Roald Dahl illustrator Quentin Blake imagines Matilda at 30

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Quentin Blake’s original illustration of Matilda as a child.

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of September 16, 2018.

The Academy likes writers who “renew” and refresh their native languages, so the omission of Joyce really perplexes me. Too smutty, I wonder? No, too funny. That’s the real blind spot of the Academy. It can recognize work that is quiet, difficult, explicit, experimental, but it can’t handle humor.

Can we take this in a more gossipy direction? Who shouldn’t have won? I was horrified to learn that not only did Churchill win in 1953, for his collected speeches, but that he was nominated for the literature prize 21 times.

The audio companies have driven not only innovation but also spending, bidding aggressively on unsold rights (i.e., those not retained by print publishers). One big agent says Audible paid twice as much for one of his client’s audio rights as a print publisher paid for the rest. “The Big Five will not relinquish the audio rights,” the agent says, “so the only way Audible is going to get their hands on brand-name authors is to throw down an eyebrow-raising amount of money, in hopes that the agent will be willing to sell it to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt or Norton,” two larger independent publishers without their own audio divisions.

  • … o the broader and more pop-culturally oriented, like this piece of cultural criticism built around The Virgin Suicides and the creepy nostalgia of teen tragedy…

The Virgin Suicides anticipated, and perhaps set off, that American adult obsession with teenage tragedy. It understood that those school days become barometers for every happiness or misery later in life, and it leveraged one of humanity’s most potent sentiments: nostalgia. The novel somehow feels like youth itself, a collection of overheated memories. Eugenides creates an ideal of teenage life that never existed — that we, the readers, never knew, but that we all still fervently believe once happened. And then he takes it all away. Even now, 25 years after the book was published and about 40 years after it was set, we still subscribe to The Virgin Suicides’ simulacrum of teenhood as quintessential.

But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Margurite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They felt less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found varied between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claimed he had given a copy of the 1198-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he wrote.

Death guides aren’t born; they make themselves. Leonora Carrington was born into extreme wealth in England in 1917. She was expected to marry into the aristocracy, though it was clear, even from a young age, that she would outwit her destiny. She was deeply miserable at convent school, where she drew incessantly and smuggled in cigarettes, and she was kicked out for things such as writing backward and trying to levitate.

  • I have never read Sanditon, Jane Austen’s posthumously published unfinished novel, because I’ve always thought it would be unfair to Austen. She so clearly loved to polish her sentences to a diamond brightness that I just can’t bring myself to read her prose before she’d made it perfect. (That doesn’t hold me back with other authors and their unfinished books, but I’ve never claimed to be consistent.) So I’m interested in Grace Lapointe’s meditation at Book Riot on whether or not we should publish unfinished books:

Publishing unfinished books often requires an attempt to read the authors’ minds. Modern editors and co-authors try to fill in the gaps in the story. However, without clear notes or a completed draft, we have no way of guessing how the author would have wanted the story to end. Was this a first draft that they would later revise completely? Were they planning a twist that would totally reverse the beginning of the book, making seemingly good characters have evil motives, or vice versa?

I think what I wanted from writing—from Barthes in particular but others too—was a passage out of the dismal place in which I found myself in my midteens, but also some assurance that the world could not only be recast in words but had been made of language in the first place. All my aesthetic and intellectual enthusiasms were versions of aesthetic detachment. In my late teens I embraced various historical models of glittering distance from grubby reality. I already loved Oscar Wilde’s aphorisms and his rigorous belief in the profundity of the mask and the pose. Now I discovered the more thoroughgoing decadence of Huysmans and, once I got to university, Nietzsche’s instruction to make of oneself a work of art.

Everything began to unravel for the industry when publishers made the tragic mistake of not setting reasonable off-price discounting policies for big-box stores in the 1990s, effectively turning books into widgets. This lack of judgment was seized upon by Amazon, which took discounting to the extreme by selling books below its effective operating cost. The company continues to gouge the market by making books loss leaders, offering discounts of up to 55% during the 2017 holiday season.


Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!