerald Haxton, who albeit being an alcoholic cad, had the sheer power to unlock a door inside the novelist’s shut-away secret wall. Not only did he give full rein to a sensuality and subversiveness that Maugham held in check, he also dominated him mentally. The struggle between maintaining his marriage in public and nourishing the intimate affair forays into his major novels—Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge, and Cakes and Ale, in the form of recurring themes like masochistic sexual obsession, ill-matched marriage, sexual passion, meaning of love, the mores of society and the nature of goodness.

And with admirable detachment he analyzes his own strengths and weakness as a practitioner of the art to which he had dedicated his life. ‘I am a made writer,’ he states unequivocally. ‘I do not write as I want to; I write as I can . . . I have had small power of imagination . . . no lyrical quality . . . little gift of metaphor . . . [but] I had an acute power of observation and it seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed. [13:422]

Indeed, as Hastings has repeatedly pointed out, in citing letters of correspondence between Maugham and his contemporaries, that Maugham understood the range of his engagement. It wasn’t the big picture that appealed to his mind’s eye, but the small lives of unremarkable individuals struggling to create assurance in life out of an exotic environment. His extensive travel had fueled and furnished his stories with such characters, for he was a realist who needed actual people and events to work on. Although his stories are not remarkably profound and laden with symbolisms, metaphors, and subtexts, they are of absolute verisimilitude owing to his adherence to psychological truth. Not for once did he comment on the tottering British empire in The Gentleman in the Parlour, an account of his travel throughout colonial Burma, Malaysia and Singapore. Nor did he judge Kitty Fane in The Painted Veil, who was not aware of her selfish and shallow existence until her husband, on whom she cheated, succumbed to cholera and died unreconciled. His keen observation and perspective, which often penetrates to the nerve and fiber of his subjects, are what hold generations of readers in thrall.

The strength of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham lies in Hastings’ ability to establish the link between Maugham’s private lives and his works. Hastings adopts a structure of the book that emphasizes on how Maugham, a playwright, an intellectual agent, a novelist, a traveler, a lover, and an observer, transposes real people he encountered into characters to whom he meted out his often satirical and caricatured treatment. The biography demonstrates how closely his works mirror the temperament of his social circle as leading members of cultural establishment as well as his romantic flames alike were all tempting targets for the irreverent streak in Maugham’s nature. This volume is the perfect literary companion to Maugham’s works.

626 pp. 1st US Hardback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

Nabakov’s Definitions of a Good Reader

In Vladimir Nabokov’s essay, Good Readers and Good Writers (from Essays on Literature), he lays down the ground rules to become a good reader and a good writer. o become a good reader’s and good writers, one must have certain skills. In this essay Vladimir describe much about these skill in become good at reading and writing. He also talks about how rereading is one of the important key to becoming a good reader and good writer.

One evening at a remote provincial college through which Nabakov happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, the writer suggested a little quiz—ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. The list somehow reminds me of the bill of reader’s right that circulated quite extensively around the blogsphere. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

1. The reader should belong to a book club.
2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
3. The reader should concentrate on the social economic angle.
4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
6. The reader should be a budding author.
7. The reader should have imagination.
8. The reader should have memory.
9. The reader should have a dictionary.
10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

My choices are 2, 7, 8, and 9. Technically speaking 1 should also attribute to a good reader because group discussion should provoke new meaning and inspire deeper thoughts on the meaning of the book. Items 2 and 4 are correlated, but 2 preponderates over 4 to me. Many a time I enjoy reading literary fiction, which often asserts, delves in, meditates on an idea, such as family, relationship, love, and forgiveness, without stitching a story with much action. I often resonate with a book more profusely if I can relate to and/or identify with the protagonist. Imagination is conducive to being a good reader. It is the bridge to the author’s mind as to what the words really say in a book. Is the novel autobiographical in incidents or just emotions? What is the underlying meaning behind the upheaval in The Master and Margarita? Imagination comes the rescue when the surface of the writing doesn’t seem to make any sense. Memory is my measure of how great a book is—whether it will be a classic or just another good read. What impression does a book make on me? How long does this impression last? Does the book beg re-reading? A dictionary, along with a pen and a notebook, is indispensable to a reader. I have never encountered more new vocabulary than when I read John Banville or Alan Bennett. I might not always have a dictionary handy but I make sure to jot down words to look up later.

Posterity: What Makes a Classic?

Last week’s Booking Through Thursday question concerned the posterity issue in literature. It asked whether any of the modern authors can measure up to the caliber of Dickens, Austen, and Bronte. While I’m not sure what qualities the host thinks give these authors their status but I must say, from my humble and limited experience as a reader, the knack for telling an entertaining story with which readers resonate, the talent in achieving beautiful literary forms, and the sheer luck of earning fame and popularity, these authors have endured. Classics refers to something that is of the first rate. The matter can be very subjective because some of the works that are recognized as classics today received fairly poor reviews at the time they were published. In the same way, work that has merited the highest accolade like Growth of the Soil might not find favor in every reader (at least not me). The widely-accepted notion that a book has to achieve a level of critical and popular success that endures for many years can be a tricky standard to be rigid about. The length of time it takes for a book to achieve a classics status can also be disputable. Judging from how quickly they become popular and how widely they are perused, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro could be considered classics and that they would most likely endure.

Works of literature that delve in the large and unpredictable forces in life would more likely to achieve the classics status. Despite the enormous changes in society throughout history, the subject matter of human experience that writers explore in their work is often very similar. Evil, guilt, materialism, love, self-fulfillment, and violence are all perennial themes that writers over time and geographical barrier have cultivated in their writings. Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, Howards End, The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities all embrace a theme that is at large, addressing to the deep-core question of humanity (and its corruption), state of a nation, and morality. The ambitious scope of a work of fiction can eclipse the scarcity of forms and style: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston are prime examples. They address important issues of America at the time they were published and became instant hits. Still other classics have frighteningly specific contemporary relevance: 1984 by George Orwell and The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The latter deals with the threat of terrorism in London, which was an issue of great concern and panic that bomb plots targeted to London transport and monument in late 19th century. If prophecy is considered a criterion for classics, then Margaret Atwood will for sure endure.

Many a time readers are put off by classics, dismissing them as some outmoded, dusty works that fail to evolve with time and continue into future. While many classics titles are written in very formal prose and are meant for serious study, some classics are also enjoyable and humorous. Who knows what some of these classics have inspired our modern authors to write their bestsellers, with their seminal meanings rooted in the classics. When the definition of classics becomes blurry, I can only resort to the one criterion that never fails: is the book going to be re-read? A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. A classic is a work of literature that, regardless of the style and forms, affords new meaning and interpretation every time it is read again.

Modernism in the Eyes of Pai Hsien-yung

I started Crystal Boys (Sons of Sin 孽子 in original Chinese text) by Pai Hsien-yung, who is generally considered among the greatest living stylists of Chinese fiction and prose. Born in China in 1937, he studied in Taiwan and came to the U.S. in 1961. He became a professor of Chinese literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1965, and retired in 1994. The book paints a very poignant picture of the gay community in Taiwan during the 1970s, which is better known as buoliquan, literally glass community, where the individuals are known as glass boys. The novel follows a short period of the life of A-Qing, expelled from his family because he is gay, who begins the life as a hustler. I haven’t read an opening paragraph more dismayed and repressed than this:

There are no days in our kingdom, only nights. As soon as the sun comes up, our kingdom goes into hiding, for it is an unlawful nation; we have no government and no constitution, we are neither recognized nor respected by anyone, our citizenry is little more than rabble. . . We prick up our ears like a herd of frightened antelope in a predator-infested forest, forever on guard against the slightest sign of danger. The wind gusts, the grasses stir; every sound carries a warning. We listen for the sound of the policemen’s hobnailed boots as they march past the green barrier that separates us; the minute we hear that they are invading our territory we scatter and flee as if on command . . . [17]

Social outcasts they are—unwanted by their families because of their being homosexual, the book exemplifies how modernism is principally concerned with order. Modernity (modernism) is fundamentally about order: about rationality and rationalization, creating order out of chaos. The assumption is that creating more rationality is conducive to creating more order, in this case order is synonymous to morality defined by heterosexuality, and that the more ordered a society is, the better it will function (the more rationally it will function). Because modernity is about the pursuit of ever-increasing levels of order, modern societies constantly are on guard against anything and everything labeled as “disorder,” which might disrupt order. Thus modern societies rely on continually establishing a binary opposition between “order” and “disorder,” so that they can assert the superiority of “order.” But to do this, they have to have things that represent “disorder”–modern societies thus continually have to construct “disorder.” In the novel, in the society that doesn’t tolerate homosexuality, this disorder is the gay community and the individuals who live in it. Likewise in western culture, this disorder becomes “the other”–defined in relation to other binary oppositions. Thus anything non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-hygienic, non-rational, (etc.) becomes part of “disorder,” and has to be eliminated from the ordered, rational modern society. This book is a testimony of how far the gay community has evolved over time. It draws the picture of what life was like for gay men in our recent but little-known past.

The Walks of Life Reading Project

ThingI was given a copy of The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say about the Stages of Life by Edward Mendelson for birthday. The book has sit idly on the shelve since it was free from the gift wrap. In addition to the June read-along of The Tale of Genji, I’m planning to read books that are discussed in Mendelson’s book. Jane Eyre, which I read last fall, is selected for close examination of transition from childhood to adulthood. I do not plan to re-read it, but will draw relevant passages to suit Mendelson’s discussion. The full list of titles in Mendelson’s discussion:

Birth: Franksenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Childhood: Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Growth: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Marriage: Middlemarch, George Elliot
Love: Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Parenthood: To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The Future: Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

As you see, Virginia Woolf dominates the list with three titles. Most likely I’ll read all of hers and part of George Elliot. The goal is to explore how great works of fiction reveal the human beings live lives. As for these titles, it’s so easy to overlook their original, moral context.

Annoying Reviewer Clichés, a Matt Musing

I have been ruminating on the points raised in Biblio’s post about the 20 most annoying reviewer cliches, explaining how usage of these words in reviews trivialize the book and risk being oversimplified. To satisfy your curiosity, here are the twenty words:

1. Gripping; 2. Poignant; 3. Compelling; 4. Nuanced; 5. Lyrical; 6. Tour de force; 7. Readable; 8. Haunting; 9. Deceptively simple; 10. Rollicking; 11. Fully realized; 12. At once; 13. Timely; 14. ” X meets X meets X”; 15. Page-turner; 16. Sweeping; 17. That said; 18. Riveting; 19. Unflinching; 20. Powerful

My first reaction is to take a step back and keep myself in check. No doubt I must have perpetrated many times using words like “poignant”, “nuanced”, and “riveting.” While these phrases and expressions are so cliches and banal, they are painfully common in media. For every book reviewed in major newspapers, magazines, and commercial (not book bloggers) book websites, you will encounter at least once “tour de force”, “page-turner”, and “power.” I understand publishers want to make captivating headline to boost sales of a book, and then most readers simply do not have time to read through lengthy, punctilious reviews (like mine) for every potential title. The catch, however, would be to trim down a review to its bone, vaguely labeled as “riveting” if the book engrosses readers to the end and “poignant” if the story has a sad ending. What is most ambiguous is to call a book “powerful” which could be both “riveting” and “poignant”, depending on the allure to individual reader.

On top of my preconception that something that is a “tour de force” or a “page turner” would most likely be a supermarket fiction, a book of which the author’s name is in much bigger print than its title, I stop reading reviews that are infested with euphemism and oversimplified terms. Unfortunately, a huge volume of reviews that parade through the media are executed in such shameful ambiguity, making me wonder if these reviewers actually do read the book from cover to cover. Whichever the case is, I simply stop reading when the review reads like an essay that says nothing in 500 words. To quote some very recent examples of a book’s reviews:

“Funny, wicked, and remorseful, Mrs. Kitteridge is a compelling life force . . .”
“Strout animates the ordinary with astonishing force . . . ”
“Masterfully wrought collection.”

These expressions do not provide me with enough insight to determine whether I would pick up the book or not. They’re just mere phrases and expressions that perfunctory reviewers parrot out. I always ask what the review should focus on: the writing style or the nuts-and-bolts of the physical content. A fine balance is achieved best when the review touches both. As usual, if the book is compelling, you bet I’ll expect a paragraph or two backing up that it’s compelling. As to my reviews, I try to be subjective and mindful of what it is that a book should appeal to readers.

What is your expectation on book reviews?

The Master, Novel Within Novel

The Master and Margarita Series 2
As I have expected (because I asked the same question myself in my first couple readings of the book), a couple important questions come to my students’ mind when reading the novel. Why is the novel called The Master and Margarita when those two characters arrive very late in the narrative? What’s the purpose of Woland (the Devil) in Moscow, and what does this have to do with Pontius Pilate? Obviously the change of style from the opening chapter to the second chapter, about Pontius Pilate, is a subtle hint that the narrator is unreliable and it might be a completely narrator altogether. The entry of the Master in Chapter 13 confirms this hypothesis. The Master realizes that Pontius Pilate is the reason why he and Ivan are in the mental asylum. The Master is barely characterized, his attitude to himself is sadly ironic, and his novel (about Pontius Pilate) is the only remarkable thing about him. It is the justification of his existence, and more importantly, the justification that Pontius chapter is part of the Moscow narrative (Part I) of the novel. After this crucial entry, the Pilate “novel” is revealed in many different ways and through different consciousness, as if it were an ur-text waiting to be discovered; but it is clearly the Master’s work, and meant to be understood as such, no matter how it is presented. That said, we have to understand that Jesus here is not that Jesus, just as this Woland is not that Satan. Even though Bulgakov sprinkles parodistic echoes from the gospels (crow of the rooster, the flood, etc), the Pilate chapters are not messianic or mythic at all. The reader’s consciousness must provide the coherence between widely spaced sections (of the biblical innuendos and Pontius novel), remembering details, and, most of all, wanting to know how this story will develop.