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Current Issue: Fall 2014
December brings many things you can’t escape from: snow, family gatherings, dry skin, the sun setting at 3 P.M. But perhaps the most unavoidable of all? Year-end lists. The minute the calendar strikes twelve, social media feeds are inundated with expansive lists outlining the “best of” in the preceding months. In the bigger picture sense, I think that these lists can be helpful. They refresh us on what was great about the last year or remind us of what we might have missed. But let’s be honest: these lists can also be incredibly overwhelming.
It’s always the year-end book lists that get to me. Mostly because I can’t remember the last time I read a book the actual year it came out. I don’t mean this in a cool, hipster way; I am not above getting excited every year when the New York Times publishes their “100 Most Notable Books” because, gee, those sure do look like great books that I hope to read someday. For now, I’m just a 21-year-old making my way through all the literature that was published before 2014. Bet y’all knew this already, but there’s a lot. There are so many books in this world.
In the spirit of being late to the party, here’s my personal list of the best books that I read this year, in no particular order:
1.) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
In all honesty, I’m not sure I would have picked up this book had it not been required reading for a class, which might be upsetting for those who have a portrait of Harold Bloom hanging above their fireplace. But it’s one of those few novels of my college career that I’m glad I had to read. McCarthy’s stark descriptions of the Glanton gang roaming across the borderlands were honest in a way not many authors can be about ruthless and absolute violence. Also, in all seriousness, were dead baby jokes born of Blood Meridian?
2.) Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon (2009)
Full disclosure: I only read this book because Paul Thomas Anderson directed the movie adaptation that is coming out later this week. It was also the first Pynchon I read, much to the chagrin of English professors everywhere. Though a complete mess-up of a human, I found Doc to be a completely endearing character and I’m curious to see how this’ll all shake out on screen.
3.) Class Matters, The New York Times (2005)
This book is actually the culmination of a 10 part series published in the New York Times in 2005 that looks at a combination of factors to determine what class is, how it exists in America, and how it affects the outcomes of the lives of everyone interviewed. Of all the books I read this year, this one had the biggest impact. There’s an incredible amount of information covered and even if the statistics mentioned might be outdated by now, it challenges the reader to face the fact that not all opportunities in America are made equal.
4.) The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
I have been an unapologetic fan of Eugenides ever since I read Middlesex late in my sophomore year of college and I feel like this novel is even that much better. Not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws- a story that focuses on three white kids and their Ivy League education can only go so far- but I believe I liked this book so much because while I was reading it, I identified with Madeline Hanna, a young English major about to step into the real world with a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding her future as well as her interpersonal relationships.
5.) Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1400′s)
Wow, have you guys read this? So good, right? I’m positive it’s going to be an important piece of literature someday.
Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmosier
After weeks of reading, passing, recommending, rereading, and more rereading, we’re proud to announce the winners of our 24th annual Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. We received almost 3000 entries this year, and the quality of our finalists made this a very tough decision. I’d like to thank all of the writers who gave us the opportunity to read their work. Without further ado, here are our winners in all three genres:
Winner: Rachel Swearingen of Minneapolis, Minnesota, for “How to Walk on Water”
Robin Romm of Portland, Oregon, for “What to Expect”
Edward Hamlin of Boulder, Colorado, for “Indígena”
Dana Fitz Gale of Missoula, Montana, for “Leah, Lamb”
Winner: Alexandra Teague of Moscow, Idaho
Jennifer Barber of Brookline, Massachusetts
Miriam Bird Greenberg of Berkeley, California
Phillip B. Williams of Chicago, Illinois
Winner: Andrew Cohen of Portland, Oregon, for “Ronaldo”
Nicole Banas of Devon, Pennsylvania, for “Rash”
Nynke Passi of Fairfield, Iowa, for “Oom Ealse and the Swan”
Jeff Wasserboehr of Leverett, Massachusetts, for “Possess Stonewall”
In all three genres, we read all the work twice, getting our selections down to a group of semi-finalists in each category. Call it anywhere from two dozen to fifty, depending on the genre. Then we passed the manuscripts around again and discussed the pros and cons, strengths and weaknesses, and passed the work around again until we came to a decision. We were able to finish our reading and make our selection a little early this year in comparison to the past, and that’s really due to all the hard work of our staff. So, my thanks to everyone who made our contest a success this year: contest editor, Anne Barngrover, who was terrific in managing our her team and spreading the good word to get all these high-quality submissions. Also, Anne’s staff of readers and assistants were wonderful. Big thanks to Evelyn Somers, Brad Babendir, Chun Ye, Leanna Petronella, Angie Netro, Marek Makowski, Richard Miller, Chasity Hurd, Justine Reale, and Dedra Earl for all their help.
For over thirty-five years, the quality of our magazine has depended on the work writers send to us, and we think our Editors’ Prize issue is always one of our best. We frequently se the best of a writer’s work, and that makes the selection process a tremendous challenge. Which, of course, is what we want. Thank you to all the writers who entered our contest this year and trusted us with your work.
We’re making plans right now for our Editors’ Prize weekend, our annual spring reading and reception to honor the winners of the contest. Details will be forthcoming as soon as we lock down the date, but we’re aiming for dates in March or April. This Editors’ Prize issue, featuring our winners and selected finalists, will also be out in spring of 2015.
Congratulations to Rachel, Andrew, and Alexandra!
Follow Michael Nye on Twitter: @mpnye
Here’s some terrific news from the arts world. National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Jane Chu announced yesterday that the Missouri Review is one of 919 nonprofit organizations nationwide to receive an NEA Art Works grant. Hooray!
NEA Chairman Jane Chu said, “I’m pleased to be able to share the news of our support through Art Works including the award to the Missouri Review. The arts foster value, connection, creativity and innovation for the American people and these recommended grants demonstrate those attributes and affirm that the arts are part of our everyday lives.”
We are very grateful to once again receive funding from the NEA. Their support helps us to print and distribute our magazine, and without them, we wouldn’t be able to be the type of quality literary journal you expect. Organizations like the NEA make a tremendous difference, not just for us, but all the other individuals and arts organizations they support.
Art Works grants support the creation of art, public engagement with art, lifelong learning in the arts, and enhancement of the livability of communities through the arts. The NEA received 1,474 eligible applications under the Art Works category, requesting more than $75 million in funding. Of those applications, 919 are recommended for grants for a total of $26.6 million.
If you’d like to see more of the Who and the What and the Where (basically a complete listing of projects recommended for Art Works grant support) visit the NEA website at arts.gov. Follow the conversation about this and other NEA‐funded projects on Twitter at #NEAFall2014.
And, a little bragging.
I’m personally proud and happy for our Poetry Editor, Chun Ye, who was one of the thirty exceptional writers awarded a NEA Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry. These fellowships enable recipients to set aside time for writing, research, travel, and general career advancement. Chun has been with us for the past year and a half, reading and ruminating on the poetry submissions we receive, and looking for the very best work to publish in our pages and on our website. Her work has been exemplary, and the poets she has brought to your attention have been outstanding. I’m over the moon for my friend, who justly deserves this great honor. Huzzah!
We’re also thrilled that several poets that have appeared in our pages and on our website also received fellowships. These include Kerry James Evans, Sean Hill, Ellen Bass, and Shara Lessley. Big hearty Congrats! to these poets, as well as all the recipients of these fellowships.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Earlier this year, I assigned thirty American undergraduates a novel to read by Haruki Murakami for a course on Global Literature. They had just finished reading and speculating about Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel that surprised and disconcerted some of them by its refusal to allow an unnamed American—the character that our protagonist from Lahore, Changez, addresses the entire narrative to—to speak, and I was excited to see what they would make of Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. We had already begun to look at excerpts from Edward Said’s Orientalism; Salman Rushdie’s great essay about the exiled writer, “Imaginary Homelands”; and ideas from Imagined Communities and theories about how canons, particularly the Western Canon, are created. We had also read the wonderfully titled “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” from Murakami’s after the quake, which features—perhaps surprisingly—a tall talking frog with aspirations of saving a city from a disconcerting entity known as Worm.
When I reread his novel, I began to see that it resonated for me on levels it had not the first time I read it, some years ago. I was a different person then; I had not then come to terms with my identity, the different gender in my mental mirror, the aspect of myself I had known about since I was a child but had tried to shove back behind a dark door in the hallways of my heart. The novel stirred things up. Resonances with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and the mind-body problem leapt out at me, like the references in the book to shadows, as in the allegory’s cave, and the Town at the End of the World—not simply a town, but the Town—in which everyone is a perfect Ideal version of a type of individual and in which no one has shadows or minds, where one can go no further because one has reached the “end of the world”; an obvious connection to T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which Murakami mentions in another novel, Kafka on the Shore, and which deals with not only hollow individuals loosely like those in the Town but with the world ending “not with a bang but a whimper,” as in the novel; the translation’s use of the term “INKling,” or “Infra-Nocturnal Kappa,” for a kappa-like monster in the real world, which could be read as a materialization of mental phenomena, inklings or thought-hints, into seemingly non-mental material reality; the question of whether or not our worlds come to an end when our perception of the world does; and, above all, the question of what it means to be and to be someone.
As Gauguin put it: where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
I had come to accept better who I am, a citizen of a world with a varicoloured passport, the summer before I began to teach Murakami’s novel. In that summer of blue shadows, I had gone with a writer friend to London to do research on the novels we are writing, and it was there I began to finally open the door behind which I had long hidden the girl in my identity, began to remove the bricks I had erected against her like Montresor against Fortunato in Poe’s tale. But to reveal who I was to my family in the Caribbean would likely involve banishment at best and something much darker at worst, and so I decided I would keep quiet about my identity for a while. Our prime minister had said, earlier this year, that the buggery law, which broadly criminalizes same-sex activity, would never be repealed so long as his government remained in power, and when our island’s first group of gay-rights activists formed and spoke out for the first time, requesting that the government re-examine and repeal the buggery law, they were roundly condemned and the radios were filled with evangelical denunciations of homosexuality. Transgender and genderqueer individuals were rarely mentions, largely out of a lack of visibility, but to come out as a transgirl—even one who, as a male in her former life, was known for her work with the island’s yearly literary festival—would be to invite the same fate as those who are humiliated on our broken sidewalks, beaten, or sent with a passport to the silent undiscovered country.
So I tried to keep a lid on things. I wrote. I reread Murakami’s novel. Some months later in the fall, I tried to simply teach as the cis-male I had taught as semesters before, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the mind-body problem, applying it abstractly to identity. And now that I was teaching a course on global literature—on what it means for a writer and reader to write about individual nations, as well as the vast nation of the world, that is, the nation of the self—I found it increasingly difficult to keep it all in. To write is to recover, not to cover—and I had been seeking cover in falsity, seeking a life in a Town that superficially seemed perfect and would never change, for too long. To write is to encounter, as well as to counter.
I had to write about it, or the girl in me—and, ergo, me—would vanish, and a hollow man, a hollow shell, would be all that remained. I couldn’t have that.
Goethe, who coined the term “world literature” in 1827, five years before his death, believed we were, even then, approaching the age of a far-ranging global, rather than a provincial national, literature, and that we should rush to embrace this inevitability. “[W]e Germans are very likely to fall too easily into this pedantic conceit,” he warned his convivial secretary Johann Peter Eckermann over dinner on the 31st of January, while sledges with bells passed by their windows. “National literature is now rather an unmeaning term; the epoch of World-literature is at hand.” And he was right, of course. The 21st century, in all likelihood, will be the century of world literature as no century before it has been, with clusters of canons and constellations of writers by groups, rather than a simple structured history of literature; I like structures, but literary history, like the ever-expanding definition of what humanity might encompass, is necessarily messy.
As I researched in the library of my island’s former colonizers and taught in the United States—arguably, the country that has largely taken the place Britain once held in the imagination of many a former British colony—I wondered, too, if this new age of world literature, which we seem to be approaching, would be not simply a literature of many points on our planet’s map but a literature of the many possible points on the map of what it means to be human, of what it means to have an identity, a map where there are still many points, depending who you ask, where there be dragons, and large spaces where some of us walk that others call terra infirma, terra incognita. A world literature worth the name, I thought, should be one that does something for the mind-body problem, if we rephrase that problem. A world literature would be one that is messy, with all genders and agendas and lacks of gender—a dearth of any agenda being far more unusual than being a gender—and viewpoints, a literature that might lead at best, like page-strewn steps, to a view—if quick—through the telescope of the Aleph, where, as Borges put it in his short story of the same name, one might see everything all at once.
Easier said than done, especially when one is coming to terms with what one is, and when writing about what one is in the world—like this essay—is something that has inspired night after night of panicked insomnia, and the terror of being otherwise than normal, of being the Other, has risen up again and again like old ghosts, and the end of the world suddenly seems nigh, if one speaks too directly about aspects of oneself. When mind and body cannot align, the world nears its end.
The mind-body problem—which refers to the question of whether or not the mind is separate from the rest of the body and the material world, whether or not the mind is made of a different sort of “stuff” from the body, like a theologian might speak of a soul—has a long and cantankerous history. It can be rephrased, quite broadly, as a long battle between Dualism—the idea that the mind and thoughts are separate from everything else—and what might be called materialist Monism, which is the view that there is one thing, matter, that makes everything up, and our minds or thoughts are not made up of any special or different “substance.” Are there two classes of things that exist, physical properties and mental properties, or is everything just physical, or are there other “classes” of things out there beyond those? Is it possible that neutral monism is the answer, as Bertrand Russell, the most famous proponent of the idea, suggested with differing emphases over the course of his career—that is, that things are not simply “mental” or “physical” but are rather “neutral,” not necessarily one or the other but rather something in-between the two, and that we, ergo, cannot truly distinguish between them when trying to describe what the “stuff” of reality is made up of?
It can be hard to write about identity when identity begins to look like a reflection in a rippling starlit pool.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a perfect fit for examining these questions, since it involves a protagonist who has a separate “world,” called the Town or the “End of the World,” literally inside of his brain, and the material world outside of his mind—the world of a 1980s Tokyo—begins to more closely resemble the world inside his brain, as things from the Town filter into Tokyo and things from Tokyo filter into the Town. It soon becomes almost impossible, by the end of the novel, to tell which world—if either—is really “real”—and, therefore, whether or not there is really a separation between the mind and the body. As I had finally begun to accept my own gender identity, as I yearned to write about it more and more because I felt I could not not write about it, the novel spoke to me in a way it had not before.
As I lectured on Murakami’s novel, trying in silence while I spoke to teach myself to be silent about my own struggles with identity, I began to realize that the mind-body problem, if rephrased, was precisely my problem, the fear that mind and body might not match up, and that the end of the world—the end of my world—would come if I could not make that match-up occur. I wondered if the mind-body problem could be reshaped as a question about language, about who can see what lies behind the doors of another, and if my students could read the blue maelstroms in my heart and mind through the language of my body. I had always wanted to connect with my students on an intellectual level, so that I could understand where they were and how thus to approach explaining an idea, and they, too, could feel comfortable telling me when they needed more explanation, our intellectual closeness a defense against mind-closedness; now, I began to fear such mind-closeness, lest the subterranean inklings of my own struggles with gender and identity be let out prematurely.
To teach is often to perform, as is to do many other things in day-to-day life. To even be ourselves, in a sense, may be a kind of mental performance; the psychologist Bruce Hood tells us in The Self Illusion that the self, the impression we have that there is a distinct individual inside of us, may simply be an illusion of the mind, a kind of performance. It is possible to imagine we are many things, that we contain multitudes; it is possible to contain many selves, to have a male body and a girl sitting behind the gearwheels of the mind, to have a female body and a male strutting about the rooms of the mind, to have a version of ourselves from a trip to Brazil that is a different portrait in our hallway of the self from what we think our portrait looks like now, or more or more or more. And perhaps our sense of self may well be an illusion. Yet how we feel is not, if we cannot help how we feel. And the stability and fullness of our world—the non-ending of our world, the non-hollowness of it—depends on our ability to make our mind and body align. We are our own Earths, with fortresses on our surfaces and things deeper down that only a journey to the center can reveal; but too often we are afraid to look so far down, lest the top come crumbling with us into a hellish pit.
And things do crumble, and sometimes grow, as we expand our scope of the world. I had been conducting my research in the British Library for about a month; one morning, I found things I had never expected about padres in the West India Regiment in the First World War, and something in my novel clicked, as other things crumbled. I began to see my past and future differently; here was a vibrant piece of history in the Great War too little talked of, individuals lost but for crumbling texts in the Asian and African Studies reading room of the British Library and a rare citation in a few newer, less crumbly, critical works. Minds almost lost, along with bodies.
I also began to wonder again, as I put things together, if I could really ever know anyone beyond myself. It is an old question in philosophy, but it’s also a central, if sometimes unspoken, question for writers of fiction in particular. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, claims that one reason the eighteenth-century novel was so revolutionary in the history of the form was because we are able to believe in the reality and particular individuality of the characters on the page (though, curiously, he leaves out an earlier century’s novel Borges described in a review doing something similar, Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Tale of Genji from the eleventh century); Forster lectures in Aspects of the Novel that characters in a good novel are near fully or fully revealed to us as readers because, unlike in our real-life interactions with other human beings, we get to see inside a character’s mind. The mind-body problem, then, has a unique resolution in the novel, or, at least, in fiction, with believable characters: we get to inhabit mind and body, such that mind and body become one for reader and character. A tad simple, perhaps, but there’s something there, like the lighthouse beam that intermittently reveals a phantasmal ocean liner in Garcia Marquez’s “The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.” Perhaps I cannot fully read my students, or they me, or me anyone else; and it is fiction alone that fully, or as fully as might be plausible, lets us see into dark and candlelit hallways of another mind—another world.
Push further, I told myself as I prepped for teaching, push towards mind and body uniting. Talk of and teach things you were too nervous to teach before; so I decided to talk about the plight of transgirls in Jamaica’s gullies, what it means to be gay in Jamaica through Kei Miller’s “This Dance,” the many sexualities on display in a text like Keri Hulme’s the bone people. Indeed, I saw, Hulme’s novel was almost perfect for the mind-body problem, if that problem could be rephrased once more. The protagonist, Kerewin Holmes, much like Hulme herself—the echo of the names is not a coincidence, just as Kerewin Holmes shares many attributes with the detective of the same name—is only one-eighth Maori, with the rest of her background being English, yet she explicitly identifies in the novel “fully” as Maori. This raises the question of mind and body disjunctions: is it possible to simply feel like something and therefore be it, even if one does not look like the normative appearance of said thing? What does it mean to look like the norm for a group, and is the body, the appearance, really what matters if one has grown up and known what one is all one’s life? Can a pakeha—a phenotypically white New Zealander, a descendant of white British colonization—with only partial Maori background be fully Maori? The question is complicated. It is easy to simply assert obviously yes or obviously not, yet quick reactions are not useful here; what we need is sustained critique.
In the midst of all this, I blink, uncertain suddenly where I am, and I am confronted with the mind-body problem again, when I see that a student does not seem to like discussing these subjects.
The mind-body problem reassembles itself into mind-body language: in a nightmare I have, as I talk about LGBT issues in a text, the body language of a certain student, translated out of the corner of my eye, worries me, for I fear I can read the mind of this pupil through the language of those pupils. When a student gets up to leave, with no explanation, in the middle of a lecture that began at the end of the previous class with transgender identity and is now on the Parker-Hulme “lesbian panic” case in 1950s New Zealand in the broader context of the effects of British colonial laws on the world of a text like the bone people—when the student gets up, bag in hand, I feel incensed, then alarmed, then disappointed in the student, then disappointed in myself, for the language of mind and body have united in this student, come to agreement like the two arguing halves of heads fused together in a proposition in the Academy from Gulliver’s Travels, and the body has said all the mind did many minutes earlier: I thought, therefore I am leaving.
The dream shifts into a real memory. I am again in the British Library. I had been coming into the library presenting as cismale, the way most of the world has known me for most of my life, but on my final day I decided to go there presenting more in a way aligned to my sense of my own transgender identity. On that last day, I made my way to the help desk in the reading room. A man who sounded Nigerian and who worked behind the desk took one look at me and, instead of helping when I asked, quietly, about a book I had ordered that had not arrived, glared, threw up his hands, and walked away from me, in front other clerks and patrons of the library, and went to another customer, to whom he spoke politely. This same man had helped me with a smile and the utmost courtesy only two days before, when I had come in presenting as cismale; now, with only a few subtle differences in how I looked, he treated me like something that had left a sour taste in his mouth. Thankfully, another woman behind the desk, who had been following the man’s behavior with widening eyes, apologised and stepped into his place to help me find the text on a Bahamian chaplain in the First World War I had requested. Yet I felt displaced, suddenly. I was the same person, was I not, even if my eyelids that afternoon were a shade of blue they had not been the day before, the same person who had been researching diligently in this room for so many days, the same girl-in-boy I had always been—yet clearly I was not, if I brought an inkling of that inner girl to the surface through something as superficial as a touch of makeup and an androgynous cardigan. I was no longer that person of earlier days, it seemed to the man behind the desk refusing to look at me, because I had gained a new shadow, on the eyes.
I hated myself in that moment. Soon after, I felt afraid, again, looking at each person I passed in the library and on the way home. I was shaking by the time I reached the Tube. I was scared that something much worse might occur if someone else decided I did not look the way they thought I should, the way people back home can be beat up or killed if the wrong person gets the idea that they might be gay, and what an easy target an unconfident little transgirl would make. I made it back to the London flat I was living in, but the fear followed like the deepening shadows of the evening.
Later, new fears would materialize and haunt me night after day after night: that I would lose my family, lose my friends, have my writing tarnished or even banned in the island of my home for the abomination identity of who wrote it, lose the chance of love, and I cried and wrote and cried. For the first time, I saw writing in a way that corresponded with a play about hell by Jean-Paul Sartre: literature, I thought in my blue-blackest moments, was no exit. To write is to make real, to unite mind and body—and then to try to keep mind and body from falling apart.
I fear those who do not accept that identity can be messy and fluid, I realize, those who do not accept that identity is as strange, vast-and-empty-and-filled as a pinwheeling galaxy. My student, like the librarian, turned his back and left. A specter of that which was too exotic or disgusting or imperfect had haunted his mind too long, and he departed the cave of this classroom, too ideologically claustrophobic when untoward ideas were brought up at all. After all, literature, like humanity, is pure encounter, Eleanor Catton tells us in an essay from 2013 on elitism, and we turn our backs when we fail—or choose not—to have any kind of encounter at all with a novel, story, or fellow person.
The mind-body problem, revised, becomes the problem of speaking to hearts and minds; the mind is in all likelihood no more than a material manifestation, an illusion, produced by our physical brain, an illusion like true free will, and to speak meaningfully is to speak not simply ideas but to push deeper into the material, deeper towards the center of an individual’s Earth. I get worried, I see, because when a student seems to reject a discussion about transgender identity, the issue closest to my heart, I read this at first blush as a rejection of me and my identity, and I am reminded of the vast fortresses that indoctrination of various kinds has erected on the surfaces of so many people’s minds, people who I might teach or work for or more.
The End of the World, then, in Murakami’s novel is perfect; it is a static repeating image of a town whose inhabitants do not think and whose realities remain largely the same from winter to winter, a world in which difficult thoughts and ideas need not intrude. It is a corruption of Plato’s idea of a perfect world of Ideal forms; it is an image of the reality too many of us want, where the messiness of life—the very fabric of life, messiness—should stay back.
How hollow we will be, hollow men, hollow women, hollow transmen and transwomen, hollow individuals who are both men and women or sometimes one or the other or neither, how hollow we will be when we try to remove the messiness from the world we live in, for that messiness is what and why we teach and learn, and as Mina Loy wrote that Gertrude Stein could crush the tonnage of consciousness to extract a radium of the word, meaning that the poet takes all of reality to extract a shining powerful beautiful-dangerous thing—from all that mess of the cosmos in and around us, it is still possible to find our own gems and lighthouse beams that will glow.
I will be who I am. I will one day live in exile if I must for having an identity that may not be accepted where I grew up. But I will be me, mind and body better understanding each other.
That is my and our passport to being a citizen of a world that will not soon end.
Gabrielle Bellot, who also writes under J. Bellot, holds an MFA from Florida State University, where she is currently pursuing her PhD in Fiction. Her work has appeared in The New Humanism, Small Axe, Transnational Literature, BIM: Arts for the 21st Century, Belletrist Coterie, and in other journals. She is an assistant editor for Transnational Literature. She was born in 1987 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived since the age of nine in the Commonwealth of Dominica, where she is a member of a committee for the Nature Island Literary Festival. She is working on her first novel.
“Do you listen to Serial?” is a question I’ve been posing to people almost daily for the last two weeks. I was late to the party—I often am—but now I’m fully caught up and all aboard on this new podcast, a spinoff from This American Life. If you’re unfamiliar, Serial is a new weekly podcast about an old Baltimore murder case. In 1999, a teenage girl, Hae Min Lee was murdered, strangled to death, and her body dumped in Leakin Park. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of her murder, primarily on the testimony of his friend Jay. The podcast is reported by Sarah Koenig, who takes the listeners, week by week, through the investigation of the crime, the main characters, the evidence, and her own doubts about her work in an attempt to answer this question: was Adnan Syed really the person who murdered Hae Min Lee?
The show is captivating, and online, it’s been discussed the way shows like the Walking Dead or Mad Men are: broken down each week, dissected, questioned, and theories abound regarding what happened and what angle each character is playing. Sometimes, it seems like people forget this is real, rather than a fictive world.
In the 21st century, we don’t just sit back and enjoy: we engage. Sports fans seems as interested in how a team is built (trades, drafts, free agency, etc.) as they are interested in whether or not the team wins. Same is true of our narrative art. Fan fiction, spinoffs, and endless “think pieces” galore. A super fast zip through the we has all sorts of questions about Sarah Koenig, the two biggest wondering if she believes Syed is actually innocent and, either way, what exactly is her relationship with him. The second of this questions is addressed by Lincoln Michel by reminding us that the ethics of journalism into murder cases has been written about, wonderfully, years ago. Given that these are real events, should you be enjoying this podcast as much as you are? Or, have you thought about what it means when “a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities?”
These are just a few of the many pieces about Serial; there are others, perhaps better ones, but hey, how many links can I throw up here in just one paragraph? I have my own to write!
Whatever concerns or worries one has with Serial, it has been a tremendously successful and captivating podcast. A captivating narrative. It hooks you in, gets you eager to listen to the next episode, and keeps you thinking about what you’ve just heard long after the episode is over. Isn’t this exactly what we try to do with novels?
Since my novel (attempt number four!) is working its way through agents’ Inboxes as I write this, the question of what makes a narrative effective is on my mind. And, since my novel is in first person and involves a murder, Serial has naturally got me thinking about how it compares to novels. Perhaps incomplete, but here are a few Serial-novel comparisons that I’ve been thinking about.
Who is the narrator? The answer in Serial is pretty clear: Sarah Koenig. What is less clear is what she is about, what she is interested in, her thoughts on guilty or innocence that sometimes spring to the surface. She’s familiar to any listener of This American Life, and has the educated, pleasantly skeptical, warm personae of public radio.
Novels do the same thing: a voice pulls you in, whether it is in first person or third person. Trust is established. But it can also be undermined. Any writer will tell you that every first person narrator is unreliable, by definition. You can’t always trust third person, can you, Atonement?
Novels have two storylines. Serial has two clear ones: who is the narrator, and did Adnan kill Hay? These are the two most obvious ones, but there are others that would certainly enter your mind as a Serial listener: why would Jay lie, what did the police screw up (if they did), how did the jury convict so fast (two hours), and numerous others … all of which get back to those first two storylines.
In novels, it might not be nearly as neat. But there always seems to be two storylines at work in great novels. In first person, who is the narrator? will always be one (me thinkth), but a great novel might also just run with two narratives on the page, the action, the plot, that keeps the reader going. One should be enough, you might think … but it really isn’t. Any good novel has two strong threads – at a minimum – running through it.
Be a pageturner. The structure of Serial is genius: thirteen podcasts, the first one an hour, the rest a little over thirty minutes. Even if the show doesn’t hang on a complete cliffhanger, there is always a tease to what is coming next, or might be coming next, in just seven days.
Even though your brain loves chapters, it isn’t enough to just slap a new chapter into a novel. There is a logic and reason to it. Serial has structural and temporal constraints, but it’s still excellent at 1. Wrapping up what it said this week’s episode is about and 2. Emotionally leading you into the next episode.
It’s out of your hands. What’s the difference between Hunger Games and all the other YA novels? What’s the difference between Jodi Picoult and other books in the very broad category of “chick lit”? Why was Emma Donoghue’s big hit her seventh book?
I’m sure you could come up with a few reasons, and I’d like nod along and think “Sure, yeah, that might explain it.” But for the most part, there is a shrug and palms turned upwards. Who knows? William Goldman once said “No one knows anything” and he knows quite a bit about writing. Good work flops, bad work hits. Why? Dunno.
There is plenty of criticism of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” which was very popular around this office, for a wide-range of flaws: tortured metaphors, endlessly long, a pedantic ending, and so forth. All of which I thought, yes, that’s true. But I still loved the book. If art was a series of easy formulas and algorithms, anyone can do it. Sometimes the mess is what makes it great.
There Will Be Criticism. A bit of a compendium to the above, but no book or podcast or whatnot is going to be above criticism. Someone will hate it. Someone hates To Kill a Mockingbird. Someone hates Zadie Smith. Someone hates Jimmy Stewart, Kermit the Frog, ice cream, and sunsets (hopefully not the same person: that would be one miserable dude to be around). Nothing is perfect.
There is always valid criticism that might bring a writer back to square one (or, I dunno, draft four). Understanding the difference between genuine, useful responses and vitriol develops over time. We all learn to say “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that” or “That’s just, like, your opinion, man …” when it comes to our writing.
All good artists love other art. At a simple writing level, good novelists read poetry, and vice versa. But writers also love film, music, sculpture, all forms of creativity and thought and questioning. And as a writer, I gravitate toward the journalism and storytelling that gets wrapped together in radio and podcasts. Whatever flaws there might be in the form, I’ll keep listening, and keep borrowing what I learn into my writing. That’s just what we do.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
By Cole Kennedy
Just about everyone in the literary community has joined in the conversation about how technology is changing literature. From the effect of reading on screens, to dwindling revenue for publishers as Amazon takes a bigger and bigger share of the pie, technology is shaking up the entire industry, top to bottom. A lot of the discussion has been full of doomsday predictions, concerns about the death of high lit, and authors pandering for mass appeal with skin-deep e-books that’ll help pay the bills, even if they don’t particularly satisfy the highest aspirations of prose. But there are also ways that technology is changing the writer’s world for the better, with better tools to services that expand their audience.
Longform journalism and creative nonfiction are nothing new to the literary scene, but they’re gaining traction with the public at large, and that’s due in part to some new services that promote the style. Longreads began as a a hashtag to help track quality stories with a 1,500 word count minimum. Now, the small group of people behind it have built a platform for promoting these longform pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, from many different sources. They’ve built an app, and their Twitter account has close to 150,000 followers – all subscribing to a feed full of links to the best pieces of writing the internet has to offer. With the help of WordPress, the small company has launched an app to further promote their content, and are expanding their budget to finance their own original work. Of course, this writing already existed. Magazines have been doing “longform journalism” since their inception. But by wrapping it all up under a neat hashtag, and building an enthusiastic community around these pieces, Longreads has both capitalized on a market and helped change the landscape to open opportunities for longer, deeper pieces of prose. Even websites like BuzzFeed, known for listicles and cat .gifs, have dedicated longform sections to satisfy the demand and promote the form.
Mark Armstrong, who began the Longreads hashtag, intended it to organize the never-ending stream of content for users of Instapaper, a well-regarded read-it-later app. These services popped up around Twitter, when developers realized it was hard to interrupt the constant stream of Tweets to read articles that were being shared. Now, there are multiple options: Instapaper is seen as the premium choice, while Pocket is popular because of it’s platform agnosticism, and even Apple has built their Reading List feature into their Safari browser on both mobile and desktop. Readers formerly inundated by the barrage of information on the internet finally have a method to cull the field and read the stories they want, when they want. That’s a boon for the readers, of course, but also the writers whose work might have been cast aside if the audience didn’t have time.
The writers also have access to new tools. Writing has sustained all sorts of disruptions throughout history. Most recently, the word processor changed the workflow of writers everywhere. Sure, a pen and a notebook is great, but the final manuscript is always going to need to be typed and digitized (how else will it get to the Kindle Store?). But as Microsoft Word starts to show its age, there are new options, ones that aren’t strictly about typing and editing. My favorite new writing and reading venue is Medium, the sort of undefined blog-platform-thing developed by Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams. Medium has two sides: the reading front-end, and the writing back-end, and they’re very similar. The service uses a WYSIWYG editor, or: what you see is what you get. There’s no gap between the writing and editing, and the page design. It’s a more intuitive way to write than putting together a text document and then uploading it to a blog. The other element of Medium is the reading presence. I’m inclined to liken it to a social network for writers. There’s paid content on there, and professional writers, but the bulk of the stories are done by amateurs with something to say. Medium does an excellent job of connecting writers to readers and vice-versa, and instead of having to rely on literary journals to publish their work, writers have a reputable, free service where they can self-publish, and promote their work themselves. By building a community of writers and readers, and a platform to host a wide variety of prose, Medium is drawing attention to writing in a novel way, and that’s a very good thing for people who care about the written word.
So, technology changes everything. Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, and in a lot of cases, the consequences are uncertain. Kindle and iBooks (and nascent companies like Oyster) have the potential to pump up the volume of readers, but maybe the slashed prices will cause writers to seek alternative careers. That wouldn’t be good. But there’s also benevolent services like Longreads, Pocket, and Medium, that are actively promoting good writing and doing everything in their power to connect readers to good work. The future shows promise, and I’m able to stave off some cynicism with hope that these tools and services will propel writers into a new golden age of prose.