Category: Essays

Discontent and Its Civilizations

Cover image for Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamidby Mohsin Hamid

ISBN 978-1-59463-403-1

“People often ask me if I am the book’s Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener. After all, a novel can be a divided man’s conversation with himself.”

Discontent and Its Civilizations is a collection of essays spanning the past fifteen years by globe-trotting novelist Mohsin Hamid. Born in Pakistan, he spent his childhood in California, his teen years in Lahore, and returned to America to study first at Princeton, and then Harvard Law School. When the twin towers fell on 9/11, he had just moved from New York to London. The essays are divided into three sections entitled “Life,” “Art,” and “Politics,” but of course the three are inextricably bound. A date is provided for each piece, but for the venue of original publication, the reader must refer to the acknowledgements at the end of the book.

Thematically, the book addresses the liminality of being from many places and nowhere at the same time. Hamid has lived at various times in Lahore, New York, and London, as he is of all of them, and none of them. The tension is heightened by the ongoing disagreements between the West and Islam, and Hamid finds himself cast as an unlikely interpreter between the two. While there are a few essays from the turn of the millennium, most of this work addresses a post-9/11 world. Many of the pieces first appeared in The New York Times, but others were published in Pakistani magazines or Indian newspapers so that we see Hamid speaking explicitly to both sides. The pieces range widely, but it is to this interpretive role that he returns again and again. In the end, you will know a bit about him as a person and as a writer, and how these identities have informed his view of the world.

Centrally, Hamid is concerned with breaking down the barrier between the two identities of Westerner and Muslim. It is the main thrust of the essay from which this collection takes its name, and pertains to many of the other pieces as well. The first draft of Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was written before 9/11, but had to go through four drafts because Hamid was resistant to the idea of updating it to incorporate—and somehow bear the weight of—this monumental event which so profoundly drove a wedge between the two identities in the public mind. He found the reaction to the final book telling, for though he was frequently asked if the book’s Pakistani narrator was based on himself, no one ever thought to ask the same question of the American listener who forms the other half of the frame narrative.

For the reader who has never shared Hamid’s hybrid existence and transient lifestyle, one of the most pressing questions in all of this will likely be why? Why move back to Pakistan at all, let alone with new baby daughter? One of the most lucid passages on this topic comes from the essay “Feverish and Flooded, Pakistan Can Still Thrive,” which was published in The Financial Times in 2010. In it he addresses his decision to return to Lahore with his wife and daughter, even as Pakistan exemplifies “extremes of hope and despair.” The passage reads “Recently I met a woman visiting Lahore from Hong Kong. Friends of hers abroad asked her why she was traveling to such a troubled country. She said it was like visiting a loved one when they were sick. No one relishes exposing themselves to illness, but when a parent or sibling is unwell, human instinct is to be with them until they recover. Pakistan is feverish these days. But I find much to admire and keep me here, and I hope for the sake of my daughter’s generation that one day soon the fever will break.” It is these moments of utter clarity that prove that Hamid is a deft interpreter, however reluctantly he took up the role.

Beyond this fundamental why, Hamid tries to introduce the reader to a Pakistan that has depth and colour, the details that are so easily effaced from a cursory news report, or a media briefing about a distant war. He revisits significant political events and international affairs, from the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, to American drone strikes in the Middle East, to Benghazi, but also the mundane things, like Pakistani pop music, the experience of the monsoon season, or a visit to the market. Since he has edited little, “each of the pieces remains of its place and of its time.” He has a deep seating optimism and hope for the future of the country of his birth, even as he acknowledges in the introduction that some of the hopeful signs he pointed to in early essays did not end up bearing fruit.

Long and short, dated and still-relevant, the essays form an interesting reflection on the type of hybrid, pluralistic identity that is becoming “increasingly universal” thanks to globalization. And like his hopefulness towards Pakistan’s future, Hamid regards mixed identities with optimism. “Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false.”


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The View from the Cheap Seats

Cover image for The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaimanby Neil Gaiman

ISBN 978-0-06-226226-4

“Ask me with a gun to my head if I believe in them, all the gods and myths that I write about, and I’d have to say no. Not literally. Not in the daylight, nor in well-lighted places, with people about. But I believe in the things they can tell us. I believe in the stories we can tell with them. I believe in the reflections that they show us, when they are told. And, forget it or ignore it at your peril, it remains true: these stories have power.”

The View from the Cheap Seats begins with a short general introduction, but moves fairly quickly to the essays themselves. The individual pieces are not introduced, though there is a brief note at the end of each explaining where an essay was originally published, or a talk delivered. I preferred to flip to the end and read this information first so that I had some context for the piece. This was helpful since some of the essays and speeches are quite old, and others rather recent, spanning a period of about thirty years. While it is sometimes nice to get more reflection from the author in a work of collected non-fiction, getting straight to the point does allow for more pieces to be included, and this book already clocks in at 502 pages, less the credits and index. In it, Gaiman champions libraries, defends intellectual freedom, reflects on science fiction and comics as art forms, and sheds light on his stories and writing process.

I read my first Neil Gaiman novel nearly a decade ago now. Since then I’ve seen Gaiman speak in person twice, and I regularly follow his current articles thanks to social media. But reading The View from the Cheap Seats was a bit like being able to travel back in time, back to before I knew who Neil Gaiman was, or to the window where I did know, but didn’t yet have Twitter or the ability to attend a signing or lecture. It was also a bit like being able to rummage around in Gaiman’s filing cabinets, dredging up old introductions, and speeches given at a time when such things were more ephemeral, and often only available to those who were there. Of course, someone has very kindly gone through and organized and annotated those filing cabinets for you, collecting ideas, and arranging related pieces in chronological order. Themes emerge, and you can almost see how certain ideas evolved or coalesced over time.

One of the pieces collected here is “Make Good Art,” which was a commencement address Gaiman delivered at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012. The video went viral, and the following year it was published as a small gift book designed by Chip Kidd. However, I was very happy to find it in this collection, because I could never bring myself to buy the book, for as many times as I have reread that speech and seen the video. Kidd is a very well-regarded designer, but our tastes—particularly in colour palettes—are vastly different. Though it could be included here based on popularity alone, “Make Good Art” is also integral to the collection for another reason; it can be seen as the distillation of a theme that runs through many of the pieces in the book, some of which were published in the 1990s: the exhortation to focus, above all, on creating quality work.

One of the earliest glimmers of this theme comes in the form of a cautionary speech, delivered to the Diamond Comics tenth annual retail seminar in April 1993. Entitled “Good Comics and Tulips,” in it Gaiman compares the unprecedented comics boom of that period to the seventeenth century Dutch tulip fad that gutted the economy of Holland when it inevitably collapsed. In the address, Gaiman pleads with the salesmen to remember that comics aren’t investment items, but stories, and that “comics are for reading and appreciating, like tulips are for planting and blossoming and appreciating.” Many people were basking in the financial glow, or fueling the idea of comics as investment items, but Gaiman was already worried about losing sight of the more integral—and sustainable—demand for good, old-fashioned story-telling.

Of course, that isn’t to say that Gaiman doesn’t ruminate on the business side of things. In addition to discussing craft and genre, he also includes a piece that was originally published as the introduction to Cory Doctorow’s book Information Doesn’t Want to be Free. The introduction talks about the changing financial environment for artists in the digital era. But Gaiman approaches this as he does many other things, through fiction, in this case by comparing the ability to effortlessly duplicate digital content to a 1958 short story by Ralph Williams entitled “Business as Usual, During Alterations,” about a department story that acquired a matter duplicator that enabled them to create unlimited copies of their merchandise while keeping the original. Like the author, and the magazine that published the story, Gaiman is optimistic that artists can continue to evolve and adapt to the new environment; people always want good stories, even as how they get them changes.

Many of the pieces included here are introductions to books Gaiman loved as a child, a good number of which have been largely forgotten since then. But Gaiman can make you care about things you’d never heard of yesterday, and find interesting angles on artists, and writers, and musicians outside of your normal wheelhouse. For all that he left journalism behind to make things up, he is a wonderfully insightful interviewer and columnist who seems to know intuitively where our empathy lives. The View from the Cheap Seats is a book that makes you want to read things, and listen to things, but most of all to make things.


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Citizen: An American Lyric

Cover image for Citizen by Claudia Rankineby Claudia Rankine

ISBN 978-1-55597-690-3

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

Visually, poet Claudia Rankine’s fifth book, Citizen, is a striking volume, designed by John Lucas and featuring cover art by David Hammons. It is this 1993 piece, entitled “In the Hood,” that made Rankine’s book so instantly recognizable when Johari Osayi Idusuyi read it on camera while sitting in the stands at a Donald Trump rally in Springfield, Illinois. Already a hit in the world of American poetry, Idusuyi’s actions brought the collection to popular attention. This is what prompted me to pick it up when I spotted it on a display at my local library. Though Citizen is only about 170 pages, it has surprising heft, as it is printed on 80# matte coated paper. The stark juxtaposition of the black and white design echoes one of the most haunting lines of the collection: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

The contents of Citizen are a combination of essays, poetry, and scripts for video projects Rankine made with her husband, John Lucas. Though it is nice to have the scripts included in the collection for reference, those pieces are really better watched in their visual form, accompanied by Rankine’s smooth, rhythmic reading. All of the poems attempt to capture the experience of race in America today, in various forms. Two of the pieces are poetic essays about race in sports, which Rankine finds interesting because “It’s documented. You have both commentary and action simultaneously and instantaneously. So it’s not just about watching what’s happening, you’re also hearing how it’s being interpreted at the moment that it’s happening.” The shorter pieces are often small, quotidian moments that make a person suddenly aware of race. These poems chronicle an accumulation of small wounds from awkward moments and thoughtlessly spoken words, as Rankine tries to track how these small acts can lead to larger atrocities. To do so, she documented not only her own experiences with race, but stories gathered from twenty-five friends, both black and white. She uses the second person “you” to put the reader right in the middle of these moments as they unfold.

In Citizen, Rankine skillfully captures the racial violence that can appear in language. One of the most memorable lines from the collection is “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Beyond the basic idea it conveys, what captures me here—and brings me back to this line again and again as the essence of the collection—is the choice of two words, “thrown,” and “sharp,” which denote contrast in this context, but also have violent connotations. However, the idea of physical violence is never far away, either. One two page spread hit me like a punch in the gut. On the right-hand page, a haiku on Ferguson reads only “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.” It sits opposite a piece that is also a list, which evolves with each new printing of the book. The first line reads “In Memory of Jordan Russell Davis.” In my edition, the tenth printing, the final complete line reads “In Memory of Sandra Bland.” Below it, the words “In Memory” appear ten more times, slowly fading as they approach the bottom of the page, ominously awaiting completion.

Although it is short, it would be a mistake to read Citizen too quickly; you could zip right through it without absorbing it, missing the subtleties. Not being much for more abstract modern poetry, I found the greatest strengths to be in the more concrete pieces, though I could always appreciate Rankine’s play with rhythm and repetition. I also suspect it would amply reward a second reading, as there is undoubtedly much here I have missed.


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Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2015. Click the title for a link to the full review. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year.

Between the World and Me

ISBN 978-0-8129-9354-7

Cover image for Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi CoatesBorrowing the conceit that James Baldwin used in his 1963 best-seller The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditation on what it means to be black in America takes the form of a letter to his fifteen-year-old son. This technique allows the work to feel at once deeply personal and widely applicable. Coates shares how his own awareness of his place in society developed, and then contrasts that with how different his son’s upbringing has been. He rejoices in having been able to give his son a better life, and also shares the painful ways in which he has not been able to make his child’s life different, the ways in which he has felt powerless to save or protect his son from the assumptions that always shroud young black men. The best sections include Coates’ thoughts on the role education, formal and informal, has played in his life, and his reflections on what it is like to be a secular black man in a community that has traditionally leaned on religion.

Categories: Memoir

The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami 

ISBN 978-0-8166-9198-2

Cover image for The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami by Matthew Carl StrecherWinona State University professor of Japanese literature Matthew Carl Strecher undertakes an extensive examination of two of the most fascinating stylistic elements present in the works of Haruki Murakami: magic realism, and parallel narratives. The Other World is present from Murakami’s earliest works, right through to his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami traces its evolution. Strecher explains Japanese literary traditions and techniques the Western reader might be unaware of, while also examining Murakami’s works through the lens of European literary theory, including Baudrillard, Derrida, and Barthes. He also contextualizes Murakami’s place within the Japanese literary tradition, even as he characterizes him as a global writer. For those who have read a large portion of Murakami’s work, and want to gain a greater understanding of its significance, Strecher offers a readable scholarly overview.

Categories: Criticsm 

The Inconvenient Indian

ISBN 978-1-4529-4031-1

the-inconvenient-indianIn this sweeping and unconventional history–which was one of the 2015 Canada Reads selections–Thomas King draws examples from the United States and Canada to illustrate the fate of the native peoples of North America since the arrival of European colonizers. King’s work is an informal account rather than an academic history, and his approach involves a healthy dose of humour, which may be off-putting to some readers given the serious nature of the topics he is dealing with. For King, humour is part of how he copes with the darkness of the history he is addressing, and this may help make a difficult topic more accessible. During the Canada Reads event, Craig Kielburger compared it to the humourous approaches used by Rick Mercer and Jon Stewart for raising awareness of current events. The litany of abuses King covers provides a very clear idea of why First Nations and Native Americans might be distrustful of government efforts to improve their current situation. While King is primarily looking back at what has already happened, understanding these issues is also crucial to moving forward.

Categories: Canadian, History

The New Jim Crow

ISBN 978-1-59558-643-8

Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderLaw professor and civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander argues that mass incarceration is the most important racial justice issue in America today. Alexander’s rhetorical device is to make a metaphorical comparison between the impacts Jim Crow once had on the lives of black people, and the disproportionate effects of mass incarceration on the African American population today. However, Alexander is careful to acknowledge and point out important differences between Jim Crow and mass incarceration. Although she sees significant similarities, she is by no means saying that the two are the same, or should be approached in the same way. Rather, her bold assertion seems designed to illustrate how a system that is intended to be colorblind can, through the conscious or unconscious biased application of discretion, have an outcome that is similar to that of an overtly racist system of control like Jim Crow. The New Jim Crow is also important because it breaks down the differences between the racial hostility and open bigotry that most Americans recognize as racism, and the quieter, more insidious forms of racial bias that are now that primary form of discrimination faced by American minorities.

Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsboredEdited and selected by novelist and essayist Megan Daum, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by writers about the decision not to have children. Each writer has their own journey to making this choice; some knew this fact about themselves all along, and others came to it more gradually. The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry or angst-ridden. As a whole, this collection neither disparages parenthood, nor advocates the child-free life, but simply seeks to ease some of the stigma that surrounds the decision by offering a window into the minds of those who have made it, and found it to be the right choice for them. Once inside, it shows that the variety within the group is at least as great as that between those who choose children, and those who chose not to procreate. Within its scope—predominantly female, American writers—the collection offers a varied look at a personal decision loaded down with a great deal of cultural baggage.

Categories: Essays

That’s it for me! What were your favourite non-fiction reads of 2015?

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

Cover image for Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absbored Edited by Megan Daum

ISBN 978-1-250-05293-3

“I picture my life without children as a hole dug in sand and then filled with water. Into every void rushes something. Nature abhors a vacuum. Into the available space and time and energy of my kid-free life rushed a thousand other things.” –Kate Christensen

Edited and selected by novelist and essayist Megan Daum, Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of essays by writers about the decision not to have children. Though all the contributors are authors, most do not seem to feel that writing has taken the place of children. Rather, they have a wide range of reasons for choosing not to have kids. Some of their decisions were very conscious and active, while others were more passive decisions that were made by failing to act. Many contributors had close calls, and had to deal with miscarriages or abortions. One writer deliberately pursued single motherhood through artificial insemination, only to be relieved when the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Through this range of material, the collection interrogates the idea that opting out of parenthood is self-serving or indolent, and reveals the many different assumptions society makes about those who choose not to reproduce.

The essays vary greatly in tone. Some are quiet and introspective, while others are angry, such as Laura Kipnis’ blazing tirade against the natural fallacy and the idealization of the maternal instinct, which she argues “exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment in history, not as eternal conditions.” By contrast, Tim Kreider accepts and even embraces the unnaturalness of deliberate childlessness. “It is a complex animal indeed, arguably one too highly evolved for its own good, that consciously declines to fulfill one of its few basic biological imperatives. The only act more perverse and unnatural than purposely not reproducing is suicide,” he observes. Still others lean more towards humour, such as Geoff Dyer, who remarks that “By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles.”

A number of trends emerge from the essays. Women significantly outnumber men, and most of the writers are old enough now that children are unlikely if not impossible. The predominance of women perhaps reflects the increased scrutiny women face from society as they reach the end of their childbearing years. In general, while most of the men who contributed seemed constant in, and sure of, their decision, the women often revealed deep-seated anxieties and uncertainties that were only enhanced by social pressures.

Fear of today’s intensive middle-class American parenting style features prominently in many of the essays. “I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena. Basically I’m afraid of my own competence,” writes Anna Holmes in “Mommy Fearest.” This intensive parenting trend finds a strange counter-point in the serious lack of parental leave and benefits that currently exists in the United States, and indeed the writers in the collection are predominantly American.

Many of the writers were eager to strike down the presumption that they dislike children because they do not want any of their own. Courtney Hodell writes about her fierce love for her brother’s daughter, while Pam Houston writes about loving her unexpected stepdaughter, while also being happy her partner is not the custodial parent. Sigrid Nunez finds herself disturbed by those childless adults who express dislike for children, perhaps having absorbed the common belief that such an attitude is unnatural.

As the titles suggest, the charge of selfishness is one that is frequently leveled against the deliberately childless, and which most of the writers take pains to fight back against. In perhaps the most maddening essay of the book, Lionel Shriver suggests that maybe the childless-by-choice are in fact selfish since, “In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we were happy.” However, Anna Holmes and Danielle Henderson both push back against the idea that self-care is the same as selfishness, while Pam Houston argues cogently that “there are women who choose motherhood for selfish reasons. There are mothers who act selfishly even if they choose motherhood in a burst of altruistic love. Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices.”

As a whole, this collection neither disparages parenthood, nor advocates the child-free life, but simply seeks to ease some of the stigma that surrounds the decision by offering a window into the minds of those who have made it, and found it to be the right choice for them. Once inside, it shows that the variety within the group is at least as great as that between those who choose children, and those who chose not to procreate. Within its scope—predominantly female, American writers—the collection offers a varied look at a personal decision loaded down with a great deal of cultural baggage.

Bad Feminist

Cover image for Bad Feminist by Roxane Gayby Roxane Gay

ISBN 978-0-06-228271-2

“On my more difficult days, I’m not sure what’s more of a pain in my ass—being black or being a woman. I’m happy to be both these things, but the world keeps interfering.”

Roxane Gay is a novelist and a professor of English, but I came to her work through Twitter. In the midst of many a heated discussion about racial issues, feminism, and pop culture, I would stumble across her thoughtful comments and observations. Eventually I started following her, and reading both her opinion pieces and personal essays. Many of those essays are reprinted here in Bad Feminist, a loose, wide-ranging collection of cultural commentary and personal reflection.

Gay titles her work Bad Feminist, but the collection is really very intersectional, particularly dealing with race and Gay’s experience as a black woman in America. She opens with an essay about her experience advising a black students association while she was a graduate student, and how rewarding and exhausting that experience was. This essay was striking because it conveyed both how much help some of her black students needed to achieve the success they wanted, and how much they feared being seen to care about education. Race remains an inseparable part of the conversation throughout the book.

The title Bad Feminist is controversial, because of course it implies that there is a contrasting good feminist, but this is precisely what Gay is fighting against, in herself as much as in others. Feminism can be undermined by more than baggage about supposedly hating men and sex; it can be undermined by our own internalized sense of insufficiency, the feeling that we aren’t strong enough to live up to the expectations feminism sets for us. We have to fight our own expectations about what it means to be a feminist as well as deal with the cultural baggage that has been attached to the term. Gay points out reflections of this problematic attitude throughout our culture, seeing its echoes in the demand for likeable female protagonists while male characters are allowed to be anti-heroes.

Gay is both an avid consumer and a thoughtful critic of popular culture, and one that is capable of critiquing a novel or television show’s problematic aspects while also delighting in the enjoyable parts. She enthuses about The Hunger Games, but notes “It is disturbing that within the world of The Hunger Games, it is perfectly acceptable for teenagers to kill one another or die or otherwise suffer in really violent ways, but not at all acceptable for them to explore their sexuality.” Likewise, Gay’s pieces aren’t without some of their own problems. On the importance of speaking up about rape culture, Gay quotes the Latin adage qui tacet consentire videtur (he who is silent is assumed to consent) which seems like a particularly ill-chosen proverb given how much time feminists have spent trying to hammer in the idea that silence is not consent. But even when we disagreed, I found her funny, thoughtful, balanced, and above all, passionate about her topic. However, her concern with the fast-moving world of pop culture also means that her essays are, in many cases, of-the-moment rather than lasting critical reflections.


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Cover image for Mortality by Christopher Hitchens by Christopher Hitchens

ISBN 978-1-4555-0276-9

“In some ways, I tell myself I could hobble along by communicating only in writing. But this is really only because of my age. If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I ever would have achieved much on the page.”

In June 2010, on tour for his memoir Hitch-22, journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens woke up in his New York hotel room in incredible pain, barely able to summon emergency services to his aid. What he initially suspected was a heart attack resulted in a diagnosis of Stage IV esophageal cancer, hardly surprising in a life-long smoker. Over the next eighteen months, while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Hitchens wrote a series of columns for Vanity Fair about his journey “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Mortality collects eight of these musings on the nature of life and death, health and illness, and the true “weight of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.”

In his life before cancer, Christopher Hitchens was known for lucidity even under the influence, writing and debating while drunk more often than not. Perhaps, then, it should not be so surprising that he brought the same self-possession to bear on his own illness, fighting to the end to see it through clear eyes, even as the decay of his body threatened to cloud his vision and deprive him of his voice. However bravely Hitchens looked death in the face, there is plenty of humanity in the fear and anger, hope and curiousity of his final missives to the “country of the well.” And whatever clarity and dignity he brings to the subject of death, Hitchens is no atheist martyr, assumed without snot, or vomit, or radiation burn. No final illness is a pretty one.

Seven of the works collected here are complete essays, where Hitchens explores everything from cancer etiquette, to losing his voice, to the irrational reactions of the faithful at the news of the imminent death of an atheist icon. As a non-believer fighting for his life, he was faced with the prayers of the faithful who were much more concerned with his salvation than his recovery. While Hitchens struggled with the loss of one his tools of trade, believers gloated that God had struck him dumb. While Hitchens and his family were hoping for a cure, the faithful were praying for a deathbed conversion that would justify their belief. There were too few like his friend, Dr. Francis Collins, who helped him negotiate the road without rancour or proselytizing.

The final chapter of Mortality is comprised of unfinished ideas and musings, some of which grew into the essays, and others which will never be explored. Less polished, and more personal, these musings are revealing, both of Hitchen’s writing process, and his more private self. Good as the essays are, these notes reveal they were fought out through “chemo-brain,” and the “dull, stuporous” drag it put on him. Careful to avoid self-pity in his essays, we know from these fragments that he had moments of darkness, when simply watching an old YouTube video of his healthy self was overwhelming. But he was also able to pun on the similarity between oncology and ontology, and snipe about “the banality of cancer,” and ultimately leave us wishing this was not the last book we will ever get from him.

In a moving afterword Carol Blue writes, “my husband was an impossible act to follow.”  Indeed it is difficult for a dying man to follow the act of his younger, healthier self. The man in the last months of his life is a qualitatively different Hitch than the writer and thinker who had never before written while “living dyingly,” but his final contribution to the world of letters is no less astute for all that it is incomplete. What this slim little book lacks, only more time could have made up.


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MFA vs NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction

Cover image for MFA vs NYC Edited by Chad HarbachEdited by Chad Harbach

ISBN 978-0-86547-813-8

“Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.”

In Issue 10 (Fall 2010) of the literary magazine n+1, novelist Chad Harbach contrasted two contemporary cultures and means of making a living as a writer in America; the world of New York mainstream publishing, and the university MFA programs that sprang up in imitation of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Once a young writer realizes that there is such a career as “author,” they are usually conceiving of the NYC model, whereby writers are paid through an advance from a publisher. But increasingly, Harbach argues, authors actually make their living in the education system, teaching writing or literature at universities and colleges, and in MFA programs. In response to Harbach’s essay, MFA vs NYC brings together a variety of authors, professors, agents, and publishers from both worlds to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of an MFA, living in New York, and numerous other issues that preoccupy aspiring authors. Broadly divided into two sections about the MFA program and the New York writing scene, the essays in this collection range from intellectual to anecdotal.

In the opening salvo of the MFA section, George Saunders argues that “it only takes one good example to disprove the generality” that writing programs are bad, and indeed, some of the contributors experiences sound pleasant. “I cannot imagine another place where a person can take a week off from life because she has an idea,” writes Maria Adelmann, who attended the University of Virginia’s writing program. By contrast, Carla Blumenkranz’s piece about famous MFA instructor Gordon Lish’s philosophy of seduction (and habit of sleeping with his female students) made my skin crawl. The consensus for many writers who feel they benefited from their programs seems to be that the time (and funding) to write, and the community of fellow writers provided by an MFA program, are at least as valuable as the actual instruction you receive there. The arguments against the MFA are still best embodied by the excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s 1988 article “The Fictional Future,” reprinted in MFA vs NYC, where he observes that “writing teachers are by calling writers, not teachers. The fact that most of them are teaching not for its own sake but to support a separate and obsessive calling has got to be accepted, as does its consequences.” However, the collection also frequently addresses the old accusation that MFA programs produce indistinguishable writers.

By contrast, the conflict of the NYC section centres mainly on money and the publishing business. Since most writers cannot make a living from advances and royalties, and these NYC contributors are not partaking of academic funding, their stories often involve being broke, or discouraged by the time it took to get published, and the endless rejection that an aspiring writer is almost inevitably subjected to. The criticisms here relate more the experience of being in the NYC publishing world, and have less to do with the merits of the system than the MFA section, creating a slight imbalance between the two halves.

Though primarily divided into two sections on MFA and NYC, the collection also includes some smaller sections that delve into teaching, among other subjects, and an essay about the inaugural Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest that nods towards self-publishing, which is otherwise not discussed. That these essays cannot be easily categorized into MFA or NYC speaks to the fact that while Harbach’s original conceit is helpful, it does not comprise the full spectrum of writing culture in America. There are intersections and side streets that are not fully addressed here.

All of this is well worth considering for anyone who wants to be a writer, teaches writing, or is debating the merits of enrolling in an MFA program. To call the book rigorous would be a misrepresentation, but is reasonably diverse, giving a varied picture of the New York publishing scene, and the experiences of taking or teaching in an MFA program.