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My dissertation was about women’s authorship and sitcoms. Authorship is a key word here. It wasn’t about “writers,” but about those who left their marks on the text, their control over character, storylines through aspects of performance and utilizing their star power — for most of my case studies (30 Rock, Girls, and United States of Tara) the examination did focus on writing, but what I found while returning to the archives was the thread of women’s narratives that dealt with writing without words. Lucille Ball never wrote for I Love Lucy nor was she the head of Desilu, but as Madelyn Pugh Davis, one of the show’s writers, notes in her memoir Laughing with Lucy, Ball exerted authorship through performance and her refusal/approval to perform certain scenes. Amy Poehler wrote a handful of Parks and Recreation episodes, but her iconic status in improvisation as a founding member of Upright Citizen’s Brigade and successful sketch career at SNL brought her a certain level of authority to the series, a sentiment continually asserted in interviews with the cast and crew. Mary Tyler Moore is also part of this legacy of women’s negotiation and “writing.” She wasn’t a writer but owned her performances. She owned her brand and in doing so provided opportunities for writers to develop their own. Mary Tyler Moore owned Mary Richards, who helped women figure out their place in feminism’s upheaval of roles and norms. More… “Left Wanting Moore”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.
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Some stories have fantastical endings. Matthew Vollmer’s forthcoming Gateway to Paradise, a smart collection of short stories, begins with “Downtime,” wherein a dentist named Ted Barber is haunted by the loss of his wife, Tavey, who drowned on their honeymoon. He flew back to Valleytown, North Carolina, knowing that his wife’s body was stowed in the cargo bay of the plane he is on. He is now having a hot affair with his assistant, who is formidably competent and would be a great wife, but images and reminiscences of Tavey keep pulling him away from Allison. He has weird imaginings, weird dreams, or perhaps they are hallucinations. They are certainly hallucinatory. He swims with Tavey off the coast of Mexico and, after trying to shake her off — her dimly lit, sketchy, almost transparent body — he gives up. She hangs in and he finds himself giving into her. He allows her to find places in his body where she can hold onto him. He knows this is slightly insane, but he finally decides both women will be with him: one in the real world, one in another world. As odd or weird as this sounds, it is simply a metaphor for how a man whose wife has died must accommodate both the memory and the reality, the woman lost and the woman he needs now. At the same time, the image of the husband taking his dead wife’s corpse into his own body makes a striking impression. It is not unrelated to Franz Kafka’s insect in the Metamorphosis. And if you have not read the Metamorphosis, you must put down this essay right now and go straight there. Then read “Downtime.” More… “Imagined Endings”

Kelly Cherry‘s 2015 books are Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories, A Kelly Cherry Reader, and Physics for Poetry (a poetry chapbook). In 2014 she published A Kind of Dream, linked stories.
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If you delight in partaking of a dram of whisky, you likely delight in what I think of as whisky extracurriculars. There are some foods and drinks for which savoring them directly is the height of our experience with them, but any whisky buff will tell you that there’s a bit extra with the water of life.

I’ve been a devotee of Islay whisky for a decent chunk of my life, loving how the essence of sea and coast can be distilled into a glass, with aspects of brine, seaweed, the iron of terra firma, peat, and the smoky fingers of the kiln playing around one’s nose and tickling the back of one’s throat. The island of Islay produces the most intense whisky in Scotland. Many drinkers prefer the more honeyed malts of the Highlands, though if you drink one you tend to drink the other. What’s ironic in my case is that I’ve given up drinking entirely, for a host of reasons — isn’t that always the way in these matters? — and yet my relationship with whisky, post-drink, continues on.

That’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by the 1949 film, Whisky Galore!, which is based on the novel of the same name by Compton Mackenzie, an author few people remember today. More… “The Laughing Dram”

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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Byatt turns 80 today. I interviewed her some years back after she had finished The Children’s Book, a very long novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize. Set in the decades leading up to World War I, it follows several families (loosely based on the family and friends of the children’s writer, E. Nesbit) as they try to live according to exaggerated progressive and esthetic principles. Like all of Byatt’s works, this one is sprawling and erudite. Byatt herself seemed to know everything about everything — a modern incarnation of George Eliot, acutely aware of carrying this mantle. Byatt has written a lot but remains best known for her 1990 Booker award-winning novel, Possession. Academics of my vintage have a special fondness for this work since it tells the story of two literary scholars whose lives parallel those of the two 19th century poets they are researching. Both pairs fall in love in the face of obstacles. The book is filled with large swaths of Robert Browningesque and Christina Rossetti-ish poetry that Byatt composes for her characters. It’s a tour de force of mimicry though I admit to having skipped a good deal of it to get to the love story. I suspect that its appeal for many of us was that it was a dissertation wrapped in a bodice ripper. The 2002 movie, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart, captures the intellectually and emotionally overheated effect, making for a great grad student date flick. A dramatic moment in the interview was Byatt’s terse statement that she doesn’t speak to her sister, novelist Margaret Drabble. •

Feature image courtesy of Nationaal Historisch Museum via Flickr (Creative Commons). 

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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Maybe he went for a walk.

Creative people walk. The philosopher and compulsive stroller Friedrich Nietzsche left little room for debate when he claimed 125 years ago, “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.”

And he had a lot of company in this belief, especially among the pantheon of the early big heads: Tchaikovsky, Rousseau, Dickens, Mahler, Thoreau, Kant — all were habitual walkers, some to the point of obsession. Thoreau, for instance, adhered to a simple calculus — he could write for an hour only if he offset that with an hour of walking. Tchaikovsky walked precisely two hours every day to remain creative. Rousseau believed he could conceive thoughts worthy of committing to paper only if he walked. Rousseau further claimed that just looking at a desk left him dissipated and vaguely nauseous, foreshadowing the affliction of modern cubicle dwellers everywhere.

The Morrissey of the 19th century

What English teacher hasn’t cursed Edgar Allan Poe? Isn’t he responsible for all those cheesy revenge plots and creepy sex-death fantasies that teenagers (mostly male) insist on writing? Can you really quarrel with T.S. Eliot’s observation that Poe had “the intellect of a highly gifted person before puberty” (though going through puberty seems more apt) — or with Edmund Wilson’s indictment of Poe’s “awful diction”?

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have… More…

Possibly a bit jealous of Tom Clancy?

 

Tom Clancy’s death did not shake the literary establishment. That’s because Tom Clancy was never part of the literary establishment. He was an insurance salesman. In his spare time, Clancy wrote military thrillers. His first book, The Hunt for Red October — about a Soviet naval officer who takes his super-secret sub and defects to the US — was published by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. Clancy got $5000 bucks for it. But Ronald Reagan read the book and started telling everybody how much he loved it. Soon enough, Clancy was a bestselling author. The story gets ridiculous from there, with books spilling off the presses and hundreds of millions of dollars changing hands. Movies were made. Video games were made. This was the stuff that publishers and business-minded authors dream about on cold autumn nights.

The more… More…

Instructions: Insert author name, dig up old letters, attach "A Writer's Life."

The other week I popped into an outlet of major retail bookstore chain just to use the restroom. I walked out with Marion Meade’s Lonelyhearts and Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man — biographies of Nathanael West (and Eileen McKinney) and Donald Barthelme respectively. That’s me down $52. In my bag, as my commute read, I already had Misfit, Jonathan Yardley’s bio of Frederick Exley. That morning I’d just returned to the library Literary Life, the second and very gossipy volume of Larry McMurtry’s memoirs. I don’t even read McMurtry, though I did see most of The Last Picture Show and the episode of Lonesome Dove that featured a turn by pro wrestler Bret Hart. Have I mentioned having just returned from Florida? Chester Himes’ My Life of Absurdity was my airplane book. I stuck with it and was greatly rewarded despite the line “For I fell madly in love with her… More…

And Brother Theo, too.

 

The letters of famous persons generally disappoint. Letters, unless specifically written for the public, are personal in essence. It is one human being in contact with another, sharing things that, often, only the two can fully understand. The letters of great persons are no different. At best, they provide a glimpse into secrets, a chance to hear the unguarded thoughts of public figures. There is the potential excitement of revelation. Occasionally, our desires are satisfied and then some. We come across, for instance, James Joyce writing his wife Nora: “Some night when we are somewhere in the dark and talking dirty and you feel your shite ready to fall put your arms round my neck in shame and shit it down softly.”

In such moments of intimacy, dirty or less so, the aura of fame is stripped away… More…

Is the public ready for his jerks?

Certain books are better discovered than sold. On a lonely library shelf, say. Or better yet, pressed into one’s hands by the one clerk at Borders who actually reads. Or, ultimately, recommended by another writer through the power of literary broadcast. Charles Bukowski pushed a few books into the hands of a generation when he told “a little butterball…in heat” who his favorite author was:

“Fante.”

“Who?”

“John F-A-N-T-E. Ask the Dust. Wait Until Spring, Bandini.”

Those lines are from Women, and that was 30 years ago. Fante, already forgotten, had his career resuscitated when Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin asked Bukowski if Fante were real and then brought the writer’s work back into print. He even inspired Fante, blind and diabetic by that time, to dictate one last novel to his wife, Joyce. Now it is 2009 and the centenary of John Fante’s birth. He is dead. Bukowski… More…