Publication Date: June 28, 2022
Publication Date: January 12, 2021
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Introduction by Yiyun Li
“For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business; time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life could begin. At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”
From the author of the acclaimed collection Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage comes W-3, the account of a brilliant mind on the brink. In 1968, Bette Howland was thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, struggling to support her family on the part-time salary of a librarian; and laboring day and night at her typewriter to be a writer. One afternoon, while staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment, she swallowed a bottle of pills. W-3 is both an extraordinary portrait of the community of Ward 3, the psychiatric wing of the Chicago hospital where she was admitted; and record of a defining moment in a writer’s life. The book itself would be her salvation: she wrote herself out of the grave.
First published in 1974, the memoir that launched Bette Howland’s career is being reissued as part of A Public Space’s ongoing revival of “one of the significant writers of her generation.” (Saul Bellow)
(1937-2017) published three books in her lifetime: W-3, and the story collections Blue in Chicago and Things to Come and Go. She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984, after which she did not publish another book. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, her selected stories, was published in 2019, restoring to the canon the work of a remarkable writer.
Bette Howland wrote a book I thought was impossible to write.
A portrayal of mental illness like none other. More claustrophobic than Girl, Interrupted and more frightening than The Bell Jar, Howland’s memoir maps the world of a 1960s psychiatric ward with an unflinching eye.
Esmé Weijun Wang
In W-3, Bette Howland continues to help us reimagine the depth and breadth of humanity that a single book can contain, not only in her willingness to portray her own experience, but to observe, to empathize, to listen to and take such care with the individuals she encounters along the way.
Lynn Steger Strong
A story about her neighbor’s heart, not her own—an anthology of the lives she encounters in the ward known as W-3. [Howland tells] the story of a collective with blunt clarity, and sidestepping the genre’s potential for sentimentality or sensationalism. She brings the particularities of the world to life.
Parul Sehgal, the New York Times
The power and poignancy of W-3 lies in its contradictions. It offers us a portal to a particular time and place, yet the compassion and truthfulness that underlies the writing renders it timeless, as urgent a read now as when it was first written nearly half a century ago.
Lucy Scholes, the Paris Review
Howland insists on telling her story — and the stories of people she met there — with blunt clarity, sidestepping sentimentality or sensationalism.
Gregory Cowles, the New York Times Editors’ Choice
A writer of terrifying power, who sees and hears everything…Not only is this a sane memoir of madness but it may well be the sanest, most mordant take on the subject.
Frances Wilson, Daily Telegraph
The resurgence of the late writer Bette Howland—thanks to A Public Space’s 2019 release of her short story collection, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage—has been one of the most exciting literary developments in recent years. This new edition of her 1974 memoir, including a poignant introduction by Yiyun Li, is a stunner.
Arianna Rebolini, BuzzFeed
Full of calibrated grace, and startlingly unmediated…[W-3] is remarkably perceptive and wise.
Katy Waldman, the New Yorker
A devastating memoir… bracingly modern. Howland is finally getting the recognition that she deserves.
Sarah Hughes, i news
Howland wryly punctures the myth that true salvation is within anyone’s reach, sane or not…With its incisive humor and unsparing descriptions, W-3 refuses a tidy resolution, instead showing how all the ‘clumsy, good intentions’ in the world can’t always provide a cure for the horror and tedium of losing one’s mind.
Kathleen Rooney, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Incandescent… Howland’s [memoir] is uniquely arresting in its omniscient attention, radiant artistry, zealously pursued insights, and abiding respect for those who share her struggle.
Donna Seaman, Booklist
In forms I’ve never seen before, in ways that feel revelatory and imperative to the work we might all be trying to make next, [Howland] shows how an I can also exist within a collective; how, for some communities, constantly subverting one’s own wants and needs is simply necessary in order that the group survive.
Lynn Steger Strong, Los Angeles Times
Like certain other writers on the edge of the canon—Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Smart, Tove Ditlevsen—Bette Howland wrote with an urgent dissatisfaction and narrative reluctance that make her work… unforgettable.”
Julie Phillips, 4Columns
A gallery of marvelously, devastatingly precise miniatures of Howland’s fellow inmates. Howland’s eye for detail is unfailingly sharp. She has the cartoonist’s knack of seizing and drawing out a person’s specific mannerisms and fixations, but what results is never caricature; rather, her depiction of the patients of W-3 is sensitive and sympathetic but powerfully unsentimental.
Sarah Chihaya, Bookforum
Brilliantly observant work.
Abigail Deutsch, Wall Street Journal
Whether you call it fiction or memoir, essay or reportage, Howland’s work manages to feel both rooted in its 20th-century milieu and absolutely at home among today’s genre-agnostic writing.
Laurie Muchnick, Kirkus
Howland’s sentences are precise and balanced. No pride or showing-off here; the craft lies in restraint, in what T. S. Eliot calls “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”... Howland’s writerly carpentry—measure twice, cut once—is exquisite.
Anthony Domestico, Commonweal
With a keen and aloof eye Howland outlines the daily routines of the mental ward she’s released into… In an age of commodified self-care and quick fixes, perhaps the most radical assertion of her book is that “getting better” is not a goal to be achieved, but a life’s work.
Sara Batkie, Chicago Review of Books
Style is a great preservative in literature and the quality that Bette Howland’s… writing possess[es] in abundance, and the reason [her] work has proved worth preserving.
Joseph Epstein, Commentary
In W-3, Howland’s unforgiving descriptions disallow the reader from moving unfeelingly through the psychiatric ward where she witnessed so much. In that hardness there is recognition, and in that recognition, compassion. Howland’s writing demands the same recognition, even if, like her, it had to be lost before it could be found.
Sage Behr, South Side Weekly
Howland tracks our madnesses and oddnesses…. Her work lies in a borderland between sociology and poetry.
Abigail Deutsch, Harper’s
This book’s singularity and strength derive not only from the writing itself… but above all from Bette Howland’s unusual angle of vision: she writes as if she were a participant-observer, a novelist-anthropologist in a strange, often perplexing new place.
Johanna Kaplan, Commentary
[Her] sentences continue to beat with a stylish percussion and a glowing heart.
Donna Rifkind, Wall Street Journal
A master of silences, of the unsaid, of what cannot be addressed.
Jenessa Abrams, Guernica
Dazzlingly and daringly written.
Howland is rather like a chameleon, and her insights and questions are intimate but also have a universal quality…. A mysteriously talented writer, her innovative work fortunately has been revived so that Howland will have the attention she deserved, even though she did not seek it in her life.
The National Book Review
A vivid chronicle of harrowing events and how they shaped her path as a writer.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn
A compassionate, trenchant, and hilarious ethnographer of eccentricities and dysfunction.
Howland’s powers of observation are like military-grade weapons.
University of Chicago Magazine
Looking to read a memoir? W-3 by Bette Howland is well worth the price of admission…. Not for the faint of heart, this is a beautiful book about writing your way out of real darkness. It’s brilliant. And after you read it, you won’t be able to stop yourself from devouring her strange and wonderful short story collection, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
AV Club, New Books to Read in January 2021
Literary North, We’re Looking Forward to these January 2021 Releases
Lady Antaeus: A portfolio in A Public Space No. 23 on Bette Howland, including stories, essays, and correspondence from a forty-year friendship with Saul Bellow
I Had Been Meaning to Write: Letters from Bette Howland to Saul Bellow in A Public Space No. 26
New York Times obituary
Love Between Writers: Jacob Howland on Saul Bellow and Bette Howland in the Jewish Review of Books.
Bette Howland: The Tale of A Forgotten Genius by A. N. Devers at Lit Hub