Reader’s Corner: National Book Critics Circle Awards

The fine group of folks known as the National Book Critics Circle—who graciously suffer my inclusion among their ranks—have just announced their 2017 winners. Minnesota press Graywolf snagged awards in two categories, an impressive feat. See here:

Poetry — Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf)

Criticism — Carina Chocano, You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Trainwrecks, & Other Mixed Messages (HMH/Mariner)

Autobiography — Xiaolu Guo, Nine Continents: A Memoir In and Out of China (Grove)

Biography — Caroline Fraser, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Metropolitan Books)

Nonfiction — Frances FitzGerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America (Simon & Schuster)

Fiction — Joan Silber, Improvement (Counterpoint)

The John Leonard Prize — Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (Graywolf)

The Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing — Charles Finch

The Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award — John McPhee

Note Bene: An ‘Imposter’ in Academia

In Aeon, professor philosophy Amy Olberding writes about being an academic from a working-class rural background:

 I was once congratulated on my ‘bravery’ for not training out my ‘rustic accent’ – never mind that I didn’t know, until then, that I had one. More recently, I was asked to develop a seminar on class bias. I am a philosopher, and since I do not study class bias, the request surprised me. I later discovered that I was chosen for my ‘unique’ life experience, my perceived lower-class origins. Even now, people casually ask me at conferences where I am from, in a way that suggests they are struggling to place the unusual. A student once marvelled that I ‘talk like Faulkner’. Another, prompted by a course evaluation to ‘describe this instructor in one word’, recorded: ‘y’all’.

The polite snobbery of academia, far removed from the stuff of life, rears its head in more comical ways:

When other philosophers learn that I have a farm, they often invoke Henry Thoreau’s Walden (1854). This text seems to be the philosopher’s Rosetta Stone for country life. I am in great sympathy with cultured sorts who long for the agrarian – indeed, in many respects, I am one now. Yet I can tolerate Walden only if I read it fancifully and counterfactually, as deliberate self-satire. Or if I construct a running sub-commentary of what Thoreau’s truly country neighbours must have thought. There might be some who farm who enjoy Thoreau, but I am not one…

Writer’s Desk: Read in Cafes

You would think that the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born March 6, 1927) was one of those people fated to be a writer. How else to explain his golden pen? But no, as a young man in the 1940s, he was just another Columbian law student. Fortunately for the rest of us, though, he decided to waste his free time on a different pursuit: reading.

From “How I Became a Writer“:

On free afternoons, instead of working to support myself, I read either in my room or in the cafés that permitted it. The books I read I obtained by chance and luck, and they depended more on chance than on any luck of mine, because the friends who could afford to buy them lent them to me for such limited periods that I stayed awake for nights on end in order to return them on time…

He discovered Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, and many other greats. Then came Kafka. And a challenge:

When I finished reading “The Metamorphosis,” I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise. The new day found me at the portable typewriter that Domingo Manuel Vega had lent me, trying to write something that would resemble Kafka’s tale of a poor bureaucrat turned into an enormous cockroach. In the days that followed I did not go to the university for fear the spell would be broken, and I continued, sweating drops of envy, until Eduardo Zalamea Borda published in his pages a disconsolate article lamenting the lack of memorable names among the new generation of Colombian writers, and the fact that he could detect nothing in the future that might remedy the situation. I do not know with what right I felt challenged, in the name of my generation, by the provocation in that piece, but I took up the story again in an attempt to prove him wrong…

Screening Room: Submission

An adaptation of Francise Prose’s great 2000 novel Blue AngelSubmission is a satirical comedy about a writing professor (Stanley Tucci) who becomes more enamored than he should with the writing of one of his students (Addison Timlin).

Submission is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

The scenery that greets viewers at the start of Richard Levine’s Submission is that of pretty much every movie ever set on a college campus: fall colors, sun-dappled quad, stately brick buildings and all the bourgeois trappings of cosseted small-town intelligentsia. The narration running over the montage has more vinegar to it, as Professor Ted Swenson (Stanley Tucci) grumbles about being trapped in this “isolated and inbred” sanctuary of intellectual mediocrity. What follows is unfortunately more in keeping with the visuals then the dialogue…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Solitary but Productive

Philip Roth spent about a half of a century writing. In the process, he produced one of the greatest and weirdest bodies of work in American letters. How did he do it? Sitting down and plugging away, for one:

The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose…

Set yourself a goal and get to it. Every great book starts with the first word, it’s true. But there’s a lot of words that have to follow. A daily allowance of usable prose is a good place to start.

Writer’s Desk: First, Make Yourself Happy

Let’s face it: Sitting at a desk and putting words on paper or a screen and then (hopefully) printing them out in a big block of pages that will (again, hopefully) not immediately end up in the remainder stacks, can be drudgery. So find some joy in it.

Per Michael Holroyd:

The only happiness one gets from writing is doing a good day’s work, of suddenly discovering something on the page which works. You pick up the page, you shake it, it’s there, it doesn’t come to bits, and you didn’t know it at the beginning of the day and now you know it. Now that’s a real happiness, and unless there is some element of that, well why on earth is one writing? Because otherwise moving a pen across the page is not all that enjoyable…

Reader’s Corner: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power’

When Ta-Nehisi Coates published his third book, We Were Eight Years in Power, a collection of essays on black American history and current affairs late last year, the country was still just getting used to its new presidential reality. Or not.

My review is at RainTaxi Review of Books:

Until recently, when the true desolation of the early Trump era has started metastasizing in even the most ardent optimist’s heart, America had a script to use after a catastrophe. Whether a mass shooting, natural disaster, or police atrocity, each event was termed an opportunity for a “national dialogue” on guns, race, class, climate change, or what have you. Those conversations never happened because there was always another catastrophe, and in any case, the culture had mostly lost interest in the public intellectuals needed to push forward such a conversation. That changed, however, in 2014, when The Atlantic published one of the most talked-about pieces of writing in recent memory, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations.” Suddenly, the country was having a conversation. And it wasn’t an easy one…