Madeleine Robins

July 30, 2018

A Set of Dickens on the Whatnot

Filed under: Craft,History,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 11:06 AM
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I run a small museum. It’s a museum on the history of the book, and of bookbinding, and one of the things we talk about when talking about the book as object, is about its meaning as an object.

Only a couple of centuries ago, most people in Europe could go through their entire lives without seeing a book up close. Books were irrelevant to their lives. More than that, books were insanely expensive; they were investments, luxuries. Granted, after Gutenberg comes along with the press, the price of books dropped roughly 80%–which means they went from astronomically expensive to merely prohibitively expensive. As long as books were individually hand-bound, ownership was out of the reach of most people (it’s why subscription libraries flourished in England–when a 3 volume set of Sense and Sensibility cost the equivalent of $100, it was far cheaper to pay a subscription fee and have access to all the latest poetry, essays, and fiction).

After the British burned down the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson famously sold them his library as a “starter” to rebuild on. And turned around and used the money to buy himself more books, because… well, books. Books were wealth of a sort; you could sell them to raise money (or use them as collateral for loans). Having a library–even a collection of a few books–marked you as a person of property, even if you didn’t own your house or your land.

As with so much else, the Industrial Revolution changed that. Once books became affordable to the middle class, the meaning of book ownership changed.

Beyond mere investment, ownership of a book could signal a wealth of things:

  • I’m literate
  • I have leisure to read
  • I have the money to buy a book or books
  • I have the good taste to buy work by this author
  • I have the money to buy a handsomely-bound work
  • I value knowledge
  • I (as an immigrant) have imbibed the values of my new society
  • I (as an immigrant) have learned the language of my new home
  • I (as an immigrant) am trying to figure out the customs of my new home

That’s a lot of weight to put on a stack of paper between book-board covers. And yet, that set of Dickens, or Trollope, or the Brontës, could bear the weight. Especially if they were nicely bound. Even after the industrial revolution, the wealthy could still buy hand-bound, hand-covered, hand-tooled books; but publishers cannily realized that their audience wanted books that looked high-end, even if they were less expensive. The book-cover above would have been made separate from the binding of the book, and decorated using gold foil and a heated embossing press. It would still have been an expensive volume, but it was within the means of a middle class household.

What if you didn’t have the money for a beautifully bound book? There were editions for the budget conscious, less decorated, perhaps on flimsier paper. I found an ad for a complete set of Dickens for $0.48. I am reasonably certain those books, paper covered, were not the volumes you displayed on your mantel to virtue signal. And below those cheaply bound books were dime novels, stapled and bound in paper, and magazines, and tracts, and pamphlets. Arguably, these cheaper books were more about access: to story, to culture, to language, to information. Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches narrative was promulgated through such books: hard work and virtue could change your fortune!

And if your fortune changed, perhaps you, too, could have a set of Dickens on the mantel to signify that you had arrived. And perhaps even to read.

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February 19, 2018

Did You See What I Did There?

Filed under: Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:53 AM

Olympic figure skating is one of those things. I never mean to watch, and then, somehow, there I am and five hours have passed and it’s late and my head is full of salchows and axels and spangles.  There are a lot of brilliant technicians out there on the ice, and they’re riveting to watch, but the ones I love are the performers. Anent this, I was directed to Jason Brown’s 2014 performance at the US National Championships. He’s not just good–he is a brilliant performer, and more than that, his joy in the doing is both infectious and endearing. The audience is on its feet at the end of the routine, and well they should be. And his face just shines, because he had fun and made something beautiful; in the compact between audience and performer, it’s a perfect transaction.

This doesn’t work as well for writing, I think. Does this mean, I want the author to disappear? Maybe. Perhaps. Sort of.  At least while I’m engaged with their words. I don’t mean this punitively: I want the author to be engaged in her own work. And as a writer I am not immune to the satisfaction of pulling off a phrase, or a scene, or a whole book, where you feel like you’ve done your best and better, maybe. But the writing/reading compact is a little different from the performing/watching compact, and when I’m reading one of the things I don’t want is to have someone (particularly the author) standing between me and the text.

I was reading something the other day–an op-ed piece, I think–when I came across a phrase that was so clearly beloved of its author that I immediately heard, clear as a bell, a voice in my head saying “Did you see what I did there?” It’s a boy’s voice, maybe the voice of a nine- or ten year-old, excited, desirous of praise, a little tentative about asking for that praise because the owner of that voice knows damned well that you’re not supposed to do that. But also nakedly proud and pleased and SOMEBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THIS NIFTY TRICK I JUST PULLED OFF. And while the trick wasnifty, the insistence that I stop engaging with the text and engage the author for a minute is irritating.

Maybe this is the basis for the “kill your darlings” dictum.  Mind you, in the case of this op-ed piece it was true: the phrase was a clever one. If I’d been let alone to admire it, I might well have applauded. But the author, having delivered his knock-out phrase, got a little sloppy and soggy thereafter, like a skater who pulls off a quad salchow in the first minute of her routine, after which everything it a little lackluster.

Sadly, Jason Brown isn’t competing at the Olympics this year (injuries hurt his chance to give the kind of performances he gave in 2014). But I watch figure skating anyway, when I stumble upon it

December 13, 2017

Reading (In)Discriminately

Filed under: Memory,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:21 AM
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Nine CoachesOkay: raise your hands. When you were younger (say, teen- to young-adulthood) how many of you read pretty much everything? Finished even the rotten books because they were… well, they were books, and they were there?

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one. For me it was SF and fantasy, and historical, and historical romance, and gothics (aka “romantic suspense”–the books with young women in diaphanous gowns framed against brooding manses), and all the Great Books I could get, regardless of whether I fully understood them. Occasionally a best seller, because it was there, and I got twitchy when there was no printed matter to hand. What were your poisons?

Of that cohort, how many of you read that way now? I sure can’t. I might be working on a couple of different books at a time (right now its Seanan Maguire’s Every Heart a Doorway and a book on women’s history called Who Cooked the Last Supper) but I don’t read as fast, or with the kind of intensity, that I did when I was a kid. And my reading seems to fall into three categories: new fiction (SF, mystery, occasional mainstream); research non-fiction (mostly history but sometimes medical history or single-topic writing–on the human heart, or sewage management through the ages), and re-reading. There are some things I re-read annually, for comfort and amusement: Jane Eyre, most of Jane Austen, the Peter Wimsey books; there are other books I re-read regularly: I cycle through Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and through the works of Dick Francis, and through some of the SF and fantasy I keep around. I’m not sure what touches off a sudden need to re-read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Proof, but I suspect it may be that they do something in the writing or structure that I unconsciously feel I need to look at. Or maybe they’re just what comes to hand. I’ve taken to replacing old, tattered copies of the frequently re-read with e-books, just so I don’t keep buying the same book over and over.

But what of the books I tore through–and frequently re-read–when I was a teen? I recently learned that Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, which I read to tatters when I was in high school, were available and on sale as e-books. And in about a two week period I re-read eight of them, and I am here to tell you: Stewart was a fine writer. A little more given to botanical and landscape details than I remember, but really good. What took me aback is that there are phrases, whole scenes, that I remember with absolute clarity. But also: there are no dumb shoehorning of characters into doing things that make no sense. Also, the characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s) are well read and know things–I have always wanted to be well-read and to know things, so its nice to hang out with fictional characters who are and do. So I went looking for another writer I tore through at that time; like Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge holds up remarkably well. Her voice has certain tics, but overall she writes well-researched, sensible, effective historical romance. This somehow makes me feel better about my scorched earth reading habits.

Encouraged to find that some of my teen pleasures held up, I found another ebook I sort of remembered, The Trembling Hills, by Phyllis A. Whitney. It’s set in San Francisco leading up to and after the 1906 earthquake, which is pretty much all I could recall of the book. Since I now live in San Francisco I thought, well, why not. Okay, it’s not a terrible book (Whitney, in her day, was very successful, often on the NY Times bestseller list, published multiple-tens of books, none of this being a guarantor of quality). The setting is well done and well researched, which is nice now that I actually know what she’s describing. The characters are not as paper-thin as they originally seem to be: I spent the first third off the book wanting to smack the protagonist… and then she started to grow up a little, and gain a little complexity. When I finished the book I was not unsatisfied, but I doubt I’d ever want to re-read it.

There is a whole bookshelf of dusty, crumbling paperbacks in my basement that I should probably reevaluate based on this new information. Even at 15 I knew I never wanted to re-read Barbara Cartland, but there’s a vast territory between Cartland and Georgette Heyer; perhaps it’s time I did a little discriminate pruning.

August 2, 2017

Reading for Fun and Points

Filed under: Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:16 AM
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ClassicsSherwood Smith wrote on Saturday in the BVC blog about revisiting classics that were foisted on you as a teen and discovering that they were really pretty good (as always with Sherwood’s posts, she writes about many different things in one essay, but this is one part of what she’s talking about). I read a bunch of “classics”assigned in high school, as, I suspect, we all did, and some of them I cordially loathed. But I also had a fairly ambitious program of reading outside what was required at school, which was based on a simple criterion: if it was “classic,” or old, if I felt I should read it, I read it. Or wedged my way through it, regardless of actual comprehension. The only book that ground me to a halt was War and Peace. I read Candide, which I loved, and Manon Lescaut, which I liked, and Wuthering Heights, which made me want to slap every single character in it, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is much, much longer than any film version had led me to believe.

Granted, at that age I was reading everything. Science Fiction from the spinner racks at the drug store; gothic romances, ditto; suspense and historicals from the library; and all sorts of books from my parents’ mixed bag collection of thrillers, best sellers, and classics. I homed in on the classics, i.e., anything I felt that I ought to read.

Did I enjoy them? Some of them, very much. Others I made it through the way I would eat liver for dinner: slowly and unhappily. So why do it? Because I really coveted markers of smartness. Throughout high school I racked up a body count of Great Books, a sort of intellectual check off list that I thought somehow improved my educational resume. I really really wanted to be smart, see, and if reading Crime and Punishmentwould help, then Crime and Punishment I would read.

Some of the books read I made my way through once and never attempted again  (that run at War and Peace gave me such an aversion to Tolstoy that I never went back) and others I’ve read more than once–in the case of Austen and Charlotte Brontë, more or less annually. With books that I loved then, in most cases I have loved them later, but find layers of richness that escaped me on that first read.

As for the rest of them? I think Sherwood was absolutely right that many of the books I read I was not ready for. I needed to be older to appreciate Dickens’s ability to sketch instantly recognizable characters. I needed to be older–and to know more history–to really get Eliot and Henry James and Dostoevsky. But you couldn’t tell me that when I was 15. I know now that I did myself a disservice in collecting great books like Pokemon. And–which I did not understand then–what’s a Great Book changes over time, the list keeps growing, and you will never catch them all.

In my next life I will leave some things to later. I will also be readier to understand that a few years can change my appreciation of a book. At least, I hope so.

July 22, 2017

Crickets: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:56 AM
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Absent-AudienceOne last thing about reading to an audience: bring a big box of graceful resignation. Because sometimes, no matter how wonderful your work is, no one shows up. Or, perhaps worse, three people show up and you’re reading to a room set up with chairs for thirty, and you can’t say “I’m sorry, this is below my threshold of audience numbers, so I’m not reading today,” because that’s unfair to the three people who did show up. Even if two of them are your parents.

Look: this happens to everyone. Odds are that even the Gods of Successful Writing, early in their careers, had author appearances where the author outnumbered the audience. Don’t despair. (more…)

July 5, 2017

‘Ow’s that, Guv’nor?: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Conventions,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:47 PM
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Bert
Do you need to read accented speech with an accent? Let’s think about it.

Dick Van Dyke is appearing in the new Mary Poppins film–not, blessedly, as Bert the Sweep, but in some other role. And according to Mr. Van Dyke, they had a dialogue coach glued to his elbow at all times. With reason. When the first Mary Poppins came out, people were a little more understanding about accents–or rather, it just didn’t seem to matter so much. But Van Dyke has taken… well, anywhere from teasing to abuse over the failures of his Cockney accent for fifty years.

Van Dyke is an absolutely wonderful performer (I’ve had a crush on him since I first saw him pitch forward over the hassock on the Dick Van Dyke Show), but he does not have a mimetic ear. Many actors don’t: far worse than Van Dyke’s Bert, in my book, was Leonardo DiCaprio playing Louis XIV and his twin in The Man in the Iron Mask, where Di Caprio, bless him, couldn’t pronounce his characters’ names. There’s no shame in not doing accents well–but you need to know that that’s the case.

So maybe, even if you hear the words you’ve written with a perfect what-ever-it-is accent, you’ll want to think carefully before giving voice to their accents. This is a time when enlisting the assistance of a friend can be useful. Read aloud to them and ask them to tell tell you if it works. If your listener says you’re more Bert than Sir Ben Kingsley, rethink.

But my dialogue is written in dialect! Okay, but you don’t have to read inflections that are not in the page. If you’ve got a character saying “I don’t know ‘ow!” you can soften the presumed “Oi” in I; if you aren’t good at the vowels, don’t hit ’em hard. And remember, it’s more important that your listeners follow the sense and meaning of the words than that they get a full theatrical performance.

You can also give the impression of an accent by varying your tempo, by changing your pitch, by adding a little vocal fry (vocal fry is when you lower your voice enough to get some gravel in it, which Wikipedia informs me is “produced through a loose glottal closure which will permit air to bubble through slowly with a popping or rattling sound of a very low frequency”). This last is a really good tool for a reader, as it gives your character voices a quality which can suggest age, gender, or social class.

Now, there may be a time when it’s important to the reading of your story that you be able to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle or Pepe LePew or Boris and Natasha–that is, that you sound like a comicstrip version of the accent you’re using. In which case, go for it.

What you want, in the end, is to read your words in such a way that the hearer is not distracted from the action, the characters, the story of your story. Even if you’re good with accents (or good with some accents…) don’t make that the focus of your reading. It’s just another tool.

June 19, 2017

Modulation: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Craft,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

The first reading I ever went to was by a well known writer of whose work I was a huge fan. There were three readers (I think it was in a bookstore). I found the first reader un-compelling–he read in a subdued, almost monotone voice, and I couldn’t focus on the words–let alone the story. The next participant was not much more inspiring, but I was there for reader no. 3, so I waited patiently. And then it was the third reader’s turn. And she read in the same dry, subdued way–as if she didn’t enjoy the words she’d written. It was just a little heartbreaking.

As I got more experience at these things I came to realize that this is a style. The lack of engagement and performance is deliberate. Later in the evening I heard one of the authors chatting about a reading he had been to, complaining that the writer he’d seen was “acting” the reading. I wanted to tell this guy that his reading could have benefitted from a little acting too, but tact won out.

Too much performance at a reading can be clownish, or make the audience feel talked down to–you don’t want to come off like a deranged reader at the Thursday afternoon Story Time for Tots at the local library. But too little… gives your listeners nothing to hang on to. As with all things, there’s a sweet spot in the middle.

You’re telling a story. When you’re among friends telling the anecdote about that time in Marrakesh with the nun, the waffles, and the chicken, do you tell it in a monotone? Not so much. Reading in a monotone does not give your material dignity–it flattens it. So read as if you’re talking to your friends. On the other hand, unless you’re a really gifted actor, you don’t have to act it out. No, really.

And dialogue? Speak it as you hear it in your head, as if your characters were saying it. Use the emphases you hear them using. Pause when they do. (Maybe I’m overselling this, but when I write I hear the dialogue, so that’s how I read it. Your mileage may vary.)

There are many ways of “doing voices.”  I tend to go for different tones for different speakers, just so it signals a new speaker. Sometimes a character needs a higher voice or a different tone. If you’re able to find voices for your characters that work for you–and that you can replicate as needed–do it. But two cautions: 1) don’t overdo it (that’s the sweet spot principle again), and 2) don’t do so many voices that you get confused, mid-reading, as to which one you’re using.*

Regarding accents, if you use them (I often do, as I’m often writing in historical settings where accent signals a host of things, from regional origin to class), my feeling is that unless you’re really, really good at them, it’s easier and better to hint at them. You don’t need to sound like Alfred P. Doolittle in order to suggest that the chap whose dialogue you’re reading comes from the lower reaches of British society, or like Pepe le Pew to suggest a person of French extraction.

When it comes right down to it, the way you read your material offers your listeners a way into it. You want that way in to be enticing and welcoming.

Oh, and if you’re reading something funny? Try your best not to laugh at it–that’s the listeners’ job.

_____

*when my kids were young I generally used voices when I read to them–but I confess that somewhere in the middle of The Phantom Tollbooth I started getting confused as to which voice was for the Humbug, which was for King Azaz, and which was for The Mathemagician, and by the time we reached the Senses-Taker I was hopelessly lost.

May 18, 2017

Decisions, Decisions: The Art of Reading to an Audience

Filed under: Publishing,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 6:16 PM

declaiming-poetry.jpgOnce you’ve gotten past your jitters, or at least bundled up your jitters and put them in a small box on a high shelf, it’s probably time to think about what you want to read.

There are a number of different considerations. To begin with, are you reading in support of a work that’s about to be published? Then maybe you should be reading from that work. Ditto a work that’s been published within the last few months. Particularly if you’re on an author trip being paid for by a publisher (I never have been, but I hear it’s a thing). In all these cases, you’re reading to support a specific work, and that specific work ought to be part of the presentation. (more…)

June 25, 2016

In Praise of Fanny Price

Filed under: Being a Woman,Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 9:05 AM
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Fanny PriceI have been doing one of my semi-regular Jane Austen re-reads. Every time I find new things: This time I was chagrinned to realize the extent to which certain film versions had overwritten Miss Austen’s original text in my mind–not necessarily to their detriment, but I was looking for a scene in Sense and Sensibility that turned out to be a clever Emma Thompson way of compacting a good deal of information. But the original Austen is still there on the page, and still smart and incisive and funny.

So far I have gone through Pride and PrejudiceSense and SensibilityEmma, and Persuasion, and I’m almost through Mansfield Park (I skip Northanger Abbey, because Catherine Morland annoys the hell out of me). I started out, as one does, loving Pride and Prejudice; then for a long time Sense and Sensibility was my favorite; then, for almost as long, Persuasion. Now it’s quite possible that I am going over to Team Mansfield Park.

This is, apparently, unusual.

The Paris Review stated that Mansfield Park was Austen’s least popular book:

Austen’s own mother reportedly found Fanny “insipid”; the critic Reginald Farrer described her as “repulsive in her cast-iron self-righteousness and steely rigidity of prejudice.” Even C.?S. Lewis—in the voice of his demon Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters—let loose a vitriolic rant about Austen’s most priggish heroine, calling her “not only a Christian, but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood, and then dies with a smile … Filthy, insipid little prude!”

Wow, that’s a little over the top, don’t you think, Clive?

Okay, I get it. Fanny is physically delicate, shy, easily overwhelmed. She doesn’t have her cousins’ robust physical health, and she certainly doesn’t have their robust egos. She’s meek and self-effacing (though I don’t think she simpers once, thank you very much). But do you blame her? Here’s a child who, at the age of ten, is sent to live with her very privileged cousins. Her aunt Norris (and to a lesser extent her uncle Sir Thomas) are determined to make the distinction between Maria and Julia and Tom and Edmund (the cousins) and Fanny’s charity-case self. She’s constantly reminded of it, and of the fact that she can’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be treated the same way. She’s physically slight and easily overwhelmed (I suspect nutritional issues and an anxiety disorder, but can’t find any textual evidence to prove it), and initially she’s academically and socially way behind her cousins. It might be satisfying to see the worm turn, the mouse face down the cat, and so forth. That’s bread and butter in a 21st century YA novel. but in Austen-land, where class suffuses everything so deeply that it’s hardly necessary to mention it, it would be hard to make it believable.

Like the Bertram girls, Fanny studies with a governess. But her real teacher, the one who informs her tastes and her heart, is her cousin Edmund. And Edmund, destined for the Church, is a prig. He’s kind to Fanny; he’s really the only one who sees, and values, Fanny for who she is. Everyone else sees only her utility, the perfect poor-relation who can be counted upon to fetch a shawl or stay tactfully home so there won’t be an odd number at the dinner party. Her frankly loathsome Aunt Norris sees her as someone further down the class scale whom she can bully without fear of repercussion. It’s no wonder Fanny loves Edmund, who encourages her to explore literature and history, who talks about religion and principles and right thought–who treats her as if she were intelligent which, as it happens, she is.

Look, I had a serious crush in 6th grade on a kid who held the door for me (because I wasn’t used to people being, um, nice to me at school). I totally get Fanny seeing Edmund as a combination of Parfit Gentil Knight and Moral Arbiter. About the only thing that saves Edmund from being an irredeemable prig is that he falls in love with Mary Crawford, whose moral compass is–shall we say–variable. For once Edmund’s rectitude abandons him and he is blinded by, and led around by parts of himself he would ordinarily not admit to owning. He sees Mary’s witty, shiny, beautiful, feckless self and tries to believe that deep down she’s got the same sort of moral center as Fanny–in a sense, the woman Edmund created. It’s hardly surprising that when Mary displays her lack of moral base, Edmund recoils. At that point it’s inevitable that he’ll back to Fanny.

A lot of people think of Jane Austen as a “romance writer,” a notion that would very likely have made her head explode just a little bit. But, as Austen herself said, she wrote of “love and money.” And class. Austen writes about class all the time. Elizabeth Bennet’s comment to Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Darcy “is a gentleman and I am a gentleman’s daughter” is quite correct. They may be at different ends of the “gentleman spectrum”*–he’s got relatives in the peerage, and centuries of economic and class privilege behind him, and she’s got “inferior connections:” relatives in trade–but they in terms of class they are equals. Sir Walter Elliot may regard himself as the very model of a modern country baronet… but he can’t suck up fast enough to his cousin the viscountess. Fanny Price, whose mother married beneath her, is introduced to a world very different from her own when she moves to Mansfield Park.

Fanny Price has good reason for being the person she is. And she continues as that person despite pressure from within and without her family. For a woman constitutionally skittish and anxious as she is, that in itself is heroic. It’s nice that she gets the guy in the end. It’s nicer that she does so without having to become a Mary Crawford or a Maria Bertram.

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