by Campbell Geeslin
The American Writers Museum, launched by retired executive Malcolm E. O'Hagan in 2010, will officially open in 2017. It will be located on North Michigan Avenue, close by The Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park and other tourist draws and will feature permanent and temporary exhibitions. Visitors can nominate favorite quotes, books and authors in a “Visitors Favorites” section. The Times said there will be sections of children’s literature and westerns, mysteries and other genre fiction, and a permanent exhibition on Chicago writers.
The idea for the museum came to O’Hagan— who was born in County Sligo and has a doctorate in engineering from George Washington University—after he visited the Dublin Writers Museum in Ireland. When he went looking for its American equivalent, he was surprised to find that there wasn't one.
“Writers have a profound impact on our thinking,” O’Hagan said in an interview with Tin House. “They influence our history, our culture, our daily lives. They reveal to us who we are. They educate and entertain us. Their works are the keystone of our cultural heritage. It is vitally important for young people to understand the role writers play in society. It is particularly so at a time when reading and writing are being so impacted by technology. I would love to see a day when people have the same reverence for great writers as they do for sports heroes and film stars.”
WHAT BELONGS IN THE BOOK: David Ellis shared a byline with James Patterson on The Murder House, their fourth collaboration and a bestseller.
In his Inside the List column in the Times Book Review Gregory Cowles noted that “Patterson’s co-writers don't often discuss their professionally relationship, but in 2012 Ellis reflected on the lessons he'd learned from Guilty Wives, their first team effort.
‘I always felt like Jim was doing more than collaborating with me on a novel…He was trying to teach me, too. And it was always about the reader….It’s not about how impressively you display all the research you’ve amassed. It’s not about the number of syllables in your flowery description. The only question is, how will the reader respond? If it heightens the drama for the reader—because it makes you love the protagonist or hate the villain; . . . because it tears at your heart; because it turns your expectations upside down—then it belongs in the book.’”
POETIC DEFENSE: In an essay about the poetry of John Weiners and John Updike in the November 2 New Yorker, critic and poet Dan Chiasson cited the avant-garde Weiner's view of poetry as the “the most magical of all the arts,” because it creates a “life-style for its practitioners, that safeguards and supports them.”
“It is an odd and utterly circular defense of poetry,” Chiasson writes, "a little like saying that the primary virtue of medicine is that it gives doctors something to do, or that ballet was invented because ballet dancers needed it. But for poetry, the definition actually works: we routinely ascribe to poets an innate capacity for insight and imaginative transport, best but not exclusively expressed by the poems they write.”
TRUTH IN FICTION: Ayana Mathis is the author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. She was paired with novelist Thomas Mallon for the Times Book Review’s Bookends page. The question posed this week was “When creating fiction based on fact, does a writer have a responsibility to the truth?”
“It is certainly the case that fiction is quite often a bearer of truth,” Mathis replied, “at its best … an expression of some recognizable and resonant iteration of experience… Metaphor is a potent carrier of truth, particularly those nearly inarticulable truths we can only approach through juxtaposition and allusion. I could go on, and if I did it would be some time before I arrived at the matter of factuality."
Mallon's latest book, Finale, is the second in which Richard Nixon makes an appearance. In the first, Watergate, he invented a brief love affair for Pat Nixon, "a small act of novelistic treachery," he confessed, "designed not to diminish Mrs. Nixon but to make her the emotional heart of my story. I was trying to get at some larger truth through a particular lie, which is finally what all fiction, historical and otherwise, has to do."
WORLD OF GRAYS: In an extended conversation with novelist Marilynne Robinson, President Barack Obama, the author of the memoir Dreams From My Father, touched on a related issue.
“When I think about how I understand my role as a citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I bring I think I learned from novels. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that and the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they are different from you.”
The conversation between the mutually admiring authors was recorded during the president's visit to Des Moines, Iowa, in September, and published in installments in the November 5th and 12th issues of The New York Review of Books.
VIA THE BIBLE: Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, The Secret Chord, is about the biblical King David. It was reviewed in the Times by Alana Newhouse, the editor of Tablet magazine.
Newhouse writes that what Brooks “has drawn in The Secret Chord is a world in which the opposite of pragmatism is poetry, where the opposite of rational isn’t irrational but romantic. And so, choices—whether about love or matters of state—are made not between good and evil but between often equally meaningful life forces . . . This kind of decision making seems to belong to another realm entirely, until you understand that it’s true of our lives as well.”
WRITING TIPS: William A. Gordon collected quotes for his book 1,001 Tips for Writers (2014). In the section titled “Critics” were the following:
“After something is published all I want to read or hear is praise. Anything less is a bore.” —Truman Capote, quoted in The Paris Review, Spring/Summer 1957.
“The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.” —Thornton Wilder, quoted in The Paris Review, Winter 1957.
“Many critics are like woodpeckers who, instead of enjoying the fruit and shadow of a tree, hop incessantly around the trunk pecking holes in the bark to discover some little worm or other.”—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, poet, quoted in The Literary Life and Other Curiosities by Robert Hendrickson.
HAIRY: Christopher Oldstone-Moore is the author of Of Beards and Men: The Revealing History of Facial Hair. “Considering facial hair” he writes, “is a way of tracking and explaining… the mutability and variety of ideas of manhood within a given period, and across time.”
Ned Beauman reviewed the book for The Guardian, which included a photograph of Beauman with a giant, meticulously curated beard and moustache. “What I will take away from Oldstone-Moore’s book," Beauman concluded, "is an argument not stated outright in the text but nevertheless contained within it: that beards are something people like to chatter about and legislate over as a sort of displacement activity when they find it too awkward or confusing to address the issues that really matter.”
BOOK BANNING: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was banned from Mattoon High School in Mattoon, Illinois, where it was assigned reading in an honors English class. Some parents had complained about its “extremely” vulgar content. The outcry from anti-censorship groups was immediate.
The Guardian said there were 311 reports about attempts to remove or reduce materials from school classrooms and libraries in the U.S. in 2014, compared to 307 in 2013 and 464 in 2012.
WHERE THE STORIES CAME FROM: Stephen King has just published a collection of 20 stories under the title The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. The Times’s Alexandra Alter wrote that the book “functions as a companion of sorts to his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. In his new book, Mr. King introduces each story, describing how he got the idea and what inspired him. The catalyst for one, ‘The Dune,’ about a sand dune where the names of people who are about to die appears, came to him all at once when he was walking his dog on the beach in Florida.”
IN VOGUE: In a review of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir in the Times Book Review, Gregory Cowles wrote: “The vogue for memoir, like all vogues, comes and goes. But the impulse perseveres. Celebrities, addicts, abuse victims, politicians, soldiers, grieving children: Everyone has a story to tell and a conviction that the world wants to hear it—and often enough, if the bestseller lists are any indication, the world does.”