Archives for category: Ruminations

The world woke up last week with one question: who is Mo Yan? It was a fair question, since he’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature, and all of the Western intellectuals were steamed since no one knew who he was. It turns out he’s actually a pretty big deal in China, and his books are being translated and printed in the U.S to great acclaim (when they’re actually reviewed.) So, why is everyone upset?

Human nature: we all want to root for what we’re familiar with. Apparently everyone thinks it’s a great crime that Philip Roth has never won a Nobel. It’s not like the Nobel has some sort of boundaries of taste–while people, including a member of the Nobel committee, are still annoyed about Elfriede Jelinek, another sexually frank writer, getting the prize in 2004, she still got it. (So that little scene in Portnoy’s Complaint shouldn’t mean anything.) And it’s true that some literature winners have never gotten the traction that the prize should entail. If you look at the list of early 1900s winners, you’ll only recognize Kipling, and if you’re lucky, Henryk Sienkiewicz. While it would make sense that someone of Roth’s stature would and should be under consideration, that misses the point of awarding the prize in the first place.

The Nobel is a global prize. It was conceived as such, and should not be co-opted so all of one nation, let alone a Western superpower, has all of its greatest writers are recognized by it. That’s why we have the Pulitzer, National Book Award, Orange, and Man Booker prizes, for each nation to award its own best work and by awarding those prizes, cement an author’s place in the pantheon of its own country. (And if you get enough of those awards, you may eventually be a global name.)

At least in its early days, the Nobels had a lot of political infighting related to nation’s relationships with each other. Since the voting process is a closely guarded secret, I’ve no idea if we’ve gotten beyond that. Probably not, I’d say.. But whatever the feuds and scandals, I admire the fact that the committee is considering writers from sources we Westerners don’t automatically turn to when we think of good books.

Personally, I’d be happy to be exposed to be more global literature. I get bored with one perspective or one culture. I’d like to learn about other literary traditions and tropes. I never know what to read in terms of work from other countries, and the Nobel Prize seems like a pretty strong endorsement. Why don’t we look at this as an opportunity to hear some new stories instead of praising the ones we’ve already read? ~Liz


A few days ago the internet exploded yet again. Salon, Slate, Gawker, you name it went bananas over the New Yorker profile of J.K Rowling. “Look! He said she’s stiff and reclusive and wears too much makeup!” they crowed. “And her teachers say she wasn’t a brilliant student. How could they ever be so mean to J.K Rowling? Wait, is she really all of those things? JUICY!”

Well, I read those articles too, and I was appalled that such a slam would have been printed—as Salon said, “Imagine! a writer who’s not a natural joiner”, and to that I would add “Imagine! A writer who’s not a good student!” (There’s been many, including, at times, me). And then I thought, I have to read this article. There’s no way it can be quite as mean-spirited as everyone says it is.

And, sure enough…it’s not. At least, not to me. I thought it was fair. Ian Parker gives a total portrait of a public figure. He doesn’t have to like Harry Potter, or her, in order to do it. It is apparent that he wasn’t quite charmed by her at all points in her history, but I wouldn’t call this a smear job at all. He goes to great lengths to contextualize Rowling’s place in the world and history—giving background as to the nature of her supposed poverty, and a great line about her testimony in the British tabloid phone-hacking scandal, “It may be that, because Rowling is quite unassuming, she has not thought to learn the art of appearing unassuming in public.” That doesn’t sound mean to me, at least. That sounds like an actually valid reason someone might come off as brittle and tetchy in a public setting. The one line that did come off as bitchy was the too much makeup and false eyelashes one, but you do usually comment on a person’s appearance in a profile, and it can set a tone for a piece. Happily, the rest of “Mugglemarch” transcended this beginning, and I wish people had read past it in forming their conclusions. Or else I’m incredibly naïve, which is possible.

There are two more minor controversies attached to this; the fact that Rowling asked for quote approval (she was denied) and that her first adult book, The Casual Vacany, is very, well, adult. I really think we have a right to only be upset about the first. Quote approval is getting ridiculous in general—the New York Times just banned it. And in this case, it wasn’t even anything she said that ended up attracting controversy, just how she was portrayed.

As for the “miraculously unguarded vagina”, well, it isn’t Harry Potter any more, and if you’re really upset about it, the series does hold up quite well under rereading.~Liz

This is sort of a silly controversy. Now that we’re out of the age of widespread short story publication, how many times are Vogue and “literary authors” going to be in the same sentence anymore?

Well, if you have the authors coming in for a Victorian fashion shoot, maybe. Except Vogue only got actual male authors for the shoot. The female “author” in the picture is actually a leggy supermodel who as far as we know, has no burgeoning literary career. As this spread was created to highlight a literary festival, held this year in honor of a revered female author, Edith Wharton, with actual female authors in attendance, more than a few ladies were peeved.

Some thought the supermodel substitution was because female authors aren’t always paragons of beauty, to which I say, that’s what you have a wardrobe and makeup crew for. I could barely recognize Junot Diaz, Jeffery Eugenidies, and Jonathan Safran Foer in the pile of satin. And even if the makeup and clothes don’t disguise much, you’re only seeing her from the front and she’s surrounded by other good-looking people, right? To me, there’s no excuse why Vogue, Annie Leibovitz and everyone else involved could not have found a women writer to be in the shot.

We could argue the nature of beauty, if one less than beautiful thing in a picture spoils it. We could argue the fact that Leibovitz of all people should know what it’s like to be a woman working your way to the top in a creative profession. But why bother? The whole thing strikes me as shallow, petty, and truly tone-deaf on Vogue’s part. Even the women writers worried than in voicing their dismay, they would too come across as shallow and petty. Basically the photo shoot was a bit of fluff made fluffier by the omission of a literary lady. And I’m sure we’ll all move on in a few minutes, except for the fact that this is just how it’s always been for women writers, and if we don’t point it out, nothing is going to change.

When you think of the literary 1920s, you don’t think of Edith Wharton right away, do you? You think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Why not Edith Wharton? She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize! The Age of Innocence is a great read, what I always wanted Pride and Prejudice to be but never was. But Edith Wharton sort of assumes a second-class status in classic writers. It may or may not have anything to do with her sex (Virginia Woolf gets a higher billing, perhaps because of her stylistic innovations), but it shouldn’t. Were there an Edith Wharton alive today, and there’s quite a few contenders, I’d hope we’d value her in all the ways a great writer should be valued  (traditionally for their skill with assembling words and plot, not their nose shape or waist size). Even silly little things like a Vogue photo shoot.~Liz

My first post for Books on the Make was about NPR’s list of the best young adult books and in it, I discussed why some books more traditionally thought of as adult had made it onto a YA list. At that time, the list was 235 titles long. Since then, voting has shrunk that sum down to 100, and the controversy surrounding this list, while still mild, has grown in seriousness. Specifically, that the list NPR listeners (and experts) decided on is extraordinarily white.

I remember that there weren’t a ton of non-white authors or main characters on the longer list. (Looking at it now, the only ones I see are Cisneros and Alexie; I am curious about why no Walter Dean Myers). Frankly, though, as a white girl from a white Chicago suburb who’s the product of a heterogeneous white education, I haven’t read a wide array of YA stuff that isn’t from a white author with white characters. That should definitely be rectified, but my point is, looking at the list didn’t surprise or set off any alarm bells for me (which is something that perhaps should also be rectified). (my go-to place for smart takes on literary issues), has a list of several possible theories as to why this is the case. Chief among them is the indisputable fact that NPR has an overwhelmingly white audience (me included). Let me add two theories to the list of why more multicultural selections

  1. Like me, the audience wasn’t as familiar with non-white choices. In their      classrooms and reading lives, the majority of books they encountered were      white. This is not the readers’ fault, necessarily*, this is the fault of the school systems and libraries surrounding them.
  2. A practical consideration: most of the YA books we regard as classics—take,      for instance, this post on kids’ books through the ages and how much money their adventures would cost (this is such a fun article I had to work it in somehow)—were written decades ago. One of my favorites, Anne of Green Gables, was written in 1908, long before the Civil Rights Movement. Again, another unfortunate, sucky thing dictated by decades of racism, but by sheer volume there may not be many  “classic” kid’s books written by non-white authors. Non-white authors weren’t published as widely as they were now. Even if there are African American, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American YA books dating from before the 80s (and there probably are), because of lack of exposure throughout the years, a large enough audience won’t be familiar with them. Books by minority authors that are making their way into the realm of the classics are currently considered “modern classics”, and compete with all that come before them who can’t be neglected either, and so lose out. So overall, there’s a lack of sample size.

*However, if these options were offered …a reader certainly has the right to choose whatever book they think they will enjoy. I’m sure most of us have not visited the woodworking section of the library because we thought we wouldn’t enjoy reading a book on woodworking. It’s just that the implication behind not reading a book by Sandra Cisneros or Walter Dean Myers because you don’t think you’ll enjoy or connect with it is far worse. It’s not always a conscious thing. Many people do choose to read and watch television shows and movies about people like them; it’s human. The problem is when you assume that the characters in non-white books aren’t like you because of their race. Much like racism in real life, the characters and people you dismiss in books are share many of your feelings and emotions, which you will realize when you take the time to read about them.

The fact that this list is lily-white is unfortunate. But I really don’t think it’s racism that motivated it to be such. NPR listeners might be mostly white, but damn, are they educated and liberal. What this list reflects is the status quo, and only we can change that.

If your education didn’t expose you to a broad cultural variety of authors, or if you avoid non-white books because you don’t think you’ll relate to them, pick up a few. If lack of exposure is the problem, every new reader of a book helps it gain a broader audience, and you might find a new favorite. If you didn’t think you’d like it…well, too bad. I advocate reading outside your comfort zone in all circumstances. Some people like to read about cultures and circumstances they’ve never encountered and some, well, some really should. And while you may think you won’t like a book, you can’t say that until you’ve read it.

My own choice for a book to add to the list would be Zami by Audre Lorde. It may be more “adult”, but who cares, NPR didn’t when they stuck Catcher and Gatsby on there. It’s Lorde’s autobiography of herself until her mid 20s, a portrait of an artist fighting to be an artist and a young woman in a time and place that wouldn’t accept her dreams, her race, or her sexuality. See? Lots of things to connect to. Now go read it. ~Liz

I’ve only read one short story and about 40 pages of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.Yes, I know, I need to fix this. I certainly liked what I read: the short story, Little Expressionless Animals, is one of my all-time favorites, and Wallace’s hyperverbal, quick-witted style is one to which I aspire. I also, perhaps, should read more Bret Easton Ellis. I simultaneously crave the voice of and am appalled by American Psycho. I don’t know how to take Ellis, or his assertions that what he writes isn’t autobiographical (and you sort of hope it isn’t). But whatever, I like his writing, and I’ve got lots of time to read both him and Wallace.

And my curiosity is piqued by Ellis’s recent trashing of Wallace on Twitter.He’s just so darn angry. It’s rude to speak ill of the dead, but Ellis doesn’t really care about convention, as we’ve seen again and again (using repeating characters, making himself a character, being coy about his inspirations and in his personal life, his sexuality).What is he objecting to in Wallace? They have a certain similarity, I’d say, in style, both relying on contemporary touchstones and distinct voices to tell a story. Is it that Ellis is in some ways a one-hit wonder, and that one hit is demonized, while the dead Wallace is eulogized and stands as the most recent member of the Western canon (of dead white guys)? pairs Ellis’s Twitter feed with a Wallace interview where Dave critiques American Psycho, harshly. Reading both, I don’t think either of them are being fair. I don’t agree, for one, with Wallace’s assessment of American Psycho as  “a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.”Sometimes the real genius is to point out what’s really going on, to use what currently exists in a whole new fashion to illustrate a point. That’s satire, and that’s what Ellis does.On the other hand, Wallace strikes me as quite earnest, as if he’s always trying to make a grand point about the universe. He’s never shallow, but neither is Ellis, who uses shallowness to point out the folly of being shallow. That, by definition, is not shallow.

Is Wallace boring? Well, it will certainly take you a long time to get through one of his paragraphs, but that’s not a bad thing. The thing about hyperverbal writers such as him is that you have to truly digest and enjoy the language and its meaning, including words you might not have ever seen before. Sure, that’s going to scare some people, but that’s a matter of taste, a taste Ellis doesn’t share, I guess. What Ellis does have going for him, and why I couldn’t put down American Psycho while I find myself taking an extended break from Infinite Jest, is a character who does something. In fact, some pretty crazy things. His scenes, dialogue or no dialogue, usually escalate tension; Wallace relies heavily on dialogue and as you can tell from the size of Infinite Jest, takes his time. Both Patrick Bateman and Hal Incandeza have strong voices that can carry a story, but Bateman carries his at a thriller’s pace.

My only other comment is this. Writers love to bash each other, that’s nothing new, but perhaps instead, we should leave it to the readers to bash their novels if they so choose. I can’t bash either, as they work for different reasons. I just want to ask Bret, the animator of a serial killer who kills his ex-girlfriend with a nail-gun in his living room (not a spoiler alert, there’s more scenes like that) to keep it classy.

Ah, that may be too much to ask.

Is this just a thing that the British do? Make incredibly dismissive, overarching generalizations about writing to piss off a certain segment of the literary population? (I have no idea why.To increase hits on their website? Because someone’s got to argue about writing, and since there are apparently only 20 literary arguments under the sun to go along with the 20 plots, they have to keep trying new variations on them?)

About a month ago, it was childless women writers. Now, Robert McCrum, himself no spring chicken, says that literary masterpieces are best accomplished by those under 40. He grants a few “exceptions” here and there—Dostevsky, for one, but otherwise just continues to make a blanket statement: that old age is bad for a writing career.

I can agree with McCrum when he says new voices make a splash. To some degree, a new writer whose first books takes the world by storm has a tough time following up that first effort. And if you’re young, it’s easier to make your mark in any profession.

Yet with the rise of MFA programs, who often require a manuscript as their thesis, the average first-time writer is suddenly a lot older. As a recent B.A graduate, I was advised, and thought it good advice, to not jump straight into grad school. Learn more about life first; have something to write about. Granted, not many MFAs are getting book deals. But even if the trend of the hot young writer holds some water, it may not be possible anymore. People live longer, pack in 2-3 careers in a life. They’re bound to have learned something interesting and have picked up some good stories. And the more you read, often, the better you write. Advancing age shouldn’t dull your writing skills, unless you’ve started to suffer cognitive impairment.

Beyond the Margins, that excellent literary blog, posted a long refutation of McCrum to which I have nothing more to add. In the meantime, let’s take bets on who the British lit crits will insult next. Gay writers who write hetero sex scenes? Writers who have small dogs who can chew up manuscripts? We’ll keep you posted.~Liz

Nothing about this case makes sense.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is one of the most heralded, widely read and referenced books of all time. Not to spoil it for you, but it involves a mentally retarded character who accidentally commits a crime. So fine, the state of Texas referenced it in regards to the case of Marvin Wilson, who allegedly murdered a police informant back in 1992. The U.S government has banned the execution of mentally disabled prisoners. What’s the problem here?

That Texas went and, using the justification of Steinbeck’s novel, executed Marvin Wilson, who had an IQ of 61. Except that according to how what they said, they shouldn’t have executed him: “Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt.” I’m not sure quite how, with an IQ of 61, Marvin Wilson does not qualify for a lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills or how Texas decided that he was not mentally disabled. These are not questions for a literary blog. All I can say is that I don’t think Texas prosecutors read Of Mice and Men closely enough.

Thomas Steinbeck, John’s son, agrees with me, saying he is appalled and his dad would be “deeply angry”. I don’t really know what I’m arguing here. That authors have the right to control how their work is used whether they’re alive or dead? (They don’t, and they shouldn’t.) That you should be careful how you’re using other people’s words, especially if you’re going to justify killing someone with them? Arguments about the death penalty aside, Steinbeck’s novel was used to send someone to an ultimate fate that according to the law he shouldn’t have received.

Darwin didn’t believe in Social Darwinism and its cousin, eugenics, as a tool to cull populations. The Beatles didn’t write Helter Skelter as music to inspire murders. And far be it for me to speak for the utterly complex, contradictory, Ayn Rand, but the avowed atheist and proponent of free expression would likely have trouble being embraced as the spokesperson of a party who stands for social conservatism as well as fiscal. We’d all agree that Brave New World and 1984 would be terrible templates for a society and should never be used as such. But if by chance they came to pass, we wouldn’t want Huxley’s and Orwell’s finely crafted words used against us. We want them used, as they were intended, as tool for exploration and enlightenment (and perhaps warning).

It’s a terrible thing to feel responsible for the tragic misinterpretation of your words, which is why most authors don’t. When asked, they instead express regret and refer blame to the reader who twisted their words. And authors certainly shouldn’t be responsible, nor should authors be barred from putting forth new theories or write less-than-admirable characters, for fear that they will be vehicles or role models to wrongdoing. Even characters who aren’t made to be evil can be taken out of context: Steinbeck’s Lennie, after all, is a very nice guy. Let’s think more deeply about how we use the words of our greatest writers. Otherwise, no one will ever want to ever want to write anything ever again.~Liz

It’s been a great year for journalistic scandals. First, there was the This American Life/Mike Daisey/Apple debacle. For those who’ve forgotten, Mike Daisey adapted his stage monologue, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory, for the radio program, and for some reason numerous fabrications, exaggerations, and misattributions slipped through into the finished product. “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” became TAL’s most downloaded story ever, until it was spectacularly retracted on-air a few months later by a very angry-sounding Ira Glass (who almost never sounds angry). The debate over truth, fiction, and integrity was re-ignited.

In the meantime, a certain book was also making the rounds of the reviews and interview circuit. Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine focused on the science of creativity. In it, he quoted many famous creatives, including a certain Mr. Bob Dylan. The book did well—I remember hearing Lehrer’s Fresh Air interview and wanting to pick Imagine up. (Why yes, I am an NPR junkie.) But like “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, the bubble was soon to burst.

First, Lehrer demonstrated a shocking lack of creativity when it was revealed that he had been recycling material from year-old blog posts in his New Yorker articles. Not great, but a forgivable sin. Anyone who’s spent years in writing workshops has been tempted to turn in the same story twice. Some authors spend years writing the same story on the same subject, and at least Lehrer was just plagiarizing himself, unlike say, Jayson Blair. However, he then apparently tilted back towards a more “creative” direction. Earlier this week, Michael C. Moynihan, a journalist and self-described “Dylan nerd”, revealed that he’d been in conversation with Lehrer about some Dylan quotes used in Imagine that had never been documented. Even worse, Lehrer apparently pressured Moynihan to say that the quotes were from some unedited interview with Dylan before finally admitting they were just made up.

“Imagine” has been recalled, pulled off shelves and online marketplaces. Lehrer lost his job at the New Yorker, as well he should. The fall from grace begins anew as we all question how the works we ballyhooed, now shot full of holes, ever got published in the first place.

On the scale of badness, I tend to rate Daisey’s sin less. His defense was partly that he was an artist, not a journalist. While some things he said just flat-out weren’t true, others were, and only became untrue when he pretended to have experience them. His fabrications, he claimed, were for the sake of art and to wake up an oblivious, tech-happy American public. And he certainly succeeded. If you listened to “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”, you wanted to drop your Iphone in horror. Plus, I’ve never considered This American Life a “journalistic” program. From its inception its focus was heavy on individual, personal pieces. It’s been known to include works of actual fiction such as stories by Etgar Keret, and only the last ten years or so has it begun to break stories and do much reportage. Daisey’s piece could have fit right in if he hadn’t presented it as 100% true from the beginning. Or it may not have worked out: a lot of scrutiny would have been on the piece anyway, as it’s a negative potrayal of Apple, one of the largest and most powerful companies ever. In any case, Daisey also spent weeks lying to TAL producers, including giving them the wrong name of his translator and telling them he had no working phone number for her, so that does bring him back down to a certain level of journalistic hell. But TAL’s renewed fact-checking efforts on every piece is slightly ridiculous. Leave poor David Sedaris alone: I’m not sure I care whether that remark in the coffee shop was quite as cutting before it encountered Sedaris’s pen. And Daisey’s retraction was another gripping hour of radio (dead air was never so dramatic), so TAL ultimately might have benefited from the misstep.

Lehrer, on the other hand, deserves all he gets. He made up quotes by one of the most studied musicians ever for a purportedly scientific work of journalism. There’s no maybe with that one, and he should have figured he’d get caught. Though I’m a publishing intern, I can’t say I know much about how the fact-checking process works. I’d think it involves a lot of questions, conversation and research. I’d also think, with established names like Daisey and Lehrer, you’d be more likely to defer to them, even if you shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s their excellent reputations, or fear of questioning the mighty. Every fact-check should be thorough, but at some point somebody probably went, “eh, would Jonah Lehrer really make up a Bob Dylan quote?” and signed off.

So lesson learned, right? We all know we shouldn’t do that, and we’ll keep saying that until it happens again. And it will happen again. Roxane Gay in Salon says it’s a system, that we public want bright young white male things to remain bright. From the writer’s standpoint, it might be either anxiety or hubris. But let’s not forget that we’re talking about writers. Sure, our talents involve putting words and stories together in a pleasing way, but almost all of us begin by making things up. We’re just too darn good at it, and for some, it’s tempting to keep doing it, no matter who you are.~Liz

After extensive polling and suggestions by readers on its website, NPR’s made a list of 235 young adult fiction titles that it wants you to vote on. Because it’s a list, and it’s on the internet, all sorts of opinions are flying around: titles suggestions that missed the boat, indignations, you name it. Young adult fiction is notoriously tricky to pin down. Conservative estimates put its readership at 12-20 year-olds, but anyone who’s seen their grandmother hide a Harry Potter in her copy of Arthritis Today knows that estimate’s really, really conservative. 

via verdelambton on

For instance, what do Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird have in common? They’re books you could list among your favorite “adult books” without judgment, and they’re all on this list. Yes, Catcher and Mockingbird have younger narrators, though with adult perceptions, but what else they have in common is that all three are found on High School English curriculums throughout the land. They’re books you encounter when you’re that magical range of ages ending in -teen. They awaken debate and rearrange your values when you’re most receptive to those kinds of discoveries. Who hasn’t looked up to realize everyone around you is “a phony” (to your superior intellect, anyway), or shook with rage at the outcome of Tom Robinson’s trial?

Then there’s the books missing from this list and you wonder, are they for a younger crowd? Oops. It took me until I was 20 to read Harriet the Spy. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to post on Facebook. As someone who wanted to read Catcher in the Rye when I was 12 (the junior high library couldn’t order it for me: something about a prostitute), I can safely say lists don’t dictate the reading age of the public. And that’s not the point of NPR’s list. They’re looking for the books that will rearrange your brain no matter how old you are.

For one of my votes, I’m going to go with a series that I first read when I was 8, and still rules my imagination in terms of what I like to read and write. There’s a strong female heroine, tons of accidental, outrageously hilarious situations, deep, enduring friendships, complicated romance, literary allusions, and a vocabulary that would send many adults to the dictionary. It’s intellectual, 1900s chick lit. It’s Anne of Green Gables. ~Liz


Other office favorites: John Green, Harry Potter, The Giver, Stargirl, A Separate Peace.

Though Academy Chicago is an indie publishing company that’s been around for 35 years, we’re just starting to explore the vast literary possibilities of the internet. We’re launching this blog as a resource for our readers, writers, Chicago literary fans, and partly for our own amusement.

“Books On The Make” comes from the Nelson Algren title, “Chicago: City on the Make.” You knew that, right? We figured it was appropriate because we’ve been proud to call Chicago home our entire life, and, as publishers, we make books happen. Started in 1975 by Jordan and Anita Miller, we have over 200 titles in print,. There’s  Philip K. Dick, Kingsley Amis, Amelia Earhart, and the complete Charlie Chan mystery series on our shelves of previously published titles, and new ones to come! We specialize in thoughtful memoirs, well-crafted new fiction, deeply researched non-fiction and hard-to-find classics.

Each Friday you’ll find a compilation of upcoming Chicago literary events here, and throughout the week you’ll find links to information about our titles, exciting Academy developments, and ruminations about reading, writing and editing. We’ll keep you posted. Now go read a good book!

~Rachel, Liz, and the rest of the Academy