Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Peter Orner, Marcy Dermansky, Charles Simic, James Tate, and more—that are publishing this week.
Maggie Brown & Others by Peter Orner
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Maggie Brown & Others: “‘I’m always interested in the way people edit the details of their lives, the way they compress all the years into sentences,’ says the narrator of one of this collection’s 44 powerful tales, expressing Orner’s talent for crafting captivating character sketches that read like memoirs. Loosely linked by their shared settings (Chicago; Fall River, Mass.) and characters, the stories comprise a mosaic of lives remarkable primarily for an ordinariness—one character reflects that ‘his friends, his family, considered him a failure, he knew, not a spectacular failure, a mundane, run-of-the-mill failure’—that occasionally is thrown into sharp relief by a dramatic incident, such as a near car crash that reveals the narrator’s true nature in ‘My Dead,’ or a young man’s taunting, in the title story, of a disaffected roommate whom he doesn’t know is carrying a gun. The final story, ‘Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella,’ crystallizes the concerns of the stories that precede it in its account of a middle-aged Jewish businessman struggling to stay on top of what characters in another story think of as ‘a world with so little sense of order.’ Readers will sympathize with Orner’s characters and identify with their all-too-human frailties.”
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Very Nice: “The sly, deceptively simple and thoroughly seductive fourth novel by the author of The Red Car keeps a small cast of weirdly interrelated characters in constant motion. In the first few pages, as the academic year ends, clueless, dreamy college student Rachel seduces her passively willing creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, whose stint at her liberal arts college has just ended. He proceeds to hand off his standard poodle, Princess, to Rachel while he returns to Pakistan to visit his dying grandmother, and Rachel takes Princess to her childhood home in a wealthy Connecticut suburb, where her mom, Becca—adrift after her own poodle has died and her husband, Jonathan, has left her for airline pilot Mandy—falls in love with the dog. When Zahid returns to pick up Princess, he falls for Becca and her poolside lifestyle, and drifts through the summer with her, while Rachel, ignorant of the affair, keeps trying to lure him into her bed. Intersecting their lives are twins Khloe, who works with Jonathan, and Kristi, a writer who offers a job at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the reluctant Zahid. When conflict between mother and daughter reaches a head, Zahid is caught in the middle and faces an eviction from the edenic existence he has been savoring. Bouncing between points of view, Dermansky confines herself to snappy, brisk paragraphs and short sentences, with much of the psychic action between the lines. Her sharp satire spares none of the characters and teeters brilliantly on the edge of comedy and tragedy.”
Come Closer and Listen by Charles Simic
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Come Closer and Listen: “Pulitzer-winner Simic (The Lunatic) has mastered a deceptively simple and straightforward lyric style that has served him well over two dozen books of poetry. His latest is no different in this regard, noting (and plucking) ‘the cunning threads/ By which our lives are rigged.’ Simic’s world is a quiet one, though its quietness is haunted with echoes of wars, scams, loves had and lost, and a wry smile that seems to know the score no matter how dark the world gets. ‘They say Death/ Hid his face in his hood/ So he could smile too,’ Simic writes, ‘I like the black keys better/ I like the lights turned down low/ I like women who drink alone/ While I hunch over the piano/ Looking for all the pretty notes.’ These poems are often slyly funny, emotionally generous, and wrapped up in the lives of the people they depict—children at play, men and women in private moments, mythical figures and deities outside their myths. Some of the new poems, such as ‘The American Dream,’ arrive as premade classics, evoking times past in a stilted, twilit present and reminding readers of Simic’s keen eye for the restless, the absurd, and the enduringly human.”
The Government Lake by James Tate
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Government Lake: “In this imaginative second posthumous volume after Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, Tate (1943–2015) offers his last absurdist fables, including one discovered in the writer’s typewriter after his death. If the poems of Tate’s career—which included winning the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, and the Yale Younger Poets Prize—have frequently invoked death as one among several transformations, its presence in these poems is particularly striking: a fox eats a house full of chickens, a snake kills and replaces a pet dog, and a nun spontaneously combusts and reappears at the edge of a crowd. The rest of the book investigates impermanence with Tate’s signature combination of sly humor and poignant sincerity. But the pivots of this collection are the workings of memory or language: ‘Not quite. Oliver sat in his chair like a man in a mudhole. Oliver sat in his chair like a pixie on a rosebud. I think that might be it.’ When Tate brings these linguistic shifts to the voices of his speakers, the poems are among his best, as in the title poem: ‘‘What about that man out there?’ I said, pointing to the tire. ‘He’s dead,’ he said. ‘No, he’s not. I just saw him move his arm,’ I said. He removed his pistol from his holster and fired a shot. ‘Now he’s dead,’ he said.’ These prose poems offer a familiar reentry into the humor and unexpectedness of Tate’s world.”
Semicolon by Cecelia Watson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Semicolon: “In this impressive debut, Watson, a historian and philosopher of science, takes readers through a lively and varied ‘biography’ of the semicolon. She covers the punctuation mark’s history (which began in 1494 Venice, in a travel narrative about scaling Mount Etna) and changing grammatical function, from creating rhythm to separating two independent clauses, along with the love/hate relationship writers have long had with it. Watson argues, with growing passion as the book progresses, that the semicolon, and punctuation in general, must be deployed with flexibility, not rigid adherence to precedent, and even finds court cases to prove her point, including a controversy in 1900 Massachusetts over whether the semicolon in an onerously restrictive state liquor statute was meant to be read as a comma instead, thus making the law far more liberal. Watson lands an especially strong point with her takedown of the inflexibility and ‘rule mongering of the David Foster Wallace types’ and especially of Wallace himself, for a ‘speech he liked to give to black students whose writing he perceived to be… ‘non-standard.’’ The stress on compassionate punctuation lifts this work from an entertaining romp to a volume worth serious consideration.”
The Snakes by Sadie Jones
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Snakes: “Jones’s propulsive yet thoughtful fifth novel (after Fallout) grips readers from the first page. Bea Adamson is a 30-year-old psychotherapist living in a modest one-bedroom in London with her real estate agent husband, Dan Durrant, despite her moneyed background. Dan, who is of a much humbler background, dreams of becoming an artist. When Bea and Dan take three months off to travel, their first stop is France, where Bea’s older brother, Alex, runs a hotel. When they arrive, they’re greeted by a hotel devoid of guests other than the snake infestation in the attic and an erratic, newly sober Alex. When Alex and Bea’s extremely wealthy parents, Griff and Liv, unexpectedly arrive at the hotel, Bea, who has long cut financial and personal ties with her severe father and cloying mother, resigns herself to making nice. And with Griff and Liv’s arrival, Dan begins to understand just how well-off Bea is, no matter how much she wants to forsake her upbringing. However, when Alex goes out one night and doesn’t return, the Adamson family is upturned, and their secrets and twisted relationships with each other are brought to light. The campy ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the book—but what precedes is a tightly crafted, deeply moving, and thrilling story about how money corrupts and all the myriad ways members of a family can ruin each other.”
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lightest Object in the Universe: “A near-future apocalypse forms the backdrop for an intense, moving romance in Eisele’s smart debut. After the U.S. suffers runaway inflation, natural disasters, a flu epidemic, massive protests, and, finally, a nationwide cyberattack on the power grid, society breaks down. Somewhere on the East Coast, high school principal Carson Waller begins a cross-country trek in hopes of finding Beatrix, a woman he’d fallen in love with over email. Biking, walking, and hitchhiking, he slowly makes his way with the help of strangers who often talk about Jonathan Blue and the Center he leads, where food and amenities are provided for all who come. In alternating chapters, the story explores how Beatrix sows the seeds of a community through trade of goods and services with her West Coast neighbors. With no modern means of communication, Beatrix turns to the airwaves to share information, starting a radio show that becomes the center of a new group—and a beacon for Carson—that offers an alternative to the promises of Blue. Fans of Station Eleven will particularly enjoy this hopeful vision of a postapocalyptic world where there is danger, but also the possibility for ideas to spread, community to blossom, and people to not just survive, but thrive.”
The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Golden Hour: “The stories of two remarkable women a generation apart are cleverly intertwined in Williams’s sweeping family saga. In 1941, Lulu Randolph, a 25-year-old widowed American journalist, is in Nassau, Bahamas, to write society articles about the duke and duchess of Windsor, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. The duke—as governor of this island paradise with a dark side—and the duchess are portrayed as sometimes helping, but often contributing to, its problems of social inequality, racial tension, and corruption; they could also be complicit in the murder of gold mine owner Harry Oakes, and there are whispers of their Nazi sympathies. As Lulu’s royal access leads her deeper into Nassau’s shady political world and into a murky letter-passing operation with the duke and duchess, she falls in love with Benedict Thorpe, an English botanist with a mysterious background, who is captured by the Nazis in Europe. In the second story line, set in 1900, young German baroness Elfriede von Kleist suffers from postpartum depression; her sister-in-law banishes her to a Swiss clinic. She falls in love with an English patient, Wilfred Thorpe; their relationship takes many twists and turns as a result of Wilfred’s military career, Elfriede’s husband’s betrayal, and two tragic deaths. Past and present come together when a complicated family history becomes known to all. Williams (The Summer Wives) illuminates the story with exotic locales and bygone ambience, and seduces with the irresistible Windsors. Readers will appreciate the wartime espionage that keeps the suspense high.”
Inhabitation by Teru Miyamoto
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inhabitation: “The latest from Miyamoto (Kinshu: Autumn Brocade) has a surreal, promising conceit but never manages to wriggle free from banality. In the 1970s, college student Tetsuyuki moves to a dingy apartment on the outskirts of Daito in Osaka Prefecture, partly to avoid the underworld creditors hounding him and his mother. In a home improvement project gone wrong, Tetsuyuki inadvertently nails a lizard to the wall. Remorseful, he keeps the lizard alive, feeding it weevil larvae and other delicacies after his long shifts as a hotel bellboy. The lizard demonstrates a ‘tenacious vitality’ that the formerly shiftless Tetsuyuki begins to exhibit more in his own life. He asserts himself at work, confronts a rival for his girlfriend Yoko’s affection, and faces down his dangerous creditors. Moreover, he begins having fleeting visions of enlightenment, dreams in which ‘dying and being reborn, he continually passed through the cycle of life and death as a lizard.’ Throughout, the diction is overly stiff, whether it’s depicting Tetsuyuki challenging his girlfriend’s suitor (‘Can your intellectuality trump my baseness?’), violent gangsters administering a beating (‘Hey, hurry up and kick the bucket!’), or young men discussing the afterlife (‘I wonder why people die’). This tale of a young man seeking enlightenment fails to illuminate.”
Once again in 2015 some of the literary firmament’s brightest stars were extinguished. We lost a pair of Nobel laureates, a pair of former U.S. poets laureate, beloved novelists, prize-winning poets, a tireless human rights activist, a wily agent, a revered teacher, a champion of black writers, a writer of shameless sexcapades, and memoirists who refused to flinch when dissecting their first-hand experiences with addiction, persecution, disease, and the horrors of Jim Crow. Here is a selective compendium of literary obituaries from 2015.
The Robert Stone novel that sticks in my mind is Dog Soldiers, winner of the 1975 National Book Award, the story of a Vietnam-to-California heroin smuggling scheme gone horribly wrong. It’s also a singular portrait of how the blissed-out ’60s, which Stone experienced first-hand with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, turned into one very bad trip. Stone, who died on Jan. 10 at 77, produced eight big novels, a pair of story collections, and a memoir, books in which danger is everywhere, Americans behave badly either at home or in some far-flung hot spot, and neither God nor any hope of salvation is to be found. Stone was an American rarity: a writer who dared to walk in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, and never stumbled.
Anne Moody produced just two books in her lifetime, but her debut, the wrenching memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, is as timely today as it was when it appeared in 1968. Moody, who died on Feb. 5 at 74, told in spare unflinching prose what it was like for the daughter of black sharecroppers to grow up in the Jim Crow deep South, and then to dare to join the civil rights struggle. She worked with various organizations — the Congress for Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — once getting dragged by her hair from a Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in, while watching a fellow protester get bloodied by a brass-knuckle punch. After leaving the movement, she moved to New York City, where she wrote her memoir, then lived quietly for decades working non-writing jobs. Late in life, she acknowledged to an interviewer that writing her memoir had taught her a painful lesson: “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”
Moody’s only other book was a slim collection of short stories for young people called Mr. Death.
In 1976 I came upon a book of poems that proved that art can be made from absolutely anything, including a night-shift job at the Chevy Gear & Axle factory in Detroit. The book was peopled with autoworkers, fading boxers, and working stiffs, people who stubbornly refuse to admit defeat in the face of the monstrous forces that belittle them. The book was called Not This Pig, the second volume of poems by a Detroit native named Philip Levine, who died on Feb. 14 at 87. On the back cover, Levine explained that the book is filled with “the people, places, and animals I am not, the ones who live at all costs and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos — a gesture they don’t need — would have them say, ‘Don’t tread on me’ or ‘Once more with feeling’ or ‘No pasarán’ or ‘Not this pig.’” Reading that book was the birth of a passion for Levine’s poetry that endures to this day and shows no signs of flagging.
Levine was born in Detroit in 1928 and went to work in a soap factory at 14 — the first in a long string of factory jobs that could have crushed his body and spirit but instead gave him the raw material for a body of work that would win him high honors, a devoted readership, and a stint as U.S. poet laureate. His great subject was the people who do the brutal manual labor that usually gets ignored, by poets and everyone else. When I wrote an appreciation of Levine four years ago (here), I quoted a 1999 interview in which Levine realized, looking back, that Not This Pig was the book that gave him his voice.
“Those were my first good Detroit work poems — the poems in Not This Pig…,” Levine said. “It’s ironic that while I was a worker in Detroit, which I left when I was 26, my sense was that the thing that’s going to stop me from being a poet is the fact that I’m doing this crummy work…I’m going to fuck up because what am I doing? I’m going to work every day. The irony is, going to work every day became the subject of probably my best poetry. But I couldn’t see that at the time. And it took me another ten years to wake up to it — that I had a body of experience that nobody else had.”
Günther Grass’s life turned out to be an illustration of just how treacherous and slippery the high moral ground can be. After blazing onto the world literary stage with his 1959 masterpiece, The Tin Drum, Grass spent his long and productive career as Germany’s self-anointed conscience, pushing his countrymen to face up to the dark strains of their history, especially the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust. Grass, who died on April 13 at 87, railed against militarism and nuclear proliferation, opposed German unification, denounced the Catholic and Lutheran churches, supported Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinista government, and spoke of the “unchecked lust for profit” that drove German companies to sell weaponry to Saddam Hussein. He also found time to be a novelist, playwright, essayist, short story writer, poet, sculptor, and printmaker. In 1999 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
But it was not until 2006, on the eve of the publication of a memoir, Peeling the Onion, that a dark truth emerged. For years Grass had claimed he was a flakhelfer during the war, one of many youths charged with guarding antiaircraft gunneries. But finally he admitted that he had been a member of the elite Waffen-SS, notorious for committing many atrocities. Though Grass was not implicated in any war crimes, the belated revelation caused a furor.
“My silence over all these years is one of the reasons I wrote the book,” he explained. “It had to come out in the end.” In the memoir he added, “The brief inscription meant for me reads: ‘I kept silent.’”
James Salter is often pinned with that grimmest of labels, “a writer’s writer.” Even worse, James Wolcott called Salter America’s “most under-rated under-rated writer.” I prefer to remember Salter, who died on June 19 at 90, as a writer of gem-like sentences that added up to a handful of highly accomplished novels and short stories, a man who lived a long and fruitful life and, in the bargain, had no peer when it came to writing about flight.
In 1952 Salter flew more than 100 combat missions in an F-86 jet, hunting and fighting MiG-15s in the skies over Korea. His writing about flying — most notably in his first novel, The Hunters, and in his memoir, Burning the Days — has won high praise, including this accolade from a fellow military pilot, Will Mackin: “Salter’s writing about flying made me miss flying even while I was still flying.” Salter took a dim view of such praise: “I have said many times I don’t want to be considered one who once flew fighters. That’s not who I am.”
So who was James Salter? A writer who put the exact right words in the exact right order to produce books full of beauty and insight and pain — six novels, two collections of short stories, a book of poetry, essays on food and travel, and a memoir. (Salter also wrote screenplays, including the 1969 Robert Redford movie Downhill Racer. It wasn’t art, Salter acknowledged, but the Hollywood money was wonderful.) Salter was also a writer who craved the broad popularity that never came his way. He explained the craving this way: “You can’t be admitted to the ranks of writers of importance unless you have sales.”
Like Philip Levine before him, Theodore Weesner, who died on June 25 at 79, turned his indifferent early years into indelible writing. Instead of soul-crushing factory jobs, Weesner had to contend with an alcoholic father and a teenage mother who abandoned him and his older brother when they were toddlers. After living in a foster home and dropping out of high school to join the Army at 17, Weesner went on to attend Michigan State University and earn an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Worskhop.
His first novel, The Car Thief, was published in 1972 to critical acclaim, and it has become a cult classic. The novel, which was reissued in 1987 as part of the Vintage Contemporaries series, reads as neither a screed nor a cry for help, but rather as a tender and clear-eyed portrait of a troubled boy, 16-year-old Alex Housman, whose only available means of self-expression is to steal cars. Weesner went on to produce half a dozen other works of fiction, which, like his debut, won critical praise but a modest readership. Late in life, Weesner seemed to come to terms with his fate. In 2007 he told an interviewer, “I get this ‘neglected writer’ a lot…The Car Thief got a lot of awards and praise and was widely reviewed. And (since) then no one has given me a whole lot of credit.”
I would not presume to single out the best book by E.L. Doctorow, who died on July 21 at 84. But I’m convinced Ragtime was both his best loved and his most influential book. Published in 1975, it did something unheard-of at the time: it mingled fictional characters with historical figures — Harry Houdini, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and many others — to create a vivid portrait of America on the eve of the First World War, the dying moments of the nation’s heedless exuberance and innocence. The novel was not universally loved. John Updike famously dissed it, and William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of it. “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said,” Doctorow said years later. “Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
Ragtime opened the gates for writers of wildly different temperaments to start inserting historical figures into their novels, either at center stage or in the background. These writers included Joyce Carol Oates (who channeled Marilyn Monroe), Colum McCann (Rudolf Nureyev, Philippe Petit, and Frederick Douglass, among others), James McBride and Russell Banks (John Brown), and Don DeLillo (Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby). For Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Doctorow’s fiction — including Loon Lake and World’s Fair, but especially Ragtime — offered novelists a “magic way out” of the confining box made by the reigning ’70s vogues of “dirty realism” and post-modernism. In The Guardian two days after Doctorow’s death, Chabon wrote, “In opening that particular door, Doctorow made a startling discovery: done properly, the incorporation of historical figures into a fictional context did not come off as some kind of smart-ass critique of subjectivity and the fictive nature of history. Done properly it just made the lies you were telling your reader — with his or her full and willing consent, of course — sound that much more true. And that small-t truth then became a powerful tool for getting across whatever Truth, subjective or fragmentary though it might be, that you felt you had it in you to express.”
By the time she died on Sept. 19 at 77, Jackie Collins had produced some 30 steamy novels that tended to carry a Hollywood zip code and sold more than half a billion copies. Collins, who was born in London, was refreshingly candid about the shameless commercialism of her fiction. “I never pretended to be a literary writer,” she once said. “I am a school dropout.”
Her writing style brought to mind the USA Today columns of Al Neuharth — short sentences, liberal use of fragments, no words that would send readers to the dictionary. Her books were also loaded with sex, beginning with her debut, The World Is Full of Married Men, from 1968, when, as Collins put it, “no one was writing about sex except Philip Roth.” Perhaps Collins’s keenest insight was to understand that literature, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and so she set about filling it to the brim. And she did her research. While still a teenager, she visited her actress sister Joan in Hollywood, where she met and bedded a hot young actor named Marlon Brando. When an interviewer suggested in 2007 that America had become a great big titillating Jackie Collins novel, she replied, “That’s true. When Clinton had his affair and the Starr report came out, reviewers actually said, ‘This is like a Jackie Collins novel.’ But in my books, the sex is better.”
Grace Lee Boggs
The indefatigable social activist and prolific author Grace Lee Boggs died in Detroit on Oct. 5 at the age of 100. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was born above her father’s Chinese restaurant in Providence, R.I., and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens. While earning degrees from Barnard and Bryn Mawr, she steeped herself in the writings of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx, then moved to Chicago and started organizing protests against slum housing.
Her life changed in 1953, when she relocated to Detroit and married James Boggs, a black autoworker and activist. Together they plunged into the city’s radical politics, protesting racism, sexism, and police brutality. Malcolm X was a frequent visitor in their home. When fires and shootings swept Detroit in the summer of 1967 — a justified rebellion, not a senseless riot, in the eyes of Boggs and her fellow radicals — she reached what she described as “a turning point in my life.” She began shunning confrontation in favor of nonviolent strategies, a path she followed for the rest of her days. She founded food cooperatives and community groups to fight crime and to stand up for the elderly, the unemployed, and people fighting utility shutoffs. She planted community gardens. Always, she kept writing. She published her autobiography, Living for Change, in 1998. In her final book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, published in 2011, the former radical aligned herself with Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. “We are not subversives,” she wrote. “We are struggling to change this country because we love it.”
The above list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive. Here are some other noteworthy literary deaths from 2015, in alphabetical order:
John Bayley, 89, was an Oxford don and literary critic whose moving memoir, Elegy for Iris, recounted his life with his wife, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Iris Murdoch, both before and after she was stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Elegy was published in 1999, shortly before Murdoch died, and two years later it was made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Bayley and Judi Dench as the ailing Murdoch.
David Carr, 58, was a celebrated New York Times columnist who weathered cancer, alcoholism, and crack cocaine addiction, then wrote about his battles with verve and black humor in his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun.
Assia Djebar, 78, was an Algerian-born novelist, poet, playwright, and filmmaker who was often mentioned as a Nobel Prize candidate for her unflinching explorations of the plight of women in the male-dominated Arab world. Djebar was also adept at kicking down doors. She was the first Algerian student and the first Muslim woman admitted to France’s elite École Normale Supérieure, and the first writer from North Africa to be elected to the Académie Française. Despite these achievements, she insisted, “I am not a symbol. My only activity consists of writing.”
Ivan Doig, 75, produced 16 works of fiction and non-fiction that celebrated his native western Montana, where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” Doig, whose affecting final novel, Last Bus to Wisdom, was published posthumously, liked to say he came from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view.” The critic Sven Birkerts called him “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.”
When Charles F. Harris, who died on Dec. 16 at 81, went to work as an editor at Doubleday in the mid-1950s, the work of black writers was a niche market that was treated more like a ghetto by New York publishing houses. Harris helped change that, most notably as chief executive of the nation’s first black university press, Howard University Press, where he published Margaret Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Jean Toomer, Walter Rodney, and many other black writers. Harris also founded Amistad Press, which published critical volumes on Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Alice Walker, among others.
Jack Leggett, 97, was a novelist, biographer, editor, and teacher who was the director of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1970 to 1987. He stocked the nation’s oldest creative writing program with big-name teaching talent, including John Cheever, Gail Godwin, Raymond Carver, Frederick Exley, and Leggett’s eventual successor, Frank Conroy. Students included Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Michael Cunningham, and Denis Johnson. During Leggett’s tenure there was a fundamental shift in students’ approach to writing, which he summarized this way after a decade on the job: “In 1970 there were a lot of kids out of the armed forces and the Peace Corps. They were an undisciplined lot. They would say, ‘Don’t tell me about form.’ Now they are very interested in technique. They want to know what novelists have done in the past. And it shows in their work.”
When Leggett arrived in Iowa City there were about a dozen creative writing programs in the country. Today, for better or worse, there are more than 200.
Colleen McCullough, 77, was a neurophysiological researcher who decided to write novels in her spare time and wound up striking gold with her second book, the international bestseller The Thorn Birds, in 1977. A panoramic tale of McCullough’s native land, it was made into a popular TV mini-series and was often called “the Australian Gone With the Wind.”
The Scottish writer William McIlvanney, 79, became known as “the father or Tartan noir” for his novels featuring the Glasgow cop Jack Laidlaw. McIlvanney was also a poet, essayist, teacher, short story writer, TV narrator, and, in the eyes of The Telegraph, “the finest Scottish novelist of his generation.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, 66, the knighted British novelist, produced more than 70 immensely popular works of fantasy, including the series known as Discworld. It was a Frisbee-shaped place balanced on the backs of four elephants who stood on the shell of a giant turtle, a place populated by witches and trolls and a ravenous character known as Death. While frequently ignored by serious critics, Pratchett had fans in high places. A.S. Byatt applauded his abundant gifts, not least his ability to write “amazing sentences.”
Ruth Rendell, 85, was the British author of more than 60 mystery novels that hit the trifecta: they were intricately plotted, psychologically acute, and immensely popular with readers and critics, selling some 60 million copies worldwide and winning numerous awards on both sides of the Atlantic. Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford was her most durable character and a sort of alter-ego. “I’m not creating a character,” Rendell said, “so much as putting myself as a man on the page.” Along with her friend P.D. James, who died in 2014, Rendell is credited with exploding the confines of the mystery genre. In a 2013 interview, Rendell vowed she would never stop writing. “I’ll do it until I die,” she said. Her final novel, Dark Corners, was published in October, five months after her death.
Oliver Sacks, 82, was a neurologist who used his patients’ conditions, from amnesia to Tourette’s syndrome, as starting points for his bestselling books about the human brain and the human condition. He called his books “neurological novels.” More than a million copies are in print.
Timothy Seldes, 88, was one of the last of a vanishing breed — an old-school literary agent and editor who believed that literature should be seen as a vital source of oxygen for the nation’s culture, not as product that needs to be moved. How quaint. He was, in a word, a gentleman, whose devoted clients included Anne Tyler, Jim Lehrer, Annie Dillard, and Nadine Gordimer.
William Jay Smith, 97, was a poet, critic, memoirist, translator, and teacher who served as U.S. poet laureate from 1968 to 1970. His poems, both tactile and empirical, embraced rhyme, meter, and other conventions deemed passé by many of his contemporaries. To his credit, Smith ignored them. In “Structure of a Song,” he offered this lovely anatomy of the making of a poem:
Its syllables should come
As natural and thorough
As sunlight over plum
Or melon in the furrow,
Rise smoother than the hawk
Or gray gull ever could;
As proud and freely walk
As deer in any wood.
So lightly should it flow
From stone so deep in earth
That none could ever know
What torment gave it birth.
James Tate, 71, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who believed “the challenge is always to find the ultimate in the ordinary.” His 17th book, Dome of the Hidden Pavilion, has come out posthumously, and it’s marked by his trademark surrealism and wordplay, deployed in narrative-driven prose poems that Tate turned to in his later years. He never lost his child’s sense of wonder at the plastic magic of language, its ability to startle. These lines come from his final book:
I was sitting on the porch when I watched my neighbor’s kids walk by on their way to school. One of them turned and waved to me. I waved back. That’s when I realized they were zombies.
Tomas Tranströmer, 83, was an accomplished pianist, an amateur entomologist, and a trained psychologist who worked with juvenile offenders. He was also a popular and beloved poet, sometimes called “Sweden’s Robert Frost,” whose crystalline, sometimes chilly poems won a Nobel Prize in 2011.
C.K. Williams, 78, was a Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning poet who, unlike James Tate, wrote morally charged, politically impassioned poems about such weighty topics as poverty, love, death, war, climate change, and the shootings at Kent State University. Like Tate, Williams moved toward longer ribbony lines that freed him to “talk about things.” Shortly before he died, from multiple myeloma, Williams completed a collection of poems about death and dying. He called it Falling Ill.
Rest in peace. Through your words you will all live on.