Need a Good Read? Author and McGee Professor Rone Shavers Defies Convention

a middle aged Black man wearing glasses, hat and collared shirt with jacket

Prof. Rone Shavers

Davidson College McGee Professor of Creative Writing Rone Shavers produces convention-defying work across multiple genres. He is the author of the experimental Afrofuturist novel Silverfish (Clash Books), which was a finalist for the 2021 CLMP Firecracker Award in Fiction, a Big Other Book Award finalist, and one of The Brooklyn Rail’s “Best Books of 2020.” 


March is National Reading Month!

March is designated as National Reading Month – a celebration that encourages people of all ages to read every day. 

As Davidson’s McGee Professor of Creative Writing, Shavers’ courses focus on “what fiction can do and precisely how it does it,” and why creative writing matters to individuals and society. His most recent creative work is Ten Crônicas, a chapbook collection of prose poems published by The Magnificent Field.

Here, find out more about Shavers’ influences and sources of inspiration, advice to students and recommended reads.

What inspired you to become a writer? 

I remember wanting to write when I was kind of young, but I really didn't think it was a viable thing until I was maybe about 16 or 17. To be honest, though, I still kind of get inspired. There are still books that I'll read that will make me go, "Wow." I like to think that I just create. Because I teach, I don’t feel confined by commercial publishing pressures. I write because I love the form, and the art of it.

Who were some of your favorite authors early on? 

I remember being in my teens and reading Catcher in the Rye, Jack Kerouac and the Beats, all that kind of stuff. But it was one of my professors in college, Maura Spiegel was her name, who introduced me to some authors and books that really blew my mind. I mean, like, really brain-melty, mind-exploding stuff. She attempted to teach a course on William Gaddis' JR, Herman Broch's The Sleepwalkers, Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I dropped that course like a hot potato about two weeks in, but I had the books and I read them after graduation. Mind. Blown. 

In college I was also reading things like Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert. So, on one hand I was reading all of these 19th century French works, and on the other, all of these postmodern works, books that weren't following the conventional 19th century model of fiction, which I still get really excited about. I tend to like work that plays around with literary form. Lately I’ve been voraciously reading really formally inventive works by authors of color, texts like Ishmael Reed's Mumbo-Jumbo, or the novels of Karen Tei Yamashita. I think people don't pay enough attention to them.

You said people don't pay enough attention to authors of color who are doing experimental work. Why?

The movie American Fiction is based on the novel Erasure, by Percival Everett. Both the movie and film are about a Black writer of experimental fiction whose books keep being rejected because people, Black and white, keep telling him that his books aren’t Black enough. When you say “experimental fiction,” people think Joyce, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace. It's always code for whiteness and White males from either elite liberal arts or Ivy League schools, with just enough women on the list to have them constitute a minority, but only a small one. The postmodern novel is supposedly this huge thing written by some guy in tweed — somebody straight out of central casting for a Wes Anderson movie. But plenty of people write experimental work. In fact, one of the things I do, with an author named Kenning JP Garcia, is host a roving panel-discussion series called “Form and (Dis)Content,” where we showcase experimental authors of color.

Do you have any thoughts on Octavia Butler’s influence?

When you talk about Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler is very prominent because she’s the godmother of Afrofuturism. She influenced so many writers. When we talk about these movements, a lot of times the people actually doing the real, on-the-ground work are women. And they tend to get marginalized or written out of the picture. When I say Octavia Butler was really influential, it’s partly because you had a lot young Black girls reading her stuff who then totally picked up the torch. For example, another influential Afrofuturist is Sheree Renee Thomas. Sheree was influenced by Octavia, and around 20 years ago Sheree edited two seminal anthologies called Dark Matter: Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. These anthologies were groundbreaking because they were the first to collect and highlight works of speculative fiction written solely by Black people. Despite Octavia Butler’s success, prior to the Dark Matter series, the publishing industry really didn’t try to market Black speculative fiction authors because of the misguided belief that “Black people don’t read sci-fi.” Well, the Dark Matter anthologies proved them wrong. A lot of writers and Afrofuturist authors that we now take as household names, like Tananarive Due, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nisi Shawl all appeared in the Dark Matter anthologies’ pages. 

How do you advise students who want to create work within a specific genre?

I tell students that the best genre work actually stretches the boundaries of its genre. I tell them that you can't depend on the supposed rules of a genre to do all these things in your work that your own writing really needs to do. Working within a genre is not a way to avoid actually doing the real work of writing because, well, if you write a mystery, it has to be successful not only as a mystery, but also as a compelling, complete work of fiction. You just can't say, "Well, since it's a mystery, I don't have to write well-rounded characters." Yeah, you do. The example I usually use is Stephen King. What Stephen King did for the horror genre was bring a level of psychological depth to it that was missing, and that's what made his work stand out. I sometimes tell students to just do the work that they want to do, but make sure that they do it really, really well. In a perfect world, it's going to be a critic who will show you how everything fits together and who will assign you a genre, especially if you want to do stuff that's a little off the beaten path.

Do aspiring poets or novelists need to have a technical mastery of all of the forms before they can produce good work?

Yes and no. The benefit of school is, I think, more than just learning about literature and literary forms — in school you will definitely learn literary forms — you’ll also learn how you can deviate from them. Equally as important is learning about poetics in general, which you do maybe need school for, unless you want to go out and spend hours in a library reading other people’s work. But that's the good part of school — you learn what has come before you. You're studying the history of poetry, and what poetry is and what poetry has done. Then you're able to write yourself into that lineage, or even, if it’s what you want to do, write against it. You don’t necessarily need to go to school for such things, but formal study makes for a much quicker, easier road to any sort of mastery. For example, when I read student work, I can straight-up tell which students read books and which students don't — and sometimes even what literary styles or periods a student may like to read — just by sentence structure alone. We all tend to follow certain language and syntactic models when writing that we’ve gotten from absorbing years of books. The avid book readers are the ones who will give you a lot of sentences that vary in length, tone and style.

The power of language is a prominent theme in Silverfish.

Yeah. I'm a bit of word nerd, and I like code-switching. I'm always code switching. Part of the book came to me because I tend have the radio on at dinnertime, and one of the things that would always come on would be [the NPR show] “Marketplace,” and I remember just hearing a completely different language. I was like, "What the hell is a 10-year T-note?" I know what it is now, but part of what really struck me was repeatedly hearing the language of finance. If you don’t know it, it’s incredibly obfuscating, sometimes intentionally so.  

With Silverfish, I was imagining what the world would look like if we took the language of finance and all of these neoliberal policies and ideas to their logical conclusion. That's where I started. That’s what sparked my imagination. In American culture, there’s so much of this neoliberal, neo-corporatist language that has just become part of everyday parlance. We need to think about how we're using language.

I'm kind of still working it out, but maybe that's one of the projects I'm always going to be working out. I'm really interested in thinking about our own thinking — what educators sometimes call metacognition — when and how we do it and when and how we don't. I don't have the answers. In fact, I don’t think I have any answers. I just want look at the problems and reasons and ways that we delude ourselves into doing certain things, and more important, why.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell students?

Read broadly. It’s a little cliché — but there's some truth to this cliché — and that's if you like a particular author, research them and find out who influenced them, who they were reading, and then go back and read that work, too. Be sure to read the classics, contemporary literature — if you like popular or genre fiction, that's fine, too— but just make sure you read some literary works once in a while. It's all going to help inform your work, and your writing, and your thinking. The brain is a wonderful spongy little instrument that will soak up whatever you choose to dip it in, so be sure to dip it in some good stuff.


A Brief, Non-Exhaustive List of Contemporary Black Fiction Totally Worth Checking Out

Recommendations by Rone Shavers, McGee Professor of Creative Writing

  • Fat Time, by Jeffery Renard Allen
  • The Salt Eaters, by Toni Cade Bambara
  • The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
  • Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler
  • I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem, by Maryse Condé
  • Babel-17 and Empire Star, by Samuel R. Delany
  • Potted Meat, by Steven Dunn
  • Erasure, by Percival Everett
  • Event Factory, by Renee Gladman
  • Midnight Robber, by Nalo Hopkinson
  • Middle Passage, by Charles Johnson
  • Annotations and Counternarratives, by John Keene
  • How Soon is Black Future Month, by N. K. Jemisin
  • Dunfords Travels Everywheres, by William Melvin Kelley
  • Black Imagination, by Natasha Marin
  • Mama Day, by Gloria Naylor
  • Mumbo Jumbo, by Ishmael Reed
  • Oreo, by Fran Ross
  • Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires
  • The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead