Those who know Steve Almond as an incredible short story writer might be surprised by the deep rigor and political analysis of this recent nonfiction book, Bad Stories. But those of us who read his Week in Greed column won’t, particularly those of us who read “To Behave like the Fallen World“ and were able to revel in his capacity to expose his own transgressions for the sake of a narrative that epitomizes the human condition. I consider Steve a mentor, and he’s had a great deal of influence on my work. We chatted over email about his latest book.
The Millions: Early on in Bad Stories, you say you believe that faith in stories has been integral to our survival, but you also believe this capacity poses the central risk to our species and that the 2016 election is an object lesson in just how much harm bad stories can inflict upon even the sturdiest democracy.
When I read that I was reminded of an interview Lauren Groff had with Brad Listi, wherein she likened Ayn Rand to someone who was given a pen to write with yet used it to stab us in the eye.
I agree so much with what you’ve both said here, and in this political era, I’m clamoring for narratives that promote collectivism, what you mention as the beautiful fiction known as the common good. But maybe there’s a different narrative approach that can be taken here.
I’ve had the good fortune of learning from you.
One of my favorite lectures of yours is one you call “Show Me the Gun,” about the amount of information we share with the reader. You urge your students not to hold back, to not be coy; perhaps all the characters don’t have the information, but our beloved reader knows it all.
Am I naive to think that collectivism is the narrative that will lead us toward change? Will it be satire? It seems there are a lot more dystopic narratives, stories about greed gone awry. We watch people on Westworld and Black Mirror and Handmaid’s Tale reaching for more than their fair share, and it acts as a portal into our present or our future, and maybe we’ll learn from it or maybe we’ll all suffer compassion fatigue. What do you think?
Steve Almond: I hadn’t made the connection, but my approach as a teacher of creative writing does have something to do with collectivism. What I often see from student writers is the withholding of vital contextual information from the reader. The writer does this for a number of reasons: She hasn’t figured out the context yet and/or she fears it will be boring and/or she believes withholding will build suspense and/or she’s been told “show don’t tell” too many times. Whatever the reasons, the most common result is that the reader gets confused. They really don’t know the character they’re reading about and what’s at stake for that person. And they usually stop reading that story—no matter how vivid the prose is. They can’t connect emotionally. Because we can’t feel what a character feels until we know what they know.
This is really at the heart of the essential human struggle between selfishness and collectivism. Are we, as individuals and as a culture, willing to recognize the humanity of other people? Are we willing to imagine our way into their struggle? That’s what our most powerful good stories help us do, stories such as the Sermon on the Mount, or the Gettysburg Address, or Their Eyes Were Watching God or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” or Song of Solomon. Great books—great art of any kind—complicate moral action by making us feel our responsibility for the suffering of others. In this sense, it’s the literary ally of collectivism.
Propaganda seeks just the opposite. It’s intended to help us disregard other people, to nurture our own selfish impulses, to anesthetize our mercy. This is what Lauren means when she talks about Ayn Rand. Her novels are properly understood as dogma, a kind of capitalist propaganda devoted to the childish fantasy that the rich are virtuous and the poor are morally defective. They hew to the basic moral logic of eugenics. And they portend a world straight out of Thomas Hobbes, in which life is understood as “a war of all against all.” It is this manner of thought that has animated the American right for the past half-century, and which our current president embodies—a mindset that is a precise repudiation of the Sermon on the Mount.
What you call “compassion fatigue” is the understandable exhaustion that people of conscience feel in having to fight such tireless greed and cruelty.
But it’s important to remember the stories in American history that have marked our moral progress: abolition, emancipation, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights. Long before we had a “war on drugs” or a “war on terror” we had a “war on poverty.” All of this required Americans of conscience to turn away from their screens and get off their couches and take action, to embrace the burdens and privileges of citizenship. As you know from your work, Melissa, it’s exhausting and often thankless work. But it’s the only way we can push the pendulum back in the direction of mercy. It’s not going to happen by us just sitting on the sidelines, hate-watching the demise of our democracy.
TM: You define bad stories as stories that are fraudulent either by design or by negligence. One of the first bad stories is our electoral system. You talk early on in the book about how our system of democracy has been rigged, structurally and logistically, by some combination of cynical partisan intent, class privilege, and abject negligence. You later go on to state how we are powerless to fix our broken institutions.
It was one of those rare, stunning summer days at a summer writer’s conference in Portland, Oregon, when a writer said she just wasn’t sure about voting, that her vote mattered, or maybe I’m remembering wrong—maybe she wasn’t sure about a specific initiative like universal health care or a progressive tax or a candidate—and either I looked at you pleading for help or you me, but that brings me to what I often find to be the worst bad story: What is the antidote for apathy?
If I were to channel my inner Steve Almond, I might say the narrative antidote to apathy is to invoke empathy, and the best way a writer could do that is to write honestly, with an open, unguarded heart. Much less a what to do than a what not to do…to not protect oneself from excessive emotional involvement. That emotional entanglement is the point. As Cheryl Strayed has said, be brave enough to break our own hearts. Today I get to tell my students that contrary to what we’ve been taught, the page is the one place where we are not just safe but encouraged to break our own hearts.
SA: Yeah, look—it hurts to touch the inner life. Our best stories are not the ones that try to soothe that hurt, but ones that articulate that hurt and remind us that we’re not alone in that hurt. Apathy, like alienation, is a defensive response to thwarted desire. It’s people deciding—consciously or unconsciously—that they can no longer shoulder what Sarah Manguso calls “the burden of hope.” So maybe the question we should have asked that woman in Portland is: What do you desire? What are your hopes? Who are you worried about? Where are you hurting? That’s what our best stories do: they peel back our grievances and reveal our vulnerabilities.
TM: My most damaging unreliable narrator is the one I’ve manifested over time by way of capitalism. I’ll wake up and think of all the ways I’ll lose everything I have. All the things I have not yet acquired. I have to catch myself and say, no Melissa, that is not a true story; those are the little capitalist elves taking over your mind. You articulate this so well when you say Trumpism is predicated on the zero-sum model; in order for you to win, the other guy has to lose. What do you tell your children when they are entertaining that very American ideology of compare and despair?
SA: Gosh. Yeah. I mean, my kids are constantly doing this. It’s a natural human impulse, one that capitalism has amplified in ways we hardly ever discuss. Look at the manner in which we fetishize wealth and vilify poverty. You can’t blame that on “pop culture” because we’re the ones who create pop culture. What I’ve found with my kids is that it doesn’t work to scold them for bratty behavior, because these behaviors arise from shame—the shame of feeling that you have less because you are less. And here’s the thing: You can’t shame shame out of existence. You can only love it out of existence. What I try to do is recognize that a bratty kid is a kid in need, but one who can’t articulate his or her needs. My wife and I also try (emphasis on try) to model generosity.
One of the curiosities of the 2016 election was that the psychodynamics revolved around shame. Donald Trump presented a kind of unprecedented figure in American politics because he didn’t just appear immune to shame; he weaponized shamelessness. And this made him irresistible. Not just to his base, who saw in him a kind of wish fantasy of moral impunity, but also to his haters (like me) who reveled in repudiating him. We all fed the oxygen of attention into the Trump Express; we all let him set the agenda. It was a kind of shame-based Ponzi scheme in which Trump would say something despicable and people would express disgust and Trump would say, “See, the lying media looks down upon you!” and his supporters, feeling looked down upon, would convert their shame into greater devotion.
It’s the precise opposite of the lesson you try to impart to children, which is that shame should lead you to question and modify your own behavior.
TM: One thing I find to be most difficult about political writing is that heavy lifting of unpacking the backstory. The exposition. How can I write political history in dramatic scene? What does the reader already know? How much should I share? You do this genius thing where you give the reader a bunch of information, but you respect us—by prefacing your statement with “We know”…as in:
We know Fred Trump was arrested at a Klan rally as a younger man, that he didn’t like renting apartments to African-Americans, that he was sued by the federal government for discriminatory practices and forced to desegregate his properties. We know he used to take young Donald around with him to collect rents, and later employed him in the family business. We know that he urged his son to be a “killer” and shipped him off to a military boarding school at age twelve.
And I was like holy shit—I didn’t know all that, but I was glad for the extra props. Can you talk a little bit about the craft of writing a political essay?
SA: A lot of it resides in simply providing the relevant dramatic context for the reader, like we were discussing before. In this case, you have to understand that Trump was raised by a racist father who failed to love him. You can’t understand Trump—his instinctual racial animus, his inexhaustible masculine shame, his need to project his weakness onto others—unless you give the reader the full story. I wrote Bad Stories in part because nobody is giving Americans of conscience the full story. We get all these half-baked hot takes without any sense of the bad stories that led to particular bad outcomes. It’s all panic and no reflection, all present and no backstory, all symptom and no cure.
TM: You tell a story of your time as a young journalist, a pretty incredible one actually. You discuss how you wrote about an assignment to cover the city of Meriden, Connecticut, how you were not from the city. You were honest about how you simply sat in coffee shops and in your Mercury rather than getting to know the city, scheduling ride-alongs, talking to some people who work graveyard shifts, going to the hospital, things like that. You turned in the story, and here is the best detail: Your boss hands you an envelope with $350 and instructs you to buy something nice for your girlfriend, to go get her some cocaine.
First of all that, is such a great fucking line to a story I don’t know how you’ve gone this long without using it (unless you have, and I suck for not remembering). This story is all about what is wrong with journalism. And I agree, wholeheartedly, but I have to disagree that journalism could not awaken the conscience of the powerful, nor rescue those most in need. I have to believe in something.
I am part of a nonprofit called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It was founded by Barbara Ehrenreich with the aim to enable writers who experience poverty to write about it. So rather than parachute some cocky 20-year-old out to Meriden, Connecticut, a local warehouse worker in Meriden could tell her own narrative. I often report on lived experience, and one of the greater challenges I’ve found is that news outlets don’t want to entrust someone with lived experience to tell their story; they fear we may have a bias. For example, the child welfare system has been my beat, but as a former foster youth, people may think that could cloud my judgement in some way or another. But that brings me to the point you were making here: What exactly does that say about who we do entrust with the story? Who does get to shape our narratives?
SA: Yes! That’s it! The problem is one of privilege and cynicism and sloth—and I was a party to all three back in Meriden, though I had no idea at the time. Who gets to shape the narrative? We should all be asking that, every minute of the day. Who gets to shape the narrative? Look at all those rich old white men in front of microphones. Are they telling the story of every American? Can they possibly know the story of a child of color who grew up in foster care? Why are we allowing people who can’t see or understand such lives to make policy that profoundly effects (and usually harms) such lives? You can draw a straight line between Ronald Reagan talking about “Welfare Queens” and Trump calling immigrants “rapists” and “animals.” This is why I tell so many stories in the book about the limits of my own experience, the way in which I would sit on my porch in El Paso sipping coffee while below me I could watch young women crossing the Rio Grande from Juarez to come clean American toilets for 12 hours a day. They’d stand there, shivering in the dawn, having to strip off their wet clothes and change into dry ones, hoping an INS van wouldn’t chase them through the low desert scrub. That’s just a stone-cold picture of American privilege. I can’t witness that. I can try to imagine what those women are thinking and feeling, but I have no fucking clue. Only they do.
One of the foundational bad stories of journalism is the bad story of “objective journalism,” which Hunter S. Thompson called “a pompous contradiction in terms.” It’s just a little ethical fairytale that reporters tell themselves so they can sleep at night. It makes much more sense to let people tell their own stories, because even the most sensitive journalistic account is really just an approximation from without.
TM: This brings me also to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. You describe this book as an elegant polemic against television; Postman outlines that as a result of television, serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness.
What do you think Postman would make of social media?
SA: I suspect he would see it as the final step in the disintegration of epistemology, the moment in which the very idea of “the truth” became so decentralized and subjective as to be irrelevant. And that’s really most of what you see when you look at social media: Everyone is crafting a public fiction that conforms to their inner life. The tech greedheads have this whole utopian rap about how the whole point of social media is to connect people. But that’s marketing, which is to say bullshit. The point is to aggregate attention on behalf of the sponsors. That’s why Facebook was happy to become a sewer of Russian misinformation during the election. That’s why your Google search feeds you results that confirm your biases and nourish your bigotries. It’s why so many Russian bots haunted the digital halls of Twitter.
Any sensible government would regulate these huge companies, to prevent them from spreading bad stories. That’s what the Fairness Doctrine was about: putting a spoiler plate on for-profit propaganda. The whole point of the Fairness Doctrine was to make sure the public airwaves were used to serve the public good. When Reagan’s FCC repealed it, right-wing radio went wild. For-profit propaganda became the media’s central growth industry. The modern media echo chamber was born.
The folks who spew this propaganda sound serious as poison. But they are completely unmoored from reason, science, verifiable truth. Which is to say: They are entertainers who are paid to appear serious. And because there is no Fairness Doctrine to keep them honest, actual scientists and professors and journalists and workers are never allowed to call them out on their bullshit. They enjoy the ultimate epistemological safe space, where they can craft enthralling fictions about how white people are the true victims of everything and are constantly under siege by dark others.
In fact, they get to inject this poisonous rhetoric directly into the American political bloodstream, which is how you get Trump as president.
But here’s the thing: We’re not just witnesses to this process. We’re the needle. The attention we give to the bad stories spewed by these hatemongers distracts us from the stories we should be focused on—the story of climate change, of income inequality, of systemic racism, the stories of our most vulnerable citizens.
This is why, in darker moments, I see America as engaged in a kind of disorganized descent into fascism, because rather than housing the Joseph Goebbels of our age in a dungeon or relegating them to the fringes of our public discourse, we’re amplifying their paranoid and fraudulent hate speech.
TM: Can we do a throwback Thursday and I ask Steve “Sugar” a question that kind of relates to all these bad stories?
So I was teaching a writing workshop to young women at a camp in the Pacific Northwest. I talked about being a teenage girl in foster care and developing an ache: the don’t-get-too-attached-you-can’t-spend-eat-fuck-your-way-out-of-it ache, as it were. My talk was the one thing between the young campers and their lunch. So I gave my talk, and we all scattered our own way, but later in the food line over trays, a young woman approached me and sheepishly asked, “Did you ever get rid of the ache?”
I felt like I was at a fork in the road; one direction could lead to a bad story. What should I have told her?
SA: I would have told her that she was brave and beautiful for asking that question and that the only honest answer to give her is that we’re living in the ache. The ache is the astonishing sorrow of the examined life. The ache is how we know we’re alive. And when we’re telling good stories, the ache is how you know you’re not alone in this life.
This year, after 40 years, I finally learned how Black History Month came to be. It emerged out of the efforts of a former slave named Richard Robert Wright Sr. He thought that February 1, the day Abraham Lincoln signed the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, should be commemorated across the nation; a year after he died, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman made it so. That set the stage for what would later become Black History Week, which would later extend to the full month. I mention this because books about about blackness tend to publish in February. Black stories, somehow, are elevated more this month. But they are resonant all year round.
I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God every year. This year, I found another book I will likely read again and again, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Aside from the fact that both books were penned by black women authors from the South, they also unearth the realities that complicate black heterosexual relationships in ways that are unique and hard to describe with grace or insight. Both are epic love stories that are at once timely and classic. Like Black History Month, and perhaps black history, so much of the story of our people is framed by slavery and struggle. Love is the only respite or solution, and, of course, even that is fraught, weighted by shackles.
Hurston and Jones offer us a little bit of humor and light, descriptions that give us back some air—sounds and beauty to remind us that not all darkness leads to despair. (And because there is such a dearth of diversity in publishing, I have to be clear that I’m not saying that I think Jones is the new Hurston. But it also happens that Valentine’s Day falls in the midst of Black History Month, so there is some synchronicity here that gives me an excuse to write about their unique brilliance and the way it overlaps.)
First, An American Marriage. The old folks might say that Roy and Celestial are not exactly equally yoked, as Scripture puts it. Roy is a down-home country boy from Eloe, La. She is well-to-do from Atlanta. The way he puts it is that she’s a “shooting star” woman, the kind he’s always had a thing for. Celestial and Roy have a friend named Andre who is better friends with Celestial, which turns out to be as suspicious as it might sound. From the beginning, we get the sense that Roy has a chip on his shoulder about their marriage that was placed there by Celestial’s family.
An argument between the two of them sends Roy out of their hotel room and into a situation that ends with his wrongful imprisonment. He goes to prison based on the oldest trope connected to black manhood in the South and in America: the rape of a white woman.
I don’t want to give away the plot, the twists and the turns. But An American Marriage showcases Jones at the height of her narrative powers. The novel alternates between first-person narration from the perspective of Roy, Celestial, and Andre, except for when Roy and Celestial are engaged in an engrossing, detailed, and ultimately heartbreaking correspondence. We know from experience or because we read, or because we have heard our coupled and married friends bemoan the truth of this: a person, a love, a relationship can be a prison. The throbbing, broken heart of An American Marriage is the tension we feel between rooting for Celestial to be free and wondering if it is her obligation to experience the same wrongful incarceration as Roy. This is a letter from Celestial to Roy in prison, on what losing him has taught her about love:
Our house is simply empty, our home has been emptied. Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again. Before I met you, I was not lonely, but now I’m so lonely I talk to the walls and sing to the ceiling.
I thought I was doing okay, that I wasn’t in danger at all of being gutted by this book, and then I read that line and my eyes swelled with tears at the accuracy of what lost love feels like—singing to a bare ceiling as you miss your beloved.
It is the kind of breathlessness I only ever experience over black love as depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which begins with a line that I love more than any other in literature: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish onboard.” As someone who is perpetually crushing on someone, somewhere, this is how I always feel.
But this sets the stage for Hurston’s epic, which is about how women call in our horizons for the sake of love—she does not decide or cast judgment on whether we should. Janie first marries a mean ol’ man who ends up as Mayor Starks. No one really likes him, but he’s respected. He makes her tie up her long luscious hair and beats her instead of loving on her. The difference between a woman like Janie and a woman like Celestial could be said to be the difference between that generation and ours. Janie sticks it out, she stays confined.
But thankfully, a cruel fate befalls him (one gets the sense that Hurston, as a writer, was just fed up with Joe Starks so she killed him off) and Janie ends up a wealthy widower in South Florida. After she burns the rags, a man half her age named Tea Cake courts her scandalously (They play checkers in her husband’s store and the dead husband’s body ain’t even cold yet! They go fishing at night!) and he makes her “soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
What the stories have in common is a bittersweet ending, which is probably the biggest challenge with black love, which is maybe what makes it particularly fraught. We can liberate ourselves from what we believe our love should look like, but for us, holding onto memory usually has baggage attached. Remembrance for us always has the death of something in it. And it requires us to work to cleanse memory of death and pain. Maybe that’s why it’s good we come back to this month every year after all, to find good things to remember, and to celebrate them.
Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.
All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.
I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil?
So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity.
But annotate what, students ask? A fair question. And the place to begin is questions, the questions that come after the who, what, when, and where have been answered. Why questions—about place, about character, about motives…about the weather. Questions that pick at the story’s fabric in ways that enhance that fabric as opposed to designing a new one. So, for instance, after reading the first couple of pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out loud in class, students invariably ask questions about why the novel’s named after Gatsby, about what makes him great, if his father gave him any other advice than the part about not all the people in the world having had the advantages he’s had. About how come the narrator doesn’t know the name for a seismograph. Interesting enough questions, but dead ends, as a couple of the students put it (though at least two of their classmates are adamant that we need to pursue the seismograph thing) because they depend either on plot that hasn’t happened yet or hearsay. Better the question that at least allows for the possibility of an answer through what’s already there rather than depending upon the goose chase of the imagination. So when Nick Carraway says that “[R]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” it might benefit us to ask why? Why “hope” as opposed to something else? Why infinite? And what might this tell us about Nick Carraway’s temperament? Questions that allow us to begin to work out the kind of world Nick Carraway lives in and how that world might interact with ours. The kinds of questions that unnerve what’s in front of us, that give us something to hold onto in terms of plot while, simultaneously, digging a little deeper into that plot.
They want to know how many they need. A ball of string question. And I tell them not to go all gung-ho and answer the questions, but to let them sit for a while, the idea being to try and read from inside the story rather than from inside a predetermined perspective. Virginia Woolf calls it the art of delaying dictation: “If we could banish all [such] preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” Even in novels, to delay that impulse, that reflex, as long as possible, allowing the piece itself a chance to stand, at least for a moment, outside the moment of presumption. The questions more important, paradoxically, than the answers. It sounds all back to front, but getting students to trust, first and foremost, their own ability to ask questions rather than a teacher’s executive ability to provide answers leads, again, to the kind of critical, reflective impulse our world so desperately need. It allows students access to a way of thinking, a means for seeing, long after they’ve forgotten if affect works primarily as a verb or a noun, or how many suitors Odysseus slays in the great hall.
Which brings up the question of quantity. If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.
That said, they can’t be forced. It tends to work to begin small—maybe one annotation every two pages, but a real one. Not underlining or highlighting—that’s not annotating, that’s underlining or highlighting. Annotating is where there’s something highlighted or underlined and accompanied by a note working out why said moment was underlined or highlighted. Why questions: about reserving judgments and infinite hope. So, one every two pages. And we agree to it as a class. If one person doesn’t do it, we all do jumping jacks. Not literally, though I wish, just like I wish I could pull off having class outside and using saxophones and live macaws as props. In place of jumping jacks, a two-minute free write on some contemporary event, like a wardrobe malfunction.
And this is where the larger picture begins to coalesce—the significance of developing a skill through reading that translates into larger worlds, a skill learned in a safe space where poor judgment comes without real consequences, except intellectual ones. The point being that the consequences aren’t human. They’re judgments about characters experiencing pain, triumph, sadness, joy, hurt, and so on, but we can get them wrong and little changes. Getting people wrong in the real world, of course, comes with real consequences, sometimes tragic. The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. To return to Virginia Woolf’s point: if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential.
The other part of this resides in stillness. To be still, to hover, inside a piece of literature requires students stopping for moments at a time within the characters and their fates, their worlds. Annotations force them into that space, if only for a moment, alongside a partial stepping back from the worlds circumscribed by their own egos: the teaching of reading as the teaching of stillness, a kind of meditative, cognitive moment where students develop the ability to be intellectually still in a world so often pushing their intellects to move at breakneck speed from moment to moment, a constant shuffling of information, their minds the photons inside the Hadron collider moving at a searing pace. And this is crucial no matter where students go to school, no matter what the classroom: English and History, Science, Math, Art, Foreign Language, Metalwork, etc. Students need to know how to undermine and dismantle the spectacles surrounding them, and how to slow each spectacle down in turn in order to better see the axles turning inside of it. Critical reading is where that stillness begins. Annotations in the margins of Macbeth or a set of scribbled-on sticky notes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are the beginning points of interpreting their worlds, the ones screeching past them without brakes.
Image Credit: Pixels.
The emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer will soon be forgotten, while other correspondence is here to stay. Let’s go back to the days where writing letters was more about cultivating confidants and friendships, and less obviously a media stunt. Reading someone’s letters give us a glimpse into their private life — that’s why we love them. If you ever wondered what some of your favorite modern writers were composing when they weren’t polishing drafts of books that would go on to change the world, check out this list.
Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
Truman Capote was notoriously meticulous in his professional work, but his letters were quite the opposite. Sometimes scribbled in a mad five minutes, or written without a second thought to the whiplash of emotion within their lines, Capote wrote as though he were always leaning to whisper in your ear. His correspondence could rarely be classified as “cold,” even when making a professional request, such as writing to Elizabeth Ames — then in charge at Yaddo — on behalf of a young writer named Patricia Highsmith, whose work Capote thought held real talent (Highsmith was later accepted to Yaddo, where she wrote part of her first novel, Strangers on a Train).
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire and the youngest of the six Mitford sisters, invites British author and OBE recipient Patrick Leigh Fermor to her royal home, a visit that sparks a half-century of friendship and scintillating correspondence. When they began to write each other in the early 1950s, Fermor had secured his reputation as a respected author, but Mitford admittedly could never bring herself to read his books, claiming to not be much of a reader. But Mitford undersells herself: their exchange is sophisticated, witty, and often full of energy and a lyrical beauty while indirectly documenting cultural and societal milestones. This collection features an impressive list of cameo “appearances,” including Evelyn Waugh, Fred Astaire, and John F. Kennedy.
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
Zora Neale Hurston became a prominent literary figure after the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Hurston wrote much more than she published during her lifetime, and at her passing, her estate contained numerous story manuscripts, essays, plays, and more. This collection of approximately 600 letters, written to various individuals including fellow writers Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, is a beautiful reflection upon Hurston’s life, the challenges she faced, and the doors she opened for others.
Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor
For anyone who is even a minor fan of Flannery O’Connor, this collection is a great glimpse into the author’s very human side. Humorous, angry, arrogant, curious: the many different facets of Flannery O’Connor are revealed here. What readers may find most intriguing are some of the (300) letters exchanged between “Betty” Hester and O’Connor, whose intellectual exchanges provided the foundations of a powerful epistolary friendship for the recluse Hester, and whose letters were sealed for 20 years before they could be released in part here.
Thinking of Home: William Faulkner’s Letters to his Mother and Father
William Faulkner’s infamous complexity shifts to a softer side in his correspondence with his parents. These letters show a different personality that only a few people rarely observed. In the letters compiled during the short window of 1918 to 1925, we are given a glimpse of Faulkner’s life until he returned home to study at the University of Mississippi, including details from his travels to New Haven, New York, Paris, and New Orleans. During his stint with the Canadian flyers of the Royal Air Force, Faulkner mused about his training and war itself. His sense of longing for his home and family in Oxford, Miss., gives us the biggest glimpses into the heart of who Faulkner was as a young man forming the writer he would become.
Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
For lovers of music and literature, this collection belongs on the shelf. When American literary and jazz critic Albert Murray and author Ralph Ellison began their correspondence in 1950, Ellis was in New York City and Murray was in Alabama. Their letters are surprisingly funny, full of anecdotes and opinions on pretty much everything: from their families to contemporary writers to musical greats to the advancements of African Americans over the decades. Their admiration for each other is made clear, as Ellison writes: “You’re the only one I really write to and, other than a wild, Russian chick of a girl whose now in the states and who wouldn’t write home for eating change, my only friend.” The writers’ friendship lasted until Ellison’s death in 1994, but this curated set of letters are pulled from 1950 to 60.
Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975
In this collection, we climb into two of the 20th century’s greatest minds — minds that were in proximity to some of the most important people and events of the times. Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher and political scientist shared an enviable friendship that spanned continents with Mary McCarthy, an American novelist and literary critic. Both women were members of the Partisan Review and spent much time discussing Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. The collection is notably unbalanced, with twice as many letters written by Arendt. Their letters contained not only gossip and relationship details (many concerning McCarthy’s four marriages) but also lively discussions of literature, the reach of fascism, and individual morality and common sense. Their friendship wasn’t without its snags, such as when McCarthy admitted her sympathy for Adolf Hitler — he seemed, she argued, to want the people of occupied France to like him –which offended Arendt, a German-born Jew, who had barely escaped Nazi clutches.
Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963
One of the most notable names in all of literature not only for her work but her death, these letters give a glimpse into a troubled, brilliant mind. What is striking about this collection is that the letters span 13 years of correspondence between Sylvia Plath and her mother. In these pages, readers will learn more about Plath’s college years; her relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the waxing and waning of her marriage to a man she considered her male counterpart; and the births of her children. There is an element of falsehood to the letters, a front Plath put forth to shield her mother from the depth of her personal struggles. The letters, released by her mother, could be seen as an attempt to rewrite the framework of Plath’s life as her mother would have us see it.
Letters From Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond
I recommend reading The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, but for those who want to dig deeper and immerse themselves in the mid-century Black radical experience, this collection is a gem. Hughes, a talented poet and one of the most important modern contributors to American literature, rose through his writing to become one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. This collection spans 35 years, ending just before Hughes’s death in 1967, and weighs in at a whopping 440 pages. The correspondence between Hughes and his four best friends — Matt and Evelyn Crawford, and William and Louise Patterson — encapsulates what it’s like to grow up Black, leftist, resilient, and focused. It’s a blend of politics and art which may inspire others in our current political climate.
I open every year by rereading Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s something about it that pulls me back, eagerly, to the work. Like many people I know, I open most years hopeful and willing to be seduced by possibility. So much of that book reminds me that the brightness of a welcoming new year is brief, that there is certainly a darkness that we’ll have to survive again.
It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.
My first book, a book of poems, was released this summer. I’m sure that for some people who do this, it means that they spent a lot of the year agonizing over their own work. I did, but I also hit a point where I didn’t want to look at poems anymore. At least not my own. I fell in love with the poems of my peers: Solmaz Sharif’s Look, Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, Khadijah Queen’s Fearful Beloved. There’s something really refreshing about diving into brilliant poems after spending months picking your own poems apart. The stakes are low, and you can allow yourself to sit back and be overwhelmed. Another poetry book I deeply loved this year is Tyehimba Jess’s Olio. Jess is a historian, truly. The book is filled with brilliant black folklore, all centering on the redemption of ragtime performer Scott Joplin. I had fun reading the book, sure, but I was also reminded of why I found myself to poems in the first place: endless possibility.
I’m a music writer who loves reading about music. I keep a copy of Jessica Hopper’s The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic with me at all times, sometimes reading bits of it out loud to any willing audiences, in the backseats of cars, around dinner tables. There’s an open letter to Sufjan Stevens in the book, and I am always overwhelmed by it. Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements was really exciting for me. I’m always interested in new stories behind the bands I love, and The Replacements are so incredibly fascinating in that way. There’s always so much more to them than I expect, at every turn. I maybe love Bruce Springsteen too much to indulge in the sprawl of his memoir, though I purchased it in good faith. After a chapter or two, I realized that maybe the book was written to get folks to fall in love with him, and I’m already there.
I was lucky enough to have Angela Flournoy read at my book release party in New York this summer, which pulled me back to a second reading of The Turner House. After that, I was forced to ask myself why I don’t treat myself to new fiction, instead of falling back into the same handful of fiction books I love. I did a panel on politics with Kaitlyn Greenidge, and purchased her book We Love You, Charlie Freeman, thinking that I’d get to it sometime in the winter. But I started it the next day, and finished it within 48 hours. It reminded me of how fiction can slowly and gently surprise, unlike poems, which sometimes have to reveal the surprise early in the work. I won’t spoil anything about Greenidge’s book, but the ending was so perfect, I read over it twice. Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is one of those rare things that is actually as good as everyone says it is.
I’m on the road a lot these days, more than I’d like. I’m in small plane seats and in quiet hotel rooms and in corner booths at coffee shops in cities where I know no one. It’s not ideal, but this was the year that I truly felt like I lived the motto of “read more than you write.” I’m hoping 2017 will leave me just as lucky.
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During my first Christmas break as a high school English teacher in Florida, I sat down with the curriculum, a hand-written list of books Xeroxed so many times that the edges of the letters had become blurry. I had choices with the “Modern Novel,” the next unit of the year. The department head — an ardent, tough teacher of three decades, who had parents protest her teaching of Marquez, who taught Their Eyes Were Watching God to freshmen — reminded me, “If you care for it, you can make the kids care about it.”
When I saw that Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge was a “Modern Novel” on the senior year curriculum, I felt a great space open in my chest. I read Hardy’s poetry, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles in college. I didn’t know novels could so unflinching and unblinking. In Hardy, life doesn’t “work out” for everyone. Good people suffer and they die and the world does not ripple at their death. Survival, happiness even, demands compromise, eschewal, and tragedy.
Yes, I was making the choice to ask my students to read what I had. I allowed the kismet of the Hardy option to meet my impulse. His Wessex, the fictional Southwest England setting of his novels, had the same cycles of boom-bust Florida: nature razed for shaky industries, gray metal creeping across green fields. Men, always men, catching feelings about the money to be made, then deciding that the slow rituals of the past can be tossed away.
The Mayor of Casterbridge’s narrative is largely aftermath. In the first chapter, a 20-something hay trusser named Michael Henchard gets catastrophically drunk at a country fair and auctions off his young wife and infant daughter in a fit of self-pitying rage. Hardy’s narrator summarizes Henchard’s beta-male wallowing in the moments before the sale: “The conversation took a high turn…the ruin of good men by bad wives, and, more particularly, the frustration of many a promising youth’s high aims and hopes, and the extinction of his energies, by an early imprudent marriage.” Henchard awakes the next morning, takes a public pledge to abstain from liquor for 20 years, leaves the fair ground, and heads down the south coast of England to the regional hub of Casterbridge.
Almost 20 years later, Henchard has made himself into an agricultural plutocrat. But his white-hot rage and self-loathing burns on. He abuses his employees, fires them on a whim, and white-knuckles his sobriety. When we first see him in middle-age, he’s at the head of a table in Casterbridge’s upmarket inn, surrounded by subordinates, drinking “from his tumbler of water as if to calm himself or to gain time.”
The eyes through which we see this updated but unchanged vision of Henchard? A beautiful, naïve 20-something girl new to town: Henchard’s long-lost daughter, Elizabeth-Jane. The plot unfurls from there in a way that only serialized novels of the Victorian era can. Ancillary characters relay information under the drooping eaves of a shack, the narrator lingers on the symbolism of a bridge’s materials (Hardy himself was trained as an architect), lovers appear suddenly and die accidently, and a bright and decent young Scotsman named Farfrae with new devices for increasing grain production and eyes for Elizabeth-Jane becomes Henchard’s protégé.
In that first year, before asking the students to write a critical essay on the novel, I asked the seniors to “reboot” The Mayor of Casterbridge by writing five-page treatments set in 21-century south Florida.
The results astonished me. Students transformed the grain industry to the hotel business, peopled their stories with car salesmen, and even managed to work in the cocaine trade (thanks, lax bros!). The tumult of Hardy’s take on family and paternity became multi-ethnic families, hidden religious conversions, and addictions to pills or gambling. A right-wing Cuban patriarch (a Henchard) sells his wife and daughter not out of a corn-whiskey abyss but out of a shame for his Caribbean wife and child’s blackness. The end of the agrarian way of life in Hardy’s eyes became, in the eyes of a young woman whose family works on the boats and yachts in Palm Beach County, the transformation of a sleepy, humble fishing village into a glossy, anonymous eco-resort by a young, well-intentioned real estate developer (a Farfrae).
I had read their college essays in the fall. Adolescents, no matter how savvy or guarded, cannot help but disclose. Many of their Hardy-founded creative writings overlapped with their personal essays. Things that they had written in the fall, episodes from their young lives, came back again in their fiction: addiction, the working class, parents, how we live in the natural world, their stories in their towns in Florida, the unforgivable acts that only those close to you can commit, the things about yourself that you will never be able to change. They had shown me, in those college essays, glimpses of themselves at their most vulnerable.
My students conjured Floridian visions of Casterbridge that reflected the state. What would happen when the economy went cadaverous again and the boats and hotel guests disappeared, and Governor Rick Scott decided that fracking the Everglades was the future? How will my students react when the state tries to drug test SNAP recipients? What about when a private prison company tries to sponsor FAU’s football stadium? What about when another black child is killed by the police? To live in Florida in 2015 is to distrust beauty, to suspect relief.
The alchemy of book, classroom setting, geography, cultural moment, and motivated students had produced the godhead of the English classroom: Authentic connections across time, space, and between individual and group. Students were learning that literature’s “equipment for living,” to borrow Kenneth Burke’s phrase, could live inside a 19th-century novel, and that this equipment was honed by suffering resembling their own.
I wondered if I had done anything particularly special. Yes, I love Hardy. Yes, the book came late enough in the term for students to deploy their training in close reading and in claim making. Yes, I did well in setting up the novel, showing slides from the Lake District before showing an image of Picasso’s “Guernica” and asking the students to think about Hardy as the bridge between eras of thinking, ages of belief.
What I could never say, what a teacher should never say, is that I saw myself in one the characters: Michael Henchard. I drank fiercely in my 20s. I alienated peers; lost weekends; spoilt relationships with potential mentors; twisted quiet gatherings into loud, repulsive stand-up; said needlessly provocative things. I did not apologize. Living with shame felt like enough. When I read Henchard’s dialogue to the class, I felt the desperation. I felt how each stupid, instinctual decision he makes in the novel is an attempt to claw back the past, to scrub the quintessential, unnamable weaknesses out of his soul. When I made cases to my students for why Henchard could not be written off as “the worst” or “evil,” I rooted around for how I might defend the worst corners of myself. Sure, I played devil’s advocate for Henchard to present the pithy idea of “human frailty.” But I also played that part to uncover, label, and put away a version of myself.
Did I speak with particular power on Henchard? Did my voice rise in urgency? Did I offer the students a glimpse of the unexpected — digging for identification in a destructive character? What other doors had Casterbridge propped open? Was Henchard a glimpse of their mother? Their brother struggling with pills outside Tampa? How many Elizabeth-Janes did I have in my classroom? Had I made enough space for her story and the stories of my students who saw themselves in her?
In my second year teaching Casterbridge, I omitted the creative assignment. Instead, I asked the students to write an in-class essay about a symbol from the final chapters. Hardy wrote two endings for the novel, and I hesitate to spoil either of them. Both devastate. I foregrounded Casterbridge on our final exam, making the students juxtapose Henchard against other protagonists we read that year: Beowulf, Macbeth, and others. This time the student work was more clinical. Instead of mining their own lives, they examined, like astute literary surgeons, how exactly Henchard’s weaknesses and Elizabeth-Jane’s resilience circle each other in ways that recall Macbeth’s weaknesses and Banquo’s stoicism. One student — an international student, far from home, writing in her second language — wrote a brilliant in-class essay on how Henchard and Macbeth destroy their social and familial networks because their shared “unchecked” ambition confuses destruction with the desire to change. Her essay’s title: “Defeated By Life.”
I’ve just re-read her essay for at least the fifth time, and I wonder about what happened among Hardy, my students, Florida, 2015, and me. If the teenage years are hard enough, what business did I have adding to the misery? In Philip Larkin’s essay on Hardy, “Wanted: A Good Hardy Critic,” he makes the case that Hardy’s chief subject is “suffering.” Larkin argues that inaccurate readers see Hardy’s central characters as a “galleries of ‘losers’ against whom is ranged a contrasting gallery of winners.” We should instead, Larkin writes, see that suffering is “both the truest and the most important element in life, most important in the sense of most necessary to spiritual development.”
Moments of our Florida seemed comfortable: the blistering, pre-lapsarian beauty of seeing parchment-white ibises strolling between the school buildings and hearing students yelling happily as they run out of the school, the daily afternoon rain pausing overhead.
But high school English teachers know two things: adolescence is hard, and the literature you teach should reflect your students’ lives. Therefore, teenagers deserve literature that supplies suffering. For the students living through suffering, Hardy, and writers like him, can locate a student’s suffering and reflect it. That reflection can be a step toward recovery and development. The students living a life of comfort require the shaking alarm bell that survival is hard, people are deeply fallible, and life comprehensively unfair.
You, the teacher, have to dive into yourself to find the books that touch upon your suffering. You’ll teach them with greater urgency and match them to the sufferings of your students. They’ll engage with them — critically, imaginatively — with greater desire. In 2015, text complexity — the degree to which a book challenges, to the point of productive discomfort, a student with its vocabulary, syntax, rhetoric, and structure — is coin of the realm of the English classroom. Take that a step further. At the highest level, the deepest mode of text complexity should foster the deepest kinds of emotional engagements from the teacher and the students. If the book doesn’t affect and afflict everyone in the room, what’s the point? The prevailing winds of education theory seem to advocate for the opaque, “guide on the side” teacher who makes her or his stakes in the text mysterious at best.
Oddly enough, this desire reminds me of Henchard’s final act in Casterbridge: his writing of a will that demands that he be forgotten, that “no sexton be asked to toll the bell. & that nobody is wished to see my dead body. & that no murners walk behind me at my funeral. & that no flours be planted on my grave. & that no man remember me.”
But life, like the classroom, doesn’t work that way. Here, among teenagers and rough drafts, there is no place where the story cannot not see us. We, the students and the teacher, have to stand together under the discomforting light of what we might call suffering, what we might call literature.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
Storm damage from Hurricane Eloise; Panama City, FL; Florida Memory
I’ve found no finer description of a hurricane than the one in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s there, in the thick of the central Florida muck, that her characters Janie and Tea Cake encounter the full force of a storm so powerful, so destructive that it seems to move with its own agency, and to do whatsoever it pleases. It’s a storm so awesome that it seems distinct from the very laws of nature, from the forces of its own creation, and it resembles instead a malevolent beast with particular enemies. Anyone who’s hunkered down during a Category 3 or higher can relate: when the storm hits, it seems impossible that the earth could conjure something so devastating, could undo itself so completely.
Louder and higher and lower and wider the sound and motion spread, mounting, sinking, darking. It woke up old Okeechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed…Under its multiplied roar could be heard a mighty sound of grinding rock and timber and a wail. They looked back. Saw people trying to run in raging waters and screaming when they found they couldn’t…As far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed…He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.
It’s in those terrifying moments, after the clouds have bruised the sky into an all-encompassing black, that Hurston writes, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
There are many ways to die in Florida, and a hurricane is only one. For example, you could be undone by the effects of sea-level rise — more than 3.7 inches since 1996 — which will soon turn Miami into America’s Atlantis. Then there are sink holes swallowing subdivisions into the state’s limestone maw. Florida is where Americans are most likely to be bitten by sharks and struck by lightning.
There are also trends that, while they may not immediately kill you, will completely alter the state’s identity, and could end life as we all know it. The reefs are being destroyed, the citrus is greening, and the swamp has been invaded by massive pythons, cat-eating lizards, and titanic rodents.
And that’s just nature. Pay attention to the “Florida Man” news stories long enough and you’ll wonder how anyone survives for more than a day in the state. It’s distressing enough to worry about natural furies beyond your control, but now you’ve also got to watch out for face-eating madmen and self-proclaimed demigods with dendrophilic tendencies. Even the act of dying seems particularly terrible in Florida, a state where corpses buried in the fertile soil can rise again on their own. (In that context, one suddenly understands the meaning behind that Patty Griffin song.)
All this considered, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Florida has been the setting for several works of pre-, post-, and regular apocalyptic fiction for more than 60 years. The state is a veritable Gashlycrumb nightmare, capable of ending your life in infinite ways, and so of course it serves as an energentic muse for writers interested in doomsday scenarios. What might surprise you, however, is that some of the most exciting works in the canon of “Floridapocalyptic” writing are not necessarily warnings about natural disasters and tropical storms. Rather, the four works below are more imaginative takes on the state’s doom, each offering a glimpse into yet another way that night could fall on the Sunshine State.
Spreading out from a lighthouse along a southern state’s “Forgotten Coast” there exists a forbidden zone. Here, under watch by several arms of the U.S. government, a mysterious mass slowly expands, forever altering everything that comes into contact with its creeping, invisible border. “It did not allow half measures,” notes one of the surveyors in Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding Area X trilogy. “Once you touched it, it pulled you in (or across?).” Its sudden appearance is kept secret from ordinary citizens — even those residing in the surrounding towns of Hedley and Bleakersville — but to certain individuals with the right security clearance, this much is clear:
The night the border had come down, it had taken ships and planes and trucks with it, anything that happened to be on or approaching that imaginary but too-real line at the moment of its creation, and for many hours after, before anyone knew what was going on, knew enough to keep distant. Before the army moved in. The plaintive groan of metal and the vibration of engines that continued running as they disappeared…into something, somewhere. A smoldering, apocalyptic vision, the con towers of a destroyer, sent to investigate with the wrong intel, “sliding into nothing” as one observer put it.
Is it the work of aliens? Is it something man-made? Was it divined by occult worshippers meddling with supernatural forces beyond their control? Can it be stopped? Can its entrance be closed? The answers are more complex than their questions, and they defy summary, as David Tompkins noted in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Borrowing a term from Timothy Morton, Tompkins described Area X as a “hyperobject,” or “too complex, too massively distributed across space and time, for humans to get a grip on.”
The connection is inspired, as readers will come to discover, and it’s made all the more so when you assume the book’s setting — which is never explicitly stated — to be Florida. After all, clues are abundant: the swamps, the mossy coasts, “the way that the distant sky formed dark curtains of downpours,” the rumrunning lineage of the region’s earliest inhabitants, and the alluvial limestone foundation upon which towns have been built. The description of Chipper’s Star Lanes (Note: Possible spoilers), a dive bar frequented by one of the book’s characters, is the kind of place that could only exist in the Sunshine State.
Indeed, the connection works so well because Florida, more than any other state in the nation, has behaved throughout its history as an ecological hyperobject, confounding development and civil engineering experts who’ve mastered massive projects in other, tamer parts of the country. For the Army Corps of Engineers (those “supposed-to-be conquerors,” as Hurston called them), the state’s tremendous network of aquifers and waterways has been like a hellish game of Whack-a-Mole: they dam one region, they flood another; they irrigate one pasture, they poison a reservoir. On a tropical peninsula where the highest point is only 345 feet above sea-level, you get the sense that nothing man does here will matter in the long run because, sooner than later, the entire place will be consumed by the earth from whence it rose.
In this way, VanderMeer’s Area X makes the most sense. In this way, Florida is the most likely place for a world-ending hyperobject to unspool, and to voraciously devour the rest of us with it.
This is the way the world ends: both with a bang and a dachshund. Or at least that’s how it must’ve felt to Randy Bragg when his sleeping dog was suddenly shocked off of his lap by the sound of an explosion in the distant south, toward Miami. Fortunately for him and his housemates, Miami — which was just nuked by the Soviets — is hundreds of miles from Fort Repose, which rests in the state’s central dead space, mutually far from the U.S.S.R.’s next targets: Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville alike. Though he can’t know for sure in that moment, what Randy and his wiener dog have just endured was the first salvo in World War III: a coordinated, multi-national, nuclear assault on not only the biggest cities in America, but the biggest cities in Europe, as well.
This is the jumping off point in Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank’s Cold War classic about the fate of one Florida town spared from nuclear winter. From here, the novel concerns itself with how people cope with an obliterated society, and how modern society would fare if it were suddenly stripped of all of its technological accoutrements.
In this way, Randy Bragg’s Floridian locale was incredibly fortuitous. Down south, he and his housemates don’t need to worry about the onset of frigid winters, and the soil is cooperative enough to grow sustainable agriculture. The waterways are relatively pristine — or at least they were at the time of the book’s writing, in the 1950s — and they volunteer enough fish to feed entire families. While there are versions of Fort Repose all throughout the country, you get the sense that the Floridian survivors are faring much, much better than their counterparts in Fargo.
It seems almost paradoxical, then, that Frank chose to set his post-apocalyptic vision in a place that at the time was mostly known for its pristine, Eden-like qualities. Then again, stains are most evident on untarnished backdrops. Perhaps it was the post-war development of Florida, marked by a rapid influx of new residents — Frank goes out of his way to mention several Ohio transplants in his novel — that inspired him. This degradation is touched on briefly when Randy, just after the blast, ponders the changes he’s witnessed in a single generation:
In his father’s youth, this section of Florida had been a hunter’s paradise, with quail, dove, duck, and deer in plenty, and even black bear and rare panther. Now the quail were scattered and often scarce…Randy had not shot quail in twelve years. When visitors noticed his gunrack and asked about quail shooting, he always laughed and said, “Those guns are to shoot people who try to shoot my quail.”
Progressing forward several decades, Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro concerns itself with a Florida even farther removed from an apocalyptic, nuclear event. Here, along the southern Keys, bands of people have been living for years cut off not only from the rest of the nation, but even from mainland Florida. The state of the nation is unclear, but we know for certain that Miami is an irradiated ruin. Stories of contamination are legion, and only the elders recall life before the blast. The survivors’ culture is scarcely recognizable. America — or at least the America that still exists — is no longer a mostly Christian nation, but rather one that recognizes the gods Allah, Quetzalcoatl, and Bob Marley in addition to Jesus.
In certain respects, it’s possible to read the book as a sequel to Alas, Babylon, albeit one that’s philosophically opposite. Whereas Pat Frank’s characters retain their ’50s-era gung-ho, “we can do this” mentality, and they remain focused on weathering their storm and progressing with their projects, the environment in Fiskadoro is bleak, hopeless, and devastated. Characters abandon their tasks and lose focus. (One has a particularly awful encounter with drugged up pirates who mutilate their own genitals.) At no time do you get the sense that anything will improve for Denis Johnson’s characters, who exist on the edge of the world, subsisting on whatever flotsam and jetsam wash upon its shores.
To some degree, its possible that Alas, Babylon reads more optimistically because in the ’50s, it still felt like humanity could right its course, and like Florida could be saved. By the time Johnson got to Fiskadoro in 1985, however, that glimmer of hope had been lost, and it was apparent that the end of the world would truly be the end of the world, and that there would be no coming back in the way we’d once hoped possible.
Native Floridians feel about their home state the way moths do about flames. On some level, they’re aware of how bad it’ll be for them to return, how easy it’ll be to fall in with their old crowds, and how the kind of people drawn to the state’s tropical climate have a way of acting as lotus-eaters around one another, stretching time out to perverse, unproductive lengths. They know this, and yet they return anyway. Laura van den Berg, who grew up in Orlando, must understand this truth as well, because why else would she focus the second half of her novel Find Me on her protagonist’s escape from a Kansan hospital down south all the way to Key West? Yes, the character has her reasons, but buried beneath them, one suspects that it’s the author’s inborn desire to return home that’s driving the action more than anything else.
That’s not a detriment, either. Find Me, which features some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read in years, picks up in the wake of a public health pandemic, the likes of which haven’t been seen in America since the great flu outbreak of 1918. Across the country, people are becoming afflicted by a strange illness that erases their memories, and soon kills them. A band of survivors has been holed up in a hospital ward so that medical professionals — or so they call themselves — can examine them for congenital immunity. Joy Jones, an orphan who grew up in Boston, is the novel’s main character.
While residents of the hospital are shielded from the outside world by the hospital staff, who limit their exposure to the Internet and television, Joy nevertheless discovers a secret about her early life. After escaping from the hospital, she can think of nowhere else to head than to the nation’s southernmost point: Key West, home to the person she’s most trying to find.
In a recent episode of The Book Report, Michael Schaub asks Janet Potter about why readers are so interested in post-apocalyptic fiction, and Potter says, “Some people say that it’s a way to process our cynicism as a society, that we are actively killing the world around us, and ruining our own bodies with the amount of toxins we’re constantly taking in, so we’re kind of speculating, like, if we are destroying our world, what will happen to us? Will we be OK?”
Maybe in Florida — in spite of everything else — we might be.
Oh, what a vileness human beauty is,
Corroding, corrupting everything it touches.
-Euripides, Orestes, 126-7
With such painstaking awe is the beauty of The Red and The Black’s Julien Sorel detailed that one might think Stendhal was describing a woman. We are treated to countless descriptions of Julien’s “fine complexion, his great black eyes, and his lovely hair, which was curlier than most men’s…” We learn that his eyes sparkle with hatred when he is angry, and indicate thought and passion when he is at peace. “Among the innumerable varieties of the human face, there may well be none more striking,” Stendhal suggests, almost matter-of-factly.
In The Greater Hippias, Plato argues that beauty is good and the good is beautiful: the two are identical. Superficial though the ancient Greeks might have been, even later Christian philosophers like Castiglione held that only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.
Stendhal would have agreed. With Julien’s high Napoleonic ideals and his violent, even physiological, reactions to all things base or hypocritical, he has “a soul fashioned for the love of beauty.” But life does not turn out so well for this young romantic because, predictably, Julien “was barely a year old when his beautiful face began to make friends for him, among the little girls…”
Fictional characters enjoy exaggerated attributes, but few have the sort of beauty that marks Julien Sorel, where the beauty is not only essential to his character, elevating his soul, but outside of it, dictating his destiny. If beauty can be distilled from its specific fictional forms, does it have a cogent power of its own in literature?
1. The Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
If there were ever a fictional beauty contest of sorts, the stand-out winner might very well be Remedios the Beauty from 100 Years of Solitude. Naive to the point of saintliness, Remedios the Beauty unintentionally causes the deaths of several men who lust over her. But despite being entirely uninterested in feminine wiles, dressing in course cassocks, and shaving her head:
…the more she did away with fashion in a search for comfort and the more she passed over conventions as she obeyed spontaneity, the more disturbing her incredible beauty became…
Under the Platonic model there is a “scale of perfection ranging from individual, physical beauty up the heavenly ladder to absolute beauty.” And in that lofty vein, Garcia Marquez describes Remedios the Beauty as though she were beauty manifest, in too pure a form for this Earth, and she leaves her novel by mysteriously ascending to the sky, like a spirit.
What exactly was it that made Remedios the Beauty so “disturbingly” beautiful? For one, it had very little to do with the worldly practice of seduction. Writes Neal Stephenson (about another beautiful character) in The System of the World:
Faces could beguile, enchant, and flirt. But clearly this woman was inflicting major spinal injuries on men wherever she went, and only a body had the power to do that. Hence the need for a lot of Classical allusions… Her idolaters were reaching back to something pre-Christian, trying to express a bit of what they felt when they gazed upon Greek statues of nude goddesses.
Still, the ascending beauty of Remedios the Beauty struck me as close to paradoxical. She might have been beauty in essence, but her absolute beauty was something she achieved, namely, by renouncing her beauty through eschewing feminine clothing and, more vividly, shaving her head.
There is a curious relationship between hair and destiny in literature. Chaucer, like Hollywood, is known for casting women by their hair color, but he is far from the exception. In keeping with the practices of Remedios the Beauty, the most reputable beautiful women in fiction part ways with their hair altogether at some point, such as Maria “the cropped headed one” in For Whom The Bell Tolls (whose name is an arguable allusion to the Virgin Mary by Hemingway), or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who hides her hair under a rag for much of her life (and is reputable to her readers, if not always to the townsfolk of Eatonville). Even fictional literary scholar Maud Bailey from A.S. Byatt’s Possession picked up on the strange connection between hair and destiny for beautiful women: she kept her head nearly shaved in her early teaching days, recounting Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory”:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But Julien Sorel never made such sacrifices. It would be most remiss to compare him to the saintly Remedios the Beauty, as he dabbles in vanity, employs manipulative mind-games, and continuously – though not malevolently – makes full use of his preternatural sex appeal in pursuit of his romantic ambitions. Rather, Julien is far better suited to a category of characters with a starkly different literary reputation…
2. The Second Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
Notable beautiful women with such a lust for life include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “had that indefinable beauty that results from joy, from enthusiasm, from success” and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with her “mysterious, poetic, charming beauty, overflowing with life and gayety…” But the most beautiful of all is The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity… Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters… her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light… her figure might have stood for one of the higher female deities…
Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”
Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”
And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?
3. The Curse of Beauty
The short answer: Yes. Without question. All four romantic leads bring about varying degrees of generalized suffering and to some degree their own demise, whether in gruesome and painful detail, like Emma Bovary, or only in critical speculation, like Eustacia. In literature, as it turns out, it is dangerous to be ambitious just as it is dangerous to be beautiful, but to be both ambitious and beautiful is fatal.
Helen of Troy is the prototypical example that ancient aesthetic philosophy ascribed a darker tone to female beauty than it (generally speaking) did to male beauty. Historian Bettany Hughes writes, “Rather than positioning Helen’s beauty as a worthy gift of the gods – ancient authors… saw her peerless face and form as a curse.” And yet, the power of Julien’s beauty proves to be as inevitably corrosive in The Red and The Black as it does in the respective novels of our beautiful female characters.
In fact, that sheer absence of a double standard to a great extent saves The Red and The Black from losing its modern flavor. As P. Walcot acknowledges the ancient Greek belief in “the male’s inability to resist… the immense power that the female wields through her sexuality,” so, too, are Julien’s female admirers Madame de Rênal (despite being married!) and Mathilde de La Mole (despite being solely motivated by boredom!) judged equally helpless in succumbing to their desire for him.
In part this arises from an amount of sympathy that Stendhal clearly harbored for women (he apparently had a beloved sister), even wealthy, spoiled, bored young women like Mathilde: in reference to her, he quotes from the Memoirs of the Duke d’Angouleme, “The need of staking something was the key to the character of this charming princess… Now, what can a young girl stake? The most precious thing she has: her reputation.”
Julien Sorel, conversely, escapes Stendhal’s goodwill far longer. From Diane Johnson’s introduction to The Red and the Black:
This accounts for the side of Julien that is calculating, flattering, insincere, and inwardly hostile even to people who intend to help and love him – indeed, he is an early example of an anti-hero of whom, at first, even Stendhal cannot approve. (emphasis added)
4. The Cure of Youth
But The Red and The Black has an unexpected twist: Julien gets to die like a martyr. There is hardly a consensus on this interpretation, but I read his death as something akin to a happy ending. Julien somehow manages to give everyone what they want from him – in particular, his most affected conquests. He returns the pious Madame de Rênal’s love and fulfills the passionate Mathilde’s Gothic fantasies while (outwardly) rejecting neither of them. But more amazingly: he reaches a sort of inner peace. He listens to his own heart which – unbelievably – instructs him to be truthful, sincere, to love the woman who most deserves it, and to carry the sole blame and make the entirety of amends for all the misfortune his (prior) self-indulgent, romantic nature hath wrought. Rather than marking a fundamental lack of character, Julien’s selfishness can be dismissed as mere youthful indiscretion.
Having sought the mystery behind the divergent destinies of Julien and his beautiful female counterparts in terms of the role of beauty in fiction, I come to find that it resolves itself in another, altogether more disconcerting thesis: that perhaps the nature of the young romantic hero in literature is eventually malleable, whereas the nature of the young romantic heroine in literature is essentially fixed.
Towards the end of her life, it occurs to Anna Karenina, “I am not jealous, but unsatisfied…” Emma Bovary and Eustacia Vye have similar exits: their earthly desires resist satiation, but congeal and turn ever more destructive. Their three fates recall the following canto from Dante’s Inferno, which warns of a female beast:
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
And so beautiful women in literature are brought to ultimately ugly ends.