January 6, 2014

Take the Boston Literary Renaissance Challenge!

For the last four years, the Boston Book Festival has organized a citywide program known as One City One Story. The program produces and distributes 30,000 free, bound copies of a short story by a local author and hosts a variety of events related to it, capped off by a “town hall-style discussion” with the author at the festival itself. Here are the four stories chosen so far:

2010: “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” by Tom Perrotta
2011: “The Whore’s Child,” by Richard Russo
2012: “The Lobster Mafia Story,” by Anna Solomon
2013: “Karma,” by Rishi Reddi

Now a coalition of local literary institutions including the Boston Book Festival, 826 Boston, and others, and spearheaded by the Grub Street writing center, is banging the drum about a supposed "literary renaissance" in the region. According to reports, the goal is the creation of a so-called Literary Cultural District in the downtown area that will promote cultural tourism while advancing the interests of the area’s writing community. The existence of this literary renaissance is the premise on which the application for cultural district status hinges.

Of course it’s pure hype: the “literary community” whose interests will be served just happens to be identical to the coalition organizing the drive, and to inflate their trial balloon they’ve sucked a “literary renaissance” out of their thumbs. As evidence, the organizers point to such things as the number of writing workshops and public readings in the area instead of to emergent literary trends, new forms, and specific works; in other words, they look to quantity rather than quality. But surely a literary renaissance requires qualitative measures, however subjective these might be?

So: to all supporters of the Boston “Literary Cultural District,” here’s your opportunity to GET REAL! If you think Boston is “undergoing a literary renaissance,” NOW’s your chance to do more than just “Like” that shit on Facebook! And especially if you’re one of the project’s organizers, here’s the chance to walk the walk instead of just sounding like a carnival barker. Take...

The Boston Literary Renaissance Challenge!

It turns out that the Boston Book Festival has after all been doing us a huge favor with its One City One Story program. Four recent works by four regional authors! Selected because they are somehow good as well as representative of regional life in a discussion-worthy way!* Moreover, selected by members of the same cohort who now trumpet that we’re “undergoing a literary renaissance”! So it just stands to reason that these four stories will embody, express, and reflect the current “literary renaissance” that Boston is said to be “undergoing,” right? What better way to test the renaissance hypothesis than by analyzing these One City One Story offerings as a group! If the judgment of the organizers is to be trusted, surely this selection will yield four radiant examples of our cultural rebirth, guaranteeing that new Longfellows and Little Women walk among us!

The Challenge: Write an essay demonstrating how the four One City One Story selections for the period 2010-2013 – Tom Perrotta’s “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” Richard Russo’s “The Whore’s Child,” Anna Solomon’s “The Lobster Mafia Story,” and Rishi Reddi’s “Karma” – exemplify the current literary renaissance in Boston. What’s new and rebirthy about the form and content of these tales? How do they reflect that highest degree of accomplishment suggested by the vaunted term ‘renaissance’?

There is no specific minimum or maximum word count; the essay should simply be long enough to support the thesis in a robust and definitive way. Book reviewers and literary critics do this all the time in newspapers, magazines, and journals and on countless websites and blogs. They make arguments about literary quality – what’s great, good, mediocre, and downright bad – and try to support these arguments with clear reasoning, informed comparison with other authors and works, appropriate historical and biographical context, and direct citation from the texts themselves. So it shouldn’t be any problem for you renaissance boosters, right?

In fact, I believe those who are pushing for a Literary Cultural District based on the assertion that there’s a literary renaissance in town have an obligation to do this. If you’re going around jawing about some new age of literary wonders and stand to benefit from others seeing it that way, too, then the burden of proof is on you. Someone from the coalition needs to step up and write this essay, making the case for a real literary renaissance based on what they’ve been placing on the table as “quality” in recent years. Failure to do so can only be seen an abdication of responsibility, a declaration of cultural bankruptcy, and a demonstration of the most abject cowardice.

Email your responses to caldwelledmond@gmail.com. I will post them on this site and . . . we’ll go from there. Or post them on your own site and send me the link.


* No African American or Latina authors so far, nor any significant Black or non-Asian Brown characters in the stories themselves. So much for the “community” we keep hearing so much about. And yet I’ll bet that the stories have been assigned – as part of a lovely civic participation thing – in a number of area classrooms where most of the kids are Black or non-Asian Brown. Maybe the idea that a literary renaissance is something one “undergoes” applies most genuinely to them.


Anonymous said...

All the great writers are from Boston. Michael Bloomberg is from Boston, been kind of pigeonholed in the financial fantasy genre, but he's important in his way. Jack Welch had a few best-sellers. Stephen King always wears a Red Sox hat. All the greats.

Frances Madeson said...

I think "Put up or shut up" is reasonable. The wrong people have had the mic for way too long, meaning they've long become complacent. And we mustn't presume they were ever worthy on the merits. The wittiest among them, it's so evident, they themselves suffer from crashing bore syndrome, and they know it. Also they know it's the path of self-hatred, and still they walk it. That's the sad reality in which we operate.

So a duel, let's have some swashbucklery, some clashing of rapiers. If Grub Street et.al. can't invest a single day's intellectual labor to rise to this very fun and fair challenge, then when can I say...we've already won. Total victory.

This really MUST be answered. And therein lies the win-win.

Traveling Psychologist said...

Ha ha, anonymous. Very funny.

Becky said...

Hi E,

Maybe I'm being dense but I'm unclear what's so bad about the Cultural District project. Yeah, yeah, the bit about the literary renaissance might just be hype. That's possibly for marketing and what-not.

But a cultural/literary district? Is that such a bad thing?

Those who are organizing it will have their own interests met (obviously, no one is claiming pure altruism here!) But couldn't this also benefit Boston neighborhoods at large? Won't greater political leverage allow these organizations to do good stuff throughout the city? Could not this ultimately lead to broader access to writing classes, books, and the kind of literary life that presently seems mainly tied up with Boston's elite?

I don't actually know. It's true that a literary district wouldn't address fundamental issues of inequality and class tensions in the city. It doesn't help organize marginalized folks. It doesn't go to the root of economic imbalance, labor exploitation, injustice.

But the district does, again, give these arts organizations more political leverage to potentially make some sort of difference. Don't you think?

Open to your thoughts...