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 2016

UPDATE: The 2016 National Book Award Winners are:

FICTION
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad

NON-FICTION
Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

POETRY
Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell’s March: Book Three

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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.

FICTION
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

NON-FICTION
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

POETRY
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

YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
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.