A writer who didn’t want to be edited, the ‘real’ Moriarty, and your good words: newsletter, Nov. 23, 2018

November 26, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.


Thanks for the many emails about the words that we use and the ones we don’t hear enough. This week’s word, of course, is gratitude, in line with the Thanksgiving holiday that Americans have celebrated this week. All of us have much to be thankful for. I do my best to remind myself of that every day, including getting into the habit of associating gratitude with regular activities or events.

For example, every time I walk out into my garden, I remind myself of my good fortune to be living at this particular spot on God’s green earth and how beautiful and miraculous it all is. I do that every time — even if I know I am facing a tough set of weeds (God made those, too) that need to be defeated.

Much of this past week has been spent trying to know and understand shape note singing. I am writing a chapter about it for a book, and I will explain more about that soon.

Meanwhile, I hope that your week has been a good one — one of gratitude — and that your weekend is filled with joy.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Muriel Spark, the writer who couldn’t abide being edited

Muriel Spark, the author of 22 novels including The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, always wanted to be in full control of her writing, and once she achieved a measure of fame and recognition, she got it. She refused to be edited unless she could have the final say in the matter.

Just as The Prime of Miss Jean Brody was about to appear in 1961, her publisher, Macmillan, sent out a press release that included an edited version of an interview that she had given the year before. The essay was titled How I Became a Novelist, and she had seen the written version and edited it herself. It was sent to Books and Bookmen, a literary journal of the day.

The editor was delighted with the essay and put her picture on the cover of the issue in which it ran.

Spark was less than totally pleased. The editor had “updated” the text but had not gained her approval for the changes he had made. Spark confronted him with an ultimatum: pay a small sum to a charity of her choice for his indiscretion. He refused. Spark wouldn’t let it go. It was a matter of “principle and justice.” She threatened to sue for twice the amount she had suggested, plus cost. The editor finally relented and paid.

Before 2018 slips away, we should recognize that this year is the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth. She has been the subject of several remembrances. The best article about her work that I have found, however, was one written by novelist Thomas Mallon for the New Yorker in 2010, which you can find here.

Spark’s fame became international after the publication of Jean Brody and particularly the movie version of it in which Maggie Smith won an Academy Award in 1969.

Spark is a puzzling and fascinating writer. Her work does not fit into any genre. There’s usually crime and mayhem in her stories, but she is neither a crime writer nor a mystery novelist. Instead, she is a master stylist and a manipulator of characters she creates. Her characters never get away from her; they are always under her control, and she makes them do odd and sometimes surprising things for the reader.

Mallon writes:

Spark was never a creator of character; she was a trickster of circumstances, a writer whose narrative voice speaks from the past or present or future at her own whim and will. She never foreshadows action when she can simply foretell it, with as much cruelty or merriment as she pleases. This is how Miss Brodie’s most hapless student is shown answering a question, incorrectly, at the end of Chapter 1: “Mary Mcgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured ‘Golden.’ ”

Spark was a dedicated and prolific writer but a difficult and complex personality. Her life, even after she achieved wealth and fame, was never easy. She took her craft seriously, and if you read any of her books, you know that she was a master. They are slim volumes with lean, sparkling prose, where every word counts.

And she was probably right. An editor, even a good one, likely would not have helped.

Another essay on Spark’s work: Snapshots of Muriel Spark – Margaret Drabble | Literaturein the Times Literary Supplement.

Martin Stannard’s Muriel Spark: The Biography goes into depth on just about every aspect of her life and her writing.

The real Moriarty, Sherlock’s nemesis? A new book makes the case for George Boole

Okay, Sherlockians, most who have studied this weighty matter have concluded they know what real life character Arthur Conan Doyle based his detective on: Scottish doctor Joseph Bell, one of Doyle’s medical school instructors.

But where did Professor Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime” in Sherlock’s words, come from?

A new book says it was mathematics pioneer George Boole, the originator of symbolic logic. The book is New Light on George Boole by Des MacHale and Yvonne Cohen, due out soon. A short review by Peter Lynch in the Irish Times says this:

A thorough comparison between Conan Doyle’s fictional Moriarty and the real Boole reveals numerous persuasive similarities. Both characters held chairs at small provincial universities; both won appointments on the basis of outstanding early work; both had interests in astronomy; the two were of similar appearance – an illustration of Moriarty in Conan Doyle’s work bears a striking resemblance to a photograph of Boole and may well have been based on it. Source: Could Sherlock Holmes’s true nemesis have been a mathematician?

The real-life Boole, however, was no criminal. Far from it. Born too poor even to attend grammar school, he taught himself mathematics, and his writing on it earned him a professoriate at the Queen’s College in Cork. He was a highly moral family man who devoted much time to religious philosophy as well as his mathematics.

His ideas and formulations have contributed much to the way that modern computers work.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.https://theprolificreader.com/mystery”

PBS Frontline confronts the Facebook Dilemma

Some people spend hours a day on Facebook; others have never seen it and actively avoid it. Some people have strongly partisan views, one way or another, which may color their view of Facebook.

In my view, it doesn’t matter whether or not you “like” Facebook, or whether you are red or blue or any other political color. There is a problem with Facebook that goes beyond personal preferences and political partisanship. That problem is presented in PBS Frontline‘s excellent two-part presentation on The Facebook Dilemma. I hope that you watched it. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend it.

(I stay about three weeks behind on most things, and this is typical. The series was aired in late October, and I just got around to watching it this week.)

What the series tells us is that the people who run Facebook do not recognize the problems and are unwilling to make decisions to deal with them. All of the Facebook executives who talked with the Frontline reporters — there were six — essentially said the same thing, often using the same phrases. They were “slow to recognize” the problems that the Russian involvement in the 2016 election caused. They are going to have a “continuing conversation” about what needs to be done.

Most disturbing of all, I think, is that Mark Zuckerberg, founder and chief executive of Facebook, continues to spout an “idealistic” vision for his company — that it can change the world for good — when the purpose of Facebook is not to change the world but to make money for its investors.

Zuckerberg and his cohorts need to grow up — or they need to put an adult in the room — and confront the behemoth that they have created rather cling desperately to a pie-in-the-sky vision.

Points and Clicks, Nov. 23, 2018

Edinburgh, a mecca for crime fiction?

British author Paul French has an excellent article on CrimeReads.com about Edinburgh, Scotland as a mecca of crime and detective fiction. The first association you’re likely to make in this regard is between Edinburgh and Ian Rankin‘s booze-laden detective John Rebus. But there is more to Edinburgh’s literary crime wave than Rebus, and French does a good job in laying out his case. Edinburgh is a special place for me in that I lived there in the late 1970s for seven months while I researched and wrote my doctoral dissertation. It’s a magical place. Take a look at French’s article: Crime and the City: Edinburgh | CrimeReads.

Criminal, the podcast

An excellent podcast series that you should try is Criminal. It’s one of the best that you will hear. The host is Phoebe Judge, and it’s produced by North Carolina Public Radio and part of Radiotopia. You are likely to hear anything associated with crime on these 30-to-40 minute episodes. Start with episodes 88 and 89, Cold Case and Shadowing Sheila. This is a two-part story about a woman who, years after the fact, decides to investigate the murder of a college friend. The result is that she becomes a professional detective, one who gets more cases than she can accept. The stories in all the episodes I’ve listened to are compelling.

Recently on JPROF.com

Ring Lardner: when baseball no longer seemed like baseball

G.K. Chesterton: Everything about him was big, including his ‘colossal genius

Good advice for the General: Write like you talk

Left-brain-right-brain: Time to get a new theory


Alice K.: I enjoyed your column this week, especially the words that have been on your mind. Another word that came to my mind is honor. We don’t hear much about honor anymore, or courtesy. In some cultures, a man would give a guest his last piece of bread, going hungry himself, rather than bring dishonor on his family by offering nothing to a guest. When I see the way people drive, the way they behave in stores on Black Friday, or even the behavior of politicians in Washington, it seems that honor and courtesy are extinct.

Dan C.: A comment on Vince’s comment (from last week’s newsletter):
The one thing Elementary could have done that would have kept it in line with the original would have been to have Joan Watson a military surgeon who served in Afghanistan and switched careers because of the losses she had on the battlefield. As I am sure you know, John Watson was a veteran of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880).

Kathy R.: The word I most think about and miss today is compromise. For some reason, it has become a “dirty” word in group dynamics. Neither side should completely win – each side getting some of what they want leads to more harmony. Neither side is completely happy and neither side feels totally left out. We could all use a bit more compromise.

Robin K: Ahhh! Baseball. We were a baseball (and football) family. My brother played in Little League. I wanted to, but girls weren’t allowed to back then. So my dad met with city officials and got a softball league for girls my age started. He took my brother and I to many Washington Senators games (yes, I’m old). But between the Senators up and leaving and a player’s strike, my dad stopped paying attention to pro baseball. He was indignant that these players who made more money than he ever would had the nerve to strike because they wanted even MORE money. It does seem obscene that athletes are paid so much, when teachers, nurses, and my dad, a juvenile probation officer – people who had a bigger impact on others – got paid peanuts in comparison.

And about words: My niece talks a lot about kindness. She recently started a streaming channel (whatever that is) and says she’s trying to build a community that is kind to each other, tolerant, and accepts people as they are. So I think kindness is a word we need to think about, and live into, more.

Gary H.: I read with interest Anna Goldfarb‘s essay, “How to be a More Patient Person.” I have decided to give her suggestions a try. My wife, who was a teacher like you, constantly reminds me that “cussin” is not a proper stress control technique. Thanks, and keep up the good work.


Finally . . .

This week’s pen and ink: Muriel Spark (caricature)

Next week: Bret Hart. I’ll have more to say about this interesting and important 19th century American writer next week.

Best quote of the week:


Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first. Charles de Gaulle, French president (1890-1970)

Helping those in need — in California, especially

Raging fires in California have killed more than 40 people at this writing, and they’re still not under control. They have spread untold misery and disruption around the state. These people need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesleyhere).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR.org) is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall 


You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Ring Lardner, the Grand Review, and a book illustrator who had to keep apologizing; newsletter Nov. 16, 2018



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