What’s in a (Pen) Name?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses author names and why they are often pseudonyms.

One of the things not discussed in the video is just how ancient the idea of pen names are and how they are/have been used to denote multiple authors.

Homer’s works were probably written by many people, making Homer a pen name. Lao Tzu was also likely to be an attribution for the Taoist collection Tao Te Ching, based upon a semi-mythical founder of the philosophy and religion. The author favoured by business and military leaders, and people with aspirations to being serial killers, Sun Tzu, is believed to have never existed. Instead, decades or centuries of knowledge was collected under the name.

More recently, we see pen names being taken for collaborations. James SA Corey of The Expanse fame is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Grant Naylor of Red Dwarf fame is actually Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon write under the name Ilona Andrews for their adventures in urban fantasy. And Tom Clancy is famously half-a-dozen homicidal monkeys taped together.

In all these instances, you can see why a pen name was utilised. Having two authors on the cover of a book is reserved for franchises, like James Paterson and Clive Cussler. The name that will sell the book is at the top in bold, and the flunky who actually wrote it is attributed somewhere they’ll be missed. So writing teams need a pen name. The more historical examples appear to be about attribution to a progenitor or (semi) mythical figure, either to honour the inspiration for later works (particularly from more oral traditions), or to collect work under one banner.

This makes pen names very interesting. Particularly as knowledge of the author/s fades into history. The art outlives the artist. Yet we still try to figure out who they were and how they came to entertain and influence us long after their passing.

Maybe one day our descendants will be arguing whether James Paterson was a real author or just a marketing brand for blooding new authors. Maybe by then the Clancy monkeys might have mellowed out a bit.

To some people, the idea of a pen name seems kind of weird. If I, a writer, am going to put countless hours of hard work and thought into my masterpiece, why wouldn’t I want to put my own name underneath the title?

But from Stephen King to Ben Franklin to …., who had their own secret aliases, to Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonyms became so famous that they are remembered by their pen names and not their actual names, the nom de plume has a long and proud history in the literary world.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Unraveling the Myth of Ernest Hemingway

This month It’s Lit! discusses the (mythical) life of literary icon Ernest Hemingway.

I have to admit… Yes, you know what’s coming. I write that line whenever one of these interesting videos covers an author or book I haven’t read.

Anyway, my exposure to Hemingway is decidedly limited. The very helpful Hemingway App is supposedly named for his love of clarity and precise sentence structure, creating simpler, clearer writing. Yet the short stories I have read of his have decidedly complex sentences that are often pushing that clarity level to its limits.

Or to say it another way, similar to what was discussed in the video, there is a myth around Hemingway’s style of writing.

Maybe it’s time to give one of his novels a read.

Here’s the problem with tackling Ernest Hemingway—Ernest Hemingway himself. While the iconic author is mostly known for his feats of literary prowess, from The Sun Also Rises to For Whom the Bell Tolls, to countless short stories—perhaps his greatest fiction of all is his own self-mythologizing. As his brand grew in the 1920s and 30s, so too grew his celebrity and, well, his ego.

So, with Ernie all the while throwing so much self-mythologizing in the mix that it became nearly impossible to separate the Man from the Myth.

But gosh darn it, we’re going to try.

How Do You Write a Bestseller?

This month’s It’s Lit! talks about what it takes to have a novel become a BESTSELLER!

For anyone who has peaked under the hood of professional writing, what Lindsay Ellis discussed in the video will not come as a surprise. The intrigue really comes from why “bestseller” status is taken so seriously.

To some extent, the status symbol of “hey look, lots of other people like this” is a great marketing tool. It is something of a populist recommendation for those looking for their next read. And that can work. It doesn’t just work for readers, it also works for the industry, who will make decisions based off of that status symbol.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that the gloss is fading on the bestseller status.

Lots of books lay claim to bestseller status on their covers or in marketing blurbs. I first noticed it with indie publishers. While it is nice to tell people hunting for their next gothic-urban-scifi-ninja-alien-western-romance-dinosaur-erotica novel that this example once ranked #1 in that category for 5 hours one rainy Sunday last August to encourage someone to buy it, I’d have said it feels disingenuous to call the novel a bestseller.

This trick has been used with many novels. There are lots of lists in many countries, so if someone sold well after a good book tour of Upper Kent, then they can expect to hit the New Brunswick Daily Gleaner’s bestseller list. Now “bestseller” status is plastered on the cover and readers will see what tickled the fancy of some of the 100 residents of Upper Kent. Let’s not even go into how various groups will game the system to get their favourite books on those lists (selling it to a national book club works wonders…).

Which is why we see reverence being given to the big name bestseller lists, like the NYT list. But this is just as pointless. Exactly how relevant is “success” in a handful of select New York stores to a debut author from Oslo?

So while bestseller status is a nice shorthand for popular reader recommendation, it probably shouldn’t replace actual recommendations.

Here on It’s Lit!, we spend a lot of time pontificating on the high canon of books: Your Shakespeares, your Tolstoys, your… erotic beast wars fanfiction. But today we’re craving something a little lighter, a little fluffier… you know, novels you pick up for the sake of just having something quick– your beach reads, your airport novels, your Books of the Month. Books that, while you might never have to read them for a seminar or a class or that sweet clout, somehow manage to dominate most water cooler discussions about literature. We’re talking Your Dan Browns, your Jodi Picoults, your Where the Crawdads Sing, seriously, how has the book managed to be on the top of every bestseller lists for so many months, I don’t even KNOW what it’s about but it’s my mortal enemy.

These are your blockbuster books, the bestsellers of the bestsellers–And whether or not you read them or turn your nose up at them, for better or worse, they are the tent poles that support the publishing industry.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Literary Icons You NEED to Know From the Harlem Renaissance

For Black History Month, It’s Lit! are discussing the Harlem Renaissance, a movement I was completely unaware of until now.

In the video, Princess Weekes made a comment about Langston Hughes being taught in school. Well, maybe in some schools, but certainly not mine.

This ties into a point she makes at the end of the video about how a lot of the figures of the Harlem Renaissance aren’t discussed as much as you would expect. Highly influential poets and authors would normally have a place in the modern literary canon. That they aren’t taught more widely, especially as part of that larger discussion of history and society, is something of a perpetuation of the problem.

But totally worth it so that I got to read ee cummings. Soooo glad I didn’t miss out on his stuff. Playing spot where the punctuation should be is waaayyyy more important than understanding peoples and cultures within our society to help stop marginalisation.

I’ve discussed previously how worthy authors are usually just lucky. Part of that luck is systemic. Being the right colour, writing in the correct language – English being the correct one, preferably in the USA so they can do their cultural imperialism thing – and not being too mean to the orthodoxy fits into the system. If you can’t manage that for some reason, then the literary canon is not for you.

One of the most influential periods in Black American History post-slavery is the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City.

Novels like Passing by Nella Larsen, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and the poetry of Langston Hughes were all written during this period and have become important pieces of the American literary canon.

Still, when discussing this topic we tend to flatten the dynamic personalities and identities of the Black folk responsible for making this period so iconic in the literary sense. Not only in America, but as part of the entire Black diaspora.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Anne Rice, The Queen of Literary Monsters

This month’s It’s Lit! covers the woman who made vampires sexy.

I was a young and impressionable university student when I bought The Vampire Lestat. It was not the first reimagining of vampires as more human creatures I’d read, but it managed to feel more substantial than other efforts. As a result, I went out and gradually made my way through the first half-a-dozen Vampire Chronicles. They still sit proudly on my shelf next to my wife’s collection of Twilight books.

There were obviously a lot of people who felt the same way as myself. We enjoyed the tales of immortals walking through history. We even liked that pensive sadness all the characters dripped. It certainly made the indulgent detailed descriptions of ancient art mildly tolerable.

And I think that is why I parted way with the Vampire Chronicles and Rice’s works in general. There was a moment in reading one of her novels, either Blood and Gold or perhaps a Mayfair Witches books, when I remember commenting upon the poem at the beginning of a chapter. Here was yet another very arty poem by Rice’s husband to skip over, what a waste of good paper.

Now, I generally dislike non-novel additions to novels. Chapter titles are fine, but sub-headings, dates, locations, quotes, poems, and other indulgences are just stuff in the way of my book reading. They often feel like attempts to make the work more arty or important than it really is. In the case of dates and locations, common in thrillers, they feel like lazy writing. And Rice was the author who made me dislike these things.

Once you start pulling at the thread, things start to unravel. I started to realise just how indulgent and boring much of Rice’s novels were. These were books I thoroughly enjoyed, yet I’ve not felt compelled to reread them since making this observation (I’d read several of the Vampire Chronicles at least twice at that point). Maybe I’m being too hard on Rice, I mean, she did pretty much reshape genre fiction (as discussed in the video). Maybe I need to revisit The Body Snatcher or The Vampire Lestat (again, as they were my favourites I’ve read multiple times).

Or maybe I should pickup some Lestat fanfic. Rice would love that.

Forbes once called her “The Warren Buffett of vampires,” but American author, Anne Rice has established herself as the literary queen of monsters of ALL kinds over her four-and-a-half decade career. Besides her 15 novels of the world-famous Vampire Chronicles series, she’s also written 21 other books featuring all your favorite dark, supernatural, and undead beings: witches, ghosts, mummies, werewolves, aliens, demons, angels, Jesus.

But the works of Anne Rice aren’t just light, pulpy fun monster books–her vampires changed the landscape of genre fiction as we know it?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Dune, The Most Important Sci Fi Series Ever?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses the series that should have landed in cinemas this year. But 2020 had other ideas, being the giant indestructible spanner thrown into the works of regular functioning society. So let’s just talk about the books instead.

A couple of years ago, I finally got around to reading Dune. I had previously gotten my hands on three of the expanded universe books written by Keven J Anderson and Herbert’s son. Let’s just say that those novels made me question the sanity of my friends who kept recommending the Dune novels.

Fortunately, I got past the ability of publishers to milk a premise long past the death of the cow. Dune was an excellent story.

In my review I made allusions to the point made in the It’s Lit! video about how the first novel has the feel of the rise of a demagogue. Having not gotten to the sequels as yet, the deconstruction of that sound particularly interesting. Dune only hints at the idea of how getting rid of the awful the ruling structures and leaders would be great. Destiny is tied into things a bit too much, while it appears the sequels unravels this idea.

Does this make the original novel and larger series the most important sci-fi ever? I’m not entirely convinced. Some books have inspired real life advances in technology or society (although less of the latter). I’m not sure Dune has had that impact, unless there is a spice I should be using in my cooking I’m unaware of. That isn’t to say Dune isn’t a great book (I’ll hopefully have some insight on the series in coming months) nor that it wasn’t influential in sci-fi. The lone fact that it managed to show that sci-fi could be a bestseller, particularly in hardcover, was a wake-up for the publishers who rejected the first novel such that an auto-repair manual publisher picked it up.

The main issue will be whether the new movie will arrive and not be the disappointment the other adaptations have been.

The planet is Arrakis. Also known as Dune. And y’all, it’s a mess. December of this year, we were supposed to see the arrival of director Denis Villeneuve’s interpretation of the 1965 novel Dune, which had been previously (and rather infamously) brought to life by David Lynch in 1984, and again in a three-part miniseries on the SyFy channel in the early 2000s. Now many sci-fi nerds were both excited and nervous about the new adaptation directed by Villeneuve, but owing to the ongoing plague of eternity, the release has been pushed back to next year. So in lieu of that, y’all have to use this video to tide you over.

What is Dune? Why must the spice flow? And what is with all the sand?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Are Graphic Novels… Novels?

This month’s It’s Lit! dives into the world of graphic novels.

Obviously, I’m a fan of graphic novels. I think that the format provides an interesting and engaging storytelling method. Sometimes I think of graphic novels as a step between novels and movies (storyboards anyone?). Other times I think of them as a great way to pair down a story to its elements. And then there are the times when I don’t think too hard and just enjoy reading graphic novels.

I’ve previously written about how the snobbery of literature is especially pointed when it comes to graphic novels. And it always seems to come back to holding up a very certain kind of novel as “literature” and everything else as “unworthy”. Something I’ve come to call defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works.

Maybe if people just gave graphic novels a chance to entertain them…

In the past few decades, literature has expanded to not only mean the “novel” but “graphic novels” as well. Today we are gonna break down how the graphic novel went from the comic book store to the classroom. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

The (Stephen) King of Horror

This month’s It’s Lit! is looking at the career of Stephen King.

I’m not sure I fully appreciated Stephen King until more recently. When I was younger I didn’t get into his books; IT was particularly popular when I was in primary school. Then when I was a bit older, I tried a few novels with mixed results (Carrie was great, the first Dark Tower didn’t grab me).

My view of King changed when I picked up On Writing. Every writer recommends it as a must read for budding authors. It was while reading this book that I realised just how prolific and successful King has been.

Take a look at the NYT bestseller lists for fiction. From the mid-70s through to today you will battle to find a year where King didn’t have at least one bestseller. That’s without even looking at top 10s for those years either. There aren’t any authors with that sort of staying power and talent. Most would battle to even churn out something half-readable after a decade or two.

So:

Few writers have had the sheer staying power, popularity, and prolific output as Stephen King. From insatiably flesh-hungry clowns and sentient cars to telekinetic teenagers and mystical gunslingers, if there’s one author who has taken up valuable real estate in that part of our imaginations, it’s Stephen King. But it’s not just his monsters that have lasting power—it’s also the very human and very psychological elements in his work that linger.

So come with me, Constant Reader, while I lead you through the dark and twisted world of Uncle Stevie, the King of Horror…

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

The Fiery History of Banned Books

Time to talk about banned books again.

I’ve been talking about banned books here for quite some time. Australia does it, USA has an annual banned books week (1, 2, 3, 4), and without fail, the reasons for banning books are stupid.

If there is any one term to summarise why books are banned it is because something in the book makes someone feel uncomfortable.

Don’t particularly feel like discussing historical and contemporary racism in the USA, especially if this discussion highlights current social and personal failings to address the issue? Then ban Huckleberry Finn (or just drop it from the curriculum) because it uses the N-word.

Does discussion of sexuality and sex make you blush or feel inadequate for only knowing one position (facing west and thinking of England)? Then ban books that mention sex. Or nudity. Or sound like they might be.

Is the book you’re reading treat LGBTQI+ people as (shock horror) people? Then quick, ban that thing before anyone has a chance to empathise with a marginalised group and think that treating them poorly shouldn’t be happening.

Since at least 213 BCE, book burnings have been a reaction to the power of the written word. When roasting paper in a giant circle went out of style (at least in the intellectual sphere), the governments would take it upon itself to ban books. However, when we talk about book bannings today, we are usually discussing a specific choice made by individual schools, school districts, and libraries made in response to the moralistic outrage of some group. This, while still hotly-contested and controversial, is still nothing in comparison to the ways books have been removed, censored, and outright destroyed in the past. So on that happy note, let’s … explore how the seemingly innocuous book has survived centuries of the ban hammer.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Books to musicals

This month It’s Lit! looks at the source material that helps people burst into song.

It’s gotta be said: I’m not a fan of musicals.

Maybe it was the “Andrew Llyod Webber’s Greatest Hits” tape that infected our car stereo during long trips as a child. Maybe it is that for every good song in a musical there is three to twenty average to terrible songs. Maybe it’s that my idea of a musical begins and ends with Elvis movies (We’re Gonna Win This Race).

It appears clear that my appreciation of musicals is somewhat shaped by poor childhood experiences. These scars are real!!

Regardless, it is still interesting to see how the adaptations of books are very important in the creation of musicals. The writing process is obviously very complicated to take a book and not only capture the story in a visual form, but also write songs that don’t make you take a power drill to your ears.

Perhaps transforming books into musicals is the peak of book adaptations.

Some say that theater is dead, and that’s probably because most playhouses the world over are closed at the moment owing to a worldwide pandemic. and yet the musical lives on… on Disney plus — as the nation has been rapt with a filmed version of the Broadway smash hit, Hamilton.

This had us come to the realization that a lot of the bread and butter of musical theater is built off of books! And so, like every television program that starts looking for new ideas, it has finally come to this: The It’s Lit! Musical episode

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

War and Peace and Everything Else

Okay, I guess we can discuss War and Peace…

I got to about page 8 of War and Peace. So only 0.6% of the +1200 pages.

Well, obviously I didn’t give the novel a fair chance.

Don’t care. I have no intention of revisiting it.

People always talk about battling through War and Peace in small chunks because it is such an important and blah blah blah book. If it was really important it wouldn’t have been so boring as to necessitate reading it in small chunks.

I’ve previously mentioned War and Peace in my post on books people claim to have read but haven’t. As discussed in the video, it isn’t a novel that most are going to get into or enjoy. The appeal of a book of this sort is rather narrow. That doesn’t make it a bad book, despite my comments above, but it does mean that there is a certain cachet to having read it. It is certainly the sort of “important” book literary snobs love to talk about.

In some respects, I’m glad that War and Peace is something of a publishing relic. Otherwise, we might have dozens of “very important authors” churning out 1000 page novels with 500 characters and scant regard for the plot/point.

According to Tolstoy himself, War and Peace was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.”

And in this day and age of publishing, where word count, “readability”, and topical relevance are the lifeline of getting a novel to print, we look at books like War & Peace as something of a relic.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien

Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.

I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.

Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?

When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.

As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.

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Funny meme is inaccurate**

Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.

Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.

* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.

** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:

Russell K
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.

The Byronic Hero: Isn’t it Byronic?

An overview of the Byronic hero: http://stagenotes.net/phantom/docs/ByronicTraits.pdf

https://study.com/academy/lesson/byronic-hero-definition-characteristics-examples.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byronic_hero

An overview of Romanticism: http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/rom.html

Edward Cullen. Han Solo. Killmonger. Lestat. What do all these characters have in common besides being heartthrobs? They share a common ancestor: the Byronic Hero. Brooding, sensual, violent, intelligent, and single-minded, the Byronic hero has been a staple in literature dating back to the 19th century, but the archetype is all over film, TV and even video games. I see you Cloud Strife, all sad and angsty with your giant sword.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

Little Women – It’s Lit!

Before women were asking “Am I a Carrie or a Samantha?”, they were asking “Am I a Jo or an Amy?” Before there was Edward vs Jacob, there was Laurie vs Professor Bhaer. And over the more than 150 years since Little Women was originally published, there have been (deep breath) dozens of adaptations, feature films, television adaptations, plays, ballets, operas and at least two animes based on it.

So despite being written off as proto-chick lit or kiddie lit or as Alcott herself said, “moral pap for the young,” Little Women has worked its way into the consciousness of readers for the last 150 years, and has stayed there. But what is it about the tale of the March sisters that keeps us coming back?

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

How Fictional Pandemics Reflect the Real Thing

Time for another instalment of It’s Lit. This month it’s time to look at zombies pandemic fiction.

Everyone has Covid on the brain at the moment. It is easy to forget that pandemics* occur with painful frequency and that we’ve got a nasty habit of forgetting the previous outbreak – ebola, zika, swine flu, SARS… Our forgetfulness is an interesting trait, but it could be argued that our love of pandemic fiction is where we pour our fears of the next outbreak.

Considering that the risk of pandemics is increasing in both spark and spread, that means pandemic fiction isn’t going to stop any time soon. Long live the zombie!

But it is also worth remembering that pandemic fiction doesn’t have to be a fear of disease and death. It can represent our fear of an all-consuming society that will overrun us, swamp us with mediocrity, and drag us down to become just another mindless member of the hoard. Odd that it comes up a lot during uncertain political climates.

Stay safe. Read a good book. Or a bad one. Whatever.

Although we are currently living through a pandemic that has disrupted our lives and will shape the course of humanity, pandemics have been around since the dawn of civilization, as have stories about fictional pandemics. So now seems like as good a time as any to explore how fictional pandemics have evolved over time, and what they say about their own time.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

* Sidenote: Pandemics have a wider spread than epidemics. Usually, an epidemic is limited to an area, or country, while a pandemic spreads more widely, often globally.
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/148945

Afrofuturism: From Books to Blockbusters

Time for another instalment of It’s Lit. This month they discuss Afrofuturism.

I have to admit that my exposure to Afrofuturism outside of the MCU and music (see below) is limited to one aborted attempt at one of NK Jemisin’s novels. I do own Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17… and haven’t read them yet. That should still get me cool points, right?

Which got me thinking about a point made in the video. Obviously, this genre is not new, yet my personal exposure is somewhat limited. So, just out of interest, I checked my library. No Du Bois, no Butler, no Womack. Jemisin and Tomi Adeyemi do feature. I guess you just need to be a very recent award-winning author to be picked up by libraries.

The point being, black storytelling does seem to face extra hurdles in reaching an audience. Aboriginal authors appear to face similar hurdles unless you’re a professor of writing at a major university and multi-award-winning author.

At least the video has some titles and authors we can all go out and buy.

With the success of Black Panther, the term Afro-Futurism got pushed into the mainstream. But what is Afro-Futurism and what is its place in Black storytelling? In this episode, we give you the starter pack on answering that question.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favourite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavour.

The greatest mashup you’ll ever hear:

The Case for Fan Fiction

It’s Lit! is back and they have picked an easy subject to discuss: how Fan-Fic is actually awesome.

I wouldn’t really say I got my start writing fan fiction. Sure, I wrote some stories loosely based upon MacGyver and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But I’d say they were more homages to… Okay, they were fan-fic. Who am I kidding?

That paragraph essentially sums up what I used to think of fan-fic. I appreciated it, recognised it as a legitimate creative outlet, that it could be great fun to write, and that authors should be proud to have people passionate enough about the work that they are being inspired to write their own stuff. But at the same time, I saw it as what beginners did. It was really just for the writers, not readers. That it wasn’t “legit” writing.

It wasn’t worthy!

When Anne Rice was issuing cease and desist letters to her biggest fans, I thought she was a fool. What sort of idiot honestly thinks these fans are somehow ruining her characters and books?

But underlying this argument was the idea that none of those fan-fic stories was any good. Rice’s characters were safe from harm because no hack would be taken seriously compared to the internationally bestselling author. Those stories weren’t even available in real books.*

Then I had somewhat of an epiphany. An author friend made the argument against fan-fic from the premise of copyright and how fan-fic was low quality. They made a sizeable amount of their income from tie-in novels, the books that are licensed to a movie or TV show IP, and written to satiate fans who can’t get enough of the adventures. So you could see their points as defending their meal ticket. But after they made that argument, a professor of writing, who was a published author and also wrote tie-ins, pointed out how they also wrote fan-fic and how this wasn’t about copyright. This was about fans expressing themselves.

It is easy to say that copyright is being breached, despite the clear acknowledgement by everyone involved that fan-fic isn’t canon and isn’t even “sold” to people. No one picks up a Chewie and Yoda slashfic and thinks, “Can’t wait to see this will be in the prequel trilogy movies.” It is also easy to say that the people writing it are all hacks. Except we not only know that isn’t true (e.g. the above writing professor and award-winning authors mentioned in the video). And if these fans are working hard at writing lots of fan-fic, they are bound to become good at it.

So now I stand back and say: Fan-fic is legit.

I mean, where else will I read a steamy sex scene with cries of linguistically impaired pleasure and Wookie growls?

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For years writers of fan fiction were shamed, the butt of jokes, and even subject to copyright litigation. However, in the past few years, with the fan fiction writers of today becoming the published mainstream authors of today the past time is a celebrated benchmark of one’s climb to publication.

In the season two premiere of It’s Lit, we explore what happened and how fan fiction writers were able to come out of the proverbial closet of shame.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

* It was the 90s. If it wasn’t in print at your local bookstore, it didn’t exist. It certainly wasn’t going to overturn the canon.

Cli-Fi: Can These Books Save The Planet?

Climate Fiction or cli-fi – get it, it’s like sci-fi except with climate… – may trace its origins to early science fiction works, but it has become a (sub) genre of its own in recent years. Who’d have thought that active disinformation and denial campaigns leading to delayed action on such an important issue would lead to a cultural response expressing concern at the lack of action?

This video from the PBS Digital Studios channel Hot Mess offers a great explainer on cli-fi. It also features Lindsay Ellis.

I think many of us would have read or watched cli-fi without really acknowledging it. Sometimes climate change is just a theme or motif because it is a reality writers/creators have absorbed. Other times it is more deliberate with the intention of discussing the issue.

While this can help create a wider acknowledgement and acceptance of climate change, I’m not sure it can help save the planet. I think there was an analogy about a horse and water and beatings or something that works here.

One thing I am hopeful of is that cli-fi will be like the nuclear holocaust fiction, emblematic of the fears of our time, but those fears will prove misplaced due to actions to prevent disaster. Or at least a great resource in the future for the evolved sentient cockroaches looking to understand what happened to our race and the planet.

See also: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/climate-fiction-margaret-atwood-literature/400112/

Climate Fiction comes in all sorts of forms, there’s your Mad Maxes, your Games of Thrones, your Parables of the Sowers, and your WALL-Es. But are all these Cli-Fi books, movies, and TV shows just capitalizing on a hot topic, or do they actually change people’s perceptions of climate change? Lindsay Ellis, of It’s Lit, and Amy Brady, the editor-in-chief of The Chicago Review of Books, help us find out.

Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vp6lDmU3vT-NvMTRzCkLW97JfX7FQ4ZLhX0qvTGg-_I/edit

What even is literature?

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Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

How Greek Mythology Inspires Us

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Did you know that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a (relatively) modern tale inspired by Ancient Greek Mythology? Well, even if you did know that, this video has something for you.

Given this video series has focussed on literature and books made into movies more than popular fiction, I knew that one of my favourite genres wouldn’t get a mention. The vigilante hero/anti-hero traces its origins back to the Ancient Greek Myths as well. The most obvious versions are The Wanderer or Knight Errant which draw upon themes and ideas from heroes like Perseus. This early creation underpins later takes on the hero. And thus, Jack Reacher could be slaying gorgons and saving royals.

Interestingly, the Knight Errant is also prevalent in literature not influenced by Ancient Greek Mythology. So it is possible that convergent ideas are at work.

Ancient Greek Mythology has worked its way into modern pop culture so deeply that it would be an almost Sisyphean task to compile every way it’s manifested!

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part* series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis

*Eleven part series now.