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Jane Austen was shockingly underpaid compared to other authors of her era

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

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Jane Austen on the British 10-pound note.
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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 August 4, 2019.

  • Toni Morrison, one of America’s greatest writers, died this week, and the web was flooded with appreciations for her legacy. At the Guardian, Michiko Kakutani (former chief book critic for the New York Times) explores Morrison’s relationship with history and magic:

If there is one insistent theme in Morrison’s novels, it’s the ways in which the past inexorably shapes the present, erasing innocence, cutting off options of escape, and warping relationships between women and men, parents and children.

As in William Faulkner’s work, the past is never dead for Morrison’s people – it’s not even past. Faulkner was clearly an influence on Morrison’s writing, as were Ralph Ellison, Virginia Woolf, Gabriel García Márquez and African American folklore. But Morrison forged from such disparate sources a voice that was all her own – fierce, poetic and Proustian in its ability to fuse time present and time past.

My mourning mind, compromised and searching for coincidence, processes the age Toni Morrison was when she died, eighty-eight, as two infinity signs, straightened and snatched right-side up. If we are Morrison-fearing, as some others are with their icons, well, we were socialized by her novels. What an experience, to be mothered on one plane by our Beloved. It’s a plane that occupies the thorny reserve of memory. If you asked your mothers questions about your origins, they responded with irritability. Actually, you knew better than to ask. One thing about being a black girl is, by the time you come around, and your body awakens to feeling historically out of sorts, the matriarchs have been worn out. Their patience to “do language” has dried up. You have been born late to the mystery. Catch up, but how? Morrison motioned to us and got us up to date.

What is translation if not an intimate act between two people, away from the eyes of the world? It might be the mirth of two sisters, suppressed at table: a mutual tautening, hands flitting to faces until the effect of the secret subsides. It might be an embrace. It might even be an angry struggle. The nature of the relationship between translator and writer depends on the text. But it is always a close one.

The irony, of course, is that Hicok’s essay, though it is about the alleged fading of the white male poet’s star in favor of poets of color, succeeds in putting the white male poet, and his feelings, right back at the center of the conversation. But Hicok’s essay is wrong. It’s wrong not in its emotions, but in its analysis. And understanding why it’s wrong takes us—despite Hicok’s best intentions—uncomfortably close to the heart of the language of white grievance that is currently roiling our country.

As award-winning horror writer Stephen Graham Jones writes, there are two types of haunted houses in fiction: Stay Away Houses and Hungry Houses. That is to say, houses that don’t want visitors or occupants and houses that very much do. In either case, the best haunted houses are not merely locales for the supernatural to occur—they themselves are characters, subtly animate, with their own fears and desires.

  • Marcel Proust once challenged a reporter to a duel when the reporter suggested that Proust was gay. (He was.) Now, some of the stories in which Proust wrote about his gayness are about to be published for the first time. The Guardian has the story:

Fraisse said the dominant theme of the stories was the analysis of “the physical love so unjustly denied” that Proust writes of in À la recherche, “in terms that announce and foreshadow Sodome et Gomorrhe”, the fourth volume of the series in which the author tackles homosexual love.

“It’s therefore in part, under the veil of a transparent fiction, an intimate diary of the writer,” said Fraisse. “The awareness of homosexuality is experienced in an exclusively tragic way, as a curse. We don’t find, anywhere, those comic notes introduced here and there throughout In Search of Lost Time, which give the work all the colours of life, even in the darkest dramas.”

Now, I would certainly like to think Gaitskill and I have some stylistic and thematic elements in common, but no one was citing Gaitskill in my reviews to note how, say, I was interrogating the way that white women negotiate their historically troubled relationship to sentimentality, as she did in her most recent novel, The Mare. They brought up Gaitskill because my book had weird bad sex in it, and she had written the definitive book about Bad Sex – you know, the one with the story they made the movie Secretary about.

Even in an age when we can buy most any book with a single click, the InterLibrary Loan system remains a beautiful creation—and one that is often free. It is also a pleasant metaphor: we are loaned knowledge from afar, but we have to take care of it. Just remember not to tear that white band.

I came to Anne Vaughan Lock’s “A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner” as a result of my son Hudson’s high-school ancestry-research project. At dinner, Hudson casually mentioned that a distant grandmother on my mother’s side was the first writer to publish a sonnet cycle in English. Not the first woman, he said. The first poet. I told him that his research must be wrong.


Here’s an overview 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!