by Campbell Geeslin
Do we need two books to tell us that our manners these days could stand some improvement?
Amy Alkon, author of a syndicated column, wrote in her new book: “Today rudeness of all kinds is at its peak . . . and this dismal condition is due in large part to technology.” She blames e-mail, text messages, tweets and Facebook. Well, technology can hardly be blamed for the title of her book: Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck.
Edwin L. Battistella called his book Sorry About That. He wrote that apologies from corporations, celebrities, and politicians are not intended to “express genuine remorse or accept blame but to make the offence go away as quickly as possible.” Wall Street Journal reviewer Barton Swaim wrote: “In today’s culture an apology need not be an admission of guilt or a plea for forgiveness. If you do it well, it’s an opportunity to insist that you are actually a wonderful person.”
Today, we just say, “I take full responsibility for that” awful, crude, embarrassing remark I made. And hope the rotten words are soon forgotten.
THE GAME: “Like many societies, the novel is a hybrid construction pretending to be an organic miracle,” wrote James Wood in the July 23 New Yorker. “From its beginnings,” he continued, “fiction has had borderless relations with nonfictional sources, has found ways to incorporate and exploit journalism, biography, historical texts, correspondence, advertisements, and images. . . .Some of the pleasure of reading novels, perhaps especially modernist and postmodernist ones, has to do with our simultaneous apprehension of invention and its concealment, raw construction and high finish. We enjoy watching the novelist play the game of truthtelling.”
NO HACKER: “So we have that most lethal of all cocktails, a surfeit of literary world clichés. We must be very careful,” John Crace wrote in his parody of Robert Gailbraith’s latest mystery, The Silkworm, in The Guardian. Gailbraith is Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling. Her fictional detective is Cormoran Strike. Crace’s column in the Guardian is called “digested read,” and other recent victims include Hillary Clinton, Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner.
“’How did you solve that?’ the News of the World reporter” asks in Crace’s sendup. “‘Good old-fashioned detective work,’ replied Cormoran Strike. ‘Unlike you guys, I don’t hack phones.’”
STANDOFF: The Silkworm, mentioned just above, is expected to be the big seller of the summer. Will Amazon, in its e-mail pricing feud with the publisher Hachette, sell copies of Silkworm? A full page advertisement for the novel in The New York Times made a point of saying the book was available at “thousands of great independent bookstores nationwide” and listed chain outlets with no mention of Amazon.
A publisher’s marketing executive said that readers’ inability to pre-order from Amazon may have hurt sales, but all the publicity could turn out to be a boost.
PW quoted a New Jersey bookstore owner who said the dispute “had heightened the awareness of the importance of independent bookstores.”
TOP TRIO: Who ranks at the top of the literary gang these days? Vanity Fair named names in the July issue.
Writer Evgenia Peretz gave her assessment in one long sentence: “In the literary world, there are those who profess to be higher brows still than The New York Times—the secret rooms behind the first inner sanctum, consisting, in part, of The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Paris Review, three institutions that are considered, at least among their readers, the last bastion of true discernment in a world where book sales are king and real book reviewing has all but vanished.”
These three were singled out because they had made negative comments about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer winner and a bestseller for several months now. The publisher says the book has sold 1.6 million copies.
KEY MOMENT: Peter Heller’s life was set on course by the illustration on a Louis L’Amour cowboy novel. The Brooklyn-reared lad remembered: “Something about the cover—all I wanted to do was drift the high lonesome on horseback.”
After Dartmouth, he moved to Colorado and became a writer. He built his own house of earth bricks “so when you looked at the house you hardly saw it.” The Dog Stars (2012) was his bestselling first novel. His second novel, The Painter, came out last month.
The dwelling described in this latest book, The New York Times said, is an earth cabin where the main character lives.
WOMEN WHO DRANK: Olivia Laing is the author of The Trip to Echo Spring, a book about alcoholic male authors. She wrote an article for The Guardian about female authors who drank. Laing said: “Elizabeth Bishop more often than once drank eau de Cologne, having exhausted the possibilities of the liquor cabinet.”
The list of other serious female drinkers was impressive: Jean Rhys, Jean Stafford, Anne Sexton, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith, Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker and Shirley Jackson.
POT CHAT: In a cartoon by Sam Gross in The New Yorker, two witches stirred a giant kettle. One threw a frog into the pot and said, “I’m writing a memoir. It’s mostly recipes.”
FROM THE PAGES: “Great literature abounds with food references,” The New York Times declared in its food section. Among the 50 meals mentioned in a new book were Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
This new book is Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals by Dinah Fried.
SPEAK UP: Guild member Manu Herbstein lives in Ghana and is the author of Ama: A Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade. He sent in a quote from Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing: “It takes guts to be a writer. . . .the best writers, those whose originality shines, tend to be those who are most outspoken.”
HER OWN BOOK: In 1979, Lisa Howorth, now 63, and her husband founded Square Books in Oxford, Miss. The New York Times said the bookshop became a “second home for many Southern writers including Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, and John Grisham.”
Last Tuesday, Howorth’s first novel was published. The title: Flying Shoes.
She told William Grimes of the Times, “I wouldn’t call it brave to write but it was daunting. When I was working on the book I wouldn’t read anything by anyone I knew, or any writing about Mississippi. I was too afraid of discouragement, and I’d worry about being derivative.”
The article ends with, “So far [the shop’s] publicity campaign for Ms. Howorth’s book remains low key. . . . A single copy of her novel stands by the cash register. It is a fake, a dummy book wrapped in the real cover.
“’I’m one of many writers in town’ she said. ‘We’ve got plenty of books to push.’”
BACK TO PAPER: Tony Horwitz, author of Confederates in the Attic, wrote an essay entitled “I Was a Digital Best Seller!” for The New York Times op-ed page. He wrote, “I was in love. The e-format delivered the timeliness and instant gratification of news reporting, yet with all the trappings of a book, absent the paper. There was even an author’s page with my picture.”
But the bad news: The publisher dropped out, bankrupt. The e-book, about the oil business, “earned little money, and even fewer readers.” It disappeared and then returned.
Horwitz concluded: “I’m back to planning my next book. I don’t yet know on what subject. But I do know its form: in hard copy, between covers, a book I can put on the shelf and look at forever, even if it doesn’t sell.”
WHAT’S Y.A.: The discussion continues about books written for adults being published as young adult novels and adults who admit that, ever since Harry Potter, they read Y.A. novels.
The subject was taken up by John Williams in his column in The New York Times Book Review. He quoted Ruth Graham, a journalist, who said she had read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and shed not a tear. She asked, “Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up?”
Williams said that Kathleen Hale, author of the Y.A. novel No One Else Can Have You, wrote an essay about an imagined meeting with Graham. “We laughed . . . because what else could we do? The varsity team had been eaten by mermaids and werewolves, and everything was up to us.”