We all know the story: Once upon a time there was a young girl who took a walk through the woods to visit her grandmother, carrying a basket of goodies. When she arrived she found her granny ill in bed.
But something else was wrong.
Why did Granny’s eyes look so big?! And her ears?! And her teeth?! By the time the girl finally realized that “Granny” was, in fact, a wolf in disguise, it was too late—she was gobbled up in an instant. And that was the end of Little Red Riding Hood.
Or was it? Maybe the story you know has the little girl rescued by a passing huntsman, who cuts her out of the wolf’s belly and kills the beast. Or perhaps her father stormed in with a shotgun, and blew the wolf’s head off just as he was about to devour her. In French and Italian oral tradition, the girl doesn’t need any man to rescue her—she uses her own wits to escape from the wolf. (Interestingly, this more empowered heroine has been reincarnated in some modern versions of the tale, such as Angela Carter’s Company of Wolves, David Slade’s superb Hitchcockian fairy-tale movie Hard Candy and the recent Hollywood flop Red Riding Hood).
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Alexie never thought he could leave his reservation to pursue a writing career—but a line written by Adrian C. Louis taught him to venture outside the “reservation of his mind.”
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This morning, Alice Munro became the first Canadian author and the 13th woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Good timing: Munro also told The New York Times this summer that she may be done with writing altogether.) In its announcement, the Swedish Academy called Munro, 82, the "master of the contemporary short story," highlighting the fact that she, unlike most Nobel Prize laureates, does not write novels.
Back in 2001—long before she woke up to a particularly exciting voicemail message about her good news—Munro spoke with The Atlantic’s Cara Feinberg about how she fell in love with the format. One reason she was drawn to it was simply its convenience: As Feinberg points out, one of Munro’s story collections begins by saying, "A child’s illness, relatives coming to stay, a pile-up of unavoidable household jobs, can swallow a work-in-progress as surely as a power failure used to destroy a piece of work in the computer." Though she started writing as a teenager, Munro raised three children while helping her husband run a bookstore, which may explain why Munro didn’t publish her first collection until she was 37. But as their full conversation illuminates, there’s more to being a short-story writer than simply being pressed for time.
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One of the very, very small fringe benefits of winning a Nobel Prize, if the prize itself isn’t enough, is that you get an amazing story to tell for the rest of your life. Where were you when you heard …? people will ask. And you will tell them: At home, sleeping. On vacation. And it was 5 in the morning, and I picked up the phone, and there was this voice that sounded Swedish, and …
Alice Munro, either through the worst timing or the best, now has a fantastic story to tell. The newest winner of the Noble Prize in Literature doesn’t have to recall the moment of her win. She can replay it for herself, over and over, as many times as she wants.
Because she wasn’t around, apparently, when the Swedish Academy tried to call her to inform her of the news. So the Swedish Academy did what any would-be message-deliverer finally will when the phone goes un-picked-up: It left her a voicemail.
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Colm Tóibín’s Man Booker Prize finalist re-imagines Biblical events from the perspective of Jesus’ mother, but her narration reveals just as many of Tóibín’s thoughts as Mary’s.
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How do you make a library live online?
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Comparing the series finale to Shakespeare, Moby-Dick, and … Curious George?
You may have encountered a pair of brothers like the ones in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Lowland, released last week—boys so close-knit they might be twins, or Irish twins. Smart and charming, they might look impossibly similar, or have names that seem designed to confuse you. They are different (at times, perhaps diametrically so), but always complementary. Above all, they are inseparable.
Meet Subhash and Udayan. Like nearly all of Lahiri’s characters, they are Indian, not Irish—but born not much more than nine months apart. They grow up in the marshy outskirts of Calcutta, where their (figuratively) conjoined existences unfold in childhood bliss. One day they build a doorbell system from scratch, teach themselves Morse code, then spend afternoons beeping back and forth about sports, girls, and when dinner is going to be ready.
Such happy coexistence—perfect symmetry, wordless harmony (though with a lot of noisy beeps)—is not the usual stuff of Lahiri’s fiction. Dip into her short stories, like those collected in 1999’s Interpreter of Maladies and 2008’s Unaccustomed Earth, or her other novel, 2003’s The Namesake, and you’ll find one missed connection and thwarted relationship after another. Interpersonal fissures are repeatedly rendered against the backdrop of the greater existential fissure that defines Lahiri’s life and stories: the disconnect between immigrants and their new (supposed) homes.
It’s become somewhat unfashionable in Britain to publicly rail against competition from immigrants and the dilution of national identity. Two-thirds of babies born in London have at least one foreign parent; the Olympics showed Britain at its multi-cultural best; and it would be hard to deny that foreigners have brought prosperity, vibrancy, and better food. There are only two places, really, where Little Englanders can still nurse a pint and sing a sad song for the good old days: right-wing pubs and literary circles.
The latter, however, are about to be infiltrated. Last week, the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s most prestigious literary award, announced that it would in the future welcome novels originally written in English and published in the UK, regardless of the nationality of the author. (The sudden change of mind may have been inspired by a new rival, the Folio Prize, which has promised a similar open-doors policy.) Some leading British critics and authors have protested against the decision, arguing that it will water down the significance of the prize and lead to its demise. They are wrong: Embracing foreign talent will reinvigorate the competition for the Booker Prize and turn it into a better representation of diverse, plucky, and meritocratic modern Britain and the global reach of its language.
Beckett wrote “unenjoyable” books, says Martin Amis. Paulo Coelho believes Joyce’s Ulysses caused “great harm,” while Roddy Doyle doubts any readers are “really moved by it.” “Shabby chic” is the Financial Times’ verdict on modernist architecture. You hear it often these days, this grousing about difficult, pretentious modernism: Woolf, Kafka, Stein, and Picasso come in for it too. The emperor has no clothes. The flight from modernism—we know the names but skirt the works—may be a sign of the cultural times, a symptom of our special mix of fatigue, cynicism, and complacency. And then, of course, the art can indeed try your patience and stamina. Its demands are relentless; these are creations that decline to traffic in reassurance or open themselves to clicks and scans.
One hundred years ago, more or less, those rebel modernists were not aiming to make trouble for its own savage sake. Their forbidding work belonged to complicated, unforgiving times. Living without the gods of progress or reason—and without God—they tried this, tried that, reached further, failed, and then failed better (Beckett’s phrase). Not all: some had no clothes. But for roughly four decades, from 1890 to 1930, many risked poverty and courted humiliation. Even the most extraordinary had no idea that their works would endure, or be read by more than a few hundred committed admirers—much less find their place on college reading lists. Now, even unread, they haunt the present, ghostly images of what visionary culture might be.
Across the reach of literature, music, art, and architecture, “Make It New” (Pound’s phrase) was the uncompromising slogan that summoned a gathering of brazen imaginations. The insurrectionists collaborated and competed, calling for speech without cliché, love without embarrassment, truth without self-deception. The idea was that art could be what religion had been, and what politics had failed to become—a sphere of conviction and a site of shared value. For the most audacious, this was the gamble with history that we pay a price for forgetting. We have never been postmodern, not in any sense of living after, or beyond, the decades of rupture, the modernist break with taken-for-granted conventions. Those years set the terms for our own struggle with the New. They inform our uneasy dance between art and fashion, art and money—and our fraught debates over the claims of art, politics, and religion. If you take the view that we haven’t yet lived up to their challenges, as I do, then the question is how to rouse ourselves to an unfinished task: How can we accept the call of our modernist origins?
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