Literature for Life: The Empathetic Writings of Mark Haddon

On this month’s Literature for Mind we look at Mark Haddon who became popular with his bestselling novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. We will see what curious 19th century Romance novel influenced his most popular book and the important lesson he learned from writing children’s books. In this week’s recommendation section, we will look at four personal, humorous, non-fiction books that tries to expand how we think about culture.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was many people’s first introduction to Mark Haddon. The 2003 novel, self-described by the main character as being about, “a mathematician with behavioral difficulties”, has become a seminal novel for many about children with Asperger’s. But, that description has troubled many in the Asperger’s community and even Haddon himself.

Haddon has never been interested in realistic portrayals, no matter how much weight is put on his first “adult” novel. Empathy is what Haddon places the most importance of. One influential writer that has played a key role in Haddon’s literary career has been Jane Austen, whose Pride and Prejudice was considered a major influence for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In a piece written by Haddon in The Guardian, he wrote, “Jane Austen writes about these humdrum lives with such empathy that they seem endlessly fascinating.” It is empathy that has served as the through line throughout his career.

Mark Haddon was born in 1962 in Northampton, England. His introduction to the literary world weren’t writing novels but for children’s literature. Haddon’s first published work was the picture book Gilbert’s Gobstopper because he knew he could self-illustrate and thought that children’s books would be easier to do than a full on novel. In the children’s literature, Haddon became most known for a series of comical books called Agent Z. These books describe a collective of teens who create an alter-ego to combat teenage boredom.

The difficulty of children’s literature has served as important lessons that Haddon has taken to his other works. “It's not about you. No one wants to know how clever you are.” He has taken that same philosophy into his writing for adults. The only difference for Haddon between picture books and adult novels is that he has to figure out a way to condense 50,000 words into a tidy, digestible 500, which is harder than it may sound.

In 2003, Haddon’s first novel became a best-selling sensation. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fell into the sweet spot as being as appealing and beloved by teens as it was for adults. The novel takes a first-person narrative of a teenager with Asperger’s-like symptoms as he tries to solves a mystery of a dog that was murdered. The book’s simple precise language to simulate the thoughts of that character. The book came about as a challenge Haddon had wanted to place upon himself. At the time, he had already written many unpublished novels. For this particular one, he just began writing a story that entertained himself without the crutch of writing a straight genre piece his children’s literature has been.

The book went on to win many literary awards including the Whitebread Book of the Year and many end-of-the-year best of lists. The book has gone on to become a play on Broadway, winning the Tony Award for Best New Play in 2013 and has been tapped by Brad Pitt’s film production company to be made into a film by Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves. The novel has even begun appearing in school’s English curriculum.

The novel’s appeal to all ages because it means different things for different people. For children, it presented a worldview of a character that is recognizable and relatable. The lead character, Christopher J. Boone, is a teenager who has the world’s pressures on his shoulders without ever recognizing it; whether it is pushed upon him by adults or his own disabilities. For adults, the novel speaks to the difficulty of communicating with a character who cannot lie. Yet, despite Boone being the one with the social disorder, it is everyone else who if only they were honest there would be no book.  

It could have been easy for Haddon to ride the wave of success to write books that are thematically similar to The Curious Incident, but Haddon decided to follow up his massive best seller with a book of poetry. The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea was a collection of poems that continued Haddon’s streak of unwieldly long titles. The collection of poems garnered negative reviews. A Spot of Bother, released in 2006, was follow up novel about a hypochondriac also had mixed reviews upon its release. His most recent novel The Red House also did not see the same success both commercially and critically as his first novel. His take on the English country-side novel was described by the New York Times as, “Alan Bennett as rendered by Pixar.”

It seems as if Haddon’s most successful work in recent years has been his short stories. He has been regularly appearing in print and online in The New Yorker magazine, joining a league of a canonical authors such as JD Salinger and David Foster Wallace. His last published work, released earlier this year, is a collection of short stories called Pier Falls has received the best reviews of his work since The Curious Incident.

Haddon’s popularity has to be attributed to the way he is able to connect with his readers. Many critics has pointed towards Haddon’s empathy in his novels as if it is a bad thing but Haddon is a writer with no pretension. He comes from the philosophy that books are not about insights from the author but to help facilitate insights within the reader.  

In reference to the best books, Haddon writes, “Reading is a conversation. All books talk. But a good book listens as well.”  

Recommendations

 

But What if We’re Wrong; Thinking About the Past as if it Were the Present by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is the premiere pop culture essayist working today. He has written everywhere from Grantland to The New York Times Magazine. His latest collection of essay is focused around the topic of looking at the present in the context of history. Too often people think about the present as the pinnacle but that can often be too short sighted. Klosterman uses his uniquely personal style of writing mixed in with interviews from intellectuals such as Junot Diaz and Neil DeGrasse Tyson to pontificate on modern day culture and what would survive 500 years from now. The book is extremely funny and reads like the best bar conversation you can have with your smartest friends.

Modern Romance: An Investigation by Aziz Ansari

Usually humor books by prominent comedians follow the same format. It is a collection of comical musings on life and maybe a brief memoir, here and there. Aziz Ansari, actor/comedian of note in shows such as Parks and Recreation and Master of None, has written a Masters Level thesis paper on the modern dating scene in the style of the typical humor book written by a comedian. Ansari teamed up with an NYU sociology professor, Eric Klinenberg to figure out how dating has changed from a generation ago until now with the onset of internet culture. This book is a holistic, non-judgmental take on what it takes to make it in the Tinder dating scene and what people are looking for. I have already recommended this book to several of my single friends.

 Your Favorite Band is Killing Me by Steven Hyden

This is the second Grantland writer on the list (I miss that site). Steven Hyden, a music critic who has written for the aforementioned Grantland and the A.V. Club, attempts to use prominent music rivalries in the past 50 years as way to look at what it means for culture. He takes a holistic approach to pop culture to critique the bigger questions that manifests from it. This is a smartly written collection of essays that shows that pop culture is not as insular as people make it seems. It draws on the importance of conversations such as The Beatles or the Rolling Stones as saying something about the people who often engage themselves in those conversations.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is not simply a writer. He is a thinker. He is a poet. In this book written as a letter to his son trying to explain the world of race and being an African American male in the modern age. Very quickly, this book has joined the pantheon of African American writings along with the works of Richard Wright and James Baldwin. This book was not written to be an explanation of race to people who do not experience it (despite all those who have used it as such). Instead, it is a deeply personal book without filter that is imbued in anger, frustration and fear that despite the long struggle there is still a long way to go. Between the World and Me is going to be a book that is talked about for years to come.