Literary Birthday: Douglas Adams

Even for novelists, a famously time-wasting bunch, Douglas Adams (born today in 1952) was a procrastinator of epic proportions. One of his favorite jokes was about how much he loved deadlines, particularly “the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Adams had such a grueling time finishing Mostly Harmless, the bleak fifth entry in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy,” that when British TV program The South Bank Show contacted him about doing a piece on his writing the book, the blocked Adams proposed instead a show about his writer’s block (which, conveniently, offered yet another excuse for him to avoid writing). In the script’s meta narrative, Adams wrote about how “despite having sold 198 squigwizillion books, Douglas Adams still found it very hard to believe that he could actually write them.”

Writer’s Desk: Edit After You Write

In “How to Practice,” Ann Patchett writes about what she learned when helping a childhood friend clean out her late father’s apartment, and how it reminded her of writing. In short, she says you cannot do two things at once:

I made the decision to wait until we’d finished with the entire house before trying to find a place for the things we were getting rid of. This was a lesson I’d picked up from my work: writing must be separate from editing, and if you try to do both at the same time nothing will get done.

Compare this to filmmakers, some of whom (Spielberg, Soderbergh) are known for editing as they go to save on unnecessary filming. To some degree, writers must do the same, since if you put down everything, you will never finish. Still, Patchett has a point. When you are writing, write. Let it pour out, and worry about editing later.

Within reason, of course.

Literary Birthday: Frank Norris

Like many 19th century American novelists, Frank Norris (born today in 1870) led a full life outside of his bibliography. He studied painting in Paris, worked as a foreign correspondent in South Africa, and covered the Spanish-American war in Cuba. Inspired by the naturalist style of Emile Zola, drawing on his journalistic background, and fueled by a powerful fury against the corrupting nature of corporate monopolies, Norris published overwrought but vividly detailed novels of the often-bloody struggles for power and wealth in America.

While less-read today than those of his like-minded contemporary Upton Sinclair, Norris’s books like McTeague (1899), a melodramatic fable about money lust that was the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s silent film classic Greed (1924), are artifacts of their time but thrumming with still-relevant themes.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Soul City’

Thomas Healy’s new book, Soul City, tells the story of Floyd McKissick, a civil rights leader who wanted so badly to create a racially harmonious city out of nothing that he became a Republican to make it happen. Here’s one of the ads:

My review of Soul City ran at PopMatters:

Though he worked closely with the likes of Stokely Carmichael and Martin Luther King, Jr., McKissick was neither pure firebrand or pure visionary. But he embodied aspects of both. A World War II veteran with a staunch sense of right and wrong, he took a no-nonsense approach to civil rights. When studying to get his law degree at the University of North Carolina, McKissick managed the problem of a segregated campus swimming by jumping into it with his clothes on and announcing, ‘It’s integrated now.’

You can read an excerpt here.

Writer’s Desk: One Idea per Sentence

Though Bill Bryson takes on large subjects, including but not limited to the history of everything, he tries to keep things simple. In his Dictionary of Troublesome Words, he gave some particularly specific advice:

There is no quota on periods. When an idea is complicated, break it up and present it in digestible chunks. One idea to a sentence is still the best advice that anyone has ever given on writing.

Screening Room: ‘Cherry’

Adapted from Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, Anthony and Joe Russo’s Cherry stars Tom Holland as a slacker who goes to war and turns to addiction and then bank robbery once back on the home front.

Cherry is playing now on Apple+. My review is at Slant:

“I’m 23 years old,” Cherry says in the narration stringing together the film’s earlier, more hyperactive stretches, “and I still don’t understand what it is that people do.” The center, if he ever had one, is just not holding…

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: Joanna Russ

One of the few female and openly gay writers in postwar science fiction—at the time even more straight male-dominated than the rest of the publishing world—Joanna Russ (born today in 1937) first made her name with a metafictional story cycle featuring the time-traveling assassin Alyx before penning the controversial women-only utopian novel The Female Man.

Russ, who once wrote “I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry,” later decanted her fiery feminism into the 1983 landmark study How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Reprinted in 2018, this still-relevant book lays out how the literary establishment ignores and marginalizes non-male voices. Russ boils these double standards down in the book’s most famous entry: “She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it’s unintelligible/ badly constructed/ thin/ spasmodic/ uninteresting/ etc., a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can’t understand it.”

Writer’s Desk: Create Something New

The late James Gunn, the Hugo-winning science fiction novelist and editor who passed away in December, had this to say in a 2017 interview about connecting writing with purpose:

I feel I earn my place here on Earth each day when I am able to create something that wasn’t there before, and, in turn, some of these things enter stories that influence people…

(h/t: Shelf Awareness)

Literary Birthday: Toni Morrison

Unlike many novelists who became household names, Toni Morrison (born today in 1931 as Chloe Anthony Wofford; Anthony was her confirmation name, and led to her friends calling her “Toni”) had a professional career as well. She taught at universities like Howard and Princeton, and spent nearly two decades as a fiction editor at Random House.

As an editor she nurtured the careers of several black novelists, while also publishing everything from Muhammad Ali’s autobiography to The Black Book, a groundbreaking anthropological look at the black American experience.

In 1993, Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In her acceptance speech, she mused on her legacy and the meaning of what she and her community of writers did: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Writer’s Desk: Don’t Deceive Yourself

When novelist Bernard Malamud (The Natural) was asked what advice he could give to young writers, this was his reply:

Write your heart out.

Solid advice. Giving less than all you have is rarely going to end up well for you or the reader.

Asked if he had anything else to add, Malamud said:

Watch out for self-deceit in fiction. Write truthfully but with cunning.

Readers can spot something that is not true to the story or character. Generally. So give them the truth. But not all of it. Be smart.

Screening Room: ‘The Parallax View’

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of 1974’s The Parallax View is a fantastic way to experience this paranoid classic that still induces shivers today.

My review is at PopMatters:

The screenplay reads like the kind of thing that might play at the drive-in to a half-attentive Friday night crowd. But in execution, the film more closely resembles one of the year’s other cinematic landmarks, Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), whose indictment of American corporate-political criminality was similarly ruthless but still somewhat toothless by comparison…

Here’s the trailer:

Literary Birthday: Bertolt Brecht

German-born playwright Bertolt Brecht (born today in 1898) always intended to agitate as well as entertain. After World War I, he was denounced for the satirical poem, “The Legend of the Dead Soldier,” in which the Kaiser demands an inconveniently dead hero soldier be exhumed and marched right back to action. Brecht’s more famous plays, like The Threepenny Opera, used dark absurdism to deliver stinging critiques of capitalism and fascism.

Banned early on by the Nazis, Brecht went into exile in 1933. His allegorical 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, used a Chicago gangster drama to illustrate how demagogues like Hitler divide their opposition to gain power. Post-2016 productions of the play have tilted the allegory toward present-day authoritarianism, finding the continued relevance in lines such as: “If we could learn to look instead of gawking, / We’d see the horror in the heart of farce.”

Literary Birthday: Charles Dickens

As an ambitious young man with the kind of lower-class background that limited prospects in 19th century England, Charles Dickens (born today in 1812) was not sure what he wanted to or could become. After stints as a law clerk and comic, he landed on writing.

His first piece, a fairly low-key comedic sketch titled “A Dinner at Poplar Walk,” was published in Monthly Magazine in 1833, but under the name “Boz.” One of his favorite characters in Oliver Goldsmith’s novel Vicar of Wakefield was named Moses, which was what Dickens had nicknamed his younger brother. That later became “Boses,” and then “Boz.” Dickens was never paid for his debut, having to buy a copy of the magazine in order to see his pseudonym in print. More pieces followed in the same vein. Three years later, the first collected volume of Sketches by Boz appeared. A preface to a later edition showed a self-conscious Dickens noting “their often being extremely crude and ill-considered, and bearing obvious marks of haste and inexperience.”