A few days after 9/11, Ian McEwan wrote in The Guardian about the aftermath of the tragedy, the shock it had caused in the people he knew. Despite the world-spanning nature of the events, he noted that “the reckoning, of course, was with the personal.”
In describing how people channeled their traumatized watching into fantasies and daydreams that limn the cracks in the “terrible actuality”, McEwan hits on something essential in these imaginings about “what if it was me?”:
This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion … Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.
Your writing does not have to overtly engage with ethical quandaries in order to be moral. All it needs to do is whisk the reader into another person’s consciousness. By doing so, fiction can breed understanding.
Since summer is nearly on its way out and everybody is trying to finish up their beach reading—note to self: bring lighter books, both in weight and subject time, next time—it’s time to get on with what’s going to be hitting bookstore display tables in the next few months. Here’s a glance at five September titles that look the most promising:
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House, $30)
After the historical misfire of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell might be getting back to what he does best: spinning vast, pointillist sagas that cross space, time, and dimensions without ever being less than precise. This one spans decades and involves a runaway teenager who might be psychic and a secret cabal of “dangerous mystics.” There’s an excerpt of the book here.
The Children Act by Ian McEwan (Random House, $25)
Ian McEwan’s last book was 2012’s superb spy story Sweet Tooth. Now he looks to be getting back to the topical territory of novels like Saturday. The Children Act follows a family court judge who has to decide whether or not to overrule a teenager’s religious decision to forego medical treatment that could save his life.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt, $27.99)
Apparently to tide us over until the third volume in her Thomas Cromwell series (Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies), Mantel provides this in-the-meantime collection of stories about “dislocation and family fracture, of whimsical infidelities and sudden deaths with sinister causes, [which] brilliantly unsettle the reader in that unmistakably Mantel way.”
Depressing, provocative, or just plain true, here’s something to consider from Bryan Goldberg; he made millions off co-founding the incredibly popular crowd-sourced sports site Bleacher Report and is now trying to do the same for women-centered writing (whatever that is) at a site called Bustle. According to Goldberg:
Men, to the best of my knowledge, don’t even read … When’s the last time you heard a man say, ‘I’ve been reading this great book, you’d really like it’? My girlfriend always tells me about these books she’s reading, and I don’t even see her reading the book! Where does this book live?
Apparently it doesn’t occur to Goldberg to just pick up a book and find out what this fascinating and mysterious hobby is all about.
But in any case, he is not wrong in the aggregate, as any bookstore employee can tell you: Women buy books, men don’t. There is the occasional squawk of disagreement on this issue and plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but mostly, the numbers bear it out.
A 2007 story from NPR reported that even among avid readers, the typical woman read nine books a year, compared to five for men. Men make up just 20 percent of fiction reader. It’s hard to believe that those numbers have changed much in the past six years.
Back in 2005, novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement, the amazing new Sweet Tooth) tried an experiment. He and his son went around a London park distributing books for free. The result?
Every young woman we approached – in central London practically everyone seems young – was eager and grateful to take a book. Some riffled through the pile murmuring, “Read that, read that, read that …” before making a choice. Others asked for two, or even three.
The guys were a different proposition. They frowned in suspicion, or distaste. When they were assured they would not have to part with their money, they still could not be persuaded. “Nah, nah. Not for me. Thanks mate, but no.” Only one sensitive male soul was tempted.
“Frowned in suspicion, or distaste.” And remember, this was before every man had a smart phone to obsessively check up on sports scores.