by Campbell Geeslin
A cartoon cover by Grant Snider showed a young couple climbing inside a book and making out. Below that, the Oct. 6th New York Times Book Review said, “Let’s Read About Sex.” And the section was packed with it.
Among the many novelists heard from on the subject was Geoff Dyer. He believed that “the best writing about sex often seems pornographic rather than artful.”
Jackie Collins wrote, “I want to turn my readers on—not off. I try to take them so far, then allow their own sexual fantasies to take over. Believe me, it works.”
Erica Jong, who found scandalous fame 40 years ago with Fear of Flying, writes about the power of storytelling.
GUESSING: “Which classic writers do you think would have taken advantage of today’s literary openness?” That question was asked by Moira Redmond in The Guardian.
Redmond said Agatha Christie knew plenty about sex “but worked to sublimate everything to plot.”
Edith Wharton left explicit writing about sex in her papers, suggesting she might have been more open if she were writing today.
Evelyn Waugh “would pretend to turn up his nose—but sneak quite a lot of sex in there.”
Daphne duMaurier “would have rivaled Fifty Shades of Gray if given the chance . . . And it would have been much better written, too.”
TIP: After reading literary fiction, people performed better on tests that measured empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. That was the finding of a study that appeared in the journal Science and was reported on Page 1 of The New York Times last week.
“Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel,” the Times said.
“The reason,” the researchers explained, “is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”
Novelist Louise Erdrich, author of The Round House (which was used in one of the experiments), said, “Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries.”
ON REVISION: “Writers, for the most part, find themselves not in writing but in revision,” wrote New Yorker staff member Hilton Als in the Oct. 7th issue.
“Then comes what Joan Didion calls ‘the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print.’ Of course, endless revision can be a way of keeping that humiliation at bay, of keeping alive the hope that the text will achieve perfection in this draft or the next.”
REPRINTS: The late John D. MacDonald wrote 21 crime novels about Travis McGee, a private eye who lived on a Florida houseboat. Before MacDonald began that P.I. series, he had written 40 novels, largely forgotten.
Now Random House is reprinting his works, and Lee Sandlin, author of The Distancers: An American Memoir, wrote about MacDonald in The Wall Street Journal. Sandlin said that Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and J.D. Salinger “could hardly even bring themselves to acknowledge that ordinary Americans lived and worked in a new world of subdivisions and shopping malls and freeways, much less wonder how it had come to exist.”
On the other hand, Sandlin wrote, “MacDonald did; working on the margins of literature, he built up in a remarkably brief time an unforgettable, encyclopedic portrait of American development and blight—a Balzac of the exurban fringe.”
FEELINGS: Delia Ephron’s latest book is Sister Mother Husband Dog. She had often collaborated with her late sister Nora Ephron.
Ephron told PW that writing helped her get through the ordeal of her sister’s death. “That’s the greatest thing about being a writer: you’re writing what you’re trying to figure out, what you’re feeling, and you have to get at the truth. Writing about Nora came easily, out of grief.”
SPY GUY: Tom Clancy was author of bestselling military and spy thrillers, spiced with details about secret weapons. He died Oct. 1 in Baltimore. He was 66.
Deborah Grosvenor, the editor who discovered Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, told The New York Times, “he had this innate storytelling ability and his characters had this very witty dialogue. The gift of the Irish, or whatever it was—the man could tell a story.”
Red October, like others of his novels, was made into a blockbuster movie.
POETRY+PROSE: Lindsay Hill is the author of Sea of Hooks, a novel due out in November. Hill has published six poetry collections. He was asked by PW how writing a novel differed from writing poetry.
“I have a kind of dyslexia that makes it very hard for me to read a 300-page novel,” he said. “I only mention that because I can’t speak as a person who has read a voluminous number of novels. But I will say this: when lyricism can be coupled with the power of a story, it’s an absolutely irresistible combination.”
STORIES: Allan Gurganus has produced a new novel, Local Souls. A New Yorker reviewer picked up a line from Gurganus’s first novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.
“Stories only happen to people who can tell them,” Gurganus wrote.
NEW WAY: Jeffery Deaver is the author of 33 novels. His most recent is The October List, a crime thriller out this month. In it, he tells the story backwards.
He told PW that he did it that way because he wanted to write “a typical book but with a ‘surprise beginning’; readers would realize that the characters they’d met and the facts they’d learned were, in fact, different from what they’d thought.”
A major challenge throughout was maintaining suspense and mystery.
Later in the article, he said, “I went to great lengths to let the readers know exactly where they were in the reverse-time action.”
THE LONGING: Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel is How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. He wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review about whether or not fictional characters should be likable and concluded:
“Perhaps, in the widespread longing for likable characters, there is this: a desire, through fiction, for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible to open our eyes, to see, to recognize our solitude—and at the same time to not be entirely alone.”
MORE: A. Scott Berg’s new biography is about the 28th President of the U.S., Woodrow Wilson. The title is Wilson–nothing tricky about that.
Berg wrote about biographies for The Wall Street Journal. He singled out Richard Holmes’s Footsteps. In that book, Holmes followed paths that had been taken across European landscapes by Robert Louis Stevenson, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Gerard de Nerval, a French poet.
Holmes found “points of identification between himself and them.” It was, Holmes wrote, “an essential motive for attempting to recreate the journey of someone else’s life through the physical past. If you are not in love with them you will not follow them—not very far, anyway.”
FOUND: Michael Hastings, a prize-winning journalist who died at 33, left a draft of a completed novel. His wife found it in his computer. The title is The Last Magazine.
The New York Times said it is about an inexperienced journalist who is desperate to be assigned to write an article.
The book will be published next summer.
POE SHOW: Edgar Allan Poe was not regarded as an important literary figure until years after his death. The result is that the Morgan Library & Museum has a slender exhibit of manuscripts, letters, photographs, and a rare copy of his first book.
The New York Times’ Charles McGrath wrote an account of Poe’s life and a review of the exhibit and ended with: “Poe’s is an arrested sensibility, which is part of what makes him so appealing to adolescent readers, who identify with a fellow sufferer. From all those images of claustrophobia, you sense that Poe himself felt trapped, and that perhaps his greatest terror was being unable to escape the gloomy yet mesmerizing contents of his own head.”