The [Living] List of War Lit Think Pieces

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“Bye and Stuff” by Lydia Komatsu

Over the past few weeks, Peter Molin and I have been exchanging emails on the topic of essays about war literature. That is, writing that considers war literature–its good, its bad, the past and future. We came up with a pretty solid list that I realized would have been nice to have as an MFA student, and Pete agreed to let me run it, so here you go. There are a couple of caveats: I didn’t include book reviews, mostly because the consideration of war literature as a genre is not the primary concern and as a writer of a few reviews, I can say you might be fortunate to spend, at most, about 10-15% of your piece in such territory. I also have not included literature criticism essays (think of your college English essays, then add a Master’s or PhD) because, well, they’re pretty boring and tend to put the creative process under an analytical microscope that, for me, sucks the joy right out of writing. In other words, interesting, but rarely compelling for the creative act.

Now that the fine print’s out of the way, the standard disclaimer does not apply. I mean for this to be fairly all-inclusive. Hence the whole “Living” bit. But to get there, I’ll need you to let me know what I’ve missed in the comments. I’ll review to see if it passes muster, then I’ll update the post with your recommendation. Peter already had pretty much all of the list on a post on Time Now, but we also came up with a few more.

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1. Matt Gallagher, “Where’s The Great Novel of the War on Terror?”The Atlantic, 2011. So far as I can tell, Gallagher’s was one of the first essays to really focus on contemporary war literature as a genre.

2. Brian Van Reet, “A Problematic Genre: The Kill Memoir,” The New York Times, 2013. This one was important for me, as it was written around the time I started writing.

3. Ryan Bubalo, “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2013.

4. Phil Klay, “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” The New York Times, 2014.

5. George Packer, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars,” The New Yorker, 2014. I’ve returned to this time and again over the past few years, and tackled it for my MFA thesis critical essay. It’s a good survey, but a bit wrong in some critical places.

6. Roxana Robinson, “The Right to Write,” The New York Times, 2014.

7. Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014. I first read this on deployment, and it’s a lot like Gallagher’s 2011 essay in that it identifies a gap. Three years after the fact, the essay still holds up well, although the premise has been diluted as a result of the publication of several Afghanistan books. Still, his underlying thesis–that there’s something different about Afghanistan that affects the way it’s represented–is as relevant today as it was three years ago.

8. Michiko Kakutani, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” The New York Times, 2014. Kakutani is the only major newspaper-related book critic that I am aware who has covered war literature pretty consistently with her thoughtful reviews. I’ve traced her as far back as 1987, when she reviewed Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. Her survey,  “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” remains my go-to reference for war lit recommendations.

9. Kayla Williams, “Women Writing War: A List of Contemporary War Literature by Women,” Los Angeles Review of Books, 2014.

10. Roy Scranton, “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper,“ Los Angeles Review of Books, 2015. This one ruffled some feathers, my own included. He might be correct in identifying how we’ve turned veterans into victims, but some of his critiques come off harshly.

11. Sam Sacks, “First Person Shooters,” Harper’s, 2015. Between Scranton and Sacks, 2015 was the year of dissent, evidently. Sacks’ basic premise appears to be predictive and countermand Packer: war literature is missing politics, and the genre is made worse for it. This one is behind a paywall, but chances are good a university library has a copy of the issue. Also, friends who are grad students might be willing to sneak you a PDF bootleg.

12. Adin Dobkin, “The Never Ending Book of War,” The Los Angeles Review of Books, 2016.

13. Michael Peterson, “War and Remembrance: Notes Towards a  Taxonomy of Contemporary War Literature,” The Mad Padre, 2016. A Canadian chaplain offers a a more classically-informed take  on war lit taxonomy.

14. Pretty much every post on Time Now has something to say about the state of contemporary war literature, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t recommend it.

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Update, 30 May 17: Thanks to Adrian Bonenberger and Steven Moore for reaching out to request the following additions.

15. Michael Carson, “War Makes Bad Art,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. A tidy response to Sam Sacks.

16. Michael Carson, “Philosopher Hero: From Socrates to Scranton,” Wrath-Bearing Tree, 2015. And a response to Scranton’s LARB piece.

17. Steven Moore, “Trouble with Ceremony,” The Georgia Review, 2017. Pay attention to the meta-reflective thread within the essay that deals with the modern lineage of the war story.

 

 

 

 

Reading War: Andria Williams’ THE LONGEST NIGHT

51dcpi-si6L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_It’s easy to forget that the Cold War was this nation’s longest war. Punctuated by two “hot wars”–Korea and Vietnam–in addition to a host of nasty brushfire affairs across the globe, the Cold War shaped the country for half a century. I may have been a child at its end, but I remember its influences well: the “Fallout Shelter” sign with radioactive symbol that adorned the neighborhood middle school, Twilight Zone episodes concerned with nuclear apocalypse, movies like Red Dawn and Russkies, the song “Wind of Change” (The Scorpions) that celebrated glasnost. Two superpowers locked in a nuclear struggle for global domination. Ah. The good old days.

Andria Williams‘ debut novel is a fictionalized account of a little-known 1961 nuclear reactor disaster outside of Idaho Falls, ID, in the early middle of the Cold War. Before reading the book, I had no concept of the SL-1 meltdown or the scale of military attempts to develop scalable nuclear power, so Williams hit one of my marks for good historical fiction: I learned something.

Which isn’t to say the book only delivers one half of the Delight/Inform Contract–It is a superbly-written story of prototypical suburbia at its nadir, complicated by the expectations of a military family. This last bit is what sets The Longest Night apart, which benefits by superlative comparison to Updike’s Rabbit series: Williams smiles as she burns the facade to the ground. And where Updike lays claim to an experience I’m not sure he’s all the qualified to possess, Williams nails the minefield that is the Military Family as monolith, and using the 1960s to do so is just a stroke of pure genius.

What writing lessons did I draw from the book? First, I need to read more women authors. Turns out that in the past couple years, while I’ve found essays by women to be those most formative to me as a new writer, most of the books I’ve read have been written by men. The most immediate issue this presents craft-wise (to say nothing of publishing trends) is the lack of experience in which to ground the writing of women characters. Williams’ protagonist, Nat, is a complex woman worth study in terms of a what Alice LaPlante might refer to as a “round character.”

Second–and this one is more on the Values side–but The Longest Night reminded me of a craft talk that Jan DeBlieu gave at my last Residency regarding the responsibilities of writers. One of them, Jan said, is to give voice to the voiceless. The experience of the military spouse has been damn near non-existent in the canon of military literature; Brava to Williams for introducing Nat to the canon in such fine fashion. It got me thinking about what I should be writing about on the nonfiction side, what stories are out there right in front of my nose but haven’t been told.

The Longest Night is a great novel, and I encourage you to read it for yourself so that you can draw lessons from it for yourself. You can buy the new softcover version on Amazon.

 

 

 

 

New Essay up at Tracksmith: Some Thoughts

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“Sakura”: Lydia Komatsu, 2017

Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I love to bemoan the state of running-related writing. Ever since the demise of Running Times, anyone who enjoys good writing about our sport must necessarily put up with pages of puffery from the usual rags. 100 words on the season’s best jock straps. 1000 words on how to train for a marathon on less than 5 miles a week. 200 words on yet another stretching article. Sometimes I wonder if whether writers like Alan Sillitoe (“The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner“) or George Sheehan would have much luck trying to place a piece in today’s general fitness mags.

I’ve written previously about my admiration for Tracksmith’s Meter magazine, which considers itself a literary review for runners. And I’ve been lucky enough to place two pieces there (one online, one in print) in the past couple of years, and now a third. Sure, Tracksmith is an apparel company. But they appear to be a company interested not only in profiting from the sport, but also in furthering the art of running, in all its forms.

“Sakura/Boston 2011” is partly a reflection on what it was like to watch Desiree Linden (then Davila) nearly win the 2011 Boston Marathon from my room on Yokota Air Base, Japan; I was deployed there for the tsunami relief after losing my Japanese grandmother. But for the longest time, I wondered about what it was like for Linden that day, on the other side of the globe.  And this year, over the course of a few interviews with the two-time Olympian herself, I was able to piece it together.

It was a challenging piece to write because of how I chose to build a braided narrative: mine and Linden’s. I didn’t feel like I could write a straight-ahead piece of reportage – my connection to the experience, what it was like, was a driving factor to write the piece in the first place. Early drafts were rough: there’s simply nothing quite so narcissistic as memoirist appropriating someone else’s experience. There was a significant risk of the piece turning into a “here’s how experience X made me feel Y,” which wasn’t my goal. So I did my best to use my experience as more of a lens to view what it was like for Linden during her electrifying performance.

But don’t take my word for it: check out “Sakura/Boston 2011” for yourself. I’ll let you be the judge of whether I was successful if not. The good news is that even if you hate what I wrote, you can enjoy more of my sister’s incredible artwork, which she created specifically for the piece itself.