By Gabrielle Inhofe
Acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez speaks about her life and work with University of Texas at Austin professor Jennifer M. Wilks in a Harry Ransom Lecture this Monday, March 31 at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium at Homer Rainey Hall. A book signing and reception follow at the Ransom Center. This lecture is presented by the University Co-op and co-sponsored by the 2013–2014 Texas Institute for Literary and Textual Studies (TILTS) Symposia: Reading Race in Literature and Film. Alvarez’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.
In an interview with Cultural Compass, Alvarez shares her thoughts on women in the literary canon, cultural identity, and more.
Stories about men are considered universal, but stories about women are often considered “women’s fiction.” What do you think can be done to change this trend? How have your books centering on female protagonists been received with regard to this?
We’ve made a lot of progress. In my own lifetime as a writer, now over 40 years, I’ve seen a sea change in interest in authors of ethnic/racial/gender diversity—both as a writer in what gets published but also as a writer in the academy in the curriculum, the books departments select for their core readings.
That said, we are still living in the shadow of that old canonical/gated understanding of what constitutes classic, serious fiction. The travails and writing by men, mostly white, with some exceptions. Women’s novels are often considered lite fair. (Is there a male version of chicklit denomination?) What was Samuel Johnson’s comment about women preachers? “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Well in many quarters, this was also the attitude toward women’s writing.
So, even though many of the most admired and serious American novelists and poets now come from other traditions, ethnicities, races, and many of them are female, that old mentality is there, like a gas we breathe and don’t even know it. Still it was daunting to read the op-ed in New York Times Book Review, two years ago, by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literacy Fiction for Men and Women.”
Additionally, it’s not just that women’s fiction isn’t taken as seriously, [or] reviewed as often, but also the default characters and plots of serious fiction are still those of the mainstream culture. So often when I write about a Dominican American family, it’s assumed this has to be my story. Why? Because otherwise I’d write about a John Cheever family in Connecticut? (I love John Cheever’s fiction, but those aren’t the stories I have to tell.) It’s as if our characters are only allowed limited minority fiction status—often there are courses just in this area, an infusion of fairness into an otherwise distorted canon! It’s a curious and often unconscious set of assumptions and expectations about who gets to have their stories told. Of course, I know this, too, is changing, but as Wolitzer cautions us, we ain’t there yet.
If I may take it a step further into personal experience: when I wrote In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) I told the story of the dictatorship seen for the first time from a female point of view. I heard from my friend, Dominican historian and author Bernardo Vega that he introduced Mario Vargas Llosa to the novel, and MVL got very interested in the dictatorship and subsequent “democratic dictatorship” by Balaguer. His novel, La Fiesta del Chivo (The Feast of the Goat) (2000), is often cited as the seminal work of fiction about those years. I admire the novel, and none of this is MVL’s “fault.” Just the way critics and even readers have these unexamined assumptions. Good for you for bringing up the question and forcing us to see these assumptions are still out there.
What can be done to change trend? My response is to keep writing. Spike Lee once said the only way to be avoid being flash-proof is to keep doing your work.
Attitudes/assumptions change slowly, over time, probably not during my watch, but if I don’t do my part, change won’t happen at all.
Many people categorize you as a Latina, Dominican, or bicultural writer. How would you like to be perceived as a writer?
I like the quote, attributed to Terence, the Roman playwright, “I am a human being, nothing human is alien to me.” That could well be the motto of literature. It’s how I would ultimately want to be remembered: one of the storytellers from my specific “tribe,” but telling the stories to all of us. We are all feeding the same sea, as Jean Rhys put it, as we come down and flow into it from our different mountains and landscapes.
After all, one of the things literature teaches—and why I gave myself to this “calling”—was that I recognized that this was the one place where the table was set for all. All the wonderful stories, poems are our legacy as part of the human family—our communal treasure chest, but in order to access it, of course, you need to get the key, that is, education, learning to read, having the time and opportunity to claim your legacy.
For so many years, I felt denied entry into that world of serious American literature (as Langston Hughes noted in his wonderful little poem, “I, too, Sing America”) so that when I finally was published I claimed my LATINA voice, my traditions, my culture with a vengeance. Often it was because I sensed that I needed to make a space and place for other kinds of stories on the shelf of American fiction. But as I get older, what’s important to me is that these terms describe the sources of my stories, my history, my traditions, but that they shouldn’t be used to limit my subjects, or limit my readership to only those in the tight circle of my own culture or background. Again stories are about the big circle, the gathering of the different tribes of the human family. Getting down into ethnic/racial bunkers of literature totally negates what they are about.
Which of your works means the most to you, and why? Which one was most difficult to write? The most fun?
Oh dear, that’s like asking a mother to pick a favorite child! Each work has taught me things I needed to learn—about technique/writing, about history/characters/situations I was curious to understand. So, each one was meaningful to me at the time.
I suppose writing the Tía Lola books for young readers was the most fun, just because Tía Lola is such a sassy, fun-loving tía. I’d catch myself eager to start the writing day, wondering what trouble she’d get into, and as the author, how I’d get her out of the fix she was in, or had gotten me into.
That said, on a good writing day, any book I am laboring on is “fun,” and even those fun books are difficult to write if I want to get them right. Let’s face it, good writing is hard work. I have this one quote about revision/writing by James Dickey that I like to share with my students:
“It takes an awful lot of time for me to write anything. I have endless drafts, one after another; and I try out 50, 75, or a hundred variations to a single line of poetry sometimes. I work on the process of refining low-grade ore. I get maybe a couple of nuggets of gold out of 50 tons of dirt. It is tough for me. No, I am not inspired.”
I guess I wouldn’t go that far—of saying I’m never inspired. But at the end of the day, the inspired piece of writing and the one that took 50 tons of dirt to get to a single nugget of golden writing—they have to be indistinguishable from each other.
Most meaningful? Always the writing I’m currently working on because that’s the cutting edge, the material or technique or character that I’m trying to understand, to serve, to get down on paper.
A little rambling, I know, but as the quote ascribed both to Twain and to Pascal (the problem with Internet searches!): “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
Image: Photo of Julia Alvarez by Bill Eichner.
By Arcadia Falcone
Many of the items discussed here are featured in the display “The Intertextual Sherlock Holmes,” which can be seen outside the Reading and Viewing Room on the second floor of the Ransom Center until April 21.
While fanfiction may seem like an Internet-dependent phenomenon, its origins stretch far back into the past, beyond even the age of print. Adapting others’ literary creations for new purposes is at least as old as the Aeneid, in which Virgil adopts a minor character from Homer’s Iliad, Aeneas, as the hero of his story. The scholar Henry Jenkins has argued for fanfiction as modern myth-making, “a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk.” Just as ancient Greek storytellers could draw upon shared cultural knowledge to spin a tale featuring Theseus or Ariadne, their present-day counterparts seeking a similar resonance might instead turn to Harry Potter, Captain James T. Kirk—or Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes captured the imagination of other writers almost from his inception. In 1891, an anonymous author published “My Evening with Sherlock Holmes” in The Speaker, less than four years after the detective’s 1887 debut in A Study in Scarlet. One might argue that it was not long before other writers were more enamored of Holmes than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was himself, for Doyle attempted to kill off his obstreperous creation in 1893 in a thwarted effort to refocus attention on his historical fiction. Even Holmes’s apparent death at Reichenbach Falls did little to stem the rising tide of Sherlockian pastiches, parodies, and fanfictions, of which the Ransom Center holds a diverse selection.
Many of the early extra-canonical Holmes sightings crop up as brief, humorous episodes in newspapers or periodicals, often with absurd variations on the detective’s distinctive name. In 1892, The Idler featured the adventures of Sherlaw Kombs, while Punch followed in 1893 with tales of Picklock Holes. Even P. G. Wodehouse joined the fun, publishing “Dudley Jones, Bore-Hunter” in Punch in 1903. Andrew Lang, best known for editing the Blue Fairy Book and its sequels, took a more serious approach in his pastiche “At the Sign of the Ship” (Longman’s Magazine, 1905), in which Holmes applies his deductive powers to the unsolved mystery of Edwin Drood. Across the Atlantic, Arthur Chapman took time off from writing cowboy poetry to pen “The Unmasking of Sherlock Holmes” for The Critic (1905), in which Auguste Dupin derides Holmes as an attenuated derivative of himself. (The story ends with Holmes shamefacedly conceding his debt to Dupin.)
While Chapman leaves Holmes at home in London, other authors took Holmes on some distinctly American adventures. In A Double Barrelled Detective Story (1902), Mark Twain transplants the detective to a California mining camp, much to the chagrin of his murderous nephew, Fetlock Jones. In “The Sleuths” (1911), Austin’s own O. Henry re-imagines Holmes as New York private eye Shamrock Jolnes, whose “thin, intellectual face, piercing eyes, and rate per word are too well known to need description.” The Center holds unusual copies of both books: Twain’s is a signed first edition from the author’s own library, while Henry’s is a tiny volume originally distributed as a free prize in cigarette packets.
Alongside the proliferating Holmesian fictions, a tradition of tongue-in-cheek nonfiction also arose that treated Holmes and Watson as real people, with Doyle demoted to mere editor when he was acknowledged at all. In 1911, future mystery writer and Monsignor Ronald Knox regaled an Oxford audience with “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” couched in the stentorian style of Biblical exegesis. Knox’s disquisition not only presumed the actuality of Holmes himself, but also fabricated a bevy of rival Holmesian scholars, whose interpretations of the canon Knox demolished with great relish. Taken up by other enthusiasts, this practice of fan-nonfiction became known as the Higher Criticism or the Great Game. The Center’s collections include key entries in the genre by Vincent Starrett, H. W. Bell, S. C. Roberts, and Dorothy L. Sayers, among many others.
Fascination with Holmes soon expanded beyond his English-speaking audience. A German newspaper wrote in 1908, “It is certain that contemporary Europe is suffering from a disease called Sherlockismus […] a literary disease similar to Werther-mania and romantic Byronism.” The Bookman concurred, diagnosing Paris with “what may be described as a bad case of Sherlockitis,” and citing some alarming symptoms: “In connection with two recent sensational murders the Paris newspapers have been giving their versions of how these crimes were committed in the form of imaginary interviews with Sherlock Holmes.” Versions of Holmes also thrived on the Spanish stage, with several plays produced and published between 1908 and 1916. While some of these drew directly on the canon, many were original works that borrowed only the character (and sometimes no more than the name) of Holmes.
As Doyle’s frustration with Holmes’s popularity became more and more apparent, and new adventures appeared less and less frequently, fans turned to supplementing the canon with their own creations. After the publication of the final Holmes tales in 1927, a Wisconsin teenager named August Derleth started writing stories that both imitated and explicitly referenced Holmes, introducing his detective Solar Pons as “the Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street.” Derleth again translated his fan enthusiasm into action when he founded Arkham House to ensure the publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s works in formats more durable than pulp magazines. Arkham later published the Pons stories under the imprint Mycroft & Moran, with each volume featuring an introduction by a noted Sherlockian. Derleth eventually wrote more stories about Pons than Doyle did about Holmes.
The rise of organized fan societies created new venues for fans to communicate with other fans. In 1934, Christopher Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars, which began publishing The Baker Street Journal in 1946. After a brief stint in the 1930s, The Sherlock Holmes Society of London re-formed in 1951, bringing out the first Sherlock Holmes Journal the following year. Both periodicals featured stories by fans alongside Sherlockian news, reviews, essays, and criticism. In addition to issues of both journals, the Center also holds the papers of Christopher Morley, including many documents from the early days of the Baker Street Irregulars. A limited edition pamphlet of the sonnet in which Vincent Starrett famously declared “It is always 1895,” a recreation of the portrait of Irene Adler that caused so much trouble in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” and a self-published book of original songs about characters from the stories illustrate the wide range of creative engagement that flowed through these channels for fan-centered community.
The mythology of Sherlock Holmes continues to expand across media. Recently published fictions by Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and Laurie S. King re-envision the classic Holmes in new contexts. On television, BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary each mix and match elements of the original adventures and characterizations to produce two very different modern takes on Holmes and Watson. Fanworks inspired by the original Holmes or his many reincarnations proliferate both online and in print. The Ransom Center’s collections illustrate that the current boom in re-imagining Doyle’s detective is only the most recent chapter in a long history of Sherlockian creative enthusiasm. The case-book of Sherlock Holmes is nowhere near closed.
In 2011, the Baker Street Irregulars published “Bohemian Souls,” a facsimile of the original manuscript of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” accompanied by annotations and commentary. This was followed by their 2012 edition of “The Golden Pince-Nez.” Both manuscripts are owned by the Ransom Center.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
By Alicia Dietrich
Writer Alan Furst, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, is known for his historical espionage novels set in pre-World War II Europe. His most recent novel, Spies of the Balkans, will be released today. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Furst” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight for a chance to win one of two copies of the book. [Update: This contest has ended, and winners have been notified.]
Furst visited the Ransom Center last fall and sat down for an interview to discuss his writing and his archive. Below are some excerpts from the interview.
Furst discusses why he writes spy novels.
Furst discusses how he develops atmosphere in his books.
Furst talks about what it means for him and his career to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.
Fans of Furst can also check out his recommended reading, read his Writers Reflect interview, and listen to him read from his book Spies of Warsaw on the Ransom Center’s website.