The Last Days of Literary Friction

by Maria on November 30, 2023

My favourite ever podcast, Literary Friction, is finishing after ten great years of monthly episodes interviewing authors and talking about books. I’d begun to guess something was up when, over the past few months, its hosts – Octavia Bright and Carrie Plitt – remarked several times about how long they’d been going. Still, when they announced a couple of weeks ago that they’re wrapping it up at the end of the year, I was surprised and sad, a bit like when a couple splits up and you realise them being together was a hidden foundation of your little world. But in a para-social, internet-y kind of way. Well, nothing good lasts forever! If you’re interested in literary fiction, there’s a tremendous back catalogue of episodes.

Each episode has an author interview, then some discussion about a theme the book suggested, then some cultural recommendations. My favourite episode ever was probably the one with the poet Ocean Vuong about his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. I’d not heard of him before listening to the podcast, and hearing him read his prose so softly and beautifully made me fall in love with the book. It became one of those books that you spot people reading on the Tube and can’t help smile at them. (Weird! I know. But only this past weekend I was walking to a WH Smith till with a Deborah Levy book and a woman came up to me to say how delighted she was by it. I’m so very much here for these awkward little encounters. Reminds me how, in the risible SF section of the same airport bookshop last year, I imposed myself on two American teenaged goths who were mournfully returning to a red state, and hand-sold them A Wizard of Earthsea.)

My other favourite episode, probably because I had a huge crush on this book and read it three times, was with Harry Parker about Anatomy of a Soldier. It’s a quite literal novel about a young officer (same regiment as Ed) who’s blown up in Afghanistan, told from the point of view of the objects he comes into contact with. Carrie and Octavia’s questions were respectful but probing. It turned out Harry Parker hadn’t actually read The Things They Carried before he wrote it – just as well, as I think if he had, he’d not have done it and we’d have lost out on a good and important piece of contemporary history. Having lived through some of the same history myself, even attending a soldier’s funeral with Parker’s father, I remember feeling very glad and grateful that the book was getting out there. It was also quite bracing and strange, in a good way, to hear other people reacting to it in a way that drew out the bizarre-feeling parallel lives of people caught up in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and everyone else whose lives weren’t affected at all. That was only possible in the longer and more relaxed format of a podcast, with hosts who were as curious as they were sensitive.

Books I read that I wouldn’t have otherwise include Niven Govinden’s Diary of a Film, Garth Greenwell’s Intimacy and, gloriously, Leone Ross’s This One Sky Day. I still remember where I was working in my garden when I listened to the interview with Jenny Offill about her novel, Weather, and the concluding, ‘obligatory note of hope’ audiences demand of writing about climate crisis. Musician Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was a revelation I’d never have picked up without Literary Friction. And when Mary Gaitskill and Deborah Levy came on the podcast, I was just as nervous and thrilled as the interviewers. Octavia and Carrie always did their homework and prepped each book and topic, but kept the fan-ish love for certain, legendary writers at the unselfconscious heart of it all.

Blind spots included speculative fiction. The podcast focused on the dominant genre of literary fiction and didn’t engage with the fantastical on its own terms or as a political and liberatory force. The interview with Carmen Maria Machado came from a high-literary gaze that just about accepts magical realism into the canon, but no more. But Literary Friction ran towards the fire when it was about gender, sex, race and class, always finding a way to converse with respect and delight with novelists writing from other identities and interests.

In the episode when they announced the podcast will soon finish, Carrie and Octavia talked about the para-social nature of their relationships to other podcasts, how you feel you know people you’ve never met. Partly that’s because – in good podcasts anyway – the length and depth of conversations is much greater than on the radio, and the format is less performative. It’s still a stylised kind of dialogue, but closer to ‘real’ conversations than radio interviews are. But I also felt sad that this one is finishing because, as well as the stimulating book talk, Literary Friction was an ongoing dialogue between two friends. Listening to it over the past decade felt like being in the ante-room to a beautiful friendship. I vividly remember savouring that friendship while walking on a wet and windy beach in Kerry, during Ireland’s long, long winter 2021 lockdown, when we couldn’t go further than five kilometres from our homes and my youngest sister and I were bubbled with our parents. The only other people we saw were the collection operators at Killarney Tesco every second Friday. Listening to Carrie and Octavia’s voices reaching out to each other from their own lockdowns, and mingling in that in-between space with such feeling and delight, was a vicarious and heady joy which I will always treasure. And yes it was para-social, but also sympathetic and fraternal, when I walked on that same beach crying for Octavia on the loss of her father during that long and lonely time. (Her memoir, This Ragged Grace, is extraordinary.)

So, if you’re interested in contemporary realist fiction and nonfiction and enjoy informed, stimulating and loving discussions about them, there are well over a hundred episodes just waiting to be heard. And, for fans, soon there will be the final episode and year-end round-up to savour. Thank you, Carrie and Octavia. It was a wild and wonderful ride.



Sumana Harihareswara 11.30.23 at 4:44 pm

I have a hard time making time for podcasts in my life so I will likely not dip into this one myself, but I’m really glad to read this tribute and I appreciate getting to know that this wonderful work exists! Thank you.


J-D 12.01.23 at 12:38 am

The Wizard of Earthsea

A Wizard Of Earthsea


Chris Armstrong 12.01.23 at 8:13 am

Oh what a shame! It really is a lovely podcast. They’re great company – I think I’ll miss them laughing more than anything.


Maria 12.01.23 at 8:58 am

J-D – fixed, thanks!

Sumana, yes indeed, they’re a very good thing in the world, which is always good to know.

Chris – right?! and the inevitable weather chat. sigh.


Andrea N Ferguson 12.01.23 at 11:56 am

Had to de-lurk for this post. The element of their podcast I’m going to miss the most is the discussions with an author that were in depth and meaningful, rather than the “trying to sell my book” vapid talk you get on many book podcasts.

My favorite would-never-had-read-it-otherwise book was Kathryn Scanlon’s Kick the Latch.

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