by Campbell Geeslin
Put the word “wife” in the title of your next novel and you may have a bestseller.
Julie Bosman, who writes about book news for The New York Times, noted the successes of The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. They were mentioned in an article about The Silent Wife, a new novel by A.S.A. Harrison. That book, after a slow start, has become the summer’s sleeper, a bestseller.
The author didn’t live to see her Wife’s success. Bosman wrote: “In a real-life tragic twist, Ms. Harrison died of cancer in April, only weeks before her book was published. She was 65.”
Harrison was an editor and nonfiction writer in Toronto. Her husband, John Massey, told the Times, “She was very modest, and I think she knew that she had worked extremely hard on that book. She had very clear ideas about what was good. And I think she believed she had written a good novel.”
BONUS: Dedicating a book was once a profitable sideline. In the 17th century, writers got as much as 50 guineas for naming their patron on a page up front.
One author, Thomas Jordan, wrote fawning dedications in his books but left a blank for a wealthy man’s name. That blank then was sneakily filled in by a hand-press so every copy had a special dedicatee. And Jordon got a plump wallet.
BUILDING A BOOK: Matteo Pericoli believes that writing and architecture have much in common. He wrote: “Great architects build structures that can make us feel enclosed, liberated or suspended. They lead us through space, make us speed up or slow down to contemplate. Great writers do the same.”
Pericoli is an architect who taught a writing course at Columbia University School of the Arts. He wrote in The New York Times, “I encourage students to extract and then physically build the literary architecture of a text.”
Models of buildings inspired by stories by Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, Stefan Zweig, and a novel by J. M. Coetzee were photographed for the Times. One of the models was a cluster of low shed roofs, another was a stairway into space, a third was twisted ladders, and the fourth was two boxes that opened to face each other.
Barthelme especially might have been interested in this project. His father was a famous architect.
SPEECH: George Saunders was again in the news because of the commencement address he gave at Syracuse where he teaches writing. It was about the power of kindness and has been widely e-mailed all summer.
Random House announced that it will publish an expanded version of the speech in book form, to be released next spring. The title: Congratulations, by the Way.
NO NOBEL YET: The personal essay is what Phillip Lopate does best. In the August 11 New York Times Book Review, he sounded forth on the subject of writers who are famous and writers who are not.
He wrote, “There is nothing . . . in an author more becoming than modesty. I myself am, when all is said and done, exquisitely modest. I recognize my talent is a small one, and it has taken me further than I ever imagined when I started out in adolescence on the writing path. So I will conclude by expressing my abject gratitude to the powers that be for recognizing me to the degree they have seen fit. We will leave it at that.”
CREATING PEOPLE: Zadie Smith is one of the big names in whatever is the latest in fiction. She has a short story in the August 19th New Yorker. Her fourth novel is NW.
Asked by The Guardian what her novel was about, she said, “My books don’t seem to me to be about anything other than the people in them and the sentences used to construct them. Which makes NW sound like an ‘exercise in style’, a phrase you generally hear people using as an insult of one kind or another. But to me, an exercise in style is not a superficial matter—our lives are an exercise in style.”
Smith explained, “When I was writing the novel what I really wanted to do was create people in language.”
HERO: Bookstore shelves are groaning under the weight of new books inspired by Jane Austen, especially her Pride and Prejudice, published 200 years ago.
The New York Times listed nine nonfiction books and novels. I mention just two titles featuring an Austen hero: Mr. Darcy’s Guide to Courtship: Secrets of Seduction From Jane Austen’s Most Eligible Bachelor, by Emily Brand, and Mr. Darcy the Dancing Duck, a picture book by Alex Field.
BACK IN BROOKLYN: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is about the life of a fictional writer in Brooklyn. It is a first novel by Adelle Waldman, 36, who lives in—where else? She is the wife of Evan Hughes, author of Literary Brooklyn, a nonfiction book about the city’s writers from Walt Whitman to Jennifer Egan.
Waldman believes that the whole publishing industry lives in Brooklyn. She told The New York Times, “It was great to be in a place with friends who took [my writing] seriously long before I had an agent and didn’t think I was crazy.”
The Times said the novel was well-reviewed, and “even minor characters have sparked comparisons to real-life literati.”
LESSON: Ever wonder what it’s like to be in one of Gordon Lish’s writing classes? This description comes from the Columbia University alumni magazine:
“Writer, editor, and onetime Columbia lecturer Gordon Lish is famous for telling his students: ‘Don’t have stories, have sentences.’ During workshops, the students took turns reading aloud to him until Lish lost interest and told them to stop. Many never made it past their opening line.”
Jean-Claude Suares, 71, died July 30 in Englewood, N.J. An illustrator and graphic designer with a European sensibility, Suares was design director or consultant for a diverse range of books and publications, from Screw to New York to The New York Times's Op-Ed page, where in 1970 he introduced the caption-less black and white illustration tradition that survives him. His The Illustrated Cat: A Poster Book (1976), done with Seymour Chwast, started a craze, followed by Cats in Love, Hollywood Cats, City Cats and Sexy Cats. Chwast told The New York Times: “His timing was great. He always knew what was going to be big.”
Robert Bellah, 86, died July 30 in Oakland, Calif. The sociologist of religion was the author of The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in a Time of Trial (1975), Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985) and Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011).
Ric Klass, 67, died July 9 in New York City. He took up writing after working as an aerospace engineer for Apollo II, then in real estate and for the government in Washington, D.C. His novel Excuse Me for Living (2012) and a memoir, Man Overboard: Confessions of a Novice Math Teacher in the Bronx, won several awards. Last year he wrote, produced and directed a film based on Excuse Me for Living.
Leighton Gage, 71, died July 26 in Ocala, Fla. His first book, Blood of the Wicked, was published when he was 66. He went on to write half a dozen detective novels about a Brazilian chief inspector, Mario Silva. A seventh, The Ways of Evil Men, will be published early next year.