The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

I’m ashamed to say I’m not sure I knew Dinah’s name, before reading this.

I knew parts of her story, from my youth, when I heard the Bible tale. How the sons of Jacob tricked every adult male in a town to become circumcised, just so their king’s son could be granted the privilege of marrying Jacob’s daughter.

How they then slaughtered the town while the men were laid up healing.

In church, the story’s presented as a righteous thing, a sign of their cleverness. How they could outsmart their enemies.

No one said anything about Dinah. How she might have felt about things. Or about the wives and daughters of the murdered men. They were background characters, unimportant to the morality of the tale.

So how amazing, then, that Diamant has put Dinah front and center. Breathed life into her, filling in her story and giving us a complete account of her journey. Of her mistakes and triumphs. Of her hopes and fears.

It’s an incredible feat to pull off. And Diamant covers not just Dinah’s life, but her mothers’ lives, too, starting from the moment they met Jacob, so we get the fullest picture possible of Dinah’s situation, of her time and place.

She gives us a sense of the rhythms of their existence, both day-to-day and year to year, without ever getting bogged down in too many details (or leaving things so vague as to be unhelpful).

And what rhythms! Diamant invokes the feel of the ancient world, the sounds and the smells, the hassles and the joys. And it’s a woman’s world that she brings to life, the rituals of childbirth and the red tent, the offerings to multiple gods, the hard work of cooking and farming and making, well, everything. T

he men are present, but it’s not their story. It’s not their world.

Diamant’s succeeded so well in showing us this world, in fact, that it’s her story, Dinah’s story, that I remember more vividly now, not the ones about her brothers. Which feels…proper. The way it should be.

Better to remember the healer and midwife, perhaps, than the tricksters and killers.

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Surprisingly deep and engrossing. Reads like total fluff, but wrestles with real issues: debt, addiction, and substituting daydreams for working toward a goal.

Three things I learned about writing:

  • Tension can come from a character’s inner dialog, instead of from events. With the right narration, a night of watching tv can become high drama.
  • Obstacles don’t have to come from outside the main character; it’s just as satisfying to watch them overcome situations they’ve created for themselves.
  • Don’t always need to hear both sides of a conversation. Sometimes it’s more fun to imagine the other side for ourselves.

Genre vs Literary Fiction

How can we tell genre fiction from literary fiction? It’s not enough to add some spaceships and call it science fiction. Nor does putting it in a medieval setting automatically make it fantasy.

I think one part of the difference is that genre fiction seems mainly concerned with jobs, and exciting things happening while people are working those jobs: noble, soldier, scientist, private eye.

Literary fiction is less concerned with jobs, and more concerned with life outside of work: families, holidays, dating. Work is implicitly boring, an obstacle to be overcome.

It’s two polar views of the human condition. In one, work is a calling, and the moral questions revolve around what kind of people get called and how they respond to their calling. In the other, work is background. It’s something that may create conflict, but it’s not usually central to the story.

In other words, fiction written in genre circumstances that doesn’t revolve around work as a calling feels literary, even if it’s set in a far-off alien landscape.

Hence Ian McEwan’s novel Solar, which could have been written as genre fiction, following the career of a scientist toward a breakthrough in cheap solar power, but instead is written in a literary style, more concerned with his life outside of his work and what that says about him.

There’s also Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth, which is sold as literary fiction but to me reads like genre: the central plot-line is the construction of the cathedral, and those called to build it. Characters move in and out of the narrative according to their impact on the cathedral’s construction, and there’s a lot of science-fiction-style description of building techniques.