Along Publishers Row

By Campbell Geeslin

Words are being replaced. Our joined-together alphabetic symbols for absolutely everything are giving way to a growing tribe of little pictures.

Jessica Bennett, a multimedia journalist, wrote in The New York Times, “The roots of smiley faces and emotions go back to the 1880s, but the story of the emoji, those little pictorial icons on your cell phone, began in Japan in the mid-1990s when it was added as a special feature to a brand of pagers popular with teenagers.” Apple adopted it in 2011.

And it’s spreading. “Emoji was crowned as this year’s top-trending word by the Global Language Monitor, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary.”

Well, I think I can promise that you will never, ever see a smiling, frowning or tear-streaked little face in this blog. No wine glasses or pizza slices. Just words.

A POET’S JOB: Edward Hirsch is author of a book-length elegy, Gabriel. Alec Wilkinson’s profile of the poet appeared in the August 4th New Yorker.

Hirsch grew up in Skokie, Ill., and he is quoted: “Why would I have Skokie in a poem? But you become resigned. Your job is to write about the life you actually have.”

A LESSON: Joyce Carol Oates was editor of Prison Noir, a book of 15 stories written by U.S. prison inmates. It’s due out in September.

Oates told PW: “Serious fiction always breaks down the barriers between people—allows us to see, think, and feel as others do. We learn to sympathize with others unlike ourselves. We learn to feel pity—and terror—even to recognize hopelessness as an illuminating experience. . . .”

OUR MUSE: Stephen Marche is the author How Shakespeare Changed Everything. He wrote an article for The New York Times with the headline, “Failure Is Our Muse.”

He said, “Three hundred thousand books are published in the United States every year. A few hundred, at most, could be called financial or creative successes. The majority of books by successful writers are failures. The majority of writers are failures. And then there are the would-be writers, those who have failed to be writers in the first place, a category which, if you believe what people tell you at parties, constitutes the bulk of the species.”

But Marche said he believed that “failure really does bind us. Flaubert longing to melt the stars and the kid receiving her first rejection letter are the same. . . . persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. . . . To keep failing.”

DREAMER: James Lee Burke, 77, has written 33 novels. His latest is Wayfaring Stranger. After early fiction set in Louisiana, he now lives in rural Wyoming. He was the subject of a major article in the July/August issue of Poets & Writers.

Burke was quoted: “All power lies in the world of dreams. I’ve found that to be true. I often rise in the middle of the night to get something down on paper. I know it sounds bizarre, but I’ve always submitted to the idea that another hand is writing my books.”

HER CHARACTERS TOLD HER: Mary Kubica’s first novel, The Good Girl, was published August 3. She lives outside Chicago with her husband and two children.

PW interviewed her, and she said, “I’m not someone who outlines before writing. I don’t honestly do a whole lot of brainstorming. I would just sit down to write and, on any given day, didn’t necessarily know what was going to happen in the lives of my characters. But I felt really, really connected to these characters and, as I look back on it now, I feel like it was my characters who told their stories to me.”

WINNERS: Last week, James Wolcott, often quoted in this blog, was given a PEN Literary Award for the art of the essay. Frank Bidart won the award for poetry.

TIMES CHANGE: Lois Lowry is the author of more than 30 books. A young-adult novel she wrote 18 years ago, The Giver, opens as a film this month. She was interviewed in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine and talked about how fiction for young adults has changed since she wrote The Giver.

Lowry said, “When I was a kid in the ‘50s, during the Eisenhower years, everything seemed to be working fine. I don’t recall as a teenager ever worrying about the state of the future world. Today’s kids are faced with enormous worries, partly because they have media that I didn’t have access to.”

WHO IS A POET? The Library of Congress lists 44 states and the District of Columbia that have a poet laureate or a writer-in-residence. A headline on Page 1 of The New York Times asked “Is Poetry Dead?”

The article was triggered by the resignation of Valerie Macon, North Carolina’s poet laureate. Her recent appointment had caused an outcry from several predecessors. Macon, a state disability examiner, is the author of two books of self-published poems. The governor had not consulted the state’s Arts Council about her appointment, the usual practice.

Poet Billy Collins, a former laureate, told the Times, “I’ve been to places where there is a poet laureate for every ZIP code. The country is crawling with them. I think it’s out of control.”

DAYLIGHT: Katherine Mansfield’s Journal (1915) provided the following: “I bought a book by Henry James yesterday and read it, as they say, ‘until far into the night.’ It was not very interesting or very good, but I can wade through pages and pages of dull, turgid James for the sake of the sudden shot, that violent thrust of daylight that he gives me at times.”

COVER MAN: What does a top book jacket artist do when he publishes a couple of books of his of his own? The New York Times devoted a major article to Peter Mendelsund, 46, a book jacket designer for Knopf, who has created more than 600 covers in the past ten years.

What We See When We Read is about “how words give rise to mental images.” It is heavily illustrated. At the same time, Cover, a coffee-table book, is being released. It has more than 300 reproductions of the author’s jacket designs.

James Gleick’s nonfiction Chaos and The Information had jackets designed by Mendelsund. Gleick told the Times, “Most designers look for a central image to sum up a book, but Peter isn’t looking for an image, he’s looking for an idea.”

What We See When We Read has a small mirror keyhole in the center of a black background, and the type is white. Cover has a photo of a red book against a white background.

Mendelsund’s cheerful, flowing-script jacket art for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo took him nearly 70 attempts. It sold 10 million copies.

P.S.: In a Times review, Dwight Garner quotes from Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read: “Words are effective not because of what they carry in them, but for their latent potential to unlock the accumulated experience of the reader.”

HOW SHE DID IT: Pamela Moses is author of The Appetite of Girls, her first novel. A former English teacher, she lives outside Manhattan with her husband their two children.

She told PW that she had written short stories for years “so I came up with the structure of four different characters. I wrote their stories as separate short stories and the theme of emotional relationships through food came later.”

A USEFUL HUSBAND: Yannick Murphy’s new novel is This Is the Water. Murphy and her husband, a horse doctor, live with their three children and two dogs in Vermont. PW asked, “Are there any benefits to not showing [your husband] your writing?”

Murphy said, “Plenty! I write about him all the time, and he has no idea. Sometimes I think of him like a setting. I try to inhabit him and then I rip the stuffing out of him and jettison it out onto the page.”

In a review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Marilyn Stasio said that Murphy’s This Is the Water ignored all the rules: “Don’t switch point of view.” Don’t give away the identity of the killer.” “Don’t write in the second person.” Stasio found the rule breakers to be hypnotic and “seriously unsettling.”

FINAL WORK: Oscar Hijuelos, who died last October, will have his last manuscript published in the fall of 2015. The novel is about Mark Twain and Henry Stanley and the title is Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise. Stanley was a Welsh journalist who famously found a missing explorer, David Livingston, in the African jungle.

The New York Times said, “To research the 37-year friendship between the two men, Mr. Hijuelos traveled to Wales, England and Belgium and amassed six boxes’ worth of historical documents and papers related to their lives and careers.” He started writing the book in 2002.

The manuscript was completed just before Hijuelos’s death. He left a note that said it was “a one-of-a-kind of book that no one will have seen before.”

Comments: more
  • mark conte

    I would also like to add that last year, Amazon stated they sold 250,000 books published by traditional publishers and 750,000 self published books. All of the self published books were first sent to traditional publishers and now professional writers are lost in a room full of manuscripts by writers who have never even published a letter to the editor.

  • mark conte

    The thing is, when you create your characters, they are set in what they will and won’t do. You cannot make them do what your characters will not do. After a while they tell you what they will and won’t do. They kind of push you all over the page.