Links for May 12

  • Simon Lipskar, a literary agent whose assistant sent perhaps the nicest and most encouraging rejection letter I’ve ever received, recently gave an excellent interview, in which he most notably said, “Writers should write the books they love. That way, no matter what the market says, their time wasn’t wasted.” I agree, but it would also be nice if the market were interested. The theme of love and market is one you’ll hear more about shortly.

“The New Confessions” is my favorite of Mr. Boyd’s many fine novels, but I recommend all of them. His most recent, “Restless,” a historical spy story published last year, is intelligent and thrilling; its heroine is an old woman. “Any Human Heart,” perhaps Mr. Boyd’s most critically acclaimed novel, is also a fictional autobiography of an English adventurer not so different from John James Todd.

I’ve often wondered why Mr. Boyd hasn’t become a British literary star in America, the way Nick Hornby, Martin Amis and John Mortimer have. He’s as good a writer as any of them. Maybe there’s no rational explanation for why some great writers don’t win the commercial sweepstakes. Maybe it’s just luck.

As if that weren’t enough, she also says:

In my last column I asked for recommendations of chewy modern novels. One reader mentioned “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, which I agree is one of those rare books with a plot that races and a thoughtfulness that slows you down. Two other modern novels I found equally provocative were “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and “Seven Types of Ambiguity” by Elliot Perlman. I have a friend who recently reread “Cloud Atlas.” She said it was even better the second time.

Hmmm, among that, Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night, and rereading some Saul Bellow, I’m not sure where I’m going to find time in the next few weeks.

  • The Watch That Ends the Night?” you ask. Terry Teachout says:

At any rate I finally got around to reading The Watch That Ends the Night last week, and I was knocked flat by it, so much so that I had to ration the number of pages I allowed myself each day so that I wouldn’t be distracted from my deadlines. I intend at some point in the next couple of weeks to discuss it in the weekly book column that I write for Commentary’s Web site, so I won’t jump the gun here. Suffice it for the moment to say that I feel inclined to rank it alongside Peter de Vries’ The Blood of the Lamb, an equally ill-remembered novel of similar vintage and subject matter (both books have at their center a woman who is suffering from a fatal illness and are narrated by a man who loves her).

  • Razim questions why modern literature doesn’t appeal to him so much as the past and comes up with a lot of answers that sound, to my ears, vaguely sexist. A more probable answer is this: modern literature—meaning anything published after World War II—is still being sorted out as to what’s worth reading and what’s not, and the cacophony of popular literature has probably drowned out some of the avant garde that will one day be acknowledged as great.

In addition, I think tastes have also shifted and become more dispersed, meaning that multiple kinds of canons are being created, rather than the more singular, dominant kind of past. Finally, I’m not sure the demand shift Razim argues is enough to explain the changes in literature; even if women read most fiction, an absolute number of men read it sufficiently to create their own market. This goes back to the dispersion argument.

(Hat tip Tyler Cowen).

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