The Penguin

Do you know what there needs to be more of in contemporary publishing? Publishing houses that share their names with batman villains!

I’ve checked and, as expected, Penguin Random House is the only one that can boast that honour; and what an unforgivable waste that is when you think about the pool of possible stellar names just sitting there, utterly neglected, and not being tapped into for publishing houses or imprints. Think about it publishing bigwigs that’s all I ask! 

I would trust Deathstroke or Riddler Publishing to accumulate a decent list. Plus I love the thought that, Danny Devito à la Batman Returns, is secretly the head honcho of Penguin, and all of their revenue goes to keeping his nightclub, Iceclub Lounge in business (there’s an ice bar in Melbourne!?! Holy shit I’m on to something).

He does resemble your classic bibliophile when someone’s getting too rough with their immaculate collection

It’s surprising though actually, Penguin and Penguin do share a little bit in common, beyond their love for adorable flightless birds. The biggest thing being that just like Penguin Classics, the Penguin has an established look attached to his reputation that’s uniform across his Penguin Commandos (to be fair though the members of his army are literally penguins sent to do his evil bidding – kind of like the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz). 

Penguin Classic’s universally recognisable imprint and cover design personifies the power of visual cues to cultivate and establish brand identity. The cover uniformity expressed through ‘a basic horizontal tripartite division of the colours’ as well as the illustrated penguin logo, not only immediately signals to readers which books are Penguin texts, they are also symbolic references to the publication’s background story and historical context – a narrative that is pivotal to the reverence that the Penguin brand has earned.

Sustained public awareness that these visual symbols are relics representing the company’s origins and historical significance is further reiterated through each book’s back cover, where prior to the text’s blurb, a summary appears recounting Sir Allan Lane’s struggle to find reading material at Exeter train station and stating that the original price was extraordinarily cheap ‘the same price as a packet of cigarettes’.

Thus while the Penguin Random House mission statement, to ‘We celebrate writers, stories and ideas that entertain, educate and inspire.’, would not be automatic knowledge to the general consumer, visual and literal reminders to readers of Penguin’s established position within the publishing industry, grants the text the cover is packaging a legitimacy – by extension – for being a work that the Penguin brand feels has merit and is worth celebrating. Massively similar I’m sure to when residents of Gotham see a penguin wearing a mind-control helmet and a rocket – they would automatically associate that branding to that suss millionaire fellow always donning a monocle, top hat, and tuxedo.

The Original Animorphs

 

So I hope you don’t think less of me but I never read any of The Animorphs books as a kid.

I wasn’t a big reader, and every time the Scholastic catalogues used to arrive at school I wasn’t that bright and I couldn’t understand why the Scholastic’s range was so damn book-heavy (put a gameboy in the catalogue you squares that’ll get more kids interested in the scholastic book club!!!).

Based on their trendy AF cover art though – where we’re lucky enough to witness every awkward look in the transition from human teen to aardvark – the extensive series seems like it raises that same question Bojack Horseman, Transformers or that awful art-house film The Lobster do – what creature/appliance best represents you for a morphing? Would your life be more fulfilling as a werewolf or a some kind of starfish – you tell me?

Anyway, so while little Ellen clearly deprived herself of what could have so easily been a meaningful phase of really wishing I could transform at will into a hawk, in a way I feel I have inadvertently read some Animorphs when I remember these works of literature.

Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)

While vampires were part of folklore for centuries before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this book popularised that classic brooding, cape-laden, vampire image we’re all familiar with (as well as marking the beginning of a hurtful Transylvanian stereotype).

Count Dracula’s ability to shape shift between bat and human forms anytime he’s in the mood for some evil biddings is definitely enough to classify him as a misunderstood Animorph that was well ahead of his time – i’m not sure though did all the Animorphs have to be good? What a pack of wusseys if they are, they’re in desperate need of a bad boy to sex up their image!

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886)

This short story happens to be home to my favourite pun possibly ever. When one of the main fellows, John Utterson, is trying to learn more about this mysterious wrongin’ Edward Hyde by following him around and such, Utterson says to himself ‘if he be Mr Hyde, I shall be Mr Seek’ – oh Utterson you should’ve saved that sick trash talk for when you’re finally in a room together.

Not strickly an Animorphs as such, given Dr Henry Jekyll is interchangeably transforming into another appearance rather than an animal whenever he drinks his home-brew serum. BUT you could get philosophical and say that because the new face gives Jekyll the freedom to do whatever he wants without consequence he is transforming into an animal.

The Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka, 1915)

What I respect about this story is that rather than getting bogged down into any details as to why/how this guy, Gregor Samsa, has turned into a giant insect Kafka just wants you to accept that he’s woken up like this and move straight into how this is going to affect Gregor’s daily living.

If this were an Animorphs it’d be the depressingly realistic one, where the transformation means they’ve understandably lost the capacity for speech communication, they can’t turn themselves back and the family is forced into poverty because they couldn’t afford the loss of income which came with an inexplicable shape-shift.

Animals have Eerie Powers

There are a few animal/show-business type questions that do occasionally cross my mind.

I wonder whether a consequence of literally every animal sport film, is that every single sport rule-book now includes a 30 page list of species that are barred from joining the team.

I naively wonder whether there is even the smallest possibility that Babe is still alive.

I wonder just how many kangaroo paw-sticks the sickos who made the show Skippy needed for the close-up handshake scenes.

And, much as I would rather not think about it, I do wonder whether Tarzan actually dated gorillas before Jane showed up.

Also what do you think was the ultimate objective the bird’s had when they took over in The Birds? Were they just sick of our shit? Could the humans have thrown a truckload of hot chips to appease them?

So on that note, let’s talk about a few classic animal narratives within literature, and the unanswered questions they too have left me with.

Animal Farm (George Orwell, 1945)

This is one of those books where it is quite obvious why people are made to read it in school – the Stalinist parallels are about as subtle as a brick to the face.

Also given how much I relate to Mollie the horse – who is swayed to go back to a regular farm because she misses sugar-cubes – it’s probably definitely a sign that I’m really not a team player.

Anyway I’m sure you’re all probably loosely familiar with this allegory of the farm animal’s failed attempt at a utopia where all animals are equal.

The animals choose to  overthrow their oppressive captor, Mr Jones, following the vision of Old Major – a respected elderly prize pig – for a future where all animals are free from humans.

Personally though, the one detail which I really don’t think get’s the attention it deserves is just how nonchalant all the humans in this book seem to be about how bloody fast the animals in this book can organize group projects and teach themselves to read.

Mr Jones spends a good deal of the book sitting around the pub having a moan, like this kind of thing is somehow not that absurd. And I kept thinking when the other surrounding farmers pull down the windmill that the animals have been building for two years, wouldn’t you just be impressed that the animals built something? Why hasn’t the press visited?

Charlotte’s Web (E.B White, 1952)

This book raises another question I’ve long had – how come Wilbur’s the one who gets famous instead of the spider who can write in English for some reason?

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972) *spoilers

Watership Down is surprising. Initially you assume that you’re not going to get that emotionally invested in the lives of some fictional rabbits – you’re not a child and the film Marley and Me failed to move you because you’re a cold hearted monster. But then you massively do, to the point where you’re not sure you’ll be ok if Fiver doesn’t survive.

It’s just such a beautifully dark story, the main rabbits are just such a noble little squad who’ve got each other’s backs – and fuck being a rabbit would be pretty grim, even if all the characters have really adorable names like Strawberry and Thistle.

To roughly sum up, a small group of rabbits flee their warren because Fiver has the capacity to sense when something bad is about to happen, and he has this vision of ‘blood across the warren’. It details the dangers the group face beyond the warren they’ve known their whole life, and – in the later half of novel – how establishing their own warren is reliant on challenging the leadership of a totalitarian-style warren.

The Black Cat (Edgar Allan Poe, 1843)

Similar to The Tell-Tale Heart, where killing someone because their glass eye got to you sometimes seemed like an overreaction, The Black Cat‘s narrator is bitten one night by his wife’s cat, Pluto, and therefore decides to act rationally and gouge one of the poor cat’s eyes out with a penknife.

Following this shitty thing he’s done, every time the narrator looks at the cat – who’s now naturally terrified of him – he feels remorse, so he decides to be super rational again and murder the cat. Then big surprise he starts to feel even more ravaged by guilt, so he brings another cat home for his wife and see’s his being nice to the new cat as some kind of atonement.

Then, I shit you not, he get’s angry at this cat because it reminds the narrator still of Pluto, and in an attempt to kill the cat with an axe he accidentally kills his wife (it’s really hard to feel sorry for this guy).

Anyway to cut a long story short, he entombs his wife behind a brick-wall in the basement, and just when he thinks he’s gotten away with it the police hear a cat meowing behind the brick-wall and find Pluto alive standing on the head of his dead wife’s corpse. Pluto somehow came back to life to grass on him and it feels great that karma has weirdly been served.

How important is the cover though?

The classic idiom ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ 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 touch-points 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 – recognised brand identities in the mind of the consumer reveals how deeply interconnected motivational touch-points 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

I only 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? (and no, none of it was filmed in Ballarat obviously. Ballarat is in Victoria, Wolf Creek was filmed in South Australia)

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: wishing they were longer but also a fan of an abrupt, not-quite, ending (which feels realistic given life’s stories are more fleeting chapters than endings).

Split into three sections – ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’; the stories, regardless of section they belong to, explore sexuality, contemporary aboriginal culture, family, heritage and identity, in a subtle, day-to-day voice which transports you into a fictional (yet very human) moment.

Even, the longest story in the collection, ‘Water’: which is set in the near future (in 2022, jesus that really isn’t far off) utilises fantasy/sci-fi to explore heritage and roots in a way way that’s surprisingly striking and poetic in how it explores love and heritage – as it is thought provoking on the current state of things [in the future there will be an Australia2 island inhibited by ‘sandplants’ – an intelligent race of plant-people] 

Axiomatic (Maria Tumarkin, 2018)

This is a confession, but embarrassingly prior to reading this I wasn’t actually familiar with Maria Tumarkin’s writing (and she teaches at my uni). The whole reason I bought Axiomatic was that it happens to have a really gorgeous cover – so yeah I’m that shallow.

Segmented into five popular axioms related to time, 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.

Told from a deeply intimate perspective; Tumarkin interviews and gets into the nitty-gritty and everyday existence of individuals who are personally affected by the darker complexities of life – such as teen suicide, the Holocaust, navigating through a flawed child custody system, addiction ect. These essays then tie back into how popular understandings of time we tell ourselves, fit within these realities.

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 recognise 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?]

The Reader of Novels

There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like (in Hollywood anyway): it’s someone who’s a bit dorky, socially awkward, maybe is fashioning some glasses and is introverted – and it’s built on the assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.

Now I know sitting in bed with a cup of tea and a book on a Friday night doesn’t exactly scream huge rebel. Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading don’t 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 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 corruptible 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.

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 incredible it is to be able to read and have access to knowledge, and creative works. It’s so easy to take for granted this freedom, so let some people  associate bookish types with being massive dorks, we know that they’re bad-asses! (at least by 19th century standards)

 

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 travelling 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 traumatised 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.

 

 

Isolation/Spending too much time on your own

An unavoidable downside to writing a lot, is that you do have to spend a big bulk of your time by yourself.

It’s just the unseen boringness of bashing out a quality article – no exaggeration majority of my time I’m in the basement of the library typing like a boss and being a wee bit territorial about the aisle I sit in (it’s my spot MOTHERFUCKERS I’ve earnt it!!! Do you think my ass shadow just put itself there hmmmm???).

Don’t get me wrong it’s all worth it in the end, seeing something you’ve written out there looking all pretty. But too much isolation can take its toll on your sanity. It gets lonely, plus it kinda kills the possibility of doing one of those a photo for a year challenges (Day 105 – a slightly different angle of this bit of the basement!!! #yolo)

Anyway so it’s got me thinking of fictional characters who’ve found themselves facing severe social seclusion. Here are three examples  to help ease any insecurities about you own real feelings of isolation.

Jane Erye (Charlotte Brontë, 1847) *spoilers

Literary analyses frequently credit the timeless quality of Jane Eyre to the relatable nature of Jane Eyre’s character. In fact at the time when the novel was first published, readers initially presumed that it was a true story because the book’s subtitle was ‘An Autobiography’.

And while finding yourself working in a manor where the Master’s secret, hidden first wife is locked up in the attic (the name Bertha really has died out eh?), isn’t exactly one of those hugely relatable experiences; the extreme loneliness and exclusion Jane faces throughout her early childhood is poignant because it feels like realistic rejection.

In contrast, although we never hear Bertha Mason’s perspective in Jane Eyre, she is another great, albeit more dramatic, example of fictional isolation.

Locked in Thornfield Hall’s attic for her hereditary madness, the reader only really has Rochester’s word that her mental descent occurred before her confinement.

And given there’s an actual scene where Rochester pretends he’s an elderly woman and starts giving guests in his house phoney psychic readings (perfectly sober too I might add) I don’t know if I completely trust his ability to spot irregular behaviour.

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892)

This classic American short story, of an unnamed woman’s experience of postpartum depression and consequently the commonly prescribed ‘rest cure’, is an important glance into a wide history of mistreatment of mental illness.

Additionally, as a commentary on the correlation between women being diagnosed with mental illness and their place in a patriarchal society, The Yellow Wallpaper is an incredibly useful historical resource within feminism.

To quickly summarise it, following the birth of her child the unnamed protagonist has been diagnosed by her physician husband John, with showing symptoms of hysteria.

To aid her recovery they have rented an old mansion and she is confined to a room with bars on the windows and decaying yellow wallpaper. The complete absence of any kind of stimulus causes her to see a trapped woman in the wallpaper as she descends further into psychosis. 

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

As a piece of early science fiction, first time readers tend to go into  Frankenstein expecting horror, and while you do get that there are much stronger themes of rejection and loneliness driving Frankenstein’s monster’s actions.

Created by a scientist who becomes obsessed with perpetuating life, Victor Frankenstein, the monster only swears revenge on his creator after facing ostracism from everybody he’s been in contact with – including Frankenstein who is immediately repulsed by his creation and flees, leaving the creature to fend for himself.

The saddest part of the monster’s lonely existence though is, after months of secretly living in an abandoned structure, and learning how to communicate by listening to the family in the adjoining cottage, his hopes of becoming their friend is shattered when they do eventually see him and run away in terror.

I feel for him and it breaks my heart, but setting their cottage on fire in anger though might not have been the best way to demonstrate how they were wrong to judge you on your appearance.

I will be your father figure

This is a bit of a generalisation, but I’ve started to notice that there’s an extensive number of crappy parents in the classics, and I’m wondering what percentage of these are reflections of an author’s own imperfect relationship with their parents.

After all many renowned literary figures had fractured relationships with one or more of their parents. Our gorgeous friend and raven lover, Edgar Allan Poe for instance, had a deeply strained relationship with his adoptive father John Allan, which once erupted into a two day argument.

Channelling anger – or any kind of hurt, into creating a beautiful piece of writing is known to be quite cathartic. Or once its done, if you’re still mad, at the very least the person who’s pissed you off probably got the passive-aggressive hint after reading your piece. I’m assuming for example that Sylvia Plath’s dad and her husband, Ted Hughes, both got the very subtle message that there was a dash of hostility directed their way after reading the poem Daddy.

But while there are a lot of literary explorations of strained parental bonds, I want to talk about fictional characters who’s children actually love and admire them. The one’s who are strong role models, and who you hope you could emulate for your children.

Because the abundance of neglectful parents in literature, makes it even more touching when you find one that is hopeful and kind. So anyway here are three of my favourite father figures from fiction.

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird,1960)

[If I didn’t mention Atticus in this post that would be pretty sacrilegious.]

‘The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.’

I probably will end up reading Go Set A Watchmen eventually, it’s just that I’m apprehensive. I don’t know if I could handle flawless Atticus suddenly being reduced to a senile bigot – his character deserved more than that, and more importantly Harper Lee deserved more than to have it published in the first place.

Its understandable why the 2015 release of Go Set a Watchmanthe sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird, was met with extensive criticism. Setting aside the alleged manipulation of Harper Lee, Atticus Finch is arguably one of the most beloved and inspiring characters in 20th century century literature.

To have his character lose all the principles that made him a powerful symbol, contradicted the reasons why To Kill a Mockingbird still holds such reverence 57 years after its initial publication.

So on that note let’s forget about Go Set a Watchmen here and focus specifically on the Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Set in Maycomb, Alabama during the depression, Atticus is the sole parent of Scout and Jem, who humbly demonstrates throughout the novel, what it means to truly seek fairness and to abide by one’s moral compass.

His children, quite rightly, idolise him as he exemplifies moral strength, both in his impossible role as defence attorney for a falsely accused black man, and in his general demeanour.

What’s more his ability to drop pearls of wisdom that touch your soul, is second to none. That final moment of the book, where Scout is talking about finally meeting Boo and her surprise that he’s friendly, and Atticus goes and drops this sweet exit line – ‘Most people are Scout when you finally see them’, is frankly getting me a little teary right now just thinking about it.

Hans Hubermann (The Book Thief, 2013) *spoilers

‘Trust was accumulated quickly, due primarily to the brute strength of the man’s gentleness’

Speaking of things which make me teary, the bond between Hans Hubermann and his foster daughter Liesel is one of the main reasons Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is one of my favourite books. Even death himself – who narrates the novel, is deeply touched by their relationship and considers Hans to have the best kind of soul.

Set in Germany under Nazi rule, Liesel is taken to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann at the age of ten, as both of her parents are communists – a label she doesn’t understand. The book is obviously centred around what’s happening in Europe and Germany at that point in time, yet it’s also a story of a girl developing a love for words – a love that’s spurred by Hans, who teaches her how to read and doesn’t crack it with her too much when she occasionally steals books.

They both just hold such a beautiful adoration for each other, and that bit at the end where Death tells us that the final thing Hans’ soul whispered before he dies was ‘Liesel’ –  I can’t handle it.

Jean Valjean (Les Miserables, 1862)

‘Poor sweet little creature whose heart had till that moment only ever been crushed.’

If you’re up for a fun-fact, the year Victor Hugo starting writing Les Miserables was the same year Poe’s The Raven was first published, 1845.

Anyway, just as in the musical adaption of Les Miserables, on the lam prisoner, Jean Valjean (who impressively managed to get his shit together and become a factory owner and the mayor of Montreuil-sur-mer before goody-two-shoes Javert had to spoil everything), rescues eight year old Cosette from her lonely and abusive existence living under the inn-keeping couple, the Thenardiers, after he makes a promise to her dying mother Fantine.

Now because the Thenardiers are campy and funny in the musical adaption, it does tend to kinda gloss over the fact that they really are the worst, and that Cosette has had a life of ongoing traumatic hardship up until Jean Valjean comes into her life.

Their bond is uniquely beautiful because both of them have had deeply lonely existences before finding each other. Plus its touching to read Cosette finally getting to have a parent who is filled with love for her.

 

 

Vixens

Look, we’re all human. Even the most moral of us are flawed. I’m sure, at some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced an internal struggle with choosing between the right thing to do, as opposed to the more fun/less mature course of action.

But then there are some people who take being a shit-lord up a notch. These are the types of characters in fiction who we love to hate, and whose terrible personalities/life decisions tend to be the root of the whole plot.

Here are three of my favourite female antagonists from literature who were just the worst.

 Cathy Ames (East of Eden, 1952)

I actually finished reading East of Eden two days ago. It had been a few years since I’d read anything by John Steinbeck, I forgot how much I loved his writing.

Anyway, the reason I read this book really fast was because every time I tried to put it down, Cathy would manage to do or say something, that completely topped the last previous shitty thing she did.

Who can leave a book for the night when Cathy goes and drops this line, ‘I wasn’t too tired for your brother’ – holy shit Cathy you actually said that to his face!!!!

East of Eden is beautiful and so much more than the awful things Cathy does, I’m even willing to forgive Steinbeck for calling one of the minor characters ‘Cotton Eye’ (NO! WHY! WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GET THAT BLOODY SONG STUCK IN MY HEAD!!!).

But Cathy’s storyline is what kept me so enthralled; and you know you’re dealing with a truly terrible character when this is how the introduction of her character begins,

‘I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents’

Cathy has a talent for manipulation and is easily able to make herself the object of mad obsession. I don’t want to give too much away, but she takes what she needs and gets a perverse kind of pleasure in bringing out the worst in people. She’s also really crap at hiding her true evil nature anytime she has some alcohol.

Abigail Williams (The Crucible, 1953)

The Crucible was one of my year 12 books, and it has the honour of being the only assigned reading I had in High School, that I didn’t think sucked.

My English teacher gave what is possibly the best summary of its plot when she said, ‘Abigail really shits on her own doorstep’. Yes, yes she does.

The Crucible is a fictional play of the 1692 Salem witch-trials, based loosely on historical accounts. Like the actual events, what starts the allegations is Reverend Samuel Parris catches young girls – including his daughter Betty and adopted niece Abigail, dancing in the forest around a fire with his Barbados slave, Tituba.

The girls initially deny their actions were witchcraft, yet out of fear they begin accusing their neighbours of conspiring with the Devil.

In the play, Abigail is a bit of a ring leader, and the accusations quickly become less about self preservation and driven more by revenge and hate.

Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, 1606)

Macbeth is another set text I had for High School English. I was definitely too young to get something out of it (there was a lot of immature snickering on my part, when Lady Macbeth says ‘unsex me here’).

I remember we all had to watch the Roman Polanski film adaption from the 70s. There was this scene with a whole gang of really old naked witches hanging out in a cave. I really don’t understand what anybody got out of making that scene, there’s no mention of them being naked in the original play and I had to go wash my eyes out with turps.

Anyway, Lady Macbeth is the wife of Scottish nobleman Macbeth, in the classic Shakespeare tale of why you probably shouldn’t kill a king. Lady Macbeth’s ambition is the driving force behind Macbeth stabbing the king so that he could gain the throne.