The Daily

Books

Songs of Myself

June 28, 2016 | by

Hosting a national blurb contest.

LoGcover

Walt Whitman, the “American bard,” who was named after a shopping mall in Huntington, New York, where I grew up, is often credited with having invented the book blurb. On the spine of his debut, Leaves of Grass, he had printed in gold leaf a line teased from a letter he’d gotten from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson was right: Whitman continues to rank among America’s finest careerists.

Gertrude Stein, unable to break through to the literary mainstream, wrote herself a novel-length blurb entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing as Alice, her live-in companion, she described at length Gertrude’s prodigious, if misunderstood, genius. This 252-page press kit was an immediate best seller, prompting Stein to embark on a national tour, which she described in Everybody’s Autobiography, a sequel explaining why you should hire her for speaking engagements.

Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, In Our Time, was published with no fewer than six blurbs—on the cover. I can’t remember if he won the Nobel before or after he finished taping the beer commercials. With Toni Morrison, it was definitely before: Pulitzer, Nobel, Chipotle wrapper, in that order.

Will my novels secure my literary legacy the way Morrison’s and Hemingway’s did theirs? Will I ever see my name engraved on a line of high-quality toilets, I sometimes wonder, after hours of furious literary labor? Will I be immortal, like Whitman, transcending with my “song” the conventional boundaries of self? Will Kohler, the premier name in luxury flushing, ever ask me to be their spokeswoman? Read More »

The Trouble of Rational Thought

June 10, 2016 | by

How Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai cultivates ambition in its readers.

The first edition of The Last Samurai.

Watch Helen DeWitt discuss The Last Samurai in our My First Time video series.

In the late nineties, Helen DeWitt, a then-unpublished writer with a Ph.D. in classics from Oxford, got an offer on her first novel, The Seventh Samurai. It had been seventeen months since her agent had indicated she would be able to get an advance based on the first six chapters of the manuscript—which, in the absence of a contract, DeWitt had diligently been attempting to finish. After she received the offer, she wrote to her agent; she felt she was likely to commit suicide if she had to continue working with her. Looking over her editor's comments, she scarcely felt more hopeful. When a contract arrived, she decided not to sign it.

Some time later, a friend showed the manuscript to Jonathan Burnham, then at Talk Miramax Books; he immediately offered her $70,000. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, the novel caused what can fairly be called a sensation; but the enthusiasm of foreign houses did not make English-language publication any easier. DeWitt spent months battling her copy editor, who had ignored DeWitt’s edits and imposed hundreds of standardizing changes of her own. It was, DeWitt told the Observer in 2011, as if they were trying to “kill the mind that wrote the book.”

In 2000, DeWitt’s novel was released as The Last Samurai. (DeWitt was forced to change the title, only to see its Google results buried, three years later, beneath the Tom Cruise movie of the same name). In The New Yorker, A. S. Byatt hailed it as “a triumph—a genuinely new story, a genuinely new form.” Read More »

Overdrafts of Pleasure

May 5, 2016 | by

John Cleland wrote his (very) erotic novel, Fanny Hill, in prison. What did he mean by it?

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Merle Haggard and the long tradition of the outlaw poet, here.

John Cleland’s sentences often resemble the sexual encounters he imagined in his best-known book—a two-volume novel called Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, published when he was in debtor’s prison between 1748 and 1749, reissued in a censored edition the following year, and presented in both cases as an autobiographical letter by a former courtesan named Fanny Hill. A typical Cleland sentence goes on past any moderate end point, “wedging [itself] up to the utmost extremity.” It makes unexpected, spasmodic, sometimes baffling detours, “exalted by the charm of their novelty and surprise.” It drifts so far into the ridiculous that sometimes it seems “that on earth”—as Cleland’s heroine comments in one passage about the “women of quality” she and her colleagues once wanted to resemble—“there cannot subsist anything more silly, more flat, more insipid and worthless.” But then it keeps going, escalating until it seems to have been “driven forcibly out of the power of using any art.” Read More »

A Maker of Mirrors

April 29, 2016 | by

Richard Fariña’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me turns fifty.

Mimi and Richard Fariña, at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1965. Photo: David Gahr

I am gazing, as I write, at a black-and-white photograph of Richard Fariña with his wife, Mimi (née Baez) Fariña, taken backstage at the Newport Folk Festival nine months before his death—fifty years ago this week—at the age of twenty-nine. To call the photo romantic would be an understatement. Mimi, her face a dark flower offered to an invisible sun, appears to be literally bursting out of her flip-flops as she executes some twirling, Isadora Duncan-y ballet step; while Richard, swarthy and black-haired, his eyes fondly delta’d (the Ray-Bans in his hand having apparently proven useless against all this brightness), looks like he can’t quite believe his luck, to have aligned his future with this lovely, exuberant sprite, a princess in folk’s royal family. He’s having a pretty good run of it for a guy who plays the dulcimer. And technically he doesn’t even play it that well. Read More »

Bodies Moving Through Space

April 12, 2016 | by

How Blutch’s graphic novel Peplum shatters the Satyricon.

In an interview after Peplum’s first publication in book form, Blutch tells of a reader who asked him why he was such a difficult author. “But I don’t feel like I’m difficult at all!” he exclaimed. “I don’t understand why I get asked that. What I do is fairly simple, and not at all intellectual. In my stories, I try to favor action.” And in action, Blutch’s book abounds: stabbing, stoning, amputation, eye-gouging, sex, seafaring, Attic dance, pirate attacks. Yet these sequences are as artificial as they are visceral, feral, and formal at once. Taking as its title the European term for the sword-and-sandal cinematic subgenre, Peplum offers a decidedly different take on the toga epic—one of aporia and ambiguity, a fractured tale of antiquity in all its alien majesty. Read More »

Branded Man

March 23, 2016 | by

The long tradition of outlaw poets.

From the cover of Merle Haggard’s Branded Man, 1967.

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on Austin Reed’s The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict, here.

Early in the first volume of Panegyric—the bad-tempered, ironically self-deprecating eulogy he wrote for himself in the late eighties­—Guy Debord sang the praises of a kind of writer he knew he could never become. “There have always been artists and poets capable of living in violence,” he wrote. “The impatient Marlowe died, knife in hand, arguing over a tavern bill.” Five hundred years earlier, in the picture Debord goes on to imagine, the medieval poet François Villon presided over a cluster of writers who lived raggedly and riskily at the banks of the Seine. These were outlaw poets, “devotees of the dangerous life”­—starved, browbeaten figures for whom pariahdom, persecution, imprisonment and homelessness were both facts of life and the materials out of which they made their art.

Outlaw poets are what certain prison writers become when their term is up—when they’ve been let loose into a world that spurns them and whose values they reject. In some cases, the poetry they write from this position turns out bitter, sour, and defiantly indigestible, full of lines that dare their civilized, comfortable readers to tolerate rude language, unhinged imagery, and wild variations in refinement and shape. In others, it comes off as a seductive, pining lament, a plea for pardon or a performance of rueful self-blame. Some of the great outlaw poets shuffle unpredictably between these two tones. “I’d like to hold my head up and be proud of who I am,” Merle Haggard sang in 1967, less than a decade after the end of his two-year term in San Quentin: “but they won’t let my secret go untold; / I paid the debt I owed ’em, / but they’re still not satisfied; / Now I’m a branded man / out in the cold.” He could write an equally convincing song that placed the fault on precisely the opposite side: “Mama tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied; / that leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.” Read More »