March 25, 2014Image: Josephine Baker
Jenny McPhee’s Bombshell column this month focuses on literature about young American women in search of an education -- whether in academia, love, or life -- in Paris. The aspects of Paris that appealed to young Americans -- its history as a destination for artists and intellectuals, its promises of adventure and sexual liberation -- similarly attracted young Black Americans, who also saw living in Paris as an opportunity escape the racism of their home country. Paris has been home to an African American expatriate community since WWI, when Black soldiers brought overseas decided to stay in France after the war rather than return home. Notable Black Americans who lived in Paris include Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Nina Simone. Although much has changed since then, Paris continues to attract Black Americans in search of a more liberal, cosmopolitan society.
For more on this particular subgenre of the experiences of Americans in Paris, here are some recommended resources:
“Before I left home I cut my hair close to my scalp so I could be a free woman with free thoughts, open to all possibilities. I was making a map of the world.”
-- Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood, excerpted in The New York Times
Shay Youngblood’s novel tells the story of Eden Daniel, a young Black American and aspiring writer who moves to Paris to follow in the footsteps of her literary idols. As Eden adapts to her new life and tries on different personas, she develops a more nuanced perspective on the city and on living as a writer.
“It’s not just that we feel free of the burden of race, because we’re still black. I still experience myself as black. It’s just that it’s not the center of my identity, it’s not the first thing people relate to when I meet them here.”
-- Janet McDonald on This American Life | This American Life Episode 165: Americans in Paris
On an episode of This American Life titled “Americans in Paris,” Janet McDonald, author of Project Girl, examines how living in Paris changed how she experienced her identity as a Black American woman. While certain aspects of her identity, such as her race, seemed less prominent, others -- namely, her nationality -- were thrown into sharp relief.
“Recounting the historical police victimization of other African Americans to my French wife, her horror served as a reminder that this type of thing went largely unheard of in her country. We are both appalled by Sarkozy's Muslim scapegoating, but thankful that police killings of blacks in cold blood on a semi-regular basis isn't part of the French social fabric.”
-- “A Letter from an Expat in Paris” by Miles Marshall Lewis | The Root
Pop culture critic Miles Marshall Lewis lived in Paris from 2004 to 2011, where he recounted his experiences on his blog, Furthermucker, and wrote a column called “Paris Noir" (also the title of Tyler Stovall’s book about the history of African-Americans in Paris) which focused on the world of French hiphop.
March 24, 2014
Image: Clio, Muse of History, as depicted by Vermeer
The nonfiction category for the Daphne Awards is quite the line-up. The year under consideration, 1963, is less than 20 years after the resolution of World War II, American culture is quickly shifting and the murmurs of dissatisfaction are building to the worldwide revolution to come. It's this strange moment of catching ones breath before another deep submerging, and I definitely wanted to chair the nonfiction category myself. I mean, look at these books:
Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Destruction of Dresden by David Irving
Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson
I asked Austin Grossman, our fiction chair, to interrogate me the way I've been interrogating our other category chairs these past few weeks. (Read Nicholas Vajifdar's introduction of the poetry shortlist, and Austin Grossman's introduction of the fiction shortlist.) He sent along some questions, and here are my answers.
The longlist includes memoir, history, journalism, science, philosophy, history...how do you make meaningful comparisons between works written in different genres?
To me, fiction seems much more difficult to judge, because it's all just telling a story, yes? And so at some point, what is going to make the decision is on some basic level is taste. And taste is so subjective, and built out of all of these different experiences you've had but not this other person who is judging alongside you, that to me seems much harder.
With nonfiction, I feel like it's much more of an argument. There is some battling it out involved in each of these books, and that to me is fun. It's a different way of incorporating a book into your life than how it works with fiction. Fiction is a world you step into. And then you have to see how the world holds together, and what you think of that world. Nonfiction is much more of a puzzle that fits into your brain. And so even though they take all of these different forms, the questions are the same: is there something essential here, something that they are bringing to our attention? are these arguments still worth having? Is there insight there, or are they taking easy shots?
More than any other category, books in the nonfiction list have moral claims - to be truthful, to bring real events and real people's claims for justice to our attention. Isn't this the most intimidating category to judge - evaluating the claims of, say, Eichmann in Jerusalem against The Fire Next Time? Does that matter more than good writing?
Right, I think that's another difference between fiction and nonfiction, because, at least personally, in nonfiction how good the writing is is less important than the structure, the thinking, the mind of the person holding forth. That's not always going to be the case, of course. But I think about Primo Levi's quietly powerful memoir, The Reawakening, about his long trip back to Italy after the liberation of Auschwitz. If he had written it with a kind of florid prose, poetic and philosophical, it wouldn't have been quite so affecting. It's the plainness of it, the simple act of witnessing that he does that makes the book. He took this very simple approach of, this is the world we live in. And by the time you get to the end, you understand how devastating that is. But against that, think of how many incredibly important nonfiction books, from academic works to philosophy to works of history, are just terribly written. Surely Heidegger holds an importance in the 20th century that has absolutely nothing to do with his dreadful prose. That just means that our definition of importance or greatness has to change for the nonfiction category.
At some point, one has to distance oneself enough to say, okay, so these shortlisted books are all excellent, and they have to be judged for the books that they are, not the cause they represent. We can't say, well, civil rights is more important/less important than the Nazi war crimes. It's just a different metric, I think.
The 1964 National Book Awards went to Aileen Ward's John Keats: The Making of a Poet. William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community and Christopher Tunnard & Boris Pushkarev, Man-made America. None of which show up on the longlist. How did they get it so wrong? Or to put it another way, who do you think you are?
I ask myself that all of the time.
But I think what's going to be important for the year of release in nonfiction is going to be different from what lasts. Nonfiction, at least a lot of it, builds more on what came before it. A lot of it is about the advancement of knowledge or the advancement of a thought. And so those books, which advance a thought, will be thought to be more important around the time they come out, but then they become outdated when someone pushes it a little further. And I think with The Rise of the West and Man-Made America, that's certainly the case.
Then there are the books in nonfiction that are singularities, that constellate something all by themselves. Certainly Eichmann in Jerusalem does that. One cannot "advance" Eichmann in Jerusalem. Then there are books like Destruction in Dresden, which holds up for a different reason, and hopefully at some point it will become irrelevant. And the reason why I maybe attached myself to it was because its major thought is, how do we allow for violent retaliation? Why don't we seem to care that we killed just so many civilians in World War II? And just a while back, we were killing a ridiculous number of civilians in Iraq, and we didn't care. We kill a lot of civilians in our drone campaigns, we don't care. So, why not? Irving does something interesting, in dispassionately trying to figure out how that happens, and it's relevant still because we still do what we did back then, and we've never really come to terms with the destruction we wage, because we feel that the bloodshed is completely justified. Because they struck first, so it doesn't matter if we kill them in numbers 10, 100 times greater than our own casualties. What is that psychological impulse that allows for that? It's interesting.
I'm looking at the 2013 National Book Award and their nonfiction longlist. Race in America... American intellectual life...Nazis...what does it mean that fifty years later we're still give awards to writing about the same topics?
I was talking to Sarah Schulman, who wrote an amazing book called Gentrification of the Mind. It was not nominated for anything. And she mentioned how the major publishers don't publish as much serious nonfiction as they used to, now it's all memoirs and biographies and, yes, books about Nazis, because their primary focus is on profit. And Nazis at least sell books. Nazis sell books, movie tickets, french fries, I don't know, they sell a lot.
The slack has been picked up by the university presses, but, for whatever reason, prizes still go to books that are published by major publishers. So do the reviews. University presses still give off that stink of, this is important but you will not enjoy reading it. (Hi there, University of Chicago press, the future publisher of my book! Kisses!) I mean, has there been any important book about the Nazis in the last thirty years? No. Probably not since Eichmann. But books about Nazis just by virtue of being about Nazis, carry around this borrowed gravitas. Because it was an important historical happening. And you don't even have to understand it to write about it, because your audience is already going to be interested, informed, and have their mind made up about what really happened.
I mean, now I'm just ranting, but last year's nonfiction nominees were a little lame. Almost all of those books were retreads of more important books that were published a long time ago, but they're comforting and not challenging, and feel important without actually being important. Slavery, World War II, religious cults... kind of nothing new here. You have to think, we're a nation in crisis in our health care, education system, economy, justice system, foreign affairs, etc etc, and so yes, let's totally talk about the Nazis, or even slavery, because at least surely we're not in as bad of shape as we were in the Civil War. The winner, the George Packer, is fine, but mostly just unsure of itself or what its point is. People are adrift and lost, but it never really tackles the real root causes of it, or even really appears to think about them.
But the whole point of this Daphne Award nonsense is to uncover what is obscured and to honor it. And to read it! I feel like most of the world feels like they know what is in, say, the James Baldwin and the Hannah Arendt without having to read them. It's like The Great Gatsby. We get it, because it's so in our culture, no need to actually pick it up and read it. And it's interesting to take a book out of one context and place it into another. See how our time responds, and see how our time still needs these books. I think it's pretty exciting.
March 14, 2014
I wrote a book. I sent it to my publisher. I ate some nachos. I fell asleep in my clothes.
But thank you for your patience while I finished that thing up and it ate my brain. I've had to sit in the same city for five whole months in a row and focus in on writing one thing, and let's just say that at the best of times I am pretty restless. Mostly what I'm excited about is having time again to think about other things.
So now we can get back to work! Focus on Bookslut, on other people's books, on the much delayed new issue of Spolia, the Daphne Awards, and so on. Until the revisions come in, and until I start work on book #2 (the tarot book) in earnest. Christ, this never ends, does it?
March 7, 2014
In the thirteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II looked around him and saw a land of many tongues and many dialects. But which, if any, was the pure language of God? Perhaps it was something innate, lost in the course of growing up human. In order to discover the inborn language, he had a group of infants isolated from language at birth: The children's nurses were instructed to care for the infants but never to speak to them, so that when they began to speak their voices would be unsullied by human intervention, by any mundane dilution, and from their lips would spring the language with which we are naturally bestowed, the language of the heavens, be it Hebrew, Latin, or Arabic.
I was thinking of Frederick II when I was reading Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies, wondering if she was the result of a similar experiment. Perhaps a literary critic wanted to discover how a writer deprived of novels, storybooks, even good anecdotes would go about telling a story. Because Bowles does not break the rules of how to structure a novel; she writes as if she had no idea such rules ever existed.
Daphne Nominee Spotlight: The Making of the English Working Class by E.P. Thompson
Today’s Daphne Nominee Spotlight turns to E.P. Thompson’s iconic work of social history, The Making of the English Working Class. This British Marxist touchstone is especially known for its humanist treatment of the English working class; Thompson emphasizes the agency and developing class consciousness of the working class, rather than reducing them to an economic statistic or casting them as mere victims of industrialization. For more on the enduring legacy of The Making of the English Working Class, here are some links:
“He took what others had regarded as scraps from the archive and interrogated them for what they told us about the beliefs and aims of those who were not on the winning side. Here, then, was a book that rambled over aspects of human experience that had never before had their historian.”
-- “EP Thompson: the unconvenional historian” by Emma Griffin | The Guardian
Fifty years after the publication of The Making, this article by historian Emma Griffin in The Guardian provides a brief overview of pivotal work and its author.
“I read it at a time when people were beginning to react against Thompson and his legacy, but even so, the impact on reading it for the first time… is amazing, it’s epic, it’s argumentative, it’s colorful--he uses descriptions and finds context that no one else had really found before.”
-- Historian Miles Taylor on “Landmarks: The Making of the English Working Class” | BBC Radio’s Night Waves
The BBC radio show Night Waves has a thorough, informative yet engaging segment dedicated to The Making’s significant contribution to English history and culture. Host Philip Dodd sits down with Labour expert Maurice Glasman and historians Alison Light, Emma Griffin (author of the previous Guardian article), and Miles Taylor to discuss the book and shed light on its historical context.
“Edward’s own indignations of this period were literary carmagnoles, without personal animus. A few months after my counterattack on him, I ran into him into a pub off Tottenham Court Road. Edward, whom I hadn’t seen for three years, was good nature itself.”
-- “Diary” by Perry Anderson | London Review of Books
Perry Anderson, former editor of the New Left Review, in a 1993 essay (the full text of which is unfortunately only available to subscribers) in the London Review of Books, reflects on his relationship with E.P. Thompson as both his peer and intellectual opponent, a critic and an admirer.
You can find other information about the Daphne Award nominees on our Tumblr.
March 4, 2014Image: Woman and Centaur by Odilon Redon
Two hours before the Daphne Award shortlists were to be announced, and our fiction list was still not finished. Fiction chair Austin Grossman and I were squabbling over a few of the honorees, and we were trying to finalize the damn thing while I was making deviled eggs and he was on a plane. But finally, we got a shortlist we would not throttle each other over:
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
The Clown by Heinrich Böll
Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas
Dreambook for Our Time by Tadeusz Konwicki
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima
Austin Grossman is one of my favorite American novelists alive, his book Soon I Will Be Invincible is a gem, and we loved the heck out of You, and so he seemed like a natural choice to head up the fiction panel, being so good at fiction himself. I asked Grossman to answer a few questions about what got left out of the fiction category (like um all of the women but one, whoops), why the novel that actually won that year, John Updike's The Centaur, was not in contention, and how 1963 was for fiction.
The 1964 National Book Award winner was John Updike's The Centaur, and you read it in order to determine whether it should be considered for the Daphne fiction award. You ultimately chose not to include it. Why not? I mean, besides the fear that I would throw The Centaur at your head.
I read The Centaur because Updike has too much talent to ignore even in a lesser book. His palpable joy at playing with language, his eye for detail in the social world of his characters, these are things you find in everything he touches (except, mysteriously, in his execrable poetry).
The Centaur focuses on the lives of a high school science teacher and his teenage son in a rural town in Pennsylvania. At the same time, the teacher is the centaur Chiron, in fact all the characters are figures from Greek myth living on Olympus and the narration swaps back and forth between these realities with a playful energy that's one of the better things about the book.
The Centaur just didn't work as well for me as I wanted it to. It's Updike's third novel and comes after Rabbit, Run but somehow it lacked the bravado of that novel's sinful high-wire act. In comparison, The Centaur feels like an academic exercise, drawing little correspondences of traits and types between the townsfolk and the mythological material.
It all would have been so much more exciting if no one had written Ulysses, but they did, and they did it with a playful sloppiness and electric charge running between mythic and mundane that Updike didn't manage to tap into.
But it's okay, John. Keep writing! 1963 looks bleak but I can't help feeling you'll get there.
There is a lack of women writers on our fiction list, only Sylvia Plath made it to the final round although Muriel Spark lasted into the last discussion. Is it safe to say it was an off year for women? Especially since looking ahead to next year, Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector look like they are going to be the ones to beat...
I don't feel great about the numbers either -- it doesn't show the kind of corrective effect one would hope for out of an idea like the Daphnes -- returning to a period with the benefit of hindsight.
Maybe it's an off period for people publishing women in fiction, and especially in translation. However much we can do, we can't go back and find the novels that weren't publish and weren't written because people didn't have the chance or didn't think they could be heard.
When I go back through the longlist I come up with the same choices. Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means was elegaic and funny and dry, but there were times when it seemed lazy and slight. Book by book, I think our shortlist gets it right -- books whose individual voice and powerful impulses leave the lasting impression. It's the best we can do.
1963 was kind of a transition year for literature, you see the young work of writers who would come to dominate: Updike, Pynchon, Salinger. How did the year of literature in 1963 feel to you?
It feels like people still deciding what the postwar novel is going to be. Not Victorian, not high modernism, but certainly experimental. Something else.
On the one hand there's a cohort of writers in America that feels youthful, fresh, awkwardly confessional and angry. Plath, Updike, Pynchon, people breaking out and trying their talents to mixed results, but you feel there's something happening there, something's starting to flow, there are talents that are going to define the next twenty or thirty years.
And there's a slightly older group -- Vonnegut, Boll, Konwicki, Cortazar, Spark, McCarthy, Salinger -- who seem to know their mode of work more intimately and feel more comfortable with it.
I notice people writing with greater and lesser attention to the second world war and its aftermath. Some people who were right in it like Salinger, it only peeks in at the edges. Europeans and Mishima who are still very much living in the place where it happened, versus Americans who got to go home and write about what they felt like.
Hopscotch has become an early favorite. Is Hopscotch going to massacre the competition?
Hopscotch has shown up to a rather dour party with swagger and a winning smile, and that could count for a lot. But I'm not going to call this one early. The Daphnes fiction shortlist has a crazy amount of reach to it, and the judges have yet to take on the real dark horses here. We've got numinous ice caves, psychotic Japanese teenagers, cunning small-time crooks, and Sylvia Plath in the mix. This is not the event Hopscotch trained for.
March 3, 2014
It is March, and we have a new issue of Bookslut up. And down. And then up again. And then kind of up and then down and then up, and I am so scared that posting this will destroy the whole thing. Mercury isn't even still retrograde, what the fuck is going on.