2019 Whiting Awards Winners Announced

The 10 winners of the 34th annual Whiting Awards were named last night in a ceremony featuring a keynote by author Adam Johnson, winner of the 2009 Whiting Award, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction. Based on “early-career achievement and the promise of superior literary work to come,” the annual prize gives $50,000 each to 10 emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.

“Every year, our corps of expert anonymous nominators point us to some of the most exciting and vital work happening today,” Courtney Hodell, the Whiting Foundation’s director of literary programs, said in a statement. “These names may be new to us, but they’re writing the future of literature in this country.”

The fiction recipients are:
Hernan Diaz, author of In the Distance (And a Year in Reading alum)Nafissa Thompson-Spires, author of Heads of the Colored People (Featured in various 2018 Year in Reading entries)Merritt Tierce, author of Love Me Back

The nonfiction recipients are:
Terese Marie Mailhot, author of Heart Berries: A Memoir (A Millions Most Anticipated title)Nadia Owusu, author of Aftershocks, a forthcoming memoir.

The poetry recipients are:
Kayleb Rae Candrilli, author of What Runs OverTyree Daye, author of River HymnsVanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of Beast Meridian.

The drama recipients are:
Michael R. Jackson, playwright of the forthcoming musical A Strange LoopLauren Yee, playwright of Ching Chong Chinaman

In his keynote, Johnson spoke on the dying tradition of observation of the world around us in the era of earbuds and ubiquitous screens. “The literary arts have always excavated memory, topographized terrain, resurrected voices,” he said. “But the times are changing. I believe we now need writers not only to show us the realm behind the curtain, but the one before our very eyes.” He added, “Is the world too much? Too much to gaze directly upon?…Perhaps the delamination of life is too much to bear…All the more reason why we need writers to take our hands and say, ‘Look! See what I see.'”

Previous winners of the award, which was first bestowed in 1985, prove the point. That list includes Colson Whitehead, Denis Johnson, Tracy K. Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides, August Wilson, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Suzan-Lori Parks, Michael Cunningham, Z.Z. Packer, Mary Karr, Jonathan Franzen, Tony Kushner, Alice McDermott, Terrance Hayes, Jorie Graham, Deborah Eisenberg, Anthony Marra, Ben Fountain, Yiyun Lee, Tyehimba Jess, Justin Cronin, Alexander Chee, Jericho Brown, Adam Johnson, Elif Batuman, John Jeremiah Sullivan.

More recent winners include Tommy Pico, Catherine Lacey, Tony Tulathimutte, Lucas Hnath, Esmé Weijun Wang, Lisa Halliday, Layli Long Soldier, Ocean Vuong, Francisco Cantú, Weike Wang, and Antoinette Nwandu.

The honorees are chosen by an anonymous panel of six judges.

How Do You Like Your Quotes? Straight or Curly?

Welcome to Do You Copy, a new semi-regular column on copyediting (copy editing? copy-editing?) that investigates some of the editorial life’s deepest mysteries. When is an en dash a better hyphen than a hyphen? Why are there so many stylebooks? Should we give a dang about the interrobang!? Learn the answers to these questions and more, and prepare for punctuation pedantry.

Once upon a time, in order to put words on a page quickly and avoid having to write them out by hand, people used a machine called a typewriter. It smelled like ink and metal and oil and made clicking and pinging noises that many people still find delightful, and it occasionally inspires white men who are Oscar-winning actors to write fiction that The New Yorker will probably publish. It also bestowed upon the digital generation one of its most divisive typographical tools: the straight quote.

You are probably familiar with the straight quote, as it is the quotation mark of choice for many web publications. There are some good reasons for this! However, many people—especially those who, for one reason or another that may or may not include childhood trauma, are extremely passionate about typography—absolutely despise it. They even have a mean and somewhat ableist name for the straight quote: dumb quote. These people also sometimes call curly quotes, which are the more traditional form of quotation marks in American and English typography, smart quotes.

Admittedly, if you are not the type of person who really cares about typography and/or traffics in writing and/or editing for a living, the debate over straight quotes and curly quotes may seem like the debate over straight fries and curly fries—rather purposeless, either because (a) you are aware that they are effectively identical in function (and taste, unless they’re seasoned differently) or (b) it is obvious to you that one of the two options is more aesthetically (or gustatorily) pleasing. Either way, it’s probably clear that this is all pretty purely a matter of personal preference.

Except…it’s not! There is a whole complex history behind the trend toward the straight quote in favor of the curly quote, which began with the typewriter but was exacerbated, like many other things in the very late 20th century, by the computer. And while curly quotes are still preferred by editors (and especially book editors, who tend to exhibit ferocious loyalty to the traditions of their rather old trade), the straight quote has become a staple of Internet writing thanks to the complexities of code.

The reason for this is that the use of curly quotes while coding can result in a whole mess of problems, which is mostly the fault—as Glenn Fleishman noted in 2016 in a piece for The Atlantic, which both outlines pretty much the entire history of quotation-related typography and makes excellent use of the elasticity of Tom Hanks’s goofy face—of competing computing platforms back when the Internet was a new frontier:

[I]n the early days of the web, different computing platforms—Unix, Mac, and Windows, primarily—didn’t always agree with how text was encoded, leading to garbled cross-platform exchanges. The only viable lingua franca was 7-bit ASCII, which included fewer than 100 characters, and omitted letters from alphabets outside English and curly quotes…. ASCII and a few similar small character sets acted as a limitation only early on. With the right effort, even by the late 1990s, a browser could properly show the right curly quotes. But effort is the right word: While browsers could show typographers’ quotes, it was hard for users to type them.

It’s certainly gotten a bit easier, although it’s still somewhat frustrating on a Microsoft machine, and even on noted typography dweeb Steve Jobs’s beloved Mac it takes an extra step. Straight quotes are, like it or not, the digital standard. Much of that comes from the funky things that curly quotes do when used in many a content management system—namely, curl in the wrong direction, and seemingly at random. This apparently has something to do with key commands while coding, and theoretically there are plugins that fix this, but those plugins are probably specific to different sorts of CMSs, and also nothing is compatible with every type of code, and at this point why bother, just use the damned straight quote.

At this juncture it should be clear that the whole matter is overly complicated, so let’s simplify it: Use curly quotes when you can, because they are lovelier, and use straight quotes if you’re coding, because who wants to deal with manually checking that every curl is the right curl? (This is essentially also what the Chicago Manual of Style says, albeit in a more persnickety manner and using many more words.) And if you are in doubt as to how to curl your quotes, here is a handy guide touching on the easiest method for both Windows and Apple, courtesy of the type fiends at Butterick’s Practical Typography:

As for when to use a single quote or double quote? Go ask your high school English teacher—maybe over a plate of curly fries.
Image credit: Unsplash/Raphael Schaller.

The Power of Myth: Marlon James Wants to Take You on an Epic Journey

When asked, Marlon James is hard-pressed to name his favorite story. It’s admittedly a nearly impossible request to make of anyone, and surely more so of a novelist, whose trade relies so deeply on both intake and telling, however tangled, of tales. Unable to name just one, James improvised.
“My favorite stories usually tend to be stories about voyages, whether it’s The Odyssey or it’s ‘Sinbad’ or it’s Huckleberry Finn,” he said. “If John Gardner is right and there are only two kinds of stories, ‘a stranger comes to town’ or ‘people go on a trip,’ then I’m definitely into the ‘people go on a trip’ kind of stories. I’ve always liked journeys, journeys where people meet sea monsters, or human monsters. There’s something about people leaving everything they know and going into what they don’t know where you actually learn a lot about people.”

Pondering the significance of the journey, be it a principled quest or spiritual pilgrimage or merely a pleasant jaunt, is a perennial human occupation. And this week marks the publication, by Riverhead Books, of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first book in James’s Dark Star trilogy—a decidedly non-European medieval fantasy appropriately billed as an “African Game of Thrones” and, more recently, racking up comparisons to last year’s Marvel superhero blockbuster Black Panther—which fits into a long tradition of stories built around a great voyage, even as it is unafraid to challenge the conventions of that tradition.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf is, in essence, the tale of a ragtag group of mercenaries seeking a missing boy who might be the heir to the throne of an empire spanning a large stretch of a fantastic medieval Africa. It is narrated by a man known only as Tracker, who is said to “have a nose”; his extraordinary sense of smell lets him track nearly anyone whose scent he has ever sniffed. Tracker and his on-and-off allies—among whom are a leopard who can shape-shift into a man’s body and back, a small giant, a Moon Witch, and an intelligent water buffalo—follow the boy from city to city, through stretches of dangerous, often mystical wilderness. Their hope is to bring him back alive, or to at least bring back news of his demise.

Many pieces of the novel’s plot will feel as familiar to readers of the Icelandic sagas or the Epic of Gilgamesh or Arthurian legend as it will to fans of speculative fiction properties from the likes of George R.R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George Lucas, as they should. This is a hero’s journey, after all, even if its protagonist might not always seem heroic, and if the mythologist Joseph Campbell had been alive to read it, he’d be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet some might feel quite different, rooted as they are in settings and cultures that many, if not most, American readers, who remain unfortunately accustomed to fantasies set primarily in worlds of whiteness, have rarely, if ever, encountered.

Adding to this sense of newness is an intricacy James’s novels have become famous for sporting. For starters, Black Leopard, Red Wolf is only one of three books which will each tell the same overarching story from three separate perspectives, a technique evoking celebrated Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s seminal short story “In a Grove” and, more famously internationally, its film adaptation by Akira Kurosawa, Rashōmon. As such, it is an investigation into truth, and the more each “truth” the novel and its characters bear is held to the light, the slipperier or knottier (or both) it becomes. As James writes, truth is “a shifting, slithering thing.”
This proves to be the case from the get-go. “The child is dead,” reads the book’s first line. “There is nothing left to know.” What follows is…everything left to know. It proves true too in James’s pyrotechnic language, often so elliptical as to feel intoxicatingly dizzying.
It proves true even in the novel’s creation, it seems. The text in advance reading copies was markedly different from what was in final copies of the book, as James made significant changes to the story following the printing of the galley. (Some of those changes, he said, involved adding some 15,000 words to imbue its women characters, and their stories, with more depth.)
When James first began work on the book, the story started as a “stranger comes to town” narrative before changing its course. He starts writing characters first, “which can be very frustrating, because I don’t know what their story is.” The characters, he said, “just won’t leave my head alone.” Eventually, though, the story comes. “It’s always important to me, when I’m writing a book, that these characters have a pre-novel life,” he said. “When I figured out why these characters were here and what mystery they had to solve, I knew they would leave home and everything they knew. But I didn’t know when I started it.”
At first, James also did not know that Tracker would become its main character. And, in the next book, he won’t be. That novel will hold someone else’s story—that of the Moon Witch, Sogolon.
“When I really started to think of this novel and how much I wanted it to divert from what I usually read in all the fantasy books I like, Tracker just came to the fore,” James said. “For want of a better way of phrasing it, I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel about important people. I didn’t want to write a fantasy novel starring nobles and kings, although they all end up in it. No, I wanted it to start in the street.” 


That’s a common theme in James’s work, and exemplary, he said, of his writing process. Often, he will actively turn his focus toward a character he “hadn’t thought twice about” and, as he puts it, “look at everything I have and do the opposite or the reverse or pick the least important character.” As an analogy, he mentions photos of basketball players doing a slam dunk: “I always wonder, who’s that guy way off in a corner who was frowning at it? Who’s the bit player in the great shot? I want to know their story. That’s always happened to me. When I’m starting something, it’s the people in the margins that I notice over in the corner of my eye.” 
James lives alternately in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he teaches at Macalester College, and an apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but also keeps an office in the attic of Camp Cedar Pines, author John Wray’s brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which Wray has turned into something of a writers colony. It’s fairly spare, with an elliptical in the corner next to a blocky gray couch and a desk in the center of the room facing a wide glass window. As with most writers’ offices, it’s filled with stories, which is to say it’s filled with books.

Next to James’s desk, a single-volume version of Amos Tutuola’s novels The Palm Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts lies on the floor, and a stack nearby houses Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and two academic books from 5 Continents Editions’ Visions of Africa series, Arthur P. Bourgeois’s Yaka and David A. Binkley and Patricia Darish’s Kuba. In another pile near the desk, the Icelandic Elder Edda, the Saga of the Volsungs, and Beowulf sit atop William Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Fran Ross’s novel Oreo, and two more scholarly texts, Brian M. Fagan and Roland Oliver’s Africa in the Iron Age and Richard W. Hull’s African Cities and Towns Before European Conquest, both published by white scholars in the 1970s. 

The solitary nature of a writer’s office is strange to James, despite having a room dedicated to writing in each of his homes and this office at Cedar Pines—which, sitting as it does down the hall and above the quarters of a number of other writers, does allow for a little bit more company. Growing up in Jamaica, James said, he was surrounded by the noise of his family and community, and it was in that environment that he first learned to work. (It does not hurt that James is as insatiable a music listener as he is a reader; he mentions Alice Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s acid jazz albums, and the kora music of Toumani Diabaté, among many others, as being influential while he wrote this book.)
The novel itself replicates that noise, filled as it is with a motley of characters carrying their own passions, missions, fights to fight, sex to have, and tales to tell. The cities in Black Leopard, Red Wolf bustle, but so do the riverlands and the bush and the jungles—with humans, but also with giants, shapeshifters, demons, vampires with the power of lightning, bush fairies, merpeople, river spirits, gremlins, trolls, and flesh-eating monsters.
While James’s portrayal of mythological beings is distinctly African, the majority of these creatures appear in folklores all across the world. In a way, this allows the novel, which is such a paean to African history and culture and folklore, to double as an exhortation to fantasy readers: be drawn in by what is similar, and stay for what is unique. Or: Don’t stop at Tolkien and the Odyssey. Read Marlon James and the tale of Mansa Musa, The Lion of Mali, too.
The difficulty, as James makes clear, is that many stories of African peoples have only been available in the American and European markets in texts aimed at academia. Their authors, translators, and editors, almost invariably, are white academics. One major result of this is a lack of public awareness that leads to a perception of an inferiority of those stories, that James says just is not the case.
“Looking at the most recent translation projects of African epics, there’s been some really good work that’s been done,” James said. “The issue with a lot of those translations is that they weren’t translated by poets. They were translated for the academy. Which will lead people to think that these stories, these epics, are inferior to, say, the Icelandic sagas. No they’re not. I’ll bet anything the Odyssey wasn’t shit until a poet translated it.”
Until, that is, a poet retold its story. But with Black Leopard, Red Wolf, there’s no need to wait for the right translator. James is the teller, and Tracker, and Sogolon, and so many others. He, and they, have got a journey right here.

This profile was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.

How White Are Your Comp Titles?

The publishing industry is roughly 86% white. Yet comparative titles, or “book comps,” are whiter still, the L.A. Review of Books has found, arguing that this makes it exceptionally difficult for writers of color to place their books with imprints at Big Five publishers. “Comps,” in other words, “perpetuate the status quo.” Here’s how.