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Blanche McCrary Boyd 

The pandemic provides an opportunity for those of us obsessed with narrative, and since I am now living so thoroughly in a stream of words, I did not even notice for two days the new carpet in our dining room, walking like a zombie among my wife and children with my earbuds in. I’ve gotten old enough (75) to have trouble reading with my eyes, and I like listening to books better anyway, because I want to hear the writing.

That’s how I’ve ended up with 170 books on my IPhone. I just finished listening to 16 hours of Mansfield Park by our reverenced friend Jane Austen, but before that I listened to Dear Edward, by Ann Napolitano, and before that I listened to Tara French’s The Trespasser. Mansfield Park was sometimes boring, but off and on I laughed out loud at Austen’s bite. Fanny Price is one weird main character.

I like Tara French, who uses all of the tools of mystery/suspense while writing lush, vivid sentences and exploring psychologies in surprisingly good novels. Dear Edward, however, is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a very long time. It is large, symphonic, elegant, patient, and full of excitement, since it’s about a plane crash that we know is going to happen.

Napolitano is not interested in bad people the way French is, or in issues of morality the way Austen is, Napolitano wants to illuminate the ordinary on the way to our destruction. The people on the plane are decent, complex, and richly developed. The book reached #2 on the New York Times Best Seller list, which is extraordinary for a literary novel, and it has been translated into 26 languages. I mean, there’s real power here, and it’s rarely cheesy, except for the doom.

Margaret Atwood did say that all stories end the same: and then she died, and then he died, and then they all died. And that’s where part of the power of this novel is coming from. Because here we all are, moving toward fates we can’t see or control. But I don’t know why this novel is so oddly comforting. Maybe because its omniscient voice is kind? The god of the plane is kind but quite firm.

Yesterday I read Olga Tokarczuk’s speech when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I read it twice, underlined and annotated. She speculates on the possibility of a ‘fourth point of view,’ something beyond third person omniscient, so maybe I should go back and give Flights, the novel that won, another chance. I did like Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

Next week I’m going to be recording for Audible my 1982 collection of ‘pieces’, essays that were originally published in the Village Voice and then collected into The Redneck Way of Knowledge, so I guess I’ll have to reread them too. It’s very weird to think about recording pieces I wrote 40 years ago. Is that still my voice? If not, whose is it? So Audible is going to let me write a little introduction and contextualize the pieces as I go, makes cuts or changes as I please and they will subtitle it “The Author’s Cut.”

Oh, Severance by Ling Ma, and Jill Lepore’s These Truths and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (wanted to see if it’s still good, and it is), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Middlemarch (it’s still good too) and Jill Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, and Elaine Pagel’s Why Religion? Loving Rebecca Solnit’s work, tried to listen to Herzog but got bored.

PS. Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. It’s autobiographical and he reads it himself. Just terrific.

Blanche McCrary Boyd is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared in Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times and many other publications. Tomb of the Unknown Racist was a Finalist for the PEN-Faulkner Award in 2019, and Boyd swears it is her last novel. She teaches writing at Connecticut College.

Books by Blanche McCrary Boyd and all Journal of the Plague Year contributors can be found on our bookshelf on, the anti-Amazon, aimed at keeping independent bookstores alive. We're putting all of the books Blanche mentioned on The Blanche McCrary Boyd Redneck Intellectual Bookshelf right here.

Blanche's Recommendations

For more of the books she mentioned see The Redneck Intellectual Bookshelf here.

Brian's Playlist

The Book of Life: Hugh Mundell

Library Girl: Reina del Cid

I Could Write A Book: Jeanne Lee & Mal Waldron

The Book of Love: Magnetic Fields

The Tender Narrator

Olga Tokarczuk's Nobel Lecture 2018

The first photograph I ever experienced consciously is a picture of my mother from before she gave birth to me. Unfortunately, it’s a black-and- white photograph, which means that many of the details have been lost, turning into nothing but gray shapes. The light is soft, and rainy, likely a springtime light, and definitely the kind of light that seeps in through a window, holding the room in a barely perceptible glow.

My mom is sitting beside our old radio, and it’s the kind with a green eye and two dials—one to regulate the volume, the other for finding a station. This radio later became my great childhood companion; from it I learned of the existence of the cosmos. Turning an ebony knob shifted the delicate feelers of the antennae, and into their purview fell all kinds of different stations— Warsaw, London, Luxembourg and Paris. Sometimes, however, the sound would falter, as though between Prague and New York, or Moscow and Madrid, the antennae’s feelers stumbled onto black holes. Whenever that happened, it sent shivers down my spine. I believed that through this radio different solar systems and galaxies were speaking to me, crackling and warbling and sending me important information, and yet I was unable to decipher it.

When as a little girl I would look at that picture, I would feel sure that my mom had been looking for me when she turned the dial on our radio. Like a sensitive radar, she penetrated the infinite realms of the cosmos, trying to find out when I would arrive, and from where. Her haircut and outfit (a big boat neck) indicate when this picture was taken, namely, in the early sixties. Gazing off somewhere outside of the frame, the somewhat hunched-over woman sees something that isn’t available to a person looking at the photo later. As a child, I imagined that what was happening was that she was gazing into time. There’s nothing really happening in the picture—it’s a photograph of a state, not a process. The woman is sad, seemingly lost in thought—seemingly lost.

When I later asked her about that sadness—which I did on numerous occasions, always prompting the same response—my mother would say that she was sad because I hadn’t been born yet, yet she already missed me.

“How can you miss me when I’m not there yet?” I would ask.

I knew that you miss someone you’ve lost, that longing is an effect of loss.

“But it can also work the other way around,” she answered. “Missing a person means they’re there.”

This brief exchange, someplace in the countryside in western Poland in the late sixties, an exchange between my mother and me, her small child, has always remained in my memory and given me a store of strength that has lasted me my whole life. For it elevated my existence beyond the ordinary materiality of the world, beyond chance, beyond cause and effect and the laws of probability. She placed my existence out of time, in the sweet vicinity of eternity. In my child’s mind, I understood then that there was more to me than I had ever imagined before. And that even if I were to say, “I’m lost,” then I’d still be starting out with the words “I am”—the most important and the strangest set of words in the world.

And so a young woman who was never religious—my mother—gave me something once known as a soul, thereby furnishing me with the world’s greatest tender narrator.

The world is a fabric we weave daily on the great looms of information, discussions, films, books, gossip, little anecdotes. Today the purview of these looms is enormous—thanks to the internet, almost everyone can take place in the process, taking responsibility and not, lovingly and hatefully, for better and for worse. When this story changes, so does the world. In this sense, the world is made of words.

How we think about the world and—perhaps even more importantly—how we narrate it have a massive significance, therefore. A thing that happens and is not told ceases to exist and perishes. This is a fact well known to not only historians, but also (and perhaps above all) to every stripe of politician and tyrant. He who has and weaves the story is in charge.

Today our problem lies—it seems—in the fact that we do not yet have ready narratives not only for the future, but even for a concrete now, for the ultra-rapid transformations of today’s world. We lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and new fables. Yet we do see frequent attempts to harness rusty, anachronistic narratives that cannot fit the future to imaginaries of the future, no doubt on the assumption that an old something is better than a new nothing, or trying in this way to deal with the limitations of our own horizons. In a word, we lack new ways of telling the story of the world.

We live in a reality of polyphonic first-person narratives, and we are met from all sides with polyphonic noise. What I mean by first-person is the kind of tale that narrowly orbits the self of a teller who more or less directly just writes about herself and through herself. We have determined that this type of individualized point of view, this voice from the self, is the most natural, human and honest, even if it does abstain from a broader perspective. Narrating in the first person, so conceived, is weaving an absolutely unique pattern, the only one of its kind; it is having a sense of autonomy as an individual, being aware of yourself and your fate. Yet it also means building an opposition between the self and the world, and that opposition can be alienating at times.

I think that first-person narration is very characteristic of contemporary optics, in which the individual performs the role of subjective center of the world. Western civilization is to a great extent founded and reliant upon that very discovery of the self, which makes up one of our most important measures of reality. Here man is the lead actor, and his judgment— although it is one among many—is always taken seriously. Stories woven in first person appear to be among the greatest discoveries of human civilization; they are read with reverence, bestowed full confidence. This type of story, when we see the world through the eyes of some self that is unlike any other, builds a special bond with the narrator, who asks his listener to put himself in his unique position.

What first-person narratives have done for literature and in general for human civilization cannot be overestimated—they have completely reworked the story of the world, so that it is no longer a place for the operations of heroes and deities upon whom we can have no influence, but rather a place for people just like us, with individual histories. It is easy to identify with people who are just like us, which generates between the story’s narrator and its reader or listener a new variety of emotional understanding based on empathy. And this, by its very nature, brings together and eliminates borders; it is very easy to lose track in a novel of the borders between the narrator’s self and the reader’s self, and a so-called “absorbing novel” actually counts on that border being blurred—on the reader, through empathy, becoming the narrator for a while. Thus literature has become a field for the exchange of experiences, an agora where everyone can tell of their own fate, or give voice to their alter ego. It is therefore a democratic space—anyone may speak up, everyone can create a speaking voice for herself. Never in the history of humanity have so many people been writers and storytellers. We have only to look at the statistics to see that this is true.

Whenever I go to book fairs, I see how many of the books being published in the world today have to do with precisely this—the authorial self. The expression instinct may be just as strong as other instincts that protect our lives—and it is most fully manifested in art. We want to be noticed, we want to feel exceptional. Narratives of the “I’m going to tell you my story” variety, or “I’m going to tell you the story of my family,” or even simply, “I’m going to tell you where I’ve been,” comprise today’s most popular literary genre. This is a large-scale phenomenon also because nowadays we are universally able to access writing, and many people attain the ability, once reserved for the few, of expressing themselves in words and stories.

Paradoxically, however, this situation is akin to a choir made up of soloists only, voices competing for attention, all traveling similar routes, drowning one another out. We know everything there is to know about them, we are able to identify with them and experience their lives as if they were our own. And yet, remarkably often, the readerly experience is incomplete and disappointing, as it turns out that expressing an authorial “self” hardly guarantees universality. What we are missing—it would seem—is the dimension of the story that is the parable. For the hero of the parable is at once himself, a person living under specific historical and geographical conditions, yet at the same time he also goes well beyond those concreteparticulars, becoming a kind of Everywhere Everyman. When a reader follows along with someone’s story written in a novel, he can identify with the fate of the character described and consider their situation as if it were his own, while in a parable, he must surrender completely his distinctness and become the Everyman. In this demanding psychological operation, the parable universalizes our experience, finding for very different fates a common denominator. That we have largely lost the parable from view is a testament to our current helplessness.

Perhaps in order not to drown in the multiplicity of titles and last names we began to divide literature’s leviathan body into genres, which we treat like the various different categories of sports, with writers as their specially trained players.

The general commercialization of the literary market has led to a division into branches—now there are fairs and festivals of this or that type of literature, completely separate, creating a clientele of readers eager to hole up with a crime novel, some fantasy or science fiction. A notable characteristic of this situation is that what was only supposed to help booksellers and librarians organize on their shelves the massive quantity of published books, and readers to orient themselves in the vastness of the offering, became instead abstract categories not only into which existing works are placed, but also according to which writers themselves have started writing. Increasingly, genre work is like a kind of cake mold that produces very similar results, their predictability considered a virtue, their banality an achievement. The reader knows what to expect and gets exactly what he wanted.

I have always intuitively opposed such orders, since they lead to the limiting of authorial freedom, to a reluctance toward the experimentation and transgression that is in fact the essential quality of creation in general. And they completely exclude from the creative process any of the eccentricity without which art would be lost. A good book does not need to champion its generic affiliation. The division into genres is the result of the commercialization of literature as a whole and an effect of treating it as a product for sale with the whole philosophy of branding and targeting and other, similar inventions of contemporary capitalism.

Today we can have the great satisfaction of seeing the emergence of a wholly new way of telling the world’s story that is purveyed by the on-screen series, the hidden task of which is to induce in us a trance.
Of course this mode of storytelling has long existed in the myths and Homeric tales, and Heracles, Achilles or Odysseus are without doubt the first heroes of series. But never before has this mode taken up so much space or exerted such a powerful influence on the collective imagination. The first two decades of the twenty-first century are the unquestionable property of the series. Their influence on the modes of telling the story of the world (and therefore on our way of understanding that story, too) is revolutionary.

In today’s version, the series has not only extended our participation in the narrative in the temporal sphere, generating its various tempos, offshoots and aspects, but also introduced its own new orders. Since in many cases its task is to hold the viewer’s attention for as long as possible—the series narrative multiplies the threads, interweaving them in the most improbable manner so much so that when at a loss it even harks back to the old narrative technique, once compromised by classical opera, of the Deus ex machina. The creation of new episodes often entails the total, ad-hoc overhaul of the psychology of the characters, so that they will be better suited to the developing events of the plot. A character who begins as gentle and reserved winds up vindictive and violent, a supporting character turns protagonist, while the main character, to whom we have already grown attached, loses significance or actually completely disappears, much to our dismay.

The potential materialization of another season creates the necessity of open endings in which there is no way that mysterious things called catharsis can occur or resound fully—catharsis, formerly the experience of the internal transformation, the fulfillment and satisfaction of having participated in the action of the tale. Such complication, rather than conclusion—the constant postponement of the reward that is catharsis— renders the viewer dependent, hypnotizes her. The fabula interrupta, created long ago, and well known from the stories of Scheherazade, has now made its bold return in series, altering our subjectivity and having bizarre psychological effects, tearing us out of our own lives and hypnotizing us like a stimulant. At the same time, the series inscribes itself into the new, drawn-out and disordered rhythm of the world, into its chaotic communication, its instability and fluidity. This story-telling form is probably the one most creatively searching for a new formula today.

In that sense, there is serious work in the series on the narratives of the future, on reformatting the story so that it suits our new reality.

But above all, we live in a world of too many contradictory, mutually exclusive facts, all battling one another tooth and nail.

Our ancestors believed that access to knowledge would not only bring people happiness, well-being, health and wealth, but would also create an equal and just society. What was missing in the world, to their minds, was the ubiquitous wisdom that would naturally arise from information.

John Amos Comenius, the great seventeenth-century pedagogue, coined the term “pansophism,” by which he meant the idea of potential omniscience, universal knowledge that would contain within it all possible cognition. This was also, and above all, a dream of information available to everyone. Would not access to facts about the world transform an illiterate peasant into a reflective individual conscious of himself and the world? Will not knowledge within easy reach mean that people will become sensible, that they will direct the progress of their lives with equanimity and wisdom? When the Internet first came about, it seemed that this notion would finally be realized in a total way. Wikipedia, which I admire and support, might have seemed to Comenius, like many like-minded philosophers, the fulfillment of the dream of humanity—now we can create and receive an enormous store of facts being ceaselessly supplemented and updated that is democratically accessible to just about every place on Earth.

A dream fulfilled is often disappointing. It has turned out that we are not capable of bearing this enormity of information, which instead of uniting, generalizing and freeing, has differentiated, divided, enclosed in individual little bubbles, creating a multitude of stories that are incompatible with one another or even openly hostile toward each other, mutually antagonizing.

Furthermore, the Internet, completely and unreflectively subject to market processes and dedicated to monopolists, controls gigantic quantities of data used not at all pansophically, for the broader access to information, but on the contrary, serving above all to program the behavior of users, as we learned after the Cambridge Analytica affair. Instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try, in despair, to pick up on some quieter melody, even the weakest beat. The famous Shakespeare quote has never been a better fit than it is for this cacophonous new reality: more and more often, the Internet is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.

Research by political scientists unfortunately also contradicts John Amos Comenius’ intui