by Campbell Geeslin
The publication of The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewel and Janis Stout, could give writers something to think about. Long before she died in 1947, Cather made it clear that she did not want her letters made public—not ever. She asked recipients to burn them, but this book contains more than 500.
In today’s digital world we send e-mails, don’t we? What is happening to the flood of e-mails exchanged with family, friends and business folk? Will those messages just be swallowed up in invisible clouds of cryptic (LOL) initials? Do you care what happens to them? How long before super sleuths, for a small fee, offer to track down every e-mail you've ever sent or received?
Do yourself—and Cather—a favor. Get a copy of Death Comes to the Archbishop. That is what she wanted you to read. It’s imagined American history at its most transcendent and better than any letter. Even one from Cather herself.
SOLD: Less than a month after the Boston Marathon bombing, Riverhead Books said that Masha Gessen, author of The Man Without a Face, a biography of Vladimir Putin, had been signed to tell the story of the two suspects, the Tsarnaev brothers.
Gessen emigrated to the Boston area from Russia when she was a teenager. She is fluent in Russian and English and has reported from Chechnya. The New York Times said the publisher expects that the book “will reconstruct the struggle that ensued for each of the brothers between assimilation and alienation. “
HEAVY: On Sunday (May 5), The New York Times Book Review editors asked poet Robert Bly to name a book he felt he was supposed to like but didn’t. Bly said, “Paradise Lost. Milton is a big stone around a student’s neck. “ Bly’s latest book is Airmails, his correspondence with Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer.
WIKI WAR: “I just noticed something strange on Wikipedia,” wrote Amanda Filipacchi in The New York Times on April 24. "It appears that gradually, over time, editors have begun the process of moving women, one by one, alphabetically, from the 'American Novelists' category to the 'American Women Novelists' subcategory." A note at the top of the Wiki novelists' page explained that the list was getting too long, and required sub-dividing. There was no subdivision for male novelists, however. They got to stay in the main category, no adjectives needed.
Three days later, an update from Filipacchi— the author of the novels Nude Men, Vapor and Love Creeps—appeared in the Times's Week in Review section. Shortly after the first article appeared, she reported, "unhappy Wikipedia editors pounced on my Wikipedia page and started making alterations to it . . . They removed the links to outside sources, like interviews of me and reviews of my novels. . . . In 24 hours there were 22 changes to my page.” The next night, she said, “a kind soul went in there and put back the deleted sources. The Wiki editors instantly took them out again.
“I knew my page might take a beating. But at least I’m back in the ‘American Novelists’ category, along with many other women.
“For the moment anyway.”
WHY HE WRITES: Almost four decades ago, novelist William H. Gass told The Paris Review that in order “to produce my best work I have to be angry. . . . I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.”
Gass’s latest novel is titled Middle C. Could he be mad at his piano?
INVENTOR: Charles Simic is a former U.S. Poet Laureate. Most of his poems appear in a just published volume, New and Selected Poems: 1962-2012.
In a PW interview, Simic said that while writing a poem “it’s okay if my mind strays and changes the plot. I, like most people, begin with some experience I had, but in the process, I’m very happy if there is another alternative. I think that the war is probably one place where I pretty much say what I remember, but everything else is fifty percent reality and fifty percent invention, sometimes one hundred percent invention.”
PROF: William Zinsser is the author of On Writing Well, published in 1976. The New York Times called it “a classic guide to nonfiction writing.” In that book Zinsser scolded: “We are a society of unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.”
He has also written 17 other books and spent some years teaching at Yale.
Zinsser is now 90 years old and blind from glaucoma, but writers who need help seek him out and read their works-in-progress out loud to him. He said, “People read with their ears, whether they know it or not.”
Mark Singer was a former student of Zinsser at Yale. As a visitor to the old professor these days, Singer told the Times that Zinsser “is remarkably inventive and creative. And he wants to be in a pedagogical role whenever he can.”
ADVICE: Steven M. Cahn is a professor of philosophy and his brother, Victor L. Cahn, is an English professor. They are the authors of a new book: Polishing Your Prose: How to Turn First Drafts Into Finished Work.
There are quotes from the book in the June issue of The Writer: “Careful writers can tinker forever, so that anyone who vows to submit only a perfect manuscript is doomed to despair.”
OH: Veteran journalist Wendell Jamieson is taking over as metropolitan editor of The New York Times. Last week, in announcing his appointment, the Times said he was the author of a book: Father Knows Less, or “Can I Cook My Sister?” Is this yet another how-to book?
BROTHERS: Publication of Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir by Gregory Bellow was the occasion for an evening with the three Bellow boys on Friday (May 3) at Manhattan’s 92Y. The trio, who had different mothers, are Gregory, 69; Adam, 56, and Daniel, 49.
Because Bellow often used his own life in his novels, The New York Times reported that “the brothers said they recognized their mothers, themselves and many of Bellow’s friends” in their father’s novels.
Adam, an editor at HarperCollins, said, “In the process of putting his heart on the page, he touched a lot of people and made them feel close to him.”
STRONG START: Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel, Olive Kitteridge, won a Pulitzer and sold almost a million copies.
Her new book, The Burgess Boys, is set in small town Maine where Strout grew up and now lives.
The Burgess Boys sold 10,000 copies in its first week and hit the bestseller lists, PW said. Strout toured throughout the month of April.
ON CUSSING: Nothing will date dialogue more than the cuss words that stream from a character’s mouth.
“The words we used today to cuss someone out or to express our admiration are not the same ones people used in the past,“ wrote Melissa Mohr in The Wall Street Journal. Mohr is the author of Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.
Sard and swive were medieval equivalents of the f-word. To the Victorians, a leg was a limb because naming body parts was considered vulgar.
“Swear words are generated by cultural taboos, and these have changed over the years in some interesting ways,” Mohr said. She guesses: “Perhaps one day, far in the future, when we hit a finger with a hammer, we’ll shout ‘fat, crippled banker!’”
WHAT POETS DO: Dan Chiasson teaches at Wellesley College. His latest book of poetry is Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon.
In The New Yorker, he wrote: “Poets work primarily in lines, and often dream of writing perfect ones; this is why every poet is an innovator of sentences, dissecting them, ranking them, scattering, by means of line and stanza breaks, little cliffhangers across their lengths.”
DING: Lauren Graham is an actress who, while working on a TV series, Parenthood, found that she had time on her hands. She decided to write a novel. The title is Someday, Someday Maybe.
Graham told Entertainment Weekly (May 3 issue), “I was interested in writing about being an actor, about the beginning versus the reality of it now.”
The book took two years to write because “it was hard to have an actual routine. . . . I have this program, Word Counter, and I’d set it to 1,000 words and not get up or look up or do anything [but write] until it dinged.”
REAL SCIENCE: Thirty-five members of the online science writers group, SciLance, have contributed to The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age. Editors are Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis.
Hayden told PW, “The best science writing recognizes that science is everywhere and accessible to anyone, so long as the writing makes it so. . . . The stories that show real people grappling with real issues of consequence are the ones I like best.”
NEW GENRE: Francine Prose, in The New York Review of Books, came up with a new genre label for Joyce Carol Oates’s latest novel, The Accused. Prose wrote that Oates’s book “was a gothic-academic-historic novel of ideas.”
KEEP ON TRYING: Charles McCarry retired from the CIA 46 years ago. He has a new thriller out called The Shanghai Factor.
He told PW: “I’ve done other things in life, but writing is by a factor of ten the most difficult among them. And of course you never achieve what you set out to achieve, so you must keep on trying to do better. My wife says my last words will be, ‘Why did I ever type that semicolon in 1975?’”