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Shakespeare & Co. founder George Whitman, 98, dies

Georgewhitman_shakespeareco
George Whitman, the legendary founder of the Paris bookshop and literary institution Shakespeare & Co., died Wednesday at age 98. Whitman opened his bookstore in 1951, following in the footsteps of Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Company, which had been shut down during World War II.

Shakespeare & Company was a haven for American and British expatriates who became some of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, including Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Beach published James Joyce's "Ulysses" when no one else would. Beach was forced to close the store after Germans marched on Paris.

Whitman nurtured a new generation of struggling writers at his shop, including Allen Ginsberg, Anais Nin and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Devorah Lauter writes:

He used to call Shakespeare & Co. "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookshop," and in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said: "I never had any money, and never needed it. I've been a bum all my life."

But Whitman was something of a wild-haired, and wild-mannered, king to those who knew him....

Inspired by Sylvia Beach's famous Paris bookstore and publishing house, which closed during World War II, Whitman fashioned the 17th century, two-story apartment into a labyrinth of soft-lit, teetering bookshelves, winding stairs, a library, stacks of well-read Life magazines, and cushy benches that turned to beds at night for Tumbleweeds. Free tea and pancake brunches were served every weekend to anyone brave, or hungry enough. After brunch, the leftover, mysteriously thick pancake batter was used as glue to repair peeling floor rugs.

Whitman didn't care much for supervising the young lodgers that passed through, but his temper could famously flare if a book was misplaced or an edition not shelved just so....

He once threw a book out the second floor window at a customer below because he thought they might enjoy reading it. And he used to light people's hair on fire to save them the trouble of paying for a haircut. After all, he had been using the same technique on himself for years.

Lauter wrote that Whitman, who was born in New Jersey, had a "spitfire wit, unpredictable temper and unending generosity." He will be buried in Paris; his daughter Sylvia, who has been in charge of Shakespeare & Co. in recent years, plans to continue.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Shakespeare & Co. window display featuring photographs of George Whitman. Credit: Miguel Medina /AFP/Getty Images

Slake magazine is Kickstarter's project of the day

Slake_warpeaceSlake, the Los Angeles-based literary journal that emphasizes its print edition, has been selected as Wednesday's Project of the Day at Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced fund-raising site.

After launching the magazine, getting three issues to shelves and finding a place on the L.A. Times bestseller list, the editors are looking to broaden the magazine's base. To support the next issue of Slake, they are seeking $25,000 in Kickstarter donations.

"Slake is a new way of looking at covering Los Angeles," co-editor Laurie Ochoa says in one Slake video. "A new city magazine, literary magazine, combined into a beautiful, chaotic, wonderful thing that we want in print. We want it to be something that you hold."

"We need some help to get to the next level," co-editor Joe Donnelly explains in the Kickstarter video. "We believe deeply in the power of good storytelling, whether it's journalism, an essay, memoir, poetry, photography or art.... We think that storytelling is a key to breeding empathy, and empathy is a key to good citizenship and community."

Slake has been active in fostering the literary community of Los Angeles, holding numerous literary events and even organizing a one-day softball tournament among people accustomed to sitting in front of their computers, typing. Its next event will be Thursday at Atwater crossing, with a reading and discussion with National Magazine Award-winning writer Ben Ehrenreich and a musical performance by the band Triple Chicken Foot.

So far, Slake has raised more than $10,000 via Kickstarter, but the funds will only be allocated if it reaches its goal of $25,000 in donations.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: From the poster for the release party for Slake's third issue, "War and Peace." Credit: Slake

What exactly is Marilynne Robinson saying about criticism?

Marilynnerobinson_2009Full Stop magazine has interviewed Marilynne Robinson about politics and ideas, creating its own version of an old question-and-answer format from the Partisan Review.

Robinson is, of course, the writer who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for her novel "Gilead," more than two decades after she first made a splash with her debut novel, "Housekeeping." Since then, Robinson has been more in the public eye, and making swifter appearances on shelves. For her next novel, "Home," she was awarded the 2009 Orange Prize.

In other words, Robinson, who has also published nonfiction and taught for years at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is familiar with critics and criticism. So, Full Stop decided to ask her about that:

Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant literary magazines and literary supplements, and in response, criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made literary criticism more or less of an isolated cult?

I don’t read criticism of my work, except in the first few days, just to see how it has landed, so to speak. As far as criticism in general is concerned, I am always struck by how little the influence of university training is taken into account, universal as it surely is among people who write criticism. For a long time the academy has been training people in a style of criticism that is marked by nothing so much as jargon, and by generalization that is pointedly inattentive to the character of any particular book. So there is a great breach between the persons of letters who would otherwise lead the public conversation about books and the vast majority of the reading public. No wonder they are so small a voice. It would no doubt enhance our awareness of the serious writing that does indeed go on if there were critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership.

I can't quite figure out what she's saying. First, she says that the academy trains critics to write using jargon, and to be inattentive to the characters within books. Is she referring to critical theory, maybe, or semiotics? I'm perplexed, I think, because as a book reviewer I see the criticism of the academy being separate from the criticism in traditional venues (such as newspapers) and new online venues (such as Full Stop magazine).

Robinson's solution to remote academic criticism is to look to "critics of the kind that used to introduce such writing to a serious readership." But this is confusing, because looking backward is idealizing a traditional critical culture with established professional critical venues, not the expanded online culture of the "non-professional realm."

I think I'm confused because she isn't really addressing the question about new media. Is she saying she  wants criticism to be less academic, but more like the old days? What do you think she means?

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Marilynne Robinson at the L.A. Times Festival of Books in 2009. Credit: John Fox

Happy 176th birthday, Mark Twain! [Video]

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Iconic American author Mark Twain was born 176 years ago, on Nov. 30 1835, as Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He took the name Mark Twain from the calls of steamboat navigators -- working on a steamboat, as a printer's typesetter and journalist in the just-settling West preceded his career as a humorist and novelist.

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," (celebrated today by the Google Doodle), "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," "The Innocents Abroad," "The Prince and the Pauper," "Life on the Mississippi" and "The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson" are some of the classics penned by Twain, who died in 1910 at 74.

One hundred years later, Twain made a surprise appearance on bestseller lists with the "Autobiography of Mark Twain," dictated by the author during his lifetime but barred from publication until a century after his death. After it began to sell, we wrote in 2011, "Editors realized that Twain's sly humor and skepticism about wealthy elites, U.S. militarism, politicians and organized religion hold a seemingly timeless appeal."

Twain is considered by scholar and historian Laura Trombley to have been America's first celebrity. He undertook lecture tour after lecture tour and crafted an image, always wearing white suits. In the rare color photograph above of the author -- a chromograph, actually -- taken at the end of 1908, he is said to have put on a red dressing gown at the request of photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn, whose new color process wouldn't pop much if he was only wearing his classic white suit.

After the jump, more rare Mark Twain: the only known film of him, shot by Thomas Edison.

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What to expect from Mark Z. Danielewski's serial novel

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Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of the mind-bending novel "House of Leaves" and "Only Revolutions," a National Book Award finalist, is going where Charles Dickens went before: he's writing a serial novel. "The Familiar" is planned to be released in 27 volumes; the first 10 will be published by Pantheon, in 3- to 4-month increments, beginning in 2014.

"They're not like 'House of Leaves,' or 'Only Revolutions,' each volume. 'Volume' speaks to it being a little different from a standard trade paperback book," Danielewski said by phone Monday. "I can't write something that takes months and months to read if we're releasing one every three or four months. It's possible that [our publishing] schedule could be accelerated. We're constantly open to new ideas -- where will we be in 2014? Maybe digital releases every week, every few months a trade paperback or hardcover. The novel is designed to accommodate, anticipate various platforms."

Danielewski was paid a reported $1 million for the first 10 volumes; he's thinking of them as two 5-volume seasons, like a television series. How much the form should solidify over time, versus what he might do to be flexible to the way the story starts to form as it gets out in the world, is the "Lord-of-the-Rings"-versus-"Harry-Potter" dilemma. "'Lord of the Rings' was a set of books in which the world had been conceived before the characters were placed within that context," he explains. "There are other books that feel more performative -- 'Harry Potter' -- and there is this wonderful intrigue, a co-creating, a sensation of that with the audience as they wonder what is going to happen next." He's been discussing those ideas with fellow Los Angeles writers Aimee Bender and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.

"Aimee was in favor of not eliminating that performative element entirely," Danielewski says. "My intention is to write 15 volumes -- three seasons -- and then I will have a good sketch of the fourth and fifth. It is up to me to provide the books that make such a structure feasible and intriguing enough to gather readers for that voyage."

"The Familiar" is built on the idea of a solid architecture, but it's not set in stone. "One of the things that's happening is as I'm writing -- I'm in the middle of Volume 8 -- I'm actually rewriting 1, and all the other volumes, as certain stylistic elements solidify."

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World's top 10 literary cities from National Geographic Traveler

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If you're an Angeleno hoping to visit one of the world's top 10 literary cities, you'll have to start looking for a plane ticket. Only two American cities made the new list from National Geographic Traveler, and Los Angeles wasn't one of them.

Edinburgh, Scotland, tops the list, which is admittedly a little Eurocentric. That's good news for literary tourists trying to hit every one of the magazine's top 10 cities. Fly to Scotland, then Dublin (No. 2), then to London (No. 3) and then take the Chunnel over to No. 4, Paris. Maybe traveling in order isn't such a great idea -- closer Stockholm is at No. 6, with No. 5, St. Petersburg, Russia, being a bit farther off.

The requirements for what makes a literary city from National Geographic Traveler's perspective are idiosyncratic. Edinburgh "has inspired more than 500 novels," which could easily be said for New York, a city that's not on the list. Edinburgh also has a Writers Museum, though, and a couple of literary pub crawls, which propels it to No. 1.

Number 7 and 8 are the two U.S. cities that made the list: Portland, Ore., and Washington. Portland is, of course, home to the excellent, sprawling Powell's bookstore. It's also a community that likes to read -- as is demonstrated in the "Portlandia" video clip, "Did You Read?" which is after the jump. Washington makes the grade because of the Library of Congress. Right. Hard to argue with that.

Bringing up the end of the list are Melbourne, Australia, at No. 9 (it has a walking tour) and Santiago, Chile (for popular Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda), at No. 10, the only cities included in the Southern Hemisphere. For literary cities in India or Asia, well, we'll have to wait for another list.

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National Book Awards 2011 [Video]

The 2011 National Book Awards were held Wednesday night in Manhattan. The video above has the speeches from the presenters of the four awards and the award-winners' acceptance speeches. First up, poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read a poem at Barack Obama's inauguration, presenting the National Book Award for poetry. The winners were:

Poetry: Nikky Finney for "Head Off and Split" (Triquarterly)

Young People's Literature: Thanhha Lai for "Inside Out and Back Again" (HarperCollins)

Nonfiction: Stephen Greenblatt for "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Fiction: Jesmyn Ward for "Salvage the Bones" (Bloomsbury)

Since the winners are known there isn't much suspense, but these speeches are worth watching. Writers may be more socially awkward than the average person, and tend to be a few steps behind when it comes to fashion, but one thing they do right is words. Nikky Finney's speech was so good that host John Lithgow said it was the best acceptance speech he'd heard, for anything, ever, and he's won five Emmys, two Golden Globes, twice been nominated for an Academy Award, and then there were the SAG Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., on and on.

Lithgow's presence was explained not by his children's books but his memoir, "Drama," published in September by HarperCollins (due to a dearth of celebrity memoirs, he deadpanned). He also is the godfather of Nell Freudenberger, one of the New Yorker's 20 writers under 40, whom he brought along as his date for the evening.

As good as Finney's speech was, Jesmyn Ward's came pretty close. "When I committed myself to writing," she begins, "I did so for several reasons: I was in my early 20s and my younger brother had just died. And since living through my grief for my brother meant understanding that life was a feeble, unpredictable thing, I wanted to do something with my time here that would have meaning."

Both Ward and Finney are African American women from the South, born, respectively, in Mississippi and South Carolina. Ward, who has studied at Stanford and Michigan, now teaches at the University of South Alabama. Finney makes her home in Lexington, Ky., where she teaches at the University of Kentucky and has been awarded a Kentucky Foundation for Women Artists Fellowship Award. The young people's literature winner, "Inside Out and Back Again," is about a Vietnamese immigrant girl starting over in Alabama, as author Thanhha Lai did. 

Is there something about this moment that makes writing of the South so compelling? It's interesting that both Finney and Ward have chosen to remain in the South, rather than head to New York or Los Angeles. Add in John Jeremiah Sullivan, the Paris Review's first Southern editor -- he lives in North Carolina -- and it seems that Southern writers are rising to a new level of prominence.

That's not to ignore Stephen Greenblatt, who teaches at a remote, oft-forgotten university known as Harvard. Our review of his National Book Award-winning "The Swerve," which is about a 2,000-year-old poem that was lost and found and changed peoples' thinking, is coming up Sunday.

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Dave Eggers and Robert Pinsky feted by PEN Center USA

PEN Center USA gala
The gala dinner for PEN Center USA at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Tuesday night saluted so many honorees in a ceremony that went by so quickly that it was almost like it didn't happen. One minute people were milling around the silent auction with pre-event drinks, the next author Robert Pinsky was getting a laurel wreath on his head with his lifetime achievement award and reading a Czesław Miłosz poem to send us on our way. In past years, the event has gone long; not so in 2011.

Dave Eggers was presented with the Award of Honor by John Krasinski, the actor best known for his role in "The Office"; Krasinski co-starred in "Away We Go," the film written by Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida, and has been a supporter of 826, the literary nonprofit founded by Eggers. That nonprofit was just one of the reasons Eggers was given the award, which also recognized his books ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"; "What Is the What"; "Zeitoun") and his work as a publisher at McSweeney's. Krasinski's introduction, which posited that Eggers was an evil genius, was the funniest part of the evening (and without any help from "The Office" writers, he said), and his suit (John Varvatos) was easily the most stylish.

The winners, who had been announced in advance, included four writers receiving special awards like Pinsky and Eggers, as well as those who had been selected by judges from a set of finalists.

Pinsky, who was U.S. poet laureate for three years, was introduced by poet Carol Muske-Dukes. In addition to crowning him with the laurel wreath, she lauded him for his poetry, his nonfiction and his leadership in the creative writing community.

Charles Bowden, a journalist who's spent decades chronicling the troubles of towns along the border of Mexico and the southwestern U.S., was the First Amendment Award honoree. His most recent book is "Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields." E

llie Herman, a television writer turned teacher, was given the Freedom to Write award for her work empowering student writers at the Animo Pat Brown Charter High School.

PEN Center USA has posted galleries of photographs from the event on Facebook. The list of literary award winners, which included local hero Father Gregory Boyle, is after the jump.

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Follow up: Ira Silverberg named NEA literature director

As was reported last week, agent Ira Silverberg has been named the new director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts. Silverberg's first day will be Dec. 5.

Silverberg leaves a successful 26-year career in publishing, where he was most recently an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. He was previously an agent with Donadio and Olsen, editor of Grove Press, publisher of Serpent's Tail and head of his own public relations firm.

"I'm delighted to welcome Ira Silverberg to the National Endowment for the Arts," NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman said in a statement Oct. 28. "Ira brings a wealth and variety of expertise that will be of great value to the agency. The NEA's already robust literary portfolio will benefit further from Ira's skills and connections to both the national and international literary communities."

The literature director's responsibilities include managing the grant-making process for authors, translators and literary nonprofit organizations and overseeing special initiatives such as The Big Read. That was one of the projects promoted by David Kipen, who was director of literature at the NEA from September 2005 to December 2009. After his tenure in Washington ended, Kipen moved to Los Angeles and founded the Boyle Heights lending library/bookstore Libros Schmibros.

In the statement released by the NEA, Silverberg made it clear that issues surrounding ebooks will on his agenda. "As the digitization of the book industry creates a new publishing ecosystem, we want grantees to be strong and ready for the challenge of this brave new world," Silverberg said. "It's an exciting time in the literature field and I look forward to leading the charge at NEA's Literature Office."

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Agent Ira Silverberg said to be new NEA literature director

Agent Ira Silverberg is leaving Sterling Lord Literistic to become the National Endowment for the Arts literature director, according to an email obtained by the publishing industry newsletter Publishers Lunch. The NEA has not yet made an official announcement of his appointment.

In the email, Silverberg wrote, "After 26 years in book publishing, it was time for a change. This particular change will keep me very close to the field I grew up in. I'm honored to do this kind of government service and am thrilled that I’ll be able to help the community of independent publishers, literary journals, writing centers and writers who are supported by the NEA."

Silverberg joined with the powerful literary agency in 2008, where he represented both bestsellers and literary prize-winners, including Neil Strauss, Sam Lipsyte, Ishmael Beah, David Bezmozgis and the estates of Kathy Acker and Jacqueline Susann. His move to the position at the NEA will mean giving up agenting -- at least for now.

Publishers Lunch indicated that Silverberg would leave his agent's position in mid-to late-November and that he will join the National Endowment for the Arts as literature director on Dec. 5. An official at the NEA said the agency was unable to comment Thursday -- but will be able to on Friday.

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