Berna Moran: Academic as a literary critic

George Saunders, the celebrated fiction writer, was doing quite well writing short stories – winning prizes, earning acclaim, making a living. Yet novels remained elusive.

“It’s like being a builder of custom yurts and then someone asks you to build a mansion. You say, ‘No, I don’t do that,’” Saunders said. “But wait a minute, maybe I could just put a bunch of those little yurts together.”

Saunders did write a novel in the end, and “Lincoln in the Bardo” went on to win the Booker Prize. His comments come from an episode of “Novel Dialogue,” a new podcast that demystifies novels and their creation. Produced by English professor Aarthi Vadde with John Plotz of Brandeis University, the podcast launched March 4 and continues weekly through April 29.

Over the course of eight episodes, the podcasts pairs critics with noted novelists such as Saunders, winner of the Booker Prize for Lincoln, Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and PEN/Hemingway Award winner Teju Cole.

The idea first emerged at an academic conference on novels. Vadde and Plotz noticed that some of the most sparkling conversations happened not on the dais, but in casual, spontaneous meetings between writers and critics. They wondered if an audio podcast could capture a similar spirit.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined in-person conferences. Suddenly, Vadde and Plotz had added motivation to find new ways to spotlight interesting conversations about creative writing and the humanities.

“Novel Dialogue” is intended to appeal to anyone who loves fiction, Vadde said. The producers aimed for deeply informed interviews with a light touch.

So far, she said, the approach seems to work.

“We wanted to do a show in a way that makes the novelist seem more like a friend or colleague rather than a distant figure,” Vadde said.

“When you’re talking about things that really matter to you – your art, the writing process, literary traditions – people become passionate pretty fast.”

Other podcasts also focus on fiction. “Novel Dialogue” stands apart, though, in featuring novelists alongside critics. The participating critics all teach at universities, and many also write for popular audiences.

“There’s a view that critics exist to be negative,” Vadde said. “Yet critics can also provide intelligent appreciation, and can explain the social and artistic significance of a writer in light of a literary tradition.”

“Novelists create stories. Critics can show you how those stories fit in with other stories.”

For Vadde, a few moments in the podcast stand out so far. There’s Teju Cole’s pithy description of great novels, for instance.

“There is a way in which a great novel is like a great empire,” Cole said. “It contains within itself the seeds of its own eventual deconstruction.”

Vadde has enjoyed participating in conversations about the world of the novel. And the podcast has affected her in other ways, too, including influencing her thoughts about teaching.

“I would assign podcasts now, and I would be open to students making podcasts or recording an audio essay,” Vadde said. “I think the voice is an instrument we’ve underused in literature classes of late.”

“Rhetoric and oratory are the province of English departments. I could see us thinking about orality and literacy in the classroom through audio.”