Litany for the Year’s Turning

Friday, January 01, 2016
A columnist carries around just as many hunches, biases, insights and peeves as the next person, yet gets paid, however modestly, for writing them down.

These quick takes on the world tend to accumulate over the months, jotted down in the margins of grocery lists or on napkins during lunch, and the turn of the year is a good place to bring them to light.

The old-time sportswriter Jimmy Cannon would often do this, stringing out a list of surplus one-liners with the immortal lead-in “Nobody asked me, but ...” Over the years, many columnists have borrowed his idea, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a literary columnist take a crack at it.

Until now.

Nobody asked me, but ...

Writers using present tense to describe something that happened in the past — once so daring; now such a cliche — is a rhetorical device that should be sent back to the bag of tricks it was taken from in the l980s, and henceforth reserved for special circumstances, not routine everyday narrative.

One of George Orwell’s brightest ideas was that authors should be tipped by their readers, a SASE included in every book to make sending cash or checks easy.

Bookstores selling scones is one thing, but bookstores selling perfume?

Whatever happened to “spicy” books — and I don’t mean cookbooks, but the kind that teenagers, back in a more innocent era, used to sneak peeks in.

Those who think that literature doesn’t count in the world anymore should keep in mind that the conflict between Muslims and Christians, on one level, is a dispute over who has the better creation myth, the better book.

At a time when even novels have lengthy “Acknowledgements” pages at the end, the author thanking everyone from the furnace maintenance man to a favorite barista, it would be refreshing to see an Acknowledgements page that reads, “While no one can survive without the help of others, writing is a solitary business and I did this all by myself.”

I’d really like to know — is there any evidence that Henry David Thoreau, patron saint of walkers, ever rode a horse?

Eighth-grade English teachers are true heroes.

Libertarians and conservatives who worship Ayn Rand — and a presidential candidate named after her — should keep in mind Whittaker Chambers’ (no liberal he) famous critique of her superman “makers” held back by untermensch “takers”: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding ‘To a gas chamber — go!’ ”

The owners of The Bookmill in Montague, Mass., should be persuaded to open a branch in the Upper Valley.

Hollywood’s favorite default occupation, when it comes to characters with lots of free time and no visible means of support, has long been “writer,” but one of the few movies that at least partially captures the hard work involved in novel writing, the dedication, heartbreak and disappointment, is Starting Out in the Evening, starring Frank Langella.

The dash is the most underrated punctuation mark.

With literary magazines beginning to charge “processing fees” to consider submissions from poets and story writers, rejection now costs money, whereas, when I was younger, rejection was absolutely free.

If an alien arriving from an advanced civilization was asked to judge whether a traditional book or a Kindle was the better piece of technology, he, she or it might well decide in the book’s favor, seeing how it doesn’t need power to operate, requires no Internet connection, has a handy hinged flexibility that lets you easily scan back and forth, can be used in the bathtub or on a beach without harm, and, for that matter, can be hurled across the room if a passage infuriates you and still not break.

Why in the Alice-in-Wonderland, upside-down craziness of current publishing do both these statements seem true? Anyone can get anything published, no matter how poorly it’s written; no one can get anything published, no matter how brilliantly it’s written.

Political commentators love talking about engaging in a national “conversation,” when what they really mean is a national shouting match.

Every novelist should give their main character a confidante and/or best friend.

If summer reading is supposed to be light, then winter reading should be serious, and there’s no better place to start than Ivo Andric’s brilliant, largely-forgotten novel set in Bosnia, The Bridge On the Drina.

One of the greatest writing pleasures still left in life is to find a pen that feels well-balanced in the hand, some stationery so classy it begs to be written on, an appropriate envelope, a personally chosen stamp — to find all these, then write a heartfelt, thoughtful letter to a distant friend or loved one, letting the government deliver it right to their door for the bargain price of 49 cents.

The scariest campfire story ever written is The Willows by Algernon Blackwood, and the second scariest is his The Wendigo.

Novelists should avoid using parentheses; if you have something to say, say it out loud in the open paragraph, not sniggering up your sleeve protected by (these).

Fiction writers whose world view is entirely ironic — I’m talking to you Don DeLillo — will always come up short, since the real world, when it comes to irony, will always outdo them; irony is the postmodern version of sentimentality.

A business reporter looking for an interesting and provocative book idea should investigate the huge U.S. creative writing industry and how much money it makes on the raw material of aspiring writers’ hopes, dreams and credulity.

Some enterprising professor needs to go re-examine the work of Winston Churchill, the American Winston Churchill, who, totally forgotten now, was a best-selling novelist 100 years ago, living in Cornish and then Plainfield; his l906 novel, Coniston, is said to include scenes in Newport, Cornish and Claremont, and Churchill himself once ran for New Hampshire governor.

Hearing a 50-year old man, flashing his Kindle at you during lunch, sententiously pronounce, “I no longer have any interest in books as physical entities,” is a bit like hearing a ladies man of the same age say, “I no longer have any interest in women as physical entities.” Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s admirable, but how much pleasure they’re cutting themselves off from!

Daring young writers are always ready to abandon plot, think the world to be essentially plotless, when in fact everyday life is filled with plots.

Is it true what Albert Camus once wrote, with a mix of plaintiveness and defiance? “Artists are the only ones who have never harmed the world.”

The next great war novel will be written by a woman.

It can serve as the epitaph for every writer who ever lived, deserving to be inscribed on all their headstones: No one asked me, but...

W. D. Wetherell new book has just been published, Summer of the Bass; My love affair with America’s greatest fish. He lives in Lyme.