Ruth Franklin

  • Homeland Truth

    Early on in Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s big, moving, deeply provocative new novel, Ifemelu, a Nigerian attending college in Philadelphia, goes shopping. She is accompanied by a friend from childhood who has lived in the United States for several years. When she goes to pay, Ifemelu’s friend cannot remember the name of the saleswoman who assisted her. “Was it the one with long hair?” the cashier asks. Both saleswomen have long hair. “The one with dark hair?” Both have dark hair. Afterward Ifemelu wonders, “Why didn’t she just ask ‘Was it the black girl or the white girl?’” Her friend

  • The Power and the Allegory

    Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time—one of the best-loved and best-selling children’s books of the past sixty years—was initially rejected by at least two dozen publishers. The story goes that later on, whenever L’Engle attended a literary event, she would carry the rejection letters in her purse. If editors happened to mention to her that they regretted not having had the chance to publish the book, she would whip out the proof that they had passed it up. Like most good stories, this one is probably apocryphal. But it ought to be true, not only because of its poetic justice, but

  • The Party’s Over

    Lillian Hellman was once a star. She was one of the most successful playwrights of her time, with her first produced work, The Children’s Hour, running for two years on Broadway. As a screenwriter in the 1930s, she earned the top rate of $2,500 a week to write two films of her choice per year. The three volumes of her memoirs—An Unfinished Woman (1969), Pentimento (1973), and Scoundrel Time (1976)—were best sellers.

    Her personal life was equally glamorous. After a brief early marriage, she flitted from romance to romance, courted by everyone from theater producers to diplomats to writers. The

  • Readers of the Pack: American Best-Selling


    IN MAKING THE LIST, his 2001 book about best sellers, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda recalls that the publishing house once commissioned a study of which books made the most money. After a detailed presentation, the consultant said to the editors, "Do you guys realize how much money the company would make if you only published best sellers?" He might as well have told them that they'd do better playing the lottery if they picked the right numbers. Trends come and go, but the best seller remains essentially serendipitous. An editor can be no more certain of finding

  • Elegy for Raymond

    In early 2008, Joyce Carol Oates gave a talk called “The Writer’s (Secret) Life: Woundedness, Rejection, and Inspiration,” about how writers go about transmuting painful life experiences into art. At the heart of her speech was a quote from Hemingway, which Oates found so profound that she cited it twice. “From things that have happened . . . and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you