Along Publishers Row

by Campbell Geeslin

In last week’s orgy of pre-Oscar hype, there was an interesting quote from Steve McQueen, film director of 12 Years a Slave.  McQueen also stages art exhibitions.

He told The New York Times, “I always see art as poetry and filmmaking as a novel, doing the same thing but differently, one abstract and the other one linear.”

Spoken as a man of literature.

UNTRUTHS: “Liar’s Jackpot” was a headline on the editorial page in The New York Times last week. The subject was first-time author John Lefevre’s book, Straight to Hell: True and Glorious Tales of Deviance, Debauchery, and Billion Dollar Deals.

Lefevre became known on Twitter for “compiling quotes he didn’t hear from Wall Street co-workers he doesn’t know, in a place he never worked.” These are the “tasteless, boorish, smug and reliably funny things he overhears from rich bankers in the elevators at Goldman Sachs.”

The editorial said: “Lefevre lives in Texas, never worked for Goldman, lied about it to reporters” but still got a six-figure contract from Simon & Schuster. Straight to Hell will be published next fall. The publisher said that Lefevre’s tweets were “a lighting rod” and praised “the quality of his writing.” The book will be published as nonfiction.

INSIDER’S VIEW: Ron Charles is deputy editor of The Washington Post’s book pages and a regular reviewer. He wrote an article entitled “Confessions of a Serial Book-Spoiler.”

“Complaints about reviews that ‘give too much away’ are, by far, the most-frequent complaints I receive,” he wrote. “Sometimes the objections seem justified, but often readers think a review is telling everything when, in fact, it only summarizes the first 30 pages.”

Later Charles said, “as I read around, I’m distressed by how many reviewers present a thorough summary of every twist and turn of the plot . . . as though the critic thought of himself as a reporter, sent into the field to tell us what really happened.”

Charles ended with: “maybe we editors are too shy about hacking away at excess detail.”

KEEPING SCORE: More book reviews last year were written by men than by women. At The New York Review of Books, there were 213 reviews written by males and 52 by females. The counting was done by VIDA, a women’s literary organization.

At The Atlantic, there were 14 reviews written by men and three by women. At Harper’s, there were 24 male reviewers and 10 female.

Among other findings: in 2012, The New York Times Book Review had 400 reviews written by men and 327 written by women. In 2013, it had 413 male reviewers and 393 female reviewers.

BURN OUT: Chris Harrison is host of TV’s long-running “The Bachelor.” In an interview in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, he was asked about words that had become useless because of overuse.

“‘Incredible,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘beautiful.’ All of them. How do you describe the 90th mountaintop or beach that you’ve been on? Yeah, it’s amazing, it’s incredible, it’s beautiful. You go down the list and you start recycling them, and now it’s just become a joke.”

THE FOUR: The New York Times‘s Dwight Garner provided the names of the “four most influential young literary magazines in America.” They are n+1, McSweeney’s, The Believer and Tin House. In a review last week of MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbah, Garner claimed that if he knew which one of the four you read he could “tell you who you are.”

ABOUT ABE: Joseph Epstein wrote in The Wall Street Journal that the best biography of Lincoln was written in 1916 by Lord Charnwood. The worst: “Carl Sandburg’s multivolumed biography, a repository of folklore and myth-making that Edmund Wilson called ‘the cruelest thing that happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth.’”

According to Epstein, the Charnwood book “is a work in the distinguished tradition of brilliant books by foreign writers on American subjects. Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Lord Bryce’s The American Commonwealth and George Santayana’s Character and Opinion in the United States. . . . These foreign observers were able to tell us things about ourselves that we Americans were likely to overlook or perhaps did not wish to know.”

NOVEL vs. TV: Mohsin Hamid is the author of How To Get Rich in Rising Asia: A Novel (2013). In an essay for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, he compared the novel to TV: “Novels are characterized by their intimacy, which is extreme, by their scale, which is vast, and by their form, which is linguistic and synesthetic. The novel is a kinky beast.

“Television gives us something that looks like a small world, made by a group of people who are themselves a small world. The novel gives us sounds pinned down by hieroglyphs, refracted flickerings inside an individual.”

He concludes: “television and the novel travel in opposite directions.”

ASSIGNMENT: Alice Hoffman’s latest novel is The Museum of Extraordinary Things. In an interview in The New York Times she talked about a professor she once had, Albert Guerard, and his Stanford writing class.

Hoffman said that “his first assignment shocked the class: write fifty pages a week. When the pages were handed in by the exhausted student writers, our teacher was the one to be shocked. He hadn’t been serious about the assignment. Guerard was just letting us know that writers write.”

MORE THAN ONE: The Dream of the Great American Novel by Lawrence Buell was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal by Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece. Gorra teaches at Smith College.

“To me,” Gorra wrote, “the term’s curiosity lies in that definite article: “the” great American novel, not “a” great American novel. It’s as though there could only be one, a single great Gatsby or a solitary white whale, one voice should speak for all.“

Gorra wrote that Buell proposed more possibilities “by writers who have all thought with special force about the nature of the country itself.” Among those suggested, in addition to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville, were the usual suspects–Nathaniel Hawthorne, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Ellison, Philip Roth, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Margaret Mitchell, John Dos Passos and Thomas Pynchon.

MORE REAL: In 2009, 4,002 audiobooks were offered for sale. In 2012, there were 13,255 audiobook titles produced. That rise in audiobooks was noted by T.M. Luhrmann, an anthropology professor at Stanford.

She wrote in The New York Times that “for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.” When stories began to be written down they still were more often heard than read silently. Silent reading became common only in the second half of the 19th century.

Luhrmann said, “When I listen to a story…I remember more of the action and less of the language.” The experience is different. “I listen the way I read books as a child, as if I were there watching. The author becomes more transparent, the characters more real.”

HOT: It’s now one of the biggest-selling series in publishing history—the three Fifty Shades of Grey erotica books by E. L. James have sold more than 100 million copies world wide.  The Guardian quotes “memorable lines” from the book including: “My inner goddess is doing the meringue with some salsa moves.”

A movie version is scheduled for a Valentine Day opening in Paris next year.

In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Chelsea Handler, author of Uganda Be Kidding Me, was asked, “What was the last book that made you laugh.“

She responded: “Fifty Shades of Grey. I mean—seriously.”

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