What is it about the letter M? Three writers' passings

The literary world has taken a very big hit over the past few weeks. It lost three Ms -- Peter Mathiessen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and now Alistair MacLeod. Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 2.17.36 PMIt isn't that the writing world expected more from them. Mathiessen and Marquez were both sick and well past their writing primes. MacLeod,who hailed from Canada, brewed up only a single novel and a small collection of short fiction over his 77 years on the planet.

But the reason why they'll be missed is for what they taught, by example, about the writing life.

Plenty has been said in recent weeks about the first two Ms. MacLeod's passing is far more recent, and his name is lesser known.

But when I read Margalit Fox's very nice overview of MacLeod in the New York Times, I felt such admiration for him that I wanted to pass it along in case you haven't had the pleasure to read him.

While there's far too much of T.C. Boyle or Joyce Carol Oates around (my humble opinion, you don't have to agree with me), there would never be enough of MacLeod. Hurrying into print was never his modus operandi.

"For a long time, I was described as one of North America's most promising writers," he says in quote from Fox's article. "Pretty soon, I was going to be one of North America's most promising geriatric writers...."

Some writers don't publish much because they don't have much to say; others think they have more to say than they do.

And then there's a third kind of writer, the one who understands that narrative truths need to simmer for a long time, like a good pot of stew.

That was MacLeod. To use another metaphor, MacLeod preferred to dig down, setting layer upon layer of family history and fishermen lore like a master mason in the single novel mentioned earlier, "No Great Mischief."

What he taught -- and still teaches --  can be reduced to two words. Be patient.

If any writer is suffering anxiety over finishing a manuscript, over getting things right, try to relax. Breathe. There are plenty of publishers but there's only one of you. Take the time needed to make your story properly sing. That's a lesson that MacLeod teaches us even now.

Return of a Roth ... necessary reading ... rest, Peter

Of the Roth triumvirate (Philip, Joseph, and Henry), Henry usually gets overshadowed by the other two. After all, how can a maker of bildungsroman tales compete with portraits of a failing empire or the romantic uses of a piece of liver?

henry rothWell, the work of Henry Roth -- lyric chronicler of childhood in Call It Sleep -- will have yet another chance to snag more readers nearly twenty years after his death in 1995.

The top editor at W.W. Norton tells me that a single-volume version of Roth's epic, Mercy of a Rude Stream -- published as four books, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, From Bondage, and Requiem for Harlem -- is coming soon under one cover.

I can't say if this will be an edited, reimagined work in the same way that Peter Mathiessen retold his Watson trilogy as one book, Shadow Country, or Nicholas Delbanco revised and amplified his New England trilogy into Sherbrookes .... but let's just say that any opportunity to read Roth with fresh eyes and see his name (hopefully) prominently displayed in your local bookstore is welcome news.


Lijia Zhang offers some terrific commentary and posts from her blog perch in China on her eponymous blog, which sports the nice subtitle: "Socialism is still great." If you're contemplating writing a book of history and you want an unusual angle, you might check out Nicholas Griffin's Ping Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History BEhind the Game that Changed the World, which Lijia has recently reviewed.

How about political and cultural life in France? My friend and scrivener par excellence Kai Maristed sends dispatches from Paris in her Pointe DeVue: Paris that are worth a follow, an RSS feed, google alert...you get the idea. Though her most recent items offer the perfect overview of political scandals and the municipal elections that rebuffed a lazy, presumptuous Socialist Party in that country, my eye was drawn to "The President, the First Lady, and the #2 Mistress with the Mona Lisa Smile." How could it not? I'm sure yours will be too. (Just terrific, Kai!)


Rest in peace, Peter Mathiessen. There's so much and so little to say. Leave that to the newspapers. Thank you, simply, for your own work and for championing the work of others. I hope this day finds you, like the title of your last novel...



... "In Paradise."


On Writing Strong Female Characters (at Corsets, Cutlasses & Candlesticks)

On the great, bad poetry of William McGonagall (at A University Blog)

Maester Class: HBO's Game of Thrones is Back (at Grantland)