When it comes to an author’s legacy, who gets the last word? (Let’s forget for a moment the noble idea that the work speaks for itself.) Is it the author, the biographer, or the critic? Fall’s books offer fans and scholars a multitude of perspectives on the literary life.
It’s been four years since the tragic suicide of David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), who made headlines this spring when the Pulitzer committee snubbed his unfinished final novel, The Pale King. In Both Flesh and Not: Essays, DFW fans will find 15 of his essays, collected for the first time, including “Federer Both Flesh and Not” and “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2.” Curious DFW readers will also want to check out Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by New Yorker staff writer D.T. Max, the first biography of the influential novelist, written with the cooperation of his friends and family.
Research and more research. Literary historian and biographer Leonard S. Marcus interviewed family, friends, and colleagues for his rich and illuminating new book about the beloved author of A Wrinkle in Time, Listening for Madeline: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices. Meanwhile, for Thornton Wilder: A Life, Penelope Niven utilized thousands of pages of journals, manuscripts, and documents (including family records) to study the inner life of the intensely private Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and novelist. The most intriguing of the fall biographies may well be The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson (Minor Characters). Having written about her relationship with Kerouac in her memoir, Door Wide Open, Johnson now looks at how Kerouac’s French-Canadian background influenced his prose and gave him an outsider’s vision of America.
Like DFW, poet Robert Hass (Time and Materials), who has won too many awards to mention, excels in all genres. In What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World, Hass writes about photography, California, and the different applications of poetry, and shares his insights on authors from Wallace Stevens to Samuel Coleridge.
For the most detail-oriented readers among us, two books allow us to peer into the private lives of some of the 20th century’s most important authors. In George Orwell’s Diaries, published in the U.S. for the first time, edited by Peter Davison and introduced by Christopher Hitchens, readers are privy to Orwell’s travels, his experience of WWII, and the composition of Animal Farm and 1984. In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited and introduced by his friend Dan Wakefield, 60 years of correspondence from the author of Slaughterhouse-Five amount to what his publisher promises is the autobiography that he never wrote, with nearly every letter appearing for the first time.
Not to give critics the last word on this page, but this fall New Yorker readers will be delighted by essay collections from two of the magazine’s revered critics. Daniel Mendelsohn (whose previous collection of essays, How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, was a PW Best Book of 2008) presents 24 recent essays on the art of fiction, theater and film, and literary lives, as well as his notorious takedown of Mad Men, in Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture. Lastly, few critics can influence the public discourse about fiction like James Wood (How Fiction Works). In his latest, The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, he tackles the contemporary novel, including the works of Cormac McCarthy, Aleksandar Hemon, and Lydia Davis.
PW’s Top 10: Literary Essays & Criticism
Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace. Little, Brown, Nov.
Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D. T. Max. Viking, Aug.
Listening for Madeleine: A Portrait of Madeleine L’Engle in Many Voices by Leonard S. Marcus. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Nov.
Thornton Wilder: A Life by Penelope Niven. Harper, Oct.
The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson. Viking, Sept.
What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass. Ecco, Aug.
Diaries by George Orwell, edited by Peter Davison, introduction by Christopher Hitchens. W.W. Norton/Liveright, Aug.
Kurt Vonnegut: Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, edited by Dan Wakefield. Delacorte, Oct.
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture by Daniel Mendelsohn. New York Review Books, Oct.
The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays by James Wood. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Oct.
Read and sort all our picks from this fall's upcoming literary essays and criticism titles in the spreadsheet below: