Adding Literary Realism to Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My favorite reading genre is science fiction, but my favorite books are usually literary novels. I often think about what makes a literary novel great and wonder why those elements aren’t usually found in science fiction.

A Town Like Alice, a 1950 novel by Nevil Shute, has been made into a movie (1956), television mini-series (1981) and radio drama (1997). Shute’s story obviously has lasting appeal, perfect for would-be writers to study. I’m 65 years late discovering this novel, yet it was gripping as any current bestseller. Why? To answer that is a writing lesson and not a review. If you haven’t read this novel go away and come back when you’re done, because to dissect this book will give away spoilers. There’s a $2.99 Kindle version at Amazon. Make sure you get the full version, not one of the shorter editions. The audio edition narrated by Robin Bailey is wonderful.

a town like alice

A Town Without Alice is a love story related through a lawyer. Jean Paget, an Englishwoman, gets caught up in World War II while living in British Malaya, becoming a prisoner of war. She has a brief encounter with Joe Harman, an Australian, also a prisoner. Years after the war she inherits money that allows her to return to Malaya to track down Joe. The narrator of the story is Noel Strachen, a widowed lawyer in his seventies, in charge of Jean’s trust fund in England.

Noel can’t know everything that goes on in this story, but Nevil Shute has him tell the tale. Jean either relates her adventures in person, or via letters, but it’s still not enough for Noel to know everything. So why does Shute have this old solicitor be the storyteller? I think it’s key to why the novel succeeds.

We generally read novels that are in the first or third person. First person novels are very intimate, but have limitations. Third person POV allows writers the most latitude for giving reader information, but it adds an impersonal distance from the character. That’s why many modern writers often use a very close third person. It lets the author convey details the main character won’t know, yet stay close enough to let readers feel intimate with their protagonists.

Nevil Shute knew Jean and Joe could not be writers, and he wants the reader to think this is a true story. By having Jean’s solicitor tell the story in first person, it makes the story feel very true. An “as told by” kind of narrative. A Town Like Alice is based on two real events, but greatly changed for the novel. But it’s also part speculation, about how to revitalize a dying town in the Australian outback. Shute had immigrated to Australia after the war and he obviously loved the frontier life and people. Some of this story feels journalistic with vivid details that Shute must have experienced first hand. Science fiction writers must invent all their details, which puts a burden on realism.

Yet, it’s the accumulation of significant details that make great prose.

My reading experience has taught me stories that feel real often become classics, even if they are entirely made up. One reason why Jodi Picoult novels are so popular is because she starts with headline news and then creates a fictional tale that riffs on reality. Her stories feel real. Genre readers gorge on mysteries, fantasies, science fiction and romances, but genre fiction seldom feels like true stories. Most literary novels seem like thinly disguised real events, or excellent forgeries of reality. A Town Like Alice grips us like a memoir or travelogue rather than a novel.


I recently read Downward to the Earth by Robert Silverberg, a 1970 science fiction novel that was obviously inspired by The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The reason why I felt Silverberg’s novel is better than the average science fiction novel is because he created that sense of literary realism, even in a fantastic setting. I wonder why more science fiction writers don’t use this technique? Too often I feel genre writers imitate movies and television shows which seldom seem lifelike. We’re given thrills to replace believability.

I’ve written several drafts of science fiction novels over the years and have never liked what I’ve written. I think my failure is because I’ve modeled my stories on science fiction novels. The lesson I learned from reading A Town Like Alice and Downward to the Earth is I should model my science fiction on literary novels. I’m surprised more science fiction writers haven’t created stories inspired by literary classics like Silverberg did with Downward to the Earth.

Look how successful Andy Weir did with The Martian, which descends from Robinson Crusoe. And isn’t it particularly strange that we never see epic love stories in science fiction? I can’t think of any SF story that comes close to Anna Karenina or Pride and Prejudice. I believe the huge success of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi was due to it feeling like Graham Greene wrote a science fiction novel, and the reason why I like The Water Knife less is because it feels like a movie thriller.

Can science fiction writers set a story on the Moon, Mars or some distant planet in another star system and make readers feel like they’re reading a true life story? When Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719 readers thought it was a memoir from a real castaway. I’m tempted to write a science fiction novel inspired by Dickens’ Great Expectation, and model the characters on people I know. I lived many Pip like experiences I could use.


Are Quickly Written Books Worth Reading?

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 9, 2015

One of the most impressive books I’ve ever read is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson—she interviewed 1,200 people and spent ten years writing a history of African-Americans migrating out of the south from WWI to the 1970s. One of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert took her five years traveling the globe to research and write. Harper Lee spent three years working with an editor after she submitted Go Set a Watchman and before it become To Kill A Mockingbird.

Should we trust authors that write and publish several books a year? I know writers write to make a living, but when I reread my favorite novels that were hastily written back in the 1960s I often wish today they had gotten a few more drafts. They aren’t holding up because not enough time and thought was spent on them.

Phoenix Rising

I just read Phoenix Rising by William W. Johnstone (with J. A. Johnstone) which came out in 2011. The trouble is William W. Johnstone died in 2004. J. A. is William W.’s nephew and carefully groomed writing assistant. Phoenix Rising is a breezy, easy read, but on the thin side. It was obviously quickly written, first of a trilogy so far, meant to hook readers to sell future installments. Since I’ve found several books published in 2011 with J. A. Johnstone name on the title page, I assume Johnstone is a novel writing factory. (I even have to wonder if he sub-contracts with ghost writers.) Both Johnstones were incredibly prolific, keeping a number of series going concurrently. Firebase Freedom (2012) and Day of Judgment (2013) are sequels to Phoenix Rising.


Now I’m not against Mr. Johnstone making a living as a prolific writer, but as a hardcore book lover I’ve got to protest. I don’t like the practice of using a dead writer’s name as a logo to sell books. Nor do I like the idea of reading books by ghostwriters who crank them out for hire. And I really hate, and this is the most important point of all, of buying a book that sets me up to buy another. This modern trend of producing trilogies and endless series is bad for the art of the novel.

Now I admit I have many bookworm friends who love continuing stories and buying books by commodity authors. If you’re reading to kill time does quality matter if you keep turning the pages? But, if you read books to experience the human heart in conflict with itself, then you should worry about how much time it took to write a book. I read Phoenix Rising because the sub-sub-genre of survival fiction, which is part of the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, which falls under science fiction, a topic I’m addictive to reading.


I’m not sure I would have realized just how thin Phoenix Rising is if I hadn’t also been listening to Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In one standalone volume, Niven/Pournelle gives readers far greater depth than a shelf of quickie prepper paperbacks.

Since I’ve been studying survival novels I know they have key aspects that define their appeal. First, is the cause of the catastrophe. Johnstone comes up with a horrendously unbelievable reason for civilization collapsing. One only Fox News fanatics could believe. Second, and more importantly, is how do the survivors survive. The more practical details the better. Johnstone’s not too believable here either; everything happens too easily without much drama. Finally, readers want hope. No matter how bleak the collapse, they want believable theories how humans could rebuild. What holds a survival story together is its characters. Readers want sympathetic characters to vicariously experience “how would I do it myself” situations. I think Johnstone has fans that find his type of characters appealing. They are likable good people, but the dramatic experiences their creator provide for them is flimsy, rushed and unsatisfying. Johnstone does offers hope for the future but I’d have to buy two more novels to find it, and I won’t.

I consider Earth Abides by George R. Stewart the gold standard of a survivor story. Isherwood Williams is a character that I can identify with as he experiences a series of enlightening conflicts that force readers into thinking about the mortality of our species. Earth Abides inspired Stephen King’s The Stand and many other end-of-civilization novels. We’re currently experiencing a flood of cozy catastrophes where a handful of people must survive the immediate months after the collapse of civilization.

Surviving the apocalypse is an extremely complex event. It’s all too easy to turn it into a cartoonish cliché. And I think any book written in a couple of months can’t do the subject justice.

For people who haven’t read the classics of this sub-sub-genre, Johnstone’s story is probably intriguing enough. Especially for people who think surviving is a matter of having a gun and a will to use it. Maybe Johnstone’s characters get deeper in the second and third book, but I won’t be reading them to find out. To many better books give me everything I need in one volume.

Johnstone covers all the basics, but with no finesse and style, and no insight other than conservative philosophy that’s failing to help civilization now. Because Johnstone’s premise for the collapse of the United States is so thoroughly anti-liberal using absurd extremist logic it’s hard to take the rest of his insights seriously. His story could have been far more powerful if he had put his novel through several drafts and made his premise chillingly realistic. His attack on Obama is juvenile. If liberal ideas can destroy the country like conservatives believe, then the extrapolation of how that works needs believability that would convince liberals and moderates too. Obviously Johnstone is selling to a ready-made audience of true believers. Phoenix Rising might make some bucks off of naïve readers, but it fails at creating a memorable storytelling experience.

Here’s a way to compare a great novel to hack series. A great novel has the philosophical impact of a single A-Bomb that we never forget, while hack writing gives us faked movie explosions with each volume that are momentarily thrilling, but easily forgotten. Series novels are a marketing decision, not an artistic endeavor. If you bought this novel to read on the plane it’s probably entertaining enough.

I’m not saying some stories don’t deserve the trilogy treatment, although even the best trilogies I can think of would have been artistically superior as a single large novel. Writers must love trilogies because they can sell one story three times. It also means they don’t have to edit and distill their meandering narrative into a coherent whole. And how often have you been wowed by the first book of the trilogy only to be disappointed in the next two volumes? Hack writers find it much easier to write three or more so-so novels than one great story.


And when we think about great literary novels of history, how many of them are series? Would Trollope and Proust be more read today if they had written stand-alone novels like Austen and Dickens?

Many bookworms are like addicts. They consume books. The William W. Johnstone brand appeals to their hunger, and his books are a quick fiction fix. But his books will not be remembered. They might be a commercial success now, which is fine for the writers and publishers. But they get so little enthusiasm from fans that they don’t have entries in Wikipedia. That’s quite telling.

Millions of people want to be writers, and many of those would-be writers see developing continuing character stories as key to making a living. I can’t blame them for that. But what they crank out is fast food. If you’re a bookworm that craves novels that expand your map of reality then I’d avoid books with sequels.

My protest of the Phoenix Rising series is not because it’s bad, but thin, hastily written, with stretched out stories without the fully developed elements of a satisfying novel. If readers want a powerful trilogy on the survivor theme they should read:

  1. Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart
  2. Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank
  3. Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I know I’m going to come across as a nut here because trilogies and continuing character series are almost the norm now.


Why Women Choose Not To Marry

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spinster: Making A Life Of One’s Own by Kate Bolick is a fantastic book for men who want to understand modern women. Kate Bolick, an editor at The Atlantic, has written something that is part memoir, part literary history, and part feminist declaration of independence. Bolick interweaves her personal memories of growing up and choosing not to marry with the history of other women who made the same decision. By using five women from different time periods Bolick creates an evolutionary chronicle of women who chose to swim against the social current and found personal freedom. Bolick’s inspiration came from:


In essence, Bolick asks why should women be a slave to biology, society and men. Bolick explores no new feminist territory, but she has written the latest dispatch from the front, and she’s written her story in a very engaging and compelling way. I highly recommend Spinster.

The heart of Bolick’s tale is to ask why should women marry. Her book is personal, but it could also be a sociological study. The reasons why women today can decide not to marry is because of all the changes in society over the last two hundred years. Bolick’s five muses are five advanced explorers in feminist history. They represent the choice between wife and all the other possible roles women can chose from.

We can examine that history easily enough by asking what compels women to marry:

  • Biology
  • Love
  • Family and children
  • Religion
  • Financial security
  • Peer pressure
  • Cultural brainwashing

Young girls don’t decide to go boy crazy in their teens, but hormones drive them to seek out the perfect mate. Peers and society put a cultural spin on that impulse that we rationalize is a choice, but it’s not. In recent centuries society has created the story of love to cover over biology, but in earlier times women were married off for economic reasons. They had zero choice. Love gave them one choice. Even after the invention of romantic love most women felt compelled to make a good match for financial security. Men were seen as providers and protectors. Everything in church, school, pop culture and society pushed girls to believe marriage was their true goal in life. It’s amazing that any women broke free of this programming. They now have an infinity of choices.

The marriage myth started to break down when women began to earning their own living. Society still favors the man economically, so most women still choose to marry, but that’s changing. Even some of the women Bolick profiled eventually married, giving them economic freedom, and sometimes wealth.

What’s really changed things has been sexual freedom. When women discovered they could have romance and sex without becoming a household slave is probably the beginning of the breakdown of marriage. If all women become financially independent, finding romantic partners without cultural guilt, what reasons are left to marry?

Having children remains the strongest incentive to bond in pairs. Children are a lot of work, and a huge commitment, and having two people dedicated to the task makes it much easier. Because men are often not equal partners, many women have learned that being single moms is possible. Any women who grow up not wanting children and has the ability to financially provide for herself has little reason to marry.

Because most women go through a series of love affairs they quickly learn that passion does not last, and servicing men’s incessant unromantic desires puts the kibosh on wanting them around full-time. Many modern women prefer to have a series of romantic relationships; ditching the man when he becomes too troublesome. Some women have gone from casual sex to anonymous sex to maintain maximum free time and reduce  distracting obligations from her growing ambitions.

For us men, we need to ask:  Why do women need us? Because culture continues to sell the storybook concept of perfect love for life, many women remain disciples of Miss Austen, and we can still hope to play Mr. Darcy to our fantasy dream girl even if that’s not her fantasy. But that segment of the population is in decline. Because religion teaches that family and children are the highest purpose in life, many believers, both male and female, keep marriage and family thriving. Luckily, biology compels a large percentage of the population to raise the next generation of humans. So being a potentially great Dad will always be in demand.

What about friendship and companionship? I think society is changing here too. Many women love male friends as long as they don’t have to sexual service them. Modern women are learning to separate chemistry from friendship. Of course that means hot guys get lots of sex and average guys get to be just friends.

The experiences and decisions Bolick makes in Spinster are the same ones that millions of young women are making today. Just look at this chart of the percentage of women getting married over the last 50 years.

percent married by decade

The end of the 1960s was when the women’s movement started, but also when more women started working. Bolick’s story is a personal one that back these statistics. I know many women who chose not to marry, and not to have children. I have to ask though: Was this huge social change because of the freedom to pursue careers or the freedom not be be chained to men?

Some demographers claim those who marry today are from the economically better off segments of society because marriage preserves wealth. If you want to be rich, successful and have beautiful kids, it really helps to combine two incomes, and have the support of successful grandparents as mentors. In other words, the future of marriage might be those who are well-to-do. For woman, that might mean finding mates that are 50-50 partners. In other words, marriage might go from being a male dominated kingdom to a egalitarian corporation. Which is kind of pre-romantic love retro if you think about it.


The Creation of Atticus Finch

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, July 20, 2015

Readers who love To Kill A Mockingbird with the passion of a true believer should not read Go Set A Watchman. However, if you want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, how books used to be edited, and how a decent literary novel evolved into one of the greatest novels of all time, then you’ll probably need to read Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch, the father in To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most beloved, admired and respected character in all of literature. How was such a character created? Before this year most readers assumed Harper Lee based Atticus Finch on her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, a real-life lawyer, using her mother, Frances Finch, family’s name. Superficially, it appears we have many clues to suggest the story was autobiographical. This month, Go Set A Watchman was published, an earlier draft of what would become To Kill A Mockingbird. Atticus Finch in Watchman is a much different man than the literary saint he became in the final version?

Atticus Finch

I am troubled by the implication of many reviewers of the Go Set A Watchman that the 1930s Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird has matured into the 1950s Atticus Finch of Go Set A Watchman. 1950s Atticus was created first even though his story appears second in print and second in time. 1930s Atticus evolved from 1950s Atticus.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper’s Lee ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’” by Jonathan Mahler at the New York Times gives us some clues. Harper Lee was lucky to find Tay Hohoff at J. B. Lippincott for her editor. Hohoff was the old fashioned kind of editor that worked extensively with a writer to shape their novels. Hohoff convinced Lee not to go with the novel she submitted.  I assume that submission is close to what we’re reading now as Go Set A Watchman. Lee and Hohoff worked two years editing the book that became To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960. Mahler also brings up one other valuable clue—Hohoff wrote A Ministry to Man, a biography of John Lovejoy Elliott during this time that was published in 1959. There might be a good bit of Lovejoy in Atticus since the two woman worked so closely together, and the editor may have convinced Lee to create a more humanistic hero for her story.

My guess is Atticus Finch in Go Set A Watchman was probably closer to Amasa Coleman Lee, and the Atticus in Mockingbird is closer to John Lovejoy Elliott. But I also assume that Atticus is mostly the creation of Nelle Harper Lee. We can never know the actual scientific details of the evolution of Atticus Finch. It’s not too wild of a speculation that Hohoff convinced Lee that she needed a likable hero which Atticus Watchman was not. How much Hohoff actually contributed to the creation of Atticus is unknown.

We love Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, but her story would not have made the novel one of the perfect novels of all time. The success of Mockingbird tells me a great novel needs a great character that will be widely loved. How did Harper Lee learn this? From Hohoff? What about from her real father? We don’t know what Amasa Lee was like, but if he was closer to the Atticus Finch in Watchman, he could have taught Nelle Lee she needed a saint and not a real person like himself to create an immortal character. This is just speculation, but the ending of Go Set A Watchman makes me wonder if Nelle was inspired by her father to become a prophet for her cause. (By the way, a prophet is not one who predicts the future, but one who shapes the future. Harper Lee is a true prophet.)

Readers want Atticus Finch of To Kill A Mockingbird to be real. Like all great people in history, their legend overshadows their reality. Atticus Finch stands with Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as being saintly inspirations to the masses, but they all were probably less than perfect to their friends and family. Harper Lee’s writing shows she was an incredibly sharp observer of people, culture and history. I can easily imagine Lee and Hohoff sitting around speculating on possibilities and throwing out, “What if Atticus Finch became a saint to his readers?” It was at that point that the Atticus of Watchman evolves into the Atticus of Mockingbird. It took Lee a couple of years to transform her protagonist. Whereas the early fathers of Christianity spent two hundred years transforming their god. If Lee had spent any more time on Atticus I’m afraid Lee would have given Atticus psychic powers and let him walk on water.

scout jem dill cropped

It’s fascinating that Harper Lee rewrote the novel and set it twenty years earlier. This was a savvy move because it let her create Scout, Jem and Dill as immortal characters rather than anecdotes of memory. But it also positioned Atticus back into time letting him stand out as a guiding light amongst his peers. It’s actually very hard to imagine 1930s Atticus dealing with the 1950s issues. Reducing everything to one court case simplified the major plot and left room for the second plot of Boo Radley. The trial doesn’t begin until the middle of the novel, but everything that comes before sets up the second half of the story. Somehow Hohoff convinced Lee to take sketches of her past and put them into a holistic unity. That also helped shape the character Atticus.

If you’ve read Go Set A Watchman you know it’s filled with long verbose passages dealing with intellectual arguments over race, often about desegregation, a concept 1930s people couldn’t imagine. This makes the 1950s Atticus a mouthpiece for racist rationalization. Throwing the story back twenty years, and letting Atticus speak far less, gives him wisdom and compassion, allowing him to be ahead of his times with modern humanistic insight. 1930s Atticus anticipating the 1950s makes for a much better Atticus. Writing a contemporary novel with a character who thinks with future insight is probably impossible. No wonder most great novels are about events that have gestated in a writer’s mind for decades. It’s also why successful prophets of history were discovered long after the fact.

The Atticus of Go Set A Watchman is made a hero for Jean Louise in a roundabout way. I’m extremely glad to have read Go Set A Watchman, but that’s because it gives me a lot of evidence about how Harper Lee became a great writer. Comparing the two makes it all too obvious why Lee never published anything more. It would have seem silly to create another best-selling saint, and foolish to compete with her own success. Lee could have done something like J. K. Rowling and explored another genre. I assume she didn’t stop writing, but probably kept it to herself like J. D. Salinger did all those years. Wouldn’t it be weird to see an early draft of Catcher in the Rye?

If Harper Lee had only written about Scout, Jem and Dill, she could have continued to crank out novels her whole life like Louisa May Alcott did after Little Women. Or if Lippincott had published Go Set A Watchman, which would have had modest success, she could have shown improvement. But to create something so perfect as To Kill A Mockingbird and Atticus Finch, I can understand why Harper Lee withdrew from the world of fame.


Why Did Ernest Hemingway Leave Hadley Out of The Sun Also Rises?

We both watched him. “I’ve told him there’s nothing between us, you know.”

“I’m not sure he hears it,” I said, trying to be as delicate as possible.

“Men hear what they like and invent the rest.”

Lady Duff Twysden and Hadley Richardson Hemingway, The Paris Wife

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Isn’t that true of all of us, both men and women, we hear what we want and invent the rest?

Why read a 314 page novel about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, when Hemingway own roman à clef novel of their time together, The Sun Also Rises, leaves her out? Paula McLain’s 2011, The Paris Wife, gives us Hadley’s side of the story, but I’m left wondering why? McLean artistically recreates Hadley, and is a fine read, but for me at least, it brings up a lot of questions about using real people as characters in a novel. Hadley’s main claim to fame is for being Hemingway’s first wife, and second, for losing all his early manuscripts. To be honest, I read The Paris Wife, hoping to learn more about Hemingway, not Hadley, and I did, but The Paris Wife does make her a solid character now. Yet, is she a work of art, or historical footnote?


Hemingway and Fitzgerald, the two famous expats of The Lost Generation that lived in Paris in the 1920s, continue to draw readers into a moment of history that has become ever more glamorous.  This era even gave Woody Allen inspiration for Midnight in Paris. Professors, scholars and bookworms are drawn to this small group of writers because they defined their times like Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs defined The Beats, and Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne and Pissarro defined The Impressionists. These artistic movements generate addictive fascination in us. We especially love the Bloomsbury group, Lost Generation and Beats because of their free love drama and sexual complications.

Paula McLain’s novel was inspired by a 1991 biography Hadley by Gioia Diliberto, which was republished in 2011 as Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway’s First Wife to ride the coattails of McLain’s bestseller. Obviously, McLain found Hadley fascinating, and so did the reading public. Interest in Hemingway’s wives continues, because last year, Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood came out, that covers all four of Papa’s wives in 317 pages.

I found great sympathy for Hadley Richardson while reading The Paris Wife, and thought Hemingway was an asshole, not only to his wife, but to his friends and mentors. But I already knew that. I will admit that The Paris Wife brings things into a new focus, but I also have to ask why we want to know more about Hadley. We do want to know more, but why? Hadley was a decent woman. She was reasonably good looking. She played the piano. But adding everything up, she wasn’t very interesting. Definitely not like Zelda Fitzgerald. But if enough writers reincarnate her into new stories, will she become the new Zelda of The Lost Generation?

What I’d like to explore is why we spend time recreating Hadley Richardson long after she’s dead. Why are we trying to make her into a memorable character of literary history? If Paula McLain’s novel had been entirely fiction, would the love story in it been worthy of reading? McLain is confined by fact, so the scope of her plot, characters, emotion and drama are limited. Given free reign, would her fictional Hadley been so dull and mundane? Hadley was part of the gang of dynamic people that Hemingway wrote about in The Sun Also Rises, so why does he leave her out of the story? He portrays himself as man sexually crippled by the war?  Jake Barnes, the Hemingway character, can’t chase Lady Brett, so he’s the observer of her wild affairs, much like we assume Hemingway was in real life – or did he actually get lucky? Did Hemingway see Hadley as a kind of chastity belt holding him back, or was she just not as colorful as his friends, and thus unworthy of being a character in his novel? Or was it even petty resentment and revenge?

Whenever I read about a historical person fictionalized I’m always anxious to know what is fiction and what is nonfiction. I knew some of this story before reading The Paris Wife. I’ve read A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s own memoirs of the time, and I’ve read The Sun Also Rises three times, which The Paris Wife describes Hemingway writing – the why and how. The Paris Wife also shows us Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald just after The Great Gatsby came out, during the tumultuous time that Fitzgerald was struggling to write Tender Is The Night.

McLain has picked a juicy period and place to cover, but then so did these famous novelists. How many views of these events and people do we need? I’m still willing to read more. But I believe we need to ask why. Is this a feminist take on literary history? If so, why hasn’t Jean Rhys become famous? She wrote her own novels, lived the wild life, was part of love triangles, and was connected to Ford Maddox Ford, another character in The Paris Wife.

The Paris Wife covers Paris when many influential novels were written and their authors led lives that would generate countless biographies. Is Hadley’s unique perspective all that valuable? Hadley has now appeared in at least two novels, a memoir and many biographies, but she’s left out of the roman à clef novel by her famous husband. Isn’t that telling. In McClain’s novel, Hadley struggles to understand why too.

Of course new writers will continue to find peripheral individuals who were connected to The Lost Generation to give another perspective on this cozy history. There’s no reason not to write about Hadley. In recent years, books by and about all the women who hooked up with Jack Kerouac are coming out. Yet, the end result seems to paint more details about the male writers, and not to make their women more significant.

The more I read about Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac, the more I realize I would not have liked them as people. I feel sorry for their women, and their friends. They were all self-centered drunks who were obsessed with making themselves famous by writing up their own lives. Hemingway used Hadley and when he found a more useful woman, cast her aside. Yet, what makes Hadley famous now is Hemingway. What drew Hadley to him? Hadley was 29 when she snagged the 21 year old Ernest. Hemingway was broken by the war, struggling to start a career, screwed up by an overbearing mother and haunted by a father who killed himself. Hadley had her own psychological demons. She also had an overbearing mother and a father who committed suicide. Hemingway was obviously looking for a nurturing mother replacement, a lover, and a cheerleader, and Hadley fit the bill nicely.


Hemingway was an alpha male that woman chased after. He was exciting and beautiful to both women and men, so it’s clear why Hadley wanted him. But like many alpha males, he was a serial womanizer, so Hadley never had much of a chance. And from a literary history perspective, we have to ask, what value is she to the story? Even with Paula McLain’s loving portrait, Hadley’s image is impressionistic at best. We never see her in realistic detail.

Even when we read nonfiction how close are we getting to the truth? And when is fiction more insightful than nonfiction? In McLain’s novel she uses people’s real names. In Hemingway’s novel, the man who actually witness the events, recasts his friends as characters with new names. They aren’t meant to be photographic portraits. We don’t see Hadley in The Sun Also Rises even though she was there with Hemingway, hanging out with the same people. Jake Barnes, Hemingway’s alter-ego, fictionally castrated, yearns for Lady Brett Ashley. Isn’t that psychological revealing way to portray himself in the novel? Years later, Hemingway does remember his wife in his memoir A Movable Feast, but isn’t it mostly guilt? He wants to apologize, but do we believe him?


In the end we’re fascinated by Hemingway and Hadley. But which is more important, the art, or the biography? Strangely enough, The Sun Also Rises is how most people see the Lost Generation, and it’s a lie, a fabrication, fiction. Hemingway distills time and memory like our dreams process our daily experiences. By fictionalizing Hadley, McLain is making her memorable in the same way Hemingway made his friends memorable. We remember Jake Barnes, Lady Brett Ashley, Robert Cohn and Mike Campbell,  and not Lady Duff Twysden, Harold Loeb and Pat Guthrie. Which are more real, the fictional characters, or the people they were based on?

Literary biography can be a black hole sucking in facts searching for truth. If you get too close to the story, it can trap you inside the event horizon. For me, at some point, I get too close to these characters and start to dislike them. No matter how much I admire Hemingway’s skill with words, the more I know about him, the less I admire him as a person. The Paris Wife makes Hemingway into a real stinker – and here’s the real problem I have with the novel, I never see why Hadley loves him.

We learn why Hadley is attracted to Hemingway, why she needs him, why she admires him, why she wants to take care of him, but I never understood why she loves him. I think that’s true because we never understand why Hemingway loves Hadley. Love might not be something that can be conveyed in fiction or fact. We can describe romance and sex, but can we translate love into words? We can explain attraction, but can we put the ineffable into art? Even if we had high definition video of all the events in the book, could we ever know how people felt? Hadley says over and over again she loves Ernest, but that tells us nothing. We know she does because she puts up with so much. But I don’t think we ever feel what she feels.

Whether in fiction or nonfiction, we’re not recreating reality but art. We will never know Hadley and Hemingway. Novels like The Paris Wife have to stand alone as art. Bringing in facts from the past only confuses the issues even though we assume more facts bring more clarity. Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Kerouac knew that, and that’s why they don’t stick to the facts.

The Paris Wife did make me wonder why Hemingway wasn’t more genuine in his novel and included himself and Hadley as man and wife. For such a macho guy, I think he was being a pussy. He obviously didn’t want to write honestly about his attraction to Duff (Lady Brett), or deal with Hadley’s hurt. Hemingway would get in with the bulls, but was too chicken to throw himself in the romantic ring where everyone was goring each other. I’ve got to give Kerouac credit for portraying his own faults in his novels. It will be hard now to read The Sun Also Rises without thinking about The Paris Wife. As works of art they will always have to stand alone, but as literary gossip, they are forever married.

If Hemingway had really loved Hadley, and understood her deeply, knowing her soul with that love, don’t you think she would have been characterized in The Sun Also Rises? Like the quote I open with, “Men hear what they like and invent the rest,” Hemingway remembers what he wants remembered, and invents the rest.

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Three Useful Internet Sites for a Dynamic Reading of Ulysses by James Joyce

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Reading Ulysses by James Joyce can be very difficult, even daunting. Many well read readers consider Ulysses the number one novel of all time, because of it’s rich complexity and advanced writing techniques. Joyce intentionally made Ulysses a reading challenge, full of Easter eggs for readers to find and decipher, making it a novel worthy of multiple readings.

I have tried reading Ulysses before, but even after reading Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man three times, I wasn’t ready. One major barrier for me is my poor reading skills. I’ve been conditioned to read fast, always wanting to know what’s going to happen, by the plot driven novels of my youth. Ulysses is more like a great painting that you must study slowly and carefully, and for most of my life I never had the patience.

The range of what I could read took a quantum leap forward in 2002 when I started listening to audio books. Listening makes me read slow, and that changes everything. Also, professional readers showcase writing far better than my own inner voice. It’s like the difference between reading poetry and hearing it read aloud. Quality fiction should be heard. It should sound dramatic and dynamic, even poetical. Bad writing sticks out when read aloud. Once I started listening to Ulysses I could get into it. But still there was much I was missing.

Ulysses is famous for its stream of conscious writing techniques. If you just read it with your eyes, it’s easy to confuse the narrator with inner monologues. And even good audio book narrators don’t always distinguish between the two.

Ulysses is also full of allusions to real world and literary history, using colloquial and idiomatic words and phrases that are long out of fashion. Plus Joyce frequently cites lines of Latin, songs and poems that well educated people knew back then, but most people don’t know about today.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled upon two sites on the internet that are wonderful tools for helping me to read Ulysses in a very efficient manner. The first is  The Joyce Project that features an online version of Ulysses. Now most people hate reading online, but I have a major reason to get over that prejudice. The second site that I use is an audio performance of Ulysses at I read online as I listen to this online recording. This recording is very special because they use different actors for different characters, and they use a special effect for when Joyce is having his character speak in their internal voice. This is a tremendous advantage for understanding Ulysses. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to hear Joyce read by someone that can pronounce everything correctly, and even offer good accents.

As an extra bonus, The Joyce Project has an annotation mode you can turn on, and certain words and phrases will appear in color that you can click on to read for elaboration. What I do is read and listen to each episode, and then go back and click on all the highlights. Here’s what the plain text looks like, then with the annotations highlighted, and then with the pop-up for the first annotation.  Clicking on the image will enlarge it.

The Joyce Project 1

The Joyce Project 2

The Joyce Project 3

But what works really well is to open the The Joyce Project and the audio player windows so they overlap, like this:

Read and Listen

This allows me start and stop the audio easily as I read, in case I do want to stop my reading to study an annotation.

Finally, there’s a third dimension to using the web for reading and studying Joyce – there’s a goldmine of supplemental material. I’m not pursing the study guides on my first reading except in a very limited way. Ulysses is a black hole for scholarship.

One site that is frequently recommended to me is Frank Delaney’s podcast re:Joyce. Delaney does one podcast a week and is up to #245, but only to episode five in the novel. He estimates it will take him 25 years to finish the project. Delaney is a famous author and broadcaster, and knows Joyce’s Ireland, so his rich voice and literary experience makes him a great guide for traversing the land of Joyce. His enthusiasm enhances the enjoyment of reading Joyce.

I figure the first two tools, the annotated text and the performance narration, are the two best tools I’ve discovered for reading Ulysses for the first time. And the Frank Delaney podcast is a wonderful supplement for those people who want to take their first step into Joyce scholarship.


The Best Nonfiction of 2014–Collected Lists

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I’m in two nonfiction book clubs. One is online, and one is face-to-face. Between the two, I’m introduced to twenty-four books I would not normally read, and my reading life has become much more exciting over the last few years. Both book clubs have a nomination process where recommended titles must jockey for votes. Both clubs have about a dozen or so members, and it’s rather hard to find books that will appeal to so many people, and even more, get that many people to actually read. Every once in a while, we’ll pick a book everyone absolutely loves, like The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. On average, if we’re lucky, we’ll pick books that at least half the people like.

It’s easy to find books to nominate, but hard to find willing agreement. I generally try to nominate books that have least a 100 reviews at Amazon. The Warmth of Other Suns has 1,297 reviews, with an average rating of 4.7. It turned out to be the highest rated book at my online book club.

One technique I use to scout for possible nominations is to read all the best-of-the-year booklists. If I see a book that’s on many of the lists, I figure it’s a book that’s both good and appealing to wide range of readers. Here are the lists for 2014:

I wished these sites would make a nice printable version of their yearly recommendations so it would be easy to take to the book club and pass around. Even better, I wish some enterprising web site would collate all the lists and make a meta-list of the most recommended books. I could do that, but it’s just too much work. What I end up doing is eyeballing the lists and going from memory which books I see over and over again. These nineteen books were the ones I saw the most, and were on at least 5-10 lists.

Age of AmbitionsBook Review-Bad FeministBeing Mortal

Capital_in_the_Twenty-First_Century_(front_cover)Deep Down Dark - Hector TobarFactory Man - Beth Macy

How_We_Got_to_Nowin the kingdom of iceinnovators

Little FailureMan Alive McBeeOn Immunity.JPG

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertSoldier GirlsThe Empathy Exams

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace - Jeff HobbsThe True AmericanThirteen Days in September