by Campbell Geeslin
“Writers are starting to realize that in predicting the future, they have actually helped shape it,” wrote Nick Bilton in The New York Times. He suggested that some sci-fi writers may have contributed “to dark advances in technology.”
H. G. Wells first wrote about atomic bombs in 1914. George Orwell predicted an N.S.A.-like surveillance state. “And writers have been envisioning incredibly destructive weapons of all shapes and sizes, for centuries,” Bilton said.
Back in 2011, Arizona State University president Michael Crow challenged Neal Stephenson, the author of several sci-fi novels, to stop writing dystopian stories and offer ideas with a brighter outlook.
Last week, the university released Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. There are no dark stories. Co-editor Kathryn Cramer told the Times, “We’re hoping to show that there are a lot of things we can do better.”
ON WRITING: Deborah Levy is the author of Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing. Her book was quoted in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
Levy wrote: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about the sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”
The review ends with another quote from Levy, “emotion . . . is better conveyed in a voice that is like ice.”
CLICK, CLICK, CLICK: Have any of you who suffer from occasional writer’s block considered that it might be because you miss the sound of typewriters?
The top editor at The Times of London, John Witherow, was quoted in The New York Times Magazine: “The problem with newspapers now is that keyboards are so silent you could be working in a bank or an insurance company.”
That newspaper has begun piping the sound of manual typewriters into the newsroom in an attempt to inspire reporters to meet deadlines.
As someone who lived with that music in my ears for years, I’ll pass. The gentle thumps on my Mac keyboard are all I want to hear these days.
HER MODEL: Lena Dunham’s first book, Not That Kind of Girl, comes out this month. She got a $3 million advance, and an extensive book tour was scheduled.
Dunham wrote in her introduction that Helen Gurley Brown’s Having It All (1982) was a model for her book. Dunham said: “I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone.”
An article in The New York Times Magazine said Dunham’s book “traffics heavily in stories of psychotherapy, neurotic meltdowns, toxic relationships and questionable personal choices, refashioned as highly comic if also uncomfortable anecdotes turned life lessons.”
Dunham has the last editorial page in the October Vanity Fair where she says that her idea of happiness is an “unmade bed surrounded by books . . . “ and she gives her occupation as “reader.”
HER TOWN: Jan Karon is described on the Internet as a bestselling author of 23 books. One of her series is set in a town called Mitford. Her just published book is titled Safe With Someone Good.
She wrote an essay for the AARP Magazine called “The Book That Changed My Life.” She said that she was 48 when she read Village Diary by Dora Saint. It was a fictional journal of a schoolmistress in a semirural English village.
Inspired, Karon quit her job with an advertising agency and created Mitford. The author wrote, “The first Mitford novel was published twenty years ago, and I’m still writing about the same town and the same prickly issues of life.”
THE RIGHT LOOK: Four years ago, Pulitzer Prize poet John Ashbery, 87, saw four of his books of poetry turned into e-books. To his dismay, there were no line breaks so his poems did not look like poems at all. Ashbery complained to his publisher, Ecco, and the books were withdrawn immediately.
Now Open Road Media has created electronic versions of his poems that look much the way they do in printed volumes. Ashbery okayed their publication and told The New York Times, “It’s very faithful to the original formatting.”
BIO SET: Leslie Bennetts, a former reporter for The New York Times, covers entertainment for Vanity Fair. She has been signed to write a biography of the late comic Joan Rivers.
Bennetts said that she was drawn to that subject because Rivers’ career was “enormously significant in American cultural history, breaking down barriers for women in television and comedy and continually redefining the acceptable boundaries of truth-telling for women in public life.” Pub date is set for 2016.
SOUR NOTE: Martin Amis’s new novel, The Zone of Interest, will be published in the U.S. on September 30. The book got strong reviews in Great Britain, but was rejected by Amis’s French and German publishers.
According to a New York Times Page 1 article last week, “In France, they say they’re puzzled by the humor. In Germany, they say it will be difficult to market.”
The Times said the book was: “By turns a love story and a meditation on Nazi horrors written with self-consciously grotesque humor . . .” Amis’s agent, Andrew Wylie, said, “I believe that it’s about lack of understanding of the book on the part of both the German and the French publishers.” Wylie said that other publishers in both countries would pick up the book.
FOODIE: Dan Jurafsky, 51, is a linguistics professor at Stanford and the author of The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, published last week. In 2002, he was given a MacArthur “genius” award for his work on how computers process human language.
Jurafsky was quoted in The New York Times: “A lot of people are attracted to linguistics by words. But language is about so much more. And for scholars, the language of food is particularly rich: it’s universal, it’s social and now it’s easily available online.”
Maybe that’s a good reason to make certain that your next novel includes a few scenes set at a dining table.
NOMINEES: The winners of the National Book Awards will be recognized at a social event on November 19. The Guardian summed up the nominees with: “Five men, five women, three masters, two first timers, an Iraq veteran, a folk rocker, a book about the apocalypse, a book about Beirut, and a book (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr) that prevented William T, Vollmann from sleeping.”
LIKE ART: The late artist Ben Shahn gave a series of lectures at Harvard, and the Harvard University Press published them in 1957. The book’s title: The Shape of Content.
Shahn concluded his last lecture with: “It is the images we hold in common, the characters of novels and plays, the great buildings, the complex pictorial images and their means and the symbolized concepts, principles, and great ideas of philosophy and religion that have created the human community….The potato field and the auto repair shop remain without quality or awareness or the sense of community until they are turned into literature by a Faulkner or a Steinbeck or a Thomas Wolfe or into art by a Van Gogh.”
RARE SHOW: Jane Austen’s House Museum in Chawton, England, is displaying part of a rare manuscript. It is one of 11 booklets about The Watsons, a novel that Austen abandoned. It is on loan from Oxford’s Bodleian Library, which paid $1.16 million for it in 2011.
PULSE WANTED: John Lahr is the author of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh. In an interview in The New York Times Book Review last Sunday, he was asked, “What draws you to a particular book?”
Lahr said, “I’m not a fan of science fiction—life on earth is mysterious and terrifying enough. I’m often drawn by tone and by the slant of the language. The way the sentences pop. A few well-angled sentences announce to me if this is a voice whose command I can trust or whose quirkiness intrigues. Style, after all, is metabolism. Even if it’s nonfiction, the writing has to have a pulse, something I can feel beneath the facts.”
TRIPS: Daniel Handler’s latest Lemony Snicket offering is Shouldn’t You Be in School?
In an essay about children’s books in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Handler wrote, “’Someone goes on a journey’ is one of the building precepts of narrative; ‘Are we there yet?’ is one of the guiding precepts of childhood. Picture books must inhabit the middle of this Venn diagram, offering stories as scenic and driving as any novel, at a pace more novel than driving through scenery.“