Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is dog-earing the pages of a book morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong? What about underlining?
Brooke from Capitol Hill
In a world where Ted Nugent, Donald Trump, and Mark Driscoll can all boast of being New York Times bestselling authors, I have a hard time labeling anything short of a ham sandwich wrapped in pages of the Koran as morally, ethically, or spiritually wrong (especially if the infidel sandwich is thrown its own ticker-tape parade in Mecca during Ramadan).
But I digress.
A good book should have a much longer lifespan than you and far more friends than could fit at your funeral. So yes, there is an etiquette to how you handle good books and this is it: Use pen only for inscriptions. If you want to underline or respond to select passages, do it in pencil so that when you’re dead, your loved ones can read your thoughts and then carefully erase them. If you highlight anything outside of a school textbook, you are a dick (even then, turning text an aggressively hard-to-read shade does not make it more knowable. Learn to take notes like a civilized person.)
Finally, don’t dog-ear pages. On the scale of infidel sandwiches, this gaffe is more upsetting than sacrilegious (think Jesus stumping for Subway’s new gluten-free tuna melt). Still, if you can’t find one old receipt, gum wrapper, divorce decree, etc. to mark your place in a book then you're about as useful as Trump's thoughts on the economy, Driscoll's thoughts on women, and Nugent's thoughts on everything else.
Jarek Steele, the co-owner of St. Louis's wonderful Left Bank Books (no relation to Seattle's wonderful Left Bank Books), published a blog post about an anonymous letter he received in resopnse to a Black Lives Matter window display in the store:
There was no return address, and it wasn’t signed. It was a very short message on a note card telling us that we had lost a customer. In it, the person said we stoked the flames of enmity between races and promoted division. The person asked us why we insisted upon doing that.
Steele walks a fine line in his open letter, explaining why the store maintains an open conversation about race even as tons of white folks think the matter should be closed forever. He doesn't sarcastically mock the customer, instead concluding that "I want you to know that our door, hearts and arms are open to you and all others always." Steele even adds: "If you do make the switch to Amazon I hope that you’ll keep reading." How many bookstore owners would be that forgiving?
While everyone who's ever worked retail enjoys watching bad customers get what they deserve every now and again, Steele does excellent work walking the fine line between "the customer is always right" and "don't read the comments." His response is earnest, honest, and as full of questions as it is full of answers. You should read the entire letter, because I haven't seen a better example this year of why booksellers are so important as gatekeepers for community conversation.
(Many thanks to @boygobong, who shall henceforth forever be immortalized as the SRoB's very first hot-tipper.)
David Nakamura at the Washington Post reports the six books President Obama is taking on his 16-day summer vacation:
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
All That Is by James Salter
That's a pretty impressive summer reading list. The Lahiri novel is an underrated work, the Doerr is unanimously beloved, and the Coates is beautiful and challenging and heartbreaking.
(Every comics fan knows that Wednesday is new comics day, the glorious time of the week when brand-new comics arrive at shops around the country. Thursday Comics Hangover is a weekly column reviewing some of the books I pick up at Phoenix Comics and Games, my friendly neighborhood comic book store.)
First issues of comic series are tough. You have to establish a premise, introduce readers to at least one character to care about, and then give the readers a good reason to come back for the second issue. It’s like trying to run in place on a rolling log — one misstep and you’re pudding. You might have an incredible idea for a comic series, but if your first issue isn’t compelling it’s very unlikely that your story will ever find the audience it deserves. It’s not fair — imagine the pressure novelists would feel if browsers could lease a novel’s first chapter, with an option to buy the rest of the book — but fairness and the creation of art never get along very well.
You can probably tell from that introduction how I feel about The Beauty, the new comic series written by Jeremy Haun and illustrated by Jason A. Hurley. In theory, it’s a catchy little introduction to a sci-fi premise.The captions on the first page lay out the concept over shots of large groups of (mostly white) pedestrians walking by on a city street:
Two years ago, a new sexually transmitted disease took the world by storm. This S.T.D. was unlike any other that had come before. This was a disease that people actually wanted. “Victims” of this epidemic were physically changed by the virus. Fat melted away, thinning hair returned, skin blemishes faded, and their facial features slimmed. It became known as The Beauty.”
Okay. I mean, it’s certainly all right there. (I could do without the cliche “by storm” in the very first sentence of the book, but let’s be generous and ignore that for a moment.) The high concept has a bunch of obvious questions attached. Beauty is subjective, so why does everyone look like a model? And what about other races — are they held to a caucasian beauty standard, too? (The cast seems to be all-white, except for two minority background characters reduced to a couple lines each.) Obviously, you can’t touch on all these subjects in a couple dozen pages of comics, but there’s very little depth in the first issue of The Beauty to convince me that Haun and Hurley are intersted in pursuing the matter any further.
What we do get is a mystery: a beautiful woman on the subway explodes, seemingly by spontaneous combustion. Our apparent heroes, a pair of police investigators (a normal-looking man and a woman with The Beauty) set out to solve the case. It’s pretty generic policing action: a lead, a chase, shots fired, a little angst. There’s a twist at the end of the issue that you can see coming at least two pages ahead, along with some incredibly bad dialogue: “Forget about work. You’re here with me now, and that’s all that matters.”
That’s enough harping on the writing. Haun’s art is good. He varies the backgrounds, body language, and perspectives on every scene, though he seems to have a problem conveying shadow and darkness without spilling giant pools of ink everywhere. John Rauch’s coloring could use a little more pep; every room seems to be colored on a variation of the same hotel-like beige, and the city backgrounds on the first page are all colored the same weird blue-green.
Ultimately, there just isn’t enough on the page for me to recommend The Beauty. The story’s not curious enough to dig beyond the surface of its premise, instead offering standard scenes of Brian Michael Bendis-style cop chit-chat interspersed with a tiny amount of world-building. The concept is interesting enough to warrant reinvestigation if and when the first trade paperback collection of The Beauty is released, but nothing in this first issue inspires me to pick up the second. It’s a tough business, comics.
UPDATE 11:26 AM: On Twitter, Karen Meisner tipped us to the existence of Alice Sola Kim's 2009 short story "Beautiful Bodies," which examines a similar sort of beauty epidemic. You can read it over at Strange Horizons. If you're interested in the concepts behind The Beauty but you'd like to see them examined in more depth, this story is for you:
Once it struck, the girls became impossibly beautiful in the space of days. Even if you could pay some super-surgeon-sculptor-sage (a three-way cross between Dr. 90210, Michelangelo, and Maimonides) to crack open your face like a watermelon and chisel away at it until your bones were fine and symmetrical, you still wouldn't look like these girls. Their necks were too long. And the whites of their eyes? Much too white!
GoodReads just put up a blog post about the stunning success of Paula Hawkins's thriller The Girl on the Train. If you're into metrics, this will fascinate you. If you're a big believer in the power of reviews — as I am — it will affirm your worldview in a satisfying way. And that's what the internet is all about, right? Affirming your worldview in a satisfying way?
Also satisfying: the post's comment section, which is mostly full of people who, like me, thought The Girl on the Train was an unremarkable thriller.
(Via Sarah Weinman on Twitter.)
Port Townsend's Copper Canyon Press, which Sherman Alexie once declared at a reading was the best poetry publisher in America, broke a little book news yesterday at GalleyCat:
Copper Canyon Press will publish the English edition of a new poetry collection by Nobel Prize-winning writer Pablo Neruda. The Pablo Neruda Foundation announced the discovery of these 20 previously unknown pieces earlier this year.
The book will be titled Then Come Back: The Lost Neruda.
Related: if you're looking to spice up your love life, the Seattle Review of Books heartily recommends that you and your partner read Neruda poems to each other, preferably in a breathy whisper. Works every time.
Though Debbie Sarow never imagined herself as a small business owner, her days as a bookseller were punctuated with little fantasies about what she would do if she ever ran her own bookstore.
One example comes immediately to mind. “I decided early on that if I had my way, I would put the graphic novels next to the art books,” Sarow tells me. “Everybody puts the graphic novels next to the humor books,” she says, presumably because humor books are often profusely illustrated. But as anyone who’s ever read comics knows, they’re not all funny but they are all about the interaction of words and art. When Sarow surprised herself by opening Mercer Street Books, she knew exactly where the graphic novel section would go: right next to the art books at the front of the store.
This might strike you as an insignificant detail, but Sarow puts a considerable amount of thought into all the little details of Mercer Street Books. She gives me a tour of all the sections, explaining why they all flow from one to the other: poetry into mythology into memoirs into writing books into plays into entertainment.
“The fun parts” of bookstore section placement, she says, “were accidental. Science fiction runs into horror, which you would expect. And then we have sociology to psychology — the ologies — and that feeds into health and parenting, and it ended up going sexuality, weddings, parenting, and education, because that’s what people do. And people come up to me and say, ‘I love that you put parenting next to the horror section.’ I did! But that part was not intentional.”
At the front of the store is an old, wooden card catalog. Inside the small drawers, where many customers would never think to look, are beautiful little objects for sale. Some of the items make sense for a bookstore to carry — a pack of playing cards, a pocket-sized French/English dictionary. Others are just weird little treasures: a pair of glass doorknobs, a vintage flashlight, a few wood-and-metal instruments of unknown provenance.
Sarow says the card catalog full of tiny wonders is her answer to all the booksellers who told her that a healthy bookstore should have a thriving sideline business. (“Sidelines” is the technical term for all those non-book items, like pens and games and cards and too-expensive book lights, that you find by the cash registers at most bookshops.)
“I like having a bookstore that’s a bookstore,” she says, “instead of a bookstore full of sidelines.” Once, on finding out that Sarow didn’t carry a single stuffed animal or plastic toy for sale at Mercer Street Books, someone remarked, “what are you going to do for kids?” Sarow tells me, “the kids will have to be happy with books. It’s a bookstore. It’s not a bookstore and a toy store.”
Sarow understands, definitively, what Mercer Street Books is. You get the sense that it’s the bookstore she’s had in her mind for her entire life, and now she’s finally, happily, crafting that idea into reality.
Caleb Crain's piece for the Atlantic on Purity bears a salacious headline — "Jonathan Franzen Strikes Again: His latest targets: web sleuths and feminists" — but it's really just one of those pre-publication book reviews that kind of gives out way too much information about the book. You can expect all kinds of clickbait-y headlines in the next few weeks, now that Franzen's back in town.
Honestly, I haven't decided whether I'm going to read Purity or not; there are so many great books by non-Franzens out there just waiting to be read, and I was underwhelmed both by Freedom and by Franzen's last Seattle appearance.
And for the record, the best thing ever written about Franzen is this microfiction by Patricia Lockwood, which she read the last time she appeared in Seattle:
Just discovered this stunning short story in my drafts pic.twitter.com/T4RPbUjr3R— Patricia Lockwood (@TriciaLockwood) July 9, 2014
For many years if you attended a reading in Seattle, you'd have a pretty good chance of running into Kate Lebo there. The author of Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour, and Butter and A Commonplace Book of Pie, Lebo is a poet and an essayist who's read on pretty much every stage in Seattle. But unlike a lot of writers who only show up when they're on the bill, she's always been a full participant in Seattle's literary scene, too. She goes to readings as an audience member and participates happily in group readings and festivals and the daily writing life of the city; all of which is a long way around saying that she always seemed like a lifer. So I was shocked when I heard that she'd moved out of town. Lebo was kind enough to agree to a conversation about why she left.
Where are you now? What are you doing?
I live in Spokane, Washington, but I moved there about six months ago. Before that, I was living in Vancouver Washington for two years. I did this kind of French exit from Seattle when my rent went up like crazy in the middle of a book project. I set up house in my parents house — actually my childhood bedroom — and set up a bunch of house gigs and tours and did things to try to only be home about half the time.
Now that I have my own great adult home in Spokane, I’m still touring about half the time. I’ve been trying to balance freelance work — teaching creative writing and writing things and teaching pie and doing events for the two cookbooks — that translate to paying my rent and getting to be free. I decided not to go the academic route and I decided not to go the Amazon route, but it’s left me vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a freelance life, which I’m sure you know is feast or famine. And Seattle became a place for me where the famines became too deep and the rents and the cost of living were too high for me to live there.
I didn’t want to go, because [Seattle is] where I came of age, and I’ve got such deep personal and professional and artistic ties there. I’m trying to keep them by appearing like I didn’t leave, like not telling people where, exactly, I am at any given time and just being in town a lot.
Why did you choose Spokane?
I fell in love and he works for Eastern [Washington University]. So it was a good choice for my personal life. And when I was looking at Spokane, I realized I can get a really cute apartment for exactly half what my rent was in Ballard, which is the last place I lived in Seattle. The cost of living is cheap. It feels a lot like Bellingham to me; I went to college in Bellingham, which is why I’m making that comparison.
People value the arts in Spokane, and they’re super-hungry for more, but they don’t get as many touring acts coming through as they do in Seattle. There’s not as much money here. There’s not nearly as much money as there is in Seattle and Portland. So that means it’s easy to live, in that I can be a freelancer, I can be an artist, and I can live like a real adult. It’s also a more emergent place where there’s less money being passed around for the creative things that you’re doing, and I think there’s a little more work to do in educating people that it’s valuable to spend your money on really good food, that it’s valuable to spend your money on art.
What I’m discovering is that because there’s less money there’s a lot of hunger and a lot of openness. It’s the kind of place where you can say “I want to do this thing,” and then you can go do it and then everyone shows up and they’re really excited that you’re there. It’s really cool how easy it is to make something happen.
What’s also funny to me was when I told people in Seattle I was going to Spokane, the responses were kind of formulaic: "why would you go there? I’ve been there and there’s nothing there." Most of the people who told me that hadn’t been there in ten years.
And then the other thing people said was, “maybe you can go start an art scene there.” Which was hilarious because they had this kind of pioneering attitude, assuming there’s nothing there already. There’s been a thriving art scene [in Spokane] for a while. Jess Walter’s there. There’s tons of writers: Kris Dinnison, Sharma Shields, Tod Marshall, Sam Ligon (my partner). There are three universities. WSU is building a medical school there.
It’s funny to me that it is a place that west-siders assume is backward and rural and small. It’s bigger than Tacoma, it’s educated. There’s a certain kind of east-west polarity that’s like US vs. Canada or Australia vs. New Zealand. The big dog has to have an underdog to reinforce their image of themselves, and what that creates is an ignorant assumption about a place that is actually pretty cool.
How would you describe Seattle’s literary culture?
I knew you were going to ask that question, and I don’t have a good quick answer. I moved to Seattle when I was 22 years old from Bellingham, and I knew that if I went to Hugo House, I would find my people. I’d find a place that would not only give me an education, but it would give me a community and an identity. I wanted that, I needed that, and I found that. That is a resource that is rare among cities. I owe a lot to it.
And what I saw over my decade in the city was a lot of different ways to participate — people feeling like outsiders and finding a way to create their own way to participate. I saw a lot of different people say, ”the place where I would be most excited to be a writer is missing, so I’m going to go make it.”
When you get to a smaller town, there’s a weekend where everything is happening and then there’s three weeks where nothing is happening, whereas there’s always something happening in Seattle. And I actually got to a place where I needed to hide from all the brilliant things going on [in Seattle] so I could do my work and be well and not suffer from burnouts constantly. So in some ways it’s been incredibly great to leave and be able to return on my own terms, in my car, for pleasure and business.
I think in Seattle when it doesn’t feel like there’s room for you, people elbow in and make room, and I like that and I admire it. I think there’s a competitive feeling and it’s used by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
Have you done that in Spokane? Did you try the Seattle approach and how was it received, if so?
I’ve been wary about trying a Seattle approach, which I would interpret to be showing up and saying, “hey I know all these cool writers you’ve never heard of so let me bring them in from the west side.” I’ve really been careful about not being a jerk like that. I hope.
It’s easier for me to imagine taking risks with business, with artistic ventures, in Spokane than it was in Seattle. I find that when I’m in a competitive environment I prefer to absorb and participate but not to lead. In Spokane, there’s more room in a way that for me personally feels open to leading and creating.
For example, I’m now teaming up with a sommelier and restaurant owner and a beloved bartender in Spokane to do a series of dinners with artists in unlikely locations around the inland Northwest. We’re going to have Alexandra Teague at our first one. It’s going to be awesome. And I wouldn’t imagine doing that in Seattle; not because I couldn’t — there’s brilliant cooks everywhere and there’s brilliant writers everywhere —but just because there’s already so much happening that it didn’t seem like whatever I would come up with in that way was really needed.
Did you feel supported in Seattle?
There’s two versions of that answer. One is unequivocally, deeply, yes. I loved working at Hugo House and finding a helping role that also educated me, about what it was to be in an artistic community, all the different ways to be an artist. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue an academic career was after Hugo House, it was just clear to me that there are so many ways to do it. It made it clear that I could go teach pie classes and do that instead of trying to go get a fancy fellowship.
A woman I knew through Hugo House who works for Amazon very kindly tried to recruit me when I graduated from UW. I didn’t take that job because it seemed to be cross-purposes to writing books, which I what I wanted to do. Saying no is a privilege, but it also leaves me vulnerable to the people who say yes. That’s the person who was able to rent my apartment when the rent went up by 50 percent six months later. I think about that choice. It was the right choice.
I don’t know if it’s the right word, but I felt disenfranchised — living in a city for that long and looking around and just knowing that I’m never going to own a piece of this place. With what I want to do, I will always be borrowing space, and that makes me vulnerable. Even though I participated in the cultural life of the city, and contributed for years, what I needed to succeed was participation in the financial life.
And so in that way, no. Not supportive. I don’t have a good answer for what the city is supposed to do about that. I was just reading an article in the New York Times about the Seattle Art Fair and how it happened and one of the reasons it happened is because the city is getting richer faster than anywhere else in the country.
It’s not your particular value as a person that’s going to bring you success, it’s the amount of resources that are available. I’m taking this course on the history of food right now and what you see over and over is that a population explodes and a people become complex not because they’re such a good people but because they’re geographically in a place that gives them more resources that allow them to grow. Seattle’s dealing with an embarrassment of riches.
Where are we going to live, so that we can make art in the city and have lives that are reasonable, that we have reasonable expectations for our lives, have some comfort? Can we make the choice to be artists and not live in abject poverty? I know being an artist isn’t going to be as comfortable as working at Amazon, but for me it was such a clear thing.
I chose to be an artist, I had to leave the city. There’s not a reasonable way for me to make a living and pay my way in Seattle. I needed to go to a smaller place.
[Before I left,] I was approached by the affordable housing association in Seattle and they had some options, but they not reasonable for me. They were still fifty percent more than what I’d been paying. I’m frustrated with the idea that artist housing is going to solve the problem of livable places for artists to live. It’s just another thing for us to compete for. A different person would respond differently to that, and elbow to the front of the line, but my response is just to leave.
Would you recommend Seattle to another writer? Say a young writer from Spokane approached you and told you they were thinking about moving to Seattle. What would you say?
Oh, yeah. You should leave wherever you’re from, for a little while, anyway.
Part of my decision is that I’m in my early thirties and I want to live my life differently than I did in my twenties. I’m not as good at living poor and living hard as I used to be.
I would also give people the advice to look to unlikely places in Washington and Oregon for really cool artistic communities that you wouldn’t expect to be there. I’ve been doing a ton of travel around Washington state. Even in Wenatchee — holy crap, talk about a place I had really dumb assumptions about — they have great restaurants and shops and a great artisan scene there. I’m not saying “move to Wenatchee,” but I’m saying keep your eyes peeled for places that have the resources and the people to help you get the things you want.
We celebrated our distance from New York,
high-fived each other as our words
debuted in Open Books and Floating Bridge,
Elliott Bay, and the daze of The Typing Explosion.
That’s what they will call us you predicted
as we stood on the edge of Summit Avenue
near Broadway, The Seattle School, while the newfangled
streetlight wandered in and out of power.
We were younger then, with little idea
of poetry schools, just a sense of the work we revered:
my Bishop to your Rilke and Celan.
No herons on our pages, no water views.
Our lives as the poets barely minted,
we attempted daily practice, failed
at monastic prayer, and acquired several cats.
We were nobodies inhabiting blue basements
until step by step our bright lives
extended upwards and soon our books
caught between us, some breadcrumbs of awards.
Tonight I want to return to that streetlight—
the long night’s amble into iambs
and hold tight to our glitter of ambitions—
irregular as the blinking bulb.
We love Greenwood's literary tutoring center The Bureau of Fearless Ideas (formerly known as 826 Seattle) and we are big fans of this Facebook post demonstrating a recent student experiment in creating illuminated manuscripts. It seems as though, with the general-interest acceptance of comic books, we're about due for an illuminated manuscript resurgence. Maybe one of these kids will lead the charge.
MONDAY Third Place Books hosts novelist Paula McLain tonight. McLain writes historical fiction, and is the author of the popular novels Circling the Sun (First sentence: “The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known, and somehow mine to fly.”) and The Paris Wife (First sentence: “Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.”)
TUESDAY There’s a lot going on tonight, including an interesting-looking reading called “The Least Boring Poetry Event of the Year,” which is pretty funny but which also plays into a pet peeve of mine: I can’t stand it when readings talk about how boring readings are. Stop apologizing for your art, goddamnit. But I think the most interesting event tonight is a showing of local poet Shin Yu Pai’s new project, “HEIRLOOM.” HEIRLOOM is a poetic installation at Piper’s Orchard at Carkeek Park, in which Pai is using light and stencils to “print” words on the skin of apples. Tonight, Pai will give a tour of the orchard and read part of the poem that is being “printed” on the fruit. Tell me that’s boring and I’ll call you a liar to your face.
WEDNESDAY Over at Ada’s Technical Books, it’s time for another edition of their Monthly Puzzle Club, in which local puzzle aficionado Pavel Curtis talks puzzles with other puzzle fans.
THURSDAY Tonight is the most packed reading night of the week, but the conceit of this column is that we only choose one event a night to feature. And so we happily pick this one: A Reading by Blue Begonia Press Poets at Hugo House. The Washington state publisher of poetry presents our state’s poet laureate, Elizabeth Austen. She’ll be joined by Elissa Ball, Nancy Rawles, and other Blue Begonia writers. We need more publishers in Washington, and the best way to do that is by promoting and supporting the publishers we already have. Go meet your new favorite poet; that's what group readings are for.
FRIDAY University Book Store hosts another edition of Nancy Pearl’s Book Club. This time, Pearl and company will be discussing Michael Chabon’s excellent alternate-history novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. It’s one of Chabon’s strongest books, which is really saying something. It’s a novel about what might have happened if the territory we know as Alaska was handed over to a Jewish state at the end of World War II, rather than the land we know as Israel. This was a real possibility at the time.
SATURDAY Phoenix Comics and Games hosts their Queer Geek Board Gaming group this afternoon. Feel free to bring your own board game or join in on games including “the DC Heroes expansion, Adventure Time card game, Relic Runners, Small World and several others.”
SUNDAY The Seattle Public Library’s Books on Bikes team will be promoting SPL at Bicycle Sunday near Seward Park. There will be a “bicycle-themed storytime.”
Our thanks to this week's sponsor Darin Bradley. One reviewer said this about his novel Chimpanzee “So if you took Twelve Monkeys, add The Time Traveler’s Wife but subtract the time-travel, multiply by 1984, factor in Strange Days and divide by Fight Club, you get Chimpanzee.”
The Seattle Review of Books relies on sponorships to bring you poems, interviews, reviews, notes, and advice every week. Go read a chapter from Chimpanzee, and if you like it, consider picking up a copy and telling him you heard about it hear. It's all part of our campaign to make internet advertising better.
At the bequest of television channel, a group of academics looked at Agatha Christie's work, and developed formulas to reveal the patterns within.
Many of the results concerned the gender of the killer. For example, they found that if the victim was strangled, the killer was more likely to be male (or male with a female accomplice), whereas if the setting was a country house – not uncommon for a Christie novel – there was a 75% chance the killer would be female. Female culprits were usually discovered thanks to a domestic item, while males were normally found out through information or logic.
Cienna gave advice inspired by this article on Friday's Help Desk, but we didn't look at Catherine's Nichols essay about the difference in response when she submitted her work under a man's name instead of her own:
I sent the six queries I had planned to send that day. Within 24 hours George had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine.
Now that we've completely figured out gender and how to treat women equally, it sure is fun to look back at a time when women authors weren't taken seriously.
In a LIFE photo essay called “What it takes to be a lady author anymore,” [Jeanne] Rejaunier posed for shots that demonstrated how a woman should promote her literary work. A successful lady author, the captions suggested, must “swim a little,” “exercise in a bikini” and be “photographed in bed.” The essay attributed the success of her book, a novel based on the dark side of the modeling world, to Rejaunier’s beauty rather than her literary talents: “Just possibly because she smiles so prettily on the book jacket (the back and the front of the book) The Beauty Trap is now in its fourth printing.”
Here's one, just for fun, from deep in the archives. Iris Murodch is a big influence of mine, and her interviews are sometimes funny affairs: stuffy, terse. But other times, she finds a good flow with the interviewer. Here she does. It feels quite personal, and is nice to see this side of her. For another side of her, look at some of the portraits British artist Tom Phillips did of her in 1988
Plato remarks in The Republic that bad characters are volatile and interesting, whereas good characters are dull and always the same. This certainly indicates a literary problem. It is difficult in life to be good, and difficult in art to portray goodness. Perhaps we don’t know much about goodness. Attractive bad characters in fiction may corrupt people, who think, So that’s OK. Inspiration from good characters may be rarer and harder, yet Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov and the grandmother in Proust’s novel exist. I think one is influenced by the whole moral atmosphere of literary works, just as we are influenced by Shakespeare, a great exemplar for the novelist. In the most effortless manner he portrays moral dilemmas, good and evil, and the differences and the struggle between them. I think he is a deeply religious writer. He doesn’t portray religion directly in the plays, but it is certainly there, a sense of the spiritual, of goodness, of self-sacrifice, of reconciliation, and of forgiveness. I think that is the absolutely prime example of how we ought to tell a story—invent characters and convey something dramatic, which at the same time has deep spiritual significance.
Our sincerest thanks to Janine A. Southard for sponsoring The Seattle Review of Books this week. Sponsorships are very important to us. Why? Because internet advertising is horrible and we're trying to do something about it.
So, instead, we offer a full chapter from Southard's hilarious, and well-loved Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story (four stars on Amazon!) book. The award-winning Southard (a Seattle denizen) shows you how the geeks of Seattle live, provides a running and often-hilarious social commentary on today’s world, and reminds you that, so long as you have friends, you are never alone.
Help support The Seattle Review of Books by reading her excerpt and ordering the novel if you like what you read.
Thanks to Janine for her support, and thank you for taking a look.