5 MobyLives.com


An interivew with Paul Maliszewski


25 April 2005 —It was one of those stories that seemed, like a bad magician, to be working so obviously to make you look one way that you couldn't help wondering what it is he wanted you to look away from.
     The story in question was an 18 April 2005 New York Times report in the Business section entitled "Fiction, Hoax, or Neither? A Literary Dust–Up." What the story of a "literary dust–up" was doing in the business section was never explained. In fact, reporter Alex Mindlin gave only the briefest explanation of what, exactly the "dust–up" was about: an article in the April/May issue of Bookforum by Paul Maliszewski that had "suggested" that Michael Chabon, "the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, had exceeded the bounds of poetic license in a lecture" in which he had told the story of "a counterfeit Holocaust survivor he'd once met who turns out to be an ex Nazi in hiding."
     Mindlin reported that Maliszewski had uncovered that the story was false, and had written that Chabon had thereby "fashioned a Jewish identity for himself that incorporates — through an utter fiction — the Holocaust."
     Maliszewski is not the first person to have questioned Chabon on the issue of Holocaust appropriation (see Marco Roth's recent review of Chabon's novella The Final Solution in the Times Literary Supplement). Nonetheless, the rest of the Times piece — the bulk of it, in fact — is a fairly scathing personal attack on Maliszewski, starting with the accusations of a spokesperson for the event's sponsor, Matthew Brogan of Nextbook. Mindlin quotes from a letter set to run in Bookforum (and meanwhile being circulated to media by Nextbook) in which Brogan charges that in the lecture, which was entitled "Golems I Have Known," Chabon had "signaled to the audience" that his "narrator is not to be completely trusted." Brogan says Maliszewski "deliberately misread these signs in the hope of stirring up scandal."
     This was followed by a testimonial from Dave Eggers, who, although seemingly uninvolved with the story, was revealed to have employed Maliszewski years before as the editor of his McSweeney's Quarterly webzine. Eggers said he had fired Maliszewski for writing "blasphemous e–mails" that were "full of incredible fabrications."
     Mindlin quotes Chabon—speaking, bizarrely, in the third person—saying only that he "prefers to have his work speak for itself."
      But, as indicated, character assassination makes for bad sleight of hand — what were readers supposed to look away from?
     The 7,000 word essay in Bookforum?
     The story as detailed there is, of course, considerably more complex than the 384 word New York Times article describes. Among the many significant details the Times leaves out, says Bookforum fiction editor Albert Mobilio, is that the figure at the center of Chabon's "tall tale" is a children's book writer named C.B. Colby — a real person. In his lecture, Chabon says that when he was a child, Colby was a neighbor, and that he subsequently turned out to be a Nazi posing as a Holocaust survivor.
     Chabon's telling is "so believable," observes Mobilio, "that if the author in question, C. B. Colby, were alive, he could probably sue for slander. The Times reporter might have profitably contacted Colby's family to ask them whether they think mentioning a golem makes the assertion that their father was a Nazi more or less troubling."
     Other things that have been overlooked include the fact that Maliszewski interviewed Chabon at length for the piece, and included substantial quotes from those interviews in which Chabon attempts to explain himself. Maliszewski also includes extensive commentary from several Nextbook officials, and several members of the audience, all of whom seemed to think Chabon was telling the truth. (One Nextbook official tells Maliszewski he would be "shocked" to learn Chabon was lying about the Colby story.)
     "Paul went to lengths to speak with the people at Nextbook as well as with Michael Chabon," notes Bookforum editor in chief Eric Banks. "Their comments, including those of Mr. Brogan, as reproduced in the article, stand for themselves. At no point were these intended as the 'gotcha' portrayed in the Nextbook letter."
     In fact, says Banks, "The main disagreement I have with the letter from Mr. Brogan is that he characterizes the article as 'scandalmongering.'"
     Which is also why Banks says he was "quite disappointed by the Times piece . . . I thought it slighted the Bookforum essay in order to foment a very picayune rift between Dave Eggers and Paul."
     Banks, who says he spoke to Times reporter Mindlin at length but was nonetheless left out of the subsequent report, says in fact that "the encounter with the Times has been quite dispiriting, and the reporter's decision to cast this as an intra–McSweeney's feud influenced a great bit of the subsequent coverage, particularly by bloggers."
     Why did this story take such a bizarre and nasty turn?
     Listening to a version of the Chabon lecture (helpfully posted by Nextbook) does not make that any clearer. For that recording, in fact, firmly establishes that Paul Maliszewski is not misreading anything, and in fact only having the same reaction any listener is likely to have. Thus, his questioning of whether or not Michael Chabon is appropriating the Holocaust to fashion his previously banal suburban persona into a more complex Jewish identity is based on solid ground — for in fact, Michael Chabon insists early on in his lecture that it is not fiction at all.
     "Since this is a memoir," Chabon says quite clearly and deliberately, "I will be truthful."

When the Bookforum article first appeared almost a month ago, MobyLives requested an interview with Maliszewski. He refused, saying he preferred to let his article speak for itself. He changed his mind after the New York Times article appeared. What follows is the results of several telephone conversations followed by an e–mail exchange.

DLJ: What inspired you to attend Nextbook's Michael Chabon lecture in the first place?

PM: I saw the lecture advertised in the Washington City Paper and wanted to go. I'd read some of Chabon's work and liked it. I brought along copies of his books to get them signed.

DLJ: When did you first suspect that what you were hearing in Chabon's lecture was fiction? What tipped you off?

PM: As I write in the Bookforum essay, I didn't start to suspect something might be up until the next day, when I looked around on the Internet and tried to confirm the facts of the story Chabon told about C.B. Colby, who was, remember, a real children's book author, and Joseph Adler and Viktor Fischer, who both turned out to be Chabon's characters.
      But even then, part of me thought I must have heard the names wrong, or that I wasn't remembering all the details and so I wasn't even searching for the right keywords. That night, Chabon delivered the lecture again, in D.C., so I went and listened, and it turned out, I hadn't misremembered the names. At that point, I knew for sure that significant parts of the story were made up.

DLJ: In your interview with him, and in any subsequent communications, did Chabon seem in any way contrite about having appropriated the Holocaust like that?

PM: No, but I don't believe he sees this as something that's wrong or that needs to be apologized for. My sense from talking with him is that, for him, the lecture represents how he works as a fiction writer. It's both about his fiction and it is his fiction.
      Anyway, when I interviewed him, I wasn't fishing for an apology. I didn't take the 60 Minutes approach here. I wasn't trying to reduce him to tears. I only wanted to understand why he mixed his facts with his fiction and talk to him about the audience's curious reactions.

DLJ: If I read you correctly, you believe Chabon's presentation represents a failure of the imagination.

PM: It seemed to me that buried in the lecture is a story about Chabon's life, and that it got lost. It's a story about his growing up in Columbia, Maryland, about his parents' divorce and his father's embellishments and lies, and about Chabon's attempts to escape that world into alternative universes imagined by mystery, science–fiction, and fantasy writers. To me, that sounds like a great story. It's a quieter story, for sure, and harder to tell in some ways, more difficult to imagine as a writer, because, in some of its details, it might appear just plain or even average American, but still, I'd love to read it. But that story—that true story—is obscured when Chabon inserts his fictional brush with a fake Holocaust survivor. In fact, letting the Holocaust into the story of his life has the effect of dwarfing everything else.

DLJ: Are you Jewish?

PM: No. I was raised Catholic, but am not religious.

DLJ: Your Bookforum article on the Chabon lecture was the subject of a New York Times report by Alex Mindlin. What did you think of the Times' report?

PM: Well, I was glad to see they spelled my name right. Otherwise, it's bad journalism. I don't want to go through it point by point, because I don't think it deserves the energy, really, but it was just a nasty piece of work.

DLJ: The main focus of Mindlin's report is not the lecture so much as accusations about you and speculation about motive. One of the most surprising elements of the story is the citation of Dave Eggers as a source, although he seems to have nothing to do with the Chabon lecture. His comments also seem the most heated. What is your connection to Eggers?

PM: I used to work for McSweeney's as an editor and a writer, but was fired when it came out that Amie Barrodale, an editor at The Onion, and I were writing and publishing a satirical gossip newsletter called The Pearl Files. Our character, Allen Pearl, went after these clearly made–up stories about literary celebrities, including some of Eggers' friends. Pearl was like a small–time Matt Drudge, if Drudge was a better writer and even more unreliable. All this happened three or four years ago. It's not relevant to my article about Chabon in Bookforum. But I suppose it came out now as a cheap way to try to undermine me and discredit the article.

DLJ: How do you think Eggers became involved in all this?

PM: I don't know, I'd really be speculating.

DLJ: One of Eggers charges against you is that you are, essentially, joke–deaf. A fair charge?

PM: I think what he said was nobody but me knew the gossip newsletters were a joke. A number of writers contacted me after Amie and I stopped publishing them and said they were funny and how much they liked getting their Pearl Files. It is true though that a number of people didn't understand Pearl. Some people, I think, just saw the e–mail and figured it for spam and asked to be unsubscribed. Pearl was definitely an acquired taste, but then so is The Office or Andy Kaufman or Jonathan Swift, or, really, any comedy more challenging than skits on The Tonight Show.

DLJ: Why didn't you speak to the New York Times for the story?

PM: I heard from Amie that the reporter, Alex Mindlin, had contacted her and was asking about our old gossip newsletter. He didn't know its name and had never seen an issue. He was also asking about how we were fired. He was under the mistaken impression that we were both fired for writing The Pearl Files. In any case, I didn't see how those questions could be germane to writing about my Chabon essay.
      The next day, Mindlin called me and wrote. He said my essay was "very good" and that he "loved" it, but something obviously wasn't right. I worried that the article was going to go after me personally, so I just thought it best, perhaps naively, not to participate in something that, from the beginning, was so tainted with bad motives.

DLJ: What about another of the charges leveled against you in the Times story: that you have faked a story in the past. This is something you wrote about yourself, for The Baffler, and in fact you mention these writings in the Bookforum Chabon piece.

PM: I never faked a story. That's a real misunderstanding of what I did. As a reporter, working at The Business Journal of central New York, I made up fictional characters and had them write satiric letters to the editor. Over time, I had other characters submit managerial advice columns and even a couple of news articles. And the editors decided to publish them. But as a journalist all that time, in my actual reporting, I turned in work that was sound and true and accurate. What I did was very different from Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, who handed in work of their own that contained fiction. I was writing satires in order to comment on the Gold Rush that was the business world in the late 1990s. Most readers, thankfully, do get this distinction. But if people are interested, they can take a look at what I wrote for The Baffler. Their website has both essays, "I, Faker" and "Faker's Progress," as well as all the satiric articles.

DLJ: Obviously, though, as you cite these stories yourself, they are relevant. How is it relevant from your perspective?

PM: It's relevant, because it's why I came to write about Chabon's lecture. The satires I wrote while at The Business Journal—and how I have written since about cons, hoaxes, fakes, counterfeits, all these different but still somewhat related things—make me qualified to write well about the lecture. I'm an interested observer. In my Chabon essay, I described the origin of my fascination with fakes and satires as a way of saying that I'm no stranger to these ideas, that I have some experience, and, most importantly, that I'm not unsympathetic with the artful mixture of fact and fiction. I understand this stuff. I get it. Moreover, I understand—and respect—the distinctions between a satire, say, and a hoax, or a satire and a fraud. These distinctions matter to me. I know, for instance, how what Chabon did in his lecture is a world apart from what Binjamin Wilkomirski did in Fragments, a fraudulent memoir of the Holocaust.

DLJ: So it's not a fair assumption, as the Times story seems to indicate, that given your writing about these matters, you might fake a story, or parts of it?

PM: No, that's not a fair assumption. I never faked a story, in part or in whole. As a journalist, my writing was and is completely by the book.

DLJ: Matthew Brogan of Nextbook, the sponsor of the Chabon lectures, has also written a heated response to your article, one that Nextbook has been sending to numerous publications and bloggers in what seems a rather vigorous spin campaign. It will also be appearing in Bookforum as a letter to the editor. What do you think of Brogan's charge that you missed the fact that Chabon's lecture was a "tall tale"?

PM: Brogan argues that Chabon's lecture takes the form of a tall tale, but it remains an inconvenient fact, and one he avoids addressing, that except for him, everyone I spoke to thought that the section of the lecture about Joseph Adler and his fake Holocaust memoir was absolutely true. Even a member of Nextbook's fellows program, who introduced Chabon at both the lectures I attended and ran the Q&A sessions after, thought the story about the Holocaust memoir was real.
      These were not simple–minded folk. They don't also believe that golems are real, or that unicorns exist. They detected the clearly fictional. Everyone did. But when it came to the part about the Holocaust, they all assumed they were once again in the realm of fact.

DLJ: Perhaps somewhat contradictory to that, Brogan also writes, "Maliszewski's point seems to be simply this: Michael Chabon promised us a memoir and instead gave us a yarn."

PM: My point was never that simple. I was less interested in the fact of the trick Chabon played on the audiences than its content, namely the way the trick relies on the Holocaust to beef up the seriousness of his lecture and supplement his identity as a Jewish writer. The essay is not about an author committing a bad act, but rather an author creating what I consider bad art.

DLJ: Why do you think Nextbook is defending Chabon so vociferously, instead of examining the questions you raise in your article?

PM: I'd really be speculating, I don't have any way of knowing.

DLJ: Not only the Times article and the Nextbook campaign, but the rather rapid response in the blogging world seems to come down to one essential charge against you: That you did this to create a scandal. Did you do this to create a scandal?

PM: I wrote a serious and fair–minded essay about, among other things, the differences between fact and fiction, about the uses of the Holocaust in literature, about telling entertaining stories as opposed to telling true ones, and about the ways that audiences understand—or, sometimes, don't get—what they hear or read. It's absurd and it's sad that I should now have to deny that I was stirring up a scandal, but I will say it: I was not stirring up a scandal. Moreover, I hope it's clear from this that if someone wants a scandal, he needn't go to the trouble of spending almost a year to complete a 7,000–word essay. Scandals are easy; all you need to do is plant a squib in the New York Times.

DLJ: Have you heard from Michael Chabon since the article was published?

PM: I haven't heard from Chabon since the article was published.

DLJ: You report that Chabon has delivered this lecture on at least seven occasions. Is he still giving it?

PM: I'm not sure. I have no way of knowing.

Dennis Loy Johnson is the editor of MobyLives.

Link to this column.

©2005 Dennis Loy Johnson

Previous column:
EXTREMELY MELODRAMATIC AND INCREDIBLY SAD . . . Steve Almond explains in a guest column that he really wanted to like Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, but something about his use of 9/11 eventually got to him. And is it the beginning of a trend?

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.

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Friday 29 April 2005

In Letters: Weiner's complaint . . .
Chick Lit author Jennifer Weiner writes in to object to the categorization of her as a "shill" for "girlie wine" . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Another book not on sale at the Apple store: Censorship for Dummies . . .
Steve Jobs' temper tantrum against Wiley & Sons for its forthcoming bio iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, by Jeffrey Young, "has had two sure–fire results," says Jim Milliot in a Publishers Weekly story (not available as a free link), "Wiley has moved up the pub date of iCon from to June to May 13, and the print run has been doubled to close to six figures.." In addition, since being banned in Jobs' Apple stores, the book has shot up the Amazon bestseller list, and Young and Wiley execs "have been swamped with media requests." Plus, as noted in yesterday's MobyLives news digest, Wiley continues to get widespread admiration for standing up to Apple and standing behind its book. But the company hasn't always been considered so virtuous, according to a SF Weekly report from last summer (supplied by a MobyLives tipster who wishes to remain anonymous). As Matt Smith reported, Wiley "recently drove an editor at its San Francisco–based Jossey–Bass imprint to resign in protest over the firm's reversal of a decision to publish a book critical of Wal–Mart Stores Inc. Wal–Mart is one of America's most important booksellers . . . . The imbroglio left Jossey–Bass without an esteemed editor. Its staff was left angry and demoralized . . . . It created a buzz in the San Francisco publishing world that John Wiley & Sons had undermined its editorial staff and censored itself out of fear of America's largest retailer. And the affair has the potential to turn the New York–based publishing house into a poster child for the cultural tyranny of the world's largest retailer." Smith goes on to explain the saga that led him to title his story, "Censorship for Dummies."

No word yet, however, on punishment for the revelation that he actually spent Saturdays with Morrie . . .
The Detroit Free Press has announced disciplinary actions against star columnist—and mega–selling author — Mitch Albom, but it isn't saying what those actions are, as an Editor & Publisher story reports. In fact, the headline of the explanatory article noted that Albom's column was returning (after being briefly halted), not that he was being punished. The newspaper also announced that it had "taken some unspecified action against four other employees who had some involvement in his April 3 phantom NCAA basketball tourney column." Albom had filed a story reporting on two former ball players watching the tourney. The players, however, never showed up at the game. Albom had filed the story the night before.

Oz wins Goethe Prize . . .
Israeli writer Amos Oz has been awarded the 2005 Goethe Cultural Prize, one of Germany's top literary prizes. An Agence France Presse wire story reports that the €50,000 prize, which is a lifetime achievement award, went to Oz "for his literary work and impressive moral responsibility, according to Petra Roth, mayor of Frankfurt and president of the jury awarding the prize." Oz told Israeli public television, "I am greatly moved for this a very prestigious prize which has been awarded in the past to the likes of Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud." He also said, "I didn't even know I was a candidate. I was surprised to learn about it from the mayor of Frankfurt."

Pukapuka, Pukapuka, sis–boom–bah! . . .
An aggressive, nationwide campaign by New Zealand police to stop the theft of rare books is landing some New Zealand booksellers in court. As a story from New Zealand wire service Stuff reports, 75–year–old John Arnold Palmer, owner of Arnold Books In Christchurch, has been charged with receiving stolen books as a result of " a police operation which targeted a ring of thieves alleged to have plundered valuable books from libraries and museums the length of the country." The case comes on the heels of last week's sentencing of another bookstore owner, Barry Richard Hancox, to community service and reparation fees for similar charges. So far, the police effort, known as "Operation Pukapuka," has "recovered 1640 books with an estimated value of $500,000."

Meanwhile, back where they invented the term Compassionate Conservative . . .
"Those who want to browse books at Houston's public libraries should get enough sleep, eat and bathe before they begin to peruse the shelves," dictates a "series of library regulations" passed by the Houston City Council. But, as an Associated Press wire story reports, "Two council members voted against the ordinance, saying it was a direct attack on the homeless." Council member Ada Edwards says, "I understand what they're trying to do, but when you start targeting a community like the homeless, I think that's poor policy."

Mainstream now is . . .
"Further proof of how tough it is for independent publishers to survive" came this week with the news that Random House UK bought a 50 % partnership of small Scottish independent Mainstream, says Roger Tagholm in a Publishing News report. As Tagholm observes, "The news comes just three months after fellow independents Atlantic and Canongate joined Faber's growing alliance of small publishers." What inspired the Mainstream to give up its independence? Tagholm says it was ". . . difficulties Mainstream was having in getting to see the buyers at W. H. Smith that led to this week's deal."

You ever notice how everybody in publishing between 1935 and 1950 invented the paperback? . . .
The story is that in 1935, Bodley Head director Allen Lane was on his way home from visiting Agatha Christie and he wanted something to read on the train "and was so disappointed at what he found that he decided to fill the yawning gap by providing good quality fiction at an attractive price." He began searching for a symbol that was "dignified but flippant." According to a story in The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, "It was his secretary Joan Coles who suggested a penguin and another employee Edward Young went to London Zoo to do the sketches. Penguin Books was born and the paperback revolution was under way."

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

Thursday 28 April 2005

In Letters: L.A. TImes not the only paper printing Bullshit . . .
One MobyLives reader—Publishers Weekly contributing editor Joe Barbato—writes in to straighten out Moby on Bullshit, while another writes in about some other — well, it's in the MobyLives letters section.

Think different and die . . .
It was a quickly formed consensus: Apple "simply appears petty," says Alyce Lomax — an "Apple product loyalist who says "I'm Apple all the way, baby." In a Motley Fool commentary, she joins the growing chorus criticizing Apple for yanking all books published by John Wiley & Sons from its stores in retaliation for Wiley's publication of a Steve Jobs biography, iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business (see yesterday's MobyLives news digest). Lomax adds, "The media blitz about said move certainly doesn't do much for Apple — and it has likely achieved exactly what the company didn't want by stoking interest in the book." And the media blitz is coming on strong. There were immediate and myriad stories in the mainstream media yesterday, such as this report by Matthew Yi from what is essentially Apple's hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, which quotes marketing expert Hayes Roth commenting that "Any time clients or companies take actions like this, it amuses me because inevitably it backfires. Almost always, it comes across as mean-spirited, not getting the joke, or petty. You wonder what Apple's public relations adviser is saying about this." Trade publications were also covering the story closely, and usually, being quite critical of Apple, such as this report from Bryan Chaffin for MacNewsWorld.com, which notes that despite seeing its books pulled, Wiley is going ahead with the iCon publication. It quotes a Wiley official saying, " of course, Wiley stands behind our authors." The article also quotes one of the banned Wiley authors, Bob "Dr. Mac" LeVitus, who also writes a column for The Mac Observer. He calls the banning a "sordid affair," and says, "It stinks. I'm sad that Mac users won't find my books at the Apple Store. At the same time, I'm tickled that Wiley did the right thing in spite of the pressure."

RELATED: A MobyLives column commented on the manipulative attitude, and lack of grammar, in Apple's slogan long ago . . . .

Amazon stocks tumble . . .
Shares of Amazon.com fell precipitously yesterday "after the company reported its net income sagged 30 percent on tax expenses and a new fee-based membership program that expands the online retailer's foray into free shipping even further," reports Rachel Konrad in an Associated Press wire story. She notes that the company, which "had told Wall Street investors that operating income would be somewhere between $80 million and $110 million this quarter," had in actuality earned only $78 million." As a result, shares on the Nasdac Stock Market fell 99 cents, or 3 percent.

Hail & Farewell: Yvonne Vera . . .
Yvonne Vera, "one of Zimbabwe's best known writers," has died at age 40 of meningitis. As a Guardian obituary by Helon Habila notes, Vera was a writer "for whom the world was just beginning to open up. In the last three years, she had won a string of international awards, including the Tucholski prize awarded by Swedish PEN (2004) and the Macmillan writer's prize for Africa, for The Stone Virgins in 2002. She was also the 1997 winner of the Commonwealth writer's prize for best novel, Africa region, for Under The Tongue." Habila notes that "Vera left Zimbabwe last year to join her Canadian husband, John Jose, in Toronto. She had held on in her homeland as long as she could before joining the considerable list of Zimbabwean intelligentsia fleeing the unacceptable political climate in their country." Vera once said: "I would love to be remembered as a writer who had no fear for words and who had an intense love for her nation."

Woman exaggerates; man knew exactly what he was doing . . .
The Brooklyn Rail's Kate Trainor profiles Melville House with an interview of publishers Valerie Merians and Dennis Loy Johnson, asking them "How did MobyLives evolve into Melville House?" "With a book of poetry," Merians explains. "After 9/11, poets were sending Dennis poems to put up on MobyLives, so we decided, well, let's make a little book out of this. And things got out of hand from there."

Thus does feminism stride into the new millennium: Chick Lit author to shill for "girlie" wine . . .
"Not to be outdone by Victoria's Secret, laundry detergent and countless other products, the 'girlie' wine has dawned, dressed in gift bags resembling see–through organza negligees and bearing cosmetics–counter names like Seduction or hip–cute ones like Rosé the Riveter or Mad Housewife," according to a New York Times report by Patricia Leigh Brown. And what's the best way to promote what the Times dubs "Chick Lit Wine"? With a Chick Lit author, it seems. In Her Shoes author Jennifer Weiner will judge a writing contest and help promote White Lie Early Season Chardonnay, a wine specially–made for women — it's made from "grapes that have been picked early, when the sugar content is lower," so that it's low–cal, and it's then "further 'de–alcoholized' to 9.8 percent," so that it's low–alcohol. In addition, the bottle has a "pedicure–red label" with "romance–novel cursive lettering — to flaunt on supermarket shelves." Meanwhile, Eric Asimov, the Times' wine critic, calls White Lie "wan and diluted."

Young witches make books disappear . . .
For those wondering what books kids in New Zealand are stealing from the public libraries, the answer is: "Books of Nazi insignia, or about heavy metal rockers," according to an article from the Manawatu Standard by Mervyn Dykes. Also, "Anything featuring rocker–suicide Kurt Cobain is likely to disappear quickly from the open shelves." At the Palmerston North Library, nonficiton librarian Barbara Yeoman says magazines about cars, especially Hot Rod and Fine Scale Modeller, "are likely to be clipped and cut, or vanish" if they are put out on the open shelves. Yeoman also says "dog breeders and people interested in pit bulls can be a shady lot too." But the biggest worry right now is "books about witchcraft and the occult." Library's have found, says Yeoman, that "would–be witches tend to clip books and magazines, or else 'forget' to return them."

The end is nigh . . .
As the 10th annual National Poetry Month draws to a close, a news brief at The Onion observes the simultaneous effort by the American Poetry Prevention Society. "We must stop this scourge before more lives are exposed to poetry," said APPS head Dr. John Nieman at a fundraising luncheon Monday. "It doesn't just affect women. Young people, particularly morose high–school and college students, are very susceptible to this terrible affliction."

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

Wednesday 27 April 2005

Steve Jobs conceives brilliant plan to promote biography of himself . . .
In an act of retaliation for the pubication of an unauthorized biography of Steve Jobs, the company he founded, Apple Computer, Inc., is removing from its stores dozens of different titles published by the book's publisher John Wiley & Sons, one of the country's leading publishers of technology books. Greg Sandoval reports in an Associated Press wire story that "Apple removed the books last week from all 104 of its stores after failing in a monthlong attempt" to block the release of iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business, which is slated to go on sale next month. Author Jeffrey Young says the book is "a chronicle of Jobs' rise as an innovator and entrepreneur and includes details about his personal life such as his divorce and fight with cancer," reports Sandoval. Says Young, "I thought the book was pretty positive and laudatory . . . . I wouldn't call any of it outrageous. I'm totally bewildered." Sandoval reports that "experts in brand management" say the move is "likely to backfire, only adding to the notoriety of Apple's critics and encouraging sales in countless other bookstores." Says one of those experts, "Pulling books off the shelf is a little draconian. It reeks of repression." Wiley says it's going through with the publication no matter what.

MORE: A report in the San Jose Mercury News, where author Young is an editor, notes that among the banned books is Macs For Dummies.

Amazon loses even more money than last time due to free shipping, legal fees . . .
The new free–shipping membership program at Amazon.com was a leading factor in the company's 30 percent dip in net income for the first quarter, reports Rachel Konrad in an Associated Press wire story. Konrad reports the company earned $78 million for the quarter, as opposed to $111 million for the same quarter last year. Sales were up, however, and part of the dip also had to do with tax expenses. But analysts "remained concerned" that the company will slip behind other retailers, says Konrad. Says one expert, "You still have revenue growth deceleration and margin growth contraction. The fundamentals continue to deteriorate and haven't stabilized yet." Some are also concerned by another major expense: the company spent $46 million to settle pending lawsuits but "would not comment on the nature of the legal settlements." Meanwhile, operating income is expected to fall even more next quarter.

Australian chain goes bankrupt . . .
Austalia's third–largest bookstore chain, Collins Booksellers, has gone bankrupt—or, "into voluntary administration"—after accumulating $7.5 million in debt. A report in The Australian by Michael Bachelard and Natasha Robinson says the 23–store chain, which was founded in 1922 by the Slamen family, which still owned it, "were put into administration on Friday after an Australian Securities & Investments Commission investigation found the chain was in danger of trading while insolvent." Thirty–one additional Collins stores are franchises which will not be affected by the move. Most of the debt—some $4.2 million—is owed to book suppliers.

Guantanamo poet freed, but his poems are imprisoned . . .
When he was first imprisoned in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, poet Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost was deprived of writing materials and so "memorized his best lines or scribbled them secretly on paper cups." He was subsequently given pen and paper and wrote "reams" of poems — "only to have all but a few of the documents confiscated by the U.S. government upon his release," as a Washington Post story by N.C. Aizenmann reports. Finally freed and back home in Peshawar, Pakistan, with his wife and eight children, he asks, "Why did they give me a pen and paper if they were planning to do that? Each word was like a child to me — irreplaceable."

Teacher calls it threatening, students calls teacher cranky lefty . . .
Southern Connecticut State University has "barred a student from a poetry class after his professor said a poem he submitted contained veiled threats to sexually assault her and her 3–year–old daughter," according to an Associated Press wire story. Student Edward Bolles' poem, called "Professor White," is about "a Mexican student named Juan [who] has a sexual encounter with the daughter of his white professor." Bolles says it "was meant to be a satirical piece about globalization." But his professor, Kelly Ritter, told campus police "she believed the poem was a threat," and she asked that Bolles be required to get a psychiatric exam. Bolles, a 36–year–old Mexican man who says he is a conservative and often has "political disagreements" with Ritter in class, was at first banned from the class while he was investigated, but school officials have since notified him that he can return to class. Bolles says says "he would not apologize and is concerned with how he will make up the two weeks of missed classes." Meanwhile, he says of Ritter's charges, "I think she flatters herself. This poem is about a lot more than a cranky teacher."

MORE: The AP has posed an excerpt of Bolles' poem, "Professor White."

RIP: Augusto Roa Bastos . . .
Perennial Nobel Prize candidate Agusto Roa Bastos, the Paraguayan novelist known for I, the Supreme, has died at age 88, according to a brief Agence France Presse report. Roa Bastos won the Spanish–speaking world's highest literary honor," the Cervantes, in 1989. The AFP story notes, "He wrote more than 20 works of fiction, short stories, plays and books of poetry, and his work has been translated into scores of languages."

HarperCollins to print Reagan diaries in full color to show how many different crayon colors he used . . .
Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins has announced it will publish "Ronald Reagan's handwritten diaries of his eight years in the White House," according to an Associated Press wire story. Reagan supposedly "wrote in his diaries every day of his presidency, recording his thoughts on events both routine and historic, officials said." The book is due out next year.

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

Tuesday 26 April 2005

Tide turning against Chabon? Comparison to Nazis would seem to indicate "yes" . . .
A week after Paul Maliszewski was attacked in The New York Times and on numerous book blogs for his Bookforum article about Michael Chabon, the tide seems to be turning as yet another commentator weighs in with an in–depth consideration supporting Maliszewski. In a devastating commentary for n+1, Marco Roth declares Alex Mindlin's Times attack to have been "a smear, and an unethical one" that "does not actually address the substance of Maliszewski's essay." After listening to Chabon's "Golems I Have Known" lecture himself, Roth says "Maliszewski was right to sense something fishy about the lecture." For one thing, he notes, if the talk was indeed a fiction, as Chabon now claims, that constitutes a technique that "allows Chabon to disclaim any responsibility for the truth," but also "any authority for what he goes on to say about Judaism." Roth then commences an intense, point–by–point analysis of Chabon's lecture by noting that "Chabon's faux Holocaust memoir," for example, "is part of a writerly tactic to get the audience on his side by appealing to deep–seated prejudices and fears. It strengthens existing authority. True hoaxes are radical. Chabon's posturing turns out to lend support to a conservative a vision of Jewish identity that's ideologically noxious and, ultimately, cruel." But Roth really unloads on Chabon for where he takes the lecture from there: "Chabon is certainly allowed to be a conservative Jewish writer if he desires. But he goes further. He ends the lecture with a conversion story. He and his second wife visit Yad Vashem. Afterwards, Chabon emerges into the sunshine, 'tears streaming from my eyes,' and finds he has one simple wish: 'Let there be more of us. Let us not disappear.' Any Jew can have this thought after seeing Yad Vashem. In the context of what's come before, however, this plays less as a spontaneous reaction than an apology. It is an obvious attempt to coopt the Holocaust into Michael Chabon's personal quest for American Jewish identity and to make it seem as though the only answer to the horror of genocide is increased isolationism and a politics of racial purity and proper breeding that the Nazis would admire."

The rhetoric prof probably isn't very happy about that split infinitive, either . . .
Almost a month ago, Alex Beam wrote about Foetry.com in his Boston Globe column (see the MobyLives news digest for 31 March). Beam noted that the website had "chided" local Harvard poet and professor of rhetoric Jorie Graham for having awarded the 2000 Contemporary Poetry Series award "to her then–partner, now husband, Peter Sacks," when she judged the contest for The University of Georgia Press. Graham shot back a letter–to–the–editor a week later, writing, "I did not select Peter Sacks's manuscript; . . . I recused myself from considering it. The series editor, Bin Ramke, wished very much to publish it and exercised his option to do so." Graham went on to say, "in a climate which permits technology to slander people, the Globe should check such claims before accepting them as fact." But apparently someone still wasn't satisfied. Saturday, a "clarification" of the story appeared . . . with a concluding sentence indicating Beam had been right in the first place. It reports that "Ramke asked Graham to officially concur in his decision, and she did." Graham, it seems, as the official judge of the award, had indeed agreed to choose her "then–partner, now husband."

Howl aloud . . .
What is believe to be the first record of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl has been donated to Naropa Univeristy, according to a breif Associated Press wire report. The late poet was co–founder of Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and the school's audio archivist calls it "a fantastic addition." The AP reports, "The 1956 recording was donated by California–based Pacifica Radio. The donation also included recordings of writers Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, James Baldwin, Aldous Huxley and Kurt Vonnegut Jr."

Sartre cleans up his act, a little late . . .
Jean–Paul Sartre never wrote a "total biography" of himself—nothing to compare, say, to the massive biography he wrote of Gustave Flaubert, L'Idiot de la famile (The Family Idiot)—but a show now on display at the Bibliotèque de France in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth amounts to something akin, says David Tresilian in a report for Al–Ahram Weekly. "Starting with items illustrating Sartre's childhood and family background and concluding with a video presentation of the crowds that followed his funeral cortège through Paris in 1980," writes Tresilian, "the exhibition presents the events of Sartre's long life in the light of what turns out to be a voluminous quantity of commentary, provided by Sartre himself, by de Beauvoir in her volumes of autobiography, and by various associates and contemporaries of Sartre, such as journalist and novelist Albert Camus and philosopher Maurice Merleau–Ponty, with both of whom he had famously acrimonious fallings–out." One thing that doesn't really represent his life, however, has become subject of conversation in France: in a poster for the exhibition featuring a photo of the writer, his ever–present cigarette has been airbrushed out of his hand. It's "especially ironic," says Tresilian, "in the light of the philosopher's much–advertised commitment to self–constituting and responsible choice."

What's the emoticon for "You'll Laugh, You'll Cry, You'll Kiss About Twenty–Five Bucks Goodbye"? . . .
"E–books have yet to crack the publishing industry, but that hasn't stopped literature from tackling computer technology as a storytelling device," observes Rebecca Caldwell. In a story for The Globe & Mail, she notes that "a recent spate of old–fashioned low–tech printed books have all abandoned traditional narrative for Internet terminology, using e–mails, chat–room dialogues and instant messaging instead of regular prose, chapters and verses." Amongst those proving the point, she cites books by Rocki St. Claire, Meg Cabot, and the partnership of Benedicte Newland & Pascale Smets. Technology is become part of the plot and characterization, too, says Caldwell. For example, in St. Claire's Hit Reply, which is written in "e–mail format," one character who writes in lower–case letters only is said to be ""shift–key challenged."

Something's getting deep around here . . .
The Los Angeles Times may be the only newspaper in America that has now allowed a critic to use the full title Harry Franfurt's On Bullshit. "I have received special dispensation," says Dan Neil in his commentary, but he nonetheless develops a tactic to avoid having to over use the word. "I will mark many sentences where the reader may infer the word or concept with an asterisk," he explains . . . before going on and seeming to ask what all the fuss is about: "Much of this, while fascinating*, seems a prolix path around the more important point that Frankfurt himself directs us toward in the first paragraph: We are drowning in bullshit. I mean, the Bush administration has practically made it a Cabinet position."

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

Monday 25 April 2005

In Letters . . .
The Director of Word of Mouth writes in to comment on previous letters about the group's letter to Oprah Winfrey . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Winfrey letter authors looking for a "shill," says critic . . .
The letter signed by 158 prominent female writers and sent to Oprah Winfrey pleading with her to stop using classic titles in her book club and resume promoting contemporary novels (see last Friday's MobyLives news digest) has drawn a fiery commentary from Alex Good of GoodReports. Noting that the letter from the group calling itself Word of Mouth ("an Association of Women Authors") tells Winfrey, "Readers have trouble finding contemporary books they'll like. They, the readers, need you. And we, the writers, need you," Good says, "Right. The authors need her to be their shill, while the readers need her . . . because they're just too stupid to know what they want? Because it's too much work to read the review section of the newspaper or book reviews online? Because Amazon recommendations aren't as much fun as seeing the book you're reading being talked about on TV by a celebrity? " Good notes that "When Oprah stopped recommending contemporary fiction her loyal followers simply stopped reading contemporary fiction," and he asks, "How does it help contemporary fiction to have a bunch of dittoheads robotically going out and buying what they're told?" He concludes, "Can't read without Oprah? Get a life."

And they did it all without Oprah . . .
It's an annual event, but this year the "readathon" in Madrid of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes has been bolstered by the general "Quixote Madness" sweeping Spain as the country celebrates the 400th anniversary of the book's publication. As a Reuters wire story by Estelle Shirbon reports, not only did hundreds of Spaniards including Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero show up for the "non–stop relay reading of the book" at the venerable Ciculo de Bellas arts center, but also "enthusiasts from as far afield as Sri Lanka, Equatorial Guinea in West Africa and Latin American countries" joined in via live video links. "Some participants read in other languages than Spanish to emphasize the universal appeal of Don Quixote. Excerpts were read in Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Greek as well as 18 languages spoken in the European Union. Blind readers used editions in braille to take part." And for those who couldn't get to the arts center, "state radio broadcast every few minutes excerpts of the book read by luminaries ranging from King Juan Carlos to Colombian Nobel prize–winning writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

RELATED: As a Guardian story by Stuart Jeffries reports, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is handing out a million copies of the book for free in public squares "for the improvement of its citizens."

Soon to be appearing on an SASE near you . . .
Hundreds of people gathered in Guthrie, Kentucky last week to celebrate the unveiling of a new US postage stamp honoring the author of the classic All The King's Men, Robert Penn Warren. As a brief Associated Press wire story notes, the celebration in Warren's hometown marked the 21 stamp in the U.S. Postal Service's Literary Arts series.

Sales of literary fiction getting scary . . .
"If you speak to publishers about the sales of literary fiction — I mean we're in real trouble in this country," says W. W. Norton executive editor Robert Weil. "Sales are shocking these days, even compared to 10 years ago. And publishers are seriously cutting back." A New York Times profile of Steve Stern shows the impact on one particularly gifted writer. Times reporter Peter Edidin notes that reviews for Stern's new novel, The Angel of Forgetfulness, have been the kinds that authors frame and hang on the wall for courage when the critics are less kind." Stern has been getting those kinds of reviews "for almost a quarter century," notes Edidin, and yet most of his books are out of print, and "he remains largely unknown to readers at a time when even the most gifted writer, if he does not sell well, may have difficulty finding a publisher for his next book." One incident cited by Edidin provides an even more accute picture of the current publishing scene: Stern "recently found himself at a book festival in Virginia, along with the celebrated young novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Mr. Stern said that while a long line of young readers waited to have their books signed by Mr. Foer, a couple of their mothers kindly expressed some interest in him. The difference was humbling, Mr. Stern said with a laugh. 'As if I needed more humbling.'"

Discerning readers too smart for their own good . . .
"Today's corporate weather–makers" amongst the conglomerates in the book business "hate 'book–lovers', as they sneeringly refer to them," says Boyd Tonkin in a commentary for The Independent. He says the conglomerates "despise curious readers committed to the range and quality of what they buy" and instead put "extra resources . . . into snaring the fitful attention of affluent but apathetic semi–readers who . . . made an exception for The Da Vinci Code. So let's have much more of the same brain–shrinking junk." Thus, he says, "These feather–bedded pashas spend a lot of time (as the modern elite invariably does) angrily accusing anyone who disagrees of 'elitism'. The pretext offered for their looming onslaught on standards and choice will be the need to expand the book market beyond its loyal but increasingly 'mature' base." Says Tonkin, "The book market certainly needs to expand. What it requires is creative innovation, not mad downmarket plunges."

NYTBR to cover poetry again — at least, once every four to six weeks . . .
Readers of The New York Times Sunday Book Review got a pleasant surprise yesterday when the newest issue included the announcement that a regular poetry column, "On Poetry," will be appearing "every four to six weeks" from critic David Orr, a level of attention to poetry that the publication has not seen in years. In his first column, Orr commented on the career of Jorie Graham, and although the column headline called Graham a "superstar," Orr showed a more even hand in his text, noting that while Graham is "often sumptuously 'poetic'" and "ostentatiously thinky" in a way that's appealing, "fogginess" has also been "a chronic problem in her work." Then there's the fact that her former students "show up with remarkable frequency as winners of the many contests she judges." The full–page column also contains some refreshing and astute observation of the poetry scene at large: "At present, American poetry is a fractured discipline — part profession, part gaggle of coteries, part contest hustle. Its mind may dwell in the vale of soul–making, but its common sense is aiming for the Lorna Snootbat Second Book Prize. Above all, as primarily an academic art, poetry is subject to the same insecurities riddling the humanities in general, in particular the fear of being insufficiently 'serious' or 'useful.'"

MORE: Last month (as previously noted on MobyLives) Orr, a 30–year–old poet and attorney, was awarded the 2005 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle. In his acceptance speech, he discusses one of the more difficult aspects of criticism: "How much do we let our concern about people's feelings affect the honest response" to a work under review? "Because . . . as we all really know, honesty matters. It's the only thing that can ever actually help a writer or persuade a reader. And it isn't always pleasant."

Hail & Farewell & Thanks: David Hughes . . .
David Hughes, the "elegant and original writer" of numerous novels, biographies and screenplays, died on March 14 at age 74, it has been revealed. As a New York Times obituary by Christopher Lehmann–Haupt notes, Hughes was " best known for exploring the individual's role in traumatic public events in his elegantly written novels." As a Times of London remembrance observes, "critics admired the precision, humour and inventiveness of his short works" on a number of topics. In addition to ten acclaimed novels, for example, he wrote a biography of H.G. Wells, The Man Who Invented Tomorrow, as well as a biography of a 19th century Archbishop of Canterbury, The Lent Jewels. But, as a remembrance by Hughes' friend Giles Gordon for The Guardian notes, it was Hughes's novel The Pork Butcher for which he'll be remembered. As Gordon puts it, "It is not given to many novelists to write novels that define our time and are metaphors for it. . . . The Pork Butcher (1984), is one such." Gordon recalls going with Hughes and his wife Elizabeth to see the movie based upon the book, which starred Christopher Plummer: "David began crying. Elizabeth clutched his hand. How amazing, thought I, for an author to be moved to tears by the celluloid version of one of his novels. As we left the darkness of the cinema for the blinding sunlight of London, David rubbed his eyes: 'That was terrible,' he said, 'terrible.'" MobyLives editor Dennis Loy Johnson, a former student of Hughes, can only add to the testimonials: He was a marvelous writer, and as elegant, witty, and charming off the page as on. He will be missed.

Da Vinci code cracked, unfortunately . . .
"Doubleday Books, a division of Random House Publishing, announced today its new slate of historical–fiction mysteries that will attempt to duplicate the unreal sales of Dan Brownšs The Da Vinci Code," according to a report on TheSpoof.com. Among the new titles announced, says the report, is The Cherry Tree Codicil, which is about "American Revolution expert Dirk Pittstone and his young but wise dental assistant colleague Samantha Goodlay, who race against time to unveil a dirty limerick that contains the connection between US president George Washingtonšs wooden teeth, a suspicious cherry tree and the enigmatic Masons." While Doubleday spokespeople expressed optimism about the Da Vinci clones, however, "The company acknowledges that with more than 18 million copies sold matching earnings and the sheer spread of utter bullshit will be difficult."

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

Visit the mothership:

MobyLives editor Dennis Loy Johnson will appear with Publishers Weekly editor Sara Nelson, New York Times Book Review editor Bill Goldstein, and Publishers Lunch editor Michael Cader at the Small Press Center in New York City on Saturday, 30 April 2005 at 3:30 pm in a discussion entitled "Book to the Future: Forecasting Publishing Trends." The Small Press Center is located at 20 West 44th Street. Admission restricted to those registered for the New York Roundtable Writers Conference. For more info, call 212–764–7021 or visit the SPC website



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.