"There’s a long and noble tradition of literary critics misunderstanding Joseph Conrad. Partly that’s because he is such a complicated, dense and fascinating writer. Far more words have been written about him than he ever wrote himself – and not everyone can get it right all the time. Especially when you throw combustible postcolonial issues into the mix." [Sam Jordison - The Guardian] [more inside]
President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa. "It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it."
Librarian Edith Edi Campbell posted to her Facebook page about “Large Fears,” a Kickstarter-funded children’s book for queer black boys, “I would say there are so few books for queer black boys, but there are too few books for all our marginalized young people.” Children’s writer Meg Rosoff responded: “There are not too few books for marginalised young people. There are hundreds of them, thousands of them. You don’t have to read about a queer black boy to read a book about a marginalised child. The children’s book world is getting far too literal about what ‘needs’ to be represented. You don’t read Crime and Punishment to find out about Russian criminals. Or Alice and Wonderland to know about rabbits. Good literature expands your mind. It doesn’t have the ‘job’ of being a mirror.” [more inside]
A Highly Irregular Children’s Story: David Gates reviews The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, a children's book by Donald Barthelme. [Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 1976]
Oregon Shakespeare Festival Launches Three-Year Shakespeare Translation Commissioning Project [Oregon Shakespeare Festival]
OSF is commissioning 36 playwrights and pairing them with dramaturgs to translate 39 plays attributed to Shakespeare into contemporary modern English between now and December 31, 2018. By seeking out a diverse set of playwrights (more than half writers of color and more than half women), we hope to bring fresh voices and perspectives to the rigorous work of translation. Play on![more inside]
The Scotiabank Giller Prize presents its 2015 shortlist. The five titles were chosen from a longlist of 12 books announced on September 9, 2015. One hundred and sixty-eight titles were submitted by 63 publishers from every region of the country. [more inside]
Svetlana Alexievich is the latest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature: "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time". Alexievich is a Belarusian writer and is unusual among Nobel laureates in that she is primarily a non-fiction writer. Her most famous book is Voices from Chernobyl, and you can read an extract in The Paris Review. You can read more about her books on her website and read excerpts in English. John Lloyd wrote a long review of her book Zinky Boys for the London Review of Books. And you can read an interview with her on the home page of her American publisher, Dalkey Archive.
"It’s late, and you’re still awake. Allow us to help with Sleep Aid, a series devoted to curing insomnia with the dullest, most soporific texts available in the public domain." [more inside]
The Map of Literature. Martin Vargic, creator of the Map of the Internet 1.0, has created an insanely detailed "National Geographic" map of Literature, where "Jurassic Park is located between 1984 and Clear and Present Danger on the continent of Thrillers, a stone's throw away from H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds." [more inside]
Henning Mankell, Dean of Scandinavian Noir Writers, Dies at 67 [The New York Times]
Henning Mankell, the Swedish novelist and playwright best known for police procedurals that were translated into a score of languages and sold by the millions throughout the world, died Monday morning in Goteborg, Sweden. He was 67. Mr. Mankell was considered the dean of the so-called Scandinavian noir writers who gained global prominence for novels that blended edge-of-your-seat suspense with flawed, compelling protagonists and strong social themes. The genre includes Arnaldur Indridason of Iceland, Jo Nesbo of Norway and Stieg Larsson of Sweden, among others.[more inside]
This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a bronchial spasm. That is, at least, according to William Delisle Hay’s 1880 novella The Doom of the Great City. It imagines the entire population of London choked to death under a soot-filled fog. The story is told by the event’s lone survivor sixty years later as he recalls “the greatest calamity that perhaps this earth has ever witnessed” at what was, for Hay’s first readers, the distant future date of 1942. -- Brett Beasley in the Public Domain review on one of the first modern urban apocalypse stories.
What old age is really like. Getting beyond "Generic Old Man" and "Eccentric Old Woman" by examining literature by 'natives' of old age.
Ruth Graham, in a Slate piece entitled, Banned Books Week is a Crock, argued that censorship is no longer a problem in the United States. Censorship laws are nearly extinct, and if your local library doesn't have the book...well, you can always find it online. "This Banned Books Week," writes Graham, "instead of hand-wringing about a nonexistent wave of censorship, let’s celebrate the obvious: The books won." But have they? [more inside]
"For men, it is a tragedy that the two things they prize the most—women and humor—should be so antithetical," wrote Christopher Hitchens in a 2007 Vanity Fair article. But the evidence against this view mounts. This year, for example, the three finalists for the Thurber Prize for American Humor are all women, guaranteeing that a woman wins the award for the first time. [more inside]
I Sing for You an Apple is an account by writer and translator Eric Wilson of "escorting a Faroese poet-hero around the USA" in 1978. The poet-hero from the Faroe Islands was Steinbjørn Berghamar Jacobsen, who wrote fiction, poetry, plays and children's books in the language of his North-Atlantic archipelago. His works have not been translated into English, but they have been set to music. On Tinna og Tám he reads his own poems, accompanied by Kristian Blak and Heðin Ziska Davidsen (YouTube: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 ). And after his passing in 2012, two of his children, Kári and Eyð Jacobsen, made an album, Tungl, where they turned his poems into indie songs (YouTube: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10).
Morrissey’s debut novel List of the Lost is published today. The author has explained that “The theme is demonology … the left-handed path of black magic. It is about a sports relay team in 1970s America who accidentally kill a wretch who, in esoteric language, might be known as a Fetch … a discarnate entity in physical form.” The initial reviews have not been kind: “an unpolished turd of a book” reckons Michael Hann at The Guardian; “a bizarre misogynistic ramble” opines Nico Hines of The Daily Beast. [more inside]
Franz Kafka meets Charlie Brown. Revisiting R. Sikoryak’s "Good ol’ Gregor Brown." The 100th Anniversary of The Metamorphosis, previously.
The Most Misread Poem in America by David Orr [The Paris Review]
“And almost everyone gets it wrong. This is the most remarkable thing about “The Road Not Taken”—not its immense popularity (which is remarkable enough), but the fact that it is popular for what seem to be the wrong reasons. [...] Frost’s poem turns this expectation on its head. Most readers consider “The Road Not Taken” to be a paean to triumphant self-assertion (“I took the one less traveled by”), but the literal meaning of the poem’s own lines seems completely at odds with this interpretation. The poem’s speaker tells us he “shall be telling,” at some point in the future, of how he took the road less traveled by, yet he has already admitted that the two paths “equally lay / In leaves” and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” So the road he will later call less traveled is actually the road equally traveled. The two roads are interchangeable.”[more inside]
The value of fiction was clear to Virginia Woolf, who argued that nonfiction consists of half-truths and approximations that result in a "very inferior form of fiction." In Woolf's terms, reading ambitious fiction isn't comfortable or easy. Far from it: "To go from one great novelist to another—from Jane Austen to Hardy, from Peacock to Trollope, from Scott to Meredith—is to be wrenched and uprooted; to be thrown this way and then that." The illuminations that fiction offers are gained only with considerable effort. "To read a novel is a difficult and complex art," Woolf wrote. "You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist—the great artist—gives you."– The Virtues of Difficult Fiction by Joanna Scott. She was interviewed by Larry Mantle on public radio show AirTalk about her essay. In the passage above Scott's quoting Woolf's How Should One Read a Book?
The Mysterious, Anonymous Author Elena Ferrante on the Conclusion of Her Neapolitan Novels [Vanity Fair]
Passions run high when you’re talking about Elena Ferrante and her work, particularly her sensational, highly addictive Neapolitan novels, which paint a portrait of a consuming female friendship against the backdrop of social and political upheaval in Italy from the 1950s to the present day. My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay have made Ferrante, an enigmatic figure who writes under a pseudonym, and is widely regarded as the best contemporary novelist you’ve never heard of, a worldwide sensation.[more inside]
Reclaiming the Nerdiverse [NSFW audio] is a fascinating hour-long discussion about women in science fiction and fantasy on the late night edition of the venerable BBC radio show Woman's Hour (podcast link). The host is Lauren Laverne, and her guests are author and game designer Naomi Alderman, journalist Helen Lewis, sociologist Linda Woodhead, fantasy novelist Zen Cho, and cosplayer and writer Lucy Saxon. The discussion takes in everything from 70s feminist writers to alpha/beta/omega slash fiction to cosplay etiquette to geek sexism. The Late Night Woman's Hour has been the topic of some discussion in Britain.
"Here are some books that will not only make you want to quit doing the thing that is killing you, but also offer an interesting narrative structure for writers because they flout the conventional hero journey template. Instead of a reluctant hero emerging from an ordinary world to delve into the tricky landscape of magic and tests, these heroes begin in chaos and emerge from the grungy ashes of last call and plunge into sober, or at least peaceful, life earned by one’s ability to overcome hurdles associated with addiction." (Antonia Crane at Electric Literature) [more inside]
What books should a critic own? "Each week, the National Book Critics Circle will post a list of five books a critic believes reviewers should have in their libraries." Here are all the lists, from 2007-2011. [more inside]
The Word is Beat: Poetry, Jazz, Literature and the Beat Generation "It is the aspiration of much literature that it wants to change the way we look at the world, but few authors and poets have been as influential as the group of writers labeled the Beat Generation. They saw a lot that they did not like about American society in the fifties when they came of age, and they did their best to change it through their literature and a new practice of living."
Novelist Mia Couto discusses his hopes for conservation after the death of Cecil the lion, and his memories of Mozambique’s bloody civil war. [The Guardian] [more inside]
"Since I was a little girl I’ve been afraid of monsters. I’d put garlic on my window ledge to ward off vampires and sage in the corners to protect me from zombies. Even as a young adult I lay on my ratty futon surrounded by library books terrified someone or something would break into my apartment. After my daughter was born, my fear escalated. I’d check the front door several times a day to make sure the deadbolt was secure and the chain latched. At night I lay in the dark, my mind sending out waves of panic."
Living in the Age of Permawar by Mohsin Hamid [The Guardian]
You see from your nook that humanity is afflicted by a great mass murderer about whom we are encouraged not to speak. The name of that murderer is Death. Death comes for everyone. Sometimes Death will pick out a newborn still wet from her aquatic life in her mother’s womb. Sometime Death will pick out a man with the muscles of a superhero, pick him out in repose, perhaps, or in his moment of maximum exertion, when his thighs and shoulders are trembling and he feels most alive. Sometimes Death will pick singly. Sometimes Death will pick by the planeload. Sometimes Death picks the young, sometimes the old, and sometimes Death has an appetite for the in-between. You feel it is strange that humanity does not come together to face this killer, like a silver-flashing baitball of 7 billion fish aware of being hunted by a titanic and ravenous shark. Instead, humanity scatters. We face our killer alone, or in families, or in towns or cities or tribes or countries. But never all together.
Jonathan Franzen 'considered adopting Iraqi orphan to figure out young people'. [The Guardian]
In a setup that would not look out of place in fiction, Jonathan Franzen, the bestselling American novelist, has said he once considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan to help him understand young people better, but was persuaded against it by his editor. Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.”[more inside]
HOW many eggs? A couple of librarians make recipes they've always wanted to eat from their favorite books. Recipes may contain bibliographies. [via mefi projects] [more inside]
Patter and Patois by Walter Mosley [New York Times] Walter Mosley writes about his relationship to the literature of Louisiana.
“Louisiana flowed in that blood and across those tongues. Louisiana — a state made famous by Walt Whitman and Tennessee Williams, Ernest Gaines and Arna Bontemps, Kate Chopin and Anne Rice. These writers, from many eras, races and genres, took the voices of the people and distilled them into the passionate, almost desperate, stories that opened readers to a new kind of suffering and exultation.”
A Passion for the Void: Understanding Clarice Lispector’s Strange and Surreal Fiction. [The New Republic]
Plenty of writers inspire fierce devotion in their readers—the David Foster Wallace acolytes, with their duct-taped copies of Infinite Jest, come to mind, as do the smug objectivists dressed in tech-world casual who owe their entire world view to Ayn Rand. But no one converts the uninitiated into devout believers as suddenly and as vertiginously as Clarice Lispector, the Latin-American visionary, Ukranian-Jewish mystic, and middle-class housewife and mother so revered by her Brazilian fans that she's known by a single name: "Clarice."[more inside]
The New Yorker has recently put online three short essays on writing by novelist and short story writer Shirley Jackson, author of The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. They are Memory and Delusion, On Fans and Fan Mail and Garlic in Fiction, where she sets out her methodology of writing fiction. You can read one of Jackson's short stories on The New Yorker's website, Paranoia, and an interview she did with her son.
Words (part 2) is a performance by Scottish novelist and stand-up comic A. L. Kennedy about working with words. Kennedy has reflected quite a bit about the craft and practice of writing, including a blog called On Writing that ran in The Guardian from 2009-2013, and was collected into a book of the same name.
The Last Days of Kathy Acker by Jason McBride. Mathias Viegener, the friend who stayed with the author during her final month, also wrote an account of her passing called Cannibal Acker. Shortly after her death, her friend Peter Wollen wrote an obituary, Death (and Life) of the Author.
“I love you so much, I want to carry you around all day in my pocket”. Emily Bernard writes about being the mother of brown-skinned daughters after Ferguson. [more inside]
The Role of Writers in a STEM Obsessed Society
“As writers, it’s easy to think of how we matter to literature classrooms, but what the appointment of writers-in-residence in hospitals, history classrooms, foreign language learning spaces, and cooking schools reminds us is that we are relevant wherever there is humanity—which is to say, wherever humans are with their stories. Writing is healing. Writing is art. Writing is learning. As such, writing across the disciplines matters. Many models of artist residencies depend upon the retreat model, wherein the artist sequesters herself away with a small community of other artists. While these models have value, especially when considering how solitude relates to the creative process, it’s heartening to me to see more models catch on that value the place of the writer in society, rather than hidden away from it.”
If this is a real picture of the Brontës, then I'm Heathcliff! [The Guardian] A collector is convinced that the £15 photograph he snapped up on eBay is of the Brontë sisters. It’s highly unlikely, but the story is a mark of our enduring fascination with the literary family. Plus, a Brontë Society expert gives her verdict. Could this be the only photograph of the three Brontë sisters? asked Seamus Molloy [Daily Mail], who picked the photograph up for 15 quid on eBay.
The Best Books of 2015 (So Far) By Christian Lorentzen at Vulture. "These ten stand out as having made an especially remarkable impression on the past half-year." [more inside]
Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature's Most Epic Road Trips
"The...map is the result of a painstaking and admittedly quixotic effort to catalog the country as it has been described in the American road-tripping literature. It includes every place-name reference in 12 books about cross-country travel...and maps the authors' routes on top of one another. You can track an individual writer's descriptions of the landscape as they traveled across it, or you can zoom in to see how different authors have written about the same place at different times."[more inside]
From Steinbeck to Cervantes: Confessing Our Literary Gaps by Sarah Galo, Elon Green [Hazlitt] Authors, journalists, and assorted literary stalwarts tell us why they’ve missed the famous books they’ve missed. [more inside]
Joe Gould died well over half a century ago after having been gone from his haunts in Greenwich for half a decade. He had been a fixture in the Village for decades, friend to famous writers and artists, living in penury while saying he was working on a massively long work called Oral History of Our Time (coining the term [pdf] "oral history" in the process) from which only a few short pieces were ever published. In the 40s he became famous thanks to a profile called "Professor Sea Gull" written by star New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. After Gould's death, Mitchell wrote another profile in 1964, "Joe Gould's Secret", where Mitchell said that the Oral History only existed in Gould's mind. After that article, Mitchell never published again in his lifetime despite being on The New Yorker's staff until his death in 1996. Since then, various further secrets have been unearthed about Gould, diaries from the 40s, the identity of Gould's mysterious patron, and now New Yorker writer Jill Lepore has written about Gould's whereabouts in the last years in his life, and much else, in a sad profile called Joe Gould's Teeth. [Joe Gould previously]
Pulp! The Classics is a new(isn) British imprint producing pulped-up neon editions of various classic novels and plays. The text is untouched, but the day-glo covers are as brash and trashy as as any 1950s B-movie poster. Authors covered so far are Joyce, Shakespeare, Hardy, Kafka, Dickens, Shelley, Stevenson, Austen, Carroll, Conrad, Wilde, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Jerome, Defoe and Doyle. The blurbs aren't bad either.... [more inside]
100 thoughts on Kafka's "Metamorphosis" to mark the 100th anniversary of its publication. (via) [more inside]
Battle Lines is an essay by academics Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel in The New Yorker on the poetry of jihadis, especially those who follow the Islamic State. They argue that the way to understand them is to study their cultural products, especially poetry, which is part of their daily socialization, as discussed in this video. Poetry has a special status in the Arab world. Elisabeth Kendall explores that context in her essay Yemen’s al-Qa'ida and Poetry as a Weapon of Jihad. Jihadi poetry is closely linked to the nasheed tradition of songs which are usually sung a capella. Behnam Said traces their history in the essay Hymns ( Nasheeds): A Contribution to the Study of the Jihadist Culture.