I love Stranger Things, not just because it is pure nostalgia for the films that helped shaped my early childhood, but for the simple fact that in the opening scene, a young child of color is playing Dungeons & Dragons with no shame. It is hard to be a geek more often than not, and when you are a geek who also happens to be a person of color, things only become more complicated.
There is a certain racial coding to geek and/or nerd culture. The required reading of geekdom, whether fantasy (Lord of the Rings, the Cthulu Mythos, or Conan) or science fiction (Hyperion, Dune, or Ender’s Game) are novels that focus on predominately white characters, featuring tokenism at best and downright racial animosity at worst. The canon of fantasy and sci-fi authors is overwhelmingly white.
In the classic early-’90s show, Family Matters, it is easy to see such. The uber-geek extraordinaire Steven Urkel can’t dance, lacks style and panache — he’s the antithesis of cool. When he invents a machine to turn himself into the perfect lover, Steven creates Stefan Urquelle, a suave, handsome, stylish young man who instantly wins hearts. Really, all that happened is that Steve went from a coded “hyper-whiteness,” as Mary Bucholtz puts it, to simply being what audiences expect a young black man to be. His extreme intelligence as Steven is marked as white while his more corporeal attractions as Stefan are marked as black. It is code-switching taken to the extreme.
With the expectation that geekiness is an embrace of whiteness, what happens when you are in fact not white? I am a geek, and I am Chicano. Over the course of my life I have learned to be both things proudly, but this presents a paradox. How can I justify my geek-cred while also maintaining my street-cred? Often, I cannot. I am a geek, and I am a brown man, and this has earned me a lot of shit from both sides.
On the one hand, I can run a D&D campaign about how poorly certain races like half-elves are treated, and my group will rail against the injustice of it all, but if I bring up any real-world situation of inequality, I get the cold shoulder at best or at worst booed down and given “focus on the game” lectures. As Junot Díaz allegedly said: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s 1/3 in Elvish, but put in two lines of Spanish and [white people] think we’re taking over.”
But growing up around my more working-class family, I was teased for reading, and I was especially teased for reading books like Redwall or Lord of the Rings. That fantasy crap was for losers, gueros, and jotos. Some of my family even thought that Dungeons & Dragons was a gateway to Satanism and possession. (This was long before the Harry Potter sensation and attendant pushback.)
In high school in Los Angeles, I had a hard time creating a network of geeks simply because the price of entry into the geek world was too high, or my friends simply did not want to associate themselves with something so clearly “white.” The insults that my small band of geeks endured while we played Magic: The Gathering or discussed Dragon Ball Z were pretty inventive. Even now, some of my students snicker or laugh derisively when I make fantasy or science-fiction references, simply for the fact that, and I quote: “Dragons be for white kids with money.” It’s hard to argue against this reasoning when the most popular fantasy novel and TV series since Lord of the Rings features a platinum-blonde white woman saving thousands of adoring and helpless brown people.
You’d think that when I found geekdom, I’d be welcomed in with open arms, but my ethnic identifiers have often caused friction. One of my favorite geeky pastimes is Warhammer 40K, a tabletop miniatures game. I have played this game off and on since I was about 12, and its sweeping background of grimdark science-fantasy hits a lot of my geek buttons. Some years ago when I was building an army, I wanted to paint my soldiers to be more reflective of me, my family, and my friends. When I asked an employee at a store how I would paint darker skin, he laughed. He both didn’t know how you’d go about doing this because he hadn’t thought about it, and he thought it was silly that I wanted to do it. I have played against armies with not so subtly painted SS symbols on the sides of tanks. When I have spoken Spanish to one of my few Latino gaming friends I have heard in response, “No speaka tha Taco” from a passerby.
After a lot of years, I have met a good number of others like me, but even when gathered together, there is still the underlying restriction of “don’t be too ethnic.” If you want to make an observation about how something was casually or not-so-casually racist or commiserate in some shared experience of prejudice, you have to do that quietly, to the side. That is not something to be brought to the forefront of the conversation in mixed company. To some of my friends or acquaintances in the geek world, I am just too sensitive about these things, or they never really think of me as “Mexican.” I am too educated, too financially secure. If I am a little too loud, have a bit too much sabor at times, it can be awkward. In short, when I violate the codes and tenets of geekdom, I am reminded of my transgression, and in some cases, ostracized for it. And to some of my friends, students, and family, I speak “too white” or “forget where I came from.” I cannot be myself without violating either of these expectations, so I must either switch between personae depending on the situation, or learn to accept the friction. And I am not alone. There are many, many non-white geeks.
A lot of the standard stigma of geekdom is starting to subside as it becomes more and more mainstream and thus marketable, but some stigmas clearly die harder than others. Geekdom is now massively profitable, and so geekdom is expanding because those who profit from it understand that a larger audience is better for the bottom line. There are now celebrity geeks, although they are overwhelmingly white.
But I am not alone, even if it once felt that way. I have seen how much my local game stores and comic shops have changed, and I’ve gone from being the only brownish face in a store to being one of several, and depending on the geek endeavor, one of many. Even games are changing now, and one need only compare the ’70s artwork from Dungeons & Dragons to the artwork released today to see the whole shift in representation, both with women and people of color. There is progress; we now have an unapologetically black super hero series in Luke Cage. There is BlerDCon (Black Nerd), and Blerds (the term is typically inclusive of any non-white nerd) even get a shout-out in a song (thanks Childish Gambino).
Of course, this doesn’t mean everything is awesome, as you can see the pushback against this greater representation, whether it’s Gamergate or the stink over the Hugo awards. There are plenty of voices lamenting that SF and Fantasy are moving away from this paradigm, and most of them pretend that Octavia Butler didn’t write “real” SF or that Ted Chiang is “just ok.” If geekdom was never coded as hyper-white, why then is there such a loud resistance to the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-binary, and non-heterosexual stories and characters?
Geek culture is changing because its demographics are changing, but work has to come from all sides. We Blerds (or whatever nomenclature you prefer) need to also take an active hand in creating geek culture, especially continuing the increase in authors of color engaging in these genres. This of course is often easier said than done, since access into these worlds has not been smooth. The geek world needs to open its doors to us, giving space and visibility to non-white creators and characters. The geek world needs to stop pretending that it is only a white world. Plenty of properties are starting to do this, but white geeks need to shut their peers down when there is pushback against this inclusion. As people of color, we cannot enforce strictures of racial or cultural credibility through something as simple as our goddamn hobbies, and as geeks, we cannot tacitly accept that being geeky means embracing a rejection of racial or ethnic identity, or allowing others to dictate that non-white cultures are non-normative.
In short, we need to live in the friction. Because we are awesome, even if that’s hard for others to see.
Image Credit: Unsplash/Alperen Yazgı.
Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all.
But still: eight dollars.
So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books.
It was 11:55.
At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by.
Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on.
At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends.
At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon.
I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America.
At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa.
These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale.
At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned?
Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf.
At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford’s Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.
I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
With the Ender’s Game movie approaching, critics of Orson Scott Card are drawing attention to the writer’s anti-gay rhetoric. In protest of his position, they compelled DC Comics to scrap a Card-penned Superman comic and started a movement to boycott the upcoming movie. In New York Magazine, Kyle Buchanan runs through the nitty-gritty of the controversy, which includes a recent statement from Card that the repeal of DOMA means “the gay marriage issue” is now “moot.” (You might also want to read our interview with Card from back in May.)
Being a nerd used to mean something, Patton Oswalt proclaims in the opening sentence of his lauded Wired essay, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die.” Being a nerd used to take patience and sacrifice. Patience because issues of Watchmen were few and far between, and the time between a science fiction movie’s theater run and its release on video was completely void of illegal viewing options. Sacrifice because, firstly, true nerds were collectors, which is expensive, and secondly, you probably weren’t popular.
These days, if you’re into Watchmen, searching for “Alan Moore interview” on YouTube brings up 379 results. You don’t have to memorize the names and call signs of all the pilots on Battlestar Galactica, you can Google it. I just did.
Oswalt deems this new era of nerd culture Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever. Nothing is collectible or hard to find, there are no personal obsessions that someone else isn’t already blogging about. The nerds of the 80s and 90s aren’t even nerds anymore. Joss Whedon and Judd Apatow are household names. Patton Oswalt has 243,000 followers on Twitter.
In his book, Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Oswalt looks at life as a nerd, before and after Dungeons & Dragons came out of the basement. The result is both and elegy for an underground world, and an examination of how, as an exile of that world, he functions in the modern day.
Falling into the Patton Oswalt Didn’t Fit In In The Past category, (Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In The Present will follow shortly), the book’s first essay is about the underground movie theater where Oswalt worked as a teenager in northern Virginia. In this instance, underground merely means below street level. As he describes it, “you descended three flights of stairs into a murky, fluorescent-lit lobby…Then, once you bought snacks and drinks, you descended another flight of stairs to an even dimmer, grimmer lobby where you’d choose one of three theaters. It was a theater designed like an artless logic problem—which door leads to freedom, which to death, and which to Adventures in Babysitting.”
Oswalt and his coworkers were a truly bizarre band of cinema personnel. The assistant manager lived in one of the theater’s closets, where he hid weaponry. The manager wanted to be a cowboy. When not reading Orson Scott Card at the ticket booth, Oswalt would engage with his coworkers in casual harassment of each other and after-hours drinking. As he points out, while he was doing so the hardcore punk scene was exploding a few miles away in Washington, D.C.
That, the implication goes, would have been a cooler place to be. But no one chooses their own origin story, and if he’d been in a club getting sweat on by Fugazi, he never would have spent all those nights listening to R.E.M. and reading William Gibson, which gave him the sense of pride that comes from finding something you love and keeping it to yourself. When being a nerd meant something, Patton Oswalt was a nerd.
Which is why it’s not surprising that, once his hobbies went mainstream – as he writes in Wired, “Boba Fett’s helmet emblazoned on sleeveless T-shirts worn by gym douches hefting dumbbells. The Glee kids performing the songs from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And Toad the Wet Sprocket, a band that took its name from a Monty Python riff, joining the permanent soundtrack of a night out at Bennigan’s.” – he darted back into the shadows.
The basically chronological essays move from his pudgy, sexless youth to his years as a stand-up comic on the road. Stand-up comedy is a thankless profession for those who aspire to be good at it, Oswalt explains, because comics who are bad at it are so frequently popular. He cites Louis C.K. and Bill Hicks as role models, but was forced to open for three types of comedians whom he calls Blazer, “Wild” Willy, and Topical Tommy, whose names I hardly need expound upon.
But great comedians were out there, he says, “And knowing they were hidden in strip malls made me feel like I was a member of one of the last mystery cults on Earth.” It’s nice to hear this – that he found another hidden fraternity.
Which brings us to the Patton Oswalt Doesn’t Fit In In the Present portion of the book. What this portion lacks in poignancy, it makes up for in being outrageously funny. It lacks the hazy poignancy of the first half of the book because, yes, while those years on the road were excruciating, they eventually landed him on The King of Queens and Ratatouille, and got him an invitation to an MTV gifting suite where the free Adidas made him feel shallow (the poor guy!).
At this point in the book, though, you’re happy for how well he’s doing, because his writing shows him to be such an endearing, brilliant, funny guy. All essay collections are hit or miss. Oswalt hits well and misses infrequently. His skewering of 90s comedy is spot on and, like a true stand-up, he can make almost anything funny. He lovingly describes his former Dungeons & Dragons avatar, then writes him an epic poem. There is a comic strip in which two vampires bicker over who has more vamp cred. His description of hotel amenities, in particular, got me: “I make a pot of coffee with the little coffeemaker that’s in the room. Now the room smells like a hot, wet hat. The coffee tastes like pants.”
The title essay is a classification of the three main elements of science fiction, and therefore the three kinds of science fiction fans. Zombies simplify, Spaceships leave, Wastelands destroy.
Oswalt counts himself as a Wasteland. “What is stand-up comedy except isolating specific parts of culture or humanity and holding them up against a stark, vast background to approach at an oblique angle and get laughs? Or, in a broader sense, pointing out how so much of what we perceive as culture and society is disposable waste?”
I agree to an extent, but I’d color him a Spaceship. Pop culture’s embrace of old school nerds has obviously been good to him – with the Comedy Central specials and working next to Jerry Stiller – but I get the feeling every once in a while he’d like to fly back to visit rural Virginia in the 80s and re-read Ender’s Game.
Greensboro, North Carolina, is that true American anomaly – a place where there seem to be more people writing serious books than reading them. Pick your flavor – literary fiction, poetry, history, biography, memoir, true crime, sci fi and fantasy, young adult, chick lit, historical fiction, literary and music criticism – and you’ll find serious practitioners toiling quietly, often unaware of each other, in this sleepy city with a population of 225,000, five colleges, just a handful of surviving independent bookstores, and no formal literary scene to speak of. As with so many things in the South, you need to understand a bit of history before you can begin to understand how this curious state of affairs came to be.
Greensboro’s literary DNA winds back to the Civil War, when William Sydney Porter was born here in the summer of 1862. After doing three years in a federal penitentiary for embezzlement, Porter relocated to New York City and began churning out short stories under the pen name O. Henry. Though he is still read today for his clever plots and twist endings, the man suffered no illusions that he was producing high art. Writing, he once said, “is my way of getting money to pay room rent, to buy food and clothes and pilsener. I write for no other reason or purpose.” Admirably clear-eyed, but he should have gone a bit easier on the pilsener. He died of cirrhosis at the age of 47. Today his name graces a prestigious short story prize and the plushest hotel in his hometown.
Jump forward to the 1930s, when the esteemed poet and critic John Crowe Ransom, a member of the literary Fugitives at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, came to Greensboro to teach a summer session at what was then called the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina. A number of Ransom’s colleagues and star pupils from Vanderbilt eventually made their way to Greensboro to teach, write and hang out, among them Allen Tate and his wife Caroline Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Peter Taylor and Robert Penn Warren. Only Jarrell stuck for the long haul, joining the Woman’s College English faculty in 1947 and staying on it, off and on, until he was fatally struck by a car near Chapel Hill in 1965. To this day, no one knows for sure if his death was an accident or a suicide.
Shortly after arriving in town, Jarrell dubbed the Woman’s College campus “Sleeping Beauty” and gushed to his friend Lowell about the place’s cardinal virtue: “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” Unlike more famous literary meccas, such as New York City, Provincetown, Iowa City, Key West, Oxford, Miss., and even the nearby “Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, unassuming Greensboro may be the best of all possible worlds for a writer – an under-the-radar place where one can work in peace, but can also find camaraderie and support from others engaged in what will always be a grindingly lonely pursuit. The gifted southern journalist and biographer Marshall Frady once explained to his editor at Harper’s magazine, fellow southerner Willie Morris, why he preferred living quietly in the South to basking in the dazzle of New York City:
I’ve never been too sure that it is benign for a writer to spend any great length of time in the company of New York’s estate of appraisers from afar and traffickers in reactions and responses. Because maybe you start after awhile writing from those secondary vibrations, instead of from the primary pulses and shocks you can’t afford to lose. Perhaps writers ought to be scattered out over the land… more or less lost in the life of the country, not special aesthetic creatures apart from most men but only another suburbanite, another townsman, another farmer, who just have this secret eccentricity of an obsession to write…
Frady’s words resonated with me when I first read them 30 years ago and they still resonate with me today. The reason, no doubt, is that when I wrote my two published novels I happened to be working as just another newspaperman in Greensboro, and the place left me alone wonderfully to do my “real” writing when I wasn’t working my day job. It was, as Jarrell had learned half a century before me, a dream set-up for a writer.
The year Jarrell died, as it happened, the creative writing program began offering a Master of Fine Arts degree at newly renamed UNC-Greensboro, now a co-ed school. The small faculty was headed by the poet Robert Watson, the short story master Peter Taylor, and Fred Chappell, prolific writer of poetry, fiction and criticism who would become the state’s poet laureate and a renowned nurturer of young talent. Chappell, now 75, is retired from teaching but he’s still writing and still living on a shady street a few blocks from campus.
“The MFA program has exploded,” he told me recently. “A lot of the writers don’t leave town after they graduate, they stick around. There’s always somebody to drink with even though there’s never been a satisfactory literary bar in this town.” Echoing Jarrell’s discovery, and mine, he added, “People leave you alone if you want them to.”
One writer who stuck around is Drew Perry, who graduated from the MFA program in 1999, still lives near campus, and recently published This Is Just Exactly Like You, which has been short-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction. I asked Perry why he didn’t go off to New York after getting his degree. “Because I was incredibly poor and I didn’t have anything to show publishers,” he said, adding that the short stories he wrote to get his MFA were “not ready for prime time.”
So he stayed in Greensboro, working on stories and a novel, doing home repair jobs, eventually landing a gig teaching creative writing at nearby Elon University in Burlington. Eventually he started placing stories in literary journals, and in the fall of 2008 an agent signed him up. Six weeks later Viking bought his novel at auction. Perry is now married to Tita Ramirez, a fellow student at UNCG, and they have a 3-month old son, Tomas.
“I still have that community of support,” says Perry, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a degree in advertising from the University of Georgia, where he took his first creative writing courses as an undergraduate. “My neighbors in Greensboro are the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. It felt like the MFA program continued after I graduated. What I learned (at UNCG) is that there’s a difference between wanting to be a writer and writing. I love Greensboro and, yes, it’s too sleepy. There’s nothing specific to recommend it. But it’s just big enough and it’s just small enough.”
Candace Flynt, a Greensboro native and early graduate of the MFA program, still lives in town, writing fiction and memoirs. And then there’s a whole flock of writers who have nothing to do with the MFA program. Parke Puterbaugh, who is now enjoying a major success with his book Phish: The Biography, about the popular jam band, said, “If you’re sufficiently motivated and self-directed, Greensboro’s a nice mid-sized city with decent bars, restaurants and culture – but not an overwhelming mix of things to swamp your concentration.” Bill Trotter is the wildly prolific and versatile author of histories, biographies, novels, reviews, essays and, for good measure, columns about computer games. His philosophy: “Adopt a blue-collar attitude and write for whatever and whoever will pay you for your time, sweat and expertise.” Mark Mathabane was teaching at N.C. A&T State University when his memoir about growing up in South Africa, Kaffir Boy, became an international best-seller. Jerry Bledsoe was working as the local newspaper columnist when he wrote a true-crime book called Bitter Blood that became a #1 New York Times best-seller. The late Burke Davis lived here while writing many of his more than 50 published works of history, fiction and biography. Robert Watson still lives here, as do the accomplished writers Marianne Gingher, Lee Zacharias, Michael Gaspeny and too many others to name.
Orson Scott Card, two-time winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards and best known for Ender’s Game, is perhaps Greensboro’s one brand-name author. He’s also a prolific contributor to a local free weekly newspaper called The Rhino Times, in which he writes copious, cranky musings on everything from current politics to cookies, squirrels, movies and global warming.
Today Greensboro itself is something of a Sleeping Beauty, less a true city than a well groomed but slightly overgrown town. It is a thoroughly middling place, blessed with mild winters, governed by aggressively moderate leaders, populated by citizens whose civic pride and self-satisfaction can sometimes shade toward smugness. The town is located squarely in the center of the state’s rolling Piedmont, midway between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Atlantic beaches, a place so at-home in its own skin that it never developed the big-league pretensions of Raleigh to the east or Charlotte to the west. It’s content with its new minor-league ballpark and downtown public library, its respectable symphony orchestra, its one renowned art museum.
Most of the state’s bold-face writers live or teach in the Triangle, including Reynolds Price, the novelist Lee Smith and her essayist husband Hal Crowther, Jill McCorkle, Kaye Gibbons and many others. It was there, in the writer’s mecca of Hillsborough, that the late Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette dared to publish a novel in 2002 that lampooned his neighbor, the writer Allan Gurganus. The ensuing literary cat fight – there were charges of everything from elitism to homophobia, the two unpardonable sins of our age – merited several buckets of ink from the Raleigh News & Observer. Such hot-house foolishness would be unthinkable in lukewarm, mannerly Greensboro.
Or maybe Greensboro’s exposures to the limelight have left its residents – writers and non-writers alike – relieved that the town is so rarely in the news. It was in downtown Greensboro that four black students from N.C. A&T State University had the audacity to sit at the whites-only F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in February of 1960, a gesture that enraged many whites, inspired many blacks, and helped ignite the civil rights movement. And it was in Greensboro in November of 1979 that five communist organizers were shot dead by Ku Klux Klansmen and American Nazis at a “Death to the Klan” rally, leaving the city deeply traumatized. These two visitations of klieg-light glare were, respectively, noble and brutal; they were also utterly out of character in this city that has always prided itself on its willingness to compromise, to accommodate, and to get along. Greensboro, after all, is the site of one of the South’s first universities built for African-Americans during Reconstruction, and it was one of the first Southern cities to willingly and peaceably integrate its public schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision in 1954. Greensboro, as Marshall Frady wrote about South Carolina in a slightly different context, “seemed merely to lack the vitality for any serious viciousness. It was as if its defense were a colossal torpor.”
Torpor is a funny thing. While most people find it stifling, many writers find it alluring, even necessary. The cliche of the writer toiling in his remote shack, much like the reality of Philip Roth toiling in his remote New England retreat, are two equally valid illustrations of the writing life’s solitary nature. And Greensboro’s genial brand of torpor goes a long way toward explaining the place’s allure to writers – both to the young ones who keep coming here to launch their careers, and to the established ones who work here, quietly, often apart, usually alone. There’s a sense here that if your writing is not always avidly read by your neighbors, at least its making is regarded with genuine respect by them. Al Brilliant, owner of one of the town’s few surviving independent bookstores, expressed this perfectly: “People treat writers as workers here.” Not as special aesthetic creatures, not as eccentrics or pariahs or freaks, but as people who work hard to make worthwhile things. That’s an intangible but vital thing for any writer to feel, and I’ve lived in dozens of places in America where it was utterly absent, and sorely missed.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that in a country of flowering creative writing programs, UNCG’s is consistently ranked among the top 25 by Poets & Writers magazine. While this is not the place to debate the merits of such programs – are they incubating genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? – there is no doubt that the UNCG program’s rich history and its continuing reputation for quality are a spring that keeps replenishing the city’s literary life.
“One thing that’s really strong with our program is the sense of community,” says Jim Clark, who came to Greensboro in the 1960s to organize textile workers and now runs the MFA program and edits its respected twice-yearly literary journal, The Greensboro Review. “We bring in people like Robert Pinsky and John Irving and Joshua Ferris, and the town people come to these events. We do writing workshops for all ages, from at-risk kids to the elderly. We do benefit readings to raise money for the Food Bank and for homeless people. We’ve tried to organize a community of writers that extends beyond the campus.” He waved at the nearby neighborhood known as College Hill. “There’s people out there who sit on their porches and talk about books, and drink together, and peck away in their rooms.”
To most people, that probably sounds like a working definition of colossal torpor. To a writer, it sounds like heaven.
(Image: Carolina Theater (1927), 310 South Greene Street, Greensboro, North Carolina, image from sminor’s photostream)