In Part 1, I covered some of the 2015 online reads on different themes/topics that have stuck with me. Now, in Part 2, I’m focusing on 2015 online reads related to the reading and writing of literature.
As I collected all the links to add here, three themes emerged: essays/articles/interviews that inspired me to read or write better; diversity issues in publishing; sexism issues in publishing.
First, let’s start with the inspiring stuff that reminded me why I enjoy reading and why writing is a worthwhile craft to dedicate one’s life to.
Svetlana Alexeivich, who won the Nobel for Literature this year, gave such a beautiful Nobel Lecture.
Flaubert called himself a human pen; I would say that I am a human ear. When I walk down the street and catch words, phrases, and exclamations, I always think – how many novels disappear without a trace! Disappear into darkness. We haven’t been able to capture the conversational side of human life for literature. We don’t appreciate it, we aren’t surprised or delighted by it. But it fascinates me, and has made me its captive. I love how humans talk … I love the lone human voice. It is my greatest love and passion.
James Wood is one of my all-time favorite literary critics. And, this interview with him, ‘The Art of Persuasion‘ is all kinds of wonderful. On the question of whether the novel can bring a kind of transcendental truth:
That’s a very good question. (Laughs.) Yes, it certainly can. If you look at a novel like “To the Lighthouse” – one of my favorite of all books – it asks exactly the same question Psalm 90 asks: What will endure of us? What will last after we’re gone? Psalm 90 says, in effect, nothing, because we give it all up to God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday.” The modern novelist – who can’t rest assured of cosmic governance – looks around in a more secular way and says, What will survive of us? Not houses. If left alone, they begin to fall apart very quickly. Perhaps children, except that they can be killed off in the First World War or die in childbirth, as happens in the middle of “To the Lighthouse.” Probably not works of art either, unless they’re very great works of art, like Shakespeare’s plays. So the answer is a very bleak one – without consolation, without transcendent truth of any kind. But remember that Chekhov said the writer’s job is not to provide the answers, but to ask the right questions.
Joyce Carol Oates’ essay on inspiration and obsession in literature explored why we write, what motivates metaphor, and so on. The entire essay/lecture is rich with quotes from so many wonderful writers.
Without the stillness, thoughtfulness, and depths of art, and without the ceaseless moral rigors of art, we would have no shared culture—no collective memory. As if memory were destroyed in the human brain, our identities corrode, and we “were” no one—we become merely a shifting succession of impressions attached to no fixed source. As it is, in contemporary societies, where so much concentration is focused upon social media, insatiable in its fleeting interests, the “stillness and thoughtfulness” of a more permanent art feels threatened. As human beings we crave “meaning”—which only art can provide; but the social media provide no meaning, only this succession of fleeting impressions whose underlying principle may simply be to urge us to consume products. The motive for metaphor, then, is a motive for survival as a species, as a culture, and as individuals.
Mark Yakich gave some wonderful advice on how to read a poem. Here’s one bit:
A poem has no hidden meaning, only “meanings” you’ve not yet realized are right in front of you. Discerning subtleties takes practice. Reading poetry is a convention like anything else. And you learn the rules of it like anything else—e.g., driving a car or baking a cake.
The Atlantic’s ‘By Heart‘ series of advice from writers gave a lot of amazing gems this year. My favorite was from Mary Gaitskill on reading ‘Anna Karenina’ and what a particular scene/moment taught her about people:
I believe that the truest parts of people can be buried, and for many different reasons. It’s very mysterious and strange, and though I don’t think about it consciously while I’m writing, I do believe this about people—so it probably does show up in my work. People sometimes turn out to be almost the opposite of how they present. It isn’t because they’re trying to fool you, or because they’re hypocrites. It’s because they badly want to be that thing, and so they’ll try to be it. It’s not even like they’re deliberately pulling the wool over people’s eyes. That’s their ideal, and that’s what they try for. But it’s not who they are.
Any interview with George Saunders is like a masterclass in writing. This latest one is no different.
And then the larger research is really trying to be open to all kinds of experiences. Which means trying to make sure your life is varied. So if you get a chance to hang out with some really rich people, you do. And if you get the chance to hang out with some really poor people, you do. Anything you can do to broaden your experience is good. But I think also, coupled with an effort to keep your judgment quiet when you’re researching. So in other words, if you go into a house full of mega-rich people and your mind is going, “Oh, these pompous assholes. These oppressors!” Then you’re not really seeing and hearing everything that you could because your sensory faculties are being made passive by your thinking. It’s like: if you go into a conversation with someone and you know you don’t like them, then you don’t really hear what they say. So part of that research for me, if you want to call it that, is to keep my judging faculties quiet when I’m out in the world. Just so that all the data can get in, and then I can decide what to do with it later. It’s surprising how often you’ll miss a fact or an interesting quote just because it doesn’t fit your pre-existing idea of things.
And, then, there’s Tom Gauld’s beautiful year of literary cartoons.
Diversity concerns related to the publishing industry continue to be voiced across the globe. Writers of color are still struggling to get their voices heard, their books published, and their stories told.
And yet. In a bizarre twist of how white voices drown out those of color, in the US, one of the big stories was about how a white poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, used the Chinese pen name of Yi-Fen Chou to get accepted into the ‘Best American Poetry’ anthology, edited by Sherman Alexie.
Mira Jacob, an author of Indian origin, gave a speech about race to the publishing industry and no one heard her.
Over in the UK, writers and editors alike mused on what could be done to stop the publishing industry from being so posh and white — a question that could be asked of US publishing as well.
Award-winning author Claire Vaye Watkins wrote one of the best essays of the year about how and why writers, women and those of color, pander to the white reader/editor/publisher and how that needs to change.
Marlon James, this year’s Booker winner, talked more about what being a writer of color involves, and a whole lot more about the discipline of writing.
On a positive note, here are some writers who did, indeed, stare down the “white gaze” with their words and works this year. And, more power to them.
And, on the issue of sexism in writing and in publishing, Rebecca Solnit had a lot to say with her tongue-in-cheek ‘80 Books No Women Should Read‘ and ‘Men Explain Lolita to Me‘. Though, to be fair, with ‘Lolita’ turning sixty this year, several writers have expressed rather interesting, varying, and mixed opinions about it.
Siri Hustvedt wrote a brilliant essay on that polarizing author, Knausgaard, saying that, well, he writes like a woman even though he, apparently, despises that kind of writing. Well played, Ms Hustvedt.
For the record, let me just say that I completely agree that all writers, especially women writers of color, have a lot to learn from sexist male writers.
Let’s end with this wonderful parody of Cormac McCarthy — a male, white writer who has also been seen as sexist in his writing by some. Jordan Hall’s ‘Home Alone‘ in McCarthy’s voice is a treat to read and re-read even if you’re not a McCarthy fan.
The kid can smell his reckoning now. The moon is risen full. He exits the attic window across a suspended cable to a wigwam in the trees. The robbers have gained him again and attempt the crossing but the kid won’t give and exhibits a pair of hedgeshears. From what deep well was spawned this genius? Does he not mete out apposite verdicts? With the wise indifference of a middle-aged cow he cuts through the cable and the fools go tumbling downward back upon the hovel face like misstepped trapeze folk.