Literature

The Paradox of Fiction

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How can we be moved by the fate of Anna Karenina when we know she’s not a real person?

In order to have an emotional response to a character or event, we must believe that it really exists. We know that this belief is lacking when we read a work of fiction. Yet we’re commonly moved by such works. Why?

It can’t be the case that we’re simply “caught up” in a story and forget that it’s fiction. If that were true then the fear, sadness, and pity we feel should be unpleasant rather than enjoyable. (Also, we’re not moved to intervene and help a fictional character.)

University of Kent philosopher Colin Radford concludes that our emotional responses to fiction are ultimately irrational, that “our being moved in certain ways by works of art, though very ‘natural’ to us and in that way only too intelligible, involves us in inconsistency and so incoherence.”

See Push and Pull.

Ghost Writer

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[Theodore] Dreiser said that when he was living in New York, on West Fifty-seventh Street, John Cowper Powys came occasionally to dinner. At that time Powys was living in this country, in a little town about thirty miles up the Hudson, and he usually left Dreiser’s place fairly early to catch a train to take him home. One evening, after a rather long after-dinner conversation, Powys looked at his watch and said hurriedly that he had no idea it was so late, and he would have to go at once or miss his train. Dreiser helped him on with his overcoat, and Powys, on his way to the door, said, ‘ I’ll appear before you, right here, later this evening. You’ll see me.’

‘Are you going to turn yourself into a ghost, or have you a key to the door?’ Dreiser laughed when he asked that question, for he did not believe for an instant that Powys meant to be taken seriously.

‘I don’t know,’ said Powys. ‘ I may return as a spirit or in some other astral form.’

Dreiser said that there had been no discussion whatever during the evening, of spirits, ghosts or visions. The talk had been mainly about American publishers and their methods. He said that he gave no further thought to Powys’s promise to reappear, but he sat up reading for about two hours, all alone. Then he looked up from his book and saw Powys standing in the doorway between the entrance hall and the living room. The apparation had Powys’s features, his tall stature, loose tweed garments and general appearance, but a pale white glow shone from the figure. Dreiser rose at once, and strode towards the ghost, or whatever it was, saying, ‘Well, you’ve kept your word, John. You’re here. Come on in and tell me how you did it.’ The apparation did not reply, and it vanished when Dreiser was within three feet of it.

As soon as he had recovered somewhat from his astonishment Dreiser picked up the telephone and called John Cowper Powy’s house in the country. Powys came to the phone, and Dreiser recognized his voice. After he had heard the story of the apparation, Powys said, ‘I told you I’d be there, and you oughtn’t to be surprised.’ Dreiser told me that he was never able to get any explanation from Powys, who refused to discuss the matter from any standpoint.

— W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947

Winners and Losers

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Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell wrote one novel apiece. Both won the Pulitzer Prize.

The Turning Point and The Color Purple each received 11 Oscar nominations — and won zero.

Nothing Doing

Deluged with mail after his discovery of the double helix, Francis Crick began sending a printed card in response to invitations:

crick demurral

He modeled it on a similar one made by Edmund Wilson:

wilson demurral

In 1976 freelance writer Betty Eppes managed to talk to J.D. Salinger for 20 minutes. “He said he didn’t believe in giving autographs. It was a meaningless gesture. He told me never to sign my name for anyone else. It was all right for actors and actresses to sign their names, because all they had to give were their faces and names. But it was different with writers. They had their work to give. Therefore, it was cheap to give autographs. He said, Don’t you ever do it! No self-respecting writer should ever do it.”

See Pen Fatigue.

Blood and Ink

A propos of dreams, is it not a strange thing if writers of fiction never dream of their own creations; recollecting, I suppose, even in their dreams, that they have no real existence? I never dream of any of my own characters, and I feel it is so impossible that I would wager Scott never did of his, real as they are.”

— Charles Dickens, letter to C.C. Felton, Sept. 1, 1843

“The great characters of fiction live as truly as the memories of dead men. For the life after death it is not necessary that a man or woman should have lived.”

— Samuel Butler, Notebooks

“Only a few isolated figures in letters stand out as real; Sir Roger de Coverley, I suppose, Mr. Pickwick certainly, and, of course, Sherlock Holmes … Such characters, I mean, as create a real illusion; so that a man attaining Heaven might look round him and say, ‘And now, where’s Pickwick? Oh, no, I forgot; of course, he’s only a character in a book.'”

— Ronald Knox, “A Ramble in Barsetshire,” Essays in Satire, 1928

Royal Jelly

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“Last night Mr. Creston Clarke played King Lear at the Tabor Grand. All through the five acts of that Shakespearean tragedy he played the King as though under momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the Ace.” — Eugene Field, Denver Tribune, c. 1880

Worldly Wise

Proverbs from around the world:

  • A shroud has no pockets. (Scotland)
  • No one is a blacksmith at birth. (Namibia)
  • The absent always bears the blame. (Netherlands)
  • One cannot make soup out of beauty. (Estonia)
  • Bad is called good when worse happens. (Norway)
  • When the mouse laughs at the cat, there is a hole. (Gambia)
  • Under trees it rains twice. (Switzerland)
  • Everyone is foolish until they buy land. (Ireland)
  • Every head is a world. (Cuba)
  • The only victory over love is flight. (France)
  • Don’t look where you fell, but where you slipped. (Liberia)
  • Many lose when they win, and others win when they lose. (Germany)

And “It is not economical to go to bed early to save the candles if the result is twins.” (China)

Encore

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When Polish composer André Tchaikowsky died in 1982, he left his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company in hopes that he might appear as Yorick in a production of Hamlet.

No one felt comfortable fulfilling this wish until David Tennant used the skull in a performance in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2008. He continued to use it throughout the production’s West End run and in a later television adaptation.

“André’s skull was a profound memento mori, which perhaps no prop skull could quite provide,” said director Gregory Doran. “I hope other productions may, with the greatest respect for André, use the skull as he intended it to be used, for precisely this purpose.”

(Thanks, Pål.)

Memorable Dedications

By Franklin Pierce Adams, in Overset, 1922:

To
Herbert Bayard Swope
without whose friendly
aid and counsel every
line in this book was
written.

By Francis Hackett, in The Invisible Censor, 1921:

To
my wife
Signe Toksvig
whose lack of interest
in this book has been my
constant desperation.

By Benjamin Disraeli, in Vivian Grey, 1826:

To
The Best and Greatest of Men
I dedicate these volumes.
He for whom it was intended will accept and
appreciate the compliment;
Those for whom it was not intended will —
do the same.

By John Burroughs, in Bird and Bough, 1906:

To
the kinglet
that sang in my evergreens in October and
made me think it was May.

By Jerome K. Jerome, in Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, 1886:

To the very dear and well beloved Friend of my prosperous and evil days. — To the friend, who, though in the early stages of our acquaintanceship, he did ofttimes disagree with me, has since come to be my very warmest comrade. To the friend who, however often I may put him out, never (now) upsets me in revenge. To the friend who, treated with marked coldness by all the female members of my household, and regarded with suspicion by my very dog, nevertheless, seems day by day to be more drawn by me, and in return, to more and more impregnate me with the odour of his friendship. To the friend who never tells me of my faults, never wants to borrow money, and never talks about himself. To the companion of my idle hours, the soother of my sorrows, the confidant of my joys and hopes, my oldest and strongest Pipe, this little volume is gratefully and affectionately dedicated.

Authorial Distaste

  • Kingsley Amis on Dylan Thomas, 1947: “I have got to the stage now with mr toss that I have only reached with Chaucer and Dryden, not even with Milton, that of VIOLENTLY WISHING that the man WERE IN FRONT OF ME, so that I could be DEMONIACALLY RUDE to him about his GONORRHEIC RUBBISH, and end up by WALKING ON HIS FACE and PUNCHING HIS PRIVY PARTS.”
  • Mark Twain on Jane Austen, 1898: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
  • Byron on Keats, 1820: “No more Keats, I entreat: flay him alive; if some of you don’t I must skin him myself: there is no bearing the driveling idiotism of the Mankin.”
  • Virginia Woolf on D.H. Lawrence, 1932: “English has one million words: why confine yourself to six?”
  • Cyril Connolly on George Orwell, 1973: “He would not blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.”

In reviewing Tom Wolfe’s 742-page A Man in Full in the New York Review of Books in 1998, Norman Mailer wrote: “At certain points, reading the work can even be said to resemble the act of making love to a three-hundred-pound woman. Once she gets on top, it’s all over. Fall in love, or be asphyxiated.”

Presumption Rewarded

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Sinclair Lewis received this letter from a lawyer in a Midwestern city:

Dear Lewis:

Have read a few of your works and would like to ask a few favors. Please send me a list of your stories, your autograph, picture, and a letter describing your life. How many children have you and their names.

Thanking you, I am

Yours very truly,

J.J. Jones, Esq.

He responded:

My Dear Jim:

There was only one thing about your nice letter that I didn’t like. It was so sort of formal. True, we have never met, and somehow I feel we aren’t likely to, but, isn’t this a democratic country? So let me call you Jim, and you call me Fatty, or any other friendly name.

Now Jim, I haven’t got a photograph of me here, but I’ll go right down to the junction and have one taken. I’m preparing a letter about my life, but it’s been a pretty long one and a bad one, and that will take me several weeks.

But in the meantime, Jim, I’m awfully interested in lawyers. Kindly send me your picture, picture of your home and office, a list of your assets and liabilities, average income per month, list of the books you have read since 1914, if any. Kindly inform me whether you have ever defended a bootlegger and why. Should be glad to have any other interesting personal information for use in a story. How do you get along with your wife? Kindly explain this in detail.

Thanking you in advance, I remain,

Yours affectionately,

Sinclair Lewis

The Northanger Horrid Novels

In Northanger Abbey, Isabella Thorpe recommends seven Gothic novels to Catherine Morland:

‘Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.’

‘Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?’

‘I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.’

‘Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?’

‘Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.’

For a century it was assumed that Jane Austen had invented these titles, but then Montague Summers and Michael Sadleir discovered they were actual novels. Here’s an excerpt from Horrid Mysteries, which is certainly well named:

‘Thank God, Countess,’ one of them began, ‘that you have been rescued from the cruel hands of that barbarian, and are now in the company of more humane beings!’

‘From what cruel hands?’ I replied, with astonishment.

‘From those of your pretended lover, the Marquis Carlos of G******.’

‘Be silent, vile reptile,’ I exclaimed, ‘and dare not to asperse the name of a man whom I adore!’

Ironically, Austen’s parody may have rescued these titles from an oblivion they otherwise deserved. Announcing his discovery in a 1927 article, Sadleir wrote, “So long as Jane Austen is read — which will be for at least as long as there are readers at all — [these novels] will survive as tiny stitches in the immense tapestry of English literature.”

All Dressed Up

The shortest named speaking role in Shakespeare is that of Taurus in Antony and Cleopatra.

He says, “My lord?”

Misc

  • Asked to invent the perfect bestselling title, Bennett Cerf suggested Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.
  • The two most common birthdates for Nobel laureates are May 21 and February 28 (seven apiece).
  • ALASKA is the only U.S. state name that can be typed on a single row of keys on a standard typewriter.
  • 13177388 = 71 + 73 + 71 + 77 + 77 + 73 + 78 + 78
  • “I don’t know much about medicine, but I know what I like.” — S.J. Perelman

Drawing Blanks

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In 2002, Russian magnate Vladimir O. Potanin paid $1 million for Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square. “‘All paintings are pictures’ would have been a strong candidate for a necessary truth until Malevich proved it false,” wrote Arthur Danto of the inscrutable black canvas. Malevich himself had said, “It is not painting; it is something else.”

In The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman guides his party across the Ocean with “a map they could all understand”:

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“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best —
A perfect and absolute blank!”

While an architecture student at Cornell in the 1920s, practical joker Hugh Troy was given 48 hours to render “a conception of what a brightly floodlighted hydroelectric plant might look like at night.” “Though Hugh was overloaded with other work, he got his drawing in on time,” remembered classmate Don Hershey. He called it Hydroelectric Plant at Night (Fuse Blown):

troy hydroelectric plant

In 1967 British artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin produced a “map of itself,” a “map of an area of dimensions 12″ x 12″ indicating 2,304 1/4″ squares”:

map of itself

Katharine Harmon, in The Map as Art, writes that this is one of a series of maps “revealing only what they wished to show and jettisoning the rest — drawing attention to what cartographers have always done.”

(Thanks, Tristram.)

Ten Commandments

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In 1928, theologian and mystery writer Ronald Knox codified 10 rules of detective fiction:

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

These came to define the “golden age” of the classic murder mystery. The story, Knox wrote, “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”

Misc

  • Kurt Vonnegut managed the country’s first Saab dealership.
  • Max Born is Olivia Newton-John’s grandfather.
  • 19683 = 1 × (9 – 6)8 × 3
  • Before the advent of European settlers, it’s believed that no Native American had blood type B.
  • “Good taste is the worst vice ever invented.” — Edith Sitwell

The first recorded performance of Hamlet took place at sea, aboard the East India ship Red Dragon off the coast of Africa in 1607. Capt. William Keeling’s diary entry for Sept. 5 reads: “I sent the interpreter according to his desier abord the Hector whear he brooke fast and after came abord me wher we gave the tragedie of Hamlett.”

Declined With Thanks

When Hunter S. Thompson published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, writers began to send him manuscripts, hoping he could help to get them published in Rolling Stone. Thompson sent a package of their poems to the magazine’s poetry editor, Charles Perry. “I don’t know about this stuff,” he wrote. “If you feel the same way, send it back to them with this” — and he included a prepared rejection letter:

You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead. Why don’t you get a job, germ? Maybe delivering advertising handouts door to door, or taking tickets for a wax museum. You drab South Bend cocksuckers are all the same; like those dope-addled dingbats at the Rolling Stone office. I’d like to kill those bastards for sending me your piece … and I’d just as soon kill you, too. Jam this morbid drivel up your ass where your readership will better appreciate it.

“We actually sent it out to a couple of people, thinking they would appreciate it,” Perry recalled later. “One person took it to a lawyer and asked whether he could sue us, and the lawyer said, ‘No, you don’t have a leg to stand on … but could I Xerox it?'”

Master Class

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Writings of Sherlock Holmes, compiled by Vincent Starrett in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes:

  • Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos
  • Upon the Tracing of Footsteps
  • Upon the Influence of a Trade Upon the Form of the Hand
  • The Book of Life
  • On the Typewriter and Its Relation to Crime
  • Upon the Dating of Old Documents
  • Of Tattoo Marks
  • On Secret Writings
  • On the Surface Anatomy of the Human Ear
  • Early English Charters
  • On the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus
  • Chaldean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language
  • Malingering
  • Upon the Uses of Dogs in the Work of the Detective
  • Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, With Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen
  • The Blanched Soldier
  • The Lion’s Mane
  • Sigerson
  • The Whole Art of Detection
  • Translations

In June 1955, a document purporting to be Holmes’ last will and testament was published by Nathan L. Bengis in the London Mystery Magazine. In it, Holmes leaves “to the authorities of Scotland Yard, one copy of each of my trifling monographs on crime detection, unless happily they shall feel they have outgrown the need for the elementary suggestions of an amateur detective.”

Literary Complaints

Charles Dickens to London clockmaker John Bennett:

My Dear Sir — Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has gone (as indeed it always has) perfectly well, but has struck the hours with great reluctance; and, after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works that it would be glad to make a clean breast of.

W.S. Gilbert to the Times:

Sir, — Allow me to corroborate Dean Gregory’s statement as to the degeneration that has overtaken a company [the London and Northwestern Railway] which, until recently, was justly regarded as a pattern to all other lines in the matter of punctuality and rapidity of despatch. … In the face of Saturday the officials of the company stand helpless and appalled. This day, which recurs at stated and well-ascertained intervals, is treated as a phenomenon entirely outside the ordinary operations of nature, and, as a consequence, no attempt whatever is made to grapple with its inherent difficulties. To the question, ‘What has caused the train to be so late?’ the officials reply, ‘It is Saturday’ — as who should say, ‘It is an earthquake.’

Mark Twain to a gas and electric lighting company in Hartford, Conn.:

Gentlemen, — There are but two places in our whole street where lights could be of any value, by any accident, and you have measured and appointed your intervals so ingeniously as to leave each of those places in the centre of a couple of hundred yards of solid darkness. When I noticed that you were setting one of your lights in such a way that I could almost see how to get into my gate at night, I suspected that it was a piece of carelessness on the part of the workmen, and would be corrected as soon as you should go around inspecting and find it out. My judgment was right; it is always right, when you are concerned. For fifteen years, in spite of my prayers and tears, you persistently kept a gas lamp exactly half way between my gates, so that I couldn’t find either of them after dark; and then furnished such execrable gas that I had to hang a danger signal on the lamp post to keep teams from running into it, nights. Now I suppose your present idea is, to leave us a little more in the dark.

Don’t mind us — out our way; we possess but one vote apiece, and no rights which you are in any way bound to respect. Please take your electric light and go to — but never mind, it is not for me to suggest; you will probably find the way; and any way you can reasonably count on divine assistance if you lose your bearings.

S.L. Clemens.

Pen Pals

franklin pierce adams

“Guess whose birthday it is today?” Franklin Pierce Adams asked Beatrice Kaufman.

“Yours?” she guessed.

“No, but you’re getting warm,” he said. “It’s Shakespeare’s!”

Visitors

From “Love and Freindship,” a story by the 14-year-old Jane Austen:

One evening in December, as my father, my mother, and myself were arranged in social converse round our fireside, we were on a sudden greatly astonished by hearing a violent knocking on the outward door of our rustic cot.

My father started — ‘What noise is that?’ said he. ‘It sounds like a loud rapping at the door,’ replied my mother. ‘It does indeed,’ cried I. ‘I am of your opinion,’ said my father, ‘it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.’ ‘Yes,’ exclaimed I, ‘I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.’

‘That is another point,’ replied he. ‘We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock — though that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced.’

Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my father in his speech and somewhat alarmed my mother and me.

‘Had we better not go and see who it is?’ said she. ‘The servants are out.’ ‘I think we had,’ replied I. ‘Certainly,’ added my father, ‘by all means.’ ‘Shall we go now?’ said my mother, ‘The sooner the better,’ answered he. ‘Oh! let no time be lost,’ cried I.

A third more violent rap than ever again assaulted our ears. ‘I am certain there is somebody knocking at the door,’ said my mother. ‘I think there must,’ replied my father. ‘I fancy the servants are returned,’ said I. ‘I think I hear Mary going to the door.’ ‘I’m glad of it, cried my father, ‘for I long to know who it is.’

I was right in my conjecture; for Mary instantly entering the room informed us that a young gentleman and his servant were at the door, who had lost their way, were very cold and begged leave to warm themselves by our fire. …

Stage Whispers

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Fanny Kemble’s 1833 American tour was not a uniform success — her journal gives this account of one eventful scene in Baltimore:

ROMEO: Tear not our heart strings thus! They crack! They break! — Juliet! Juliet! (dies)

JULIET: (to corpse) Am I smothering you?

CORPSE: (to Juliet) Not at all. Could you be so kind, do you think, as to put my wig on again for me? It has fallen off.

JULIET: (to corpse) I’m afraid I can’t, but I’ll throw my muslin veil over it. You’ve broken the phial, haven’t you? (corpse nods)

JULIET: Where’s your dagger?

CORPSE: ‘Pon my soul, I don’t know.

“The play went off pretty well, except they broke one man’s collar-bone, and nearly dislocated a woman’s shoulder by flinging the scenery about.”

Epic Fantasy

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From a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his publishers, February 1950:

My work has escaped my control, and I have produced a monster; an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody); and it is not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion. Ridiculous and tiresome as you may think me, I want to publish them both — The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. That is what I should like. Or I will let it all be. I cannot contemplate any drastic rewriting or compression. But I shall not have any just grievance (nor shall I be dreadfully surprised) if you decline so obviously unprofitable a proposition.

At 150 million copies, The Lord of the Rings is now the third best-selling novel of all time.