I’m always looking for a stellar book come November. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for the uninitiated) is about as appealing of an idea as having a month-long dental procedure and about as equally fun to be around. So, I mostly hide away. I do the opposite of what you’re supposed to do in November—I take a writing break and read all month instead. Last year I read all of Larry Heinemann’s books. The year before that I dug into Rolando Hinojosa. This year, I’m reading and re-reading Jennifer Clement’s Widow Basquiat which is easily my favorite book of 2014, though it’s been around in the UK for years. It comes out in the United States this month.
Up until that short story workshop I took my junior year of college, my TBR pile was made up of a bizarre mix of Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, and Bill Bryson. Then my professor passed around photocopied packets containing stories by Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and Tim O’Brien, and I realized there was more to life than homicidal clowns and humor writing.
“The Things They Carried,” a staple in college classrooms across the country, started me in on a love affair with O’Brien’s work. It wasn’t necessarily the subject matter that appealed to me. I had never before been interested in historical fiction in any form. Rather, it was the beauty and artistry with which he strung his words together. That coupled with his quiet, quirky sense of humor.
I ate them all up.
But what was it about these books?
We who love literature face an urgent crisis: a gruesome epidemic of articles worrying over the demise of literature, reading, English Departments, and apparently (along with them) culture, art, morality, humanity, and ALL KNOWLEDGE AND CIVILIZATION. We’re in dire need of an antidote for this doom-prophesying fever, these impassioned warnings about “philistinism.” (A word that, btw, needs to please hit a wall and slide down.)
Like other doomsday prophecies, tales of literary demise are long on fear and short on fact. And although based on verifiable observations (decreasing readerships and book sales, closing bookstores, squeezed English departments), they’re so focused on Certain Doom that they can’t acknowledge the many places in which literature is thriving and/or receiving a new infusion of public interest.
The last few weeks have offered up their own versions of doomspeak (and questionable solutions), including David Mascriota’s writeup for The Daily Beast – in which he argues that English departments must be salvaged because they’re the only places anyone reads anymore. (And apparently there are zero alternatives.) So basically, we have to make people read books in college English courses or we’re doomed to devolve into an uncivilized, unread mass of (un)humans.
Unfortunately, this mammoth dearth of imagination is par for the Doomspeak course. Preachers of Lit Demise often assume that, because literature is disappearing from the places and situations they’ve learned to look for it, it’s disappearing entirely.
More egregiously, they often first exalt literature to a place of Powerful Human Significance, then claim it can survive only via a few fora: bookstores, classrooms, book clubs. It’s all weirdly small-minded . . . and vastly uncreative.
And it’s making me crazy. So Lovers of All Things Lit: It’s time we face up to our own raging blind spots, and to the ways in which we’re contributing to the very crises we fear. Literature will live, but/and we’ll have to come to terms with the wildly diverse reasons people are seeking it out. And we’ll have to let people love it for whatever qualities they see in its big fat fabulous literary face.
Okay writers. My last Round-Down was about the impact of self esteem on our creativity. Several readers asked for a followup about how to cultivate said esteem, and for a half-second I was so on it. But I can’t deny that the news around the world has been horrifying the last few weeks, and that trying to believe in one’s writerly value in the midst of it may feel like a fool’s errand.
So my first idea was to remind everyone that art and literature matter precisely in tumultuous moments! That creative works speak truth to power! That they convict and persuade! increase empathy and human connection! relieve and heal! But we know this. It’s probably why we became writers.
So. The more relevant reminder? Maintaining a sense of self-value–apart from what we create–is part of the WORK of being an artist. If it feels difficult as hell, you’re likely on the right track.
The fear that our writing won’t “matter” (whatever that means) will always lead either to complete inactivity, or to a delusional inflation of the value of our work. It can also lead to Total Identity Meltdown: We don’t just question whether our work matters, but whether we can possibly matter if we’re not writing earth shattering material.
You guys, this is messed up. So for the love, I think it’d do us some good to revisit some hard truths about writing and creativity.
I saw Cristina Henriquez read just a few weeks ago at Book Court in Brooklyn, where my poet buddy, Sally Wen Mao, took me after a long day in the city. Generally, I’m horrible at readings. I’m the guy seated in the front row, probably running on three hours of sleep or less, glassy eyed (behind actual glasses), with no indication as to whether I’m staring through you in idle boredom or at you in profound thought. But when my friend, Sally, invited me to see Henriquez, I knew I had to go. Sally is mostly in-the-know about all things literary in NYC in addition to having impeccable taste in books. So, I went. It was incredible. Oh, yeah—and it completely changed the way I read Latina/o literature.
As far as literary journal subscriptions go, I only maintain three. I’m one of those writers, and for my sins I mostly miss the great early pieces of writers I come to love years later. This is especially true of new Latina/o writers, who I think most people miss for various reasons, not least of which is the serious lack of hard-hitting journals that focus on new Latina/o work.
That’s not to say there are none though. Huizache, which is probably one of my favorite journals right now, has quietly carved out a space for Latina/o letters both old and new. Over the past three years, they’ve published work by Sandra Cisneros, Domingo Martinez, Héctor Tobar, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, almost without a blip on the literary radar.
Tasha Golden is on vacation from the blog this week, so covering for her on the Round-Down today is the writer Gila Lyons. Gila’s work has appeared in Salon, The Millions, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The NY Press, The Faster Times, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she writes and teaches writing. —Andrew Ladd, blog editorCritics and journalists love to proclaim Louis C.K. the best comedian alive. They have much to say about his sharp wisdom and existential dilemmas—but few have discussed the relevance of his work to writers. Yet the fourth season of Louie, which began last month, has much in common with today’s great writing.
At times Louie is like a Lydia Davis collection, full of odd-shaped stories of varying sizes—some full-length episodes, some tiny three-minute segments. At other times it’s like the punchy vulgar version of Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, whose stand-alone narrative chapters are punctuated with poetic “weather reports,” as Louis’s plot-driven episodes are book-ended with stand-up bits. The material of some episodes are mundane like Evan Connell’s glimpses-of-life novel, Mrs. Bridge—Louis lying in bed eating ice cream watching the news, Louis picking up his daughters from school; some are surrealistic and Kafka-esque—Louis, riding the bus alone on New Year’s Eve, comes face to face with the woman he’s been missing, and as they begin their smiley hellos blood pours from her nose and she dies. Louie is in turns microfiction, magic realism, Avant-garde, lyric essay, short story, and poem. He is Aimee Bender, John D’Agata, Raymond Carver, Samuel Beckett, Lorrie Moore.
When asked whether he saw himself as a Peruvian writer or an American writer in the New York Times last year, following the publication of his newest novel At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón replied, “Why should I have to choose?” I remember reading that passage in the second paragraph, rereading it, and then rereading it again for a third time out loud.
The electricity of it. The audacity of such a simple question, really, that struck so fiercely at the core question of the American literary schematic: where do you come from? Alarcón’s response, for many Latin American writers—and particularly those like myself who shift frequently between countries and write predominately in English—was the question we have been wanting to ask all along: Why does it matter? Why should I have to choose?
But that’s something a lot of people say, isn’t it? As if everyone else is really good at quitting a job or relationship or saying goodbye or ending a story. (I’ve never met anyone who claims special talent at this. Ever.)
So much rides on an ending—it’s the final impression, the takeaway, the taste in your mouth once it’s all over. The pressure of it can be, well, paralyzing. That’s where I find myself now, a few days into 2014, my year of reading 100-year-old books decidedly over. I feel the need for some grand conclusion, some glittery lesson learned.
The year is more than half over, which means those of us who attempted New Year’s resolutions have either mastered, given up, or heavily revised them. It also means my year of reading 100-year-old books is halfway finished.
It all started, in February, with a dead poet and a road trip. And while I had planned to traipse into various used bookshops around the country to find hidden gems, after that, it turns out there were some not-so-hidden gems right under my nose—classics like Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon, Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers and a slice from L. Frank Baum’s Oz series, The Patchwork Girl from Oz.
For the last six months, I have been living between two centuries.