Author Archives

A. N. Devers is a writer, editor, and teacher. Her work has appeared in Bust, Departures, Fine Books, Slice, The Southampton Review, Time Out, Tin House, The Washington Post and online at Electric Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Salon, and Slate among other publications.

An Elegy for Bette Howland, a Writer Who Was Nearly Forgotten

Jacob Howland

This past Sunday, The New York Times reported that Bette Howland, a writer most contemporary readers have never heard of, died at the age of 80, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Howland was the recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ prize. She had a prolific decade, beginning in the mid-1970s, first publishing her memoir, W-3, in 1974, which documented her stay in a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown; it was followed in 1978 by Blue in Chicago, a collection of largely autobiographical stories; and then by Things to Come and Go, a collection of three long stories, published in 1983. When Johanna Kaplan reviewed it in the Times, she called Howland, “a writer of unusual talent, power, and intelligence.”

Howland received the MacArthur in 1984 and never published another book, only sporadically contributing to literary magazines and journals, often responding to editors with resistance to the idea of publishing her work.

Despite having a champion, friend, and sometimes lover in the writer Saul Bellow, who encouraged her spiritedly after meeting her at a writing conference on Staten Island in 1961, Howland was often overcome by a lack of confidence, particularly after winning the MacArthur.

In 2015, Brigid Hughes, editor of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine A Public Spaceplucked Howland’s first book, W-3, off the $1 cart at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City and became intrigued upon reading its very first sentences. Hughes had never heard of Howland, but she took the book home and read it in a night. She had earlier in the year begun to think about an issue of the magazine focused on women writers — perhaps, she had thought, there might be something to include of Howland’s.

Hughes, with the help of Laura Preston, an editor at the magazine, began to sleuth for more information about Howland in order to contact her and see if she had more work. The internet offered few breadcrumbs. There was a Wikipedia page with a photo that was not Howland, and there were a few press clippings, but Hughes said at the time, “She had just vanished.”

Hughes and I talked about Howland during the production of her issue focused on underappreciated women writers at a time when I was renting a desk in the magazine’s office. I also became intrigued with Howland and started to read W-3 myself, as well as excerpts from a large stash of letters between Bellow and Howland that Hughes was publishing after their discovery by Howland’s son. Hughes had tracked down Jacob Howland to enquire after his mother’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, Bette Howland had a tragic car accident only the year before. She was suffering from dementia and not healthy enough to correspond with Hughes, but Jacob stepped in and began to work with A Public Space.

As a freelance writer, I thought Howland’s story and Hughes’s rediscovery would make for a good piece for LitHub. So I began to read and assemble everything I could about Hughes’s discovery, which included the letters. I reached out to her son by email to ask more about her, as well as his interaction with Hughes. “Brigid,” he wrote me at the time, “is the reason we found the letters, My wife and I started looking through Bette’s papers for unpublished material, and that’s when we ran across the letters.”

At some point, as I was reading a draft of that issue of A Public Space and working on my own piece about Howland, I went online and ordered first editions of all of her books. They were all under $10 and easy to acquire. I had recently been introduced to the rare book trade, through rare and antiquarian book dealer Heather O’Donnell, owner of Honey and Wax Books, and had caught the collecting bug. Then realizing I would never be able to afford to become a serious collector of any kind, despite being an excellent hoarder of books, I began to dream that I might start a business of my own focused on women writers.

The idea came about after I visited numerous rare book fairs, which I had begun to realize were run primarily by male dealers, male collectors, and predominantly filled with books by men (this is very broadly speaking), and as a result many women writers’ books were priced far lower than those of their male contemporaries

Howland became the inspiration for a new business I’ve just launched, The Second Shelf, and hers were the first books I acquired to sell, if I can bring myself to part with them. Since I bought them, and since Howland began receiving some attention again, thanks to Hughes, her first editions have increased in value and are difficult to come by at all — a copy of Blue in Chicago costs around $80-100 online.

Earlier this year, Hughes announced a new literary imprint, A Public Space Books, and will begin publication with Howland’s experimental novella, A Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which was originally published in TriQuarterly in the 1990s.

The news of Howland’s death this past week came with a strange and surreal, nearly uncanny timing. I had only days earlier published a piece here on Longreads reporting on Hughes’s own erasure from literary history — as the first and only female editor of The Paris Review, and the editor to succeed the renowned George Plimpton. The piece was sparked by a series of frustrated tweets I posted upon learning of Lorin Stein’s resignation from The Paris Review, the result of a sexual harassment scandal in which he admitted to taking advantage of women writers and staff in his workplace.  

It was a poignant and emotional bit of news, and adding insult to injury, all the articles about it kept repeating the misreported legacy of the magazine’s editorship. I found myself urgently needing to correct the historical record of Hughes’s erased role at the Paris Review, the sexist treatment she received by the board in ousting her, and the similarly sexist treatment by the news media in its decade-long misreporting.

Although Howland chose to step out of the limelight, I see her disappearance from literary history as evidence of sexism in publishing and literary criticism. Great male writers, whatever their output or mental state, have legacies that far outlast those of women writers because men read books by men and are less interested in books by women. There is a maxim in publishing I have heard dozens of times from publishers and editors: Women buy and read more books. Women buy and read books by both women and men. Men buy and read fewer books. Men read books by men, not women. This is, again, not wholly the truth, but it’s not inaccurate either. Then, you’ve got patriarchal institutions and the academy still supporting a canon that was built by white men. Literary women suffer from this in their own lifetime, as Howland’s disappearance demonstrates, and they suffer even worse in their afterlives.

Hughes has been restored to her place in literary history with a series of corrections in The New York Times and with a correction on the masthead of The Paris Review. Because of Hughes, Howland is back in print in the pages of A Public Space and will soon have new work on the shelves, along with her out-of-print work.

It’s hard to not be discouraged as a woman writer these days. In addition to facing sexual harassment in the workplace, we have the boys’ club to contend with, we have unequal pay, we are asked far more frequently to write only for “exposure.” We are often given gendered book covers, often whether we want them or not. On top of it all, our literary history is written by men who mostly are interested in what men write.

But all is not lost, women are pulling up women, and some of us, like Howland, might be lucky enough to find champions who do not discriminate based on sex. Here is a quote from just one of Saul Bellow’s many letters to Howland, encouraging her back to the writing desk after her nervous breakdown:

I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.

Who knows if we would have Howland’s books at all without Bellow’s constant encouragement? If one reads the small bit known about her personal biography, it seems incredible that she was able to accomplish what she did. She had very little support in her pursuits. Bellow’s mentorship appears to have made a huge difference in her life. How many other women writers are gone to us, or, like Howland, are on the precipice of being lost?

There is a secret history of literature, one full of forgotten women. Let’s honor the work of Howland and Hughes, and women like them. Let’s find them, pull them out from the cracks, and begin to balance the bookshelves.

This is How a Woman is Erased From Her Job

Photograph by Kate Joyce

A.N. Devers | Longreads | December 2017 | 26 minutes (6,577 words)

This is a story about a woman who was erased from her job as the editor of the most famous literary magazine in America.

In 2011, the New York Times ran Julie Bosman’s energetic and gregarious profile of Lorin Stein, the latest head editor of the famous literary magazine The Paris Review — a position for which she declared, “Bacchanalian nights are practically inscribed in the job description.” The profile portrayed Stein as an intellectual bon vivant who loved parties, party-boy banter, and debating literature as if it were the most important thing in the world.

We know now that Stein, by his own admission, abused his power with women writers and staff of the Paris Review. He has resigned from the literary magazine and from his editor-at-large position at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in response to the board of the Paris Review’s investigation into sexual harassment allegations and his conduct. We also know, by his own admission, that he did not treat literature as the most important thing in the world.

Stein himself admitted it in a cringeworthy 2013 online feature from Refinery29 focused not only on the magazine’s debaucherous parties but also on the interior decor of the Paris Review’s offices and fashion choices of the staffers, who were nearly all women. “It’s always been two things at once,” he says about the Review. “On the one hand, it’s a hyper-sophisticated, modernist, avant-garde magazine. On the other hand, it’s sort of a destination party.”

We now know, between this and Bosman’s piece, even without details of the accusations or reports printed in the Times, or the far worse accusations listed in the “Shitty Media Men” list, that these are glaringly honest portrayals of Stein’s priorities at the helm of the Paris Review. Unfortunately.

Also unfortunate was the error in Bosman’s piece naming Stein as the third editor to “hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” Stein was actually the fourth. Brigid Hughes, the editor who succeeded George Plimpton, had been inexplicably left out of the profile. She was also not mentioned in the piece announcing Stein’s successorship of Philip Gourevitch; although there was no factual error, she was simply ignored.

Read more…

The Teenage Dreamland of ‘Twin Peaks’

A.N. Devers | Longreads | May 2017| 9 minutes (2,206words)

When the first episode of Twin Peaks aired, I didn’t see it. It was the spring of 1990 and I was in shock. My grandfather and grandmother had just died unexpectedly of different causes less than twenty-four hours apart, on April 1st and 2nd, respectively. I was 12 years old and felt as if I was in a fever dream. Their deaths were ghastly and remarkable and strange and heart wrenching and I felt like for two weeks my body had left the earth, a pre-teen balloon, floating above their home of Ft. Worth, Texas watching streams of mourners as they arrived with potato salad and Ricky’s BBQ and chocolate cake.
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The Great American Housewife Writer: A Shirley Jackson Primer

Shirley Jackson celebrated her 100th birthday this month. We are publishing this post from A.N. Devers in her honor.

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Like so many readers, I loved and was gutted by Shirley Jackson’s famous New Yorker short story “The Lottery” from the first time I read it, and I have read it so many times since then that I don’t remember when I was first introduced to it. I was young. I have a couple of prime suspect English teachers who might have been the gift-givers. But until about nine years ago, I hadn’t read any of Shirley Jackson’s novels. I was only vaguely aware of one of them, her famous ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House.

Then I wrote a short story my MFA professor was enthusiastic about; it was full of domestic disturbance and the strange, and he assigned me to read all the Shirley Jackson I could get my hands on, which was difficult at the time, since not much was in print. So I read her collected stories, and two novels We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hill House. I inhaled them and their contents, the cobwebs and fairy tales, the ghosts and talismans, the anxieties and fears. They are books written by a self-described witch who was also a tremendously gifted writer, and that makes them laced with a kind of special magic. I still can’t believe they aren’t better known or accepted as great American novels.

Since then, I’ve read nearly the lot of it, and done everything possible to get to know Shirley Jackson and her work, including staring up at her white columned house that was illustrated on the cover of Life Among the Savages, her bestselling memoir about raising four children. I wandered the backroads of Bennington, Vermont in my car looking for the inspiration of her haunted Hill House, before I learned it was inspired by a home far away from Vermont’s hills in California.

I’ve also been Jackson’s book pusher. Not too long ago, I dined with a table of smart, friendly, and incredibly well-read British book dealers and explained to them who Shirley Jackson was. They hadn’t read “The Lottery,” but it rung a faint bell. It’s worrisome, but I’m happy to report that they furiously wrote her name down. I once gave my copy of Castle to a stranger at a bar. And as a cherry on top, last year, I proposed and lead the first Shirley Jackson reading group at The Center for Fiction. We pored over her work, and read some of it out loud, and that is when I realized her fiction hasn’t aged. Her storytelling is incredibly modern. She is a writer to read right now. Read more…

The Queen of the Night

Illustration by Carl J. Ferrero, Design by Sarah Samudre

Alexander Chee | First Chapter Exclusive: The Queen of the Night | Houghton Mifflin Harcourt | Feb. 2015 | 21 minutes (5,292 words)

 

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the first chapter from The Queen of the Night, the second novel by award-winning writer Alexander Chee, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers

“In the opening pages of The Queen of the Night, we are transported to a celebratory night at The Luxembourg Palace in Paris, 1882, where a legendary opera singer, Lilliet Berne, is trying to avoid attention (self-conscious of a poorly-designed dress she must wear), only to step accidentally into an intimate conversation with a writer who wants to put her at the center of a new opera. The one trophy missing on her crowded shelf is an original role in a new work, and she throws caution away as the stranger flatters her with the offer. As the soprano with the delicate voice tempts fate, we learn of her long-kept secrets, deep ambition, quick wit, and keen powers of observation. In Berne, Alexander Chee has created a fully-formed diva from a glamorous age that has long since passed, yet her role as her own mythology builder is as contemporary as ever, as seen daily in tabloids and online, as actors, athletes, fashionistas, Kardashians, politicians, Real Housewives, and yoginis shape their stories for column inches and Instagram followers—some, like Berne, have true talent. Chee’s Queen of the Night is a spectacular and balletic historical novel, its intricacies offer insights not only about fame, but also about the Second Empire in France and its rich musical and literary history.”

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WHEN IT BEGAN, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, of­fering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul. A comic element—the soprano arrives in the wrong dress—and it decides her fate.

The year was 1882. The palace was the Luxembourg Palace; the ball, the Sénat Bal, held at the beginning of autumn. It was still warm, and so the garden was used as well. I was the soprano.

I was Lilliet Berne. Read more…

An Ode to du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca,’ by Rachel Pastan

A screenshot from Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 adaptation of Rebecca.

Rachel Pastan | Riverhead Books |  2014 |  15 minutes (3,709 words)

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is the second chapter from the novel Alena by Rachel Pastan, as chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes:

“Sometimes a book that is wonderful and well-told and riveting is overlooked. I believe this is the case with Rachel Pastan’s Alena. This novel, about the art world and its ghosts, came out quietly to great reviews last year, was called “a brilliant takedown of the self-serious art world” by Alex Kuczynski in the Times Book Review, and was published in paperback earlier this year. Inspired by the ghost-filled mega-bestseller of its day, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Pastan’s ode tells the story of a young art curator who takes a position at a small Cape Cod art museum that is left mysteriously vacant by her predecessor, a woman named Alena who has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Pastan trades the aristocracy of manor house for the aristocracy of the art world, but keeps all the hauntednesss one expects to find oozing from a haunted house’s drafts and flues. In this chapter, we meet our narrator, as she works to make art her life, and we see a glimpse of the fraught future she has in store.”

* * * Read more…

Cities I’ve Never Lived In: A Story By Sara Majka

Photo credit: Chris Ward

Sara Majka | Longreads |  October 2015 |  23 minutes (5,561 words)

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Sara Majkaas chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes: 

“This short story, about a woman who decides to travel to from city to city, working and eating in soup kitchens, is the previously unpublished title story from a collection I have been wishing and longing for for almost a decade. I first met Sara Majka in a fiction workshop at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where we both were enrolled as students. At the time, I was a new assistant editor at A Public Space and I brought Majka’s work to the attention of editor Brigid Hughes. If I recall correctly, her story was the only story I brought from my workshop directly to the magazine for consideration. It was a quiet and considered story with a singular voice. I was struck by how certain and precise the language was—how unusual and full of unspoken yearnings. She was able to convey so much disorientation, doubt, and pain through small observations and deceptively simple memories. Majka’s characters read as if they are feeling their way through a room with their eyes closed even though the lights are on—the reality of what is in front of them is difficult for them to process, the choices they are faced with confusing—despite their sincere attempts to find their way.

The story I showed Hughes ultimately did not end up in the magazine, (I later found it a home at Pen America), but she was more than intrigued, and later published another story and began a working relationship with Majka that led to the forthcoming publication of Cities I’ve Never Lived In, as a part of A Public Space Books, their imprint with Graywolf Press. These stories are a marvel and will break your heart. Majka’s debut is breath-stopping.”

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The Fears of Our Nation: President Obama Interviews Marilynne Robinson

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?

Robinson: Right.

At The New York Review of Books, President Obama interviews Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson, a conversation he requested to have after becoming a fan of her novels. As a companion to this interview, read her recent essay, “Fear,” a rumination on American history, religious history, guns, violence, war, and her deeply held Christian beliefs.

Read the interview

 

 

A Book in the Mail is the Cure For Ferrante Fever

Magda Szabó. Photo via gabrilu, Flickr

As a regular book browser, or shelf stalker, and former employee of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, I’ve recently watched several customers come in asking for recommendations of what to read next after finishing Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s four-volume saga, The Neapolitan Quartet — a masterwork concerning issues of class, status, and the remarkable complexity of female friendship, set on the fringe of an economically depressed Naples. I also had been wondering what I myself would find to read and recommend to friends to quench the Ferrante Fever. As if the book gods heard my call, I nearly simultaneously received a long letter and gift from an old friend in the mail the other day. I’d recommended she read Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In return she sent along a beautiful recommendation of deceased Hungarian novelist, Magda Szabó’s The Door, a novel that also explores the complex and unsettling nature of friendship between two women who couldn’t be more different:

She was nowhere to be seen, either in the apartment when I awoke, or in the street when I set off for the hospital; but there was evidence of her handiwork in the section of pavement outside the front door swept clean of snow. Obviously, I told myself in the car, she was making her rounds at the other houses. I wasn’t distressed, or heartbroken. I felt that only good news awaited me at the hospital, as indeed it did. I was out until lunchtime. Arriving home, rather hungry, I was sure she’d be sitting there in the apartment, awaiting my return. I was wrong. I was faced with the disconcerting experience of walking into my own home, bearing news of life and death, and no-one to share it with. Our Neanderthal ancestor learned to weep the first time he stood in triumph over the bison he had dragged in and found no-one to tell of his adventures, or show his spoils to, or even his wounds. The apartment stood empty. I went into one room after another, looking for her, even calling out her name. I didn’t want to believe that, on this of all days, when she didn’t even know if my patient was alive or dead, she could be somewhere else. The snow had stopped falling. There could be nothing in the street requiring her attention. And yet she was nowhere to be found.

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A Case of Mistaken Identity: Percival Everett’s New Collection of Stories

Publicity still from the film Dances with Wolves. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene portrayed Kicking Bird.

After a night in a motel I returned to the library the next morning and looked at images of Graham Greene. The man in my photograph did look a lot like Graham Greene, but also different. Regardless, I didn’t know where next to look. I decided to try the sheriff’s office.

The inside of the office was as nondescript as the outside and in fact so was the sheriff. He was a new sherif, though he was over fifty. I could tell because his clothes were so neat and crisp. His dispatcher was out sick and so he was manning the desk, he told me. I showed him the photograph.

Looks like that actor,” he said.

“I know.”

“What’s his name?”

“Graham Greene.”

“No, that’s not it. He was on that Chuck Norris television show.”

He scratched his head as he looked out the window. “Floyd something. Westerman. Floyd Westerman.”

“This man’s name is Davy Cloud. He’s Arapaho and he’s about eighty now.”

“Why do you want him?”

“I promised his hundred-year-old mother I’d find him.”

—From Percival Everett’s first short story collection since 2004, Half an Inch of Water, which is concerned with issues of race and identity, and family and community, and is set against the backdrop of the American West.

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