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2 May 2005 —Ninety percent of all published writers, and one hundred percent of all unpublished writers might say that they would trade places with me.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 13 May 2005

Larsen exits Kirkus pronto . . .
"Longtime Kirkus Reviews editor Anne Larsen is leaving the magazine," according to a brief Publishers Weekly report. She's leaving soon, too, reports PW: "Larsen, who took over the post in 1985 and edited what she estimates are more than 60,000 reviews, will depart at the end of the week. Kirkus parent VNU has yet to name a successor." Larsen tells PW that the job had changed—"It's harder to do the winnowing that used to be more obvious. There's a lot more packaging"—and that she was leaving in order to "reclaim my life."

RIP: Tristan Egolf . . .
Tristan Egolf, a young novelist who had achieved some glowing reviews for his first novel, and some notoriety for his protests against President George W. Bush, has died, an apparent suicide, at age 33. As a Lancaster County Intelligencer report by Bernard Harris details, Egolf "was widely known locally as the leader of the Smoketown Six, a group of young men who were arrested in July when they attempted to protest President George W. Bush's campaign stop in East Lampeter Township. The six men were taken into custody after they stripped to thongs and piled into a pyramid along Route 340 in imitation of an Abu Ghraib prison–abuse photo." In the literary world, meanwhile, he had "received literary acclaim for the 2000 publication of his first book, Lord of the Barnyard with Grove/Atlantic, with whom he had published four more novels. Harris reports that at Grove/Atlantic, "there was an audible gasp from the women in the publicity department when told of Egolf's passing." Publicity v.p. Judy Hottensen told the paper, "He was an extremely talented, inventive and adventurous writer. He sold all over the world, especially in France. He was considered a rising star in the literary world." His newest novel, Korn Wolf, was already completed and slated to be released soon.

And Jesus wept . . .
According to a Book Standard report by Rachel Deahl, anybody who thought that a television show featuring Pamela Anderson as a bookseller was a really funny idea was, well, right on the money. "Itıs so laughable, in fact, that the Fox sitcom built around that conceit, Stacked . . . is shaping up to be an unexpected hit for the network." This is pleasing to more people than just fans of raunch, says Deal: It's good news for other companies that are, like Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch. "For HarperCollins, which plugs its books on the sitcom each week—the publisher outfits the showıs bookstore set with a rotating library of its titles—a second season of Stacked could yield an even more fruitful partnership: HarperCollins authors may appear for bookstore signings, with the possibility of having their books worked into the showıs storylines."

Brits go for Bullshit, and re–elect Blair . . .
Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit is also making a splash in the UK, where the 67–page pamphlet is selling 50 copies a day, says Harry Younge in a Guardian dispatch. The American version, a hardcover, has already sold 175,000. When asked about the book's resonances with U.S. politics, Frankfurt told the Guardian that "Almost any political figure you like is a 24–hour bullshitter," and he went on to say that people responded well to those who lightened the load—like Howard Dean and John McCain: "I think people were very refreshed by that."

Of course we can review ourself — the guy we hired to review the paper said that it was, er, okay for us to, um, review ourself . . .
Is it okay for a news outlet to cover books by its own reporters? Is it possible to do so objectively? What's the likelihood of a bad review in such a situation? A couple of recent items speak to the question. In a commentary by National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, the recent coverage on multiple NPR programs of a new book by NPR host Scott Simon is considered. In response to some queries from readers about the propriety of Simon's extensive and favorable coverage for his new book, Dvorkin says, " NPR is blessed with some of the finest writers, journalists and thinkers in the business. When they write a book, it usually is a book that would merit invitations from a variety of news outlets for an author interview — on TV, radio and in print. That is the basis on which we have maintained the tradition of allowing NPR people to be interviewed on our shows about their work. I would add my belief that given the close connection our audience has with us, they want to hear this side of the people they have known on air for so long." And, says Dvorkin, "There is also nothing wrong with NPR modestly basking in the reflected glory of its employees' extracurricular achievements." At The Washington Post, meanwhile, book editor Marie Arana says in the transcript of an online discussion that "we're certainly not here as a promotional engine for Post authors," and that the "management of The Post has never pushed us to treat these books one way or another." One reader asks her "what would happen if one of your reviewers were to slam a book by, say, Len Downie or Steve Coll or Bob Woodward?" Says Arana, "We've published critical reviews of E.J. Dionne, who is on our staff. We've had to publish a hard review of Pamela Constable, who is not only a friend of this section (she's done a lot of reviewing for us), but a highly regarded reporter for us in Latin America and the Middle East. If we get 'em, we run 'em. Of course, they have to be well-–easoned, well–defended. We've never killed a review because it's too negative."

Baltimore's Atomic energy . . .
Rachel Whang and Benn Ray reached a critical point in their relationship: "Put their savings into a wedding or buy their favorite local bookstore." They chose the bookstore, reports Rachel Deahl in a Book Standard profile, and "Quaint love story aside, the heart and soul of Atomic Books' pop–culture–loving owners has turned the store into a local favorite." Detailing how the couple have turned the store "into an alternative community unto itself," with a record label, a newly launching publishing imprint, and a reputation for unusual events. Explains Ray, "We're a bookstore that's not about having a nice quiet evening of poetry. But we'll set up an event at a bar and have someone onstage eating fire." What's more, says Deahl, "Aside from its image as a place that hosts cool events, and as a cool–books retailer, Ray and Whang's shop has also developed something of a national identity . . . due in large part to the fact that the store carries a lot of books that others won't. Estimating that the average indie bookseller works with 6 to 12 distributors, Ray says he works with over a hundred at his store, since he's willing to give shelf space to, basically, anything he and Whang like."

Working lit . . .
A powerful series of essays about factory life and work appears in the current issue of Granta. In one piece, Ian Jack, editor of Granta, quotes from his mother's writing about the factory where she met Jack's father. Other pieces carefully question the very idea of the factory, and question the experience. Jack, thinking of his parent's reverence for factory work, notes that his mother and father "often talked about 'the factory' as though there were only one of them, though my father, throughout his life, worked in many." Other writers in the collection include Tessa Hadley, Joe Sacco, Neil Steinberg, and Luc Sante. Sante, author Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, worked in a New Jersey plastics factory to raise cash for college, all the while reading Céline in between machine cycles, noting that he first encountered Death on the Instalment Plan "spat out in brief, angry bursts separated by ellipses." Sante says of Céline's words that "their emotional content might have been designed for the circumstances."

Russia's Heller? . . .
Russian satirist Vladimir Voinovich, who writes about the "complicity between the ruler and the ruled," is profiled in the current issue of The New York Review of Books in an essay by Gary Shteyngart. Calling him "possibly the most important Russian satirical writer of the last fifty years," Shteyngart compares Voinovich's work to brilliance of Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Voinovich, whose own father was sent to the Gulag, was known early as the author of the "official anthem of the cosmonauts," but he also wrote his early novels within the confines of the socialist realist orthodoxy. He is well known for several novels he wrote in Russia, but he was eventually sent into a forced exile in Germany in 1980, where he wrote The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, and where he remains, living in Munich. Monumental Propaganda, his first novel in twelve years, is just out in the U.S., telling a story set over a half–century of Russian history, following heroine Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina, a Stalinist whose "entire life is shorn of its grand ideological purpose." The heroine meets her demise late, killed when her apartment explodes; she dies "pinned beneath Stalin's statue."

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

Thursday 12 May 2005

New Russian books telling a different tale of war . . .
A new Russian book reframes the Second World War as it was remembered in letters by Soviet soldiers. According to an article in the Moscow Times by Kevin O'Flynn, veterans started writing letters to local newspapers in the 1980s in a wave of challenges to the official history of the war. After perestroika, soldiers and their families felt free to share their stories, telling of being "left to fight without weapons at the start of the war," of being "stigmatized for decades because their sons were labeled 'missing in action,'" and "punished for having been in concentration camps." The article includes a selection of the letters, present the unheard–of narrative of the war. The book, entitled I Saw It . . . New Letters about the War, is published by Vremya.

Some digital libraries are better than others . . .
Achieving a certain irony in light of his recent attack on Google's "digital library" (see Monday's MobyLives news digest), Jean–Noel Jeanneney, head of the French National Library, has announced his library is joining with the U.S. Library of Congress "to launch a bilingual website exploring the history of the French presence in North America from the 16th to early 19th centuries." As an Agence France Presse wire story notes, the site "was launched at a ceremony in Paris Tuesday," and will include "more than 100,000 images from the rare book collections of the two libraries." Says Jeanneney, "In developing this web presentation both national libraries have done what they do best — sift through an exhaustive amount of material in order to make our common histories comprehensible and accessible to the public."

MORE: The English version of the site, "France in America," can be found here, while the French version, La France en Amerique", can be found here.

Kinky not kidding . . .
In his 17th mystery book, Ten Little New Yorkers: A Novel, which features a character named Kinky Friedman, the actual Kinky Friedman has killed himself off, saying he's tired of writing. What next? According to an Associated Press wire story by Michael Graczyk, Friedman is running for governor of Texas. The author of Kill Two Birds and Get Stoned and the former leader of the rock band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, is running under the slogan "Kinky for Governor — Why the Hell Not?" He tells the AP, "You can say it's a joke if you want. I would say the most recent joke was the last gubernatorial election — $100 million to destroy each other, to make us vote for the lesser evil."

Germany launches English–language publication . . .
German news magazine Der Spiegel celebrated the release of an English issue in New York on Tuesday with remarks by Stefan Aust, editor, and Wolfgang Ischinger, German Ambassador to the US. Both hoped that the issue, "Germany: Sixty Years After the War," would be a significant step in launching an English edition of the German magazine, which they hope will provide a counterbalance to the "Anglo-American" hegemony over the diversity of magazines accessible worldwide. Last fall Spiegel launched a web version of some of its content, which it also licenses to Salon.com, The New York Times, and other international news magazines. According to a report by Andreas Tzortzis in the International Herald Tribune, Der Spiegel has already invested more than half a million dollars in the online project, which receives 1.5 million hits a month. In advance of its English publishing plans, Der Spiegel has announced two new US-based correspondents, based in New York and Washington. Speaking of the special edition, Aust noted that "We'll try this and, if it works, we'll think about another one."

Finally: How to spot a poet coming — measure their skull! . . .
"For nearly two centuries the remains of Friedrich Schiller — poet, playwright and rebel — have lain in a crypt in the town of Weimar, next to the coffin of his good friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." Or have they? As Luke Harding reports in a story for The Observer, with Germany about to launch a nationwide celebration of the 200th anniversary of Schiller's death, with numerous ceremonies slated for Weimar, there is serious doubt in some quarters that the right body is buried in Schiller's tomb. As Harding explains, after Schiller died in poverty in 1805, "His body was put in a mass grave in the local cemetery. Some 21 years later, Weimar's mayor, Karl Leberecht Schwabe, decided to dig him up. Faced with a choice of 27 skulls, Schwabe put them all on a table and picked the biggest, declaring: 'That must be Schiller's.'"

The real Virigina Woolf . . .
A collection of condolence letters written to the husband and sister of Virginia Woolf after her suicide in 1941 has been released this week in England. As Sarah Crown notes in a report for The Guardian, Afterwords, Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf includes 250 letters and was edited by Sybil Oldfield, who "spent five years tracing the authors of the letters and their surviving relatives to obtain permission to publish the letters." Says Oldfield, "During her life she was accused of being aloof and sarcastic, but it is obvious from many of these letters that people felt supported by her and sensitively understood." Among those who wrote: "Her childhood housekeeper, Sophie Farrell, wrote 'She was always so sweet and good to me, I could never forget her'; her former lover, Vita Sackville–West, talked of 'a loss that can never diminish.' Her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce, saw the force of her intellect as joyous rather than off–putting, as it was popularly perceived. 'It was such an unforgettable joy to be with her,' she wrote, 'and feel the brilliance of her mind.'"

Kunitz sticks around for the party . . .
This summer will see the celebration of a poet's centennial "that will actually include the guest of honor" — Stanley Kunitz. As Hillel Italie notes in an in–depth profile for the Associated Press, celebrations of the life and career of the former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer winner "are scheduled in New York and Provincetown, Mass., his longtime homes, with Galway Kinnell and Gerald Stern among the poets expected." Reports Italie, "Life remains a blessing, but he mourns his late wife, artist Elise Asher, who died last year, and misses other friends who have gone. He doesn't fear death, but also doesn't console himself with hope for the afterlife. The world right here is destination enough." Kunitz's most recent book is the just–released The Wild Braid. "My feeling has been that I really love this life and that I'd like to hang on," he tells Italie. "I know that it's not my choice, so I simply do the best I can with this self, which is quite frail at the moment but is still at my command."

Fight for independents continues in Boston . . .
In the world of independent bookstores, "'No more stores are closing today than five years ago," says Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association. ''It's just that there are fewer opening, so the number keeps going down. We lose 350 to 400 members a year. If we get 100 new stores opening, we're doing well." But Boston may be an exception to the rule, says David Mehegan in a Boston Globe article. Mehegan notes that while the city has lost some beloved bookstores in the last year—including the famous WordsWorth Books in Harvard Square — it is gaining three more this year. One is Porter Square Books, run by six partners who worked together at the Concord Bookshop. After a falling out with the ownership there, they decided to go in on the Porter Square store because "they just couldn't bear to leave bookselling," says Mehegan.

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

Wednesday 11 May 2005

The best defense Palast can buy doesn't cut it: He has to settle with Cuomo in libel suit . . .
Former New York governor Mario Cuomo has settled a $15 million libel suit he filed against Greg Palast and his publisher, Penguin Putnam imprint Plume, over statements Palast made in his book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. As an Associated Press wire story by Samuel Maull reports, Cuomo sued over Palast's charges in the book that Cuomo had used undue influence to get a racketeering charge thrown out against the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO). In court papers, Cuomo cited in particular a passage where Palast wrote, "I convinced the government to charge them (LILCO) with civil racketeering, and a jury said they should pay $4.8 billion. Then the governor of New York, a slick operator named Mario Cuomo, reached the chief federal judge in New York — and poof — the jury's verdict was thrown out." A statement from Plume pr head Brant Janeway said Palast, Plume, and Cumo had settled on "mutually satisfactory terms" after Palast wrote a letter to Cumor "clarifying his meaning with respect to the reference to the governor, and Gov. Cuomo will dismiss the litigation with prejudice." The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.

Amazon stock downgraded due to rising discounts, shrinking margins . . .
It was little noted elsewhere, but a brief Forbes report observes that Standard & Poor's Equity Research "downgraded Amazon.com to 'sell' from 'hold'" Monday, saying it expected the company's "sales growth to moderate this year, reflecting a maturing business and increasing competition." S%P also predicted smaller operating margines "because of the company's heavy discounting and free shipping promotions," among its other large investments.

"Momentous"new philanthropic effort to support independent literary publishers . . .
In a unique cooperative effort, the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses will join forces with venture capitalist Jim Bildner and his new Literary Ventures Fund to form a new company that will provide a "level marketing playing field" so that "exceptional literary works from small presses can thrive in the marketplace." As a press release details, " Using a venture philanthropy model, the LVF will support small presses book by book, granting both funds and expertise." Explains Bildner, "In the current environment, many of us believe that if great writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Flannery O'Connor were beginning their careers today, they would have difficulty finding a publisher who could afford to nurture their careers from the beginning. The largest commercial houses dominate the book-publishing world; while at the same time, support for literary works and not-for-profit presses continues to decline. It's vital that literary works have a new channel to help find their way into the marketplace. We see our role as being a force to do just that." Says the executive director of the effort, Jeffrey Lependorf, "LVF has the potential to change the landscape of how literary books reach the hands of readers . . . . It's a momentous occasion for literary book publishing."

Bigots in Oklahoma continue to occupy State House . . .
The Oklahoma House of Representatives has passed a resolution that would limit access to children's books that address gay themes, according to a brief Reuters wire report. The legislation, which is not binding and does not have the power of law, asks libraries to "confine homosexually themed books and other age–inappropriate material to areas exclusively for adult access and distribution." One book in particular, King and King, is being singled out by the resolution's sponsor, Rep. Sally Kern, as "obscene." A Gay.com summary of the book describes it as a tale of diversity, "the story of Prince Bertie who searches for love through a bevy of eligible princes before falling for Prince Lee." The resolution passed 81–3, and is being distributed to libraries across the state. Oklahoma County's Metropolitan Library System has not immediately taken action, and has deferred the issue to the system's commission which will consider the issue fully and may form a committee to consider the issue in depth.

Bellow's last mail to son — a signed book — open, stolen . . .
Just after Saul Bellow's death last month, his son Daniel Bellow received an empty envelope in the mail with his father's return address on it. It was stamped "Received unsealed" and "Received without contents," and according to a Boston Globe report by David Mehegan, "The end flap was open." He called his step–mother Janis Bellow to find out what had been in it and learned it had contained a copy of his father's last book: a 50th anniversary edition of The Adventures of Augie March that his father had inscribed with a final message. A spokesman for the United States Postal Service says, "It's not a hopeless situation. The good news is that it's a specific unique item, not something generic like a fruitcake." Says Daniel Bellow, "It's just a book. But I'd love to have this last token of affection. Someone, somewhere, has my father's last written message to me."

Hippie brings forth anicent voices of Mayans . . .
"The Mayan women of the Ciapas" in Mexico are extremely poor, and many are illiterate. Still, they're rich in one thing: poetry, according to a New York Times story by Dinitia Smith. The work of 150 Mayan women has been collected into a bilingual book, Incantations, published by Woodlanders' Workshop and collected and edited by Ámbar Past. Past first went to the area in 1973 as "a self–described hippie and renegade housewife, escaping an unhappy marriage," reports Smith. "She stayed with some Mayan women and tuaght herself Tzotzil, one of the local Mayan languages." Past tape–recorded and translated poems, "spells and hymns" by the women. "I was so deeply moved hearing in these mud huts these breathtakingly beautiful verses and phrases spoken or written 500 years ago," she says.

PEN World Voices can now be heard; Rushide reveals he's a Literary Saloon reader . . .
An audio archive of events from the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, held in late April, is now available for free download on the PEN American Center's website. The festival, which was covered by some national media, featured Margaret Atwood, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Salman Rushdie, and Bernard–Henri Lévy, among others. Rushdie, president of the PEN American Center, is quoted in a Publishers Weekly report by Charlotte Abbott as saying that much of the success of the conference is due to the buzz created by the "enormous amount of blogging" about the event.

For whom the poet croons . . .
"John Donne was the Cole Porter of his day, a writer of subtle popular songs rather than just the author of cerebral poetry, according to new research," says a Times story by Dalya Alberge. She reports that "The discovery of four musical scores by various composers of the day reveal that Donne intended some of his words to be sung rather than read." The scores were found "among piles of unidentified manuscripts in the British Library in London and the Bodleian in Oxford." Says Donne scholar Jonathan Holmes, "This now alters how we think of Donne. His reputation is as a poet of metaphysical, intricate poetry that you have to spend hours to get to know — but, when performed, the music is an immediate aid to understanding it." Alberge reports that, to prove it, "The first performance in 400 years of text and music together will take place on June 9 at St Paul's Cathedral, where Donne was Dean from 1621 until his death in 1631."

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

Tuesday 10 May 2005

Posner book says House of Saud would leave its own country a nuclear wasteland if threatened . . .
A new book by Gerald Posner reports that "Saudi Arabia has devised a system "to protect itself from a possible invasion or internal attack" with a plan that is "composed of conventional explosives and dirty bombs strategically placed at the Kingdom's key oil ports, pipelines, pumping stations, storage tanks, offshore platforms, and backup facilities," which, if activated, "would destroy the infrastructure of the world's largest oil supplier, and leave the country a contaminated nuclear wasteland ensuring that the Kingdom's oil would be unusable to anyone." An unattributed report at Ariana Huffington's Huffington Post says the "doomsday scenario" layed out in the book, Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Saudi–US Connection, is "based on National Security Agency electronic intercepts." Posner reports that the plan, dubbed "Petro SE", "was devised by the Saudis because of their overriding fear that if an internal revolt or external attack threatened the survival of the House of Saud, the U.S. and other Western powers might abandon them as the Shah of Iran was abandoned in 1979. Only by having in place a system that threatened to create crippling oil price increases, political instability and economic recessions did the royal family believe it could coerce Western military powers to keep them in power."

Authorities may reopen murder investigation of poet, filmmaker Pasolini . . .
The investigation into the murder of poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini may be reopened after the man convicted of the 1975 murder has recanted his story. According to an Agence France Presse wire story, Pino Pelosi, who served nine years for the slaying, told Italian television that he was innocent but had been forced to take the fall in the case. However, he said, "today I am no longer afraid. Those who threatened me and threatened my family must be old or dead now." At the time of Pasolini's murder on Ostia beach, Pelosi was a 17–year–old who confessed to the crime. He now says he was with Pasolini on the beach "when three men appeared and beat Pasolini to death." As the story details, "The killing of the militantly anti–fascist artist was officially explained as a homosexual encounter gone wrong, but suspicions have persisted that Pasolini was killed in an assassination plot by right–wingers eager to silence him." In the days before his murder, the AFP reports, "Pasolini had received threats from the far right for his last film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, about the final period of Italy's fascist rulers in 1943–45."

PEN Awards announced . . .
A brief Associated Press wire story reports that the 2005 PEN Awards have been announced, with Sam Harris' The End of Faith winning for "best nonfiction debut," and Yerra Sugarman's Forms of Gone among the winners.

Agee's Death In the Family to be revised, re–released — exactly as author intended? . . .
James Agee's posthumously published novel A Death in the Family was radically altered and reordered by David McDowell — a "misguided" New York editor, according to Michael Lofaro, a professor at The University of Tennessee. A recent Associated Press dispatch by Elizabeth Davis reports that Agee was 99 percent finished with the book before "McDowell took pieces of the novel and arranged them in a way he thought would appeal to the 1950s audience." The reordering got critical acclaim — Agee's novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1958, making him the first author to receive the award posthumously. Lofaro, who recently edited a scholarly volume of Agee's unfinished poems, essays, and other work — including the notebooks that Agee kept while working on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, plans to reset the novel according to Agee's original intentions, organizing the novel chronologically and shortening the novel's long chapters — Agee planned 44 short chapters; the current edition has only 20. Agee's oldest daughter Deedee Agee, supports the project, saying that "It's kind of interesting to have the two [editions] stand on their own and for people to be able to compare them." The new edition will be part of the 10 volume The Works of James Agee, which will be published by the University of Tennessee Press in 2007.

Meanwhile, back in the wonderful new world of Niche Publishing . . .
The massive Tehran Book Fair "has pretty much something for everyone: Thomas the Tank Engine, interior decorating, Microsoft Windows programming, How to Kill an Israeli and Jean–Paul Sartre," according to a report from the Khaleej Times. In fact the children's book area, notes the report, is "right next to Islamic Jihad's and around the corner from those other surprising pillars of the publishing world, Hezbollah and Hamas." At the Hamas booth they're displaying "posters featuring mug shots of Palestinians who 'blew themselves to bits,'" says the report, while at the Islamic Jihad booth, the attendant appeared "slightly frustrated given that most visitors seemed to prefer books about Big Bird next door. He is offering a history of Palestine pamphlets and a rather bloody CD–Rom on 'Martyrdom–Seeking Operators.'" The Fair continues until 16 May.

Some novelists you CAN put in a box . . .
Novelists Grant Bailie, Ranbir Sidhu, and Laurie Stone are now confined to huts inside the Flux Factory, an artists' collective in Queens, New York. According to a New York Times report by Julie Salamon, the three novelists plan to complete novels by June 4 as part of "Novel: A Living Installation," organized by Morgan Meis and Kerry Downey, curators at the Flux Factory, who say the project intends to "consider the private and public aspects of writing." The novelists' high–design huts were designed especially for the exhibit and stand at about 140 square feet, one of which includes a "grow table" that had "dirt sprouting wheat germ, clover and rye." The novelists can clock out of seclusion for 90 minutes every day but must keep a detailed log of their activities. Novelist Grant Bailie explained that "I could write a better book if I were locked up for a while." The novelists will meet for dinner each night, where a meal will be prepared by a chef from a local restaurant. The installation is on view to the public five days a week, and the novelists will give weekly readings of their work and will participate in two public discussions about the project.

Leave it to Beaver . . .
Now it can be told: Calling media outlets in support of the recently announced New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award (the $10,000 prize that, as previously noted on MobyLives, went to Andrew Sean Greer), actor Ethan Hawke was apparently brought up short when New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove asked about his own "coolly received" writing. In his Lowdown column (second item), Grove says Hawke, the author of two "non–best–sellers" told him, "John Steinbeck's first book wasn't that good, you know? I don't think it's up to us to decide if our things are of quality or not." As to why he was shilling for the NYPL award, which has invariably gone to writers who received very big advances for books that sold many copies, Hawke explained that with young writers, "It's hard for them to get support." He added, "It just seemed like the library should be doing something." Grove also reports Hawke is "currently beavering away on his third novel."

Roses are red, violets are blue, you suck as a poet, and you're ugly, too . . .
Morris Harvey did not, perhaps, have great expectations, but surely he did not expect quite the response he got when, in 1941, he sent a poem he had written to George Bernard Shaw for a reaction. "It does not amount to poetry," wrote back Shaw, adding "anyone with a literary turn and a good ear could manufacture it by the mile." Shaw advised Harvey, "Find a woman willing and able to keep you as a household pet on the chance of your proving a genius." As a Guardian story by Maev Kennedy reports, the previously unpublished letter has been put up for auction by an anonymous person.

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

Monday 9 May 2005

Holmes' lawyers issue cease–and–desist orders to Foetry; Cordle says, "Come and get me, coppers" . . .
The local press in Portland, Oregon discovers the trouble–maker in their midst, with a couple of reports about the man behind Foetry.com, Portland resident Alan Cordle, a librarian at Portland Community College. In a Portland Tribune report by Jacob Quinn Sanders, Cordle says he started his campaign against corrupt literary contests because it seemed "Strange that publishing poetry can really have nothing to do with the merits of the poetry." But the article focuses more on the drastic love/hate responses the site typically generates, with one Portland poet, Paulann Petersen, agreeing that there's reason to fear "the possibility that your entry was not honestly read," while another, Roberta Sperling of Bedbug Press, asked about a possible conflict in a contest she runs, says, "And people are really interested in this?" An Oregonian story by Chris Semansky, on the other hand, talks more to Cordle, reporting that "the idea to start Foetry came to him after listening to [Jorie] Graham read at a Portland Arts & Lectures event." Cordle tells Semansky, "I got a sick feeling in my stomach. She's not only oppressively awful, but she's part of a cotillion of powerful people who publish only people they know." Semansky also reports that Boise State University professor Janet Holmes, who tracked down Cordle's website registrations information to reveal that he wa running Foetry, is still attempting to shut the site down. She's had her lawyers issue two cease–and–desist orders, reports Semansky. Holmes, who runs the Sawtooth Poetry Prize, which was accused of corruption on the Foetry site, says of Cordle, "He owes me a huge apology." Says Cordle, "She owes the thousands of entrants to her contests a huge apology, and their money back."

Booker Prize to get award for handing out most prizes . . .
The Booker Prize organization has announced yet another new award category with an announcement late last week that it will start recognizing translators with a cash award as part of its International Fiction Prize. According to an article by John Ezard in the Guardian, a £15,000 translation award will accompany the traditional Booker Prize. The winning author will decide which translator will get the award, and the author will have the option to split the award among several different translators. This year's Booker Prize shortlist includes 10 works not in English, and it widely speculated that Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and his translator, Gregory Rebassa) is in line for the prize. Booker Prize chairman John Carey noted that "The judges became increasingly aware of the huge role translators play."

Vive la resistance! . . .
With an animosity toward the French rivaled only by the average American's, The Independent covers the recent publication in France of a book "presenting a nightmare vision of Google being in a position to hijack 'the thought of the world'." The story, by Stephen Castle, does not report the name of the book, but it does report that it is written by Jean–Noel Jeanneney, the president of the French National Library. Jeanneney's concerns center around Google's plans to "create a digital library scanning millions of books and putting them online." According to Castle, Jeanneney's complaint is part of an ongoing national neurosis: "France has identified a new enemy in its battle to protect the language of Molière: the search engine Google, which French critics say is bent on an act of Anglophone cultural imperialism." However, an Associated Press wire story by Elaine Ganley notes that the concerns are not just French: "For Europeans, the fear is that the continent's contribution to the pillars of recorded knowledge will be crushed by a profit–oriented California company — and may end up presenting a U.S.–centric version of the world's literary legacy." In fact, it explains, "So great is the concern that six European leaders have jointly proposed creating a 'European digital library' to counter the project by Google Print, as the new venture is known. Other countries are expected to come on board." Nor does Jeanneney's opinion reflect a unified opinion within France, reports Ganley. One professor at the National Foundation of Political Science, Pierre Buhler, complains that, "What he called for was no less than the first culture war in cyberspace." Meanwhile, the AP story also reports the name of the book prompting all the discussion: When Google Challenges Europe.

Coulter continues to inspire America's youth to all–new heights of intellectualism . . .
"Incessant heckling and shouting culminated in an arrest" during an appearance by Ann Coulter at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum on the campus of the University of Texas, according to a report in school's student newspaper, The Daily Texan by Yashoda Sampath. Sampath reports that the school paid Coulter $30,000 for her appearances, but "booing began early into Coulter's speech, when she issued a joke to pro–choice advocates," and continued when "One student asked Coulter why universities and institutions place microphones in front of Coulter when she advocates terrorism against liberals, prompting Coulter to mention the strength of her book sales." The event apparently continued to degrade from there. "Shouts became so pervasive during the question–and–answer session that Coulter informed the organizers she would no longer take questions if the hecklers were not silenced," Sampath reports. Things quieted down — "until the issue of gay marriage was broached. Coulter said she supported the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman on the basis that a good woman civilizes and inspires a man to strive for something better, leading to a question that was met with a stunned silence. 'You say that you believe in the sanctity of marriage,' said Ajai Raj, an English sophomore. 'How do you feel about marriages where the man does nothing but fuck his wife up the ass?'" Campus police immediately arrested Raj, "resulting in a mass exodus of protesters chanting, 'Let him go.'"

Another opinion on the Macmillan New Writing inniative . . .
The controversy over the Macmillan New Writing inniative (see last week's MobyLives news digest) continues in the U.K. In a commentary from Saturday's Guardian, 60–year–old journalist and former war correspondent Stewart Dalby notes that Hari Kunzru — "who received a £1.25m advance for his first novel" —advises writers that "I'd publish on the net or think about a writer-led cooperative before going down this road." Says Dalby, "As someone who has had his nose against the window pane for a long time, I disagree." Dably explains that, "For more than 20 years I had dreamed about getting a book published. It has been a long haul but now, at last, at the age of 60, I have my ISBN (International Standard Book Number). I am, officially, a published author at last. But it hasn't been easy." His brutal experience of long–term rejection followed by small, subsidized press publication leads him to say, "The wonderful New Writing initiative has arrived, for me at least, a decade too late."

Nathaniel Weyl, conservative author who testified against Hiss, then later became a Democrat, dies . . .
Nathaniel Weyl, who converted from Communism to conservatism and wrote about it, then became famous for testifying against Alger Hiss, has died of "natural causes" at age 91. As a New York Times obituary by Kareem Fahim notes, Weyl, the author of Treason and Red Star Over Cuba, "dragged deeply on cigarette after cigarette" as he testified that he had been in a "communist cell" with Hiss. Weyl's daughter, who announced his death, said "in later life Mr. Weyl moderated his conservative views, and voted for Bill Clinton and John Kerry."

Creepy horror writer says, "Stay here with me" . . .
Giving the commencement address at the University of Maine — his alma mater — this weekend, Stephen King "rattled off a 'top 10' list" of things to do after graduation. However, King apparently could only think of six things once he got going, according to an Associated Press wire story. After Bangor–resident King suggested such things to students as that they should "hug and kiss whoever helped them get to this point," and that they "donate a tenth of their earnings to worthy causes" (noting that "If you don't, the government is just going to take it for you"), the story reports that "The last four points of his list were the same: Stay in Maine."

Words of wisdom from the great poet: Kids, don't try this at home . . .
In a finding that has left her professors "astounded," a previously unknown interview with Walt Whitman has been discovered by an undergraduate at the College of New Jersey in Trenton. Nicole Kukawski, 21, was conducting research for a paper on the poet when she found the school's student newspaper had interviewed him in 1888. As an Associated Press wire story reports, Kukawski was trying "to try to learn about what students at the time" thought about the writer, who lived in nearby Camden, and was surprised to discover that two student reporters for the school's The Signal had interviewed Whitman on the subject of "the education of a writer." Kukawski has been invited to present the resultant paper at the college's upcoming symposium on the 150th anniversary of the publication of Leaves of Grass, which coincides with the anniversary of the college itself. As for what Whitman had to say about the education of a writer: "Whack away at everything pertaining to literary life — the mechanical part as well as the rest. Learn to set type, learn to work at the 'case,' learn to be a practical printer, and whatever you do learn condensation." But, he said, "First, don't write poetry; second ditto; third ditto."

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:

(from Big Bridge)

"His Hand Restless On My Leg"
(from The Mississippi Review)

This week's poetry:

(from Blackbird)

"Kid Moth"
(from Poetry London)

"Sample Citizen"
(from The Literary Review)

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.


(from Soft Skull)



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