Jan 24

Ahmet Altan, one of Turkey’s most skillful historical novelists, lives in solitary confinement in a cell four meters long, at Silivri Prison, Europe’s largest penal facility. In I’ll Never See This World Again, his fifteenth book, and the first he wrote from prison, Altan recalled the passing comment of a judge who held the author’s fate in his hands: “If only you had stuck to writing novels and kept your nose out of political affairs.”

The work of the literary editor is conducted in a kind of shadow, cast by the name of the author. A few editors have stepped out of that shadow, becoming perhaps more infamous than famous, for the labels “editor” and “famous” seem like a contradiction in terms, essentially incompatible. An example is Gordon Lish, who became known in the literary world as “Captain Fiction” and whose authors included Raymond Carver. Another is Maxwell Perkins, editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whose epithet was the “Editor of Genius.” One of the most celebrated editing jobs ever done was carried out by Ezra Pound, not in any formal capacity, but as a friend, his ruthless hand paring down an early version of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” into the form in which we know it today. Gordon Lish’s editing was quite as unconstrained and uncompromising, the style we think of as Carver’s being in fact Lish’s work. Carver himself was rather ambivalent about it, though it unquestionably established his name as a writer. This became apparent when Carver’s own manuscript was published after his death, his stories there being quite differently ample and expansive, barely recognizable. There is little doubt that the editor’s Carver was better than Carver’s Carver, and how must that have made the author feel as he stood in the spotlight to receive his accolades, hailed as the great new name of American literature? The example is interesting, for the job of the editor is to exert influence, not for his own good, nor necessarily for the author’s, but for that of the book, and if we can suggest that Lish went too far, we must also ask in relation to what? After all, the book was certainly the better for it. Were the wounded feelings of its author more important? Without Lish, Carver’s books would have been poorer and he would have been a reasonably good writer rather than a brilliant one. This raises the question of what a writer is, and where the boundaries run between the author, the book, and the surrounding world.

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When I first went to see him, I telephoned P. G. Wodehouse and asked for directions from New York to his house on Long Island. He merely chuckled, as if I had asked him to compare Euclid with Einstein or attempt some other laughably impossible task. “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” he said. “I don’t have a clue.” I learned the route anyway, and my arrival for lunch, only ten minutes late, seemed to astonish him. “You had no trouble? Oh, that is good. That’s wonderful!” His face beaming at having in his house such a certified problem-solver, a junior Jeeves almost, he led me without further to-do to a telephone, which he had been dialing all morning in a futile effort to reach a number in New York. He had, of course, done everything right but dial the area code, an addition to the Bell system that had somehow escaped his attention since he had last attempted long distance. He was intensely pleased when New York answered, and I sunned myself in the warm glow of his gratitude for the rest of the day. All of which is by way of saying that Wodehouse, who lived four months past his ninety-third birthday, had discovered his own secret of long life: he simply ignored what was worrisome, bothersome, or confusing in the world around him…

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This essay looks at the history of the novel, starting from the influential postwar critical insistence on the importance of the novel as a nineteenth-century genre. It notes that this tradition singularly fails to take account of the history of the novel in antiquity–for clear ideological reasons. It then explores the degree to which the texts known as the novel from antiquity, such as Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Petronius’s Satyricon, or Heliodorus’s Aethiopica, constitute a genre. Although there is a great deal of porousness between different forms of prose in antiquity, the essay concludes by exploring why the ancient novel, ignored by critics for so long, has now become such a hot topic. It argues that much as the postwar critics could not fit the ancient novel into their histories, now the ancient novel’s interests in sophisticated erotics, narrative flair, and cultural hybridity seem all too timely.

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This new year, more than most, seems to be about the “out with the old” half of the cliché. So I asked users of the site to suggest words they’d like to see go into the void along with the year-that-must-not-be-named. Preferably recent and overworked words. Preferably avoiding words associated with some political faction or ideology the suggester hates.

There were some good ones. Many of them were euphemistic weasel-words: issue for “problem,” concerning for “worrisome,” impact (v.) for “completely bollix up” (leading to the even more grating adjective impactful)…

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Here’s a interesting chart for structuring conflicts in a story. I haven’t really used it much so far, but I like the idea of ‘nesting’ conflicts like HTML tags.

When I think about the story I’m currently working on, I do think the conflicts are nested like that. It opens with a character question, which will be resolved at the very end of the story. Then comes an event: two people disappeared. Closely followed by an inquiry: what happened? Those are also resolved in inverse order (first they find out what happened to those people, then they get them back).

So it seems like I’m subconsciously using this method after all! Which would make this a great troubleshooting tool if a story doesn’t ‘feel’ right.

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Dec 24, 2020

I’ve never aborted or abandoned anything, perhaps because everything I’ve written has been well-prepared in my mind. I write the complete first draft before returning to the beginning, though of course I’m working from a fairly detailed synopsis, so I’m sure of my overall structure. I then do a fair amount of cutting of superfluous phrases, occasionally of paragraphs or pages. Each book is written consecutively, as read, never out of order. I think that the use of the synopsis reflects, for me, a strong belief in the importance of the story, of the objective nature of the invented world I describe, of the complete separation of that world from my own mind. It’s an old-fashioned standpoint (or seems to be, though I would argue vigorously that it isn’t) and one that obviously separates me from the whole postmodernist notion of a reflexive, self-conscious fiction that explicitly acknowledges the inseparability of author and text. I regard that whole postmodernist notion as a tiresome cul-de-sac, from which any writer with a strong imagination, or any sense of moral urgency towards his subject matter, would burst forth with immense relief. Of course, I accept that an imaginative writer, like a figurative painter, takes for granted perspective, illusionist space, the unlimited depth of the picture plane, and that with the more extreme types of imagination, such as the surrealists (or myself), a double piece of illusionism is called for—one is asked to accept not only the illusionist space of the picture plane or the narrative text, but the strange events going on within that illusory space. Curious to say, the human mind seems to have not the slightest difficulty in doing this, and even seems designed to work that way, at least, if dreams, myths, and legends are any guide.

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Dec 7, 2020

Coming of age in a drought that dries up everything it touches in Ohio—conversation, camaraderie, and cookouts—author Jen Knox’s culinary protagonist contemplates the future of her home, her family, and her next meal in “The Glass City.” Jen Knox’s literary talents and breadth of work have earned her nominations for the Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Calvino prizes.

Dec 4, 2020

Most men in uniform never see death. But Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut of Indianapolis was captured at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and shipped to Dresden as slave labor. Decades later, he would describe arriving at “the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd … Somebody behind him in the boxcar said, ‘Oz.’ ” His POW group was housed in an underground meat locker and told to memorize its street address: Schlacthof Fünf. Slaughterhouse Five.

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Discuss the art and love of writing.

Created on Jun 21, 2020
By @gurlic