Marcus Burke, author of Team Seven and a former college athlete, learned from Carter G. Woodson that teaching yourself is just as important as being taught in the classroom.
When I’m introduced to someone as a writer, a now familiar pattern of events often follows.
“Oh, really! How interesting!” the someone—let’s call her Jane—says, sounding quite enthusiastic. “What do you write?”
“Science fiction,” I say.
Jane instantly glazes over. “I’m afraid I never read science fiction.”
In other instances, people who know me have read a book of mine out of curiosity and then told me, in some surprise, that they liked it—“even though I don’t normally like science fiction.” Indeed, when a short story collection of mine won a non-genre prize, it was apparently a surprise to the judges themselves: According to the chair of the judging panel, “none of [them] knew they were science-fiction fans beforehand.”
The assumption seems to be that a book that comes with a genre label like “science fiction” must necessarily be lightweight stuff—not really comparable with “non-genre” works.
This may partly be due to the fact that the word “genre” has two different meanings which are often muddled up. The basic meaning of “genre” is simply kind or category or form of fiction, and in that sense, any work of fiction can be assigned to some genre or another. But “genre” is also used in a different way to make a distinction between “genre” and “non-genre” fiction. “Non-genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed on the “general fiction” or “fiction and literature” shelves in Barnes and Noble. “Genre” fiction is the stuff that is placed in its own designated corners: Crime, Fantasy, Romance, Horror, Science Fiction.
One truth underlies the sprawling, sometimes contentious, freebie-filled Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference: Making a life in literature isn’t easy.
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The rarity of spouses like Vladimir Nabokov’s, who dedicated her life to supporting his career, may be hindering gender parity in literature.
A new biography reveals a William S. Burroughs both ghastlier and more impressive than many previously thought.
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This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I—which brings with it a host of arguments among academics, journalists, and historians over the lasting legacy of the “War to End All Wars.” But what’s inarguable is that World War I profoundly changed literature. It was during the conflict’s buildup and aftermath that detective fiction was fused with alarmist invasion literature to create a genre that remains popular today: the classic British spy novel.
In the popular imagination, spy stories are often associated with fast cars, cool gadgets, and high-class liquors dressed up in fancy glasses; fictional heroes like Ian Fleming’s James Bond and the anonymous secret agent of Len Deighton’s many thrillers are always off to some far-flung corner of the globe to foil their adversaries. Sometimes, these novels’ antagonists are the evil counterparts to the charismatic spies they hunt, but more often than not, they have big, bad plans for the world. The Soviet Union predominates as the main source of trouble.
Authors like Fleming and John le Carré have become synonymous with this fast-paced genre, while Graham Greene waits in the wings as a more literary-minded third. All three of these top spy fiction writers were born in England (Greene in 1904, Fleming in 1908, and le Carré in 1931), all were members of the British intelligence community (Fleming and Greene during World War II and le Carré during peacetime), and all saw their greatest fame as novelists during the Cold War—a period in the British spy novel, which consistently pitted the daring, heroic agents of MI6, SAS, and SBS against foreign and domestic threats, captured the world’s attention, even while the once mighty British Empire was reduced to a second-tier power on the world stage.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, a feeling of dread was pervasive in British culture: The British army’s initially shoddy performance during the Second Boer War (which lasted from 1899 to 1902) invited a whole host of theories as to why the British fighting man had so much difficulty in subduing South African irregular troops. One of the more popular explanations was that too much industrialization and urbanization were sapping British virility. John Frederick Maurice, a former Army officer who became a writer specializing in military issues and one of the era’s great alarmists, wrote that somewhere around 60 percent of all men presenting themselves for national service were physically unfit for duty. On the one hand, this could be called compensation. On the other, it was proper and fitting that the postwar spy narrative belonged to the Brits. After all, its origins lay in England’s angst-ridden buildup to World War I: Without the mostly manufactured anxieties of the pre-World War I popular press in Great Britain, the post-World War II generation would have lacked the right language and genre for the proper expression of British decline.
“It was, gentlemen, after a long absence—seven years to be exact, during which time I was studying in Europe—that I returned to my people.”
So begins Tayeb Salih’s 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North. This fraught first sentence, spoken by a westernized Sudanese narrator returning home, has many layers of division—between home and away, between outsider and insider, between strong and weak, between man and woman, between West and East, between black and white.
In his essay for this series, All Our Names author Dinaw Mengestu indicts what he calls “the fractured gaze”: any worldview that sets apart “us” apart from “them.” For Mengestu, literature offers a way to see beyond the simplistic labels that confine us. In a passage from Season of Migration to the North that suggests the essential human sameness of the Sudanese and Europeans, Mengestu locates his mission statement.
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Two sets of events, separated by a decade. In 2003 and 2004, The Atlantic published a pair of short stories by a young writer named Nic Pizzolatto. In early 2014, the magazine’s website declared Pizzolatto’s unfolding HBO hit, the heady crime drama True Detective, the best show on television.
In the universe of True Detective, this would be unmistakable evidence of a shadowy conspiracy. Alas (or rather, thank goodness), in the duller reality of everyday life, it’s merely a coincidence.
It wasn’t until after I’d written the piece on True Detective (and participated in the first installment of our post-episode roundtable), that I belatedly discovered the earlier connection. Pizzolatto submitted the two stories, “Ghost-Birds” and “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” to The Atlantic’s fiction editor, Michael Curtis, in September 2002. At the time, Pizzolatto was in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, and these were the very first stories he’d submitted anywhere. “I knew so little that I submitted two stories at the same time,” Pizzolatto told me in a phone interview.
Some time later, he received a call in return. “I came home from teaching classes, and there was a message from Mike Curtis on the answering machine, saying that he really liked the stories,” Pizzolatto says. “I think at first I thought it was one of my friends, being an asshole.”
Curtis says he was struck by Pizzolatto’s “fluency with philosophical ideas and moral stringency”—qualities that will be familiar to viewers of True Detective. Curtis met Pizzolatto on a visit to Arkansas, and remembers him as “young, serious, and all business, with none of the repressed vanity or career anxiousness of many MFA students.” Pizzolatto, for his part, says, “The Atlantic really gave me my writing career—even just the conviction to be a writer.”
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The Great Gatsby may have been inspired by it, and Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road, carried a copy of it on his travels. But few Americans have heard of “the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature.” That’s what the British novelist John Fowles called Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, a revered French classic published in the fall of 1913. This centenary edition of the short book is timed to the anniversary of the author’s death barely a year later: Henri-Alban Fournier (his real name) was killed during the early months of World War I, just before he turned 28.
A story of restless youthful questing, The Lost Domain (the translator wisely gave up on a literal rendition of the title) casts a fairy-tale spell—without feeling merely old-fashioned. The haunting account of two teenage companions, one a bold wanderer at 17 and the other a little younger and a lot warier, is steeped in Alain-Fournier’s long-gone rural past. Yet the protracted adolescent limbo it evokes is familiar.
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Ellis Barstow, the protagonist in Nick Arvin's most recent novel, is a reconstructionist—an engineer who uses forensic analysis and simulation to piece together, in minute detail, what happened at a car crash site and why.
The novel is based on Arvin’s own experiences in the field of crash reconstruction: Arvin thus leads an unusual double-life as a working mechanical engineer and a successful author of literary fiction. Following an introduction to Arvin’s work from writer, friend, and fellow explorer of speculative landscapes Scott Geiger, Venue sat down with Arvin on the cozy couches of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver for an afternoon of conversation and car crash animation viewing.
Read more. [Image: Miika Niemelä / Flickr]