This Week in Literary History: Oct. 19-25
Recognizing the birthdays of Ursula K. Le Guin, Debbie Macomber, and Zadie Smith
|Oct 19, 2020||1|
Happy Monday, reader. Here’s your newest issue of This Week in Literary History, featuring stories about Ursula K. Le Guin, Debbie Macomber, and Zadie Smith. Your list of all notable literary births and events for this week is below.
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Ursula K. Le Guin Wrote What She Wanted to Write
By Andria Kennedy
“There’s a tendency in American culture to leave imagination to kids,” Ursula K. Le Guin said. “They’ll grow out of it and grow up to be good businessmen or politicians. One of the troubles with our culture is we do not respect and train the imagination. It needs exercise. It needs practice. You can’t tell a story unless you’ve listened to a lot of stories and then learned how to do it.”
With credit for opening doors to the science fiction and fantasy genres, Le Guin understood better than most the importance of nurturing the imagination - at every age. She danced through most of genre literature, also known as popular fiction, defying every critical attempt to pigeonhole her as a science fiction author. Le Guin rolled her eyes and met the misleading moniker.
Le Guin dared to take on genre fiction while literary circles frowned upon and ostracized science fiction and fantasy to the distant margins. Even as late as 1985, Le Guin found herself slighted at the National Book Awards in favor of Don DeLillo.
“I published genre, and he didn’t,” Le Guin said. “Also, he’s a man, and I’m a woman.”
Where many writers might have given up and conformed to the rigidity of mainstream, Le Guin persisted. “You are outside the gates. Okay, well, then, you do what you plenty well want to do.”
Le Guin explored every bound of fantasy and science fiction. She experimented with concepts of gender fluidity, societal constraints, the idea of home, and even the consequences of climate change and destabilization - decades before the media championed such causes.
“I wrote what I wanted to write,” she said. “I think, actually, by writing in the genre, I was freer than other writers who tried to be successful in the mainstream.”
Veiled under the heading of science fiction, Le Guin placed her faith in science and the scientists voicing their concerns around her. She didn’t feel she was ahead of her time; she was being reasonable and integrating their knowledge into literary form. While mainstream literature struggled to connect with their readers, genre audiences embraced Le Guin and her forward-thinking.
When her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness reached a fawning audience, Le Guin achieved her first major success. And she refused to back down and allow genre fiction to crawl back to the shadows. First, in her 1973 speech for her National Book Award for Children’s Literature and again in her 2014 speech for the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Le Guin called out the power of imaginative storytelling.
“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, compassion, and hope,” Le Guin said.
Le Guin frequently labeled herself and fellow genre writers “realists of a larger reality.” Her determination and passion expanded the bookshelves of genre literature, inspiring writers such as Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, and Karen Russell. She pointed out the possibilities that fantasy grants, compelling answers to the question, “What if things didn’t just go on as they are?”
Le Guin never lost her support for the imagination. She often reminded people of the original myths and legends we cling to and teach in schools, alongside the preferred classics. Le Guin cited them as the origins of fantasy, imbued with imagination and possibility.
“Judgement by genre is just wrong - stupid, wasteful,” she said. “Most people know that now.”
In her defense of new writers to genre literature, Le Guin broke the existing walls and doors and allowed fantasy and science fiction to claim their permanent positions in the limelight.
“Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real. But they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books,” Le Guin said.
Ursula K. Le Guin
The Romance Novelist Whose Work Is Safe Enough for Nuns to Read
By Christine Kingery
In 2001, a small group of nuns entered the bookstore where I worked part-time. Dressed in impeccably pressed black habits, the cheerful group made a beeline for the tower of Harlequin romances near the desk where I worked. The gaggle of chittering nuns filled two big boxes up with these romance books, flipping through them, pointing to their nearly-obscene covers, and giggling to each other like, well, a group of schoolgirls. That was my first introduction to Debbie Macomber, the author that took up most of the nuns’ box space. If the books were chaste enough for nuns, they couldn’t be that bad, could they?
Called the “Official Storyteller of Christmas,” Macomber has been a staple of romance writers for 40 years. More than 200 million copies of her books are in print worldwide, and her novels have spent over 1,000 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Her name is synonymous with romance, Christmas, and the Hallmark Channel. Hallmark’s turned five of her Christmas-themed books into movies, and the channel made her Cedar Cove series its first first dramatic scripted television series.
When Debbie Macomber began writing 37 years ago, she was a young mother with three kids, working off a rented typewriter on her kitchen table. Macomber regularly cites the rejection letters she received when she first started writing as one of the hardships she nearly let overcome her dream of writing.
“I’ll never forget this pitying look,” Macomber remembered about these rejections. “(The editor from Harlequin Enterprises) leaned in and put her hand on my arm, looked me straight in the eye, and said, ‘Throw it away.’”
Three weeks later, a New York publisher from Silhouette Books called and bought all four of her first books.
Overcoming personal challenges is a theme that resonates in all of Macomber’s books. The author’s characters often suffer the most egregious of trials—enough to make country-western song lyrics surrender in an epic battle of suffering—but the characters always persevere.
“In my books and in romance as a genre,” Macomber said, “there is a positive, uplifting feeling that leaves the reader with a sense of encouragement and hope for a brighter future—or a brighter present.”
Indeed, most romance writing features two key components: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.
What Macomber lacks in clever wordsmithing, she makes up for with a quickly paced story that transports the reader to an alternate reality—one always couched in themes of hope. Macomber’s tales also include strong friendships, family, a sense of community and belonging, and, of course, romantic entanglements.
Ultimately, Macomber’s stories call in to question the fundamental question of existence, and the answer is always the same: love. Why do we live? To love. Why should we push through our suffering? Because of love. Where do we turn when our world crumbles around us? Turn to love.
In Macomber’s books, romantic love is titillating but never lewd, cueing up novels “safe” enough for nuns to read. She often leaves the reader just outside the bedroom door, focusing instead on constructing loving relationships for her characters and describing how they mature together. Hot sex is never the center point around which her characters’ relationships revolve. It’s a “less as more” psychological tactic that’s not overly manipulative.
Vital to playing off that coy writing style is creating characters that appeal to as wide of a net of readers as possible—keeping in mind that most romance readers are white, heterosexual women in their thirties. It’s hardly rich in diversity as a genre, but Macomber has solidified her relationship with her clientele so successfully that any Fortune 500 business would envy her targeted message and strategy.
Today, Macomber’s brand is as strong as her position in the romance literature world. With an estimated net worth of $10 million, Macomber maintains a firm foothold in the industry. She’s a popular name in Silouhette and Harlequin series, including the Cedar Cove, Blossom Street, and Midnight Sons series.
Macomber has many stand-alone novels to her name, including Thursdays at Eight and Lone Star Lovin’, and she is the writer/producer for TV movies such as “This Matter of Marriage,” “Mrs. Miracle,” “Miracle in Manhattan,” and “Trading Christmas.” Macomber has penned numerous collaborative anthologies, nonfiction (mostly on knitting and cookbook-related topics), and children’s books.
Born on Oct. 22, 1948, in Yakima, Wash.
Zadie Smith Abandoned Performing and Started Expressing Herself Through Writing
By Emily Quiles
Before Zadie Smith’s love for writing, she tap-danced and debated pursuing a career in musical theatre. As a teen, she auditioned for a series of TV shows.
During an interview with writer and critic Pamela Paul, Smith recalled the nerves she felt during one audition. She slumped her feet across the stage, turned her back to the producers, and sang to the wall.
“After I finished the guy said, ‘Well that’s very nice, but we don’t have any calls for singers who sing to walls,’'' Smith said. “I just wasn’t good at performing.”
Instead, Smith embraced her inverted inclinations, or as she put it, “Writing is wonderfully solitary.”
Smith published her first novel, White Teeth, in 2000, when she was 24. Her natural rhythmic and vocal talent became her lens in the pursuit of words. The book became an immediate bestseller and inspired a 2002 British TV drama.
“To me, writing is the same thing as rhythm,” Smith said. “It comes under the umbrella of having a good ear. To construct attentive thuds and rhums within an essay is art.”
Smith flows across genres in fiction, autofiction, nonfiction, essay, satire, and speculative nonfiction. She told The Guardian, “Fiction is messier. Essay is, for me, an attempt at a kind of clarity. I have a very messy and chaotic mind, but when I’m writing an essay, I find I can exert a bit more control over it.”
Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, regurgitates her time studying English Literature at King’s College, Cambridge. Throughout her education, though, Smith never took a creative writing class.
“I have a horror of them (creative writing classes),” Smith said. “Most writers groups moonlight as support groups for the kind of people who think that writing is therapeutic. Writing is the exact opposite of therapy.”
Smith’s writing exposes personal and societal vulnerable truths. She described the process as a shameful practice.
“Shame is used to propel you to say things you wouldn’t say in public,” Smith explained. She formulates truth through her “mental split between the good and the bad, not the high and the low. This is what I am looking for in art: the feels. Intellectual, emotional, philosophical, religious, existential feels.”
Smith wants ‘the feels’ in her writing to possess vertical depth. “It’s like lowering a stone down into the well of yourself, and the further it goes, the deeper it resounds.”
Smith used this process to write her story and essay collections, Feel Free (2018) and Grand Union (2019).
“I’m always thinking about the same thing: What would freedom feel like, look like? How do some freedoms impinge on others? What are the tensions between duties and rights?” Smith said.
Smith now teaches for New York University’s Creative Writing Department despite her views on creative writing classes. A typical Smith class consists of E. M. Forster, Franz Kafka, and James Baldwin. Smith performs thought experiments to take her student’s minds to the past.
“I will say to them, ‘I understand that you are not self conflicted or self-hating like James Baldwin, but Baldwin was not happy being Black and gay in 1956. How may have that been for you?’” Smith said. “We are trying to build a certain amount of historical humility.”
Smith shares personal humility in her latest essay series, Intimations. In the book, she reveals her experience under lockdown during COVID-19. Smith’s donating any royalties she earns from the collection to The Equal Justice Initiative and The COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund for New York.
Born on Oct. 25, 1975, in London, U.K.
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Ursula K. Le Guin
"My Last Conversation with Ursula K. Le Guin." John Freeman. Literary Hub.
"Ursula K. Le Guin's Best Life Advice." Emily Temple. Literary Hub.
"Ursula K. Le Guin Earned a Rare Honor. Just Don't Call Her a Sci-Fi Writer." David Streitfeld. The New York Times.
"A Conversation on Craft with Ursula K. Le Guin." David Naimon. Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
"Dragons, Poets, and the Real World." Martti Kalliala. Harvard Design Magazine.
"Ursula K. Le Guin was a Creator of Worlds." Julie Phillips. National Endowment for the Humanities.
"The Imaginative Reality of Ursula K. Le Guin." David Naimon. VQR.
“Debbie Macomber: About.” Debbie Macomber.
“How Port Orchard’s Debbie Macomber almost didn’t become a bestselling author.” Travis Mayfield. Q13Fox. Sept 11, 2019.
“Why I write…Debbie Macomber.” Debbie Macomber. Publishers Weekly. May 25, 2019.
“About the Romance Genre.” Romance Writers of America.
“Debbie Macomber Net Worth.” Celebrity Net Worth.
“An interview with Zadie Smith.” Book Browse. 2000.
“Grand Union.” Zadie Smith. Hamish Hamilton. 2019.
“Intimations.” Zadie Smith. Penguin Books. 2020.
“The Lenny Interview: Zadie Smith.” Lena Dunham. Lenny Letters. 2016.
“Zadie Smith: ‘I have a very messy and chaotic mind.’” The Guardian. 2018.
“Zadie Smith in Conversation with Pamela Paul.” Rancho Mirage Writers Festival. 2020. Accessed Oct. 14, 2020.
“Zadie Smith Interview: On Shame, Rage and Writing.” Synne Rifbjerg. Louisiana Channel. 2017. Accessed Oct. 14, 2020.
Notable Literary Births & Events for Oct. 19-25
John le Carré
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Ursula K. Le Guin
Laurie Halse Anderson
Sarah Josepha Hale
Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
Daniel Mark Epstein