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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Reading War: Bruce Weigl’s SONG OF NAPALM

41AVQN9F4ZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_I’m comfortable telling you that I’ve never quite gotten into poetry.  Which isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I don’t crave it like some do. I envy the type – you know who I’m talking about – clutching a slim collection of poetry like it’s a brick of gold, nose buried in the folds, and the look of bliss. They’re always pausing to put the book down, and stare, glassy-eyes, off into the distance, at some fleeting memory of the Elysium they’ve just witnessed in a handful of pretty words.

As a writer, I’m not supposed to say things like this. In fact, I should be able to serve up flaming hot lines of poetry a propos to any situation. The more obscure, the better.

Unfortunately, I am the troglodytic writer who ums and ahs his way through interviews and is thoroughly unprepared to dish literary, let alone poetical, references at a moment’s notice. Only just now have I realized that it is National Poetry Month.

I know, I know…I’m hopeless.

By way of apology, however, I will recommend Bruce Weigl’s terrifyingly-named poetry collection, Song of Napalm, which could be considered a kind of memoir in verse. I’ve written about other Vietnam veteran memoirs, to include Tim O’Brien’s and Tobias Wolff’s (which reminds me that I still need to cover Phil Caputo.) And of course, there’s always Michael Herr to consider. But this was the first bit of Vietnam poetry I’d read in quite some time, maybe even since the Academy.

I had this epiphany during one of my MFA Residencies when I attended a poetry workshop, when I realized how much of what poetry exhibits translates to prose. Linguistic economy. Visual form and structure. Tight narrative. It was like someone smacked me upside the head, which is embarrassing to admit. For crying out loud, it took someone pointing out to me that my short essay “When We Played” was a prose poem under the right light.

Like I said, I’m not that bright.

Song of Napalm had much to teach me about writing short pieces, which is where I think there is a direct craft lesson for prose writers looking for poetic inspiration. To wit: if you want to write flash nonfiction, you’d be smart to spend some time reading narrative poetry. Count the number of words, if you really want to be impressed. Hell, even if you’re not inspired to bash your head against Brevity‘s 750-word limit, you would do well to study poetry’s refusal to let a single word go to waste. Aspire to a collection of linked essays? How about a collection of linked poems?

Weigl’s collection is devastating. It’s all there: the strange country we find ourselves inhabiting, the violence, and the difficult return. The wounds, unseen, that never heal. The knowledge that we have been forever changed. Song of Napalm nails it all, and it’s the type of collection that will rip your heart out. Repeatedly. And it’s that last bit that makes me think about emotion in memoir, or at least the way a memoirist chooses to convey their narrator. Weigl talks about some things in his poetry that are uncomfortable — things that polite society chooses to relegate to second-class narrative. I don’t know if it’s the fact that you get so little in the way of word count, but receive so much in the way of emotional impact, but Song of Napalm seemed the most personal and visceral piece of Vietnam writing – fiction or nonfiction – I encountered to date. So, perhaps the last thing the poetry collection has to say to memoir is, have the courage to write the uncomfortable things.