How important is the cover though?

‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’

This classic idiom is both a general caution against placing too much importance on appearance, yet equally a literal warning to prospective readers of the deceptive power a great cover design can hold.

By suggesting that the front cover can influence a choice in reading material that would not otherwise have been made, this saying assigns a pivotal role to the cover and rests on the assumption that this is the first point of contact a reader will have with a text.

However to what extent does this expression reflect the true reality of the publishing industry’s current reliance on strong cover designs to communicate with potential consumers?

While image is focal to a book’s marketability; the front cover in itself is just one of several potential touchpoints of varying significance which can determine how a book is discovered by the target demographic and whether they choose to buy it.

The aesthetic appeal of a book, and especially its cover, is undeniably important. Yet whether the book’s external qualities are the primary influence directing readers to select certain titles over others is a contentious assertion; particularly when one considers the heightened significance of brand identity in a culture that is becoming progressively orientated towards online and social media platforms.

The traditional retail practice of impulsively buying a book in a bricks and mortar bookshop – based on the book’s front cover and the plot summary written on the back cover – is just one means of discovery, and a marketing strategy for any title must be more nuanced than sole dependence on this single book purchasing pattern.

One can even contend that in the current literary landscape, the ‘cover’ that this popular axiom is referring to has expanded and now refers to the whole image carefully cultivated by a title’s unique promotional strategy prior to its release – which includes both the author’s personal brand as well as that of the publishing house.

As each book’s identity is a formation of multiple components – such as genre, author/s, unique selling points (USP), target demographic and purpose – how a title is marketed, and what marking strategies are more likely to be successful, will fluctuate depending on each of these elements.

Furthermore, while a front cover has multiple roles, its ultimate objective is to market the book it is packaging to a specified audience. Thus, the front cover’s significance – as with every marketing device – will also invariably be subject to variation rather than holding an identical level of automatic importance for every book.

Another vital consideration is that a prospective reader’s first impression is arguably more likely to be influenced by promotional efforts prior to the book’s launch rather than the title’s front cover. This is due to the importance that generating awareness of the book prior to its launch has as part of the publishing cycle, with the majority of newly released titles immediately facing heavy competition on top of a short ‘shelf-life’ in bookshops (approximately six to eight weeks).

According to data collated by reader analytics company, Jellybooks, there are eight major motivations for ‘buying a specific book’. Listed below, these include:

  1. ‘Entertain me now’
  2. ‘Entertain me in the future’
  3. ‘Inform me’ – A book which educates/helps fulfil an aspiration.
  4. ‘Obligation’ – Referring to a book one is assigned to read such as for book-clubs, study or alternatively books which are unanimously considered literary classics.
  5. ‘Social Pressure’ – A book one feels compelled to read as ‘everyone else’ is currently reading it.
  6. ‘Make me look smart’ – owning/reading a book for the symbolic status attached to that particular title.
  7. ‘Gift’
  8. ‘Impulse’ – Being in a particular state of mind, or being stimulated by environmental factors such as being inspired to buy a book at a literary event or in a Museum gift shop.

These motivations highlight how diverse and subjective the rationale driving each book purchase decision can be. But while the front and back cover can also act as further attributes bolstering any one of these justifications, the fact that the book’s appearance is not listed as a separate motivation suggests that – at least consciously – the front cover is a secondary interest compared to what the consumer plans to get out of this purchase/reading experience.

Another study examining reading patterns which also indicates the front cover’s general secondary status, is a comparative analysis conducted by book review site, Goodreads, of two similar novels – Gillian Fylnn’s Gone Girl and Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

This extensive survey involved collecting responses from readers who had read one of these titles, and its responses showed that while factors relating to trusted recommendations such as ‘reviews’ or ‘word of mouth’ were the highest ranking motivations amongst readers of both novels, the front cover and blurb ranked last – and only for Night Circus – as a direct motivation for readers.

Parallels shared between these separate studies, offer invaluable insight into what inspires a reader to choose a certain book when faced with an abundance of choice. Furthermore, the affirmed value held by ‘word of mouth’ in both cases is testament to how vital developing an initial awareness is to inspiring subsequent sales of the book.

Interpreting these studies however, as evidence that the book’s appearance is irrelevant would be far too simplistic. Rather, the marginal influence the front cover holds as a motivational tool, reveals that broadly readers are understandably more prompted by content and what a trusted opinion promises the text will deliver.

Developing positive word of mouth is imperative, yet the front cover also plays a meaningful role in this as an extension/representation of established brands – particularly that of the author and publishing house.

Although this function is less obvious than the front cover’s equally crucial role of introducing the book’s plot, tone and own identity; the cover’s ability to immediately visually connect a book to – often a multitude of – recognized brand identities in the mind of the consumer reveals how deeply interconnected motivational touchpoints are, and how difficult it is to analyse the effectiveness of one as a wholly separate entity.

As pointed out by David Pearson in Books as History, a ‘successful design is most effective when the user of the object does not stop to think about what makes it work; it just does’. A reader may not have full awareness of the extent to which the front and back cover’s contents influenced their final decision to buy a book, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean the book’s packaging was not a factor.

A marketing strategy for any title must be nuanced, particularly due to the entrenched presence of online and social media platforms, yet while a book’s cover design is not the focal means of discovery, the various brand identities the cover will embody are pivotal to reaching and connecting with prospective readers.

Australian Reads

So I only just found out recently that my home town’s Mill Market – which might I add was already pretty wicked to begin with – inexplicably has a bunch of Wolf Creek props round the back – -WHAT? There’s just so many follow-up questions! Who was the weirdo/hero who bequeathed that shit to the city of Ballarat of all places? And why am I just hearing this news now?

We’ll talk about something else now, I’m just still reeling from that discovery.

Anyway speaking of Australian films, there’s one out at the moment called Ladies in Black (and sadly no, the guy from Packed to the Rafters doesn’t get tortured in this one too – what a bitter let down. I SAT THROUGH THAT SHIT FOR NOTHING!!!!!!!!!*), which is based on the first novel of Madeleine St John – the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Now I’ve not read The Women in Black – it looks a bit too heart-warming for my taste (plus a whole book of Sydney people making snooty remarks about how shit Melbourne is? Yeah nah), but it has got me thinking about other great Australian reads which I devoured and that are definitely worth a gander, they’re in no particular order.

Heat and Light (Ellen van Neerven, 2014)

Normally short story collections aren’t really my cup of tea, but each of these felt equally enthralling and left me wanting to know more. Plus there’s the right amount of shared consistency connecting these stories, which is impressive given how stand-alone they otherwise appear.

Split into three sections – ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’ – each story regardless of section touches on themes relating to sexuality, contemporary aboriginal culture, family, heritage and identity.

In particular, the way the longest story in the collection, ‘Water’ , utilises fantasy to explore heritage and roots is striking and poetic.

Axiomatic (Maria Tumarkin, 2018)

This is a confession, but embarrassingly prior to reading this I wasn’t actually familiar with Maria Tumarkin. The whole reason I bought Axiomatic was that it happens to have a really gorgeous cover – so yeah I’m that shallow.

Anyway unavoidably, since going into Tumarkin’s most recent book completely fresh, it has sparked the big search for every other bit of writing she’s ever done that’s out there.

Segmented into five popular axioms – such as ‘Time Heals all Wounds’ and ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’ – each saying acts as a springboard into its own distinct rumination of an important – and often overlooked – issue within Australian society.

Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, 2018)

If I ever have a son I’m making sure he reads this. No exaggeration, calling it powerful just seems like a huge understatement, and everyone I know who’s read this, pulled an all-nighter and finished it in two days tops.

Eggshell Skull is the debut memoir of Bri Lee, which details her time working as a judge’s associate for the Queensland District Court – an experience which gradually forces Lee to fully recognize and confront her own long-repressed memory of the sexual abuse that she herself had survived as a child.

It’s exhausting and heartbreaking reading the extent of sexual abuse cases Lee is faced with during – what was only a year – of her time working for the District Court.

And reading it, I was just in complete awe of the strength it must have taken to be witnessing on a daily-basis, what the process looks like for victims who are brave enough to make an official complaint, and how frequently the legal system fails to achieve justice, and yet in spite of that still being prepared to seek accountability.

(Again embarrassingly, I also solely bought this book for the cover, having no idea what it was on – it’s a pretty great cover to be fair)

Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey, 1988)

Basically, the main reason I connected with this book when I read it five years ago was that the character Oscar Hopkins reminds me a touch of myself – in that he’s a fidgety, painfully socially awkward type who get’s too easily fixated on things (Oscar has a strict and conservative upbringing raised by a Plymouth Brethren minister though, so I don’t know what my excuse is).

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier are two misfits who find each other on a ship heading from England to Sydney. Oscar is a trainee Anglican minister and Lucinda is the owner of a lucrative glass factory in Sydney, and their friendship essentially revolves around their mutual obsession with risk and gambling.

Without giving spoilers, the two things I particularly loved about this book were,

  1. the underlying influence of timing, and how the two characters lived such parallel lives and could have been perfect for each other, yet they are ultimately victims of both circumstance and their own inherent shyness (shit sorry that is a big spoiler – I suck)
  2. that whole idea of a church made of glass seems pretty cool – you could work on your tan and do some praising!!!

[*how shit was Packed to the Rafters though?]

 

Super Hans’s ambiguous moral teachings and life hacks

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via ILAB

There’s this story that Charles Dickens once found Danish author Hans Christian Andersen lying outside on the lawn, crying inconsolably over one bad review. I really love that this happened. It just seems like such a timeless thing a beautifully delicate, creative type might do.

In his day, Hans Christian Andersen (1805 – 1875) was one of the most renowned writers in Europe. And his life is still often viewed as a rags-to-riches fairy tale in itself.

The son of a cobbler and an illiterate washerwoman, who very likely suffered dyslexia and who struggled with a crippling fear that he was unlovable, yet whose stories remain widely recognised and beloved well over 200 years after his death, and who could clearly handle some creative criticism in a dignified and think-skinned manner – who better to seek some guidance from?

So I want to have a ponder over the lessons Hans bestowed upon us as children. Because to be honest it’s still beyond me what the moral of the Emperors New Clothes is – you can’t get arrested for indecent exposure if you make a convincing argument when the cops show up that you’re wearing pants of the mind?

The Ugly Duckling

Sometimes puberty is kind and people get better looking with age, so be nice just to be on the safe side. This is a terrible lesson.

The Little Mermaid

Seriously though its important to learn how to negotiate a good trade. Your voice and every time you walk it feels like your treading on sharp knives? Jesus do a bit of haggling! I know you really want that human soul but at least try to get it down to say… trading your sense of smell and every time you walk it feels like your treading on lego?

The Wild Swans

Shirts knitted from stinging nettles you found in cemetery will somehow help your swan brothers return to human form. Don’t try and make the best of a bad situation and teach them some kind of sign language, and get them to do your evil bidding like an army of flying monkeys. No, keep your dignity and be that odd one on the street with 11 swans who yells at the neighbours when they give you judgey glares, that they’re the ones who’ll look stupid just as soon as your done knitting your collection of stinging nettle attire.

The Red Shoes

Cursed by a mysterious man – as punishment for wearing red shoes to church – Karen’s shoes are bound to her feet and force her into a tortuous loop of continual dancing. Wee bit harsh there. What about that time I wore whatever shoes I wanted on a Sunday and didn’t go to church for 25 years in a row? Section me out mysterious beard man – I look  embarrassing when I dance too so it’d really hit me hard.

The Princess and the Pea

You can win a Prince’s heart by being very vocal about your extremely first world problems. It’s a pea get over it! If you’re having a rough nights sleep in a stranger’s bed cause you can feel something under their mattress, and in the end it just turns out to be a pea you’ve dodged a potentially awkward and gross bullet and you should be very very thankful.

Thumbelina

Toads are bastards who will attempt to kidnap you in the dead of night and force you into an arranged marriage with their toad son.

The Shadow

Your shadow is such a prick. Just don’t trust that guy – he’s shady (GET IT!!!)

The Flying Trunk

Don’t ride in your enchanted flying trunk and let off fireworks! Drive sensibly, this is why we can’t have nice things!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childhood Book Drinking Games part 2

Given the last time I wrote a childhood book drinking games post it was 2016, I feel I need to stress again to be a responsible adult and wait til the children in your care are asleep before you get the books out and prepare to par-tay!

Any of the Charlie and Lola books (Lauren Child)

  1. Drink anytime Lola has a whinge or is a bit of a pain in the ass
  2. Drink whenever a real picture is used within the illustrations or when the font is put in bold for emphasis
  3. Drink if at any point you start to wonder where Charlie and Lola’s parents are at
  4. Drink if there’s an overall lesson about sharing
  5. Drink any time these words are utilised: extremely, absolutely, actually

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (Judith Viorst)

  1. Drink anytime something shitty happens to Alexander
  2. Drink if he threatens to move to Timbuktu
  3. Drink whenever Alexander says it’s a ‘terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day’
  4. Drink whenever the characters are wearing an outfit that’s quite seventies

Come Back, Amelia Bedelia (Peggy Parish)thumbnail_IMG_8680

  1. Drink anytime Amelia fucks up
  2. Drink if the exact way she fucks up is somehow a pun
  3. Drink if her job search in this book gets you reminiscing about your own periods of unemployment and you start to feel sorry for Amelia
  4. Drink every time she gets hired for a job she’d probably need to have proper training for – that’s why she keeps screwing things up! This isn’t all on her!!!

Any of the Maisy Mouse books (Lucy Cousins)

  1. Drink anytime Maisy is referred to in the third person
  2. Drink if Charlie and Talluhlah also rock up
  3. Drink if at any point you start to wonder how old Maisy is meant to be; given that in some stories she’s in the city alone or using the oven unsupervised yet in others she’s playing doctors and her bedtime’s 7.30pm
  4. Drink anytime she brushes her teeth or there’s an actual illustration of her sitting on the John (there’s more than one)

The Velvelteen Rabbit (Margery Williams)

  1. Drink anytime the Velvelteen Rabbit stresses that he’s real a rabbit
  2. Drink if you start to wonder why the other toys are being so shitty about the fact that he’s not a real rabbit – you’re not real either!!!!
  3. Drink to ease the pain when things start to get real and the kid suddenly has scarlet fever

Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown)

  1. Drink if there’s a rhyme
  2. Drink if the red balloon that appears gets you thinking about IT 
  3. Drink anytime an animals mentioned
  4. Drink whenever you think ‘a bowl full of mush’ doesn’t sound particularly appetizing
  5. Drink whenever the word ‘goodnight’ is said (yeah this is a pretty harsh rule. You probably will need your stomach pumped)

Ada Lovelace and Lord Byron (who has the kavorka)

(c) Newstead Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

ada-lovelace-1

Lord Byron’s notorious facility for pulling both female and male love interests is one of those bits of historical trivia that I find a little perplexing – I mean, I’ve seen his portrait, I don’t know what all the fuss was about, maybe back in that century the dating pool was very slim pickings?

But I shouldn’t go underestimating the allure a talented wordsmith can have – the Romantic poet truly had the Kavorka, with his clubfoot only adding to his irresistible  aura.

By his own account, Byron slept with over 200 women in the later years of his life, while living in exile in Venice (‘by his own account’ though does immediately sound a wee bit suspect, I mean by my own account this is still the year I’m definitely getting into shape).

Byron’s half-sister, Augusta, wasn’t even immune to his charm, with the two having an affair – and subsequently a child – during his very short-lived marriage to Annabella Milbanke (this was gross and scandalous even by early 19th century standards).

Byron’s life of just 36 years is defined not only by the poetry he left behind, but equally by the enthralling, usually sordid, details of his personal life. For me though, the most fascinating thing about Lord Byron’s existence is the life of daughter he never knew, Ada Lovelace – a pioneer in mathematics and computer programming in a time when women could not attend university in Britain.

Weeks following the birth of Augusta Ada Byron on December 10 1815 (more commonly known by her middle name for obvious reasons. Love how she has the same name as the sister, way to rub it in Byron!!), Annabella left with her daughter to her parents house after Lord Byron’s famous threat to his wife that he would ‘do everything wicked’. The poet would never see either of them again, with the separation sparking such intense public scandal that Byron left Britain in disgrace in 1816.

Frightened that artistic pursuits would have a destructive influence on Ada, and that she would want to follow a destructive path like her famous father, Annabella encouraged Ada into mathematics by hiring several tutors. And at 17 Ada would meet mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage, through who she began being tutored by University of London professor, Augustus de Morgan.

Babbage became Ada’s mentor, and when asked to translate an article on Babbage’s design for the ‘analytical engine’, her extensive notes she added to the original document are now considered the first examples of a working software program ever published. What’s makes this even more incredible is that the machinery that could run the code wouldn’t be invented for another century.

What I love about Ada’s story is that she is remembered in her own right, in a field that is completely distinct from the field Lord Byron has reverence in. She is buried next to him in the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Nottingham, yet in life they were strangers and had minds that – from an outside perspective – seem like they shared little in common.

[images via wikipedia and pcmag]

 

 

‘There is a gentlemen, rather the worse for wear…’

[That cover image is Vincent Price in the film adaption of The Mask of the Red Death. Yes, he really does look like a massive weirdo in that costume – like the person who is ruining your otherwise rocking halloween party]

In life, there are countless moments of varying significance that, for whatever reason, manage to get themselves forever lost to ol’ father time. For me personally, the absent memory of how that mysterious dalmatian ended up on top of me the night drinking Yahtzee was invented is the first thing that springs to my mind (or rather DOESN’T spring to mind! It’s about to get a wee bit Twilight Zone-esque up in here!).

It’s usually a rather mundane reality that naturally not every single moment in history was recorded, and that memory is incapable of preserving every lived minute in pristine condition. Yet when it concerns a figure like Edgar Allan Poe – who never really needed any additional assistance coming across enigmatic – this commonplace phenomena becomes ten-fold more enthralling.

Poe’s unexplained disappearance and his subsequent mysterious death four days after he was found, is one of those historical subjects that gets me a little bit excited – as a fan of both some Poe trivia and a good mystery. Plus it makes me wonder whether fellow crime writer Agatha Christie ever thought of Poe during her own eleven day disappearance in 1926.

On 7 October  1849, at Washington College Hospital – in a cell-room normally reserved for drunks; the gorgeous 19th century equivalent of Robert Smith allegedly whispered ‘Lord help my poor soul’ before dying at age 40 – ten days before he was to marry what would have his second wife, fellow widow Elmira Royster Shelton.

Officially Poe death was documented as ‘congestion of the brain’, however an autopsy was never conducted, and as his doctor had denied all visitors, only one account exists of the state Poe was in leading up to his death.

During Poe’s four days of hospitalisation he was in a complete state of delirium, incapable of accounting what had happened since he was last seen on 27 September leaving Richmond, Virginia for an editing job in Philadelphia.

Poe had been found 3 October outside a tavern and polling location (it was during an election), by a printer named Joseph Walker who recognised the famous poet. Poe gave Walker the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, and Walker got in contact with Snodgrass asking for help,

Dear Sir, 

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
JOS. W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

What’s particularly fascinating though, is that Poe was found dressed in clothes that were not his, yet still in possession of a sword cane he had nicked from a friend of his called Dr John Carter, who Poe had visited the night before he left Richmond (to be fair if any of my friends owned an actual sword cane I would “accidentally” leave their house with it too. I would so “accidentally” conceal it under my jacket somehow).

There are numerous theories that attempt to give an explanation on what precisely caused Poe’s death – such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcoholism, a brain tumor. Or more sinister explanations such as murder, or being victim of ‘cooping’ – a type of voter fraud where gangs would kidnap victims and force them to repeatedly vote in various disguises.

What’s annoys me the most though about this never to be solved riddle is that a medium in the 1860s claimed Poe’s ghost wrote poetry through her – if you could communicate with Poe’s ghost, WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HIM TO EXPLAIN HIS DEATH SO THAT IT ISN’T A TOPIC OF DEBATE 169 YEARS AFTER IT HAPPENED?????

 

 

 

 

The Reader of Novels

There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like – it is someone who is dorky, socially awkward or an introvert, and it rests on an assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.

Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading do not do justice to its long held rebellious reputation.

The past is scattered with instances where people feared the consequences of reading. And one particularly fascinating example of this is the Victorian era’s deep concern over the reading habits of women.

There is a 19th century painting by Antoine Wiertz’s called The Reader of Novels (1853), where a mysterious demon-like creature tempts a young naked reader with another book. This portrayal of a female reader, is a reflection of a prevalent Victorian anxiety – what increased female literacy would mean for their ‘purity’ and for larger society.

During this period in Europe, particularly in Britain, the female reader was the topic of public moral debate because she was a new kind of reader. Major shifts meant formerly untouched demographics, including women, now had much higher literacy levels and greater access to reading material. These changes included the rise of public libraries, and primary school education becoming compulsory.

Warnings to fathers and husbands, of the corruptive power novel reading had over women, was not a new thing; with humanist philosopher Juan Luis Vives cautioning in 1540,

‘A woman should beware of all these books, like as of serpents or snakes’

However this quantitative level of females regularly reading was unknown up until this point.

Embedded preconceptions of the intelligence capacity of women, meant that their ability to handle this new freedom (to logically interpret fiction) was under constant scrutiny. By nature women were considered more fragile and impressionable, and thus many people opposed women reading without some level of guardianship, on both moral and medical grounds.

As a cautionary tale to parents, novelist Charlotte Elizabeth Browne wrote in 1841 of her experience reading The Merchant of Venice at aged seven,

‘Reality became insipid almost hateful to me’

This was a common argument: that girls and women were more prone to hysteria and more likely to get themselves lost in fiction rather than focus on reality.

Physicians like Dr John Harvey Kellogg, believed women were more susceptible to both escapism and addiction and thus reading as a habit had the potential to become ‘as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium’.

Many revered medical professionals of the time shared this view that exposure to novels could have a negative effect on women’s health. For instance, female physician Dr Mary-Ann Wood, stated in her book What Young Women Ought to Know (1899) that,

‘Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.’

The popularity of romance novels was also a subject of moral concern because it was feared they were corrupting influences on purity, and that they set unrealistic expectations.

A woman’s chastity was deemed immensely important during this time, and novel reading was seen as both a distraction to their domestic obligations, and a threat to the gender expectation to be a faithful and docile wife and mother.

As a 21st century women, I too easily take for granted what it means to have agency over what I read. Reflecting on an historical period where the notion that a woman can have independence over what she reads was still an emerging and highly contested, makes me further appreciate how beautiful it is to have access to knowledge, and creative works .

[Originally this was in Cluster early last year]

April is the Cruelest Month

Knowing that this is definitely my last year of uni ever (seriously I can’t stress this enough – I’m never coming back for more of this shit!!!) means that my mind has recently started replaying the highlight reel of past procrastination, kind of like the flashback episode of a sitcom (particularly moments from my undergrad, that was pro level).

It’s all pretty embarrassing really, here’s a list of genuine things I’ve done over the years while procrastinating,

  • Got mad good at computer mahjong and solitaire
  • Decided now was the best time to learn as much of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven as I could off by heart (I can still get up to verse four though!)
  • Decided now was the best time to get back into knitting again
  • Spent the best part of a day carefully taking the seeds out of pomegranates
  • Watched the music video to Another Brick in the Wall a bunch of times then wondered why I wasn’t exactly feeling motivated to finish that essay

Anyway the reason I’m bringing this up is that, having a reminisce over all the self-inflicted pain which naturally comes with procrastination, has also got me thinking a lot about T.S Eliot – in particular the poem he is arguably most renowned for, The Wasteland.

While Eliot’s great line, ‘distracted from distraction by distraction’  from Four Quartets may seem like a more appropriate sentiment for talk on procrastination; The Wasteland‘s morbid exploration into the futility of modern existence, and the personal suffering behind the poem’s creation, can easily be applied to procrastination. Plus surprisingly, The Wasteland is even able to give an unintentionally optimistic perspective on treading through the shittier times (or it’s likely that maybe I’m being way too positive, it is pretty bleak).

First published in 1922, The Wasteland traces modernity’s descent into hell in five parts, and was the piece which first gained Eliot attention as a poet (interestingly James Joyce’s Ulysses was published earlier that year – my brain needs to get a whole lot more bigger and impressive before I attempt to read that though).

Throughout The Wasteland, hordes of tragic figures are mechanically walking through life,

‘I had not thought death had undone so many,     

Sighs, short and infrequent were exhaled

And each man fixed his eyes before his feet’  

 

Eliot warns of culture’s progressing erosion and the monotony to be faced trapped in ‘the wasteland’. This theme of dredging through tedium is comparable to that feeling of just wishing a task was over, to the point where you almost feel detached from the initial reason why you’re doing this work.

Yet conversely, these words are also a challenge to be better. To find purpose and beauty, and not settle for sleepwalking through your existence. In my case, I shouldn’t overlook the fact that even the most tedious tasks, form part of something greater that I care deeply about.

Going deeper, and extending beyond the poem’s words; Eliot famously credited his tumultuous eighteen year marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood for ‘…the state of mind out of which came The Wasteland’.

An awareness that the darkest point in T.S Eliot life, sparked what is arguably the most significant piece of his literary legacy, puts present unhappiness towards tedium into perspective. Yes, maybe the present feels like a struggle – but maybe by living through it, something truly brilliant will derive out of it?

[Bit of an interesting fun-fact I learnt while doing some note-taking for this post: the owners of Eliot’s old family beach house in Massachusetts claim that its haunted by Eliot’s ghost. In life, T.S was a bit of a prude, so I like to think that his ghost only appears in the throes of passion to give you a judgmental glare]

Fictional Couples whose happiness won’t make you want to be sick in a bucket

In hindsight, I think the main reason I didn’t have any interest in reading as a teenager was that – in my experience anyway, a lot of books directed primarily towards adolescent girls, tended to have a strong sappy romantic sub-plot; and being the cold-hearted cynic that I was/am, I genuinely believed that it was impossible for a novel to have romantic themes and not be a complete load of dull shite.

And while yes, I still wouldn’t be caught dead reading Romeo and Juliet (YOU’RE THIRTEEN, you will meet other people! A bit of get the fuck over it is in order), I’m proud to say that my palette has slightly widened over time. I won’t automatically dismiss reading something anymore based purely on the knowledge that a loved-up couple will be featuring a lot in it.

Don’t get me wrong, if a book isn’t a little dark, I will probably lose interest, BUT I’ve learned not to be so narrow minded. Falling in love is a big theme, and of course not every single fictional representation of it, is doomed to feel simplistic and clique. So here are a few fictional couples whose stories have helped me broaden my horizons.

Robert and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1941)

This is such a beautiful book, seriously get on it.

Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences traveling across Spain, reporting on the Spanish Civil War; For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place over the course of four days, and tells the story of an American volunteer Robert Jordan, who must blow up a bridge of strategic importance behind enemy (Fascist) lines.

For the offensive attack to be successful, the bridge needs to be blown up at a minutely specific time; and the story begins with Robert meeting a small group of guerrilla fighters, living within the mountains, who have been assigned to help him.

This group includes Maria – who they found in a horrifically traumatized state and took in. The cruelty inflicted on her, following the Fascist takeover of her town, is still a very fresh wound – yet her gentle demeanour hasn’t been poisoned. She and Robert are instantly drawn to each other and from the first night they are an item.

What’s particularly poignant about their relationship, is that while it moves fast as a consequence of the immense instability surrounding them, it feels realistic because Robert is frequently ruminating whether his passion for Maria is genuine, or if his feelings have only been intensified by the knowledge he could easily die during this mission.

Although some contemporary criticisms feel that Maria’s character is far too one-dimensional: factoring in its cultural/historical context, I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment. But I would’ve loved to have known more about Maria’s personality outside of Robert.

Stephen and Mary (The Well of Loneliness, 1928)

As my previous blogpost on The Well of Loneliness, focused more on its obscenity trials rather than the book’s actual story, I figure I could talk about it here without doubling up.

Now the reason you’ll feel particularly invested in Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn’s happiness is because prior to meeting each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, the novel details all of Stephen’s personal history.

Her incapacity, growing up, to comprehend her difference, her crippling loneliness, her unrequited obsession over a married neighbour, her mother’s eventual disownment of her – all of these experiences, despite the long held criticism that this book hasn’t aged well, have a deep, and timeless resonance. Plus, having a nuanced understanding of who Stephen is before she finds love, means as a reader you have a greater impression of how much Mary enriches her existence.

Another great quality of this class piece of literature is Hall’s additional effort to highlight the strong class element that restricted the freedom of queer women during this time. In the story Mary and Stephen are close friends with another lesbian couple, Jamie and Barbara, whose choice to live as a couple has left them ostracised from their small village destitute and ‘starvation poor’. As well as their influence on the overall plot progression, Jamie and Barbara’s existence within the story is vital because it highlighted the freedom Stephen’s wealth had given her.

Jean and Helene (The Blood of Others, 1945)

I was debating for a bit whether or not Jean and Helene belonged on this list, given technically it’s really not a love story – more an exploration into personal responsibility and what we owe other people. But when I read it years ago, I remember it partially strengthening my own, very limited, understanding of why certain things had turned to shit. And that’s pretty impressive from a book that’s premise was completely unknown to me before starting it (my motives for reading it were basically – I wanted to read some Simone de Beauvoir and it was the thinnest book I could find).

Set within a German occupied France, and like For Whom the Bell Tolls, also inspired by Beauvior’s own personal experience working for the French Resistance: The Blood of Others is the story of a brief affair relived through a succession of flashbacks, as the main protagonist, Jean, watches his former lover Helene, die of a gunshot wound (he wasn’t the one who shot her by the way, it was a French Resistance related accident).

What’s central to Jean and Helene’s story is that Jean is never sure that he loves Helene, yet he tells her he loves her anyway because he is fascinated by how Helene’s happiness becomes dependant on this imperfect understanding she has of him. In other words, it’s the classic existentialist mind-fuck where it dawns on you that you can only know a person to an extent.

 

 

Sontag, Proust and Social Media Presence

I only got to about page 100 of French novelist Marcel Proust’s whopping seven volume love story, Remembrance of Things Past, before admitting defeat. Yet there were still snippets of it that inspired deeper thought on my part. One quote in particular, contemplating whether it’s possible to truly know somebody as a whole person, successfully sparked a small existential crisis in me over the intricacies that make up individual personalities,

‘If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion, indeed it is only one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion.’

This idea, that our knowledge of those we feel we know well, and even knowledge of ourselves, is incomplete and pieced together by representations, impressions and shared moments is powerful and poetic. But it’s also particularly daunting when read in a time shrouded by public performances of the self. After all, so much of social media’s charm is the control it gives us to present a perfectly curated version of our existence to the rest of the world.

The quote reminds me of Susan Sontag’s extensive writing on photography and its power to define who you are and ‘determine our demands upon reality’. Like Proust’s contemplation, Sontag’s theory that we build an understanding of ourselves and others through photography in the modern era, can be interpreted as a poignant insight into how we use social media to represent our personality and lived experiences, despite both being written in times where online platforms were non-existent.

The work of revered American academic, Susan Sontag, critically analyses multiple parts of modern life and the human experience. In 1977, she published On Photography, a collection of essays that had originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Reading On Photography now, its belief that photography has created an ‘aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted’ seems almost prophetic, and perhaps more apt to our current culture than to the time of its original release. Just like Proust’s suggestion that we are only ever granted a glimpse of the whole individual, Sontag’s claim that a photograph is a ‘pseudo-presence’ (an appropriation of ‘the thing being photographed’), is an incitement to look deeper for meaning.

Now, as somebody who needs to keep away from social media whenever I’m going through a period of fragile mental health, these insights are particularly moving. It’s too easy to scroll through social media posts and feel as though your own life or personality is somehow lacking.

Sontag and Proust are reminders that it’s futile to draw conclusions about yourself and other people’s existence based purely on what they are allowing you to see.
As Sontag argues, the ‘unlimited authority’ photography possesses in contemporary society is not actually warranted. We presume a photograph is an impartial ‘experience captured’, and we use them as a means of confirming our reality. Yet it shouldn’t possess that level of power because it’s only a representation and it does not automatically equate with truth.

Our social media platforms, and the endless web of beautiful images it surrounds us with, are only fragments of much more complex realities. We are more interconnected than ever, yet when we fail to recognise that all online presences are only representations, we risk feeling fueling a harmful mindset that we’re the only ones who sometimes feel broken or unfulfilled.

Basing ideas about who a person is or what one’s own life ought to look like on any representation is flawed. As Proust and Sontag point out – our existence remains too layered and intricate to be adequately portrayed by one channel. Maybe I’ll always find social media a little triggering during bouts of loneliness and intense vulnerability, but at least I can attempt to put it into a rational perspective thanks to Proust and Sontag.

[This piece later appeared in Discord zine’s final edition]