5 MobyLives.com



a MobyLives guest column
by David Barringer

Among others, Jonathan Safran Foer's new novel has spurred lots of Internet discussion about post–modernism's impact on the form of the novel. But isn't pomo dead? Where is the novel really going? David Barringer thinks he knows . . .

16 May 2005 —Imagine this: a novel about a single decision. A character mulls over a single decision for an entire novel. I don't mean we watch the guy prowl the urban streets in cinematic reverie. I mean we're inside his head, the whole time, his consciousness being the setting, his thoughts the characters, the time in which he makes this decision (five minutes? five seconds?) stretched out over 500 pages. What am I talking about? I'm talking about the future of the novel.
      Why am I thinking about expanding a single moment of dramatic choice (to kill or to kiss) into a novel? Two years ago, I read Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, and I'm still thinking about the implications of his opinion about the future of the novel.
      Barzun observes that over the decades, following and at times foreseeing the advances of science and technology, the novel has gradually slowed down time and increasingly explored the interior realm of the human mind. The novel of the future will persist in slowing down time so that we may enter the mind and observe its workings.
      In my view, here's the trick. A novelist has to find artistic means to slow down time (Proust), to get inside a single consciousness (David Foster Wallace), and to express thought without language breaking down completely (Joyce).
      Charlie Kaufmann seems willing to venture into the depths of mind–travel and has returned with screenplays for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. However, he's going at consciousness indirectly, obliquely, rendering our consciousness as vertigo, surreality, or near madness. He isn't trying to directly represent consciousness, and anyway he's dealing with image, not language.
      So the novelist still has a wide open field here. But there are so many obstacles to creating this work of art that it's (oh, hell) mind–boggling (sorry). The novelist must make an astonishing number of judgments before a single word is written, and any of these judgments can threaten to undermine the project.
      How do you enter an individual consciousness? You have to be inside looking out looking back in. Or maybe you're inside a Level 1 consciousness looking deeper into a Level 2 consciousness and so on and so forth until you're tempted to resort to an allegory in which Id, Ego and the Holy Ghost have a sit–down.
      Moving on. Must the consciousness necessarily be your own consciousness? If it's not your own, then you must invent a character whose imagination you may inhabit. The problem is your imagination contains this subimagination, and so the whole thing is an artificial laboratory mind from the get–go.
      Moving on. Once you're there, inside the landscape of this consciousness, you have to observe. We know the presence of an observer affects what is observed by changing the environment (adding an observer causes ripples, affects gravity, warps perception, etc.). A self–conscious novelist must somehow recognize the effects of the intrusive observer.
      But wait. Can the novelist be an intrusive observer in his own mind? Isn't he there already? It's going to sound weirdly false to announce to one's own consciousness, "Hey, my own consciousness, I'm here, like always, except today I'm here in the capacity of a novelist. Are you decent? Hello?"
      Plus, what exactly can be observed? You can't get your eyes into your own brain, and even if you could (tiny camera mounted on a wire), your perspective would be an outside one, the doctor's camera's, not your own, the inhabitant's. Reporting from the photographs of a gross–anatomy book, you could describe the structural world of the brain, but these descriptions would hardly advance the art, rehashing instead descriptions of the flora and fauna of our objective world. Can you see a map of the brain as frontispiece, just like a map of Middle Earth in The Hobbit? Literal cartography is not what we're after.
      Do you describe flashes of communication, glints of chemical transfer, the transition of energy in the sulci of the brain? Maybe you admit this neuroanatomy but then leave it to consider our thoughts as thoughts, that is, not the form of our thoughts or the vessels in which they are carried, combined and disposed of, but the content of our thoughts, the images, phobias, memories, lusts, etc.
      If so, then you have to create some way in which to frame them, because that's what the brain does, frames them somehow so that we can tell the difference between remembered images and the images entering through our eyeballs this very second.
      And where do those images go? Onto what hard drive is the streaming video of our consciously observed world stored and time–stamped and labeled with an expiration date? At all costs, the novelist must avoid turning the cavities and wells and structures of the mind into a recognizable city or office or mall, all of the mind's organic ambiguity scaled to suit an animated feature rather than the airless polymorphic nightmare consciousness can often be.
      Perspective. What perspective to take? Close your eyes and look inward. Try to ignore the paisley lava–lamping tapestry swirling in the dark liquid scrim over your eyes. Now what? Alice plummets down the rabbit hole. Or are you floating? Are you even there at all? Is there such a thing as perspective in one's consciousness? Memories are preserved in the perspective in which they were seen, but glimpses of these memories in your mind flare up, float away, twist and curl and warp and bubble and overlap with sounds and smells and touches and emotions and the double–helicoid strands of language itself. They don't call the mind the novelist's next frontier for nothing.
      Don't forget the language barrier. Once you delve deeply into the conscious mind, you find a world of phenomenon beyond or beneath capture in words. Elusive. Ineffable. A swarm of fragments, clipped phrases, half–thoughts, dreams, hallucinations. Whole arguments go nowhere, trains of thought you've tugged along since you were a child, adding car after car headed for destination unknown and unknowable. Fears, desires, associations, lusts. It's a madhouse.
      And yet, it isn't. We can control it. We can assert authority over our own rambling disorder. The novelist must investigate the rambling disorder as well as this authority, recognizing that this authority may coincide with the identity of the novelist doing the investigation (around and around we go). Somehow, we impose a linear order upon our multilayered nonlinear battleground of consciousness, and, if the novelist wishes to remain a novelist and not a screenwriter or some other artist, the novelist, working in a linear medium, must do the same.
      Here lies hope for the brain–spelunking novelist: somehow, we possess a governor, the capacity to let our minds wander where they will and in the next instant to control this energy, manage it, follow a thought, spin out a consequence, imagine an argument, address another person, act in the world. We judge. We choose. We act. It's very nearly a miracle, one we do not yet have the scientific ability to reveal in all its wonder.
      I imagine a novelist portraying a single consciousness at work on a single judgment call, a slow–motion dramatization of the process of one character coming to a decision, a dramatization that promises to be epic in scope, given the grand unexplored vastness of the human consciousness.
      And so the novelist must dare to tread into this purgatorial limbo, knowing all the while that there is no guarantee of success in the excursion, the immersion, or the artistic outcome. Observation is easily stymied, and the experience is liable to be fraudulent. Novelists risking the unknown may return long–haired and mumbling, surrendering to the creation of some lesser work out of sheer humiliated frustration.
      But I hope one—all it takes is one—will return with the future of the novel.

David Barringer is the author of the nonfiction book, American Mutt Barks in the Yard, co–published by Emigre and Princeton Architectural Press. His first novel, Johnny Red, was recently published by Word Riot Press.

Link to this column.

©2005 David Barringer

Previous columns:
BOOKS IN GROCERY STORES: A TESTIMONIAL . . . After his mainstream publisher didn't want his second novel, Larry Baker got an idea about how to sell his second book himself when a flash of inspiration came to him in the local grocery store.

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.

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Friday 20 May 2005

Foetry releases smoking gun transcript on Jorie Graham . . .
After The Boston Globe's Alex Beam wrote a column about Foetry.com noting that on the site, Jorie Graham "was chided for, among other things, awarding the 2000 [University of Georgia Press Contemporary Poets] prize to her then–partner, now husband, Peter Sacks," Graham wrote a letter to the Globe denying the charge and stating that "I did not select Peter Sacks's manuscript . . . I recused myself from considering it." As a result, the Globe was forced to run a correction. But earlier this week (see Tuesday's MobyLives news digest), a Chronicle of Higher Education report by Thomas Bartlett noted that "documents . . . do not seem to support [Graham's] scenario." Now, Foetry's Alan Cordle has made public what seems to be the story's smoking gun transcript: letters, mostly written in 1999, from the Sacks judging file. In them, Graham, in the words of series editor Bim Ramke, "enthusiastically concurs" with the selection of Sacks. Items of note in the file: a new cover letter from Ramke, written just last month, attempting to explain how, when he said that Graham "enthusiastically concurred," she was simulateneously recused nonetheless; another letter in which Ramke announces Graham has made her recommendations (there were two winners that year, Sacks and Lee Upton) and "I concur with them enthusiastically"; in that same letter, Ramke's noting that he believed Sack's book "should be a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (a group I belong to, and will nominate the book personally)"; Ramke's startling admission in two of the letters that the contest was in a sense fixed: although entry was supposed to be open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee, he had solicited Sacks' entry and would have fought for it to win no matter what the guest judge decided — meaning money taken from other entrants was taken under false pretenses; and a dense, unsigned, full page of text by Graham praising Sacks' writing—her apparent judge's evaluation of the manuscript. ("He utters the word joy . . . Most importantly, it is he who vectors time again, pointing toward another flayed creature, Jesus, whose acceptance of such flaying results in a skin of such tensile strength—albeit quasi immaterial—that he invites us to put our hand into it and feel that splinter of joy called hope . . . .") Ramke has since resigned as series editor. Foetry obtained the letters through a third party and this is their first publication.

Alan Dershowitz, boy correspondent . . .
In a follow–up to a Publishers Weekly story (see Wednesday's MobyLives news digest) that said Alan Dershowitz may have successfully blocked publication of a book that was critical of him by writing threatening letters to anyone and everyone involved with the book's publication, Dershowitz has written another letter—to Publishers Weekly. Dershowitz quotes from some bad reviews of a previous book by author Norman Finkelstein — but frames them as if they were personal character assessments of Finkelstein — before coming into focus on Finkelstein's charge that Dershowtiz didn't write his book The Case for Israel. Dershowitz also returns to the subject of the PW article, his letter–writing campaign, which Finkelstein's publisher, Lynn Withey, says hasn't influenced the publication of the book. "Let the record speak for itself," writes Dershowitz in his letter to PW. "In December 2004, Finkelstein wrote to the dean of the Harvard Law School: 'My book will . . . demonstrate that he almost certainly didn't write the book, and perhaps didn't even read it prior to publication.' I wrote my letters following that claim. I am now reliably informed that Finkelstein's false claim will no longer appear in the manuscript to be published by the University of California Press. I leave it to your readers to judge whether it is Finkelstein or Withey who is not telling the truth."

Bill Clinton has more to say . . .
In an afterword to the forthcoming paperback version of his autobiography, My Life, Bill Clinton admits the 957–page hardcover original may have been too long. However, as Hillel Italie observes in an Associated Press wire story, the paperback version, due out at the end of this month, is longer—it's 969 pages, due to the afterword. Interest seems strong, if the publisher's claimed print runs are accurate: the book has a first printing of 300,000 copies, and will be followed in June by a two–volume, mass market–sized version, which has a first printing of 600,000. In the new, added section, Clinton talks about his heart surgery last September, saying that, as he went under anesthesia, "I saw a series of dark faces, like death masks, flying toward me and being crushed. Then I saw circles of light with the faces of Hillary, Chelsea, and others I cared about flying toward me, then away into a bright, sun–like source."

RIP: Elizabeth McFarland Hoffman . . .
Elizabeth McFarland Hoffman, "who as poetry editor of Ladies' Home Journal sandwiched the work of W. H. Auden, Adrienne Rich and Sylvia Plath in between 'Is Your Marriage a Masquerade?' and 'Bing Crosby's Kitchen for His Bride,'" has died of complications after cardiac surgery at age 83. As Margalit Fox details in a New York Times obituary, "While Ms. Hoffman was at Ladies' Home Journal, from 1948 to 1962, the magazine published at least a half–dozen poems in each monthly issue. Major 20th–century writers whose verse appeared there included Marianne Moore, John Ciardi, Mark Van Doren, Randall Jarrell, Maxine Kumin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walter de la Mare, Galway Kinnell, Maxwell Anderson and John Updike." The juxtapositions were often startling: "In the August 1950 issue, 'Secrets,' by Auden, follows an ad for Velveeta Hoffman, a published poet herself, left the magazine when it was taken over by new owners who ended the magazine's inclusion of poetry.

Another kind of Foetry? . . .
For the first time in its 32–year history, with over 400 readings during that time, the prestigious Chicago Poetry Center had to cancel a reading last week. As a notice on the organization's website explained, the Poetry Center had made several special arrangements to accommodate singer Jill Scott for an appearance wherein she would read from her new book, The Moments, The Minutes, The Hours (St.Martin's). "More than 800 people were expected at the event," explains the note, and "The Poetry Center distributed 250 free tickets, as was requested by St. Martin's Press." But one hour before doors were to open, Scott canceled. The Poetry Center "even offering to refund all ticket sales in the hopes that Ms. Scott would honor her commitment to her fans," while St. Martin's offered to give everyone a free book. But Scott still refused. The snub is drawing heated commentary in Chicago. Critic Jessa Crispin, on her popular blog Bookslut, headlined the story, "Jill Scott fucked Chicago and The Poetry Center" . . . although Crispin also admitted her first reaction was, "Jill Scott was invited to read her poetry?"

Plus, they don't complain if you over–perform while you read . . .
In the Powell River Peak, reporter Ted Durnin checks in with Glenn Murray about the newest release in his Walter the Farting Dog series, "a sales phenomenon among children's books." As Durnin details in his article, Murray is on a tour in which he does more than just appear and read—he has instead developed a program "for reluctant readers" called "Reading With Rover" whereby he "pairs therapy dogs with children to help them with reading aloud. Murray, a career educator, says reading to a dog is a way to practise, and with practice comes improvement." He tells Durnin, "They don't mind reading to dogs." Durnin also notes that, "His use of 'the F word'—farting—in the title is deliberate," and Murray uses it to open discussion of "power words and when and how to use them with his young audiences."

Thursday 19 May 2005

In Letters: Burning questions of our time . . .
One MobyLives reader writes in about the "are there too many books" question, while others write in to debate whether or not Moby is an idiot . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Meanwhile, Bush administration spokespuppet Pinocchio took the opportunity to accuse Amazon of having "blood on its hands" for selling anything other than Ann Coulter books . . .
"A Muslim group on Wednesday demanded a public apology from online bookseller Amazon.com for its part in delivering a used copy of the Koran with the words 'Death to all Muslims' scrawled across the inside cover," according to a Reuters wire story. The incident apparently happened two weeks ago, when Azza Basarudin, a graduate student in Los Angeles, received a used copy of the book that she had ordered from a "third–party" vendor at Amazon. Basarudin says she was so stunned when she saw the message that "I actually dropped the book," and "was taken back to after Sept. 11 and my fear of even leaving my apartment." She alerted the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which contacted Amazon. The company has "apologized to Basarudin, refunded her money, sent out a new copy of the Koran and issued her a gift certificate," says the Reuters report. It has also "suspended Pennsylvania–based Bellwether Books, which packaged and mailed the Koran in question, from selling the Koran and had asked for an internal investigation." But the MPAC says that's not enough. Spokeswoman Edina Lekovic says, "It is important for business leaders to come out with a zero tolerance policy. Amazon has a responsibility to make a public apology and condemnation." Lekovic called the Koran desecration the act of a "cult of hate that may exist and may be on the rise."

Of course, the Times disproves this canard every day with the way it covers the current war so prominently . . .
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Laurel Leff's new book, Buried By The Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper, is the topic of some intense, recent discussion in New York's local newspapers. The book reveals that The New York Times published 1,186 stories about the Holocaust, but it is also shows how these stories were buried deep within the paper, and makes the claim that this negligence failed to generate important coverage that might have reached officials high in the U.S. government officials. A New York Daily News commentary by columnist Sidney Zion calls the book's evidence "more damning by far than anything the critics ever said about the paper's coverage of the worst mass murder in history." But Robert Leiter, in a review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, made an effort to contextualize the book's evidence, noting that then–Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, made a series of "unfortunate journalistic decisions as he strove to insure that the paper was not perceived as favoring any one group, the Jews especially." Leiter goes on to note that "moral indignation" is the driving force of the book and that it is "naive to imagine that more stories on the front page of any newspaper would have changed the course of history." However, a surprising lead editorial in this week's New York Observer takes that review to task, harshly criticizing Leiter and saying his criticism "is defensive in tone and works hard to discredit Ms. Leff's point of view." The editorial goes on to say that Leiter "tries to lay the blame for The Times' aloofness on the Holocaust itself." The Observer's editorial does, at least, acknowledge the important role that prominent Times coverage played in Bosnia and Rwanda, genocides that occurred while, as the Observer notes, "the Clinton administration sat on its hands."

In the UAE, they're reading more — American books? . . .
"There has been an impressive upsurge in the sales of books in the UAE over the past 10 years," says Nushrat Ibrahim, ". . . which means that the home book industry is thriving." In a Gulf News report, she discusses the ancient traditions of writing and reading in the region, and talks to a cross-section of people involved in the industry now, including booksellers, publishers and authors. She also reports that the growth in book sales is happening despite the booming Internet, and says one of the reasons is "a remarkable shift of attention from the news media to books. People have realised television networks are owned by conglomerates that influence the news according to their political and social aspirations. People have more faith in independent writers¹ viewpoints. For example, Michael Moore¹s Stupid White Men has been a bestseller globally." While the perception of American book marketing may be off, it does seem that American books have had a big impact in the UAE—many of those Ibrahim interviews cite American or British books they are reading, and cast their opinions in terms of global trends they see Western publishing leading. Ibrahim does talk, however, to four booksellers who say "there is a need to promote home authors¹ publications and conscious efforts are made to promote Arab literature."

Denying the Holocaust denier became a lonely road for Lipstadt . . .
Robert Birnbaum talks to Deborah Lipstadt about her work and in particular her six–year legal battle with British writer and Holocaust denier David Irving in an interview for The Morning News. Lipstadt called Irving a "dangerous Holocaust denier" in her book, Denying the Holocaust. Birnbaum asks her some probing questions about the larger issue (RB: "Is anti–Semitism a necessary condition for Holocaust denial?" DL: "Yes . . . ") and more specifically about what happened when Irving sued her for libel in Britain: "In my book, Denying the Holocaust, Irving, occupies, at most, 300 words . . . . I admit that I did say some harsh things about him. I said, "He is the most dangerous of Holocaust deniers." I said that he knows the truth and he bends it to fit his preexisting political views . . . . So he sued me in England, where libel laws are a mirror image of American libel law. In the United States, if I say you libeled me, I have to prove it. In the U.K., if I say you libeled me, you have to prove you didn't libel me. Words written are considered untrue until proven true. So if I hadn't defended myself I would have been found guilty. I should mention that Penguin U.K., my publisher, was my co–defendant . . . . RB: It must be noted they didn't climb on board for the appeal. DL: No, they left me with a $100,000 legal bill."

Proust snobs continue to deny mounting evidence: "madeleine" was actually a mistranslation of "Malomar" . . .
It is "the cliché cookie–highbrow reference that's penetrated pop culture": Marcel Proust's madeleine. As Edmund Levin observes in a Slate commentary, "We surely have him to thank for those little packages at every Starbucks checkout." However, Levin points out, "Proust left out one important detail: the recipe. And no one ever asked him for it." It has been, in fact, somewhat of a literary mystery over the years as to what kind of cookie Proust was referring to. And Levin doubts even Julia Childs's version was accurate. So, using Lydia Davis's recent translation of Remembrance of Things Past ("said to be the most accurate"), he set out to bake his own version of the cookie at home, "using hints the author gives" in the book. "For the attentive reader, the clues to The Recipe for The Madeleine are in the text," he says. It would not prove an easy task. His wife was soon inspired to ask, "Does Proust explain who cleaned up?"

And let's not forget "stoopidhead: someone who doesn't know how to spell the word they made up" . . .
The editors of the Miriam–Webster Dictionary have assembled a list of "Top Ten Favorite Words Not in the Dictionary," based on suggestions sent in to its website by "vocabularians." The company says it got so many thousands of suggestions that "we craughed (to cry and laugh simultaneously)." Among the winners: At number 2, "confuzzled (adj): confused and puzzled at the same time"; at number 7, "phonecrastinate (v): to put off answering the phone until caller ID displays the incoming name and number": and, at number 10, "lingweenie (n): a person incapable of producing neologisms."

He was also distressed to learn there were 479 used copies of his book for sale . . .
A brief item in The Onion reports that Booker Prize–winning author Yann Martel was "distraught to see what other books Amazon.com customers bought in addition to his." The paper reports that Martel was upset to learn customers who bought his book, Life of Pi, also bought Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet In Heaven. Martel was also reportedly " surprised by the 'sloppy writing' in many of Life Of Pi's five–star customer reviews."

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

Wednesday 18 May 2005

Good news, bad news for the two gorillas . . .
The country's two biggest chain booksellers issued their first quarter financial statements yesterday, while Barnes & Noble made less than in the same quarter last year, it still made a substantial profit, and came in on the high end of its earnings predictions. News was not so good for Borders, however. As Sarah Karush reports in an Associated Press wire story, "Industry leader Barnes & Noble said it earned $9.9 million, or 13 cents per share, in the three months ended April 30, down from $11.4 million, or 16 cents per share, a year earlier." The company had "had predicted earnings ranging from 11 cents to 13 cents per share." Borders, meanwhile, "posted a loss of $5.3 million, or 7 cents a share . . . in contrast to a profit of $2.3 million, or 3 cents a share, last year." However, Karush reports, both stores "were looking forward to stronger second-quarter results with the expected arrival of the sixth Harry Potter book in July."

Detroit Free Press issues findings of Albom investigations, issues statement: "We're sorry, you bastards" . . .
The Detroit Free Press has issued the findings of its investigation into the reporting of Mitch Albom, saying that "Albom lifted quotes from other publications without attribution and in some stories quotes appeared to be slightly changed from how they appeared elsewhere," so that they "seemed to be livelier." But as a Detroit News story by Ron French and David Shepardson reports, "Now the investigation itself is under fire, as several reporters who worked on the review say editors emphasized elements that supported Albom rather than criticized him." The News story says, "Free Press investigative reporter David Zeman said Monday he and other reporters who conducted the five–week investigation were disappointed that editors chose to emphasize 'what we didn't find, instead of what we did find.'" Replies Free Press editor Carole Leigh Hutton, "God knows if we were about taking care of Mitch, there wouldn't have been any investigative report."

More things to worry about: The war is never on the front page, an evil dingleberry is still running the country, right wing fundamentalist vampires are taking over the judiciary, and, oh yes, THEY'RE PUBLISHING TOO MANY DAMN BOOKS . . .
It's simple, says a new report from the Book Industry Study Group: "The publishing industry continues to put out more books than the public is prepared to buy," synopsizes Hillel Italie in an Associated Press wire story. Business professor and industry consultant Albert N. Greco explains, "People are reading less, so what you're seeing is the same phenomenon that has hit magazines and newspapers, a massive shift toward home video, DVD, internet and cable." The non–profit BISG, notes Italie, "reported estimated sales of 2.295 billion books in 2004, compared to an estimated 2.339 billion the previous year. Higher prices enabled net revenues to increase 2.8 percent, to $28.6 billion, but also drove many readers, especially students, to buy used books." In short, "The number of books sold dropped by nearly 44 million between 2003 and 2004, even as the annual number of books published approaches 175,000." The BISG thinks the forthcoming new Harry Potter book will make for a better year, but "We see that as a temporary spike," says Greco. The BISG expects things to flatten out "for the following four years" except in one area: "Religious titles."

Dershowitz charged with not writing book because he was too busy writing letters . . .
Has Alan Dershowitz been conducting a behind–the–scenes campaign to block a book accusing him of plagiarism, and of not writing his own books? As Steven Zeitchik details in a Publishers Weekly report, Dershowitz has publicly feuded with DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein for years, and now a vigorous letter writing campaign by Dershowtiz to publishers and other related parties seems responsible "for one publisher pulling out from publishing Finkelstein's book and for the author's new house, the University of California Press, pushing it back several months." What's the book in question? Beyond Chutzpah, "a point–by–point rebuttal of Dershowitz's The Case for Israel. It also continues allegations that Finkelstein has long made that the Harvard professor invented facts in, plagiarized parts of and in fact may even have not written his 2003 book The Case for Israel." After Dershowtiz–inspired delays led Finkelstein to move from the New Press to the UC Press, "Dershowitz sent several letters to the house in which he made 'serious accusations about Finkelstein as a person and as a scholar,' according to someone familiar with the letters," says Zeitchik. Dershowitz even wrote to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who declined to become involved. Publisher Lynn Withey admits she's "walking a tightrope between rabblerousing and capitulating," says Zeitchik. She tells him, "We really don't want to get into a continued antagonism between these two authors, and they've been at each other for a while. But Finkelstein has an important message and an incredible amount of documentation and an important argument that needs to be heard."

Death on a freelancer's salary . . .
A favorable review by David Thomson of Donald Hall's The Best and the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon appears in the current issue of the New York Observer. The book, which chronicles poet Jane Kenyon's death from leukemia ten years ago, is summarized as "a celebration of joy and pain." Thomson writes, "I don't think I've ever read a book that so fully describes the way illness can take all other air out of the room." Although a difficult topic for the reviewer—he notes that "It's not really decent to review a book like this, much less question the author on words or strategies"—Thomson concludes by imagining another, more material side of the story. How did Kenyon and Hall, two writers who lived solely from the income provided by their work, survive the expense of such a long and traumatic illness? It's a topic, according to Thomson, that is "increasingly relevant to more and more lives. How did two freelancers pay for it all, and how did they have the patience to fill out all the forms?"

Killer poet recants . . .
The "20–year fugitive and renowned saloon poet captured recently in Chicago, now says he wants to take a lie detector test to prove that he did not commit the murder for which he is serving a life sentence," reports Donovan Slack in a Boston Globe story. As formerly reported on MobyLives, 20 years after he walked away from a minimum security prison outside of Boston, Norman A. Porter Jr., 65, was captured in Chicago, where he was a popular poet known as Jacob ''J.J." Jameson. He had served 25 years for murdering an employee of a clothing store in a botched hold–up attempt, a crime to which he had confessed the day after he was first captured. He was also subsequently charged with murdering a guard during an earlier escape attempt. Now, he says "he wants to meet with friends and relatives of the victim, John 'Jackie' Pigott, to apologize for his role in the botched robbery that ended Pigott's life," reports Slack. Says Pigott's fiancé,"I want him to be able to look me in the eye and say, 'I swear I didn't do it.' 'My eyes have brought up four kids; I can tell when you're lying."

Hitchens says big words not a whatchamacallit . . .
In a wide ranging interview about literature in Stop Smiling magazine, polemicist Christopher Hitchens explains why he uses words like "Promethean," despite the protests of his editors, who often make the case that readers won't know what a given word means. Unsympathetic, Hitchens summarizes his typical reply: "You either know what 'Promethean' means or you don't. If you do, it saves you about 50 words. And if you don't, then you can look it up!" Hitchens also decries common editorial intrusions—such as when a casual reference to Tolstoy gets changed to a clumsy reference to the "19th Century Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy," as if such limited context tells you much more than you already knew. When asked about his own attempts at fiction, Hitchens reveals that he learned to stay away from fiction writing by comparing his work to that of his friends — writers like Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, and Julian Barnes.

Slow reader . . .
A man returning a book to the Orchard Park Public Library admitted the book, The Joy of Camping, was a bit late. But even though the library capped late fines at $15, he insisted on paying the full amount due: $2,190. As a brief report at the website of the American Library Association explains, the book was 24 years overdue. James Schlesinger says he felt he owed it to the library, which is having "financial problems." "I spent a lot of time in the Orchard Park library, doing projects and stuff," he says.

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

Tuesday 17 May 2005

In letters: What's the real story with Tristan Egolf? . . .
MobyLives reader Dan Bloom writes in with some questions about the hype surrounding the story of Tristan Egolf's first book . . . which inspires another reader to write in and call Bloom's charges reckless, while another reader says he hopes future novelists will look out more than in . . . all in the MobyLives letters section.

Another major book industry figure gets glassy look in his eye, starts intoning, "Must become agent, must become agent ... " . . .
In a move that caught the book industry by surprise, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, "the popular head of the Time Warner Book Group, announced Monday that he is stepping down." The 61–year–old Kirshbaum tells Hillel Italie in an Associated Press wire story that he will become a literary agent, so that he "can work with authors in a more intimate way without all the stresses and strains of administering a large company." Richard Atkinson, the CFO and vice president of corporate parent Time Inc., said in an e–mail to staffers that the resignation was "entirely Larry's decision." Atkinson noted that Time Warner "has had a great run of best sellers, is going to post all time record financials this year . . . So, Larry has chosen the perfect moment to slow down, move onto something less stressful and take the time, as he puts it, to smell the roses."

Ramke steps down because of Foetry, while Graham says she was "lynched" . . .
Jorie Graham says her treatment by Foetry.com has been "a little bit of a lynching" that has made it difficult for her to write, while Bin Ramke says he is stepping down as head of the University of Georgia Poetry Series because of Foetry—while Foetry founder Alan Cordle reveals some of the documents he obtained from the Georgia press through a Freedom of Information act request and they seem to back up his charges against Graham and Ramke, reports Thomas Bartlett in an in–depth Chronicle of Higher Education article. In addition, Cordle's wife, Kathleen Halme, talks to Bartlett in her first public comments about the contretemps. She says she has yet to view the site, that Foetry "sickened" her from the start, and that the ordeal since Cordle has been revealed as its proprietor has been "difficult at times." However, she says, she may forgive her husband for the way he's held up. "He's become the cute Michael Mooore of poetry," she tells Bartlett. Cordle, meanwhile, says being revealed felt like "a punch in the stomach." Bartlett reports: "He was sitting on the couch, feet propped up, working on his laptop. While visiting a poetry-related blog, he noticed something strange: his name, address, and home telephone number. He checked another site and there they were again. "The cat is out of the bag," one blog declared triumphantly. Ms. Halme happened to be in the room at the time. Mr. Cordle thought briefly about keeping it from her, then realized that would be impossible. When he told her, he started crying. Then she started crying." And it seems the story isn't over yet. Bartlett reports in addition to earlier reports that Janet Holmes may be suing Cordle, "Graham has been talking over her options with legal counsel," too, while Cordle may be considering legal action himself—against the website hosting service that, despite being paid extra not to do so, revealed his identity.

The growing legend of Tristan Egolf . . .
Stories about the death of Tristan Egolf continue to appear with new information, although the first few paragraphs of Friday's Los Angeles Times report by Valerie J. Nelson bear a noticeable resemblance to Saturday's Associated Press wire story (see yesterday's MobyLives news digest), including a quote from Egolf's friend Michael Hoober, which Nelson says he made to the Times, yet which is identical to a Hoober quote in the later AP story. In any event, Nelson offers more detail than any story so far on the growing legend of Egolf: "After 76 publishers had rejected the novel, Egolf was playing guitar for money on a bridge in Paris when a young woman noticed his cold, sockless feet and invited him for coffee. Her father happened to be a prize–winning author, Patrick Modiano, who took Egolf's book to his French publishing house, which agreed to publish it." Original reports put Egolf's rejection at 70 publishers; Egolf's bio note posted at the website of his American publisher, Grove/Atlantic, puts it at "more than 70," and says only his "discovery" while "busking to pay his rent on the Pont des Arts" saved him. In a 1999 interview with Teenja.com, Egolf himself tells a far calmer story: he met Modiano's daughter while playing in public and got to know the family over a period of years. As for the multiple rejections: he says it may have been 76 total, but he sometimes got multiple form rejections from one publisher, and he also got some encouraging notes. On the whole, he says, "I'd wager that of those seventy–six rejections, only three or four people had actually looked at the book. In the end, I think it got picked up pretty fast."

UPDATE: Note that since MobyLives ran the above item, the Grove/Atlantic website has taken down the elaborate biographical note MobyLives quoted, and has replaced with one stating, simply: "Author Bio Tristan Egolf: Born in 1971 and raised in Pennsylvania, Tristan Egolf was the also the author of Lord of the Barnyard, Skirt and the Fiddle, and Kornwolf. He passed away on May 7, 2005."

Wal–Mart hires Mitch Albom to write apology . . .
After condemnation from civic groups, veterans groups, members of congress, labor organizations, the Anti–Defamation League, and others, Wal–Mart has announced it will issue an apology to the voters of Flagstaff, Arizona for an ad the company approved that ran in the local newspaper in which voting for an ordinance that would keep Wal–Mart out of the city is equated with book burning. As Rachel Peterson reports in an Arizona Daily Sun story, the ad included a photo that "appeared to show civilians as well as soldiers tossing books onto a flaming pile. Overlaid on the photo at top was the phrase, "Freedoms worth keeping." Below the photo was the bold–faced headline: "Should we let government tell us what we can read?" The head of the "Yes" campaign for Proposition 10, Frank Brandt, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, says, "We fought for freedom and democracy, not corporate greed. The No campaign is trivializing these ideals."

Lapham to headline Sydney Writers' Fest . . .
Caro Llewellyn, director of the Sydney Writers' Festival, speaks about her work with the festival in an interview published by The Sydney Morning Herald. The festival, which runs from May 23 to 29, is an important forum for Australian publishers. When asked how she finds new talent, Llewellyn notes that "odd things occasionally jump out and they may not be available here, so you make odd calls and try to track down books and that's always fun. And then try and find the author, which is even more fun." Llewellyn also says that she travels overseas to find new work for the market and reads a number of US and UK literary magazines for ideas. An announcement at the Fair's website, meanwhile, lists this year's speakers and readers, which include, among many others, Harold Bloom, Miriam Toews, and Booker–winner Alan Hollinghurst. The keynote speaker is Lewis Lapham, who will also be interviewed on stage by premier Bob Carr.

Dictionary accused of killing trees unnecessarily . . .
A recent commentary in The New Criterion attacks The Cambridge History of Twentieth–Century English Literature for a slew of errors and omissions. The essay decries the "self–described 'authoritative narrative'" for being too focused on contemporary literary criticism, too expensive, and flawed beyond usefulness. Among the most glaring oversights to make it in the book is an inaccurate index, which commonly misspells author names and confuses references, making T. E. Hulme into "T. H. Hulme" and attributing E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class to a "Denys Thompson". The essay asks why environmentalists don't protest "a major university press whose activities darken hundreds of acres of wood pulp for no good reason?" The volume also excludes such literary luminaries as P. G. Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Masefield, and Anthony Burgess, among many others. The essays concludes that the new work of literary history "describes a parallel universe, one that exists alongside, but without ever touching, the real universe of literary and cultural experience. It is a universe fraught with perfervid political imaginings, inspissated prose, and baseless scenarios of grievance and exploitation. It is a sad, impoverished country that is charted in its pages, far, far removed from the actual workings of literature."

Coming soon: The all Ethan Hawke Reading Series . . .
In lower Manhattan, a new reading series has launched that celebrates "clunky sentences and mixed metaphors, self–indulgent prose and just plain old bad writing." The Lit Lite series is the brain child of Kevin Malony and Grady Hendrix of the off–Broadway theater company Tweed. In a New York Times report, Lola Ogunnaike depicts comedian Greg Walloch reading from Ash Wednesday by Ethan Hawke: "Man, when I first met Christy — and this is no joke, a cliché but no joke — it was like my heart was literally stuck on my esophagus." Reports Ogunnaike, "It was soon revealed that Christy is a woman with a posterior so 'dynamite,' that, 'if you looked at her from the back you'd swear she was a black chick.' Mr. Walloch, who is white, deadpanned, 'That happens to me all the time.'"

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

Monday 16 May 2005

Details emerge on Egolf death . . .
More details on the death of novelist and anti–Bush activist Tristan Egolf emerged this weekend. An Associated Press wire story confirmed Egolf's death was indeed a suicide, reporting that he died "of a self–inflicted gunshot wound" in his Lancaster, PA apartment. The AP also reported that "Egolf had shown signs of depression over the past 18 months," according to a friend who is a "family therapist." The AP report also notes, as did other earlier reports, the general positive response to Egolf's first two novels, saying they "won him comparisons to William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, but an unattributed New York Times obituary cites instead a more critical review of his work that ran in its own pages. The Times report entirely fails to mention Egolf's involved career as a political activist. At Egolf's website, meanwhile, his friends have posted an update on his activities, and a farewell. They write, "The demons finally caught up to him."

More Foetry revelations . . .
Interest in the charges raised by Alan Cordle at the Foetry.com website are apparently still high — and just as apparently still making academics tense. In a new update, Cordle posts his correspondence with Ted Genoways, of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Genoways wrote to Cordle about his plans to run an article in the Review about "the good you did and the trouble you caused." To the end of making the article "as balanced as possible," Genoways asked Cordle to participate in a rather extensive e–mail interview. After some back and forth over the terms, Cordle agreed, and answered the questions . . . only to have Genoways stop answering his e–mail. Cordle posts the entire correspondence, as well as his frank answers to the interview questions. The interview delves deeply into his background, and also seems to try to implicate Cordle's wife, poet Kathleen Halme, in being involved with Foetry, but Cordle stresses she was not only not involved, but deeply opposed to the site and his efforts there.

Sam Johnson finalists announced . . .
The finalists for Great Britain's "richest nonfiction prize" have been announced. As an Associated Press wire story reports, those in the running for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize are: Sarah Wise, for The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave–Robbery in 1830s London; Alexander Masters, for Stuart: A Life Backwards; Suketu Mehta, for Maximum City; Orhan Pamuk, for Istanbul: Memories of a City; Hilary Spurling, for Matisse the Master; and Jonathan Coe, for Like a Fiery Elephant. The winner will be announced at a ceremony in London on 14 June.

British "3 for 2" discounting murder on small presses, say small presses . . .
The rise of "three–for–two" discounting in British bookstores is causing difficultuies for small publishers who can't afford to participate, says a Publishing News report. Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia Books tells that for one of its new books to participate in a three–for–two at Waterstone's, "It's costing us £750 per month — plus the discount, which is not small. We've actually had to raise the cover price by a pound." Says Rosemarie Hudson of BlackAmber Books, "It's just too expensive, especially for small presses. It's very, very steep. You think 'God, how much more have I got to spend on this book?' when you've already paid all the production costs and everything on it." Says a Waterstone's spokesperson, Lucy Avery, "We are extremely supportive of small and independent publishers and go out of our way to promote their titles in our campaigns," although not mentioning that they are paid to do so. She cites successes such as A Year in the Merde from Black Swan, and Scenes from a Smallholding from Ebury and says, "Partly through their exposure in our three–for–two, both Merde, and also Scenes from a Smallholding, were picked up by large publishers."

The future of political reporting? . . .
In Salon, Jonathan Shainin talks to New York Press columnist Matt Taibbi in an in–depth interview about Taibbi's new book, Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches From the Dumb Season, which recounts Taibbi's adventures on the 2004 campaign trail, during which he was literally forced to the back of the bus. His reporting is, according to Shainin, anything but formulaic. (Taibbi stresses: "I would doubt that so much as one sex act occurred during the entire Kerry campaign.") Taibbi's writing also includes coverage of the Bush campaign. Rolling Stone sent Taibbi undercover to work for the Bush campaign in Orlando, Flordia, where he posed as a homophobic New York public school teacher, noting that the "Republicans were a lot nicer than I expected," while "being around the Democrats was so much like high school — you had to be cool all the time." He summarizes his own work by saying, "The kind of journalism I do is supposed to be funny, but in kind of a horrifying way." In a related Hardford Advocate review, Adam Bulger calls Taibbi the "only political writer in America that matters."

Nation poetry prize winner announced . . .
The winners of the 2005 Discovery/The Nation's Joan Leiman Jacobson Poetry Prize are featured in the current issue of The Nation (a full link available to subscribers only — but you can go to the rebuff page to read a sample of the winning poem). The winners are Stacie Cassarino, Eduardo C. Corral, Dave Lucas, and Rita Mae Reese. The competition is judged anonymously by a panel of three judges; the prize is open to "poets whose work has not been published previously in book form." The winners will participate in a public reading on Monday at the The Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City.

Before Jonathan Safran Foer lowered the median age, it was 159 . . .
"Fifty is the perfect age to write a novel, a study of the best–selling authors of the past 50 years has shown," reports a BBC News wire story. The survey was conducted by Lulu, a "website for writers and independent publishers," says the Beeb, and it was based on the fact that "the average age of writers who topped the hardback fiction section of the New York Times Bestseller List from 1955–2004 was 50.5 years." The youngest to ever make the list? Francoise Sagan, who was 19 when her Bonjour Tristesse made it in 1955. The oldest was Agatha Christie, whose novel Sleeping Murder was published shortly after her death at age 85. Lulu's Bob Young says the survey shows that, "Unlike scientists or musicians, say, writers tend to mature with age."

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

Visit the mothership:

MobyLives editor Dennis Loy Johnson will host the C–SPAN BookTV show, "FOREIGN READING:  Why Are Fewer Translated Works Published, and What Can Be Done About It?", featuring publisher Chad Post of the Dalkey Archive Press, critic Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review, and bookseller Margarita Shalina of the St. Mark's Bookshop in New York City. The discussion will take place at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan on Monday, 23 May at 7 p.m., and will be free and open to the public. The broadcast schedule has not yet been announced.


(from Soft Skull)



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.


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