- Today in persistence, doubt, the slow burn, and eventual triumph: Marlon James, who won the Booker earlier this week for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, saw seventy-eight different houses reject his first novel. (Can you beat that record? Let’s talk.) “ ‘I had to sit down and add it up one day and I had no idea it was that much … I did give it up. I actually destroyed the manuscript, I even went on my friends’ computers and erased it.’ He said he retrieved the text by searching in the e-mail outbox of an old iMac computer.” James is the first Jamaican writer to win the Booker.
- Behold, the awesome generative power of the image search, which has given rise to millions of mood boards and a lust for an intimate connection to pictures: “As the longing for emotional connection spreads from how we want our clothes or living room to feel to how we want our minivan or constitutional democracy to feel, the mood business continues to expand … fueled, in large part, by the sheer overabundance of available images. It’s hard to remember that a couple of decades ago, finding pictures of things involved countless, tedious hours of random page flipping. Now a few seconds of furious keystroking produces endless examples … As vast files of metadata and personal search histories are ferreted away in some server farm in god-knows-where, we crave the kind of anodyne, gauzy experiences that at least promise something warmer and more human.”
- But even as the Internet helps us find too many things, it loses them. A thirty-four-part series of investigative journalism from 2007—nominated for the Pulitzer, even—disappeared from The Rocky Mountain News’s Web site, where it had been exclusively published. “If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize–nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can … today’s web is more at-risk than the iterations that preceded it. The serving environments are now more complex, and the volume of data involved is astonishing … Saving something on the web, just as Kevin Vaughan learned from what happened to his work, means not just preserving websites but maintaining the environments in which they first appeared—the same environments that often fail, even when they’re being actively maintained.”
- Richard Spruce, a nineteenth-century biologist, was obsessed not with spruces or even conifers at large, but with mosses, liverworts, bryophytes: the true underdogs of the plant world. Most scientists of his kind found them boring, but mosses had an active life in other quarters of the Victorian imagination: “Bryophytes had a way of working themselves into art and literature as signifiers of privacy and secrecy … Moss in particular served to create some botanical, aesthetic sense of a setting that allowed for illicit sexual encounters and for primal yearnings … Moss provided a soft bed for sexual romps that had to take place outside of stuffy Victorian homes. Serving, perhaps predictably, as a slang term for pubic hair, moss was understood to be consistently moist and jewel-like, glittering like emerald colonies under light … Hidden moss grottoes conjured up an image of something semi-religious, some secret refuge from the trials of urban—and overwhelming imperial tropical—life.”
- Hilton Als on Truman Capote’s early stories, and their approach to queerness, blackness, and the social politics of their day: “As an artist, Truman Capote treated truth as a metaphor he could hide behind, the better to expose himself in a world not exactly congenial to a Southern-born queen with a high voice who once said to a disapproving truck driver: ‘What are you looking at? I wouldn’t kiss you for a dollar’ … It’s interesting to think about him maybe taking in news reports from the time, like that story about those four black girls in Alabama, one of his home states, blown to bits in a church by racism and maleficence, and maybe wondering how, as the author of 1958’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, he could have written of Holly Golightly, the book’s star, asking for a cigarette and then saying: ‘I don’t mean you, O.J. You’re such a slob. You always nigger-lip.’ ”
This week we asked our friend Angus Trumble to give us the benefit of his wisdom—and received an embarras de richesses. Thanks to all for your questions and to Angus for his answers; there was none we could bear to cut. By day Angus is the senior curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art. By night, and sometimes also by day, he blogs on such topics as the euro crisis, the Ladies of Bethany, and his own globe-trotting adventures.
Do the best readers make the best lovers? Would you be more likely to break up with someone if they never read, or read all the time?
I am flattered that you feel I have the necessary qualifications to provide an accurate answer to this question. In my experience, the well-read can be excellent lovers, although there are times when a specific literary prompt may inhibit the natural flow, as for example when one’s partner genuinely believes himself to be some sort of Vronsky, when in fact he lacks the magnificent build, military bearing, disposable income, or even the remotest capacity to smolder. I can quite confidently say that it is unlikely that I would ever commence a relationship with a person who never read, which removes the need to break up with him. My parents’ marriage survived a period in the late fifties, when my mother read the complete works of Sir Walter Scott, evidently led in his direction by a genetically encoded taste for the lowering mist, gloomy crags, and bloodstained crofts and glens of the Highlands of Scotland. On the whole, therefore, I am for readers—although it is also true that I would immediately eject anyone whom I caught in bed with a romantic novel by the late Dame Barbara Cartland.
Have you ever had a story accepted for publication through a slush pile?
As a matter of fact I have, although it was a book review and not a story. My first long article for The Times Literary Supplement was entirely unsolicited and dealt with what struck me at the time as a wholly new and remarkable historical analysis of, of all things, the epidemiology of the Black Death. To my astonishment, in due course this offering propelled me onto the front cover, together with an enormously magnified photograph of a plague-carrying flea. So there is hope.
What should you do if you don’t like a book halfway through? How do you know when you should give it up?
For years, far too many years, I fell into the dangerous trap of being determined to finish a book despite having reached the conclusion half way through—or at the very least having become deeply suspicious—that in all probability this would not give me pleasure or profit. Yet essentially I am an optimist, and therefore, I suppose, when faced with undeniable evidence that a novel in which I am immersed is, for example, a bleak and depressing saga of frustrated sexual longing and entirely populated by characters of scarcely conceivable dullness, part of me hopes that twenty pages hence there awaits bright flashes of comic genius that may yet salvage the experience. Optimistic though I continue to be, from the vantage point of comfortable middle age I can now say that this is never true and that certainly the healthiest, most sensible, and efficient strategy is to abandon ship.
He’s back, by popular demand! Tim Wu’s culture diary was such a hit with our readers that we asked him to answer our advice column this week. —Lorin Stein
A quiet kid in my introductory English class approached me the other day with a batch of his poetry. He wants to be a writer and asked for “an honest appraisal” of his work and chances. Of course, the poems are awful, but I would hate to discourage him. How should I handle this?
Easy question. You cannot lose. Tell him, honestly, that his poems are awful. That scarring pain of first rejection is the greatest gift you could give to an aspiring writer. It being Christmas, consider the agony your very own myrrh and frankincense.
“I read your poems. They are awful.” With these simple words, you have the rare chance to create a lifetime’s worth of writing fuel, a resentment that can be relied on for years. Or, in the words of Notorious B.I.G.: “This is dedicated to all the teachers who said I’d never amount to nothin.’”
My husband wants to go camping. I, to put it mildly, do not. It is cold, it requires physical exertion, and neither of us are so young anymore. Can you recommend a book that will satisfy his Boy Scout fantasies without destroying our marriage?