Write Your Fingers to the Bone | Newberry

Write Your Fingers to the Bone

There was quite a healthy response to Monday’s column, from people wanting more. That was the one which reprinted a list of Top Ten Literary Heroines You’d Like To Be. People love lists: they’re fun to argue over. So they suggested Top Ten Literary Heroes You’d Like To Be, Top Ten Literary Villains You’d Like To Be, Top Ten Fictional Animals You’d Like As Your Pet, and so on.

I like lists myself, and a little under a million years ago suggested to a publisher that an entire book of lists might be an amusing book. This suggestion was laughed away, so I gave up on it until, a couple of years later, The Book of Lists hit the bestseller lists. Not saying Irving Wallace owes me any royalties: he and his kids saw the project through publication, whereas I moved on to other million dollar ideas (none of which quite worked out.) But making lists comes naturally to me. So maybe I’ll work on some of these suggested lists, as soon as I work out the rules. (Winne the Pooh is more a Hero than a Pet, wouldn’t you say? And if you’re listing villains you’d like to be, does that include the sticky ending they come to? I mean, it might be fun to be Captain Hook, but there was that crocodile….)

For now, though, I think I’ll do an uncomplicated list. I have a lot of books by one author, inscribed to a daughter. He doesn’t seem to have had a daughter, but someone went to the trouble of having his inscribed first editions bound in lovely maroon leather as gifts for a daughter. Trying to find out more about the author, whose name I had run into now and again, I learned he belongs on my list of Writers I Might Have Grown Up To Be.

He was always writing something. He insisted on at least two thousand words of finished manuscript a day, and could, by application, write a full-length novel in three weeks. He wrote so much that he would read through what he had finished and decide whether it was good enough to publish under his own name, or to print under one of his several pseudonyms. His organization was a little better than mine, but he had more markets for what he wrote, and became one of the most popular writers of serial novels in Saturday Evening Post in the years between the world wars. I might have managed that, given that many magazines yearning for fiction. And by now I might be just as completely forgotten as he is.

His name was Henry Kitchell Webster, and he lived in Evanston. Most of his longer works are set in or around Chicago: mysteries, romances, thrillers, any kind of page-turner he felt like producing. In some of his novels he moved toward literary fiction, but he was a dab hand at what was sneered at in his day as “magazine fiction”: easily digested, readily disposable.

And of all his novels, which, as noted, I will have available in bulk, signed and specially bound (in leather which is starting to come apart), only two seem to have any real significance for the collector. The novel he was working on when he died, The Alleged Great-Aunt, was finished for him by writing sisters Janet Ayer Fairbank and Margaret Ayer Barnes. Margaret had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so the book is collected for that reason. And his novel Calumet K was cited by Ayn Rand as one of her favorite books, and an inspiration to her in formulating her own view of life and the world. So Webster is kind of famous for books other people wrote.

Ah well, such is the life of a writin’ fool. Nearly a hundred years later, we write our blogs in hopes not of inspiring philosophers but selling the books of other writin’ fools. Come around in July and buy a few. In the meantime, I’ll work on these other lists. Is Lassie a literary heroine or a pet?

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