The recent death of Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) reminds us that the value of a piece of literature is not quantifiable - not by word count, not by books sold - but, rather, resides in a black box between writer and reader, in a transaction that defies easy explanation. Olsen's writing was not prodigal - she only published one complete book of fiction - but was, in its artistry and its impact, prodigious.Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection of four stories, drew on activist sensibilities forged in the 1920s and 30s and on Olsen's innate poetic gifts. It consciously reclaimed the lives of minorities, of immigrants, of working-class people, and, especially, of women, as worthy of fictional examination. In so doing, it anticipated much of the finest literature published since.It seems that Olsen was as inspiring in person as she was on the page. Her great-nephew Matt Osypowski, himself a fiction writer, recently told The Millions:I started a novel (unfinished) in her apartment when I was eight or nine years old. Something about her presence made me want to do what she did, to master the language in the way that she had. She would send me the most beautiful birthday cards - short notes of pure music. Her partner, Jack, was deeply involved in labor politics in San Francisco, as was my grandfather. Their work was steeped in conflict, ideology, and mass movements... There was a beautiful contrast between their work and Tillie's, the big picture on their end and on hers all the small pictures that make the big picture matter. Her work can make me so sad, but it's never an impotent sadness - beneath it lie all her hopes for a better world, hopes that she wrote for, fought for, and helped all of us in the family share and understand.Another fond remembrance, by John Leonard, is posted at The Nation (via The Mumpsimus).
Michael Crichton died Wednesday after a bout with cancer. Crichton looms large in my history of reading. While other writers introduced me to the potential of literary fiction, it was Crichton who really stoked my love of reading between the age of 12 and 15. I remember reading Sphere in the high school library during free periods as a freshman, and staying up late not wanting to put down The Andromeda Strain, Congo, and of course Jurassic Park, which was passed around my ninth grade class with the feverish excitement that one doesn't normally associate with 14 year olds and books.The arrival of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster movie that summer only heightened the Jurassic Park mania. This was back when CGI special effects, now so mundane, had the ability to astonish, and I can remember sitting in a theater that was buzzing with anticipation waiting for the movie to start, and I was scarcely able to believe that the book could be brought to life. The movie lived up to the hype, and it opened the door to the stream of CGI-driven blockbusters that continue to this day.But the movie was only special in that it made real what had already jumped off the pages of Crichton's books. Crichton's contribution might be measured in book sales and box office receipts, but there is perhaps more value in his contribution to the collective imagination of a generation of young readers.
1. My magnificent agent died last week. The barest facts of her life are in a New York Times obituary this morning. Her name was Emilie Jacobson, but her colleagues called her Emmy. She found me in a slush pile. Emilie is the reason why I get a little impatient with people who insist that you need to know someone, or have some sort of inside connection, in order to get your book published. Some years ago, when I thought I had a good draft of my first novel, I started querying agents. Emilie was the thirteenth or fourteenth agent I contacted; she pulled my letter and sample chapters out of the slush pile, requested the full manuscript, and then, well, sent me a rejection letter. But her rejection was long, regretful, and filled with thoughtful editorial comments, all of which seemed sound to me. There was no guarantee of future representation if I took her suggestions, but I thought that in the worst-case scenario I'd at least have a better book, so I spent six months revising my novel and sent it back to her. She very graciously agreed to read it again, and this time she took me on. I came down to the Curtis Brown offices on Astor Place to meet her. It was a heady occasion—the initial “I can’t believe I actually have an agent!” shock hadn’t worn off yet. I was early, so I loitered for a while in a bookstore near the office, running my hand over the spines of books, trying to imagine what it would be like to see my name on the shelf. I went up to the offices to meet her, and was struck by her warmth. Emilie took me to lunch at the Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, a few blocks away. She’d hurt her back a few months earlier, and the recovery was proving difficult; she was stooped over and moved slowly. She was too vain, she said, to consider using a cane. I doubt the décor of Knickerbocker has changed significantly since it opened in 1977. (I was surprised, in fact, to discover that it opened that late—it looks like it hasn’t changed since the 1940s.) It’s all dark wood paneling and leather and round banquettes, a dizzying assortment of bottles atop the grand piano. I’d never been there before and it was like slipping back into a lost world, a time when publishing deals were made in a cloud of cigar smoke over multiple martinis. I half expected to see Norman Mailer dining out with his agent at the next table. “Would you like a drink?” she asked, when we sat down. She was of an era when a business lunch typically involved cocktails. I declined and ordered my usual mint tea. I wanted to ask how long she’d been agenting, but given her obviously advanced age it seemed somehow vaguely impolite, as if I were indirectly asking how old she was. I asked her, instead, how she became an agent. “Well,” she said, “it was back in the early days of television, and…” Curtis Brown was her first job out of college, and she stayed there for the next sixty-two years. From our first meeting, I decided that Emilie is what I aspire to: when I’m in my eighties I want to be that passionate, that interested, that warm, with a mind as sharp as hers. 2. Some weeks ago Emilie called to tell me that at long last she'd decided to retire. The good news, she said, was that a colleague of hers was interested in representing me. I told her that of course I’d known this day would come, but that I would miss working with her terribly. “I think it was email that finally pushed me over the edge,” she said. She used email gamely enough, but she disliked the informality of the medium; emails from strangers that began with “Hello Emilie” bothered her immensely. She was deeply annoyed when she sent people emails and they didn’t write back. I came back to the offices on Astor Place a few weeks ago to meet my new agent. I arrived early to visit with Emilie, and for a quiet half-hour we sat in her office together. Her office was a wonderful place, large and filled with books. I’ll confess that seeing my first novel displayed prominently next to David Lodge’s work always gave me a thrill. Her computer seemed an unwelcome imposition on a second desk, behind her real desk, which was massive and piled eight inches high with correspondence and manuscripts. Emilie was so much a part of Curtis Brown that it was almost impossible to conceive of her being outside it, no longer coming into this office every day. I asked what she planned to do after retirement. She said she thought it would take her about a year to clean the stacks of manuscripts out of the closets in her apartment, and then she was going to read for pleasure. She thought she might like to do some writing. We talked about books for a while—she’d just read and loved The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. We spoke about her career. “You were my first champion,” I told her. I told her how much I appreciated everything she'd done for me, the faith she'd always had in my work. She smiled and began reminiscing about other firsts: a piece of Joyce Maynard’s that she placed in The New York Times when Maynard was eighteen (“An 18-Year-Old Looks Back On Life”), a John Knowles story that eventually became the climactic scene in A Separate Peace. She asked if I was working on a new novel and I told her that I was. “Oh, this is why I’ve delayed retirement for so long,” she said. “I always want to see what everyone’s going to do next.” I told her that I’d send her the manuscript as soon as it was done. She seemed happy at this prospect. “Okay,” she said, but she was gone five weeks later. All sudden deaths are a little shocking. It seems impossible that I’ll never see her again. In the last letter she ever sent me—she never sent an email when a letter would do—she expressed her regret that she wouldn’t be in Martha’s Vineyard when I read at a bookstore there in June. But she would be there later in the summer, she said, and she suggested that if my husband and I were to return to the Vineyard, perhaps we might like to visit with her and her husband. It’s startling to think that she won’t be there. It’s startling to think that the next time I see the orange Curtis Brown letterhead on an envelope in my mailbox, it won’t be from her. The last email I received from her was only two weeks ago. There’s great comfort, of course, in knowing that she spent almost the entirety of her long life doing work that she was truly passionate about. I know this is the best we can hope for: a long life engaged in a pursuit that brings us joy and fulfillment, a quick death at the end. There’s a school of thought that a peaceful death at the end of a long and fulfilling life isn’t a tragedy, and I put some stock in this. But she really was magnificent, and I don’t use that word lightly. I always thought of her as an emissary from a bygone world, among the last of her kind. I feel as if a light’s gone out, and there won’t be another like her.
I can't believe it... Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn't mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn't a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the "Art of Fiction" (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here's the obit.