On the repercussions of turning down prizes

The French lost their minds when this debut novelist refused the Prix Goncourt. But his reasoning was pretty sound, and frankly, brave for the time we live in. For me, any prize would be hard to turn down just based on the money. (Should any of us be so lucky to survive the horse trading jury process). But still. Dangle $50k in front of my face and politics move down my fillets to the tail — I am going full rainbow trout on that worm and hook.

Not since Julien Gracq in 1951 had an author turned down a Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, when the writer published under the pseudonym Joseph Andras refused it in May 2016. And while the award in question was “only” that reserved for debut novelists, the ire his decision provoked among the Parisian literary scene’s most venerable circles did not betray its diminished importance. Speculative theories concerning his identity and “true” motivations graced the literary pages of just about every major newspaper. In a review, Pierre Assouline, honored member of the Académie Goncourt, labeled it the “Andras Affair,” and described both the author’s refusal and the more poetic parts of the book as pretentious (confirmation, if need be, that the use of “pretentious” in a review is usually more of a tell on the critic than on their subject).

Andras, for his part, explained in a letter to the judges that his decision was political: against the spirit of competition, which for him doesn’t belong in the creative arts, and in keeping with a novel largely concerned with the struggle and ideals of “a militant for social and political equality.” Subsequent interviews would also mention his desire to keep his anonymity, along with a certain disdain for Parisian littérateurs, whose world, likely to mistake writers for media personalities, is one he prefers to stay away from. But his main concerns were for the book itself: for a narrative he didn’t want to see associated with, not to say recuperated by, the establishment (literary or otherwise).

Friday news get down

Lockdown is still with us, but we’re creeping closer to spring. My understanding from last year is that all this should just magically disappear when the weather warms up. Someone said that, I think. Who was it? Pfft. I guess we’ll never remember.

Thursday news dumpster


Is it just me, or does this mostly seem like not-world-ending news? Shh. Let’s not scare it off. I’ll cut off the list if things start to degrade.

RIP: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Beloved poet and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti has died at 101 years of age. Not a bad run. I made a pilgrimage to City Lights in the 90s sometime, though I didn’t see him. Like many poets of my years, I had a brief interest in the Beats after The Dead Poets Society movie, but I really went to see City Lights as part of my lifelong love of walking around penniless in famous bookstores. Encomium can be found at:

Or you could just listen to him reading a poem about his dong.

Tuesday newsday

On consciousness and literature

The Millions has an essay that takes a tour of books with thoughts on how the above are related. We are, at some base level, story-making machines. Whether it’s fiction (extrapolated entirely within the imagination from wisdom and past experience) or not (the story you are telling yourself of the day you’re going through right now), narrative is a base function of how we interact with the world. And some smart people have thoughts on that. My narrative this morning will include trying to force a 13 year old who is too-cool-for-school to turn his goddamn webcam on so his teacher can see if he’s paying attention instead of goofing off. It’s a universal tale.

The history of the novel is a history of consciousness. During the eighteenth-century, in the aftershocks of the emergence of the modern novel, first-person faux-memoirs — fictional accounts written with the conceit that they were merely found documents like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels — reflected both the Protestant attraction towards the self-introspection which the novel allowed for, but also an anxiety over its potentially idolatrous fictionality (the better to pretend that these works actually happened). By the nineteenth-century that concern manifested in the enthusiasm for epistolary novels, a slight variation on the “real document” trope for grappling with fictionality, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Concurrently, the nineteenth-century saw the rise in the third-person omniscient narrations, with all of its intimations of God-like eternity that we associate with novels like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. By contrast, the twentieth-century marked the emergence of stream-of-consciousness in high modernist novels such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; and following the precedent of Gustave Flaubert and Jane Austen, authors like Virginia Woolf in Mrs. Dalloway and D.H. Lawrence in The Rainbow made immaculate use of free indirect discourse, where the intimacy of the first person is mingled into the bird’s eye perspective of the third. All of these are radical; all of them miracles in their own way. But the first-person is only that which is able to transplant personal identity itself.

How writers are handling lockdown

Spoiler: they’re not. Everyone is distracted and worried. Allison Flood writes about “blockdown” — what’s happening to writers after a year in forced isolation. Wait, aren’t we supposed to be isolated already? Yes, but on our own terms. It’s like the dog barking at the end of the chain and when he gets let off, he lies down peacefully somewhere he could have with the chain still on. Personally, I’ve barely touched my behemoth fantasy novel since March, and I’m bargaining with myself to revisit my reasonable-length literary novel that needs a complete overhaul. That said, I have finished editing my book of new and selected poems and started a poetry school. So, you know, it’s all perspective.

If the first lockdown was about finding space to write (along with a blitz spirit and a Tesco delivery slot), then the second has been far bleaker and harder for creativity. Whether it is dealing with home schooling, the same four walls, or anxiety caused by the news, for many authors, the stories just aren’t coming.

“Stultified is the word,” says Orange prize-winning novelist Linda Grant. “The problem with writing is it’s just another screen, and that’s all there is … I can’t connect with my imagination. I can’t connect with any creativity. My whole brain is tied up with processing, processing, processing what’s going on in the world.”