This Week in Literary History: Oct. 5-11

The first NY Times Book Review appears, Anne Enright's born, and more

Welcome to a new edition of This Week in Literary History from Bidwell Hollow. This week’s stories come from Andrew Sanger, Christine Kingery, and Andria Kennedy. You can learn a little more about each writer by visiting the Bidwell Hollow contributors page.

Your list of notable literary births and events for this week is below.

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Sherman Alexie Overcame Physical, Cultural Challenges to Become a Leading Native Voice

By Andrew Sanger

Sherman Alexie’s 2007 young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian depicts the life of a young boy named Junior growing up in the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. 

Junior suffers from several health issues, is bullied in school, and struggles to manage his ambitions with those of the Native American identity, which he feels disincentivizes success. The novel’s heartfelt, often tragicomic, authenticity touched so many people that it won Alexie the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

How did Alexie manage to achieve that kind of authenticity? While he largely fictionalized the book’s events, all of the main elements, including Junior’s health problems and his strained relationship with his family, came from Alexie’s time growing up on the Spokane Reservation in northeastern Washington.

When he was born on Oct. 7, 1966, Sherman Alexie was not expected to live for very long. He was born with a life-threatening condition called hydrocephalus, a condition otherwise known as “water on the brain,” which occurs due to a large accumulation of spinal cerebral fluid. 

Even though he miraculously survived the high-risk surgery he underwent at just six months old, he still experienced many health issues, including epileptic seizures, throughout his childhood. Despite the risk of suffering long-term and severe mental deficits, Alexie likes to sardonically describe himself as “only moderately to minorly mentally damaged.”

Sadly, these congenital health problems were the cause of more than just physical woes for Alexie. Differences, no matter how small, can be a cause for childhood bullying. Alexie’s large head, many teeth, and epilepsy put him under the scrutiny of his peers. Nevertheless, Alexie managed to find the humor in this, quipping that his head was so big as a kid that he “looked like a supervillain in an X-Men comic book.” 

This laughing in the face of tragedy has become a signifying brand of Alexie’s work. Although Alexie’s dark comedy brand addresses several taboo subjects such as racism, poverty, and mental disability, his writing appears on many banned book lists throughout the U.S. The American Library Association lists The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time India as the most banned book of the past decade.

Alexie found himself confronting more controversy in 2018 after three women accused him of sexual harassment. Alexie, the women say, used his literary fame to coerce sexual encounters with them. NPR broke the story, in which the women detail their experience with Alexie’s abuse. Alexie apologized in a statement, saying “There are women who are telling the truth.”

Although his health issues kept him from participating in physical activities as a young boy, it gave him time to focus on a different passion: reading. Alexie credits his father with instilling in him a love of books, and for the first seven years of his life, much of which he spent cooped up in his home or the hospital, he passed the time by devouring book after book. Luckily, these physical ailments receded as he grew older, and by the time Alexie was in high school, he was a star basketball player.

Sadly, Alexie’s health struggles didn’t end with his childhood hydrocephalus. In his college years, he struggled with the alcoholism that had affected his family and many in his community. Much like his early ailments, Alexie integrated these severe issues into his work and thankfully was able to quit drinking shortly after the publication of his first book of poems, I Would Steal Horses.

While best known for his commercially successful novels, Alexie first rose to prominence as a poet and short-fiction writer, putting out several books before branching out into long-form works. Throughout his career, Alexie has also dabbled in writing screenplays, directing, and performing stand-up comedy.

Alexie currently lives in Seattle, Wash., with his wife, and is still writing. His most recent book was 2017’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, a memoir exploring his complicated relationship with his mother.

In 2018, NPR published accounts from multiple women who say Alexie used his stature in literary circles to coerce sexual encounters with them. Three women spoke on the record to NPR, while the news outlet found ten women who said Alexie sexually harassed them. Alexie issued a statement apologizing, saying, “There are women telling the truth.”

Sherman Alexie

The New York Times Publishes Its Book Review for the First Time

By Christine Kingery

Oscar Wilde was sitting in prison when The New York Times published its Book Review section for the first time on Oct. 10, 1896. Wilde was famously incarcerated for two years on the charge of gross indecency for having sexual relations with another man. 

The public voraciously consumed newspapers for salacious details of Wilde’s private life. The scandal was such that when the sentencing judge gave Wilde the maximum penalty, Justice Wills claimed that the time was “totally inadequate for a case such as this,” and that the case was the “worst case I have ever tried.”  

People turned out to offer Wilde their opinion of his private life, gathering to laugh at him and spit on him during his transfer to Reading Gaol. Newspapers big and small highlighted the case around the world, such as the Illustrated Police News, a weekly tabloid newspaper, which depicted detailed pictures of Wilde “ill in prison” and “glum in the dock.”

Considering that the scandalous story was selling newspapers at a record rate, it’s not surprising that the New York Times Book Review’s inaugural issue chose to cover the story of Wilde’s imprisonment. In the short column “Oscar Wilde’s Forlorn State: Punishments He Undergoes—His Release Not Far Off” the anonymous author discusses the state of Wilde’s imprisonment from yet another unknown, but high-ranking official. 

“He is governed by the silent system, and this is rigidly enforced, so much so that he has several times been punished for half involuntarily turning his head in chapel to get a glimpse of the person seated beside him. We…were told that [his punishment] consisted in having his ‘rug’ taken from him. The rug in question is a strip of rag carpet which serves as a substitute for a mattress, being spread upon the surface of a deal door which is his only bed; so that, when under punishment, he sleeps upon the bare planks.”

The Oscar Wilde news was just one of six columns featured in the first New York Times Book Review. Another column told the curious story of the attempted robbery of acclaimed author H. H. Bancroft’s metal publishing plates of “The History of the Pacific Coast.” The burglar bungled the theft, got caught, and was then released. Authorities didn’t release the thief’s identity, nor did they explain why the man tried to steal the plates or why they let the perpetrator go without charges.  

Since that first issue, the New York Times Book Review has become one of the leading authorities in the book publishing industry, with the ability to make-or-break authors. The Book Review has since expanded from its column on newsy industry tidbits to include yearly “Best Books” lists (beginning in 1968) and a podcast (airing for the first time in 2006). 

How, exactly, the Book Review functions remain enshrouded in mystery, with readers wondering, “how do you get selected for a book review?” to “who exactly are the reviewers?” The tradition of anonymity that began back in 1896 still holds today.

Readers today are much the same as readers from 120 years ago, clamoring for news of their much-beloved celebrities and following the exploits of up-and-coming stars. It feels like a modern story of a pair of homegrown bloggers enjoying modern social media to share their adventures. Still, the description of two eccentric French journalists and their goal to travel worldwide without a dime in their pocket was another curious insert in the Book Review insert from 1896. MM Leroy and Paillaud aimed to travel around the world using their writing skills as their currency. “Our fearless scribes,” says the anonymous writer of the journalists, “when last heard of, were making for Japan.” 

The Book Review began as a Saturday, four-column, tabloid-sized insert and was the brainchild of Adolph S. Ochs, the New York Times publisher at that time. Francis Whiting Halsey was the editor of the fledgling column. Editor Pamela Paul current leads the Book Review. She’s the author of six books and a former contributor to Time magazine, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, and Vogue magazines

Anne Enright Writes Her Way, in Her Voice

By Andria Kennedy

Writers often have their works snatched from their hands and held under critical microscopes. As soon as the book leaves the publisher and enters the wide world, decisions arise regarding what the author's predominant themes must have been. Anne Enright finds such pigeonholes amusing.

"I don't think I'm writing about Ireland, sex, and family. I think of myself as writing about some more fundamental problem like 'compassion.' I mean, there is some question I have to figure out, so I sit down and write a book so as to see what the question might be," Enright remarked in a 2015 interview with The Writer's Bone.

No one questions Ireland's underlying theme in Enright's writings, but what more would you expect from an Irish writer? Enright prefers to write what she knows, what she understands, and Ireland's in her blood, through and through. It only makes sense to serve as the backdrop for her novels, but she's not aiming for Irish awareness.

Enright's focus on strong, independent female characters took on a new life when she received the coveted position as the Irish Laureate in 2015. "You're hearing the sound of taboos breaking," she proudly proclaimed.

During her three-year position as Laureate, Anne Enright spoke out against the gender imbalance present in Irish literature. She was appalled at the sneering of women's work, the constant portrayal of sex as shameful or unobtainable - a constant due to Irish conservatism - and a reluctance to take women's literature as seriously as men's. In her own words, looking over her early works, she stated that people often perceived "women as quirky and men as modernists."

She spoke out, encountering misogynistic viewpoints. There were even male critics to contend with that protested her 2007 Booker win. The three years were difficult, and she often feared her vocal position might compromise her job. However, she's a pragmatic woman. "You aren't going to get the crusty old bastards to cheer up and like you."

Enright's characters reflect this devotion to "real" about which she speaks so passionately. Instead of clinging to the patriarchal archetype of sex as falling into rape, disappointing, or wrong, she embraces a healthier view. "A lot of bad things happen to women in books." 

Enright strikes out to improve that with healthier romance lives for her characters. She even dares to venture onto the precipice of a happy marriage (what a thought!) in her newest novel, Actress. The concept's an utter shock to the literary world, stunning critics into silence.

But Anne Enright doesn't believe in letting taboos confine her. Her novels read the way she speaks: irreverent, wandering off into tangents with wry observations, metaphors, and occasional swearing. Probably a side effect of her unconventional writing process: "You have to let it fall apart and let it start doing its own thing. And that takes nerve, not to panic that the book you were going to write is not the book you will have at the end of the day.".

Actress brought Enright to a new frontier most writers never dare to cross, too: she decided to record the audiobook herself. (Likely causing many a voice actor to weep in despair) When asked in an interview with An International Journal of Contemporary Writing what made her consider the recording, Enright put it simply: "So much of the language in fiction is performative anyway. I've always made sense of the work by reading it aloud. It took two and a half days of my life, and I loved it." 

Anne Enright's words ring true. Those of Irish descent smile knowingly at her words. She's far from a tame personality, and her formula for answering questions continues to provide her with fresh material. While vague concepts for her, they delight readers and confound her critics. 

Perhaps literary buffs want to confine her within the bounds of "family" or "Irish" or "relationships," but Enright continues down her meandering paths.

Anne Enright

  • Born on Oct. 11, 1962, in Dublin, Ireland.


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Sherman Alexie

NY Times Book Review Section

Anne Enright

Notable Literary Births & Events for Oct. 5-11

Oct. 5

  • Edward P. Jones

  • Rupi Kaur

  • Michael Morpurgo

  • Brian O'Nolan

Oct. 6

  • Caroline Gordon

  • Yaşar Kemal

Oct. 7

  • Diane Ackerman

  • Michelle Alexander

  • Sherman Alexie

  • Amiri Baraka

  • Alice Dalgliesh

  • Joe Hill

  • Thomas Keneally

  • James Whitcombe Riley

  • Robert Westall

  • Allen Ginsberg reads "Howl" for the 1st time in 1955

Oct. 8

  • Benjamin Cheever

  • Hilda Conkling

  • Frank Herbert

  • Walter Lord

  • Bret Lott

  • Blake Morrison

  • Richard Sharpe Shaver

  • R.L. Stine

  • Marina Tsvetaeva

Oct. 9

  • Ivo Andrić

  • Bruce Catton

  • Victor Klemperer

  • Bleva Plain

Oct. 10

  • Frederick  Barthelme

  • James  Clavell

  • Nora Roberts

  • Mercè Rodoreda

  • Ken Saro-Wiwa

  • Claude Simon

  • Lily Tuck

  • NY Times publishes first book review section in 1896

Oct. 11

  • Joseph Auslander

  • R.H.W. Dillard

  • Anne Enright

  • Elmore Leonard

  • François Mauriac

  • James M. McPherson

  • Daniel Quinn