This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

continued . . .

Denis Dutton answered my initial, e–mailed request to talk about the Nancy Strickland suit with a reply that came back in less than four minutes: a one–sentence response that pointed out a minor typo I'd made in my request. I'd left a digit out of my telephone number. Dutton's letter, signed "Denis," said nothing else, and left me to assume he wanted my correct number so he could call me. I immediately sent back the corrected number, thanking him for his quick response and offering to call him if he preferred because, as it so happens, Dutton, although born in the U.S., lives in New Zealand.

But Dutton didn't call, and he didn't answer further e–mail. So a day later I commenced calling his home in Christchurch. The phone rang unanswered for days. Finally, I got through to his wife, who told me he was in New York City, staying with their daughter, who works at a SoHo art gallery. But calls to the daughter revealed her to be the first person I'd ever called in New York who didn't have an answering machine — the phone rang and rang, or was alternatively busy for hours. This, too, went on for days.

All of which made me wonder who Denis Dutton is. According to the suit, he was raised in North Hollywood, California, and has impressive academic credentials, including a B.A. and Ph.D. from the University of California. (He also has impressive book–world credentials, in that his father founded one of Southern California's most esteemed independent bookstores, Dutton's Bookstore in North Hollywood, which is now run by Denis Dutton's brother, Dave Dutton. Another brother, Doug Dutton, owns Dutton's Brentwood Bookstore.) After graduation, Denis Dutton went on to teach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Claremont Graduate School, before ending up at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, where he was a professor in the philosophy department for eleven years until, as the suit puts it, he "abruptly resigned."

Two University of Michigan–Dearborn professors who taught with Dutton — Professor Elias Baumgarten, who had once shared an office with Dutton, and Edward Sayles, now a professor emeritus — both assured me that there had been nothing suspicious about Dutton's "abrupt" departure to go to New Zealand. (Both also said exactly the same thing when I told them that my numerous attempts to speak with Dutton had netted me only a cryptic correction of a typo in my e–mail: "That sounds like Denis.")

Both Baumgarten and Sayles also said they were impressed by the breadth of Dutton's interests and expertise, although they disagreed on how popular he was with students. "He was extremely popular," said Sayles. "He was controversial, which attracted some students, but he offended others," said Baumgarten. Sayles agreed with part of that, saying, "Yes, he was controversial."

Nor has Dutton been a stranger to controversy since moving to New Zealand, where he is currently a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury. In Christchurch, he was a founder of an organization called "Friends of National Radio," and his "attacks on the quality of Radio New Zealand news," according to a Christchurch Press article from July 9, 1999, led him to be labeled a "turncoat" by "rank–and–file journalists." "He may be popular overseas" because of Arts & Letters Daily, the report added, but "he has a deliciously black reputation among news staff."

Back in the States, another controversy erupted over the annual "Bad Writing" award Dutton gave out under the auspices of an academic journal he publishes, Philosophy and Literature. In 1999, Dutton gave out the award to Berkeley professor Judith Butler, who subsequently defended herself — and criticized Dutton — in a New York Times op–ed piece. Dutton hasn't given out the award since.

The Strickland suit, meanwhile, works hard to establish a pattern of behavior for what it refers to as Dutton's "bamboozling." For example, it says Dutton "manufactured 'tension'" between Strickland and her predecessor as ALD executive editor, Harrison Solow (an author of books about "Star Trek") in order to "prevent the two women from comparing notes," so that Strickland would not learn Solow had made similar complaints to Dutton about lack of payment. (The suit quotes Solow saying Dutton "lied" to her and "betrayed" her.)

"To add insult to injury," says the suit, while Strickland "put in twelve–hour days for many, many months" selecting the links for the page and writing the witty "teasers" the site is known for, Dutton "bragged" in an interview with London's Guardian newspaper that ALD was a "spare time" occupation for him, and that he was "helped by just two online employees, one of them a long–term resident of a trailer park in California's Mojave Desert whom Dutton 'pays' by sending over the occasional carton of cigarettes." According to the suit, however, "Dutton had never bothered to learn the protocols necessary to alter or even update the ALD page." In short, the suit states, "Dutton has mastered the art of stringing people along" for "personal gain and to profit from the labor of others without paying for it."

It will, of course, take a court of law to prove whether all the allegations against Dutton and Jeffrey Kittay's Academic Partners LLC are true. And we may never know if the suit had any bearing on the decision to shut down Lingua Franca magazine.

Meanwhile, I never did hear from Denis Dutton. But I'm not the only person concerned with the Nancy Strickland suit to whom Dutton first identified himself, then abruptly decided he didn't want to talk to anymore. The process server who served Dutton with notice of the suit while he was attending an academic conference in Ontario filed a sworn affidavit reporting that Dutton denied his identity upon being served. "I then reminded him that he had identified himself to me as Professor Denis Dutton just moments before," the process server says in the affidavit. "He then had nothing further to say."

Full disclosure: Both Arts & Letters Daily and The Idler, a Webzine published by Nancy Strickland's husband, Laurence Jarvik, have run stories of mine; neither paid me, although I certainly benefited from the increased readership. I was also interviewed for an article that appeared in Lingua Franca in 1991 about academics who leave the academy to become freelance writers and editors; my comments were used — for reasons still a mystery to me — anonymously, and I was not paid for them. Finally, I have also written for Civilization, a magazine founded by Academic Partners board chairman Mark Edmiston. For that, I got paid.

(Back to Part 1)

Last Week’s Column: TOO COOL FOR OPRAHWhat happens when "The Corrections" author Jonathan Franzen is critical of Oprah Winfrey's Book Club? Franz–O–mania, that's what.


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