We’re pleased to publish Joseph Di Prisco’s introduction to the new anthology Simpsonistas: Tales from the Simpson Literary Project (Vol. 2). Di Prisco edited the volume; he’s also the Founding Chair of The Simpson Literary Project. The Simpson Literary Project has two objectives: “lasting educational outreach into schools, universities, and libraries, as well as celebrating and supporting authors across a great spectrum: from fledging young writers to mid-career writers of distinction to internationally celebrated authors.” In this essay, Di Prisco explores the recent state of literature and the work this nonprofit is doing.
Is the apocalypse upon us?
Bookstores are ghost towns, tumbleweed rolling around vacant shelves. The printed page is like the covered wagon of mass transportation. Poetry is approaching at warp speed an extinction event horizon. The novel? The novel! Seriously, what kind of person buys novels, not to mention what’s a novel for anyway? And memoirs? Haven’t we heard it all before, again and again and again? Authors are narcissists and social media strivers who serve the worst wine at the chaotic parties they throw to tediously promote themselves. Rest in peace, writers of books, not that you can or will.
Okay, not exactly Mad Max or The Handmaid’s Tale, or even Wall-E, but still.
The doomsayers have been screeching from their virtual rooftops and clicketty-clacketting on their laptops and smartphones since the Big Dismal. And the literature obits have been flooding in, roughly since a certain “influencer” named Steve Jobs opined in 2008 that nobody reads anymore. (But while we’re on that subject, who isn’t concerned—even if only intermittently—about being reliant upon or distracted by that genius entrepreneur’s diabolical invention, the personal computer that doubles as a telephone pinging in our pocket?) I probably have an ill-conceived, nonstrategic social life and have poorly chosen friends (especially on Facebook), and maybe the crunchers of numbers have, according to their own halogen lights, a point, but I’m not buying it. I don’t know what the technological and demographic future holds, but I have confidence that storytellers, in all their multivarious incarnations, are not lurching among the walking dead. Long, long ago, William Faulkner famously took the very high road in his exhilarating Nobel Prize Address. His words from 1950 still resonate:
The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is…to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
The Simpson Literary Project is one bustling place in which to confirm that storytelling is anything but an afterthought, much less a quaint luxury. The Project is all the proof you may need that storytelling is a necessity, a tool for survival, a required weapon, and sometimes a shiny key, which in artful, skilled hands opens the door into the house of consciousness and imagination. True, sometimes that house is on fire, sometimes it drifts among the clouds, sometimes it is deep underground, beneath the bunkers. Sometimes it is anything but a constructed domicile; it can be more like a noisy carnival or a rushing river, a rain forest or a savannah, a cathedral or a mountain or a garden. Wherever the story takes us, its ultimate destination is a journey along an avenue unto mystery and wonder, accompanied by tears or laughter, and often in the case of our greatest storytelling achievements—looking at you, Chekov, O’Connor, Joyce, and your peers—simultaneously both.
Storytelling is the most serious sort of playful enterprise as well as the most playful sort of serious enterprise, and—as with the most complex games—if the stakes are not sky-high it is not worth the pursuit. One primary message teacher/writers leading workshops convey to students is: hold nothing back, risk everything, tell your story, share your truth, this game is for real. In this spirit, consider what Elena Ferrante, the prominent (and famously “anonymous”) author of the Neapolitan novels, wrote recently, and emphatically, about the power of women’s storytelling, and about the urgency these days for women to tell their stories, with insights applicable in general to all storytellers:
Telling stories really is a kind of power, and not an insignificant one. Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power. (“A Power of Our Own”; New York Times, 5/18/2019)
One thing people who read and write know for certain is that making a book is not easy. For the artist, the psychic, emotional, and aesthetic expenditure in the service of such enterprise is maximal. Or as Joyce Carol Oates memorably remarked, writing the first draft of a novel is like pushing a peanut with your nose across a dirty floor—thereby garnering extra points yet again for unforgettable imagery. She means, in part, you don’t know where you are going and you don’t know why, and the process presents a menace to personal hygiene. What the magisterial Oates demonstrates, nonetheless, over the course of her some seventy-five novels, and still counting, is that, to our delight and edification, she inevitably and spectacularly arrives none the worse for wear. Writing, in other words, is not for the faint of heart, the squeamish, the recklessly timid, the perfectionistic. The writer’s road is mapless and labyrinthine, replete with detours and distractions, with disappointments popping up around corners, and more than the occasional dead end or brick wall.
So yes, about easy? Well, writing a book may not be. But when I reflect upon the recipients and the finalists and the longlisted of the Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize (2017, 2018, and 2019), many of them certainly make it seem that way, because the apparent effortlessness of their creations is the talented, enduring, hard-working writer’s most magnificent illusion. Take, for example, the finalists for the 2019 Prize: Rachel Kushner, Laila Lalami, Valeria Luiselli, Sigrid Nunez, Anne Raeff, Amor Towles. Each of them has been justifiably, lavishly celebrated, and embraced by the Simpson Project, for their narrative command, depth of feeling, intellectual range, aesthetic power, and sheer human urgency. They are all very much worth reading right now. That previous sentence is what we English teachers like to call understatement.
No one compos mentis would dismiss the gravity of the issues that weigh upon us, including (in alphabetical order) and not restricted to: artificial intelligence, Black Lives Matter, bullying, child abuse, climate change, election tampering, family separation, food security, gentrification, global autocracy, global warming, gun violence, homelessness, immigration, income inequity, media corruptibility, MeToo, nuclear proliferation, opioid proliferation, personal privacy, police misconduct, political polarization, poverty, prison reform, public health fails, racial inequality, racism, religious freedom, school safety, sexual diversity, sexual exploitation, the suicide epidemic, tariffs, terrorism, unemployment, vaccination denial, wealth disparity, white supremacy, women’s rights, xenophobia. Little wonder that forebodings haunt our nights and days, infiltrate our monitors and screens, streets and schools.
Consequently, in the precarious twenty-first century, dystopian visions proliferate. Ferrante’s op-ed, quoted above, references brilliantly the fourteenth-century author Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote a great book called The Decameron. Ten young people flee Florence for the countryside. In the city, chaos has broken out—citizens are in abject panic over the plague, in fear of their neighbors and friends and family. And these ten storytellers converge to do something quite radical and ultimately sensible: they compose and tell each other over ten days a hundred stories of love and adventure and heroism. (As Ferrante trenchantly points out, seven of the ten storytellers are women.) In his book’s first line he writes: “Umana cosa è aver compassione degli afflitti.” That is, it is (an essentially) human (thing) to have compassion for those in distress. But how to express compassion, sympathy, and empathy under such dire circumstances? For Boccaccio, it was to tell and attend to stories. History and literature have proven him and his book prescient. Storytelling is not an escape from the grimmest realities, but the subtly shifting, fluid foundation of our mutual humanity, which stories are uniquely positioned to illuminate—and fashion.
What we learn from centuries of writing is that the greatest storytelling is anything but an elitist diversion or preoccupation. At its heights and in its depths, it is intensely engaged with the turmoil and challenge of its times. As Oates writes: “Especially we crave radical and subversive art from the margins of society, that challenges the authority of the center. More quirky, stubborn, rebellious voices to counteract the ubiquitous drone of social media culture. More public support for all the arts—visual, musical, theatrical, dance, print—and not just the arts that reflect our own convictions. If our art sometimes provokes unexpected reactions this is the price we must pay for our commitment to bearing witness in a turbulent world.” (Simpsonistas: Vol. 1; “‘A Wounded Deer Leaps Highest’: Motives for Metaphor”)
Janet Burroway, novelist and author of the enduring Writing Fiction, refers to the fascinating, controversial Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where she highlights the place of story in individual lives and in the culture at large:
Yuval Noah Harari points out that it is not language itself but the related capacity to imagine what is not immediately present that distinguishes the human species. To imagine what is not immediately present allows us spirituality, nationhood, commerce, and law, and it is of course the essence of story. To write better and better stories may promote cooperation, gender equality, and the cementing of social bonds. If an aspiring writer has natural talent, so much the better. If she gets published, even paid—wonderful…. But in any case, it is good for a full-blooded life and good for the culture that human beings should continue to study the craft of fiction. (“What It’s Like to Teach Writing When Everyone’s a Writer,” Lithub; 6/3/2019)
The nonprofit Simpson Literary Project has developed organically over time, implicated as it must be in this turbulent world of ours, and it continually grows in reach and impact ever since the founders initially gathered to dream and plan in summer 2015. We gradually conceived a multidimensional set of programs to serve writers and readers, teachers and librarians, across the generations. From the outset, the essential institutional partners would be the visionary Lafayette Library and Learning Center Foundation, which is our fiscal sponsor, and the University of California, Berkeley, English Department, long regarded as the leading English Department in the world.
All the pieces of the Project interconnect with, and reinforce and inform, each other. Workshop students learn from the prize winner and from Simpson fellows; the Writer-in-Residence is connected to the library and schools and the workshops; the prize winner is connected to the workshops, the libraries, and students at Berkeley; the Simpson fellows, professional writers themselves, teach our workshop students; Simpsonistas publishes participants across the entire spectrum, writers both professional and aspiring; the Project hosts events at UC Berkeley and the Lafayette Library featuring and celebrating all of them. In the broadest sense, everything and everyone is associated within the Simpson Literary Project. The teenager drafting her story, the incarcerated youth writing poetry, the distinguished midcareer novelist freed to finish a new book, the world-famous author speaking to librarians and inspiring everyone—all of them are connected, and for a sound, pragmatic reason. That reason is captured in our mantra: Storytelling is the foundation of a literate society.
We took pains to assure that this would not be all about one lucky writer receiving a meaningful prize benefit of $50,000—though, to state the obvious, we appreciate that writers can hardly afford to be blithe as to financial underpinning for work and survival. An appointed jury of professional readers considers a longlist of writers and determines a shortlist, which is then handed up to a panel of judges from the Simpson Literary Project Board. Each year, judges select a midcareer author of fiction, whose eligibility is defined as one who has published at least two distinguished works of fiction (novels and/or short stories). No age, geographic, or stylistic restrictions apply. The only other qualification is that this is a writer who has yet to receive capstone recognition, such as a Pulitzer or a MacArthur, though we might be forgiven for expecting it is likely just a matter of time for our finalists till that oversight is remedied.
While there are numerous prizes for emerging writers, this prize is for an already emerged author of national consequence—short stories and/or novels—at the relatively middle stage of a burgeoning career. Occasionally an intriguing question comes up in this regard. Unlike with the case of butterflies who emerge marvelous from their cocoon ordeals, the emergence of writers is more complicated still. A few geniuses do indeed spectacularly arrive one day on the scene, while others develop slowly, over time, often maddeningly and even perhaps erratically for authors and their fans. The arc of a writer’s career can be long and it bends to—who would dare predict?
It’s obviously fortunate for younger writers to feel the love and recognition, not to mention to enjoy the influx of real dollars. But writers at all stages feel that selfsame need. The fact is, there are precious few major prizes on the order of the Simpson Prize catering to midcareer writers. Insofar as we value the charms and challenges of storytelling, storytellers depend on our support. It’s worth noting, too, that at the midpoint of writers’ careers it’s often a trial to publish or grow an audience. Only a tiny percentage of them will ever ascend the bestseller lists, or be able to care for themselves and their families on the proceeds, and effectively none will sell units like a Stephen King or a J. K. Rowling. Now that they have arrived at this juncture, occasionally they are invidiously saddled with the cruel label of “midlist”—a term to be used with extreme caution around any working writer you may bump into. The irony consists of this: midcareer is often when some writers are just hitting their stride, taking chances as they’ve never done before, sometimes after composing books that never saw the light of publication, or whose first published works found a limited albeit admiring audience. This all takes place at the precise moment when publishers’ gaze is drawn instead to the gleam of flashy, younger, emerging writers. Again, at the risk of repetition: there’s nothing wrong at all with embracing the emerging. Yet sign us up for the emerged, still emerging.
Over three years of prize-giving, 131 notable authors have been longlisted, fifteen shortlisted as finalists; decisions were never uncomplicated, and many of the longlisted could have easily been shortlisted, and some of the shortlisted could have been recipients. To respectfully acknowledge distinguished achievement, starting in 2019 we awarded each finalist $2,000.
That said, we are proud of our decisions. In 2017, the prize recipient was T. Geronimo Johnson; in 2018, Anthony Marra; in 2019, Laila Lalami. All three are represented in Simpsonistas: Vol. 2. In Spring 2019, we renamed the prize to honor the heroically philanthropic Barclay and Sharon Simpson in tandem with our dear friend and colleague. Henceforth, it will be known as The Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize.
The Project always envisioned broader outreach and deeper influence upon communities at large. That is why our prize recipient takes up residency every spring in Berkeley and Lafayette for a circumscribed period, in order to stimulate and engage with the minds and hearts of college and high school students at the University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere, as well as with the Lafayette Library and Learning Center and the general public. And that is why we make possible, at no charge, writing workshops for underserved younger people, led by professional writers who are graduate students in the English Department of the University of California, Berkeley. Seven Simpson Fellows have worked with nearly one hundred young writers over the last two years, 2018 and 2019, at Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall, Girls Inc. of Alameda County, and a comprehensive public high school, Northgate, in Walnut Creek, California.
In addition, we have also sponsored a Simpson Literary Project Writer-in-Residence at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center, who was there to speak and read to the public and to work with aspiring writers as well as librarians and teachers and the broader community; we have been incredibly fortunate to have been graced by the presence of Joyce Carol Oates as our Writer-in-Residence in 2018 and 2019. (Joyce also conducted a memoir workshop, offered at no cost, for aspiring adult authors associated with the Lafayette Library and Learning Center. Two of those authors are represented in this anthology.) And that is also why we cause to be published yearly volumes of Simpsonistas: Tales from the Simpson Literary Project, where previously unpublished authors across the generations appear for the first time in print alongside an outstanding group of professional authors, all of whom have been honored by the Project—as prize recipients, finalists, and longlisters. This book now in your hands makes tangible the wide range of accomplishment, aspiration, and idealism of everyone affiliated with the Simpson Literary Project.
I have been fleshing out our programs, but with this crucial caveat: programs are nothing if not, at heart, people. A plan is illusory without the people to animate them. And the Project has been fortunate in all the gifted individuals and institutions that have stepped up in support: donors, sponsors, authors, teachers, professors, librarians, workshop partners, board members, and so on.
In this vein, consider what Laura Ritland, devoted Simpson Fellow at Girls Inc. in 2018 and 2019, writes in her stirring “More Than Enough: Teaching with the Simpson Literary Project”; the complete essay may be found in this volume:
The road to calling oneself a “writer” without self-doubt and with a measured understanding of one’s abilities is a long one. For students of these workshops, this is the beginning of what might be a much longer journey. However, wherever writing takes them, I hope that they find something in it that liberates the mind, body, spirit, and perception. For ultimately, writing is a way of attending to our environment and our places within it, of bringing consciousness and empowerment to our choices. With practice, attention, and kindness to ourselves, it can make us free.
And then there is this from renowned English teacher David Wood, of Northgate High School, whose impassioned essay in this volume is “Teaching Voice”:
Nothing is more fun in an English classroom than hearing authentic voices come alive and expand. That is what the Simpson Literary Project gives to these young writers, a room of their own to express themselves. And so they did. What could be more indicative of the success of the Project than the vision that one of these young writers will be published in Simpsonistas again down the line, only this time in the company of some of the finest writers in the country, as one of them. I hope I am here to see it.
We asked Anthony Marra to write a few words on how he spent his year as the 2018 Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates prize recipient. In his incandescent essay about the experience, Tony begins by wryly observing that “I came to realize that I would make a terrible memoirist.”
I don’t drink or smoke. I go to bed early enough that my mom, who lives on the East Coast, occasionally wakes me when she calls. I don’t have a car, and my usual rounds take me no farther than I can walk. Just about every morning and afternoon, weekdays and weekends, I go to the same two coffee shops, order the same drink, and sit in the same seat and write. In October I went out of town for several days without telling the proprietor of my afternoon coffee shop and she worried some terrible accident had befallen me. I say this not in complaint but in gratitude. At the end of a perfect week, I look back without remembering what happened on any particular day—not because nothing happened, but because I was doing the same thing every day: getting good writing done. Thanks to the Simpson/Joyce Carol Oates Prize, I’m having a year of those days.
I’m hesitant to speak directly about my current project. Needless to say, the work is going very well.
Recently, I watched the BBC nature documentary Blue Planet II, an extraordinary series whose cast includes octopi armored in scavenged sea shells, sperm whales in vertical slumber, and bioluminescent creatures lighting the ocean floor miles below the last of the sun’s rays. Beneath the seemingly monotonous surface of the ocean is a depthless underworld teeming with life.
When asked, “What have you been up to?” I usually answer, “Not much,” because to any casual observer, I’m simply in my coffee shops, working on the next page, writing these words. But to you, friend of the Simpson Literary Project, I will confess the truth: I’m swimming with the starfish and the sea anemones.
We are confident you will feel, as, we hope, a budding Simpsonista yourself, the elation experienced by our Project workshop students, the readers of all our prize winners, our Simpson fellows, along with the audiences for our readings and talks.
So by all means please dive in. The water, you will discover, is fine. And welcome to swimming with all the varicolored, diverse creatures flourishing and flashing beneath the surface, the shimmering starfish and sea anemones apocalyptically revealed to dazzle you in Simpsonistas: Tales from the Simpson Literary Project: Vol 2.