The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing presents award-winning writer Marlon James. He debuts a brand new talk, “When Books Come out of Books” on Thursday, November 3 at 7:00 p.m. in the Marston Exploration Theater, ISTB4 at Arizona State University, Tempe Campus (781 S Terrace Rd, Tempe, AZ 85250). This event is free and open to the public. For more information or to register, please visit the event page or the Facebook event.
Marlon James is an award-winning author and novelist whose short fiction and essays have appeared in Esquire, Granta, Harper’s, The Caribbean Review of Books, Bronx Noir, and the New York Times Magazine. His accolades include the Man Booker Prize, the American Book Award, and the Anisfield-Wolf Prize. James was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1970. He graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language and Literature, and from Wilkes University in Pennsylvania in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and teaches English and creative writing at Macalester College. He is currently at work adapting A Brief History of Seven Killings into an HBO television series.
Author Ian McEwan recently visited ASU for a lecture in partnership with the ASU Origins Project and the Center for Science and the Imagination. At this co-sponsored event, Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Sweet Tooth and winner of the Man Booker Prize, and Lawrence Krauss, cosmologist and theoretical physicist at ASU, discussed doubt and skepticism in relationship to writing, as well as the interplay between science and literature.
The first question posed to McEwan and Krauss contained the overarching theme of the discussion: what is doubt and skepticism and how is it approached in writing both fiction and nonfiction?
McEwan began by defining doubt as “someone hesitating before a problem or outcome…pausing before a moral choice.” He explained that the novel is a secular form which is invested in individuals and is at the heart of doubt and skepticism. Using Hamlet as the quintessential example of a self-examining and moralizing character embodied by doubt, McEwan described literature as reflective of the relation between consciousness and doubt in examining human actions and motives.
In reply, Krauss examined uncertainty in nonfiction, the scientific version of doubt. According to Krauss, uncertainty quantifies science because it imparts a worth on scientific discovery and establishes a value of correctness or probability. Although uncertainty is valuable to science, Krauss discussed how in writing scientific articles, his copy editor eliminates uncertainty and ambiguity even though “there is no absolute truth in science…it’s either very very very likely or very very very unlikely or in between.” While uncertainty is crucial to scientific discovery, he explained that the human condition does not allow for doubt in something we like to accept as pure fact and truth.
In discussing the place of the scientific account in the narrative spectrum, McEwan commented that “science invades the territory of land held by the novel.” He explained that as science progresses, it seeks to quantify how we as humans make our choices. Understanding human action, as defined by science, forces the novel into a position of doubt as it must change its set of approaches in human emotional analysis. The novel, McEwan argued, is in a position of vague threat due to the increasing advancements of science because “if [science] changes the novel, it will change everyday lives.”
The moderator asked both lecturers to discuss how each conveys skepticism and doubt in a narrative. McEwan characterized his approach as a bottom-up–not a top-down–matter. In paraphrasing a 1953 lecture by Nabokov, McEwan said that one’s job as an author is to find the details; what a novelist has to do is build a world where skepticism is possible.
In contrast, Krauss’s approach to skepticism in nonfiction is a top-down approach, which to him is the best tool a scientist can use. For Krauss, skepticism is best utilized by conveying shock to the reader because “the easiest person to fool is yourself.” By getting someone to make the discovery that what they believe is wrong, it opens up the possibility that everything else could be wrong and leads to a questioning everything. Krauss argued that it is vitally important for a scientist to be brutally honest as “little accidents can have a profound impact.”
In their examination of doubt and skepticism, McEwan and Krauss spent a substantial amount of time examining the vitality of the novel and writing. Writing doubt takes different forms in each genre, and as science alters humans’ understanding, fiction writing will alter as well in a continued attempt to clarify the human condition. This intimate discussion between two prominent masters of their field stirred a thought-provoking lecture in the exploration of how these two fields affect and alter one another.
Enter a commercial bookstore – say, Barnes and Noble – and take a look at the display sections. Likely what you will find are different novel-length books, be it fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, or young adult. Enter the shelves and, if you search a little, you will be able to find collections of short stories by some particularly well-known authors, or maybe an entire section devoted to short-story form. For many amateur writers there is a sense that one starts writing short stories only to better understand the structure of a story, but “real writing,” successful writing, involves novels. Short stories are a way of getting one’s name known to better sell a novel later, or a way of generating ideas and themes that will eventually show up in a later novel.
This is not to say that short stories are not an often-used form, but rather that they are not marketed or praised with as much enthusiasm as novels. Book clubs, college essays, even library shelves are more likely to be promoting novels than short fiction.
Is that still true? There are thousands of literary magazines with focus on short stories across the country, and MFA Creative Writing programs are bursting at the seams with hopeful writers – most who are learning to write short stories as their primary craft. Almost three weeks ago, Junot Diaz, an author who won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel released not another novel but a book of short stories. It is currently fifth on the New York Times Bestseller list for hardcovers. A book of short stories selling well to the general public.
Other writers are taking this risk as well. Emma Donaghue was a finalist for the Man Booker prize for her best-selling novel Room, and recently she released a collection of short stories named Astray. No longer are short stories something authors do until they can get a book deal – now the short stories are book deals in themselves.
Olive Kitteridge is a best-selling “novel in stories” by Elizabeth Strout – a marketing tool that has been popular lately. Is it a collection of short stories with a central character, or is it a novel separated into different stories? Likely, in the interest of a more mainstream readership, the publisher decided to market it as a novel.
For many readers, short stories are a form used only for convenience in classroom settings or slipped into magazines they were already reading, but this is beginning to change. The market is finding more and more value in short stories and the public is beginning to recognize and buy these collections. Is their smaller form easier to finish in our busy-bee lifestyles? Are they better suited to our oft-thought shrinking attention spans? Is it a result of a plethora of talented short story artists coming out of MFA programs? Or perhaps the many different places to find short stories – literary magazines, collections of prize-winners, e-books, online?
The makeup and background of literature is changing, from MFA programs to e-books. It will be interesting to see if novels soon become less ubiquitous and short stories more popular and accessible. In a few more years, will bookstores be selling out of popular short story collections more often than popular novels?