2013 Literature Genius Award Finalists
Neal Stephenson, APRIL Festival, and Maged Zaher
This year’s Literature award is sponsored by Amazon.
We're all living in Neal Stephenson's future. His breakthrough book, the ridiculously entertaining 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, basically predicted the present: a world in which people live elaborate fantasy lives online, where corporations have more power than most governments, and where libertarianism has run amok at the expense of the populace. But Stephenson didn't go the way of most sci-fi writers and cozy into a niche when Snow Crash became a big success.
Stephenson has become an iconic figure through his voracious intellectual appetite and his chameleon-like ability to convincingly write about anything. "I've always had maybe an exaggerated fear of getting stuck in a rut that I can't jump out of," Stephenson explains. "So if I'm looking at a couple of different book ideas for the next project, I'm looking at the one that's as different as possible." Consider the Baroque Cycle, an immense epic about the birth of the Age of Enlightenment. Or Anathem, a space opera ("science fiction with big ideas in it," Stephenson calls it) about a truly alien culture. Or Cryptonomicon, a code-breaking World War II thriller (which also ties into the Baroque Cycle in small, meaningful ways). Or Reamde, a compulsively readable 1970s-style thriller set in the present that stretches from Seattle to China and involves the Russian mafia, terrorism, mining for virtual gold, and an immense cast. With his wide-ranging intellect and his propensity for sketching out dozens of memorable characters per book, Stephenson resembles nobody so much as a Charles Dickens for the age of globalism.
If you step back and look at his broader themes, a pattern begins to emerge. Stephenson is writing dense stories about our species-wide relationship with technology—how we shape technology and how it shapes us in return. He also takes part in technological experiments of his own, working with a group of writers on a serialized multiplatform wikinovel for history nuts, The Mongoliad; spearheading a Kickstarter campaign to improve sword-fighting dynamics in video games (he's an avid swordsman); and editing a sci-fi anthology that is intended to bring optimism back to futuristic science fiction, in the hopes that it will inspire scientists to start thinking of big, hopeful projects, the way pulp science fiction inspired NASA to envision a moon landing. Stephenson has the kind of big, restless brain that isn't content to just tell great stories; he's trying to influence and better the human story while he does it. PAUL CONSTANT
“No surprises” is the motto of the franchise ghetto, its Good Housekeeping seal, subliminally blazoned on every sign and logo… The people of America, who live in the world’s most surprising and terrible country, take comfort in that motto. Follow the loglo outward, to where the growth is enfolded into the valleys and the canyons, and you find the land of the refugees. They have fled from the true America, the America of atomic bombs, scalpings, hip-hop, chaos theory, cement overshoes, snake handlers, spree killers, space walks, buffalo jumps, drive-bys, cruise missiles, Sherman’s March, gridlock, motorcycle gangs, and bungee jumping. They have parallel-parked their bimbo boxes in identical computer-designed Burbclave street patterns and secreted themselves in symmetrical sheetrock shitholes with vinyl floors and ill-fitting woodwork and no sidewalks, vast house farms out in the loglo wilderness, a culture medium for a medium culture.
—from Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash
Here's what a good book festival doesn't need: corporate sponsorship, an unending litany of boring panels, or Dave Barry. Here's what a good book festival does need: a reason to exist. For almost a decade, Seattle has been wringing its hands about its lack of a quality book festival. Two years ago, Tara Atkinson and Willie Fitzgerald, who've had nothing to do with all that hand-wringing, just decided to throw a book festival, in venues like pizza joints and karaoke bars and parking garages, and it turned out to be the exactly right thing to do.
The APRIL Festival (the acronym stands for Authors, Publishers, and Readers of Independent Literature) isn't huge. It's devoted to the small, uncorporate publisher and the intelligent author with a distinct voice. APRIL's biggest successes have been juxtapositions of great writing and something else—a pub crawl, an art show, drag queens, a fried- chicken feast—just to see what happens. One week of APRIL (roughly 14 events over the course of seven days, culminating in a book fair) often contains more memorable moments than an entire month's worth of readings in Seattle. The organization is planning to produce more events year-round, including a bookstore bicycle tour in the summer.
Like the publishers and careers it encourages, APRIL has grown in small but smart ways: Atkinson and Fitzgerald have since been joined by finance and development coordinator Kellen Braddock and media relations coordinator Frances Dinger.
So what makes a literary event great? APRIL's organizers begin by inviting only authors they love. "We want the readings to be exciting, because the work is exciting," Atkinson says. Fitzgerald explains that his impulse is to create "a spectacle," but "not in a tawdry sort of way." The intent, he says, is to create a heightened sense of drama that feels true to the text and to the author's personality.
The word "curation" gets overused, but that's really the genius of Atkinson and Fitzgerald: They combine up-and-coming local talent with brilliant out-of-town authors (Heather Christle and Matthew Rohrer were highlights of the 2013 festival) and put on events that get copied by other, inferior arts organizations. This is how you lead: by example. PAUL CONSTANT
Maged Zaher is a merry melancholic. I could tell this from the first time I heard him at a poetry reading, back around 2004, when he introduced a poem by saying it was about what a loser he was, even though he worked at Microsoft, and how women broke his heart, but his heart deserved to be broken. Then he laughed—a full, open-throated laugh—and the poem he read had the audience laughing with him.
Zaher's poems are full of ambivalence and disappointment, but somehow they radiate light. This bizarre incongruity creates friction, but it's a pleasant friction. He writes about erotic frustration, feeling oddly suspended between Egypt and the United States, and his 16-year career in the corporate world, while acknowledging complicity in everything that disappoints him.
The photo on the cover of his book-length poem Thank You for the Window Office efficiently communicates this mood: A smartly dressed man, shirt tucked into his light- colored trousers, hands in his pockets, watch on his right wrist, is diving headlong to his death off a building. This line from one of the poems, which sums up the tone of the book, captures the mood: "I attached my desires to this email." And this: "You always said: capitalism made me do it/But whatever you wear on casual Fridays is up to you."
His other recent publication, The Revolution Happened and You Didn't Call Me, reveals another axis of tension. On one hand, he's a worker bee in tech companies in the Northwest. On the other, he's a young man with revolutionary tendencies making routine family visits to his hometown of Cairo, the Zuccotti Park of the Arab Spring. As he puts it: "I'm well-placed in the documentary/Except that these aren't my desires—/The military trucks are intriguing/In their daily search for intimacy."
In Zaher's work, intimacy is the gold medal, but also something to be feared. He, like the insurance assessor Franz Kafka, has taken the measure of corporate capitalism by being embedded there—a war correspondent deep behind enemy lines—and found it not only sad and absurd, but also comical. Yet he stays there, working diligently at his job while sending stark and vivid dispatches from the cubicles. In a conversation with him last week, Zaher said: "My main area of interest, fundamentally, is the mental health of people in a capitalist society." Corporations are soul-sucking, he said, but so is poverty. It's a dilemma. You could cry about it. But Zaher laughs. BRENDAN KILEY
Male strippers also get their feelings hurt
Despite your theoretical efforts you will stay skinny
There are times to be ruthless
For example when axing expensive labor
There are problems that can only be solved when alive
In the middle of the acquisition meeting
I thought of Frank O'Hara walking New York streets
My lunch poems were composed over Chinese takeout
While we decided whom to fire
There are standard gestures in this world
Like my buying you a drink
Despite the obvious fact
That infinite people are infinitely poor
—from Maged Zaher's Thank You for the Window Office
See these artists in conversation with Paul Constant at the Frye on Aug. 14; strangertickets.com
Photos by Kelly O