Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Learn to write like Benjamin Franklin

I was reading Talent is overrated by Geoff Colvin the other day and came across a snippet about how the great essayist Benjamin Franklin taught himself to be an extraordinary writer. He recognised that there were things he needed to improve to achieve his ambition, one of which was the range of his vocabulary. To build this he embarked on a programme of 'deliberate practice' in which he re-wrote essays by other people into verse, the metre and rhyme scheme of which demanded building a bank of synonyms for the original vocabulary.

I quite like the idea of using this as a method for expanding KS3 vocab - having to rewrite a section of a non-fiction text into nice regular ABAB quatrains each week, using a thesaurus to help.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Quick Quote: Barthes on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The reader will perhaps recall a novel by Agatha Christie in which all the invention consisted of concealing the murderer beneath the use of the first person of the narrative. The reader looked for him behind every 'he' in the plot: he was all the time hidden under the 'I.' Agatha Christie knew perfectly well that, in the novel, the 'I' is usually a spectator and that it is the 'he' who is the actor. 
Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology, tr. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith [Boston: Beacon Press, 1970], pp. 34-5.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Bayard - Distraction and disguise in crime fiction

Aware that there is not much out there on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I have been reading the book by Pierre Bayard, the French critic, Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? with the intent of blogging about it to provide some resource. I have not finished yet – indeed I am yet to reach his actual dissection of the specific novel, but in his general justification for the approach of taking a novel where the solution has been given at the end, and then deciding that someone else actually did the murder, he makes some interesting points about detective fiction in general, which seem worth considering for Elements of Crime Writing, even if you are not reading TMoRA.

Distraction and disguise in crime fiction
Bayard is not in fact talking about false moustaches, but about more literary forms of disguise. He points out:

The advantage of distraction is that it highlights the aim of detective fiction, which makes it unique among literary forms: to prevent an idea from taking shape. Most literature tries to stimulate a certain idea or a certain group of images or sensations in the reader, but here we find ourselves in that original situation in which all the tension of the work is directed, through a detailed organization of invisibility, toward the prevention of thought. (Bayard, 2000, p. 25)

This is an interesting point in exploring crime writing – does it hold for all crime writing or only for those detective/ mystery novels which follow Van Dine’s rules about the solution being withheld to the end, but with enough clues that the reader could have solved it, or at least feels that they could have at the end? It is also interesting to debate the truth of the statement – surely to an extent anything with a ‘twist’ ending would fall into this category – or is that only part of what such a piece of fiction is doing? Is it attempting to provoke thought in its very twistiness?

The main items which I thought were of interest, however, were Bayard’s categorisation of the ways in which disguise and distraction can be achieved in relation to the identity of the murderer.  He exemplifies these and discusses them almost exclusively in reference to the works of Agatha Christie, but they are fruitful to explore in the light of other crime writing also.

1) the murderer’s ‘function’ in society: that is, certain professions seem to offer a degree of protection from suspicion. Bayard notes doctors, policemen, pharmacists and judges in this category.

2a) ‘literary function’, suggests Bayard, is an even better disguise. The murderer can be disguised as victim; either through being threatened with death or persecuted in some other way, or they can fake their own deaths.

2b) the other literary function which offers protection is that of investigator. Bayard points out this goes back to Oedipus Rex. ‘Since he is on the side of the law, the murderer reaps the natural benefits of a kind of presumption of innocence’ (Bayard, 2000, p. 23). This is a broad category including all those who help the investigator (so Dr Sheppard in TMoRA is included, and I think you could argue for Claudius in Hamlet also, if that is one of the texts you are studying).

N.B. In a later chapter Bayard mentions a third literary function that protects Sheppard: that of narrator. TMoRA is not unique in following this form (See this article from the Independent, but be warned, they do not all conceal their guilt ). The reader has to trust the narrator in a detective novel, and if they are unreliable narrators, that is usually concealed from the reader until the solution is unveiled. In the case of TMoRA, Dr Sheppard is doubly protected because not only is he the narrator (see post on Barthes) but also he is fulfilling the role we normally see Hastings in - dumb, reliable, innocent and 100% transparent Hastings - so we trust him by proxy. 

3) the final disguise which Bayard points out  is the traditional one, the alibi, the ‘disguise as absence’. There is an irony here as the usual intention behind the disguise as absence is often in order to return literally in disguise as someone else in order to commit the crime.

It might be worth considering in the context of Elements of Crime Writing whether these are distinctive characteristics of the detective genre or of crime writing, or somewhere in between - do murderers always conceal their involvement? Do writers always wish to conceal the truth from the reader? 


Pierre Bayard Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? Published in French in 1998; published in English (trans. Carol Cosman) 2000, by the New Press (New York). 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Reading women

If you’ve read my article on representation of women authors and protagonists on the exam set texts lists in the UK at 16, you’ll know the picture isn’t that great, and students are likely to be mainly encountering a man’s eye view of the world in all contexts of literature. If not, read it, it’s open access!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pros and cons of reading lists recently, but I loved a reading list as a teenager, and I was very pleased to find out that my tweeting of the Balliol college reading list for aspiring Oxford English students sent it semi-viral in 2016. (Have a look – it’s a surprising list.) So as an accompaniment to my article on set texts, I thought I’d make a list of six suggested reads by women for teens who want to balance up their school curriculum texts (or anyone else!).

1. Beloved by Toni Morrison. This Gothic modern classic is the story of an African-American woman who escapes slavery only to be taken back. Rather than allow her 2 year old daughter to return to slavery, she kills her, and this is the story of her haunting by Beloved, who may or may not be that daughter. A powerful novel which won many prizes.

2. The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor. A modern SFF novel (or ‘magical futurism’) which links the US and Africa, this is about the rise of a superhuman woman and also about our world and what we are doing to it and its peoples.

3. Anita and Me by Meera Syal. Now this technically is a GCSE set text but it doesn’t appear as widely as it used to and given that everyone has to study a 19th century novel, I suspect the vast majority will be doing a 20th/21st century play rather than another lengthy prose text. Anita and Me is a fabulous Bildungsroman set in Wolverhampton, an area of Britain that gets little attention in literature. Anita is the kind of friend everyone wants and fears.

4. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. This was one of my favourite reads of 2017. It’s a dual timeline story, of a diary written by a teen in Japan, and the woman reading that diary in the US after it is washed up on a nearby beach. It’s not for the faint of heart – and I would be careful recommending it to teens given it has sex and swearing in it in abundance, but perhaps the uncomfortable context of Japanese fetishism of schoolgirls has lessons for all of us. It’s beautifully written and another powerful read.

5. The Shadow of the Sun by A.S. Byatt. I debated what Byatt novel to include, and Posession came a close second – a novel I read and fell in love with at 17. The Shadow of the Sun came about a year later, and it is definitely a challenging read – perhaps of particular interest to those aiming at a high status university. It’s the story of what happens when a high flying young woman comes to pieces. I hope the ending would be different nowadays – but it’s a useful reminder that the choices young women have now were not always available to them.

6. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Another Gothic mystery, this one centres on the dialogue between two women, one a famous novelist who is dying and the much younger woman to whom she has finally chosen to reveal the key to the mystery which has been at the heart of her life and work. It’s BRILLIANT. And much better than the television adaptation from a few years ago.

What would you recommend?

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Tobin's 'Narrative Rug Pull' and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Vera Tobin, in an article called 'Cognitive bias and the poetics of surprise' explores the role that 'cursed knowledge' plays in the way we experience narrative surprises. 'Cursed knowledge' refers to the fact, well established by experimental psychology, that humans cannot help but conflate their own knowledge with that of others - ie we tend to think that because we know something, other people do to. The classic experiment to show this is Elizabeth Newton's tapping experiment. When someone is asked to tap the rhythm of a well-known song and then estimate how likely it is that a listener will be able to identify the song, they massively overestimate the chances. Tappers put the expected success rate at about 50% - in fact it's only 3%. This applies to fiction too - we can forget that privileged knowledge that we have as readers is not available to the characters, which creates a surprise when they act apparently irrationally; but we can also forget that they may have information which we do not, particularly when they are apparently telling us everything.

The satisfying twist, argues Tobin, rests on this.

An entirely unpredictable narrative element frequently qualifies not as a satisfying twist, but as an unsatisfying non sequitur. A narrative that would avoid this pitfall must include some elements early on that are endowed with some significance that will only be visible later. However, this significance must, in retrospect at least, seem to have been available from the start, or, when the reader looks back, she or he will not be satisfied. (Tobin, 2009, p. 157)
This is what Tobin identifies as the narrative rug-pull  - an authorial trick which undermines expectations but keeps the reader content that this undermining has been done 'in the spirit of fair play' (p. 157). \This is of course particularly important in detective fiction. Such a twist means that the reader has to reinterpret the information which they already have in a way that changes their entire understanding of the situation.

Tobin gives the following quotation from Dorothy L. Sayers to sum up this dilemma for the mystery writer:
The reader must be given every clue - but he must not be told, surely, all the detective's deductions, lest he should see the solution too far ahead. Worse still, supposing, even without the detective's help, he interprets all the clues accurately on his own account, what becomes of the surprise? How can we at the same time show the reader everything and yet legitimately obfuscate him as to its meaning? (Sayers, 1929, p. 97)
The embedded perspective

So, Tobin argues, the author can take advantage of the curse of knowledge by aligning a narrative with an embedded viewpoint - a strong narrator, in other words, so that the reader strongly identifies what they know with what the narrator knows - or claims to know. The stronger the belief in the narrator's perspective, the 'more vulnerable he or she will be to a narrative rug-pull. This is why unreliable narrators remain and especially dependable resource for setting up this kind of surprise twist' (Tobin, 2009, p. 166). And Dr Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a particularly unreliable narrator!

Tobin reports that the twist at the end of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd created 'genuine sensation' when it was published (p. 166) even though it wasn't the first time this kind of structure or revelation had been used in crime fiction. (She suggests Poe's 'The Tell Tale Heart' as a comparator.) She quotes two contemporary reactions:

Willard Huntington Wright (1927): 'the trick played on the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is hardly a legitimate device of the detective-story writer'
Dorothy L. Sayers (1929): 'this opinion [Huntington Wright's] merely represents a natural resentment at having been ingeniously bamboozled. All the necessary data are given.'

Because Dr Sheppard is the narrator, Tobin argues, the reader's perspective is strongly aligned with his, which enables the surprise at the end. She suggests it is particularly unsettling for the reader to discover that a trusted narrator has been unreliable - in other words, when what we thought we knew, turns out to be a drastic misinterpretation of the facts.

There is a further reason, Tobin suggests, that this twist is so effective in this case:
Another reason that Christie's version of this twist was so effective and surprising, of course, was the way that it played on other conventions of the genre. The narrator of Roger Ackroyd fills a conventional role, that of the faithful sidekick exemplified by Dr John Watson, the friend and confidant of Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective Sherlock Holmes. As the narrator of the Holmes stories Watson serves as both the detective's assistant and the reader's proxy. He is clever enough to follow Holmes' reasoning when it is explained to him, but never so excessively brilliant that the explanation would be unnecessary. He is capable and faithful; if he were not, the perceptive Holmes would surely not rely on him. (Tobin, 2009, p 167)

As a result, we trust Sheppard because we think we know who he is - not in terms of the narrative, but in terms of the genre in which that narrative falls.

Tobin, V. (2009) 'Cognitive bias and the poetics of surprise', Language and Literature 18 (2), pp. 155-172

Friday, 25 November 2016

Law and ethics in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

This blogpost is based on a discussion session run jointly by the Fiction and Human Rights group at TORCH and the Law and Medical Ethics discussion group from the Law Faculty.  I’ve tried to capture some of the main points raised by each of the main discussants, who were: Dr Michelle Kelly (Faculty of English) and Dr ImogenGoold (Faculty of Law).

Imogen Goold
Imogen Goold focused on the theme of personhood, and what it means to be a person. Never Let Me Go raises an interesting legal conundrum where the clones, who appear not to have personhood under the law in the novel, behave just like they are persons who do have protection under the law.
She also raised the issue of the linguistic terminology in the novel. The term ‘completing’ for dying is particularly interesting – both euphemistic and suggesting that this is the purpose which Ruth Tommy and Kathy have for their lives.

The characters in the novel are making organ donations, but they are not really donations in that it is a case of forced altruism – doing good for other people, but not choosing to be altruistic. Goold asks can it be altruism if you have not chosen it? Another issue under the law is that these are donations that lead to their death. Legally, this isn’t possible ‘IRL’.  You cannot give a living donation that results in death (which is a legal protection of people from themselves, eg a parent who might willingly give a donation that led to their death if they were giving life to their child).

So the law does direct people with what they can do with their bodies. For the most part law has principle of autonomy; your choices are the most important thing. This prevents society as moving towards a utilitarian manner. (e.g. Tommy has four donations, that might save four people, therefore it’s worth it). As a society we don’t take that into account even where it might be the most utilitarian thing, with the greatest good for the most people.

These protections are afforded to those who have legal personhood – in the law you gain when you take your first breath, and retain it to your death. Throughout the book there is the belief that if they can demonstrate that they are in a real loving relationship (true love) they can defer their donations, or (implicitly) that if they do higher quality art work; if they can demonstrate the kind of qualities that legal persons have, they will be allowed to be treated as having legal personhood, even if they don’t realise that’s what they’re trying to do. That clones do not have personhood, they are not capable of those things, is a fundamental assumption – but as the book shows it isn’t true,  they are just people being treated badly.

Michelle Kelly
Kelly began by picking up on the language used in the novel. It has a clear distinctive voice narrated through the character of Kathy. Ishiguro harnesses ordinary language/the  language of altruism and care yoked to a rather gruesome reality. The gruesome reality is normalised in the novel by the use of this language. This encourages us to think about how language can normalise extreme, or horrible actions through the banality of the language used to describe the medical horrors perpetrated in the novel. The kind of language around donation and care and completion acts as a kind of social immuno-suppressant.

Although Never Let Me Go draws on the genre of sci-fi, the historical realism of the setting situates it in the 1990s. Together with the normalising language this suggests that shocking things are potentially coexisting with our own lived reality. This opens the possibility of reading the novel  as an allegory for the inequality of our own society, for time and production of different socio-economic classes under a system of inequality of wealth, rather than as a dystopic near future or near past. Kelly raised the idea of adoption or surrogacy or indeed the organ trade within the context of the global south to north , and their inequality, as a parallel.

While cloning presents with enormous problems with ethical and medical codes, we do already live with crude monetary estimates of value of human life, and these are highlighted by the novel.
The easy identification for Never Let Me Go is with the form of Bildungsroman. The novel clearly engages with this form: it features teenagers, a boarding school; and culture and literature as means of improvement. However,  assimilation into society comes through death rather than life: organs areliterally assimilated into the bodies of others. It is a quantifiable improvement but that is at the level of population rather than individual. In this it cannot be a Bildungsroman centred upon the narrator – because her assimilation will come at the point of ‘completion’.

The book describes a population centred around long-lived elite living at the expense of the lower class. If we’re locked into this as a Bildungsroman with a single protagonist, it makes it difficult for us to look at the problems that exist at the population level. Kelly suggested climate change at being at this same level of things you can’t look at with the individual novel. She also noted that the Bildungsroman form is central to thinking about literature and human rights. [And I might personally introduce the idea of Frankenstein as another uncomfortable Bildungsroman.]
Kelly suggested that Ishiguro’s target in the novel is the complicity and compliance of society as a whole.

The clones  live a constrained but rewarding life (culture etc). The novel suggests that culture might coexist with a murderous regime; it might even enable it. The fundamental idea at the basis of Hailsham is that the school feels that as long as they get culture, it’s okay to kill them. This is the provocation of the novel: what is the role of literature/ culture in enabling exploitation or resistance? We tend to think of literature as a potential source of or provocation to social justice, but in this it might be seen as a way of making the population happy to be complicit.

Goold further suggested that  there is a linguistic indoctrination as well as a mental/ physical one – they are taught to be complicit – so that by the time it dawns on them what they are for, they accept it because they are so compliant – that is one of the shocking things about it, is how they accept it fairly easily. Even when they go to find to the woman they think Ruth is cloned from,  they are not angry, they are curious. This is part of what makes it so disquieting.

Kelly:  in a way our interpretation of personhood is a more emotional, reactive response to their environment, so their lack of emotional reaction almost does make the clones different, not-people – but in reality it’s a reaction to their institutionalisation.

Goold went on to talk about the thought experiment by John Harriscalled the survival lottery. This is a real utilitarian approach in which you opt in to the survival lottery, and if your number comes up, you die but all your organs are taken to save, for example twenty other people. The reason you would want to be in it is if you are, and you need an organ, you would get it. It feels uncomfortable. John Harris argues that the rational thing to do is be in it. The difference from Never Let Me Go is that Kathy, Ruth and Tommy have never opted in – nor will they ever get the option to benefit from the system.

The discussion afterwards highlighted some more frightening things about the novel. In particular, the uncanny parallels with our current political situation. A member of the audience pointed out that naming something allows it to become legitimate. Changing the word is a normalising mechanism, which becomes embedded through repetition. The word that came to my mind was ‘altright’ – renaming white supremacy and neo-nazism in order to make it an acceptable thing to be once more.  We can be programmed through language. Goold pointed out that this is the reason why lawyers are so obsessive about words and definitions, because words govern what space into which something can fall – they draw the bounds. Another audience member point out that one of the very frightening things about the novel is that there is nothing keeping them in place; we are all being conscripted and forced to comply with something. A final frightening thought for teachers and students alike: cloning is a redundant mechanism within the novel because it is really about what we are being taught in schools, and how it indoctrinates us into our society. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The play within a play from Hamlet

Two short critical excerpts on The Mousetrap in Hamlet, as ways of thinking about character and about the theme of performing. 

Terry Hawkes suggests the play scene in Hamlet is a key point at which we can consider the two characters of Hamlet and Claudius, and see the balance between them:
In short, The Mousetrap sets in motion a new and intricate see-saw. For if Hamlet shows us anything at this point, it shows us a highly complex villain whose corruption demands to be viewed in the light of, if not to be mitigated by, the pitiable human situation it generates: that of a man torn by the conflicting demands of criminal passion and remorse, and held to the flames by an obduracy that is also self-control. In addition, and by the same token, it presents us with a no less complex and increasingly reckless protagonist who, in the name of 'justice', will impulsively commit violent murder before our eyes: the same crime that he is dedicated to revenge. Hamlet's role as both killer and avenger, an identity clearly symbolised by the figure of Pyrrhus, cannot but complicate the play.[i]
Hawkes draws on the characterisation which appears in Michael Innes’ Hamlet, Revenge! of the play as a ‘battle of mighty opposites’,[ii] in which Claudius and Hamlet become a matched pair, balanced and ‘far from representing corruption on the one hand, and justice on the other.’[iii]  

Hamlet is a play which thematises performance and performativity, concerned with the play within the play - both the actual literal performance of the Players, but also Hamlet's own performance to the court around him, and to Claudius in particular, a focus on 'seeming' (the 'seeming virtuous Queen' (1.5.46); 'to be or not to be' and others). The performance of The Mousetrap/ Murder of Gonzago is the central part of this double playing, highlighting to us the audience as we watch the audience of another play, the double nature of the narrative. Kate Flaherty asserts that
As an  impromptu, the First Player's performance activates the manifold nature of play: 'play' as a game, 'play' as performance, and even 'play' in its technological meaning, as the space allowed for a moving part in machinery. It is a staged moment in which both the fiction and the power of performance can be acknowledged simultaneously.[iv]
She invokes W.B. Worthern's concept of 'double-vision' in 'theatrical seeing'[v] to see the character as both actor (within the play) and (secondary) character; the difficulty of the character of Hamlet is separating Hamlet-as-actor and Hamlet-as-character.

[i] Terry Hawkes (2002) Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge) p. 74.
[ii] Michael Innes, Hamlet, Revenge! , p. 61.
[iii] Terry Hawkes, (2002) Shakespeare in the Present (London: Routledge) p. 74.
[iv] Kate Flaherty, (2005) 'Theatre and metatheatre in Hamlet', Sydney Studies in English 31, 3–20, pp.3–4.
[v] W. B. Worthen, 'The Weight of Antony: Staging 'Character' in Antony and Cleopatra'Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 , 26 (1986), 295–308.