SEASON 2! Broad Appeal: Chick Lit

"The trouble with a book is you never know what's in it until it's too late"

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer from  The Portrait of a Lady  (1996).

Nicole Kidman as Isabel Archer from The Portrait of a Lady (1996).

The writer Jeannette Winterson attributes these words to her strict Christian mother, explaining the seductions -- and perils -- of reading. She had a point. Unlike movies, books don't come with ratings for concerned parents. How many young minds have been led astray by the ideas they first found when wandering through unfamiliar sections of the library?  Every journey we take between the covers of a book is a journey into the unknown.

For centuries, the reading of novels has been considered a typically feminine activity. The rise of the novel in the 19th century was driven by middle-class women readers, who were able to take imaginative journeys during an era where they were confined mostly to the home. Excluded from politics and many professions, "lady novelists" like Harriet Beecher Stowe and George Eliot found ways through writing to shape minds and influence society.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando, 1992.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando, 1992.

It's become commonplace these days to decry the fact that we live in a visual culture, sitting passively as streams of images assault our eyeballs from screens of all sizes.  To read a novel in the 21st century is the intellectual equivalent of "slow food" - it is to be reminded that some pleasures take time, some imaginative journeys require our active collaboration.

For Season 2 of Broad Appeal (arriving in your earbuds 19th January) we've set ourselves a big task: reading twelve works of literature with female heroines and then watching the film adaptations they inspired. I am shuddering already at the amount of hours we'll be spending in preparation for each episode, sometimes reading hundreds of pages before we can even start watching the films. Why do this? After 2016, the year in which so many of us were slaves to the news cycle, mindlessly consuming each new hot-take, it feels refreshing to take our time living within a story, wandering leisurely within another's consciousness for extended periods of time.

Diane Keaton just wants to read, but Richard Gere's pretty distracting....

Diane Keaton just wants to read, but Richard Gere's pretty distracting....

And what incredible consciousnesses they are! This whole project began when Seán and I started reading Henry James's masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, which represents better than nearly any book I can think of the subtle layers of awareness that shape a mind, the mental drama of an intellect and an identity coming into formation through thought, observation and emotional experience. Jane Campion's film of the book was controversial for failing to observe the standard decorum we associate with "literary adaptations" onscreen. Yes, there were corsets and bonnets - but also plates of talking beans. The director boldly sought her own visual language to convey the striking effects of James's finely-wrought sentences.

It was surprisingly fun to read James aloud to one another; and now we can't wait to see if Shelley Winters and Shelley Duvall adopt similar characterizations to the ones we did when reading the dialogue of Mrs. Touchett and the Countess Gemini. But when we drew up our reading list, it was striking how few of the titles are traditional "costume dramas." Horror, romance, Gothic mysteries, heist capers, social satires, modernism, musicals -- they're all represented on the list.  It's a testament to the truth that through every age filmmakers have been cannibalizing the printed word as fodder for new works of popular art.

Here's the list of books - and films - for those reading and watching along with us (in chronological order of publication):

  • The Portrait of a Lady (1881) by Henry James (dir. Jane Campion, 1996)

  • Orlando (1928) by Virginia Woolf (dir. Sally Potter, 1992)

  • Rebecca (1938) by Daphne DuMaurier (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

  • "Yentl the Yeshiva Girl" (1960) by Issac Bashevis Singer (dir. Barbra Streisand, 1983)

  • Carrie (1974) by Stephen King (dir. Brian DePalma, 1976)

  • Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975) by Judith Rossner (dir. Richard Brooks, 1977)

  • The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1985)

  • The Piano Teacher (1983) by Elfriede Jelinek (dir. Michael Haneke, 2001)

  • The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood (dir. Volker Schlondorff, 1990) 

  • Slaves of New York (1986) by Tama Janowitz (dir. James Ivory, 1989)

  • Jackie Brown (published as Rum Punch, 1992) by Elmore Leonard (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1997)

  • The Bridges of Madison County (1992) by Robert James Waller (dir. Clint Eastwood, 1995)

Without consciously planning it, we've also ended up with a far higher proportion of female-written and directed work than we have in our previous series (though still not enough!). Glance at the list and you could easily mistake it for the syllabus from a seminar on feminism (OK, maybe without The Bridges of Madison County....

It's 2017. It's about time we all got a bit more literate, and feminine, don't you think? Get reading.