Search Results for: Granta

The Early Years of Elif Batuman’s Interest in Russian Authors

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

What if author Leo Tolstoy was murdered? Consider the evidence: late in life, the great Russian author started ending his daily journal entries with the phrase “If I am alive.” He and his wife, Countess Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya, fought so much he wrote his novella The Kreutzer Sonata about a husband who murdered his wife. (Granted, Tolstoy did give her his diaries, which detailed his sexual escapades, including the fact that he’d a child with a serf who lived on their property.) He had an associate who was trying to get control of the copyrights to his early manuscripts. Tolstoy’s wife made a strange statement on her deathbed. These are the puzzle pieces that a young Stanford student named Elif Batuman used to investigate the circumstances of Tolstoy’s death.

Before Batuman started writing for The New Yorker, she harbored a profound interest in the famed Russian author. At Granta, Batuman recounts her wild academic goose chase and how it led her to the ranks of other Tolstoyans at the International Tolstoy Conference in Russia. The four days she spent wearing sweatpants and flip-flops after her luggage got lost en route to Russia is the tip of the iceberg. This piece is a comic examination of both a subculture and of the depths of her own youthful imagination, which became her first book, The Possessed, about the people obsessed with Russia’s great authors.

The morning panel was devoted to comparisons of Tolstoy and Rousseau. I tried to pay attention, but I couldn’t stop thinking about snakes. Perhaps Tolstoy had been killed by some kind of venom?

‘The French critic Roland Barthes has said that the least productive subject in literary criticism is the dialogue between authors,’ began the second speaker. ‘Nonetheless, today I am going to talk about Tolstoy and Rousseau.’

I remembered a Sherlock Holmes story in which an heiress in Surrey is found in the throes of a fatal conniption, gasping, ‘It was the band! The speckled band!’ Dr. Watson assumes that she was killed by a band of Gypsies who were camping on the property, and who wore polka-dotted kerchiefs. But Watson is wrong. The heiress’s words actually referred to the rare spotted Indian adder introduced into her bedroom through a ventilation shaft by her wicked stepfather.

The heiress’s dying words, ‘the speckled band,’ represent one of the early instances of the ‘clue’ in detective fiction. Often, a clue is a signifier with multiple significations: a band of Gypsies, a handkerchief, an adder. But if the ‘speckled band’ is a clue, I wondered drowsily, what is the snake? There was a loud noise and I jerked upright. The Tolstoy scholars were applauding. The second speaker had finished her talk and was pushing the microphone along the conference table to her neighbor.

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In Defense of Boris the Russki

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Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | January 2020 | 10 minutes (2,603 words)

Recently while running, I listened to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch on audiobook. It was recommended to me because of my interest in suspenseful novels and books about art.

An hour into listening, I was puzzled by the book’s two-dimensional characters and unbelievable plot twists. Back from a run, I read that although the book had won the Pulitzer Prize, there’d been some controversy surrounding the award. Francine Prose drew attention to Tartt’s lazy clichés. James Wood described the book as a children’s story. The Paris Review, London Review of Books, and Sunday Times had similar things to say.

Several chapters later, I realized that none of the criticisms had objected to the book’s racism. After another search, I was relieved to see that one article on Salon questioned the book’s “wishful portrayal of people of color,” all of whom played the part of loving, docile servants. The writer carefully dissected these characters, revealing the “banal multicultural textbook” fantasy of an old world with its antique paintings and selfless servants, which continually looked away from real racial dynamics.

But by the end of the article, the writer had still not mentioned, in her meticulous study of racial blind spots as they applied to peripheral characters, the racism at the book’s very center, in the character of the Russian Boris who is the protagonist’s nemesis and best friend.

I’m especially surprised that this had gone entirely unnoticed in the U.S ever since the book’s publication in 2013, even though literary conversations of the past decade have often simultaneously been conversations about identity.
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In Pocahontas County, Deep Divisions and a Gruesome Discovery

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Emma Copley Eisenberg | Longreads | excerpt from The Third Rainbow Girl | January 2020 | 14 minutes (3,877 words)

It starts with a road, a two-lane blacktop called West Virginia Route 219 that spines its way through Pocahontas County and serves, depending on the stretch, as main street and back street, freeway and byway, sidewalk and catwalk.

It is June 25, 1980, just after the summer solstice, and a young man named Tim is driving home for the night. He had driven to Lewisburg, the big town almost an hour away, and is coming back now, with fresh laundry and groceries.
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10 Outstanding Short Stories to Read in 2020

Edwidge Danticat
Edwidge Danticat (Photo by Sean Drakes/LatinContent via Getty Images)

The #longreads hashtag on Twitter is filled with great story recommendations from people around the world. Pravesh Bhardwaj is a longtime contributor — throughout the year he posts his favorite short stories, and then in January we’re lucky enough to get a list of his favorites to enjoy in the year ahead.


For many years now, I’ve been posting short stories on Twitter. It’s a habit now: Before sitting down to write — my Hindi language ten-part Audible Original Thriller Factory is up and running, written and directed under series director and presenter Anurag Kashyap’s stewardship with narrators including Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Tabu — I look around for a story, read it, then share it. I end up reading almost every day, irrespective of whether I am able to write something or not.

Starting with Kristen Roupenian’s The Good Guy, to Etgar Keret’s Pineapple Crush, I posted 297 stories in 2019. Here are ten that I enjoyed the most: Read more…

Bikini Kill — and My Bunkmates — Taught Me How to Unleash My Anger

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Melissa Febos | Longreads | excerpted from Burn It Down: Women Writing about Anger | October 2019 | 13 minutes (3,398 words)

My father and I sat in near silence for the four-hour drive to western Massachusetts. The worst possible thing had happened: my father had read my diary. Now, my parents were sending me to summer camp for three weeks. Over the previous eighteen months, I had undergone a personality transformation. They had seen the outward signs — how my grades slipped and my once gregarious and sweet disposition now alternated between despondency, sulking, and fury. The diary revealed that this new me also lied and drank and spent as much time as possible in the company of bad influences and older boys who either believed that I really was sixteen or didn’t care that I was actually thirteen. I, too, was confounded by my transformation and so my diary offered a meticulous accounting of events with little reflection. When I imagined my father reading it, my mind blanched white hot, like an exposed negative. My body was brand new but felt singed around the edges, already ruined in some principal way.
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When Your Social Worker Thinks You’re Ungrateful

Illustration by Dola Sun

Dina Nayeri | Longreads | August 2019 | 13 minutes (3,210 words)

In the last two years I’ve become entangled in the workings of the homelessness prevention arm of London’s Camden Council. Camden is the borough that includes the British Museum, the British Library, a small sliver of Regents Park, and a huge chunk of Hampstead Heath. It also has its rough parts, with subsidized or free council housing, artists on grants, young mothers on benefits — as in most of London, Camden’s residents are a varied lot and everyone, whatever their socioeconomic class, uses some kind of government service.

Minoo is an Iranian refugee with two bright children and a sick, immobile husband. In Iran, she was an experienced nurse, her husband an engineer and Christian convert. Her daughter is clever and witty, her sharp eye taking in every detail. Her son is a football star with a head for math. The four escaped religious persecution and possible death in Iran, spent months as asylum seekers having their story scrutinized for lies, then slept in a roach motel for a few more months before being recognized as both refugees and at risk for homelessness. Now, having been granted asylum, they share a tiny room in a Camden hostel and wait for permanent housing.

Minoo and I met two years ago, when her church contacted me to befriend a new refugee who was at risk of depression. She was my age, a mother, like me, and came from my hometown in Iran. We had fled for the same kind of apostasy, though I had been a child and she was in her 30s. We met for coffee. She was bedraggled but smiled for my sake. She insisted on buying my coffee. She had sad, kind eyes, with a drop of something, like a tear, lodged near one iris. To bridge the class divide, and to put her at ease, I made a clown of myself, and soon she opened up to me. “We can’t breathe,” she said. “My son is almost a teenager. My daughter is suffocating.”

The family’s Camden hostel room has a single bed that they share: sick husband, wife, pre-teen boy and girl. From the bed, you can touch the bathroom door and the kitchen table. Three large steps will put you at the opposite wall. Every day, they face potential homelessness, and yet, for two years, the Camden housing authority has run them in circles. It’s important to stress that the family’s status has already been decided. By the (conservative) government’s own estimation, they are at risk of homelessness, and given the husband’s condition, entitled to public housing that includes separate rooms for the boy and girl. And yet, accessing it has been humiliating, repetitive, and opaque. Recently it’s become vindictive, too.
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On Representations of Disability: A Reading List

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Around the age of 3 or 4, Harriet McBryde Johnson sits in front of her family’s television set and thinks, “I will die.” The thought comes to her after an advertisement for the Muscular Dystrophy Association flashes across the screen, one that depicts a small boy’s journey from running bases as a baseball player to using a wheelchair and then to bed, one he never rises from. Born with a neuromuscular disease, this commercial, and then a telethon around the age of 5, are Johnson’s first encounters with depictions of disability in mainstream media, as she writes in her memoir Too Late To Die Young. From that first scene, the line I will die, I will die, I will die, serves as a sort of chorus, one that punctuates Johnson’s progression from kindergarten student to law school graduate to protestor and beyond. Johnson reclaims the line; as she moves through life, I will die is no longer a source of fear, but rather a lyric of defiance.

The negative representations of disability Johnson encounters in childhood do not leave her in adulthood, particularly in relation to her wheelchair. She protests against entities like Jerry Lewis, who claims, in a letter penned for Parade Magazine, that wheelchairs are a form of “steel imprisonment,” a “dystrophic child’s plight.” When, being photographed for The New York Times Magazine, the photographer asks to remove Johnson’s chair from the frame, saying that Johnson looks “frail.” The photographer argues that Johnson will look “beautiful and powerful out of the chair,” “brave,” but Johnson advocates for herself.

Johnson’s memoir reveals a litany of ableist assumptions directed toward her and other disabled people, as well as the emotional and physical tolls these perpetual violences take on her throughout her life. Harmful messages, distributed through television ads, telethons, looks others give her while she’s out, snide comments, the highly inaccessible way our world is physically built, seep so much into her consciousness that at one point, she sees wheelchair dancing as being “undignified.” It takes her years before she reckons with her own beliefs, questioning whether they are borne from what others have told her about her disability or about what she herself has experienced in her body. Then, she explains the joy that comes from moving through the world in her wheelchair, saying, “we can in our own way play with sight and sound, combine rhythm and form, move in our chairs and with our chairs, and glide and spin in ways walking people can’t.”

Though Johnson’s life experiences are unique to her, the underlying themes within her book resonate far beyond. I saw myself reflected in some of her passages, particularly when I thought back to my own experience using a wheelchair for a few months as a result of neurological symptoms, during which time I felt a sense of shame. Johnson’s reckoning with her own internalized ableism helped me realize that my feelings came not from my use of the wheelchair, which allowed me to move through the world, often with great joy, but from how I thought others might perceive me.

Her memoir, too, encouraged me to ask questions: How does pervasive ableism affect the way our society continues to be architected? In what ways have disabled people been represented in media and how can representation continue to evolve so that disabled people have more agency? How are invisible disabilities treated versus visible? What have other disabled people’s experiences been engaging with different accessible tools and technology? The essays curated here cover an array of topics related to those questions, as well as delve into intersections between disability and race, class, and gender.

1. Common Cyborg (Jillian Weise, September 24, 2018, Granta)

Jillian Weise writes against Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto,’ exposing numerous flaws in Haraway’s argument, namely, the fact that Haraway neglects to acknowledge disabled people. Weise discusses what it means to claim a cyborg identity, and how disability is treated by a group of people she names ‘tryborgs,’ who “preach cyborg nature,” but “do not actually depend on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazine.”

They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured.

2. What It’s Like to Be a Disabled Model in the Fashion Industry (Keah Brown, September 5, 2018, Teen Vogue)

In this essential reported piece, Keah Brown, author of recently published The Pretty One, interviews three models with disabilities — Chelsea Werner, Jillian Mercado, and Mama Cax — and draws on her own experiences with cerebral palsy to emphasize the need for increased representation of diverse bodies in advertising, media, and modeling.

Disabled people and disabled models are still left out of most campaign ads and runway shows. This lack of representation has implications: When you go so long without seeing yourself it is easy to interpret that lack of representation to mean you’re ugly and unworthy, that you deserve to be invisible or even worse, are grotesque.

3. How Designers Are Failing People With Disabilities (Justin Rorlich, March 6, 2014, Hazlitt)

With estimates that there are 1.3 billion disabled people in the world who control more than $8 trillion in disposable income, you’d think there would be competition within the wheelchair market to create products with sleeker, more efficient design. But no, as Justin Rohrlich exposes in this piece, hardly any work is being done within big corporations to advance wheelchair design. Instead, individuals like Andrew Slorance are taking matters into their own hands.

In no other market do we force people to simply take whatever product gets shoved down their throats, especially one of this size,’ Donovan says. ‘It’s really sort of unbelievable.

You’d think that companies would have figured out long ago how to sell to a cohort this size. For some reason, it remains barely-touched.

4. The Complicated Dynamics of Disability and Desire (Lachrista Greco, April 6, 2016, Bitch)

After a teacher in middle school tells Lachrista Greco she’s using her invisible disability as a “crutch,” Lachrista begins to make a connection between her disability and how wanted she feels in relation to others. In examining harmful cultural moments like Kylie Jenner modeling with a wheelchair, essays by other disabled writers, and personal memories, Lachrista explores how disability is connected to desirability, both in her life, and in our culture as a whole.

Jenner appeared on the cover of the magazine sitting in a brass-colored wheelchair—sexy, glamorous, and blank. It’s fetishization to the nth degree for Jenner, an able-bodied person, to pose in a wheelchair wearing a black latex bodysuit. It’s “crip drag,” as comedian and disability rights activist Caitlin Wood calls it.

5. The Amputee Cyclist’s Art of Self-Repair (C.S. Giscombe, May 23, 2019, The New York Times)

After seeing a banner that reads “Do you remember when prosthetics weren’t mind controlled?” while on a bike ride through the U.C. campus, C.S. Giscombe reflects on his own prosthetic; ruminates on intersections of race, class, and disability; and confronts ableism.

He was amazed — as some people are, ‘because of your handicap’ — that I was riding at all, and as we talked and climbed the topic of touring came up and he was quick to inform me that it was a thing sadly beyond my capabilities, though we had just met. ‘Typically, disability is viewed as a tragedy,’ as my friend the poet Jennifer Bartlett has observed.

6. Products mocked as “lazy” or “useless” are often important tools for people with disabilities (s.e. smith, September 20, 2018, Vox)

After seeing a device called a Sock Slider ridiculed on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, s.e. smith compiles a list of other tools mocked on the internet: “banana slicers, egg separators, jar openers, buttoners, tilting jugs for dispensing liquids, and much more.” In interviewing people with disabilities, disability scholars, and compiling research about costs of attendants, smith not only makes clear that the use of these gadgets enable some disabled people to live independently, but also examines the role of the internet in spreading harmful messages.

When content mocking the disability community — like memes about ambulatory wheelchair users getting up to grab something high at the store — spread like wildfire, commentary from the affected community is rarely attached. This has a dehumanizing tendency, creating a world that rewards judgmental, snappy commentary and eliminates nuance.

7. I Love ‘Queer Eye.’ I Don’t Love The Way It Portrayed People With Disabilities. (Jessica Slice, July 26, 2019, Huffington Post)

Representations of people with visible disabilities on television are far and few between, so when the Fab Five of ‘Queer Eye’ featured Wesley, “a Black man, loving father, 30-year old community activist and wheelchair user” on an episode, Jessica Slice had hopes that the team would empower Wesley to embrace his identity as a disabled man in the same way they encourage others featured on the show. Instead, the episode falls short in many ways, which Slice chronicles in this well-researched piece.

Critically, being disabled is not a negative. It’s an identity, just like being queer, Black or Latinx is an identity. If it makes you pause to hear ‘Black, but not really,’ or ‘gay, but not really,’ then you should have the same reaction to ‘disabled, but not really.’

8. (Don’t) Fear the Feeding Tube (Kayla Whaley, May 8, 2018, Catapult)

When her mom brings up the idea of a feeding tube, Kayla Whaley recoils. She feels shame and fear thinking about such a concrete change being made to her body until she speaks with others who have gone through the surgery. This essay, in addition to providing a history of gastronomy tubes, also chronicles Kayla’s emotional turn from revulsion to delight in relation to her g-tube, and the ways in which her feeding tube allows her to connect with her body in new and surprising ways.

More than that, knowing what was inside felt like sharing a secret with myself. Seeing inside my gut, learning to recognize its patterns and moods, felt intimate in a way that was wholly unexpected but altogether a joy.


Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.

The Cost of Reading

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Ayşegül Savas | Longreads | July 2019 | 15 minutes (3,811 words)

Two weeks after I read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living, I found out that she would be speaking at a literary symposium titled “Against Storytelling” at a venue some minutes from where I live.

The Cost of Living is a memoir about the period following Levy’s separation from her husband. She moves into a dreary apartment block with her two daughters, loses her mother, takes every job she is offered, and continues writing, in an entirely new set-up of family, home, and work.

The book is about other things, too, like cycling up a hill after a day writing at a garden shed; buying a chicken to roast for dinner which tumbles out of the torn shopping bag and is flattened by a car; putting up silk curtains in the bedroom and painting the walls yellow; showing up to a meeting about optioning the film rights to her novel with leaves in her hair.

It is, mysteriously, about a scarcity of time and money, of trying to make ends meet. Mysteriously, because it is such a generous book, so lush and unrushed.

One of my best friends, visiting for the weekend, picked it up from the coffee table while my husband and I were preparing breakfast on Saturday morning.

“Oh my god,” she shouted from the living room, “this book is amazing!”

I guessed that she must have read the opening scene, when the narrator overhears a conversation at a restaurant. A middle-aged man, “Big Silver,” is talking to a young woman he’s invited to his table. After a while, the young woman interrupts to tell him a strange story of her own, about a scuba diving trip, which is also a story of being hurt by someone in her life.

“You talk a lot don’t you?” Big Silver responds.

“It was not easy to convey to him,” Levy writes, “a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too… It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character.”

My friend went home on Sunday evening. She’d just been offered a new job, and would be spending the week negotiating her terms and meeting with the people at the new office. One of her reservations about the job concerned a partner who had first approached her for recruitment. Yet he didn’t have the tact, even as he sought her out, to stifle sexist comments meant as jokes. My friend wondered whether she should call him out on this during their meeting. In their offer, the firm had praised my friend’s directness.

That week, she and I messaged back and forth about the offer, as well as about all our favorite parts in The Cost of Living. She told me she’d recommended the book to her therapist.

Another friend was struck by the book’s lightness — its reluctance to belabor any sorrow, despite the sadness that runs throughout. He felt that this was a form of respect towards readers, their capacity to understand grief and hardship without dissecting it to pieces.

Yet another friend (we were all reading The Cost of Living) said that the book had lungs. Between the empty spaces of its short paragraphs, it breathed with light and transforming meaning. This friend had just read all of Levy’s work in one stretch.
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Editors Thinking About Editing at the AWP Conference

Photo by Aaron Gilbreath

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2019 | 12 minutes (1,878 words)


The 11,000 people who attend the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual Conference & Bookfair (AWP) come for professional advancement and to build community. They come to attend panels, to stay motivated after graduate school, to promote their magazines, book presses, and graduate programs and to choose magazines to write for, books to read, and graduate programs to attend. For many attendees, AWP is a chance to talk shop deep into the night. I came this year for many of these reasons, and also to improve my editing abilities.

Even though I work as an editor, I have a lot to learn, and the editors on the panel “Editor-Author Relationships: How Should They Be?” offered tons of practical wisdom. Jennifer Acker from The Common magazine moderated a group that included John Freeman of  Grove/Atlantic, Freeman’s, and Granta, One Story editor Patrick Ryan, and Catapult managing editor Matthew Ortile. Freeman is a quote machine; his  mind moved so quickly I could barely write down what he said.   Read more…