This Week in Literary History: Nov. 16-22

Recognizing the birthdays of Chinua Achebe, Maggie Stiefvater, and more

Here’s This Week in Literary History for Nov. 16-22. Your list of notable literary births and events for this week is below.

Persistence Paid Off for This Leader of Modern African Literature

By Emily Quiles

At the University of Ibadan, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe stopped in the English department’s hallway to read the announcement board. “Write a short story over the long vacation for the departmental prize,” Achebe recalled in an interview with journalist Jerome Brooks.

Achebe was studying medicine at the time. “I’d never written a short story before,” Achebe said. “But when I got home, I thought, ‘Well, why not.’ So I wrote one and submitted it.”

Months later, the same announcement board revealed the competition’s results: “No prize was awarded because no entry was up to the standard.”

“I wanted very much to learn what to do,” Achebe said. So he followed up with the lecturer in charge. “She said,‘Not now, I’m going to play tennis. Remind me later, and I’ll tell you.’”

The scene repeated itself for the rest of the term. Every time Achebe saw the professor, he asked if they could talk. Every time she responded, “‘No, not now. We’ll talk about it later.’”

Achebe’s persistence eventually earned him a conversation. “She said, ‘You know, I looked at your story again, and actually, there’s nothing wrong with it.’ So that was it!” laughed Achebe.

The lesson to Achebe was, “You really have to go out on your own and do it.” That stubborn attitude became the driving force in Achebe’s literary career. Yet, he also noticed the lecturer’s perspective followed him as he pursued publishing his work.

In 1957, Achebe received a scholarship to study with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in England. With a draft of his first novel, Things Fall Apart, in his luggage, Achebe left the Nigerian town of Ogidi. His manuscript, rich with proverbs and parables, told the African perspective of European colonialism in Nigeria.

A friend of his, also Nigerian, encouraged him to share the manuscript with Gilbert Phelps, novelist and a BBC instructor at the time.

Achebe quickly replied, “What? No!” For some time, their back and forth went on before Achebe shook his nerves and handed Phelps Things Fall Apart.

“Initially he was not enthusiastic,” Achebe explained. “Why should he be? He took it anyway, very politely.”

This time, Achebe didn’t need to follow up with an instructor. Instead, Phelps asked if he could show the manuscript to publishers. Achebe’s enthusiastic response was yes, but not yet. 

“I was covering too much ground in this first draft,” Achebe said. “So I realized that I needed to do something drastic, really give it more body. So I said to Mr. Phelps, ‘OK, I am very grateful, but I’d like to take this back to Nigeria and look at it again.’”

And that’s what Achebe did.

“I have found that I work best when I am at home in Nigeria,” Achebe recalled. “I am most comfortable in the surroundings, the kind of environment about which I am writing.”

Once he arrived at the end of his manuscript, Achebe sent his handwritten manuscript to a typing agency he found advertised in the British magazine The Spectator.

The paper wrote back, saying it would cost £30 to publish it. Achebe sent the money.

Weeks passed, and then months. “I wrote and wrote and wrote,” Achebe said. “No answer. Not a word. I was getting thinner and thinner and thinner.”

Achebe told his boss at the Nigerian Broadcasting Service about the situation. She promised to talk with the agency. “A very stubborn Englishwoman,” Achebe recalled.

Achebe’s boss asked the publishers, “‘What’s this nonsense?’” Achebe remembered. “They must have been shocked because I think their notion was that a manuscript sent from Africa—well, there’s really nobody to follow it up.”

The Spectator told Achebe his manuscript was neglected, left in a corner to gather dust. But Achebe was skeptical of that explanation. “These people did not want to return it to me and had no intention of doing so,” he said.

Remaining persistent, Achebe sent the piece to the publisher Heinemann, and again he found himself caught up in the Western world’s confusion. “They had never seen an African novel,” Achebe recalled. “They didn’t know what to do with it.”

That was until Heinemann publishers asked London School of Economics professor Donald Macrae, who’d recently returned from Africa, to review Achebe’s manuscript. Macrae gave Heinemann the shortest report they’d ever received about a novel.

“Seven words, ‘The best first novel since the war,’” Achebe said. “So, that’s how I got launched.”

Nearly eight years later, from reading about a short story contest posted on a board in his university’s hallway, Achebe became an international name. Achebe, who passed away in 2013, continues to be a symbol of representation for African writers and readers. Things Fall Apart went on to sell more than 20 million copies and was translated into 57 languages.

Chinua Achebe

  • Born on Nov. 16, 1930, in Ogidi, Nigeria.

  • Died on March 21, 2013, in Boston, Mass.

Terrance Hayes Keeps Searching for the Perfect American Sonnet

By Andria Kennedy

Poetry critics, in particular, seek to place poets into categories. When masters such as Terrance Hayes come along and refuse to fall into neat, concise definitions, they get frustrated. How to describe his work? Where to place his books upon the shelf?

Hayes himself provides the best response: "I don't think anybody is just a poet with no adjectives. I wouldn't limit it there: I would say, yes, I'm African-American; yes, I'm Southern; yes, I'm male; yes, I'm hip-hop; yes, I'm neurotic; yes, I'm a bastard poet. It's all these other things, and the more, the better. The order of those things shifts depending on where I am that day. Some days, I'm a male poet first, and that's what's really going to inform the work. A lot of days, I'm a black poet first, and that's what's going to inform it. But I don't like to be tied to one adjective."

When pressed to define his work as confessional (one of the most prominent notions for poetry), Hayes shakes his head. His response remains concise: "Everybody assumes that the 'I' is a confessional 'I,' and they assume that with me, but I find it's a useful device so I can lie to people in plain sight. Sometimes it might be confessional, but I do like to make stuff up. It frees me to tell the truth. So when my mother saw my earliest poems in the first book [Muscular Music], she was like, 'Oh, it was just your imagination.'" 

While many modern poets strive for delicate or cerebral answers behind their poetry, Hayes remains grounded. He has a concise view of his work: "Allen Grossman said, when people ask, 'What are your poems about?' he says, 'Poetry. The subject is always poetry.' I find that very useful as a maker of poems, even though that's frustrating for readers. So if someone asked, 'Are you writing poems about race or Pittsburgh?' I'd say, 'No, I'm writing poems about poetry.'"

Considering Terrance Hayes spent every day working on a sonnet for his collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, published in 2018, the answer rings true. Readers and critics alike may debate the meanings behind the book (though even Hayes admitted he conceived the project in response to Trump's Presidential election in 2016). Still, the actual work evolved from a driving need to rewrite the American sonnet, poems written for poetry.

Of course, Hayes admits that the attempt's a work in progress. "I am still trying to define the 'American' sonnet. I know it concerns rule-breaking, bastardization, resistance, contradiction, irregularness, pain, joy, life, death, and pursuits." 

As a professor at New York University, in addition to his award-winning poetry, Hayes draws from a wide array of inspirations. Readers find everything from pop culture to Shakespeare twined throughout his work. He refuses to narrow his focus, and he encourages his students to leave their minds as open as his. 

When students complain, Hayes directs them back to literary history. "If a kid says, 'We don't need Mark Twain,' I say the canon still has to be folded in," Hayes said. "It's not like you could move something out just because it happens to not look like you. You can read Toni Morrison and still read Shakespeare. They're different, but you also find that they're still gold."

Terrance Hayes

  • Born on Nov. 18, 1971, in Columbia, S.C.

Maggie Stiefvater Became Her Hero, Then Became a Hero to Millions of Readers

By Christine Kingery

Thirty-nine-year-old Maggie Stiefvater looks back on her life as a “black-hearted” teenager and points to when she was 17 or 18 as her crisis years. 

“I was suicidal,” Stiefvater said. “My family was great, school wasn’t difficult, I was working and managing my time well. But I looked at the adults around me and thought that I didn’t see a single one that I wanted to be when I grew up. I did, however, see a lot of people I didn’t want to be. So I just decided, logically, not to grow up.” 

Instead, Maggie Stiefvater decided to become her hero. One who drives race cars, plays the bagpipes, writes popular books, draws award-winning art, isn’t afraid to read reviews about her books online, tends to her goats and dogs, and travels. As the author of several wildly popular young adult (YA) series, her enthusiasm for life, ability to embrace the magical aspects of life, and Stiefvater’s ability to be “not your stereotypical kind of girl” resonates with her readers. 

Stiefvater’s YA series include The Wolves of Mercy Falls and The Raven Cycle. She mashes up Welsh history and folklore, mythology, and the supernatural in a cauldron of books that tap into teenage angst, romantic love, and self-exploration. Critics have alternately described her books as “brilliant” and “boring,” or “chaotic” and “befuddling,” with most critics and publishers describing her as “the next J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer.” 

In The Raven Cycle series, readers follow a 16-year-old female protagonist named Blue Sargent, who comes into contact with literal prep-boys: pretty, American-aristocratic young men from an Ivy League conduit school nearby. This group—The Raven Boys—is led by a person named Gansey, and the boys are “on a mission to unearth a long-dormant path of energy under which lies a sleeping Welsh king who might help them save the world.” Blue naturally joins up with the group and struggles with the boys’ perceived elevated social status while falling in love, coming to terms with her false judgments, and, of course, saving the world.

In The Wolves of Mercy Falls series, the readers follow Grace and Sam, two teenagers living in Minnesota. As a child, a pack of starving wolves attacked Grace. A notable gray wolf with yellow eyes saved her at the last minute. Each winter, Grace waits for her savior grey wolf to return to her. 

At the same time—and the book alternates between the viewpoints—the readers follow Sam. He loves Grace from a distance but struggles to maintain his humanity because he turns into a grey werewolf with notable yellow eyes each winter. 

All books have mixed reviews, and Stiefvater’s books are no exception. Some critics cry foul from the hints of bestiality and overly emotive characters. However, discerning critics point out the elements that truly make the series shine and also fall short. 

“Sam’s sweet softness will never stop breaking me into pieces,” wrote Goodreads critic C.G. Drews of Shiver (Wolves of Mercy Falls Book #1). “Just the themes of holding onto yourself, your humanity, being shaped by circumstance and being a product of your environment are intricately explored. I fully love it.”

By contrast, critics point out many flaws in the YA series. 

“I felt like I had Stiefvater holding my hand the whole time I was reading the story, telling me, ‘Okay, so for this part coming up, I want you to feel scared, okay? And you can tell you’re supposed to be scared because the characters are scared and scary things are happening, so it’s okay for you to feel scared, too,’” Goodreads reviewer Nenia wrote about The Raven Boys. “Gansey was condescending as all get out, and I got tired of other characters in the book saying that it was because he was rich,” Nenia continued. “There are plenty of rich people who don’t go around making others feel stupid about themselves. Being rich may be something that you can’t help, but condescension is a life choice.”

Stiefvater taps into a hot market right now, dystopian YA fiction. However, what’s different with Stiefvater’s work is howand why her characters respond to their dystopian worlds. The reason isn’t that the real world is screwed up—it’s that the real world has too much uncertainty. 

Teenagers, Stiefvater asserts, yearn for clearly defined black-and-white environments with obvious heroes, villains, and life choices. “Teenagers face a huge number of choices and an almost paralyzing array of expert opinions on what constitutes right and wrong,” Stiefvater wrote. “In a culture defined by shades of gray, I think the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers.”

Ultimately, Stiefvater’s books boil down to heroism. 

“Yes, there’s valor in being bold and misunderstood,” Stiefvater wrote. “But unless we step past that to an outstretched hand, we aren’t affecting change in anyone but ourselves. And when we are able to step beyond merely protecting our own right to be odd and wonderful to encouraging other people to express themselves too: well, that bravery is where heroes truly shine.” 

For Stiefvater, heroism and storytelling are essentially the same things. So, in the end, Stiefvater has truly become her kind of hero.

Maggie Stiefvater

  • Born Nov. 18, 1981, in Harrisonburg, Va.

Sylvia Beach Opens What May Now Be the World’s Most Famous Bookstore

By Andrew Sanger

There is an ineffable romance to legends of the Paris literary scene in the 1920s, a place and time in history forever branded with names like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. However, if Paris was the heart of the modernist literary movement, which gave birth to many classic works, then the bookstore Shakespeare and Company was its soul. And that’s all thanks to a woman named Sylvia Beach. 

Sylvia Beach was herself an expatriate, just like many others who populated the literary scene in Paris. Originally from Baltimore, Md., Beach first moved to Paris in 1901. She served with the Red Cross in Serbia during World War I and founded Shakespeare and Company upon returning to Paris in 1919. 

The store was located in the city’s heart, sitting just a few blocks away from Luxembourg Palace. Knowingly or not, Beach created what would become a gathering place for some of the greatest literary minds of a generation, her “literary pilgrims” as she came to refer to them. And as a result, Shakespeare and Company is now one of the world’s most famous independent bookstores.

Unfortunately, the presence of the literary giants she was surrounded by has mostly kept Beach’s legacy cast in shadows. Yet, her story is at least as interesting as those with whom she kept her company. 

Beach loved many of her contemporary writers, but one stood above the rest: James Joyce. She was utterly in awe of his work, and after meeting him at a dinner party and timidly striking up a conversation with him, she found herself just as deeply in awe of the man himself. 

Sadly for Beach, Joyce is a man whose work’s reputation stands diametrically opposed to his reputation. Writer Tom Stopper once described Joyce as an “essentially private man who wishes his total indifference to public notice to be universally recognized.” Simply put, Joyce was the portrait of the pretentious artist, which led to a very close but complicated relationship between him and Beach. 

Beach went to great efforts to publish Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, forever cementing both of their places in literary history (although much more so for Joyce). Looking back on Ulysses’s stature in literary history, you might think its success was a foregone conclusion. But that was not at all the case, and it was only through the Herculean efforts and Beach’s financial commitments that Ulysses ever saw the light of day. 

Writer Janet Flanner says that to get the books on the shelves, Beach “became Joyce’s secretary, editor, impresario, and banker, and had to hire outsiders to run her shop. She organized international and local subscription lists for the book to help finance its printing.” 

Beach risked her financial livelihood to support Joyce’s effort. Yet, when he finally sold the book to Random House for $45,000 in 1932 (ten years after Beach had published it at Shakespeare and Company), Beach never saw a dime. She was, however, more than willing to let it go, saying, “I understood from the first that, working with or for Mr. Joyce, the pleasure was mine — an infinite pleasure. The profits were for him.”

Of course, Beach contributed to many in the artistic community other than Joyce. Her bookstore became a home for many, and her contributions to her community did not go unnoticed. 

In the classic memoir of his Paris years, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway fondly recalls Shakespeare and Company’s library, writing, “In those days there was no money to buy books. I borrowed books from the rental library of Shakespeare and Company… this was a warm, cheerful place with a big stove in winter, tables and shelves of books, new books in the window, and photographs on the wall of famous writers both living and dead.” He then goes on to talk about Sylvia Beach herself, saying that “she was kind, cheerful and interested, and loved to make jokes and gossip. No one that I ever knew was nicer to me.”

Sylvia Beach passed away in Paris on Oct. 5, 1962. Shakespeare and Company closed in 1941 during the German occupation of Paris during WWII but was later revived by George Whitman, another American ex-pat. Whitman opened a new Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1951, hoping to keep the spirit of Beach’s original store alive. The new Shakespeare and Company is still operating in Paris, run by George’s daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman.

Shakespeare and Company Opens in Paris


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Chinua Achebe

Terrance Hayes

Maggie Stiefvater

Shakespeare and Company

Notable Literary Births & Events for Nov. 16-22

Nov. 16

  • Chinua Achebe

  • Andrea Barrett

  • Jean  Fritz

  • Joan  Lindsay

  • Mary Tyler Peabody Mann

  • W.E.D. Ross

  • José Saramago

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky sentenced to death for anti-government activities in 1849.

Nov. 17

  • Shelby Foote

  • Archibald Lampman

  • Christopher Paolini

  • Rebecca Walker

  • Sylvia Beach opens Shakespeare and Company in Paris in 1919.

Nov. 18

  • Margaret Atwood

  • Clarence Day

  • Alan Dean Foster

  • Terrance Hayes

  • Klaus Mann

  • Alan Moore

  • Hilda Nickson

  • Maggie Stiefvater

  • Howard Thurman

Nov. 19

  • Agnes Giberne

  • Annette Gordon-Reed

  • Sharon Olds

  • Jack Schaefer

  • Allen Tate

  • First Kindle e-reader released in 2007.

Nov. 20

  • Lucilla Andrews

  • Thomas Chatterton

  • Don DeLillo

  • Nadine Gordimer

  • Rolfe Humphries

  • Sheema Kalbasi

  • Selma Lagerlöf

  • An 80-ton sperm whale sinks the Essex in 1820, inspiring Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Nov. 21

  • Beryl Bainbridge

  • Olav Duun

  • Fiona Pitt-Kethley

  • Isaac Bashevis Singer

  • Elizabeth George Speare

  • Voltaire

  • The first installment of the first American erotic novel, Fanny Hill, is published in 1748.

Nov. 22

  • George Eliot

  • André Gide

  • George Gissing

  • William Kotzwinkle

  • Fumio Niwa

  • Victor Pelevin

  • Marjane Satrapi

  • Roger L. Simon

  • Valerie Wilson Wesley