DeWitt Planned to Publish ‘Lightning Rods’ Before ‘The Last Samurai’

Helen DeWitt’s struggles with the publishing industry have been well documented. She famously battled the copy editors of her first publisher regarding the correct typesetting of certain passages in her novel The Last Samurai (2000), which had pages of classical Greek and also Japanese characters (hiragana, katakana and kanji).

In a 2016 Vulture profile of DeWitt, Christian Lorentzen documented how the bankruptcy of her first publisher, and the subsequent lawsuits over “accounting errors,” kept her second novel Lightning Rods (2011) from being published for 12 years.

Lightning Rods, finished in July 1999, was then stuck in limbo after her publisher, Talk Miramax, folded,” Lorentzen wrote. “When it did finally appear, from New Directions in 2011, it garnered a legion of devoted readers too young to have read The Last Samurai before it went out of print.”

What many people don’t know is that DeWitt anticipated the typesetting problems and had decided to hold The Last Samurai back. Her strategy was to first publish Lightning Rods, gain the necessary clout to protect her vision for The Last Samurai, and then go from there.

In a lengthy series of Tweets on Dec. 29, DeWitt outlined the background of this drama, and how the editor’s pushing The Last Samurai at the 1999 Frankfurt Book Fair–and the subsequent sensation the book engendered there–forced her hand, and foiled her initial publishing plans.

DeWitt then Tweeted how rights for The Last Samurai were sold to 19 other publishers, all of whom took “dodgy shortcuts” when it came to handling the typesetting. The ensuing efforts to protect the book, and battle her former publisher, took a massive psychological toll on DeWitt.

DeWitt ends the Tweet series by picking up on a thread earlier in the sequence, where she remarks how Steve Jobs’ background and personal interests affected what fonts went into Apple computers, and how technology–often invisible to writers, and often seen in a neutral or positive manner–can actually dis-empower artists.

Feeling Bookish Podcast: Upcoming Schedule

We appreciate all the support and the enthusiasm we’ve been receiving from listeners of the Feeling Bookish Podcast. It’s a blast to meet and chat with people who are as passionate about books and reading as we are.

When doing the podcast, we assume listeners have not read the particular book we’re discussing. But if you can read the book beforehand, that makes for a really fun experience. We love the feedback we get on Twitter.

Helen DeWitt, author of The Last Samurai is cool beyond words (photo by Zora Sicher).

We know everyone is busy, so we included a list of our upcoming books, if you want to choose one or two and read along with us. We usually publish a podcast every four-to-five weeks. Here’s the list:

Continue reading Feeling Bookish Podcast: Upcoming Schedule

Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson

It’s a massive book, it’s nearly 50-years-old, but it has been republished by the New York Review of Books press, and some critics are calling it a masterpiece.

I took a less enthusiastic view. You can check out my essay on Anniversaries and my attempt to define the “everything novel” in 3 Quarks Daily, as well as listen to the discussion I had about it on a recent Feeling Bookish Podcast:

Writing for ‘3 Quarks Daily’

If you’re like me, you probably find keeping up with the best writing on the web a daily struggle. That’s why Arts & Letters Daily is such a key site for me and so many others, trying to read and share great articles. Inspired by the aggregator model, S. Abbas Raza founded 3 Quarks Daily in 2004, but with the aim of bringing both humanities and scientific articles onto the same platform.

The model has proved a great success and eventually the site began bringing on writers to produce original articles every Monday. I was recently chosen to be one of the new Monday Columnists and wrote my first article last month on why literature has less and less influence on the larger culture. I did it through the lens of examining recent literary memoirs by Sergio Pitol and Edmund White. Please check out the article and look for a new piece by me every third Monday the month.

Edmund White during his Paris years (photo by Grant Delin)

The Epistolary Insights of Aging Writers

One can only hope that our greatest writers today are carrying on significant email correspondences with one another–and that one day we’ll have access to these exchanges. I can’t say I’ve seen anything like this yet, no hint of The Collected Emails of David Foster Wallace or Christopher Hitchens: The Yahoo! Years Last fall I received an advanced copy of Samuel Beckett’s final volume of letters. I’d just written about Beckett for The Millions and was happy to continue thinking about this odd and fabulous Irishman.

I’d also been doing some thinking about aging, and was struck how Beckett’s legendary detachment–explored and cultivated since youth–had seemingly prepared him well for the challenges of aging. I got the kernel for an idea, tracked down some additional epistolary volumes: Saul Bellow’s letters and the fascinating correspondence between the poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. My article appeared last month in The Atlantic under the heading Finding Wisdom in the Letters of Aging Writers


During the last month or so I also published two short stories in online literary journals. They are both chapters from a novel I recently completed. The first piece was titled “The Phenomenon” and published in The Courtship of Winds, and the second was “If it is Beautiful, it is Passing” in the The Furious Gazelle.

Anxiety & The Writing Life

When I decided to write about Tim Parks’ new essay collection Life and Work: Writers, Readers, and the Conversations between Them, I didn’t intend to write about panic attacks, anxiety and the emotional toll of the writing life, but these themes curiously bubbled up to the surface. I was also writing it for The Millions, which unlike the Los Angeles Review of Books, for example, avoids straight-up reviews, forcing me to look for interesting themes across Parks’ divergent essays. One of his pieces focused on Samuel Beckett–no stranger to anxiety himself–and this led me to Anthony Cronin’s fine Beckett biography, which helped give me some additional material.

samuel beckett photo
Photo by TANAZE

The piece is titled “The Writer is Not Here: On Nihilism and the Writing Life,” and I can also say that when I was reading Parks’ collection, I was finishing my own novel and experiencing a certain amount of anxiety in the process. Not anxiety in the career sense (i.e., have I written a good book?), but at the level of raw nerves, of scratching at emotional wounds, of going deep.

The essay was well received. It has been mentioned in The Paris Review Daily, 3 Quarks Daily, and also in The Rumpus. I suppose the topic is not unfamiliar to writers who “go deep” on a regular basis.

Japanese Novelist Hideo Furukawa & Fukushima

I recently wrote a review of Hideo Furukawa’s new novel Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure: A Tale That Begins with Fukushima for The Quarterly Conversation. Furukawa is a native of Fukushima and his memoir-like novel recounts elements of his journey back to Fukushima in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that stunned the country in March of 2011.

Book Review of Horses, Hideo Furukawa

I was in the city of Fukushima in May of 2011 visiting a friend, and there were great concerns about radiation and the long-term health effects of the nuclear disaster. And while I saw massive cracks in buildings, the city itself was spared the terrors of the tsunami because of its distance from the coast.

My review has some background on Furukawa. His is a writer we will be hearing more about in the West as his work becomes translated and more widely available. In addition to reading Horses, you can also get an interesting and novelistic take on the events in Fukushima by reading William T. Vollmann’s Byliner book on his trip there, or his long form piece in Harper’s. 

My Review of “Feast of Excess”

More Solomon
Carl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (Creative Commons License)

I recently reviewed the book Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility  for the Los Angeles Review of Books. The book surveys 22 years of American cultural history (1952 to 1974) and looks at a range of artists, including Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, Thomas Pynchon, Marlon Brando, Jerry Lee Lewis, Andy Warhol, Anne Sexton, Gore Vidal, and many others. The New Sensibility was first defined by Susan Sontag in the mid-1960s.