Monday, January 27, 2014

Paying tribute to the living

Novelist Ann Hood, one of the instructors at the 10th annual Writers in Paradise Conference held in St. Petersburg, Fla., last week, read an essay Friday at one of the evening readings that each of the published writers at the conference took part in. Her essay told of one of the literary influences on her life, that by novelist Laurie Colwin, who died of a heart attack in 1992 while still in her 40s. Hood remembers seeing Colwin as she walked into the Three Lives & Company bookstore in New York City and noticing Colwin smiling at her, as if inviting her not just into the bookstore but also into the world of writers.

Hood reflected that Colwin was but one of numerous authors, most of them, like Colwin, little read anymore, who influenced her work at the start of her career.

Ann Hood
A couple of days after listening to Hood's wonderful essay, I read another essay, this written in the 1920s by a man named A. Edward Newton. It can be found in a book called A Passion for Books published in 1999. In the essay called "What's the Matter with the Bookshop?," Newton writes about the importance of buying -- not just reading or borrowing from a library, but actually buying -- books by current authors. "All these men are engaged in carrying on the glorious tradition of English literature," he wrote. "It is my duty to give them what encouragement I can: to pay tribute to them."

Essayists Hood and Newton would agree, I am sure, that both authors of the past and those of the present should be supported. Hood, after all, is an author of the present who would like to sell all the books she can. Yet she wishes Colwin and other writers of the past she admires had not been so quickly forgotten. As for Newton, he admits in  his essay that he reads more old books than new ones, but, he says, he spends more on new books than old ones. Living authors, not dead ones, need the royalties.

I was disappointed last week when Jack Morris, formerly of the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins, failed to win election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was his last year of eligibility to be voted in by sportswriters. Morris was one of my favorite pitchers, and I think his numbers deserve inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Yet I'm also glad the standards are high. Only the most deserving should make the cut.

So it is with writers. Not all books can or should remain in print forever, and not all authors can be remembered very long after they cease writing. The world must make way for new authors and new books. If more people were still reading Laurie Colwin, perhaps fewer would be reading Ann Hood.

I suspect that writers like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger will still be in print and still be read 100 years from now. I can't say the same for Ann Hood or most of the other authors at Writers in Paradise. These included such notables at Tim O'Brien, Laura Lippman, Stuart O'Nan, Dennis Lehane and Andre Dubus III. It will be too bad if worthy writers like these are not long remembered. Yet, as Newton observed, readers should always pay tribute to new writers. One day this may include some of the talented students attending Writers in Paradise last week.

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