If you don’t stop making a bollix of your life and faffing about, you may just wind up doing time in gaol. British English and American English are horses of different colours—horses all the same, but sometimes only dimly recognizable as kin, as a Yank might discern on a viewing of, say, Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch, with Brad Pitt further complicating the linguistic scene with his spot-on bursts of Traveler English.
Take those words from the younger Pitt and telegraph them a couple of hundred years into the future, and we’re into the odd lingo of the future dwellers of David Mitchell’s grimly apocalyptic novel Cloud Atlas, a book that we called “one of the most imaginative and rewarding novels in recent memory” on its publication a dozen years ago. Now, there are many characters and at least a few strains of English in Mitchell’s superb novel, but how many stories are there?
The answer is, at least two. British scholar Martin Paul Eve was working on a paper touching on Cloud Atlas not long ago when he noticed that there were numerous differences between the British paperback at hand and an American Kindle edition, in particular in the futuristic section concerning Sonmi ~451. Some of the differences are minor: the paperback reads, for instance, “How did you respond?” whereas the e-text has “How did you respond to such blasphemous hubris?” But, writes Eve in a long article for the online Open Library of Humanities, he found hundreds of variations, deletions, and additions. A future textual scholar—assuming civilization endures, a matter that all editions of the book call into question—may find a dissertation in a variorum edition. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s publisher suggests that the differences are accounted for by different versions of the manuscript floating around, some of which did not include the author’s latest corrections. The specter of version control thus announces itself once again…
Cloud Atlas sold very well. Was that because Mitchell studied the formulas and played the odds? No: he simply wrote as well as he could, and audiences happily found his book. According to Jonny Geller, managing director of the Curtis Brown literary agency, though, all bestsellers share five traits (apart from the fact that they sell well). For one, a bestseller has a deeper theme beyond the most obvious surface: The Shining isn’t just about ghosts and mayhem, but also about the terrible psychological wounds of childhood, while The Wind in the Willows isn’t just about badger ecology. According to Geller, who delivers some of his findings in a recent TED talk, Fifty Shades of Grey was not just about—well, you know—but also about “human closeness.” Geller’s distillation of the winning formula will of course be of interest to budding writers, but there’s the matter of talent to contend with, to say nothing of lashings of luck.
Luck, as old Louis Pasteur said, favors the mind prepared for it, and no mind was better prepared than T. S. Eliot’s. His greatest success may have come after his death in the form of the Broadway play Cats, but Eliot’s work sold remarkably well—for a poet, that is to say. New editions of Eliot’s major works are on the way, including those poems, as Mark Ford notes in a lively essay in the London Review of Books, where they write about gaols, honours, and all that jazz.
It was fifty years ago when Cynthia Ozick published her first novel, Trust, which decidedly wasn’t a bestseller. Indeed, though success has met the prodigious writer of fiction, essay, Judaica, drama, and just about every genre and theme under the sun, it has mostly been d’estime. Often mentioned as a leading contender for the Nobel Prize in literature, Ozick is out with a new book, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, that provides ample testimonial for why she’s worth reading and heeding. Ozick turned 88 this spring—“piano keys,” as she tells Giles Harvey in a profile published in the New York Times Sunday magazine a couple of months back—so the Nobel folks better get with the programme.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor. Photo of T.S. Eliot is by Lady Ottoline Morrell and photo of Cynthia Ozick by Nancy Crampton.