Archive for September, 2008


Writing About the Civil Rights Era

September 30, 2008

On the heels of one of yesterday’s posts, a quick plug for two great books here.

In writing my article on Civil Rights Era mystery novels, I relied heavily on Mark Harris’ recent book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, to understand and to explain how In the Heat of the Night — both John Ball’s book and Norman Jewison’s film adaptation — struggled to keep up with the rapidly changing times. Harris’ extensive research, his personal interviews, and his ability to balance both an up-close examination of book and film and a panoramic survey of social and historical trends are not just educational but enthralling. While I’ve read the book only in select portions at this point, I look forward to exploring more his treatment not only of this film but of the four other movies contending with it for the Best Picture Academy Award — Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Doolittle, The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Harris’ use of this Oscar race as a way of understanding the changing era really seems to offer a fine and fascinating model of how to combine historical scholarship and cultural criticism.

Another fine book — one that was published in 2006 but that I only discovered this year — is the anthology Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement, edited by Margaret Earley Whitt and published by the University of Georgia Press. In her introduction, Whitt, a professor of English at the University of Denver, speaks about how “literature can help us ‘feel’ history” and explains how she tried to “find short stories with characters, perhaps the age of my students, who could bring the meaning of the civil rights movement alive.” The collection mixes contemporary stories (from the 1950s and ’60s) with works from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s — and even a story by ZZ Packer from 2003 — to create a well-rounded view of the era from both in the moment and in retrospect. The stories are gathered in sections which focus on several key headline-makers: “School Desegregation,” “Sit-ins,” “Marches and Demonstrations,” and “Acts of Violence,” with one section explicitly labeled “Retrospective.”

One book which examines how books and films can influence or be influenced by their times; another book which shows fiction at work doing that very thing. Both well worth the read.

— Art Taylor

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Who’s Talking on WCHL?

September 29, 2008

Well… I am. And this post, combined with the last one, only proves how quickly a blog reverts to navel-gazing and self-aggrandizement.

Back on Sept. 16, I was a guest on “Who’s Talking with D.G. Martin,” a daily radio show on WCHL in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. D.G. Martin is a good friend and a fine supporter of North Carolina Literature. In addition to his own writings (including a regular column for Our State Magazine), D.G. is also the host of North Carolina Bookwatch on UNC-TV, the local PBS affiliate. He recently asked me to join him on “Who’s Talking” for a chat about new North Carolina fiction — particularly focused on some of the books I’d chosen for recent columns of Metro Magazine, including novels by Clyde Edgerton, John Hart, Margaret Maron, and newcomer William Conescu, among others.

A podcast of our talk has just been posted on the WCHL web site and is available here. 

— Art Taylor

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Civil Rights Era Mystery Novels

September 29, 2008

The latest issue of Mystery Scene has just arrived and features, as always, a wealth of information about the mystery genre — from an article on new legal thrillers to another on mysteries set in Maryland to another on fall TV programs (including a quick preview of True Blood, the vampire series based on Charlaine Harris’ books). This issue also features an interview with hot new novelist Tana French (whose books I was lucky enough to review in the Washington Post and Metro Magazine) and a talk on writing with Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake) as several of his early novels are being republished.

I’m pleased to be included in this issue myself, with the article “Murder in Black & White: Novels of the Civil Rights Era.” This article — first presented in a slightly different form as a scholarly paper at the last meeting of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature — seeks to examine how genre writers explore pressing contemporary social issues. Raymond Chandler long ago argued for the genre’s ability to engage and explore real world problems, and we often see “ripped from the headlines” plots on television today (Law & Order is particularly adept at these), but I was curious how well novelists from the Civil Rights Era — those writing both about the era and from within the era — were able to navigate the rapidly changing politics and social mores. Joe L. Hensley’s The Color of Hate, for example, boasted a cover that seemed to play up some tawdry and prurient elements of its story, but was the novel itself a case of exploration or exploitation?  Both Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing and John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night won Edgar Awards (in 1957 and 1965, respectively), but how well did each book capture the times in a way that might be useful to today’s readers? In short, was that “ripped from the headlines” quality an asset to the pertinence and staying power of such books or just a selling point that ultimately sold readers — readers both then and now — short?

To some degree, my interest in these questions was prompted by the recent republication of Shepard Rifkin’s 1970 novel The Murderer Vine by Hard Case Crime — the first time in over 35 years that the book has been in print. As is their tradition, Hard Case Crime also chose to give the reissue a provocative and even slightly titillating cover, but the true event from which the story grew was nothing but serious — in fact, it was one of the pivotal moments in the evolution of the Civil Rights Era: the killing of three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive. My interest in that mixing of real-world, high-stakes events with the elements of genre fiction was deepened when I taught Chester Himes’ Cotton Comes to Harlem in one of my classes at Mason last semester. And the essay grew from there.

No need to detail too much of the argument here, since the magazine itself is available now. But did want to call attention to it for readers either interested in this chapter in American history or intrigued by the question of whether genre fiction can hold its own with more literary titles when it come to trenchant analyses of the world around us.

— Art Taylor

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Words of Wisdom for Writers

September 27, 2008
Photo by Laura Foltz

Michael Cunningham (Photo by Laura Foltz)

Last night brought the closing event of the 2008 Fall for the Book Festival: an appearance by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, accepting this year’s Fairfax Prize. Over the years, the festival has boasted some great closing night events: a warm and funny talk by Pat Conroy, for example, and a chat about writing and publishing by Dave Eggers, and then last year a reading of a quirky story-in-progress by Jonathan Lethem (a story that was soon after published by The New Yorker). But to my mind, last night’s event may have been one of the most articulate in terms of what it means to be a writer — and in terms of offering a challenge to aspiring writers.

Cunningham didn’t toss off practical advice; in fact, he said explicitly at one point that he had little of such to offer on the subject. And though both gracious and downright friendly, he wasn’t exactly inspiring in the easy sense of the word; in fact, he admitted at one point that “hardly anyone gets to be an actual, published writer,” underscored the “enormous odds” against us, and spoke against some of the excuses that many of us (present company included) might offer about why that novel of ours isn’t done yet, or done well enough. “No one reads, or should be expected to read, a mediocre novel and say, ‘I’ll bet this would have been brilliant if the author hadn’t had to tend bar at an Olive Garden.'”

But in his talk, which began by equating writers with murderers, he stressed the idea of “turning a ruthless eye onto the world… an eye that sees everything and cares more about accuracy than it does about anything else,” and he said that a book’s greatness can be judged by how well “its author has turned his or her attention onto a world of whatever dimensions, and done it justice.”

In his closing remarks, Cunningham raised a high bar for those of us trying to make our way as writers: “A great writer is someone who, and a great book is something which, tells us over and over and over, sentence after sentence after sentence, that it all matters, every mote and star, every bomb and birthday candle…. Writers, the important ones, won’t allow us to imagine that anyone or anything is beneath our attention. Writers are ruthless, they need to be, because any vision that allows for laxity, that permits the ‘good enough’ sentence or the fuzzy detail or underrealized character, isn’t, can’t be, equal to the world it portrays and to the people who, with considerable difficulty, live in it.”

Take it to heart. I sure did. 

For another quote from Cunningham’s talk or for full information about this year’s festival, visit

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Home (at the End of the World) At Last

September 26, 2008

Michael Cunningham’s name is almost inevitably linked with three things: his third novel, The Hours; the Pulitzer Prize he won for that novel; and the Academy Award-winning movie adapted from it. It’s understandable: a great book, with a great following. But I’ll admit that it’s not the first thing I myself think of. Instead, I remember a great novel by him I read in a class during my MFA years: A Home at the End of the World.

The book is uneven — even messy in places. It’s a first novel, with all of the excesses and missteps that often accompany such a debut. But it also has some of the great ambition and heart of a first novel, and its lyrical study of families and childhood friendships and romantic relationships completely won me over when I read it. In class, I couldn’t help but agree with many of the reactions to it: Yes, some of those supposedly alternating narrators sound the same; yes, the book loses momentum and power in the final section. But still, don’t you wish that your own novel(s) could reveal even half that mastery of language and character and storytelling?

Cunningham is the guest of honor at Fall for the Book Friday night, and while my fiancée Tara will be ready with her copy of The Hours, I’ll have my copy of A Home at the End of the World in hand — celebrating not only the chance to meet one of the nation’s truly great authors but also the end of a long week and a long (and exciting!) festival. I have to admit: As great as the week has been, it’ll be good to get done and get home myself. 

In the meantime: The final day’s events. 


12 p.m. — Poets Jennifer Chang, Kyle Dargan and Kevin McFadden
Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center (RAIN VENUE: Dewberry Hall)
An afternoon of poetry features the rising stars of the University of Georgia Press, including Chang, author of The History of Anonymity; Dargan, author of Bouquet of Hungers; and McFadden, author of Hardscrabble.

3 p.m. — Journalist Robert Jensen
Gold Room, Johnson Center
A noted scholar of gender, media, and power explores the role of masculinity in today’s society through the lens of his latest book, Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity.

3:30 p.m. — Novelist Porter Shreve
Provident Bank Tent, Outside Johnson Center (RAIN VENUE: Dewberry Hall)
This native Washingtonian reads from his third novel, When the White House Was Ours, set in 1976 and loosely based on his own childhood, in which he and his family started an alternative school called “Our House Is a Very, Very, Very Fine House.” A 3 p.m. reception precedes the event.

5 p.m. — Poet Linda Bierds
Festival Tent, Outside Johnson Center (RAIN VENUE: Dewberry Hall)
Highly acclaimed poet Linda Bierds samples works from her seven volumes of poetry on the eve of her forthcoming collection, Flight: New and Selected Poems.

7 p.m. — Breakthrough Poet Reading
Firehouse Grill, 3988 University Drive, Fairfax, VA
Celebrate the new and the nouveau in poetry with Karen Anderson, Dan Beachy-Quick, Suzanne Buffam, and Srikanth Reddy, and then stay on for drinks and food or meander out into the newly renovated downtown City of Fairfax.

7:30 p.m. — Novelist Michael Cunningham
Harris Theater
Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winner for The Hours and author of A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, and Specimen Days, accepts the 2008 Fairfax Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts, celebrating an author whose works have contributed significantly to American or international culture. A 6:30 p.m. reception precedes the event.

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