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Literary Links: “Hillbilly Elegy” Edition

I have not read J.D. Vance’s multiple-award—winning 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis for a couple of reasons:

  1. I usually avoid “Poor me, I had a rough childhood” stories.
  2. There are just not enough hours in each day for reading all the books.

I saw the book on lots of “Best Books of 2016” lists and was therefore surprised to see that the recent Netflix movie adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, has drawn so much negative publicity. 

Most of the criticism seems to center around the feeling that the book and, particularly, the film, provide a facile picture of what must be understood as a multi-faceted, complex situation. 

Here’s a compendium of that criticism.

 “Hillbilly Elegy” Is the Last Thing America Needs in 2020

Novelist Kayla Rae Whitaker writes that she’s “from eastern Kentucky, not far from where Vance’s family originates.” She describes Vance’s book as the “old story of America’s weird, craven Son of the Soil.” Here’s the focus of her criticism of the book and its movie adaptation:

The story it offers is one of people who cannot help or save themselves—from laziness, from addiction, from a failure to develop the self-respect necessary to “pull themselves up” within an economy and social system that prevents them at every turn. The film is just another addition to a narrative that is managing to dig a trench between this region and the rest of the country, a divide that will continue to snarl elections and deal further damage to a population that has taken more than its fair share of abuse. And in a year that saw the Biden-Harris ticket win by thinner than anticipated margins, we need to take this opportunity to understand the region as more nuanced than the blighted backcountry that popular media pushes—and that liberal readers and viewers, amazingly, tend to believe.

8 books you should read instead of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Lorraine Berry’s article includes a few links to other interpretations of Hillbilly Elegy and what she calls “the book’s troubling politics”:

But other narratives exist. In novels and nonfiction, a working class emerges that is as ethnically and politically diverse as the rest of America. Here are eight books that offer a more honest approach.

The Silent Political Messaging in Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” Adaptation

Richard Brody, movie critic for The New Yorker, writes about Howard’s movie “the thinness of the adaptation arises not only from where the movie doesn’t go beyond the book but also from what, of its source material, it chooses to leave out.”

Lost in a (Mis)Gendered Appalachia

This article by Leah Hampton carries the tagline “For centuries, national mythology has emphasized rural America’s supposed masculinity. It has caused incalculable damage.”

Hampton says that she still lives in rural Appalachia, and she invokes both her own experience and that of singer Nina Simone, whose childhood house still stands nearby, to argue “if you know this place like I do, female creativity will be at the center of your understanding of Appalachia. Women like Nina Simone epitomize our artistic traditions and folkways, our music, literature, and collective inner life.” 

Furthermore, “For two centuries now, we have been taught to foreground the men who settled and worked here, and that depiction has damaged us, both in our internal understanding of our identity, and in the way the rest of the world treats us.”

Some Movies Actually Understand Poverty in America

“The complex realities of subsistence escape ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ But as far back as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights,’ filmmakers have been turning a discerning eye on destitution.”

Don’t just laugh at “Hillbilly Elegy” — its damaging myths still need to be countered

cover: Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine

This article is by Alison Stine, whose novel Road Out of Winter is one of the eight books Lorraine Berry suggests reading instead of Vance’s book in the Los Angeles Times article linked above.

From one of the very first shots, I knew the Appalachia of this film was not going to be the Appalachia that I, my family, or my friends know: When young Vance rescues a turtle crossing the road, he carries it off with him on his bike. Any self-respecting Appalachian knows you bring the turtle across the road to where it was headed, you don’t take it off its (likely egg-laying) path.

Stine emphasizes throughout that the Hillbilly Elegy narrative, both the book and the film, fails to consider the experience of Black people and women caught up in the cyclic poverty and family trauma of the region. She explains that some people advised her not to write about Hillbilly Elegy because doing so would just give the book and film more publicity. But she argues that such people misunderstand her reason for speaking out: “This is a paycheck, and I need a paycheck. Part of being a writer in Appalachia since 2016, when “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir” came out, is refuting this man.”

I’m going to let Stine have the final word here:

No one who is actually poor is going to look at this movie as a roadmap, but people who are in positions of power to deny money and opportunities may. To only laugh at this movie is a mistake, and undercuts its danger, both of spreading inaccurate myths about poverty and completely overshadowing (and disbelieving) the stories of women, BIPOC, disabled people and queer people living in the region and in poverty throughout America.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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How Crime Writers Use Unreliable Narrators to Add Suspense

Emily Martin uses the categories that William Riggan explores in his book Pícaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator to look at ways crime writers employ them to build suspense.

The 2021 Tournament of Books Long List

Next March’s Tournament of Books, something that I only recently discovered, has posted its long list of 77 books. “In a few weeks we’ll release the shortlist of the 16 or so books that will be in play come March.”

The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

As a result of the shrinking book coverage by newspapers and magazine over recent years, Humanities Tennessee has created Chapter 16: “a part-digital, part-print publication that covers literature and literary life in the state.” The publication offers its contents free to readers and to any publications that want to reproduce it.

Useful Books: The past and present of self-help literature

Jennifer Wilson examines the history of reading for self-development as presented in Beth Blum’s book The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature.

The Long Awakening of Adrienne Rich

Maggie Doherty, who teaches writing at Harvard, looks at the life of Adrienne Rich through the lens of the first biography of the poet, The Power of Adrienne Rich by Hilary Holladay. 

But while Holladay’s book seeks to define Rich’s identity, Doherty discusses how Rich continuously changed her identity as she sought to deal with the culture in which she lived and wrote.

What to Write in a Book As a Gift: 40 Bookish Inscription-Ready Quotes

If you’re planning to give books as holiday gifts this season, BookRiot has suggestions for meaningful inscriptions. After all, “that inscription means as much as the book does.”

William Faulkner’s Demons

“In his own life, the novelist failed to truly acknowledge the evils of slavery and segregation. But he did so with savage thoroughness in his fiction.”

Casey Cep writes:

A new book by Michael Gorra, “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War” (Liveright), traces Faulkner’s literary depictions of the military conflict in the nineteenth century and his personal engagement with the racial conflict of the twentieth. The latter struggle, within the novelist himself, is the real war of Gorra’s subtitle. In “The Saddest Words,” Faulkner emerges as a character as tragic as any he invented: a writer who brilliantly portrayed the way that the South’s refusal to accept its defeat led to cultural decay, but a Southerner whose private letters and public statements were riddled with the very racism that his books so pointedly damned.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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14 of the Scariest Books Ever Written

Halloween reading season is upon us. Leila Siddiqui, declaring that “as readers, we love the sensation of being scared—it is adrenaline-inducing and addictive,” offers her list of reading material for the season.

THE WOMEN WHO SHAPED THE PAST 100 YEARS OF AMERICAN LITERATURE

This article from Smithsonian Magazine spotlights a show at the National Portrait Gallery that features “such literary giants as Toni Morrison, Anne Sexton, Sandra Cisneros, Ayn Rand, Jhumpa Lahiri, Marianne Moore and Jean Kerr. Collectively, the museum notes in a statement, the women represented have won every major writing prize of the 20th century.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen, 1st Asian American Pulitzer board member, on how his new role transcends literature

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 for his first novel, The Sympathizer. Now the Aerol Arnold Chair of English at the University of Southern California, he has been appointed to the Pulitzer Prize Board as the first Asian American in its 103-year history.

“In all the realms of artistic productions in this country, it’s really in literature that Asian Americans have been the most prolific and successful,” said Nguyen.

What Is the Purpose of Literary Criticism?

In this partial transcript of a podcast discussion, Rumaan Alam talks with Charles Finch, author of the Charles Lenox mystery novels and the literary novel The Last Enchantments

A key part of the conversation is Finch’s notion of the purpose of literary criticism. He describes his job as a critic this way:

For me, books evoke a feeling first, and then you have to try to feel lucidly in words. When I read Ali Smith’s most recent book, it stirred up all these interesting and strange feelings in me. Then, as a critic, I had to go back and look at where I put an exclamation point in the margin, and I have to try to cobble together something lucid and intelligent and rational about that. That’s the art of criticism to me: trying to explain emotions, which, in a way, all art forms are trying to do through different means.

You’ll find a link for listening to the complete discussion if you’d like to hear more.

Thriller vs. Horror: Your Guide

With Halloween coming up, there’s a lot of discussion in literary places about thrillers and horror books. But what’s the difference between the two genres? Anna Gooding-Call offers some advice on telling them apart.

Thrillers, she says, usually build incrementally toward a climax. “Thrillers tend to be rooted in reality, albeit a reality filled with psycho killers and murderous butlers. Plot is important in a thriller, as is a good, strong villain.” But what you don’t usually find in a thriller is a ghost.

But while a thriller “builds toward a scream,” she writes, “horror is all about the background moan”: “The goal of horror is to evoke existential terror, disgust, or revulsion.” Horror characteristically features “lots of supernatural goings-on and big metaphorical statements about society.”

Gooding-Call lists a few examples of each to illustrate the difference.

With His New Mystery Novel, John Banville Kills Off a Pen Name

Here’s an interesting look at one reason why a writer might choose to publish under a pen name.

Charles McGrath describes Irish novelist John Banville as a perfectionist who typically takes “four or five painful years” to complete a novel. When, in 2005, Banville found himself writing a mystery novel, he was surprised at how quickly he was able to complete it. That novel, Christine Falls, was published under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Banville didn’t try to hide his identity as the book’s author but used a pen name to indicate that “John Banville had a dark other half who was up to something different.”

The author has published ten more books as Benjamin Black, but when his most recent novel, Snow, a mystery, is published in the U.S. next month, its author will be named on the cover as John Banville.

“What happened, Banville says, is that in rereading some of the Black books, he decided they were better than he remembered.” When he realized that he liked the Black books, he decided he no longer needed “this rascal.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Why a Campaign to ‘Reclaim’ Women Writers’ Names Is So Controversial

“Critics say Reclaim Her Name fails to reflect the array of reasons authors chose to publish under male pseudonyms”

Nora McGreevy reports in Smithsonian Magazine about the Reclaim Her Name project recently launched by the Women’s Prize for Fiction in conjunction with Baileys (of Irish cream liqueur fame).

More about the project in a minute. But first, a personal digression. When I click on the link for the Reclaim Her Name project given in the opening paragraph of this article, I get sent to a page with this URL: https://www.baileys.com/en-gb/reclaim-her-name-campaign . OK, since Baileys is a sponsor. But there’s an overlay on the page that requires me to submit my birthday: “Can we see some ID please? It’s part of our commitment to responsible drinking.” I can’t get into the site without giving them my birthdate. An ID to read about books? I don’t think so. Consequently, I can only report on McGreevy’s article, not on the Reclaim Her Name project itself.

According to McGreevy, the Reclaim Her Name project, “a joint initiative honoring the literary award’s 25th anniversary,” focuses on “25 classic and lesser-known works by authors who historically wrote under male pseudonyms.”  The Reclaim Her Name collection comprises free ebooks that feature the writers’ actual names on the covers.

But, McGreevy writes, “Despite its arguably well-intentioned aims, Reclaim Her Name quickly attracted criticism from scholars and authors, many of whom cited a number of historical inaccuracies embedded in the project.” Most complaints, many of which this article links to, involve a general disregard for the reasons why individual authors chose to publish these works under pseudonyms.

Are Little Free Libraries helping locals survive COVID? L.A. weighs in

This article from the Los Angeles Times delves into the history of the Little Free Library movement as well as the benefits and problems of unmonitored distribution of books during a health epidemic.

The Ox-Bow Incident: William Wellman’s stunning Western illuminates how righteous cowboys can become a mob of vigilantes

The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the best novels to illustrate how a writer can use language to convey a character’s state of mind. In this essay for the Library of America, Michael Sragow argues that the 1943 film version of The Ox-Bow Incident “generates a visceral and emotional force that equals or surpasses the power of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s ruminative, soul-quaking 1940 novel.”

“Lolita” Belongs to the Girls Who Lived It

cover: Being Lolita by Alisson Wood

Lilly Dancyger looks at Alisson Wood’s memoir Being Lolita, which Cancyger calls “a fearless interrogation of her own experience being groomed and manipulated by an older man—and a reclaiming of the narrative of Lolita, reminding readers that the cultural understanding of the novel still tends to favor the predator’s perspective, and that teenage girls need support, not objectification.”

Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?

Katy Waldman addresses what she calls the reflexivity trap in fiction:

This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance. The problem with such signalling is that it rarely resolves the anxieties that seem to prompt it. Mocking your emotions, or expressing doubt or shame about them, doesn’t negate those emotions; castigating yourself for hypocrisy, cowardice, or racism won’t necessarily make you less hypocritical, cowardly, or racist. As the cracks in our systems become increasingly visible, the reflexivity trap casts self-awareness as a finish line, not a starting point. To the extent that this discourages further action, oblivion might be preferable.

Caroline Leavitt on Writing the Disconnected Self

“How Life’s Shifting Identities Filter Into the Work of a Novelist”

Novelist Caroline Leavitt discusses how personality changes can occur and how she explored their significance in writing her books:

I realize that the only thing any of us—including my characters—can know is that everything you thought you knew about yourself or others can derail. But unexpected transformation can also revive, burnishing new possibilities you never expected, and that new person you might become can actually turn out to be your truest self of all.

7 Best Mystery Books (According to Mystery Experts)

I love mysteries and thrillers, and I’ve read a lot of them. 

This list of reading recommendations, by the PBS show MASTERPIECE Mystery!, comes from the creators and writers of the program Grantchester as well as “ a selection of mystery insiders.” The list includes works by the following authors:

  • Louise Penny
  • Nicholas Blake
  • Kate Griffin
  • Thomas H. Cook
  • Eva Dolan
  • Margaret Millar
  • Anthony Oliver

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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The Million Basic Plots

Novelist and screenwriter Ned Beauman laments the existence of the website TV Tropes, which breaks down the plots of all forms of popular-culture storytelling into such minute parts as to prevent him from coming up with any original plot elements.

I don’t write fiction but I love reading it, and I read a lot of it. The fact that “there’s nothing new under the sun” has never bothered me as a reader. What I look for when reading is how an author puts together various story elements to create an original work of art.

Reading will supposedly make you a better person. That’s not the real reason to pick up a book.

About all those reported studies claiming that reading makes us more empathetic and compassionate, Mark Athitakis, in The Washington Post, says, “Ugh.” He bases this opinion on his own experience with an emotional rough patch that left the perfectionist part of himself anxiety ridden and unable to read. 

What finally helped him through that time was a copy of Sidney Sheldeon’s 2000 novel The Sky Is Falling left in the lobby of his apartment building: “It was reassuring in a way, to be in such a world. What I valued was the simple happening-ness of life. The book reknitted my conception of reading, demonstrated that it wasn’t a stoic march to edification but a way to be open to experience.”

WHEN MEN NARRATE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS

I read a lot of mysterie and psychological thrillers. The usual trope set-up for these novels is a woman under duress, whose carefully constructed current life is about to be ruined by some ex who shows up and threatens to expose all her secrets. In this article crime fiction critic Lisa Levy discusses seven novels that turn this trope upside down by having a man narrate the story.

Annotate This: On Marginalia

How could I pass up this article on a web site called Notes in the Margin? (I initially wanted the title Marginalia, but that domain name was already taken.) 

Here Ed Simon, Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, declares “in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one.”

One of the reasons for seeking out used books is the possible discovery of marginalia:

Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.

Murder, We Wrote

The depiction of homicide in popular culture is continuously evolving, and our ceaseless fascination with these narratives says something about us. Human nature being what it is, we can’t ask “where is murder going?” without also asking “where are we?”

Brian Phillips discusses popular culture’s fascination with murder, particularly as featured in “the wave of psychological thrillers often lumped together under the heading of “Girl books”—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, and so forth.”

I’m a novelist – and this is why I choose middle-aged women as the heroes of my crime thrillers

Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter, discusses why, when she started to write crime novels in her 40s, she made her detectives two women in their 40s. “Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.” But, she adds, she didn’t create her detectives simply to mirror herself:

For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.

Jackson says she created her detectives to offer a model of a world in which the choices to remain single and not to have children as normal enough to be unremarkable. Published under the name Emilia Bernhard, Jackson’s novels include Death in Paris and The Books of the Dead

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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How a Twitter war in 2010 helped change the way we talk about women’s writing

A look at how the 2010 dust-up between writers Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen engendered a decade-long pop culture discussion over two basic questions: “What kinds of stories do we consider to be worthy of respect? And to whom do those stories belong?”

7 OF THE BEST BOOKS ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS FROM 2019

“One of the most practical ways to combat stigma around mental illness is to raise awareness in society about it, and what better way to do that than through books.”

This article discusses these 7 books from 2019:

  • THE HEARTLAND BY NATHAN FILER (FABER)
  • MIND ON FIRE BY ARNOLD THOMAS FANNING (PENGUIN)
  • NOTES MADE WHILE FALLING BY JENN ASHWORTH (GOLDSMITHS PRESS)
  • THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS BY ESMÉ WEIJUN WANG (PENGUIN)
  • BIPOLAR DISORDER – THE ULTIMATE GUIDE BY SARAH OWEN & AMANDA SAUNDERS (ONEWORLD)
  • WHERE REASONS END BY YIYUN LI (HAMISH HAMILTON)
  • DORA: A HEADCASE BY LIDIA YUKNAVITCH (CANONGATE)

Gone Boys

Hillary Kelly writes in Vulture that during the past decade women have replaced men as important authors:

Where once a passel of middle-ish-aged men — Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Chabon, the rest of the Jonathans (Lethem, Safran Foer) — dominated the scene with their big, important distillations of the world, the voices that now stand out, the ones that drive the conversation around fiction, largely belong to women.

The Top Twenty-Five New Yorker Stories of 2019

The New Yorker lists its top stories of the year in terms of how much they influenced readers to subscribe to the magazine. These are the stories most relevant to the literary world:

5. “What If We Stopped Pretending?,” by Jonathan Franzen

“The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.”

8. “A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions,” by Ian Parker

“Dan Mallory, who writes under the name A. J. Finn, went to No. 1 with his début thriller, “The Woman in the Window.” His life contains even stranger twists.”

10. “The Art of Decision-Making,” by Joshua Rothman

“Your life choices aren’t just about what you want to do; they’re about who you want to be.”

13. “The Lingering of Loss,” by Jill Lepore

“My best friend left her laptop to me in her will. Twenty years later, I turned it on and began my inquest.”

17. “Father Time,” by David Sedaris

I can’t predict what’s waiting for us, lurking on the other side of our late middle age, but I know it can’t be good.

“Little Women” and the Marmee Problem

“The anger of Marmee, the mother of the March sisters, is central to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, and yet it’s hidden in plain sight.”

Is Sentimentality in Writing Really That Bad?

Poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert discusses the difference between sentiment and sentimentality in writing.

In these new audiobooks, great tales are matched with great narrators

I listen to a lot of audiobooks, but I don’t talk much about them in terms of their distinctive format. Here, Katherine A. Powers recommends three new audiobooks with “great narrators.”

The Long Tail of ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

In The New York Times, Alexandra Alter discusses Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, published in summer 2018:

A year and a half later, the novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing,” an absorbing, atmospheric tale about a lonely girl’s coming-of-age in the marshes of North Carolina, has sold more than four and a half million copies. It’s an astonishing trajectory for any debut novelist, much less for a reclusive, 70-year-old scientist, whose previous published works chronicled the decades she spent in the deserts and valleys of Botswana and Zambia, where she studied hyenas, lions and elephants.


© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy

Melissa Ashley finds the origin of fairytales to “a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.” Fairytales “crystallised as a genre” in this time when women, sometimes as young as 15, were married off—often to men many years older than themselves—to protect family property. Women could not divorce, work, or control their inheritances. The conteuses’ stories “invited women to imagine greater freedom in their lives, to be their own authors of the most fundamental of all human endeavours – to be able to choose whom to love.”

THE LAST UNPROBLEMATIC OLD WHITE MALE AUTHORS (WE THINK)

In this age of #MeToo and disparagement of the Western literary canon as outmoded products from the minds of dead white guys, Dylan Brown argues that “there are, by my count, at least three old white guys (all of whom are alive!) who are still ‘safe’ to read.” Read why he finds the work of these three men “stands the test of time — even in these times. It is, in other words, enlightened despite their era”: Charles Portis (True Grit), Nicholson Baker (A Box of Matches), and Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler).

WHEN YOU WRITE YOUR WORST FEARS IN YOUR NOVEL—AND THEN THEY COME TRUE

Six days before the publication of her first novel, Amber Cowie’s brother died. When she visited the room he had last inhabited, she sickeningly realized “the space was nearly identical to a scene I had written in my book.” Cowie found help in understanding her situation by examining the lives of writers Lois Duncan, who wrote about her daughter’s murder, and Shirley Jackson, whose last diary entries before her sudden death suggest she felt “a portending sense of loss and mystery.” 

Jackson, Duncan and I created stories that both reflected and predicted the things that scared us the most.

From Iliad to Inspiration: How Homer’s Epic Inspired My Debut Novel

Probably the question writers hear most often is “Where do you get your ideas?” Here Shannon Price describes how Homer’s Iliad, required reading in a required college course, inspired her first novel.

How Literary Translation Can Shift the Tides of Power

Whether it came from a news report, travel blog, film or work of fiction, our understanding of these far-flung countries [China, Japan, Korea] is limited by what gets translated into our language. But who and what determines which voices and whose stories we get to hear? Whose voices are we not hearing?

Jen Wei Ting explains the responsibilities she feels as a translator.

The Disappearance of John M. Ford

When a friend insisted he read The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, Isaac Butler was dazzled by the book:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.

Yet when Butler tried to buy more of Ford’s works, he found they were out of print and mostly not available even in used copies. He set out to discover how Ford had written such amazing books and why he was so unknown today. Butler’s investigation into Ford and his works makes for fascinating reading. Best of all, his work resulted in an agreement to republish Ford’s work, beginning in 2020.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

How Kurt Vonnegut Predicted the Automation Crisis

Player Piano may have been written 67 years ago, but its prescience is uncanny — though not inexplicable. It is a product not only of Vonnegut’s extraordinary imagination, but his years of experience working directly with engineers, whose mentality the novel reflects in reaching its logical conclusion.

Getting To The Heart Of The Matter With ‘Heart of Darkness’

This post appears on the blog of Audible, the audiobook-selling arm of Amazon. College student and Audible intern Ama Hagan describes her reactions to Joseph Conrad’s controversial novella Heart of Darkness. This piece of classical literature still appears on the syllabi of many a college course, and I was interested in this perspective from a proud young woman of African heritage.

Authors Steve Cavanagh and Adrian McKinty: How growing up in Northern Ireland’s Troubles shaped them

Cover: Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

This article caught my eye because I’ve just recently read both Cavanagh’s novel Thirteen and McKinty’s novel The Chain.

Cavanagh to McKinty about Cavanagh’s mother giving him the book Silence of the Lambs to read when he was 12:

We grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was in Belfast, you were in Carrickfergus, and a book about cannibals and serial killers skinning innocent people was a bit of light relief from the reality of that low-level civil war. I wouldn’t give my daughter “Silence Of The Lambs,” and she’s twelve right now. We grew up in different times, and I think our generation is desensitized to violence.

Cover: The Chain, Adrian McKinty

McKinty on his youth in Northern Ireland:

A guy a few doors down from us was arrested for murdering three random Catholic men (so in effect he was a serial killer) and all this seemed completely normal to me. The domestic violence, the drunkenness, the chimney fires every night — all seemed just the way things were done. I don’t think my eyes were opened until I started reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I began to see that there were other possibilities of how to live and everything around me was just contingent. When I was about 11 or 12 I read Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” and I remember when I was done with that it occurred to me that everything the hardmen said was uneducated, quasi-fascist nonsense.

McKinty says that the authors who influenced him the most have been Stephen King, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Cavanagh lists as his influences, in addition to Silence of the Lambs, the works of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Connolly, and Patricia Highsmith.

Read the article to see which seven books each author would take with him if stranded on a deserted island.

THE ANATOMY OF THE BOOK

Boards, signatures, deckles, headbands: Learn all the esoteric terminology involved in book production.

The Hazards of Writing While Female

The nonprofit organization VIDA keeps a count of how many books written by women are reviewed in literary sections, and how many reviewers are female. Every year until 2017, its most recent survey, VIDA has found that male writers and male reviewers dominate books coverage, even though women make up the majority of authors and readers.

Here’s yet another reminder of the long-standing issue of how men and women are treated differently in the publishing world. As one of the authors quoted here says, “a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily a woman.” 

Still, for as long as female authors’ bodies define their work, the seriousness gap will remain

FIRST NATIVE AMERICAN NOVELIST WAS A KILLER NEWSPAPER EDITOR

“The first Native American to write a novel in English lived a life chock-full of contradictions.”

This piece appears as a segment of Disruptive Literary Legends, an “OZY original series explores long-forgotten historical figures who changed the way we write, read and appreciate literature.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Publishing Reading

Literary Links

GOODREADS HACKS: GET A DNF SHELF, MARK REREADS, AND MORE

If you find it hard to keep up with all the cool kids who use Goodreads to track their reading, this article will put you in the know about some of the more esoteric aspects. The main subject here is how to create a DNF (did not finish) shelf that won’t include the books placed there in your number of books read statistics. But there are a few other nifty nuggets of knowledge here as well, along with links to several other articles explaining how to use Goodreads. An avid reader’s bonanza!

How We Need Diverse Books Changed The Literary World, According To 15 Publishing Pros

When We Need Diverse Books was founded by a team of writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals, it was meant to shake up the publishing industry from the inside. Led by the original Executive Committee — Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, Marieke Nijkamp, Miranda Paul, Aisha Saeed, Karen Sandler, and Ilene Wong — and supported by the original PR team — Stacey Lee and SE Sinkhorn — We Need Diverse Books was created to fight for more diversity in children’s and young adult book publishing at every level, among authors, editors, marketers, agents, publishers, and more. First and foremost, they wanted authors from marginalized communities to be given opportunities to have their voices heard in the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cisgender industry. And the results have been clear.

Fifteen publishing professionals discuss “why they believe We Need Diverse Books has changed publishing forever, and what they hope for the future.”

Toni Morrison and Nina Simone, United in Soul

Emily Lordi discusses how much Toni Morrison was influenced by contemporary musicians:

Her work resonates with the music of those soul artists alongside whom she honed her craft: the grand ambition of Isaac Hayes, the moral clarity of Curtis Mayfield, and the erotic truth-telling of Aretha Franklin. But the soul artist who is most closely aligned with Morrison is Nina Simone. “She saved our lives,” Morrison said of the singer, after Simone’s death, in 2003. Simone meant so much to her, and to other black women, I think, in part because of how she turned social exclusion into superlative beauty and style. It was this recuperative alchemy that defined soul, as a music and an ethos. And, if Simone was soul’s “High Priestess,” Morrison was one of its literary architects.

From Baba Yaga to Hermione Granger: why we’re spellbound by ‘witcherature’

Vengeful, seductive, feminist, misogynist … witches have appeared in many forms in literature. Now a new generation of novelists are falling under their spell.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, writing in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, addresses the current literary fascination with witches:

There has been a perennial literary fascination with witches; they are, as Marion Gibson, professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at Exeter University says, “a shorthand symbol for persecution and resistance – misogyny and feminism in particular”. In a #MeToo world, where Donald Trump – a fan of the term “witch-hunt” – is US president, it is really no surprise that female writers are examining the role of the witch in new ways.

Cosslett explains that women of her generation, who came of age in the 1990s with TV programs such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are now producing literature and films that grapple with perennial questions of power and agency. She also looks a bit at the history of witches in literature, from novels such as Jane Eyre to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick.

In Praise of Samuel R. Delany

In my effort to read more science fiction, I often come across references to Samuel R. Delany’s seminal novel Dhalgren. Here novelist Jordy Rosenberg discusses how Delany’s fiction “reflects and explores the social truths of our world.” He includes a list of works to start with for readers looking to introduce themselves to Delany’s body of work.

How Tana French Inhabits the Minds of Her Detectives

The crime-fiction writer on unreliable narrators, real-world sources, and the breakdown of genre boundaries in her work.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Older Adults in Literature On Novels and Novelists Publishing

Literary Links

I came across so many interesting articles this week that it’s hard to limit my list. Here are some of my favorites.

On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant

The intensity of Murdoch’s gaze, boring into you from the dust jackets of her many novels, seemed a promise of the books’ contents. For decades this remarkable writer delivered prickly, sophisticated and somewhat unearthly fiction about good and evil and sex and morality. She trailed a large, large muse. She deftly moved her ideas about, positioning them like the slabs used to build Stonehenge.

In this year, the centennial of Iris Murdoch’s birth and 20 years after her death at age 79, Dwight Garner laments that “her posthumous reputation is in semi-shambles.” To help restore her reputation to what he considers to be its rightful place—on “the list of the most elite writers in English of the second half of the 20th century”—he examines at length his favorite of her novels, The Sea, The Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize. 

Adult Books for Fall 2019

This is the starting page for Publishers Weekly’s recommendations of fall releases in the following categories:

  • Art, Architecture & Photography  
  • Business & Economics  
  • Comics & Graphic Novels  
  • Cooking & Food  
  • Essays & Literary Criticism  
  • Literary Fiction  
  • History  
  • Lifestyle  
  • Memoirs & Biographies  
  • Mysteries & Thrillers  
  • Poetry  
  • Politics & Current Events  
  • Romance & Erotica  
  • SF, Fantasy & Horror  
  • Science

MAKE A DIFFERENCE: READ LOCAL AUTHORS

You shop local, you eat local—but are you reading local, too? If you’re not, you’re missing out. Local authors and the stories they tell can change your life—and your community. And all you have to do is read a book you love.

Six years ago we moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Tacoma, Washington. During those six years, one of my reading goals has been to read books by local authors. Although I didn’t need this article to explain to me why reading local authors is a worthwhile undertaking, I did appreciate the tips on how to find their books.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Writing to Re-member

Just yesterday, I asked my students how many of them had watched at least one American movie or read one American book about the Vietnam War, and everyone raised their hand. When I asked how many had read one book or seen one movie by a Vietnamese person, nobody, or perhaps one or two, had. The legacies of colonialism and imperialism have created privileged sectors in the West that function as feedback loops. We often only read books or watch movies that reflect our values. In systems like Hollywood, the stories of poor people from other countries are not that interesting to the rest of the world and therefore don’t get told.

Half of women over 40 say older women in fiction are clichés, survey finds

A recent survey by Gransnet, the UK’s biggest social media site for older people, and publisher HQ (HarperCollins) found that 51% of women over 40 “feel older women in fiction books tend to fall into clichéd roles.” Here are some of the most interest findings from the survey:

  • 47% of women over 40 say there are not enough books about middle-aged or older women.
  • “when older characters do appear in fiction, half of women (50%) say they’ve seen them being portrayed as baffled by smartphones, computers or the internet – and think it’s insulting.”
  • 75% buy their books online.

As a result of the survey findings, Gransnet and HQ are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over age 40. The article contains more information on both the survey and the writing competition. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown