- Ken Kalfus is on his way to the bookstore, and he’s not having a swell time—because how can you, anymore? “Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”
- Philip Larkin will soon be honored with a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey—a kind of rarefied Walk of Fame where he’ll join such august forebears as Chaucer, Dickens, and Ted Hughes. Asterisk: Larkin regarded his fellow flagstoners, to a one, as hacks. “We do not find any great striving towards artistic greatness,” he said of The Canterbury Tales; Dickens was “hectic, nervy, panic-stricken,” with “queer names, queer characters”; and Hughes he regarded as simply “no good at all.”
- From the annals of censorship: Thomas Hardy’s original manuscript for Tess of the D’Urbervilles fell afoul of the morality police in strange ways. Macmillan’s Magazine, which rejected the novel for its “immoral situations,” thought Hardy overused the word succulent: “Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story … is one of rather too much succulence.” Another magazine, Graphic, wouldn’t serialize it until Hardy removed “references to characters traveling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream—one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire—so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.”
- Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs was a strange book when it appeared in 1995—it’s even stranger now. A novel based on a piece he’d reported for Wired, it endorses a kind of techno-utopia in which start-ups can give real meaning to life, but “the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.” And the Internet is only a glimmer, if not a mirage, on the horizon. “This highway,” one character asks of the Information Superhighway: “Is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.”
- Nonfiction publishing is full of middlebrow “talking-point books”: essentially swollen magazine pieces that hang shoddy scholarship on some banal marketing hook. “We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the ‘always topical’ debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with ‘what it means to be human.’”
Dickens the authorpreneur.
Bigger than the Zuckerberg Bump, bigger even than the Colbert Bump or the Oprah Bump—arguably the most historic bump in English publishing is the Sam Weller Bump, triggered not by a tastemaker with a megaphone but a sharp-talking, warm-hearted servant.
In June 1836, Charles Dickens published the fourth installment of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the many shilling monthlies that were the backbone of Victorian publishing. Printed on low-cost acidic paper and sold in pale green wrappers, they were aimed at the middle and newly literate working classes on the lookout for entertaining fare. But many of these readers had grown accustomed to the gobbets of melodrama offered by the cheap press—they were utterly uninterested, then, in the picaresque misadventures of Mr. Pickwick and his chums as they bowled through England collecting scientific information for the betterment of mankind. The first three installments of Pickwick barely sold four hundred copies.
But that June, sales began to grow by orders of magnitude: from four hundred to four thousand to an astounding forty thousand as the serialization drew to a close in November 1837. Everyone up and down the social ladder began to devour Pickwick, from butchers’ boys to John Ruskin, who read Pickwick so often he claimed to know it by heart. Copies were passed from hand to hand and read aloud as family entertainment. The critics effused with praise. Dickens, who was twenty-four and expecting his first child, had become a household name. Read More
- “It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians … It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as ‘in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum’ and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about ‘less talking and fewer marriages.’ ” (If you’re getting any ideas—don’t. The reading room has since closed.)
- As an adult, Derrida transformed English and humanities departments around the world; as a student, he had struggles of his own. When he was twenty, he submitted a paper on Shakespeare that earned him a failing grade, along with such (arguably prophetic) remarks as “quite unintelligible” and “totally incomprehensible”: “In this essay,” the instructor wrote, “you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly.”
- Dickens’s nighttime constitutionals gave him a chance to “see through the shining riddle of the street,” as G. K. Chesterton put it—but they also granted him a chance for emotional escape. “It seems as if they supplied something to my brain,” Dickens wrote, “which it cannot bear, when busy, to lose.”
- This month marks Trollope’s bicentennial, and though his renown is taken more or less for granted today, it wasn’t always so: Tolstoy found “too much that is conventional” in his work, and Henry James called him “mechanical.”
- Today in teens: they’re still out there, they are legion, they are wild, oppressed, they are everything you fear and want to be. “Teens are the only true nihilists left. Teens can use guns and have sex but their brains aren’t even fully formed. This is an amazing fact … Teens only care about the immediate culture. They are not stuck in dead-time nostalgia. They have never heard of Missy Elliot. They do not care. That is OK. Teens plow their carts over the bones of the dead.”
- What accounts for Jane Austen’s unprecedented posthumous success? “Tolstoy, Dickens and Proust are all remembered, and still read, but they do not have countless fans throughout the world who reread their books each year, who eagerly await the latest television or movie adaptation, who attend conventions in period costume, and who no doubt dream about the heroes and heroines of their novels.”
- Today, in the furniture of the greats: Charles Dickens’s desk (and chair) have been preserved for posterity. Having been “hidden away” for a hundred and fifty years, during which many people who were not Charles Dickens had the audacity to use them, they’ll soon assume their rightful place at London’s Dickens Museum, where they’ve been “secured for the benefit of all our visitors.”
- The many faces of Terrance Hayes: “When college students read Hayes, they talk about the underlying seriousness of poems about lynchings, fistfights or rape. But when poets talk about Hayes, they tend to address his invented forms: poems based on anagrams, on the Japanese slide shows called pechakucha and on puzzles.”
- Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, a 1951 mystery novel, renewed interest in Richard III, that most maligned of monarchs: “The novel was immediately popular when it first appeared … Tey’s dissection of received history prompted readers to question … everything they had been taught. This could feel like an awakening.”
- Robert Moses is the subject of a new graphic biography—from France. “No New Yorker would mistake the book for a native product. There are editing glitches. Randalls Island becomes ‘Randall Island,’ Staten Island is rendered ‘State Island’ … Lines of dialogue like ‘You’ll stay for the dinner I’ve organized with some people from the municipality’ were probably not uttered quite like that.”
- Authenticity: Do you have it? Do your favorite writers have it? Has any individual in the history of humankind had it? “What do we mean by authenticity? Since we can hardly ask for documentary accuracy from fiction, what is it exactly we’re looking for? … All Dickens is packed with orphans or people in uncertain relation to family groups, or clubs. It’s impossible to read anything he wrote without feeling that the question of belonging was a major issue for him … Whether or not we like the books and quite regardless of any verisimilitude, it’s clear that the author is writing directly from his personal concerns.”
- The Earl of Rochester wrote directly from his personal concerns, too. Those concerns included dildos, premature ejaculation, drunkenness, and scatology. He was very authentic.
- And Camus, who had a few questions of his own about this sort of thing, is perhaps more relevant than ever today, in no small part because of the Arab Spring: “For the many Americans who grew up with ‘The Guest’ and The Stranger, what lies ahead is a literary, political, and cinematic revival of a writer whose work has found new urgency in the embers of the Arab Spring. For readers and writers throughout the world, Camus remains an open book.”
- While we’re questioning some of the basic tenets of writing—what do writers owe their subjects? “Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.”
- Maybe it’s easiest to circumvent these questions by trusting the state to tell us which stories are okay to tell. They know what they’re doing! That’s why a Tennessee lawmaker is moving to make the Bible his state’s official book. It’s a classic, after all.
- Wackford Squeers, Peg Sliderskew, Charity Pecksniff … the names of characters in Dickens novels are outré enough to put Thomas Pynchon to shame.
- Relatedly: naming one’s characters is arguably the fiction writer’s most critical task. “I make up names for people all the time—it’s part of writing. Very often, the name comes with the character, along with of a sense of who they are and what they do … All names are masks, as well as identifiers.”
- For her services to literature, Hilary Mantel—with whom we’ll feature an Art of Fiction interview in our next issue—has been made a dame.
- Early in the twentieth century, an unlikely duo developed the first mechanistic theory of the mind: Warren McCulloch, “a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before four a.m.,” and Walter Pitts, “small and shy, with a long forehead that prematurely aged him, and a squat, duck-like, bespectacled face.” They asserted that the brain “uses logic encoded in neural networks to compute.”
- Finally, without further ado: Mexican prison art. “The tradition of paño (from the Spanish ‘pañuelo,’ which means ‘handkerchief’ ) began in the correctional facilities of Western American States sometime in the 1940s. At the time, decorating handkerchiefs was the only way for illiterate Mexican prisoners to communicate with the outside world. To this day, paños are still often sent to friends and family instead of letters, while, in certain prisons, the handkerchiefs are a popular form of currency.”