The Greatest Literary Impostor, and Other News


On the Shelf

From the cover of Emile Ajar’s La Vie Devant Soi.

  • Sam Sacks opens his review of our anthology The Unprofessionals with a litany of all that’s been co-opted by careerism in literature: “Consider the extraliterary responsibilities expected of authors who have had their novels accepted for publication: Develop an active presence on Facebook and Twitter (and, for the truly motivated, on Tumblr, Instagram, and Pinterest); create an accompanying web site, video trailer, and soundtrack; go on a book tour, naturally, but also participate in a variety of reading series in anticipation of and well after the publication date; take part in panels and signings at book expos; give interviews to blogs and podcasts and write personal essays about your background, your development as a writer, and your process of creation; not only review other books but join the great merry-go-round of blurbing … ” (He also calls The Unprofessionals “a showcase for serious literature.”)
  • The tropes and psychology of anorexia have always been embedded in literature, Katy Waldman tells us: “Anorexia mirabilis—the saintly loss of appetite—signaled an embrace of Christ-like abnegation and suffering … And guess what? The archetype of the fasting mystic had a daughter. Equally lovely, equally slender—in her the delicacy of spirit won out once more over the coarseness of tissue. She rebelled against her mother by applying her native rigor not to prayer, but to an artistic sort of femininity. Think Jane Eyre, ‘delicate and aerial,’ or Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth, ‘little’ and ‘beautiful lithe.’ Consider Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch, her ‘hand and wrist … so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters.’ That Mary reference is not coincidental—like her mom, the new anorexic was pure and asexual. Yet she was also a creator, driven and intense … The economic and social realities of nineteenth-century England conspired to idealize female slenderness.”
  • Not unrelatedly: Upon first publication, the Brontë sisters’ novels were reviewed variously as “vulgar,” “brutalizing,” “pernicious,” “godless,” and “venial”—probably because critics believed the authors were men. For Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell, as they chose to be known, male pseudonyms meant freedom: “It allowed their imaginations to trespass in the darkest crevices of the psyche and return with tormented monsters like Heathcliff, the Ahab of the moors, and dynamos like Miss Eyre. Their pseudonyms strengthened their moral resolve, emboldening them to speak truth to that most tyrannical seat of power: ordinary society.” For Charlotte, the revelation of her true identity came at a steep cost, and she did her best to forestall it: “Charlotte insisted on the charade of separating Currer Bell from Charlotte Brontë in public, as Thackeray found out to his cost. He hosted a party for her at his house, and as he was leading her to dinner on his arm (she came up to his elbow), he addressed her as Currer Bell. ‘I believe there are books being published by a person named Currer Bell,’ she snapped back, ‘but the person you address is Miss Brontë—and I see no connection between the two.’ After dinner she sat in a corner and refused to mingle; Thackeray fled to his club.”
  • From the annals of good old-fashioned fraudulence: In 1974, a little-known writer named Émile Ajar won the Prix Goncourt. Ajar was actually “the Lithuanian-born Free French aviator, onetime French consul general in Los Angeles, and award-winning novelist Romain Gary … Gary’s novels are autobiographical, and much of what he claims to be memoir is made up, complicating any attempt at unraveling the true from the false … In France, which celebrated the centennial of Gary’s birth last year with conferences, exhibits, and the publication of his last interview, Le sens de ma vie, none of his thirty-plus novels, memoirs, and essays have ever gone out of print. In the United States, few of them still are … He was far more successful as a storyteller than as a stylist. But his propensities make it difficult to find a place for him in French literary history, where he does not fit into that story that others have told.”
  • Tired of bookstores where only some of the books are recommended by the staff? Head to Aaron Hicklin’s shop, One Grand, in Narrowsburg, New York, where everything comes with institutional approval. “His concept was to present collections of volumes handpicked by various creatives—including Tilda Swinton, Michael Stipe, Lena Dunham, and Edmund White—in response to the question, ‘If you were stranded on a desert island, which ten books could you not do without?’ … Hicklin aims to make bookselling more selective and personal—in other words, everything that Amazon is not—by attaching familiar names to titles and having them explain why those books have shaped them.”