Over the last few years, Hollywood has been challenged to address its diversity problem. For far too long, the majority of the stories told in film and television have been about white men for white men. And those are the same stories that are critically better received and then repeatedly rewarded. But this is not an issue limited to the screen. It also happens in literature and publishing. “Books about women tend not to win awards”, something I discussed with Paula Hawkins, the author of the smash hit The Girl On The Train, when I moderated her session at the Vancouver Writers Festival last October.
The Half The World Global Literati Award was established in response to fact that books featuring lead female characters are not as likely to get literary prizes, honouring “unpublished work that reflects the complexity of women’s lives, and has at their heart a central female protagonist”. The inaugural Half The World Global Literati Award was announced last Friday. And the recipient?
Laurie Petrou, from Canada! Congratulations Laurie!
Laurie is a professor at Ryerson University and her book Sister Of Mine received the top prize of US$50,000. And even in celebration, Laurie still has a bigger goal in mind. Because when she wrote to me about her achievement, she spent more time being excited about the other Canadian writers who were recognised by Half The World and complimenting another female novelist, Yaa Gyaasi, whose Homegoing is my favourite book of the year. As Laurie noted, “That book is mandatory for the human race. It might be the most important book I've ever read”.
Also check out Jessi Klein’s You’ll Grow Out Of it.
If you’ve been reading this blog a while you know that YA has always had a place here on our book lists. And Duana and I have long argued that YA fiction is underappreciated and underrated and is just as good, and sometimes bad, as “grownup” fiction. Its classification, however, often limits its respect. Which is stupidly short-sighted and unfair.
So about Gwyneth Paltrow’s YA list – I’m happy to see that Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park shares a category with The Catcher In The Rye. It deserves to be there. I have been harassing you to read Eleanor & Park for over three years. Does it matter now that G is doing it too?
I appreciate that she decided not to include The Fault In Our Stars because I’m probably the only person alive who couldn’t stand it. But you know what’s missing from G’s list? Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld with one the great literary names of all time, Cross Sugarman. Like, OF COURSE his name was Cross Sugarman.
Also missing, in the new release section, is Aaron Starmer’s Spontaneous. In calculus class, high school seniors are suddenly combusting. The book has already been optioned for a movie. I’m starting it this week. Let me know your thoughts and I’ll share mine when I’m done.
Have you read Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy? They’re making the first book, The Knife Of Never Letting Go, into a movie, with Doug Liman directing. Rachel McAdams’ boyfriend, Jamie wrote the script for it. I liked it OK. But it took me forever to finish the series because, spoiler alert, something happens to a dog. I cried myself to sleep that night.
Wait, Zadie Smith and Nick Laird host cocktail parties? Apparently if you’re lucky enough to be invited to a Zadie Smith-Nick Laird cocktail party, you show up. No one declines. But I’m jumping ahead.
If you’ve been reading this blog a while you know my obsession with Zadie Smith. On Beauty is one of my all-time favourite books. She has a new book coming out next month called Swing Time (someone please send me an early copy!). I will – and I try to – read anything Zadie Smith writes. Her essay on Joy is one of my favourites and I recommend it often. Her essay on failing is bookmarked on every device I own. Sometimes, when I’m feeling extra dramatic, I cry when I get to the end of that piece when she empowers the reader to practise reading like a skill, to honour reading as a talent, to accept that to read is to be challenged.
But I also love when Zadie Smith writes about real people. She is responsible for, probably, the definitive profile of Eminem (for Vibe, and for some reason the link is now impossible to find) and her article on Jay Z for T Magazine is also acknowledged to be one of the most insightful profiles of an artist who has been profiled over and over and over again.
What happens then when Zadie’s on the other side and is profiled herself? In T Magazine. And by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was the best thing I read yesterday and will probably be the best thing I will read all week. Because Jeffrey Eugenides has also shown up on this blog a few times. As I mentioned a few years ago, even though he and Jonathan Franzen (though they won’t admit it) consider themselves to always be in creative and intellectual pursuit of David Foster Wallace, for me, between the three of them, it’s unquestionably Jeffrey’s work that I’ve connected with the most. So when it’s Jeffrey Eugenides interviewing Zadie Smith and talking about what it’s like at her cocktail parties and pretty much fangirling Zadie in a way that isn’t pervy in that way Margot Robbie was perved on in Vanity Fair because he always relates his admiration back to her stories, it becomes a guide for how to do this. Even when he’s describing her physicality, it’s connected to her characters, how she’s loaned her surface attributes to the people she’s created. And when the discussion comes around to her own beauty – which is undeniable – it’s not so much of an objectification as it is an observation: that Zadie Smith is almost …apologetic about it, and certainly eager, so eager, to explain the effort behind it, the way you might break down a calculation. Here’s the final number, but please, please let me show you the work, let me give you all the math that went into arriving there.
But it’s not as easy to unpack the work that goes into the writing. In her new book, Zadie writes in the “I” voice. There are a lot of people who believe that high lit must be presented in third person. That only juniors write in “I”. Zadie acknowledges that she was one of them. But she says she was able to get there once she got over herself. I wonder though if that the obvious counterpoint here is that, well, she’s Zadie f-cking Smith. She’s already proven herself with White Teeth and On Beauty, so if she’s coming with an “I” novel, in her case, she’s already far ahead of the starting line. Amazingly, Jeffrey Eugenides in this piece has given us an answer to that question too. Because Zadie addresses the idea of privilege, of “check your privilege”, and that, relatively speaking, “I don’t think there’s anybody on earth for whom that isn’t true. There is no unimpeachable identity from which you can operate in the world from a position of righteousness at all times. Sometimes, at a certain moment in history, people have decided that you are close to that figure. How tempting it must be to grab it with both hands and be that person, the unimpeachable moral person of rightness and rectitude. But you know it’s an illusion”.
How do you resist though? It’s almost impossible. You see it every day not just among celebrities but on Twitter. And after presidential debates when a person in a red sweater with a great name grabs the temptation of the spotlight with both hands, forgetting in the intoxicating glare of fleeting fame that those hands were dirty too.
Seriously, we could delightfully analyse and dissect every sentence of this profile, do an entire podcast on it, I love it so much. Click here to read Jeffrey Eugenides on Zadie Smith in T Magazine.
A while ago, I posted about Author: The JT LeRoy Story, a documentary exploring how writer Laura Albert created a separate creative persona and had someone else play that persona, fooling the literary and celebrity community for years. The film was released earlier this year. Laura insists that she never intended to run a scam, that JT’s feelings were her feelings, and that, even though many characterise what she did as one of the most elaborate pop culture hoaxes ever, her motivation was to simply share her experiences, not to exploit them. When JT LeRoy and Laura Albert were eventually exposed, they/she were expelled from the inner circle.
A few weeks ago, Claudio Gatti, an Italian journalist writing for The New York Review of Books claimed to have uncovered the true identity of celebrated author Elena Ferrante. I am halfway through the Neapolitan Novels, having finished My Brilliant Friend and The Story Of A New Name last year; then I took a break because I kinda want to put off the conclusion. If you haven’t read Elena Ferrante, you won’t regret it when you do: these are gorgeous books about women and female friendship and female sexuality and female choices and female decisions. Elena Ferrante’s decision, from the very beginning has been to remain anonymous. She doesn’t want to be known beyond what she writes. There are no extensive press tours, no book signings. Interviews are extremely exclusive. And to most of her fans, I think, this isn’t a marketing strategy. She’s been doing it for almost 20 years. But that probably only added to the curiosity. And the conspiracy theories. The most outrageous one is that she is a man. Because, of course, only a man could write so powerfully about the complication of the woman. When she was “exposed” by Claudio Gatti, many were outraged. Some people liked the mystery. Others, like me, didn’t give a sh-t; the books are enough, the work is enough. Those who’ve defended the “unmasking” however insist that Elena’s true identity is essential to understanding her stories. Like, if she’s not really from Naples, it delegitimises her writing about life in Naples, similar to how Laura Albert voicing JT LeRoy diminished the impact of JT LeRoy’s story, or something.
And then there’s Chuck Tingle. Have you heard of Chuck Tingle? I first heard of Chuck Tingle back in May when the Misogyny tried to turn him into Donald Trump by nominating him for a Hugo Award and he repaid them with the ultimate troll, using his platform instead to crusade for diversity, gay rights, and raise awareness about the way women are harassed online. Chuck Tingle is a satirist. He writes absurdist gay erotica. He may or may not be based in Billings, Montana. He may or may not have a son. Like Elena Ferrante, he definitely operates under a pseudonym. Unlike Elena Ferrante, he does not insist on anonymity, I think? Like JT LeRoy, he exists behind a mask. Unlike JT LeRoy he acknowledges the existence of the mask, and has made the mask the whole point of the persona. Like both Elena and JT, Chuck Tingle has become a celebrity. Unlike both Elena and JT, the internet has made this possible.
Who, or what, is Chuck Tingle? Vox posted a great piece yesterday, not so much to find out the answer to that question but to figure out why it matters, if it matters. Does it matter in the way that it mattered when it was revealed that JT LeRoy was a fraud? Or does it not matter in the way of Elena Ferrante because he’s never anything, one way or the other, beyond what exists in his book, Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt and its sequels? Click here to read the Vox article. Let me know if you’re as obsessed with it as I am – that in these online times, these social media times, as the pathways to fame are expanding and evolving, our avatars are becoming famous.