by Campbell Geeslin
Someone at The New York Times Book Review must have been shot by Cupid’s arrow. In a roundup just before Valentine’s Day, 20 authors responded to the question, “What can literature tell us about love?”
Eileen Myles, author of Inferno: A Poet’s Novel, wrote: “Literature is love. I think it went like this: drawings in the cave, sounds in the cave, songs in the cave, songs about us. Later, stories about us. Part of what we always did was have sex and fight about it and break each other’s hearts… We love the feel of making the marks as the feelings are rising and falling. Living in literature and love is the best thing there is. You’re always home.”
FROST REVISED: “This is autobiography passed through the sieve of self-contempt, an absurdist anti-Who’s Who that elevates, by ostensibly denigrating, the real ‘true story’ of a person’s life.” The quote is by Dan Chasson in the February 10th New Yorker. He was reviewing The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1: 1886-1920.
Later, Chasson comments: “In young writers, ambition often sprints ahead of accomplishment, then stops and waits for the gap to close. If it didn’t run ahead, there might be no race at all. Frost’s ambition made its start around 1894, but his career didn’t catch up until 1913 when he published his first book, A Boy’s Will and a year later, his second North of Boston.”
Frost was also the subject of a Page One article in The New York Times. There are to be four volumes of 3,000 letters that “promise to offer the most rounded, complete portrait to date.”
The Times said that Frost, after his death, had come to be regarded as a “monster of egotism” who “destroyed human lives.” One of the editors of the letters, however, said, “Frost has his moods, his enemies, the things that set him off. But mostly what you see [in these letters] is a generosity of spirit.”
HOT: The Dork Diaries series was written for ages nine to 13 by Rachel Renee Russell. U.S.A. Today tracked the books’ “huge jump in popularity” to become bestsellers. The books have sold 10 million copies in less than four years.
The author is an attorney who lives in Virginia with her two daughters. The younger shares the heroine’s name Nikki and helps with the books’ illustrations.
Russell was quoted, “I hear from a lot of readers how much they can relate to all the ups and downs of Nikki Maxwell’s life with her friends, her crush, and the mean girl in school. So I knew that giving Nikki her own reality TV show in Book 7 would be the perfect story line.”
CAMPAIGN PAYS OFF: Last fall, author Colleen Hoover published a book, Finding Cinderella, as a free e-book. The characters, Daniel and Six, were from Hoover’s bestselling Hopeless series.
The author’s fans, thousands of them, wanted the book in print, and they waged a campaign on Facebook and Twitter. Last week, Atria Books said it would release a paperback on March 18.
Hoover was quoted in The Guardian, “When I write a book, I still have that fear that no one will like it, no one will read it and people will throw eggs at me. But you guys [her fans] continue to amaze and surprise me. Atria Books continues to amaze and surprise me. This life continues to amaze and surprise me.”
BIO: Somerset Maugham’s Cakes & Ale has a fictional narrator, a successful London novelist. He is asked for details about Edward Driffield, a famous author he once knew. The questioner has been invited by Driffield’s widow to write an idealized biography of the great man, in which it will not be revealed that, among Driffield’s many lower-class habits, he refused to bathe as often as his wife would have liked.
But, the narrator asks the biographer, “Don’t you think it would be more interesting if you went the whole hog and drew him warts and all?”
“Oh, I couldn’t. Amy Driffield [the widow]. . . asked me to do the life because she felt she could trust my discretion. I must behave like a gentleman.”
The narrator said, “It’s very hard to be a gentleman and a writer.”
LOTS TO TELL: A new biography of William Burroughs, Call Me Burroughs, by Barry Miles, runs to 718 pages. In 1988, Ted Morgan told Burroughs’s life story in Literary Outlaw. It was reissued in 2012 at 768 pages.
In The Wall Street Journal, reviewer Henry Allen explained why both bios are so long: “First, biographers are catering to Burroughs fans, a cult. Second, these biographies turn you into the equivalent of a boy standing by the railroad tracks watching an endless slow freight of depravity rattle past. The monotony becomes hypnotic. The freakishness becomes normal with repetition. You can’t look away.”
Miles described Burroughs: “Satirist, pornographer, science-fiction daydreamer, addicted to drugs and street boys, Burroughs was a literary godfather of punk rock, trash metal and gangsta rap preaching sodomy and murder. In his own words, he was a ‘connoisseur of horror.’”
RETIREMENT: Now that Philip Roth is no longer writing, he described his days like this: “I swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends.” He was responding by e-mail to questions from Cynthia Haven of Stanford University.
He said he’s also studying 19th century American history. “My mind is full of [back] then. Barely time left for a continuing preoccupation with aging, writing, sex and death. By the end of the day I am too fatigued.”
The Guardian said that his last novel, Nemesis, was published in 2009.
NEW ENDING: J. K. Rowling stirred up some fans when she said in an interview that her characters in the Harry Potter series made a mistake: Hermione Granger should have married Harry instead of Ron Weasley.
The New York Times quoted one fan: “Hermione should have stayed single, and taken many interesting and diverse lovers through the years. Neither of those boys deserved her. Hermione comes home to her clean, big apartment, pours some wine, and reads with her cat. She is perfectly satisfied without a man. The end.”
EXHIBIT: Has the bookplate, that paper work of art glued onto the inside board of a book’s cover for the owner to fill in, gone the way of the dodo?
A friend sent me the catalog of an exhibition at The Grolier Club, East 47th Street in Manhattan. The catalog reproduces the exhibit's fabulous pop-up books and other paper items by Vojtech Kubasta (1914-1992). The Czech artist’s work is on view through March 15. He designed bookplates for important people in Prague, and I was reminded of the days when a book without a bookplate was like a ship without its owner’s flag.
Many of the books on my shelves have bookplates. My wife had her own bookplate, decorated with a single yellow flower. Her mother’s bookplate had a dark scene of storm-tossed trees. I once had a bookplate too, a woodcut print designed by my brother.
“Ex Libris,” these books say in economical Latin. Have you ever seen an e-book with a bookplate?
EPIC SURVIVORS: In 1983, Ann Douglas, an English professor at Columbia, wrote an introduction to a paperback of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
Douglas observed: “The greatest American writers of the 19th century, Cooper, Melville, Hawthorne, and Twain, created characters of epic dimensions and resonance: Natty Bumpo, Ahab, Ishmael, Hester Prynne, and Huck Finn: these are figures in a pantheon as well as protagonists in novels.
“In Little Women, Louis May Alcott wrote a slighter work than the masterpieces of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain, but she achieved a similar end. With Harriet Beecher Stowe, she is one of the two Victorian women to contribute permanent members to the American literary pantheon.”
WHAT IS NEEDED: Rachel Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers. In a February 9 New York Times Book Review interview, she said that “knowing every important work of literature, if you want to be a novelist, is not required and could even hinder things. A writer is someone who can ask questions and follow bold instincts of assimilation. A vast intellectual, someone incredibly erudite about the entire canon, might have more difficulty doing so.”
DEATH: Pulitzer-winning poet Maxine Kumin, 88, died February 7 in Warner, N.H. She was the author of novels, short stories, essays, children’s books and poetry. She often said that all poems are elegies at their core. Her poem, “Homecoming,” was quoted in her obituary. The last lines: “The soup kettle will clang five notes of pleasure/and love will take up quarters.”