VIDEO: Pro-Trump supporters rioted and overtook the U.S. Capitol.
This week made one thing clear: Our dystopian novelists will have to try harder. With thousands of Americans dying every day — from a virus that the president ignored, lied about and tried wishing away — we had already entered horrific territory. But even Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon and other grim visionaries would be hard-pressed to capture the grotesque manifestation of Donald Trump’s reign that shook Washington on Wednesday (perspective).
As those images of Trump's “special” thugs smashing into the Capitol coalesce in our cultural memory, publishers of political nonfiction will have to recalibrate, too. Indeed, last night we saw what might be the start of the detrumpification of the mainstream book industry: Simon & Schuster announced that it has canceled the release of an upcoming book by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of the slickest recyclers of Trump’s fabrications. “We did not come to this decision lightly,” Simon & Schuster said in a statement. “It will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”
Missouri’s fresh-faced senator was looking forward this June to the release of his book “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” While it’s true that “tyranny” is a word now permanently affixed to Hawley’s name, there is apparently no longer much interest in the senator’s musings on Facebook and Google. At the moment, that feels like trying to sell John Wilkes Booth’s critique of a play at Ford’s Theatre.
After the shocking assault on the U.S. Capitol, Hawley dribbled out a perfunctory statement acknowledging that “the violence must end,” etc., etc., but Thursday when his book was imperiled, the senator finally rose up in high dudgeon and condemned the "mob" (not that one):
“This could not be more Orwellian,” he tweeted with little understanding of Orwell or private industry. “Simon & Schuster is cancelling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to define as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment.” From his hysterical tone, you would think the cancellation of some book six months from now was the quintessential tragedy of this week in Washington.
Hawley, the Senate’s youngest — and apparently most naive — member might want to ask one of his more experienced colleagues for a copy of the First Amendment. It’s not long, and it says nothing about commercial publishers being constitutionally obligated to disseminate the works of writers they have grown to abhor. There may be contractual details to settle involving his advance and kill fee, but if Simon & Schuster doesn’t want to promote a man who’s been abetting the president’s efforts to subvert American democracy, the company is free to make that decision.
And Hawley is free to find another publisher craven enough to keep exploiting MAGA paranoia. Or, as Donald Trump Jr. did with his recent “Liberal Privilege,” he could turn to self-publishing. That’s called free enterprise, the benefits of which the senator is always nattering on about when it suits his interests.
Hawley signed off Thursday by threatening, “We'll see you in court.” Simon & Schuster responded with a brief, entirely reasonable rebuttal: “We are confident that we are acting fully within our contractual rights.” America will survive Trump. Publishing will survive Hawley.
James Alfred Wight was destined to be a successful veterinarian, but his career as a writer almost never happened. (Admit it: You don’t know who I’m talking about.) Wight didn’t publish his first two autobiographical novels until he was in his mid-50s, and they sold poorly in Britain. But by chance, an editor in the U.S. read one and fell in love with the voice of this charming country vet. Stateside, the two books were published together as “All Creatures Great and Small,” under the pen name James Herriot (profile). It was a massive hit and the start of a franchise that would eventually sell tens of millions of copies. Millions more watched the BBC adaptation, starring Christopher Timothy, that debuted in 1978 and eventually included 90 episodes.
This Sunday on PBS, “Masterpiece” will begin airing a new seven-part adaptation of “All Creatures Great and Small,” starring Nicholas Ralph, an unknown but soon to be very famous actor (story). He's on the cover of the new paperback edition, and he also narrates the new audiobook version with his rich Scottish accent. Fun fact: When Ralph’s uncle was a young man, he went to Wight’s veterinary office and got him to sign a copy of “All Creatures Great and Small.”
Anna North (Photo by Jenny Zhang/Bloomsbury); Mateo Askaripour (Photo by Andrew “FifthGod” Askaripour/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
It still surprises me that some of my favorite novels are westerns. It no longer surprises me that they’re written by women. My grandfather was a big fan of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, but I got swept away by Paulette Jiles, Mary Doria Russell, Molly Gloss and other women who have cut fresh trails in this old genre. (Possibly my enthusiasm was sparked even earlier by my Great Aunt Marge, who used to manage the Jesse James Farm in Kearney, Mo.)
The latest western to ride across the Badlands comes from Anna North. Her new novel, “Outlawed,” is about a female gang of bank robbers, and it stirs up the Old West with a blend of alt-history and feminist consciousness. I think it’s provocative and exciting (review). Reese Witherspoon agrees with me — or I agree with her — but let’s not get caught up in semantics. “Outlawed” is the January pick for Witherspoon’s online book club.
Meanwhile, Jenna Bush Hager has chosen Mateo Askaripour's debut novel, “Black Buck,” for her book club on the Today Show. It’s a terrific choice: an irresistible comic novel about the tenacity of racism in corporate America (review). With a nod to the old Broadway show, The Post's headline writer cleverly called it “How to succeed in business, aside from being White,” which suggests the novel’s zany comedy and biting contemporary satire.
Milkwood Farm, a retreat for the children's book community. (Photo courtesy of Sophie Blackall)
Even children’s book writers and illustrators need a break from the wild things. Sophie Blackall gets that. The two-time Caldecott Medal winner worked for years in her kitchen or a spare room while raising her kids. When she finally started sharing a studio in Brooklyn with three other creators, it was a godsend. “It changed our lives quite literally,” she tells me. “We’re invested in each other’s work. It sounds idyllic, and it actually is. Our work is better for our companionship, but we didn't realize how rare it was.”
So, Blackall started formulating an ambitious plan for a much bigger creative oasis. A few years ago, she saw a 19th-century dairy farm in upstate New York. “It was a mess,” she says. “It was rundown, and anyone in their right mind would drive straight away.” She bought it. This summer, after elaborately refurbishing the barn, she hopes to open the Milkwood Farm retreat for people involved with children’s books.
When complete, the main facility will have 10 bedrooms and five bathrooms, along with “a great big open kitchen” and “a massive kind of Hogwartish dining hall, a place to put on talks and presentations and movie nights and anything else anybody imagines — building parade floats or line dancing.” The library, with a gallery, will hold thousands of children’s books, and there’ll be plenty of space to work on manuscripts. In addition to providing a retreat for writers and illustrators, Milkwood may also offer programs for editors, librarians and prospective children's book creators.
“It feels like something that the industry desperately needs,” Blackall says. “Fellow writers and illustrators don’t get to hang out with each other and to share ideas and to, perhaps, find they want to collaborate with one another.” (For more information, sign up here.)
The farm may always be a work in progress. “It has not one, not two, but three silos,” Blackall says. “If you have any fantastic ideas for what to do with three gargantuan silos, please let me know.”
“Fame is a bee,” Emily Dickinson wrote. “It has a song— / It has a sting—.” That may be the theme of the second season of “Dickinson,” which starts streaming today on Apple TV+. The historical dramedy, starring Hailee Steinfeld as the belle of Amherst, offers a syncopated riff of biographical detail and modern feminism. From time to time, Wiz Khalifa, playing Death, kindly stops by. I find it all utterly ridiculous and completely irresistible.
In a promotional video for the show, creator and executive producer Alena Smith explains, “My goal with this series is always to be using the life and work of Emily Dickinson as a kind of funhouse mirror for what we are going through as people today.” The new season promises to explore “the changing pace of media” and the celebrity culture it made possible. The poet who declared, “How dreary – to be – Somebody!” will have to decide if she really wants to be famous or not. (Apple has already renewed the series for a third season.)
Ahistorical as “Dickinson” often is — in real life, Emily probably never twerked — don’t be surprised if the show takes the young poet to Washington, D.C. There really was a time when she “went wandering down the latitudes.” In 1855, Emily and her sister, Vinnie, came to the Capital for three weeks with their father, Congressman Edward Dickinson (Whig-Mass.). They dined with the Supreme Court Chief Justice, toured the new buildings and visited Mount Vernon. The details of Dickinson's trip are delightfully revealed in a recent Washington Post magazine story (read).
Wesleyan University Press; Columbia University Press
Frank Nelson Doubleday was born on this day in 1862. He eventually became the country’s greatest book publisher. After many byzantine consolidations, the remnants of his firm are now part of Penguin Random House, which is part of the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, which is plotting to gobble up Simon & Schuster sometime this year, unless the Justice Department objects. (No further word on that yet, but I’ll keep you posted.)
I’ve been thinking about Frank Doubleday because I’m reading an out-of-print book called “The Blockbuster Complex.” It was published 40 years ago by the late New Yorker writer Thomas Whiteside. At the time, the F.T.C. was investigating anti-competitive behavior in the publishing industry. (That went well!) Since then, much has changed, of course, but what’s striking about Whiteside’s study is how many trends have remained the same. Or gotten worse. For instance, Whiteside is alarmed that just 10 publishing companies control 60 percent of the market! These days, that sounds like a bounty of competitive diversity. At other points, whole paragraphs could be lifted out and republished as today’s news: “In the blockbuster era,” he writes, “the artistic worth of many individual authors is being slighted or ignored, and their minimum means of livelihood rendered more precarious than ever.” Whiteside finds an industry foolishly wedded to paying enormous sums to a few authors, which creates equally enormous pressure to concentrate marketing budgets only on those make-or-break titles (sigh).
On a subject related to the blockbuster effect, I’m reading a new academic book by Richard Jean So called “Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction.” Using charts, data and analysis that I’ve never seen before, So demonstrates that “despite efforts by minority authors and activists to diversify and transform the American literary field . . . none was strong enough to permanently undo the hegemony of white authorship in the field.” What’s most sobering is So’s argument that the efforts of editors, prize committees and reviewers to highlight a few black authors has been part of a larger system that effectively ignores the work of most black authors.
Author and narrator George Saunders (Photo by Zach Krahmer/Penguin Random House Audio)
George Saunders released a strange and poignant ghost story in 2017 called “Lincoln in the Bardo” (review). The recorded version, named best audiobook of the year, employed a record-breaking cast of more than 160 narrators, including Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Tambor and David Sedaris.
Saunders is taking a similar approach with his new book, “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life.” The book is based on his years of teaching MFA students at Syracuse University, and it includes a selection of classic Russian stories as source material. For the audiobook, Saunders narrates his own critical essays, but he’s assembled a remarkable collection of actors to narrate the stories:
- Phylicia Rashad: “In the Cart,” by Anton Chekhov
- Nick Offerman: “The Singers,” by Ivan Turgenev
- Glenn Close: “The Darling,” by Chekhov
- Keith David: “Master and Man,” by Leo Tolstoy
- Rainn Wilson: “The Nose,” by Nikolai Gogol
- BD Wong: “Gooseberries,” by Chekhov
- Renée Elise Goldsberry: “Alyosha the Pot,” by Tolstoy
For an introduction to “A Swim in a Pond in the Rain,” listen to Saunders and his mentor Tobias Wolff talk about the book during the Bay Area Book Festival on Jan. 15. To watch this streaming dream team, you’ll need a ticket ($40), which includes a signed copy of the book mailed to your home (details).
John Steinbeck's “Travels with Charley” and Hammy the dog. (Photo by Melanie D.G. Kaplan for The Washington Post)
“I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” Thoreau wrote. Years ago, after reading “Walden,” I was determined to see that little Massachusetts town and follow Thoreau’s errand into the wilderness. The pond, with its crowded beach and rundown bathhouse, was a disappointment, but touring the house of his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson felt like visiting the Mother Church.
Dickinson claimed, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away.” Sometimes, though, a book is what inspires us to get on a frigate and go lands away. In that spirit, the Travel section of The Washington Post has just started a new series “on the books that spurred our love of travel.” In the debut installment, Melanie D.G. Kaplan writes about taking a cross-country road trip after reading John Steinbeck’s classic “Travels with Charley” (read).
Books have long motivated readers to travel. Chaucer has inspired literary pilgrimages to Canterbury for centuries. You can follow Odysseus’ itinerary on a cruise ship (beware the Sirens!) or take an “Outlander” tour to Scotland. What book has sent you packing? Tell me about it on this simple form. We might use your responses in a future Book World story. Or I might just borrow your idea for my next vacation.
Attention Teachers: Jason Reynolds wants to visit your virtual classroom. The National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature recently finished online appearances with students from middle and high schools across the country. Now he’s looking for additional groups in small, underserved communities with which to share his program “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story.” The deadline for applications is Jan. 15, so get moving (details).
To support these presentations, which are co-sponsored by Every Child a Reader, Simon & Schuster has donated 5,500 copies of Reynolds’s celebrated novel “Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks” (review). Although the pandemic has dramatically curtailed his travel plans, Reynolds pivoted early to an online platform, producing his “Write. Right. Rite.” video series (watch) and a monthly newsletter (read).
W. W. Norton
“The Historians,” by Irish writer Eavan Boland, won the Costa Book Award for poetry this week. The Costa prizes — conferred in five categories — “celebrate the most enjoyable books of the year by writers resident in the UK and Ireland.” Boland published her first collection, “New Territory,” in 1967 at the age of 23. Her work was widely celebrated, and as the director of creative writing at Stanford University for more than two decades, she influenced hundreds of writers. She died last spring in Dublin (obituary). “The Historians,” her final book, is an exquisitely subtle collection about the life and work of a woman, a grandmother, an artist.
The Just Use of Figures
Silence was a story, I thought,
on its own and all to itself. Then
the storm came. It came to us
with bulletins, forecasts, data,
each coordinate warning us
the doors of the ocean were open
to a wind with an appetite
for roadside bins, roofs,
treetops, the painted henhouse
made to stop foxes that blew away
as lightly as the hat the woman failed
to hold on to as she walked past
Stephen’s Green, a sudden gust
catching it: wood and wire mesh
that had once sheltered hands
as they warmed to new eggs
on a winter morning now
stirred into flight over fences
and scoured grass.
it was quiet in the garden.
The pigeons we were used to
hearing all morning were all gone.
Outside the window it seemed
a space had opened, an emptiness.
I knew then what I wanted
to write was not storms
or wet air, it was something
else: it was metaphor and yet
what was made for language
when language cannot carry
meaning failed here. Instead
I learned in the hushed garden
before the wind rose what
I needed to know. Silence told the story.
Excerpted from “The Historians: Poems.” Copyright (c) 2020 by Eavan Boland. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
More than 10 years ago, my wife and I started filming satirical videos about the life of a panicked and pompous book critic. (It was a stretch.) Since then, with The Post’s encouragement, we’ve posted more than 50 episodes of the Totally Hip Video Book Review (full list). The latest just went up Monday. It’s inspired by Michael Farris Smith’s new novel, “Nick,” a prequel to “The Great Gatsby” (watch). There’s some dancing and even what passes for singing. After we’d finished filming and gone to bed, I asked Dawn if we’d ever know when we finally crossed that indistinct line between parody and humiliation. “Oh,” she said, “we passed that a while ago.”
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