Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Clarice Lispector

The novella, The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector, is unlike anything else I have read. This review can be thought of as following on from my previous post about authors hearing the voices of their characters, and characters having independent agency. It’s about the lives of someone called Rodrigo, an author-narrator who starts by thinking of writing a book (the one you would have in your hands as you read The Hour of the Star) and the book’s protagonist, Macabéa, a nineteen-year-old woman, who is thin and not good-looking, who grew up a very poor area in the north-east of Brazil, who had only three years at school, then moved to Rio de Janeiro to be employed as a typist.

Clarise Lispector was born in 1920, in the Ukraine, and her family moved to this same area in the north-east of Brazil, before moving to Rio de Janeiro.

In the story Macabéa meets the arrogant Olímpico, with whom she falls in love. On page 38, the author-narrator says of him: “He had, I just discovered, inside of him, the hard seed of evil.” Later we read that he had killed someone in the north-east of Brazil, and that he was also a thief. A few pages later we read that when walking along with Macabéa, Olímpico says he is strong, so he lifts her into the air. She is euphoric: “what it’s like to fly in an aeroplane” she thinks. Then he dumps her in the mud. Then, another few pages on, Olímpico says to her: “are you just pretending to be an idiot or are you actually an idiot?” Macobéa: “I’m not sure what I am, I think I’m a little … what? … “I mean I’m not quite sure what I am.”

Then Olímpico goes off with Glória, a blond chubby girl who works in the same office as Macabéa. Feeling guilty, Glória recommends that Macabéa should visit a fortune teller, Madame Carlota, who sees in Macabéa’s cards that her life has been and continues to be horrible. Then she relents and tells her client that her life will be wonderful, that she will be courted and marry someone called Hans. Macabéa is enchanted. As she leaves the fortune teller’s place, and steps off the pavement, she is run over and killed by a large and expensive Mercedes.

As Colm Tóibín wrote in a very engaging review: 
In October 1977, shortly before her death, she [Lispector] published the novella The Hour of the Star in which all her talents and eccentricities merged and folded in a densely self-conscious narrative dealing with the difficulty and odd pleasures of storytelling and then proceeding, when it could, to tell the story of Macabéa, a woman who, Lispector told an interviewer, "was so poor that all she ate were hot dogs". But she made clear that this was "not the story, though. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery." [Then], Lispector told a TV interviewer: "I went to a fortune-teller who told me about all kinds of good things that were about to happen to me, and on the way home in the taxi I thought it'd be really funny if a taxi hit me and ran me over and I died after hearing all those good things.”

But this novella isn’t about the plot. It’s about how Lispector the writer, created Rodrigo, the author-narrator, who created Macabéa as a character, and how this character in turn seems to take part in the process of creating not just author-narrator Rodrigo but also, perhaps, in a certain kind of way, Lispector. 

If we knew that that someone had decided to enter the police, or to be shop assistant or office worker, we might think that she or he had taken a decision, to become a person of a certain kind and that, in turn, the role she or he has taken on would shape something in that person. But an original idea of this novella, is that a somewhat similar process can occur with a writer and the story and characters that the writer decides to create. As we read on page 13 the author-narrator says: 
I have a fidgety character on my hands who escapes me at every turn expecting me to retrieve her … I see that north-eastern girl looking in the mirror and—a ruffle of the drum—in the mirror appears my weary and unshaven face. We’re that interchangeable.

Then on page 61 the author-narrator says to his readers:
As for me I’m tired. Maybe of the company of Macabéa, Glória, Olímpico… I have to interrupt this story for about three days … For the last three days, alone, without characters, I depersonalize myself … as if taking off my clothes … and now I emerge and miss Macabéa. Let’s continue.

But this novella is not just about this fascinating conversation among the writer, the author-narrator, the characters, and ourselves as readers. It’s a meditation on the nature of human life. It’s about how much we understand about others or understand about ourselves.

Clarice Lispector (2011). The hour of the star (second edition, with introduction by Colm Tóibín) (B. Moser, Trans.). New York: New Directions.

Colm Tóibín (2014) Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star is as bewildering as it is brilliant. The Guardian, 18 January.



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Monday, 1 June 2020

Lives of Characters

In a recent article, John Foxwell, Ben Alderson-Day, Charles Fernyhough and Angela Woods (2020) report on a survey of writers’ experiences—as they are writing—of the characters they depict. In their first paragraph the researchers say:
A large number of writers report vivid experiences of “hearing” their characters talking to them, talking back to them, and exhibiting an atypical degree of independence and autonomy.

They follow this paragraph with quotations from well-known writers. This is the first: from Alice Walker.
one or more of my characters … would    come for a visit … They were very obliging, engaging, and jolly. They were, of course, at the end of their story but were telling it to me from the beginning. Things that made me sad, often made them laugh. Oh, we got through that; don’t pull such a long face, they’d say.

And this from Michael Frayn. 
It does seem—and I realise this is a psychological trick and it sounds very coy— but it is as if they are speaking and leading those lives. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. You do seem to be with people who have minds of their own, thoughts of their own, but at the same time you’re very much involved in leading their lives with them.

Influenced by ideas of this kind, Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 professional writers who attended the 2014 and 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festivals: 81% were from the UK, 61% were women, and 66% wrote fiction. The researchers asked them to answer a series of questions, which included the following. “How do you experience your characters?” “Do you ever hear your characters’ voices?” 

Here are some the things writers replied about their characters speaking or relating to them. (Each number in parentheses indicates a writer in the survey.)
I hear them [my characters] in my mind. They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is ‘talking’. (R 33) 

I sense their presence as you sense somebody in a dream. They are very much known to me but only in peripheral vision and as an atmosphere or a force exerting itself. I wouldn’t be able to sit opposite a character, so to speak, and see them, talk to them etc. They aren’t something that can be interrogated or pinned down. (R 51)

If the character feels something I feel it, whether emotional or sensory. (R 40)

The researchers found that, while they were writing, 63% of writers surveyed could hear their characters speak.

A further aspect of this survey followed up on a study by Marjorie Taylor and colleagues, reviewed in OnFiction, on 12 August 2008. Here’s part of what I then wrote:
In fiction, readers engage with the characters, and wonder what they are up to … It turns out that writers have some of the same experience as readers, of finding that their characters do things that seem appropriate, but without the writer having—as it were—to pull the strings. Marjorie Taylor, Sara Hodges & Adèle Kohányi (2002-2003) published a study based on interviews with 50 fiction writers to explore this question … All but four of them reported some experience of characters exhibiting apparently autonomous agency. 

Here some things writers in Foxwell and colleagues’ survey said about their characters’ independent agency, in response to the question: “Do you feel that your characters always do what you tell them to do, or do they act of their own accord?”
I LOVE it when my characters go off script. It’s one of my favourite parts of being a writer, and often these unexpected plot twists are the best of all. (R 37)

It’s the characters who make the thing happen. I can’t make them do what they don’t want to. (R 17)

Foxwell and colleagues found that 61% of their writers said their characters could act independently.

Overall, Foxwell and colleagues discuss their study in terms of all of us—humans—being able to understand something of what takes place in the minds of others: empathy and theory-of-mind. They conclude their article by saying:
… the present study is, to our knowledge, the only survey of writers’ experiences of their characters which attempts to address the phenomenological complexity of these experiences within a large professional sample.

Foxwell, J., Alderson-Day, B., Fernyhough, C., & Woods, A. (2020). “I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people”: Varieties of agency and interaction in writers’ experiences of their characters’ voices. Consciousness and Cognition, 79, Article 102901.

Frayn, M. (2011). Quoted in “On writing: Authors reveal the secrets of their craft.” The Guardian.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/mar/26/authors-secretswriting.
Taylor, M., Hodges, S., & Kohányi, A. (2002-2003). The illusion of independent agency: Do adult fiction writers experience their characters as having minds of their own? Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 22, 361-380.
Walker, A. (1983). In search of our mother’s garden. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.

Image: Alice Walker (2007) Wikipedia.
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Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Wire

In OnFiction’s series of television series, we ought perhaps to have started with the series that really started it all: “The Wire.” It was conceived by David Simon, began in 2002, and ran for five seasons. Simon had worked for several years as a journalist on the newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, researching and writing about Baltimore’s police. Although he pitched “The Wire” to Home Box Office (HBO) as a cop show, as Margaret Talbot explains in her New Yorker article, “Stealing Life,” Simon said he thought about it as like a novel, in which each episode would be a chapter. A season would involve the development of character, an overall plot, perhaps with some digressions. 

One focus of “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, is on organizations in which not only do misunderstandings occur, but mistakes are made. Here the police are mirrored by a local drug gang. In both, higher-ups administer and sometimes take advantage of their positions. But, in these organizations, comradeship occurs. In this way, as police detectives, there are Bunk and his friend McNulty (seen in this image). Then one step up, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, who gains a growing respect. Then further steps up, people with more power and less respect. In the drug gang’s organization, there’s a comparable hierarchy. The first season’s plot is the contest between these two organizations. 

Near the beginning of the first episode of the first season we are in a courtroom, where a man at the gang’s mid-level, D’Angelo, is accused of having shot and killed someone (an underling drug-dealer in the gang). A witness changes testimony and D’Angelo is acquitted. Because getting him off had cost the gang time and money, he is demoted. The person who administers this is Stringer Bell, the gang’s organization person. Above him is the leader, Avon Barksdale (a companion of sorts to Bell). Both of them are very careful to avoid being seen or known by anyone in the police. (Although the gang’s business is of selling drugs, neither of these two, of course, ever indulges.) 

The title of the series refers to the police’s wire-tapping into telephone conversations among members of the drug-dealing gang. As Margaret Talbot points out, there’s also the implication that, as we watch, we are also tapping into the lives of these two groups of people. One effect, for viewers, is a growing understanding and empathy for some of the principal characters in both the police and the gang.

Most of the people on the show are black. This is another focus, with the issue of how problematic it can be to live in working-class American cities: one of the preoccupations of the principal author, David Simon. 

Several groups of immigrants—Irish, Italian, Jewish—included people who, finding life in the New World at first very difficult, took part in illegal activities. They aspired to make enough money so that their children could go to college and lead middle-class lives. Because of institutionalized prejudice, this kind of issue has been far more problematic for black people, whose ancestors did not immigrate: they were transported. (How’s that for illegality?) In this show, in Episode 8, of the first season, entitled “The Lesson,” we see Stringer Bell taking a class in economics.

 “The Wire” enabled television series-watching to be taken seriously, in the way that reading novels and watching certain kinds of films have become. And, as I wrote in OnFiction’s first review of television series (24 March 2020): “As Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes (2015) have shown … a prize-winning television series can have the same kinds of effects as reading fiction in enabling people to increase their empathy and understanding of others.”

Jessica Black & Jennifer Barnes (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 423-429.

Margaret Talbot “Stealing Life,” The New Yorker, 15 October 2007.

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Friday, 17 April 2020

Prime Suspect

To follow up from posts on 24 March and 1 April, here’s another one about a television series: Prime Suspect. Its protagonist, Jane Tennison, is one of the first women to reach the rank of Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in the London Metropolitan Police. 

A frequent idea of detective stories, especially police procedurals, is to follow a trail of clues, eventually to discover whodunnit, and have them put away, or as a judge might say, “sent down.” More deeply, however, as happens here, this kind of story is really about character and relationship.

In character Jane Tennison, has intelligence, thoughtfulness, determination ... These have contributed to her ability to have risen in the hierarchy of the police. For eighteen months, since she achieved her present rank, she has been going into the police station each work-day, mainly to attend to paperwork, and waiting, waiting. 

The first episode of Season One of Prime Suspect starts with a bunch of police cars arriving, summoned to a flat, to see the dead body of a woman, thought to be Della Mornay. A pathologist attends, and amongst his findings is a spot of blood believed to be that of the perp (perpetrator). At the time of this series, before the days of DNA analyses, there were, however, blood groups. This spot of blood is of a very rare type. A man with this blood group is found on the police computer system, so Detective Chief Inspector John Shefford, an amiable man with a round face, goes with his men to visit him: the suspect, who immediately becomes prime, and is arrested. At the station Shefford questions this man who admits to having picked up Della, in order to have sex with her. In Shefford’s team, everyone’s pleased with themselves for having solved the case so quickly. Then as DCI Shefford begins to give his report on the case to his superior, Detective Chief Superintendent (DCS) Hernan, he suffers a terrible pain in his left arm, is taken off in an ambulance, and dies of a heart attack. 

Jane Tennison asks DCS Kernan if she can take over the case and head up the enquiry. He says he’ll think about it. She tells him she’s been waiting a long time for an opportunity of this kind but has always been sidelined. Kernan goes another step up the hierarchy, to talk to his boss, Commander Traynor, who tells him he’s had a word with Tennison’s previous chief, in the Flying Squad. Traynor then tells Kernan that the Flying Squad chief reckons Tennison needs a break. Because of where this series was made (England), there need to be jokes; otherwise one cannot have any kind of proper relationship with anybody. So here’s the next bit.

“Female murder squad officer. Are you prepared to take the risk?” asks Commander Traynor.

“Ball’s in my court, is it?” says DCS Kernan.

“Flying Squad reckons she’s got ‘em.”

“What?” 

“Balls.”

So Tennison is appointed to head up the investigation into the murder of Della Mornay, much to the annoyance of almost everyone in the murder team. Then comes a video shot of about a dozen police in the incident room, all of them blokes. One of them, Detective Sergeant Ottly, starts plotting against Tennison, to try and sabotage her, because she’s a woman. Then as Tennison gets quickly onto the case, she turns up new evidence that the team had previously missed. Then, to members of the male-team’s chagrin, she orders the suspect to be released.

So not just character, relationships: Tennison’s with her boss, her boss with the boss above him. Tennison with all the members of the murder squad, Ottly’s with Tennison. Tennison’s with her live-in boyfriend (under the stress of her new and often perplexing work-life). 

Another thing, not always mentioned in discussions of detective stories, is the nature of the enquiries into what this person and that person (suspects, witnesses) were doing at this time and that time. People are interviewed in ways that rely on certain kinds of relationship—sometimes sympathetic, sometimes threatening—between detective and interviewee, which offer further insights, which we may not always be able to obtain in everyday conversation, into the character of different kinds of people who live in our societies.

Prime Suspect (1991-2006, seven seasons) Written by Lynda La Plante.  (Available on BritBox.)


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Thursday, 9 April 2020

Ross Day: The Book of Delights

I’ll postpone reviewing another television series until next week, in favour of a book of essays by Ross Day. Alright, these are not fiction, but they have many of its elements: character, emotional insight, inward thoughts, relationships. The author is someone who has published three books of poetry. One can think of poetry as the founding mode of fiction.

There are 102 essays in this book, most of them a couple of pages long. Essay number 10, called “Writing by Hand,” (pp. 31-33), starts with the poet Derek Walcott giving a class on the writing of poetry. He asked people in the class who wrote by hand and who wrote by computer. Some people raised their hands to indicate that they wrote by computer, and Walcott said in his voice which Ross Gay describes as “mellifluous and curt,” that they should leave the workshop. So they gathered their things and started off down the hall. But before they got too far, Wallcott called them back: “C’mon, c’mon, I’m just making a point.” Ross Gay then reflects on what this point might have been. He says he writes his poetry and most of his essays by hand, but he also writes prose by computer. He says that computer writing can make words disappearable by use of the delete button, which may be best for “a good deal of florid detritus,” that can occur.  But maybe these preliminaries shouldn’t just disappear because they have occurred on “the weird path towards what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is” (pp. 31-33).

Another lovely essay is number 47, “The Sanctity of Trains” (pp. 134-135). Here Ross Gay reflects that when they are on trains, people often leave their bags and other stuff unattended for longish intervals, maybe to go to the washroom, or to the café several carriages away. On one train journey he noticed his neighbour, “across the aisle and one row up,” disappear “for a good twenty minutes, her bag wide open, a computer peeking out.” He calls the phenomenon “trust.”  He writes that all through our social lives we are “in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking: “letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped.” He finishes his essay like this. “This caretaking is our default mode and its always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.”
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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Borgen

Borgen (which means “The Castle,” nickname for the building in Copenhagen that contains the Parliament, Prime Minister’s office, and Supreme Court) is a Danish series that is rather different from the usual kind aired on television. It has two kinds of focus. One is on gender and its implications in democratic political systems. The second is on how a job that is important, that demands unremitting involvement, can affect a person inwardly, and can affect that person’s relationships not just with others at work, but also with family and friends. So, as in many of the better kinds of novel, the central issue is character. 

The protagonist in the series is Birgitte Nyborg, played by Sidse Babett Knudsen. Aged about 40, she is leader of a centrist party, the Moderates. A second protagonist is an ambitious television journalist, Katrine Fønsmark, played by Birgitte Hjort Sørensen. Although the series is about women, the writing team, Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, and Tobias Lindholm, is all male. In an interview, Adam Price, the series originator, said that women in public life are not as unusual in Denmark as in some other places, and also that he thought the series would never travel beyond its home country. But it has; it’s been enthusiastically reviewed and widely appreciated.

Episode One of the first season starts with the approach of an election, with the Liberal Party currently in power and the main opposition, Labour Party, with similar prospects of winning. The Moderates seem out of the race. Then it turns out that Katrine Fønsmark has been having an affair with the current Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who dies during one of their meetings. On clearing up the chief of staff’s belongings, a receipt is found which reveals the Prime Minister’s financial wrongdoing. The receipt is given to Nyborg who refuses to have anything to do with it. Then it’s given to the Labour leader who very much likes showing off and presents it in a televised debate. Liberal and Labour support plummet.  Suddenly, it seems Nyborg might become the new Prime Minister.

In a world in which so many national leaders are older men it may be appealing that political decisions might be made by principled women, of whom there are some such as Angela Merkel. In this series, Knudsen plays Nyborg as someone who is thoughtful, who sometimes gets cross, but in personality is kind and considerate. As Knudsen acts this part we, in the audience, often see, in a smile at someone, or in a moment of hesitation, a depiction of a person whom we would very much appreciate as a political leader. And beneath this, as a principle of fiction, we are invited to think what this might mean for our understandings of political democracies, and of other people more generally, and of our selves. 

Borgen (2010-2013, three-season television series). Written by Adam Price, Jeppe Gjervig Gram, and Tobias Lindholm. Denmark. (Available on services such as Apple TV.)



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Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Offspring

In these weeks of self isolation and social distancing with the corona virus pandemic what one may like, in the late evening, is a television series to watch before one goes to bed. Dating from 2002, when HBO (Home Box Office) an American television network started to broadcast The Wire, such series started, it seems, to have moved from soap operas to dramas that are more like novels, some with artistic features. Perhaps, indeed now, the television series released in episodes, in something like the way that novels used to be published in the nineteenth century, has become the print-novel’s newly embodied follow-up. As Jessica Black and Jennifer Barnes (2015) have shown, moreover, watching a prize-winning television series, can have the same kinds of effects as reading fiction in enabling people to increase their empathy and understanding of others (theory of mind). 

So this week, and for some weeks to follow, I’ll offer suggestions with mini-reviews of some series that seem to me as good and worthwhile as many kinds of modern novel.

For this first week, I suggest Offspring, an Australian television show conceived and written by Debra Oswald with two collaborators, which started in 2010 and runs through seven seasons, with 85 episodes, available on Netflix. The main protagonist in the series is Dr Nina Proudman (played by Asher Keddie, centre-left in this picture). At the beginning she is in her early thirties, an obstetrician whose professional skills range from super-competent to absolutely brilliant. And there are lots of engaging scenes of babies being born (so much better than the frequent televisual fare of men with guns). The second protagonist is her older sister, Billie Proudman (played by Kat Stewart, top right-hand corner in the picture); very out-there, sexy, sometimes aggressive, sometimes affectionate. 

Along with her professional activities, Nina, sometimes known as Nins, is usually in a bit of muddle personally. She has problems with her family (her sister Billie, her brother Jimmy, her mum, and her dad). She has friendly, and often very funny, interactions with other doctors, and with nurses, in her workplace, a hospital in Melbourne. And she falls love with people in ways that don’t quite work out.

What is special, however, about this series, is its focus is on two aspects that had not quite emerged in the Nineteenth-Century novel. One of these—the main one—is Nina’s inner thoughts, edited into the action in a perfect way, so that although they are visualized and often spoken out-loud by the actress (Asher Keddie), as an audience member one knows instantly that they are Nina’s thoughts, memories, scenes of imagination, fantasies, and not aspects of her ongoing interactions with others. If we had been able to overhear Virginia Woolf, as she time-travelled from 1925 when she published Mrs Dalloway, to the first episode of Offspring, in 2010, we might have heard her whisper: “Yes.” The second aspect is the focus, not on events, not on what goes well or badly (although good and bad events happen), but on the relationships among the characters, which emerge and evolve. Lovely.   

Jessica Black & Jennifer Barnes (2015). Fiction and social cognition: The effect of viewing award-winning television dramas on theory of mind. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 9, 423-429.

Debra Oswald, John Edwards, & Imogen Banks (2010-2017). Offspring. Network 10. 

David Simon (2002). The wire. HBO Television Network.

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.
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Monday, 16 March 2020

Research Bulletin: Is marathon TV viewing problematic? An overview of personality variables and viewer engagement in binge-watching


The trend of marathon television viewing, or "binging", refers to watching 2-6 episodes in one sitting (Netflix, 2013), and this has become a popular phenomenon among youth and adults alike. Although there is limited research on this area, binge-watching has often been associated with loneliness, depression, and social anxiety (Brechan & Kvalem, 2015). A recent study by Tukachinsky and Eyal (2018) sought to explore whether certain personality traits would be associated with binging, and whether binging predicts how viewers engage with the characters and story in a TV show. Depression, loneliness, attachment style, and lack of self-regulation were assessed in a group of undergraduate communications students. In addition, story engagement, character identification, enjoyment, and parasocial relationships with characters were measured as aspects of how viewers interact with the content. In a second study, these personality and viewer involvement variables were compared based on either a marathon viewing experience or a traditional viewing experience (one episode per week).

Overall, these studies found that the relationship between depression and binge-watching was partly explained by a lack of self-control, confirming previous research on this topic (La Rose, Lin & Eastin, 2003). In addition, people without a  secure attachment style were more likely to binge-watch than those who were securely attached. Surprisingly, loneliness was not linked to increased binge-watching, although it has been previously shown that binge-watching can foster social connections and a sense of community (Perks, 2015). This study also found that binging viewers often engage with the content in meaningful, reflective ways, and also develop parasocial relationships with their favourite TV characters, perhaps more so than during a traditional viewing experience. This research may help to alleviate some concerns that binge-watching TV is a dysfunctional and problematic behaviour.

Post by Sarah Skelding

Photo by JESHOOTS.com from Pexels


* For a copy of the original article, please contact R. Mar (see profile for e-mail).

References: 


Brechan, I., & Kvalem, I. L. (2015). Relationship between body dissatisfaction and disordered eating: Mediating role of self-esteem and depression. Eating Behaviors, 17, 49–58. doi:10.1016/j.Eatbeh.2014.12.008

LaRose, R., Lin, C. A., & Eastin, M. S. (2003). Unregulated Internet usage: Addiction, habit, or deficient self-regulation? Media Psychology, 5, 225–253.  doi:10.1207/S1532785XMEP0503_01

Netflix. (2013, December 13). Netflix declares binge watching is the new normal.
Retrieved from https://pr.netflix.com/WebClient/getNewsSummary.do?newsId=496

Perks, L. G. (2015). Media marathoning: Immersions in morality. New York, NY: Lexington Books.

Tukachinsky, R. & Eyal, K. (2018). The Psychology of Marathon Television Viewing: Antecedents and Viewer Involvement. Mass Communication and Society21, 275-295. doi: 10.1080 /15205436. 2017.1422765




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Monday, 9 March 2020

Andrea Levy's Short Stories

As with sonnets, some short stories have turning points. Andrea Levy’s “Deborah” has three. This story begins with a depiction of childhood play as good or better, on this, than anything I have read. Deborah is a friend of the narrator, Fern, whose mum, we infer, is an immigrant from Jamaica. Both girls are nine years old. They live a little way from each other on the ground floor of a block of council flats in Highbury, just north of Islington, in London. Deborah is one of a large family of twelve or so. She “has pale blue eyes” and “pink cheeks.” She sleeps with siblings in a room that has lots of beds. She is naughty, but also endearing, can always get a ball back when it is lost, hops over fences, can jump down ten stairs at a time. She loves to play with Fern. (What follow here are spoilers; if you don’t like these, please don’t read on.)

Kenny, a much younger boy, lives on the third floor of the flats; “he was ginger and cried if you called him carrot.” He follows Deborah and Fern when he can. They sometimes let him come along, because—being scruffy and unattractive—he doesn’t have anyone else to play with. The three of them go into the flat where Deborah lives, into the room with lots of beds. It’s untidy: “Shoes, knickers and socks where pillows should be.” Instead of a light bulb, in the middle of the ceiling there’s a bundle of electric wires and flex, with leads going everywhere. The three kids play a game of showing each other their bums. Kenny is totally overexcited. He jumps up and down on a bed, waving his arms. By mistake, he knocks down the bundle of flex, and bits of the ceiling fall down, too.
“Kenny, look what you’ve done,” shouts Fern.
“I never did anything … I never touched nothing,” says Kenny.

Then comes the first turning point. Deborah burrows under a bed, on the floor, against the wall, sucks her thumb like a baby. Fern asks her to come out, but she won’t. Kenny calls her “scaredy cat” and “cry baby.” Fern then leaves “the room with the plaster and the dust and the black electric leads like spiders’ legs.”

At a second turning point, later that day, Fern sees Kenny naked. “His mouth … open as if screaming but with no sound coming out.” He has gashes and cuts all over his body, some of them oozing blood. Then she sees Deborah, walking after him, grinning, carrying a piece of flex with spikey metal ends. 

Deborah is then no longer to be seen. Adults appear. They want to know where she’s gone. Deborah’s dad shouts, “when I get hold of her I’ll kill her.”

The police are called. Kenny is taken off in an ambulance.

In the story’s last paragraph comes the third turning point. It’s how Fern finds Deborah in a secret hiding place the two of them have, with her cardigan “pulled up over her head … in front of her face. She was sucking her thumb and rocking gently backwards and forwards. And coming out from between her legs was a small trickle of piss.”  

Although in the early part of the story it’s clear that Deborah does things she shouldn’t, we find that she has also learned what it is to be a bully. Beaten up perhaps by her father, or mother, perhaps by others, she beats up Kenny. 

Another story in this collection is “That Polite Way that English People Have,” about a woman who emigrates to England from Jamaica. She has saved up to travel first class on a ship. She isn’t (quite) picked up by a posh-looking Englishman. He asks her if she would like a night cap. She says she doesn’t sleep with anything on her head. But Petal, another Jamaican woman, allows herself to be picked up. Now a turning point: in the boat’s first-class dining room, the posh man takes his meals with Petal, offers her cigarettes from a silver case. She whispers in his ear, and giggles. The narrator saw “the other English people looking at her [Petal] from the corner of their eyes. They were not used to someone as low class as she sitting right next to them … like she was as good as them.” 

A sense of humanity emanates from the essay and stories in this book by Andrea Levy who died about a year ago. In her stories, I think, she is wondering how we humans often seem unable sometimes to get on with each other. In the story “Deborah,” the turning points enable us to enter the mind of a child who has been abused. In other stories, turning points are based on shocks about how people do things, say things, or fail to say things, which indicate that they think it inappropriate for another person to receive the kind of consideration they would like for themselves. Most frequently this is based on social class or culture. But does that make it any better?

Andrea Levy (2014) Six Stories and an Essay. London: Headline.
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Monday, 10 February 2020

Harari: Sapiens

On Sunday, 9 February 2020, the New York Times reported that Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, had been on its nonfiction best-seller list for 91 weeks. At the centre of this book is an idea. It is that, sometime between 70,000 and 30,000 years ago, we humans who had previously discovered how to make stone tools and fires, invented … stories.  

Harari tends to call these stories, myths: about how we came to be, about how we are influenced by gods and spirits. More recently, he says, we invented the myth of commercial companies with limited liability, so their owners cannot be sued. 

For a commercial company, Harari presents Peugeot, founded in 1896 by Armand Peugeot who turned the metal-working shop he had inherited from his parents into a limited company to make motor vehicles. Harari argues that it is by means of a myth that such a company can exist at all, and that huge numbers of people have been able to work for it. The company does not depend on Armand Peugeot. He died in 1915. Nor does it depend on any other individual. It’s an entity that is imagined. In 2008, Harari says, it produced 1.5 million automobiles, with revenues of 55 billion Euros. Two other prevalent myths, says Harari, are nation states such as USA, and religious groups such as the Catholic Church.

To explain the agricultural revolution, some 10,000 years ago, Harari writes about wheat. It used to be a kind of grass that grew in the Middle East. Then, within two millennia, it had convinced Homo Sapiens to cultivate it. “Wheat didn’t like rocks,” Harari writes on p.80, “so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields.” And he goes on: “We did not domesticate wheat, it domesticated us” (p. 81). Harari suggests that the life of members of the Sapiens species as nomadic hunter-gatherers was rather good. So then he asks, “How did wheat convince Homo Sapiens to exchange a rather good life for a more miserable life?” (p. 81). 

The agricultural revolution, Harari writes, was accomplished by wheat. He says it was “History’s Biggest Fraud” (p. 77); capital letters at the beginning of each word. Yes, a joke, and Harari can be witty. But what’s behind the joke? 

Might one say that Harari is a genetic determinist? He is unusual among historians in that he centres on DNA. He says our ancestors started by being a small and obscure group, who lived in Africa. Now we have taken over the planet. He explains this in terms of genetic variations that separated us from our chimpanzee cousins. Then, he says, came three revolutions: first cognitive, then agricultural and, more recently, scientific. It was, he says, with the cognitive revolution that we became able to construct stories, myths. Then, because of these, we humans became able to cooperate not just in gangs of eight or ten, like patrolling chimpanzees, but in groups that can number thousands, as in the Peugeot company, or millions as in USA or the Catholic Church.

By 2014, when the English translation of Sapiens came out, Harari seemed not to have read Keith Stanovich’s book, which came out ten years earlier, The Robot’s Rebellion. As Stanovich explains, many people, with Harari seemingly among them, think that members of a species have genes, which they then pass on to their offspring. But Stanovich points out that they have this the wrong way round. Genes have us as their vehicles. Genes direct these vehicles toward reproduction, so they can replicate. That’s what genes do: self-replicate. They use the bodies of plants like wheat, and of animals like humans, as vehicles to evade dangers, to survive long enough to reproduce, so that the genes can replicate. In this way, the information they contain, in their patterns of DNA, go forward in time. Genes program the vehicles that are plants and animals. 

Our next step, as humans, Stanovich suggests, is not just a revolution but a rebellion. We humans have become the first genetically engineered vehicles that do not need simply to be controlled by genes. By thinking, by imagining possible futures, by making plans, by cooperation with others, in some aspects of life we can choose for ourselves what to do. Although we are robots of our genes, to think and to choose for ourselves has become our collective rebellion. We have started to direct ourselves, and not just in such matters as birth control.

And how do we do that? It may be helped by writing and engaging in fictional stories, about possible states of our human world. So in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brooke asks Tertius Lydgate: “What do we live for if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” (Ch. 72, p. 789).

George Eliot (1871-1872). Middlemarch: A study of provincial life. London: Penguin (current edition 1965).
Yuval Harari (2014). Sapiens: A brief history of humankind. Toronto: Penguin Random House.
Keith Stanovich (2004). The robot's rebellion: Finding meaning in the age of Darwin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Will and Testament

In 2016, when it was published in Norway, Vigdis Hjorth’s novel, Will and Testament, became a best-seller. Last year it came out in English, translated by Charlotte Barsland. 

The story’s protagonist is Bergljot. Other characters include her elder brother, Bård, and her two younger sisters Astrid and Åsa, along with their mother and father. At the beginning of the novel, Astrid phones Bergljot, to say that their mother is in hospital, but is “all right.” She had taken an overdose, not for the first time. Astrid goes on to say that Bård had discovered that their father had transferred ownership of the family’s two seaside cabins to the two younger sisters, so there’s a “row” (the fifth word in this novel). In his will the father had specified that, at his death, instead of a cabin, Bård and Bergljot would each get a financial equivalent—a compensation, except that it isn’t.

Bergljot is a theatre critic and magazine editor, who is also working on a thesis on modern German drama. Twenty-three years earlier she’d abandoned her family of origin, and had as little to do with them as possible; all except Astrid, with whom she has been in touch during the six months that precede the events with which the novel starts. Bergljot married a “nice, decent man,” with whom she had three children. 

This is a novel of inwardness, told by the first-person narrator, Bergljot. In its thoughts and language, this novel is as good as anything since Virginia Woolf, but in addition—and this makes it special—the inwardness is connected and interconnected with Bergljot’s relationships: what a person can talk about and what a person can not. And to whom, and when. Vigdis Hjorth invites us readers into Bergljot’s mind. We take on her concerns and mentally engage with members of her family of origin, with her children, with her lovers, with her friend Klara. 

At the centre is a family secret. Among the siblings, Bård is on Bergljot’s side. He, too, has abandoned the family some twenty years previously. 

So what is the secret? If you don’t like spoilers, you had better not read on; you could just read the book. (Some people are perfectly happy with spoilers; see OnFiction 3 April 2017, because they can help us to decide whether to read or watch, and if we do so, we can perhaps engage in the story more deeply.) 

So here’s the spoiler, the secret. Bergljot comes out with it. This happens two thirds of the way through the novel (p. 184). Bergljot, her siblings, and their mother, meet with an accountant, to discuss the business interests and the will of the father, who had died three weeks before this meeting. Bergljot has written out, very carefully, what she wants to say at the meeting, on two pieces of paper. She starts to read. 

Astrid knows what’s coming. “Now is not the time or the place,” she says (p. 187). But Bergljot continues.
I’ve been scared of Dad my whole life, I continued, I didn’t realize how much until 17 December last year when he died. I experienced a physical sense of relief. When I was between five and seven years old and repeatedly sexually assaulted by Dad, he told me that if I ever told anyone then he would go to prison or Mum would die.
You’re lying, Mum shouted.
I didn’t say anything, I said, I repressed it. I was silent but my life became increasingly self-destructive and chaotic as everything that I had repressed began to surface. I realised that I needed help and I got it, after several tests I eventually qualified for free psychoanalysis … I told Mum what had happened, she refused to believe me. As did my sisters … (p. 188).

In these days of the #MeToo movement, recognition of this issue has increased. But rather than a focus, which has now become common in news-stories, on who remembered what, along with accusations, excuses, and denials, this novel invites us to consider what kinds of implications might occur for a woman who has been abused as a child, for her relationships with her parents, her siblings, her friends, her lovers, her children. Vigdis Hjorth visits all these issues, enabling us to think about ramifications, and interconnections. 

The centrepiece of this novel is that it’s when she is an adult that Bergljot comes to remember that her father had sex with her when she was five or six years old. But this novel is not really about the plot. Instead it’s about the inner dynamics of Bergljot’s mind, about how events and relationships affect and permeate her inner thoughts and emotions. Vigdis Hjorth is brilliant at letting us see how things go in the opposite direction as well: how Bergljot’s inner thoughts and emotions, affect her relationships—with everyone. 

Bergljot feels that her life has been undermined. Her mother denies everything, and responds to Bergljot with hostility. Two other people believe her: Bergljot’s brother Bård, and her friend Klara. Her youngest sister, Åsa doesn’t believe her. Her closest sister, Astrid, the novel’s second main character, is a human rights lawyer. She doesn’t know whether to believe Bergljot and Bård, or their mother, father, and younger sister. She tries her very, very best to consider everyone, in the most utterly fair-minded, totally irritating, way. 

And the reader? As we go along, we take in Bergljot’s thoughts, receive her phone calls and text messages, enter the circumstances depicted, and make them our own. They take on the kind of urgency that is important when we read a novel. We think about them, reflect upon them …

Vigdis Hjorth, Will and Testament (2019) translated by Charlotte Barslund. London: Verso.
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Monday, 20 January 2020

Shakespeare and Love

In Stratford on Avon, in 1582, William Shakespeare, at the age of 18, married Anne Hathaway, who was 26, probably because she was pregnant. They had three children: Susanna, born in 1583, then twins Judith and Hamnet, in 1585. Soon after this, William left Stratford. He moved to London, where he lived for more than 20 years, first joining a theatre company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, in which he became an actor and their principal playwright. In 1609, William’s 154 sonnets were publishedThe first 17 of these seem to have been commissioned; they are addressed to someone known as “the young man.” They were written to try and persuade him to marry, so that he could pass on to children his beauty which otherwise, would be lost when “forty winters” would “besiege” his brow. The next 109 sonnets are about William’s relationship, probably an affair, with the young man, which seems to have started when William was maybe 28, and the young man perhaps 18. 

The group of 109 sonnets (18 to 126), as Helen Vendler explains in her brilliant book of 1997, draws on conversations and interactions between William and the young man. Then, beginning with Sonnet 127, come 27 sonnets about William’s affair with a woman called the Dark Lady, perhaps, Emilia Lanier, England’s first published woman poet, (see Michael Wood, 2003).

In his plays, William Shakespeare depicts memorable characters such as Hamlet, in the play of that name, and Rosalind in As You Like It. But these characters are out there, on the stage, whereas the Sonnets seem more interior, more personal. One may infer that when the young man had sex with others, William was devastated, so then he went and had sex with others as well, which seems to have increased his own anguish … 

So, here is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27:
Weary with toil I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind when body’s work’s expired;
For then my thoughts, from far where I abide,
Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,
And keep my drooping eyelids open wide
Looking on darkness which the blind do see:
Save that my soul’s imaginary sight
Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,
Which like a jewel hung in ghastly night
Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.
Lo, thus by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quietness find.

The sonnet is a verse form designed to express the emotion of love. Its general structure is eight lines, four lines, two lines (as shown above). Between each group are potential turning points. The first of these, in Sonnet 27, is between the first eight lines, about William’s inability to sleep, and the next four lines about his “imaginary sight” of the young man. The second occurs with the change from lines 9 to 12, to the final couplet in which, when William thinks of the young man, the experience is of anxiety.

In her discussion of this sonnet, Vendler points out parallels: day—limbs, night—mind, day of travel—night of pilgrimage, no quietness for the young man—no quietness for William. Then, she says, glimmering behind some of the words are others: behind “zealous” may be ”jealous.” And, as she explains, William’s night is arduous: “But then begins a journey,” “To work my mind,” “Intend a … pilgrimage,” “keep my … eyelids open,” “Looking on darkness,” “Save that my soul’s … sight,” “Presents thy shadow,” “Lo thus … no quiet.” As when any of us is unable to sleep, each insomniac phase is followed inexorably by another, without respite of “dear repose.”

William, here, seems to have been anxious because he had to leave London for work, and wondered what the young man may have been up to. Although, in the first eight lines he makes a mental pilgrimage to an image of the young man, with the first turning point what William meets, mentally, is a “shadow:” a word which at that time could mean “actor” on a stage, and also “outward behaviour” which Shakespeare tended to contrast with “substance,” meaning inward truth. So the night is “ghastly” because, with the second turning point, although though the poet is awake, alone in bed, perhaps the young man is also awake, in bed with someone else.

Helen Vendler (1997). The art of Shakespeare's sonnets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Michael Wood (2003). Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books.

Image: Shakespeare from the First Folio of 1623
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