Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Counternarratives' TLS Trifecta + Cosmonauts Avenue Review

In its British version Counternarratives continues to earn reviews, and I am very happy to report a rare trifecta in the Times Literary Supplement. (I say this not to humblebrag but out of real astonishment; other than the Wall Street Journal, not a single major US newspaper save the Wall Street Journal reviewed Counternarratives, though thankfully many magazines, journals and independent reviews more than made up for the big press's silence.) To the TLS, I say thank you, and thanks again!

First, critic Kate Webb published the longest, most rhapsodic and perspicacious of the three, entitled "Exceed Every Limit." It was one of the best reviews the book has received so far. Here is one quote I particularly enjoy, as she identifies one of my key intellectual-genealogical through-lines, via the greats Edward Said and Paul Gilroy. She also teaches me a new word, "polytych":

As its title suggests, Counternarratives contains “writing back” of the kind Edward Said once proposed; its stories are imbued with potent dialectical energy, bringing to mind Paul Gilroy’s key idea of the “Black Atlantic as a counte­­r­­culture of modernity”. Keene is not simply an oppositional writer, however: in his richly detailed accounts of black lives through history, dividing lines are continually crossed. So there are escapologists and prophets, motifs of cultural appropriation, false consciousness, prohibited desire, illicit knowledge, forbidden artistry, and everywhere the struggle for transcendence. Counternarratives consists of thirteen individual fictions – some of flashing brevity, others the length and intricacy of a novella. Together they act like a polytych: each story has its own integrity but an underlying intellectual coherence allows the reader to intimate their author’s power and purpose, and to identify the arrival of a writer who, like one of his own characters, has “a will of lead and a satin tongue”.

Another very positive TLS notice came from fiction editor Toby Lichtig, who decided to create his own alternative Man Booker Prize longlist of the "top thirteen novels from the past year," and placing Counternarratives on it, with in the aim in part to include "a little bit more experimental writing" than this year's Man Booker Prize committee did. He mentions Kate Webb's review specifically in his comments:

Our [TLS] reviewer...was hugely impressed by this dazzling retelling of colonial history in the Americas, a "writing back" inspired by writers from Jean Rhys to Edward Said but achieved with a unique vision that is all the author's own. "We have", wrote Webb, "become accustomed in recent years to the revisionary spirit of much postcolonial fiction, but the ambition, erudition and epic sweep of John Keene’s remarkable new collection of stories, travelling from the beginnings of modernity to modernism, place it in a class of its own."

Lastly, as I mentioned a few posts ago, in TLS's suggested summer reading list, critic and author Ben Eastham placed it "at the summit" of his book stack, adding:

Keene is among the contemporary American writers pushing at the boundaries of fiction, his angry, exhilarating stories about race and American history another counter-example (if it were needed) to the lazy assumption that literary innovation should be confined to the ivory tower.
To Webb, Lichtig and Eastham, and to the TLS I offer my heartfelt thanks!


I am always surprised when people ask me if it is OK to conduct an interview, because until Counternarratives I had participated in so few, and I relish opportunities to answer questions, no matter how challenging, about my work.  For me these interviews are always conversations, and if they bring more readers to my writing or to that of the interviewer or interviewers, or to any of the people I mention in passing, so much the better.

One fruit of such a conversation recently appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, which published a chat I had with one of my and our brilliant Rutgers-Newark MFA students, Soili Smith, who when she's not producing writing of impressive depth and philosophical heft, is supervising tree planting in British Columbia. It was a joy to speak with Soili, and I hope readers found something interesting in the interview, which actually covers some new ground, I think!

A long quote, about novellas--we can never have enough of that form, can we?:
SS: I know I’ve asked you about this before, but I want to discuss novellas. I find in the world of literary journals and magazines, especially in the age of prolific digital publication, the novella is becoming a bit of a dirty word. I’ve heard it said that some publishers find novellas unmarketable to broad audiences. Counternarratives contains a number of stories that the book itself claims as novellas. What do you think the place for the novella is in literature? What’s its importance in your book?

JK: That’s a great question. Obviously there’s a long tradition of novella writing. Some of the greatest works, including in American literature, could be considered novellas. And it’s so bizarre to me, at a time when people express, in every venue you can think of, how much of a premium their time is, that there is this resistance to a form that is, of course, bigger than a short story, but is shorter than a 400 page novel. I love novels, and even did a sort of unconventional thing by writing a condensed 81 page novel [Annotations, New Directions Paperback]. But with [Counternarratives], well I’ll say this: part of the reason there are novellas in this book is that I used to teach an undergraduate Creative Writing course at Northwestern in which we required—for the Fiction majors—that in the first half of the year they write three or four short stories that they revised, and then in the second half we had this insane but wonderful requirement that they write a novella. I used to tell people about this and they would say, John you’re making this up, because it’s so improbable. But the students did it! Year after year, and it was invigorating but also brutal, because when you’ve got fifteen to seventeen students writing novellas, you have to read all those novellas. And you don’t just have to read one draft, you read multiple drafts. There was one point where I taught this class and I really thought I was going blind. Later on I realized, okay, I’m asking these students to do this, I read novellas all the time, why don’t I try to do this? What is it to write a novella? And it was exhilarating. There are several in the book: “Our Lady of Sorrows,” I think “The Aeronauts” could be one, and then “A Letter on the Trials of the Counterreformation in New Lisbon.” I feel like what those do in the space of this book, is they kind of press the limits of form and contemporary American storytelling. Just as those very brief, almost poetic, lyrical pieces suggest the possibilities of condensation, the novellas demonstrate the possibilities of expansion. So without writing a full novel, what might you do with this form? What’s possible? Can we write an epic in short fiction? And because all of these stories speak to each other, you have the lyric brevity and narrative density and expansion in conversation in interesting ways. I highly encourage [novella writing], but I will say publishers in general, I mean New Directions does publish a certain number of novellas every year. Melville House does as well, and Nightboat Books too, just to name a few publishers, but in general, there is a real hesitancy about it, which I personally don’t understand. I think a lot of it has to do, again, with conventions in American literary life, publishing culture, commercial culture. If you look at a book like Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, which is a remarkable book, it’s hilarious, devastating, and it’s a novella. And Henry James wrote novellas. I mean…

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