Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

Are women authors who write about women ignored by critics?

Novelist Jennifer Weiner (The Next Best Thing, 2012) was the subject of an eight-page Profile in the Jan. 13 New Yorker.  The title was “Written Off,” and it dealt with her “quest for literary respect.”

Weiner’s titles have sold 4.5 million copies and spent 249 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. None has ever been reviewed in the Times Book Review.

Weiner made her case: “There is so much antipathy today toward the idea of fiction existing for pleasure or escapism. I just have a very hard time seeing entertainment as a bad thing. The things that come up again and again in my books, like a man who thinks that you are beautiful just as you are: is that sentimental, wish-fulfillment bullshit that isn’t ever going to happen in real life? I feel like it’s something that we want, and I believe in it, even if it is sentimental.”

Weiner gives many readers what they want. But literary critics may be looking for something else—the prose and perception of a Jane Austen or George Eliot.

TREES SELL: Perhaps your next book’s jacket should have a photograph of tree limbs on it. Gnarled branches are on the covers of Sycamore Now by John Grisham, And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini and Innocence by Dean Koontz.  All three are big sellers.

The New York Times commented: “Tree limbs are almost as common as human limbs on book jackets these days.“

Are storm clouds next?

MAJOR MOVE: After more than 12 years on the National Mall, the National Book Festival is moving to the Washington, D.C., Convention Center. The Park Service said that cleaning up after the outdoor fete was too expensive. Instead of a two-day affair, it will become a one-day event that includes evening programs—and air- conditioning.

More than 200,000 people attended last fall. A hundred writers took part and about the same number are expected next August 30.

LOST LAB: “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader” was the title of an article in The New York Times by Colin Robinson, co-publisher of OR Books He bemoaned the loss of the mid-list book. That kind of book, long cherished by readers, is increasingly being rejected because the publishers believe it won’t be a sure-fire bestseller.

Robinson concluded that “book buyers today are deciding to play it safe, opting to join either the ever-larger audiences for blockbusters or the minuscule readerships of a vast range of specialist titles. In this bifurcation, the mid-list, publishing’s experimental laboratory, is being abandoned.”

AFTER LIFE: “When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation.” That quote is from an unsigned Talk of the Town piece in a 1986 The New Yorker.

BOOK LOVER: Mohsin Hamid is author of Moth Smoke and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. In an essay in The New York Times Book Review, he wrote: “E-reading opens the door to distraction. It invites connectivity and clicking and purchasing. The closed network of a printed book, on the other hand, seems to offer greater serenity.…Cloth, paper, ink: For these read helmet, cuirass, shield. They afford a degree of protection and make possible a less intermediated, less fractured experience. They guard our aloneness. That is why I love them, and why I read printed books still.”

MAN OF LETTERS: Ernest Hemingway’s request that none of his letters should ever be made public has been ignored. The Guardian said that Cambridge University Press is publishing 6,000 of them, in what will probably be 17 volumes.

THE WORD: The Word of the Year, chosen by the American Dialect Society, is “because.” The New York Times reported that casual online usage had transformed it.  No longer does because have to be followed by the word “of” or a full clause.

Ben Zimmer, chairman of the dialect society’s new words committee, gave an example: “You might not go to a party ‘because tired.’”

I hope you won’t catch me using “because” in this new way because wrong.

LIFE OF LOVE: Elizabeth Jane Howard, 90, died Jan. 2 in Suffolk, England. She was the author of a dozen novels including The Beautiful Visit (1951) and the five-part Cazalet Chronicles.

When her first marriage to Peter Scott (son of the Antarctic explorer) ended, she worked as a reviewer, editor and TV scriptwriter. Her third marriage was to Kingsley Amis. Her stepson, Martin Amis, called her “the most interesting woman of her generation.”

The Guardian said, “Howard lived a colorful and liberated sexual life.” Her affairs included one with poet Cecil Day-Lewis. Last April she told The Guardian, “He ended up by being very angry with me because I left and he said: ‘You shouldn’t have done that. You’re a whore.’ And a lot of rather bitter poems came out.”

BLAST: Sue Monk Kidd‘s new novel, The Invention of Wings, got a major send off last week. On Wednesday the author gave a reading at Union Square’s Barnes and Noble. On the same day, there was a full-page advertisement for the book in The New York Times as well as an interview in the Arts Section.

The novel “chronicles the decades-long relationship between a woman and her slave in 19th-century South Carolina.” An Oprah blessing was mentioned in all the promotion.

Monk, who lives in Florida, gave the interview in her agent’s Manhattan office. She said, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have and it’s accessible to all of us but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves [into] a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”

In a separate interview (Times Sunday Book Review, Jan. 12), Monk said, “Jane Eyre was the book that made me want to write.”

PURCHASE: In 2013, Hatchette, Simon & Schuster and Penguin created the website Bookish in an attempt to compete with Amazon.

Bookish was sold last week to Zola Books, an e-book retailer started by literary agents. The New York Times said, “Zola promotes itself as a bookseller, recommendation engine and social networking site.”

Bookish spent millions developing a sophisticated “algorithmic software” that offers readers suggestions. Joe Regal, Zola’s chief, said they would develop a plan for how to integrate Bookish into Zola.

BIO: Will Hermes has been signed to write Lou: A New York Life, a biography of singer and songwriter Lou Reed who died Oct. 27. Hermes writes for Rolling Stone and is author of Love Goes to Buildings on Fire.

ALL ABOUT LOVE: Nicholas Sparks, 48, is the author of 17 novels and one nonfiction book. All have been bestsellers, with nearly 80 million copies in print worldwide. His latest bestseller is The Longest Ride (2013). It is described as being about “Two couples who have little in common . . . Yet their lives will converge with unexpected poignancy.”

Sparks’s Internet site offers a numbingly long list of quotes about love. He isn’t shy about hyperbole. Sample: “I love you more than stars in the sky and fish in the sea.”

LONG LIST: Sam Sacks writes a column about fiction for The Wall Street Journal. Recently he said, “No reading year is without disappointments, but it’s noteworthy that in 2013 almost all of them came from A-list novelists whose books failed to warrant the attention they attracted.”

He complained about Robert Stone, Thomas Pynchon, J.M. Coetzee, James Salter, Nicholson Baker, Amy Tan, Tom Perrotta, Jamaica Kincaid and Kent Haruf.

Sacks also socked it to the “perennially over-praised industry darlings Dave Eggers and Jonathan Letham.”

THE END: Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying is a new book by D. T. Siebert, professor of English emeritus at the University of South Carolina.

Michael Dirda, columnist for The Washington Post, wrote that Siebert‘s book focuses “on how writers, especially poets and philosophers, have thought about mortality and, in particular, the various possible ‘scripts’ for a good life and a good death.”

Dirda continued, “Art, Siebert suggests, is our best solution to the problem of death. We can, through effort, shape our final days–creating or stage-managing—a fitting, even noble end for ourselves.”

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