by Campbell Geeslin
“Historical fiction may be the literary equivalent of cilantro,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver in the New York Times Book Review this Sunday. “Consumers tend to love or hate it irrationally, and rare is the artist who can rally a conversion. I’m of the former persuasion, keen for the surprise bits of fact that shake out of a well-researched story.”
The occasion was a front page review of Kimberly Elkins’s novel What Is Visible, a fictional exploration of the Pygmalion story of Laura Bridgman. A childhood illness left Bridgman blind, deaf, and with no sense of smell or taste. She was famous 50 years before Helen Keller came along.
The Elkins review ran side by side with one titled Euphoria, by Lily King, a fictional account of an event in the life of Margaret Mead. Reviewer Emily Eakin wrote: “The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic (for Mead these hardly seem to have been a distinction).”
TAKING LIBERTIES: Andrew Delbanco weighed in on the same theme in his review of Jerome Charyn’s I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War in The New York Review of Books.
Delbanco wrote: “In the effort to say something new about Lincoln, novelists would seem to have an advantage over historians….The novelist can take liberties—suppressing this, embellishing that, even inventing situations, characters, and words that were never actually spoken….A novel is beholden to no external measure of truth; it must only be true to itself.”
SCRIPT IS GOOD: Since book making began, authors have been jotting down ideas for their stories by hand. Over the last a century, many writers produced their first drafts using a keyboard—first on a typewriter, then on a computer. Others—William Faulkner and Philip Roth among them—continued to set down their first thoughts by hand. Rare was the writer who did not revise a typewritten manuscript with a pen or a pencil in hand.
“Penmanship” was valued for its immediacy and beauty. For generations it has been the point of entry for literacy. Now, research is showing that writing by hand also concentrates the mind, and helps shape it.
“When we write,” a psychologist in Paris told The New York Times, “a unique neural circuit is automatically activated. There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental stimulation in your brain. And it seems that this circuit is contributing in unique ways we didn’t realize.”
Students learn better when they take notes by hand than when they type on a keyboard. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom told the Times, “With handwriting, the very act of putting down forces you to focus on what’s important. Maybe it helps you to think better.”
Maybe it’s time to revive the practice of writing script. Babies need to crawl before they walk. Maybe they need to scrawl before they type.
P.S.: The humorist Don Marquis’s literary cockroach, Archie, once typed: “I never think when I write. Nobody can do two things at the same time.”
COUNTING: Someone at The New York Times must have heard the complaints about a lack of gender diversity in the Book Review. The result last Sunday was a supplement that was almost a vanishing point for men.
VIDA, a woman’s literary organization had noted that in 2012, there were 400 male reviewers to 327 female. In 2013, it had 412 male reviewers to 393 female.
This year the Review has a woman editor. Last Sunday there were 15 reviews by women to three by men. A woman was the subject of the weekly interview, Marilyn Stasio reviewed crime fiction, and the closing essay was by Zoe Heller. Half the letters to the editor (two) were written by women.
It was an issue to make women sign in relief.
PRODUCER: Jeffery Deaver’s new suspense novel is The Skin Collector. He is the author of more than 30 books, which have been translated into 35 languages. Lincoln Rhyme is the fictional hero in the main series.
Deaver wrote his first novel (two chapters) when he was 11 and has been writing ever since. He worked as a magazine writer and went to law school to become a legal correspondent. Then he practiced law for several years and began writing a novel while he commuted to his office.
In an interview on The Wrap, Deaver said, “I plan all my books very carefully. I spend about eight months outlining the story from start to finish before I write a single word of the prose, and I do the same thing for the arc of the entire series.”
Later he said, “You can’t be in the arts these days without reaching out to the fans. I have about a hundred thousand on Facebook and another ten thousand on Twitter. I don’t do as much as I should because I’m writing so much, but you can’t ignore it now,”
Deaver ended the interview with: “I’m still thrilled when I see my books in stores.”
IT’S A LIFE: Ward Just has written 18 novels. His newest is American Romantic, reviewed by Gail Godwin in the Times‘ Sunday Book Review. “The novel’s construction,” Godwin wrote, “approximates the way we assemble our life stories over time, giving precedence to the memories that resonate most.”
Speaking at a benefit for the West Tisbury Library on Martha’s Vineyard recently, Just described writing as “a game of patience.
“You sit around for a few hours and then write a sentence. Then in a few more hours you write a second sentence. Then you rewrite the first sentence to fortify the second sentence. This goes on all day long until late afternoon. Then at the end of the day you erase all the adverbs. Finally you have a clean piece of paper with the fortifications of a battleship. And two and a half years later you have a novel. And then you start all over again. That’s the writer’s life.”
The quote is from an article by Bill Eville in the Vineyard Gazette.
HOW SHE LEARNED: Katherine Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan, a middle grade book that’s still on the bestseller lists. She lives in California with her husband and their two children. Ivan caused a stir because it is a story narrated by a gorilla. The simplicity of the prose has made it popular with boys who have reading problems.
In a School Library Journal interview on the Internet, Applegate said she had started her writing career with two Harlequin romances. She said, “They are very hard to write. You follow the formula. It was really a steep learning curve and after that I did a bunch of ghosting. So again I was learning to write to a specific formula. I did, I think, around seventeen Sweet Valley Twins [books].”
Later in the interview, she said, “I tend to look at structure before I look even at plot, which is probably why plot is a struggle for me. I think about what the book looks like and how it feels. Maybe this discipline is helpful for me in terms of finding the right words.”
Applegate said, “When I look at a big sprawling novel, . . . I marvel at it, because it’s a symphony and I’m so chamber music.”
NEW JOB: Editor Amy Einhorn is moving to Flatiron, an imprint of Macmillan. Flatiron president Bob Miller told The New York Times that Einhorn was “one of a very small group of editors who have an eye that is regularly finding what works, both on a literary and commercial level.” She and her staff are expected to publish two or three novels a month. The Help is one big bestseller Einhorn edited.
FACTS vs. THEORIES: Freeman Dyson is a professor emeritus at Princeton. He wrote in The New York Review of Books: “Science consists of facts and theories. Facts and theories are born in different ways and are judged by different standards. . . A scientist who claims to have discovered a fact that turns out to be wrong is judged harshly. One wrong fact is enough to ruin a career.”
Theories are different. Dyson continued: “They are free creations of the human mind, intended to describe our understanding of nature. Since our understanding is incomplete, theories are provisional. Theories are tools of understanding, and a tool does not need to be precisely true in order to be useful. Theories are supposed to be more-or-less true, with plenty of room for disagreement. A scientist who invents a theory that turns out to be wrong is judged leniently.”
ECHO OF MAILER: A collection of commentary by James Wolcott is titled Critical Mass: Four Decades of Essays, Reviews, Hand Grenades, and Hurrahs.
It includes a description of a Norman Mailer tirade on a long-ago Dick Cavett show: “It was a speech that the best English professor on the best day of his life could not give, because the nuances of Mailer’s voice spoke of the frustrations, victories, and attrition of pursuing the Great Bitch, that mother-woe of a novel not meant to be written. The difference between an English professor and Norman Mailer describing the quest of the writer is the difference between a war correspondent and a weary battle-wise lieutenant describing a military siege—one writes of skin, the other of blood.”
HALF LOVED: Martin Amis, a recent convert to Brooklyn, is often quoted in The New York Times. Last Sunday, it was the observation: “When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: What we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less.”
Zoe Heller, author of The Believers, quoted Amis in an essay and agreed. “I envy George Eliot the achievement of Middlemarch, but my longing to have written Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss is a bit less urgent, I think.”