Bob Dylan Won the Nobel Prize in Literature!

bob-dylan-wins-nobel-prize-in-literature_via-nobel_peoplewhowriteOur cultural definition of literature has officially been blown wide open with the Swedish Academy’s award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan. Past prizes have recognized essayists, playwrights, poets, novelists, and writers of various genres of non-fiction prose, but this is the first time the Nobel has been awarded to an artist primarily known for writing songs.

The Swedish Academy awards lifetime achievement in six categories–Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Medicine, Peace, and Economic Sciences–evidently using “Literature” as a catchall for all arts and letters genres, while approaching the sciences with a bit more nuance. This reading of Literature in the broadest sense has sparked confusion, derision, and appreciation at the inclusion of an artist most people have heard of.

@n_martinsson tweeted: “Probably the first time I have works of this years Nobel Prize winner in my Bookshelf.” @chrispbone added: “Bob Dylan, imma let you finish, but Geri Halliwell wrote some of the best songs of all time.” @sabrinajeria wrote: “Nothing against Dylan but it’s a shame so many incredibly deserving novelists were overlooked.” The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, and British Indian author Salman Rushdie had been among a shortlist of rumored frontrunners for the prize.

We’ll have to wait and see how the Academy’s honor of a non-traditional literary life will impact the tastes of acquiring editors at the publishing houses, but with venues for consuming literature changing by the minute–see Wally Lamb’s plans to release his upcoming sixth novel via an app, Beyonce’s collaboration with Warsan Shire on her album Lemonade which led to a sales spike and widespread recognition for the Somali poet, and Aziah King‘s viral twitter tale of a stripper’s wild weekend in Florida–our collective understanding of what literature is will continue to expand. Not to mention the fact that telecommunications companies are expressing interest in adding literature to the content they serve up to subscribers.

These developments open up the possibilities for how literature can be experienced and expand what readers will expect from their literary content. This expansion will eventually reflect in the work editors publish.

It’s already evident in the literary prize landscape. The Goldsmiths Prize was founded in 2013 specifically to “encourage more risk-taking among novelists, editors and agents alike,” with Goldsmiths creative writing professor Blake Morrison observing, “There’s an idea that innovative and genre-busting books are bound to be inaccessible. We don’t believe that’s the case.”

Writers like Eleanor CattonTeju Cole , and Zadie Smith have also been interrogating traditional forms and experimenting with new ways to tell compelling stories for some time now. Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries which was in excess of 800 pages and chronologically structured around zodiac signs. Likewise, Cole has been lauded for his literary use of Twitter (I love his seven short stories about drones), as well as the stream of consciousness style of his 2011 novel Open City.

The Guardian‘s review of Smith’s 2012 novel NW noted “The whole of the first section is defined by its resistance to genre…” The Washington Post review further explained:

Each of the four sections of “NW” demonstrates a different form. There’s no second-person narrator or anything as weird as a PowerPoint presentation, but the longest part of “NW” is divided into 185 short, numbered sections, ranging from straightforward narrative to menu items, quiz answers, IM chats and even stage directions. I sympathize if you have no patience for this sort of experimentation, which can seem so graspingly avant-garde, but Smith uses the swirl of these disparate elements to illustrate the complexity of modern life.

Additionally, though “alt lit” has been declared “dead,” the genre also signals a hunger among writers and readers for alternative narrative expressions.

As writers, whether we choose to be more experimental with our work or double down in our obeisance to more classically literary forms, the box-breaking genre defiance that’s happening in and around literature doesn’t have to be scary if we are prepared for it. But prepare we must. Like it or not, “the times, they are a’ changin’.” (I had to.)

National Book Awards Shortlist Announced


Arlie Russell Hochschild

The National Book Awards, set for November 16th, has named the 20 authors who earned a spot on their 2016 shortlist. Among them, 2002 MacArthur Fellow Colson Whitehead, former Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Mellon Fellow Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Jacqueline Woodson whose book Brown Girl Dreaming earned the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special
Paulette Jiles’ News of the World
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn

Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
Andrés Reséndez’s The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
Heather Ann Thompson’s Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human
Rita Dove’s Collected Poems 1974 – 2004
Peter Gizzi’s Archeophonics
Jay Hopler’s The Abridged History of Rainfall
Solmaz Sharif’s Look

Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell’s March: Book Three
Grace Lin’s When the Sea Turned to Silver
Jason Reynolds’ Ghost
Nicola Yoon’s The Sun Is Also a Star

On Validation

0849772fdfc614ba5b0fd66d5b9ef808_400x400I co-lead a monthly writers group as part of the Center for Faith and Work, and before we break off into small groups to workshop our pieces, one of the members leads us in a discussion on a topic centered around the writing life. Last month, Brooke Obie, author of Book of Addis: Cradled Embers (Vol 1), led a talk on validation, a subject that has been coming up for me from a few different directions as I wait for word from my agent on a new manuscript, my birthday approaches, and I take a procrastination break from a new piece I’m working on to write this post.

A few weeks ago, during a Saturday cable watching marathon I stumbled on the movie 5 to 7. The film, about a young writer’s affair with a married French woman nine years his senior, ended with a comment I’ve been pondering since: “Your favorite story, whatever it might be, was written for one reader.” The writer’s reader was his now former lover, and the point he was making was that whoever the writer’s reader is, it is her or his validation that matters most.

As I noted in a previous post about this quote, my reader often changes. Sometimes it’s a client, a boss, an editor, an agent, social media followers. Sometimes my reader is me. And for the purposes of the piece I am pushing out into the world for this reader, their validation is everything.

Brooke directed us to unpack validation itself and how it shapes what and why we write. Here are the questions she invited us to ask ourselves:

  • What role does validation play in your writing?
  • Who are you seeking validation from?
  • How has/does rejection impact(ed) your feelings of validity as a writer?
  • How do you determine which criticism is valid?
  • What are your goals as a writer? (What and who shaped these goals?)
  • When do you feel most validated as a writer?
  • Have you ever felt the presence of God when you’re writing, or felt that you’re “in the zone” when you’re writing? Does this feeling validate your writing/make you feel valid as a writer?
  • What fears do you have that undermine your feelings of validation? How do you deal with these fears?
  • What are your intentions for your writing? What do you hope to achieve? If you achieved it would you feel validated as a writer?

Is it possible to ever feel validated as a writer? Is validation-seeking in and of itself a trap–an indication of a hole that can’t be filled with the expected markers?

Both J.K. Rowling and Elizabeth Gilbert have remarked that validation in the form of bestselling status doesn’t quell the desire to write, or the hope for validation that’s stripped from the expectations, jealousy, and effusive praise that can come with success. And recently, the author of In Her Shoes and other bestselling books Jennifer Weiner bared her heart and admitted her jealousy in a now deleted Facebook post when another writer’s book  was chosen over hers for Oprah’s Book Club–a validation that has eluded her for now.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, also a bestselling author, has written about finding validation in the work itself. In a poignant post on her blog, she expressed the importance of maintaining perspective on the accomplishment that completing a piece of writing is: “…I’d internalized so much shame about how my books had performed, that I’d completely forgotten to be proud of the fact that I’d written and published two books in the first place.”

Validation is such a personal quest, determined by ever-shifting internal and external factors, that even trying to unpack it feels bottomless. I think that’s why I appreciate having the above-noted questions handy–a way to spot-check when the insecurities rise, and a reminder to focus on why I write in the first place. I hope the questions are helpful to you too.

6 Writers Earn 2016 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants


Gene Luen Yang

Today, graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, journalist Sarah Stillman, artist and writer Lauren Redniss, poet Claudia Rankine, writer Maggie Nelson, and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins were named among 23 artists and scientists receiving 2016 MacArthur Fellowships. Nominated by a committee of “external, invited nominators,” MacArthur Fellows are ultimately selected by 12 jurists to receive a stipend of $625,000, paid in quarterly installments over five years. The FAQs section of the MacArthur Foundation website details: “The fellowship is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their own artistic, intellectual, and professional activities in the absence of specific obligations or reporting requirements.”  Last year’s class included Ta-Nehisi CoatesBen LernerLin-Manuel Miranda, and Ellen Bryant Voigt.


We Need More Empathy in the PC/Cultural Appropriation Debate

On September 8th, Lionel Shriver, author of a dozen novels including 2005 Orange Prizewinner We Need to Talk About Kevin, gave a speech about identity politics at the Brisbane Writers Festival. During her talk, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, an author, mechanical engineer, and the founder of Youth Without Borders, walked out. Abdel-Magied says she did so because Shriver was making light of the issues that have given rise to the frustration and ire many have around cultural appropriation.

Here’s a synopsis of both positions: Shriver (pictured left) argued that fiction is inherently about appropriating cultures and experiences of all kinds, and exploiting them to serve the story. It’s about wearing other people’s hats, she said. To drive the point home, Shriver wore a sombrero as she made her argument.

Abdel-Magied countered that Shriver’s “but it’s fiction” excuse is obtuse and insensitive. She pointed out that the peoples whose cultures and identities are routinely appropriated so rarely get a chance to tell their own stories to a mass audience because of a racist dominant culture and the enduring legacy of colonialism that shuts out or marginalizes these voices. Abdel-Magied added, this same racial prejudice and colonial history leads to many an author writing myopic and/or offensive fiction about an experience or people s/he knows nothing about.

I can identify with some of the frustrations Abdel-Magied and Shriver expressed, but, mostly, I’m frustrated by the demonstrated lack of empathy on Shriver’s part, and to a lesser extent, Abdel-Magied’s.

In her speech, Shriver claimed that a writer’s attempts to inhabit and portray the experiences of others who aren’t like them are inherently empathetic. She went on to argue that effort itself should be applauded, and that failure to get it right should be accepted as collateral.

“Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given,” she said. “But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.”

Shriver expressed zero sensitivity to what it feels like to be the one whose life has been, and is being, entered (over and over again); and she demonstrated no curiosity or care about the stakes of failure. She did not mention the fact that the authors of color are reviewed far less by the New York Times, and other publications, than their white counterparts. Nor did she discuss the fact that far fewer writers who aren’t white even get the chance to be published.

Whether she failed to communicate this above hoped for sensitivity, or neglected to note the facts about identity disparity in publishing because she does not or cannot identify with the experience of seeing her story become more profitable when a white person’s name is on it, or because she doesn’t believe these factors are relevant to her thesis, or because she has little to no respect for those who raise objections about their cultures and identities being misrepresented is the debate.

As, Abdel-Magied aptly articulates:

It’s not always OK if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with. It’s not always OK if a straight white woman writes the story of a queer Indigenous man, because when was the last time you heard a queer Indigenous man tell his own story? How is it that said straight white woman will profit from an experience that is not hers, and those with the actual experience never be provided the opportunity? It’s not always OK for a person with the privilege of education and wealth to write the story of a young Indigenous man, filtering the experience of the latter through their own skewed and biased lens, telling a story that likely reinforces an existing narrative which only serves to entrench a disadvantage they need never experience.

I can’t speak for the LGBTQI community, those who are neuro-different or people with disabilities, but that’s also the point. I don’t speak for them, and should allow for their voices and experiences to be heard and legitimised.

But part of Abdel-Magied’s response irks me too.

Though I wish she had stayed to listen to Shriver’s whole talk so she could assess the argument in real time in its entirety and participate in a post-lecture Q&A to engage Shriver in a face to face, I respect her decision to walk out. As she explained in her essay, for her, staying implied agreement with–and legitimizing–what Shriver was saying. Leaving in the middle, Abdel-Magied wrote, was her statement of resistance. I get it. There are times when you just can’t grin and bear.

My issue with Abdel-Magied’s reaction is that, while she chose to exercise her right to exit the room mid-lecture, she made blanket assumptions about those who opted to stay and hear Shriver out. Deciding the chuckles coming from the audience amounted to “reinforcing and legitimising the words coming from behind the lectern,” she labeled the audience “compliant.”

It’s a seemingly small judgment, but it bears the whiff of insensitivity she ascribes to Shriver’s position. It asserts there is only one right way to react to a point of view you disagree with, and that the same reaction means the same thing for different people.

Abdel-Magied describes a packed room, and people laughing in complicity at Shriver’s obtuse remarks. We don’t know if some of the chuckles in that full house were uncomfortable, or whether there were people who were having sharply whispered conversations of dissent outside of her sightline and earshot, or if there were attendees who were quietly reserving their judgment until Shriver’s talk was over. Abdel-Magied doesn’t know either, all she can do is guess.

When it comes to discussions about representing identity, particularly in writing, merely guessing is one of the main problems.

Yes, as Shriver lectured, writing necessitates guessing at the emotions of characters in situations the writer may or may not have experienced. But good writing requires we add to guesswork research, close observation, deep contemplation, the feedback of generous souls who will read or listen to early drafts, and, eventually, professional editors and fact-checkers. And even when a writer feels s/he has done this due diligence to authentically write a story or character that is personally foreign, s/he can still get it wrong because racial and cultural biases are so deeply embedded in Western, and global, culture.

This doesn’t mean anyone should steer clear of trying to write about certain topics or people, it just means we should try harder to humbly listen to those who have had an experience we haven’t–especially when there is overwhelming consensus among said group that we have misrepresented it.

Furthermore, if we truly want to tell the stories of people and places and cultures we don’t personally know, and if we want to see them told well, we will have to make way for writers who are intimate with the experience to tell their stories themselves. And we can’t be satisfied with just one or two writers, but many. So many we can’t associate a group with a trend or type anymore and push it into a pigeonhole.

Most writers don’t have control over our publication destiny, let alone another’s, but those who have written bestsellers, or have publishing experience have some leverage. Whether it’s the relationships necessary to put in a good word with an agent/editor; or reading the work of an aspiring writer telling a story we want to try and offering feedback, there are ways to support a diversity of writers and stories if that’s what we truly want.

Conversely, those of us frustrated with seeing our stories exploited and appropriated, and tired of being dismissed by the dominant culture for expressing our pain and anger about said appropriation, should be cognizant that our fellows in the struggle have the right to express their dissatisfaction their way. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached non-violence and Malcolm X advocated a “by any means necessary” approach to combating racism in America. Both were assassinated.

It’s not about methodology. It’s about compassion, and a continual commitment to seeing past ourselves.

For example, Shriver said, “Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived.”

While what she says is true on its face, I wonder if she has deeply considered why and how we got to the point where membership in an identity group means so much. Though white Americans, for example, may not think about or be aware of racism as much as a person of color might, they exist in a hyper-racialized nation along with everyone else in the country, and experience certain aspects of life in way that vastly differs from a person of color’s experience. Whether Shriver believes it or not, racial identity means as much to whites as it does to people of other races.

Membership of a larger group is not the sum of an identity, but in a world that sorts and shelves people based on identity groups–and specifically disadvantages those outside the dominant group–these memberships have shaped experiences and existences for generations. They have become culture and memory and life, providing spiritual and material refuge to those who leverage the power of their shared community. If history were different and prejudice non-existent, these identities might be treated incidentally, but they aren’t.

What if, concurrently, Abdel-Magied considered that Brisbane’s giving Shriver a speaking spot may not have been borne of an intention to personally harm her, or endorse a point of view she disagreed with? What if she moved past her assumptions of what her fellow attendees were thinking of her when she left, or why they stayed, and instead engaged a few of them after the event about how they felt about the proceeding?

Our collective lack of empathy keeps us trapped in our polemicist poles, paralyzed by the fear that if we acknowledge the merits of another’s position we will cede holy ground, unable to progress. Ironically, it also leaves us vulnerable to even more egregious appropriation, and makes for bad writing people think is good just because they tried. Perhaps most frustrating of all, it leaves us pretty much where we started: frustrated and isolated, the gap between our understanding, care, and consideration of each other only widening.

2016 Man Booker Shortlist is Here

sellout-blog-imagePaul Beatty’s The Sellout, Deborah Levy’s Hot MilkGraeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody ProjectOttessa Moshfegh’s EileenDavid Szalay’s All That Man Is, and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing made the cut from a longlist of 13 titles announced in July. Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings earned the 2015 Man Bookerthe first time for a Jamaican novelist, and a first for indie publisher Oneworld Publications. With Paul Beatty’s novel, Oneworld is hoping for a repeat performance.

Each shortlisted author will receive £2,500 and a specially bound edition of their book. The winner will receive an additional £50,000.

Writing Can Lower Your Blood Pressure

medical_writingHere’s a story at odds with the stereotype of the depressed, ornery writer: psychology professor James Pennebaker has done research that shows that people are less depressed after writing for just 20 minutes a day for three days.

In her book Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, excerpted on, Dr. Susan David, PhD writes of Pennebaker’s work:

In each study, Pennebaker found that the people who wrote about emotionally charged episodes experienced marked improvement in their physical and mental well-being. They were happier, less depressed and less anxious. In the months after the writing sessions, they had lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work.

Dr. David makes clear the results are not only tied to putting finger to keyboard or pen to paper, but about doing the work of expressing yourself. “Talking into a voice recorder, for example, can deliver the same results,” she writes. She adds:

But after showing up, there’s another critical aspect of agility: Stepping out. Deeper analysis over the years shows that unlike brooders or bottlers, or those who let it all hang out in big venting rants, the writers who thrived the most began to develop insight, using phrases such as “I have learned,” “It struck me that,” “the reason that,” “I now realize,” and “I understand.” In the process of writing, they were able to create the distance between the thinker and the thought, the feeler and the feeling, that allowed them to gain a new perspective, unhook, and move forward.

Not sure what the book has to say about how writing on deadline or writing professionally impacts mental health, but you can read the full excerpt to find out.