Here's something different: on the About Last Night blog, Katharine Weber describes her Top Five Tales of Disaster and Woe!
The Litblog Co-op attention for Triangle has been immensely gratifying; thank you, thank you, to everyone involved. It’s an incredibly heady experience when smart, thoughtful people engage with one of my novels. I’ve been trying to think of some fresh ways to talk about this experience, the feelings of being read and also the feelings that are stirred by being misread.
We who write novels sit alone a great deal. We make it all up. We sit alone for so many hours, working the sentences, conjuring with the sensibilities and the narrative strategies, playing and playing with all the elements as they drive the characters through the events of the novel. We write and write and revise and revise until we have taken it as far as we can take it on our own. If we’re lucky, we work with a good editor. If we’re immensely lucky, we work with a great editor, and in that I am beyond immensely lucky, because John Glusman is my editor. And then we revise and revise some more. Then comes publication. The book is in the world.
Then come the reviews. The wise readings, the ridiculous readings. The misreadings. The scolding, reluctant praise. Razor-sharp mixed reviews, empty-headed raves. Crackpot Amazon “reviews.” In print and online, Triangle has received an extraordinary volume of reviews and response, more than any of my previous books (thanks in part to the ever-expanding world of blogging), from wonderfully astute close readings to disdainful and grotesque dismissals.
I read them all. I am energized by the smart reviews, the reviews that make me feel that the writer really, really got it. I want my readers to be moved, and I want them to be entertained, and when a review makes clear that has happened, it’s a triumph. When I come across a random blog featuring a half-baked and clueless takedown, hostile and semi-literate though it may be, it is both irritating and enervating. And I berate myself for caring. And it’s disappointing. I know that I will never write novels that appeal to all readers, and I know that some very smart readers have valid critical things to say. Those reviews are instructive, they make me think past my reflexive defensiveness and I have respect for them. It’s the really silly ones, and -- dare I say it? -- the dumb ones, that wear me down.
For years, certain writers have insisted that they never look at reviews, good or bad. Presumably those same writers these days also never look at websites and blogs. There’s so much more to not read than there used to be. I suppose I admire their discipline and restraint, but I cannot imagine not caring about the world’s response to my work. Even when it makes me want to bang my head on my desk.
All of that said, I have been really blindsided by a certain kind of criticism for Triangle, the criticism specifically leveled at the “unfair” handling of the blinkered, agenda-d hyperfeminist Triangle scholar, Ruth Zion. It’s the damndest thing, seeing blog entries and Amazon reviews that could have been written by Ruth Zion herself. Most recently, a hilariously negative Ruth Zionesque review at Amazon said, “As someone who once did a short stint of historical research into a feminist topic, I winced at the shabby treatment accorded this character by the other characters and the author,” which prompted me to succumb to the temptation of commenting (now that Amazon has added yet another layer of comment opportunity, so the hall of mirrors of consumer product ratings of the reviews can create even more “content” – who are the people “voting” so avidly yes or no on “helpfulness” of reviews?), and I confess that I posted, “Ruth, is that you?”
Even when the negative response to Ruth Zion (she would be self-righteously thrilled to get so much attention) isn’t prompted by identification with her, there has been a pattern of, let’s call it reservation about her, concern that she is too much, unreal, not believable, not like someone you would ever meet, and often this is the sole criticism reserved for the traditional “however” paragraph that usually occurs in the antepenultimate paragraph of a traditional print review that is otherwise a rave. The Ruth Zion criticism has been more than counterbalanced by much Ruth Zion appreciation from all over, which has been immensely gratifying. (My favorite moment at a library event in New Hampshire last month was when a woman whose book group had just discussed Triangle raised her hand during the q and a to say she just wanted to say she loved the way Ruth Zion used the word “irregardless.”)
I am intrigued, however, in a more general way, by the notion that a character in a novel shouldn’t seem too much like a character in a novel. As a self-taught writer who learned by reading, which means that my greatest teachers were probably Edith Wharton (Undine Spragg, anyone?), Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, and Vladimir Nabokov, I know that I have always been especially drawn to the characters who do loom a little large. Isn’t that why we read novels, to encounter people we wouldn’t meet in our ordinary lives? Did this sort of character in fiction go out of fashion and nobody told me? If I had gone to an MFA program, would these new policies on characters in novels, these requirements that all characters must be utterly realistic, devoid of any symptoms of fiction whatsoever, have been spelled out clearly? Anyone want to talk about this?
As promised, the LitKicks Interview with Katharine Weber We chat about history, gender, DNA, triangles, what September 11 has to do with it, what George Gershwin has to do with it, and what Ms. Weber has got in store for us with her next novel.
Katharine's guest post coming soon.
Make no mistake about it, Triangle is a novel of ideas. It ranges over some substantial topics--genetics, classical music, families, and history, to name a few--and deals with a few specific issues: the living fibers we use to construct history; how we are currently constructing the history of 9/11/2001; the ways in which art can spring from nature; how humans make order from chaos, both historical and biological.
In Triangle Katherine Weber is thinking through some impressive ideas, but, unlike the authors of many philosophical novels, Weber doesn't forget that she is first and foremost creating a work of art. That is to say, in Triangle you will find the stuff lesser novels leave behind in their rush to SAY SOMETHING: close attention to language, deft plotting that converges meaningfully with the philosophical subtext, interesting, believable characters.
What is the book about? Esther Gottesfeld is a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, March 25, 1911. When the novel begins she's telling her story for an oral history project 50 years hence. Her testimony will be repeated many times: as part of a 1911 trial to determine the culpability of the factory's owners for fire-related deaths, as part of the oral history project, and as a series of interviews for a professor's "postfeminist" academic work.
Esther is the mother of Rebecca, a New Yorker who has a life-long relationship with George Botkin, the most famous classical composer of his generation. (Botkin triangulates music from DNA and memories; he becomes famous when celebrities begin buying compositions of themselves.) The novel follows Rebecca and George, reconstructs Esther's life through her testimonies, and, at the end, nicely tacks on a plot to do with a "postfeminist scholar" out to "blow the lid off Triangle studies" by getting a hold of Esther's posthumous papers.
One thing I particularly like about Triangle is the way Esther's testimony subtly changes, in content and form, each time she gives it. For one thing her words reflect that in each instance she's dealing with different people who have different motives for eliciting her memory: to indict, or free, factory bosses; to provide as "true" an account as possible for posterity; to help a professor prove her thesis. Also there's the fact of Esther's English: as a relatively new immigrant in 1911 she's got a somewhat poor grip on English; in 1961 she's considerably better, and in 2001 she's a 106-year-old woman who doesn’t quite speak like she used to.
Each testimony reads convincingly like English as it is spoken, and the changes help illustrate part of Weber's idea on how history is constructed. When you want to construct the real story of the Triangle fire, which do you use? Esther in 1911, 1961, or 2001? (Perhaps the best thing to do is to triangulate.) The testimonies also bring across Esther as a person, as the naive factory girl who becomes the querulous old woman almost combating against her interlocutor.
The history of the fire (and, by implication, of the Twin Towers) is the main subject here, but Weber extends her triangulation theme into other realms as well. Botkin not only triangulates to construct musical versions of celebrities; he also creates an oratorio to commemorate the Triangle fire. In his condensation of the chaos of life to the order of art, Botkin shows yet another use that triangulation can be put to. He also raises an implicit question: What's the relationship between the order created by historians and the order created by artists? How does the postfeminist professor's paper on the Triangle disaster compare with Botkin's oratorio?
This isn't the end of triangles in this book. In constructing their lives, each character is sort of constructing their own triangle, making up a reality from the input they take in. Weber brings this across beautifully, with an assurance that, though meaningful, is never pedantic.
I read Triangle almost a year ago. It was one of my favorite reads of last year, and it has stuck with me ever since. I'm glad this book has received some attention from the LBC, and I encourage everyone reading this to give it a shot.
For more on this book, see my review, here.
Welcome to a week-long appreciation of Triangle by Katharine Weber, a LitBlog Coop Summer 2007 Read This! Nominee. We'll have interviews, podcasts, quizzes, mash books and a guest appearance by Katharine Weber herself. I'm not sure what she'll have to say, but I do believe she'll be happy to answer questions when she shows up later this week.
One popular misconception of Triangle is that it is a straightforward chronicle of a famous American disaster, whereas actually the Triangle fire which killed over a hundred working women in 1911 is only the springboard here for a highly unpredictable journey of the imagination courtesy of a sly and skilled novelist. With that in mind, though, I'd like to begin this week with a look at a very well-designed and informative website about the Triangle fire maintained at Cornell University.
As I wrote earlier on this blog, I share with Katharine Weber a Queens, New York (Forest Hills, even) heritage, and my ancestors, like Katharine's, worked in the garment industry in exactly the capacity described by the fictional Esther Gottesfeld in Triangle.
I don't know if poet Robert Pinsky's ancestors also worked in the old garment industry in New York City, but it's worth mentioning that his moving poem Shirt appears as the overture to the novel Triangle.
If Pinsky's poem hadn't been available, Katharine Weber might also have chosen a song lyric by yet another Forest Hills native, Paul Simon's Fakin' It. "I am the tailor's face and hands ..." This song wasn't about the Triangle fire, but it might have been about Katharine Weber's book, and the song's other lyrics echo some of the other book's themes as well. So, let's begin LBC Triangle week with a singalong of this Simon and Garfunkel tune.
by Paul Simon
If she stays, she stays here.
The girl does what she wants to do.
She knows what she wants to do.
And I know I'm fakin' it,
I'm not really makin' it.
I'm such a dubious soul,
And a walk in the garden
Wears me down.
Tangled in the fallen vines,
Pickin' up the punch lines,
I've just been fakin' it,
Not really makin' it.
Is there any danger?
No, no, not really, just lean on me.
Take the time to treat your friendly neighbors honestly.
I've just been fakin' it,
I'm not really makin' it.
This feeling of fakin' it
I still haven't shaken it.
Prior to this lifetime
I surely was a tailor.
("Good morning, Mr. Leitch.
Have you had a busy day?")
I own the tailor's face and hands
I am the tailor's face and hands
and I know I'm fakin' it
I'm not really makin' it.
This feeling of fakin' it
I still haven't shaken it
Triangle also reminds me of a famous statue of a tailor working a sewing machine which you can find on 7th Avenue in Manhattan's fashion district. The expression on this man's face says a lot. There is no statue of a young female factory worker on the spot in Greenwich Village right near Washington Square Park where the Triangle fire took place, though, and I think there should be one.
Please check back later today for an interview with Katharine Weber, and later this week for more activity from other LBC members.
And before Levi takes it away to start celebrating Katharine Weber's Triangle tomorrow, I thought I'd quickly collect all the links celebrating Nicola Griffith and her wonderful book Always from last week in one handy location for your browsing pleasure (now and in the future).
Thanks again to everyone who participated and made the week so much fun and such a smashing success -- that also means you if you commented, or just read along. What else can I say? Read this book.
Oh, and stick around for the next two weeks of discussions of Triangle and Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown.
Nominator: Gwenda Bond
Nominee: Nicola Griffith
Topics discussed: is Always noir?, where to find genre-bending books in a bookstore, self-defense, jumping into a series mid-stream, the ability to kill at will, gardening, whether or not you'd want to spent time with your protagonist in real life and more.
(A co-production of the LBC and Pinky's Paperhaus)
Being mis/labelled is an occupational hazard for a novelist. I shrug, think, Well, that's marketing for ya, and move on. But for some reason I seem to get bent out of shape when people describe the Aud books as noir. I've been trying to figure out why.
I think it has something to do with love. Hang in with me while I ramble (I haven't had time to assemble a clean and coherent line of thought).
So, okay, when I picture noir I think claustrophobic and urban: neon-splashed puddles in an alley outside a seedy bar peopled by the desperate and criminal (who are often actors on a very small stage; their minds, too, are small and sort of rat-in-a-maze-ish--as though they forgot to take their meds just before the story begins). Yet the Aud books, particularly Always, are about hope and change and growth, stuffed with food and sunshine and love. A lot of it is set against pastoral rather than urban backgrounds. And bursting with Big Feelings and Events--sex, betrayal, explosions. Pretty much the opposite of noir.
When I consider noir prose I think: clipped, stark, spare, even frugal. The tone is a little mysterious because, essentially, the protagonists are ciphers. The tension and pace tends to be relentless. Yet, to my mind--or at least in my intent--Aud is laid bare, to the degree that she understands herself (and she's always trying to learn more) and the tone and pace are varied: some despair, some joy, some fear, some rage, some contentment, some stress...
As a reader and writer I love tempo change, love variety in all things--character, pace, metaphor. I love clarity and focus, yes, but I also love generosity and profligacy (one of the reasons I'm such a huge fan of Patrick O'Brian).
Love, love, love and love. Yet how much love of any kind, how much joy is there in noir fiction? The protagonists tend to be anxious, self-destructive and self-focused. They are closed. They don't love themselves, don't love the world (they hide from it, they fight it, they try put one over on it) and they don't love other people.
My favourite fiction is zesty, it pulses with joy, it takes risks. (No doubt you'll be shocked to find I've written a whole essay about this, Brilliance and Beauty and Risk, /grin/.) The best books give me a sense of expansion, of doors opening.
I believe a lot of our reading is aspirational, it reflects who we think we are and what we want. I want an open mind, I want variety and joy and depth. For me, In the end, it comes down to what I love.
Before I begin I want reiterate what I said on Monday: thank you to Gwenda and the rest of the LitBlog Coop. I can't tell you how thrilling it is to be part of a serious discussion of my work. This is like catnip to me (I'm vacillating between not being able to keep away and being overstimulated to the point of falling into a coma).
Originally I'd planned a short rant about voice and gender, but after the thoughtful generosity of the comments here this week that felt a little thin and obvious. So I threw it away. But then there was so much discussion about genre and pigeonholing I decided to resurrect it in modified form. If I can pull it together on time I'm also planning another post later today--perhaps on joy and the body.
I wish I could bring forward the publication of an essay I wrote with Kelley (Eskridge, my partner), "War Machine," that will be out next spring in an academic text called Queer Universes, ed. by Wendy Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. (Go here for Wendy's fabulous primer on queering SF, "Alien Cryptographies.") "War Machine" addresses to some degree this notion of genre and gender typecasting, of norming and othering. It's a subject that's been on my mind my entire publishing career.
Here's a quick rundown of my novels so far:
If you judge simply by imprint and format, I've been creeping up the literary prestige ladder with the aid of the "noir" label. However, it's such a wrong label--if I had to describe my work I'd say it was about change and growth and the physical joy to be found in its interstices, pretty much the opposite of how I understand noir--that most booksellers and readers ignore it. So when Carolyn over at Pinky's Paperhaus asked me the other day, "Where is Always shelved, anyway?" I laughed, and suggested she take her pick: mystery, lesbian & gay, science fiction, new fiction. Never, unfortunately, in all of them--and always in the one you check last. Still, at least it has that Electric-Kool-Aid-Purple cover; if it's in the store, you'll see it, it doesn't matter which genre friends it's hanging with.
And I can guarantee it will be in a genre section, not the Literature shelves. Why? Girl cooties--double girl cooties, triple girl cooties: a girl writing from the POV of a girl who likes girls.
You think I'm kidding?
Well, okay, I was kidding, at first (there might have been beer...). But then, in an admittedly unscientific survey of fiction awards of the last twenty years, I found there's a statistically significant (or vast and overwhelming, depending on how you view these things) difference between the winners of literary and genre prizes. Specifically, I looked at US awards, since 1987, for novels by women writing from the first person POV of another woman. The National Book Award can boast one (5%): In America, by Susan Sontag. The Pulitzer does three times as well (15%) with The Stone Diaries, A Thousand Acres and Beloved. The NBCC claims two (10%)--The Stone Diaries again, and A Thousand Acres. The average, then, for women writing women in the three acknowledged US "literary" awards was 10%. When I scanned the top genre awards--the Edgar, the Nebula, the World Fantasy--the percentage just about doubled. If I add in YA (the Newbery Medal) and Romance (RITA) the numbers go off the charts (I mean so many I stopped counting--see previous admission about this all being rather unscientific).
It looks to me as though the percentage of by-women-about-women book award winners is in inverse proportion to the perceived literary prestige of the award. After all, the literary gatekeepers regard romance is as being at the bottom of the genre-for-grownups pile, and YA not even worthy of grownups. SF, although it's come up in the world lately (Philip K. Dick has his own Modern Library editions), is still regarded with suspicion, while crime fiction, particularly its special cousin, noir, is almost respectable.
This, I'm guessing, is why my publishers (a different one for each of the Aud novels: coincidence? I think not...) have tried so hard to tag my work "noir." Noir is traditionally written by boys about boys. It doesn't have cooties.
Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying men don't like women, I'm saying that the literary gatekeepers (men and women and all those in between and on the edges) don't like books by women about women. But why? Is it something to do with the whole Cartesian dualist mind/body divide in which women are viewed as very much on the body/bad side of the scale rather than the mind/good? (I've written about this a lot, particularly in Writing from the Body.) Or is it--as lots of people here have suggested this week--the fact that readers find it difficult to cope with women giving violence? (Though receiving it has never seemed to get in the way of literary acceptance.) Maybe I'm wrong. I want to be. The whole notion is so very Second Wave. I want us to be past that.
Yet if we believe this article in the Guardian, we're not. It seems that as recently as 2006, the books that matter to men tend to be largely by and about men, whereas books that matter to women are by and about women and men.
So, are girl book cooties real? If so, how do we get rid of them?