Review: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Bleaker House by Nell StevensBleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World by Nell Stevens
Narrator: Nell Stevens
Length: 7 hrs, 11 mins
Published by Random House Audio on March 14, 2017
Genres: Memoir, Short Stories
Format: Audiobook
Source: Publisher
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half-star

A girl, a laptop, and a waddle of penguins. In this witty and genre-defying memoir, a young writer can travel anywhere she wants to finally finish her novel—and ends up on a frozen island at the bottom of the world.

Twenty-seven-year-old Nell Stevens was determined to write a novel, but life kept getting in the way. Then came a game-changing opportunity: she won a fellowship that would let her live, all expenses paid, anywhere in the world to research and write a book. Would she choose a glittering metropolis, a romantic village, an exotic paradise? Not exactly. Nell picked Bleaker Island, a snowy, windswept pile of rock in the Falklands. There, in a guesthouse where she would be the only guest, she could finally rid herself of distractions and write. Before the spring thaw, surely she’d have a novel.

And indeed, other than sheep, penguins, paranoia, and the weather, there aren’t many distractions on Bleaker. Nell gets to work on a charming Dickensian fiction she calls Bleaker House—only to discover that total isolation and 1,085 calories a day are far from ideal conditions for literary production. With deft humor, the memoir traces Nell’s island days and slowly reveals details of the life and people she has left behind in pursuit of her writing. They pop up in her novel, too, and in other fictional pieces that dot the book. It seems that there is nowhere Nell can run—an island or the pages of her notebook—to escape the big questions of love, art and ambition.

Terrifically smart, full of wry writing advice, and with a clever puzzle of a structure, Bleaker House marks the arrival of a fresh new voice in creative nonfiction.

You can probably tell from the rating that reading Bleaker House was as horrible a mistake as Nell Stevens’ trip to the Falklands. I’d seen a couple GR friends rate this highly, and it has a penguin on the cover, and I love Bleak House (FYI it has nothing whatsoever to do with Bleak House other than the island’s name and that she brought a copy of the book instead of more food), so I went for it. Big mistake. Huge. Bleaker House pissed me right the fuck off. I recommend Bleaker House to readers who enjoy whiny memoirs by privileged white people AND also delight in the worst in literary penis feels fiction.

The blurb would have you believe that Bleaker House is “genre-defying,” because chapters of Stevens’ fiction written on her MFA writing fellowship trip to the Falklands interspersed with her memoir of the experience, largely drawn from her trip journal. Nothing about this defies genre, though admittedly the fact that the author managed to sell her shitty fiction after all does defy explanation.

Nell Stevens got her MFA in writing and won a fellowship, which would pay all her expenses to go ANYWHERE. Absolutely anywhere. She decides to go to Bleaker Island in the Falklands, believing that true authors must work in isolation, and she wanted to test her ability to deal with this loneliness. In addition, she wanted to see how much she could create in three months of isolation, assuming that this would lead to peak concentration and focus. Literally everyone she knows advises her to do literally anything else, but she’s determined.

The memoir side of Bleaker House consists of privileged complaining. There’s a constant refrain about all the pressure she’s experiencing because this is her ONE CHANCE to write a novel, because after this she will have to hold down a job and will not have the same kind of time to write. Considering that this is how almost all authors work, I feel not one iota of sympathy.

During the book, she’ll complain about her appearance, comment on life in the Falklands like she actually understands jack shit about it, and be surprised to find that it’s hard to function at your best when you plan wrong and don’t have sufficient food in your diet. So yeah, this is the story of a privileged person who takes a poorly planned, intentionally miserable vacation to the Falklands and then writes a memoir about how miserable it is to be there.

Worse than the memoir portions are her fictions. Stevens mentions her time in her MFA and that she consistently got the same criticisms: her main characters all turn out nervous and British people of privilege and her female characters aren’t realistic. Stevens writes literary fiction in the precise vein that makes me loathe literary fiction: everything she writes is about a privileged white person and, even if it has a female main character, the focus is always on a male character.

It’s pretty fucking sad that Stevens is a woman and cannot write a convincing fictional woman. She is, presumably, the product of studying too many classic male authors and taking on the patriarchal view to the degree she can’t escape it. This sort of literary fiction takes a rather unfortunate “write what you know” perspective and is too focused in on the author’s own self. As an example, there’s a horrid interlude where Nell tries to write a story about a stripper turned prostitute (to practice her writing of women). Rather than researching by reading stories or memoirs or interviewing actual women, Nell creates a fake Craigslist profile and meets a married man in search of a younger woman to pay for sex. Somehow, Stevens’ description of these events comes out almost more sympathetic towards the man than Stevens herself, who feels guilty for leading him on, even though he forced a kiss on her. This seems rather illustrative of the flaws in her work.

Strategy-wise, it’s no wonder she couldn’t finish a novel in these three months, though she’s astounded. She gave herself three times NaNoWriMo, but she fails to complete a single novel. She sets her writing goals to the minimum and doesn’t even follow those. No shit, you couldn’t finish a damn book. She also only ever had one idea for a novel, though apparently she also wrote some short stories (one of which is in second person about a college student becoming obsessed with her professor’s erotic poetry and seducing the professor’s husband WRITTEN IN SECOND PERSON). Rather than using all this free time to CREATE CREATE CREATE, she stares in the mirror. She could have had several novels pretty far along, but nope.

Stevens does admit that her novel she started to write is a failure. Which makes me wonder why the fuck readers are expected to want to read a story that EVERYONE knows DOES NOT WORK. The factor that ticks me off the most here is that Stevens manages to sell her subpar literary bullshit fiction by packaging it into her brief memoir of a shitty vacation. The hardcover is 256 pages, much of it fiction which was not good enough to sell on its own right. And, infuriatingly, Stevens ends the book by praising herself for actually managing to write a book (aka this steaming turd of white privilege), even though her initial goal was to write a NOVEL, which is a very different thing and at which she monumentally failed. The only parts of the book I enjoyed at all were the bits of writing advice from her professor, who advised her to look outside herself to create good fiction. I don’t think that will ever be happening, considering that her reaction to that was to isolate herself and package her shitty inward-looking fiction into a memoir.

Bleaker House perfectly highlights all the issues I have with literary fiction and it’s navel/novel-gazing. LBR, you know if you’re into this sort of thing. If not, save yourself the rage.

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One response to “Review: Bleaker House by Nell Stevens”

  1. Sarah J. says:

    This sounds painful to read. I don’t understand why want to be writers are convinced that they’ll churn out a great literary novel if they have never actually written anything substantial before. Most writers have written stories at a young age, sometimes even novels, but to think that just being ambitious and having a goal creates a novel filled with creativity is a privileged and elitist thought. I’ll be steering clear of this one. Great review!
    Sarah J. recently posted…Continuing the Tor Short ChallengeMy Profile

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