Literary Birthday: Francine Pascal

Francine Pascal (born today in 1938) grew up showbiz-adjacent in Queens (her brother Michael Stewart wrote the book for Hello, Dolly!). But after a stint writing for soap operas, Pascal made her mark in a different format. In 1983, she had an idea for a teen soap opera about 16-year-old twin sisters (good Elizabeth and more risqué Jessica). An eager publisher snapped up the idea. Ghost writers were hired. Pascal was in charge of outlines, characters, inspiration, and continuity.

The first Sweet Valley High paperback was released that year. Their popularity smashed records and birthed a new subgenre (The Babysitter’s Club, et al). In 1985, Perfect Summer became the first New York Times-bestselling young adult title. By the time the series ended in 2003, it had published 152 titles and sold roughly 250 million copies. After all those stories, though, the sisters never managed to reach their seventeenth birthdays.

Literary Birthday: Flannery O’Connor

When Flannery O’Connor (born in Georgia today in 1925) first met her teacher Paul Engle at the University of Iowa in 1946, because of her thick accent he had to ask her to write down what she wanted to say. She wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist. Can I come to the Writer’s Workshop?” Two years later, she had an agent and a story published in Mademoiselle. Many other stories, including her classic “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” followed.

Robert Penn Warren mentored her curiously powerful and Catholicism-haunted writing. On reviewing a collection of her short work, Evelyn Waugh noted that “If these stories are in fact the work of a young lady, they are indeed remarkable.” According to O’Connor’s biographer Brad Gooch, after the publication of her first novel—the twisted Gothic fable Wise Blood (1952)—at least one scandalized local in her hometown burned a copy in the backyard.

Literary Birthday: George Plimpton

A snootily-dialected, aristocratic, and yet somewhat clownish enthusiast of many pursuits, George Plimpton (born today in 1927) was not only a load-bearing pillar of 20th century New York publishing, he made the writing life look positively a gas. Besides running The Paris Review (which, he often noted, was not based in Paris and did not publish reviews), Plimpton had a lucrative—and more importantly, fun—sideline gig in what he called “participatory journalism.”

Throwing his gangly Ivy League frame into one unlikely sport after another, he published a string of self-deprecating books about competing in baseball (Out of My League), golf (The Bogey Man), and hockey (Open Net). In Shadow Box (1977), Plimpton described training for a 1959 fight with boxer Archie Moore by studying The Art and Practice of English Boxing (1807). A Sports Illustrated photograph of the results shows Plimpton beaming widely through a bloodied mouth.

Literary Birthday: Dave Eggers

Raised in suburban Chicago, Dave Eggers (born today in 1970) was only 21 years old when his parents died in rapid succession, leaving him to raise his eight-year-old brother, Toph. Eggers moved them to the Bay Area, where he helped found the short-lived Gen-X humor magazine Might and started the longer-lived website Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and related McSweeney’s independent publishing imprint.

His part-snarky and part-grief-stricken memoir of that time, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), was a Pulitzer Prize-winning critical and audience hit that placed Eggers in the pantheon of other boundary-pushing contemporaries like David Foster Wallace. True to his keenly ironic style, Eggers prefaced his memoir with “Rules and Suggestions for Enjoyment of This Book” (“you might want to skip much of the middle, namely pages 209–301”) and even lays out his major themes (e.g., “The Unspoken Magic of Parental Disappearance,” “The Knowingness About the Book’s Self-consciousness Aspect”), no doubt to the great relief of students assigned the book in a seminar on Postmodern Self-Referentiality in Modern American Biography.

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”