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Behind The New York Times’ Blake Bailey Bombshell

And the fallout continues over the allegations against Blake Bailey, author of the biography of Philip Roth that was canceled this week by publisher W.W. Norton.

A publishing executive’s rape allegation against the Philip Roth biographer sent shockwaves through the industry—and put the Times’ handling of it under the microscope. Book critic Dwight Garner, aware of the claim since 2015, says the accuser didn’t want him “to take any actions.”

Charlotte Klein, writing in Vanity Fair, asserts:

The Times’ level of promotion wasn’t unusual for a book positioned as a serious literary biography—and especially one about the late Roth, who represents a kind of fantasy of what it meant to belong to a certain generation of American male novelists—but the paper’s own scoop inevitably raised questions of who knew what and when.

The rape allegations against Philip Roth’s biographer are a damning condemnation of publishing

“The Blake Bailey story shows publishing’s institutions once again working to protect men.”

In Vox, Constance Grady explains why the allegations against Blake Bailey “have swept across the literary world”:

in part, that’s because the story of the allegations against Bailey involves so many major publishing figures, culminating in an accusation of rape occurring in the home of one of the New York Times’s staff book critics. The story being told about Blake Bailey right now is one of publishing’s institutional power being put to the service of powerful men.

Black Lives Matter in the Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing

This article from August 2020 offers “five perspectives on race and Shakespeare” based on a PBS broadcast of Public Theater’s Much Ado About Nothing that “features an all-Black cast in New York City’s Central Park.”

The commentary is from from first-year college students who studied the performance shortly before their campus shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring. “We hope that, just as the Public made new meanings of this old play, our voices can signal newer, younger, better ways of thinking about Shakespeare that help us uncover truth, gain empathy, and take responsibility for racism.”

Reading to Unlearn and Reenvision History Is Transformative and Overwhelming

Mariela Santos Muñiz writes about what she didn’t learn in grad school:

The textbooks that I had to use for my classes mostly presented one side of history — and they didn’t really include diverse perspectives. This was despite the fact that the U.S. is a diverse country. For one, I didn’t learn much about U.S. Latinx history while in school.

When she started contributing to Book Riot after graduation, she wrote articles that made her realize how much she hadn’t learned in school.

So, I started looking for books to reeducate myself. As part of this process, I changed how I chose the books that I read. This meant focusing on the author as well. Being able to see the world differently is about the subject matter, yes — but it’s also about who’s telling the story.

See some of her suggestions for “books that center the perspectives of people that are traditionally underrepresented and overlooked.”

The Many Faces of Patricia Highsmith

“As the subject of no fewer than three biographies since her death in 1995, the popular writer lived a complicated, if fascinating, life. What was she really like?”

One of the items still on my list of literary projects to complete is a deep dive into the life and works of the fascinating Patricia Highsmith.

The writer was a collision of contradictions, a woman for whom every aspect of herself (including being a woman) demanded internal debate. In her private life, she swung dramatically between polar states of desire and disgust. Her personal journals that she kept her whole life — separate from what she called her “cahiers,” or notebooks in which she worked on her fiction — reveal a woman at the mercy of her emotional tides, drawn to the darkest corners of her psyche.

On being proud of your work

Novelist and book critic Lauren Oyler on taking risks, writing in the first person, managing self-doubt, and why she increasingly doesn’t have a good answer for “why we write.”

Lauren Oyler, author of the novel Fake Accounts, is here interviewed by Michelle Lynn King. Oyler says she created the first-person narrator of Fake Accounts because “I’m really interested in the issues of the first person narrator and the author in the time of the internet.”

About the concept of the unreliable narrator, she says, “We’ve all learned that everybody’s performing all the time and that the self is a fiction.”

How Bookishness Affects the Book Biz

What exactly is bookishness? Michael Seidlinger here defines it as “a person’s interest in maintaining nearness to books. It is a term derived from bookish, which is a label often applied to people who read a lot.”

Seidlinger examines the world of bookishness and how it manifests in today’s culture, from celebrity book clubs to Instagram influencers and companies that market items (clothing, candles, wall hangings, and throw pillows) to help people create their personal bookish persona.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

Captivating Novels about Astrology

In her introduction to this list, Laura Maylene Walter, author of the novel Body of Stars, calls herself “a skeptic who doesn’t read horoscopes in my daily life.” But, she continues, “hand me a work of fiction about astrology or psychics, and I’m captivated.”

Many of the books on this list examine issues surrounding the topics of fate, free will, the future, and alternate life possibilities.

5 Books with Unique Narratives That Play with Format

Experimental (or maybe inventive is a better word) fiction fascinates me, especially novels that bend genre conventions or play with narrative structure.

Here Anne Jaconette lists “a few books with unique narratives that will grab your attention from the first page!”

Calling a Time-Out on Reading for Sport

Jamie Canaves recently realized that she’d been “rushing through books as fast as I could to get to the next one on my can’t-wait-to-read-it TBR, and also trying to break the previous year’s number of how many books I had read.” And I had the same realization when I read this description.

She had this realization during 2020 and decided to change her reading life at the beginning of 2021 by asking herself three questions: “Why are you doing this? What is the point? Is it adding to the enjoyment of your reading life?” And, she reports, her reading life has greatly improved this year: “I guess I just needed to get myself back to reading for enjoyment and not some weird imaginary sport.”

Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Reading First Thing in the Morning

Dismayed that reading had nearly disappeared from her busy life, freelance writer and editor Rachel Charlene Lewis developed a new habit: She now sets her alarm so that she can read in bed—even before brushing her teeth or making that first cup of coffee—for an hour in the morning.

What Zora Went Looking For

Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, profiles Zora Neale Hurston for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “As a budding anthropologist, the storyteller began to find her way.” 

This article is adapted from King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.

Do Patricia Highsmith Novels Make Good Films?

“The author’s oeuvre has long been the subject of cinematic preoccupation, inspiring over 20 screen adaptations and counting. Here, a close read of four of the best and worst of them.”

Kerry Manders examines four films based on the novels of Patricia Highsmith:

  • Strangers on a Train (1951), based on the 1950 novel of the same title
  • Carol (2015), based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan
  • A Kind of Murder (2016), adapted from the 1954 novel The Blunderer
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the 1955 novel of the same title

Books that touched on race were among the most challenged as inappropriate for libraries in 2020

From CNN:

Books that talked about racism and racial justice — or told the stories of people of color or the LGBTQ community — were among the most challenged as inappropriate for students in 2020, according to a survey by the American Library Association.

The article concludes with the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2020.

From the Sidelines to the Spotlight: LGBTQ Books 2021

Publishers Weekly highlights “the authors of new fiction and nonfiction titles . . . bringing a wide range of queer experiences to the fore.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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What’s Behind the Label ‘Domestic Fiction’?

Soledad Fox Maura, professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College and soon-to-debut novelist, wonders why World Cat “(the biggest library search engine on the planet)” has classified her upcoming novel, Madrid Again, as domestic fiction:

Why would my novel, about an itinerant bilingual mother and daughter who do not have a permanent home and zigzag across the Atlantic at a frenetic pace, the long and complicated legacy of the Spanish Civil War overshadowing their every move, be in such a category?

After a quick look at the definition of domestic fiction, she suggests that we find some new terms for fictional genres if we, in fact, need such genres at all. “What I question is a genre that is so clearly gendered, with connotations that are so outdated.”

‘My Wine Bills Have Gone Down.’ How Joan Didion Is Weathering the Pandemic

Lucy Feldman writes, “Didion will forever be a certain type of person’s idea of a deity—the literary, the cool.” Here Feldman talks with Didion, now 86, on how she’s enduring the COVID-19 pandemic at her home in New York.

Didion’s latest essay collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, was published on January 26th.

What Stories of Transition and Divorce Have in Common

As part of its feature Outward, coverage of “LGBTQ life, thought, and culture,” Slate offers this partial transcript of a podcast with author Torrey Peters about her new novel, Detransition, Baby. The book features the characters “Reese, a trans woman in her 30s who desperately wants to be a mother, and Ames, Reese’s former lover and a former trans woman who now has detransitioned and lives as a man.”

Page refresh: how the internet is transforming the novel

“Doom scrolling, oversharing, constantly updating social media feeds – the internet shapes how we see the world, and now it’s changing the stories we tell, writes author Olivia Sudjic.”

Sudjic writes that, since viewing social media is now such a big part of our lives, we are surprised when fictional characters don’t check their screens:

We are hungry for writers who can parse our present, whether in essay form, in works such as Jia Tolentino’s collection Trick Mirror (2019) and Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020) or the fiction about to hit our shelves (or Kindle screens) that put social media front and centre.

As Political Divide Widens, Will Big Houses Rethink Conservative Publishing?

Publishers Weekly takes a look at the significance of Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Josh Hawley’s book after his actions on January 6th as an unruly mob broke into the U.S. Capitol. The article asks several members of the publishing industry “whether, and where, big houses will draw the line with conservative authors.”

(Also see this article from last week’s Literary Links.)

25 Great Writers and Thinkers Weigh In on Books That Matter

In honor of the 125th anniversary of its Book Review, the New York Times “[dips] into the archives to revisit our most thrilling, memorable and thought-provoking coverage.” Writers featured include Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Patricia Highsmith, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Tracking the Vocabulary of Sci-Fi, from Aerocar to Zero-Gravity

“The new online Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction probes the speculative corners of the lexicographic universe.”

Check here for the backstory of terms such as warp speed, transporter, and deep space.

Take a peek inside the world of longtime Seattle-area book clubs

I met most of my best friends at book group. Here Moira Macdonald, arts critic for the Seattle Times, features the stories of some local book groups that have been discussing books for more than 30 years.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

Using Neuroscience to Understand Reading Slumps

Joshua C. Craig, who spent an undergraduate year studying neuroscience, read up on the scientific literature to see what the current thinking is on the subject of reading slumps. He does a good job of making the subject accessible for those of us without a hefty science background.

A Brief History of Detective Fiction

Whole tomes have been written on this subject, but if you just want a general overview, Emily Martin has it for you here.

Hundreds in publishing sign letter objecting to book deals for the Trump administration

More than 250 authors, editors, agents, professors and others in the American literary community signed an open letter this week opposing any publisher that signs book deals with President Donald Trump or members of his administration.

I have mixed feelings about this occurrence. Although I agree with the politics of the effort, I have reservations about beginning any such regulation of whose ideas get published and whose don’t.

What do you think?

The Most commonly Assigned Books in U.S. Colleges

Kelly Jensen reports on a recent study by “DegreeQuery, an organization dedicated to answering common questions about college degrees and options, as well as developing data-based rankings and reviews of U.S. colleges.” The study  “aggregated the books assigned among the eight U.S. Ivy League schools and the top eight public schools as ranked by U.S. News and World Report.”

There’s a ton of information here, but I found it easy to zero in on the area I’m most interested in, books assigned in English literature classes. Here’s one conclusion from near the bottom of the page: “The findings here aren’t surprising, but rather, they reaffirm the reality that the bulk of books being seen as important and worthy of study are those written by men.”

Read Christie 2021

Earlier this month we looked at reading goals and challenges. Here’s a new challenge from Agatha Christie Limited: “This year our book prompts celebrate popular settings, scenes and tropes from Agatha Christie’s works. We begin with the ever popular crime category – a story set in a grand house!”

Get the reading list (along with alternative suggestions) here and learn about the challenge’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Seattle’s newest bookstore, Oh Hello Again, has a novel system: categorizing books by emotions

I admit that my participation on Instagram is pretty minimal. My approach consists of plunking the pertinent book down on the floor and snapping a quick photo. I occasionally spruce things up with a pretty scarf underneath the book, but that’s as far as my efforts go. I admire all the time many bookstagrammers spend on composing beautiful photos with lovely book-love accessories, but I’d rather spend the bulk of my time reading more pages.

One of the never-ending topics among fellow booklovers on Instagram is questions (and photos!) of how books can be arranged on shelves. That’s the reason why this article caught my eye. I know this system would drive me nuts. I’m a Virgo, and I need to be able to find my books where they rightfully belong, on shelves arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. 

I’m willing to admit, though, that for some people this might be exactly the right method of organizing and displaying books.

Patricia Highsmith’s sordid search for inspiration

This article by Wendy Smith in the Washington Post focuses on the recently published biography Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith by Richard Bradford. I found the article interesting not only for its content of Patricia Highsmith information, but also for its discussion of the different possible approaches to literary biography.

And some time this year I do hope to take a moderately deep dive into Highsmith’s various works. And that dive will be accompanied by The Talented Miss Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar. At 559 pages of text plus several appendices and notes for a grand total of 684, this biography qualifies as a Big Book.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Learning to Write Mysteries the Mystic River Way

Angie Kim’s recently published debut novel Miracle Creek is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Dennis Lehane’s 2001 book Mystic River is a novel I still remember well even after all these years. Coming across this article, in which Angie Kim explains teaching herself how to structure the novel she wanted to write by rereading Mystic River multiple times, felt like a reunion with two old friends.

Kim writes that she also studied novels by Kate Atkinson, Laura Lippman, Tana French, and Chris Bohjalian: “I loved how [these novels] used the mystery frame to immediately pull their readers into the narrative and propel them forward, but how they forced us to slow way down as we went deep into the psyche of the narrators.” She wanted to create in her novel the same degree of immersiveness she found in those models. Her success in doing so is what makes Miracle Creek such a powerful novel.

HOW TO DETERMINE THE READING LEVEL OF A BOOK

For parents wondering how to choose books appropriate for their children, Katherine Willoughby takes a look at “all of the various ways educators, librarians, and book publishers level and categorize books for young readers.”

WHY FICTION IS THE PERFECT TROJAN HORSE TO DISCUSS ETHICAL DILEMMAS

Kira Peikoff explains one of the benefits of reading fiction:

we need fictional outlets like television, movies, and books. Far from being superficial add-ons to life, they help us to live life. Storytelling is the oldest form of virtual reality. Through the safe haven of fiction, as we watch characters go through their own turmoil, we may encounter our own deepest fears and flaws, our highest hopes and strongest convictions. We may find inspiration, learn profound lessons, and gain the strength to overcome our own conflicts. In rare cases, we may even find ourselves rethinking our entire perspective.

‘All crime writers are asking is for a little respect’

Bert Wright, writing for The Irish Times, tackles the question of why crime fiction is so often spoken of as inferior to literary fiction. “All crime writers are asking is for a little respect but too often it is not forthcoming.”

“Whatever the truth of the matter, crime fiction is on an irresistible roll and no amount of splenetic wind-baggery can make the slightest dent in crime fiction’s hard-earned self-esteem.”

CAROLYN KEENE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE REAL NANCY DREW AUTHOR

You may have heard that Carolyn Keene was the original Nancy Drew author and that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams later wrote additional novels published under Keene’s name. But Annika Barranti Klein explains that the real story isn’t quite that simple. Read the complex story of who really wrote and published all the novels in this popular series.

 The Talented Patricia Highsmith’s Private Diaries Are Going Public

Now this news is worth waiting for: Liveright Publishing plans to publish hundreds of pages from Patricia Highsmith’s personal diaries as a single volume in 2021. This article describes Highsmith as:

a literary figure whose sharply observed psychological thrillers, including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” became cultural touchstones. She was a secretive, often prickly woman who remained a cipher even to her friends and lovers, and a trailblazer who wrote one of the first mainstream novels depicting two women in love. But she could be blinded by her own bigotry and espoused racist and anti-Semitic views.

The diaries—“56 spiral-bound notebooks, totaling some 8,000 pages”—were discovered after Highsmith’s death in 1995, tucked behind sheets and towels in a linen closet of her house in Switzerland.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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On Novels and Novelists

How the Modern Detective Novel Was Born

Cover: The Golden Age of MurderHere Martin Edwards, author of the new book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, gives a concise history of the development of the modern detective novel. Authors he discusses include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, G.D.H. Cole, Henry Wade, Ed McBain, Anthony Berkeley, Patricia Highsith, Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, Sophie Hannah, Dorothy L. Sayers, and J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith).

Edwards places the detective novel within the changing social, historical, and cultural characteristics of its development and argues:

Golden Age novels reflected the times during which they were written. Inevitably, many of the attitudes on display are different from those of the twenty-first century. But for too long, even the best of these books have suffered unfairly from critical prejudice. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, they give a fascinating insight into a vanished world. What is more, they set the pattern for crime fiction for decades to come. The time is ripe to rediscover the Golden Age of Murder.

When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel

In an article from last month Boris Kachka admits “it’s tempting to proclaim this the era of the Very Long Novel (VLN).” The classic example of the recent VLN era is David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page opus Infinite Jest, published in 1996. As more recent examples of such tomes he cites Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Another illustration of this trend is the current emphasis on series works such as the Harry Potter collection and Game of Thrones.

Yet long books are really nothing new, Kachka points out (think Eliot’s Middlemarch and Tolstoy’s The Brothers Karamazov). Here’s one possible explanation for the current crop of VLNs:

“People seem to be seeking wholly immersive experiences,” says Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards. “They’re binge-watching, they’re cooking from scratch, going on ecotours. And there’s no more immersive experience than reading a good long book.”

Another possible explanation is the concept of “_World-building_, a term once exclusive to physicists and game designers, [that] is now on the tip of every book publicist’s tongue.” Bigger books create bigger worlds. Both individual VLNs and series VLNs parallel the growing obsession with binge-watching multiple episodes of television series and online-created content.

This whole discussion reminds me of a scene from the film Amadeus, about the life of Mozart. When someone criticizes the composer for using too many notes, he asks, “Exactly which notes would you have me leave out?”

I don’t mind long books. In fact, I read eagerly through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, enthralled until the very last word. What I don’t like is a long book that’s longer than it needs to be. I thought Moo, Jane Smiley’s satirical take on the small world of land-grant academia, should have been cut by about one-third.

What about you? Do you like to read long books? Are there any VLNs that you’ve particularly liked or hated? Let us know in the comments section.

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Novelist Ceridwen Dovey describes personal experience with bibliotherapy, or reading by prescription. Initially skeptical, Dovey discovered:

The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

Along the way Dovey provides a short history of bibliotherapy:

The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading… . Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

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And here are a couple of lists of reading recommendations, if either of these topics grabs you.

10 Books to Read If You’re Not Traveling This Summer

Writer Emma Straub’s most recent novel, The Vacationers, is set in Mallorca. Because a “good book is the cheapest form of transportation there is,” Straub here recommends some books you can read if you’re not traveling this summer—or even if you are.

10. In the Woods by Tana French

9. The Fun of It, Stories from the Talk of the Town edited by Lillian Ross

8. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

7. Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

5. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

4. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

3. Arcadia by Lauren Groff

2. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

1. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

About Straub’s 10th pick, In the Woods by Tana French: This is the first book in what is known as French’s Dublin Murder Series. I did not particularly like it and almost didn’t read the subsequent novels. But a good review for the second book in the series made me give it a try, and I’ve read the rest and like them all. These books are related in that each one focuses on a different character of a Dublin murder squad, but each book is self-contained and can be read on its own.

10 Best Noir Novels

I like noir novels as much as the next reader, so I was surprised that I had never even heard of any of these books. Read why Ken Bruen, whose own most recent noir novel is _Green Hell-, singles out these titles:

10. Dark Passage by David Goodis

9. Sing a Song of Homicide by James R. Langham

8. Cold Caller by Jason Starr

7. The Lucky Stiff by Craig Rice

6. A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

5. The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford

4. He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

3. The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli

2. The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi

1. Killing Suki Flood by Rob Leininger