by Campbell Geeslin
Joyce Carol Oates is 77 years old and the author of more than 100 books. Her latest is The Man Without a Shadow. The Guardian said last week that, “She appears more to belong to some other, long-passed era, with a pronounced, gothic streak coloring much of her fiction, which tends to be peopled by powerful men and introverted women who frequently experience sexual shame.”
The article writer, Hermione Hoby, visited Oates at her home in rural New Jersey and wrote: “She serves mugs of herbal tea and when her bengal kitten, Cleopatra, settles against my leg, Oates says: ‘I see you have quite a conquest there. She assumes you are here to meet her.’”
In Oates’ The Man Without a Shadow, one character, Margo, is a woman who “can’t bear herself except as a vessel of work.” Oates said, “I very much identify with Margo. . . . I’m wondering if many relationships that are based on love and romance are not pretty highly charged with unreality.”
Later, Oates said, “Writing fiction is hard to do when real life seems so much more important.”
THE GATES BUMP: It turns out that Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, is the new Oprah. Gates told The New York Times that he reads about fifty books a year, and has long sent friends emails recommending his favorites. A few years ago, he started posting reviews of what he reads on his blog, Gates Notes, and his influence took off.
Gates told the Times, “I have always loved reading and learning, so it is great if people see a book review and feel encouraged to read and share what they think online or with their friends,”
Evan Thomas is the author of Being Nixon: A Man Divided. When he got a bump from Gates, he said, “I was thrilled . . . . I can tell the blog is well read because I heard from all sorts of random people.”
ESSENTIAL: Author Philip Pullman made news in the UK and elsewhere as president of the Society of Authors, which issued an open letter to publishers last week demanding that they “treat authors more equitably.” Unless “serious” changes are made, the Society warns, the professional author “will become an endangered species.”
In Britain, the Guardian reported in a piece on the Society’s campaign, the median income of a professional author is 11,000 pounds, and only 11.5 % of UK writers make a living by their writing alone. Pullman, the best selling author of His Dark Materials, said: “Authors are the only essential part of the creation of a book, and it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that they can make a living.”
SOLUTION: Andrew Crofts, an author, ghostwriter and a former member of the Society of Authors’ management committee, had some thoughts on the subject. “Struggling as an author?” he asked in the Guardian. “Stop writing only what you want to write.” Earning a living as a writer, he says, “is as likely as winning the lottery Instead of writing books and persuading others to buy them, find out what people want to write, then do it for them.” That was his solution, he reports, and says he has earned about 4 million pounds over the course of his career, mostly from ghostwriting.
ABOUT ENDINGS: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout continues to get maximum media attention. The theme of the Times's coverage of the book this weekend was happiness. Columnist John Williams picked up a quote from Strout about her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, from a 2014 interview in The Houston Chronicle:
“I consider myself a very happy ender. And it’s something I’ve worried about, that maybe I have cheapened my work. But I’ve realized it’s O.K. because it’s not false. The endings come organically. I don’t just stick a happy ending on. As much as I see the darkness in life. . . . I’m a celebratory person. I do believe that is always hope and that people can provide things for each other.”
Claire Messud ended her front page review of Lucy in the Sunday Times Book Review with: “In its careful words and vibrating sentences, [the book] offers us a rare wealth of emotion, from darkest suffering to—‘I was so happy. Oh, I was happy’—simple joy.”
A BRIDGE: Last week, the Library of Congress named Gene Luen Yang the national ambassador for young people’s literature. The Times said he “often mines his life for his graphic novels. He has explored being a first-generation American and harnessed his love of computer programming.”
His novels are American Born Chinese (2006), Boxers and Saints (2013) and Secret Coders (2015). He will appear at events like the Children’s Choice Book Awards in May and promote Reading Without Walls. He was quoted in the Times: “A huge part of being a kid is exploring the world. Books are a bridge between them and what might be unfamiliar.” He also said his four children are less impressed than you might think. Though all are avid readers, he said, "They tell me they like [his books], but they like other people's books better than mine."
PLOTTING IS HARD: The Hired Girl is a bestselling young adult novel by Laura Amy Schlitz. Following a detailed, favorable review in November, the Times summarized its plot on its Best Seller list as: “To escape her hardscrabble life, a farm girl pursues work as a domestic for a Jewish family in 1910s Baltimore.”
An earlier prize-winning Schlitz novel, Splendors and Glooms (2012), was the subject of a Q and A in PW. Schlitz was quoted: “I love making up characters. I could make up characters till the cows come home. Plot’s what hard. Very hard.”
EXCITED: In a photo on her web site, author Cassie Beasley—wide grin on her face—holds up two copies of her best-selling novel Circus Mirandus. On its middle school bestseller list, the Times summed Circus up with: “Micah sets off for a magical circus in order to find the man he hopes can save his grandfather’s life.”
At publication last summer, Beasley was quoted, “I’m so happy and excited these days that I don’t even know what to do with myself.” And that was before Circus had hit the bestseller list.
OFF WITH THE LEASH: Poet Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs was published in 2013, and has moved onto the bestseller list for the third time. Oliver ends the book of poems with an essay titled “Dog Talk,” about her dislike of leashes:
“The other dog—the one that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk—is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life. Such dogs can remind us of nothing large or noble or mysterious or lost. They cannot make us sweeter or more kind.
“Only unleashed dogs can do that.”
ON STYLE: “When people talk about style they are always a little astonished at the newness of it,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “because they think that it is only style that they are talking about.” That quote is the beginning of a review by Michelle Orange of David Searcy’s essay collection, Shame and Wonder.
Orange, the author of This Is Running for Your Life, continued: “But uncommon literary style is always integrative, both the mother and the daughter of invention, wrought from a writer’s desperation ‘to express a new idea with such force that it will have the originality of the thought.’”
Searcy's style, said Orange, "is one of casual virtuosity, expansive focus and ambling centripetal force."
ABOUT BOOKS: “Andy Warhol is not typically associated with books,” Robin Pogrebin wrote in the Times last week, then went on to explain why the Morgan Library & Museum has organized the exhibition “Warhol by the Book.” Warhol “started out as a graphic artist in advertising, fashion illustration and commercial publishing,” Pogrebin wrote, “and for him, books remained an important inspiration.” The show will display more than 130 objects and include the artist’s only surviving book project from the 1940s. Also on view will be Love Is a Pink Cake with his line drawings illustrating love poems by Corkie (Ralph T. Ward).
The Times’ article included a Warhol drawing of two plump, coy angels and a big bouquet of red lilies with a message in script: “In the Bottom of My Garden by Andy Warhol.”
BIG BUCK POETRY: A 1930 edition of The Bridge, a work by Hart Crane with photos by Walker Evans, fetched $10,000 according to AbeBooks. It was the most
expensive book of poetry sold in 2015, according to the Times Book Review’s Gregory Cowles.
WHAT REMAINS: “I wonder if the best stories are those hardest to categorize,” asked Gregory Maguire, the author of After Alice, in last Sunday’s Times Book Review. “Bildungsroman or roman? Picaresque or metafiction? Stories change shape as one reads them. Understandings are loaded in, revised, discarded. Then, when the book is closed, a kind of spirit image remains in the mind, a revenant. Sometimes a reader knows that a lasting connection has been made only by the intensity of the effect, the memory and aftershock, after the book is back on the shelf.”
Maguire was reviewing Samantha Hunt’s new novel, Mr. Splitfoot.