10 Moments That Shook the Literary World in 2017
The deaths, disputes, awards, and fashion faux pas that defined the year
Though 2017 saw plenty of loss, threat, and infighting, it was also the year we celebrated diversity, fought against injustice, and toppled predatory men from positions of power. On the one hand, art itself is under threat from a dystopian government, but on other, a white supremacist lost his six-figure book deal and Jesmyn Ward became the first woman and the first black author to win two National Book Awards for fiction! Yeah, it’s been a roller coaster. These were the deaths, disputes, awards, lawsuits, firings, Twitter pile-ons, and fashion faux pas that defined a tumultuous year.
10. Margaret Atwood’s Purse Wins An Emmy
Writers everywhere learnt that bringing your purse onstage is a faux pas after Margaret Atwood’s “The Handbag’s Tale” moment at the Emmy Awards went viral. News outlets and social media quickly dubbed the feminist icon the “ultimate nana,” because defining women by familial roles and their relationships to other people isn’t reductive in any way. Here at Electric Literature, we celebrate writers because of their powerful writing and not their wardrobe choices, so we wrote about about “Why The Handmaid’s Tale Is So Painful to Watch” and how “The Real Villain in Netflix’s Alias Grace Is the Male Gaze.”
9. ‘1984’ Tops the Bestseller List After Presidential Inauguration
George Orwell’s dystopian novel depicting a grim future in a totalitarian state has surged in sales since the presidential election, climbing to to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. Penguin, 1984’s publisher, said Orwell’s “vision of an omni-present and ultra-repressive state is rooted in the ominous world events,” which certainly rings true in our current political climate. The administration’s growing collection of buzzwords, such as Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s claim that Sean Spicer’s falsehoods were “alternative facts,” struck many as similar to the novel’s “newspeak” and “doublethink,” which are employed by the state to limit freedom of thought. References to the dystopia, and its uncanny parallels with our current political quagmire, became so numerous that they propelled the 68-year-old book to the top of the charts.
8. Ta-Nehisi Coates Deletes Twitter After Feud With Cornel West
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, deleted his Twitter account following a scathing op-ed by Harvard professor Cornel West attacking Coates as “neoliberal face of the black freedom struggle” and accusing him of “fetishiz[ing] white supremacy.” West, a radical activist, author, and outspoken critic of the Obama administration, posted the article to his Twitter, writing that Coates’ “analysis/vision of our world is too narrow & dangerously misleading.” The Guardian article also argued that Coates’s “allegiance” to President Obama has blinded him to the injustices committed by the administration and “produced an impoverished understanding of black history.” The drama spilled over on social media with Jelani Cobb, staff writer for The New Yorker, and Richard Spencer, white supremacist, both weighing in. Coates responded on Twitter by announcing “peace, y’all. i’m out. i didn’t get in it for this” before deactivating his account of 1.25 million followers.
7. Awards Are Less White Than Ever Before
Literary awards in 2017 lost some of the pale caucasian sheen they’ve had in years past. Four of five Pulitzer Prize winners in Letters & Drama were writers of color—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for fiction, Hilton Als of The New Yorker for criticism, Lynn Nottage’s Sweat for drama, and Tyehimba Jess’ Olio for poetry. (Heather Ann Thompson also won the nonfiction award for Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.) Jesmyn Ward became the first woman and the first black author to win a second National Book Award, this time for Sing, Unburied, Sing, beating out the three other women of color (and one white guy) on the shortlist. (Other winners were Robin Benway’s Far from the Tree for young people’s literature, Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia for nonfiction, and Frank Bidart’s Half-light for poetry.) And Ward also won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, alongside fellow non-white person Viet Thanh Nguyen. #PublishingSoWhite, still, but this year was less embarrassing than most.
6. New Yorker Short Story ‘Cat Person’ Goes Viral
Right before 2017 could end, we were thrilled to see Twitter turn into an Intro to the Short Story class with a focus on Gender and Sexuality. “It’s a perfect storm of a story: one that deals with a young woman’s complicated experience of sex and consent, coming at a time when such experiences are a topic of national conversation, and published in a high-prestige magazine,” we wrote. “It’s not quite topical enough to seem crass — this isn’t a story about assault or harassment, it’s a story about bad sex — but like recent reporting on those topics, it illuminates a dark corner of many women’s personal histories. Apparently, that combination made it catnip (pun intended) for Twitter.”
5. Problematic Young Adults Books Blow Up The Internet
The publishing world, after being called out for being 79% white in a survey in 2016, seemed to be making conscious efforts to publish diverse titles written by people of color. However, this can only be successfully accomplished by actually hiring people of color to work in publishing. Without doing so, you set yourself up for publishing books that will make the Internet explode. And one genre you definitely didn’t want to mess with was Young Adult.
This year, we saw the Twitter community explode over The Black Witch, a YA novel that attempted to make a point about racism, but did so in ways that plenty of readers found…racist. Reviewers initially lauded the book for being, “a compelling tale of romance and rebellion with valuable discussion about prejudice.” But after its publication, Harlequin Teen’s inbox was overrun with angry emails demanding the title be pulled from publication. L.L. McKinney summed up the argument in this tweet, “In the fight for racial equality, white people are not the focus. White authors writing books like #TheContinent or #TheBlackWitch, who say it’s an examination of racism in an attempt to dismantle it, you. don’t. have. the. range.”
Laura Moriarty’s American Heart had a similar story: its white savior narrative was glaringly obvious to many readers but was initially overlooked by reviewers. In fact, Kirkus gave the book a starred review, calling it, “terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching.” The only “terrifying” element of the story, according to other non-Kirkus reviews, was the way that its Muslim characters were seen only through a non-Muslim lens. The anonymous (but Muslim!) Kirkus reviewer agreed to rescind her star, and Kirkus also altered her review, apparently without her input.
4. The Literary Legends We Lost This Year
The literary world lost a lot of greats this year. We mourn their loss, but are grateful that they will live on through their work. In Memoriam: John Ashbery (Pulitzer Prize-winning poet), Michael Bond (creator of Paddington Bear), Colin Dexter (author of the Inspector Morse series), Paula Fox (author of Desperate Characters), William H. Gass (experimental writer), Bette Howland (author of Blue in Chicago), Judith Jones (editor of The Diary of Anne Frank), Denis Johnson (author of Train Dream), Liu Xiaobo (Nobel Prize-winning essayist, poet & dissent), Robert M. Pirsig (author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), Lillian Ross (journalist for The New Yorker), Robert B. Silvers (founding editor of The New York Review of Books), Sam Shepard (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright), Jean Stein (oral historian), Derek Walcott (poet & playwright), Heathcote Williams (playwright), and many other literary luminaries.
3. Simon & Schuster Offers Milo Yiannopoulos A Book Deal, Back Outs, and Gets Sued
Milo Yiannopoulos, a leading “alt-right” white nationalist, secured a $250,000 advance on a book to be published by Threshold Editions, a “contemporary conservative” imprint of Simon & Schuster. After news spread of the (now former) Breitbart editor’s six-figure deal, editors, authors and readers condemned the publisher and vowed a boycott. Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist and Difficult Women, pulled her forthcoming title, How to Be Heard, from the publisher’s TED Books imprint. She said “I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant him that privilege,” adding on twitter: “I can afford to take this stand. Not everyone can. Remember that.” Soon after, S&S pulled Yiannopoulos’ book deal after a video came to light that “showed him trivializing pedophilia and questioning the ‘arbitrary and oppressive’ age of consent.” Yiannopoulos responded by self-publishing his memoir under his own imprint dedicated to “the destruction of political correctness and the progressive left,” and suing S&S for $10 million. The winner in this story? Roxane Gay, feminist favorite, for standing up for her beliefs even to her own financial detriment.
2. Trump Wants to Kill Funding for the Arts
The President released a budget proposal that would eliminate the National Endowment of Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The $300 million combined annuals budgets of the two independent cultural agencies amounts to 0.02% of the $1.1 trillion of total annual discretionary spending, a paltry sum made even more negligible next to the estimated $70 billion cost of building an unnecessary border wall. The NEA and NEH provides much-needed funding to “artists, writers, magazines (like Electric Literature), libraries, local television stations, radio programs, therapy for military veterans, classes for underserved students, concerts, plays, exhibits” and thousands of other vital cultural projects that enrich America.
1. Sexual Harassment Allegations Roil the Publishing Industry
Publishing is an industry staffed by women but controlled at the top by men. This hierarchical gender imbalance has led to an environment rife with sexual harassment by male editors exploiting their influence as gatekeepers. Now, after decades of silence, the publishing industry is finally having its #MeToo reckoning. Lorin Stein, editor-in-chief of The Paris Review, resigned after the literary magazine launched an investigation into his behavior towards female colleagues. He had confessed to “engaging in consensual sexual behavior” with interns and writers at the magazine. Hamilton Fish, president and publisher of The New Republic, resigned after similar sexual misconduct claims. Leon Wieseltier’s new magazine folded after the former editor of The New Republic admitted to “misdeeds” against his former female employees. Others accused of sexual misconduct are Penguin Random House art director Giuseppe Castellano, Mother Jones editor and chief executive David Corn, NPR senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, Lockhart Steele of Vox, star reporter for The New Yorker Ryan Lizza, Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza, and veteran playwright Israel Horovitz.