This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

January 1, 2003 — I've said it before and I'll say it again: the book business is the last bastion of intellectualism. Here's this year's proof: the 2002 Moby Awards . . .

The LIVE BY THE SWORD, DIE BY THE SWORD Award . . . For three months, staffers at Piqua, Ohio's Flesh Public Library, which is named after the man who donated the land for the library, Leo Flesh, worked on the library's new website. But when the big day came in early December and director James Oda assembled the entire staff to premiere the finished site — — the library's computer system denied him access. The Internet filtering system used by the library to protect children from pornography had blocked the site because the url contained the words "flesh" and "public." As Oda later told the Dayton Daily News, "We banned ourselves."

The TIME TO CONSIDER ALTERNATIVE FORMS OF PAYMENT TO ANDY Award . . . In January, British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, whose salary for being laureate is a "butt of canary wine," said that the only part of the job he disliked was having to write poems for official occasions, which he said "feels almost like going to the bathroom in public."

The CORRECTIONS, SCMECTIONS Award . . . Despite his many negative comments about television talkshow book clubs, particularly Oprah Winfrey's, Jonathan Franzen in July appeared on the NBC Today Show Book Club, where he had been asked to recommend a book by a newcomer. He selected "You Are Not A Stranger Here," by Adam Haslett, one of his former students.

The HE DID IT ALL FOR HIS READERS Award . . . Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post reporter David Vise admitted in March that he had bought 20,000 copies of his own book, "The Bureau and the Mole," from, where shipping was free for the purchase of two or more items, then returned them. Many saw it as an attempt to get the book — which had been receiving some unflattering reviews — on bestseller lists. But Vise, speaking to a reporter for his own newspaper, the Post, said the idea of manipulating bestseller lists "never even occurred to me." He said he bought the books "to give away to fans."

The HONESTY IN TITLING Award . . . In November, the author of the books "The Story of Stupidity" and "Understanding Stupidity," James F. Welles, was arrested and charged with trying to arrange sex with a 15–year–old girl over the Internet. According to police, Welles even admitted in an e–mail to the "girl," who was actually a male police detective, that he was worried about being caught in a police sting operation.

The ALSO, YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO SKINNY Award . . . In August, it was revealed by the writers' group the Underground Literary Alliance that Jonathan Franzen had, the previous year, applied for and won a National Endowment for the Arts grant of $20,000 — after signing a deal for book and movie rights to "The Corrections" reportedly worth over a million dollars. It was further revealed that one of the judges for the award was Franzen's close personal friend, Rick Moody. Franzen told the ULA that he used the money to buy two paintings, "since visual artists can't get NEAs anymore."

The LESSONS IN TERRORISM, PART ONE Award . . . After Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times and Laura Miller of Salon wrote negative reviews of his book, "The Lessons of Terror," in February, Caleb Carr fired off a scathing letter to Salon in which he called Miller "REASON NO. 8 MILLION WHY THE SOUL OF NEW YORK CITY IS DYING" [his caps] and a "bitchy wise–ass" who was part of "the club that meets at Michiko's to watch 'Sex in the City' and spout a lot of nonsense about things they don't know." He also posted his own review of the book on, telling readers "do not listen to the 'critics'" and giving himself five stars.

The JUST WILD ABOUT HARRY Award . . . The Mattel toy company announced in November that it would stop producing its best–selling Harry Potter vibrating broomstick, the Nimbus 2000, in the wake of reports that, as the New York Post put it, " horrified parents" had "found their teenage daughters riding the buzzing $19.99 broomsticks."

The ALL RISE Award . . . Charges that Stephen King had plagiarized the unpublished novel "Blood Eternal" by Christina Starobin in his own "Desperation" were thrown out by a judge in New York in April. In support of her charges, Starobin noted that both books used the word "zilch." But the judge found few other similarities, except, he declared from the bench, that "Neither was a particularly good read."

The STRUGGLING SOMETHING Award . . . After the New York Post reported in September that millionaire author Jonathan Franzen had applied for and won a taxpayer supported NEA grant of $20,000, and that Franzen had claimed to use the money to buy two expensive paintings, Franzen called the newspaper and said he hadn't bought the paintings after all. He said he'd actually spent the money on "17 sculptures" by struggling artists.

The PUBLIC SPEAKING GENIUS Award . . . During his March acceptance speech after winning the New York Public Library's $10,000 Young Lions Fiction Award for writers under 35, Colson Whitehead mentioned that he had never returned numerous books he borrowed from the Brooklyn Public Library to research his most recent novel, "John Henry Days." Library president Paul Le Clerc commented afterwards that Whitehead had a bright future, and "He also now has $10,000 to pay his book fines."

The LESSONS IN TERRORISM, PART TWO Award . . . After an overwhelmingly negative response by commentators around the world to his vitriolic attack on Laura Miller and Michicko Kakutani for their negative review of his book, "The Lessons of Terror," Caleb Carr posted a second letter at in which he said "I do not apologize for . . . my assessments of Ms. Miller, Ms. Kakutani." However, he added, "I may have allowed the 'b––––' word to escape my fingers once or twice too often." For that, he offered his "heartiest apologies" and "a pledge that in the future I shall try to consider my phrasing more carefully."

The BUT THAT'S WHERE SOME GREAT WRITING GETS DONE Award . . . By all accounts Australia's Adelaide Festival in March was a successful event, although there was one awkward moment, according to a report in The Age, when an author ran offstage to go to the bathroom but forgot to take off his microphone. The emcee announced to the audience that, "You're about to hear the sound of running water."

The STILL STRUGGLING Award . . . After the New York Post reported that Jonathan Franzen had changed his story about how he had spent his $20,000 grant from the NEA on "17 sculptures," not two paintings as he'd first claimed, Franzen called the paper back two days later to say he'd made another mistake. He said it had been pointed out to him that his contract with the NEA prevented him from spending the grant money on anything other than expenses related to his writing. He said he'd used the money to fund "research" for his next novel.

The WELL, WHOSE FAULT IS THAT Award . . . In an interview with the Toronto Globe & Mail in February, "Prozac Nation" author Elizabeth Wurtzel said attention being given to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center "really annoyed me." She explained, "I just felt, like, everyone was overreacting. People were going on about it." Wurtzel, who lives near Ground Zero, said, "My main thought was: What a pain in the ass. I had not the slightest emotional reaction." She said, however, that she did have a response to seeing the second tower collapse: "It was just beautiful," she told the reporter, then added. "You can't tell people this. I'm talking to you because you're Canadian." Also bothering her, Wurtzel said, was that, "After the fact, like, all these different writers were writing these things about what it was like, and nobody bothered to call me."

The WHEW Award . . . Giving a Central Park reading in July from his new novel, "Ash Wednesday," Ethan Hawke paused to explain to the "mostly female and mostly young audience," according to a New York Daily News story, that "The narrator is a woman, so when I talk about my pregnancy, don't be confused."

The WELL, THEY MADE MONEY DIDN'T THEY? Award . . . The investment club consisting of elderly Midwestern women — average age 70 — known as the Beardstown Ladies and their publisher, Hyperion, settled a multi–million dollar class action suit against them in February. Hyperion agreed to give anyone who'd purchased one of their Beardstown Ladies products a similar product from their list for free. The Ladies had turned into a hugely successful franchise of books, videos, audiotapes and software products based on their claim of a 23.4 percent return on their investments over a 10–year period. But a subsequent investigation showed their success rate was actually 9.1 percent, well below the average 15 percent for such investments.

The TOO DEMANDING ALREADY Award . . . After staffers at a Borders bookstore in Minneapolis announced they were seeking union representation, "a box of candy and three cases of pop materialized in the break room" one day, an employee told the Minneapolis City Pages. What was next, she asked. "Maybe a pony?"

The YES, VIRGINIA, THERE IS A GOD Award . . . A week after a Wall Street Journal investigation discovered that the customer recommendations on for goods from the apparel section — supposedly determined by software that specializes in "objectively analyzing buying patterns" — had been faked, the online retailer was further embarrassed by recommendations that actually were generated by the company's analytical software. Amazon software that automatically generates customer "recommendations" by tracking page hits noted that customers visiting the page for the new book by Christian Coalition head Pat Robertson, "Six Steps to Spiritual Revival," also "recommended" "The Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Men."

The IT'S HER WAY WITH THE TRUTH THAT'S A PROBLEM Award . . . Author Judy Blunt admitted in May that she had made up some key scenes in her Whiting Award–winning memoir, "Breaking Clean," which describes her escape from a harsh life as a ranch wife in Montana dominated by her husband and father–in–law, who opposed her desire to write. One scene Blunt admitted fabricating showed her father–in–law smashing her typewriter with a sledge hammer. A New York Times story on the case said even Blunt's parents were "reluctant to discuss the substance of the memoir" and that her mother would only say, "Judy sure has a way with words."

The AND THAT'S ALL SHE WROTE Award . . . A story in The Guardian notes that a survey of Bibles for sale on the popular online used bookstore ABE found that "of the 116,521 Bibles to be found on ABE, 2,052 are listed as 'signed'."

Last Week’s Column: HAIL & FAREWELL A farewell column to writers who died in 2002.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.