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In Praise of the Literary Provocateur

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Sarah Knight

Staff Writer

Sarah lives in Brooklyn (when it's warm in New York) and the Dominican Republic (when it's not). She is a native Mainer, Red Sox fan, Harvard graduate, and Cards Against Humanity enthusiast, as well as a freelance editor and writer. Her book, THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF NOT GIVING A F*CK, is a national and international bestseller. Learn more at Follow her on Twitter @MCSnugz.

I’m somewhat allergic to the concept of political correctness for its own sake. I am, however, wide open to the concept of thoughtful, informed debate. As a book editor, I sought out smart writers with provocative opinions because these were the voices that I, as a reader, wanted running through my head. Writers who use their platforms to criticize the status quo and advocate for change. Writers who are also often (though not necessarily) hilarious, unabashedly poking fun at political figures and cultural mores to shine a light on the need for vocal, energetic dissent.

newsfailI was especially proud of publishing #Newsfail: Climate Change, Feminism, Gun Control, and Other Fun Stuff We Talk About Because Nobody Else Will by Jamie Kilstein and Allison Kilkenny, co-founders of the entirely listener-supported podcast Citizen Radio. #Newsfail is out in paperback on November 3rd and, incidentally, the only time I’ve ever gotten hate tweets was when I tweeted about editing their Chapter 6, titled, “Fuck the NRA.”

My personal stable of provocateurs also included Cara Hoffman, who took on class, war, and PTSD in her novel Be Safe I Love You; memoirists/comedians Jen Kirkman (I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life With No Kids) and Maz Jobrani (I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One On TV), and Chuck Thompson, author of the rather Swiftian-in-proposal narrative nonfiction book Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession (I promise, it is both hilarious and infuriatingly well-researched).

how to be a womanAnd beyond those I was lucky enough to publish, there are so many more incredible, intelligent, feisty writers out there who make it their mission to educate and provoke. I’m talking about everything from Erica Jong coining the phrase “the zipless fuck” in her then-scandalous 1973 novel Fear of Flying, to Naomi Klein’s climate change crusade This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Others provoke with a combination of self-effacing wit and blunt exploration of taboo topics, like Lena Dunham on rape in Not That Kind of Girl or Caitlin Moran on the “mystic resonance” of her cunt in How to Be a Woman. Still others by taking on behemoths, like Christopher Hitchens in God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

One of my favorite literary provocateurs was Gore Vidal. By all accounts a nasty man with a hundred axes to grind at any given time, he was also a gifted agitator with a healthy suspicion of politics and politicians. In his book of essays The Decline and Fall of the American Empire, he wrote, “The corporate grip on opinion in the United States is one of the wonders of the Western world. No First World country has ever managed to eliminate so entirely from its media all objectivity—much less dissent.” He also spoke out very early against the war on drugs, and wrote about same-sex relationships in both his fiction and nonfiction long before it was even remotely socially acceptable to do so. Himself half of a fifty-three-year same-sex partnership with a man named Howard Austen (and also once engaged to Joanne Woodward), Vidal has been quoted as saying “There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

bad feministFinally, among my favorite contemporary essayists is the no-bullshit Roxane Gay, whose Bad Feminist was a deserving bestseller in a publishing climate that, I feel, so rarely supports feminism-as-salable-topic. But more than just feminism, Gay writes about race and poverty and politics and pop culture, and is by turns candid, intelligent, funny, courageous, angry, and questioning on all of these topics (and more).

In other words, everything a provocateur should be.