Remembering Jan Morris

At The Daily Beast, journalist Katherine O’Donnell offers a tribute to Welsh historian, prolific author, and pioneering trans woman Jan Morris, who passed away on November 20. “Her Pax Britannica trilogy, a history of the British Empire, would alone cement a literary and academic reputation. I’m 55 and I’ve been reading her since I was a teen and I’m barely halfway through her canon and they may yet see me out. Despite sixty years of critical acclaim, Morris didn’t even think that Venice was her best work; that, she said, was her book Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere.” In addition to her memoir Conundrum, Morris is best known for her books on travel; however, she was not a fan of the travel writer label. “As Virgil was to Dante, you can feel Morris’s hand on your elbow, her voice and her presence runs through all of her writing. She described her books as an extended form of memoir: ‘They are one and all about the effects of everything on me,’ she told an interviewer who had begun by asking her why she disliked the term travel writer. ‘My books amount to one enormously self-centered autobiographical exposure! So I prefer to be described as simply—a writer.’”

Take a Tour of Octavia Butler’s Favorite Libraries

At the L.A. Times, take an interactive tour of Octavia Butler’s Los Angeles—in particular, discover the public libraries that the award-winning sci-fi writer referred to as her second home. “Butler was a voracious reader, checking out any title that remotely piqued her interest. ‘I taste books, taste knowledge and for that matter, taste life experiences as some people taste wine or food.’” Butler wrote her first novel, Patternmaster, at Los Angeles Public Library’s Central branch, where she also volunteered as a tutor. “When asked her reason for applying, she wrote, ‘I want to help.’” The online map features photographs of the Parable of the Sower and Kindred author’s library call slips, writing notebooks, personal journals and more.

Claire Messud on the Value of an Ordinary Life

At Guernica, in an interview with Madhuri Sastry, author Claire Messud discusses her recent essay collection, finding hope in art, and the value of ordinary lives. “Who’s gonna see the handkerchief, which is literally for blowing your nose, right? And yet, this beautiful embroidery. It’s because each life is important. You might never leave the town in which you were born. You might never know anything grand. You might never have money. But in these small details, your life is made meaningful and made beautiful,” she says. “I do feel that this sense of the value of an individual life, however small, is being lost. It isn’t about it being seen by others; its integrity is in itself. That was given, that is worth preserving. And I think fiction is a place where that happens. It’s one thing to read a novel about Laura Bush, or Melania, or whatever, but most of the novels we read are about ordinary people, living ordinary lives, and that’s quite another thing.” We featured Messud’s collection, Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, as a notable new title last month. 

Douglas Stuart on Writing in Secret

At The Guardian, this year’s six Booker Prize finalists describe the inspiration behind their books. Yesterday, the 2020 Prize was awarded to Shuggie Bain author Douglas Stuart, who explains that writing is both a source of comfort and a rejection of his childhood. “I grew up to be a textile designer. I had wanted to study English and to become a writer, but in the world of my childhood, boys didn’t do such things. Studying English was middle-class; even the word English was jarring and dangerous in the East End of Glasgow,” he says. “Because of my upbringing I felt so much like an impostor that I wrote in secret, and told no one (other than my husband)…Men from the west coast of Scotland are not known for revealing their tenderer feelings. Fiction allows me to make sense of things I am unable to express in other ways. It took 10 years to write the novel because I felt such comfort in the world I was creating.” Shuggie Bain was featured on our February Most Anticipated list alongside another shortlisted book: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life.

Lauren Oyler on America’s Alienating Literary Culture

At The End of the World Review, Lauren Oyler talks about her career as a critic and writer, why literary fiction needs protecting, and the differences between literary culture in America and Europe. “It is certainly valuable to see people living and writing in other ways. To a certain extent in Europe, you’re more likely to be around people who have been encouraged to read a lot more serious literature and philosophy, and they aren’t just wealthy or upper-class people,” she says. “Meanwhile, in the United States you can go through an entire private-school-to-Ivy-League education and still be stupid. There are many very smart Americans, but they aren’t being served by our publishing industry or media or our ‘literary culture.’ I think many people are very alienated by the way things work here—enough people to make a bestseller!—not because it’s inaccessible, but because it’s patronizing. You can find a lot of great reading through weird avenues, but it would be nice if you didn’t have to look very hard.” Oyler’s debut novel, Fake Accounts, will be published in February. 

David Sedaris Is Not Loving His Early Work

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On The Maris Review podcast, David Sedaris discusses what it’s like to promote a book during a pandemic and an election, what he wears at his writing desk, and much more. He personally selected the essays included in his greatest hits collection, The Best of Me, and says readers won’t find many examples of his earliest work. “I just see somebody trying so desperately to be funny, it’s just embarrassing to me,” he explains. “I think that’s interesting, too, when somebody says, ‘I really liked that thing you wrote 30 years ago.’ It’s like, gosh, can’t you see the difference between what I wrote last year and what I wrote 30 years ago? And a lot of people can’t. They can’t see the difference. But you know, they’re looking at the story, they’re not looking at the words that make up the story, they’re not noticing that a sentence has rhythm or doesn’t have rhythm. They’re in it for the story.” At the end of his conversation with host Maris Kreizman, Sedaris recommends three books: Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Halle Butler’s The New Me, and Blake Bailey’s The Splendid Things We Planned

Dwight Garner on Commonplace Books

At The New York Times, book critic and Garner’s Quotations author Dwight Garner shares his decades-long habit of keeping a commonplace book. “It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake…into it I’ve poured verbal delicacies, ‘the blast of a trumpet,’ as Emerson put it, and bits of scavenged wisdom from my life as a reader. Yea, for I am an underliner, a destroyer of books, and maybe you are, too.” He notes that commonplace books have long been popular, including among some of the most well-known literary figures. “Virginia Woolf kept one. So did Samuel Johnson. W. H. Auden published his, as did the poet J. D. McClatchy. E. M. Forster’s was issued after his death. The novelist David Markson wrote terse and enveloping novels that resembled commonplace books; they were bird’s nests of facts threaded with the author’s own subtle interjections.” 

Jenny Offill and Jia Tolentino on Being Doomers at the Dinner Party

At the virtual Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival, Trick Mirror author Jia Tolentino interviewed Jenny Offill about research, writing, climate change, and her latest novel, Weather. The conversation is thrilling, in part because they pause to celebrate the just-announced election results, but also because the two writers and their sense of curiosity are so well matched. On the topic of incorporating facts into her fiction, Offill said, “The reason I put so many facts that are interesting to me in books is because I don’t actually remember things unless I write them down and try to put them in my own words. If I don’t want to forget that antelopes have 10x vision and can see the rings of Saturn, I think, okay, I’m going to find a place for this.” She also explained that writing about climate change helped ease her anxiety, at least momentarily: “Because I was writing and because I was thinking these things through, I actually became less doom-laden; I think I had a place to put it, I didn’t necessarily need to be the Ancient Mariner telling people my story in the streets. I would talk the most when I was not writing.”

Personalized Postcards from Your Favorite Authors

Looking for an inimitable holiday gift for the literary person in your life, or maybe for yourself? The Common’s annual postcard auction, which runs through Dec. 1, is your opportunity to receive handwritten, personalized letters from renowned authors. This year’s list includes David Sedaris (The Best of Me), Ross Gay (The Book of Delights), Laila Lalami (The Other Americans), Fran Lebowitz (The Fran Lebowitz Reader), André Aciman (Call Me by Your Name), and many more. Proceeds support The Common, an award-winning literary magazine dedicated to nurturing the careers of global, emerging writers.

Marie-Helene Bertino on Manipulating Time in Fiction

At Electric Literature, in a fascinating conversation with J.R. Ramakrishnan, author Marie-Helene Bertino explains how she used time as a storytelling device in her latest novel, Parakeet. “I very much wanted to do to time, to use everything I could possibly think of, on a page with time, to help tell the story of time, of how sometimes it reverses, rewinds, moves faster and moves slower, the way it does when you’re in a catastrophic incident, and the way you do for every moment after that incident. The trauma forever changes you. Anytime you remember something, you re-experience it and time works in that same way on you again. It was a literal representation of how time begins to move independent of logic,” Bertino says. “I was focusing on trauma, but I think it works the same way when you’re in love. Days can feel like years when you’re waiting for a loved one to return or when you’re waiting to see your child or when you’re waiting to give birth to your child. There is nothing emotional that doesn’t land on time somehow. I was very literally trying to represent that.”