by Campbell Geeslin
“William Zinsser, Editor and Author Who Guided Many Pens, Dies at 92,” was the headline for his obit in The New York Times. Bill Zinsser died May 15 at his home in Manhattan. His book, On Writing Well (1976), sold more than 1.5 million copies. He wrote 19 books, taught at Yale, was movie critic for The New York Herald Tribune and executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club.
The Times said his advice was: “Write clearly. Guard the message with your life. Avoid jargon and big words. Use active verbs. Make the reader think you enjoyed writing the piece.”
A quote from Writing Well: “There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
In 2012, when poor vision ended Zinsser's writing, he sent an invitation to friends and former students that said he was available “for help with writing problems and stalled editorial projects and memoirs and family history; for singalongs and piano lessons and vocal coaching; for reading and salons and whatever pastime you may devise that will keep both of us interested and amused.”
He ended with, “I’m eager to hear from you. No project too weird.”
BLUME AT 77: Judy Blume’s new book is In the Unlikely Event, an adult novel. The prolific author was the subject of an article by Meg Wolitzer in the June Vanity Fair and a glamorous photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
The idea for Blume’s new book came to her while she was listening to a talk by Rachel Kushner, whose mother had told of growing up in Cuba. Blume envisioned her own 1950s novel in an instant, Wolitzer said, “with various characters and plots. Blume spent five years on her story, which blends real-life facts with fiction.”
Event is Blume’s first adult novel in 17 years, and she said, “I can’t imagine writing another novel. Of course I said that same thing after Summer Sisters (1998). I meant it then. But I think I mean it more now. I feel good about that. I feel elated about that. And at seventy-seven I think that’s okay.”
NIGHT READING: Historian and novelist Joseph J. Ellis’s most recent book is The Quartet. He was asked about his bedtime reading for an interview in The New York Times Book Review.
He said that he didn’t read in bed, but his night-time reading was on one corner of his desk. It included “George Kennan, Sketches From a Life; Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction; Ron Rosbottom, When Paris Went Dark; back issues of The New Yorker for cartoons I like to read before turning in; and Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince for reading to my grandkids when they visit.”
NO SCENES: Charles Baxter has taught writing for 30 years and is the author of There’s Something I Want You to Do. Alison Lurie reviewed it for The New York Review of Books.
She chose the following quote from Baxter’s writing: “If you were raised in the genteel tradition, as I was, you avoid scenes. . . . We create a scene when we forcibly illustrate our need to be visible to others, often in the service of a wish or a demand. . . . Genteel people fear scenes.
“We. . . were not supposed to be dramatic. Drama was for others, or for the purposes of entertainment. Along with being told not to create scenes, I was told not to tattle on people, which was worded as, ‘Charlie, don’t tell tales.’”
LOOKING FOR LOVE: Stand-up comic Aziz Ansari, 32, is the author of Modern Romance, written with sociologist Eric Klinenberg and due out in June. In the June Vanity Fair, John Heilpern wrote, “It’s an unexpectedly serious work about the challenges and pitfalls of looking for love in the Digital Age via Match.com, OkCupid, Tinder, Twitter, Facebook—the whole techno shebang.”
Ansari said, “This is the thing. If we could have just one check-box, it would say, ‘I want someone I have a very deep connection with and I can sit around having the most fun with—ever.’”
TOUGH JOB: Thomas Mann believed: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
THE BOUNCE: David Leavitt’s most recent novel is The Two Hotel Francforts. He began his review of Anne Enright's new novel, The Green Road, in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review with a quote from E.M. Forster: “’And the novelist must bounce us; that is imperative.’
“So [Forster] told the audience that had gathered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1927 to listen to the series of lectures that would later be collected as Aspects of the Novel. For Forster, the word ‘bounce’ connoted the capacity of a novel to defy ‘the whole intricate question of method’ anatomized by his stalking horse, the critic Percy Lubbock—to carry readers along despite their prejudices and sometimes against their will. Dickens, for Forster, is an example of a writer who bounces us, even when his logic, as in Bleak House, is ‘all to pieces.’”
Enright, Leavitt says, bounced him on page 12. “From that moment straight through to the end the novel [had me.]”
A MIGRATION: Robert Darnton’s latest book is Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature. In an essay in The New York Review of Books, he wrote: “One of the most famous first lines among modern novels—“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between, 1953)—has migrated from literature to history and now serves as an article of faith among professional historians. It means: avoid anachronism.”
WINNERS: The $10,000 PEN Award for nonfiction this year went to Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial, about “fateful decisions made at a New Orleans hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina." Fink is a correspondent for The New York Times, and the book also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The $10,000 Science Writing Award went to War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz. John Branch, a Times reporter, won the $5,000 Literary Sports Writing prize for Boy on Ice: The Life and Death of Derek Boogaard. Anna Whitelock won the $5,000 Biography Award for The Queen’s Bed: An Intimate History of Elizabeth’s Court.
GOOD NEWS: The headline in a New York Times real estate magazine was “Brooklyn is for Book Lovers (Big Time).” The subtitle: “In one of those exceedingly rare locations where bookstores regularly open in the 21st century, reading—and talking about—-all things literary is still a cornerstone of social life.”
Used book shops are listed and the frequent author readings and other bookstore events are described. A quote: “From 2,000 to 2012, Manhattan lost 30 percent of its bookstores. Meanwhile Brooklyn stores have been popping up like chanterelles in spring.”
MIGHTY MAX: Phillip Lopate wrote an essay about Max Beerbohm for The New York Review of Books. In it, he quoted critic F. W. Dupee.
The critic wrote: “Rereading Beerbohm one gets caught up in the intricate singularity of his mind, all of a piece yet full of surprises. . . .That his drawings and parodies should survive is no cause for wonder. One look at them, or into them, and his old reputation is immediately re-established: that whim of iron, that cleverness amounting to genius. What is odd is that his stories and essays should turn out to be equally durable.”
MUSICAL NOTE: Greg Lies is the author of 14 novels. The latest is The Bone Tree. Lies, 53, lives in Mississippi, the setting for many of his novels. He plays guitar in a touring musical group of literary greats called The Rock Bottom Remainders ("Over 350M books sold. Forty New York Times #1 Bestsellers. One lousy band.")
In an interview conducted with Jay McDonald for BookPage online, Iles said the band was a big plus in his life. “You can’t help but absorb from the people you are around. To have Scott Turow and Steve [King] in the band, guys who I had read along the way before I started writing and was so profoundly influenced by, to be able to sit on the bus or in the hotel and just talk to those guys is just unbelievable.”
TRANSLATING: Perry Link has a Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside. In an essay in The New York Review of Books, he wrote about teaching Chinese-language courses to American students “which I have done about thirty times.”
"Perhaps the most anguishing question I get is ‘Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for _______?’ I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense. Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible. Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns is conceived as an abstraction, more like ‘bookness,’ and to say ‘a book’ you have to say, ‘one volume of bookness.’ Moreover shu, but not book, can mean ‘writing, ‘ ‘letter,’ or ‘calligraphy.’ On the other hand you can ‘book a room’ in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.”