Literature for change: vital reading for the left-wing optimist

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We live in difficult and uncertain times and the world around us seems increasingly full of fear and terror: it is easy to lose hold of hope and grow cynical and weary. But this is the sort of attitude that suits only those who would seek to exploit these feelings to push agendas that nobody wants.

The newly announced general election in the UK is a prime example here. Brexit is not the sole issue facing the country and a general election should not be used as a battleground on which to debate it; least of all because in the debating of it the government will be able to hide the fact it has no clue or plan or strategy. Yet unless we demand and fight for a more positive world and put other issues on the table; we will hear of nothing else over the coming weeks. There will be no talk about the fact that wages for the majority have stagnated or fallen every year the conservatives have been in power; there will be no talk about the fact that we are working longer and harder for no reward, as our physical and mental health and wellbeing deteriorates; there will be no talk of the rising levels of misogyny or hate crime; of the crises in our public services created by privatisation; or of the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our world.

We have the power to change this; to stand up to the politics of hatred and division. Optimism is a strategy for building a better world – if you believe human beings have an instinct for truth and justice and equality; and you believe there are opportunities to change things so we build our society around these pillars – rather than those of fear – then there’s a chance you can contribute to making a better world. “Don’t mourn – organise!”

To help you do just this, we’ve picked out some of our favourite left-wing books. We’ve tried to avoid the obvious tomes of Marx, Lenin and Kropotkin – and instead gone for alternative inspirational, informative, interesting and accessible texts. Check them out!

1. Whoops! Why everyone owes everyone and no-one can pay, by John Lanchester

We have been living with the fallout from the 2008 banking crisis, and will continue to do so for decades to come. Fortunately, it hasn’t all been doom and gloom, as – without any irony – the publishing industry reacted to the near total failure of modern capitalism by successfully pushing out to the market books that tried to explain the crisis and the myriad political consequences of it. Few of these books, however, are as pleasurable to read as John Lanchester’s “Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay.”

The snidest villains and the greediest buffoons in the narrative are the bankers and other financial wizards who began recklessly playing with new, risky, little-understood tools to get richer faster — tools that ostensibly hedge against risk but also dramatically increase it. If you don’t know how derivatives or credit default swaps work, or what securitization is, or why futures are riskier than options, this is a book for you

2. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein

A painfully well-researched, addictive romp through Friedmanite economic terrorism by one of the best journalists working in English. Read this book and you’ll understand how and why world governments are capitalising on the economic crisis to impose austerity on ordinary people.

3. Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? By Mark Fisher

The late, great, Mark Fisher identified the paradox of modern capitalism: that the more it fails, the deeper it becomes entrenched. The more people rail against it, the more powerful it appears to become. Yet while Fisher does not identify a single tool or solution to help us achieve the radical social change necessary to displace capitalism, he does however, hint at what any theoretical tool or idea must be able to do:

“If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.”

4. The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

A powerful explanation of the nature of violent uprising and the psychology of oppression.  Almost every page contains quotes that one wants on a poster or revolutionary t-shirt (after all, in the words of Billy Bragg “the revolution is just a t-shirt away”).

5. Vindication of the Rights of Women, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s tome is an inspiration for three centuries of subsequent human rights thinking. She identifies natural rights as being just that – rights; and not to be denied to any group in society by another.

6. The intelligent woman’s guide to socialism, capitalism, sovietism and fascism, by George Bernard Shaw

Shaw’s 1928 work is a brilliant debunking of the myriad excuses for inequality. He argues that women of all classes must free themselves from economic dependence on men, and points to traditional family structures and familial roles as being at the heart of patriarchy. Capitalism is the villain of the piece (as well it should be), as Shaw argues for a humanity driven by forces of love and compassion, rather than self-interest. Intriguingly, he also posits that men will never be truly free or able to reach their full potential until women are free and released from bondage.

7. Love on the Dole, by Walter Greenwood

An evocative portrayal of life in depression-era Britain, the fact that Greenwood’s Love on the Dole remains in print stands as a testament to a lost industrial culture, and also as a story that speaks its essential truths loudly whenever times get hard.

“I have tried to show what life means to a young man living under the shadow of the dole,” Greenwood reflected, “the tragedy of a lost generation who are denied consummation, in decency, of the natural hopes and desires of youth.” As austerity policies continue to deprive millions of men, women and children in the UK and elsewhere of essential decent living standards  and newspaper columns bulge with warnings of yet another generation laid waste by unemployment, it’s a mission statement that we would do well to take up.

8. The Cultural Roots of British Devolution, by Michael Gardiner

For citizens of the UK and Europe, the very real possibility of a break up of the United Kingdom demands proper study and research. Scottish devolution and independence takes precedence in Gardiner’s tour de force of a book; yet within it we can also pick out the same recurrent features of “British” culture and politics that have created the climate for Brexit and the push for greater powers for Wales and Northern Ireland.  Gardiner makes, for instance, concrete and extraordinary connections between, for example, English rave and a new unBritish, pro-democratic Englishness. Its scope makes it sightly wandery at times; but this is part of its appeal: unlike anything else in the subject you’ve read.

9. The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon

One of the first books to give a voice to marginalised and ‘otherised’ groups in post-war British society, this is not only a novel about race and survival; it is also a novel about the city. Selvon’s descriptions of post-war London are so powerful and evocative that one fancies oneself alive and present on these same streets. He brings to life the grubby, working-class backstreets of the Harrow Road and Notting Hill, and the seemingly unbreachable divide between them and the rich neighbourhoods of Belgravia, Knightsbridge and Hampstead. He shows how London is not one city, but a compendium of many little cities: there is no such thing as one London or, indeed, one Britain.

The message of The Lonely Londoners, then, is even more vital today than in 50s Britain: that, although we live in societies increasingly divided along racial, ideological and religious lines, we must remember what we still have in common – our humanity. As the novel says: “Everybody living to dead, no matter what they doing while they living, in the end everybody dead.

10. The Coming Insurrection, by The Tarnac 9/The Invisible Committee

This short book, written in 2005 by an anonymous French collective known only as The Tarnac 9 (also sometimes known as the Invisible Committee) has become a core text for radicals and revolutionaries across Europe and the Middle East. The slender text is part antimaterialist manifesto and part manual for revolution. The writers expound at length on what they see as a diseased and dehumanizing civilization that cannot be reformed but must, they contend, be torn apart and replaced. To that end the authors direct their readers to sabotage authority, form self-sufficient communes and learn how to “support a conspiracy against commodity society.”

 

This is, of course, not a comprehensive list and we’d ask anyone and everyone reading to respond in the comments with their own essential articles, books and texts for organising and mobilising as a progressive force against the disastrous forces of capitalism.

Now, here’s a video of Charlie Chaplain. Because reasons.

 

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Creatives in profile: interview with Laura Waddell

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Laura Waddell writes reviews of fiction, a book column, articles, and short fiction and poetry. She has been in the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Mail, Gutter, Glasgow Review of Books, 3AM magazine, Review 31, and others, while working extensively in literary and translation publishing before joining HarpterCollins as Publishing Manager of Children’s Reference.

Shortlisted as Emerging Publisher of the Year by the Saltire Society in 2016, she is also quite the social media guru – creating a number of innovative literary initiatives such as #ScotEbookDay and #ETeaParty, which was featured as a book marketing success in the book Blogging for Writers.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

WADDELL

I work in publishing, and am a writer, and I live in Glasgow. As for background/lifestyle, where to begin? I grew up in Coatbridge, a post-industrial town outside of Glasgow, and far enough away from it to glamorise living in the city. I studied up to an MLitt in Modernities (essentially modernism and postmodenism), with a focus on William Carlos Williams. I have A LOT of personal projects on the go in my spare time, and write a lot. I’m drawn to writing with observations about the everyday, and to finding the small, subtle, interesting notes in everyday life. As a result I pick up a lot of bits of paper I find on the ground incase anything interesting is written on them. There are some weird shopping lists out there. I find a lot of trash on the street aesthetically pleasing. I like to people watch. I’ve always been better able to connect with writing that focuses on the modern, the grubby, and all that is accessible about cities – I think because classics, or references to flora, weren’t really part of my education. I’m interested in experimentation with form, of making the most with a little, or utilising material in unusual ways. This can often be seen in my poetry newsletter, Lunchtime Poetry.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

WADDELL

Writing is absolutely my first love. Before I could write, I would dictate stories to adults around me who’d write them down. I found a little red notebook containing some of these, and there was one about an octopus tap dancing on a table. In recent years I’ve written articles (politics, opinion), short fiction, and book review, and built up a portfolio of published pieces (the Independent, Sunday Mail, 3am magazine, Review 31, Glasgow Review of Books, The List, a couple of book contributions coming this year such as Nasty Women (404 Ink), others). I’ve had times in my life when I’ve been utterly consumed by the need to write, and times when I’ve felt too dispirited to pick up a pen – like most writers, and people in other disciplines, I imagine. By extension, I’m very invested in reading and the business of publishing, and finding new ways to find and communicate what’s out there.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

WADDELL

Writer-wise, I love William Carlos Williams as mentioned, for finding joy and meaning in the ways that I like, and Eimear McBride for the transcendent feeling of reading her use of language, connecting with her books in a rare and deep way, because the words in their broken-down fragmentary form go right in whole. I’m inspired by writers who have depicted places and people I’m familiar with and who are also masters of style and story, like James Kelman and Janice Galloway. I think Lara Williams is one of the most talented and exciting young writers around today and can’t wait to follow her work as it progresses. I like bell hooks and Rebecca Solnit. There are a lot of women leaders in business, politics, arts and media I look up to, as well as women who are just beginning their careers and taking on, tenatiously, areas that are still unbalanced playing fields in terms of gender. I’m also very inspired by the energy of friends who are also writers, publishers, or artists from other disciplines such as music, performance and theatre.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

WADDELL

I had a teacher in primary school called Mrs Shields, who taught our small class to always look up when walking around a city, for that’s where surprises and beauty in architecture can be found. I had a history teacher in high school called Mr Jenkins, who encouraged my love of learning and told us fascinating stories. As an only child (until I was 11) I spent a lot of time with adults.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve worked extensively in the literary and publishing industry – what do you think are some of the key challenges facing the industry at this point in time?

WADDELL

It’s not always an easy industry, and nobody joins it to make a fortune, but the upside of that is that it’s often a workforce of people who are very passionate about what they do. I’m glad to hear more talk about diversity in publishing, not only in terms of gender but in race, and I think it’s a problem that stems from the makeup of the publishing workforce itself, which may not always be able to imagine why anyone would find writing interesting when it comes from a background that is not white and middle class or upper class. A lot of stories have never been told, and I want to read them, and I believe there’s an appetite for them. Other than that, when it comes to trade, there are all kinds of issues around discounting – when authors make little money (and this is decreasing), it’s rarely because publishers are rolling in money themselves (although contacts should always be as fair as possible), but because of squeeze at the other end. I hear a lot about the FUTURE and TECH and whilst it’s essential to find new ways of publishing in an era where the media landscape is rapidly changing and digitising, there’s an awful lot of vague noise full of internet-related words that sounds like change for the sake of change instead of looking at better ways to simply publish what people will want to read and make them aware it exists.

INTERVIEWER

What power do you think writing, literature – and art in general – has in supporting and encouraging aspiring artists from marginalised communities?

WADDELL

For me, as a working class kid in an area of poor resources and endangered libraries, what literature I could get my hands on was very special to me. Access to art, both creating and consuming, broadens options in life, as well as empathy and self-expression, and it shouldn’t be the preserve of the rich. Art is about communicating, and what is communicated forms the landscape we live in – what we can expect or demand from our politics, the perspectives we read, the stories that are told and on the record throughout history. Scottish PEN are working on a project now called Many Voices, which sees writers hold writing workshops with groups of people whose stories often aren’t told in their own words – young offenders, refugees, and others. I’m suspicious of any politician who says working class people (or other groups) need only simple things in life. No, I want more. And I’m suspicious of anyone within these groups who says the same thing. Both are ways to control and restrict, to peg people into small, stereotypical boxes. And as a reader, I want writing that is the most innovative and beautiful, I want more of it, and I don’t believe that comes from any one demographic.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility in your role as a writer?

WADDELL

Not in a way that is separate from the ethical responsibilities I feel as a human being. When I write articles, occasionally I want to highlight a cause or examine a prejudice. When I write fiction, I write whatever comes out, but it will naturally reflect my beliefs, and I am very interested in class and gender. 8. Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Not particularly. Perhaps myself, a little younger.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little bit about how you began your career in the publishing industry?

WADDELL

I was very fortunate to get a paid internship assisting a writer (Sara Sheridan) facilitated by the wonderful Adopt an Intern. I stayed on, and it was a wonderful and generous experience, where I learned a lot about marketing and PR, the media, the needs of a writer and how to work with them. I’m now a Publishing Manager with my own list of titles. Paid internships are important. They make it easier for a wider range of people to enter the industry. As I believe diversification of the industry is an important part of diversifying the books we publish, and that is key for staying relevant and commercially viable in the present day, publishing as an industry should be paying people for the work that they do at this early stage, for their own good.

INTERVIEWER

What advice can you give to aspiring creatives who are interested in pursuing a similar pathway? To anyone who is interested in getting into publishing, I strongly urge you to: A) read as widely as possible. Having an understanding of the terrain is important.

B) Stay aware of industry news, such as the free bookseller.com newsletter digest.

C) Network, network, network. Opportunities arise this way. Twitter is a fantastic way to follow people who work in publishing and see what they’re up to. Go to book launches.

D) Be kind to everyone. I’ve always remembered who was welcoming to me when I was young and shy and feeling out of place at the very beginning of my career. Publishing generally is a supportive and jolly industry, and we’re mostly all in it together for the love of books.

E) Develop hard skills. Nobody is impressed that you’ve used social media – talk about copywriting skills, data analysis, project management. Learn Excel!

F) Look after yourself. Life/work balance is hard when you love what you do, but you need rest and time to let your mind wander.

INTERVIEWER

What, in your opinion, makes a “good” book?

WADDELL

I don’t think there’s one good answer to this. Some books I like are very different from each other. I think a good book is one a reader loves, and readers have very different desires. I review books, and when I review I am looking for some basic requirements – depth, structure, eloquence. But the books I’ve loved the most almost always split between 1 and 5 star reviews on commercial sites.

INTERVIEWER

If you had to draw up an essential reading list everyone should read, which books would make the cut?

WADDELL

I really don’t think I could do that in brief, here, sorry! Here’s just one I found directly instructive – Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. I snuck it into a book cover once.

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry at the moment? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining, in terms of where the industry is headed?

WADDELL

I’ve been really thrilled to see the success of 404 Ink, publishers of Nasty Women, an anthology of writing by women that has captured the zeitgeist of women-led protest and initiatives to raise each other up. I’m honoured to be a contributing writer. The crowdfunder was 369% funded and backed by Margaret Atwood. Another example of small indie publishers going out to publish what they really believe in are Own It!. Both these publishers have talked of publishing what they’ve heard other people dismiss, but they’ve known there is a commercial and cultural appetite for, and that often means diversity. As I’ve said above, I think diversification is the key to publishing’s continuing relevance and success.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

WADDELL

I’m currently guest editing an issue of The Drouth magazine and enjoying commissioning writers for it. Other than Nasty Women, I have an essay in another book coming out in 2017 about literary criticism in the digital era, and a piece in the first issue of brand new magazine Marbles, which has a focus on mental health. I’m continuing to write fiction, articles, and review. I want to see more writing from Scotland translated, more international relationships developed between Scottish artists and artists of other countries, and more investment in smart, commercially sustainable publishing – but that’s a very long term goal!

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

WADDELL

Varieties of female moths lack wings.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

WADDELL

To young writers, keep going. Try not to lose or flatten your early or original style (I’ve never written as easily as I did when I was a kid), but take criticism on board. Do not be dissuaded by rejections – everyone gets loads. I was rejected by a magazine I later went on to be an assisting editor on. Build a portfolio. Pitch. Put yourself out there. But be respectful and follow guidelines when submitting. Read the worst reviews of writers you adore, and bear them in mind when you read reviews of your own work. Find what’s at your core that you have to express.

Reason in an age of terror: vital reading from Albert Camus

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Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

As I write this, I am being told by an incessant stream of news and media outlets that I am living in a city and a world in which an astonishing number of my fellow human beings are trying to kill me.

This is not true.

One cannot see the modern world as it is unless we are able to lift the veil of hyper-sensationalist media coverage, which increasingly fictionalises reality.

The overall average likelihood of dying in any kind of terrorist attack worldwide is 1 in 9,300,000 (9.3 million).

You are 14 times more likely to die in your bathtub than in a terrorist attack, 11 times more likely to die by slipping during a shower, 16 times by lightning, 517 times more likely to be murdered (there is on average one murder every 60 seconds worldwide), 991 times by self-injury, 500 times in a car accident (3,000 people die every day in road accidents worldwide), 450 times by falling, 118 times by accidental drowning, 41 times in natural disasters (earthquake, flood etc.), 25 times by choking on food, 13 times by a dog bite, 4 times by falling off a ladder, 1.8 million times by a heart disease, 1860 times by electrocution, 93 times by bee sting, and 3 times more likely to die by a snake bite or food poisoning. (Source)

There are, of course, acts of terror committed by individuals across the world in which innocent people are killed. 2017 was ushered in with a shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul; and has since seen car bombs kill civilians in Mogadishu and Kabul, a shooting in Belfast, and – this week – a rogue vehicle and knife attack  in London. These events are, undeniably, terrible. Yet they remain incredibly rare. Of 162 terrorist attacks worldwide in January this year, only 14 caused more than ten deaths – and these all took place in countries suffering extreme political unrest, including war-torn Syria. The fact remains that the chances of being caught up in such an attack in any Western country remains almost infinitesimally small.

Yet our 24-hour news culture would have us believe that those around us would sooner seek to attack, injure or kill us than help us; and this helps perpetuate the fear of terrorism. See for example, the extremely emotive and theatrical language used in the Daily Mail’s front page story that claims “Jihadis” can find instructions on how to implement a rogue vehicle terrorist attack using Google in less than two minutes.  Such lack of consideration for either facts or for the language with which outlets report the news reinforces the idea that we live in a manufactured and artificial world, where it is difficult to attain a semblance of actuality or reality – and nigh impossible to separate fact from fiction.

This hysterical response also helps spread the ideas that terrorism requires in order to have any meaningful impact. It distorts reality by not providing the full context of attacks, nor considering the wider-influences of them. We are limited only to the immediate background and ideology of attackers, and perhaps some consideration may be given to their state of mental health. But we are not reminded of the sources of different strains of terrorism: British Imperialism in Ireland; Globalisation; the fall of European empires; war in the pursuit of oil; the deals made shortly after the second world war between leaders of the Western world and neo-conservative leaders in Islamic states to consolidate power in the hands of followers of Wahhabism and other extreme forms of Islam.

Without the benefit of context, our world becomes that much more terrifying.

This is because human beings are, and will continue to be, ultimately rational creatures who look to make decisions based on reasoned logic. We are tool makers and problem solvers; yet our brains can only process the information they are given – and it is this information that is increasingly distorted, so that we are only ever presented with a world that is bleak and terrible and awful; and this in turn leads us to fear those around us, which itself leads to more anger and suffering.

Because we are rational, it is vital we remember we live in a world of contradictions; one that is both beautiful and good, and one that can be ugly and evil.

Few authors have written on this with as much clarity or astute insight as Albert Camus.

Writing in the mid-1940s, a time in so many ways as bleak – if not more so – as our current climate of shootings, catastrophic climate breakdown, unacceptable wealth inequality, and globalised conflict, Camus’ magnificent essay ‘The Almond Trees’, calls on us to remember what it is to be human.

We’ve picked out a few choice extracts below:

“We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all.

Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. “Tragedy,” [D.H.] Lawrence said, “ought to be a great kick at misery.” This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.”

How should we deliver such a kick to our propensity to fall into thoughts of misery and tragedy? Camus argues it requires us to cultivate our minds, and recall our propensity for rationality of thought. He explains, “We will not win our happiness with symbols.  We’ll need something more soild.”

Continuing with this train of thought, he adds:

“If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.

But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the “world,” classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don’t mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.”

As writers, creatives, and free-thinking individuals, it is vital we use our ability to articulate reasoned thought and ideas into responsible arguments and theses. We must not be caught up in the traps of misery and despair so many media outlets create for us. As Camus notes, this requires a great strength of character – even “superhuman” effort – but this doesn’t make it any less necessary or vital today.

Read Camus’ full essay online.

Faking Lit: A serious podcast about books

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Faking Lit is a new podcast in which five rising comedians (Chin Tee, Daniel Offen, Haran X, Alice Burden and Josh Bellman) get together to discuss the finest works of classic literature, the twist being that none of them have actually read the book.

The podcast has been started primarily as an excuse to eat various pies, which are lovingly produced each week by Alice. Ideas about growing the profiles of five talented young comedians are very much secondary to this objective.

“In essence, we’re five comedians who met at the Edinburgh festival (where most of us took successful shows) and we’re incapable of hanging out without the excuse of some sort of content to produce. We hope that Faking Lit will become a roaring success, not only for the good of our careers, but also our social lives,” Offen explains.

The opening episode features Paulo Coelho’s 1988 novel “The Alchemist”. Talk of the book somehow leads to discussion of which is the best House Robot on “Robot Wars”, the underlying racial themes in the movie “Predator” and that this book isn’t all that forthcoming on how to actually turn base metals into gold. Also, somehow along with all of this, the episode features a fair amount of discussion of classical literature and is occasionally insightful as well as nonsensical.

You can listen to the podcast here below:

The podcast will be released weekly, from now until the end of time.

Lines with dots under them: exclamation points and how writers use them! (or don’t use them!)

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In one of his most memorable pieces of advice for writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald voiced his disdain for exclamation points, writing: “cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

This has become a (moderately) consensual belief in the writing, publishing and generally literary spheres. The British journalist and writer Miles Kingston, for instance, opined: “so far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.” Meanwhile, in his book How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, Howard Mittelmark writes: “In almost all situations that do not involve immediate physical danger or great surprise, you should think twice before using an exclamation mark. If you have thought twice and the exclamation mark is still there, think about it three times, or however many times it takes until you delete it.”

But, of course, it is easy to advise one thing and practice another. So is it true that using exclamation marks is a sign of poor writing?

Not necessarily. In Ben Blatt’s new book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve: What the Numbers Reveal About the Classics, Bestsellers, and Our Own Writing, we are given fantastic, empirical data that proves you can use exclamation points and still go down in history as one of the greatest writers.

Consider the chart below, for example, which shows how many exclamation marks ten of the most revered literary legends used per 100,000 words of prose writing:

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You will see that James Joyce – that modernist, avant-garde author of Ulysses, and arguably one of the most influential and important writers of the 20th century – tops the list at over 1000 exclamation points per 100,000 words. That’s an exclamation point roughly every 100 words.

Does this mean Joyce was simply laughing at his own jokes? One suspects not. In second place, we have Tom Wolfe – one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism literary movement and winner of the notorious ‘Bad Sex in Fiction’ awards. Writing only slightly fewer exclamation points per 100,000 words than Joyce, one finds that a liberal use of exclamation points is not an anomaly among the literary elite.

Even Elmore Leonard, who, in his book ‘10 Rules of Writing’ stated: “you are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose” ignored his own advice. In his career he wrote 40 novels, totalling 3.4 million words. If he had followed his own advice, he would have used only 102 exclamation points in his writing. As it happens, in the end he used 1651 – sixteen times as many as he recommended.

So, why is it that, despite the perceived literary consensus that exclamation points should be avoided, so many of the ‘greatest’ writers continue to use them so frequently in their prose?

In her now famous book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss, posits her own theory for this:

“As if by common consent, people turned to the ellipsis and the exclamation point. There must have been a reason for this. My theory is that both of these marks are ways of trying to keep the attention of the reader. One of them says, ‘Don’t go away, I haven’t finished, don’t go, don’t go,’ while the other says, ‘Listen! I’m talking to you!’”

Perhaps then, the use of exclamation points by writers – great and small – is a subconscious call for attention; an attempt to hold the attention of readers they fear they might lose without such punctuation use.

This line of logic doesn’t really provide an argument in favour of using the exclamation point. Indeed, it is difficult to find many writers willing to vocally challenge the assumption that it is best to avoid them.

Writer Tom Ewing explains there can be benefits of using what Jerry Seinfield memorably described simply as “a line with a dot under it”; however, he, too, urges caution: “(The) exclamation point becomes a way to disarm the reader and pierce their shell, a kind of textual fluttering of eyelashes,” he writes. “And that’s cool! But once you notice it, you get suspicious.”

It is perhaps worth noting at this point the origins of the exclamation point: being that they were originally called the “note of admiration.” They are still, to this day, used to express excitement. They are also used to express surprise, astonishment, or any other such strong emotion. Any exclamatory sentence can be properly followed by an exclamation mark, to add additional emphasis.

This, perhaps, is the crux of the matter; since it goes to the root of what makes exclamation points such attractive tools for writing, but which also carries their own limitations. They can easily add emphasis to your writing; however, by overusing them, it takes the power out of it. What are your readers supposed to be excited about if it’s everywhere? If everything is exciting then nothing is exciting, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps, then, it is best to aspire to write beautiful prose where enthusiasm is conveyed by word choice and grammar – instead of relying on lines with dots under them.

Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Writing about climate change: the most important books about catastrophic climate breakdown

 

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A desolate world ravaged by climate change is hard to picture, but it could be our future, unless we start to imagine it. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

Despite the climate-denial of the Republican administration in the USA, and despite the fondness for fossil fuels most governments across the world continue to hold, the future facing our planet and our species is one of catastrophic climate breakdown, unless we act now.

The difficulty comes in imagining the consequences of global warming denial. They are, perhaps, so great that they seem impossible. It therefore falls to writers – imagination warriors, if you will – to paint a picture of the future in which the natural world is no longer the self-replenishing, bountiful support system needed to support human beings; but rather a desolate, ravaged, toxic place where no life can flourish.

Perhaps not the most-light hearted of subjects to write about; it is nonetheless a vital one. Below, we pick out a few of the most important books about climate change – call them examples of ‘cli-fi, if you must, which you should all read immediately:

  1. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy

Three books here, by one of the greatest literary titans. Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of books variously imagine the sorry state of the planet, and the human responses to it. In Oryx and Crake, human beings are re-engineered to create a new brand of humans who lack “destructive features responsible for the world’s current illness”.

Then, in The Year of the Flood, Atwood’s speculative fiction explores the environmental ravages caused by our reliance on oil and the terrifying consequences of it running out.

MaddAddam itself concludes the trilogy, bringing various narrative strands from the previous two books to an end.

Backed up by extensive research, Atwood’s books encourage us to pose critical questions to ourselves, the most pressing of which is “what will happen if we continue on our current path?”

  1. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow

A hurricane, caused by man-made climate change, destroys New York. Set in the not-so-distant future, the novel paints a picture of the world in which the catastrophic climate breakdown facing our planet has become all too real.

A darkly comic tone may suggest a somewhat nihilistic view to our predicament and our future. Yet Rich confronts us with the truly terrifying prospect of what awaits us in consequence of our failure to address the issue of climate change. The pressure is on us to avert disaster – or else realise we must live with it.

   3. JG Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere

While Ballard himself has tried to dismiss his book as “forgettable”, The Wind from Nowhere is one of the first books written that can be fairly attributed to the ‘cli-fi’ genre.

First published in 1961, it deals with disasters afflicting the natural world and how human civilisation would cope with this increasing inevitability. Prolonged worldwide hurricane force winds reduce cities to ruins and the people who live in them irrevocable changed.

   4. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Why does every human’s self interest conflict with the wider need for collective survival?

So runs the central theme Mitchell grapples with in his novel The Bone Clocks – and so too runs a question we must address sooner rather than later if we are to avoid the most catastrophic effects of man-made climate change.

The Bone Clocks, told in six parts, paints a picture of the world in which climate change depletes the resources of the earth to such a degree that the world ends in darkness and desperation as civilisation collapses and human beings descend into anarchy.

Believably bleak.

    5. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

It would have been remiss for us to leave one of the most obvious books from this list. One of McCarthy’s best known novels depicts a world of undeniable environmental apocalypse. Described as “the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation”, it imagines for us the terrifying consequences of our choices and vividly creates a desolate world that, though fictitious, feels all too familiar and real.

Creatives in Profile: Interview with Henningham Family Press

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It seems old hat to say that mainstream publishing has been facing an existential crisis in recent years. As profit margins thin, the go-to response from the biggest publishing houses has been to retreat from investing in new ideas, and to banking on “sure things” – which, as Julian Barnes has noted, essentially amounts to republishing copies (or imitations) of commercially successful novels. Indeed, the mainstream publishing industry has become so risk averse and sold on the idea that committees of sales and marketing gurus that millions are now spent on orange-headed celebrity books whose pie charts and spreadsheets appeared to augur well but are in the bargain buckets shortly after they first appear.

Within this risk averse culture, new outlets for unique and creative expression, through art, writing, and fine book making are increasingly rare. Those that do exist must therefore be cherished.

Henningham Family Press (HFP) is the collaborative art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. Both Artists and Authors, HFP combines writing and art through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance. Based in Dalston, London, the pair primarily work with National and Regional Cultural Institutions and civil society groups, and are always looking for new institutions, such as museums, libraries and publishers to collaborate with.

Collections that have acquired HFP’s work include the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Tate, Saison Poetry Library (Royal Festival Hall), UCL, Chelsea College of Art and UCLA. They have exhibited/performed at/in Christie’s Auction House (Multiplied), Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the British Library, BBC Radio Theatre (BBC Radio 3 ‘The Verb’), Dundee Contemporary Arts, The Whitechapel Gallery, Black Rat Gallery, London Word Festival, Berlin, Ghent, Oslo, Bergen, Indiana and Virginia. David has also taught bookbinding at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design.

It is an honour to bring you this detailed interview…

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourselves, your background and ethos.

HENNINGHAM FAMILY PRESS (HFP)

We are David and Ping. We met at St Martins art school. We started Henningham Family Press in 2006 to bring together our writing, printing, binding and performance and make them presentable.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

HFP

Inspiration for our work tends to come from history, the natural world, museum collections, but in terms of surviving financially and explaining ourselves to others we’ve often turned to William Morris, Bauhaus, Woolf’s Hogarth Press days, David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth and the Danielson Famile among many others.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a bit about HFP – how was it borne into existence?

HFP

Ping did a presentation about my sculpture at the Slade, she did Art History at UCL, and my tutor Ed Allington spotted we should probably work together. We returned to this idea when we both developed an allergy to supporting ourselves with part-time office jobs; a common wasting condition that still goes unrecognised, despite the weight of evidence.

INTERVIEWER

 A number of your successes so far – hinted at in your site biography – beg to be elucidated further, such as your ‘Monday School’ project of 2011, which saw you write the only Bible commentary to feature a fight with Slavoj Zizek in a bookshop. Has the press evolved as you expected since you first set it up?

HFP

Ha! No. We thought we’d make four titles a year and sell them through bookshops. We didn’t reckon with the labyrinthine structure of publishing. We didn’t like having a gallery either, so we evolved a process of publishing books through and for choreographed live events, “performance publishing”. We’ve even got a couple of reputable magazines to use our phrase like it’s a real thing.

INTERVIEWER

What does the average day look like to you?

HFP

That’s a mythical beast! We used to work side by side on writing, printing, binding, but now with the kids we swap midday. When they are old enough they will do all the work while we sip martinis.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a publishing house or printing press should be for? Why are they important?

HFP

It’s probably a best case scenario for the private ownership of the means of production. I associate it with freedom of speech. Books, I hope, will preserve the best our times have to offer, allow a conversation with the living, create some beautiful artefacts. I only wish adult minimum standards were as high as Childrens’ for book production. Adults would read a book made of gravy to save a pound. Kids demand quality.

INTERVIEWER

In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood writes that “Language is not morally neutral because the human brain is not neutral in its desires. Neither is the dog brain. Neither is the bird brain: crows hate owls. We like some things and dislike others, we approve of some things and disapprove of others. Such is the nature of being an organism” – what art and writing do you approve of? Do you see your own work as having a political element to it at all?

HFP

Very much so. Multiples are suited to democratic and egalitarian distribution. Our writing reflects our economic and political opinions. But we totally overestimate our ability to change things when we begin a project, but even in the end it feels good to make sense of things a bit and create solidarity. Having said that, a handful of people have said to us “your book changed my life”.

So what we approve of coming out of our heads is relatively focused. Cosmopolitan, egalitarian, sceptical about rationalism, fascinated with how we organise our lives arbitrarily. We always take an original angle on subjects, rigorous, experimental in form, or what would be the point? But we tolerate a wide spectrum going in. Most of what I won’t read is because of it’s sloppy and cynical standards.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the way we communicate. What role do you see traditional presses playing in this new “digital era”?

HFP

I’ve been asked this a lot. In a nutshell I’d say it’s proven to be the case that digital technology has made printing and binding far more affordable, accessible, cleaner and made distribution easier. It’s a boom in digital and physical publishing with a side effect of stimulating the finer bindings like we do. Now people read across platforms, they can see more clearly what a book is, and more people seek out a fine binding.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current  where are we heading?

INTERVIEWER

Well, what would you say to the industry? If you were a doctor? Look we can operate, but… It’s too slow, too many internal blockages. There’s been a move towards the idea of experimentation in literature, that goes with a centennial reappraisal of modernist writers, both of which I “approve” of to use Atwood’s earlier word, but I’m not sure anything with depth has happened there yet. But smart people are on it. I think agents and publishers will encourage their established writers to write with more formal invention, and the obsession with debut novels will lead to calls for established authors to write a sort of “second debut”. More explicitly mid career prizes will emerge to cater for the growing number of debut authors to enter.

But perhaps this return to modernism misses the point. The rupture in 1910 wasn’t just the playing with typography, but the idea that so many people have something to say, not just a few authors who, although often very good, do those standard readings followed by death-by-a-thousand-autographs. Modern writing showed that different kinds of perception exist, so there’s no point having an experimental writing scene populated by wealthy people from a single school, which does not reinvent the process of publishing and distributing many more authors to readers who read more widely. Manuscripts get missed and the quality sometimes suffers. A positive example of where publishing can go is Penned In The Margins, a great example, and if you go to Free Verse in Conway Hall, this sept, you’ll see that the poetry scene hasn’t got the same problems as the agent-fed industry. The fact that so many readers also write is a symmetry we should expect thanks to education, automation and digital. Really good novels will continue to get published, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that increasingly over the next two years people in the industry will worry about the bandwidth and creativity of the big publishing houses more. Some may even call it a crisis.

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HFP in action at the Central Hall of Artists, Moscow. Image via Henningham Family Press

 

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the main challenges you face?

HFP

Same as everyone. Brexit, with a side order of interminable recession, served on a bed of expensive higher education that is seen as a product to be sold. It all makes it harder to make a living, funds shows and sell books to people.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

HFP

A bucket of water balanced atop the doorway to routine

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently been commissioned by The British Council to make a major public art contribution at The Central Hall of Artists, Moscow – could you tell us a little more about this project, and how you find more artistic-led projects such as this complement the other creative aspects of your press, including performance and writing?

HFP

We did the British council commission with BA Illustration students from the British higher school of art and design. It was a combination of teaching them, creating, screenprinting, binding publishing all on site. They built a temporary workshop in the UK guest of honour pavilion. We were part of a delegation with Jonathan Coe, Jim Crace, Paul Mason, Jenny Broom, Emma Healey, Tom Gould, lots of fine and inspiring people. We like to make things like this en educational experience for us and the students. Performance adds process, structure and duration.

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Preparing to Print: HFP in action in Moscow. Image via Henningham Family Press.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for HFP after your project in Moscow? What should we look out for?

HFP

We just finished making a deluxe edition of The New Concrete for Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe, which will go to America. Some novels by me are mounting an escape attempt from their drawer, and we have a choral version of An Unknown Soldier in development for the stage.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in six words?

HFP

After impact, Helen could see wifi.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5 – 10 top tips for aspiring writers and artists?

HFP

  1. If someone asks “can you do this?” Say yes. Find out how later if you can’t.
  2. If someone says “can you do that again and again and again…” You might eventually have to say no and get back to what motivates you.
  3. The world is very poorly organised and obsessed with money. Set your own criteria for success.
  4. Making space in the world for your work is different to the work itself. Make sure you keep energy and perspective in reserve to do good work.
  5. The artworld doesn’t really exist. You can gravitate towards other markets and other audiences and it’s still art.

 

To learn more about Henningham Family Press, visit their website, and find out about their latest shows via www.maximumwage.uk

On writing: the daily word counts of famous authors

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Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to a close family friend and aspiring young writer: “nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one”. It takes time, and effort. You have to put the hours in. You have to actually, well, write (surprising, huh?).

We’ve previously asked whether there is such a thing as the ‘perfect’ daily routine for writing. But if there is no such thing as an average writing day, is there any guidance on how much you should be at least aiming to write as you start to pen that epic poem or finally look to finish that novel you’ve been working on?

R.F. Delderfield, the English author of family sagas, wrote 33 pages each day, and he wrote until four o’clock in the afternoon. If he finished a novel at three o’clock, he rolled a clean sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began the next novel, and worked until quitting time.  He credited a daily swim in the English Channel for his prodigious output.

Of course, not all of us are R.F. Delderfield. Not all of us write family sagas. And not all of us have ready access to the English Channel for our regular swimming sessions. Indeed, with author’s incomes collapsing to near ‘abject’ levels, many writers are increasingly facing more challenging difficulties in finding the time to meet their word output targets.

So what about other writers? How many words do they (or did they, in some cases) write each day? We’ve put together a list of the daily word counts of 20 famous authors, which you can check out here below.

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Of course, there’s a problem with just taking a writer’s word counts and trying to deduce too much insight from them. The authors in the above list all write in different styles and genres – using different tools and in different conditions from one another. Not all writers monitor their word count – and others would advise against it; after all, the adage ‘quality, not quantity’ is surely rarely more applicable than when used in relation to writing.

Indeed, some writers – who write very well – will produce a great quantity of work that is then stripped back so much that to try and say how many words were actually produced per day over the course of any writing project is nigh impossible. Consider Philip Roth, for example, who said in his interview with the Paris Review that “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive.”

Or there’s James Joyce, who took seventeen years to write Finnegan’s Wake.

On the point of Joyce, there’s a good Stephen King joke on the subject of his word count:

“A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): ‘Seven.’

Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’

Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

This joke echoes the sentiment of a famous story about Gustave Flaubert, in which his bohemian friends stopped by his house one day, and invited him to go out for a few days of debauchery (who wouldn’t?!). Flaubert declined, saying he had to write, so they went off and returned a few days later. (A good solid length of debauching, one would say). “How did your writing go?” they asked once they returned. “Fantastic!” Flaubert replied. “I put the semicolon back in.”

So it’s important to take each of the writer’s word counts with a pinch of salt – in that, just because they are writing x amount of words; it doesn’t mean you should be, too.

With that in mind, it can still be an interesting work of self-evaluation to consider how many words you write each day. Are you as prolific of Crichton or more careful with your words like Hemingway or Dorothy Parker? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Rewriting fairytales: the bloody chamber

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These are no children’s bed time stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic and gothic. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

“I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode” -Angela Carter

Reading Angela Carter’s collection of opulent short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), is like riding an exhilarating roller coaster. You think you can predict the twists and turns of the ensuing ride, but are instead taken on an electrifying, exotic journey that will stimulate you from beginning to end. The Bloody Chamber injects new energy into traditional tales and motifs by deconstructing and transforming some of the core elements that support such stories. This essay intends to explore how Carter’s text presents us with a complex and original expression of a forceful feminist vision. It dismantles and explodes long-established depictions of women within the fairy tale genre, which “encoded the dark and mysterious elements of the psyche” (Makinen).

By re-shaping these tales, Carter was “deliberately drawing them out of their set shapes, out of the separate space of children’s stories or folk art and into a world of change” (Sage); these are “no children’s bedtime stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic [and] gothic” (Gamble).  This is specifically achieved in the intense and vibrant title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which tells the story of a young woman’s seduction into – and escape from – a deadly marriage. Subsequently, Carter also “attempts to decolonise our habits of thought” (Makinen) by working within and against fairy tale conventions in her bid to expose how Western culture has “shaped limiting concepts of gender and sexuality” (Bristlow and Broughton).

As a woman who personally and publically identified herself as a feminist, it comes as no surprise that Carter’s stories within The Bloody Chamber are informed and influenced by her feminist principles. Indeed, she has declared:

“It’s been amazingly difficult… trying to sort out how I feel that feminism has affected my work, because that is really saying how it has affected my life and I don’t really know that because I live my life, I don’t examine it” (Carter ‘Notes’).

Indeed, as Alison Easton has noted, it is important that we understand Carter’s explorations of gender and female sexuality in The Bloody Chamber within “the context of the many different, contested positions that feminism has taken over the past thirty years”. Within this continual feminist debate, issues surrounding pornography, sexuality, violence and the representation of women intensified in the late 1970s and 80s which would have significantly influenced Carter’s work and prompted critics to readily respond to The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, which were both published in 1979. While many feminists agreed that pornography “reflected a sort of distilled essence of the entrenched binaries of patriarchal gender relations, the conflict revolved around the extent to which pornographic representations could be appropriated” (Benson 37) to adequately critique it and suggest alternatives. Subsequently, for many feminists who saw pornography purely as the eroticization of male power and female weakness, the stories in The Bloody Chamber, which are permeated by sexual violence, sexual gratification, erotic desire and sadism, were unsuccessful in achieving a feminist objective.

The question of what precisely Carter’s objective was with The Bloody Chamber, has also divided critics. Never occupying a particular or specific feminist position and being continually influenced by contrasting ideas and notions relating to gender and sexuality, Carter was able “to critique phallocentrism with ironic gusto and to develop a wider and more complex representation of femininity” (Makinen). Yet some early critics, such as Robert Clark and Patricia Duncker, saw her wide ranging feminist agenda as too ambiguous, the latter felt she was “rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures” (qtd. in Makinen) and remained unconvinced that Carter was able to completely escape the conservative gender stereotypes often exemplified in traditional tales and motifs. Others stated that she failed to make the old bottles explode in the spectacular way she had hoped and “gets locked into… conservative sexism despite her good intentions” (Makinen). Also, that the strong pornographic nature of her tales and the fairy tale genre itself, could not be appropriated to critique and map alternatives to gender binaries, especially considering the role of fairy tales “in the installation of these very traditions” (Benson).

Nevertheless, such evaluations of Carter’s work can be seen as dangerously missing the powerfully ironic point she puts across in her transformation of traditional tales and motifs. Yes, she uses narrative structures that are based on old-fashioned notions of women and men’s sexual roles; but Carter utilises such story lines as working construction sites in her renovation of such concepts. Carter chose to use elements from fairy tales because those were the stories that developed through oral tradition and she saw them as “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world” (‘Virago Book of Fairy Tales’). Therefore, by tackling such deep rooted customs and concepts, the reader is forced to respond due to familiarity with the old story when faced with the implications of the new one.

Moreover, considering patriarchal distain for the proto-feminist actions of the witty, salon women of the 17th Century, from which fairy tales began to circulate, “it is ironically apropos that Carter, a feminist, should now speak through Perrault’s tales” (M. Roemer and Bacchilega), and cleverly undermine their core principles. Although her intense and colourful writing style may not suit everyone and “the savagery with which she can attack cultural stereotypes [is potentially] disturbing, even alienating” (Makinen), it nonetheless remains brilliantly perceptive and invigorating to read. Makinen also argues that those critics who fail to understand Carter’s subtle ironies do so because they fail to “position themselves outside phallocentric culture”.

Angela CarterFrom the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality

 

Carter’s marvellously gothic title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist re-write based on Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy tale, ‘Bluebeard’. Her story also heavily draws on the eccentric life of the French aristocrat and sexual libertine, the Marquis De Sade. The Marquis’s chamber is also “that private slaughterhouse of his” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and signifies the dark, fetishized world of Sadeian erotic fantasy. Carter expanded on representations of sexual violence and her interest in the Marquis de Sade in The Sadeian Woman (1979). This too received mixed criticism from feminist critics, and Susan Kappeler condemned her depictions of women as mere objects of male pornography. However, what Carter depicts in The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman is an alternative view of women’s sexuality as entirely unrelated from their reproductive and biological role. Indeed, “during the 1970s, Carter had been re-reading fairy tales and Sade in tandem and bleakly contemplating the fate of good, powerless girls, the Red Riding Hoods and the Sleeping Beauties of the world” (Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale’) .

‘Bluebeard’ is a well-known European folktale which has contrasting characteristics depending on its origin, “in Norway the husband is a troll, in Italy, a devil, and in an ancient Greek version, death itself” (Lokke). However, Carter uses the basic elements from Perrault’s tale, namely the rich and powerful man who marries a series of young wives, gives them the key to a forbidden room but prohibits them from entering it, thus testing their obedience to him. Each woman gives into her curiosity which is revealed by the blood stained key, yet while the previous wives are killed by Bluebeard and locked in the chamber, the cycle is broken when his current wife is rescued just in time and he is then killed.

In comparison to ‘Bluebeard’, then, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is far more sexually violent and pornographically explicit. Carter once said “you mention folk culture and people immediately assume you’re going to talk about porridge and clog dancing” (qtd. in Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy tale’) and that in actual fact, “the latent content of those traditional stories… is violently sexual” (qtd. in Ozum). Indeed, similar to many fairy tale motifs, the ‘Bluebeard’ story is “grotesque in essence” (Lokke), so as readers we are prepared for the evil in the narrative. Carter then cleverly uses these inherent expectations to alter how we view the intensified sexual descriptions and violent images in her tale; subsequently we are forced to question rigid sexual binaries and gender definitions.

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Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. Photo via Spike_dennis via photopin cc

 

In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, though the female protagonist is potentially a victim to male pornography and is an object of male property at first, she is able to surpass this oppression and realise her own potential for independent sexuality. Moreover, the Marquis’s “victimisation of women is overturned and he himself is vanquished by the mother and daughter” (Makinen). The traditionally old, domesticated fairy godmother who solves all the problems in fairy tales such as Cinderella, or the valiant hero or future lover who saves the day is transformed and rewritten in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. In true feminist fashion, it is the fearless, Amazonian mother who rides to the rescue, “a wild thing… skirts tucked around her waist… as if she had been Medusa” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). This intervention of the mother is unusual in The Bloody Chamber and in Carter’s other work where mothers are typically absent from the plot. The other stories in the collection contain either a lost mother or no mother at all, similar to her novels such as Wise Children or The Magic Toyshop in which the former skips a generation to focus on grandmothers and the latter deals with mother figures in place of biological mothers.

Unlike in ‘Bluebeard’ where the bride’s brothers come to the rescue, the Marquis is overcome by female autonomy, he is “impotent at last [as the] dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Indeed, “with his removal, the rigid dichotomy of his eroticised power games is shattered and the space he once occupied is recovered and reconfigured” (Gamble), the female protagonist comes to realise that she does not need a rich husband and refuses to be the victim of a “puppet master” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). By contrast, in the original ‘Bluebeard’, the woman immediately marries “an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she had with Bluebeard” (Perrault) emphasizing her continual reliance on male authority. Therefore, as Lucie Armit argues, it is critics like Duncker “who remains ensnared” in patriarchal narratives, through their inability to recognise the powerful transformation the female protagonist undergoes in this story.

Furthermore, while Perrault’s tale is narrated in third person and we remain relatively distant from the woman in the story, Carter’s story is narrated retrospectively by the woman herself. This shifting focus towards the woman’s physical and mental journey is “foreign to the traditional fairy tale” (Lokke) and provides us with an exuberant reading experience that “actively engages the reader in a feminist deconstruction” (Makinen). We experience the protagonist’s transition from innocence and dependence to maturity and independence. When initially asked by her mother if she is certain she loves the Marquis, she replies, “I’m sure I want to marry him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), thus demonstrating her initial fixation on marriage because it is the next stage in her socially conditioned female role. However, by the end of the story she is happy to give away the inherited money from her dead husband to various charities and runs a school for the blind at the castle. Therefore, the typical fairy tale journey of poverty and unhappiness towards wealth through marriage is here remodelled so that female autonomy rather than wifely subservience is the happily ending.

Moreover, while in Perrault’s tale the woman accepts she “must die”, in Carter’s, she tells the piano tuner “I’ve done nothing; but that may be sufficient reason for condemning me” (‘The Bloody Chamber’), she shows a lot more female gumption and is less prepared to receive punishment for her curiosity. Therefore, while Perrault is warning his readers or listeners against over inquisitiveness and wifely disobedience, Carter is conveying the opposite. The murderous Marquis also represents all symbolically murderous marriages where the man destroys independent female desire for his own corrupt purposes. Indeed, Carter is redefining the basic associations of women in fairy tales, innocence is inferior to knowledge, sexuality is empowering not degrading and the knight in shining armour may be a “indomitable mother” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) riding to the rescue or even the heroine herself in her conquering of individual fears or social convention. Such deconstruction results in an entirely new collection of stories which convey liberating realities for women, where they can live independently of patriarchal dominance or exist simultaneously through mutual desire, as shown in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘The Company of Wolves’.

The Red Riding Hood character in ‘The Company of Wolves’ displays confidence and self-assurance. She bursts out laughing and says “she knew she was nobody’s meat” (Carter) in response to the traditional exchange between the wolf and herself over the animals large teeth which are “all the better to eat you with” (Carter 138). By utilizing the older tale and transforming the meaning of such fundamental elements to convey the sexual freedom of the modern Red Riding Hood, we can see how Carter enhances her own feminist narrative by such recognition and transformation. Subsequently, she critiques conservative and limiting depictions of women and gender notions through a complex interplay of old and new.

The Red Riding Hood of Perrault’s tale is described as an innocent, little girl whereas we are told that the girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ had “just started her woman’s bleeding”(Carter), that “her breasts have just begun to swell” and though she is a virgin, “she has her knife and she is afraid of nothing” (Carter). Therefore, Carter remaps the stereotypical female victim into a woman who is in control of her “magic space” (‘The Company of Wolves’). In her assertion that she is “nobody’s meat” (‘The Company of Wolves’), she refuses to be the victim or prey, she gives in to her desire “freely” (‘The Company of Wolves’) and therefore embodies independent female desire. Moreover, the female protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is arguably more ignorant and passive at the start of the story, before she has come into contact with sexual violence, however she soon possesses a “dark new-born curiosity” (Carter) about the forbidden chamber after her first sexual experience. E.B.Manley argues that she is “a woman in process, someone who is exploring her subject position and beginning to tell her own story” and this desire for knowledge and truth is empowering. It allows her to eventually recognise her potential for corruption if she remains the female object, she does this by discovering what lies inside “the kingdom of the unimaginable” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and eventually overcoming her husband’s patriarchal power games.

Furthermore, once the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ and the wolf have recognised and fulfilled their mutual desire, when she has “laughed at him full in the face” and “ripped off his shirt for him”, she is able to sleep sweet and sound “between the paws of the tender wolf”. This is because she is not a female victim or object; she is an independent sexual woman who has transcended the traditional, subversive woman commonly depicted in traditional fairy tales and it is clear that “both male and female benefit from the transformation of the old power relations” (Gamble).

Despite Duncker’s opinion that the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ simply sees rape as inevitable, “she wants it really, they all do.” (qtd in Gamble) and that Carter fails to transcend ideology, this particular reading of sexual awakening feels incomplete and limiting. Robert Clark also maintains that though the Red Riding Hood figure embraces her sexuality, she does so at the cost of “accepting patriarchal limits to women’s power” (qtd in Gamble).  However, it is important to remember how “later re-writings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions” (Makinen). Indeed, Carter is showing that the women in her tales do have autonomous desire. At the end of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the tiger’s licking of the woman’s skin causes the woman who was “unaccustomed to nakedness” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’) to expose the female tiger that lies within her as an individual. She is left with a “nascent patina of shining hairs” and sees her new fur as incredibly beautiful, unlike her culturally constructed, innocent skin which she was so “unused to” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’).


So, instead of giving into male desire, Carter is showing how the woman in this tale is satisfying her own polymorphous desire, so it is “not women re-enacting porn for the male gaze, but…woman reappropriating libido” (Makinen) for themselves.


While mirrors are only mentioned briefly in ‘Bluebeard’, they play a vital role in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as the female protagonist transitions from female object to female subject, E.B. Manley argues that “the mirror scenes establish the protagonist as oscillating between girlhood and womanhood, between a patriarchal view and her own definition of herself”. Indeed, they force the protagonist to reflect on her innocence and increasing desire as the story progresses. On the night before her wedding, at the performance of Tristan and Isolde, she catches herself in the mirror and sees herself through the eyes of her fiancé who watched her “with the assessing eye of a connoisseur” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), a gaze which suggests his carnal desire to consume and feed off her innocence.

She sees:

“the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood… [and] sensed in [herself] a potentiality for corruption” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’).

This image also forebodes the Marquis’s wish to decapitate her at the end of the story. However, even at this stage she realises it was “my innocence that captivated him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and it is all part of his plan to corrupt her for his own pleasure. Attraction to innocence and naiveté is perhaps a reflection of mankind as a collective and is a motif which is traditionally represented in many fairy tales. I believe the protagonist is representative of the female collective in the mirrors of her bedroom, indeed, she watches as “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber), thus insinuating an entire history of women who have been victims of unhappy marriages or violent abuse and therefore signifying a universal need to alter the way society understands female sexuality.

Recognising the innocent image in the mirror as one that has been socially conditioned to meet the needs of a phallocentric culture which itself desires domination over the female object, along with her increased knowledge of sexuality and violence due to her experience in the chamber, all help to increase her female independence. She almost succeeds in seducing her husband, by using the male desire for innocence against him, “a dozen vulnerable, appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors… if he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Faced with the reality of death as a result of female submission, she is no longer naïve.

By contrast, Perrault’s female character “almost fainted with terror” and flings herself at her husband’s feet, “weeping and imploring him to forgive her for having disobeyed him”. Consequently, Carter portrays powerful female sovereignty through the heroine and her brave mother, and therefore reconfigures the traditional motif of female weakness in traditional fairy tales.  Though both women are frightened by their experience, Perrault’s heroine does not progress as a character, unlike Carter’s.

The protagonist of ‘The Blood Chamber’ is extremely isolated in “the faery solitude of the place…cut off from land for half a day” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), whereas in ‘Bluebeard’, the woman is continually surrounded by “amusements…hunting and fishing parties, banquets, dances and suppers” (Perrault) and therefore has less need to soul search. Carter’s protagonist is forced to face internal conflicts and confront the woman in the mirror. Moreover, although we are told that the woman in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ goes on to live with her mother and the blind piano player, she is not reliant on either of them and is not victimised by the male gaze due to his blindness. Therefore, “the marriage of wealth and power, standard goal for fairy tale heroines, is rejected. She has been allowed through her initiation in the chamber, to understand and survive the deadly peril that kind of marriage holds for her” (Renfroe). By contrast, in Perrault’s tale, the young widow immediately “married an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she has with Bluebeard” (Perrault) conveying the notion that dependence on a man was a traditional motif that Carter wanted to eradicate.

Nevertheless, the end of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has caused some debate among critics. The red heart imprinted on the woman’s forehead due to the blood stained key causes her shame, but shame over what exactly is open to interpretation. It may well be the mark serves as a reminder to all women to never become victims of the bloody chamber, if indeed it represents sexual confinement or dominance by men. Lokke argues that the heart is a “badge of courage” and the shame can therefore be seen to result from her initial subservience to her violent and unemotional husband. The mark is a constant reminder of her knowledge of the human heart and forces her to realise she need not give into marital convention just because it is socially acceptable or economically beneficial. Indeed, even though her innocence becomes “subtly tainted” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), this realisation and knowledge leads to her “recognition of the evil within her” (Lokke), that all men and women have the potential to succumb to, embrace or resist. Coming to terms with her potential for corruption signifies her maturity and “acceptance of responsibility rather than destructive self-depreciation” (Lokke). Therefore, the heroine’s experience of violent and sexual perversion, followed by her ability to recreate the castle into a school for the blind, shows how Carter is metamorphosing traditional images of the heroine marrying the prince charming, into modern projections of female knowledge and independence as the perfect happy ending.

Indeed, Carter takes emotions that have simmered just below the surface of classic fairy tales, of suggested carnal desires and sensuous cravings, of cruelty that is left to the readers imagination, and presenting them to us in rich, juxtaposing ways. We are thus forced to question the depictions of gender, violence and sex in traditional tales and motifs. The grand castle we see in numerous fairy tales is redefined and here becomes the larger container of the bloody chamber itself, it is seductively captivating, yet eerily isolated, it seems to exist “neither on the land nor on the water, [it is] a mysterious, amphibious place” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’ 9), illustrating how Carter re-appropriates core elements of traditional motifs for her own purposes.

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. The awakening of desire is felt from the very first sentence when the protagonist tells us how she “lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, [her] burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow”. She also says how the pounding of her heart mimics “the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train” as she is borne away from Paris, “away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage”.

The protagonist’s experiences in the castle continually transition between the sensual and the violent and the language is extremely perfumed and poignant. As the story goes, our senses become even more heightened to the evocative language on the page, much like the vivid colours of a Disney fairy tale; we are drawn into the this particular story by vivid descriptions and intense images, which combine to produce an unnerving, yet exhilarating effect. The uncanny, sallow descriptions of her inhuman husband’s “waxen face”, which seemed like “a mask”, his resemblance to “one of those cobra-headed, funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum, his leather covered, pornographic library with its “rugs…dark panelling…lulling music…flames” and the “ruby necklace that bit into [her] neck”, are all images that heighten our horror and anticipation due to the foreplay of sensual language. The husband’s association with lilies which have phallic and death like associations, and the way he makes the bedroom look like “an embalming parlour” conveys his overall destructive nature and oppressive sexual perversion, in stark contrast to the heroine’s vitality. The protagonist is eventually able to overcome sexual perversion and defeat death and her husband, who is the embodiment of death itself. Lokke argues that by “acknowledging the glamour of sado-masochist self-annihilation as well as its ultimate brutality, ugliness and misogyny”, Carter maps before the reader how imperative it is that both female and male sexual desire is redefined on the grounds that the women is not the objective victim as she is often depicted in traditional tales, she should have control over her own sexual desires rather merely playing the sexual role a man has assigned to her.

In conclusion, by writing stories about fairy tales, which each reader would have previous assumptions and associations, then subverting the original messages, Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality. The fixed gender binaries and stereotypes often depicted in oral and literary tradition are exploded in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the rest of the short stories. While new wine in old bottles was a motivation and underlying principle in all her work, this logic was epitomised in these revolutionary tales which are incandescent throughout. Despite the ethereal quality to her work, Carter once wrote that she was “in the demythologising business” (‘Notes’) and was determined to break down the “lies [which are] designed to make people feel un-free” (Notes). Indeed, by critiquing and transforming traditional tales and motifs, The Bloody Chamber forces us to interrogate conventional narratives and decolonise our ideas surrounding sexual freedom and the depictions of women within the fairy tale genre.

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.