It’s been a rough week on writers. First there was Norman Mailer, then Ira Levin. The death of Mailer, as is probably fitting, generated an awful lot of noise. It began with tributes and obituaries and continued with the inevitable backlash. Roger Kimball wrote one of the best dissenting pieces and did it on November 10, not long after the news of Mailer’s death broke. But reminiscences and even video of the great man in action have been best of all. In the New York Times talk show host Dick Cavett reminisces about an infamous encounter on his show between Mailer, Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner. Here he is (courtesy of Kottke) introducing a clip of the show (the relevant part is about 29 minutes in). Mailer could be an idiot at times–and often a drunken one as well—but in The Naked and the Dead and The Fight he wrote two of the most significant books in my life. Whether that balances the scales is another matter.
Levin’s passing naturally did not provoke the ‘end of an era’ sensation of Mailer. Levin did not enjoy the ‘literary wunderkind’ reputation of Mailer and was described as ‘mild-mannered’ where Mailer was ‘pugilistic’. But among his seven novels are some of the best-known and, through their film adaptations, arguably the most influential American novels of the last fifty years, notably Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Boys From Brazil (1976). Levin worked in television and wrote plays and screenplays as well as seeing his novels adapted. The Guardian‘s obituary is thorough, but The New York Times tribute highlights Levin’s worry that his books had promoted Satanism. Even so, he said ‘I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.’
And on the subject of royalties J.K. Rowling has been in the news for casting a spell on a fan’s attempt to make a reference book from a website. Read about this craziness here.
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This week’s Links We Liked has the smell of the scriptorium. First up is an amazing post about a robot arm that is perpetually writing out the Lutheran bible on a roll of paper using a calligraphy pen. Click here for some thought-provoking images. The combination of robot, writing, religion, and the history of the book is almost too much to bear. Now what we need is a room full of monks writing out advertising copy for double glazing firms. A surly nod of acknowledgment to Boing Boing.
From low-volume to the bestseller list. Kirsty at Other Stories has pulled together bestseller lists from 1963 and 2007. While this year’s list is full of TV series tie-ins, celebrity crash-and-tells and the perennial Highway Code, 1963’s list is headed by A.L. Rowse’s William Shakespeare: A Biography and includes in the top 6 books by Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, and Osbert Lancaster. It’s easy to see this difference in literary class as a sign of publishing’s populist decline, but at the same time I suspect that fewer people actually bought and paid for books in 1963 and those who did were among the more affluent and better educated of the population. More encouragingly ‘classic’ literature continues to sell extremely well in 2007 as it has for year after year. It’s just that Mansfield Park doesn’t sell as well in a given month as Jordan: My Life and Breasts. What happens to the mid-list author in the face of this celebrity onslaught is the real worry.
Which brings me to the other front in the publishing wars: The Internet. Anthony Grafton has a link-packed piece on the New Yorker website summarizing some of the developments in libraries and online archives in the last few years. There are some real gems here: an online copy of Alice in Wonderland and recommendations for the excellent Project Gutenburg, the Internet Archive, and the Open Library. For those of us with access to large libraries, Grafton celebrates JStor; I would add that it is best used in conjunction with the Zotero extension for the Firefox web browser. In fact for anyone doing any kind of online research Zotero is the thing.
Posted by Chris Routledge
Blasphemy Confirmed. January Magazine has posted video evidence of Doris Lessing’s stylish reaction to hearing the news, from reporters, that she had won the Nobel Prize. How did Liam Gallagher react to hearing he had joined Oscar Wilde in a list of the top ten wits I wonder?
Something Wicked. Sometime genre writer Ursula K. Le Guin responded with a clever vignette to a review of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in which Ruth Franklin called genre writing a ‘decaying corpse’ abandoned in a shallow grave by ‘writers of serious literature’. She later took Cory Doctorow to task for republishing her piece without permission.
I’ve changed my dance. The Serial Comma has a lovely brief post on overheard dialogue that highlights the problem writers have in representing speech, but also illustrates the extent to which we are all talking to ourselves. Dangerous territory for bloggers. Here’s the link.
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While we were deciding what to do about National Poetry Day on The Reader Online I was pointed at a new-ish site called Pass On A Poem which aims to promote poetry readings and encourage people to read poetry aloud. From the blurb:
a not-for-profit initiative to provide entertainment and to create enthusiasm for poetry by bringing people together to read out loud poems which have a special personal significance and to explain, briefly, why.
Professor of English, writer, and now blogger Philip Davis has been busy over at More Intelligent Life and his latest post on New York, email, blogging, and blondes called Philippa may well be his best yet.
Davis’s biography of Bernard Malamud appears at a time when Philip Roth is promoting (and how) his latest novel, Exit Ghost. Malamud of course was once part of a Jewish literary triumvirate that included Saul Bellow and Roth; the title of Roth’s latest seems even more appropriate in the context of that strained metaphor. As it usually does the New Yorker get’s to the nub of the matter. James Wood begins his review:
Before his death, Jonathan Swift pointed to a blighted tree and said to a friend, “I shall be like that tree; I shall die first at the top.” Philip Roth’s dying animals, at loose in the twilit carnival of his late work, reverse Swift’s prophecy: they fear they will die from the bottom up. Their minds are ripe with sexual energy, with transgressive vitality, but their bodies are sour with decline.
October is of course Black History Month and it seemed appropriate to post this video promoting reading. Things like this often smell a little inauthentic, but this seems properly felt. Still, as an almost-40 white English bloke, what do I know? The images accompanying the rap lyrics are more affecting anyway than the animated film that sometimes go with it. But here’s a warning: this contains ‘bad language’ from the start. If you are easily offended or you’re sitting behind a PC on the front counter of a bank, you probably won’t want to click ‘Play’, but then you know your boss better than I do:
Posted by Chris Routledge
Here are some of our favourite articles and links from across the web in the last week or two:
A quick mention for The Library Project and the book swap taking place at mello mello on Slater Street Liverpool today from 7pm to 9pm.
Over the last couple of years I’ve found myself spending more time reading and researching online, using ‘gated’ services such as JStor but also the excellent Google Books and Google Scholar as well as online newspapers, library catalogues and other sources. One of the problems with that is keeping track of the material. This week I came across Zotero, an addon for the Firefox web browser which not only allows you to store material for reading later but will generate bibliographies, link between research materials and even link with documents elsewhere on your computer. I’m going to be reviewing Zotero over the next few weeks, but in the mean time here’s the link to the website. I recommend taking a look at the tour. You will need to be using Firefox, but but Zotero runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows computers.
I’ve been a fan of Clive James ever since I stumbled across his essay on Raymond Chandler, ‘The Country Behind the Hill’ in the school library circa. 1981. The Times Literary Supplement has a review of his most recent collection of essays Cultural Amnesia that sums up James for me. Despite his broad brush strokes, which can be so frustrating, James, in the words of reviewer Adam Bresnick is an ‘excellent, passionate reader’.
On the subject of detective fiction this week saw a flurry of reviews of Andrew Lycett’s biography of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This review by Philip Hoare in the Telegraph highlights the paradoxes of Conan Doyle: his creation of an archetypal rational detective versus his spiritualism; his sympathies for groups opposed to Jewish immigration from Germany before World War 1 and for humanitarian causes. It is also a little sniffy:
Holmes was also a Bohemian drug addict and melancholic who sometimes resembles an invention of Oscar Wilde. Indeed, in another of his telling anecdotes, Lycett describes how it was shortly after meeting Wilde that Conan Doyle wrote The Sign of Four – his second Holmes adventure, with its own specifically Wildean character – whilst Wilde went off and wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray.
And finally The Guardian is today running an article on writers’ rooms that is well worth a look, if only to see how diverse writers’ workplaces need to be.
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September marks the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, notorious for being written on a single roll of paper (sort of true) without revising (not true). Among the avalanche of commentary on Kerouac to have appeared in the last week or so a few pieces stood out for me. David W. Hall, Director of the Kenyon Review Young Writers’ Program wrote a fascinating piece about how he attempted to introduce typewriters and scrolls to a workshop on The Beats. Sadly they had to resort to writing longhand in notebooks.
Hall claims Kerouac as one of his heroes. I’m afraid I don’t. So I was gratified to find (via Ready Steady Book) a review by Anthony Daniels, aka Theodore Dalrymple, of John Leland’s book Why Kerouac Matters, published to coincide with the anniversary. Daniels is very unkind about Kerouac, though he admits a writer can be important without being any good and this point is spot on:
I mentioned the banality of the book to a young man who told me that he had thought it wonderful when he had read it a few years previously. I devised a test. He would open it and point to a passage at random, and I would read the passage out loud. He would then tell me whether he thought it was banal. Here is the passage:
The drizzle increased and Eddie got cold; he had very little clothing. I fished a wool plaid shirt from my canvas bag and he put it on. I had a cold. I bought cough drops in a rickety Indian store of some kind. I went to the little two-by-four Post office and wrote my aunt a penny postcard. We went back to the gray road. There she was in front of us, Shelton, written on the watertank. The Rock Island balled by. We saw the faces of Pullman passengers go by in a blur. The train howled off across the plains in the direction of our desires. It started to rain harder.
A passage such as this, appearing in an alleged literary classic, must encourage and delude many an adolescent keeper of a diary that his entries will one day find the appreciative audience that their immanent genius deserves. The popularity of On the Road is a manifestation of the propensity in a demotic age of mediocrity to worship itself.
Finally David Pescovitz on the blog Boing Boing highlighted a tribute in Smithsonian magazine by Joyce Johnson, a friend of Kerouac’s. Johnson writes:
Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day?
I’ve been away on a Scottish island odyssey for the last couple of weeks, but The Reader’s flock of Internet starlings has been hard at work. Here are some of the juiciest worms they found:
Recommendation. Vintage’s much-publicised series of literary pairings received a stylish boost with A.S. Byatt’s recommendation of Middlemarch in The Guardian newspaper. Eliot’s novel is paired with Byatt’s Possession in the Vintage Classic Twins series. Both novels are of course “books for grown-up people”.
Books for children seem to have been in the news a lot this summer. But however successful the Children’s Book That Cannot Be Named may be, helping children to read is an ongoing challenge for many parents. One innovative service that might help is Tumblebooks, described as “an online collection of read-along titles for elementary, middle school, and high school students which features adjustable online text and complete audio narration. Sentences are highlited as they are being read and the pages turn automatically … ” The Reader Online has no connection with Tumblebooks, but it sounds like an interesting idea for a digital native generation.
On Literary Festivals. The Times carried an interesting piece about the growth of book festivals and quotes Armando Iannucci pitching for an intern job at The Reader: “People are hungry for substance and unafraid of ideas and big themes.” We concur.
How To Write a Book. And for those budding (and otherwise) writers among you, here’s a bombastic blog article by technology writer and consultant Scott Berkun in which he argues that anyone can write a book. It may suck, but …
Walk of Shame Award. And talking of Scottish islands, Scotland on Sunday reported on the first day of the Edinburgh Festival on a conversation between Will Self and Philip Gourevitch, who recently held a month-long residency on the island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote 1984. His shocking admission when faced with the prospect of walking: “I haven’t been to Barnhill. I drove up to the end of the road in a downpour and the guy who controls the gate wasn’t around. I couldn’t find anybody to open it so I could drive up there.”
Posted by Chris
Here are a few links you might have missed in the last couple of weeks:
Sue Bursztynski’s review of HP7 for January Magazine was one of the most balanced I came across in a week when J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter novel broke sales records around the world and for a while even competed with the weather for the attention of British news journalists. That’s how big it was. John Crace provides a digested read: “Harry knew he was up against it this time. A favourite character from an earlier book had been killed off within the first 80 pages. That Rowling woman meant business.”
On a not unrelated subject, as anyone who waded through HP5 will testify, Salon had an excellent article on the unsung heroines and heroes of the literary world: ‘Let us now praise editors’.
The BBC covered the problem of literacy with a rather sad piece about parents who struggle with reading to their children. Here’s the shocking statistic:
More than 10% of the 1,000 parents asked had struggled to understand some words in the stories they had read to their five to 10-year-old children.
Looking at it more positively, at least they are reading. Here’s the link to the BBC article.
Would Jane Austen get published by Penguin as a new author in 2007? Here’s the answer.
And finally, from Language Log, intellectual cereal packets. I insist cereal packets taught me to read. I’m not sure how that might have worked if Martin Amis and Immanuel Kant had featured. Here’s the link.
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