by Campbell Geeslin
“When I teach fiction, I quote Chekhov about the need to ‘be more cold’ in one’s writing—to not baldly state emotion, but rather coolly to put down the details of a scene so the reader in response can step in and experience the emotion for herself.”
The quote is from a “Critic’s Take” essay by Dylan Landis, author of Rainey Royal and Normal People Don’t Live Like This in the August 30 New York Times Book Review.
BIG BOOKS: One of the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Purity, is a writer. “Franzen draws a very funny portrait of a writer struggling to write a novel ‘that would secure him his place in the modern American canon,’” wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani in her review of the book.
“‘Once upon a time,’ this writer named Charles thinks, ‘it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.’” (Purity runs a modest 563 pages.)
In 2008 Franzen called Kakutani “the stupidest person in New York City” after she trashed his memoir, The Discomfort Zone. Purity she liked, calling it “funny” and “dynamic” with a “foot-on-the-gas plot.”
Colm Toibin reviewed Purity in Sunday’s Book Review, noting that “it deals with the way we live now but there is also a sense of modesty at its heart as Franzen seems determined not to write chiseled sentences that draw attention to themselves. He seems content with the style of the book, whose very lack of poetry and polish seems willed and deliberate, a statement of intent.”
JUST REMEMBER: Maile Meloy, 43, is the author of a middle-grade novel, The After-Room. Meloy took up the question: Is it necessary to have children to write for children?
“Theodor Geisel—Dr. Seuss—didn’t even like kids. ‘You have ‘em, I’ll amuse ‘em,’ he’s supposed to have said. Maurice Sendak had none. Neither did Tove Jansson, Tomie dePaola, Ezra Jack Keats or Margaret Wise Brown. The great children’s books editor Ursula Nordstrom said, ‘I am a former child, and I haven’t forgotten a thing.’
“It’s not a requirement to have children in order to write for them. You just need to have been one, and remember what it’s like.”
OLD AGE: Laurence Ferlinghetti, 96, is the author of Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals, 1960-2010. He is also the co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, the country’s best known and longest-lived literary meeting place.
PW asked him how it feels to be 96: “It’s a drag that there are so many things I can’t do now. I used to be a lap swimmer. I used to ride my bicycle every day. I’ve flunked my driving test. It’s a real drag. But my teeth haven’t fallen out yet, and I’m on my way to Paris to just hang out at Shakespeare and Company.”
PW said that he has no use for computers. He was “working on a book, using reporter’s notebooks; he’s filled 78 of them.”
TRYING: Judd Apatow is a film maker and the author of Sick in the Head. This summer, he returned to performing standup. He was quoted in New York magazine: “I get nervous if I’m not in the process of accomplishing something. I don’t really care if anything succeeds anymore. I just like to be in the process of trying.”
SEX INCLUDED: Lisa Sandlin is the author of The Do-Right, a novel about a private detective agency in Beaumont, Texas. She told PW: “I didn’t plan to use humor; my head just works that way. What I did plan was that, since Phelan [the hero] was brand-new as a private eye, he would get jobs from individual clients rather than from large institutions. That seemed logical. The jobs lend themselves to more peculiarity.”
Sandlin was asked, “Those sex scenes [in The Do-Right] are quite persuasive. Why do you think so many crime fiction authors fail in this area?”
She replied: “Not a clue.”
WOMAN TO WIN: “At last, a woman will win the Thurber Prize for American Humor,” was proclaimed on blog.sfgate.com. Roz Chast (Can’t We Talk About Something Pleasant?), Annabelle Gurwitch (Dear Committee Members) and Julie Schumacher (I See You Made an Effort) are the three finalists for this year’s prize which means that a woman will win the award for the first time since it was established in 1996.
The winner will be announced at a ceremony in New York on September 28.
PRESIDENTIAL POEM: Richard Blanco is the author of One Today, a children’s picture book. The text is a poem written for President Obama’s second inauguration.
The pictures are by Dav Pilkey, the creator of the bestselling Captain Underpants series. PW said his illustrations “transform the poem into a story that children [ages 3-6] can make their own.”
HAWAII: Jan Morris is the author of books of travel, history, memoir and fiction. In a review of Susanna Moore’s Paradise of the Pacific in The New York Times Book Review, she described Hawaii: “The most peculiar place on this planet, as I see it from my vantage point in Wales, is the 50th state of the American union, the Pacific archipelago called Hawaii. Everything about it is peculiar. Its capital, Honolulu, is one of the remotest big cities on the face of the earth. Its geography is weird, consisting as it does of some 130 assorted islands and atolls, scattered across 1,500 miles of ocean. Its history is spectacularly unexpected, beginning with mass immigrations of pacific canoeists and culminating in the virtual extinction of an American fleet by several hundred Japanese airplanes. Its indigenous culture is a marvel of intricate legends, faiths, musics and superstitions, and its native written language is a prodigy of alliterations.”
THE VOICE: Andrew Motion is the author of The New World. Britannica.com says he is a poet, biographer, novelist and England’s poet laureate from 1998 to 2009.
In a Guardian essay, he wrote, “Novels with plots that are slight or familiar-seeming tend to compensate by pumping up the idiosyncrasy of the narrative voice. Even the most humdrum events become interesting if the person telling us about these is a ‘character’ of some definite kind: amusing, monstrous, self-deceiving, knowingly unreliable, even just quirky.”
Motion was reviewing John Banville’s new novel, The Blue Guitar.
NIGHT STAND: Ann Beattie is the author of The State We’re In. She was interviewed in The New York Times Book Review and said her favorite novel was: “Maybe Ian McEwan’s Atonement.” Among the books on her night stand: Memphis Movie, by Corey Mesler; Paragon Park, by Mark Doty; Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li; Looking at Photographs, by Gordon Baldwin and Martin Jurgens; Metaphysical Dog: Poems, by Frank Bidart; The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick.
TIRED: Romance author Kristan Higgins latest book, If You Only Knew, came out this month. She has written 14 novels
In a Soapbox essay for PW, she wrote: “I’m tired of defending romance. I’m tired of giving a good-natured, tolerant, you-should-try-it answer for the thousandth time. I’m tired of the media using the words bodice ripper and mommy porn. I’m tired of explaining that, yes, I have read the great works of literature, and that, yes, I continue to read them today. I’m tired of being told I have the talent to write a ‘real’ book.”
She ends her essay with: “To view with contempt the entire romance—and the hundreds of millions of people who read these books—is simply ignorant and narrow-minded. So if you’re one of those who’s never read a romance novel, pick one up. Yes, there’s kissing. You can handle it. You might even like it.”
LISBETH RETURNS: David Lagercrantz is the author of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a novel that takes up where Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, left off.
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that the fictional Lisbeth Salander, computer hacker, and Mikael Blomkvist, reporter, “have survived the authorship transition intact and are just as compelling as ever.”
Lagercrantz has channeled “Larson’s narrative style, mixing genre clichés with fresh, reportorial details, and plot twists reminiscent of sequences from Larson’s novels with energetically researched descriptions of the wild, wild West that is the dark side of the Internet.”
HOW-TO: Kim Devereux is the author of Rembrandt’s Mirror. She wrote about “the three essential rules for writing good sex” for The Guardian.
The first was “Don’t be coy, call a spade a spade.” But she insisted, “Don’t call a penis a ‘penis.’ . . . Show some respect and opt for something like ‘staff’—but only, if you don’t mind sounding pompous. Or you could go for ‘rod.’
The second: “Do describe some truly disappointing sex.”
The third: “Don’t use clichés (avoid waves, oceans and earth moving).”
EASY READING: Zoe Heller is the author of Everything You Know and other novels. In a Bookends essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, she wrote that, unlike her children, she is able to read difficult prose “because we did our formative reading in an age before technology began destroying attention spans. (When I was growing up in 1970s England, there was no Y.A. anything and nothing on the telly but documentaries about sparrows.) But even we are not immune to the restlessness of the Internet era. Which explains why, when I lay down the other night to read Imperium, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, I somehow got waylaid and wound up reading my daughter’s copy of John Green’s Paper Towns instead.”
DEATH: Oliver Sacks, 82, died on August 30 in Manhattan. He was the author of Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars. The New York Times’ Page 1 obituary said he wrote about “the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.”