by Campbell Geeslin

John McPhee's article in the March 9 New Yorker— “Frame of Reference: To illustrate—or to irritate?”—calls attention to something all writers are aware of.

How do you make certain that your reader will know what you mean when you make a comparison to explain something or someone?

“If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that," he wrote, "you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.”

Another example: “Maureen Dowd, the Times, 2008, on President emeritus William Jefferson Clinton: ‘Bill continues to howl at the moon. . . . He’s starting to make King Lear look like Ryan Seacrest."


WHAT THE PERIOD SAYS: Last week I had an item about a Comma Queen. On Sunday, The New York Times had an article with a headline: “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!). “

Reporter Jessica Bennett wrote that the comma was dead, and that “women are more likely to use emotive punctuation than men are. She quoted a friend who said, “when my girlfriends don’t use an exclamation point, I’m like ‘What’s wrong, you O.K.?’”

Ben Crair, an editor at the New Republic, wrote a column about “the new aggression of the period.” He said, “You could drive yourself insane trying to decode the hidden messages in other people’s punctuation.”

NEW WORLD: William Gibson’s latest novel, The Peripheral, was published last fall. He invented the word “cyberspace” for his novel Neuromancer (1984). He said he got the idea from watching kids play video games in an arcade. Gibson was quoted in The New York Review of Books: “It seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.”

ABANDONED BOOK: What’s his crime? In the Times Magazine’s "Sunday Funny," by Tom Gould, a character decides that a book bores him, and quits reading it. “I don’t have to finish every book I begin,” he thinks. In the final panels, he’s found guilty of a crime and ends in a prison cell, reading the book.

NIT PICKERS: Their book about business, Winning (2005), was a huge bestseller. Now Jack Welch, former C.E.O of General Electric, and his wife Suzy Welch, a former editor of The Harvard Business Review, have written The Real-Life M.B.A.

Their writing routine usually starts with Jack talking while Suzy takes his stream of thought and turns it into tighter prose. “I really push him on stuff,” she told The Wall Street Journal.

“She then writes a first draft, gives it to her husband, and finally the two go back and forth—often yelling from their respective offices.“

“We’re nit-pickers," Welch told The Journal. "We’ve picked over every word of each other’s.”

TWO RULES: In 1974 Richard Holmes wrote an 800- page biography, Shelley: The Pursuit. The experience led him to conclude that there are two rules about biography writing that are not taught in school.

The first, he wrote in The New York Review of Books, is “that the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed.”

The second is the importance of “keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed.)” On the right hand page, Holmes wrote, “I would record the objective facts of my subject’s life, as minutely and accurately as possible. . . .” On the left, “my personal responses, my feelings and speculations, my questions and conundrums, my difficulties and challenges. Irritation, embarrassment, puzzlement, or grief could prove as valuable as excitement, astonishment, or enthusiasm.”

HER OWN VOICE: Marina Abramovic has tested the limits of physical and mental endurance--burning, cutting, starving and whipping herself in some of her more challenging works of art. In 2010, she had a major retrospective, in which she appeared nude, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Now she will write a memoir. It will be published on her 70th birthday in the fall of 2016.

GUIDE TO HORROR: Charles Baxter teaches creative writing at the University of Minnesota. His There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories was published last month. He wrote in the New York Review of Books about horror stories.

Speaking from his teaching experience, Baxter said that “the tendency of young people, usually young men, to concoct gruesome narratives . . . Mayhem, awkward sentences, paper-thin characterizations, and complicated weaponry vie for the reader’s attention. But always there are the aliens, organic or machinelike or both, and always the accompanying rage and revulsion.

“The authors of these horrific fictions sit in the back of the classroom, avoid eye contact, rarely speaking to anybody. Shabbily dressed, fidgety, tattooed, hysterically sullen, they are bored by realism and reality when not actively hostile to both. When asked about their reading, they will gamely mumble the usual list of names: Neal Stephenson, Stephen King, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick. But the name that I have heard most often mentioned in these litanies is that of H. P. Lovecraft, whom they revere. He is their spirit-guide.”

GIFT: “The stories we tell each other, the stories we grow up on, the stories that help shape our values and shape our lives, we still love and remember. This is the stuff that should be preserved." So said George Raymond Richard Martin as he presented Texas A&M University its five-millionth book—a first edition of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

The Guardian reported that Martin said the copy of The Hobbit “represents an acceptance of fantasy into the canon of world literature, which I think is long overdue, frankly.”

SEX IN CLICHES: Lydia Millet is the author of Ghost Lights (2012). Quoted in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, she revealed that she was once a copy editor at Hustler and other pornographic magazines. “It was all fairly glossy and dull, I thought,” she said. “I did like the comic aspect of it, sets of archetypal morons transacting sex in a series of coded clichés, but it wasn’t often interesting.”

STAGE BOUND: Stephen King’s Misery, a horror tale, became a movie. James Caan played a successful writer, tortured by his psycho housekeeper, played by Kathy Bates.

Now Misery is on its way to Broadway in a dramatic version by William Goldman. Bruce Willis will be the novelist and Elizabeth Marvel will be the fan who adores him to death. Opening date is to be announced.

THAT WORD: On the subject of horror, Edgar Allan Poe must always be mentioned. His only novel, written early in his career, was The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

The New York Review of Books ran an excerpt of Marilynne Robinson's introduction to a new edition of the novel.

Narrative makes its way to a climax as strange and powerful as anything to be found in his greatest tales.

“The word that recurs most crucially in Poe’s fictions is horror. His stories are often shaped to bring the narrator and the reader to a place where the use of that word is justified, where the work and the experience it evokes are explored or by implication defined. . . . Collectively we remember our nightmares, though sanity and good manners encourage us as individuals to forget them.”

AWARDS: The annual Story Prize of $20,000 went to Elizabeth McCracken for Thunderstruck and Other Stories. The presentation was made last week at Manhattan’s New School. Finalists Lorrie Moore (Bark) and Francesca Marciano (The Other Language) each won $5,000.

MUSIC: Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel is The Buried Giant. He was interviewed in The New York Times Book Review last Sunday. He said he had been writing songs since he was 15. “For me,” he said, “there has always been a big overlap between fiction and song. My style as a novelist comes substantially from what I learnt writing songs. The intimate, first-person quality of a singer performing to an audience, carried over for me into novels.”