Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of February 16, 2020.
Let me tell you something about children’s poetry: people tend to create it for the right reasons. I was taught this concept in connection to medieval lyric poetry. My teacher’s point was that art made in the modern world is under scarcely any obligation to be good. It can be interesting instead, or new. Or it can “bear witness.” Being good—actually good—is even considered a little passé.
The minute you bring a six-year-old into the picture, though, everything changes.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Love and happiness.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
Almost all my favorite books are fiction, and I think fiction has to do both. The relationship between what we know and what we feel is in some ways the driving force of the novel as a form.
Sure enough, a doomer perspective seems most at home in so-called climate fiction (cli-fi for short). The genre, which imagines stories and worlds shaped by climate change, is sometimes considered a cousin of science fiction. For the most part, cli-fi titles traffic in danger but contain optimistic codas, allowing their characters to triumph or at least survive. But there is a growing offshoot of more downbeat fare. Andrew Milner, a literary critic and the author of the forthcoming Science Fiction and Climate Change, has tracked the trend. Along with his coauthor, J. R. Burgmann, he calls pessimistic fatalism one of the major “paradigmatic responses to climate change in recent fiction.”
It’s tricky because in fiction, you don’t want to be polemical. Good literary fiction isn’t polemical. So how do you talk about climate change in literature? The only way that I’ve discovered how to do it in my own fiction, which is not necessarily the best or right way, is to talk about the dread and the grief within the human soul going through its days. We all need to wake up, take showers, eat breakfast, to do the quotidian nonsense to get through the day, but at the same time there’s a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads. The awareness of the distance between granular, textural daily life and this looming dread of disaster is what I wanted to think about.
- One of the jurors in the Weinstein trial almost got booted off the jury for reading My Dark Vanessa, a forthcoming novel about a teenage girl’s relationship with a predatory older man, Vulture reports.
- Speaking of My Dark Vanessa! It’s been subject to some controversy in the months leading up to its release, particularly after Wendy Ortiz suggested it bore some resemblance to her memoir, and My Dark Vanessa author Kate Elizabeth Russell responded by saying it was based on her own adolescence. At Vulture, Lila Shapiro explores the story:
My Dark Vanessa can be read as a mirror image of Lolita. Both Vanessa and Humbert are unreliable narrators; both use the language of love to mask the trauma lurking beneath the surface of their stories. It’s obvious why Humbert would prefer to describe his rape of Lolita as romantic. Russell considers why Vanessa would entertain the same fantasy.
In the ’90s, more people were talking about their mental health and what it meant to be depressed, anxious, obsessive compulsive, schizophrenic, and addicted. Despite this burgeoning conversation, however, mental illness was still dismissed as either a fiction or something grotesque and shameful, something to hide. Wurtzel said fuck the stigma and became one of the first memoirists to write honestly and brutally about depression and addiction.
For that she got slammed by misogynistic critics. She was seen as a whiny brat, an enfant terrible, a narcissist.
To fault self-help books for their banality is to misunderstand how they actually work. If you’re drawn to a self-help book, something has gone awry in your mental universe—perhaps it’s a diffuse malaise, hard to pin down, or maybe your entire life is a gaping wound. Merely purchasing the book makes you feel better: it’s the act of acquiring something that promises concrete answers in an ambiguous world. It puts agency in your own hands—look at you, taking steps!—in a way that might allow you to contend with feelings you can barely articulate. What the books say, the advice they dispense, is a bit beside the point.
And here’s the week in books at Vox:
As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!