Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of November 3, 2019.
Onetti’s contemporaries [described] him as a kind of visionary who saw into the heart of Latin America. “Nobody has found adjectives to describe our world with such an exact evil,” the young Argentine novelist Andrés Neuman has written. “In life there are days, or atmospheres, or images, of which one can only think, it’s as if Onetti wrote this.” His friend Julio Cortázar called him “the greatest Latin American novelist.”
- Also at the New York Times, Alexandra Alter talks to Harry Potter illustrator Jim Kay:
Which character is the hardest for you to draw?
Harry by miles, I find him so difficult. Children are difficult anyway, because if you put a line out of place on a child’s face you age them by about five years. But Harry, also because he wears glasses and glasses are a nightmare to draw. I’ve literally smashed up and thrown stuff across the room in frustration trying to draw Harry. He’s very hard. I think because I’ve got a very particular idea of him in my head that I’ve never been able to execute the way I want it.
The slim mixed-genre novel — translated by Barbara Heldt and released this year in a new edition after decades out of print — follows the 18-year-old Cecily von Lindenborn as her mother attempts to find her a husband. Cecily’s days, written in prose, are filled with the pleasures of a rotely feminine aristocratic life: romance, balls, and new dresses. But at night, her dreams are narrated in poetry, sensual verses with an intense pull toward the natural world. Pavlova constructed a strikingly prescient psychological vision: a mind responding to extreme social pressure by slowly and completely separating itself into parts, but giving few external indications of change.
But this is not a particularly sophisticated argument, nor is it any way a new one. The project of canon expansion — acknowledging the artistic work of marginalized people as worthy of scholarly engagement — was rightfully undertaken decades ago. In fact, if you wanted to add a Twitter-savvy veneer to your critique of the Online Canon Wars, you could say that it erases the work of many noble scholars who came before. Or you could simply ask, as I do seemingly once a month, “why are we still having the conversation nobody is saying anything new at all and I am beginning to suspect that I am stuck in some kind of hellish time loop where I must undergo this Sisyphean endeavor except I should call it something else because Camus is overrated now, I guess.” And anyways I dare you to look me in the face and tell me our culture exalts Byron over J.K. Rowling.
How to explain this remarkable career — the meteoric ascent to fame, the impregnable reputation over several decades, and then the pronounced plunge into obscurity? If you read all his fiction (which I strongly advise not attempting), you find a steady if uninspired hand at the helm. Slowly, painstakingly, Tarkington had taught himself to write reliable prose and construct appealing fictions; he was unpretentious — always literate but never showy. You could count on him to catch your interest even if he failed to grip your imagination or your heart. And he was always a gentleman.
Heath is careful to stress that the book is not a literary masterwork, but he acknowledges that it has its moments. Knol says she was particularly struck by the nicknames Morton threw at his Puritan foes, whom he called “cruell Schismaticks.” It’s hard to know who got it worse between Standish and John Endecott, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Plymouth’s neighbor to the north): Endecott is known in the book as “Captaine Littleworth,” Standish as “Captaine Shrimp.” Even more radical than his belittling appellations were Morton’s subversive policy ideas, which went so far as to recommend “demartialising” the colonies. Unsurprisingly, the Puritans were appalled. Bradford, Plymouth’s governor, called New English Canaan “an infamous and scurrilous book against many god and chief men of the country, full of lies and slanders and fraught with profane calumnies against their names and persons and the ways of God.”
In 2001, Whitehead wrote a negative review of his short story collection A Multitude of Sins, and at a party two years later Ford spat in his face. In 2017, he defended his response, writing that “as of today, I don’t feel any different about Mr Whitehead, or his review, or my response”.
Rebecca Solnit said of the exchange: “That’s not a battle; that’s just a white creep spitting on a black man like the white racists at the lunch counter sit-ins.” Whitehead later warned other negative reviewers of the book “that they might want to get a rain poncho, in case of inclement Ford”.
To describe the world more fully is to change it. To let the world go undescribed is, in some way, not to know it, at one’s own peril. “The Age of Innocence” opens in “a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” In the course of the novel, Wharton puts those “real things” into thought and writing. By the last chapter, they are generally said and thought, and 57-year-old Newland understands the extent to which people’s lives were deformed by what was only half known. This is a novelistic insight, the kind that comes with living through historical change. It isn’t particular to the 1870s, or the 1920s. In a way, every age is an age of innocence, because every age has its own unsaid, half-known truths, which are articulated more clearly over time. Even after the particular circumstances described in a novel have vanished, we can still recognize ourselves and our lives in them. This is because novels are about change and realizations, and we never stop changing and realizing things.
I went to Iceland because I had become a professional writer who hated writing. Less than a year earlier, I’d landed my dream job: a full-time staff writer at a magazine. But there were downsides. Suddenly, writing, which had long been a private and treasured pursuit, was overwhelmed with the pressures of a job. When a story published, I panicked. Would people read it? Would they like it? Six months in, the anxiety hit me even earlier in the writing process: Is my idea actually, secretly very stupid, and no one is telling me?
Should I have to account for myself? Do I have obligations beyond entertaining readers, giving them their money’s worth (thrills, thought-provoking ideas, graceful prose or anything else)? I genuinely don’t know, but every now and then I encounter people for whom a story is not just a story; who cannot suspend disbelief. They’ll ask, “How can you write about such terrible things?” If I say, “It’s just a story,” they’re not satisfied. If I say, “Worse things happen in real life than I could ever invent, just read a daily newspaper”, I learn that they don’t read newspapers because newspapers report terrible things – and why would I want to reinforce those terrible things? Do I reply that, as far as I know, no one has committed a crime after reading one of my books? (Thrown it across the room, maybe.)
To create more diverse lists, publishers with overwhelmingly white teams need to see and understand this, first and foremost: sometimes, books just weren’t written for them. If a story isn’t relatable to their own life, it doesn’t mean the book isn’t good. It means that they and the writer view the world through different lenses. To publish more diverse lists across the board, including science fiction and fantasy, publishers need to hire diverse editors who might relate to and connect with more diverse stories, so that they can help to put those much-needed books into the world.
And here’s the week in books at Vox:
As always, you can keep up with all of Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!