Five Literary Tidbits


Literary links of late: This week we visit The Millions to visit an unusual review copy author-note and a Chicago-themed publication issue, consider the purpose of a book cover and rules for novel-writing and sign off with a great books list. Ready?

1. Advanced review copies of books often contain interesting notes and
backstory of a given title’s publication or editorial process. But, few
ever bear notes quite as delightful as this one from Pete Dexter for his forthcoming Spooner, which offers up gems of explanation of the passage of lost time such as:

“There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most
conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the
version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250
pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize
this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say
about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my
life and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Read “Reader Beware” on The Millions.

2. John Freeman, Editor of Granta, announced in an interview, the Cambridge University literary journal’s theme for next month’s issue is Chicago.

Read the interview with editor John Freeman in Granta.

3. Seth Godin considers the purpose of a book cover in the cycle of reader behavior:

Tactically, the cover sells the back cover, the back cover sells the
flap and by then you’ve sold the book. If those steps end up selling a
book that the purchaser doesn’t like, game over. So you have to be
consistent all the way through and end up creating a conversation after
the purchase.

Read “The Purpose of a Book Cover” on Seth Godin’s blog.

4. The Ragbag gave us a a list of Pete Tarslaw’s sixteen rules for novel-writing, with tips such as “include plant names” and “evoke confusing sadness at the end”.

Read “Pete Tarslaw’s Sixteen Rules of Novel Writing” on The Ragbag blog.

5. Newsweek pulled together a list of the best books ever written. I heard whispers on Twitter
alluding to the fact that less than a quarter of the titles were
written by women. Discuss: is a great book a great book or is
male-female balance important on lists?

Read “Top 100 Books: The Meta-List” on Newsweek. 


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  • This guy ( does some really good critiques of book cover design on his blog. And I think he's here in Chicago. You two should chat.

  • Re: Newsweek's top 100 best books list, I think it's tricky to ask the question is a great book a great book or is male-female balance important on these lists. Of course it is! But many of these books are 19th and 20th century lit--and earlier than that--and I think the real issue here is history's male-bias. How many women writers were being recognized for their achievements? Who was getting published and who wasn't? Who ran the publishing houses? How many women could have been great writers but didn't write because that wasn't "what women did"?

    On that note, why are there so few black writers on this list? Queer writers? It's the same problem I encounter in art history, which is until feminists made a fuss with Linda Nochlin's early 70s article "Why have there been no great women artists?", women's work wasn't being recognized to the extent that mens was.

    I think lists such as Newsweek's have to account for diversity, but would argue that history is to blame for the list being mostly male. Now how to rectify history?

  • Before I start pointing the gender finger, or the race finger, or any other finger, I always look to socioeconomic factors. In terms of iterature, big chunks of "ever" include stretches of time before upward class mobility was a reality. Those with access to the distribution necessary to generate a widely-read book were very few and tended to shape the landscape of available fiction in not-so-subtle ways. Also let's not forget that literacy itself was once something not universal in the Western world. Lastly, and it's easy for us as educated people to overlook this, it takes some measure of education to be able to write an enduring work. If you took a random cross-section of "ever" and figured out the average education level of the populace of the then-modern world, I think you'd discover that education was as limited by class as it was by gender.

    Elsewise, the millions of uneducated, illiterate lower and working class men would have had as much chance to write a Greatest Book Ever as their upper-class, University-educated counterparts.

    I think if the list was confined to the last 40 years, the numbers would be significantly skewed back toward some sort of rough parity in terms of gender. Equal? Perhaps not, but certainly influenced by the greater access of women and racial minorities to education. If you projected this list forward, you might even see the list skew toward women, as they have for a number of years now made up a solid majority on campuses in the U.S. I don't see the percieved gender-disparity going anywhere, though. As ever, the tendency is to ignore the large and very real population of subtly disenfranchised lower-class men who do not get to participate in their supposed hegemony.

    If you want to see a real disparity, check out the Gender Studies alcove of your local bookstore sometime and see if they have even one complete tier of one shelf devoted to Men's Studies.

  • What do you mean by mens studies?

  • Hehe. Exactly.

    There's an obtuse, hollow old argument that anything not explicitly "Women's Studies" is, by patriarchic default, "Men's Studies", but really who actually believes this anymore?

    There is one strange little kernel of truth to it, though. Women's Studies texts are often concentrated not only in their subject matter but also in their physical location in a bookstore. Bookstores clearly draw a distinction and hence WE as customers are led to draw a distinction. In our hypothetical bookstore, you're not going to find Feminine Mystique, Backlash, or Gender Trouble in Self Help. They're all going to be in the Sociology section and likely in the Women's Studies sub-category. If there is a Men's Studies section, it probably has three copies of Iron John, and one each of: Stiffed, Fire in the Belly, The Myth of Male Power, Where Men Hide, and The War Against Boys.

    Or maybe not, because what bookstores often do is to split sociological texts about men into different departments, echoing that vexing argument I mentioned earlier. Robert Bly's Iron John, probably the most important text ever written about men's issues and sociology in the 20th century, might just as easily be buried deep in the "Philosophy" section. Stiffed and The War Against Boys (written by Susan Faludi and Christina Hoff Summers respectively) by their authors' gender are often shelved in with the Women's Studies titles despite being incendiary texts about the disenfranchisement of men. I spent half an hour one time trying to find a copy of James Twitchell's Where Men Hide only to finally locate it in "Photography" because it's illustrated. Nancy Friday's brave and insightful Men in Love never makes it out of "Relationships", or worse "Erotica", because it contains texts of men's sexual fantasies alongside one of the most spirited and circumspect evaluations of the masculine psyche I've ever read.

    I realize I've gotten way, waaay off the topic of this post, and I don't mean to hijack. The concept of "Best" books is one that I take with the same cinderblock sized grain of salt that I do "recommended" or "required" reading lists. My own personal list of "Best" books contains a large number of non-fiction texts, at least half of which were written by women. Though Vandana Shiva, Bell Hooks, and Susan Faludi don't write fiction, their conceptual framework has inspired my writing enormously. It does bother me when people haven't heard of the brilliant women writers in my genre. Every bit as vivid and flooring as Cormack McCarthy's "The Road", Jacqualine Harpman's "I Who Have Never Known Men" will stay with you for months after you read it.

  • And I'm still laughing at Peter Tarslaw's Sixteen Rules of Novel Writing. My favorite: "During dull moments, describe a delicious meal."

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