NFN18: “Writers Writing About Literature”

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Panelists: Emily Rapp Black, Tara Ison, Alden Jones, & Stephanie Reents

Panel Description: Writers are often in conversation with certain books they read and re-read, and particular books have lasting effects on both their writing and their lives. But outside of book reviews, few formats have allowed writers to creatively explore their relationships with specific texts. Recently, two new series of books have emerged to invite writers to explore their responses to individual books that have preoccupied them: Afterwords (Fiction Advocate) and Bookmarked (Ig Publishing). In this panel, writers who have penned short volumes for these series discuss their different approaches to merging personal essay, literary criticism, and homage, and the creative possibilities of this hybrid genre.

In this panel moderated by Stephanie Reents, the panelists discussed how “particular books have a lasting effect on writers” and how more and more authors are taking up the hybrid form between a personal essay and the film or book criticism to create a niche in the literary world.

Emily Rapp Black, the author of Poster Child: A Memoir opened the conversation with her lifelong obsession with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “I find in it so many things to love”, Black said as she went on to describe in detail how she read the book as a teenager and identified with the monster, as her prosthesis made her feel “freaky”. Tara Ison read from her book, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, a book that borders between a memoir and film criticism. Being a passionate movie-goer and movie-watcher and a former screenwriter, Ison felt movies were something she could write about and how each film seen at a stage of her life influenced her. “The films listed here are lenses to look at my life,” she said. She explained how she had chosen movies she has seen since she was just six years old, and re-watched them, experiencing and internalizing the images, dialogue and narrative, how cinematic depiction of each of these elements contributed to certain aspects pertaining to her identity such as sex, death, love and faith.

Alden Jones said how academic writing was often too dry for her and that as writers, “we have a lot of dialogue with books we are reading”. She depicted how in Wild, Cheryl Strayed creates a compelling narrative of a situation which is not particularly compelling, the hike with structure and voice. The reading was rounded up with Stephanie Reents reading from her book I Meant to Kill Ye which depicts her relationship with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as part of the Afterwords project. Rejecting literary criticism, all these writers have carved out their own place in writing about literature.

“When I read literary criticism, I felt stupid,” Reents laughed. And thus, she had begun her exploration. “Could I discuss formal elements of a literary work without resorting to literary criticism,” she wondered. The panel spoke about how the deep personal experience of connection with a literary work sparks a conversational element and how the hybrid work of these kind is crucial in having a conversation with writers of different ages, especially nowadays, with people becoming more open to the idea of hybridization. As Alden Jones said, writers writing about literature is straddling the worlds of the reader and the writer. In this panel, the four writers engaged in a lively conversation with the audience how they had embarked on this process of straddling the two worlds, the challenges and how they overcame them.

Sayantika Mandal is a an MFA in Fiction student at the University of San Francisco. She came to the Bay Area from West Bengal, India. She loves reading novels and exploring places, especially historical ruins. She formerly worked as a journalist with Hindustan Times in India. She is currently working on her first novel, ‘Driftwood’.

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