Nikky Finney on the Poet’s Responsibility

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At Lit Hub, Nikky Finney joins guest Walter Mosley on the The Quarantine Tapes to discuss her responsibility as a poet to share her different perspective with the wider world. “It is my responsibility as a poet to look at us as human beings,” Finney says, “but to also talk about the fact that things in our very different lives in this republic, in this country, have made us very different human beings. My experiences as a Black girl, Black woman, growing up in the South have given me entree into something that I know very well, that I speak of, because it is very important to me to put that perspective into the human circle. That’s really important for me to do.”

Claire Messud on Edith Wharton’s Clear and Complex Vision

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For the New York Times Style Magazine, Claire Messud reflects on one of Edith Wharton’s most memorable characters, Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country. “The fact that The Custom of the Country is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times,” Messud writes. “Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach.”

James Baldwin, Seen Through His Record Collection

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At Hyperallergic, Valentina Di Liscia speaks to Hammer Museum curator Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, who compiled a 32-hour Spotify playlist based on James Baldwin’s sprawling record collection, which includes Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, and more. “The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi says. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”

Image source: Allan Warren

The Unruly Energy of Ursula K. Le Guin

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At the London Review of Books, Colin Burrow reflects on how Ursula K. Le Guin’s narrative prowess flourished within the constraints of science fiction and children’s literature. “Fiction needs the unruly energies of indeterminacy,” Burrow writes, “of being partly inside the mind of the reader, of trying to hold in check or wrestle with earlier fictions that it doesn’t quite want to become, of being only in an illusory way autonomous. To put that less abstractly, the constraints of genre fiction, of SF and children’s literature, were good for Le Guin: they forced her imagination not only to make a world, but to throw stories at it. Narrative matters in fiction because when things happen the structures of an imagined world have to flex a bit, and that can test their resilience and generate new energies.”

Image credit: Marian Wood Kolisch

Carmen Maria Machado on the Darkness Behind Patricia Highsmith

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At the Guardian, Carmen Maria Machado reflects on the complicated, “fundamentally difficult” work of suspense writer Patricia Highsmith. “If you read the genres of suspense,” Machado writes, “crime and mystery and horror in its many iterations – you know the sensation of allowing a master of her craft to pursue you through a maze; the tingly energy of the chase, the eroticism of encountering the end of the line. ‘Murder,’ Highsmith wrote in her diary in 1950, ‘is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.’ When you read one of Highsmith’s stories, you’ve given her permission to follow you, catch you, take you apart. Get ready to run.”

Jacqueline Woodson on the Power of Changing the Narrative

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At the Cut, Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone, shares how she structures her days, from her reading habits to how she organizes her thoughts. “Another thing about being a writer is you get to create content and you get to change the narrative,” Woodson says. “For me, writing allows me to have some control in that way. Living in my head and imagining what the world can be like — where there can be beauty, hope, empathy, social justice, and change — is really a way to make it through every day.”

Jenny Offill on the Shocks of Recognition in Mrs. Dalloway

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At the New Yorker, Jenny Offill writes about the multitudes found within her favorite book, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “In 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote about a peculiarity that runs through all real works of art,” Offill writes. “The books of certain writers (she was speaking of Charlotte Brontë at the time) seem to shape-shift with each reading. […] For me, Mrs. Dalloway is such a book, one to which I have mapped the twists and turns of my own autobiography over the years. Each time, I have found shocks of recognition on the page, but they are always new ones, never the ones I was remembering. Instead, some forgotten facet of the story comes to light, and the feeling is always that of having blurred past something that was right in front of me.”

George Saunders on Stories as Laboratories of Connection

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At the Guardian, George Saunders discusses his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, with Killian Fox. “I think the main thing that it [fiction] teaches us about is the process of projection that we’re constantly doing,” Saunders says. “I’m a Buddhist, and we believe you really do make the world with your mind. So a story is like a laboratory to help you identify your own habits and projections. Also, it’s about being in connection with that other human being who wrote it. Working on this book made me realise that when you’re reading a story and analysing it, you’re really reassuring yourself that connection is possible, and that even though this person looks like my enemy, there is – maybe, not always – a way to temper that a bit.”

Remembering Jan Morris

At The Daily Beast, journalist Katherine O’Donnell offers a tribute to Welsh historian, prolific author, and pioneering trans woman Jan Morris, who passed away on November 20. “Her Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, would alone cement a literary and academic reputation. I’m 55 and I’ve been reading her since I was a teen and I’m barely halfway through her canon and they may yet see me out. Despite sixty years of critical acclaim, Morris didn’t even think that Venice was her best work; that, she said, was her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.” In addition to her memoir Conundrum, Morris is best known for her books on travel; however, she was not a fan of the travel writer label. “As Virgil was to Dante, you can feel Morris’s hand on your elbow, her voice and her presence runs through all of her writing. She described her books as an extended form of memoir: ‘They are one and all about the effects of everything on me,’ she told an interviewer who had begun by asking her why she disliked the term travel writer. ‘My books amount to one enormously self-centered autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply—a writer.’”

Take a Tour of Octavia Butler’s Favorite Libraries

At the L.A. Times, take an interactive tour of Octavia Butler’s Los Angeles—in particular, discover the public libraries that the award-winning sci-fi writer referred to as her second home. “Butler was a voracious reader, checking out any title that remotely piqued her interest. ‘I taste books, taste knowledge and for that matter, taste life experiences as some people taste wine or food.’” Butler wrote her first novel, Patternmaster, at Los Angeles Public Library’s Central branch, where she also volunteered as a tutor. “When asked her reason for applying, she wrote, ‘I want to help.’” The online map features photographs of the Parable of the Sower and Kindred author’s library call slips, writing notebooks, personal journals and more.