Is International Fiction Relatable?


Not too long ago, as a writer who was based in India, once a colony of the British, and who had once been a “citizen of the world” living in the United States, I wondered, with apprehension, whether my stories would resonate with American and global readers and editors. As a struggling writer, I presumed that great stories surmount barriers of geography and culture by bringing out universal themes. (Theme transcends plot and setting. Theme is a comment on the human condition. Cinderella is not just the story of a poor maid who overcomes the cruelty of her family and lives happily ever after with Prince Charming. The theme of the story reveals that people who are kind and patient are often rewarded for their good deeds.)

Then, fairly recently, I came across the word “relatable.” I did not have a language as convenient as that until then to ponder how my readers might relate to my stories, whether fiction or nonfiction. “Relatable” did not exist in the vocabulary of literary criticism until the mid-twentieth century, according to an article in Slate. In fact, the word has gained currency only over the past decade, writer Rebecca Mead says in her essay on the topic in The New Yorker. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the first and the oldest definition of relatable as “able to be told or narrated; suitable for relating.” The second meaning is more recent: “Able to be brought into relation with something.”

The third and final meaning, and the most recent, is “that which can be related to; with which one can identify or empathize.” According to the OED, the first use of this sense of the adjective dates back to 1965. The term became the buzz of the literary world, including The New Yorker magazine, when Ira Glass, host of a popular public radio program, said, after a performance of King Lear, that Shakespeare is not “relatable” and that he is “unemotional.”

Shakespeare was British and Western, and here a popular literary commentator based in the Western world was calling the Bard “not relatable.” Wasn’t Shakespeare “relatable” universally? Didn’t his plays have universal themes? Aren’t universal themes not “relatable” globally?

The word relatable, as used by Glass and others since, has brought both discomfiture and relief to me as a writer who often writes of cultures and settings different from Western. If Shakespeare is not “relatable,” how could I hope to be relatable? Continue Reading

Literary Teachers and Their Lessons

10.1 literary teachers

I have a new teaching job this fall, and so I’ve been thinking even more than usual about classrooms, and teachers, and the hold they have on our imaginations. It’s strange to realize, right before I walk into a classroom to teach, how clearly I can remember most of my own teachers’ faces, even many years later, how indelible certain moments of being called on or reprimanded or encouraged still are for me.

I seem to return again and again in my own writing to the world of the school, and many of the books that have left marks on me over the years are also set in that world. On the page, the teachers who’ve most stuck with me don’t seem to be the simple ones. They’re problematic, sometimes outright sinister. They leave their students changed, but not always (or only) for the better. As teachers, I’m not sure all of them are worth celebrating; as characters, they certainly are.

And so here, for your back-to-school pleasure, is a brief survey of some of the teacher-literature on my bookshelf:Continue Reading

Literary Blueprints: The Mad Woman


In this second installment of the Literary Blueprints series, we’ll look at the Mad Woman. Don’t forget to read the first Blueprint, The Byronic Hero.

Origin Story: Also referred to as “The Mad Woman in the Attic,” this character type hails from the dark side of Jane Eyre. Bertha Mason, the mysterious Mr. Rochester’s first wife, barely appears in the text, popping up only to terrify the sweet and unsuspecting Jane. She is violently insane, and is kept away from the world, the badge of shame in Rochester’s life. Her irrational behavior somehow justifies him almost becoming a polygamist when he attempts to marry Jane. Only after Bertha literally burns Rochester’s estate, Thornfield, to the ground, dying in the process, are the lovebirds free to pursue their happy ending. Crazy women are so inconvenient while they’re still alive.

Characteristics: Part of the Gothic world, the Mad Woman is not just crazy–she is crazy and isolated from society. In many cases, she is locked away by a male figure, usually a husband or other family member. It may be in an attic, a bedroom, or a basement, but, regardless, the character is separated from the world by a door and a key.Continue Reading

Literary Blueprints: The Byronic Hero

byronFollow this new blog series in 2015, where we’ll delve into the background of character archetypes–the Mad Woman, the Detective, and the Wise Fool, to name a few. In this first installment, we take a look at the Byronic Hero.

Origin Story: In literature, the Byronic Hero’s first embodiment is Childe Harold, protagonist of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As the name implies, the Byronic Hero was created by British Romantic poet Lord Byron, who himself is often viewed as the living, breathing incarnation of the character type’s namesake. Some critics believe that Byron was simply bored with the Romantic Hero archetype, twisting the ideal to fit his own personal tastes. He also may have been inspired by Hamlet, but that’s just literati gossip.

Characteristics: Like the Romantic Hero, the Byronic Hero is a complex individual who often works against the grain of societal norms. More so than the traditional Romantic Hero, the Byronic Hero is psychologically damaged in some way. Even when he acts in a benevolent manner, it is often tainted by his brooding, dark nature. Essentially, he’s a tortured soul whose turmoil makes him the center of his own world–his emotional (and sometimes physical) scars are too profound for normal people to fully understand him. Naturally, women love him.Continue Reading

Retelling Tales: A Writer’s Guide

indexSo much of modern cinema and fiction revolves around the anti-hero and the sympathetic villain. Our culture seems to need our protagonists to be damaged or troubled in some way. It’s as if in some grand pursuit of Nietzsche’s rejection of absolutes, we can only accept shades of gray. Those moral shades of gray are particularly represented when authors elect to take villainous or marginalized characters and bring them to the forefront by writing their stories. While childhood stories clearly draw the line between good and bad, it becomes murkier as we age. Be it experience or expectations, we want more than the Big Bad Wolf or the Mustache Twirling Fiend. Telling a baddie’s story is one way to achieve that complexity.

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The Ploughshares Round Down: How To Tell People What Your Book Is About

Last week, I received a fiction pitch I knew I would reject a few lines in. It contained the phrase, “after he discovers a family secret long since buried.” (Or something like that.) I wrote back to the author and admitted that I was passing because, while other people might like books about that, I’m not a guy who was ever eager to read a book with that at the center. It’s a very, very common conceit, but I guess I figure that if the secret itself was really interesting, you’d be telling us what it is. If the family secret was that your main character’s grandmother was Einstein’s lover, dollars to donuts the novel would be called Einstein’s Lover.

j7zqgf5This writer had an interesting approach to telling a story, but all the rest of the details beyond the secret were mundane. This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town. He seemed like a good, clever writer, but he’d sabotaged his book from the start by writing something with a generic elevator pitch. To get an editor to read it, I would have to promise this author was the best stylist I’d ever come across.

That’s why the most interesting thing I’ve read in the last two weeks was this article in Salon by novelist Ted Thompson, where he reveals what he found most surprising from having his debut novel published. All of the ideas he discussed are dead-on and useful, but the most important one is that, no matter how good your book is, people still judge it by how you answer the question, “So what’s your book about?”

What he doesn’t say is that there’s one way to answer that question that could take your book from the rejection pile to the bestseller list, and it isn’t about the plot.

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Fictional Writer Master Class: Fowles and the Fiction Bender

File:Stranger Than Fiction (2006 movie poster).jpg“But rather, what the devil am I going to do with you?”

In John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the unnamed narrator poses this question to himself about the character sleeping before him. Only he isn’t just the narrator; he’s much more than that. He’s part of a group of fictional writers I’ll call Fiction Benders—characters and narrators who bend the rules of narrative.

The Benders differ from editorial omniscience, sly narratorial commentary, or the ever popular unreliable narrator. Instead, the Benders elevate authorial interference and self-reflexiveness to a new level. Stranger than Fiction, the quirky-in-a-good-way comedy starring Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell, features Thompson as a writer narrating and dictating Ferrell’s world. Or consider Adaptation, in which Nicholas Cage plays twin brothers trying to adapt Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief. The real twist? Screenwriter Charlie Kauffman made up a fictional co-writing twin brother who is listed in the credits. Call it silly, call it meta: I call it brilliant.

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Fictional Writer Master Class: The Bamboozlers

One of the perks of working in academia is ordering desk copies of books. While more often than not these things are tedious tomes that would put me to sleep, never mind my students, sometimes I happen upon gems, such as The Twentieth-Novel: An Introduction by R.B. Kershner. I’ll admit I don’t remember ordering this book; I think in my book ordering frenzy, I had some sort of black out. Thankfully I did order it, if just for Kershner’s description of fiction: “an elaborate and sustained falsehood.”

With pretense stripped away, fiction is a well-crafted lie. A beautiful, artistic, transcendent lie, but a lie whatever the adjective. Thus, writers are the fabricators, the prevaricators, the weavers of dazzling deceptions. It’s not surprising then that every couple of years, we get a movie or television show where the plot spins a literal take on writers as liars. The Words is probably the most mainstream recent work, but even shows like American Dad and Law & Order: SVU have twisted plots around these writers we’ll call the Bamboozlers. These stories address through their characters many themes which are familiar to real writers: originality, success, ownership, image, integrity, and perseverance.

Bamboozler stories have two primary forms. The first usually centers on a fictitious struggling writer (the Plagiarist) who takes credit for another writer’s work. The second finds a talented writer (the Obscure) who must, for whatever plot reason, find an avatar (the Front) for public consumption while remaining shrouded in anonymity.

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Fictional Writer Master Class: the King’s Men

Stephen King has a particular knack for fictionalizing the tortured lives of writers. Scribes of varied success people the pages of his works, from protagonists to supporting characters. (Under the Dome’s Thurston Marshall is a recent Ploughshares guest editor!) Many of these characters are also readable as Author Avatars for King. Beyond his personal struggles, his writers metaphorically and literally wrestle the demons that haunt our kind: failure, success, fleeting inspiration, fear, obsession, helplessness, frenzy, euphoria, and sometimes destruction.

Writing is a madness that creeps into us, grips us, and never releases us, even when we believe it has become dormant. It’s fitting then that King’s writers dwell in the landscape of horror and mystery where madness and fear manifest beyond their professional struggles.Continue Reading

Fictional Writer Master Class: The Wisdom of J.B. Fletcher

Writers love to create writer characters, so much so that fictional writers are their own sub-character set. Maybe it’s because we understand the torture of the artistic monkey better than anything else; creating fictional writers is one way of following the adage of writing what you know. Or perhaps we make our characters writers because we like to project our writer selves into the fictional world as a way to exhaust our fantasies and exercise our demons. Our Author Avatars can do the things we as writers cannot. They can have fame and success. Likewise, they can become vessels for our worst fears—failure and self-destruction.

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