Monday Miscellany

The private lives of great writers

What would we do without literary criticism wars?

Just how relevant is an author’s private life to our appreciation or understanding of his or her work? Many would argue that we should disregard it entirely. Others (myself included) might point out that while you can thoroughly enjoy a novel or poem without knowing who wrote it, any deeper grasp requires at least some basic information. It matters that Edna O’Brien is Irish, certainly, and it’s almost impossible to imagine how the writings of Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski could be separated from their life stories.

Here, Salon’s Laura Miller writes about a dust-up between novelist Jonathan Franzen, who wrote in a New Yorker essay that Edith Wharton’s lack of beauty affected her writing, and Victoria Patterson, who criticized Franzen in the Los Angeles Review of Books for “ranking a woman’s beauty before discussing her merits.” Miller argues that men are almost never judged in terms of their looks the way that women are:

It is, indeed, aggravating that for many male writers, as for most men, looks have had relatively little influence on their fates or reputations while the opposite is true for women. (That said, it’s difficult to imagine an ugly Lord Byron having cut so wide a swath in the imaginations of so many readers.) For women, prettiness or the lack thereof has long been treated as the most important measure of feminine worth: Accusing a woman of being unattractive is the fallback weapon for anyone trying to inflict a particular brand of shame, one designed to invalidate her as a woman.

People who can’t find something substantive to criticize about a woman’s artistic work can always fall back on the “she’s not even pretty” argument to put her in her place. “Disparaging a man’s looks simply doesn’t have the same impact,” Miller points out. The equivalent insult to a man is probably disparagement of his sexual prowess, and this article also addresses novelist Saul Bellow’s misfortune in this department.

Miller includes links to both Franzen’s and Patterson’s articles, so you can judge for yourself how weighty each one’s arguments are. And, as is often the case with pieces such as Miller’s, the reader comments section is also worth reading for additional (sometimes snarky) takes on the subject.

Great Beginnings

Elizabeth Bluemle, writing in Publishers Weekly‘s ShelfTalker blogs, offers a list of “opening lines that grabbed my attention, for one reason or another –  from this season’s middle grade and YA releases.”

She also includes a link to a similar list from last year.

Fact From Fiction: Writing Crime Fiction From Police Documents

“Ripped from the headlines” is a phrase that often appears in ads for TV police dramas and in blurbs on crime fiction covers. Rex Burns explains the work that writers do in turning news reports and police documents into compelling stories:

Real life by itself seldom makes a complete novel. The writer of police procedurals — and realistic television police dramas — must use imagination to convert factual happenings into a story with structure and purpose. This can occur in any number of ways: inventing fictional characters who perform the factual deeds; discovering motivations that were obscure or absent in the factual events; finding metaphors for other aspects of life in the originally limited facts; structuring the factual events into the shape of a thematically meaningful conclusion.

Literature represents life, but literature is not the same as life. All the insignificant details of daily living have to be stripped away until “The imagination has produced a fictional tale by using the techniques of story telling to structure the assorted facts of life.”

Why women are writing about sex – without shame

The UK’s first conference for sex writers reflects a surge in confessional blogs and the rise of ‘clit lit’. And as sex writing goes mainstream, some women are even ditching their pseudonyms

Helen Croydon reports in the U. K. Guardian on Eroticon 2012, the UK’s first ever conference for sex writers:

It isn’t just first-person narratives. So-called ‘clit lit’ – saucy fiction for women – is on the up, especially in the e-world. Mills and Boon says its electronic downloads doubled in 2010, and in the past few years mainstream publishers such as Random House, Penguin and Simon & Schuster have all inaugurated erotica imprints.

Croydon admits:

This idea of quashing taboo was a common one at Eroticon. But if sex writers are so intent on this, why do so few use their real names? Last year my first book was published, Sugar Daddy Diaries, a confessional memoir of my penchant for older men. I had planned to use a pseudonym but by the time publication came around, I felt comfortable enough about my subject matter that I was proud to use my real name. I expected and wanted to be judged by my work, not by the activities I wrote about.

Loaning Out Kindle E-Books

Some, but not all, Kindle books can be loaned out. The New York Times Gadgetwise blog explains how to find out if a particular book can be loaned and, if so, how to do it.