Several weeks ago, the editors of RT Book Reviews announced their selection for the best books of 2017. The awards themselves will be handed out at RT’s annual convention, which is taking place this week in Reno, Nevada.
RT Book Reviews (the RT stands for Romantic Times) was founded as a newsletter in 1981. By the 2004, the magazine, now a glossy magazine, reported a subscription of 150,000 people, and billed itself as “Romance’s premiere genre magazine.” The reviews, which covered most romance genres, as well as mystery, fiction, science fiction, thriller, and urban fantasy, were featured on book covers and websites. The conventions brought readers face-to-face with some of the most influential and beloved writers across genres.
But today, it was announced that RT Book Reviews would be closing at the end of the month, when the founder and editor of the magazine, Kathryn Falk, will be retiring. The full details of the closing have yet to be fully revealed, but you can be sure we will bring them to you when more is known.
Until then, however, we have the last round of RT Book Reviews Awards. And, since there won’t be any more, we can only assume that these books will remain the best books in their category for all eternity! We offer our heartiest congratulations to all the winners, and hope that you find some new books to savor from the list of winning titles below! For a full list of all nominated titles, see RT Book Reviews website.
Last week, we addressed the #MeToo movement in the literary world by focusing on some of the headlines and debates that were taking place regarding the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature, and the revelations regarding Junot Diaz. Today, we thought we’d take a look into the literary implications of #MeToo, and the way the movement is changing how we read and write fiction.
Not surprisingly, perhaps the most prominent field where such changes have been occurring is romance, where issues of consent and power have always been debated and discussed pretty prominently. Now, as The Guardian observed, we see workplace romances getting reconsidered, and the consent being made extra-explicit and enthusiastic (by a number of authors, if not across the genre as a whole). And that is terrific. As I reader, I have long been awaiting a turn in the genre to something more out-and-out progressive, feminist, and focused on fulfillment.
But it seems that other genres have been thinking hard about the portrayal of women in literature, as well. The Hugo Awards for science fiction have been honoring the achievements of women and people of color for several years now, despite some highly-publicized campaigns to derail those efforts. The establishment of the Staunch Book Prize launched a wide-reaching and generally thoughtful debate about how we treat out female characters, why we hurt them, and what we can do about it. Heck, there is even an opera due for release in the UK this summer focusing on the victims of Jack the Ripper, in order to restore humanity to women who have been historically described by their gruesome deaths.
But have such sentiments actually translated into our literature? To an extent…yes. The world of publishing is not quick to react at the very best of times, and it will most likely be some time before the paradigm shift that the #MeToo movement has been establishing will be truly reflected in the books we read across genres. But I’ve been noticing a trend over the past few years, as discussions and debates surrounding women’s issues, women’s lived experiences, and the intersectional problems that people of color, LGBTQIA people, working-class people, and people with disabilities face on a daily basis in our world have grown in prominence–stories are, in fact, beginning to change. It sometimes subtle–and sometimes it isn’t at all, and that’s super, too. But it is there. So if you are looking for some works that are tackling issues of power, abuse, identity, and truth-telling, here are some ideas from around the world of fiction. Some of these books are overtly speaking to the current cultural moment, and some are merely reflecting on them in a way, but all of them, in their own way, are acknowledging that it’s time to think outside the proverbial box–and we are all the better for it.
Note: This is not to say that older books have not tackled these issues. They absolutely have. See Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or Barbara Vine’s A Dark Adapted Eye. But this is a round-up of a few new books that reflect some of the positive changes and debates taking place in fiction right now.
The Nowhere Girls:Amy Reed’s novel is at once a wonderfully fulfilling coming-of-age, misfits-united novel, and a searing indictment of the rape culture in which these characters are growing up. Grace Salter is the new girl in town, whose family was run out of their former community after her southern Baptist preacher mom turned into a radical liberal; Rosina Suarez is the queer punk girl in a conservative Mexican immigrant family, who yearns for a life outside of their plans; Erin Delillo is obsessed with two things: marine biology and Star Trek: The Next Generation, both of which help her cope with her concern that she might be an android. When Grace learns that Lucy Moynihan, the former occupant of her new home, was run out of town for having accused the popular guys at school of gang rape, she’s incensed that Lucy never had justice. For their own personal reasons, Rosina and Erin feel equally deeply about Lucy’s tragedy, so they form an anonymous group of girls at Prescott High to resist the sexist culture at their school, which includes boycotting sex of any kind with the male students. This is a story with worlds of positive representation, from queer characters to female characters with autism-spectrum conditions, from religious and cultural difference to debates about sex and feminism–but it’s also one heck of a compelling read, especially as these Nowhere Girls lead a crusade for justice that is as applicable to the world outside the book as it is to them.
Anatomy of a Scandal: Sarah Vaughan uses all the insight and nuance she gathered during her career as a journalist in this story about political scandals, accusations, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to endure. The novel focuses on Sophie and her husband James. In Sophie’s eyes, James is the model of a good man–a caring father, a devoted husband, and a highly successful politician. But then James is accused of rape, and Kate Woodcroft is appointed by the Crown to prosecute him. Kate is convinced that James is guilty, and is willing to bring all her legal expertise to this fight to bring him down. But as this story unfolds, with the help of flashbacks and shifting narrative voices, we as readers are shown that no actions are isolated, and that all actions and all choices have tremendous impact, far into the future. Vaughan is especially talented at crafting her female characters. Sophie and Kate could not be more different, but they are both nuanced, compelling, and, in their own way, sympathetic characters, which makes their journeys in this book uniquely harrowing and suspenseful. A top-notch courtroom drama as well as a pertinent look into the effects of power and privilege, this is a psychological thriller that fits in beautifully with our current real-world debates.
Fellside: This book is something of an outlier as a result of its age (it was published in 2016, which is by no means ancient, but what a difference a few years makes!), but M.R. Carey’s strange, haunting, and unforgettable novel deserves to be on this list for a number of reasons. At the center of this work is a heroin addict named Jess Moulson, who is facing life in prison in the isolated and, frankly, terrifying Fellside prison. Jess, we are told, is weak. But no matter how many times the characters in this book repeat this judgement of her, Jess quietly and repeatedly proves she is anything but weak. This is a story that repeatedly shows us the hopelessness of life, especially for those in prison–the ruthlessness of people who feel they have nothing left to lose, the craven violence of those who cling to power, obsession, greed, addiction…but this is also a story that repeatedly rejects those qualities in favor of hope. Bleak hope, perhaps. But hope. So, for its discussions of abuse of power, its emphasis on the integrity and dignity of those whose humanity is so often overlooked, and the intimate discussions about what penance, sacrifice, and love really look like, this book definitely deserves consideration in this discussion.
And also, there are a huge number of romance novels to add to this list…but in the interest of time, we’ll have to get to them another day!
Last week was a difficult and complicated one in the book world, dear readers, as two news stories disrupted some long-established status quo’s, and unsettled many assumptions about spaces and people we might have held dear. Conversations about these topics are by no means easy, and under no circumstances are pleasant. But they are necessary, and, to many, vitally important ones to have. So let’s make some space to have them.
The first story is regarding the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature–or the lack thereof. On Friday, the Nobel committed announced that there would be no prize awarded this year, after a series of resignations left the eighteen-person panel eight members short. “The present decision was arrived at in view of the currently diminished academy and the reduced public confidence in the academy,” the body, founded by King Gustav III in 1786 and still under royal patronage, said in a statement.
At the root of the institution’s unprecedented crisis are a raft of wide-ranging allegations against Jean-Claude Arnault, a photographer and leading cultural figure in Sweden, who is married to Katarina Frostenson, an academy member and author.
Last November, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published detailed allegations by 18 women accusing Arnault of sexual harassment and physical abuse over a period of more than 20 years, in France and Sweden and including at properties owned by the academy.
According to reports, the first accusations against Arnault were made in 1996, but remained silenced until mere months ago. Moreover, Arnault and Frostenson ran a club in Stockholm that showcased exhibitions, readings and performances by prominent cultural personalities (including Nobel laureates) for many years, a position that gave Arnault access to the people he victimized. Because the club was funded in part by the Academy, many have cited a conflict of interest. Additionally, it has also been alleged that Arnault may have leaked the names of seven Nobel literature laureates in advance, which is problematic because the name of the winner is the subject of heavy betting.
In and of itself, this story was difficult enough. It was compounded, however, by the Academy’s refusal to take any kind of corrective action when the news became public. Public approbation fell on Frostenson, who is a member of the Nobel Prize panel, and three members of the 18-strong academy resigned last month in protest when she was not expelled. That was followed by several large-scale protests in Sweden, specifically outside the Academy, by people who objected to punishing a woman for the actions of a man. On Friday, April 13, permanent secretary, Sara Danius, the first woman to hold the post since its foundation in 1786, stepped aside after an emergency meeting was called by the Nobel Committee. Although Danius had worked aggressively to clarify the institution’s relationship with Forum and have , she stated that she felt she had lost the confidence of that committee:
“All traditions are not worth preserving,” she told the Swedish press agency TT on Friday, calling on the academy to make ethics a priority, report and prosecute allegations of misconduct and fight male abuse of power and degrading treatment of women. “Caring for a legacy must not mean an arrogance and distance to society at large,” she said.
Technically, committee members are appointed for life, so they can’t actually resign. However, they can refuse to take their chairs, leaving the committee itself too weak–and too affected by recent news stories and subsequent anger–to make any competent decisions regarding awards.
As a result, according to the announcement made on Friday, is that the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes for Literature will be awarded in 2019. This is not the first time there has been no award. Since its establishment in 1901, there have been seven years without a prize: 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1943. The majority of those years, obviously, were during World Wars. The reason for skipping the prize in 1935 has not been disclosed. It has also been “reserved”, meaning that there were no suitable winners, in 1915, 1919, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1936 and 1949. This is the first year, however, that the prize will not be awarded as the result of a scandal.
So, what do we make of this?
There are any number of opinion pieces coming out this week stating that the world is better off, overall, without the Nobel Prize. According to an opinion piece in The New York Times, the idea that people from one country are in any way qualified to judge the cultural products of another is fundamentally ludicrous:
Literature is not tennis or football, where international competition makes sense. It is intimately tied to the language and culture from which it emerges. Literary style distinguishes itself by its distance from the other styles that surround it…What sense does it make for a group from one culture — be it Swedish, American, Nigerian or Japanese — to seek to compare a Bolivian poet with a Korean novelist, an American singer-songwriter with a Russian playwright, and so on? Why would we even want them to do that?
Meanwhile, The Atlantic believes that the free market should decide whose books are best:
Good criticism helps people to find the books that will speak to them, but it doesn’t attempt to simply name “the most outstanding work,” in the way the Nobel Prize does. It is impossible to name the single best writer for the same reason that you can’t speak of the single best human being: There are too many different criteria for judgment….A book earns the status of a classic, not because it is approved by a committee or put on a syllabus, but simply because a lot of people like it for a long time. Literary reputation can only emerge on the free market, not through central planning…*
*For the record, the idea that a book “earns the status of a classic…simply because a lot of people like it” is really just not true. People’s opinions are weighted based on their power and influence in society. And writers’ ability to reach wide audiences is also based on their power and privilege. To pretend that there is a fundamental egalitarianism in the production and dissemination of any art form, especially in a capitalist society, is absurd.
Which leads me to another point that can be drawn from this whole situation: nothing is sacred. If anything, the scandal of the 2018 Nobel Prize has forced us to reckon with the fact that the #MeToo movement, that sexual misconduct and abuse of power and taking people’s humanity for granted, is not something that is relegated to a specific industry, or a specific group of people, or that it is a product of a specific place, culture, class, or time. It is a problem inherent across the social and cultural spectrum. And this year without an award provides us sometime to think about that. To realize that awards like the Nobel (and like so many others) largely only recognize the achievements of those who have come before them. Women, People of Color, people who represent non-binary sexual and gender identities, people from working-class backgrounds, people with immigrant and refugee status, all of these people, and many more, have gone unrecognized by awards, and are not considered “classics”–not because of their literary merit, but because of how these awards are structured, and how we come to think about who is qualified to tell stories.
And in thinking about whose stories matter, this year should also force us to realize that everyone’s stories matter–not only those in print, but the ones that we tell each other. The stories about violent, invasive, or abusive actions. The cries for help. Those stories count, and we–as individuals, as members of communities, and as institutions devoted to storytelling–need to do better about listening to them.
The Pulitzer Prize was established in 1917 by the Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer, who made his name and fortune as a newspaper publisher in the United States.
Pulitzer came the United States and was paid $200 to enlist in the United States Army during the American Civil War. Following his discharge, he made his way to Boston, intended to get work aboard the whaling ships of New Bedford. Whaling, he found to his dismay, was quite boring, so he lived the life of a tramp for some time, sleeping on the streets and traveling in boxcars all the way to St. Louis. In a town so full of German immigrants, Pulitzer was a welcomed guest, and soon found work in restaurants…and was fired when he dropped a tray and doused a patron in beer.
So Pulitzer did what all wise people do (ahem) and he started hanging out at the Library. He learned English from the books on the shelf, and decided to strike out on his own, making his way to Louisiana, after some fast-talking steamboat operators convinced him, and a few other men, good-paying jobs on a Louisiana sugar plantation. They boarded a steamboat, which took them downriver 30 miles south of the city, where the crew forced them off. When the boat churned away, the men concluded the promised plantation jobs were a ruse. They walked back to the city, where Pulitzer wrote an account of the fraud and was pleased when it was accepted by the Westliche Post, evidently his first published news story. He moved back to St. Louis (and near his beloved Library), and began buying shares in newspapers–then selling them, eventually making a profit that allowed him to buy both the St. Louis Dispatch, and the St. Louis Post, and combine them into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is still in operation today.
Pulitzer himself was a workhorse, putting in workdays that started at 10am and ended at 2am the next day. And that work paid off. Within a decade, he was buying newspapers in cities across the country, and by 1887, he was elected to the US Congress (and resigned so that he could pay attention to his papers). It is thanks to Pulitzer, and his arch-rival, William Randolph Hearst, that we have the world of news that we do today. The two of them, quite literally, single-handedly invented modern print journalism by selling advertising space in their papers, and, thus, monetizing the material they were putting out. In order to ensure that papers sold, they both encouraged their reporters to sell the stories, with eye-catching headlines, passionate story-telling, investigative, hard-hitting articles…and a good helping of sensationalism mixed in to ensure that the public remained riveted.
Pulitzer left Columbia University $2,000,000 in his will upon his death in 1912…this around the time that the average annual income was $500-$700…to found a school of journalism, to ensure the news empire that he build, and the business he had helped to found, would continue to thrive. Five years later, they established a prize in his name to reward the best that American journalism has to offer. Since then, the award has expanded to include “Letters, Drama, and Music” as well, making it one of the most prestigious literary awards in the United States. Prizes are awarded yearly in twenty-one categories. In twenty of the categories, each winner receives a certificate and a US$15,000 cash award (raised from $10,000 in 2017).
And today, we are thrilled to announce the winners of the 2018 Pulitzer Prizes for “Letters, Drama, and Music”, along with the description provided by the judging board in their selection. For the full list of awards, see the Pulitzer Prize website here.
An honest, original work that invites audiences to examine diverse perceptions of privilege and human connection through two pairs of mismatched individuals: a former trucker and his recently paralyzed ex-wife, and an arrogant young man with cerebral palsy and his new caregiver.
A deeply researched and elegantly written portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, that describes how Wilder transformed her family’s story of poverty, failure and struggle into an uplifting tale of self-reliance, familial love and perseverance.
A volume of unyielding ambition and remarkable scope that mixes long dramatic poems with short elliptical lyrics, building on classical mythology and reinventing forms of desires that defy societal norms.
An examination of the historical roots of contemporary criminal justice in the U.S., based on vast experience and deep knowledge of the legal system, and its often-devastating consequences for citizens and communities of color.
Recording released on April 14, 2017, a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.
…How many thrillers can you count that open with the body of a dead woman? Or thrillers that focus on physical harm or the threat of physical harm being done to a woman? That feature a woman being stalked or threatened? If you stop to think about it, the answer might be surprisingly high.
It’s a little disconcerting to think about how many stories rely on violence against women to drive their plot; whether it’s the discovery of a body, or a report of violence that launches a plot (see, for example, Law & Order: SVU). Or stories that use a character’s history of violence against women to indicate their villainy, or to make them a suspect in a case. Or are driven by the (often violent or deadly) disappearance of a women years in the past?
It’s even more disconcerting to think about what that means culturally and historically. I discuss with my students regularly about the implications of incidents like, for example, Jack the Ripper…the subject of goodness knows how many books, television series, shows, movies, radio plays, stage production, etc. Some are good, some are great, while others are forgettable and regrettable. But they all hinge on the story of a person (or persons) who murdered women who were economically, socially, and physically incapable of defending themselves. Those women are only known to history because they were murdered in brutal fashion. In some cases, the only reason we know what those women look like is from their autopsy photos. Similarly, in the books we read, we meet so very many women only when, or after, they die. Only after they are labeled as a victim. Only after they have suffered. Only because they have suffered. And how does it affect the way we look at actual, real, flesh-and-blood women who are hurt, victimized, or used in the way that fictional characters are?
And, what do we do about it? Is there anything that can be done about it? Well, last week, writer and educator Bridget Lawless announced The Staunch Book Prize, an award to be presented to “to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” According to the Staunch Book Prize website, “As violence against women in fiction reaches a ridiculous high, the Staunch Book Prize invites thriller writers to keep us on the edge of our seats without resorting to the same old clichés – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however ‘necessary to the plot’), or done away with (however ingeniously).”
The award is a part of the #MeToo movement, in which women, men, and people around the world are not only sharing stories of their own sexual victimization, but also championing attempts to change the way the world works, and to ensure a more just, inclusive, and safe society for everyone. Within this context, the Staunch Prize argues that making women victims, that hurting women as part of a plot, is a cliche that has gone well and truly stale. As author Andrew Taylor described it in a quote to The Guardian: “It has to be good in principle that someone’s drawing attention to crime fiction, on page and screen, that uses women-as-victims-of-violence as … a sort of literary monosodium glutamate: ie, as a gratuitous and fundamentally nasty flavour enhancer lacking moral or artistic purpose.”
The announcement of the prize has set off quite a bit of debate, not only among mystery writers, but among activists and readers, as well. Laura Lippman, a multiple-award winner mystery writer, was quoted by NBCNews as saying “My first reaction was, that’s so well-intentioned and probably impossible. Because it’s not the topic of sexualized violence that’s the problem. It’s the treatment…There are literally mysteries in which the cat solves the crime, and then there are these incredibly hard-boiled, how high is the body count, how many prostitutes are you going to murder for the sake of the hero’s development mysteries.”
In other words, how we discuss violence against women is important. Is it possible to use an example of violence against women to comment on, criticize, and actively contest violence against women? As award-winning author Val McDermid noted to The Guardian, “My take on writing about violence against women is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.”
But some authors feel that this award is a form of censorship, both artistically and socially. Val McDermid was also quoted in The Guardianpiece is saying, “To impose a blanket ban on any writing that deals with this seems to me to be self-defeating.” But let’s be clear, hear–the award isn’t punishing books that feature women as “beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Instead, it is awarding books that do not feature these things. The Man Booker Prize isn’t a punishment for books that are not written in English. Nor are the National Book Awards a punishment to books not written by Americans. What it seems to be, most of all, is a challenge: to re-imagine the thriller genre as a place where female characters can exist and develop without victimization. To think about what such a world might look like. Because that seems like a concrete first step to changing the power imbalances in real life–to realize how hard it is to imagine a world without those imbalances.
So what do you think, dear readers? Will the Staunch Book Prize inspire your reader habits?
The Odysseyis a work is one of the oldest works in the history of literature, and has inspired countless other works of art. It has been sung, performed, discussed, and read by millions and millions of people across the generations, across approximately three millennia. It has been in print in English since about 1615.
Oxford graduate and UPenn professor Emily Wilson (pictured above via Bustle) is the first woman to translate this ancient text into English, and the results are truly astounding. Not only does she bring a different perspective to the piece, but she highlights people, situations, and themes that no other translator has sought to do. And that emphasis can change the way we think about a work that has been with us, literally, for ages.
The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, a veteran of the Trojan Wars, who, in attempting to return home to his wife and son, offends the god Poseidon, and ends up being cast adrift. He and his crew wander to remote islands and caves, have liaisons with gods and fight sea creatures, and, eventually, find their way home to Ithaca. It is an adventure story. A story about overcoming odds, and beating the forces of fate.
At the same time, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is forced to fend of a legion of suitors for her hand, tolerating their advances and abuses, and putting up with her whining, generally unhelpful and sulky son, hopeful that her husband will return home. This story is one of silence, of undoing, and of endurance. And though many previous translators and scholars have attempted to frame Penelope’s portion of the story has heroic in its own way, the truth of the matter is that this is not a feminist text. And usually, translators overlook this in order to get back to the doing, the adventuring. Emily Wilson doesn’t.
Instead, she takes a new, closer look at Penelope, and the world of Odysseus’ home, bringing and understanding to these sections that is normally not present. She doesn’t try to transform Penelope into a hero/ine. Instead, she examines her life and her actions through the medium of words. As she explained in an essay atThe Guardian, “Female translators often stand at a critical distance when approaching authors who are not only male, but also deeply embedded in a canon that has for many centuries been imagined as belonging to men.” She called translating Homer as a woman an experience of “intimate alienation.”
This kind of focus–the kind that allows us to see Penelope’s life in greater detail–also takes in other people who have been marginalized, not only in literature, but in real life, as well. Wilson calls the slaves who live and work in Odysseus’ house, “slaves”. Not ‘maidservants’, which implies they have a choice in the matter, or ‘whores’, as some male translators have done previously (emphasizing that they ‘sold themselves’ to men, rather than that, once again, they have no control over their own situation or bodies). Instead, as she explained in an interview with The New York Times:
Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined.
Wilson has also attempted, throughout her fascinating and powerful translation, to keep the language active, exciting, and vibrant. As Vox described in an article about her work:
In its matter-of-fact language, [Wilson’s translation is] worlds different from Fagles’s “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” or Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending.” Wilson chose to use plain, relatively contemporary language in part to “invite readers to respond more actively with the text,” she writes in a translator’s note. “Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement.”
And, according to all reviews, she succeeds in stellar fashion. Her understanding of ancient Greek, in the power of language, and in the nuanced meanings of words, syntax, and phrasing, make this work more than just a “first” in literature. It makes it a really significant event in the history of translations.
We’ve talked here about the significance of translators to literature, the difficulty of the work of translation, and power that the translator has over the piece on which they work. Emily Wilson realizes all of these elements of her work, and she has been more than responsible in her duties. We are so eager to delve further into her work, and so very excited for this new era of The Odyssey!
It’s been a tough few months for Houston, and just as we at the Free For All have been eager to help in the recovery efforts, we also share in their joy as the Houston Astros win the 2017 World Series.
And because we’ve been up too long watching the game (and every game in these series, for that matter!), we will simply refer you to this article, which documents the Library Battles that have ensued between the Houston Public Library system and the Los Angeles Public Library system. Here’s a brief sample of a magic, via the Los Angeles Public Library and Houston Public Library Instgram feeds: