LOUISA MEETS BEAR is an impressive novel-in-stories that follows family and friends across 25 years and two continents

Louisa Meets Bear  Lisa Gornick by Sigrid Estrada

Louisa Meets Bear

By Lisa Gornick

Sarah Crichton Books/FS&G: June 9, 2015

304 pages, $26.00

Lisa Gornick is rapidly staking a claim to being one of our best writers. With her last novel, Tinderbox (2013), and now this collection of linked stories, she has served notice that she is a writer of consequence. Gornick’s background as a psychotherapist educated at Princeton, Yale, and Columbia has provided her with piercing insight into a range of recognizably flawed and very human characters, and she has used this skill to good effect in Louisa Meets Bear.

Each story can stand alone as an elegant character study distinguished by well-chosen telling details, but together these ten pieces combine forces to become a novel exploring the lives of Louisa, William “Bear” Callahan, and the friends, lovers, and family members who move in and out of their complex lives over a period of 25 years and across North America and Europe.

The opening story, “Instructions to Participant,” concerns a re-entry student majoring in social work as she conducts her first home visit, which goes awry in a particularly heartbreaking way. The story is narrated by her daughter, Lizzy, who is Louisa’s cousin. She becomes pregnant in college and decides to give her baby girl up for adoption. The two seemingly unrelated plot strands turns out to be closely connected. This story will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The title story and the closing “Nate in Bed” are unusual in that they are written in second person. In the first, Louisa looks back and addresses Bear, her on-again, off-again boyfriend in college and grad school, as she tries to make sense of their love-hate relationship. In the latter, Louisa is the mother of a 16-year-old boy, Nate, whose recent missteps she is trying to understand so she can guide him forward. In the hands of a lesser writer, these two stories might be awkward and artistically unsuccessful, yet Gornick writes with impressive command of her characters, stories, and prose.

We encounter Louisa  again as she learns the truth about her parents’ marriage and her mother’s death in a car accident (“Lion Eats Cheetah Eats Weasel Eats Mouse”). In “Misto,” we catch up with the daughter Lizzy gave up, Brianna, who is now sixteen years old and on vacation in Venice with her adoptive parents, Richard, a lawyer, and Lena, a hospital administrator. Two important people from their past, Richard’s old college roommate and Lena’s dying father, haunt their present as they try to figure out their next steps in these fraught relationships.

“Priest Pond,” set on Prince Edward Island (part of Canada’s maritime provinces) and the Upper West Side, is the best story Alice Munro never wrote. Charlotte McPherson, a lonely and depressed mother from rural PEI, drives her pickup truck to New York City in an attempt to find her long-incommunicado son, Eric. She has the name and address of someone who might know his whereabouts and is praying that this person can help her. Dr. Rendell is much more than Charlotte expected and knows far more than where Eric might be; she knows he is a different kind of young man than his mother believes.

The penultimate story, “Barberini Princess,” explores the relationship between a therapist and the Colombian immigrant who cleans her office each Saturday; they rarely see each other, yet they have inadvertently found a place in each other’s lives in a most unexpected way. That’s one of the noteworthy traits of these stories; they are not predictable. In particular, you will never see the end of the novel coming.

While a few of the stories (“Priest Pond,” “Raya in Rapahu,” “Barberini Princess”) don’t quite fit into the “novel” concept, they don’t interrupt the overarching narrative because they feature similar settings and themes. They are also among the strongest selections in Louisa Meets Bear‘s novel-in-stories.

If you appreciate intelligent fiction intended for grown-ups, Louisa Meets Bear is a book worth reading (as are Tinderbox and A Private Sorcery). This is a mostly somber collection, but there are moments of laughter, love, and quiet contentment that capture universal experiences. Other readers may not yet be familiar with Lisa Gornick, but you should not hesitate to experience the intellectual and emotional satisfaction that can be found in her writing.

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Author Christine Sneed on The Pleasure of Influence

Christine Sneed by Adam Tinkham

Every day, many times a day in some cases, I find my thoughts turning to the work of a few fiction writers whose books I feel an almost romantic attachment to.  This list of literary idols changes on occasion depending on what I’ve been reading or teaching in the past year or two.  A writer whose work I’ve just read will join it, and another will step back into the shadows, though each of these admired novelists and poets drifts in and out of view on many days like clouds floating by in a sometimes-blue, sometimes-gray sky.

During graduate school and the years immediately following it, I became fully aware of the influence these writers exerted, men and women who were near-constant, benign specters that circulated in and out of my thoughts. The first two were Jim Harrison and Alice Munro.  As a poetry MFA student at Indiana University in the mid-90s, I often thought about the work of Dean Young and Lynn Emanuel, two poets I wished desperately to emulate.  At the time I first read their work, I was only a couple of years out of college and not yet – embarrassing as it is to acknowledge in these polarizing times – politically aware or engaged with the world in a way that extended beyond my own comfortable frame of reference.  I was beginning to learn to think abstractly, and was also making my first, awkward attempts to imagine lives and points of view different from my own.

Needless to say, I wasn’t writing poetry anything like Young’s and Emanuel’s, two geniuses whose poems still make me feel an almost maudlin gratitude for the experiential possibility and sentiment and language that their work presented to me in my mid-twenties.  Their words woke me up, I realize now, almost twenty years later, and this is the same thing that the short stories and novels of the fiction writers who keep company with each other in my head do, too.

In the last year and a half, I’ve been thinking every single day about the work of Scott Spencer, a writer whose third novel is the intensely intelligent, sensual, and devastating Endless Love (a 1979 National Book Award finalist).  This book makes the kind of emotional and psychological impact that devoted readers are likely to encounter maybe once a year.  Its point-of-view character, David Axelrod, is seventeen when the catastrophic house fire that he describes at the novel’s start occurs, a fire that he purposely set in order to alert his adored, off-limits girlfriend (by paternal decree) and her family to the flames. David didn’t, however, expect his small porch fire to become a full-blown conflagration.  With his confiding, reasonable-sounding voice, David is probably the most skillful rendering of an unreliable narrator that I’ve ever encountered.

I’ve read several of Spencer’s other novels, e.g. Men in Black (which is of no relation to the movie franchise), The Rich Man’s Table, Willing, and A Ship Made of Paper, and the writing is often very funny in addition to being beautiful and smart.  His books burst with so many moments of linguistic brilliance. Below are a few of my favorite sentences from the opening pages of Willing:

“I was a face in the crowd, a penitent on the edge of a Renaissance painting, a particularly graceful skater in a Breughel, the guy in the stands at the World Series…his hand on his heart and his eyes bright with belief during the singing of the national anthem.”

“I carried my desire within me like a tray filled with too many little cups of ceremonial wine: one false step and the whole thing comes crashing down.”

“Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.” (That lunch bag does me in every time – I don’t think I’ve ever seen it used as a color before now.)

Another writer with Chicago ties (Spencer grew up on the south side of the city and quite a bit of Endless Love is set in the Hyde Park-University of Chicago neighborhood) is Rosellen Brown, who writes poetry and prose with equal genius.  Her novels-in-verse, Cora Fry and Cora Fry’s Pillowbook, are, in some ways, like a literary, small-town, page-bound Sex and the City (forgive me if you’re reading this, Rosellen; I love Sex and the City, and Cora, maybe, would too?).  And then, her novels, among them, Before and After, Autobiography of My Mother, and Tender Mercies (no relation to the Robert Duvall movie) are all so different and ambitious and alive.  As for the short story form, “How to Win” is frequently anthologized, and is included in the John Updike-edited Best American Short Stories of the Century.

It’s the quality of aliveness that I’m always looking for in every poet’s or novelist’s work.

Two other writers who are frequently in my thoughts: Penelope Fitzgerald and Mavis Gallant.  I read The Blue Flower (one of Fitzgerald’s later novels and the one that got her noticed more widely by American readers) about fifteen years ago, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know a novel could be like this. How did she do this?”  The Blue Flower is set in the late 1700s and is based on the life of the German Romantic poet Novalis.  It is so witty, smart, and wry, so of-the-moment, it seemed to me, that the events recounted in this novel (which won the National Book Critics Circle Award) could have been set in the mid-90s, when Fitzgerald was actually writing it.   Mavis Gallant – if you haven’t read any of her work yet, I envy you your discovery.  I suggest starting with Across the Bridge or her marvelous New York Review Books Classic collected stories, Paris Stories, with a foreword by Michael Ondaatje.

I remember Martin Amis describing his relationship with his favorite books and their authors in his memoir Experience (he’s another writer I’ve been obsessed with – for one, his 1995 novel The Information is a wild and amazing book!)  He wrote that a quality he loves about books is that they’re always there waiting for him, like old friends.  Even in the middle of the night, he can go to his bookcases and, reassuringly, find the books he loves.

How comforting to know that we have these friends, that we have a whole set of voices and experiences waiting to be heard and lived (again, if we’re rereading) whenever the impulse strikes us.

Christine Sneed‘s third book, the novel Paris, He Said, was published on May 5 by Bloomsbury. Her first book, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Her second book is the novel Little Known Facts, published in 2013. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Ploughshares, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and a number of other journals. She teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University. Twitter:@ChristineSneed  
Christine Sneed photo by Adam Tinkham

Author Michelle Brafman on “literary mamas,” writing mentors at the right time and place

Michelle Brafman   washing-the-dead

When my daughter was six years old, she desperately wanted to jump off the diving board at our community pool. All summer, she eyed her friends climbing up the ladder, walking the plank of the board, and flying into the water with glee. I tried everything to help her muster up the courage to take that leap. On one of the last days of the summer, my husband took her to the pool without me. I’d been staying home with the kids full time and had treated myself to a few hours alone in a dark movie theater. When I walked into the house and found a huge smile on my daughter’s face, I knew. “How did it happen?” I asked her. “Mrs. M.,” she said.

I was feeling pretty zen after indulging in a matinee, a bucket of popcorn, and a Diet Coke, but I still I felt a twinge. The big-hearted Mrs. M., now my friend Amy, simply walked next to my girl, held her hand, and offered the right words of encouragement before they jumped into the pool together. Boom. My daughter went off the board again and again. And I wasn’t there.

Sometimes we must rely on other people to mother us. And this is a very good thing.

My novel Washing the Dead is about a woman whose mother has an affair, causes the family to be exiled from their tight-knit Orthodox Jewish community, and then takes off. Half the book tells the story of Barbara Pupnick’s spiral into a dark place, and the other half recounts her journey back to the emotional and spiritual home her mother had burned down. But this is not the story I’m telling today.

Barbara survives her mother’s abandonment, largely because her former preschool teacher steps in to mother her. During her final year of high school, Barbara volunteers in her teacher’s classroom, babysits her son, and on the nights her mother sneaks out with her lover, accepts a warm meal and help with her calculus. Barbara’s mentor even takes her shopping for underwear.

This case of substitute mothering is extreme, but as my daughter’s diving board experience taught me, we find mother figures when and where we need them. My mother is a terrific reader and has dried my tears after some of my toughest rejections, but I find my most productive literary nurturing elsewhere. There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits all mother. What a relief for all of us!

My literary mamas are writing instructors, savvy readers, and/or writer-friends (actually male and female) who can read me and for me without any skin in the game. They might wonder while critiquing my fiction if in real life I’ve stolen a family heirloom from a dead aunt or lied to my husband, but they won’t assume it’s because I wasn’t raised well, and they won’t ask. They’ll simply probe, sometimes gently and other times firmly. They’ll hold my hand while I venture into what my friend Dylan Landis calls “the basement,” the deepest and truest parts of ourselves.

And when my literary mamas read my memoir pieces, they’ll shine a light on my blind spots and take a tuning fork to the notes I’m not hitting, and I’ll thank them. We won’t do that messy dance we do with our mothers, where we ask them if they like our new haircut and they tell us, verbally or not, and then we get offended. My tone deafness won’t embarrass or anger them, and they won’t hedge about my bangs.

My literary mamas will listen to my publication woes, but they won’t take my rejection personally and rip apart the character of an agent or an editor they’ve never met. I’ll move on more quickly that way. They’ll wait for me to vent, and then they’ll brainstorm and sometimes make introductions. I’ll seek their guidance in writing query letters or blurb requests (with one literary mama I take straight dictation). They’ll throw gorgeous book parties after readings where they’ve beamed with perhaps not the pride of a real mama, but a joy devoid of the worry that I’ve written about them or that I will somehow humiliate myself.

I learn from my literary mamas, writers whose stories have taught me alternative ways to think about love, grief, redemption, and motherhood: Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Marilynne Robinson, Zora Neale Hurston, George Eliot, Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Faye Moskowitz, Amy Bloom, Rebecca Brown, Lidia Yuknavitch.

The common denominator for all literary mamas on and off the page is that in their own way they inspire me to serve in this capacity for someone else, be it a student or a friend. The cycle continues, making me a proud literary grandmama.

Over the years, I’ve periodically thanked my friend Amy for teaching my daughter to jump off that diving board, and she’s looked at me quizzically, perhaps wondering why I’ve held on to this anecdote for so long. My daughter has since found other secondary mamas — teachers, coaches, summer camp counselors, and random adults — who believe in her, who will coax her into taking various leaps. And I will continue to be grateful to them for doing for her what I can’t in that moment, even as a small part of me will be wishing that I could.

Michelle Brafman is a native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She earned her MA in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays and short fiction have been published in Slate, The Washington Post, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and many other publications. She teaches creative writing at JHU’s MA in Writing Program, George Washington University, the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis’ New Directions Program, and workshops throughout the Washington, D.C. area. She is the founder of Yeah Write, a writing coaching business. She lives outside Washington, D.C. with her husband and two children.

Guest blogger Rebecca Makkai takes on “Literary Mansplaining”

Rebecca Makkai 2013   Hundred Year House paperback  Music for Wartime    The Borrower

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as many short stories and essays. The latter has just been published in paperback, and is highly recommended. Makkai’s first short story collection, Music for Wartime, is due in July. Her story “The Briefcase” has just been anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new high school literature textbook, Collections.

Makkai is smart, observant, and sharp-witted, and it is reflected in her writing, including this piece written for Read Her Like an Open Book (and originally posted on September 29, 2014).

You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here and my interview with Rebecca Makkai here.

In this essay, she addresses an issue that continues to bedevil smart, accomplished women, especially writers. 

Few things have spoken to my soul like Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the essay that indirectly gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”  And it’s no coincidence that Solnit’s key anecdote was about publishing – specifically, about a man not understanding that the seminal book he was lecturing her on was actually one Solnit herself had written. Although mansplaining exists just about everywhere, there seems to be something special about the writing world – maybe it’s that women are, you know, using their voices – that brings out the closet mansplainer. When women articulate issues within the publishing world, or issues they’re facing in their own careers, there’s always someone there to explain that this is not a real problem, or that the solution is oh-so-simple.

Of course #NotAllMen are mansplainers. Of the male writers and critics and bloggers I associate with, I’d put it at around 2%. But all it takes is one person peeing in the pool.

These are the varieties of literary mansplaining I see on a daily basis, both online and off:

“Let me tell you how the publishing industry works.” I get this one not from fellow writers, but – far worse – from acquaintances whose knowledge of publishing is limited to an article they read two years ago about Kindles. “You get a bigger percentage of sales from ebooks,” they say. “So you should be happy!” Or they’ll tell you about the one and only novel they’ve read in the past two years, and act shocked that you haven’t heard of it. “It’s very important! Read it and get back to me and tell me what you think.” And I’m always so grateful for this, because I have nothing in my to-read pile! I’m fresh out of ideas!

“Stop being surprised” / “What did you expect?” In which a woman says / posts / writes about something truly troublesome – unfair VIDA numbers, let’s say, or Amazon hijinks, or academic sexism, or a rat infestation at a writers’ colony — and a man eagerly jumps in to comment with something like “Yep. Get used to it. Them’s the breaks.” Which really adds nothing at all to the conversation, when you think about it. It’s simply a way of saying “Oh, yes, this issue? I’m five steps ahead of you on this issue. Ha-HA!”

 “Just lighten up / give up / grow a pair” A close cousin to the above, with the lovely addition of moral judgment against indignation. If the criticism had come from a man, it would be righteous anger, or thoughtful analysis, or warranted fury. From a woman, it’s irrational and shrill and must be stopped. (The giveaway here: the true mansplainer can only avoid use of the word “hysterical” for about twenty seconds, and/or three tweets. Hang in there long enough, and it’ll come out.)

“This wouldn’t be an issue for you if you would just…” …write more book reviews, write more nonfiction, write more commercial fiction, change your name to something more pronounceable, go with a smaller publisher, go with a bigger publisher, accept that critics are jerks, ignore the haters, ignore your editor, ignore your reviews, stop caring about your career, stop thinking about it too much. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Here is my writing advice, o world!” This is a subtler and more insidious one – an exercising of privilege that is surely invisible to the privileged. Certainly there are times (like, you’re hired to speak to a conference) when an audience is waiting with bated breath for your wisdom. But shouting out, unbidden, on social media, your lesson of the day (“Here’s a little craft tidbit for you, folks…”) – I don’t know how to explain that it’s a manifestation of gender privilege except to say that I see men do this on a daily basis, and I’ve never, ever seen a woman do it. And come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen white men do it. Straight white men. Hmm… (1% of them, at most. But boy howdy are they loud.)

“Despite never having read your work, I’m going to assume that whatever issues you’re facing in the publishing world are due to the fact that you must be writing ‘domestic fiction,’ which – hey! – should certainly be given its due! I read an Alice Munro story once, and I loved it!” Sure you did. Also, define “domestic fiction.” Fiction with a house in it? So you mean, like, The Corrections? No?

“Let me explain how much I’ve done for you, female writer.” This can range anywhere from the benign but egocentric (“I’m so glad I wrote that one review of Alice Munro for the Winnipeg Free Press during the Reagan Administration, because look where my patronage has gotten her!”) to the deeply disturbing (see: the recent saga of Ed Champion). Toward that more disturbing end, there are some male bloggers and critics out there who seem to see praising women writers as the equivalent of buying your date a fancy dinner in 1962. In both cases, they seem to expect something afterwards. Eternal gratitude? Instant acceptance? Love? Sex? It’s hard to tell. And in cases like Champion’s, if perceived “favors” are not returned, the critic turns vicious.

“Your experience is false.” There is no male privilege in literature, there is no white privilege in literature, Martin Amis is not a sexist, Phillip Roth is not a sexist, 9/1 is a reasonable breakdown for the National Book Award nonfiction long list. You are imagining sexism, because I do not believe myself to be a sexist.

“Ah,” someone out there says, “that’s right. I remember reading about this in a magazine. When women complain, they don’t really want their problems solved. They just want to vent. They want someone to listen to them.”

No, asshat. We would love the problems solved. All the problems. It’s just that unless you’re my editor or my agent or my department chair, you’re not the one who’s going to solve them. You aren’t saying anything we haven’t already thought of. No one, male or female, wants someone to come in and pat them on the head and tell them the solution is actually very simple, and the solution is to stop worrying about it. Would you do that to a male colleague? Would you – on the roughest days of your life – want someone doing that to you? The difference between the sexes here isn’t that women want shoulders to cry on. It’s that only women have to put up with people handing them facile and belittling solutions (that aren’t really solutions) to their problems.

So… What to do? If you’re a woman, you already know your choices. Keep your head down and ignore it, or stick your neck out and fight it.

If you’re a man, a regular, fabulous man, keep being awesome. But if you think you might be guilty of mansplaining: Ask yourself, honestly, if this is what you’d say to another guy. If you’d accuse him of hysterics, if you’d attempt to explain the world to him, if you’d assume that because you praised his book once, he must owe you undying gratitude. Or if you’d think that his problems must not really be problems, or feel so proud of yourself for offering the most reductionist solution.

And if you still can’t help it, try to use your mansplaining powers for good, rather than evil. Best Buy is always hiring.

Kirkus Reviews publishes its list of the 100 Best Fiction Books of 2014

An Untamed State   The Blazing World   Euphoria   the paying guests - sarah waters

Kirkus Reviews has published its “100 Best Fiction Books of 2014.” Kirkus’s editors have created both a list of the top 100 books and several categories of “10 Best” books. Some titles fall into more than one category. Here are the 36 books by women writers that fall, however loosely, into my concept of the Literary Fiction category. (I did not include genre fiction like Mystery/Thrillers and Romance.)

You can see the complete Top 100 list and category lists here.

 

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters

Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

Elizabeth Crook – Monday Monday

Elena Ferrante – Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

Judith Frank – All I Love and Know

Rivka Galchen – American Innovations: Stories

Jane Gardam — Stories

Roxane Gay — An Untamed State

Alena Graedon – The Word Exchange

Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Mira Jacob – The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

Tove Jansson – The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

Porochista Khakpour – The Last Illusion

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

Vanessa Manko – The Invention of Exile

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Francesca Marciano – The Other Language

Eimar McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Elizabeth McCracken – Thunderstruck & Other Stories

Randy Susan Meyers – Accidents of Marriage

Lydia Millet – Mermaids in Paradise

Liane Moriarty – Big Little Lies

Alice Munro – Family Furnishings: Stories 1995-2014

Christina Nichol – Waiting for the Electricity

Helen Oyeyemi – Boy Snow Bird

Kathy Page – Alphabet

Francine Prose – Lovers at the Chameleon Club

Marilynne Robinson — Lila

Ali Smith – How to be Both

Miriam Toews – All My Puny Sorrows

Linn Ullmann – The Cold Song

Lee Upton – The Tao of Humiliation

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

 

Literary Fiction

Roxane Gay — An Untamed State

Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Eimar McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Historical Fiction

Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account

Francine Prose – Lovers at the Chameleon Club

Sarah Waters – The Paying Guests (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Debut Fiction

Elizabeth Crook – Monday Monday

Roxane Gay — An Untamed State

Alena Graedon – The Word Exchange

Mira Jacob – The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing

Vanessa Manko – The Invention of Exile

Eimar McBride – A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Christina Nichol – Waiting for the Electricity

Short Stories

Rivka Galchen – American Innovations: Stories

Jane Gardam — Stories

Tove Jansson – The Woman Who Borrowed Memories: Selected Stories

Hilary Mantel – The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

Alice Munro – Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014

Francesca Marciano – The Other Language: Stories

Lee Upton – The Tao of Humiliation

Popular Fiction

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters

Judith Frank — All I Love and Know

Randy Susan Meyers – Accidents of Marriage

Gender Bender

Judith Frank — All I Love and Know

Porochista Khakpour – The Last Illusion

Lily King – Euphoria (Kirkus Fiction Prize winner)

Laila Lalami – The Moor’s Account

Kathy Page – Alphabet

Fiction with a Touch of Magic

Lauren Beukes — Broken Monsters

Rivka Galchen – American Innovations: Stories

Lydia Millet – Mermaids in Paradise

Ali Smith – How to be Both

Get Your Book Club Talking

Megan Abbott – The Fever

Judith Frank – All I Love and Know

Elizabeth Crook – Monday Monday

Siri Hustvedt – The Blazing World (Kirkus Fiction Prize finalist)

Emily St. John Mandel – Station Eleven

Liane Moriarty – Big Little Lies

Helen Oyeyemi – Boy Snow Bird

Marilynne Robinson — Lila

Miriam Toews – All My Puny Sorrows

Guest blogger Rebecca Makkai on “Literary Mansplaining”

Rebecca Makkai 2013   The Hundred-Year House

Rebecca Makkai is the author of two novels, The Borrower (2011) and The Hundred-Year House (2014), as well as many short stories and essays. Her story “The Briefcase” has just been anthologized in Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s new high school literature textbook, Collections. She is a smart, observant, and sharp-witted woman, and it is reflected in her writing. (You can read my review of The Hundred-Year House here and my interview with her here.)

In this essay, she addresses an issue that continues to bedevil smart, accomplished women, especially writers. 

Few things have spoken to my soul like Rebecca Solnit’s 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” the essay that indirectly gave rise to the term “mansplaining.”  And it’s no coincidence that Solnit’s key anecdote was about publishing – specifically, about a man not understanding that the seminal book he was lecturing her on was actually one Solnit herself had written. Although mansplaining exists just about everywhere, there seems to be something special about the writing world – maybe it’s that women are, you know, using their voices – that brings out the closet mansplainer. When women articulate issues within the publishing world, or issues they’re facing in their own careers, there’s always someone there to explain that this is not a real problem, or that the solution is oh-so-simple.

Of course #NotAllMen are mansplainers. Of the male writers and critics and bloggers I associate with, I’d put it at around 2%. But all it takes is one person peeing in the pool.

These are the varieties of literary mansplaining I see on a daily basis, both online and off:

“Let me tell you how the publishing industry works.” I get this one not from fellow writers, but – far worse – from acquaintances whose knowledge of publishing is limited to an article they read two years ago about Kindles. “You get a bigger percentage of sales from ebooks,” they say. “So you should be happy!” Or they’ll tell you about the one and only novel they’ve read in the past two years, and act shocked that you haven’t heard of it. “It’s very important! Read it and get back to me and tell me what you think.” And I’m always so grateful for this, because I have nothing in my to-read pile! I’m fresh out of ideas!

“Stop being surprised” / “What did you expect?” In which a woman says / posts / writes about something truly troublesome – unfair VIDA numbers, let’s say, or Amazon hijinks, or academic sexism, or a rat infestation at a writers’ colony — and a man eagerly jumps in to comment with something like “Yep. Get used to it. Them’s the breaks.” Which really adds nothing at all to the conversation, when you think about it. It’s simply a way of saying “Oh, yes, this issue? I’m five steps ahead of you on this issue. Ha-HA!”

 “Just lighten up / give up / grow a pair” A close cousin to the above, with the lovely addition of moral judgment against indignation. If the criticism had come from a man, it would be righteous anger, or thoughtful analysis, or warranted fury. From a woman, it’s irrational and shrill and must be stopped. (The giveaway here: the true mansplainer can only avoid use of the word “hysterical” for about twenty seconds, and/or three tweets. Hang in there long enough, and it’ll come out.)

“This wouldn’t be an issue for you if you would just…” …write more book reviews, write more nonfiction, write more commercial fiction, change your name to something more pronounceable, go with a smaller publisher, go with a bigger publisher, accept that critics are jerks, ignore the haters, ignore your editor, ignore your reviews, stop caring about your career, stop thinking about it too much. Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Here is my writing advice, o world!” This is a subtler and more insidious one – an exercising of privilege that is surely invisible to the privileged. Certainly there are times (like, you’re hired to speak to a conference) when an audience is waiting with bated breath for your wisdom. But shouting out, unbidden, on social media, your lesson of the day (“Here’s a little craft tidbit for you, folks…”) – I don’t know how to explain that it’s a manifestation of gender privilege except to say that I see men do this on a daily basis, and I’ve never, ever seen a woman do it. And come to think of it, I’ve only ever seen white men do it. Straight white men. Hmm… (1% of them, at most. But boy howdy are they loud.)

“Despite never having read your work, I’m going to assume that whatever issues you’re facing in the publishing world are due to the fact that you must be writing ‘domestic fiction,’ which – hey! – should certainly be given its due! I read an Alice Munro story once, and I loved it!” Sure you did. Also, define “domestic fiction.” Fiction with a house in it? So you mean, like, The Corrections? No?

“Let me explain how much I’ve done for you, female writer.” This can range anywhere from the benign but egocentric (“I’m so glad I wrote that one review of Alice Munro for the Winnipeg Free Press during the Reagan Administration, because look where my patronage has gotten her!”) to the deeply disturbing (see: the recent saga of Ed Champion). Toward that more disturbing end, there are some male bloggers and critics out there who seem to see praising women writers as the equivalent of buying your date a fancy dinner in 1962. In both cases, they seem to expect something afterwards. Eternal gratitude? Instant acceptance? Love? Sex? It’s hard to tell. And in cases like Champion’s, if perceived “favors” are not returned, the critic turns vicious.

“Your experience is false.” There is no male privilege in literature, there is no white privilege in literature, Martin Amis is not a sexist, Phillip Roth is not a sexist, 9/1 is a reasonable breakdown for the National Book Award nonfiction long list. You are imagining sexism, because I do not believe myself to be a sexist.

“Ah,” someone out there says, “that’s right. I remember reading about this in a magazine. When women complain, they don’t really want their problems solved. They just want to vent. They want someone to listen to them.”

No, asshat. We would love the problems solved. All the problems. It’s just that unless you’re my editor or my agent or my department chair, you’re not the one who’s going to solve them. You aren’t saying anything we haven’t already thought of. No one, male or female, wants someone to come in and pat them on the head and tell them the solution is actually very simple, and the solution is to stop worrying about it. Would you do that to a male colleague? Would you – on the roughest days of your life – want someone doing that to you? The difference between the sexes here isn’t that women want shoulders to cry on. It’s that only women have to put up with people handing them facile and belittling solutions (that aren’t really solutions) to their problems.

So… What to do? If you’re a woman, you already know your choices. Keep your head down and ignore it, or stick your neck out and fight it.

If you’re a man, a regular, fabulous man, keep being awesome. But if you think you might be guilty of mansplaining: Ask yourself, honestly, if this is what you’d say to another guy. If you’d accuse him of hysterics, if you’d attempt to explain the world to him, if you’d assume that because you praised his book once, he must owe you undying gratitude. Or if you’d think that his problems must not really be problems, or feel so proud of yourself for offering the most reductionist solution.

And if you still can’t help it, try to use your mansplaining powers for good, rather than evil. Best Buy is always hiring.

Brittani Sonnenberg on Home Leave: “Certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel”

Brittani Sonnenberg with Home Leave cover

Brittani Sonnenberg’s first novel, Home Leave, was published on June 3 by Grand Central Publishing. It is the story of the peripatetic Kriegstein family (parents Chris and Elise and their daughters, 16-year-old Leah and 14-year-old Sophie) and their experiences living abroad in Hamburg, London, Shanghai, and Singapore. It is a complex exploration of the various relationships in this one small family, the nature of home, and the impact of a family tragedy on those left behind. Sonnenberg’s writing possesses a sophistication and insight that makes readers sit up and take notice. The opening chapter is as brilliant and clever a piece of writing as I’ve read in a long while (and will no doubt be widely anthologized, as it can stand on its own quite nicely).

Sonnenberg studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. She lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. Her award-winning fiction has been published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O. Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by Time Magazine, the Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere.

Home Leave appears to be autobiographical, at least in the sense that you lived in some of the places that are featured in the book. How do you decide which personal experiences to make use of in fiction? Do certain experiences seemingly make that decision for you? And how do you then decide how much to rework the truth into fiction?

I think that’s exactly the way to describe how it felt to write Home Leave: certain autobiographical experiences seemed to clear their throats and step forward, demanding to be represented in the novel. At other times, I would be working on an utterly fictional passage, and a tiny autobiographical sliver would insert itself. Before I began the novel, I wrote a memoir that I ultimately put in the proverbial drawer: something wasn’t coming together with it. But I still had a deep urge to continue exploring the memoir’s material (an American family overseas, a sibling’s sudden death) in fiction. It didn’t feel like “reworking the truth” since the novel’s chapters, as they came to me, felt fresh in their fictional forms. But I suppose in some corner of my brain I was reworking the truth in a playful way, like a kid playing dress up, trying out different costumes and props.

I lived in Honolulu from ages 10-12 and it had a profound effect on me (although it wasn’t a foreign country, it felt like one to me). What are your thoughts on living in a foreign country as a child? Do you think everyone should do that?

I think it makes a lot of sense that living in Hawaii at such an impressionable time changed you deeply. I think living overseas as a child is both a privilege and a burden: you’re exposed to a profoundly different way of living and thinking and being, but it also jostles your notion of where home is and who you are. I recently conducted an interview with several writers who have settled overseas as adults, who all claimed that this “outsider status” as a foreigner can be crucial for writing and for gathering material. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone.

We hear and read a lot about parents coping with the death of a child, how they never get over it, understandably. But what is that loss like for a sibling? We don’t hear nearly as much about the long-term effects within that relationship.

It’s devastating for every family member, in different ways. For a sibling – at least for me – there was a lot of guilt about surviving my sister Blair, who was two years younger than me. And I felt horribly alone in the world without the sister that had shared so many worlds with me. I still ache from that missing, although now it’s a gentler throbbing than before.

Have you always known you were going to write about a death in the family? Or did it impose itself on you while you were trying to write about other subjects?

Several of my short stories involved the death of a loved one, but the novel was the first time I tried writing about the subject in a way that felt so “close to home.” It was difficult to write, but I felt the urge to deal directly with my family’s experience, rather than through an entirely fictionalized scenario.

How long did you work on Home Leave? Did it come to you slowly over time or in a vision, as it were?

Both. Home Leave took a long time to write, and it came out very quickly. As I mentioned earlier, I had worked on a memoir for a couple of years that I finally put aside. I started from scratch on a new fiction project that dealt with similar material, and ended up writing the novel in a little under two years. But the subject of a sibling’s death and an American family’s life overseas had been on my mind for many years, and one of the chapters is adapted from a short story I wrote in college.

How many drafts did you write before you reached the published version? Who helped you produce the book as published, and what was their contribution? 

My agent, Jenni Ferrari Adler, and another reader, a close friend of mine, helped me to revise the first draft. Jenni sold the second (or perhaps it was the third?) draft to Grand Central. Several chapters then went through major revisions with my editor at GC, Helen Atsma, and even my German editor, Ulrike Ostermeyer at Arche Verlag, helped a great deal with the chapters set in Berlin and Hamburg.

What experiences, as opposed to books, have shaped your perspective and voice as a writer?

Living overseas, especially in Shanghai, was an enormous influence. I also think my Southern heritage (my mother is from Mississippi) has affected how I view storytelling and humor. And my sister’s death has forced me to think a lot about mourning, grief, love, and family, and prompted me to investigate these themes in my fiction.

Are you part of any writers’ groups, for example a group of friends from your MFA days or organized writing groups? If so, what do they offer you as a writer?

Yes, I am. I have a casual writing group in Berlin that helped me with several chapters from the novel. I also have friends from my MFA program who I turn to for help, not only with manuscripts, but also just with the daily frustrations and quandaries of being a writer. And I have a good friend in the US – a fantastic writer who works as a psychiatrist – who I often consult.

Which of your stories would you recommend to someone who enjoyed Home Leave? Where can we find them? Do you have any plans for a story collection?

Thanks for asking! My short story “Hong Kong Buffet,” about a Chinese restaurant in Mississippi, was just published by Readux Books (a wonderful small press in Berlin), and is available as an e-book and a paperback; and my short story “Taiping” (which won a 2008 O. Henry Award) can be found online. I don’t have any current plans to go out with a short story collection, but I’ll keep you posted!

You are currently living in Berlin. Why did you decide to settle there? Is it a particularly good location for Americans? It seems as if it has become the new Paris for creative types.

In some ways, my decision to settle in Berlin was something of a coincidence; I was looking for a break from the Midwest (after graduate school in Michigan) and happened to visit Berlin and fall in love with the city. I do think it’s a good location for Americans – there are a lot of us over there, especially from Brooklyn! – but one thing I truly value about Berlin is its cosmopolitanism. It draws creative types from all over the world and it’s energizing to see so many people who are so excited to be there.

What is your writing routine (if you have one)? Where do you write? What five things do you need in order to write?

I try to write for about three hours a day, usually in the morning. I read a wonderful article on establishing a writing routine by Ellen Sussman in Poets and Writers a few years back that I’ve adopted (somewhat) and that’s helped me stay (somewhat) focused. I write mostly at home, but I also have a shared office space with other writers in Berlin that I recently joined. Five things I need in order to write: a window, relative quiet, a laptop, courage, and coffee.

What are your thoughts on the issue of gender bias in publishing (such as the issue of feminized cover art used on literary fiction by women and the imbalance of bylines and books reviewed)? Joyce Carol Oates recently noted that it seems unnecessary to have awards such as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction when women are winning so many of the major awards (the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the Booker, etc.). Do you agree or disagree? Do we really need things like the VIDA Count (and, for that matter, a blog like Read Her Like an Open Book)?

This is a tough question. On the one hand, there is an objective disparity that needs to be addressed (and I feel like resources like VIDA and this blog call necessary attention to the issue). On the other hand, sometimes all the uproar drowns out the individual voices of the books and authors themselves. What everyone would prefer, of course, is a level playing field, but until we have that (and in order to get there), I think intermediary efforts are crucial.

Which authors and books are your primary influences?

Lots! But I’ll list a few…

Madeleine L’Engle A Wrinkle in Time (my favorite childhood novel)

Eudora Welty “Why I Live at the P.O.” (short story)

Ha Jin “When Cowboy Chicken Came to Town” (short story)

V.S. Naipaul Reading and Writing: A Personal Account

Pretty much anything by Alice Munro

Rainer Maria Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus

Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad

What have you read recently that impressed you? Which authors and/or books deserve more attention?

I recently read Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote and really loved it, especially the way he paints setting. I think Jane Gardam, a British writer, now 86, deserves more attention. She wrote a fantastic trilogy mostly set in Hong Kong, the first book of which is Old Filth. I also admire Amy Bloom’s short story collection A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. And I recently came across a poem (“Found to Be Borrowed from Some Material Appearance”) by Donna Stonecipher, a Berlin-based American poet, which I think is pretty brilliant.