Wednesday, September 14, 2011 2:07 PM
We’ve all taken sanctuary in a good book at the end of a hard day, a hard week, a hard month, but do the words on those pages contain actual healing properties? Bibliotherapists at the London-based establishment The School of Life think so, calling the personalized book-list prescriptions they offer “the perfect way for you to discover those amazing but often elusive works of literature that can illuminate and even change your life.”
Writer Alexandra Redgrave, of enRoute, decides to try out the shop’s bibliotherapy service, reassured that there is a long history backing the power of books. She explains:
Although bibliotherapy might sound like just another clever name for the self-help book section, the practice has existed since at least the end of the 18th century in Europe and the beginning of the 19th century in the U.S., where mental-health hospitals started setting up libraries in the 1840s as a means to treat patients. The American physician Benjamin Rush noted in 1812 that certain novels could cure melancholy—this at a time when it was commonly believed that sensationalist texts caused insanity. And British soldiers were prescribed fiction after WWII to help them recuperate from post-traumatic shock.
At her private session, Redgrave—considering a career shift and seeking courage—answers questions about her reading history, her childhood, and what is missing from her life, as the bibliotherapist thoughtfully takes notes. “Have you ever read The Year of the Hare?” the therapist asks, ruminating on the right book for Redgrave’s needs. “It’s about a Finnish journalist who takes a drive in the countryside, accidentally hits a hare and disappears into the woods to help it recover, leaving his former life behind for the call of the wild.” Redgrave is prescribed that novel on the spot, along with the promise of a longer reading list in a few days.
In addition to individual, group, and remote bibliotherapy sessions, The School of Life offers an extensive menu of options for optimizing personal fulfillment: classes (How to Balance Work with Life, How to Be Cool); secular sermons (on compassion, strangers, storytelling); lectures (Fear of Failure, Finding the Perfect Partner); and psychotherapy consultations. But bibliotherapy remains one of its most popular services.
Check out the sample prescriptions available online for the recently bereaved, the sleep deprived parent, the newly retired, the gainfully unemployed, and the broken-hearted—who are advised to read How to Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. Lonely hearts will soon “bid adieu to sadness,” The School of Life claims, and “embrace a new way of living.” Until then, at least they’ll have a good book to curl up with.
, licensed under
Friday, September 02, 2011 3:05 PM
When Muammar Gaddafi’s stranglehold on Libya cracked, the public was finally able to peer into the dictator’s compound. Images from inside revealed a life of extreme extravagance—and went viral instantly. Gaddafi was gone—nowhere to be found—but he left behind plenty to gawk at: a golden chaise lounge fashioned in the likeness of his daughter Aisha, a built-in cinema, replica 14thcentury furniture, and a small amusement park, Spinning Teacups and all.
Inspired by the unbelievable opulence of the Libyan compound and the dictator’s disappearance, Salon commissioned eight novelists and short story writers to imagine what Gaddafi’s life in hiding is like. As they put it: “A fall so sudden and dramatic is perhaps best told in fiction.”
In my favorite story, “The Supreme Leader Dreams of Love” by Steve Almond, Gaddafi reminisces about meeting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. Here’s an excerpt:
He had met her, the first and only time, in a room choked with myrrh. He stood in a corner and she walked toward him, smiling professionally. The cameramen shone their cruel light. She was thinner than she appeared on the television. Her eyes were lighter than expected. Her hair had been carefully straightened and smoothed, like a fine wool.
Much had been made of protocol. She reached to touch his hand and he demurred. This was the term used in the news reports. Demurred.
Later, he had taken her to his private kitchen for iftar, spiced goat and rice, a dish from his childhood. The two of them, and Tarek, who translated. They ate from a common bowl. In the fleeting moment before she applied a napkin, her lips shone.
For two hours and more he told her his ideas, made his little speeches, but neither of them listened. Something else was happening. She looked up at him and he felt like a boy again, wandering after the animals, dreaming of his father’s gun.
Image by ssoosay, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 12, 2011 9:49 AM
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. ... Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring time,
You are never not wondering how
It happened ...
— Robert Hass, “Bush’s War”
If I knew, even roughly, how Berlin died, I would lay out the facts in a chain of evidence. And if I had a theory, however tenuous, about the city’s post-mortem life, I would argue it straight up: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. As it is, even the rough arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement feels a bit shaky at best. But I can tell you how it feels, in July, on a sunny day late in the month, at the end of my twelve-week stay in the world’s strangest city.
I’m in Berlin for one reason: to explore how fact and fiction might profitably be collided together. I’ve been in town since early spring, teaching a seminar on that topic at the Freie Universität, with two dozen students from all over Germany who were born knowing more about the topic than I can ever presume to teach them.
The course is an experiment, probably not a great thing to try while a guest in a foreign country. But I’ve always wanted to explore, in a classroom, how factual argument and fictive projection, set side by side, might triangulate into places that neither can reach alone. Shaw may be right that “The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.” But natural selection has shaped us to be moved mainly by things on our own private scale. Discursive argument models and projects, producing tremendous leverage, but without a hook that hits us where we live, facts rarely compel us to change our lives. Narrative imagination can twist our guts and shatter our souls, but it’s mired in local fates that must be small enough to look familiar.
Suppose, though, that you yoked the two together. Thought and feeling, argument and stories, statistical analysis and good old twists of the viscera: these two inimical modes, played off of one another, might produce a kind of deep parallax, tricking the mind’s eye into turning those two skewed planes into the illusion of three dimensions. I’ve come to Berlin to test the idea in a live clinical trial.
In class, we’ve read many strange and unclassifiable things, works that hover somewhere between factual knowledge about the world and fictional embodiment of the world’s would-be knowers. We’ve read Julian Barnes’s idiosyncratic but entirely reliable biography of Flaubert, told by a wholly unreliable fictional biographer. As Barnes’s invented mouthpiece meditates on either Emma Bovary or his own shadowy wife: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this.”
We’ve read Paul Broks’s chimerical excursion, Into the Silent Land, with its collage of neuroscience, clinical case histories, memoir, philosophical essay, and bare naked short story. Broks’s essays prove that there is no Self, no master narrative holding us together; but his fictive personal memoir can’t escape having one. The brain is condemned to think that it’s a soul, and to describe that impossible hybrid state, Broks says:
One has to be bilingual, switching from the language of neuroscience to the language of experience; from talk of “brain systems” and “pathology” to talk of “hope,” “dread,” “pain,” “joy,” “love,” “loss,” and all the other animals, fierce and tame, in the zoo of human consciousness.
My students have swallowed every bastard hybrid genre I’ve thrown at them. Fictocriticism, mockumentary, staged reality, Borgesian simulated lectures, psycho-journalism, unattributed sampling, hip-hop mashup, real actors playing imaginary authors making pixelated media appearances while selling brutally frank memoirs filled with the slightly altered real-life experiences of some other, dissembling author. My sales pitch has worked so well with this group that, by the end of the semester, I’m appalled at what I’ve unleashed. James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, lonelygirl15, COPS and Survivor and America’s Next Top Model: bring it all on, my German students say. The blurrier the better. They have grown up in a world that laughs at the very distinctions that I’ve come here to challenge, and in class, they regard me with affectionate pity for my quaint belief in the existence of boundaries that a writer might still hope to exploit by transgressing.
Read the rest of Richard Powers' essay
Places at Design Observer >>
Image by Frank Schirrmeister.
Monday, April 18, 2011 1:40 PM
David Foster Wallace is a difficult genius. Starting with the publication of his debut novel The Broom of the System in 1987, the postmodern author’s dense, grandly-footnoted, ontological examinations of mundane subjects—cruise ships, high-school tennis, the IRS—have beguiled, daunted, and delighted readers. The Pale King, Wallace’s almost-finished novel chronicling the life of a tax auditor, was posthumously published (Wallace committed suicide in 2008) on April 15. In the weeks leading up to The Pale King’s publication, Wallace’s last work was met with both ebullient praise and sharp criticism.
Jonathan Franzen is probably Wallace’s most high-profile fanboy. Now that Franzen’s has some freedom from Freedom, he penned a piece for New Yorker about his travels to the remote Pacific Island of Masafuera to catch up on some Robinson Crusoe and mourn Wallace’s death. (Subscription required).
Authors David Lipsky (also Wallace’s biographer) and Rick Moody praised The Pale King on KCRW’s Bookworm. Moody reads the novel’s opening lines as well. You can listen to the podcast here.
If you want to dig deeper into Wallace’s personal life, consider joining up with his cultish fanclub, The Howling Fantods. Or, for that matter, you can follow the path of The Awl’s Maria Bustillos and visit the Wallace archives at University of Texas at Austin’s Ransom Center. Make what you will out of his obsession with self-help books.
As Kottke points out, even Wallace’s classics aren’t universally loved. A prankster posted the opening page of Wallace’s epic tome Infinite Jest on Yahoo! Answers under the subject line “First page of my book. what do you think?” Although the expertise of the commenters shouldn’t be forgotten, the experiment elicited some interesting responses. “Honestly, my first thought was, ‘There are so dang many HYPHENS!’ and I couldn’t concentrate until I didn’t see any more,” wrote one; “No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words,” wrote another.
Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin is no fan of Wallace herself (“I expect my current obsession with Henry James is met with bafflement by quite a few who feel the same way about him”) points to a sharp piece of criticism from Prospect’s Geoff Dyer, who suffers from a severe literary allergy. “I liked the idea of someone swimming in big modernist and postmodern theory and still making room for human feeling,” writes Dyer, “but a page—sometimes even a sentence, or an essay title—brings me out in hives.”
Sources: Bookslut, Bookworm, Kottke, New Yorker (subscription required), Prospect, The Awl
Friday, October 08, 2010 12:18 PM
When you read a Western novel, you know that cowboy hats may be involved, and when you read Southern lit you might expect the appearance of a moss-covered mansion. But these sorts of expectations from readers and publishers can be frustrating for writers who don’t want to fill their books with clichés.
North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton gets at this in an amusing exchange with writer Amy Frykholm at the Christian Century:
What is happening now in Southern fiction?
Fiction writers are still dealing with that species of animal called human in a hot place where there’s plenty of reactionary fundamentalism and family loyalty and a history of living close to the land, along with a poverty that often finds little hope in the promise of America.
You once said, “Because I was born in the South, I’m a Southerner. If I had been born in the North, the West or the Central Plains, I would be just a human being.” Do we make too much of Southern culture generally or of Southern literature in particular?
Maybe we do make too much of it—because it’s often loud and, in the case of good fiction, accurate. Whereas various media interpretations of the South are sometimes only loud. It’s always a bit of a downer for me when those not from the South start talking about front porches and sweet iced tea and quirky characters. I visualize the caricatured life and predict the next string of dead mule generalizations.
Western writer Laura Pritchett makes a more pitched complaint in “The Western Lit Blues” in High Country News:
I’m a writer who writes about the West and the people out here. You know, the tough outdoorsy folks who populate Western books. People who hunt, camp, ride horses, and love to gut fish. Men and women who live on ranches or fall in love with ranchers. Or the folks who have a kayak on their Subaru and suntan marks on their feet from Chaco sandals, and the people who fall in love with suntanned, Subaru-driving kayakers.
… But I have to say: Even though I am similar to my fictional counterparts, I am also not them. There’s more going on with life out here in the West than is often rendered in books. We Westerners are more complex and worldly and unique than what I sometimes find on the page, frankly. And as a writer, a reader, an observer, and a half-assed cultural critic, I’m starting to get a little worried.
Pritchett acknowledges that some of her peers are broadening their scope—“the oil drillers of Alexandra Fuller’s nonfiction, the odd lovers in Rick Bass’ novels, the Spanish-infused language and Chicano influence in Aaron Abeyta’s poetry”—so it’s not that writers can’t and won’t push boundaries. It’s just that a self-perpetuating mythology can stifle artistic innovation:
Co-creation. That’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. How books create our self-identity, and our identity gets captured in books, and back and forth it goes like some frenzied feeding machine. I read, I reflect, I transfer. So do you. Books and life feed each other, and then they create a monster of an ideology that we feel obligated to live up to.
Sources: Christian Century, High Country News
Image by crowt59, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, September 27, 2010 12:49 PM
To follow up on an earlier post about the finalists for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize: Marlon James has won the fiction category for his book The Book of Night Women, which is a story about slavery in Jamaica in the eighteenth century. But, as Katherine Vaz, a finalist judge for the prize, points out, the book does more than just tell us the story; it makes the reader feel the story:
[T]old from the point of view of Lilith, half-black and half-white. Both poet and reporter, the author has conceived of the entire story in patois as he traces the stages of a slave uprising, a feat that pays off: Readers fall easily into the slipstream of the color and cadence, and the result is a seamless marvel of artistry. This is work of the most supreme literary quality, daring to transform language into such an original realm that readers come away haunted, short of breath, and staggered with the sort of visceral impact that reminds us why we read: Not merely to understand other lives or worlds, but to feel them.
In the nonfiction category, Dave Eggers took the top prize for his book Zeitoun, the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-American living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, who chooses to stay and help those in need. Eggers’ statement is an interesting one, given our current national debates about Islamic cultural centers and Koran burnings:
This award comes at an interesting moment, when Muslims in America are experiencing a new wave of xenophobia and unfounded suspicion. Meanwhile, the Zeitouns have been speaking at colleges, at temples and churches, and everywhere they go people of all faiths tell them that they're the all-American family, and each appearance ends in mutual admiration and respect. Which means, ultimately, that listening to each other, getting to know the people behind the headlines, the shrill debates, means everything. If we begin to listen to each other, to listen before speaking—before judging—then we go a long way toward a more empathetic and peaceful world.
Check out the Dayton Literary Peace Prize website for runners up and more about these great books. And, congrats to Mr. James and Mr. Eggers for these well-deserved prizes.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010 2:05 PM
When you imagine an author, what do they look like? Do they wear a fuzzy, slightly oversized sweater and stroke an equally fuzzy and slightly oversized cat perched on their lap? Does the author have postgraduate degrees framed on the wall? Or a “Best Young American Novelist” award next to his vintage typewriter? That image is one of someone who has never gotten his hands dirty, except to maybe plant some heirloom tomatoes on the balcony of his condo. In a thoroughly researched and deftly reasoned essay for Tin House, Gerald Howard explains why Americans no longer expect writers to have a blue-collar background:
Work—especially the sort of work that gets your hands dirty and that brands you as a member of the working class—no longer seems germane to our novelists’ apprenticeships and, not coincidentally, is no longer easy to find in the fiction they produce. Whether one finds this scarcity something to worry about or simply a fact to be noted probably says a lot about one’s class origins and prejudices.
Howard’s essay maps the trajectory of American literature onto the course of the country’s socio-economic history. At the beginning of the 20th century, Howard notes, “As the forces of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization began in earnest to transform America from a mostly rural civilization, our novelists took careful note, producing ‘naturalistic’ works that acutely registered the class drama of these epic social and economic developments.” He goes on to write that “the thirties became the literary decade of the worker” and, thus, “very much a star search for the writer of impeccable working-class credentials or at least the proper political point of view, the one who could produce the great proletarian novel, a much desired work of revolutionary struggle and ideological awakening.” A bumper crop of working-class authors were published during and after the Great Depression—most famously John Steinbeck—but this literary trend would fade after the end of World War II.
But why? According to Howard, working-class authors came out of vogue during a generation of mass upward mobility and rising standards of living:
We can point to the long stretch of postwar prosperity that moved millions of Americans into the middle class and off the farms and assembly lines, while bringing a measure of security and affluence to those who remained. . . . Most crucially, though, the whole concept of class came to be seen as almost a choice rather than a fate, as the powerful mechanisms of the meritocracy and the vastly expanded opportunities for higher education placed millions of Americans on the escalator of social mobility.
Howard’s essay is sprinkled with suggested reads, so we’ve compiled a list of go-to books written by working-class authors or detailing blue-collar life.
Suggested fiction from Howard (based on his essay):
Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Hungry Men by Edward Anderson
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
Continental Drift and Trailer Park by Russell Banks
Everything by Raymond Carver, but especially Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About LoveThe Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute
Bottom Dogs by Edward Dahlberg
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth by Denise Giardina
Jews Without Money by Mike Gold
The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howell
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers by Richard Price
Mohawk, The Risk Pool, and Empire Falls by Richard Russo
Steelwork and Little Casino by Gilbert Sorrentino
Suggested non-fiction from Howard:
All the Livelong Day by Barbara Garson
Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano
The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
My Antonia by Willa Cather
Maggie: a Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’ Nan
Union Dues by John Sayles
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
Any other suggestions?
Source: Tin House
Photo Credit: Image by Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, February 12, 2010 5:21 PM
The lines between fiction and nonfiction are blurring and giving rise to a new form “that we might call ‘true fiction,’” writes Alissa Quart in Columbia Journalism Review. Quart sees examples of this phenomenon all around, including Dave Eggers’ brilliant book What Is the What, which tells but also takes a few liberties with the tale of a Sudanese “Lost Boy”; the forthcoming graphic novel A.D. by Josh Neufeld, which depicts post-Katrina New Orleans; and even The Hurt Locker, the war film that is presented as fiction but is based on an original nonfiction magazine article.
Quart is quick to acknowledge that the fiction-nonfiction hybrid isn’t all that new, but she contends that writers well known for mixing the two, like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, “imagined their work to be a certain kind of journalism.” Members of the newer breed, she notes, “seem to be backing away from categorizing things as ‘true,’ even as they are also rethinking what nonfiction is and can be.”
The new anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, Quart writes, even makes the case “that some works long considered fiction are actually closer to this hybrid form,” and she quotes from a piece by the anthology’s editor, John D’Agata: “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?”
Coincidentally, it was a recent story by D’Agata in The Believer that left me confused about what was information and what was art. In “What Happens There,” D’Agata traces the final moments of Levi Presley, a 16-year-old who killed himself by jumping from the top of the 1,149-foot-high Stratosphere Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
The writer does several things at once: In the guise of a reporter, he attempts to penetrate the wall of silence surrounding suicide in Las Vegas, which has the highest suicide rate in the nation year after year. Wearing a memoirist’s hat, he interweaves his own experiences in the city, where he briefly lived to care for his mother. And as a facile prose stylist, he attempts to vividly convey the sights, sounds, and smells that Presley might have encountered as he walked toward his deadly jump through the sprawling casino complex.
I was immediately drawn in by D’Agata’s deft, artful writing, and yet as the tale unfolded I was stopped cold at several junctures, mostly because as a journalist I had certain expectations about what I perceived as, first and foremost, a piece of journalism. To wit:
• The story begins with the glaringly vague time reference “one summer,” yet anyone with Google at his fingertips can learn that Presley committed suicide in 2002. Why not place the story’s main event in time for the reader? When is one of the six key story components in classic news journalism—components that are, ironically, the organizing principle of D’Agata’s new book About a Mountain, which includes the suicide tale.
• After meeting with Presley’s parents to discuss their son’s death, he writes, “At some point, it came clear while I was visiting the Presleys that in fact I had not spoken to their son the night he died.” I first read this as a jarringly understated admission, delivered almost as an aside, that he had misrepresented himself to the parents in order to meet with them. Ethical red flags were flying all over the place before I figured out elsewhere—via his book’s jacket notes—that D’Agata himself had believed he might have spoken with Presley on that fateful night. Maybe fans of the new “true fiction” will read right past this, but for me this was a major stumbling block.
• D’Agata pays a private investigator $400 for “vital information” about Presley that he’s unable to ferret out himself, and rather than praising the investigator’s ability to dig up these details, he feels compelled to coyly note that she “had a smoker’s voice, a barking dog and screaming kids and Jeopardy on in the background” when he called her. Yeah, and she probably was overweight and wearing ridiculous slippers and sucking on a Bud Lite. D’Agata clearly has a keen eye for detail, but extending it to someone who’s basically helping him report the story, with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge dose of classist disapproval, gave me a shudder of discomfort.
• D’Agata is able to get only one local official to go on the record about the suicide, county coroner Ron Flud. The coroner seems like a pretty straight-up guy—“a finder of facts,” he calls himself—who invites D’Agata into his office and expounds insightfully on the taboo of talking about suicide. But apparently this still isn’t enough for D’Agata. He calls Flud out for not answering a question about whether a suicide jumper is likely to lose consciousness in a fall, then proceeds to relay, in a self-serving writerly flourish, several things that Flud did not say.
• Someone who knew Presley hangs up on D’Agata when he asks personal questions about the deceased. But we don’t know who because the writer doesn’t tell us. The conversation is transmitted as a terse, paraphrased exchange with no context or explanation. Literary, yes, but mystifying.
• Finally, D’Agata appears to have never visited the suicide victim’s memorial website, which has been online since 2005. Here he could have gleaned several intimate details about Levi Presley—details not mentioned in the article—from reminiscences written by friends and family, and he could have learned the names of several sources to pursue for his allegedly hard-to-find interviews. He also would have learned from the entry by “Mom” that Presley’s mother called him her “precious Boomer”—from “baby Boomer”—not “Booper,” as D’Agata writes.
In the end, the story seems to be a case in which a creative writer took on a semi-journalistic task, in the process taking liberties that some audiences may enjoy (James Wolcott of Vanity Fair certainly did, calling the story a “show stopper”) and that others may find confusing, distracting, or journalistically dubious.
If we are indeed entering a new world of hybrid literary journalism—one in which, Quart writes, “we are seeing nonfiction freed from its rigid constraints”—I for one hope we remember that some subjects, like a teenager’s suicide, seem to demand a deep and abiding respect for facts and clarity. At first impression D’Agata appears to be honoring the memory of Levi Presley by speaking the unspeakable—yet by the story’s end, at least to this reader, he appears to have done just the opposite.
Source: Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer (subscription required), Vanity Fair
Image by Marcin Wichary, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 27, 2009 4:49 PM
An activity as solitary as reading a work of fiction may actually help us become better at connecting with others, writes psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley in Greater Good.
Oatley says fiction is about “possible selves in possible worlds,” and can aid interpersonal skills in two ways: by helping readers develop “theory of mind”—imagining what others are thinking and feeling—as well as showing how people interact with one another.
Readers of fiction were found to have higher social ability than those who preferred non-fiction. The reason?
“Fiction is principally about the difficulties of selves navigating the social world. Non-fiction is about, well, whatever it is about: selfish genes, or how to make Mediterranean food, or whether climate changes will harm our planet. So with fiction we tend to become more expert at empathizing and socializing. By contrast, readers of non-fiction are likely to become more expert at genetics, or cookery, or environmental studies, or whatever they spend their time reading and thinking about.”
Source: Greater Good Magazine
Friday, January 30, 2009 9:54 AM
For the Winter 2009 issue of The Hudson Review, the quarterly's editors have assembled a primer on non-English works from around the world. This "Translation Issue" is a heady collection, featuring excerpts from seemingly every genre and time period: classics like Antigone and Le Cid up through A Doll's House; 19th century Japanese and Russian poetry; elegant contemporary reviews on books about language; and much, much more. Such a phenomenal swath of literary history in a single volume can't help but whet the appetite for more translated works (works that Utne, incidentally, has been championing for some time).
Thursday, January 22, 2009 8:15 AM
Barrelhouse is currently holding its “Barrelhouse Invitational: Office Life Edition.” The DC-based journal invites “cubicle drones to submit your fiction, essays, and poems about the highest highs and lowest lows of the disproportionate amount of time you spend in an Office Of Some Sort.”
According to the hilarious and snarky Interoffice Memorandum (pdf), your account of office life doesn’t have to resemble Dunder Mifflin, but still should have some relation to the official theme. “Barrelhouse understands fully the nature of the flexible situation vis a vis the modern office environment, in that this circumstance is increasingly flexible. . . . Therefore, submitted works of literary merit need not seek to portray said topic in a strictly cubicle-defined locality, but rather should ideally represent the mindscape of The Office in the broadest and most effective terms deemed appropriate for each specific work of literary merit.”
Submissions are due by March 1, and winners will be published in Barrelhouse #8, released in June 2009.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 1:42 PM
Hip, young, Russian-born American fiction writers are a hot literary trendlet, one that all began with Gary Shteyngart's 2002 novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, argues Emily Gould for Russia!.
These writers, Gould explains, offer U.S. readers an outsider’s view of America, coming from a “writer with a sellable life story.” American audiences can have their pick: “a witty, suffering exotic with Chekhov and Dostoevsky in his bloodstream, or an underdog whose very completion of a book in English represents a triumph.”
Despite traits their works seem to share—"a wry, fatalistic humor... and characters with an unhealthy dependence on vodka"—most Russian-American authors, Shteyngart excluded, chafe at being corralled into an “ethnic literature” category. (Even though they do have a pretty good moniker—the Beet Generation—coined by author Anya Ulinich’s husband.) Most just want to be known as good writers, not as good Russian-American writers.
“I have no national allegiance when I write,” Ulinich told Gould. “It’s not my role to give my readers some kind of rounded, objective, and definitive view of Russia and Russians. I only represent my characters to my readers.” Ulnich's 2007 novel Petropolis is about a Siberian mail-order bride from the fictional town of Asbestos 2.
Marketing novels as “Russian-American,” however, doubtlessly will continue, as long as book-buying readers are tempted by offers of insight into the Russian soul that can’t be gleaned from, as Gould puts it, “reading the front page of the newspaper” or “wading through reams of analysis.”
Image by Darwin Bell, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 04, 2008 12:39 PM
Canada is no bucolic backwater, writes Canadian novelist John McFetridge for Canada's book news magazine, Quill & Quire (article not available online). It's a criminal hotspot, and it's providing plentiful material for crime writers. McFetridge points out Canadian criminals like the Montreal mafia that ran the French Connection drug smuggling ring; warring biker gangs in Quebec who killed more than 200 people; and an estimated 100,000 people working in Canada's $4 billion marijuana industry. Canadian crime fiction writers Louise Penny, Giles Blunt, Sandra Ruttan, and Anne Emery are reaping the creative benefits of domestic disorder, “beginning to stay home and investigate what's going on here” with crime novels set in Canada.
Image by Simon Davison, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007 12:27 PM
You probably don’t need an excuse to spend more time lurking in the stacks at your favorite bookstore. But here’s one anyway: To find the prizes offered in a nationwide literary treasure hunt orchestrated by lit mag The First Line, you should chart a path to the fiction anthologies section of “a national chain of bookstores” near you, read deeply into the “bad poetry” clues they’ve provided, and behold your reward: a free subscription. There are just two planted in each state, so hunt wisely.
And while you’re at it, craft a story for The First Line’s Spring 2008 issue. They’re looking for 300 to 3,000 words beginning with that issue’s preselected first line: “Sometimes the name they give you is all wrong.”
Thursday, November 15, 2007 2:40 PM
Most Americans know Anton Chekhov for his plays—produced in frequency only behind Shakespeare’s—and yet, his greatest legacy to the literary world might be his short stories.
Chekhov never left a reader settled, breaking the comfy rules of Victorian fiction and paving the way for future iconoclasts like Virginia Woolf. Although Chekhov died at 44, he left behind hundreds of stories, 201 of which are collected online under public domain at ibiblio, a collaborative project between the Schools of Information and Library Science, and Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
A word of warning: All the translations are the work of Constance Garnett, who both introduced the English speakers to 19th-century Russian literature and sullied some of its richness with Victorian quaintness. Luckily, the stories are annotated by site complier James Rusk for cultural clarity, and he points out where Garnett took liberties. Rusk also provides an introductory reading list.
(Thanks, Open Culture and MetaFilter)
Thursday, October 18, 2007 12:00 AM
In the September 30th issue of the New York Times Book Review, Stephen King warned that the short story is in a state of decline. According to King, the form suffers because fiction staples such as Tin House and the Kenyon Review get shoved on the bottom shelf on magazine racks, while “moneymakers and rent-payers” get prominent placement. How and why fiction gets second billing is beside his point; King focuses on what happens to writers when they know they’ve got a diminishing audience. According to King, their stories become "self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."
J.M. Tyree argues at the Smart Set that short story isn’t dying, just that people aren’t looking in the right spot: Writing has shifted to the digital medium. It's only the technophobes who prize the bound specimen over the words. “The online world, especially for the older crowd, is still conventionally depicted as a kind of South Bank of London filled with the literary equivalent of bear-baiting," he observes. While Tyree acknowledges that “the short fiction available online cannot compete in quality with the better print quarterlies,” his survey of literary activity in various mediums makes surveying just one form—say, the print short story—seem shortsighted.
On his blog, Brooklyn, New York-based writer Ed Champion responds to King’s “distress call,” and offers an unusual solution. He wonders if audio books were performed more like radio dramas, instead of largely lifeless recitations, that if the $871 million industry might help American literature regain a chunk of the readers it has lost. “If the short story were truly important in the United States, then someone would step in and find a way in which to reach the great American public,” he writes.—Eric Kelsey
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!