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Here are the Winners of This Year’s Windham-Campbell Prizes

Rebecca Solnit, Young Jean Lee, and Kwame Dawes are among the winner’s of this year’s Windham-Campbell Prizes, which award writers with $165,000 to support their work.

The prize, for which all English-language writers are eligible, was established in 2013 by Donald Windham in memory of Sandy Campbell, his partner of four decades. Since then, 59 writers from 16 countries have received the prize, which is administered by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Among this year’s winners, Danielle McLaughlin is the first Irish fiction writer to win the prize, and Young Jean Lee is the first Asian-American dramatist to win.

While the judging process is anonymous, Prize director Michael Kelleher told Literary Hub that judges tend to focus on writers that expand their understanding of genre and those for whom the award would have the greatest impact. “This prize is really designed to support writers and give them time to write. That’s why the amount of money is so large. It’s intended to say, ‘Here you go, go write your next book,'” he said.

Writers are not aware they’re being considered for the prize until Kelleher calls to notify them they’ve won. “It’s very intense,” he said. “Some of these calls are going to be life-changing in ways you can’t imagine.”

Read the full list of winners below.

Danielle McLaughlin (Ireland)
David Chariandy (Canada)

Raghu Karnad (India)
Rebecca Solnit (United States)

Ishion Hutchinson (Jamaica)
Kwame Dawes (Ghana/Jamaica/United States)

Young Jean Lee (United States)
Patricia Cornelius (Australia)

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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The Differences Between a Crime Novel, Mystery Novel and Thriller Novel

Every writer’s job is to give the reader what she wants in a way she doesn’t expect. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] (And it’s wise to remember that every agent and editor is foremost a reader, too.)

One of the first things to consider when setting out, therefore, is what kinds of expectations your story creates, so you can go about gratifying readers in surprising ways.

This is particularly true of writing in a genre, where conventions can seem ironclad—or all too often degrade into formula. And formula, by definition, surprises no one.

The suspense genres in particular have a number of seemingly hard and fast rules that a writer defies at his peril. And yet the most satisfying mysteries, thrillers and crime stories find a way to create a new take on those rules to fashion something fresh, interesting, original. In other words, while you don’t want to mistakenly pitch your cozy mystery to an agent who wants only high-octane thrillers, you also want to make sure that when you connect with that cozy-loving agent, she’ll be jumping to sign you because your cozy stands out from the rest.

Here’s a map to help you navigate subgenre subtleties.

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Mystery Novels

A crime is committed—almost always a murder—and the action of the story is the solution of that crime: determining who did it and why, and obtaining some form of justice. The best mystery stories often explore man’s unique capacity for deceit—especially self-deceit—and demonstrate a humble respect for the limits of human understanding. This is usually considered the most cerebral (and least violent) of the suspense genres.

Thematic emphasis: How can we come to know the truth? (By definition, a mystery is simply something that defies our usual understanding of the world.)

Structural distinctions: The basic plot elements of the mystery form are:

  1. The baffling crime
  2. The singularly motivated investigator
  3. The hidden killer
  4. The cover-up (often more important than the crime itself, as the cover-up is what conceals the killer)
  5. Discovery and elimination of suspects (in which creating false suspects is often part of the killer’s plan)
  6. Evaluation of clues (sifting the true from the untrue)
  7. Identification and apprehension of the killer.

[How to Craft Characters Scene by Scene]

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Whether a cop, a private eye, a reporter or an amateur sleuth, the hero must possess a strong will to see justice served, often embodied in a code (for example, Harry Bosch’s “Everyone matters or no one matters” in the popular Michael Connelly series). He also often possesses not just a great mind but great empathy—a fascination not with crime, per se, but with human nature.

The Villain: The crime may be a hapless accident or an elaborately staged ritual; it’s the cover-up that unifies all villains in the act of deceit. The attempt to escape justice, therefore, often best personifies the killer’s malevolence. The mystery villain is often a great deceiver, or trickster, and succeeds because she knows how to get others to believe that what’s false is true.

Setting: Although mysteries can take place anywhere, they often thematically work well in tranquil settings—with the crime peeling back the mask of civility to reveal the more troubling reality beneath the surface.

Reveals: Given its emphasis on determining the true from the untrue, the mystery genre has more reveals than any other—the more shocking and unexpected, the better.


Mystery Subgenres

Cozy: One of the ironic strengths of this subgenre is the fact that, by creating a world in which violence is rare, a bloody act resonates far more viscerally than it would in a more urban or disordered setting. Reader Expectations: A unique and engaging protagonist: Father Brown, Miss Marple, Kinsey Millhone. The crime should be clever, requiring ingenuity or even brilliance on the hero’s part to solve. Secondary characters can be coarse, but never the hero—or the author. Justice triumphs in the end, and the world returns to its original tranquility.

Hard-boiled: The hero is a cop or PI, tough and capable. The moral view is often that of hard-won experience in the service of innocence or decency. The hero tends to be more world-weary than bitter—but that ice can get slippery. Reader Expectations: A strong hero who can “walk the mean streets but who is not himself mean,” as Raymond Chandler once put it. A realistic portrayal of crime and its milieu, with detailed knowledge of criminal methods and investigative techniques. The style is often brisk and simple, reflecting the unpretentious nature of the hero, who is intelligent but not necessarily learned. Although the hero almost always sees that justice prevails, there is usually a bittersweet resolution. The streets remain mean; such is the human condition.

Police Procedural: A cousin to the hard-boiled subgenre, with the unit or precinct taking over for the lone cop. Reader Expectations: Much like the hard-boiled detective story, but with a larger cast and special focus on police tactics, squad-room psychology, station-house politics, and the tensions between the police and politicians, the media and the citizenry.

Medical, Scientific or Forensic Mystery: A refinement of the police procedural in which the protagonists—doctors, medical examiners, forensic pathologists or other technical experts—use intelligence and expertise, not guns, as their weapons. Reader Expectations: Similar to the police procedural, with extra emphasis on the physical details of analyzing unusual evidence.

Legal or Courtroom Drama: The crime is seen through the eyes of the lawyers prosecuting or defending the case. Reader Expectations: A meticulous rendering of criminal court procedure and politics, along with how police and prosecutors work together (or don’t).


In this genre the focus is on the contest of wills between the lawman hero and the outlaw opponent, and their differing views of morality and the aspects of society they represent. The greatest crime stories deal with a moral accounting on the part of the hero for his entire life, or provide some new perspective on the tension between society and the individual.

Thematic emphasis: What is a just society? The story world of the novel is out of balance, somewhere between a state of nature (where chaos prevails and those with money and/or guns wield power) and a police state (where paranoia prevails and the state monopolizes power). The hero hopes in some way to rectify that imbalance.

Other moral themes can include the challenge of decency, honor and integrity in a corrupt world; individual freedom versus law and order; and the tension between ambition and obligations to others.

Structural distinctions: There is seldom any “mystery” as to who the criminal is. Typically the story starts with a brilliant or daring crime, and then a cat-and-mouse game of wits and will ensues, with the tension created by the increasing intensity of the battle between the opponents. The underlying question is: Will the cops prevail before the opponent stages his next crime?

Given the similarity to war and action stories, the prose often tends toward the naturalistic.

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Usually a tough and capable cop (or vigilante) who believes in the society she defends despite its flaws, the crime fiction hero is often seen as an outcast but is revealed to be the most morally engaged character in the story.

The Villain: Routinely a tough and brilliant criminal who considers the system rigged and the society inherently flawed, he is often a kind of Luciferian rebel—the rogue individual par excellence—even if he commands a crew
or organization.

Setting: This genre gravitates toward urban locales, but suburban, rural and even wilderness settings have all been used to great effect. Let the setting ground the moral theme.

Reversals: Just as the mystery genre, by focusing on the search for truth, obliges numerous reveals, the crime genre, by focusing on battle, obliges numerous reversals—with the hero and the villain trading knockout blows and suffering serious setbacks to their respective plans.

[The 5 Biggest Fiction Writing Mistakes (& How to Fix Them)]

The Noir Subgenre

Here, the criminal, or someone who is morally compromised—perhaps even a cop—serves as hero. The moral calculus is usually Bad vs. Worse.

Generally, the “hero” finds himself in some sort of desperate situation, or is tempted into one by an opportunity he sees as his last, best chance at the brass ring. The lure of sex or money routinely leads to violence and often betrayal. If the hero is a cop, the reader is never quite sure whether he’s going to solve a crime or commit one. Or both. Reader Expectations: The real allure is the psychology of temptation and desperation, the little guy trying not to drown. Readers expect plot twists, often based on the hero’s inability to see what he’s up against.


Where mystery stories represent the most cerebral of the three major suspense genres, and crime stories the most dramatic, thrillers are typically the most emotional, focusing on the fear, doubt and dread of the hero as she faces some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.” This genre is a hybrid of mystery and horror. However, the thriller also shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail.

Thematic emphasis: The dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.

Structural distinctions: The plot often proceeds along these lines:

A devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one in the wings.

The perpetrator is known, but his guilt is not absolutely certain—or the hero wishes not to accept the truth of his guilt. (The uncertainty enhances the suspense.)

The hero is under constant attack as she tries to definitively prove the perpetrator’s guilt and/or stop the next atrocity. (Note the difference from the mystery genre, where the villain typically remains hidden.)

Additional Reader Expectations:

The Hero: Given the relentless attack the villain inflicts, and the emphasis on terror and dread, the thriller hero must be vulnerable—not just physically but psychologically.

The Villain: In the best thrillers, the villain either targets the hero specifically from the outset or learns through the course of the story what his particular weaknesses and wants are, and targets them for ruthless attack.

Setting: Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the world the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.

Thriller Subgenres

Epic Thriller: This usually concerns the threat of some catastrophe affecting whole communities, cities, countries, even the planet. The threat need not be total devastation—the assassination of a leader will do—but the effect of the action must be profound.

The villain can be a terrorist, a diabolical genius, or an ordinary person with an oversized grudge and a unique capacity for damage.

Given the scope of the threat, the protagonist must possess the skills to defeat the villain, and thus is often a soldier, a spy, a trained assassin, a cop, or a civilian with a special skill set. The action is brisk, even nonstop, and the climax needs to be both thoroughly foreshadowed (we need to know the basic parameters of the threat all along, and the measures being taken to stop it) and unexpected (plot twists are not optional—they’re required). This is a pull-out-all-the-stops genre. Reader Expectations: A diabolical plot, a superbly capable and motivated nemesis, a hero with an impossible mission, breakneck pacing, and clever but credible plot twists.

Psychological Thriller/Suspense: Here the threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family—and the hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child. The pacing is a bit more deliberate, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly. Reader Expectations: Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational. Twists again are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another. Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected. This subgenre demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases.

Supernatural Thriller: This subgenre is something of a hybrid, in that the nemesis presents an overwhelming threat—he might be Satan himself—and yet that threat is often focused on a single soul or a mere few, rather than the whole of mankind, at least within the story. Reader Expectations: An amplification of the powers available to the villain, whether the threat posed is truly spiritual or merely psychological in nature. Also, obviously, a credibly rendered menace from the spirit realm.

Stumbling into a mystery, thriller or crime story without understanding what agents, editors and readers expect is a recipe for disaster. Know what they want—and then find a way to gratify that desire in ways they don’t see coming. Your efforts will be rewarded with a resounding yes.

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david-corbett200art-of-character-200This guest post is by David Corbett, who is the award-winning author of five novels, the story collection Killing Yourself to Survive and the nonfiction work, The Art of Character. David is a regular contributor to Writer’s Digest. He resides in Northern California with his wife and their Wheaten terrier. Find him online at

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You’ll Never Know Yourself: Bonnard and the Color of Memory

Pierre Bonnard’s revolutionary and controversial use of color became a means toward unlocking his past and the truths of his own self. But what if, ultimately, there was nothing to find? 

Pierre Bonnard, The Bath, 1925

For years, Pierre Bonnard juggled the love of two of his models. The women were Marthe de Méligny, who would eventually become the artist’s wife, and Renée Monchaty, who would kill herself in spurned grief. In Young Women in the Garden, Bonnard painted them both. They are in a bourgeois backyard garden, like something out of a Renoir or Manet, at a large table adorned with a basket of fruit. Monchaty is the focal point of the scene. She sits in a chair, turned toward the viewer; her head rests innocently in her hand. She appears contented, at ease. In the bottom corner of the scene, looking not at the viewer but toward Monchaty, De Méligny looks quietly bemused, her profile nearly cut out of the frame.

Bonnard ultimately left Monchaty for De Méligny. Sensing that his marriage to De Méligny was imminent, and that his affections were fading, Monchaty fatally shot herself on her bed. More sensationally, another version has it that Monchaty slit her wrists in the bath so that Bonnard would arrive to find her dead. Whatever the case, Monchaty’s suicide was one of the central definers, tragedies, and regrets of Bonnard’s life.

Pierre Bonnard, Young Women in the Garden, ca. 1921-23, reworked 1945-46

Bonnard lived with De Méligny for close to fifty years, and he painted her for longer. Even after she died, he conjured her from memory on his canvas. Five years after she’d died, he depicted her just as he had before. Here she is applying makeup at her toilette or soaking in the tub, still alive on his canvas. Bonnard portrayed her nearly four hundred times, but there is not a single portrait in which she is clearly shown. In Young Women in a Garden, she is cut partially out of the scene. In the numerous paintings of her lying languidly in a tub or walking about nude or in a towel or sitting in the sunroom, she is defined by the light striking her; it mystifies her, confuses her. If her face is shown at all, its particulars change frequently. It is only her body that stays the same, though sometimes even that begins to disappear. In Bonnard’s representations, De Méligny is hyperflexible, almost boneless, her form like that of a ghost. She looks about thirty years old in every painting, whether she was twenty-five or seventy or dead at the time. De Méligny, unlike anyone else Bonnard painted—besides, perhaps, himself—existed in the ethereal space of Bonnard’s own memory. His wife was the vehicle through which he could remake his past. Perhaps, these paintings seem to say, Monchaty never did commit suicide because of him. Here is the evidence: a beautiful, phantom woman is enjoying the silver-blue waters of a bath right here. This is the present and the future; with sufficient will, the past might no longer have power.

André Ostier, Pierre Bonnard 1941 © André Ostier

How do any of us make sense of our past? Bonnard’s past was particularly messy: a former lover’s suicide and a wife whom he never seemed to know fully. “How can we live without our lives?” wrote Steinbeck. “How will we know it’s us without our past?” “Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory,” currently up at the Tate Modern, is a retrospective that looks mostly at his work from the turn of the twentieth century and beyond. Paintings by fauvists like Matisse, as well as photographs of Bonnard, round out the show. (The best photograph of Bonnard is of him with one of his six dachshunds, Poucette, a name which translates to something approaching “Thumbelina.”) The central takeaway from the exhibition is that Bonnard’s fervent, inventive, sometimes bizarre use of color in his mid-t0-late career was his solution to piecing together his broken past. Two years before he died, Bonnard returned to “Young Women in the Garden.” The last time he’d touched the painting had been in 1923, when both De Méligny and Monchaty had been alive. Now, twenty-two years later, on the precipice of his own death, he changed an aspect of it: he painted the ground a dirty, golden yellow. Bonnard had begun using yellow in a mode similar to Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. In Gauguin’s Nevermore, yellow becomes the color of escape—to other rooms, to dreams, to alternate realities. The painting is of a Tahitian woman that combines an inverted posing of Edouard Manet’s Olympia with references to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven.” But it is the colors of the room that were of greatest interest to Bonnard: the room is composed of vibrant blues and reds, and their designs appear to be pulled from a Japanese ukiyo-e print. The woman’s head lies on the only spot of yellow in the painting. She is in a waking dream—both here and not. With the yellowing of the ground in Young Women in the Garden, Bonnard used the color as a symbol of escape. He gave the central women in his life a way out of this garden. With this change of color, he seemed to finally let them go.

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in an Interior c. 1935. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Color was Bonnard’s arbitrator of emotion but it was also his arbitrator of space. For years, Bonnard painted the rooms of his childhood home; later, after he had married De Méligny, he painted the rooms of their shared home in Le Cannet in the South of France. These rooms were “analogues of human experience. They contained memories and told stories about their inhabitants’ lives and status,” wrote Nicholas Watkins in his late-nineteenth-century monograph of the artist. Bonnard’s painted rooms were separated by colors rather than walls—a bright red, for instance, might imply an indoor space and a pale blue might imply an outdoor one. With his use of color, there was no need for typical figurative structuring. Color itself would also become the subject of a piece, with the viewer meant to follow the light as it colored and highlighted space, taking one’s eyes outside of a house until, for instance, it landed on the sea so that one might feel as though he’s just flown through a dream. “It’s almost as if he’s trying to capture the mood as it passes into the past,” Matthew Gale, the head of displays at the Tate Modern, said of Bonnard’s use of color, “trying to fix it before it gets out of reach.”

Bonnard’s work hasn’t always been respected—nor is it necessarily universally respected now—and his use of color has been castigated for its supposed indecisiveness and meaninglessness. Picasso was perhaps his greatest detractor, once snapping to a reporter, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting what he does.” Clement Greenberg felt similarly—“smells permanently of the fashions of 1900-14”—but it was Picasso who was most merciless, telling a reporter:

He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what color the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.

Picasso could not be more wrong. Bonnard was constantly changing his paintings, particularly the colors, because he was adjusting the painting’s mood. Bonnard was not responding to nature, he was responding to himself in nature and the changes he saw therein. When he painted his wife phantasmal and languorous in the tub, he was not interested in transcending what a bathtub might look like or even what his wife might look like; he was seeing his own self in her figuration, leaking out, ceasing slowly to exist. If he changed, so, too, did the image. This is why De Méligny was never depicted the same twice; she was never the same because she wasn’t herself. She was Bonnard’s shifting projection of himself. Bonnard understood that beauty is not reliable; what is beautiful one day might be rotted, decayed, destroyed the next. An addition of blue or silver was not a response to a change in the color of the water; it was, instead, Bonnard’s shifting response to his own mortality, his own regrets of his past, his own dynamic feelings.

Pierre Bonnard, The Bowl of Milk, c.1919

The English author Julian Barnes wrote an extensive essay on Bonnard in which he claimed that minimal attention should be paid to Bonnard’s personal life when considering his art. “A little biography is a dangerous thing,” Barnes wrote, adding: “It doesn’t really matter whether an artist has a dull or an interesting life, except for promotional purposes.” When I spoke to him at his house near the Hampstead Heath a few years ago, Barnes told me that Bonnard is his favorite artist, but in his essay he seems to miss the critical fact that while doting too long on the personal lives of artists can indeed be distracting, no artist works in an emotional vacuum, especially not one like Bonnard who worked almost exclusively by drawing from—and rewriting—his own life.

Bonnard, like many artists, was working to find himself and sort through his past. He lingered on days and moments, looking for clues as to what had gone wrong and what to make of himself. His self-portraits are testaments to this search. In them, Bonnard is isolated, his face raw and red, the colors searingly alive as they perform the inverted task of showing just how dead he was inside. The shelves and tiles in the bathroom around him glisten fluidly, but his face is worked into a permanent expression of grief—a perverse rigor mortis. In one bathroom-mirror self-portrait called Boxer, the artist raises up his small, almost-emaciated fists, as if he wants to fight either himself or this idea of himself. In another self-portrait, he looks confused as to who he even is; he is bald, exceptionally disordered, unsure even of his own reflection. He is not holding his paintbrush. The viewer has not caught him faithfully representing himself; he has, instead, reconstructed his feelings of inconsolable loneliness. And yet, even by looking at and reflecting upon his own self, he seems to realize that he has come no closer to understanding. That he lets the viewer in on this process of failure is the principle achievement of his self-portraits.

Pierre Bonnard, Self Portrait, c.1938

Perhaps this is also why he was so insistent on depicting De Méligny. By capturing her in the web of his own mood, he hoped to divine his own feelings through her. Like a writer who does not know what he feels until he begins to write about it, Bonnard took stock of himself through painting De Méligny from memory. To Picasso, this was a mark of indecisiveness and a lack of control; to Bonnard, it was a form of therapy, dynamic and changing.

In John Banville’s The Sea, the protagonist, Max, is an art historian writing a monograph of Bonnard. Max constantly compares his own wife, Anna, to De Méligny. Anna has “helpless hands with palms upturned”; De Méligny in the tub, in Max’s supposition, has hands “stilled in the act of supination.” Max has, essentially, no personality; he does not have a center from which to guide his decisions and moods. He creates a sense of his self through his wife. He struggles to write the monograph because he has nothing to say; he wants only to live in the life of Bonnard and De Méligny rather than to create something from it. And just as Banville draws a parallel between Anna and De Méligny, Max is also a kind of stand-in for Bonnard: rudderless and voided of a personality and selfhood. Banville makes his point explicit: “We are defined and have our being through others.”

Pierre Bonnard, Nude in the Bath, 1925

De Méligny is the key to Bonnard’s personality because she was his personality. She became the vehicle through which he existed. As she, in his painted depictions, slumps in the tub, looks out onto their property in Le Cannet, stands naked in her room, or sits calmly next to the fireplace, their selves intermingle. He is not looking at her so much as inhabiting her. Throughout nearly all of his paintings, De Méligny remains surrounded by darkened yellows. Sometimes she is clad in brighter reds, and the space-separating color technique he used shows her existential separation but also the separation of her mind as at once his and hers. It wasn’t until he’d known her for thirty years that he found out she was not, in fact, born Marthe de Méligny, but instead had the more pedestrian name of Maria Boursin.

Approaching the end of his life, at age seventy-eight, when Bonnard went back to add that bit of yellow to the ground in Young Women in the Garden, he added one more color change as well: a gilded, yellow shine to Monchaty. Bonnard made Monchaty even brighter. She stood out, even more, as the center of the work. Perhaps, having failed to find himself in his late wife, Bonnard thought that Monchaty might have been the key. But still, that was never the issue. He was, like so many of us, unable to see himself fully—whether he was looking at himself straight on in his mirror self-portraits or projecting himself onto De Méligny, who was, of course, never even Marthe de Méligny at all.


Cody Delistraty is a writer and critic in Paris and New York.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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A Poet’s Complaints Against Fiction

Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation. 1892

First, a word about the traditional feud between poets and fiction writers. I wish to acknowledge, up front, that that feud does not exist. Not traditionally. Conditions in the wild are very unfavorable to it. To witness episodes of this feud, you have to visit a special kind of mismanaged zoo called an M.F.A. program.

Perhaps I needn’t add that it is not my object to prosecute any such feud here. Let me be explicit: I revere the great novelists as much as I revere the great poets. I do not see poetry as the higher form of writing. I do not think poets are better people. If anything, I’m sick to death of poets and poetry in a way I could never be sick of fiction and fiction writers. Poets are my family—with all the opprobrium that implies. Whereas, fiction writers strike me as delightfully removed from any familiar mode of being. They have houses and lifestyles. And they traffic in plots, an inherently good idea.

Still, I do “have somewhat against thee,” fiction writers. There are certain abuses, rare enough in poetry, that are commonplace in works of fiction. A person who reads and writes poetry all the time will perhaps see these abuses more clearly than the practitioner of fiction, who is naturally and understandably accustomed to them.

Take a moment to reflect on the memorable metaphor that Niccolò Machiavelli deploys on the dedication page (as it were) of Il principe. He says there that a painter, in order to paint the lowlands, must of course go up into the mountains, and in order to paint a mountain, must head to the valley. Analogously, in order to really understand the nature of common citizenship, one must be a prince, and in order to know the real deal regarding princes, one must be an ordinary person like Machiavelli himself. That’s why it’s okay for him to tell you how to rule your kingdom, O Prince. And perhaps it is the same, I am suggesting, with fiction writers and poets.

The theory’s a good one. Think of the many times nonpoets have laid down memorable and all-but-devastating criticisms of poetry. Think of the recently dead V. S. Naipaul on poetry:

I used to be very humble about poetry, I felt that because my background had been deficient there was something there that I didn’t, couldn’t, understand. Now I feel that most people called poets are tiny people, with tiny thoughts.

As a poet, one must set aside any impulse to indulge in the usual sass-back. We may sass all we like, that stuck-up son of a bitch had a point.

But at this juncture, perhaps you will say to me, “Niccolò, enough with these rites and mysteries. Tell us your objections to fiction.” (I confess I do feel like I am channeling the circumlocutory spirit of Sir Philip Sidney here.)

Very well, then, here is my objection. I have only one. I call it Harry Potterism. Probably the word for it at Iowa is author’s-darling-ism. It just means the protagonist has no real vices. Or if the protagonist is allowed a couple, they will not be the source of any real problems. Real problems come from without. It’s like I say in my poetry somewhere:

Protagonists never do anything wrong;

They can only ever be thwarted.

Protagonists can fail to overcome an obstacle, but they are not themselves an obstacle. And naturally they are never a source of legitimate grievance to anyone.

Obviously, not all fiction is like this. But a lot of it is. Jane Austen is this. Samuel Beckett’s novels are this. “The Kreutzer Sonata.” And I wanna say nineteen out of every twenty movies.

It’s classic. It’s what everybody wants. It makes you feel good. And it corresponds to something deep in every child: “You, child, are magic. Everybody else—buncha muggles.” You, by definition, are James Bond. Whoever’s in your way is Goldfinger.

I know what you’re thinking. “How is any of this a fault specific to fiction? Aren’t poets every bit as—” Let me cut you off there. Yes, poets are every bit as. But there’s a difference. Poets (despite eighty years of cant about distinguishing the speaker from the writer) pretty much have no choice but to come right out and say “I am awesome, and you people are trash” when that’s what they mean. Poems that vindicate the self do so more or less directly. Whereas, Harry Potter vindicates all selves—without ever owning what it’s doing.

One can very easily cheer on Harry Potter without ever guessing one is masturbating the Self. Most never do guess it! Whereas, if one identifies with the speaker in, say, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” one knows damn well that it’s personal.

Fine! You can pelt me with exceptions all you want; the idea is fundamentally sound. It wouldn’t be, if all prose narrative were memoir and all poetry were personal monologues, like those of Robert Browning or whoever. But as long as the standard novel is about a relatable character’s adventures slaying some dragon or other, and as long as the standard poem is a weather report from the speaker’s soul, it’s going to be fiction that must bear most of the guilt for improving people’s native narcissism into the monstrosity one sees all around one.

It’s not that poetry isn’t sinister! It’s that it’s openly sinister.

Look, it’s like you’re on a diet. A slab of cake in a refrigerated display case is openly sinister. Most fiction on the other hand is more like a bottomless bag of nuts. Looks harmless! Looks natural! And worst of all, the very form of nuts, the structure of nut-eating, easily suckers you into sitting there eating them all afternoon. You can wind up with twenty times the calories as you would have gotten from the display-case Napoleon, with its exquisite zigzag chocolate-drizzle stripes.

The very fact that poetry cloys prevents the all-day, vindication-of-self binge. Your standard poem is the front side of a piece of paper; Harry Potter is like eighty books, each one of ’em thick as a quart of milk.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.

This story originally appeared on The Paris Review

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5 Tips for Better Book Cover Typography

Contributed by Reedsy.

A book’s cover is a key marketing tool, reflecting the contents of the book. As you might guess, the typeface of your book title and other cover text (the style and appearance on the page) are just as important.

First impressions count. Even if you’re not likely to pay a lot of attention to fonts on book covers, they make the difference between a book that will be picked up and a book that looks unprofessional, cheap, or simply misleading.

This post will dive into this crucial component of a book cover. Read on to find out how to handle book cover typography — and how to make yours stand out and sell your book.

1. Match the genre

All things considered, you want the appearance of your text to convey the message you are trying to get across. Whether that’s signaling that the book is a romance, a thriller, or an informative non-fiction book, the typography is going to be a crucial element of tying it all together.

For example, for Tara Westover’s non-fiction memoir Educated, a simple serif font is used for the title, and the subtitle (‘a memoir’) and author name are sans-serif (have noembellishments at the end of letters). Many say that serif fonts look more ‘trustworthy,’ and feel modern. This is because they are simple and matter-of-fact: all moods that a non-fiction book will want to elicit.

Readers of certain genres will, consciously or unconsciously, be expecting certain things from your book cover. Fantasy book covers are often home to sweeping calligraphy-style fonts, for example. Ilana C. Myer’s Fire Dance does this subtly — the embellishments on the ‘R’ and ‘N’ signal the genre, but it is still reasonably simple and easy to read.

2. No Papyrus, no Comic Sans

A general rule of thumb: don’t use a font that comes pre-installed on MS Word. Typefaces like Comic Sans and Papyrus are instantly recognizable and will make the cover look ‘handmade.’

If there’s one that’s very close to what you’re looking for, you can build up and edit fonts with programs like InDesign to alter spacings and the length of existing letterings, or even just remove the very edge of letters.

You can find ideas and free fonts to use on sites like and There are also plenty of other websites to search for where you will be able to access a variety of fonts without plagiarising (and also without spending dozens of dollars).

Free Webinar: What Every Author Should Know About Book Cover Design

3. Less is more

An effective approach can be to make typography the focus of your cover, or the only visual element. Playing with minimalism, space, and letter spacing is often an interesting way to make the absence of image or text just as effective as filling the cover. Dolly Alderton’s cover design is literally just the title, but it playfully hints at the narrative voice you’ll find within.

Particularly, conjunctions like ‘and,’ ‘the,’ or, ‘of the,’ can interact inventively with your background image or illustration, like in this novel by Tsh Oxenreider. The ‘less important’ words are made significantly smaller, which foregrounds the confusing pairing of ‘home’ and ‘world’ — central to the book’s idea of finding a home and belonging while travelling all over the globe.

Remember that you don’t have to use the same font for everything. However, don’t use more than, say, two or three, depending on if you have a subtitle, or reviews, etc — it will look messy and confusing.

And if you think you might have a potential series on your hands, aim for a simpler design. They are more transferable, and easier to be manipulated further down the line.

Having said all that, your title does need to be big! There are debates as to whether it should be legible in thumbnail form, but it certainly needs to be the focus of the cover.


4. Words are pictures, too

When your creativity is completely set free, your typography may end up looking like an image in and of itself.

Thinking of your imagery and typography as overlapping working parts can give you space for visual puns (like the small bombs on Karan Mahajan’s cover), hint at the characters or plot of the book, or even just allow you to exercise some creative license.

If your lettering is large and simple, it also adds character and room for some fun ideas. David Nicholls’ Us, similar to the design of some of his earlier novels, plays with this idea by having figures hang from and walk along the lettering of the title itself.

5. Consider the visual hierarchy

An awareness of the visual hierarchy of your text will make your book cover look professional and easy to navigate. Readers will assume what is important by the weight and size of the lettering, and you can direct their gazes accordingly.

The title, the author name, and (if applicable) your subtitle should be easily identifiable. Lisa Manterfield’s book cover strikes a balance between title and author name. It also follows the golden rule: if in doubt, keep it simple.

Natural contrast (light text on a dark background, for example) is a seamless way to highlight and make clear the information that you want your reader to receive.

What you’re seeking is balance: a delicate chemistry between image, text, and other information. Simply put, if your image is super busy, keep the type simple. But if you’ve got a large chunk of text that needs to go on the front cover, keep the imagery pared back.

The crux of typography on book covers is the potential to maximize the impact of your book title, and your book cover as a whole. When done well, it is an effective tool to utilize in order to give your book the best chance on the shelves, and hopefully you now have the tools to do just that.

This content was contributed by Reedsy and includes one or more affiliate links for their products and/or services. Writer’s Digest participates in various affiliate marketing programs, which means we may get paid commissions on editorially chosen products and services purchased through our links to retailer and partner sites.

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Lit Hub Daily: March 13, 2019

TODAY: In 1975, Yugoslav novelist, poet, short story writer and winner of the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature Ivo Andrić — seen here signing books at the Belgrade Book Fair in 1957 — dies.. 

Also on Lit Hub: On H.G. Adler’s lectures from a concentration campThankfulness, praise, and Ross Gay • On Reading Women, T Kira Madden talks naming her book and owning her story •  Pam Houston on the beauty of the dying planet on Otherppl • Read from The Dragonfly Sea

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On the Hidden History of Queer Women in Baseball


I’d already been reporting the story of queer women in baseball during World War II for four months by the time I finally cracked open Lynn Ames’ book, The Bright Lights of Summer. I didn’t really think the historical fiction novel had anything to help my story. It was based on the life of Dot Wilkinson, a softball player from the same era I was reporting on. It was about a different sport and didn’t overlap with the league whose players I was researching at all. But there, in the very first chapter, a single sentence sparked an idea that would lead me to discover a treasure trove of previously unreported information.

A character in the book, Julie, is researching women who played softball in the 1940s after she discovers that her mother had been one of them. Julie knows that in the present day, a lot of women who play softball are gay. But in the 1940s, being gay was still unacceptable and dangerous—not to mention that homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder. Obviously there were no mentions of lesbians in old newspaper write-ups of the American Softball Association teams. But in her research, Julie finds a few present-day items that tell her she’s on the right track: obituaries, including that of Ricki Caito, Wilkinson’s longtime partner, who is mentioned in the obit as such.

I read that and I thought, what if the answers I’m looking for are in the obituaries? I’d been searching for months, coming up on dead ends and still-living All-American Girls Professional Baseball League players who refused to talk to me about the issue, even after I disclosed my own queerness in an attempt to connect. But it turned out the answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight. The obituaries unlocked a story that had long been hidden—the story of the queer women who played hardball—and provided a glimpse into the lives these women lived when they stepped off the diamond.

The answers were in the obits, hiding in plain sight.

“I read obituaries every day to learn what sorts of lives are available to us,” writes Sarah Manguso in her book The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. Obituaries are an often overlooked source, tiny little tributes that are littered with clues about a person’s life. It’s where we learn who the most important people in someone’s life were, what they were like, what they liked to do.

Sometimes, obits can be something else, too: honest. “The obit as news, the obit as scoop, the obit that tells the stories that couldn’t be told while the subject was still in a litigious state,” Marilyn Johnson writes in her book about obituaries, The Dead Beat.

Obits are also historical documents, which, as researchers, we can interpret through our modern lens. For example, today we know that “loving companion” was often coded language to describe a same-sex partner. In one obituary I found, a player had a dreaded “special friend”; perhaps the only thing more insulting than being given the “special friend” title in your longtime partner’s obituary would be being left out completely. Jude Law’s character in the movie Closer, an obit writer, decoded some of this language: “‘He valued his privacy’—gay. ‘He enjoyed his privacy’—raging queen!”

And yet, despite being able to garner the clues about women who may have spent their lives with other women—who may or may not have identified as gay or a lesbian or queer—choosing to share these findings with the world at-large was another place for me to stop and consider. Yes, obituaries are public documents, so no, I wouldn’t necessarily be outing someone by sharing their name. But there is a good chance that these women were not out in their own lives. It’s possible that these women called their life partners simply a longtime roommate, a close friend, or a cousin. And while the stigma of queerness in 2019 is minimized in many ways from what it was when these women lived , it’s not gone completely; it’s just changed shape. We are still so close to their lifetimes. Their partners may still be alive. Some former players and teammates are still living. Is it disrespectful to write about a relationship that may have been a source of danger or shame or fear for someone?

On the other hand, isn’t it important to tell queer stories, to unearth them so that they are not lost? Isn’t it important for young queer people to see that we have always existed, that we have always been here, and if you know where to look, you can find yourself reflected even in an era that desperately tried to force us underground or completely erase us from existence? There are several books published over the last half a century that use a queer lens to look back at U.S. history in an attempt to center these oft-buried stories: Gay American History by Jonathan Ned Katz, A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, Queer America by Vicki L. Eaklor. We’ve always been here and we’ve always been queer, and many of us have been hiding in plain sight.

For people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live.

And for people who didn’t feel comfortable being publicly out during their lives, their obituary may have been a safe place to allow their full truth to live. Astronaut Sally Ride’s longtime female partner didn’t become known until Ride died, and her partner was listed in her obituary. When former member of the Texas House of Representatives, Barbara Jordan, died in 1996, her obituary named her longtime partner, Nancy Earl (the clues were public earlier than that, though; a 1988 story about Jordan being hospitalized after being rescued from the pool at her home mentions “Nancy Earl, who lives with Jordan.”).

This is true, too, the obituaries of AAGPBL players. As a queer writer and baseball fan, it is with gratitude that I read these obituaries. I am grateful for the women who came before me, who found love with someone even when the world told them their love was wrong. I am grateful to the family members and obit writers who recognized that love and honored those partnerships by including partners’ names in the obits.

It seems that these relationships resonated with a lot of other people, too. When my story was published in Narratively, it went viral and became the most-read piece on their website in 2018. It was covered by The Lily, the women’s vertical at The Washington Post, I was interviewed on sports writer Dave Zirin’s Edge of Sports podcast, and the story has been nominated for a prestigious baseball writing award. It made visible an entire community whose stories have gone untold despite the fact that their history on the baseball diamond has been well-documented, including in the classic movie A League of Their Own.

I know of several AAGPBL players who are still living, well into their 90s now. They’ve been with their female partners for decades, though none were willing to talk to me about it when I was reporting my story. “We didn’t talk about that,” was all they would say. It’s hard to open up about something you’ve had to keep secret as a matter of survival for the better part of a century. But now, living in a world that I believe is ready for their truth, I still hope to record their history while they are living, to hear the story of their lives and relationships straight from their lips.

I would never want to pressure someone into sharing something publicly that they don’t feel ready to reveal. I can only hope that maybe they read my piece—there’s a good chance they did; the AAGPBL’s Twitter account retweeted it and responded to it—and that they know they are seen and accepted for exactly who they are. I hope they know that their stories matter, to me and to a whole lot of other people. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn the full truth before it’s written in the obituary section.

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub

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The 25 Authors Who’ve Made the Most Money in the Last Decade

Keep your day job, they say. There’s no money in publishing, they say. Books are dying, they say. And well, mostly they’re right (except for that last one). But sometimes, if you’re very talented or very lucky or both, you can prove them all wrong. Just ask James Patterson. Or, you know, Michael Wolff.

But what exactly turns a writer into a millionaire? As a first step towards figuring it out, I took a look at the authors who made the most money over the last decade. All of the original data comes from Forbes, whose journalists make this calculation annually. They note: “Figures are pretax; fees for agents, managers and lawyers are not deducted. Earnings estimates are based on data from NPD BookScan and Box Office Mojo, as well as interviews with industry insiders, including some of the authors themselves.”

Some takeaways: 1. Franchises make money, and so do adaptations, but if you want to be a literary millionaire, you really have to write a) for children or b) a mystery (or romance) that strikes fear (or lust) in the hearts of the world. 2. It’s hard to beat James Patterson, but a true phenomenon (Harry PotterFifty Shades of Grey can do it). 3. Some years were good for writers in general, others were (relatively) lean across the board. A full accounting follows. Good luck, aspiring writers.


1. James Patterson : $86 million
2. J. K. Rowling : $54 million
3. Stephen King : $27 million
4. John Grisham : $21 million
5. Dan Brown (tie) : $18.5 million
5. Jeff Kinney (tie) : $18.5 million
7. Michael Wolff : $13 million
8. Nora Roberts (tie) : $12 million
8. Danielle Steel (tie) : $12 million
10. E. L. James (tie) : $10.5 million
10. Rick Riordan (tie) : $10.5 million


1. J.K. Rowling : $95 million
2. James Patterson : $87 million
3. Jeff Kinney : $21 million
4. Dan Brown : $20 million
5. Stephen King : $15 million
6. John Grisham (Tie) : $14 million
6. Nora Roberts (Tie) : $14 million
8. Paula Hawkins : $13 million
9. E. L. James : $11.5 million
10. Danielle Steel (Tie) : $11 million
10. Rick Riordan (Tie) : $11 million


1. James Patterson : $95 million
2. Jeff Kinney : $19.5 million
3. J.K. Rowling : $19 million
4. John Grisham : $18 million
5. Stephen King (Tie) : $15 million
5. Danielle Steel (Tie) : $15 million
5. Nora Roberts : $15 million
8. E. L. James : $14 million
9. Veronica Roth (Tie) : $10 million
9. John Green (Tie) : $10 million
9. Paula Hawkins (Tie) : $10 million
12. George R. R. Martin (Tie) : $9.5 million
12. Dan Brown (Tie) : $9.5 million
12. Rick Riordan (Tie) : $9.5 million


1. James Patterson : $89 million
2. John Green : $26 million
3. Veronica Roth (Tie) : $25 million
3. Danielle Steel (Tie) : $25 million
5. Jeff Kinney : $23 million
6. Janet Evanovich : $21 million
7. J. K. Rowling (Tie) : $19 million
7. Stephen King (Tie) : $19 million
9. Nora Roberts : $18 million
10. John Grisham : $14 million
11. Dan Brown (Tie) : $13 million
11. Suzanne Collins (Tie) : $13 million
11. Gillian Flynn (Tie) : $13 million
11. Rick Riordan (Tie) : $13 million
15. E. L. James (Tie) : $12 million
15. George R. R. Martin (Tie) : $12 million


1. James Patterson : $90 million
2. Dan Brown : $28 million
3. Nora Roberts : $23 million
4. Danielle Steel : $22 million
5. Janet Evanovich : $20 million
6. Jeff Kinney (Tie) : $17 million
6. Veronica Roth (Tie) : $17 million
6. John Grisham (Tie) : $17 million
6. Stephen King (Tie) : $17 million
10. Suzanne Collins : $16 million
11. J. K. Rowling : $14 million
12. George R. R. Martin : $12 million
13. David Baldacci : $11 million
14. Rick Riordan (Tie) : $10 million
14. E. L. James (Tie) : $10 million
16. Gillian Flynn (Tie) : $9 million
16. John Green (Tie) : $9 million


1. E. L. James : $95 million
2. James Patterson : $91 million
3. Suzanne Collins : $55 million
4. Bill O’Reilly : $28 million
5. Danielle Steel : $26 million
6. Jeff Kinney : $24 million
6. Janet Evanovich : $24 million
8. Nora Roberts : $23 million
9. Dan Brown : $22 million
10. Stephen King : $20 million
10. Dean Koontz : $20 million
12. John Grisham : $18 million
13. David Baldacci : $15 million
14. Rick Riordan : $14 million
15. J. K. Rowling : $13 million
16. George R. R. Martin : $12 million


1. James Patterson : $94 million
2. Stephen King : $39 million
3. Janet Evanovich : $33 million
4. John Grisham : $26 million
5. Jeff Kinney : $25 million
6. Bill O’Reilly : $24 million
7. Nora Roberts : $23 million
7. Danielle Steel : $23 million
9. Suzanne Collins : $20 million
10. Dean Koontz : $19 million
11. J. K. Rowling : $17 million
12. George R. R. Martin : $15 million
13. Stephenie Meyer : $14 million
13. Ken Follett : $14 million
15. Rick Riordan : $13 million


1. James Patterson : $84 million
2. Danielle Steel : $35 million
3. Stephen King : $28 million
4. Janet Evanovich : $22 million
5. Stephenie Meyer (Tie) : $21 million
5. Rick Riordan (Tie) : $21 million
7. Dean Koontz : $19 million
8. John Grisham : $18 million
9. Jeff Kinney : $17 million
10. Nicholas Sparks : $16 million
11. Ken Follett : $14 million
12. Suzanne Collins : $10 million
13. J. K. Rowling : $5 million


1. James Patterson : $70 million
2. Stephenie Meyer : $40 million
3. Stephen King : $34 million
4. Danielle Steel : $32 million
5. Ken Follett: $20 million
6. Dean Koontz : $18 million
7. Janet Evanovich : $16 million
8. John Grisham : $15 million
9. Nicholas Sparks : $14 million
10. J. K. Rowling : $10 million


For whatever reason I could not find the data for 2009. (If you can, let me know!) So instead:


1. J.K. Rowling : $300 million
2. James Patterson : $50 million
3. Stephen King : $45 million
4. Tom Clancy : $35 million
5. Danielle Steel : $30 million
6. John Grisham (Tie) : $25 million
6. Dean Koontz (Tie) : $25 million
8. Ken Follett : $20 million
9. Janet Evanovich : $17 million
10. Nicholas Sparks : $16 million

The authors who made the most money over the last 10 years:

1. James Patterson : $836 million
2. J. K. Rowling : $546 million
3. Stephen King : $259 million
4. Danielle Steel : $231 million
5. John Grisham : $192 million
6. Jeff Kinney : $165 million
7. E. L. James (Tie) : $153 million
7. Janet Evanovich (Tie) : $153 million
9. Nora Roberts : $128 million
10. Suzanne Collins : $114 million
11. Dan Brown : $111 million
12. Dean Koontz : $101 million
13. Rick Riordan : $91.5 million
14. Stephenie Meyer : $75 million
15. Ken Follett : $68 million
16. George R. R. Martin : $60.5 million
17. Veronica Roth (Tie) : $52 million
18. Bill O’Reilly (Tie) : $52 million
19. Nicholas Sparks : $46 million
20. John Green : $45 million
21. Tom Clancy : $35 million
22. David Baldacci : $26 million
23. Paula Hawkins : $23 million
24. Gillian Flynn : $22 million
25. Michael Wolff : $13 million

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Why My Students Don’t Call Themselves ‘Southern’ Writers

At the end of a lackluster discussion of Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” in a college English class last fall, one of my students raised her hand. “I know that Welty is supposed to be really good,” she said, “but I don’t get it.” She objected to the clichés, the cartoonishness.

But does Eudora feel cliché because she invented certain Southern clichés? She read the extremes of Southerners, of human behavior, and immortalized our foibles in words that would influence the next few generations of writers. As Tony Earley observed, “I have a theory—perhaps unformed and, without question, unsubstantiated—that most bad Southern writing is descended directly from Eudora Welty’s ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’”

I defended Welty’s greatness during that class—I even played them an excerpt of the author reading the story aloud, her mouth rolling fast around the syllables like gumballs—but over the course of the semester I couldn’t help marking a shift in how young Southerners, black and white, read the Southern giants: not in awe, but with a sense of exhaustion.

We moved through Mark Twain—hokey—and Flannery O’Connor—melodramatic—and William Faulkner—impenetrable. Southern whiteness doesn’t age well. But even Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, however electric their language, felt familiar to these students; yes, those old burdens again. What my students saw was a reflection not of the world they lived in, but the world they inherited. And though we Southerners are unendingly proud of our literary heritage, it bears the marks of a brutality we’re struggling to move past.

The Welty that felt most real to them was “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” In this 1963 story published less than a month after the assassination of Medgar Evers, Welty wormed her way into the addled brain of the white man who murdered him—a man who turned out in actuality to be Byron de la Beckwith, as supernaturally close as a man can get to an invented character. This wasn’t using racism as a setting, but as a problem. It was asking why in the same way my students were.

To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain.

As the narrator waits for the civil rights leader to appear, he thinks, “Never seen him before, never seen him since, never seen anything of his black face but his pictures, never seen his face alive, any time at all, or anywheres, and didn’t want to, need to, never hope to see that face and never will.” This is not a passage that provides answers; my students know better than to expect answers. Welty instead reckons with the tragic unknowability of the South while showing us exactly how recognizable the ugliness is: it’s the man next door, the man within us.

For one class, my students read excerpts from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (often, reductively, called the black answer to Mitchell’s epic), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which quite intentionally set fire to the myth of Tara; Randall even faced a lawsuit from the Mitchell heirs. As we moved through these pieces in discussion, the students became increasingly animated. Yes, Mitchell was breezy and readable, but ugh, the whiteness. They pointed out how often she referenced the color in the first chapter alone: “magnolia-white skin,” “small white hands,” “solid masses of white blossoms,” “dogwood dappling with white stars,” “the whitewashed brick plantation house,” “a pleasant land of white houses”; what are we to think when Mammy appears, “shining black, pure African”? The disgust of my students wasn’t appeased much by Jubilee, which, though free from the egregious racism of Gone with the Wind, is still stuck in the antebellum South, complete with dialect and black women under the thumb of white women. It was Alice Randall who lit them up, the tongue-in-cheekness of the plantation “Tata” and the character of Scarlett being renamed “Other,” she in all her shining whiteness finally being reduced to the nameless otherness that Mammy and her kin know all too well. Revenge is what they wanted, not realism.

Pulling my students through the 20th-century canon took some effort, but they came alive when handed Mary Miller’s “Big Bad Love,” Kiese Laymon’s “Hey Mama,” excerpts from Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. The rhythms of this language matched their own: personal, progressive, fluid, literate. These were Mississippians writing about a state not dripping with Spanish moss and punctuated by mockingbird song, but of surprising intersections, where violence within the self had become as important as violence across racial lines, where poverty was nuanced rather than made perverse, where families were built from intentional love rather than tied to tortured bloodlines. As Kiese wrote, and all my students still wonder, “How am I supposed to hug myself?”

I asked my students to create a piece of Southern art for their final project: a story or poem or painting or song that expressed their own Southern story, whatever that had come to mean for them. Even with this open-ended assignment, I initially faced resistance. A handful of students, born and raised in Mississippi, refused to identify as Southern. And why should they, when the “South” that had been painted by so many Pulitzer winners and Nobel laureates was mired in bigotry, religiosity, and perversity? A Bible salesman steals a spinster’s prosthetic leg. A half-black man nearly marries his slaveowning sister. A man and a boy raft down the Mississippi on the exaggerated current of dialect. (“I knowed jis’ ‘s well ‘at I ‘uz gwineter be rich ag’in as I’s a-stannin’ heah dis minute!”)

But as we laid bare all the disparate elements that make up Southern writing today, my students began to resituate themselves, to hesitantly accept the label. As one of them realized, “I didn’t need to write about tractors or sweet tea to meet the criteria.” Another student wrote a surreal and philosophical story with a narrator who, in one scene, sits in a tree and says to God, “I’m so tired of this particular self.” In an accompanying statement, she explained that the narrator “believes in transformation and overcoming certain aspects of defining character—a very Southern idea. . . . I fit into [a “southern identity”] because I try to ignore it. I fit into it because like many people, it’s only another thing that, for my own peace of mind, I have to manipulate into fantasy so I can tolerate it.”

To be a Southern writer is to live with variants of pain. Reading Eudora Welty and other Southern classics can strike a nerve for students who want that pain to be buried, who read those depictions of race and violence, of magnolias and uncles in kimonos, as stereotypes that non-Southerners use to keep us in boxes. But out of this early and artful recording of Southern messiness came the writers who spin us further still, who reckon with the realness of the 21st century. So should we still teach our giants, cliché as they may now seem? Of course: to love the buds, we must know the roots. But to honor the roots, teach also the buds.

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The Impossibility of Finding a Place to Write in New York


Like many young people who believe themselves unfit for the demands of real life, I moved to New York after college to become a writer. A guy I sort of knew had a room opening up in his Ridgewood, Queens apartment for $700 per month. I didn’t know where Ridgewood was, and the rent seemed steep—I was coming from St. Louis, where I paid $550 to share, with friends, a two-story suburban house—but I was assured that $700 was a steal. I was also assured that Ridgewood was, if not exactly desirable, then certainly pre-desirable. The place to be, give or take five years. There were rumors that a sitcom set in Ridgewood was in the works at Fox.

The guy and I had met one summer in high school at what can only be described as “poetry camp,” a week of reading and writing verse with other allergy-prone introverts at a Lutheran college in Pennsylvania. I almost didn’t recognize him when he met my bus at Hudson Yards. He was no longer the scrawny, beak-nosed poet I remembered. His shoulders were twice as broad and his biceps were testing the sleeves of his t-shirt. I couldn’t comprehend the transformation. Had he been lifting Norton anthologies?

“Are you still writing poetry?” I asked, dragging one of my duffel bags down the street.

He shouldered my second duffel easily. “Hell no,” he said. “I sell ads for Yelp.”

I was in no position to judge. I had taken my $200,000 undergraduate degree and moved to one of the world’s most expensive cities on the basis of an internship that paid less than the minimum wage—a humiliating if commonplace rite of passage for artsy millennials of privilege.

Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism.

The room was much smaller than I’d anticipated. I could extend my arms and touch the walls on either side. The window, which was jammed in place and wouldn’t shut, overlooked a construction site. The tiny men below appeared to be digging a giant hole. Needless to say, there was no room for a writing desk. A squat wicker end table sat by the apartment door, but my roommate was using it to display a glass skull and a tub of creatine.

With no space to write in the apartment, I began the arduous process of finding a suitable café. The kind of place I had in mind would ideally meet three requirements:

1) Walking distance. The goal is to put physical (and mental) distance between you and your apartment while remaining close enough to walk home for lunch.

2) Low rent. By “rent” I mean the drinks and pastries you are obliged to purchase in exchange for taking up space. Some establishments demand, reasonably, that you spend some money if you’re going to hang around, but some will let you live there for the cost of a drip coffee.

3) Ample space. Nothing makes pursuing your unique artistic vision more difficult than being squeezed between a bunch of people all pursuing their unique artistic visions.

There are other factors, to be sure, like the quality of the baked goods or, if you’re finnicky like me, the height of the chairs in relation to the height of the tables. (I like to tower over my laptop, as though my work is subservient to me, and not the other way around.) I auditioned a number of cafés near my apartment, but none satisfied my key requirements. Eventually I found the perfect place—a persistently-empty used bookstore in Bushwick that seemed to operate outside the bounds of capitalism—but the hours of operation were wildly inconsistent, requiring me to add a fourth requirement:

4) Consistent hours of operation.

When I did manage to time out my visits with the bookstore owner’s unpredictable sleep schedule, I worked on a novel. The protagonist was an old woman in a small Massachusetts town beset by coyotes. After six months of writing I showed the manuscript-in-progress to a friend. She winced and said, “A short story, maybe. But a novel?”

It wasn’t a novel. I could see that now. On the plus side, a few weeks after the internship ended I landed myself an office job making $33,500, which was more money than I could conceive of spending. But after taxes, rent, utilities, my MetroCard, and the coffees I was obliged to buy at the used bookstore, I was coming to see how it was possible.

My girlfriend, who was back in St. Louis finishing her degree, visited Ridgewood one weekend in December. She had the flu and soon I did, too, and for some reason we decided to watch The Pianist on my laptop. We huddled together on my twin bed, noses running as a cold wind blew through the crack in the window, watching as Poland was slowly overtaken by the Nazis.

“How do you get any work done here?” she asked.

The Polish army was moving in on Adrien Brody, who, in an effort to keep warm, had donned the heavy green coat of a German soldier.

“I don’t,” I said.

I wasn’t sure if by here she meant the apartment or New York in general. Even in Ridgewood, where the telltale signs of gentrification—small dogs, coworking spaces, people like me—were only just beginning to crop up, the economic and social pressures of the city made luxuries of time and space.

Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters.

My novel wasn’t turning out to be a short story, either. I scrapped it and started work on a new project. The protagonist was a cash-strapped young woman who lived in Ridgewood in an apartment overlooking a giant hole. Rather than solve my problems for myself, I discovered, I could pass them off to my characters. My life seemed funnier, and somehow less pathetic, when refracted through a fictional entity. Still, I was losing valuable writing hours standing in the cold like Adrien Brody, waiting for the bookstore owner to wake up and open the shop. And I didn’t even have a heavy coat! The hole outside my bedroom window was growing larger by the day and had begun to take on metaphorical significance.

I dreamed of a quiet, private room to write in. After weeks of searching, I found one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The landlord had chopped up a townhouse, slapping padlocks on the doors and renting out the rooms as individual “studio apartments.” The rent was $850, but I would have my privacy. When I showed up with the rent and the realtor’s fee—a realtor had posted the room on Craigslist, and for this, I owed her $425—I was informed that there was nothing to sign.

“I don’t do leases,” the landlord said.

“He doesn’t,” the realtor assured me.

My new apartment resembled a boarding house. It was like something out of Balzac. The other tenants were aspiring artists of one kind or another. There was a set designer, a photographer, and a musician. A line cook lived out of a closet downstairs. The shared bathroom and kitchen were ruthlessly policed by our live-in super. He was a paranoiac, and believed one of the tenants was trying to poison his food. He put padlocks on the cabinets and refrigerator.

The house was continually under construction. Ceiling plaster often fell on my head, and the entryway was regularly blocked by wood beams or spare appliances. There was a leak in my bedroom ceiling and a colony of flying ants lived in the walls. In place of air conditioning I placed my desk fan atop a stack of hardcover books. A friend suggested I sell the books and use the proceeds to buy a window unit, but this seemed like a betrayal—of what, I’m not sure.

But the space! The ceilings were high and there was plenty of room to pace back and forth. I bought a sturdy wooden desk and set it by the bay window, which faced the street and drew in plenty of light. I was still writing about the young woman in Ridgewood, but she was no longer my sole focus. I gave her a brother, a father, and a deceased mother. Each character had his or her own discrete but intersecting storyline. Alongside scenes set in New York, I was writing chapters set in St. Louis, Boston, Paris, and Zimbabwe. The plot now spanned sixty years. The struggle to find work and make rent in Ridgewood was still a part of the manuscript, but it was no longer the whole story. The novel grew in scope and dimension.

I’m not sure where this influx of ambition came from, but it might have had something to do with the high ceilings, the sturdy desk, the windows, and the privacy. The apartment was not luxurious by any stretch—each morning I dusted the dead ants off my laptop—but in my room, at least, there was space for my ideas to stretch out.

At some point I mistakenly ordered a package to my old address in Ridgewood. When I went to pick it up, I was shocked to see just how small my room had been. It had the same dimensions as a coffin. The hole outside my window was no longer a hole, but the parking lot for an AutoZone. I wondered what had happened to that sitcom.

Charles Bukowski has a poem where he roundly dismisses the idea that good writing can only occur under ideal conditions. “Baby,” the final stanza reads, “air and light and time and space / have nothing to do with it / and don’t create anything / except maybe a longer life to find / new excuses / for.” Well, sure. Air and light and time and space are useless on their own. But they don’t hurt—and since when was I taking life advice from Bukowski? I didn’t even like Bukowski.

After eighteen months in the boarding house, I had written a novel. I would not have started it without Ridgewood, but I would not have finished it, and it would not have become The Altruists, without the room in Brooklyn.

I told the paranoid super I was leaving. My girlfriend had moved to New York and we were going to move in together.

“You know, Drew,” he said, “sometimes in life you just got to move on. Is this a special lady?”

“She is,” I said.

“She doesn’t mess around on you?”

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“You sure?”

“I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m happy for you, Drew,” he said. “You’re going to be alright. And if she ever does you wrong, you can always come back here. We’ll have a room waiting for you.”

This story originally appeared on Literary Hub