Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Rachel Cusk, Kevin Barry, Mona Eltahawy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Naomi Klein, Dan Kois, and more—that are publishing this week.
Coventry by Rachel Cusk
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Coventry: “Memoirist and novelist Cusk (Kudos) turns her perceptive gaze and distinctive voice to a variety of topics in her arresting first essay collection. Broken into three sections, the volume takes its title from an English term for ‘the silent treatment,’ which typified how Cusk’s parents disciplined her as a child. The opening chapters focus on memoir, but within the context of broader questions about society, families, women and work, and what makes a home. Cusk tackles, in addition to her fraught relationship with her parents, life after separating from her husband and with her daughters as they become teenagers (in the deliciously titled ‘Lions on Leashes’). In the second section, she examines art and its creation, in one piece grappling with ‘women’s writing’ in terms of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir (‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’). The final section ventures into literary criticism with analyses of writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, D.H. Lawrence, Olivia Manning, and Edith Wharton. There is an element of stream of consciousness to Cusk’s prose, with its effortless transitions from one idea to another. However, the overriding thread binding her essays is the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives. It’s something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.”
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Night Boat to Tangier: “A pair of Irish drug runners who’ve seen better days haunt a ferry terminal in southern Spain in search of a missing woman, in Barry’s grim and crackling latest (after Beatlebone). Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond had a long and profitable run in drug smuggling, but now, with both just past 50, they are out of the business after a decline in their fortunes. The two stalk the ferry terminal in search of Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, whom they haven’t seen for three years but believe will be showing up on a ferry there, either coming from or going to Tangier. As the men wait and scan the crowds, they reminisce on better days and an unfortunately textbook betrayal, and flashbacks to pivotal moments in Maurice’s adult life reveal a torturous history. Whether Dilly is actually Maurice’s daughter is an animating question of the narrative, along with what the men’s true intentions are. Barry is a writer of the first rate, and his prose is at turns lean and lyrical, but always precise. Though some scenes land as stiff and schematic, the characters’ banter is wildly and inventively coarse, and something to behold. As far as bleak Irish fiction goes, this is black tar heroin.”
The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls: “In this fed-up, rage-fueled ‘big fuck-you to the patriarchy,’ activist and journalist Eltahawy (Headscarves and Hymens) thrusts ‘tools to fight back’ into the hands of women and girls: in themed chapters, Eltahawy exhorts her peers to embrace their power through the energy of anger, attention seeking, profanity, ambition, power, violence, and lust. She lets no one off the hook, calling out the Muslims who defended the man who sexually assaulted her while she was on hajj and the racist Americans who vilified Muslim men during her #mosquemetoo response, feminists who accept the crumbs offered to them by the patriarchy and promote milquetoast ideas of ‘girl power,”’U.S. Republican white women complicit in misogyny and racism, and women who call for civility in discourse or who disavow violent responses to violence. But Eltahawy’s arguments come through with as much intelligence and clarity as passion and evocative imagery; they are built on facts about racism, capitalism, and homophobia, as well as her own and others’ experiences. Eltahawy not only gives frustrated women permission, but demands that they ‘defy, disobey, and disrupt.’ This bold, rampaging manifesto is far past the edge of mainstream feminism, but it’s so viscerally motivational that even those more moderately inclined may find themselves intrigued.”
We Are the Weather by Jonathan Safran Foer
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about We Are the Weather: “In an unconventional but persuasive manner, novelist Foer (Here I Am) explains why taking meaningful action to mitigate climate change is both incredibly simple and terribly difficult. Writing from an intensely personal perspective, he describes the difference between understanding and believing, making clear that only the latter can motivate meaningful action. He argues that the dichotomy between those who accept the science of climate change and those who don’t is ‘trivial,’ because ‘the only dichotomy that matters is between those who act and those who don’t.’ Foer makes the case that animal agriculture is the dominant cause of climate change, concluding that ‘we must either let some eating habits go or let the planet go. It is as straightforward and as fraught as that.’ While he calls for everyone not to eat animal products before dinner (at the very least), he is not shy about discussing his own hypocrisy, disclosing his lapses back into meat-eating after writing a book-length treatise against it (2009’s Eating Animals). Foer’s message is both moving and painful, depressing and optimistic, and it will force readers to rethink their commitment to combating ‘the greatest crisis humankind has ever faced.'”
The Second Founding by Eric Foner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Second Founding: “In this lucid legal history and political manifesto, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Foner (The Fiery Trial) explores how the ‘Reconstruction amendments’—the 13th, 14th, and 15th, which abolished slavery, granted birthright citizenship, and acknowledged black men’s political rights—have been interpreted over the past century and a half. Foner begins with Congressional debates immediately after the Civil War about what ‘freedom’ could and should mean in the context of the liberation of hundreds of thousands of slaves. Most relevantly for today, Foner depicts the disagreement among both Democrats and Republicans about who should have, and be allowed to use, the right to vote. He points out that, as recently as 2013, the Supreme Court has failed to use the 15th Amendment to oppose state laws that, while not specifically mentioning ethnicity or race, make it difficult for nonwhite citizens to vote, and has refused to bar discriminatory practices of private citizens, in seeming contradiction to the 14th Amendment. In Foner’s view, the current moment represents a ‘retreat from racial equality,’ but the rights promised in these amendments also remain ‘viable alternatives.’ Readers invested in social equality will find Foner’s guarded optimism about the possibility of judicial activism in this area inspiring, and both casual readers and those well-versed in American legal history will benefit from his clear prose and insightful exploration of constitutional history.”
On Fire by Naomi Klein
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Fire: “Klein (This Changes Everything) makes a case for a Green New Deal in a treatise high on passion, but low on specifics. It consists largely of reprinted writings—reporting, think pieces, public talks—with brief notes providing updates. After an account of speaking at a 2015 Vatican press conference on Pope Francis’s climate change encyclical, Klein comments that the Church’s encouraging gesture now seems overshadowed by a lack of accountability over its sexual abuse crisis. These retrospective pieces lack the urgency of the book’s lengthy introduction about fostering ‘economies built both to protect and to regenerate the planet’s life support system and to respect and sustain the people who depend on them.’ In the brief epilogue, Klein returns to the book’s main thrust and argues the Green New Deal still has a ‘fighting chance.’ But even that formulation acknowledges the difficulties involved, and her more extravagant proposals—for instance, transforming every post office in her native Canada into a ‘hub for green transition’—don’t encourage confidence in her ambitious program. Klein’s cri de coeur (‘when the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve’) will galvanize some and depress others.”
A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about A Single Thread: “Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) celebrates the embroiderers of Winchester Cathedral in this appealing story of a 38-year-old spinster who learns needlecraft from real-life embroidery pioneer Louisa Pesel. In 1932, Violet Speedwell is what newspapers of the day call a surplus woman: unmarried and likely to remain so. Working as a typist in Winchester, Violet visits the cathedral, where she admires the intricate canvas embroidery on the kneelers, cushions, and other accessories. She joins the Winchester Cathedral Broderers Group and, after an unpromising start, becomes proficient under the mentorship of group founder Louisa Pesel. A fellow embroiderer introduces Violet to Arthur Knight, a 60-year-old married bell-ringer who, like Violet, has suffered the death of a loved one. Arthur protects Violet from a stalker and takes her to the bell tower to show her the ropes. Violet’s confidence grows as she learns to handle a needle, her mother, and her own desires. Chevalier excels at detailing the creative process, humanizing historical figures and capturing everyday life. With its bittersweet romance and gentle pace, Chevalier’s latest may be less powerful than her best novels, but it vividly and meticulously shows how vision, teamwork, and persistence raise needlecraft from routine stitching to an inspirational and liberating art.”
The Heart and Other Viscera by Félix J. Palma
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Heart and Other Viscera: “In Palma’s solid collection, following his The Map of Time trilogy, the surreal collides with the deeply mundane in transformative ways. In these stories, the protagonist—almost always a man down on his luck or depressed in some way—encounters something extraordinary. This might be a magical train set, where an avatar painted in one’s likeness placed inside it can traverse the world (‘Roses against the Wind’); a new apartment that’s perfect in every way, except for the man behind the curtain in the den (‘The Man behind the Curtain’); or, in the title story, a man who gives pieces of his body to his lover on birthdays and anniversaries. In the most ambitious story, ‘The Seven (or So) Lives of Sebastian Mingorance,’ Palma pulls off the impressive juggling act of considering one man and all the different directions a day in his life could have gone, with all seven alternative Sebastian Mingorances occupying the same room at one point. The scope of Palma’s imagination is undeniable, even if his female characters suffer for it—all of them are objectified or otherwise treated as accessories to the plot, and most meet rather gruesome fates. Palma proves he is an assured, creative writer with a knack for the unsettling.”
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red at the Bone: “Woodson’s beautifully imagined novel (her first novel for adults since 2016’s Another Brooklyn) explores the ways an unplanned pregnancy changes two families. The narrative opens in the spring of 2001, at the coming-of-age party that 16-year-old Melody’s grandparents host for her at their Brooklyn brownstone. A family ritual adapted from cotillion tradition, the event ushers Melody into adulthood as an orchestra plays Prince and her ‘court’ dances around her. Amid the festivity, Melody and her family—her unmarried parents, Iris and Aubrey, and her maternal grandparents, Sabe and Sammy ‘Po’Boy’ Simmons, think of both past and future, delving into extended flashbacks that comprise most of the text. Sabe is proud of the education and affluence she has achieved, but she remains haunted by stories of her family’s losses in the fires of the 1921 Tulsa race massacre. The discovery that her daughter, Iris, was pregnant at 15 filled her with shame, rage, and panic. After the birth of Melody, Iris, uninterested in marrying mail-room clerk Aubrey, pined for the freedom that her pregnancy curtailed. Leaving Melody to be raised by Aubrey, Sabe, and Po’Boy, she departed for Oberlin College in the early ’90s and, later, to a Manhattan apartment that her daughter is invited to visit but not to see as home. Their relationship is strained as Melody dons the coming-out dress her mother would have worn if she hadn’t been pregnant with Melody. Woodson’s nuanced voice evokes the complexities of race, class, religion, and sexuality in fluid prose and a series of telling details. This is a wise, powerful, and compassionate novel.”
How to Be a Family by Dan Kois
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Be a Family: “Kois, a parenting podcaster and editor at Slate, believed that he, his wife, and two daughters ‘were doing being a family wrong’ and tells of his radical step to rectify their situation. He decided they should spend 2017 living in new locations far from their Arlington, Va., home, spending three months in each location. The experiment’s results are varied and delightful to read about: their happy idyll in beautiful Wellington, New Zealand, is packed with friendly neighborhood barbecues and a rejection of American helicopter parenting. The Dutch in Delft, in the Netherlands, seem a cooler lot and obsessed with ‘normalcy,’ though Kois—a serial enthusiast—is entranced by their social cohesion and bicycles. Bug-infested Samara, Costa Rica, is appealingly laid-back, though its roughness starts straining family ties. Back in the vaunted ‘Real America’ of Trump-voting Hays in western Kansas, Kois is as intrigued by the close-knit religious town as he is with the locales abroad. He fills his narrative with both ironic, self-deprecating humor and earnest soul-searching (‘A place never solves anything’) as he comes to the realization that ‘you can’t actually change your kids but your kids change nonetheless.’ This ‘foolhardy jaunt’ into experimental family life–hacking consistently pleases and surprises.”
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
There’s a moment in Shawna Yang Ryan’s soaring new novel, Green Island, where the narrator is about to break away from the life she’s always known; she will shortly be leaving Taiwan behind — emigrating across the Pacific Ocean to California. Her father comes into her bedroom as she’s packing. He has a gift, of sorts, for her. He’s brought a jar of soil from the family garden.
“I want you to remember.” He set the jar atop my heaped clothing. “Don’t forget.”
Don’t forget. His words were both an order and a plea.
It is February 1972. Richard Nixon is on his trip to China. Visiting Hangzhou, he’s completing the diplomatic mission that will open formal relations with the PRC. Taiwan, of course, watches with concern; China is a hostile power; with the recognition of the People’s Republic by the United States, Taiwan’s sovereignty might soon be at risk.
These, then, are the twin concerns of Green Island: the political and the personal. Indeed, just a few pages earlier, Nixon’s visit has been relayed by the novel’s narrative voice:
Nixon stands against a metal rail and tosses food into the water with concentration and joy. He drops into a grinning reverie as if he has forgotten the entire world is watching.
“Dr. Kissinger,” the translator says, “you can have a package if you want to feed the fish.”
“Denmark, Denmark,” says the Secret Service. “President feeding fish.”
They stand here at this moment, three of them the most important people to the fate of Taiwan — Richard Nixon, Chou En-lai, and Henry Kissinger — on an overcast day in Hangchow, feeding fish.
Walter Benjamin wrote that it is, “more arduous to honor the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned.” And there are a number of novels, right now, that are balancing these antipodes — that take significant, well-known historical moments, and show them through the lens of nearly powerless, “nameless” protagonists. Through individuals buffeted by the afflictions of their age.
Of course, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See — with over two million copies sold, in hardback — is an example of this. Doerr’s novel follows two deeply-menaced protagonists — Marie-Laure LeBlanc and Werner Pfennig — as they move within the world of German-occupied France. Though Werner has enlisted in the Nazi army, he has done it from necessity, and his efforts to retain his decency in the face of war, in a way, end up causing his death. Marie-Laure is blind; the conflict threatens her in a bodily way; she feels wholly apart from the big geopolitical forces that are — with generalized malice — trying to kill her. She is a suffering witness to history.
Many of the successful literary novels of the past 30 years have negotiated a similar territory, pairing small characters and big circumstances. Girl with a Pearl Earring (Griet, the fictional household servant, and Johannes Vermeer), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (fictional Saleem Sinai, balanced against the political and social figures of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan), Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (W.P. Inman, the wounded Confederate deserter, and the army he’s just left), Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (the fictional doctor Simon Jordan, and the 19th-century murderer Grace Marks) even Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Sethe and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850), have all paired erstwhile anonymous, imaginary characters with unquestionably “real” circumstances. These books do not ignore history; they don’t neglect the geopolitical events that shape the societies in which their characters have “lived.” Rather they thread their characters through these times, using the novel as an opportunity to show the impact of world-historical events on individual lives.
In “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” John Locke says that, “the pictures drawn in our mind are laid in fading colors.” The project of the historical novel, then, is fashioned as an assault on this very fade. We, as human beings, struggle to remember, to retain a sense of the past. It has — surprise! surprise! — passed. But by inserting ordinary people into its great events, novelists can once again vivify and free the emotions of departed times. In a way, this is a gesture of resurrection. The text as Lazarus, stumbling — bandaged by covers — out of its dark cave. If the struggle of man against power is, indeed, the struggle of memory against forgetting, then the historical novel is — imaginatively, at least — a part of that struggle.
As for the marketplace — its appetite for this type of book is not surprising. Since the early 1990s, when publishers started calling it “upmarket historical fiction,” many successful literary novels have been set in a time — or place — other than our contemporary world. But the willingness of literary tastemakers to accept a work of historical fiction as “important” does feel like something new. Whether it’s Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings — or two of the most anticipated novels of 2016: Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest and Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story — it feels like there is a vast new space opening up in the fiction world, one that has the potential for both critical acclaim and strong sales.
Writing last month in The New Republic, the novelist Alexander Chee touched on some of these issues. Chee, of course, has just published the historical novel, The Queen of the Night — a book that has, as its central axis, a fictional 19th-century coloratura soprano, Lillet Berne. The book has been well-received, with positive reviews in nearly every major periodical, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR’s Weekend Edition, Time, Vogue, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle. It also went through multiple printings before its publication.
Still, Chee was worried about the reaction his fellow writers had whenever he told them he was working on a novel set in the past. Writing last month in The New Republic, Chee said that it was, “as if I’d announced that I was giving up years of hard work writing literary fiction to sell out and become a hack. I had inadvertently hit on a literary taboo.”
Yet both Alexander Chee and Shawna Yang Ryan took nearly 15 years to complete their novels. Labor on this scale is almost unthinkable. It is perhaps the exact antithesis of the genre model of fiction writing — with the rapacious, regular demands of the marketplace. The bruising deadlines, the concept-driven, pre-packaged product. Clearly, these two historical novels — with their robust intellectual projects, their deeply imagined settings — are of a different order. The hours-per-page, per-sentence, per-word — for both The Queen of the Night and Green Island — would discourage any beginning novelist.
In an interview with Slate, Chee said, “The longer the novel was unfinished, the more it endangered my ability to keep teaching, which was a large part of my income. It endangered my ability to get further grants. It endangered my relationship, because I had been working on the novel so obsessively for so long that my partner felt widowed by the project.”
Ryan’s experience was similar. “It kind of took over my life for the last decade and a half,” she said. Building her book’s foundation was an arduous process. In a conversation with The New York Times, she described the work of structuring the novel. Her dedication to craft — and her ceaseless evaluation and reevaluation of the project’s success — was built on a twinning of imagination and historical exploration. “I often thought of my research as similar to unraveling a sweater,” she said. “I’d tug at one thread, and a whole sleeve would come undone.”