In memory of Paula Fox, who died last week at age ninety-three, we’re looking back at a series of essays published on the Daily in 2013, when Fox received The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize for lifetime achievement.
First, Tom Bissell has the story of how, as a twenty-four-year-old editorial assistant, he brought Fox’s masterpiece, Desperate Characters, back into print:
W. W. Norton, the house that employed me, had encouraged me to come up with “ideas” for the paperback committee, which at the time felt like a huge honor. Correction: it was a huge honor. I had a few ideas, most of which, I was gently informed, stank. But one didn’t.
Bissell gathered a case for republishing Desperate Characters: testimonials from writers about its literary significance, photocopied pages of the book. Norton accepted. Bissell wrote:
But my experience of publishing Desperate Characters taught me a valuable lesson: literary reputation is a fragile, innocuous, and transient thing—a butterfly that dies in your palm the moment you capture it. Thus: do the work, which is the only thing over which a writer has some measure of control. Paula did the work. It was there for us to find, still vitally alive. In that sense, I wonder if maybe we don’t have all this backward. Maybe certain books and certain writers are not found. The work of Paula Fox, I think, found us.
In an excerpt from his essay “No End to It,” Jonathan Franzen worked over the creaky perfection of that book, which he championed for many years before its rebirth:
Desperate Characters is a novel in revolt against its own perfection. The questions it raises are radical and unpleasant. What is the point of meaning—especially literary meaning—in a rabid modern world? Why bother creating and preserving order if civilization is every bit as killing as the anarchy to which it’s opposed? Why not be rabid? Why torment ourselves with books?
And celebrating Fox’s genius as a children’s book writer (she won a Hans Christian Andersen Award, a Newbery Medal, and a National Book Award for her children’s books in the years her adult novels were wading in limbo), Elisabeth Donnelly said:
In her work for children, [Fox] writes with evenness and truth, never lying to children about the horrors of the world. Rather, she gives them the chance to find some light on the other side … Fox understands, powerfully, that children abide and endure, and there’s endless generosity in the way that she writes for children.