What’s Wrong with New Books & Books We’d Like to See in Print

Biran Morton's Florence Gordon 9780544309869_custom-a7883da3ea029954586e04a85f3180c5665f5f17-s99-c85Recently I read Brian Morton’s entertaining new novel, Florence Gordon.

This gracefully-written novel begins well, but it quickly morphs from the point of view of Florence, a  cranky 75-year-old feminist intellectual, into a multi-generational multiple-POV soap opera about a family beset by the problems of long-distance romance and infidelity.

It’s awfully demure, considering the brilliance of this writer.

All right, it is a good read.  Many of you will enjoy this.

It is certainly a stand-out among the many unimpressive new books I read in September.  It even made me cry.

And yet I thought it could be better.

Some of the chapters are very short, less than one page.  I didn’t admire that trendy brevity.

And the characters are flat.  Florence’s son, Daniel, a cop, is likable but boringly stoic, and Janine, his skittish psychologist wife, wants to have sex with her boss, and that’s pretty much her raison d’être  (But can she type?)   Only their daughter, Emily, a thoughtful girl who learns how to take care of herserlf from Florence’s example of belligerent selfishness, seems worthy of her brilliant grandmother.

I wondered briefly if the editor dumbed down the book.

A few years ago, Margaret Drabble told the Telegraph she worried about dumbing down.  “I have had a weird feeling that I’m being dumbed down by my publishers and it’s interesting there’s an agenda of how it should be in the marketplace.”

I don’t worry about Margaret Drabble’s being dumbed down:  she changed publishers.

Are the problems with new books due to mediocre writing, or bad editing?

Those of us who aren’t in the publishing industry have no idea.

Does the publishing industry know what readers want?  I don’t think so.  Perhaps we’re tracking down old books on the net or turning to reprint presses because we’re looking for something different.

Below is a short list of worthy out-of-print books I’d like to see reissued. I’m not saying these are classics.  They’re certainly not better than Brian Morton’s book. But they’re pretty good books.

Dear Beast hale mUTvjMztFkfn7v-gZI9ypBg1.  Nancy Hale’s Dear Beast. Set in the South and New York, this lively comedy is the story of Abby Daniel, an unhappy housewife who writes a novel about life in a small town like Starkeyville, Virginia, where she lives unhappily with her bitter husband, an over-educated bookseller.

When her anonymous book becomes a best-seller and a Life photographer comes to shoot photos of Starkeyville, Abby cannot resist admitting she wrote the book.  But no one in Starkeyville acknowledges to Abby that they read the article in Life.  So she moves to New York…

Nancy Hale, the first woman reporter for The New York Times and a frequent contributor of short stories and autobiographical pieces to r, had illustrious ancestors. She was the daughter of two painters, Philip L. Hale and Lilian Westcott Hale, the granddaughter of Edward Everett Hale, author of The Man Without a Country, the great-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Lucretia Peabody Hale (The Peterkin Papers), and a descendant of Nathan Hale.

2.  Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow books and Mrs. Daffodil.

stillmeadow-roadThe Stillmeadow books are collections of columns and essays about Gladys Taber’s life in a 1690 farmhouse in Connecticut.These slight, charming essays are not in the same league as Wendell Berry’s or Annie Dillard’s, but they are plain, restful observations of the country that will delight those of us who understand there is no such thing as a quiet life in the country. Move to the country and you will appreciate nature, but it will not prevent the well from drying up, the septic tank from leaking, or the dishwasher’s breaking. Taber balances her lyrical vignettes about the changing seasons with wry descriptions of skunks living under the storage house, and her forgetting where she buried the jar of homemade brandied peaches (a treatment that was supposed to improve their quality).

Taber (1899-1980), who graduated from Wellesley and earned a master’s at Lawrence, wrote 50 books and was a columnist for Ladies’ Home Journal and Family Circle. According to one online article, she and her husband bought Stillmeadow, a country house, in 1943 with another couple.

taber mrs-daffodilI also love her autobiographical novel Mrs. Daffodil.  Like Taber, the heroine, Mrs. Daffodil, writes a syndicated column called “Butternut Wisdom.” She also writes short stories about young love, because she has discovered people are more interested in love stories than they are in stories about ordinary older people like herself. And through this writing, she supports herself, her married daughter and graduate student husband, and her housemate, Kay, a widowed college friend who agreed to share the country house after her husband died.  This is a very, very funny book.  I wish someone would bring it back into print so I could afford it!

3. Cornelia Otis Skinner (1899-1979), an actress and writer, is perhaps best known for the book she co-wrote with Emily Kimbrough, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a hilarious memoir of their trip to Europe after college.

skinner soap behind the ears 674925900_tpSoap Behind the Ears is one of her best collections of humor pieces and parodies. I love her parody of For Whom the Bell Tolls, surely Hemngway’s worst novels.  In “The Defense of Long Island,”a piece vaguely reminiscent of E. M. Delafield’s The Provincial Lady in Wartime, patriotic American women worry about the defense of Long Island at the beginning of World War II. They go door-to-door with questionnaires, and, as Skinner tells us, “are frantically engaged in an activity they call doing ‘something about’ it.” In “A Bicycle Built for One,” she describes a disastrous experience on a bike with no brakes.  In “The American Quest for Tea,” she writes about the inability of American hotels to provide good tea.  And in “The Volga Tongue” she  writes about attempting to teach herself Russian by the popular “gramophone” method.

A fun book!

Falling Bodies sue kaufman4.  Sue Kaufman’s Falling Boies.  Kaufman is best known as the author of Diary of a Mad Housewife, an underrated American classic. Her 1974 novel, Falling Bodies, is a sad, mordantly funny novel about a woman whose family is falling apart.

Every chapter starts with a day and time of day, such as, “Monday 8:21 a.m.”   The heroine Emma has lost her mother to cancer, and she has been hospitalized for an FUO, a fever of unknown origin. In the hospital, she witnessed a suicide. A man jumped out of a window and his body fell past her room. Once home, she is terrified that she will see another falling body crash on the sidewalk.

Emma’s family problems are paralyzing, partly because she cannot go back to her social worker job until she has fully recovered from the illness. Since her hospitalization, her husband and son both seem to be having a nervous breakdown. Harold, the vp of a publishing company, has a terror of germs and contamination. And her son is bringing home mechanical parts he finds in trash cans.

Harold and Benjy think Emma is the one who has gone crazy. And she is upset: her mother-in-law has hired a maid from Colombia. And talk about crazy…

I really loved this book, My guess is that it’s more a women’s book–I can’t see my husband’s reading it–but it is a deftly-constructed, often funny story of what happens to a woman under a lot of stress.

6 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with New Books & Books We’d Like to See in Print

  1. Modern books *are* dumbed down and I don’t know whether it’s authors, publishers or editors but it’s an utter pain. Even mass-market titles from 50+ years ago didn’t treat readers like idiots. I don’t like short sentences, trite or lazy writing, dull characterisation and dumb plots. Fussy, moi? I guess this is why I usually read older books….. 🙂

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    • Karen, yes, there certainly is a difference in modern books! Sometimes I have a feeling contemporary writers are handed a “template” with stage directions and told to cut out extraneous matter. Older books tend to be more complex in structure. Perhaps I myself am too fussy now that I’m older.:)

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  2. An excellent rich blog. Thank you, especially for the summaries and evaluations of the books. If they are women’s books, a lot of the books so admired that gain prizes (Delillo) are men’s books and no acknowledgement of this is made at all. Reviewers ridicule romances or don’t review them but treat the action-adventure thriller genre with respect (a male formulaic genre).

    Your opening is interesting: although it’s not happened to me, people have told me how they are urged to be “readable;” that means sellable to a wide variety of people. Not only dumbing down, but any idiosyncracy is out. Translations turn texts into the same kind of bland flow. MFAs teach people to write light prose in short books. No Dickens or Proust allowed.

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    • Brian Morton’s novel is almost a women’s book, too. He’s a brilliant radical, and he understands Second Wave feminism. The heroine, Florence, is a New York intellectual feminist writing her memoirs, and I wanted more about her and less about the family. I don’t know what happened here. Can a book not be about a brilliant nasty character (Florence IS rather nasty)? Or did he want it to be a family novel? Or did the editors make him tone it down? Who knows!

      Yes, my favorite out-of-print novels ARE women’s books. It’s a disgrace that Nancy Hale’s books are out-of-print. And many enjoy Gladys TAber’s books.

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    • I just read your blog on Taber and loved it!

      You are absolutely right: women’s interests are not taken seriously. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll go read Ladies’ Home Journal or Good Housekeeping. Except perhaps they don’t hire the Gladys Tabers anymore!

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