Writer-in-residence uses time travel to present radical writing



Jennifer Shore | Staff Writer

When J. David Stevens learned Week Eight’s morning lecture platform theme was “Radicalism,” he figured he could work it into his week at Chautauqua.

His weeklong workshop focuses on radical fictions, and he will present a Brown Bag lecture, “Literary Radicalism: How Far Have We Really Come in 200 Years?”, at 12:15 p.m. today on the Alumni Hall porch.

Stevens, prose writer-in-residence, was trained as a 19th-century American scholar, and he is always surprised by how few writers have read back through the 18th and 19th centuries.

In college, students tend to take classes on those subjects, but that’s the extent of their studies of earlier works.

“Then they immerse themselves in contemporary work — fiction and nonfiction — because that’s the kind of stuff after which they believe they should fashion their own manuscripts,” Stevens said. “I read a lot of contemporary work, but I’m also interested in the way that earlier literature can inform what I’m doing as a writer today.”

In his lecture, he will answer a number of questions: How does writing prior to the last hundred years inform our own moment? Why is that impact important? How were authors being radical long before our own era? How might we model our efforts on their radicalism?

“Reading backward in history, though, reminds us of the myriad approaches that generations of writers have adopted — the many possibilities for our own work,” he said. “It helps us think outside the box of the present.”

Stevens teaches at the University of Richmond, and he authored a collection of poems titled Mexico is Missing and Other Stories. His essays have been published in Creative Nonfiction, The Gettysburg Review and The Oxford American, and his fiction has been featured in many magazines including Tin House, The Virginia Quarterly Review and Harper’s.

Gabriel Welsch, poet-in-residence for Week Eight, recommended Stevens to Clara Silverstein, director of the Writer’s Center, who said Stevens is a very gifted fiction writer.

“He’s really working with the week’s theme of the idea of fiction as radical, crossing boundaries and doing things that other kinds of writers can’t,” Silverstein said.

Although Welsh told Stevens what to expect at Chautauqua, Stevens doesn’t know what people will take away from his lecture.

He said people tend to get a cloistered mindset where they think they cannot do certain things because other successful writers do not.

“Simply put, reading back into older writers broadens our literary repertoire,” Stevens said. “It’s a way of helping us look beyond contemporary orthodoxy.”