The Resurrection of Charles Portis

Paramount Pictures

“True Grit” shines a renewed light on a literary powerhouse.

Last year was a very good year for writers who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — plug their books. Charles Portis, author of True Grit, sat perched in sixth place on the post-Christmas list of top sellers at Amazon, just behind the eternally mum Mark Twain (Autobiography) and sandwiched between books by the prematurely silenced Stieg Larsson. By New Year’s Day, True Grit returned to The New York Times’ best-seller list: No. 13 in paperback sales more than four decades after it spent 22 weeks on the list in 1968. Overlook Press, a small New York publishing house that reprinted the novel a decade ago, has kept pace by printing an additional 25,000 copies to go with the 127,000 already released as a tie-in with the Coen brothers’ film and is also reprinting the four other backlist titles by the 78-year-old.

The author’s reluctance to shill on behalf of his novel has become a story in itself, with write-arounds appearing in The New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. But despite the Little Rock, Ark.-based author’s elusiveness — by all accounts less a Salinger-esque disdain than a measure of old-fashioned modesty — interest in the book has soared. “Paramount was always willing to acknowledge Portis as an integral part of their media campaign,” says Jack Lamplough, publicity director at Overlook. “In fact, everyone associated with the movie has gone out of their way to pull this film out of John Wayne’s shadow and shine the light on the novel.”

The novelist’s late-in-life rediscovery began when Eqsuire published Ron Rosenbaum’s mash-note — Our Least-Known Great Novelist — in 1998, spurring Overlook publisher Peter Mayer to acuire all of the author’s titles. True Grit might be just another step in the revival; a group that holds the option on his 1979 novel Dog of the South, including Saturday Night Live cast member Bill Hader, could launch another adaptation. Mayer credits everyone associated with True Grit for helping to call attention to the work of a great writer in the process, saying, “They’ve done a real service to American literature with this movie.”          

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