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Selby Wynn Schwartz Books In Order

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Publication Order of Standalone Novels

Publication Order of Non-Fiction Books

The Bodies of Others: Drag Dances and Their Afterlives (2019)Description / Buy at Amazon
A Life in Chameleons (2023)Description / Buy at Amazon

Selby Wynn Schwartz is the author of literary fiction best known for 2022 debut novel After Sappho. Schwartz holds a PhD in comparative literature in Italian and French from the University of California, Berkeley and is a professor at Stanford University.

After Sappho retells the stories of several notable women in literature, poetry, and the arts. This novel transports readers through imagined scenarios of these feminists across various eras as they strive for equality and liberation. These women challenge the conventional roles society often imposes on them. The book was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize for Fiction.

Selby Wynn Schwartz’s debut novel weaves through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It highlights the lives and interconnected stories of notable women in history. Some are well-known figures in the queer and feminist worlds. Examples include the likes of Virginia Woolf, Sarah Bernhardt, and Colette. Others may not be as widely recognized. The narrative blends elements of fiction and historical fact thus creates a unique reading experience. The book also celebrates the personal and creative lives of these women which makes it a masterpiece that draws beauty from the flaws of reality. After Sappho is an ode to female intimacy, innovation, and aspiration, and offers a vivid exploration of their journeys toward self-expression and fulfilment.

Each chapter focuses on short stories about one woman or a couple. These stories also explore the relationships these women have with others: who they loved, yearned for, shared moments with, and drew inspiration from. Schwartz skillfully travels through time and highlights the key moments of creativity and the intricate ways these women discovered themselves and each other.

The book feels like a collective portrait, similar to what Gertrude Stein hinted at in her 1937 work, “Everybody’s Autobiography,” but with its unique twist. Schwartz chooses to narrate in the first-person plural, an uncommon technique that adds a sense of unity and warmth to the storytelling. This method makes the reader feel part of a “we,” sharing in the desires and silent hopes of these women as if they were as natural and unavoidable as the weather.

For many queer writers, including those featured in After Sappho, the use of a fragmented style in their writing has been a method to forge stronger, more inclusive communities. This style involves breaking their work into distinct, separate pieces using unique grammar, visuals, or storytelling twists. Being marginalized from mainstream society, these writers utilized their limited resources creatively. They envisioned creating spaces where their poetry and prose could captivate and stir the hearts of their readers through the night. After Sappho captures this essence by crafting letters and poems filled with longing and broken lines which embodies the author’s eagerness and desire.

Schwartz’s narrative technique involves dividing each chapter into short sections and gradually piecing together the intricate lives of these women. Just much like constructing a vast home from individual stories and experiences. The novel frequently reflects on Sappho’s surviving poetry fragments, which not only highlight the characters’ innermost desires but also connect them to a broader, collective history. Sappho serves as an ideal symbol for Schwartz’s work, illustrating how queer art, with its profound emotions of joy or yearning, often emerges from piecing together life’s fragments. This approach dismantles the conventional narrative to spotlight those often overlooked or sidelined and demonstrates that queer creativity often flourishes in the art of fragmentation.

Known for her exquisite poetry, Sappho has become a foundational figure in queer art and thought. Despite the loss of most of her work, only surviving in fragments and quotations, she embodies the first significant queer artist. Sappho’s remaining poetry reveals that love and life are often experienced in segments and fragments. Schwartz suggests that our lives fill the gaps left by Sappho’s incomplete works, saying, “The future of Sappho shall be us.” Sappho’s poetry not only imagines what women could be and how they could relate to each other but also allows future generations to see themselves in new, whole ways from the remains of her poetry.

After Sappho takes a fragmentary approach, deliberately focuses on the times its characters had the freedom to act, rather than when they were oppressed by society due to their gender or sexuality. The book highlights moments of autonomy and self-expression, showing these as crucial to their stories. This narrative choice shifts the focus from the suffering often associated with queer lives to the moments of liberation and joy. While it acknowledges that the women portrayed did face hardships, the emphasis is on their resilience and the pain of lost love rather than societal persecution. This perspective offers a fresh and empowering view of queer lives and celebrates their ability to find meaning and happiness even in a fragmented world.

Most of the characters in Schwartz’s book are creative souls—poets, painters, writers, and actors. The book often uses ekphrasis, which means it describes one art form within another. Schwartz pays close attention to the impact these artworks might have had on women seeing them for the first time. For instance, Schwartz reflects on Romaine Brooks’s portrait of Una Troubridge, observes how the portrait seems to interact with both the viewer and other paintings in the room. This helps create a sense of connection and curiosity.

The essence of After Sappho lies in the exchange of looks, the experience of observing and being observed. Schwartz illustrates how, even when someone tries to prevent you from seeing your full reflection, you can still find beauty in the fragments left behind. These pieces suggest new ways of being and connecting with others. The novel skillfully gathers these fragments and imagines the deep connections between real women. It paints a picture of a vast network of relationships and forms of love that, while never fully realized in history, come to life within the novel’s pages.

Reading After Sappho immerses you in an ocean of love. Schwartz invites readers to envision a broader, interconnected world of love and relationships that, through her storytelling, feels as if it has always existed. The novel celebrates the power of art and connection and creates a space where readers can explore the vast possibilities of love and identity.

Book Series In Order » Authors » Selby Wynn Schwartz

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