5 MobyLives.com



a MobyLives guest column
by Larry Baker

A recent New York Times article about book sales in grocery stores drew considerable attention in the book industry. MobyLives knew of one author who had anticipated the trend well ahead of most publishers and retailers, and we asked him to tell his story.

2 May 2005 —Ninety percent of all published writers, and one hundred percent of all unpublished writers might say that they would trade places with me. Very few would have any sympathy for me, and I understand that. And if I had a little more self–respect, I wouldn't even be admitting all this. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
      This is a tale told by an idiot, a desperate idiot, about necessity being the mother of invention. About going from big to small to microscopic, and then to small again.
     For my first novel in 1997, The Flamingo Rising, I got a low six figure advance from Knopf. Not bad for a virgin, for sure. Foreign rights got me another low six figures. Paperback rights, another six figures. Movie deal, another six figures. So far, the American writer's dream, right? And why a lot of other writers would tell me to quit whining.
     But all those other writers, in or wanting to be in print, also understand this: one book is not enough. Forget the money; you want a second book out, and then a third. You want to be a writer, not a One Book Wonder.
     That lucrative first novel actually sold—well, not a lot. In fact, not anywhere near enough to earn back the advances. An embarrassment of deficit. Very good reviews, a box–office bomb. I was One and Done. Hand prints all over my back as they showed me the door.
     I sent my second book to the publisher in 1999. Thumbs down. Truth is, it wasn't a good book. Three years ago, I sent him a new book, a political novel titled Athens, America. It sat in the editor's office for almost a year. No decision. Perhaps his gentle way of saying no? I took the hint, pulled the book, and contemplated the void. My agent sent it to a few other publishers, all the this is great but not quite right for us rejections, and I was beginning to suspect that I was damaged goods. The agent and I parted company amicably. Took our best shot; time to move on.
      But the thing was, I thought Athens was much better than Flamingo, more adult, more relevant to real life in America, and it deserved an audience. Hell, I'm the writer. If I don't believe in the book, who will?
      Enter a small southern press. An editor there had read my first book, loved it, and we had kept in touch for years. I told him my sad story. He said to give him a chance. A chance for him, but no advance for me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered stories about Mark Twain's up and down life.
      One of the reasons I went with this tiny publisher is that they thought my marketing plan had a lot of potential. They agreed to print 2000 copies for an early release in my hometown of Iowa City back in November. I knew we would sell a few copies here. The book itself is inspired by actual events in Iowa City, and I'm like, you know, the Balzac of Iowa City. Three Pulitzer Prize winners here at the Writers Workshop, but they ain't Balzac.
      The plan? Sell a lot here in 2004 during the Christmas season and have a national release in 2005, using the Iowa sales figures to get the attention of New York media and publishers.
      But I didn't anticipate the resistance of Barnes and Noble. The local B&N managers, good people, loved the book and were going to order a hundred copies, but they were over–ruled by their home office. The B&N uppers refused to deal directly with my publisher, insisting that they would only buy books through a national distributor even though my dwarfish publisher was offering a better wholesale deal.
      And then B&N decided that they would not stock the book at any of their stores in the universe because they didn't like the cover art. Seriously . . . I've got the letter, in black and white. And that really hurt. I've been in a lot of B&N stores. They're full of butt–ugly books, and I took their rejection personally because the cover art was my concept.
      There I was, 2000 copies of Athens, with only two independent bookstores selling it. Did I mention the concept of desperation? I began mumbling in public places.
      Talking to the manager of a local grocery one day, something about the price of corn chips, and it hit me—I asked him if he would sell the book at his store. The only catch? I insisted that it be put on a separate table by itself near the front door. He liked me. My kids worked at his store. He took a chance. I gave him a case. Two days later, he asked for another case. I went to some more grocery stores.
      My glamorous life as a writer—three groceries selling the best political novel since All The King's Men—me sitting there across from the broccoli. Selling like hotcakes. Impulse buyers. The only glitch was when my prime spot was usurped by a table of pumpkin pies a few days before Thanksgiving.
      Drum roll.
      We sell 980 copies in two months. You gotta let that sink in: 980 hardcover copies in two independent bookstores and three groceries in a smallish town. One of the finalists for the National Book Award last year only sold 2000 copies in the entire country! We sell 980 in one town. Forget that Balzac reference. I'm like, you know, the PT Barnum of Iowa City. All I have to do now is figure out some way to get a national review.
      I'm on tour now, a lot of independent bookstores throughout Wisconsin and South Carolina. Who knows, maybe Barnes and Noble will change their mind. If they don't, there won't be a Safeway, Food Lion, or Winn–Dixie anywhere in the country safe from me. I'm a desperate man, remember?

Larry Baker is the author of The Flamingo Rising. He lives in Iowa City, Iowa. You can write to him at Athens AT Avalon.net.

Link to this column.

©2005 Larry Baker

Previous columns:
ANATOMY OF A HOAX . . . When Paul Maliszewski heard Michael Chabon tell a false story about a real writer, he wrote about it. So what led the New York Times to cover Chabon's hoax with an attack on Maliszewski featuring testimony from Dave Eggers?

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.

  Don't want to register for a site but need log on i.d.s and passwords? Get them at BugMeNot.com.

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Friday 6 May 2005

In Letters: What Mitch really meant . . .
One MobyLives reader writes in to offer an interpretation of Mitch Albom's apology . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Kansas politicians say Vonnegut story supports less education for poor people; Vonnegut says politicians should learn how to read . . .
In a case about to go before the Kansas Supreme Court, "Attorneys representing students from the Shawnee Mission district say the story 'Harrison Bergeron'" — by Kurt Vvonnegut — "shows that a world of forced equality would be a nightmare, so unequal funding of public schools is OK." As a story by Scott Rothschild in the Topeka Journal–World reports, "Their legal brief says capping local taxes on schools was unconstitutional, and they cited the 1961 story, which depicts a future society where everyone is made equal by forcing impediments on anyone who is better." But if the judges interpret the story the same way that the author himself does, Shawnee Mission attorneys are in trouble: Vonnegut has disagreed with their reading of his story. He tells Rothschild, "It's about intelligence and talent, and wealth is not a demonstration of either one. Kansas is apparently handicapping schoolchildren, no matter how gifted and talented, with lousy educations if their parents are poor."

Until the machines are ready . . .
Insiders at Palgrave Macmillian, the academic publishing division of the Holtzbrinck empire, say that the company may shift some of its outsourced production work to Macmillan India Ltd., which opened a new typesetting facility in Bangalore in April. According to a brief dispatch in the Deccan Herald, Macmillian's new facility is 23,000 square feet and will eventually employ more than 500. Executives at Palgrave have visited the new facility, which will be directed from Palgrave's UK office. Many of Palgrave's academic titles are outsourced to Indian "packagers," who edit and prepare manuscripts for publication, a common practice among British and American academic publishers. The Macmillian expansion may bring some of this work back in house and is expected to generate $4 million in revenue by 2006.

Kerouac gets into Hall before Gil Hodges . . .
"A bobble–head doll of Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac created as a promotion by the minor–league Lowell Spinners joined the collection at the Baseball Hall of Fame Wednesday," reports an Associated Press wire story. The team handed out 1,000 of the dolls as a promotion at a game in August, 2003, then sold another 500 to raise $10,000 for the Jack Kerouac Scholarships fund. The A.P. story notes that as far as the Hall of Fame collection, "Kerouac is believed to be the first literary figure so honored."

A uniter and a divider — I suppose he was a compassionate conservative, too? . . .
One of the last Russians to write about the 18th century Chechen rebel leader Shamil "received the Stalin Prize in 1949 for a book portraying Shamil as a freedom fighter." But then "the official interpretation" of Shamil "changed just months later" — he was redesignated as "an agent of colonial Britain" — and "the author had his prize revoked and he committed suicide." Now, as a Moscow Times article by Nabi Abdullaev reports, "The warrior who resisted Russian troops in Chechnya and Dagestan for a quarter of a century is the subject of a new book written by Dagestani and Moscow–based historians." Shamil: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, says Abdullaev, is "lavishly illustrated and written in both Russian and English," and "a highly readable mix of scrupulous academic research and anecdotal evidence." But because views on Shamil are still widely divergent — he is " an icon for Chechen separatists" and in Dagestan as "a a symbol of collective identity and integration with Russia" — the book "avoids taking sides, including both entries that depict Shamil in an entirely positive light and chilling accounts of a state ruled by force. As the background information makes clear, the Imamate gave birth to outstanding statesmen and religious scholars, but also saw rebellion and bloodshed continue as a way of life in the North Caucasus."

Good excercise . . .
Secrets of Salsa: A Bilingual Cookbook by the Mexican Women of Anderson Valley, which has sold more than 20,000 copies since it was first published in 2000, was little more than "an English–language exercise at school," according to a story by Diane Peterson in Lakeland, Florida's The Ledger. The book, the hardcover rights of which were acquired by independent publisher Chelsea Green in 2002, has been awarded a Tabasco Community Cookbook Award and California Human Development community organization award. The cookbook was conceived by Kira Brenna, an adult education teacher, who asked students to write down their salsa recipes as an English language exercise. The book includes recipes by 23 Mexican students.

Jane = Jennifer? . . .
In the middle of the 19th century, it was a shocking story, notes Anne Applebaum: "A woman left her fiance standing at the altar after an unexpected revelation, ran away without a penny, threw herself on the mercy of strangers — and then ultimately returned." So what makes the story of Jane Eyre different from Duluth, Georgia's runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks? In her Washington Post column, Applebaum writes, "This is not the beginning of an apology for Wilbanks, whose motives seem significantly less exalted than those of Jane Eyre . . . . But where Jane Eyre merely defied her era's conventional morality, it seems to me that the Wilbanks story also underlines some ambiguities in our conventional morality."

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

Thursday 5 May 2005

In Letters: The Chabon mess . . .
One MobyLives reader writes in to say the discussion of the Chabon / Nextbook / Maliszewski brouhaha ended too soon — because it was too complex? In the MobyLives letters section.

Journalists unhappy with punishment, or lack thereof, of Mitch "The Weasel" Albom . . .
"Mitch Albom must have spent much of his brief paid suspension hanging out in cut–rate delis, because the Sunday column that marked his return to print was jam packed with cheap cheese and rancid baloney," says an editorial in Detroit's alt newsweekly, the Detroit Metro Times. The editors say they aren't "certain what turned our stomachs most about the piece in the Free Press — Mitch's absolute refusal to admit his true transgression, the attempt to downplay the significance of that ethical breach, or his blatant attempt to generate sympathy because of the battering he's taken. Poor, poor Mitch." They chide Free Press editor Carole Leigh Hutton, who had promised "transparency" with "how Albom has been dealt with." But, they say, "Along with reinstating Mitch before the results of the paper's story investigating the whole matter has appeared, Hutton's silence has made the whole process as transparent as a brick wall." They add, "We were, however, provided a clear glimpse of Mitch the Magnanimous in Sunday's piece," and cite Albom's declaration that he was "willing to refrain from lashing back in anger, even at those lousy journalists who got some facts wrong when reporting about the scandal. Of course, if Mitch had been a stand–up guy and answered calls from reporters instead of being a weasel and refusing them, maybe some of those errors would have been avoided."

Hey LAAADY! Sinatra was a "Mob bagman," says Jerry Lewis in new book . . .
A new, unauthorized biography of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra: The Life, includes "several accounts linking the legendary singer to organized crime," including one such account by his "Rat Packl" friends, Jerry Lewis, according to a Reuters wire story. In the book, which is by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, Lewis says carried money for the Mafia ""He volunteered to be a messenger for them. And he almost got caught once . . . In New York." Lewis told the authors that "Sinatra was going through customs with a briefcase containing 'three and a half million in fifties' and that customs officials opened the case. But due to crowds jostling for a glimpse of the star, officials aborted their search. Otherwise, Lewis said, 'We would never have heard of him again.'" A New York Daily News report on the book by Corky Siemaszko says that in addition to being a "Mob bagman," authors "Summers and Swan cite several other examples where Sinatra allegedly benefited from having godfathers like [Lucky] Luciano and Sam Giancana on his side," such as one story saying Sinatra's attempts to "set himself up in Las Vegas" were blocked by Bugsy Siegel. Sinatra complained to Luciano, and "Siegel was sentenced to death." The book will be released May 16 from Knopf.

Hail & Farewell: Jack Nichols . . .
Jack Nichols, the author of several notable books on gay issues and an early and fearless activist for gay rights, has died of cancer at his home in Cocoa Beach, Florida at age 67. As a New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox notes, Nichols "campaigned publicly for gay rights nearly a decade before the Stonewall riots of 1969," organizing "some of the country's first civil rights demonstrations on behalf of gay men and lesbians," including "the first gay rights march on the White House" in 1965. He also "became one of the first Americans to talk openly about his homosexuality on national television" when he appeared in a CBS documentary, "The Homosexuals," in 1967 (although he used a pseudonym at the request of his father, who was an FBI agent). As a result of a long–term campaign Nichols organized, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from "its list of mental disorders" in 1973. Among his books are Men's Liberation: A New Definition of Masculinity (Penguin, 1975), and The Gay Agenda: Talking Back to the Fundamentalists (Prometheus, 1996).

And believe me, it takes a lot for Gandhi's followers to complain . . .
Complaints by the Gandhi Peace Foundation and the Albert Einstein Institution have prompted the Indian government to form a committee to investigate its 1999 edition of the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi, which it plans to publish in a second edition and on CD ROM, according to a brief report in the Garavi Gujarat. An official source is quoted as saying that "The government has taken a serious view of the matter and has formed a three–member committee, comprising eminent personalities, to look into it."

Doctorow–mania expected by Random . . .
Two new books by E. L. Doctorow are planned to follow the expected success of The March, Doctorow's forthcoming novel about the civil war, according to a Random House press release. The March — not to be confused with Geraldine Brooks' March: Novel — is set to be released in September. The first of the planned volumes is a collection of the author's essays that will appear in Fall 2006, to coincide with the paperback edition of The March.

The book is new; some of the issues it raises, not . . .
It started in 1969 as a booklet called Women and Their Bodies—a "radical primer on women's health" that grew so popular so quickly that the group of women who'd written it soon incorporated as the Boston Women's Health Book Collective and rechristened a more in–depth version as Our Bodies, Ourselves. The book hit bestseller lists in 1979, "partially because it was a mainstay of college dorm rooms," notes Robin Dougherty in a Boston Globe story about a special, updated version of the book being released for its 35 anniversary. Dougherty talks to executive director Judy Norsigian about putting together the new version: "Q: Anyone who read the book in the 1970s probably can't get the police photo of Gerri Santoro, who bled to death in a motel room after a botched abortion, out of her head. . . . A: There was a big debate about leaving it in. The reason to leave it in is to remind young women that abortion wasn't [always] legal. It's for women who can't appreciate that. It reminds you how desperate women feel when they can't [go through with the pregnancy]."

Velum is no longer an option? . . .
"Your new book is coming out . . . Do you want it to appear in hardcover or trade paper original?" In an in–depth investigation for Bookninja, novelist Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer studies the questions behind binding choices: "What effect does the binding have on the reader, the author, the publicist, the reviewer, the editor, the publisher and the price point of the book? Are the differences perceived or do they have real world implications?" She talks to publishers, writers, and critics about "the prestige, economics, and artistic considerations behind the publishing decision to go with hardcover or TPO." In addition to quotes from Toronto Globe & Mail books editor Martin Levin and writer Zachariah Wells, Kuitenbrouwer also includes this interesting observation by George Orwell of some of the first paperbacks: "In my capacity as a reader I applaud the Penguin Books; in my capacity as a writer I pronounce them anathema. Hutchinsons are now bringing out a very similar edition, though only of their own books, and if other publishers follow suit, the result may be a flood of cheap reprints which will cripple the lending libraries and check the output of new novels. This would be a fine thing for literature, but it would be a very bad thing for trade, and when you have to choose between art and money — well, finish it for yourself."

Some operas are more equal than others . . .
Lorin Maazel's opera based on George Orwell's 1984 opened in London Tuesday night (see Tuesday's MobyLives news digest) and the reviews in yesterday's newspapers were not good. A BBC News feature provides clips from several, including this one from Andrew Clements of The Guardian: "It is both shocking and outrageous that the Royal Opera, a company of supposedly international standards and standing, should be putting on a new opera of such wretchedness and lack of musical worth." Robert Thicknesse, of The Times, calls the play "ungood," and says, "Lorin Maazel's new opera is not as awful as some feared, but it does share one property with Room 101, and that is the urgent desire it inspires for it to be over."

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

Wednesday 4 May 2005

Book suggests stores boycott of Left Behind series . . .
A new book about the phenomenally popular Left Behind book series suggests bookstores drop support of the book, according to a PW Daily report by Steven Zeitchik. The book, Skipping Toward Armageddon: The Politics and Propaganda of the Left Behind Novels and the LaHaye Empire, by Michael Standaert, takes aim at booksellers, who Standaert believes should stop supporting Left Behind. The book's publisher, Richard Nash of Soft Skull, noted the idea is to persuade booksellers that "these books have more in common with The Turner Diaries and Mein Kampf than they do with The Purpose Driven Life and Tom Clancy." Soft Skull will support the title at the upcoming BookExpo America, the American book industry's annual convention, by distributing postcards that call on booksellers to move the Left Behind series "to the back of the stores."

Mothers across America rethinking advocacy of milk . . .
"A massive new study of Philadelphia artist Thomas Eakins, 14 years in the writing, nearly 600 pages in length, is deemed 'provocative' and 'controversial' by its publisher — which may, for once, be an understatement in marketing," says Karen Heller. In a report for The Philadelphia Inquirer, she says the Oxford University Press book Eakins Revealed: The Secret Life of an American Artist, by Henry Adams , "accuses the painter of incest, bestiality, flagrant exhibitionism, sadism, molestation and sexual opportunism, contributing to the suicide of his disturbed niece." Author Adams admits "I had always felt some kind of block on Eakins, something disturbing in the work." But one critic, art historian Michael J. Lewis, says of the book, "Strangely, for an art history, the art is not there." And Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Kathleen Foster, whose writing about Eakins Adams criticizes, says, "Henry's taken the same sources as I did and read them very darkly with the worst–case possibilities." Meanwhile Adams, a descendent of the Henry Adams who wrote The Education of Henry Adams, says he is "sympathetic to Eakins," calling him "a complicated man who had to overcome a lot." In Adams portrait, Heller notes, what the "severely troubled" Eakins had to overcome was "a catalog of psychoses, including a castration complex, sexual inadequacy and trauma, and a propensity to drink more milk than perhaps is healthy."

If one of his clients is Touchdown Joey Ellis, his work is cut out for him . . .
One day after Kevin Roderick broke the story that Los Angeles Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman had either resigned or been invited to resign (see yesterday's MobyLives news digest), Roderick's LA Observed breaks part two of the story: Wasserman is heading east to head the New York office of Kneerim & Williams at Fish & Richardson P.C., a literary agency that represents, among others, Brad Meltzer, E.O. Wilson, Stephen Greenblatt, and Joseph Ellis. Roderick also posts a memo sent out to LA Times staffers yesterday by editors John Montorio and Tim Rutten, saying that "Steve actually informed us of his decision several weeks ago, but characteristically offered to remain through the recent Times Festival of Books." They insist that "The Times' committment to literary journalism and criticism continues to grow and deepen," and add "The search for Steve's successor already is under way, and an announcement regarding that appointment will be made soon."

Imprint for women over 45 angers a lot of women over 45 . . .
Transita, a new UK imprint dedicated to publishing fiction by women 45 and older, is receiving some harsh criticism in the British press. According to a Guardian dispatch by Michelle Pauli, on BBC Radio 4's popular Open Book program, for example, host Mariella Frostrup and author Philippa Gregory, doubted that "such a diverse group of already voracious readers needed a publisher devoted to their cause." Writers interviewed for the Guardian piece also questioned the imprint's focus. Author Julie Myerson noted that "We read fiction because we are curious about life and the world and other people and other ages." She also observed there were plenty of popular women writers over 45, citing Penelope Lively, Barbara Trapido, Nina Bawden, Margaret Atwood, Pat Barker, Margaret Drabble, and AS Byatt. Others, apparently feeling that the imprint smelled of market research, called the plan "a waste of time." But Nikki Read, founder and director of Transita, insists that "despite the fact that 40% of the UK's female population is over the age of 45, there isn't an identifiable body of fiction that mirrors the experiences of this group." What's more, she hopes to inspire neglected writers. "There is a whole market of potentially great fiction that is possibly being ignored because the publishing industry is not open to women of 45 and over," she says.

BHL to America: You're smarter than you think . . .
Philosopher and Philadelphia Inquirer book critic Carlin Romano talks to Bernard–Henri Lévy about his current project: re–tracing the footsteps of Alexis de Tocqueville for The Atlantic Monthly. In Romano's profile, Lévy says he found some things had changed since de Tocqueville wrote his famous observations, such as "a surprising growth of puritanism on the American left, and the rise of America's 'democratic messianism.'" Another change: Lévy rejects "the cliché of America as an unphilosophical country," says Romano. Says the founder of the famous New Philosophers, "If you mean ideological country . . . I would even say the reverse. The ideological debate might be stronger today in America than in France."

St. Mark's is illuminated . . .
"Sharing a block with the punk bar Continental in the East Village," St. Mark's Books is "a holdout Manhattan indie that caters to a hip, lit–savvy crowd and college students looking for the kinds of books that can get lost on the shelves of bigbox retailers." In a profile of the shop for The Book Standard, Patrick J. Eves notes the 2,700 square foot store "is so compact that when an author comes by, it's to privately sign books the store has in inventory that will be sold later" — for example, manager Michael Russo "When Everything Is Illuminated came out in cloth, Jonathan Safran Foer came in to sign copies and drew a hand shape on the title page on what must have been close to 50 copies. That sort of thing makes us special. If you came in at the right time you would have gotten a special version of that book."

The novella rules, says critic . . .
"Why devote time and words to advancing the cause of the novella?" asks James Morrison. "Because the best novellas allow the reader to approach literary perfection. Falling between the short story (which far too many people, even keen readers, foolishly dismiss, saying that they finish just as they start to get into them) and the novel (many of which, even when very good indeed, go on far too long), the novella can combine all the depth and richness of a great novel, with the brevity of a long story, meaning the average reader can absorb it all in one reading session." In his monthly "Small But Perfectly Formed" column on the form for Bookslut, Morrison focusses on the Art of the Novella series from Melville House, saying it consists of "excellent examples of what the novella can achieve."

The Times regrets the error . . . but not as much as the Donna Messenger Skin Care Clinic does . . .
A notice in the New York Times notes that in its article about Dial–A–Poem earlier this week (see Monday's MobyLives news digest), it mentioned the telephone number of the service, which ran from 1969 until 1971. Alert readers might have wondered if that number was still in service; Times editors and reporters, however, did not. Apparently, the current owner of the still–in–service number have contacted the Times. As the Times notes, the number "now reaches the Donna Messenger skin care clinic in Manhattan . . . The archives of Dial–A–Poem are available only online." Also, "The Times regrets the error."

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

Tuesday 3 May 2005

Albom says I'm sorry, you bastards . . .
Mega–selling author and newspaper sports columnist Mitch Albom has apologized for lying in his Detroit Free Press column last month . . . sort of. In his Saturday column, Albom asks God for help, and says "The last three weeks have been the darkest yet most enlightening of my professional life." He says that despite the fact that he had "apologized on the front page of the sport section" already, "A volcano erupted. An explosion that mixed the criticism I deserved with a lava flow of anger, hate, self–righteousness and people who once called themselves friends preferring to act as my judge and jury." What's more, he complains, "In the race to report on my journalistic error, you could barely count the mistakes and falsehoods that were committed." So, he continues, "it might be easy to go from sorry to screaming. Hate people back." But he's decided not to. He ends talking to the children he believes read his column, saying, "you kids need to know that what I did was a mistake. It was careless, and you should learn from it. Be better than I was on that day. Know that you can't assume something is going to happen, even a sunrise, because the one time you write it as if it happened, the sun might not rise."

MORE: In a story for Editor & Publisher, Joe Strupp reports that Free Press publisher Carol Leigh Hutton, who previously would not reveal if and how Albom would be disciplined, has now revealed that he will not be fired nor, it seems, otherwise punished. Says Hutton, "I have no intention of changing what he does for us or asking him to change what else he does."

MORE: Read the 3 April column that started it all — in which Albom depicts a scene that never took place at a Final Four basketball game, featuring two former players who never went to the game.

Golden age or no, Wasserman moves on . . .
It's been rumored for months, but now it appears official: "Sources at the L.A. Times confirm the buzz that Steve Wasserman is out as editor of the LAT Book Review," according to an LA Observed report by Kevin Roderick (himself a former LAT editor). Roderick reports that Wasserman "informed his staff on Friday, after having a discussion with editor John Carroll about his waning independence." Wasserman, who had run the section since 1996, "has been known to be unhappy about the level of scrutiny he receives from Deputy Managing Editor John Montorio and Associate Editor of Features Tim Rutten," says Roderick. "Some sources say the meeting with Carroll was essentially an ultimatum, with Wasserman needing to hear that he would be free to run the Book Review as he saw fit. He didn't hear that, so he resigned . . . " No word yet on candidates to replace Wasserman (although former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and L.A. native son David Kipen is no doubt in the running). Meanwhile, a follow–up report last night from PW Daily reporter Steve Zeitchik (unavailable as a free link) says "As for Wasserman's future, the rumor mill is already churning, with one source confirming the juicy bit that he is considering becoming an agent." Wasserman was last seen in New York just last month, at the gathering of the National Book Critics Circle, when he responded to a comment by MobyLives editor Dennis Loy Johnson, who, during a panel discussion, had said that he "didn't think this was the greatest period in the history of American fiction." Wasserman countered that he considered it "a golden age of American fiction."

Books by theologian say American government was in on 9/11 . . .
A 65–year–old retired Christian theologian has begun getting some attention for a book he published a year ago, The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11, and its follow–up, The 9/11 Commission Report: Omissions and Distortions, both of which contend "U.S. officials had some knowledge of what was coming and possibly orchestrated the [9/11] attacks." Samara Kalk Derby in a Capital Times story, reports on author David Ray Griffin's 19 April appearance at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, an appearance that was subsequently broadcast on C–SPAN. She says the retired Claremont School of Theology professor directed his comments to "religious people, who he said need to respond to Sept. 11 — and the American empire that has ensued — based on the moral principles of their religious traditions."

No free galleys at Tehran Book Fair . . .
The 18th annual Tehran Book Fair, set to begin Wednesday, certainly has its work cut out for it, at least according to some. As a story from Mehr News reports, "The managing director of Roshangaran Publications said on Saturday that Iran's book publishing sector is poor, sick, and in the throes of death, and the Tehran Book Fair is the only factor injecting life into it, keeping the sick body alive." Meanwhile, Shahla Lahiji, director of the Women's Studies Center, says the point of the event is not to promote Iranian book culture, talk rights, or meet other book industry people from around the world, but rather, for publishers to "sell more and more of their books in order to raise funds to keep themselves afloat for the rest of the year."

34–year–old wins award for writing while not old . . .
Confessions of Max Tivoli author Andrew Sean Greer has been awarded the New York Public Library's Young Lions Award for emerging authors, according to a brief Associated Press wire story. The 34–year–old Greer will receive $10,000.

"Greatest espionage novel ever written" back in print . . .
"It's tempting to say that Charles McCarry's The Tears of Autumn is the greatest espionage novel ever written by an American," says Brendan Bernhard, apparently by way of politely avoiding the question, "Who is Charles McCarry?" On the occasion of the re–publication of Tears — out of print for a decade — by Overlook Press, Bernhard profiles the reclusive author in an in–depth interview that reveals McCarry was a real–live spy, working for the CIA under "deep cover." And what, exactly, does "deep cover" mean? "Oh it's laughable," McCarry tells Bernhard. "What it means is that you have an ostensible occupation, a cover job, and that you don't go about introducing yourself as a CIA agent. You don't work out of an embassy, in fact you don't go near an embassy, and all of your meetings and reporting take place clandestinely.² What's more, he says, "It's one of the most boring occupations in the world, punctuated by moments of ecstasy. You sit around for days, sometimes for weeks, waiting for something you think you have made happen, to happen. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't." Meanwhile, Bernhard also reveals that Overlook has plans to re–release McCarry's entire backlist of seven novels. And as for his writing, Otto Penzler, owner of New York's Mysterious Bookshop, says, "McCarry's a towering intelligence, an utterly brilliant man. You have the sense that this man knows everything, and that finds its way onto the page."

The persistence of chapbooks . . .
A deep meditation on the state and availability of poetry "chapbooks" appears in the current issue of the American Book Review. The essay (available online as a .pdf), by the former director of New York's Poets House, Tim Kindseth, defends the importance of chapbooks, while showing how marginalized they have become, even when their authors are well known poets. Says Kindseth, "Sad fact that it may be, unless a work is literally treated as a product to be sold — unless it has been branded with an International Standard Barcode Number — that work will almost never be considered for coverage" in national media or otherwise. Kindseth also profiles some of the country's most prestigious chapbook publishers, including the Poetry Society of America, which organizes both The National Chapbook Fellowship and The New York Chapbook Fellowship. High among the ranks is the venerable letterpress publisher Ugly Duckling, based in Brooklyn, which specializes in chapbooks. The largest chapbook publisher, in Kindseth's estimation, is Pudding House, based in Columbus, Ohio, which publishes over 100 chapbooks annually.

Sontag son begins process of collecting mom . . .
A revealing portrait of David Rieff appears in the New York Observer in an article by Suzy Hansen. Rieff, author of acclaimed books on Bosnia and the human rights movement, is the son of the late Susan Sontag and the sociologist Philip Rieff. Rieff says life at home as a young boy was marked by his parents' wildly different political beliefs: "My mother was a leftist, my father was to the right of Attila the Hun." Philip Rieff, who was interviewed for the story, noted upon reflection: "I think that what I wanted was a large family and what she wanted was a large library," referring to Sontag's notorious 15,000 volume collection, which was sold to the library at UCLA. Rieff plans to edit his mother's journals and letters for publication and contribute an introduction to the volume. While Rieff plans to be fairly impersonal about the project ("I don't understand why anyone wants strangers to read about one's reflections about one's family."), he is not planning on limiting what others write about Sontag. "I don't want to be Stephen Joyce or the Beckett estate... I'm not going to try to stop them. People will write what want to they write. I think my mother's work will endure..."

Good, or is it bad, timing? . . .
The creative forces behind a new opera based on George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty–Four are finding they "did not have to work hard to make George Orwell's nightmarish vision of a loveless and brutal world resonate with audiences today," says Mike Collet–White in a Reuters wire story. Conductor and composer Lorin Maazel says when he started working on the project in 2000 "he did not set out to create political theater." "Five years ago no–one was really thinking in these terms. The theme has concurrently become very current and seemingly ever more relevant," says Maazel, ". . . but that was really not our intention." But now, with the opera set to premier in London tonight, "Technology used for surveillance and control, the denial of personal freedom, Doublethink, Newspeak and a seemingly endless war place a work written in 1948 firmly in the 21st Century."

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

Monday 2 May 2005

In Letters . . .
One MobyLives reader writes in to contest Jennifer Weiner's claim that she's not a "shill" for a wine company . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

New Writing initiative draws old heat: Is the Publisher screwing the writer? . . .
A furor has broken out in England over an initiative launched by Macmillan UK that the publisher says is designed to get fiction by new writers into print. But the so–called Macmillan New Writing project is coming under ferocious attack by some major writers and agents, while some booksellers and others are praising it, according to a Guardian report by Charlotte Higgins. The non–negotiable deal from Macmillan is that "no advance will be paid, though writers will receive 20% of royalties from sales." Plus, authors that need considerable editing will be sent a bill for the work, and Macmillan will acquire "all rights" — although the article does not clarify whether this means the publisher retains 100 percent of all subsidiary rights, or just the standard percentage of all rights typical in book deals. Whichever it is, it is the "all rights" element that seems most upsetting to some: "For writers the important thing is having the publishing control and retaining your rights," says novelist Hari Kunzru. "I'd publish on the net or think about a writer–led co–operative before going down this road." Also, reports Higgins, "Part of the objection is that traditionally an advance provides publishers with an incentive to market a book; they must sell many copies to earn out the advance. Conventionally, the smaller the advance, the less effort put into shifting books." But this ignores the fact that publishers have other significant investments in a book they need to earn back, such as production and promotion costs — and there may even be an advantage to authors in the lack of an advance, say the buyer for Britain's biggest chain retailer, Scott Pack of Waterstone's. He says of the Macmillan initiative, "I think it's a fantastic idea. When books are presented to me by publishers they prioritise the ones to which they have given large advances. But the bestsellers are not necessarily the ones that have had big advances. This creates a level playing field." Meanwhile, one Macmillan author who's strongly opposed to the deal raises another object — that the Macmillan deal seems "an end run around agents." Says Paul Collins in a commentary at his Weekend Stubble blog for The Collins Library, "agents are important. Why? Because they know how to negotiate, because they actually read the damn contracts, and because they prevent the abuse of authors by publishers. They are the closest thing we have, in practical terms, to a union."

Miller, party of one? Miller, party of one?. . .
Perhaps surprisingly to fellow Democrats—in light of the intensely vitriolic attack he launched on them at the Republican convention last summer—former Democratic Georgia Senator Zell Miller says in a new book that the Dems could win back the White House in the next presidential race. Even more surprising is the person Miller suggests may do it: Hillary Clinton, whom he deems a "warrior." As Jeffrey McMurray reports in an Associated Press wire story, the book, A Deficit of Decency, is "less scathing than his previous offering, A National Party No More." McMurray says, "Democrats still get the lion's share of Miller's blame for a breakdown of social values, but the book is also peppered with occasional compliments for them, mostly backhanded ones." For example, Miller says he likes Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, one of the Senates most conservative members, "but is afraid liberals are pulling Reid to the left."

When is it okay to burn a book? . . .
In Scotland, Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop in the town of Wigtown is making some of his neighbors extremely uncomfortable with his plan to hold "a public bonfire of old and unread books." As Adrian Turpin reports in a story for the Financial Times, "Bythellıs problem is one that most bibliophiles face sooner or later: he has too many books — about 80,000 — many of which have no chance of being sold. Hence the fire." But in 1997, Wigtown was named "Scotland's national book town," and bookselling is one of the town's biggest businesses. As one local bookseller says, "It's taken so long for us to get to this position. Do we really want people to think, 'Oh, Wigtown, that's the place where they burn books'?" However, says Turpin, "the root of most of these objections is far more instinctive: book–burning remains one of the westıs most enduring cultural taboos." Says Michael McCreath, who runs the town's book festival, "It has such horrendous historical connotations."

Now it can be told: It wasn't Al Gore who invented the Internet — poets are to blame . . .
From 1969 until 1971, you could pickup your phone and "hear one of a dozen recorded poems by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Joe Brainard, Anne Waldman, John Cage or who knows who. The next day there's a fresh dozen. Some are dirty. Some are radical. A lot are about guns. Some really aren't poems at all but songs or rants or sermons." Now, as Sarah Boxer explains in a New York Times story, Dial–A–Poem is back — sort of. Founder John Giorno has placed the recordings from the project—along with considerable supplemental material—on the web at the UbuWeb site. Asks Boxer, "Was this what Mr. Giorno intended when he created Dial–A–Poem? He would like to think so. He credits Dial–A–Poem with inspiring "dial–for–stock–market–info and dial–for–sports–info services, the explosion of 1–900 telephone promotions, not to mention the delivery of the Internet over phone lines."

Publishers decide it's easier to bring the mountain to Mohammed . . .
In publishers' evolving efforts to replace expensive and ineffective author appearances, "presell tours" are increasingly targeting booksellers, according to an article by Malcolm Jones of Newsweek. "Presell tours" bring authors and booksellers together at fancy lunches and dinners—paid for by publishers, of course—and give authors the opportunity to raise awareness of their own work and stimulate orders. In a particularly revealing interview with Ken Wilson, a Los Angeles author escort, the extent of the change is exposed: In 2000, Wilson escorted 245 authors; last year he guided only 160. Booksellers note that they are "inundated by presell invitations;" with as many as five being extended each week.

A gripping expose of mind–boggling implications . . .
In his weekly "On Language" column for The New York Times, William Safire takes a look at the language of the "blurbosphere" ("coined on the analogy of blogosphere"). For example, "For adventure novels, riveting is getting a rosy run, along with the hypnotic mesmerizing and the noun page turner. For novels in which characters determine the plot, San Francisco likes absorbing and satisfying, and New York pushes moving and masterly. Upbeat women's books take triple adjectives, with an adverb rhythmically punching the third: 'Funny, ferocious, intensely likable' and 'Droll, shrewd, irresistibly entertaining' describe the same Random House novel."

Author, Author, ignores Google, Google . . .
For bibliophiles, it has long been one of life's most delicious, and torturous, little pleasures: the "Author, Author" quiz in the Times Literary Supplement. But now the weekly quiz — which "offers three thematically linked, stunningly obscure quotations and asks who wrote them" — is being undermined a development no one foresaw when the quiz started in 1979: Google. As Noam Cohen explains in a New York Times report, readers can and do use Google and other Internet search engines to find the answers. Well perhaps not all the answers — the quiz is still difficult enough such that it only gets, at most, 50 or 60 winners each week. But editor Mick Imlah says he can tell who's cheating. He tells Cohen "there are two regular entrants I've got down, fairly or not, as Google players — one in New York, one in Oxford — because they enter so often, and because they don't seem to know the answers they give, if you see what I mean." So what will the paper do? Keep on doing what they have done so far: "shut their eyes to the whole Google phenomenon and carried on as if it made no difference."

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.