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.

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.

Review of Arts & Entertainments

I published a review of Christopher Beha’s second novel Arts & Entertainments in the January print edition of First Things. The review is now available online. Beha, a deputy editor at Harper’s Magazine, is a fine novelist and his debut work What Happened to Sophie Wilder? is worth checking out as well.


Philip K. Dick, the Unreliability of Language & the Writer’s Struggle

The following is an email from Roman Tsivkin to myself regarding an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Writing is a Lonely Business: James McKimmey, Philip K. Dick, and the Lost Art of Author Correspondence” by Jason Starr. I think Roman’s letter is both an informative riposte to the essay, as well as a valuable piece of literary criticism regarding the entire Dick oeuvre. Yet even more illuminating is how Roman intertwines his literary criticism with his own struggles to write fiction. The email was published with Roman’s permission. -Robert Fay


It’s been too long, as usual. Loved the link you tweeted to that article on Philip K. Dick (PKD) & McKimmey’s correspondence, but as usual the author of the article got some things wrong about PKD. No, he did not “devolve” into mental illness sometime in the ’60s. He wrote his best stuff in the mid and late ’60s, got increasingly paranoid due to amphetamine abuse (& due to real reasons; the FBI was spying on him from way back in the ’50s, when they sent two agents to “ask” him to spy on fellow Berkeley radicals), tried to commit suicide, moved to SoCal, had a visionary experience (or, if you like, a mental breakdown…but the two are often indistinguishable), and then wrote novels that were even better than his output in the ’60s.

The tendency to view Dick’s later period as being characterized by drug-induced hallucinations, paranoia and mental collapse are a cop-out — he was onto something very, very important. His last works — the VALIS trilogy — are, to put it simply, incredible, and are really all about ontology and metaphysics, something we normally call “religion.” All of his later works tie in to his earlier stuff, so there’s no big break like some people claim…VALIS et al. are a logical extension of his earlier world-buildings and world-views. I’m still trying to digest VALIS and The Exegesis, a process that will never end because, well, hell’s bells, have you seen The Exegesis? It’s goddamn 9,000 pages long; the print version is “only” about 1,000, but it has so much stuff to mull over, I’ll never exhaust its deep mental pockets. Mixing metaphors here, but that’s a writer’s prerogative.


The book that keeps coming up for me lately is PKD’s Ubik which, if you haven’t read it, deals with life and death, mixing the two states up to the point where the reader is not sure who’s alive and who’s dead — not just characters in Ubik, but the readers themselves (well…some readers, anyhow :). PKD has that effect on readers, it’s why he’s become the uber-cultural artifact of our late 20th/early 21st Century existence (of course the movies based on his books helped spread the word to the unworded, i.e., the masses). Somehow he found a way to transform readers via words, a magical/religious ability. And not just transform them in the sense that some other great writers can transform — as in, “wow, this book changed my life” or “I look at the world differently now that I’ve read this book” or “I am now much more attuned to the human condition” or whatever – but rather change them directly, induce mental change, like the spacetime displacement I felt in Santa Ana, Calif., while reading VALIS. The weirdness and sense of irreality I felt at that moment was more “real” than a psychedelic trip, more embodied, and much, much scarier, like I was having a stroke or something. While I’ve had transformative experiences from other writers (Dostoevsky, Bernhard, Joyce, et al.), PKD’s effect on me was much more powerful by great orders of magnitude: while those other writers excited me, made me chew the bone of existence and taste its bittersweet, fatty marrow, PKD’s writings somehow (magically???) made and continue to make me unsure of anything and everything, but with the added and all-important caveat of that existential uncertainty being backed up by a supra-existential certainty.

At the moment, PKD seems to me to be the most important religious writer of our times. (Curiously, the print version of his posthumously published The Exegesis has a gold hardback that’s very reminiscent of the cover of the Five Books of Moses (the Jewish Torah) on my shelf.) The way he was able to reach out into the noösphere and grab hold of the visions he experienced in February and March of ’74, and then write and write and write his way through them, so that his readers were able to not just read about them (the visions, etc.), but experience them through repeated readings…well, that’s just plain Kabbalistic, mystical stuff. He knew not only how to spell, but how to cast a spell.

Looking for Philip K. Dick

Detour here with PKD…but not really a detour, because it relates directly to what I’ve come to call my “false move” vis-a-vis writing: thinking that words are not trustworthy, that they can easily deceive and cover up instead of uncovering, that I was trapped in a linguistic, artificial universe and that writing just a little bit here and there showed me how writing failed, how my writing failed, and by extension how I failed…all of this was my own deception played at my own expense, and now PKD has somehow pushed his way into my consciousness again (“somehow” is not the term…I felt compelled to revisit his universe; again, his life/death novel Ubik just kept jumping into my mind, uninvited, and I’ve been noticing more and more references to PKD in my daily life, including your tweet a while ago about PKD being some musician’s favorite writer) to show me that there is a way to use words to free me from words, or at least from their tendency to obfuscate what I tasted during successful meditations, that space behind words from which words – or more precisely the linguistic categories we unconsciously impose on our world — arise. I was so in love with silence that I thought words opposed it, and therefore were to be avoided or at least their use minimized. I was simply wrong in that assumption, but the kicker is that I was wrong about it because of my reliance on words in the first place. All that Zen & Taoism stuff I imbibed — I simply misunderstood it. That’s all, a simple misunderstanding that led me down a false path lo these many years. So my new revelation (appropriate word here) is that I can use words to free myself of whatever existential bug has been infesting my system. Perhaps this is the way for me to become a writer, one who uses words and not vice versa. Keep writing, motherfucker. Words are your friends and allies, and most importantly, you can’t live without them.

I just finished a PKD novel I’ve never read before — Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Wow. Wow again. Wow yet a third time. It’s a very moving work, so emotional, so much about love and the relationships we have with loved ones. Yeah, sure, there are crazy plot twists and nutty science fictioney scaffolding, but what a book! It just kept getting better and better, and it’s head and shoulders above the novel he wrote immediately before this one, Now Wait for Last Year — which is good (and you can see how PKD’s working out the theme of love in the earlier book) — but then comes Flow My Tears, and WHAM! you’re suddenly reading an amazing, psychologically astute (and how!), book. I highly, highly recommend it. I’m currently going through all the books that I skipped during my ’80s-’90s PKD period, so next up is A Maze of Death, then a revisit of one of my all-time fave PKD books, his last mind-blower, The Transmigrations of Timothy Archer. You really, really should read this book — it deals with Christianity in a much more explicit way than his other books. In fact, I’m surprised you haven’t read it yet (I’m assuming here, but I think I’d have heard from you if you’d read it already). Go get a copy, will ya, so that we can talk about it.

Damn, this is a PKD-heavy email/letter. So be it. Sending now before I change my mind 🙂

Your friend,

Follow Roman Tsivkin on Twitter @zenjew or visit his blog.