Thanks to the students and faculty of Creative Writing at The New School for providing interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016. Below are excerpts from interviews with the criticism finalists. Click the links to read more.
Alex Lanz, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Peter Orner about his book Am I Alone Here? (Catapult), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner contains 41 column length essays combining memoir, social observation, and literary criticism. These brief pieces are themselves broken into small sections with numerous space breaks. The essays are the vertebrae of a narrative spine covering a partnership in Eastern Europe, family life in Chicago, and reading life in San Francisco, while also touching on an incredible range of world literature, from Isaac Babel to Vaclav Havel to Eudora Welty. Insights on literature and life are delivered with a casual lightness, even abandon. While there is dejection in the solitude of a basement lined with books, solitude is necessary in the activity of reading and writing, an activity that is lonely yet undeniably social. Orner shows us that good thinking need not be formal or scholarly, and that one can speak in celebration of silence, as he does in his piece on Juan Rulfo. In criticism the motto is usually There is Always More to Say. There may always be less to say as well.
Alex Lanz: You are also the author of two novels and two short story collections. Is essay writing different in an essential way for you, more notational and on-the-fly?
Peter Orner: Yeah, totally. It's very different in the sense that I'm used to having the absolute freedom of fiction, and with essay writing there's a tether to some idea of the truth. I don't believe that there's always a Truth-truth, but essay writing has a tether that fiction doesn't have, and that can be fascinating.
Dina Lee, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Alice Kaplan about her book Looking for the Stranger (University of Chicago Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Dina Lee: Camus earned his master’s degree in philosophy and was influenced by great figures including Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard. He also drew inspiration from novels such as The Postman Always Rings Twice by the American author, James M. Cain.
On the one hand, The Stranger is a work of literature; you clearly show how the novelist came to establish the protagonist's distinct voice, the narrative momentum, and the tone. On the other hand, The Stranger is a work of philosophy exploring the Absurd.
Is it fair to say your book sees Camus primarily as a novelist, and that it focuses more on literary influences and interpretations? If so, why?
Alice Kaplan: I didn’t want to interpret The Stranger either as a novel or a philosophical novel —hundreds of critics have done this before me. What interested me was the life of the book, from Camus's first flashes of inspiration to the insanely complex process of publication in a time of enemy occupation. I tried, as much as I could, to put my own interpretations to the side.
Rachel Willis, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Carol Anderson about her book White Rage (Bloomsbury), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Rachel Willis: It’s my understanding that you were asked to write this book after an article you wrote for the Washington Post on a similar topic. What was your initial reaction to the thought of writing this book?
Carol Anderson: I was exhilarated. The Washington Post op-ed had allowed me to sketch out what White Rage was and how it operated both historically and now. But it was just a sketch. I wanted to be able to tell the tale and to show in exquisite detail exactly how policies designed to undermine black achievement (the Brown decision, the Civil Rights Movement, the election of Barack Obama to the White House) emanated not from the bowels of society but from the cool marble halls of the courts, Congress, school boards, etc. The book-length study would also give me the room to engage the reader with the horrific effects of those policies both on African Americans and the nation at large.
RW: You’re very thorough throughout the book citing where your facts and figures come from; the notes section at the end is more than 60 pages. How long did you spend researching and writing the book? Was the process simultaneous or did you have to do an immense amount of research before you sat down to write?
CA: In many ways, this book is a culmination of decades of research for my previous books, which then helped me know the broad outlines, many of the horrific stories – if not all of the details – and the key players in each era even before I began White Rage. That is what allowed the work to gel so smoothly over an intense nine-month research and writing schedule. In many ways, the process was deliberate, managed chaos. I knew the outlines but I needed to know what I didn’t know. The numerous books, articles, government documents, biographies and memoirs I compiled were key. I would research and often find a document whose details were astonishing. I’d then have a moment of “are you kidding me?!” as I would write those incredible gems of information and insight into a coherent narrative. Often the process of writing would require greater clarity and precision, which led to more rethinking, researching, and revising up until the very moment when I submitted the final draft.
Bridget Kiley, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Olivia Laing about her book Lonely City (Picador), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Olivia Laing has opened the floodgates on loneliness. A seldom talked about yet common aspect of humanity, loneliness is investigated through the lives and work of artists like Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, and others. How is loneliness really operating in our society and who does it affect the most? Laing relocates to New York City and finds herself utterly lonely. She analyses her loneliness by studying that of other's. What transpires is a deeply moving portrayal of how loneliness is in large part a symptom of society's tendency to marginalize certain groups. Laing was gracious enough to answer some of my burning questions on how writing this book impacted her own loneliness and what parts of the East Village she frequented where the crossroads of every kind of New Yorker intersected.
Bridget Kiley: While I read this book, I kept wondering about your process. I pictured you at the American Folk Art Museum pouring over the Darger archive or in Pittsburg at the as yet unfinished Andy Warhol exhibit, and I kept wondering how you structured your research. How much did researching this book impact your life at the time?
Olivia Laing: It impacted it hugely. I was spending a great deal of time in archives, particularly the magical Fales Library at NYU, where the Wojnarowicz papers are housed. I was conducting formal, biographic research, but it was also undeniably succoring to my own sense of loneliness to read diaries and handle objects that had so clearly arisen out of other people's isolation. Wojnarowicz's taped diaries are a prime example here: they were so raw and honest I often found myself brushing away tears as I transcribed.