Posts Tagged ‘Mario Vargas Llosa’


Fall for the Book Forum Poses Provocative Questions

February 18, 2009
"Woman With Book," Pablo Picasso

"Woman With Book," Pablo Picasso

The Fall for the Book Festival has been using the “off season” not only to begin planning for this fall’s festival, but also to crank up some interesting initiatives. One of these is the new Fall for the Book Forum, which is striving to build an online community of readers and writers talking about some topics central to our shared love of literature. Each week, the website is posting a new question on the left-hand side of its homepage; now all that’s needed is some more readers to get in on the discussion.  

This week’s question is a quietly provocative one, stemming from this 2007 NPR story about women reading more than men. Fall for the Book asks:

In late 2007, National Public Radio posted a story revealing that women read far more than men (9 vs. 5 books/year). The statistics gathered from the 2008 Fall for the Book festival show the same trend in those who attended book-related events. Clearly, reading is not inherently a female thing. Why, then, are these statistics showing what they are?

I encourage folks to visit the Fall for the Book site and sign-up to join the discussion. I myself am going to post the following there in just a few minutes as a way to help get the ball rollling.

The NPR story starts with novelist Ian McEwan conducting an informal study that revealed a greater interest in reading by women than by men. Several years ago, Mario Vargas Llosa made a similar observation at the start of his essay “Why Literature?” (first published in The New Republic and reprinted in various spots on the web). The first (longish) section of that essay is below:

It has often happened to me, at book fairs or in bookstores, that a gentleman approaches me and asks me for a signature. “It is for my wife, my young daughter, or my mother,” he explains. “She is a great reader and loves literature.” Immediately I ask: “And what about you? Don’t you like to read?” The answer is almost always the same: “Of course I like to read, but I am a very busy person.” I have heard this explanation dozens of times: this man and many thousands of men like him have so many important things to do, so many obligations, so many responsibilities in life, that they cannot waste their precious time buried in a novel, a book of poetry, or a literary essay for hours and hours. According to this widespread conception, literature is a dispensable activity, no doubt lofty and useful for cultivating sensitivity and good manners, but essentially an entertainment, an adornment that only people with time for recreation can afford. It is something to fit in between sports, the movies, a game of bridge or chess; and it can be sacrificed without scruple when one “prioritizes” the tasks and the duties that are indispensable in the struggle of life.

It seems clear that literature has become more and more a female activity. In bookstores, at conferences or public readings by writers, and even in university departments dedicated to the humanities, the women clearly outnumber the men. The explanation traditionally given is that middle-class women read more because they work fewer hours than men, and so many of them feel that they can justify more easily than men the time that they devote to fantasy and illusion. I am somewhat allergic to explanations that divide men and women into frozen categories and attribute to each sex its characteristic virtues and shortcomings; but there is no doubt that there are fewer and fewer readers of literature, and that among the saving remnant of readers women predominate.

This is the case almost everywhere. In Spain, for example, a recent survey organized by the General Society of Spanish Writers revealed that half of that country’s population has never read a book. The survey also revealed that in the minority that does read, the number of women who admitted to reading surpasses the number of men by 6.2 percent, a difference that appears to be increasing. I am happy for these women, but I feel sorry for these men, and for the millions of human beings who could read but have decided not to read.

They earn my pity not only because they are unaware of the pleasure that they are missing, but also because I am convinced that a society without literature, or a society in which literature has been relegated — like some hidden vice — to the margins of social and personal life, and transformed into something like a sectarian cult, is a society condemned to become spiritually barbaric, and even to jeopardize its freedom. I wish to offer a few arguments against the idea of literature as a luxury pastime, and in favor of viewing it as one of the most primary and necessary undertakings of the mind, an irreplaceable activity for the formation of citizens in a modern and democratic society, a society of free individuals….

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Quick Comment on the Nobel, Plus a Link

October 10, 2008

When Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio was named this year’s Nobel Laureate in Literature yesterday, I had to go to Wikipedia to even find out who he is. Is that evidence that the Nobel Prize increasingly goes to writers less prominent on the world’s literary stage? Or just proof of my own insularity? (I was pulling, as I always do, for either Philip Roth or Mario Vargas Llosa — who’s Peruvian and pretty dang cosmopolitan, I might add.) 

Here’s some thoughts on the whole thing by my friend Kyle Semmel, who is far from insular when it comes to international lit (he’s a translator himself). He’s more riled about it than I am, and it’s sure fun to watch him get worked up. Check it out!

— Art Taylor  

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The Anxiety of (Assigning) Influence

October 7, 2008

I’m rereading John Hart’s books now for an essay I’m writing for the North Carolina Literary Review, and I’ve also been reading and rereading some old Ross Macdonald novels this year, those just for fun. As I was writing the essay on Hart, I began building what I thought were some original and interesting connections between the two — building off the idea about how a genre develops, how new authors reflect on and incorporate what’s come before, how literature is a tradition with the past influencing the present and the future…. 

So far I’ve come up with several things wrong with this — including, on the one hand, the fact that other people already made that connection with Ross Macdonald (critic Sarah Weinman mentioned it casually and effortlessly in an email exchange, as if it were old news), and on the other, John Hart’s own statement in an online interview that he hasn’t read anything by Macdonald, so really how much influence could there be? 

In the fiction workshops that I teach at Mason, I once had my students do an exercise as part of the revision process. Basically, building off of a couple of ideas I mention above, I ask each of the students to choose a favorite author — one whose works are of the kind and quality that the student him- or herself would like to write — and then try to articulate what’s compelling or interesting about that author: style, content, theme… the way the author describes a character’s face, the way the author handles dialogue, the way the author crafts a sentence… whatever has drawn the student to this writer in the first place. After that, they are each asked to choose a passage from their respective author’s works and analyze it more closely for nuances of style and technique — something that the student might take from this chosen writer and incorporate into his or her own writing —  and then to turn to their own writings and actually incorporate it: try to describe the face of their own characters with the same accuracy or get the same snap in their own dialogue or push an exploration of an idea in that favorite writer’s work in a new direction in their own. (I model the whole thing by showing what I did with the opening passages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral.)

By and large, the students hate this. It saps the joy out of reading! they tell me — and worse, saps the joy out of their own writing, which they see as driven more by unfettered creativity and an imagination let loose to play than by the idea of self-conscious craftsmanship, of reading as an integral and necessary part of our writing lives. 

While I don’t think I’m entirely wrong, I haven’t done the exercise since… and I’m really beginning to wonder about how to frame the whole Macdonald-Hart comparison I’m working on.
—Art Taylor

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Forward and Back… Up and Down… Diagonally?

September 10, 2008

A much-appreciated comment yesterday (from a much-admired commenter) added another book which lets readers explore it at their own pace: Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters, which readers can browse through at random if they choose. This prompted me to think of other books which defy strict linearity. Of course, one of the most famous experiments in “jumping around” in a narrative is Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which you can read straight through from chapter one through chapter 56 (stopping at that point and leaving the rest of the book unread) or by following the Table of Instructions to “hopscotch” through those chapters and the others later in the book. Not entirely “reader’s choice” here, but it does broaden the idea of what makes a novel and how it can be read. And then maybe one of the best-known groups of books that encourage reader participation: the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. Again, not necessarily an experiment in time (the focus of that last post), but definitely one which expands as well the opportunities for reader engagement and authority in constructing the story. Don’t laugh; I’ve seen this series taught in post-modern lit classes, and in many ways, the books are a clear precursor to hypertext novels like Geoff Ryman’s 253 — one of many great hypertext titles that could be added to this list. 


Thinking about alternative narrative strategies also led me to considering all those books that turn linearity on its head — almost literally. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis may be one of the best-known works that tell the story in reverse (and he goes further than most authors in trying to make the backwardness complete), but he’s not the only one, of course. Look at First Light by Charles Baxter or Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish. Or if you don’t want to invest in a full novel’s worth of this technique, check out Alejo Carpentier’s short story “Journey Back to the Source.”


And speaking of great Latin American writers, I’m also reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s experiments with layering different times and places in several books, including his masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral, sections of which literally and intricately interweave dialogue that’s taking place at different chronological and geographical points. And then thinking further back to one of Vargas Llosa’s own influences, we can find experiments in layering time in several of Faulkner’s novels, of course, most especially those first couple of sections of The Sound and the Fury


No lack of possibilities, nothing comprehensive here. Others to add to the list? 


— Art Taylor

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