Being A Writer
Legendary book editor and publisher Andre Schiffrin died last weekend at the age of 78. Years ago, I read his memoir/broadside The Business of Books. Here's Schiffrin describing the scene at Random House in the early 1960s, after Random House acquired Pantheon Books, a literary publisher his father had helped to build:
I would have never known about Barbara Park's Junie B. Jones books if my younger daughter hadn't been just the right age to catch on and bring the books home. I enjoyed reading them with her very much, and immediately recognized the character as a delightful 1990s version of Ramona G. Quimby, the inquisitive kindergarten scamp of my own generation.
What made Junie B. Jones different was the first-person voice created for her by Barbara Park -- a voice that dared to capture the real word patterns and thought processes of a little kid. Junie's sentences are blunt, stubby and hilariously self-centered.
(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)
LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?
As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?
ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.
It wasn't long after I became enraptured by the uncommon fiction of Roxana Robinson that I learned she was a direct descendant of the famous, controversial 19th century preacher Henry Ward Beecher and a relative of Uncle Tom's Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. I was intrigued but somehow not surprised; it was easy to find threads of this weighty influence in Robinson's fascinating and intense novels, which include This is My Daughter, Cost and the recent Sparta. A few weeks ago I got the chance to ask Roxana about her family history. In this first half of the interview, we talk mostly about Henry Ward Beecher. In the second half, we'll focus on Harriet Beecher Stowe.
LEVI: How old were you when you found out you were a Beecher? How was the family heritage explained to you?
ROXANA: I must have known very early that I was a Beecher: Roxana is a Beecher name, so as soon as I knew my name I knew I was a Beecher.
Roxana was Lyman Beecher’s wife and the mother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my great-great-great-aunt, and Henry Ward Beecher, my great-great-grandfather. I narrowly missed being named “Roxana Beecher Barry.” I’m one of five children, and most of us received names that identified us with certain parts of our family. Mine identified me as a Beecher; no-one else in my family had a Beecher name.
This made me feel, irrationally, that I had a closer and more direct link to them than any of my siblings had. My mother encouraged this, giving each of us things that strengthened this bond, so that we each felt the responsibility for carrying on a certain part of family tradition. She gave me a silk patchwork quilt, made by the ladies of the parish in Brooklyn, and presented to Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher; she gave me Roxana Foote Beecher’s beautiful silk pincushion and embroidery hook. I still have this, tucked away in my bureau, in a box in which the contents are identified in her small elegant curving handwriting. It was clear that family heritage implied some kind of responsibility.
(This remarkable article by Lance Loud was originally published as 'The Velvet Underground: A Skin-Deep View' in Hit Parader magazine, June 1975, five years after the Velvets broke up. See below for the story of the article's publication on Litkicks today.)
Right from the start, Lou's first band was labeled a "non-stop horror show", a "three ring psychosis" and a "sadomasochistic frenzy". They were rebels, their cause was the musical documentation of the 60s American Pop era. Their style and method of getting this message across knocked the wind out of a lot of people. "Not singe the Titanic ran into that iceberg", quivered a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "has there been such a collision". All of this was an attempt to describe the three men and a girl that Lou had formed to play his songs. They were named after a tawdry porno book. The Velvet Underground.
Most people believe that the Velvet Underground was some creation of Andy Warhol. It is true that the Velvets DID become famous during their stint, in the mid sixties, with Andy's traveling disco/happening/pop art circus: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the music that the Velvets played, like 'Heroin' (the smackers national anthem) 'Venus in Furs' (fetishistic S&M sex) or 'I'm Waiting For My Man' (pusher oh pusher, wherefore art thou?) was all a creation of Lou Reed and his Velvet band long before Andy caught up with them. They were the natural house band for the American Amphetamine A Go Go scene. Lou liked to say that both he and Andy were very much alike in purpose but Andy dealt with Art while Lou made his statements with music.
The shaded cobblestone streets of Garden Rest are lined with shops, cottages, a pub, a boarding house near the town square, and of course, something nefarious lurking in dark hinterlands. John Shirley’s Doyle After Death reads like a classic Sherlock Holmes whodunit, with a couple of major differences.
First, it takes place in the afterlife, or as the people of Garden Rest prefer to call it, the Afterworld. A private detective named Nicholas “Nick” Fogg wakes up in the Afterworld after dying in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Also, flashbacks to the detective’s last case among the living give the story a touch of gritty noir realism.
The plot advances at a breezy clip that is somehow both relaxing and exhilarating, and Shirley has a knack for cinematic descriptions. In one nighttime scene, four men look down at the town from a steep hill and see a view like a rich chiaroscuro painting. Shirley's biographical knowledge of Arthur Conan Doyle informs the novel and confirms Shirley as a fan and a history scholar. He even includes an appendix, which expounds upon Doyle’s theories about the spirit world and incorporates those theories into the novel. Comic book collectors speak of the “Marvel universe” and the “DC universe.” This is the Doyle/Shirley universe.
Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is the first novel I've ever read that harmed itself with an epigraph. Yes, I considered the little italicized quotation that adorns the page before the first page of this novel so poorly chosen that it immediately depressed the excitement with which I had opened the book, and ended up presaging my overall dislike.
First, about that excitement: I had two good reasons to believe I would love this novel. First, Choire Sicha is one of the editorial voices identified with the golden age of Gawker, one of the most sarcastic and cuttingly relevant websites around. I would be happy to read an entire novel written in the Gawker voice (many of my friends hate Gawker, but I don't, as is evident in the number of times I've linked to the site here on Litkicks). I also respect The Awl, a lit/culture magazine that Sicha founded after leaving Gawker.
Second, I was hopeful because Very Recent History is about young urban professionals in New York City in 2009. They go to parties, check each other out on Facebook, work banal day jobs at venal corporations (which happen to be convulsing in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 Wall Street crash). This is a world I know well, and lived through myself in 2009.
So I opened this novel expecting a treat, and really all Choire Sicha had to do was mail in a good story with some believable characters and smarmy roman a clef moments, and I would be giving the book a thumbs-up on Litkicks right now.
(Dear readers: some of you may have been wondering why I have not blogged my thoughts about the stunning news that five new J. D. Salinger books will be posthumously published. The truth is, I'm dumbstruck. I never expected to read another book about the wonderful Glass family, and I guess I won't know what to say about this or any other book until I read it and find out if the work rings true to me or not.
At least one other Litkicks contributor, Eamon Loingsigh (who has written previously here about Lautreamont) had a less ambivalent reaction to the news. He's pissed off -- not about the books, but about the whole manipulative mystique of Salinger's seclusion. Here's what Eamon thinks. -- Levi)
Well, it is the age of irony. How could we not have seen this coming?
Some writers have the gift and intelligence of knowing exactly how they’ll be seen when their work hits the bookstores. Some writers write about the immortal things in life and avoid the trends.
When news broke that J.D. Salinger had planned his books to be published after his death, I immediately had a vision too. Posthumously Published Press! The new rage!
Tag line? “Why publish your books while still alive when you can assure yourself of immortality by having them published after you’ve died.”
Poet Robert Pinsky has written a book about the plight of modern poets, Singing School, which must be pretty good, because it inspired a brilliant piece -- a manifesto, even -- by Daniel Bosch in the Daily Beast.
Time was, a poem stood the test of time because one person after another stood up and spoke that poem aloud, and their speaking gave him or her pleasure, or terror, or grief, or wonder. Nowadays people stand for timed tests on a poem and are compelled to establish that they have “understood” it, but they are rarely asked to account for what and how that poem made them feel physically, while and just after it was coordinating their breath and the movements of their lips and tongues. Nowadays almost any talk about a poem begins naming its topic: people love to tell you what a poem is “about.” Many readers today evaluate a poet according to whether or not his or her body of work can or cannot be said to be “about” an idea which is of interest aside from the quality of their experience of saying it aloud. Perhaps these relatively new ways of regarding poetry have not cost it too dearly. But if its relationship with the academy has come with perks—nice real estate, the chance of employment, a (contested) degree of respectability—it can seem, taking a long view, that the public life of poetry today is “about” the needs of the academy, and not the experience of poetry.
A surprise announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is buying the Washington Post has signaled the end of a distinctive era in family publishing. The Washington Post has been owned by three generations of a single family since Eugene Meyer bought it in 1933. The Post was then only one of several scrappy newspapers in the District of Columbia, and it wasn't until Eugene's daughter Katharine married a very smart young journalist and entrepreneur named Philip Graham that the Washington Post began to rise above the Capitol City sludge to become a world-class newspaper. Eugene Meyer entrusted his new son-in-law to run the entire Washington Post organization. Philip Graham became a sensationally successful newspaper publisher, also establishing himself as an early multimedia visionary when he bought Newsweek magazine and a radio station.
Philip and Katharine Graham married for love -- they were part of a fashionable young set in Georgetown, and had a strong relationship at first. But Philip Graham was a complicated man, prone to terrible episodes of weird manic-depressive extremes, and he seemed to resent the fact that he had only become publisher of the Post by marrying into the family. The young businessman pushed himself hard and pursued risks, alternately stumbling and flying. He became a close friend and supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, which gave him a distinctive position both as a newsman and as a Georgetown socialite when LBJ was elected Vice President in 1960. He fell in love with another woman, which put him in an impossible position because his marriage to Katharine Graham was his connection to his business, his life: the Washington Post/Newsweek company.