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Why Jonathan Safran Foer's ballyhooed new novel is cause for despair

a MobyLives guest column
by Steve Almond

18 April 2005 —I was first told about Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel six months ago, by a publicity person at Houghton Mifflin, who spoke of the book in terms generally reserved for religious revelations and personal audiences with Oprah Winfrey.
      I had read the excerpt of Safran Foer's first novel in the New Yorker and found it sad, funny, a little on the shticky side, but basically kickass.
      A few months later, coincidentally, the Boston Globe asked me to review Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (ELIC).
      Not a hundred pages in, I began to feel a sense of dread. I found the book profoundly disappointing, and I wasn't sure how to express this without sounding mean. I wound up praising Foer where I could (his prose can be lovely, his use of plot deft) while also noting that ELIC is, in essence, a melodrama, one that seeks to dazzle and sooth its readers, rather than placing them in any real emotional danger.
      As it turned out, my review was relatively mild. Writing for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani deemed the book "mannered and irritating," while Walter Kirn, writing for the NYTBR, declared it a "triumph of human cuteness over human suffering." Kirn offered an especially blistering indictment of Foer's extra–textual flourishes, and dismissed Oskar Schell, the nine–year–old narrator of ELIC as "reminiscent . . . of those annoying child guests on late–night talk shows."
      Oddly, these reviews only intensified my dread. Because what really troubled me about the book was not that I found it disappointing, but my sense that a great many people would read ELIC and — like the flak who first hipped me to the book — be genuinely moved.
      And so it has come to pass.
      Despite the savage reviews (in part because of them) a great number of critics and readers have hailed ELIC as a masterpiece. In fact, I can think of no recent book that has served as such a pure litmus test of literary sensibility.
      Part of this has to do with Safran Foer's unique role in our beleaguered reading culture — that he's so young, that he's received so much acclaim and money, all that crap–headed writer envy. But the real issue is the book itself, and the wildly divergent feelings it has elicited.
      Honestly, I don't quite know what to say to people when they tell me they loved ELIC. A part of me (the well–behaved, slightly fraudulent part) wants to say: Well, that's great! To be moved by a book, particularly in this era of screen addiction, is a net positive. The other part of me wants to say: How could you fall for such well–meaning dreck?
      But how can you tell someone that their emotional reaction to something is fundamentally bogus, that they got played?
      Initially, the dynamic called to mind my reaction when friends tell me how much they loved Hollywood's latest weepy. But then again, Hollywood is in the business of making commerce, not art. We head into the multiplex willing to be played.
      The more I thought about it, the more I was reminded of our current political dichotomy. The critics who have chided Safran Foer (myself included) sound a lot like the blue–state pundits. No matter how eloquently we state the argument, we're basically telling people they're unsophisticated (read: stupid) if they dug ELIC.
      And those people — as a quick survey of the Amazon reader reviews will reveal — know that they're being talked down to. Indeed, our snobbery only reaffirms their devotion. (A typical assessment: "I usually don't do reviews on Amazon, but I found it necessary for this book, because I've been reading many negative reviews in newspapers and literary magazines and all those sorts of places...")
      But devotion isn't even a strong enough word in this case, because true fans view ELIC as more than a novel. It is an act of heroism. They claim reading the book is an important way of working through their feelings about 9/11.
      Here is where I simply lose faith in my powers of tolerance.
      Because the real charge derived from reading ELIC is the chance to re–experience the melodrama of 9/11, those bracing weeks when we all stood transfixed by the tape loops and slapped brave bumper stickers on our cars and pretended that we had suffered something profound, when all most of us had suffered was the vicarious thrill of a genuine televised catastrophe. Rather than leaving the mourning to the families who lost loved ones, or who were directly affected by the attack, we claimed their tragedy as ours. We weren't interested in examining why our country had become the object of such murderous derision. Instead, we staged a national pity party. I couldn't help but read Oskar as the perfect stand–in for the American mindset: a glib, self–dramatizing child defined by his victimhood and a plucky determination to endure.
      ELIC isn't a response to 9/11, in other words, but a reflection of the event. Foer isn't interested in understanding why terrorists attacked America. (Could their murderous evil be a response to certain evils within us?) He isn't interested in plumbing the pathologies that the attack unleashed — which, to date, have included two wars, along with a heightened national climate of fear and hate. He isn't even interested in representing the emotional severity of losing a parent in a public tragedy, at least not for more than a sentence or two at a time. Instead, his young hero wanders the streets of New York without fear of harm, charms the pants off everyone he meets, and awakens old men from emotional atrophy. His own redemption is never in doubt. The book is ultimately a wish fantasy borne of the sorrows of 9/11. It peddles the seductive notion that our best response to those attacks need be no more mature than a childish wish that evil be banished from our magic kingdom.
      The reverential reaction to ELIC is, in this sense, a gauge of how habituated we've become to having our emotions manipulated. To put it more prosaically: Our bullshit detectors are broken. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that most people in this country don't really want what art has to offer — they'd prefer bathos draped in the self–ennobling finery of art.
      We don't want to face a world in which the murder of a father might destroy a kid, let alone a kid who hates his dad and wishes he were dead. Faced with the moral complexities of modern consciousness, we have opted for narratives of false actualization.
      I recognize how snotty and judgmental all this sounds, but I don't know how else to say it. True art asks us to face truths we don't want to face, to feel things we don't want to feel. It asks us to suffer the unbearable parts of ourselves. Rooting for a loveable kid we know is going to come through okay doesn't qualify.
      It would be fair to ask, then, what does qualify. Let's start with The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which is also narrated by a child named Oskar. (Foer named his hero as an homage.) The boy in Grass's novel, however, is disfigured by the evil he witnesses, both in the physical and moral sense. Grass makes no attempt to prettify his hero. He is a damaged soul adrift in the mire of Nazism, whose only redemption is his ability to discern the truth of his situation.
      The second example, ironically, was published just a few months before ELIC, by the same publisher. Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America is narrated by nine–year–old Phillip Roth. It is an historical re–creation in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, defeating FDR by running on an anti–war platform. Once in office, he begins to institute a series of ominous anti–Semitic measures.
      The book is really about what happens when the weight of history comes crashing down on family loyalties. The young Roth loves his parents, but is ashamed of them. He is disgusted by his cousin's war wounds. And, thanks to a distinctly childish brand of cruelty, he plays a direct role in the murder of his neighbor.
      The crumbling of the boy's world is recorded without stooping to sentiment, or retreating into intellectualism. Indeed, the central tragedy of the novel is the manner in which the iniquity of the world infects the boy. It is also worth noting that The Plot — though based on fictionalized events — attempts to grapple with the proto–fascist aspects of the American spirit, specifically the ways in which fear and rage transmute themselves into senseless killing.
      To read either of these novels is to recognize, at once, the profound sorrow of our historical circumstance. This is the whole point of art: to confront the heartbreak of this world without the reassuring promise of repair.

Steve Almond is the author of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories. Excerpts are available at BBChow.com.

Link to this column.

©2005 Steve Almond

Previous column:
FOETRY SPEAKS! . . . By revealing that the winners of some prominent literary contests had ties to the judges, Foetry.com has made some bitter enemies. Why do it? The anonymous editor explains in a guest column.

Previous column:
WHY I WRITE SHORT STORIES . . . It's getting as difficult to sell stories as it is to sell poetry or first novels. Why try? With his newest collection about to come out, Steve Almond offers some reasons.

Previous column:
THE DEATH OF FIRST FICTION . . . In a guest column, Ig Publishing's Robert Lasner describes the growing difficulty in publishing and promoting debut novels — and the growing need to keep publishing them.

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Friday 22 April 2005

In Letters . . .
One MobyLives reader who signed the plea to Oprah Winfrey suggests that it wouldn't be a bad idea to slip in an apology while they're at it . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Just when you thought it was safe to talk about Foetry as if he wasn't in the room . . .
Just hours after Alan Cordle, proprietor of the controversial Foetry.com, revived the website out of anger over a "biased and poorly researched article in the New York Times" by business reporter Edward Wyatt quoting his opponents but not his supporters (see yesterday's MobyLives news digest), the nationally broadcast National Public Radio program Talk of the Nation aired a segment on the Foetry controversy in which Neal Conan interviewed none other than Ed Wyatt, rather than speaking to Cordle or his opponents directly. But during the live broadcast, after Wyatt explained that he saw little wrong with the conflicts cited by Cordle (because "a lot of Harvard surgeons hire a lot of Harvard interns, a lot of Supreme Court justices that went to a certain school hire clerks from that school, and that doesn't mean that those people aren't qualified"), Conan solicited listener call–ins. He got one that he obviously hadn't expected and left him clearly flustered: "Alan from Porland, Oregon." Conan didn't get it, so the caller had to explain he was the overlooked Alan Cordle, "the founder of Foetry.com? I didn't know that this was going to be the subject of Talk of the Nation today," he explained, "but I'm a regular listener." He went on to tell a suddenly silent Wyatt that in almost any contest he'd ever heard of, "employees are never allowed to win."

Group of women writers ask Winfrey to ditch dead writers, come back to the living . . .
A group of "award–winning novelists" has sent a letter to Oprah Winfrey "begging her to resume picking new novels for members of her popular book club." As a Reuters wire story by Mark Egan reports, the letter was sent out by Word of Mouth, "a loose alliance of women's authors." According to the letter, "fiction sales really began to plummet when the The Oprah Winfrey Book Club went off the air. When you stopped featuring contemporary authors on your program, Book Club members stopped buying new fiction, and this changed the face of American publishing." So, the letter continues, "The readers need you. And we, the writers, need you. Oprah Winfrey, we wish you'd come back." Among the 158 signers: Amy Tan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Francine Prose, Mary Gordon, Kathryn Harrison, Gish Jen, and Ann Beattie. However, according to the Reuters report, a Winfrey spokeswoman "poured cold water on the idea," saying, "There are no plans to change the focus of the book club at this time." Meanwhile, Winfrey continues to champion classic books in her revived Book Club.

PEN Gala awards anti–Patriot Act librarian and others for courage . . .
"An American librarian, an imprisoned Saudi Arabian writer, a Turkish book publisher and a Gambian newspaper editor who was fatally shot last year were honored at the 2005 PEN Montblanc Literary Gala" on Wednesday night in New York, as an Associated Press wire story reports. The event, hosted by NBC anchor Brian Williams and chaired by Tina Brown, honored Joan Airoldi, Ali Al–Domaini, Abdullah Keskin and Deyda Hydara for "their work pursuing freedom of expression." Video segments explained each one's story, such as that of Airoldi, " a librarian in Deming, Wash., who refused to comply with an FBI subpoena seeking the names and addresses of everyone who checked out a biography of Osama bin Laden." She was given the $25,000 PEN/Newman's Own First Amendment Award.

They've since scrapped the idea to do a series of books called "Martha Stewart Living" . . .
For almost 14 years, Judith Ré published a series of updates of her book 'Social Savvy: A Teenager's Guide to Feeling Confident in Any Situation with Simon & Schuster. It was based on "etiquette seminars" she taught around the country, and as the classes and the books were so popular she registered "Social Savvy" with the trademark office. "So," writes Alex Beam in his newest Boston Globe column, "imagine her surprise when, almost immediately after ''Social Savvy" went out of print last year, Barnes & Noble's publishing unit slammed two new books in to print: The Girl's Guide to Social Savvy and The Guy's Guide to Social Savvy." Ré is suing, says Beam, and court papers in the case show the author of the B&N books, Jodi R.R. Smith, and her editor, Hallie Einhorn, "were aware of Ré's work, but decided to forge ahead with their not–so–savvy usurpation anyway." Seem like a clear cut case of tradmark infringement? It may be, says Beam, but Ré may still lose in the end. "It came out during depositions that B&N was thinking of releasing a blizzard of shlocko 'Social Savvy' books, e.g. ''Social Savvy Guide to Business,' 'Social Savvy Guide to Weddings,' etc. Basically, the $4.8 billion bookselling and publishing conglomerate is hoping to crush Judith Ré with expensive court costs."

Historic Japanese – South Korean book to tell story of cut–off noses . . .
A group of Japanese and South Korean elementary and junior high school educators have formed a historic partnership to "publish a history teaching book including accounts of the Japanese military's cutting of Korean people's noses and missions from Korea," according to a Mainichi Shimbun report. The project between the historically warring nations "does not touch on controversial modern and contemporary history," notes the report. A quote sourced simply to "one of the educators" says "This joint work is a first step. In the future, we also want to put out one on contemporary and modern history." The book, reportedly the first such joint publication, will be titled, Common Japanese–Korean history teaching material: Korean mission to Japan — from Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea to friendship.

Speech,memorized . . .
After spending years in the U.S. teaching, Nina Krushcheva has returned to her native Russia and was happy to discover that Vladimir Nabokov, "who stoically accepted (or at least claimed such) that he would have very few readers in his socialist homeland — indeed, he imagined his audience in Russia as a 'room filled with people, wearing his own mask' — would have been extremely delighted at his reception in his homeland today: The whole country is wearing his mask." On the eve of what would have been either his 105th or 106th birthday (depending on how you read the Russian calendar), Krushcheva explains in a commentary for The Moscow Times that, "The contemporary Russian reader reads Nabokov into everything. In response to a carved bust or a chocolate statue of Putin, some liberal–minded Russians quoted Nabokov: 'Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size.' Those Russians who stubbornly disregard material comfort recall his phrase about the 'nuisance of ownership.' Those who insist on individualistic values follow him in being 'an indivisible monist.' Nabokov is translated, retranslated and republished. There is even a 'Nabokov Reader,' a guidebook for schoolteachers on how and why to read Nabokov."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Thursday 21 April 2005

BREAKING NEWS (9:50 a.m. ET): IT'S ALIVE! . . .
The proprietor of Foetry.com has written in to MobyLives to "correct" the New York Times story (below) with the news that he has reactivated the Foetry.com website. "Foetry.com lives again," Alan Cordle tells MobyLives. "I decided I couldn't let lying, cheating foets have the last word." A notice on Foetry's homepage explains more about why he came back: "It's the biased and poorly researched article in the New York Times declaring a surrender. Reminds me of the Wicked Witch of the West flying through the sky, 'Surrender Foetry.' You can thank Foets, Janet Holmes and Jorie Graham, who have threatened me with legal action and said that I lied."

Goliath wins . . .
On February 22, MobyLives ran its first story about Foetry.com, using a headline that said the story was "Something the Times will no doubt cover . . . in two weeks." It took a little longer than even that: today's New York Times finally covers the Foetry story, but the Times waited until it was all over. The article, by Edward Wyatt, is about how the site's formerly anonymous proprietor Alan Cordle has shut down the site after his identity was revealed, and at the entreaty of his wife, a poet whom Cordle has stated elsewhere he fears will suffer because of the animosity against him in the poetry community. Although Wyatt does not quote any of Cordle's proponents — many of whom wrote regularly to the forum on the Foetry site — he does give voice to Cordle's enemies, notably Harvard poet Jorie Graham and Boise State University associate prof Janet Holmes. He quotes Graham from a phone interview calling Cordle's charges "vitriolic and very painful," although he does not say what those charges were (that Cordle had revealed on his site that Graham, as a judge, had awarded a major poetry prize to her husband, Harvard's Peter Sacks). Wyatt quotes Holmes even more extensively — and just as mysteriously — although without interviewing her. Rather, he merely quotes her writing from her own website: "He should be ashamed of himself for what he's done."

Veteran fights for honor of Viet vets by spitting in face of 67–year–old woman, then running . . .
A veteran of the war in Vietnam waited patiently on line at a Jane Fonda booksigning in Kansas City Tuesday night and spit tobacco juice in her face when it was his turn to get his book signed. "I consider it a debt of honor," Michael A. Smith is quoted as saying in an Associated Press wire story by Tim Curran. "She spit in our faces for 37 years. It was absolutely worth it. There are a lot of veterans who would love to do what I did." Smith ran away afterwards but was "quickly caught by police," who charged him with disorderly conduct, despite the fact that Fonda refused to press charges. Vivian Jennings of Rainy Day Books, sponsor of the event, which had drawn 900 people, says Fonda wiped her face and continued to sign copies of her memoir, My Life So Far, despite the attack. Jennings tells the A.P. Fonda "was so calm and so gracious about it. She was wonderful."

Maliszewski's "blasphemous e–mails" uncovered . . .
The pursuit of the back story as to what prompted Dave Eggers's vehement attack on Paul Maliszewski (see Monday's MobyLives news digest) continues to veer away from the purported topic — Maliszewski's investigation into Egger's pal Michael Chabon's fabricated Holocaust story — and focus on Maliszewski. Now, someone at Radosh.net has posted excerpts from the "blasphemous e–mails" Eggers cited in his New York Times attack, confirming speculation published elsewhere yesterday that the "e–mails" were a series of satirical gossip columns. In a comment section at Radosh, one correspondent who read the originals called them "hilarious," another, "tedious." An item from a section called "Poet Laureate Round–Up": "ROBERT PINSKY has agreed to accept a small part in his own bio–pic. The movie, called "Jughead Poet from New Jersey" (a working title only), is being produced by the Oscar–winning team of RON HOWARD and BRIAN GRAZER. The translator of DANTE ALIGHIERI's Inferno and the on–again–off–again–still–off–yea–still–off–on–again–off–again–boyfriend of supermodel CHRISTY TURLINGTON will reportedly play his father in the movie, opposite either TOM HANKS or TOBY MAGUIRE in the lead. Pinsky will also serve as the chief on-set poetry adviser to the production."

MORE: Today in his Inside Higher Ed column, Scott McLemee provides still more background on Maliszewski, observes that few of the commentators seem to have read his Bookforum article, and notes, "The stakes of the discussion are high: they include the role of the Holocaust in American Jewish identity, the ethical dimension of storytelling, and the fine line between fantasy and the will to believe."

Your ride's here . . .
After 26 years "in the pipeline," the movie version of the late Douglas Adams' megaselling Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy has finally opened. A Reuters wire story by Lydia Bell reports that the film, featuring John Malkovich, Mos Def, and Martin Freeman, represents the completion of a script Adams was working on when he died of a heart attack at age 49 in 2001. It opened last night in London.

Fear of Google . . .
The head of one of the U.K.'s most prestigious publishing houses, Bloomsbury, "has warned UK publishers to beware the blandishments of Internet search engine Google." In particular, according to a Bookstandard report by Philip Jones, the company's CEO, Nigel Newton, fears "that the project to digitize books and allow the content to be searched on Google could lead to the 'Napsterization' of the publishing industry." Speaking at a Publishers Association (PA) meeting in London on Tuesday to which representatives from Google had been incited to make a presentation, Newton said the invitation "surprised" him. "We are being given an opportunity to undermine our industry," he told the group. "It may not seem inherently scary at the moment. But my concern is what this will lead to in 10 years. We are opening a Pandora's Box, and we have no idea where it will lead. We just don't know, once they have this material, what they will do with it."

Williams wins giant poetry prize . . .
Pulizer–winning poet C.K. Williams has been named as this year's winner of the $100,000 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, according to an Associated Press wire story. "The prize was announced Wednesday by Poetry magazine, where Williams' first published verse appeared, in 1964."

Problem: How to keep those dern students out of the library? . . .
"Finding room to read at the British Library is no mean feat for established users, as seats are increasingly filled by twittering students fiddling with their phones, says John Sutherland" in a commentary for The Guardian. The problem, he says, is that the library — "the dome in Bloomsbury [that] suckled the nation's intellect" — is no longer "at pains to keep at bay London University's 100,000 students." Whereas the Library used to keep "users down to manageable levels through a series of polite, but formidable, barriers," such as interviews about why you wanted to use the facility, now even "sixth formers can now get a reader's ticket." If the situation had been the same previously, he writes, "Karl Marx would have to go to King's Cross station to write Das Kapital. Virginia Woolf would have to go home to the room of her own. No entry today, Mr Thackeray." As to why the Library is allowing more students, Sutherland says, "More users means more clout, and more funds. Lift the portcullis: let in the students. And, if that doesn't work, let in the winos and the street people." In the end, says Sutherland, "the current problems at the British Library . . . are a grim portent of what lies ahead for the country's industrial–intellectual infrastructure: its universities."

You thought Tina Brown invented synergy? Oprah to publish books based on stuff in the magazine based on her TV show . . .
Famous for her book club, Oprah Winfrey is set to try her hand at publishing books with her own imprint. As Matthew Flamm reports in a story for Crain's, the books will be developed from material that appears in O, the Oprah Magazine. Says Flamm, "The books will be published by Birmingham, Ala.–based Oxmoor Books, a division of Time Inc.'s Southern Progress Corp., under an agreement with Manhattan–based Hearst Magazines, publisher of O magazine. Oxmoor specializes in lifestyle titles, including cooking and gardening books." The series will be sold "in both traditional bookstores and by direct mail," and will feature contributions from Oprah regulars Dr. Phil and Suze Orman. The first book, Live Your Best Life, will be released in September and will "feature 100 articles from the magazine's past two years."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Wednesday 20 April 2005

Is Maliszewski suffering "The Wrath of Dave"? . . .
The brouhaha kicked up by Paul Maliszewski's Bookforum article about Michael Chabon's Holocaust fabrication continues, but the focus remains on Maliszewski and not his charges, as a new posting on Ed Champion's Return of the Reluctant shows. Trying to explain the bizarre introduction of Dave Eggers into the affair (see Monday's MobyLives news digest), an anonymous correspondent ("Forgive the nom de plume but I'm avoiding the Wrath of Dave") writes in with a loosely sourced story: while editor of McSweeney's online mag, Maliszewski supposedly culled some e-mail addresses of New York lit–celebrities ("mostly about Tom Beller and the three Jonathans — Ames, Franzen, Lethem") from the webzine's mailing list and sent them irregular fake gossip columns labeled "The Pearl Report," which included items about themselves. The anonymous writer says Maliszewski was outed when "a young lady came up to Ames at a reading in darkest Brooklyn, informed him that she was 'Pearl's' ex–girlfriend, and spilled the beans. Ames told Dave. At which point Dave did the stuff that makes him so eminently qualified to replace the 'zinger–man at the Holy Office, now that the dude's moved on up."

Il Papa Ratzi's books selling like hot cross buns . . .
"The selection of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as the new pope has led to immediate demand for his many books," according to an Associated Press wire story. "Within hours of the announcement, several books by Ratzinger jumped on to the best seller list of Amazon.com, including 'Salt of the Earth,' 'The Ratzinger Report,' 'Introduction to Christianity' and his memoirs, 'Milestones,' which covers his life through 1977." The new pope's American publisher for the last 20 years, Ignatius Press — a San Francisco–based nonprofit — is "being overwhelmed with orders," says a spokesman.

Resistance is futile . . .
Yesterday, Borders Group Inc. opened its biggest store yet — in Malaysia. And, according to a Reuters wire story, the 60,000 square foot store, "its first outlet to offer books in Chinese and Malay as well as in English," is regarded as "laying the groundwork for a foray into the Chinese–language market." The store is also the company's first franchise: it's owned by "Malaysia's gaming–to–property firm Berjaya Group Bhd." As for what it will stock — 200,000 titles, but Rick Vanzura, Borders' international operations president, says that any books books deemed insensitive to Muslims or "which we think would be censored in Singapore market or the Malaysian market," are not going to be accepted. Vanzura says "we specifically block those titles from coming in to the store."

Careful what you wish for . . .
A blue–ribbon panel of international writers on Monday answered the question, "Does Writing Change Anything?" with "a decided yes," says a Reuters wire story by Christopher Michaud. He reports that the panel, part of the PEN Festival of International Literature under way in New York City, consisted of Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, Ha Jin, Salman Rushdie, Shan Sa, Jonathan Franzen, Nuruddin Farah, Margaret Atwood, and Antonio Munoz Molina. The report notes that the panel reminded the audience "that words can affect the course of history, from the Soviet gulag and German concentration camps to American slavery." But as Soyinka noted, "We should not forget that writing can also attempt to change the world for worse." She noted "racist tracts such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf."

Hammond wins tact award . . .
"There's no such thing as a prize for the best, because there is no The Best," says publisher Nan Talese. Still, there's no denying the growing glut of literary prizes . . . and there's no denying that a Washington Post Bookworld essay by Marina Krakovsky about book prizes is the talk of the book business this week — especially the book blogging business. Krakovsky takes an in–depth look at what's at stake for writers, publishers and agents, and at the selection and judging processes of major awards such as the Pulitzers and the National Book Awards, and she includes many–behind–the–scenes observations by participants. It boils down to "back–scratching and back–stabbing," Post critic and sometime–judge Jonathan Yardley tells her. "'Crapshoot,' 'lottery,' 'game' and 'joke' are words that recur often in discussions about prizes, even among jurors," Krakovsky also notes. But the comments of one former prize judge — Margo Hammond, book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, have rankled another judge. In Krakovsky's piece, Hammond says that she and her fellow judges for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award were so deadlocked between Don DeLillo's Underworld and Philip Roth's American Pastoral that they instead gave the prize to a book no one was "passionate" about, Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. "We can say it, now that she's died," says Hammond. But in a commentary on his blog, House of Mirth, one of Hammond's fellow critics, James Marcus, author of Amazonia, says he remembers things differently. ". . . many board members felt almost obligated to genuflect at the DeLillian altar: it was a big fat book by a major (the epithet is mine) author, he hadn't gotten his share of prizes, etc etc. But once it became clear that Underworld was not a given, the jurors started bolting." He says he, at least, felt that The Blue Flower is "a masterpiece, and deserved the prize as richly as any novel in the organization's history."

Ted Hughes, free at last . . .
A new documentary about Sylvia Plath set to air on the History Channel "successfully navigates some of the trickier shoals of the young poet's biography," notes Alex Beam, and "functions as a class reunion for the not–so–large world of Plath scholarship." In his Boston Globe column, he notes the appearance in the movie of the University of Massachusett's Richard Larschan, Diane Middlebrook, Kate Moses, Williams College professor Lynda Bundtzen and Susan Van Dyne and Karen Kukil of Smith College. The film also reflects some recent revisionism of the Plath legend that Beam attributes to Middlebrook's influence: "Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, is portrayed as a literary Lothario, but not as a murderer who drove his wife to suicide."

So, you DON'T want fries with that? . . .
"When people ask me what I've been doing with myself since I graduated from college, I invariably tell them that I work at a local, independent bookstore," writes Paula Katz. "Perhaps I'm deluding myself, but 'local, independent' makes my position as a lowly retail clerk sound — what's the word I'm looking for? Interesting? Respectable? Worthwhile?" In a probing commentary for Work Magazine, Katz observes that along with some co–employees who used to work at chain stores, "we like to think we are infinitely happier than the corporate slaves in the chain store around the corner." But are they? "Imagine my co–workers' disappointment when they fled from that world of incompetence to the perceived haven of the independent bookstore — only to find the same damn thing, minus the holiday party and the health benefits." Says Katz, "The fact is, a 'corporate' atmosphere can be created anywhere; it's not just about the size of the store or the profit margins."

Facing the Mont Blanc page . . .
"It's probably comparable to finding out that your doctor grows blood–sucking leeches in the basement," says Scott McLemee: "My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand." In his newest column for Insider Higher Ed, McLemee discusses his process of writing first in long hand, in the age of digital text. It is, McLemee says, a mental process in which the pen itself is intrinsic, and he quotes one of his literary heroes, Roland Barthes, explaining to an interviewer that "desire is invested in a graphic impulse." Barthes explained, "I often switch from one pen to another just for the pleasure of it. As soon as I see a new one, I start craving it. I cannot keep myself from buying them." And not just any pen will do, either — says Barthes, "I would even say, a bit nastily, that there is a 'Bic style,' which is really just for churning out copy...."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Tuesday 19 April 2005

In Letters . . .
One MobyLives reader—author interviewer par excellence Robert Birnbaum—asks if commentary about Maria Flook and her book about Christa Worthington isn't just a wee bit Neanderthalic . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Chabon forces continue to rally round their boy . . .
A day after Dave Eggers and The New York Times launched a personal attack on independent journalist Paul Maliszewski for his article in Bookforum about lectures given last year in Washington, D.C. and Virginia by Michael Chabon in which Chabon presented a fake Holocaust story as part of his biography (see yesterday's MobyLives news digest), the attack continues, but with a less personal angle. As part of a vigorous campaign to counter the article, including e–mails to news organizations and bloggers, Nextbook, the sponsor of the lecture, has posted an audio of Chabon giving a similar lecture in Seattle. Nextbook, the widely respected "nonprofit organization that promotes books illuminating 3,000 years of Jewish civilization throughout the United States," says it "has received Chabon's permission to make the entire lecture available" so that "readers may draw their own conclusions about Chabon's performance, rather than relying on the account woven into Paul Maliszewski's pointed argument."

Extremely old and incredibly legible . . .
"For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure — a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation." The only problem: the collection is made up of papyrus fragments that are decayed, fragile, and unreadable—until four days ago. According to a report in The Independent by David Keys and Nicholas Pyke, scientists have discovered how to use new technology to read the collection, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri and made up of "400,000 fragments, stored in 800 boxes at Oxford's Sackler Library." The "biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world" was discovered 100 years ago "in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt." According to the report, "in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra–red technology to open up the hoard . . . . In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia."

MORE: "What is multi–spectral imaging?" A report at Slate by Daniel Engber explains. "It's a technique that was developed in the early 1990s to decode parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

The one person you may no longer meet in heaven . . .
Megaselling author Mitch Albom has been under withering fire from media critics for something he did in his long–running day job as a sports columnist for The Detroit Free Press. As one of his fans, The Duluth Superior's Joe Posnanski explains in his own column, after interviewing two former college basketball players who told him that they were going to attend the "Final Four" (college basketball's national championship series) the next day, a Saturday, Albom wrote and filed a column in which he depicted — in great detail — the players at the game, watching their old team with a touching sense of nostalgia. However, in reality the players never attended the game. Albom's column, which appeared on Sunday, had been filed on Friday night. Posnanski writes that as a young journalist he would hang out in the newsroom until the wee hours, when Albom's newest column came over the wire. "Now, all these years later, he did something wrong, something almost beyond belief in its stupidity, and he gets investigated, and there's talk of him resigning or getting fired or getting a pardon, and the grown–up in me understands. This is the world. But the vanishing 21–year–old kid part of me has a hard time with it."

The main thing is that she hasn't lost her dignity . . .
On a book tour for her bestseller How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), which was released last October, Ann Coulter "waded into the adopted hometown of the late liberal U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone" — Northfield, Minnesota — "reeling off one–liners and exchanging sharp barbs with St. Olaf College students Sunday night." According to a Minneapolis Star Tribune report by Rochelle Olson, Coulter told the liberal crowd "you're never going to see the White House again," and quipped "I wonder why those 'I heart partial–birth abortion T–shirts' aren't working." But Olson reports "the students treated Coulter's sarcasm in kind," but "For every heckle and hiss, she had a comeback." One student asked "about Coulter's assertion that Muslims should be converted to Christianity." Coulter responded, "What is your name? I'm sending it to John Ashcroft." Another audience member " asked whether she was going to change her flame–throwing style." Replied Coulter, " No, I'm not. It's working very well. I'm making a lot of money."

RIP: Faith McNulty . . .
Faith McNulty, the New Yorker writer who became famous for her bestselling book about domestic violence, The Burning Bed, has died at her home in Wakefield, R.I., at age 86. According to a Los Angeles Times obituary by Mary Rourke, McNulty "had been in failing health since she suffered a stroke about a year ago." McNulty's normal beat was writing about life in the country, and she wrote several books about animal life. So her 1980 assignment to write about Francine Hughes, who killed her abusive husband by setting his bed on fire, then was found innocent by a jury on the grounds she was "temporarily insane," was an unusual one for her and "I was scared to death," she once admitted. "Every time I walked into my office to start, I felt a little faint, and I'd leave." The resultant book was a sensation, however, to the extent that it eventually led to what is known as the "Burning Bed" defense for battered women.

Flook speaks . . .
As a follow–up to yesterday's report about the arrest of a suspect in the murder of writer Christa Worthington, a report that implied the controversial bestselling book on the case, Invisible Eden, had been badly off–target, MobyLives revisits Robert Birnbaum's ind–depth interview with the author of that book, Maria Flook, for Identity Theory. "There are very particular reasons why there has been some negative responses to the book. One, it's about a murder victim. And the victim's loved ones and some of her friends, even her friends manqué might react to an outsider who comes in to talk about their loved one. Two, a small town is often sensitive to any portrait a writer makes about their tiny, insular world."

This just in: Blake human . . .
"An academic has uncovered a secret that William Blake, poet, visionary and artist, managed to conceal all his life and for almost two centuries after his death," is the dramatic lede for a Guardian story by Maev Kennedy about some discoveries made by an art historian studying Blake's surviving engraving plates from some of his spectacular books. Reports Kennedy, Mei–Ying Sung of Nottingham Trent University "has made the first systematic study of the backs of dozens of surviving plates, and has revealed the repeated mistakes in the engravings which he toiled to correct." According to Sung, "The backs reveal the multiple errors he obliterated by 'repoussage', beating out the plate from the back to knock out the mistakes and achieve a smooth surface that could be cut again." However, she says, "The hidden mistakes didn't devalue or affect the brilliant result. It is our misconception of an artist and poet I am arguing about ... What I see is rather a practical artisan, whose painstaking creative process has resulted in something we all appreciate."

This just in: Run . . .
Modern news reporting has been "a triumph of the idiot culture," says the co–author of one of the biggest selling books of investigative journalism in American history, All The President's Men. According to a report in The Lawrence Journal–World by Dave Ranney, in a speech to the Kansas Press Association, former Washington Post reporter and bestselling author the Carl Bernstein said "the ever–escalating quest for profits" was responsible, "And the consequences to a society that is misinformed and disinformed by the grotesque values of this idiot culture are truly perilous."

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Monday 18 April 2005

Michael Chabon's Holocaust Hoax earns fake coverage in The New York Times . . .
In a lecture he has given on numerous occasions, Michael Chabon tells the story of his childhood neighbor, Joseph Adler, author of a famous Holocaust survival memoir that turned out to be a hoax when it was revealed that Adler was really a Nazi. In the lecture, Chabon talks about the impact this had upon him as a young boy and the way it influenced his Jewishness. But as Paul Maliszewski reveals in this excerpt from a longer investigation for Bookforum, Chabon's moving, "engrossing," and "somber" story was itself a hoax. Maliszewski's report, broadcast as "Michael Chabon's Holocaust Hoax" on Bookforum's cover, closely details the lecture (which he attended twice), and describes how the story "drew gasps" from the audience. He also interviews Chabon at length to get his side of the affair, in an attempt to answer the question, "When does an author have the responsibility to let the reader know he or she is mixing fact and fiction, autobiography and mythology?" Meanwhile, three weeks after the report first appeared, a New York Times story by Alex Mindlin, offers few details of the lecture but launches a scathing personal attack on Maliszewski, quoting his critics including former boss Dave Eggers, as well as a rebuttal to the Bookforum article written by Matthew Brogan of Nextbook (sponsor of the lectures). However, the Times article does not quote the article Brogan is rebutting. Nor does it quote Chabon's lecture, anyone from Bookforum, nor Maliszewski himself. As for Chabon, Mindlin cites his Pulitzer Prize and says that Chabon declined comment on the article because he "'prefers to have his work speak for itself'" [sic; Mindlin cites the comment as a direct quote, although it is in the third person].

Borders switches produce head to cereal aisle, moves cereal stocker to produce . . .
There's been a shake–up at America's second biggest bookstore chain, Borders, where three senior executives have been "reassigned," according to an Associated Press wire story. The former president of the company's international operations, Vin Altruda, will now be president of Borders' U.S. stores, while the former president of the company's Waldenbooks division, Rick Vanzura, will take over Altruda's former post. The repositioning "best supports our growth strategies, which focus on continued expansion of domestic stores with greater emphasis on leveraging the Borders brand, while remaining focused on heightened growth of our stores outside the U.S.," says company CEO Greg Josefowicz. Borders currently operates "more than 460 Borders stores and about 650 Waldenbooks stores in the United States and 81 stores in other countries."

Ten years on without a profit, Amazon chases e–books harder . . .
Amazon.com has continued to show an increasing commitment to the e–book market with the revealation that last month it bought a French company that sells e–books and "software for reading them on hand-held computers and wireless phones," according to a brief Bloomberg News report in the Tacoma News Tribune. The revelation that Amazon bought the French based Mobipocket.com on March 30 was made when an S.E.C. filing was made public. The news comes on the heels of last week's news — as in this report from the Web Host Industry Review — that Amazon had purchased Booksurge, "a printing fulfillment company that provides thousands of books users can print on demand." The report referred to that acquisition as "the latest in a series of moves by Amazon to diversify its revenue sources and compete with rivals such as Ebay and Overstock.com."

The garbageman and the bestseller . . .
The brutal rape and murder of writer Christa Worthington has finally been solved, and according to an Associated Press wire story by Matt Pitta, the solution seems at odds with speculation in the bestselling book about the case, Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod by Maria Flook. Pitta reports that authorities in Truro, Massachusetts have arrested Worthington's garbage man, Christopher M. McCowen, for the killing, after his DNA sample matched a semen sample found on Worthington's body. Worthington, a highly successful fashion reporter, had dropped out of the business to raise her two–year old daughter in the small Cape Cod town. She was found dead in a pool of blood with her daughter clinging to her. Flook's book covered varied speculation that Worthington had been murdered by a former boyfriend, or the father of her daughter, and it "outraged those close to Worthington for its portrayal of her as sexually promiscuous."

Pope candidate publishes book fast before Swift Boat Veterans can get it together . . .
One of the leading contenders to replace Pope John Paul II "harshly criticizes pro–market reforms and the globalization of the economy and urges solidarity with workers in a new book rushed into publication" in Brazil. According to an Associated Press wire story, the book by Claudio Cardinal Hummes "is a collection of 110 articles on the Roman Catholic Church, faith and social problems that Hummes published over seven years in the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo," and it covers "issues ranging from jobs and land reform to drug abuse and human cloning, questions he has faced as archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city and home to some six million Roman Catholics." Originally slated to come out today, it was appeared in stores just after the Pope's death.

Bunch of writers set to gather and—drink free wine! To honor some guy! . . .
The quadricentennial of the publication of Don Quixote de La Mancha will be celebrated in New York City next Saturday at an event at the New York Public Library, according to an Agence France Presse wire report. Featured will be writers from around the world including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Antonio Munoz Molina, Norman Manea and others, all of whom will be in town already for the PEN American Center's Festival of International Literature, notes the AFP report, although it gives no indication of what, exactly, the writers will do at the "special event."

Regan, porn star, say they need reality check . . .
Porn star Jenna Jameson is suing Judith Regan, publisher of Jameson's bestselling How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, in a disagreement over whether Regan should get a cut of a reality TV show Jameson is doing with A&E. According to an Associated Press wire story, Regan's Regan Media, a division of HarperCollins, negotiated a reality show development deal with Jameson in April 2004 giving them exclusive rights. Jameson says she' negotiated the deal with A&E before that on her own.

NOTE: Daily newspapers often change URLs when archiving, so some links won't work beyond the day they're first posted.

Visit the mothership:



This week's fiction:

by D. W. Young
(from Word Riot)

"My Son, The Priest"
by Caroline Kepnes
(from Barcelona Review)

This week's poetry:

"Son of Fog"
by Dean Young
(from Poetry Magazine)

"Samples of the Day"
by Bob Hicok
(from Conduit)

by Phan Nhien Hao
(from CrossConnect)

Special edition:

First posted in October, 2001, Alicia Ostriker's anthology of poetry that she turned to after the 9/11 attacks — including the work of Stephen Dunn, C.P. Cavafy, Marianne Moore, and others — is far and away the most popular link ever posted on MobyLives. Find out why.



All material not otherwise attributed ©1998–2005 Dennis Loy Johnson.