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Announcing Big Other’s 2022 Lifetime Achievement Awardees!

We are delighted to announce Big Other‘s 2022 Lifetime Achievement Awardees!

The award honors exemplary living writers, who have made a significant contribution to literature and are continuing to shape and direct the conversation about literary art, about language, form, structure, style, and more.

Championing authors at the height of their careers is part of the Big Other’s longstanding efforts to celebrate literary art; promote innovation, creativity, diversity, and inclusivity; and engage and inspire more discerning readers.

These writers will be honored at the virtual 2022 Big Other Book Awards Ceremony (date to be announced).

Here are our Lifetime Achievement Honorees for 2022 (selected quotes from each writer’s writing replace the usual biography):

 

Margaret Atwood

“A word after a word after a word is power.”

“Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”

“War is what happens when language fails.”

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”

“As all historians know, the past is a great darkness, and filled with echoes. Voices may reach us from it; but what they say to us is imbued with the obscurity of the matrix out of which they come; and, try as we may, we cannot always decipher them precisely in the clearer light of our own day.”

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.”

“Is that what writing amounts to? The voice your ghost would have, if it had a voice?”

“All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel. Think about it. There’s escaping from the wolves, fighting the wolves, capturing the wolves, taming the wolves. Being thrown to the wolves, or throwing others to the wolves so the wolves will eat them instead of you. Running with the wolf pack. Turning into a wolf. Best of all, turning into the head wolf. No other decent stories exist.”

 

Robert Coover

“I would not, myself, say that fiction must anything. Ever.”

“In its profanity, fiction sanctifies life.”

“Yes, but fiction, myth, these are necessary things. I’m not against them. I doubt we could function at all without fictionalizing in some way, without making up something about the world, falsifying it with a name, or names, that allow us to operate in it. But the world changes, or our perceptions of it or our needs in it change, and new fictions come from it. Fiction then, self-conscious fiction, has, as I see it, a double purpose. On the one hand it draws into itself what seem to be the truths of the world at any given moment, and on the other it struggles against the falsehoods, dogmas, confusions, all the old debris of the dead fictions—and this struggle itself is self-revealing in ways that remain important across the ages.”

“What’s so dull about most conventional fiction is that the narrative is essentially dead matter, and what you get interested in is the style, the craft, the development of character, some of the delicate or sensational imagery, a brilliant smile or two…What I wanted to do was call attention again to narrative itself, the movement of story.”

“Because art blows life into the lifeless, death into the deathless. Because art’s life is preferable, in truth, to life’s beautiful terror. Because, as time does not pass (nothing, as Beckett tells us, passes), it passes the time. Because death, our mythless master, is somehow amused by epitaphs. Because epitaphs, well-struck, give death, our voracious master, heartburn. Because fiction imitates life’s beauty, thereby inventing the beauty life lacks. Because fiction is the best position, at once exotic and familiar, for fucking the world. Because fiction, mediating paradox, celebrates it. Because fiction, mothered by love, loves love as a mother might her unloving child. Because fiction speaks, hopelessly, beautifully, as the world speaks. Because God, created in the storyteller’s image, can be destroyed only by His maker. Because, in its perversity, art harmonizes the disharmonious. Because, in its profanity, fiction sanctifies life. Because, in its terrible isolation, writing is a path to brotherhood. Because in the beginning was the gesture, and in the end to come as well: in between what we have are words. Because, of all the arts, only fiction can unmake the myths that unman men. Because of its endearing futility, its outrageous pretensions. Because the pen, though short, casts a long shadow (upon, it must be said, no surface). Because the world is re-invented every day and this is how it is done. Because there is nothing new under the sun except its expression. Because truth, that elusive joker, hides himself in fictions and must therefore be sought there. Because writing, in all space’s unimaginable vastness, is still the greatest adventure of all. And because, alas, what else?”

“But the answer is that creative-writing workshops have absolutely nothing to do with our nation’s literature, though writers sometimes, more or less by chance, turn up in them, looking for an agent or romance or someone to start a new magazine with them. Creative-writing workshops mostly have to do with creating other creative-writing workshops. And this is all right, I suppose, because writing is good for people, or at least not seriously harmful. It teaches them to read, for one thing. We don’t need more writers, but we do need more readers. We need creative-reading workshops. Students would still have to write in them, but for nobler ends. And the self-proliferation of creative-reading workshops would be a less onerous thing. You asked me if teaching has enhanced my writing in any way, and I’d say mainly it has got in the way of it; might have made me a better reader, though.”

“What makes tales endure? For one thing, they respond to raw human needs and appetites—the desire for happy endings in an unhappy world, for justice where there is none, for fairness, love, comedy, for the playful exercising of the imagination. But of course the tale also plays to the baser instincts, to racism, sexism, greed, fear, to the appetite for revenge, for bringing down, as cruelly as possible, not only the high and mighty, but also misfits and fools. The very earliest tales we have, creation stories, religious fantasies, nation-building myths—the ancient Sumerian tales, for example, from which the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic was stitched—all tend to exhibit these same characteristics, emerging as if irresistibly from the pooled mess we call human nature. Their parts are interchangeable and can be constructed and reconstructed to tell a vast range of stories that can migrate through diverse cultures, the morals changing from one telling to the next. They provide a universal commonality of language, of discourse, of narrative. The opportunity for a ceaseless remythologization. And they enjoy a kind of immortality that we, the tellers, lack. They may disappear for a long time—we don’t hear the tales of Little Black Sambo anymore, or some of the more gross misogynist tales; Sut Lovingood has largely dropped out of the curriculum—but they linger under the surface and return in new guises from generation to generation, century to century. We are, for example, an allegedly democratic society that has thrown off royalty and the naive awe of bloodlines, yet we flock to see something as blatantly royalist as The Lion King and grovel before political and commercial dynasties, as though somehow their seed might be magical, able to save us all only if we give them what they want. These grand patriotic, religious, and cultural myths and tales have been a personal target all my writing life. They are not truths, though they may contain truths, and they need to be told and retold, over and over, played with, reinvented, moved into strange places, so that what’s valuable in them for our own times can be celebrated, what’s wicked or stifling mocked.”

“Every effort to form a view of the world, every effort to speak of the world, involves a kind of fiction-making process. Memory is a kind of narrative, as is our perception of what the future is apt to bring us, our understanding of anything going on out in the world—even our scientific understanding of the world has to be reduced to a narrative of sorts in order to grasp it. What’s a formula but a kind of sentence, a story among other possible stories? Men live by fictions. They have to. Life’s too complicated, we just can’t handle all the input, we have to isolate little bits and make reasonable stories out of them. Of course, that’s an artificial act and therefore, you might say, ‘artistic.’ But I would say the impulse was from necessity, and only some of the resulting stories are ‘artistic.’ All of them, though, are merely artifices—that is, they are always in some ways false, or at best incomplete. There are always other plots, other settings, other interpretations. So if some stories start throwing their weight around, I like to undermine their authority a bit, work variations, call attention to their fictional natures.”

“The fiction-making process is itself in part a groping for some communicable truth, a group truth, as it were. The tools are poor and the truth itself may be metamorphosing on us all the time, such that the process is endless and riven with inevitable dispute, but it’s not simply relativistic. We’re all, as the saying goes, a product of our time and place. We might want to escape this, and indeed a lot of what art does is to show this dark desire to break away from the oppression of community, to rebel against it, but even rebellion is a kind of adherence.”

“The very arbitrariness of bringing a story to a clean ending—this happened and then that happened and here’s the inevitable result—can be reassuring and momentarily delightful, but it’s too unlike life itself to be ultimately satisfying. Being left, instead, with a larger vision of the whole, with all its paradoxes and potential, is or can be more fulfilling.”

“Most fictions are in some manner political, even if only through acquiescence to traditional forms, helping thereby to preserve the status quo. And a great many fictions and films do engage at some level with history, which is always a political act. Narrative art, unlike historical analysis, achieves its aims through the exploration of metaphors, and such metaphors rarely lead the artist into everyday contemporary political issues—like health reform, for example, or economic recovery programs—but instead draw the artist toward the more universal love-and-death themes, making the political nature of their work less obvious on the surface. There is also probably an inherent distance between writers, who are rarely politicians except as dissidents, and politicians, who rarely read fiction or poetry. The absurdity of politics is not new. Satire is always possible. The execution of satirists by enraged politicians is also always possible.”

 

Don DeLillo

“But before everything, there’s language. Before history and politics, there’s language. And it’s language, the sheer pleasure of making it and bending it and seeing it form on the page and hearing it whistle in my head—this is the thing that makes my work go. And art can be exhilarating despite the darkness—and there’s certainly much darker material than mine—if the reader is sensitive to the music.”

“Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”

“The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.”

“The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government. There are so many temptations for American writers to become part of the system and part of the structure that now, more than ever, we have to resist. American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That’s why so many of them are in jail.”

“I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”

 

Cynthia Ozick

“If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.”

“To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination.”

“An author’s extraliterary utterance (blunt information), prenovel or postnovel, may infiltrate journalism; it cannot touch the novel itself. Fiction does not invent out of a vacuum, but it invents; and what it invents is, first, the fabric and cadence of language, and then a slant of idea that sails out of these as a fin lifts from the sea. The art of the novel (worn yet opulent phrase) is in the mix of idiosyncratic language—language imprinted in the writer, like the whorl of a fingertip—and an unduplicable design inscribed on the mind by character and image. Invention has little capacity for the true-to-life snapshot. It is true to its own stirrings.”

 

Annie Proulx

“You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.”

“Curiosity is what drives me. I am interested in everything, and all the people I know and like have fierce passions for places and things. I never thought it was peculiar or abnormal to be this way when I was younger, but I’ve learnt differently. Most people are remarkably incurious.”

“What I find to be very bad advice is the snappy little sentence, ‘Write what you know.’ It is the most tiresome and stupid advice that could possibly be given. If we write simply about what we know, we never grow. We don’t develop any facility for languages, or an interest in others, or a desire to travel and explore and face experience head-on. We just coil tighter and tighter into our boring little selves. What one should write about is what interests one.”

“[I]magination is the human mind’s central life strategy. It is how we anticipate danger, pleasure, threat. The imagination is how our expectations are raised and formulated; it excites and ennobles our purpose in life. The imagination blocks out hunger, bodily harm, bad luck, injury, loneliness, insult, the condition of the marooned person or the orphan, grief and disappointment, restlessness, desperation, imprisonment, and approaching death. And from the imagination spring the ideas, the actions, and the beliefs that we hold.”

“The novel should take us, as readers, to a vantage point from which we can confront our human condition, where we can glimpse something of what we are. A novel should somehow enlarge our capacity to see ourselves as living entities in the jammed and complex contemporary world.”

 

Thomas Pynchon

“Why should things be easy to understand?”

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

“Living inside the System is like riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide…which sooner or later must crash to its death, when its addiction to energy has become more than the rest of the World can supply, dragging with it innocent souls all along the chain of life.”

‘”I want to break out—to leave this cycle of infection and death. I want to be taken in love: so taken that you and I, and death, and life, will be gathered inseparable, into the radiance of what we would become….'”

 

Wole Soyinka

“Books and all forms of writing are terror to those who wish to suppress truth.”

“Arts and the Sciences are a natural symbiosis. They stem from the same human existential impulse—exploration. Exploration of what lies beneath the surface, and re-configuration of elements of what we call reality.”

“The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism.”

“In any case, the purpose is not really to indict the past, but to summon it to the attention of a suicidal, anachronistic present. To say to that mutant present: you are a child of those centuries of lies, distortion and opportunism in high places, even among the holy of holies of intellectual objectivity. But the world is growing up, while you wilfully remain a child, a stubborn, self-destructive child, with certain destructive powers, but a child nevertheless. And to say to the world, to call attention to its own historic passage of lies—as yet unabandoned by some—which sustains the evil precocity of this child. Wherein then lies the surprise that we, the victims of that intellectual dishonesty of others, demand from that world that is finally coming to itself, a measure of expiation? Demand that it rescues itself, by concrete acts, from the stigma of being the wilful parent of a monstrosity, especially as that monstrous child still draws material nourishment, breath, and human recognition from the strengths and devises of that world, with an umbilical cord which stretches across oceans, even across the cosmos via so-called programmes of technological co-operation. We are saying very simply but urgently: Sever that cord. By any name, be it Total Sanction, Boycott, Disinvestment, or whatever, sever this umbilical cord and leave this monster of a birth to atrophy and die or to rebuild itself on long-denied humane foundations. Let it collapse, shorn of its external sustenance, let it collapse of its own social disequilibrium, its economic lopsidedness, its war of attrition on its most productive labour. Let it wither like an aborted foetus of the human family if it persists in smothering the minds and sinews which constitute its authentic being.”

 

John Edgar Wideman

“Write something beautiful. Write something strong.”

“A work in progress is a privilege.”

“Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up. But the writing is a way of not allowing those things to destroy you.”

“All kind of writing is difficult. Any good genre of writing is difficult to do. It takes a certain kind of genius and skill and I respect it greatly. Distinctions are invidious. You read something and it grabs you and you enjoy the hell out of it and that’s that—Thank you, author, thank you, book.”

“I want my fiction to have kind of a verity, a kind of weight, a kind of substance. That goes back to the fact that any sort of writing is a projection, is a kind of backwards and forwards tripping into one’s own life.”

“I want to feel I’m pushed. I want to feel that I’m learning something about writing, about expression, when I am taking the time to read books.”

“When I wake up in the morning, I need the writing to go to. I begin there. And that’s not an accident, I mean, that habit of getting up in the morning and going to my writing first thing. It’s a habit I’ve kept for, oh, at least 35, 40 years now. And I don’t miss many mornings. If I don’t actually write, then I sit there and feel badly about not writing, or a rewrite or a re-read, depending, or do research. But that sense of beginning anew, and that sense of having a direction, or at least the urge to find a direction every day means that I have set aside a kind of place in my life for words and for language to live, and that place is—reciprocates, it gives me a place to live.”

 

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John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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