Friday essay: why YA gothic fiction is booming – and girl monsters are on the rise



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Zoey Deutch in the film Vampire Academy (2014).
Angry Films, Kintop Pictures, Preger Entertainment

Michelle Smith, Monash University

An 18-year-old girl prepares to die to enable the birth of her half-vampire baby. Her spine is broken in the process, and the fanged baby begins to gnaw its way through her stomach before the girl’s husband performs a vampiric Cesarean section. This is a crucial moment in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight novel series, published from 2005 to 2008.

Meyer’s books heralded a new, and continuing, wave of Gothic fiction for Young Adult readers, which revisits familiar literary Gothic conventions: ancient, ruined buildings and monstrous supernatural figures like the vampire, werewolf, ghost and witch.

The Gothic romances of the 18th century, such as the novels of Ann Radcliffe, and the enduringly popular Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), sought to recreate feelings of terror and horror for an audience of adult readers. Today, however, most Gothic fiction is being published for, and read by, young people. Surprisingly, it has proved to be the ideal genre for exploring the grotesque and frightening aspects of coming of age, and metaphorically representing pressing social issues such as racism and gender inequality.




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The phenomenally popular YA genre, targeted at readers between 12 and 18 years old, evolved from realist novels of the 1960s. These books were preoccupied with the struggles of adolescence set against a backdrop of social issues. Now, though, the genre often looks to the supernatural. Beyond Twilight, some of the most popular YA Gothic series also focus on the “lives” of vampires who are protagonists rather than foes.

Richelle Mead’s six-book Vampire Academy (2007-2010), now adapted into a TV series, is about a teenage girl who is a Dhampir (half-human, half-vampire). She becomes entangled in a forbidden romance with her instructor as St Vladimir’s Academy, while learning how to defeat evil vampires named Strigoi.

Ashley Lyn Blair in Vampire Academy: The Officially Unofficial Fan Series (2016).
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The YA Gothic revival has also embraced a wide range of supernatural entities. Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles, a cross-media franchise that includes the Infernal Devices and Mortal Instruments novel series, charges angel-blooded humans with the task of protecting regular humans from a range of supernatural beings.

The Nephilim, or Shadowhunters, are busy controlling demons, warlocks, werewolves, faeries and vampires, but critically, it is their part-supernatural status that enables them to serve as protectors.

Clare has said that she did not write her series for young adults (and indeed almost half of the readership of YA fiction might be adults). Nevertheless, her teenage protagonists have resonated with readers of the same age.

The Gothic, and its newer sub-genres like paranormal romance, have a unique resonance with teenagers. They are poised in a transitional space between childhood and adulthood, neither quite embodying the stage they are leaving behind nor fully the thing that they are in the process of becoming. It is unsurprising, then, that they have eagerly embraced the Gothic’s themes of the liminal and the monstrous, as well as its fixation on romance and sex.

Another significant element of the current YA Gothic revival is the emergence of the girl monster. In earlier manifestions of the “female Gothic”, first published in the 18th century by women writers, female protagonists were often courageous, but simultaneously passive and victimised. The plots of the female Gothic reflected the comparative powerlessness of women at the time and their fears about their vulnerability and entrapment within domestic roles and patriarchal society.

In contemporary YA Gothic, girl monsters, who can constitute a threat to others and themselves, disrupt the plotline of male monster and female victim.

Why now?

The most obvious catalyst for the embrace of Gothic conventions in literature for young people is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Its popularity signalled a warm embrace of fantasy fiction that confronted the eternal dilemma of the battle between good and evil, charging a child – and later teenage protagonist – with the ability to save the world. While Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was not necessarily Gothic, the Potter phenomenon opened the way for the publication of numerous titles that embraced the possibilities of young protagonists with supernatural abilities.




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Most significantly, Meyer’s Twilight series about human Bella Swan and “sparkling” vampire Edward Cullen, combined this staple figure of Gothic fiction with the teen romance novel. The Twilight novels were bestsellers internationally and the saga was voted into the number one position in Australian book chain Angus & Robertson’s Top 100 Books poll of 2010. The Twilight universe expanded from books into a highly successful film series.

Robert Pattinson and Cam Gigandet in Twilight (2008)
Summit Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films.

The Gothic has had several major periods of popularity since its first appearance in 18th-century England, with Horace Walpole’s novel The Castle of Otranto (1764). In each subsequent revival of Gothic fiction, the genre has been reworked and reinvented to address current cultural concerns.

In particular, the monsters that haunt the pages of Gothic novels are transformed with shifting fears and anxieties. In her influential book Our Vampires, Ourselves Nina Auerbach explains that “every age embraces the vampire it needs”, and this comment can be extend to Gothic monsters more generally.

Contemporary YA fiction blurs the line between good and evil. In Gothic novels of the 19th century, monsters were usually wholly “Othered”. A Victorian-era vampire such as Stoker’s Dracula, for instance was depicted as evil, foreign, and frighteningly different to the British human.

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula in the 1992 film version of the Bram Stoker novel. Contemporary monsters are no longer set in opposition to the human.
American Zoetrope, Columbia Pictures Corporation, Osiris Films

But contemporary monsters are no longer necessarily imagined as racially different or set in opposition to the human. Moreover, they are often represented sympathetically, especially in stories told from their perspective.

These include the iZombie comic series, in which the protagonist must eat brains on a monthly basis to survive, and Claudia Gray’s Evernight series, in which the reader is not even aware that the girl protagonist is a vampire for half of the first book. Indeed, as Anna Jackson explains in New Directions in Children’s Gothic, “the monsters have become the heroes” in contemporary children’s Gothic.

The passive heroine

Most Gothic novels for young people contain a romance plot. This is often because the protagonists’ age places them in the transitional zone for entering adulthood, which is demarcated by sexual experience.




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How long have we believed in vampires?


In a typical YA Gothic novel, such as Twilight, a plot in which a human or monstrous girl protagonist falls for a boy who is not her “type” can dissolve the boundaries between monster and human. These monstrous love interests range from traditional Gothic ones – vampires, werewolves, zombies, ghosts and witches – to newer figures such as fallen angels and faeries. The key challenge to be overcome in these novels is the barriers posed to love by supernatural monstrosity, including the physical dangers to humans, as well as social discrimination about “cross-species” love.

In one of few major studies of teen romance fiction, published almost 30 years ago, Linda Christian-Smith described these novels as a “site of ideological struggles for young women’s hearts and minds”. In particular, she refers to teen romance fiction’s emphasis on heteronormative coupling and motherhood. Little has changed with respect to depictions of sexuality since, despite the YA Gothic’s embrace of diverse human-monster relationships.

Most romances in the genre are heterosexual. They do often emphasise the heroine’s agency through her supernatural abilities and ability to choose between men or move between relationships. However, the human heroines of the Twilight series and Lauren Kate’s Fallen series, in which the heroine becomes drawn to a boy who is a fallen angel, are comparatively indecisive and continue to need rescuing.

Tellingly, Joss Whedon, the creator of the TV series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), has described Twilight’s Bella as lacking empowerment, overly fixated on her romantic options, and “completely passive”.

Kristen Stewart (Bella) and Robert Pattinson (Edward) in Twilight (2008). Bella has been described as a completely passive heroine.
Summit Entertainment, Temple Hill Entertainment, Maverick Films.

Novels with passive human heroines allow the reader to use the fantasy of romance as a temporary escape from real-world gender inequality. Yet they also reinforce its reality for female readers.

The girl monster

Supernatural heroines, however, are often able to breach the confines of traditional femininity and become extraordinary in ways that Twilight’s Bella and other human characters cannot. In a number of YA Gothic novels, such as Mead’s Vampire Academy, the protagonists disrupt expectations of feminine behaviour because of their unique, and often poorly understood, supernatural abilities. These special powers become the focus of anxieties about the girls’ coming of age, as they pursue romances that place their broader communities under threat.

The Vampire Academy series was sufficiently popular in 2010 for three of its six titles to sell between 300,000 and half a million copies in hardcover in the US alone, according to Publishers Weekly. However, unlike the Twilight series, on which it likely attempted to capitalise, its protagonist, Rose, is half-vampire, half-human and a monster in her own right. Rose shares a close bond with vampire Lissa, and is driven to break the Academy’s rules in order to save her friend when she is kidnapped, highlighting that girls are also capable of protecting and rescuing people they love.

Ashley Lyn Blair (Lissa) and Jennifer Studnicki (Rose) in Vampire Academy: The Officially Unofficial Fan Series (2016).
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Vampire Academy positions Rose as a sexual object, particularly in the eyes of a privileged type of vampire (Moroi), who find Dhampir women especially attractive because of racial differences. Rose enjoys her sexuality and dresses to take advantage of it, but this sexuality operates within her definition as a strong young woman:

First they saw my body and the dress. Testosterone took over as pure male lust shone out of their faces. Then they seemed to realize it was me and promptly turned terrified. Cool.

Rose is able to reject unwelcome advances and possesses the physical strength and skills to stand up for herself, suggesting a fantasy of empowerment and equality.

Lissa, meanwhile, thwarts what amounts to an attempted gang rape of a drugged girl. A group of male Moroi students attempt to take advantage of a female feeder (person who permits their blood to be sucked) at a party, “doing a sort of group feeding, taking turns biting her and making gross suggestions. High and oblivious, she let them”.

The supernatural female protagonists in YA gothic novels are responsible for their own safety and protection, yet they also have a responsibility to keep others safe.
These heroines have some romantic and sexual agency in a way that can be considered progressive. However, their desire is also framed as disruptive and dangerous and there is an obsessive fixation on the pursuit of romance above the girl’s own development, education and safety.

In other words, the superficially radical potential of girl heroines with superhuman physical strength, mind-reading abilities, and the potential to kill can merely be a decorative smokescreen for the reinforcement of traditional feminine values.

The good and monstrous within

The recent proliferation of Gothic YA novels is skewed toward a female readership with a focus on girl protagonists, and significant emphasis on their quest for romance. Nevertheless, there are a number of series with boy heroes. For example, Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (the first book of which was recently filmed by director Tim Burton), focuses on a 16-year-old human boy, Jacob.

Eva Green, Asa Butterfield (Jacob) and Georgia Pemberton in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)
Twentieth Century Fox, Chernin Entertainment, TSG Entertainment.

Jacob has inherited an ability that makes him uniquely able to help the supernatural peculiar children of the title, who are threatened by creatures named hollowgasts who are driven to murder peculiar children in order to feed upon their souls. For Jacob, his transition to adulthood is less about romance and more about self-discovery, connections with his ancestors, and finding a way to negotiate his new-found abilities and responsibilities.

In The Gothic Child, Maria Georgieva suggests that the traditional Gothic novel is preoccupied with “the growth and transformation of the child, the crisis of adolescence and the sometimes painful transition into adulthood”. She is referring to the child’s potential to grow into the hero, heroine or villain.

However, the recent surge in YA Gothic fiction takes this fascination with the darker aspects of childhood in a different direction. The girl heroine, in learning to manage the physical and emotional shifts of her development and more complex relationships in romance, can both be a threat and a saviour to others.

The fuzziness of her nature reflects both the liminal status of the teenager and new cultural understandings of the monster, who now more often resembles the typical American teen than an undead Romanian count.

The ConversationInstead of contemplating a child’s potential to head towards either good or evil, recent Gothic YA acknowledges the possibility of both the good and the monstrous residing in one person.

Michelle Smith, Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Friday essay: from convicts to contemporary convictions – 200 years of Australian crime fiction



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Guy Pearce as the Chandleresque private investigator Jack Irish: in the early years of Australian crime fiction, convicts and bushrangers featured prominently.
Lachlan Moore

Stephen Knight, University of Melbourne

Most countries produce crime fiction, but the versions vary according to national self-concepts. America admires the assertive private eye, both Dashiell Hammett’s late 1920s Sam Spade and the nearly as tough modern feminists, such as Sara Paretsky. Britain prefers calm mystery-solvers, amateurs like Hercule Poirot or Lord Peter Wimsey or sensitive police like Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh-based John Rebus. The French seem to favour semi-professionals who are distinctly dissenting – in 1943 Léo Malet’s Nestor Burma stood up to Nazi occupiers nearly as overtly as to Paris criminals.

Australia’s rich and varied tradition of crime fiction and detectives, though little-known and more rarely described, reveals a range of national myths, fantasies, and even elements of truth-telling about a country whose origin lay in convictions for crime.

The first Australian crime novel appeared in 1818, but production has been uneven. Most mysteries have been published here in the period since 1980, with substantial local publicity and reviewing. Before then, locally-written and Australia-set mysteries usually arrived from England, asserting colonial authority, and then banning American publishers through an “International Market Agreement”.

Death of Captain Starlight with his head in Warrigal’s lap, by Patrick William Marony (1858-1939). Australia’s first crime novel was about a bushranger.
Wikimedia Commons

Writers sent manuscripts off to London, and a hundred or so hardbacks would arrive for local libraries, with almost no publicity and little impetus to develop the form here. But things changed with an American challenge to the “Agreement” in 1976 and the waning influence of Britain in general. In 1980 Peter Corris’s The Dying Trade began a flow of local productions – some from English firms now based here, like Allen and Unwin, who produced Jennifer Rowe with their Tolkien earnings.

Back at the start, transportation was a natural subject: in the first book of all, Thomas Wells’ Michael Howe, The Last and Worst of the Tasmanian Bushrangers (1818), Howe is a real escaped convict turned bushranger, with fictionally exaggerated adventures. Another theme was the wrongfully-convicted man like Quintus Servinton (1831) by Henry Savery.

The strongest convict novel is The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: he experiences harsh imprisonment, then escapes to live with bushrangers, and then mostly genial Indigenes: written in 1845, probably by ex-convict James Tucker, the novel was not published for over 80 years.

Criminal threats to free settlers were central to Tales of the Colonies (1843) by Charles Rowcroft: an immigrant Tasmanian family encounters the exciting land and its fauna but also bushrangers and the historical and rather noble Indigenous leader Musquito.

In Alexander Harris’s The Emigrant Family (1849) English incomers meet a vigorous native-born family as well as a range of trouble-makers. The settler thriller moved up to squatter level in Henry Kingsley’s rambling The Recollections of Geoffry Hamlyn (1859), which offers “every known cliché of Australian life” according to Arcady in Australia: The Evocation of Australia in 19th Century English Literature, an excellent critical book by Coral Lansbury – mother of Malcolm Turnbull.


Author provided

Crime fiction illuminated the 1850s goldfields experience, mostly through short stories in the Australian Journal featuring police detectives known as “mounted troopers”, who controlled theft and crime of all kinds: they and the miners generated an early form of mateship.

The most prolific author was Mary Fortune who, Lucy Sussex’s research has shown, wrote hundreds of crime stories to the end of the century, and has begun to be re-published. The new gold-rich urban Australia was explored, especially when Donald Cameron produced the intriguing, and almost totally forgotten, The Mysteries of Melbourne Life (1873), followed by Fergus Hume’s highly readable The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886): Melbourne-set and published, it then became in London the first best-seller in world crime fiction.

There had been retrospective fictions that essentially criticised the harsh convict colony and ennobled the transportees. The Broad Arrow (1859) by “Oliné Keese” (English visitor Caroline Leakey) is about a brave, true woman convict; His Natural Life by England-born Marcus Clarke offers a long, well-researched story of a maltreated, wrongly-convicted man, appearing first as a serial in the Australian Journal.

In that version he finally escapes from Norfolk Island, becomes a successful goldfields shopkeeper, and eventually returns wealthy to his much-diminished English family. But when it became a book Clarke was persuaded to drop the optimistic “Aussie-success” ending for popular novel melodrama: the escaping hero drowns tragically, and the title becomes the unironic For the Term of His Natural Life.

A more romantic and now fully Australian account of past crime and redemption was the very popular Robbery Under Arms (1881-2) by “Rolf Boldrewood”. The bushranger-turned-convict is no Anglo hero but a tough native Australian: he and his patient girlfriend end up as successful rural property-owners. So crime fiction developed a positive patriotic approach which would soon mesh with the bush myth asserted by popular writers like Lawson and Paterson – also fictional, as the cities grew.


Author provided

In the late 19th century there were predictable urban mysteries and better rural dramas by writers like Rosa Praed and Mary Gaunt, as well as the distinctly Australian sporting thriller, notably those set at the races by Nat Gould, and also bold roving amateur detectors such as Randolph Bedford’s Billy Pagan, Mining Engineer (1911).

But national mythic features could also be negative: notably absent have been police – while they were familiar overseas, here the memory of transportation limited them to Fortune’s people-friendly troopers, well-separated from convictism.

Equally lacking was any serious treatment of Indigenous people: they only appeared as lurking threats or helpful trackers, except in Arthur Vogan’s The Black Police (1890) in which an England-born New Zealander, who had taken a job in outback Queensland, told a bleak story about the racism he found there.




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Between the wars, London publishers continued their dominance and there appeared two striking responses from local crime writers. Their novels can have “zero-setting”: though occurring in Australia they offer almost no local detail at all. Or they can be the opposite, “touristic” crime fiction, all bush and kangaroos, with the villain often consumed by the land itself in fire or flood.

Errol Flynn, circa 1940: his thriller Showdown is very capable.
Wikimedia Commons

The success of Arthur Upfield’s long series of “Bony” mysteries was not primarily based on his intelligent half-Indigenous detective but, including for overseas readers, came from the many grand outback landscapes that are so well described, to which Bony relates so strongly.

At the same time, interest developed in the formerly minor “crime novel”, the name for a story without detection and tending to sympathise with the criminal – an Adelaide-set series came from Arthur Gask. Classical mysteries were often set in the northern islands, as by Beatrice Grimshaw and Paul Maguire and, amazingly, the Hollywood actor and Tasmanian journalist, Errol Flynn, whose Showdown (1946) is a very capable thriller.

Successful women

In the 1930s Jean Spender, adopting the English style, deployed an under-heroic police detective and she was followed post-war by other successful women. June Wright’s restrained policemen usually marry the young Melbourne lady amateur detective, but she also created a fine nun-detective, Mother Paul. Sydney-based Pat Flower, from Hell for Heather (1962) on, produced a sequence of psychothrillers as potent as those by international stars such as Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine (the pseudonym of Ruth Rendell).

Effective post-war male crime writers existed, such as Sidney Courtier and A. E. Martin, but they too were mostly England-published and little noticed or remembered. The American private eye had a brief presence in and after World War II, with many Americans in the country and English book imports rare: both US-based and local tough-guys thrived like those by the ultra-prolific “Carter Brown” (Alan G. Yates).

They faded, but the form would return when, feeling abandoned by Britain and looking more across the Pacific, readers were offered their own version of the American mode. The Dying Trade (1980), published in Sydney, with full local publicity, featured a truly Aussie tough guy, Cliff Hardy, and the author, Peter Corris, academic and journalist, stimulated more Sydney-based detectives, Marele Day’s elegant feminist Claudia Valentine, glamorous lesbian cop Carol Ashton by Claire McNab, and the thoughtful English-style amateur Verity “Birdie” Birdwood from publisher Jennifer Rowe. Now local readers could enjoy a wealth of their own national crime fiction, newly embodying many forms of contemporary conviction.

Melbourne soon followed with Shane Maloney’s wry amateur inquirer Murray Whelan and Peter Temple’s Chandleresque private investigator Jack Irish, so well realised on television by Guy Pearce.

The crime novel continued through Garry Disher and his genuinely tough Wyatt, while the psychothriller and other sub-genres flourished, especially from the ever-productive Gabrielle Lord. Finally, major male writers started to employ police – Disher by 1995 with Inspector Challis in The Dragon Man and Peter Temple’s very successful The Broken Shore (2005) introduced injured cop Joe Cashin.

Modern retrospection arose from Australian acceptance of the innovative mode of historical crime fiction pioneered by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose (1980). Melbourne led with Kerry Greenwood’s glamorous 1920s investigator Lady Phryne Fisher in Cocaine Blues (1989); later Marshall Browne offered a turn-of-the century Melbourne thriller series.

International gay crime fiction arrived: Claire McNab handled the female side forcefully, while for the men Adelaide’s notorious Duncan drowning was reworked in Roger Raftery’s The Pink Triangle (1981) and Phillip Scott’s amusing opera-related series started with One Dead Diva (1995).

Indigenous crime fiction writers also appeared. Mudrooroo Narogin produced, then as Colin Johnson, Wild Cat Falling (1965), a potent crime novel about a Perth teenager; later crime stories featured his Detective-Inspector Watson Holmes Jackamara, a figure both ironic and revealing. Archie Weller wrote a strong crime novel The Day of the Dog (1981) and tough short stories; Philip McLaren’s major novel Scream Black Murder (1995) has Indigenous police detectives, male and female, facing both public and personal challenges in Sydney’s Redfern.

Since 2000 Australian crime fiction has strengthened further, mostly with new voices. Day, Rowe and McNab all put an early end to their series and in 2017 Corris has called it a day – Cliff is smiling as the story finishes. Temple’s darkest novel, Truth, won the Miles Franklin national prize in 2010, but his recent death has saddened readers.

Historicism has continued. Sulari Gentill explores the politics of the 1930s in her Rowland Sinclair series, and Lady Phryne has re-appeared, but Greenwood now also turns to the “cozy” tradition with large detecting chef Corinna Chapman. Police presence has grown, with notably realistic treatments by former female officers, P.M. Newton, Karen M. Davis and Y.A. Erskine; and there are others, like Leigh Giarratano’s subtle detective Jill Jackson and Felicity Young’s Senior Sergeant Stevie Hooper, tall, brave and based in Perth, like several other modern investigators, including Alan Carter’s “Cato” Kwong, a police detective from a long-present Chinese family.

Australian women crime writers are now in a clear majority, and they also offer private eyes: Gabrielle Lord has a series about Gemma Lincoln, and Angela Savage’s well-developed Thailand-based novels feature Jayne Keeney. The psychothriller remains vigorous: journalist Caroline Overington produced the intriguing Ghost Child (2009), while Honey Brown offers deeply imaginative stories like Red Queen (2009).

The crime novel thrives among male writers — Disher’s man re-asserted his presence in Wyatt (2010) and Andrew Nette produced the both local and international Gunshine State (2016); the comic crime novel emerged in Robert G. Barrett’s series about the idiotic bogan Les Norton. Other traditions continue: Tara Moss keeps feminism alive in her Mak Vanderwall series, while Nicole Watson’s The Boundary (2011) is a powerful Brisbane-based, Indigenous-oriented narrative.

Unique features appear in Australian crime fiction, and not just the five different authors who focus their mysteries on the Melbourne Cup. More notable are Leigh Redhead’s series about Simone Kirsch, the stripper-detective, starting with Peepshow (2004), revealing in several ways, and the two fascinating poem-based mysteries by the sadly late Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994) and El Dorado (2007).

Such brilliant exotics, and the richness of the tradition as a whole, show how far Australian crime fiction has come from convicts and bushrangers, without losing its continuing relationship with changing national concerns and the social and personal myths it can both test and validate.

The ConversationStephen Knight is the author of Australian Crime Fiction: A 200-Year History

Stephen Knight, Honorary Research Professor, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

21st Century Pulitzer Prize for Fiction Winners


The link below is to an article that takes a brief look at every Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner in the 21st century.

For more visit:
http://bookmarks.reviews/every-pulitzer-prize-for-fiction-winner-of-the-21st-century/

2018 Hugo Award Nominees


The link below is to an article reporting on the nominees for the 2018 Hugo Awards for the best Sci-Fi/Fantasy fiction.

For more visit:
https://bookriot.com/2018/04/02/2018-hugo-award-nominees/

Will Self: why his report on the death of the novel is (still) premature


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Texas A&M University, CC BY-SA

Katy Shaw, Northumbria University, Newcastle

Will Self has declared the novel is “absolutely doomed” – ironically, in an interview to promote Phone, his latest outing in the very medium he is condemning to death. Even casual readers will note that this isn’t the first time that the reigning Eeyore of British literature has announced the imminent passing of our most popular literary form.

Since 2000, Self has used the occasion of the release of his own books to repeatedly argue that the novel is destined to “become a marginal cultural form, along with easel painting and the classical symphony”. During his promotional duties for Umbrella, Self asked whether we are evolving beyond the need to tell stories, while in 2014 he announced the declining cultural centrality of the novel due to the digitisation of print culture in an article to promote Shark.

Self’s obsession with killing off the novel might be more about ego than revenge, but his repeated attempts to plot its downfall form part of a much wider lament. For centuries, writers have been proclaiming the imminent passing of the novel form. More than 60 years ago, JB Priestley called it “a decaying literary form” which “no longer absorbs some of the mightiest energies of our time”. More recently, Zadie Smith complained of novel-nausea, while David Peace has asked how it is still possible to “believe in the novel form” because “storytelling is already quite ruined by the individualism of Western society”.

Difficult reading

Reading beyond the exhausted sentiments and sensationalist headlines provided by self-harming novelists, what these sentiments collectively highlight is not the death of the novel at all, but the decline of “literary fiction”. Self’s explicit cultural fear is that a serious kind of novel – novels such as his own – that confront us with “difficult reading” are destined for relegation to the realms of classical music and fine art. What Self’s repeated attempts on the life of the novel actually articulate is a deep-seated fear of the devaluation of literary fiction and its dethroning from a position of economic, popular and critical dominance as a result of the new contexts provided by a social media age.

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Prophesying the imminent demise of the novel at the hands of digital technology has become popular in contemporary critical discourse, especially as the form entered the new millennium. Self is one of many authors who have publicly debated the challenges of writing novels in a digital era.

Andrew O’Hagan recently argued that the intense personal perspective offered by platforms such as Twitter and Facebook means that the novel has nowhere left to go in offering an inside account of the lives of others. The crux of both O’Hagan and Self’s sandwich-board arguments ultimately lie in a belief that future readers will be unwilling to disable connectivity and engage only with a physical form of text in relative isolation from the hyper-networked society around them.

But the “death” of literary fiction does not have to come at the expense of the rise of the popular – or of the digital. Smartphones and streaming can sit alongside literary awards and “difficult” novels and offer us vital insights into, and ways of representing, contemporary experience. The novel is perhaps the most hospitable of all forms and opens itself willingly to new voices, languages and technologies. And not all writers are hostile to the impact of the digital on literary form – in their use of social media to tell stories in new ways, both David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have proved that the novel has an innate ability to ingest and adapt to a rapidly changing world.

The novels of a Self-publicist.
Ebay

Importantly, the novel also presents us with perspectives and experiences different from our own. In its contemporary concern with the trope of an “other” who transgresses the boundary of the domestic home, the 21st-century novel offers a vital consideration of the implications of a post-Brexit Britain. The novel disrupts and challenges, and in turn elicits responses from readers to, the contemporary concerns it presents.

Understanding the world

The etymology of the word “novel” lies in the “new” – and all evidence suggests that the form will continue to evolve – and ingest, rather than ignore, the new languages of the contemporary. The novel – whether in the form of literary or “popular” fiction – helps us to understand the world in which we now live and informs our attempts to navigate both the past and the future. As well as its long-argued innate value, this capacity of the novel to help us negotiate the changes of the present is also key to its survival – and evolution – in the coming century.

As a case for its vitality, Self’s pervasive campaign against the novel couldn’t be more helpful. In repeatedly citing the death of the novel, Self and his band of merry naysaying novelists whip up resolve and resurrection of the form in a context of challenge and change. In doing so, their comments remind us to value this familiar, yet continually innovative form that continues to adapt, ingest and shape-shift, remaining relevant to each generation of readers – and writers.

Literary snobbery and Modernist nostalgia aside, Self’s headline-grabbing soundbites encourage new understandings of wider shifts in novel writing and reading in the 21st century. With writers continually sticking more nails in its half-open coffin, the novel seems destined to remain stuck in critical debates that remain wilfully oblivious to its sustained success in the new millennium.

The ConversationEmerging from a long winter of discontent, perhaps it is the strange fate of the novel to exist in a permanent state of imminent demise and doom, with an innate awareness of itself as the one genre that literature simply cannot do without.

Katy Shaw, Professor of Contemporary Writings, Northumbria University, Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Inside North Korea’s literary fiction factory



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North Korean women work at the cashier table of a bookstore in Pyongyang, North Korea.
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Meredith Shaw, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

With colorful rhetoric about dotards and nuclear buttons, North Korean propaganda is attracting attention around the world.

Outside observers can now easily access some of this propaganda by visiting regime-sponsored websites. These have, in turn, spawned foreign feeds like the excellent KCNA Watch media aggregator and satirical sites such as “Kim Jong Un Looking at Things.”

However, there’s another side to North Korean political messaging, one directed at the domestic population.

Difficult to access and written in a highly stylized, dogmatic prose, North Korea’s domestic propaganda is not only largely ignored abroad, but it’s also difficult for even South Koreans to understand. It includes state-sponsored Chosun Central TV broadcasts, state-produced films, and revolutionary operas and ballads.

But one of the more illuminating forms of internal propaganda is the regime’s state-produced fiction. Published in monthly literary journals, these stories are distributed by the ruling Korean Workers’ Party to select schools and offices around the country.

In an effort to make this internal propaganda more accessible to non-Koreans, I have been translating and blogging about selected works of North Korean fiction as part of my research on North Korean cultural politics.

These stories can offer outsiders revealing insights into the regime’s shifting concerns and priorities, which include a recent campaign to reinforce the legitimacy of their young leader, Kim Jong Un.

Penning tales for the regime

No other autocratic regime today has such a well-developed stable of artists and writers producing works aligned with the party’s ideological needs. The ruling Korean Workers’ Party has an extensive bureaucracy in charge of training talent, defining standards and commissioning projects in literature and other branches of the arts.

Like most professionals within North Korea, fiction writers belong to their own organization within the ruling Korean Worker’s Party: the Chosŏn Writer’s Union. The Party, therefore, has direct control over what gets written about and which themes get emphasized.

Works of fiction are published in one of a handful of monthly literary journals, the most prestigious of which is Korean Literature, produced by Chosŏn Literature and Art Union Publishing. Other journals include Children’s Literature, Youth Literature and Literary Newspaper.

Within the Chosŏn Writer’s Union, the most elite authors comprise the April 15 Literary Production Unit. This group has produced all the major works dramatizing the personal histories of the leaders, including the “Immortal History” (Pulmyŏl ŭi Yŏksa) and “Immortal Leadership” (Pulmyŏl ŭi Hyangdo) series, which constructed the official hagiography of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, respectively.

The list of authorship of new fiction about Kim Jong Un reveals many well-known names from these series, including Kim Sam Bok, Baek Bo Hŭm and Chŏng Ki Jong. Chŏng, one of North Korea’s most well-known contemporary authors, passed away in 2016, but not before penning the short story “Sky, Earth and Sea,” which details Kim Jong Un’s role in the Ŭnha and Gwangmyŏngsŏng satellite launches.

Since consumer demands and preferences are irrelevant to the creation of North Korean fiction, it cannot be evaluated as a reflection of the average North Korean’s underlying social anxieties (which is how a cultural anthropologist might study literature). Through interviews with North Korean defectors living in Seoul, I found that most North Koreans don’t spend their leisure time reading these journals for fun. Many, however, told me that they had been exposed to these stories at some point in school.

The anthropologists’ loss, however, is the political scientists’ gain. North Korean fiction offers a window into the ruling party’s priorities that’s just as informative as its official, externally directed propaganda.

Reading between the lines

Many of these stories dramatize events in the leaders’ lives. Some are morality tales that showcase characters who embody certain socialist ideals. Others reflect concerns about the geopolitical landscape – and, not surprisingly, American leaders sometimes make guest appearances.

Chŏng Ki Jong’s most famous novel, “Ryŏksa ui Taeha,” depicts President Bill Clinton cowering under blankets during the 1994 nuclear crisis. Another short story from around that time, “Maehok,” tells the story of President Jimmy Carter’s famous 1994 visit from the perspective of his wife Rosalynn, as she meets (and is smitten with) the Great Leader Kim Il Sung.

More recently, however, stories have centered on one subject: Kim Jong Un.

Kim was formally designated as successor in September 2010. Prior to that, his very existence had been virtually unknown to the general public within the country. In a country where schoolchildren ritualistically memorize idealized accounts of their leader and his ancestors, it must have been mind-boggling to see a new leader on TV that they knew almost nothing about.

The regime had to rush to put together a personal legend worthy of the grandson of the nation’s founder. The first works of fiction to mention Kim by name appeared in early 2013, over a year after he succeeded his late father as leader. In these stories, there’s a marked thematic shift, with an emphasis on youth, creativity and innovation.

For example, the 2017 short story “Blossoming Dreams,” by Kim Il Su, depicts the young leader as a talent scout of sorts. He finds gifted young artists and architects and encourages them to participate more fully in various national construction projects. At one point he pontificates to one of his advisers about the value of youthful thinking:

“Our future as a socialist nation of culture will not be built by architects and experts alone. It will require all our citizens to become gardeners and creators adorning our country with beauty. And it is the young generation that must stand up to bring about this bright future. Lately, I hear the saying ‘everything’s getting younger,’ but isn’t that wonderful? This era is young, and our people are getting younger … ”

References to new luxuries and recreational facilities are another notable feature of recent stories. Since Kim became supreme leader, he has poured resources into developing Western-style amusements such as water parks and ski resorts.

One such site, the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, attracted international media attention after Kim Jong Un toured the facility in 2012 on his first official photo op with his new wife. An ode to the Rungna park appeared in Literary Newspaper in October 2012, celebrating it as “the creation of heaven and earth following the leader’s path.” In “Blossoming Dreams,” Kim Jong Un’s faithful minister of architecture recalls how the young leader “suffered in the summer heat and fierce winds” when touring the site of the soon-to-be-opened theme park.

A similar prestige project is the new Changjŏn Street complex in Pyongyang, which features gleaming, high-rise apartment buildings and sports facilities.

In “Teacher,” a short story published in 2013, a family of schoolteachers is thrilled to receive notice that they have been given a spacious new apartment in the Changjŏn complex. The family is surprised to learn they made the list: It’s well known that the first apartments were supposed to go to “workers and innovators.” Later it becomes clear that Kim Jong Un personally directed that some apartments be set aside for educators as well, as part of a general priority for “cultivating the next generation.”

North Korean fiction, of course, shouldn’t be interpreted as a realistic depiction of actual conditions within the country.

The ConversationBut by reading between the lines, one may discern clues to the regime’s internal concerns, along with the messages it is most eager to convey to its captive domestic audience.

Meredith Shaw, Ph.D. Candidate in the Politics and International Relations, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The ‘inevitable sadness’ of Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction


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British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro listens to a question during a press conference at his home in London on Oct. 5, 2017.
Alastair Grant/AP Photo

Cynthia F. Wong, University of Colorado Denver

On a damp October day in 2006, I followed Kazuo Ishiguro and my 10-year-old daughter Grace to a back table at a bustling cafe in London for an interview. As Ishiguro answered my questions, he explained how he “auditions” his characters’ voices and personalities in his head before they appear in his fiction. He spoke candidly about a writer’s messy work.

Now he is the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, for what the Swedish Academy praised as his unapologetic portrayals of “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

It’s a nod to the self-delusion that many of Ishiguro’s characters possess. One, for example, rationalizes his service to a fascist loyalist. Others see their past through the cloudy lens of trauma. If we were to peel back the warped self-deception, we might find a bottomless pit of despair.

At that interview years ago, Ishiguro talked about his characters’ painful chasms, the way they protected themselves by concealing their mistakes. But when everything seems hopeless, his characters often courageously turn to their imagination to forge a connection to life and meaning.

In doing so, they beckon readers to imagine something better, too.

When I asked Ishiguro about his 2005 dystopic novel “Never Let Me Go,” his tone shifted. He lowered his voice when he told me about the students in that novel, and how they eventually perish. But he was surprised when I said that I found the novel sorrowful.

“There is an inevitable sadness,” he admitted. “On the other hand, it’s not a bleak view of human nature.”

I could sense Ishiguro’s concern for how my daughter might take his observations about death and despair.

He continued: “The question, ‘What are we useful for?’ is the question that your daughter Grace asks, and one Tommy and Kathy ask in ‘Never Let Me Go.’ Some cold system says to Tommy and Kathy that they will be useful [to the world], and it’s the same as another system saying to Grace that someday she will be useful to the world economy.”

Human systems figure in all of Ishiguro’s novels, whether these are governments, communities or families. Often, these systems are damaged, and humans still must move through them. They try to repair them or save themselves. Ishiguro has examined many facets of what it means to live among and within countless systems.

The first-person narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels, “A Pale View of Hills,” “An Artist of the Floating World” and “The Remains of the Day,” reflect on personal losses in the context of world events: friends and families dead from atomic bombings in Japan, unrealized romances, wrong choices and lives founded on delusion. These characters long for clarity, retribution or forgiveness.

The narrators of his next three novels are, variously, a pianist (“The Unconsoled”), a London detective (“When We Were Orphans”) and a roving hospice-type worker (“Never Let Me Go”). Whether they’re situated in Japan, Great Britain, some unnamed European city or even a medieval village, Ishiguro’s characters beguile his readers with their disclosures. His eloquent prose expresses their anguish or their repressed longings. We sense time passing darkly for these characters. We see how they face disappointments and ache for dignity.

Ishiguro explained that to probe the emotional force of his novels, we must understand that the characters are set within “an internal world [and] it’s an emotional logic that is being played out.”

In narrating their sorrows and their fruitless optimism, Ishiguro gives his readers a way to empathize with his characters’ situations.

Ishiguro’s capacity for compassion was cultivated during his university gap year, when he worked with the homeless. He also studied piano and guitar and dreamed of a career in music before he detoured to the creative writing program at the University of East Anglia. He still writes musical lyrics and works with musicians as an avocation.

By his own admission, Ishiguro is a slow writer; he produces a novel every few years. In 2015, when he came to Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop to promote his latest novel, I was able to catch up with him. He remarked that he may have only a couple more books forthcoming.

“We’re not immortal,” he said. “We’re here for a limited time. There is a countdown.”

The Swedish Academy honors a laureate for a lifetime of achievement. To date, Ishiguro has published eight books as well as many short stories, television and film scripts. His career may seem disjointed when focusing on only the best-known novels, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go.”

But few contemporary authors have dared to take as many risks as Ishiguro. The more complicated, Kafka-esque novel “The Unconsoled” is a book some critics called disappointing. A different sort of writer might have quit, but Ishiguro persisted.

Similarly, even though some readers responded coolly to “The Buried Giant,” Ishiguro had taken yet another literary leap: The highly metaphorical story is set in an early English era that predated historical records. Memory, repression of pain and the resolve to protect oneself and loved ones return as themes, but in unusual, allegorical ways.

Each novel is a singular achievement; each successive undertaking enriches a broader canvas of Ishiguro’s portraits of alienated lives.

During that 2006 London interview, I watched Ishiguro banter with my daughter during a break. They were laughing about what it means to “snarf” food, and they were picking up some biscuits and spooning melted ice cream to demonstrate. Ishiguro’s ease and humor when speaking with my child captivated me.

In spite of the sadness in his books, Ishiguro is a gracious guardian of humanity. He is a fine curator of emotions and a skilled storyteller.

The ConversationWe don’t know how many more books Ishiguro will publish. But we can be certain that in his literary explorations, he will remain undaunted.

Cynthia F. Wong, Professor of English, University of Colorado Denver

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.