Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

Back in the 1780s, James Boswell wrote the best literary blog, with quill and ink. He and his friend Samuel Johnson lived by their pens and would have felt right at home last Saturday night at the sixth annual Lit Crawl Manhattan on the Lower East Side.

The Crawl was “a gritty, low-budget affair,” The New York Times said. Volunteers did all the planning. There were no tickets, no admission fees and it gave “lesser known New York writers a turn in the spotlight.” Hours were six to nine p.m. and the crowd moved from bar to art gallery to pizzeria to laundromat, to hear authors read on subjects loosely organized by themes such as “Fake It”  “More Damn Lies,” “Radical Latinas” and “Return of the Savage Detectives.”

This annual outing was first enjoyed in San Francisco in 2004. It has spread to literary strongholds across the U.S.

London held its first crawl this year. The ghosts of Johnson and Boswell lifted their mugs of ale.

FOR LAND’S SAKE: The key word for book titles this season is “land.”

Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel The Lowland will be published Sept. 24. Other recent books were Joyland by Stephen King, Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfield, Fairyland by Alysia Abbott, Jungleland by Christopher S. Stewart and Motherland by Amy Sohn.

Alex Williams in The New York Times Style section wrote, “Even the world of publishing, it seems, is not immune to the whims of fashion.”

John Mutter, editor of an online newsletter, Shelf Awareness, said, “Book publishing is a very imitative business.  When a new kind of title or cover works, elements of them show up in connection with other books until another unusual, effective title or cover appears.”

FOUR DIED: Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, will be published September 19. It follows her second novel, Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award in 2011.

All three of Ward’s books tell of racism, and are set in a small town in Mississippi. The memoir is about four men who died young, and the town is Ward’s hometown on the Gulf Coast, DeLisle. One was hit by a drunken driver. One was killed by a train. A third committed suicide, and a fourth was murdered after he agreed to testify against a drug dealer.

Ward told The New York Times that people have to look at history through clear eyes to address its role in the present. “It’s almost like I’m in the dark and I have a flashlight,” she said. “And that wolf is out there lurking, and I’m able to shine a light on it briefly. And then it disappears back into the darkness.”

BAD CAME FIRST: “I just start and a lot of nonsense and bad writing comes out on the page,” the late Leon Edel told an interviewer from The Paris Review.

Edel’s long literary career was spent researching and writing about other authors. He is famous for his four-volume biography of Henry James.

Edel continued his description of his method of working: “I keep on rewriting in longhand or on the typewriter, until somehow out of my subliminal self there emerge all kinds of thoughts and ideas I didn’t know to be tucked away inside of me. Then I edit myself drastically. At some point a final version appears. It is largely an unconscious process.”

SOUNDS: In his new novel Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon describes Manhattan at night: Outside the window “they can hear the lawless soundscape of the midnight street, breakage, screaming, vehicle exhaust, New York laughter, too loud, too trivial, brakes applied too late before some gut-wrenching thud.”

KEEP ‘EM SHORT: Roy Peter Clark is the author of Writing Tools and How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times.  He wrote an essay about short sentences for The New York Times.

“Express your most powerful thought in the shortest sentence,” Clark wrote.

He concluded that short sentences can “give even preposterous statements the ring of truth. The bigot can use it to foment hate. The propagandist can slap it on a bumper sticker. But for the writer with good intent, the short sentence proves a reliable method for delivering the practical truth. With punch.”

PICK A PLAY: The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death will be celebrated in 2016 with current authors’ interpretations of his plays commissioned by Penguin Random House’s Hogarth imprint. Margaret Atwood will write about The Tempest. Howard Jacobson will do his take on The Merchant of Venice. Anne Tyler has claimed The Taming of the Shrew, and Jeanette Winterson has The Winter’s Tale.

Other writers for other plays will be announced.

TO COUNT OR NOT: The New York Times’s bestseller lists fail to name all the bestselling books.  This was explained in the Sunday Magazine.

The lists do not include perennial bestsellers such as The Great Gatsby and Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr, Seuss. Books required for classroom reading or those bought in bulk by institutions are not included. Jesus Calling is the third bestselling book of 2013, but the Times didn’t list it. Many churches give it away.

A very different list may be found on Nielsen BookScan.

The Times, PW and The Wall Street Journal agree that the No. 1 bestseller this year is Inferno by Dan Brown. It has sold 1.2 million copies since its May release.

TRADITION FADES: A survey reported by The Guardian revealed that only 13 percent of parents read bedtime stories to their children every night.  The poll consisted of 2,000 mothers with children seven years old or younger.

Seventy-five percent said that when they were children they were read to every night. According to 87 percent, “bedtime reading is vital to children’s education and development.”

But half of those surveyed said their children found TV, computer games and other toys more diverting. Four percent owned no books at all.

In my town, 100 percent of the children own a book. The library gives every baby that’s born here a copy of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon.

That classic puts a parent to sleep every time.

WITH MUSIC: Brokeback Mountain started out as a short story.  Then it became a prize-winning film. Now it’s an opera, and Annie Proulx, the author of the story, wrote the libretto.

Charles Wuorinen was the composer.  He said in The New York Times that Proulx had written “a splendidly concise and apposite libretto, in which [she], through her characteristically laconic style, conveys character and scene with great efficiency.”

The debut of this very American opera will be in Madrid on Jan. 28.

HISTORY: In 1858 Hyman Lipman made a pencil with a bit of rubber fastened to one end. The Supreme Court ruled in 1875 that it wasn’t a legitimate invention.  It just combined two known technologies: an eraser with another known invention, the pencil.

Sixty years later, Lipman’s rubber tipped pencil became a hit—in America. It failed to catch on outside the U.S. It was suggested that foreigners were more confident that they are less apt to make mistakes.  The New York York Times Sunday Magazine (Sept. 15) quoted a writer, “Americans were happy-go-lucky.”

QUICK NOTES: New York’s Big City Book Club Selection is Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens.

Phillip Levine, 85, was awarded a $100,000 poetry prize.  When young, he worked on an auto assembly line.  He said he had wanted to translate that job into poetry “with some degree of joy, an element conspicuously missing from my life.”

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, sequel to his 1993 hit A Suitable Boy, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2016. Seth missed the 20-year anniversary deadline set by another publisher that had paid him a $1.7 million advance.

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