Frank Kermode

Literary critic Frank Kermode has died at the age of 90. Kermode penned more than two hundred pieces for the London Review of Books, beginning with the first issue in 1979, and edited and wrote dozens of books over the course of his distinguished career. The New Statesman writes: "Kermode wasn't just the finest literary scholar of his generation, he was also one of this country's most luminous practitioners of the higher journalism." His last book, Concerning E. M. Forster was reviewed in the spring 2010 issue of Bookforum.

In an interview with Big Think, novelist Rick Moody says that the economy is changing the face of fiction. "Writers are more desperate than at any time since I've been watching," he says. As a result, young writers are trying to write more conventional, easier-to-sell work: "You can try and write like George Eliot and you can potentially get published, but what worries me is you can no longer write like David Foster Wallace, perhaps."

At The Atlantic, Tim O'Brien meditates on what makes a good story. "To vividly imagine and to vividly render extraordinary human events, or sequences of events, is the hard-lifting, heavy-duty, day-by-day, unending labor of a fiction writer." Cleverness? Not so much.

And now for some good publishing news: Simon & Schuster has hired a new senior editor, Anjali Singh, who has worked with a number of adventurous and inventive authors, including Marjane Satrapi and Samantha Hunt.

The documentary based on Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's bestselling book Freakonomics will be released on September 3, but you won't be able to see it in a theater until October. For the first month, the film will be available exclusively through iTunes. In other adaptation news, Jack Kerouac's Beat classic On the Road is being prepared for the screen. Viggo Mortensen will play Old Bull Lee, the character based on William S. Burroughs.

Elizabeth Bishop

Stephen Elliott has picked Jonathan Franzen's Freedom for his reading club at the Rumpus. The novel will go on sale August 28, and Elliott is clear about where you shouldn't buy it: "Books purchased from Barnes and Noble, Borders, and Amazon are ineligible."

Since Amazon opened its Kindle store in the UK in early August, ebook retailers there have entered into a price war. In the latest move, bookseller WH Smith cut the prices of its top 100 bestsellers by as much as 66 percent on its ebook site.

Joseph Young cranked out his new vampire novel, NAME, in a month. There's a reason he finished so fast: As he bluntly points out at the book's website, he wrote the book to pay his rent

Gary Lutz's bizarre and artfully contorted story collection, I Looked Alive, published in 2004 by Black Square Editions is hard to find unless you're willing to spend between $88 and $255 on Amazon. So prose fetishists will be happy to know that the literary magazine Brooklyn Rail (in conjunction with Black Square) is about to reissue this strange cult classic.

William T. Vollmann has written in Penguin 75 (an anthology of Penguin book covers from the past decade) about taking the photo of three naked women that graces the cover of his novel, The Royal Family. He took it at "a fine crack hotel of [his] acquaintance," he recalls, and later submitted an expense report to his publisher asking to be reimbursed for, among other things, "Four street prostitutes' modeling time @ $40 each." 

One of our favorite new finds at the excellent PennSound poetry archives: A recording of Elizabeth Bishop reading from Geography III, followed by an interview with Susan Howe.

Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen doesn't like author videos. How do we know? He announced it—in an author video: "This might be a good place for me to register my profound discomfort at having to make videos like this." 

Bill Clinton liked to read Walter Mosley. George Bush liked The Very Hungry Caterpillar. But what does Obama like (aside from Joseph O'Neill)? Here's his reading list from the past two years, which makes us ask—are women allowed? Evidently, Obama hasn't talked about a woman author since the summer of 2008, when he praised Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals.

The Awl wonders: Have authors and editors always hated each other

Eunice Frost, an editor at Penguin who started in the late '30s, brought writers such as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh to a large audience through her work on their paperback editions. She was also a keen writer herself, with prose that's arch, touching, and offers a look into the heart of a woman toiling in a man's world: "Oh to be Shaw – or even Graham Greene/ They are twice damned and still show on the screen/ I hear the Council's puffed you in Peru,/ That's nothing to my puffing up of YOU,/ And anyway the whole thing's just a plot/ To make us think we're someone when we're not."

Giancarlo DiTrapano

Is Andrew Morton's biography of Angelina Jolie the worst book of the decade or just the "worst book of the 21st century so far"? Such are the weighty matters pondered by Allen Barra at Salon; you can practically see Barra pout as he points out: "this Jolie junkie found practically nothing that I hadn't seen before and mostly dismissed as utter crap. Much of Morton's research seems to have been done while standing in supermarket lines." Which—for all the charm of Salt and Girl, Interrupted—is where we do most of our Jolie research, too.

Pete Hamill's new book on immigration will be strictly digital, leaving the legendary chronicler of Greenwich village to wonder: “Will there be a book signing?” Answer: Sure—bring your Sharpie, and scrawl your tag on everyone's Kindle.

Novelist and n+1 editor Benjamin Kunkel reflects on the last decade of American fiction: "More productive [than trading] accusations of snobbery or equally plausible charges of reverse snobbery would be to ask whether a given work points us toward or maneuvers us away from what it’s somewhat embarrassing to call the truth of the world."

The Paris Review blog has launched a column titled "Department of Sex Ed," which, if we're reading it correctly, requires the poster to comment on a book that featured prominently in his or her sexual awakening. Our favorite so far has been by Giancarlo DiTrapano, the mastermind behind the literary magazine New York Tyrant and Tyrant Books (which just published what promises to become a cult classic, Eugene Marten's Firework). Here, he explains how A Confederacy of Dunces made him realize that he's hot for men like Ignatius, a "waddling, unkempt mammoth toddler with 'blue and yellow eyes' and crumbs in his mustache."

For the first time in a decade, Time magazine has put a living author on its cover: Jonathan Franzen. Anyone with an Internet can see an abbreviated version of the article, titled "Great American Novelist." For the full version, you need to buy the magazine at a newsstand or on your iPad.

Charlotte Roche

Move over Justin Bieber: Rolling Stone has announced that Jay-Z's memoir, Decoded, will be published by Spiegel & Grau on November 16.

German novelist Charlotte Roche's international bestseller Wetlands (published in the U.S. in 2009) is about 18-year-old Helen Memel, a sex addict admitted to a hospital for an anal fissure, who, while she's not picking and eating her scabs, recalls things like the time she left a used tampon on an elevator. Now, Swiss author Bruno Barett is publishing Responding to Wetlands, a semi-fictional book in which he pretends to meet Helen and psychoanalyze her. We were going to write a similar book about American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, but some characters are better left unexamined.

Time Magazine offers its list of the top-10 failed celebrity campaigns, and leading the group is Norman Mailer, who ran for mayor in 1960 and (with writer Jimmy Breslin) for city council president in 1969. He failed both times, but his slogans—"No More Bull" and "Throw the Rascals In"—live on.

In the latest publishing shakeup, Simon & Schuster has reorganized its publicity and marketing departments (and let go executive publicity director Victoria Meyer). Schuster's new structure will be less hierarchical, creating small "teams" of publicists, editors, and marketers, who will be assigned to specific books.

Michel Houellebecq

The great French smoker Michel Houellebecq has gained an international audience writing misanthropic (and yet somehow emotionally complicated) novels about sex tourism, asexuality, terrorism, anhedonia, and the grimmer sides of the contemporary human condition. The books are good, but he's just as well known for his bad-boy persona—drinking, smoking, and flirting with women reporters. One might wonder what his next novel's shocking subject will be, but the answer is obvious: He'll write about himself.

J. C. Hallman, the author of In Utopia, sums up why people write dystopian novels: "Look at all the things we’re having trouble handling, whether it’s oil spills or health care. People are dissatisfied, but we can’t project a solution."

Want a book that isn't on the shelves? Soon, stores such as New York's McNally Jackson will have equipment that will print books while you wait. For a detailed discussion of the power of Print on Demand, see this interview with novelist Matthew Stadler, who makes books with, among other things, a machine he calls "Ol' Gluey."

The sage school officials of Jacksonville, Florida have banned Nigerian author Chris Abani's book Graceland from 10th grade reading lists (though it carries the "Today Show Pick's" rainbow imprimatur), because apparently reading about its young hero—a boy who loves Elvis and dreams of escaping a Lago ghetto—will warp impressionable young minds.

The blog PWxyz's list of the most underrated authors—a response to the Huffington Post's recent list of overrated authors—continues to grow. Now can someone come up with a list of authors who are rated exactly as they should be?

John Waters

The Huffington Post's hit-mongering list of the 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Authors somehow manages to be sensationalistic and banal at the same time. John Ashbery? Louise Gluck? Junot Diaz? Really? Over at PW, poet and Bookforum contributor Craig Morgan Teicher has started an alternate list: Who are the most underrated authors in America? We agree with his opening sally: Stephen Elliott. And then there's Blake Butler's 15 "Towering Literary Artists" Who Are Still Alive, though sadly, that list has lost two of its members since it was published last year.

Role Model: Laptops are fine, but we admire John Waters's old-fashioned writing ritual, which involves a legal pad, Bic pens, Scotch Magic Finish Tape, and scissors.

We've never felt so good about our mistakes: Books about the benefits of being wrong are becoming a trend.

Price is Right: Mediabistro reports that Richard Price has signed a deal with Henry Holt to write a series of NYC-set detectives novels under the pen name "Jay Morris," which seems a much more soft-boiled nom de plume.

The San Francisco Chronicle gives you one more reason to skip Barnes and Noble and go to your local independent bookstore: cats!

Tony Judt

Historian, political theorist, and public intellectual Tony Judt died on August 6 at the age of 62. Much more than a scholar, he was an eloquent and insightful writer, whether he was reflecting on postwar Europe, navigating our current economic and political challenges, or chronicling his experience of living with ALS. Always a vibrant thinker, his literary output only seemed to increase as his health deteriorated. He blogged at the New York Review of Books until last month, and was recently interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR.

Illness has struck too many intellectuals lately, among them Christopher Hitchens. In a state of "magical thinking," we thought Hitch would survive his recent diagnosis with esophageal cancer (and perhaps he will). But in this interview with Anderson Cooper, the author of the recent memoir Hitch-22 approaches his death with the same rigor that he's applied to everything else (god, literature, saints): with steely-eyed smarts and irreverence. In a recent Vanity Fair article he writes: "I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me."

Over at the inaugural issue of the Incongruous Quarterly, you can read a great, melancholy-tinged James Hannaham essay about a summer fling, originally commissioned by Time Out New York, but then well, banned, we guess. There's also an interview by Bookforum contributor Mary Gaitskill with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, which the magazine Raygun never ran. That's right—all the Quarterly's articles were rejected by other publications.

Joan Didion, circa 1970

People have been complaining about the banality of author photos for years (here's what the Times had to say about author-pic cliches back in 1993). Perhaps because the old-fashioned book (along with its carefully designed jacket) is losing its dominance, people are now not just decrying boring photographs but offering advice to writers seeking a publicity shot: Get a makeover. You want our advice? Skip the Estee Lauder and channel the spirit of Joan Didion in her author photo for Play It as It Lays, circa 1970. She is not playing. (Extra credit: seek out nondigitized photos of Jane Bowles with a bird on her shoulder, and Barbara Pym—with a cat.)

Google has counted all the books in the world (there's roughly 130 million). Is there anything those whiz-bang geeks can't do? We'll see, as they're planning to digitize every one of 'em.

This week in California, a judge reversed proposition 8, a ballot initiative that banned gay marriage. To celebrate, the blog Jacket Copy has compiled a list of 20 classic works of gay literature, which is nice; but if they really cared, they probably would have gotten all the author names right (it's Mark Merlis, not Mark Marlis). And while it's an OK start, there are some baffling inclusions and absences (perhaps inevitable on any list of 20). Luckily, you can offer your favorites in the comments section (Alan Hollinghurst and Edmund White—represent!). We'd start by adding Heather Lewis's Notice and Eileen Myles's brand-new Inferno. Then again, maybe we shouldn't: Neither book has much to say about marriage.

To get a sense of how uncertain publishing models are these days, consider this line from Slate: "small presses, already experts at cultivating loyal followings, are positioned to thrive in the march toward digital distribution—but don't count on them making a profit." And this one from The Daily Beast: "Taylor Antrim explores why [novellas] might be perfect for our time." The operative word in that last quote is might. But we do agree that Jean-Cristophe Valtat's 03—a mix of muddled teen angst, Proustian longing, and meditations on bands like Joy Division—is one of this summer's must-reads.

We recommended that you go see David Berman in NYC last week. If you missed it, Jeremy Schmall offers an analysis of the event—a talk in which the musician-poet explained why his conservative PR-man father should stop doing what he's doing.

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