Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

Don’t know what to do with old, outdated, unwanted books? Sculptor Guy Laramée sandblasts them into art objects. “Mountains of disused knowledge return to what they really are: mountains,” the Montreal sculptor said on his web site.

Laramée’s work was featured in an exhibition entitled “Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art” at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston, S.C.  One Laramée work was a thick book with the top half turned into the face of a miniature mountain. The Wall Street Journal said it was carved with chain saws and grinding tools. “Why pile up so many facts?” Laramée said. “I’m cutting the function of books and transforming them into landscapes.”

In the same exhibition were heads of Buddhas carved by Long-Bin Chen from old telephone books. Having one’s name inside a Buddha’s head is probably a blessing.

SAYING MAKES IT SO: Finally, there’s an explanation for why the hugely successful Heaven Is for Real, by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, is listed as nonfiction on the New York Times’ bestseller list. It’s about a four-year-old boy who told his father that, during an operation, he had died, gone to heaven, and sat on Jesus’ lap.

John Williams, in the Times Book Review of July 7, wrote that the policy is “simply that we do not second-guess personal accounts.” Deborah Hofmann, senior editor for the Times’ bestseller lists, said, “You might say nonfiction is in the eye of the beholder.”

SONNET AND ODE: Michael Gilbert was a British lawyer and the author of 30 mysteries, thrillers, police procedurals, spy novels, courtroom dramas, crime novels and nonfiction books on legal topics. He died in 2006.

He was asked once to explain the difference between a detective story (a whodunit) and a thriller.  He said, “The detective story is comparable to the sonnet, being bound in its format by the strict rules that it has to observe. The thriller is the ode, which can adopt any form. . . .Having tried my hand at both, I thought the thriller the more difficult of the two.”

FINDING A TITLE: E.L. Doctorow talked about why book titles are important in Conversations with American Writers by Charles Ruas.

Doctorow said, “A title is of practical use to an author. You’ll find a title and it will have a certain excitement for you, it will evoke the book, it will push you along. Eventually you will use it up and you will have to choose another title. When you find one that doesn’t get used up, that’s the title you go with.”

He told how he found one popular title. About a third of the way through the writing, he “thought of Ragtime and I kept working, and Ragtime carried me to the end.”

NO NOVEL: After Alice Munro, 82, said publicly that she was retiring, Charles McGrath of The New York Times went to visit her at her home in Clinton, Canada. In the piece he wrote after interviewing her, he revealed that he had been her first editor at The New Yorker.  Her appearance in that magazine kicked off her international reputation as “Canada’s Chekhov.”

Munro said, “While working on my first five books, I kept wishing I was writing a novel. I thought until you wrote a novel, you weren’t taken seriously as a writer. It used to trouble me a lot, but nothing troubles me now, and besides, there has been a change. I think short stories are taken more seriously now than they were.”

Munro’s stories certainly are.

PRICE WAR? The word was that Amazon had cut book prices and lost money in order to take over the market.  Now Amazon prices are going up, and scholarly and small press books are no longer being discounted.

The New York Times said that Amazon was creating “the uneasy prospect of a two-tier system where some books are priced beyond the reach of an audience.”

Amazon denied this, but the Times cited several examples of price increases.

“Amazon is doing something vitally important for book culture by making books readily available in places they might not otherwise exist,” said Ted Striphas, an associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington. “But culture is best when it is robust and decentralized, not when there is a single authority that controls the bulk of every transaction.”

SHAKE HARD: Dorothy L. Sayers was a popular mystery writer who died in 1967.

In a letter, she wrote: “People are always imagining that if they get hold of the writer himself and, so to speak, shake him long enough and hard enough, something exciting and illuminating will drop out of him. But it doesn’t.

“All we get by shaking is the odd paper clip and crumpled carbons of his wastepaper basket. . . . What we make [as writers] is more important than what we are, particularly if making is our profession.”

The quote is from a collection of essays entitled Dorothy L. Sayers: The Century Celebration, edited by Alzina Stone Dale.

LAST LETTERS? “Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls,” wrote poet John Donne. Have you mingled any souls lately or have you given up letter-writing for e-mails?

“It is difficult not to feel that when writers stopped sending old-fashioned, hand-written letters to each other, literary life lost a dimension,” wrote D.J. Taylor in The Wall Street Journal. Taylor’s next novel, The Windsor Faction, will be out in the fall.

He was reviewing two books that could very well turn out to be the last of the genre: letters exchanged by writers.

Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein had their letters to each other published in Distant Intimacy. Paul Auster’s and J.M. Coetzee’s letters are the text of Here and Now.  Taylor wrote in his review that their letters reveal that all four men have “a deep loathing of literary critics.” And this quartet also shows “a suspicion that the old high-culture certainties of [their] youths are gone.”

Gone too, probably, are books like these. Does anyone think an exchange of a lot of e-mails deserves to be printed and bound into a book?

DOING JUST FINE:  With so many independent bookstores just struggling to survive, the success of the shop that novelist Ann Patchett opened in Nashville in 2011 inspired an article in The Guardian. In Britain, the newspaper said, “booksellers have urged authors to be more proactive in promoting the sector, including adding links to independent bookshops from authors’ and publishers’ websites.”

Patchett told The Guardian that her shop’s success happened because she had “a brilliant business partner, demand from local book buyers, and media interest from Germany to India to Korea.”

THE ART OF SELLING: Listed right under Dan Brown’s Inferno, the No. 1 bestseller, is a series novel by Sylvia Day.  The title is Entwined With You. The prose on the Internet promotion is breathless: “From the moment I met Gideon Cross, I recognized something in him I needed. Something I couldn’t resist.”

The site also has a video trailer with four young women watching a sports event on TV. One of them jumps up and yells, “Where are the guys? They are totally missing it!” The other wives shrug.

Then four young men are shown at the dining table. Each has his nose buried in a Sylvia Day novel.

ANTIQUE: “Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind,” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote with his quill in the mid-1800s.

In 1981, in a book titled The Literary Life and Other Curiosities, Robert Hendrickson, wrote: “Neither old or new pens can compare with modern typewriters. . . .The Olivetti TES 501, owned by several well-heeled novelists but no poets, stores what you write, displays portions on a small screen, permits you to add or delete without retyping the page and provides a printout. $12,000.”

In a world of Macs and Dells, Hawthorne’s quill seems a shadow far, far away.

EPITAPH: A line from Look Homeward, Angel is carved on Thomas Wolfe’s tombstone: “The last voyage, the longest, the best.”

Comments: more
  • lurker

    nice column….a few good chuckles and a great Hawthorne quote. thanks Campbell

  • lurker

    Nice column…liked the buddha and the guys at the dining table…made me chuckle. Nate Hawthorne quote was good too…thanks.