A Literary-Trivia Roundup

I’m away this week, but still wanted to post something new, so I thought I’d offer some highlights from my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

Dorothy Parker willed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who she had never met).

Jane Austen got the title of Pride and Prejudice from a line in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia.

The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up.

The Starbuck character in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick inspired the name of a certain coffee chain.

O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” (when on the lam in Latin America after being charged with embezzlement).

George Orwell popularized the term “cold war.”

Orwell was briefly Aldous Huxley’s student at England’s Eton school (years before they respectively authored two of the 20th century’s most famous dystopian novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World).

The title of Huxley’s nonfiction book The Doors of Perception inspired the name of The Doors rock band.

Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died on nearly the same day in 1616.

The first modern novel? Not Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but perhaps Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. She wrote it 1,000 years ago.

Isaac Asimov wrote and edited more than 500 books!

Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery? She disappeared for 10 days in 1926.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ancestors include Francis Scott Key (writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” words) and Mary Surratt (who was executed for her part in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln).

Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Mark Twain were longtime neighbors in Hartford, Conn.

Twain was a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, comparing Anne to Alice (of Wonderland fame).

Richard Wright starred as his Native Son novel’s teen protagonist Bigger Thomas in a 1950 movie. Wright was 42 at the time!

Daphne du Maurier may have been the favorite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, who made three films — including The Birds — based on her work.

H.G. Wells and Orson Welles (each of The War of the Worlds fame) appeared together on the same San Antonio radio show in 1940.

The Group author Mary McCarthy’s brother was actor Kevin McCarthy and a cousin was politician Eugene McCarthy.

The Jungle author Upton Sinclair received nearly 900,000 votes when he ran for governor of California in 1934.

Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked as an anthropologist with Margaret Mead.

What do Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Beatles have in common? Liverpool! Hawthorne was U.S. consul there.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is the only YA (young adult) novel to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut were among the writers who were also cartoonists.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s favorite novels included The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.

Dr. Seuss partly based the look of his Cat in the Hat character on the Uncle Sam he drew for his editorial cartoons about 15 years earlier.

You can read many more facts if you buy the book!

Any interesting literary trivia you’d like to mention?

I might reply to comments more slowly this week (spotty wifi isn’t helping), but I will reply!

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about rampant overdevelopment in my town, is here.

My New Literary-Trivia Book — and the Results of That ‘Best Novels of All Time’ Poll!

Did you know that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which novelist Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up? That Jane Austen wrote a differently titled version of Pride and Prejudice more than 15 years before it was published? That Shakespeare and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes died on almost the same day in 1616? That O. Henry coined the term “banana republic”? That Dorothy Parker bequeathed her money to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? That the 1950s Cat in the Hat character created by Dr. Seuss looks like a feline version of the Uncle Sam character drawn by that same writer/artist for his 1940s editorial cartoons?

I didn’t know most of the above before I started work on my just-published Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. That was back in 2011 — which means I researched, wrote, and rewrote the book for nearly as long as its title.  🙂

Before continuing to discuss the book and its back story, I wanted to mention that the results of that “Best Novels of All Time” poll is at the end of this column. I also posted the results this past Friday in the comments section under my March 26 piece announcing the poll, but thought I’d post them again today.

Anyway, the Fascinating Facts book is not a collection of my weekly columns from this 2014-launched blog. Rather, it’s new material about authors that I gleaned from reading biographies, reading scholarly introductions to novels, looking at online author sites, etc. — plus I included my recollections of seeing a few authors (such as Isaac Asimov and John Updike) in person. All this in short, easy-to-read chapters (more than 100 of them), with humor here and there.

In the book, every featured author — from Austen and Alcott to Zola and Zora (Neale Hurston) — is deceased, though I mentioned many authors who haven’t passed in passing. (BTW, today is Emile Zola’s birthday — he turns 177.) I should add that a number of novelists in the book were recommended to me by you in your wonderful comments here and on Facebook.

I came up with the idea for Fascinating Facts in mid-2011. At the time, I was blogging about literature for The Huffington Post, and one of the site’s editors asked me to put together a book-related “slideshow” feature (for no pay, of course — meaning I never accepted another of those very-work-intensive assignments). I decided I would focus on interesting author facts, and the feature was so popular that it occurred to me there might be a book in it.

Why did it take nearly six years? Well, I first contacted literary agents with the idea and some sample chapters. A few expressed a bit of interest, but none were willing to represent me and try to sell the book to a major publisher. So I just kept continuing to write it when I could, but life got in the way and made it a slower process than it should have been. My memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional came out in 2012, and I spent a lot of time trying to market that. My French professor wife Laurel Cummins started a three-year term as chair of her department, which meant my (enjoyable!) stay-at-home parenting of Maria took even more hours. I was also busy with this blog, my weekly humor column, my work on the National Society of Newspaper Columnists board, a move to an apartment from a house I had lived in for 21 years, etc.

And of course it took a while to research the lives of more than 100 authors, and to make sure I read at least one (and often several) of the novels they wrote — if I hadn’t read them before I started to work on Fascinating Facts.

I finally finished the book last fall. Given that I was not happy with the small press that published Comic (and Column) Confessional, I decided to go the self-publishing route this time. My friend and exceptional author Cathy Turney (who has commented under blog posts here) recommended the Let’s Write Books company run by Howard VanEs. Howard turned out to be incredibly helpful, talented, knowledgeable, and friendly. He, his copy editor, his designer, and others made the book read and look better than I would have imagined.

Fascinating Facts — available in paperback and Kindle versions — can be ordered here. If you buy it and like it, I’d be grateful for an Amazon review. And if you want to also give it as a gift, please do.  🙂

Now…here are the poll results! I looked at every top-ten-novels list I saw in the comments section under my March 26 column and elsewhere in response to that column (and also factored in my own list; alas, my favorite novel — Jane Eyre — didn’t make the cut). Then I gave first-place picks 10 points, second-place choices 9 points, etc. The overall top ten:

1. Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 49 points

2. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: 35 points apiece

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck: 33 points

4. Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller: 23 points

5. The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Dostoyevsky, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, and The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 20 points apiece

6. Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L. Sayers: 18 points

7. A Hero of Our Time (1840) by Mikhail Lermontov: 17 points

8. The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck: 16 points

9. Wuthering Heights
(1847) by Emily Brontë: 14 points

10. Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler: 13 points

As it turned out, most of the above authors and novels are featured or mentioned in my new book.  🙂

Any reaction to the poll results? Any literature-related trivia, anecdotes, oddities, or coincidences you’d like to mention? Any other comments?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.