Author Archives

Sari Botton is a writer living in Kingston, NY. She edited the award-winning “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY” and the NY Times Bestselling “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for NY.” She is the essays editor for Longreads. She tweets at http://twitter.com/saribotton

The Post on Anti-Semitism I Never Thought I’d Write

Businesses and properties owned by Jews were the target of vicious Nazi mobs during a night of vandalism that is known as "Kristallnacht". (Photo by © Bettmann/CORBIS/Bettmann Archive)

Today is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a nation-wide pogrom against Jews that took place across Germany and in parts of Austria on November 9th and 10th, 1938. Over the course of those two days, Germans smashed the windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burned synagogues, and committed deadly violence against Jews in the streets. Many consider the mass destruction that took place then to have marked a shift from ongoing, rampant anti-semitism to the official beginning of the Holocaust.

As a kid, in the ’70s, although I was occasionally made fun of for being Jewish, I thought that level of hatred and violence toward Jews had been relegated permanently to the past. But now, 80 years after Kristallnacht, I’m seeing I was wrong. Anti-semitism is on the rise again — in Europe, South America, the United States, everywhere.

It’s in my city of Kingston, New York, too. In my neighborhood. On my street.
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A Confederacy of (Dangerous) Dunces

In her new column for The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit makes a solid argument that Donald Trump’s presidency, and his fervent support from white racists, mark an attempt of the American Confederacy to rise again.

We had an ardent Unionist president for eight years, and now we are 21 months into the reign of an openly Confederate president, one who has defended Confederate statues and Confederate values and Confederate goals, because Make America Great Again harks back to some antebellum fantasy of white male dominance. Last weekend might as well have been Make America Gentile Again. And then came the attack, last Tuesday, on one of the signal achievements after the end of all-out war between the states: the 14th Amendment, which extends equal right of citizenship to everyone born here or naturalized.

So much of what is at stake is the definition of “us”, “ours” and “we”. “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union,” says the preamble to the Constitution. It was murky about who “we” were, and who “the people” were. That document gives only some white men the vote and apportions each state’s representation according to “whole Number of free Persons, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons”. “All other persons” is a polite way of saying enslaved black people, who found the union pretty imperfect. “Who’s your ‘us’?” could be what we ask each other and our elected officials.

“You will not replace us,” shouted the mobs of white men marching through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 in a rally organized in response to the planned removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee. When Dylann Roof murdered nine black people on 17 June 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina, he declared: “Y’all are raping our white women. Y’all are taking over the world.” His “us” was white people, perhaps white men, since “our women” seems to regard white women as white men’s possessions.

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Help Us Fund More Original Essays (and Great Art to Go with Them)

It’s that time of year again, when for two weeks, my Twitter feed reads like a public radio fund-drive. That’s right, it’s Longreads’ annual member drive.

We’re working hard right now to raise $50,000 for our original story fund by Sunday, November 4th — a number that turns into $200,000 when you consider that WordPress.com matches every dollar contributed times three. We need your help to achieve this goal — to be able to fund more original stories.

At Longreads we pride ourselves on paying contributors fairly. The money we raise during our member drive is used to pay writers, editors, art directors, fact-checkers, copyeditors, illustrators, photographers, transcribers, translators and others who help us publish original pieces throughout the year.

It’s used to fund not only ground-breaking journalism — for instance Leah Sottile’s article and podcast series, Bundyville, a collaboration with Oregon Public Broadcasting — but also personal essays, which we’ve been publishing more of than ever before.

As Longreads’ Essays Editor — and a reader — I feel strongly that personal narratives have never been more important than they are now, when the world needs more awareness of, and empathy for, people’s different experiences. Publishing personal essays allows us to amplify diverse voices, and also to give chances to new writers who are just starting out. I believe personal essays can be as effective as hard reporting in conveying important ideas, and perhaps even more so in terms of opening people’s hearts and minds.

I consider myself incredibly fortunate to get to work at a publication that recognizes the value of personal essays, pays writers fairly for them, and makes room in its editorial calendar for two or more of them each week.

Becoming a member — or making a one-time donation whether or not you already are a member — helps us to keep publishing a broad mix of essays from a wide variety of writers.

It’s impossible to choose my favorite particular essays that we’ve published, but in the interest of persuading you to contribute, I’d like to point to a few that have made me especially proud to have the opportunity to do this work, and to be part of the incredible Longreads team. Please notice, too, the art that accompanies these pieces — original illustrations by various artists, and collages by our art director, Katie Kosma. Member funding helps pay for these, too. Read more…

The Trans Parent Whose Journey Inspired a Television Show

The New Yorker has an excerpt of Jill Soloway’s forthcoming memoir, She Wants It: Desire, Power and Toppling the Patriarchy. In it, the “Transparent” creator recalls the incident that led to the Amazon Prime series: her father coming out to her as transgender. Soloway touches on the ways in which her father’s announcement was initially difficult for her — and other family members — to accept.

I wondered what I was supposed to think about the old version of my dad that I remembered. The big one with the beard that wasn’t actually dead, but was—where, exactly? When I told my friend Nicole about my dad, she said, “Oh, she must be so relieved, to get that big old monkey suit off.” But where was that monkey suit that used to contain my dad? Was it on the floor somewhere, deflated? The notion got me thinking about my own lifetime of bodily disconnect.

Not long after, I got word that Carrie’s sister, my aunt Ruth, was nearing the end of her life. My mom had also scheduled hip-replacement surgery and needed us for support. I decided to go to Chicago to say goodbye to Ruth, be there as my mom went into surgery, and finally meet Carrie.

Ruth was in her eighties. When I got to her apartment, her hospice attendant opened the door. She was sweet, and the space felt warm and quiet. I went to sit at Ruth’s bedside. She took sips of water. I told her how much I loved her and how good she looked. Her son David, my cousin, would be there soon. But, before he arrived, she wanted something from me. Could I give her my thoughts on a letter she wanted to write to my dad?

“What’s in the letter?” I asked.

“I don’t want him to come to my funeral in women’s clothing,” she said.

“O.K.,” I said.

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Of Politics and Prose

Should art — and more specifically, literature — be instructive? Adding her perspective to the never-ending debate, Roxane Gay has an essay at Lithub in which she reveals how she chose the short stories for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2018: with an eye toward writing that engaged with the political in thoughtful, engaging, diverse and inclusive ways.

Writers are divided on whether or not it is their responsibility to address the contretemps in their work. Some writers stubbornly cling to the idea that writing should not be sullied by politics. They labor under the impression that they can write fiction that isn’t political, or influenced in some way by politics, which is, whether they realize it or not, a political stance in and of itself. Other writers believe it is an inherent part of their craft to engage with the political. And then there are those writers, such as myself, who believe that the very act of writing from their subject position is political, regardless of what they write. I know, as a black, queer woman, that to write is a deeply political act, whether I am writing about the glory of the movie Magic Mike XXL, or a novel about a kidnapping in Haiti, or a short story about a woman eating expired yogurt while her husband suggests opening their marriage.

When I am reading fiction, I am not always looking for the political. First and foremost, I am looking for a good story. I am looking for beautifully crafted sentences. I am looking for a refreshing voice or perspective. I am looking for interesting, complex characters that I find myself thinking about even when I am done with the story. I am looking for the artful way any given story is conveyed, but I also love when a story has a powerful message, when a story teaches me something about the world, when a story shows me just how much I don’t know and need to know about the lives of others.

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The Art of the Pan

If you’re looking for a diversion from the never ending political sh*t show in America, I highly recommend English Patient Twitter, where just about everyone in media is talking about Sarah Miller’s Popula essay about her struggle in 1996 to get away with panning “The English Patient” for an alt weekly paper.

Even before seeing that “racist, boring, laughable, pseudo-intellectual movie,” she knew she’d pan it. Her perspective on popular movies often ran counter to the mainstream — more bluntly put, she didn’t like most movies. But it wasn’t just a pose; she came by her negative criticism honestly, and made salient, compelling arguments for it.

This was a movie about good looking mostly white people talking complete rubbish to each other, the end. But it was based on a LITERARY NOVEL with LONG SENTENCES using BIG WORDS. It had RESPECTED ACTORS. PEOPLE DIED in it. Also, WORLD WAR II WAS THERE. Everyone had agreed to care about this thing, to call it good, to give it nine Academy Awards. But it was just a piece of shit sprinkled with glitter that everyone, including me, agreed to call gold.

But Miller wasn’t the only person at the time to lampoon the drama — Seinfeld‘s ‘The English Patient’ episode, which drew more than 31 million viewers when it aired in 1997, centers on Elaine’s hatred of the film:

Still, Miller’s editor considered her opinion of the Anthony Minghella screen adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel to be scandalous.

My review of The English Patient was not really a review. I began by extensively praising Kristin Scott Thomas’s hair, and used this as a way to transition into discussing the other good things about the film. One was the chance to see Naveen Andrews, who I had liked so much in The Buddha of Suburbia, which I spent a paragraph praising, and which, I stressed, had a good story and was actually about something—unlike The English Patient, which was about British people fucking in their colonies, and not nearly often enough to be any fun. I recounted the moment when Fiennes stuck his livery tongue into the alabaster hollow of Scott Thomas’s throat, and Sam and I cried out in unison, “Ewwww.”

It was the best thing I’d ever written.

I pretended to read the paper as Jennifer read my review. I waited for her to start giggling and making appreciative sounds. But she was silent. When she finally turned to speak to me her face was white. She said, “Sarah, we cannot print this review.”

“But the movie was really, really, bad,” I said. “I mean seriously, it was the worst.”

“That is not the consensus from people I know who are smart,” she said. She was pretty mad.

“I swear to God that no one could possibly like this movie,” I said. “I mean, anyone who likes this movie is an idiot.”

Fearing it would threaten her future freelance work with the paper, Miller re-wrote the piece, dishonestly she says — in such a way that, “I didn’t go so far as to say that the movie was great, but I know that overall I ended up recommending it.”

Now, 22 years later, there are those on Twitter who view the essay as scandalous — calling it smug and flagrantly contrarian. But there seem to be more in favor of it, who appreciate Miller’s brutal honesty, and her irreverence toward the Serious Film establishment.

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It’s Time to Stop Painting Joyce Maynard as an ‘Oversharer’ Already

Recently on Facebook I was surprised to see a female acquaintance deriding author Joyce Maynard as an “opportunist” for writing a memoir and assorted essays about her time with J.D. Salinger when she was 18 and he was 53. I’d assumed that in the #metoo era, we’d now abandoned such sexist notions, and supported the idea of women speaking out — and writing about — their experiences with men who were in positions of much greater power than they were.

But as Maynard reported recently in the New York Times, at least as far as her public image is concerned, unfortunately not much has changed.

Last fall, when word of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses of women in the entertainment industry overtook the press, followed by near daily revelations about other prominent and respected men accused of similar violations, I supposed this was the moment when my own experience might be seen in a new light. I thought my phone would ring.

The call never came. And though I believe that if the book I wrote 20 years ago were published today it would be received differently, it does not appear that enlightenment concerning the abuses of men in power extends retroactively to women who chose to speak long ago, and were shamed and humiliated for doing so. As recently as last fall — on the occasion of my having published a memoir about the death of my second husband, a book in which Salinger never appears — I was referred to as “the queen of oversharing.”

Oversharing. What does it say about us that a woman who speaks the truth of her experience should be dismissed for telling more than the world feels comfortable hearing? (And it is always a woman who will be accused of this; when a male writer confesses intimate details of his life, he’s brave, fearless, even brilliant. Consider, just for starters, Norman Mailer. Or, more recently, Karl Ove Knausgaard.)

For me, Maynard is a hero in more ways that one: a woman writer unafraid to tell the uncomfortable truth about a beloved icon, even in the face of derision — and as of this fall semester when she returns to Yale as a 64-year-old sophomore, an older woman unconcerned with dictums about age-appropriateness, committed to reclaiming what she lost out on when Salinger interrupted her life all those years ago.

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Finding Time to Write Even During the Busiest of Times

At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Amy Carleton has an essay on #1000WordsofSummer, the public two-week-long writing accountability project novelist Jami Attenberg offered to writers for free, via Twitter, Instagram, and TinyLetter, from June 15th through June 29th of 2018.

Carleton writes about how Attenberg helped created a “supportive literary community” online, and I concur. In fact, I benefitted from it.

I love my work editing other people’s writing, but I have a hard time finding time for my own writing, and sometimes even forget I’m a writer. The #1000WordsofSummer project came at what seemed the worst time for me. I had lost my stepfather of 33 years less than a month before; I was in the middle of moving to a new house; and I was taking part in bringing to light a local #metoo story.

But it turned out to actually be a fortuitous time for me to commit to writing 1000 words a day; it forced me to create the time, to get up earlier, stay up later, do whatever I had to do to be accountable to myself and the others who were writing. I did it every single day for those two weeks, and proved to myself that even in the busiest and craziest of times, you can find time to write 1000 words. I also enjoyed a sense of accomplishment, and felt for the first time in a long time as if I wasn’t self-abandoning the writer in me.

Many writers, in fact, lament over the number of their words that are “wasted” responding to the latest Twitter-drama instead of focusing on their own creative projects. “If you took all the time and all the words you used on Twitter… you could have written a book by now. #sadfacts,” observes one user.

But instead of perpetuating this regret, Attenberg turned her attention to creative empowerment. Within days, there was a hashtag: #1000wordsofsummer, and within weeks, a newsletter with almost 3000 subscribers. Once June 15 arrived, the daily emails from Attenberg commenced — some featuring guest commentary from other writers like Meg WolitzerAlissa Nutting, and Ada Limón. I printed out the newsletters each day and highlighted the words that resonated most with me; from novelist Laura van den Berg: “Here is the bottom line: I think often of what a painter said to me at a residency: ‘work makes more work.’ Indeed it does. Let’s do what we can.

Attenberg had no idea her project would have such traction. She was pleasantly surprised, to say the least.

Eventually, what Attenberg began on a lark showed how positive and encouraging online communities can be.

“While it wasn’t necessarily my original intention,” she reflects, “it became clear quite quickly that the people participating in it had created their own corner of the internet. I hadn’t been part of something like that before…And I actually found myself looking forward to going on the internet each day, instead of being full of dread about the news. Because I could check in on how people were doing and seeing their progress and say supportive things to them. For two weeks, I was able to be positive in that space, and experience the joy of others as they made progress in their work.

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Introducing ‘Fine Lines,’ a Series About Age and Aging

Ray Wise, Getty

Today on Longreads we’re excited to launch a new series about age and aging, called “Fine Lines.” It will be mostly personal essays, written by a diverse group of writers from a range of age groups, with corresponding interviews on the Longreads Podcast. The essays will touch on every aspect of growing up and getting older: culture, states of mind, physical and mental health, relationships, sex, spirituality, style, money, career, fashion, beauty, food, recreation, and death.

* * *

Why a series on age and aging? Because we live in an age-obsessed culture, but also one in which each generation seems to define “adulthood” differently than the one before it. Particular attitudes and milestones are no longer necessarily associated with reaching certain birthdays. It’s as if somewhere along the way, the Baby Boomers burned the guidebook for what you’re supposed to achieve when, and the generations to follow have been making up their own rules.

This is also a personal obsession of mine — ever more so as I get older. I’ve always had a strange relationship to time and aging, and wonder constantly what each period of my life is supposed to mean. Perhaps it’s because I seem to be living off-script, without children (or grandchildren) helping me mark the passage of time. I often wonder, How old am I supposed to act? How old am I supposed to feel? Because at any given time, how I act and feel never quite match the numbers.

How old am I? The first number that often comes to mind is often 15, except when it’s 11. A questionnaire on BiologicalAge.com suggests that health-wise, I am 37, but a survey on AgeTest.com tells me I am 29. According to the information on my birth certificate, however, I was born in October of 1965, making me, at this writing, chronologically speaking, 52.

I am the oldest on the Longreads team, by kind of a lot. (The youngest on the team is literally half my age.) While I have a long and varied resume, and enjoy occasionally blowing my colleagues’ minds on Slack with comments that underscore how long I’ve been around, I don’t necessarily feel more mature or “adult” than the rest of them — gray hair, arthritic joints, hot flashes and occasional lapses in memory notwithstanding.

I find age and aging to be confusing and mystifying, and therefore fascinating. And as I get older, I only have more questions. Like, why do we give birthday cards that make jokes about getting older? Why are so many people ashamed of their age? Why aren’t I?

I want to know how other people — Gen X women like me, but also people of all genders and different backgrounds, at different points in their lives — are processing getting older. Because it’s happening to all of us, all the time.

* * *

The first piece in the “Fine Lines” series, “Gone Gray,” by memoirist Jessica Berger Gross, is about her decision, at 45, to stop dying her hair, and how it has, in some ways, actually led her to feel younger.

We hope you’ll enjoy it, along with the rest of the series, as it unfolds.

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From the Fine Lines Series:
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not

Balancing the Books

Pamela Hansford Johnson, English novelist and critic, chatting to novelist Olivia Manning at a party given by the British PEN Club to celebrate the opening of the club's new headquarters in Chelsea. Original Publication: Picture Post - 4722 - People Who Write Your Books - pub. 1949 Original Publication: People Disc - HM0383 (Photo by Picture Post/Getty Images)

It’s going to take a lot of work to correct history so that it includes all the great women whose lives and work have been overlooked and obliterated by the patriarchy. But strides are being made! The New York Times is retroactively publishing obituaries of notable women and others who aren’t straight white men. And now The Paris Review, which had virtually erased one of its own women editors from its masthead, as A.N. Devers reported last December *, has launched something of a corrective: “Feminize Your Cannon,” a monthly series featuring “underrated and underread” female authors.

The first installment, by Emma Garman, profiles British Novelist Olivia Manning (1908-1980), known best for her novel School for Love and for her Balkan and Levant trilogies.

It took Manning until late in her career to achieve a level of real acclaim, perhaps because her stories drew on harsher aspects of real life and less likable women characters — aspects that might have been better appreciated if she were publishing now. Manning was so vocally dissatisfied with her career she was known as “Olivia Moaning.” A contemporary of Iris Murdoch and Kingsley Amis, she was outwardly jealous of their greater success and fame. She’d bristled at the idea that she’d be more successful posthumously, but that’s what came to pass.

Seven years after her death in 1980 at age seventy-two, the BBC aired Fortunes of War, a faithful seven-part adaptation of the Balkan Trilogy and the Levant Trilogy. Starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh and featuring multiple international locations, the series had the highest budget in BBC history. Masterpiece Theatre’s broadcast of the show in the U.S. prompted the New York Times to call Manning “the only English woman novelist to have painted a broad, compassionate and witty canvas of men and women at war that invites comparison with Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh.”

Manning would have been gratified to finally hear it—and then disappointed anew. Today those who have read Manning’s novels (usually only the trilogies, as most of the others are out of print) tend to admire them. But her place in the pantheon of important twentieth-century British novelists, even of rediscovered women authors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann, is marginal and precarious. The scholar and critic Rohan Maitzen, when writing about Manning, found “that her name was wholly unfamiliar to two of my academic colleagues who are specialists in early 20th-century literature.” None of Manning’s work is available on Kindle.

“Not all writers of genius take the public by storm,” she writes in her introduction to a 1968 edition of Northanger Abbey. “Jane Austen in her lifetime was successful without being a sensation.” The self-consolation is touchingly evident.

In the mean time, Devers soldiers on in her efforts to make sure women authors are given their due and more widely read. She’s just successfully crowdfunded a new business, The Second Shelf, which will offer “rare books, modern first editions, manuscripts, & rediscovered works by women,” plus a quarterly publication.

*The omission has since been corrected.

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