5 MobyLives.com



a MobyLives guest column
by Elizabeth Clementson

20 JUNE 2005 — During my junior year of college, I locked myself in my apartment during spring break and wrote a short story about my father and my glory days on the swim team. I submitted the story to the Seventeen Magazine Fiction Contest and won second place. I had always wanted to be a writer, but now it was official. My plans to do graduate work in cultural studies were quickly forgotten as I decided pull a Sylvia Plath—move to New York and get a job in publishing.
     As I moved within New York literary circles while working in publishing, it came to my attention that I couldn't be classified as a literary writer unless I had an MFA in Creative Writing. Unlike most aspiring writers, I didn't need to enroll in an MFA program in order to find an agent or a publisher, as I had already made numerous contacts inside the publishing community. What I wanted was to develop some discipline in my writing habits and perhaps, bond with fellow writers in a like–minded literary community. An MFA degree seemed like a good method to achieve these goals.
     I was admitted to a prestigious program in the Northeast. On the first day of my workshop class, the instructor asked us one question. "What goals do you hope to obtain with your writing?" One by one, seated at the round table, my fellow writers spoke. "I want a big book deal." "I'm sick and tired of being poor." "When do I get my million dollars?"
     I was dismayed. My experience in publishing had taught me that writing literary fiction did not lead to great financial wealth. While there are a few literary fiction writers who are rewarded with huge book deals, most are lucky if they receive a small advance and are able supplement their income teaching. The odds are extremely slim that you will get a big book deal, and if you are one of the lucky few to win that large advance, your book better sell real well, or you will be dropped by your publisher.
     In addition to being disheartened by my fellow writers' "show me the money" attitude, over time it became increasingly clear to me that the core of the MFA experience, the workshop, was distorting the creative process.
     In the workshop, the students critique each other's writing and as the comments are bandied about, a "consensus" develops about what does and doesn't "work" in a story. The writer then meshes the "popular" opinions of the group into his or her work, slowly removing the unpopular parts, until the work is readable and accessible to all. More often than not, this process destroys the writer's initial vision, leaving behind a work that is void of passion and anything that is different, new, or creative.
     Many of world's greatest novels would have never made it through the workshop process. Picture James Joyce being told that Ulysses is "too ambitious." Or Harper Lee being told that that Boo Radley character needs further development. Or Gertrude Stein being told, "Gertrude, The Making of Americans, is inaccessible. You need to cut the fat out and rework these sentences."
     However, workshop fiction is encouraged by the big publishing world and the academic institutions that support it.
     Since the University of Iowa started the first MFA program in 1936, more than 250 programs certified by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs have sprung up. With tuition costing as much as $70,000 for a two–year program, the schools have every reason to foster the attitude that students can pay off their big–time debt with their forthcoming book deal. In turn, the big publishing world relies on MFA programs to produce "accredited" writers. Desperate for literary plot lines that will sell, editors are on an eternal quest to find the next big young thing. This is big business and like any corporate job, editors are pushed for time and pressured to find books that sell. Just like authors, they too are judged on their book's sales figures.
     As a result of this relationship, students in MFA programs are hen–pecked and criticized until they deliver the "sellable" plot line that publishers want. And, instead of rejecting the forces that corrupt them, many young writers turn on each other, reinforcing the rules learned in workshop, rejecting anything—or anyone—that challenges the status quo and threatens their carefully crafted world. Thus, anything created outside of the workshop environment is treated with contempt, and outsider voices are ignored.
     Despite what they try and tell you in MFA programs, there isn't an established career path for writers. It isn't something you can learn in a classroom.
     So here's my advice—if have any aspirations for a place in literary history, don't attend an MFA program. It won't inspire you to great literature and you won't be able to pay back that enormous tuition bill unless you write the carefully crafted plot line that everyone wants, but nobody wants to read.
     Perhaps that is enough these days for many writers. But, in the end, literature created by committee usually does not find the audience that it is calculated to find, and is quickly forgotten.

Elizabeth Clementson is an MFA dropout and the co–owner of Ig Publishing, an independent press dedicated to publishing outsider voices.

Link to this column.

©2005 Elizabeth Clementson

Previous columns:

TELEVISION WITHOUT PITY . . . Tired of the short story writer's life, guest columnist Steve Almond explains why he's now writing television shows such as "Blog and Order."

READING TO CHAIRS . . . When Quinn Dalton showed up at a bookstore to read from her new book, she was greeted by . . . empty chairs. In a guest column, she asks herself, "Why bother?"

THE KILLER POET . . . When a big haired poet asks the literary gumshoe to whack a librarian, he feels the weight of the whole world of poetry on his shoulder. Will he do the right thing?

WHERE THE NOVEL'S HEADED . . . Jonathan Safran Foer's new book has a lot of people talking about post–modernism and the novel. But David Barringer thinks the novel is going in another direction — inside.

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.

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Friday 24 June 2005

In Letters: More MFA fever . . .
MobyLives readers are still battling it out over the cost of MFAs, the value of MFAs, whether any writer who was ever any good ever got an MFA, and how much drinking is required before you matriculate . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Miami Herald editor says problematic publication passes his vomit test . . .
After doing some market research, The Miami Herald decided to "resurrect a time–honored tradition" and serialize a book. To address another area of its research, the paper decided the book should help attract female readers. As it just so happens, the paper's just–departed vp of marketing, Sara Rosenberg, was part of a group of six women calling themselves the Miami Bombshells and they were writing a book for HarperCollins: Dish & Tell: Life, Love, and Secrets. Then "the fun began," writes Kirk Nielsen in a Miami New Times report. "Herald editors, marketers, and everyone in between began plotting a promotional blitz the likes of which hadn't been seen since the paper went over the top to hype its Hurricane Andrew book." There were ads, features, mentions in columns, a website. However, reports Nielsen, "When the first of seven excerpts appeared Wednesday, May 25, the Herald's internal computer bulletin board lit up with grousing from incensed editorial staffers. 'Why are we publishing this absolute drivel?' wrote one reporter. 'There are plenty of local authors, of fiction and nonfiction, who really write for a living and really deserve and need this publicity. Or was publishing self–indulgent crap part of Sara Rosenberg's severance package?'" Executive editor Tom Fiedler had to call a staff meeting to address the complaints, but he insists "I do not see anything unethical" about the extravaganza. Besides, he tells Nielsen, "This wasn't about literature," and "I certainly haven't heard that people are throwing up all over the Miami Herald on Sundays."

It takes more than the United States Army to stop a bestselling author . . .
Another novel purported to be by Saddam Hussein is about to be published, according to an Agence France Presse wire story. Ekhroj minha ya mal'un, or, Damned one, get out of here, is expected to be published in "Jordan and other Arab countries within a week," says the report. "It relates the story of a man named Haskeel who plots to overthrow the ruler of a town but is eventually defeated by an Arab warrior and the ruler's daughter." The book, Saddam's fourth novel, "carries a message from Saddam's eldest daughter Raghad praising her father, who is now in US custody."

Suddenly, in an office thousands of miles away, Judith Regan's head twitched, as if she were receiving a radio signal . . .
"The suspect in the BTK strangler case was working on a book about his life until authorities found out and cut off contact between him and a woman who was helping him write it," reports an Associated Press wire story. Alleged serial killer Dennis Rader was also passing along photographs and cards to his family through the woman, Kristin Casarona. She tells the AP that "Rader wanted to give his side of the story in the book."

Expert in evil rotten lying authenticates Klein book as genuine crapola . . .
In the latest on Ed Klein's book about Hillary Clinton, former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan says, "The book is poorly written, poorly thought, poorly sourced and full of the kind of loaded language that is appropriate to a polemic but not an investigative work." In a Wall Street Journal column, she calls it "an anti–Hillary book by the MSM," and says, "Mr. Klein's problem is that he assumes the market is conservative and conservatives are stupid. They're not, actually. They want solid sourcing and new information that is true." Noonan does find one thing she likes about the book, however: "Klein treats Hillary as if she were a man. Remember the stories that said Dan Quayle was a cocaine salesman? That George W. Bush was a coke–sniffing, girl–chasing lush? That John F. Kennedy was a coke–sniffing, girl–chasing cynic? That Lyndon B. Johnson had a roving eye and held meetings with aides as he sat on the toilet? This is hard–guy politics: Run for office and we'll throw everything we can that will stick and things that won't stick too. Mr. Klein's book is in this tradition."

MORE: A New York Times report by Edward Wyatt says people at Klein's publisher, Penguin's Sentinel imprint, are "bewildered that some of the harshest criticisms of the book have appeared in the news outlets that they expected to be more friendly, including The New York Post, Fox News Channel and the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal." Wyatt also reports that Fox's most popular talk show host, Bill O'Reilly, has "said he would not invite Mr. Klein on his show because of the book's 'personal attacks' on Mrs. Clinton," and that "Two other Fox shows had booked Mr. Klein as a guest, but this week they cancelled his appearances."

RIP: William Fenton . . .
William Fenton, author and "nationally renowned scholar of Iroquois culture," has died at age 96 in Cooperstown, New York. As a brief obituary on the Associated Press wire indicates, Fenton "became fluent in the Iroquois language and was hailed by the Indian tribes for helping to preserve their culture." While also serving as director of the New York State Museum, he subsequently "published several books considered the definitive works on the customs and ceremonies of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy."

Use the funds, George! . . .
Scottish author Campbell Black, who was hired by George Lucas to write a novelization of the blockbuster Stephen Spielberg movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, is suing Lucas over unpaid royalties. According to a report in The Scotsman by Stephen McGinty, "The book was a global bestseller, but despite its success Mr Lucas, whose company, LucasFilm, produced the 1981 movie and contracted Mr Black to write the novel, has never revealed how many copies were sold and how much money is now owed to the author." Says Black, a successful thriller author who wrote the book under the name Campbell Armstrong, "All of LucasFilm's secrecy and misinformation in this matter is truly shabby. There is something seriously wrong with it. This is not about money. It's about justice. I don't want George's money, but I surely do want mine."

Uh oh — Christopher Hitchens read The Da Vinci Code . . .
"A few weeks ago, at an airport in Europe, I saw Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code staring at me across the bookstore bins," says Christopher Hitchens. "I was facing a long delay, and I suddenly thought: May as well get it over with." In a column for Slate, he critiques the book ("Of course I knew it would be bad. I just didn't know that it would be that bad") but goes on to relate it to "a flood of similarly portentous tripe concerning the 'Downing Street Memo(s).' This time, it is not the interior of a Templar Church but the style of a clerk in the British Foreign Office that furnishes 'the key to all mythologies.'"

Very large writer, out drinking, returns home to find furniture missing . . .
"A table and chair the size of a house have been captivating visitors to north London's Hampstead Heath," where the sculpture, entitled The Writer, is meant to be seen as a "tribute to the loneliness of writing" and is also meant to "inspire visitors to the heath, which has associations with writers Keats and Coleridge." According to a BBC News wire story, sculptor Giancarlo Neri, a former professional soccer player, says, "It's almost a reminder of the heath's hidden heroes, and hopefully will encourage new young budding artists and writers." In the meantime, says the report, "He said he wants people to interact with it, using it as a picnic spot or using the legs as goal posts."

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

Thursday 23 June 2005

In Letters: I think this story is really a collection of stories . . .
MFA yes, MFA no — the onslaught continues, plus a letter about Sartre gets in there somehow . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Google contract, released through Freedom of Info act, reveals "copyright infringement on a massive scale" . . .
A public interest watchdog group, Google–Watch.org, has posted "a heretofore confidential contract" between Google and the library of the University of Michigan revealing for the first time the details of Google's Print for Libraries project, and "many publishers don't like what they see," according to a Business Week report by Burt Helm. The document, obtained by Google–Watch through the Michigan State Freedom of Information Act, reveals "plans to make two digital copies of books under copyright, one for Google, the other for the college" — "exactly why publishers are concerned," according to Association of American Publishers legal head Allan Adler. Helm reports that "news that Google will be making digital copies of copyrighted material without explicit permission from copyright holders has riled several publishers," including Random House, John Wiley & Sons, and the American Association of University Presses, each of whom wrote to Google saying that the project "appears to involve copyright infringement on a massive scale." AAP president Pat Schroeder has called for a "six–month moratorium on digitizing copyrighted books from the libraries," and has asked to meet with Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Google has agreed but refused to enact a moratorium, saying it would hold off on any such decision until after the meeting, and consulting with its partners and "others."

MORE: Read the contract obtained by Google–Watch.org (note: pdf file).

The whole publishing industry agrees with us, says Penguin: We can do no wrong . . . although our author can . . .
Penguin has responded to charges by David Brock that the new book attacking Hillary Clinton from its right–wing Sentinel imprint, The Truth About Hillary by Ed Klein, includes numerous factual errors that are "obviously false and defamatory" (see Tuesday's MobyLives digest). As Steven Zeitchik details in a Publishers Weekly report, Penguin did not respond directly to Brock's request for "a public explanation of what, if any, editorial standards and fact–checking processes the Penguin Group applies to its imprint." The publisher "instead expressed support for its author while implying that Brock's criticism of the book amounted to censorship," although it at the same time cited the "author's responsibility to assure factual accuracy," reports Zeitchik. A company spokesperson added, "The book publishing industry has always fought against censorship of any kind," seeming to indicate that the entire industry joined Penguin in seeing Brock's comments as a threat. Meanwhile, A BBC News wire story reports the extreme nature of the book "has divided her detractors." Says "prominent Republican consultant" Craig Shirley, "This stuff is disgusting. It makes your skin crawl. It could backfire and make Hillary a more sympathetic figure." Another of the article's observations seems to indicate the book is only preaching to the converted: "The online bookshop Amazon helpfully tells customers ordering The Truth About Hillary what those who have bought the rather salacious book about Mrs Clinton have purchased in the past. At the top of the list is Unfit For Command, a book which claimed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry lied to get his Vietnam medals."

Pamuk awarded Peace Prize . . .
Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk will receive the German book industry's prestigious Peace Prize, to be awarded at ceremonies marking the close of the Frankfurt Book Fair, reports an Agence France Presse wire story. The €25,000 award, from the Association of German Publishers and Booksellers is being given to Pamuk at a time when he has come under increasing pressure in Turkey for "publicly addressing the highly sensitive subject of the massacre of Armenians in World War I." A statement from the prize jury says the author of such novels as My Name is Red and Snow "is committed to a concept of culture based on knowledge and respect for others. Pamuk has created a genre in which Europe and Islamic Turkey co–exist."

China to erect statue to Iris Chang . . .
"China will make two statues for Iris Chang" to honor "her exposure of 'atrocities committed by Japanese aggressors' in China and the spirit to 'dig up the historical truth,'" according to a Xinhuanet wire story. The report says The Rape of Nanking author, who committed suicide last November, will be honored with two marble statues, one to be placed in the Memorial Hall of the Victims in the Nanjing Massacre By Japanese Invaders in Nanjing, the other to be given to her family in the U.S. "Wang Hongzhi, president of the Nanjing Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute and undertaker of the project, said he wishes to present the demure beauty of oriental women in the statues," says the report. Says Wang, "The more important thing is to portray her sense of historical responsibility and intrepid fighting spirit."

German Jews protest comics telling Holocaust story . . .
"Jewish leaders in Germany are deeply upset" by two new comic books that "depict the horrors of Auschwitz," according to a Times of London report by Roger Boyes. Yossel, by American Joe Kubert, and Auschwitz, by Frenchman Pascal Croci, are " are intended to introduce younger Germans to the tragic fate of Jews," in a way that responds to the fact that "pupils complain that the subject is too drily and too cautiously presented" in current school curriculums. But "the project has sparked a nervous, sometimes angry response," reports Boyes. One Jewish leader tells him, "A comic strip is not the appropriate form. The subject is too serious to portray in this way." Another fear of the Jewish community, says Boyes, "is that comic books could end up as collectors' items for far–right activists. Crude anti–Semitic comics already circulate in the neo–Nazi underground in Germany and Italy. Camp commanders depicted as monsters in the comic strips are perversely often attractive to teenagers with ultra–nationalist sympathies."

Do women need their own lit prizes? . . .
"Today, across the West, women are well represented in art, architecture, music and film schools and account for a majority of students attending college literature and creative writing courses," observes Alan Riding. "Yet while women no longer regard the creative arts as a male province, when it comes to winning or even making the short list of prizes in fiction, poetry, art, architecture and music, they still fare poorly. Are there fewer women in these fields, are they less talented than men, or are women simply being denied equal opportunity?" In a report for The New York Times, he examines prizes, particularly literary prizes such as the Orange Prize, that are specifically for women. He finds that "in the lonely ritual of artistic creation, there is no intrinsic difference between the sexes — except in how their work is received." As Debbie Taylor, editor of the magazine Mslexia, tells Riding, "My argument is that literature in general has been dominated by men for so long that we don't know what's good anymore, or what's good is defined by masculine aesthetics. That's an important reason to justify the Orange Prize and our prize. Some women say they don't want to be ghettoized, that their work is good enough to stand alongside that of men. I say, fine, if there were a fair judgment."

France's most caffeinated writer? . . .
"He squinted at me vaguely, as if pained by the white glare of the enormous billboard across the street advertising a new Disney movie. Smoke drifted out of the side of his mouth, and an inch of drooping ash fell silently onto the sleeve of his old blue windbreaker, which was spotted with white paint. Though he was nominally the center of attention, his movements and speech were so minimal it took a certain amount of concentration to remember he was there." But he was, indeed, there: Michel Houellebecq was visiting Los Angeles for the first time, and Brendan Bernhard was with him. In a profile for the LA Weekly, Bernhard describes spending a few days with the controversial French novelist, beginning with their first meeting, when he found Houellebecq "smoking a cigarette at a sidewalk table at Mel's Diner on Sunset Boulevard. . . . Houellebecq had finished picking his way through a mound of what was billed on the menu as Santa Fe Chicken Salad. (Asked what he thought of it, he described it tactfully as 'something quite specific.') The dish had now been moved aside, replaced by an enormous cup of black, glimmering liquid. A passerby stopped at the table and stared down at the cup. 'Is that a quadruple espresso?' he asked in amazement . . . ."

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

Wednesday 22 June 2005

In Letters: I think this discussion is really an epic . . .
Letters concerning "Down With MFAs" by Elizabeth Clementson — letters of a certain passion and, er, depth — continue to magically appear, at an increasing rate . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Meet the new boss . . .
"Pope Benedict XVI rails against Europe in his first book published since becoming pope, chastising a culture that he says excludes God from life and allows innocent lives — the unborn — to be taken from God through legalized abortion," reports an Associated Press wire story by Nicole Winfield. The book, The Europe of Benedict: In the crisis of cultures, was written while the Pope was still Cardinal Josephy Ratzinger; the title refers to the saint he named himself after, not himself. Among other major complaints voiced by the Pope in the book: "[T]he decision of European Union leaders to exclude a reference to Europe's Christian roots from the preamble of the proposed EU constitution," and the fact that "abortion is a legal right in much of Europe." Writes the Pope, "Accepting that the rights of the weakest can be violated, means that you accept also that the right of force prevails over the force of rights."

Scholastic gets spanked, big time, for cheating its book club customers . . .
Harry Potter's American publisher, Scholastic, and two of its subsidiaries, Scholastic–at–Home and Grolier, "have agreed to settle allegations that they violated laws enforced by the FTC in marketing their negative option book clubs." According to a Federal Trade Commission press release, the children's book publisher agreed to pay $710,000 in penalties. Charges centered around the way Scholastic handled "negative option" ordering — that is, when books are sent automatically to members when they do not place specific orders. As the FTC release explains, "The FTC alleged that the companies¹ ads did not give consumers important information about how the book clubs operated, which consumers needed to know before joining them. Consumers who did not know how the clubs operated complained that the companies sent them books they did not order, and that the companies would not cancel their club memberships."

Because you haven't read enough about him yet . . .
The first book deal related to the Michael Jackson trial has been announced. An Associated Press wire story says reporter Diane Dimond, who covered the case for Court TV, has struck a deal with Simon & Schuster imprint Atria Books to put out a book on the trial this fall. "Financial terms weren't disclosed," nor was the title.

Tant pis . . .
Yesterday would have been the 100th birthday of Jean–Paul Sartre, but the day "passed off with little comment in France," according to a wire story from the Agence France Presse. True, Sartre was prominent in France this year — there was lots of press in April marking the 25th anniversary of his death, there have been two major documentaries about him on France's popular cultural TV channel Arte, and there has been a major retrospective of his documents at the French National Library. Still, insists the AFP story, "much of Sartre's world has disappeared and politically engaged philosophers like him have given way to slick television personalities." And, in an article for Le Monde, historian Annie Cohen–Solal says that while Sartre's stature grows in other parts of the world, in France, he has become "anathema." Or, as Sartre biographer Bernard–Henri Lévy puts it in a BBC News wire story, "France hated him when he was alive and shuns him in death."

Shakespeare & Vladimir & Co. = Bankruptcy . . .
It seemed like a good idea at the time: "Moscow didn't have an English language bookstore that specialized in American books," so in 1996 American Mary Duncan and a Russian partner decided to open one, giving it the name of one of modern literature's most famous bookstores, Shakespeare & Company. In a commentary for The St. Petersburg Times, Duncan says everyone told her "we were fools to risk our money in an emerging economy. 'You'll be run out by the mafia. No one has money for imported American books, employees will steal, and bureaucrats will extort bribes until you have to close,' they warned." She says, "Of all the dire warnings, only the last one was true." She says bribes from civic authorites weren't so bad under Boris Yeltsin, " But we didn't survive the election of President Vladimir Putin. Within a month of his inauguration in 2000, new, slickly dressed city officials claimed our sign did not conform to proper standards, our wiring was a fire hazard and our paperwork was incomplete. Fifty–dollar fines escalated to $1,500." In retrospect, she says, "Yukos was not the only business to be destroyed by Russia's legal system and corrupt bureaucrats."

HC TKO'd by TPO. . .
"The come–to–Jesus conference call happened last fall," says publisher Doug Seibold of Agate. "The sales leadership of my distribution company had assembled to lay down the word about how my books — specifically, my original hardback releases, both fiction and nonfiction — were being received by bookstore buyers. Far more gingerly than necessary, they outlined the reasons they hoped, in the future, I'd consider fewer hardbacks and more trade paperback originals, especially for my fiction." Now, as Seibold explains in a column for The Book Standard, the flooded market, higher inventory costs, rising opposition to inflated prices, and returns have all led him to believe that "TPO is the best way to give most books a fighting chance." Not that there aren't some difficulties: "As an independent publisher, one of the hardest things about dealing with this format question is the expectation of the author — especially if you are a small press devoted to developing stronger, more collaborative working relationships with authors as a key part of your publishing program. I have met very few authors (especially of fiction) who are not captive to the 'white–dress wedding' vision of the publishing experience: handsome hardback first edition, stacked prominently on front–of–store tables . . . ."

Jesus Christ, they're gonna explode! . . .
"From Christian chick lit to frank discussions of sexuality and how to avoid temptation, the shelves of both Christian bookstores and secular chains offer a variety of wholesome reading that would have been unthinkable a few years ago," says Claudia Parsons in a Reuters wire story. Parsons reports that sales of Christian books about sexuality are soaring, and among those cashing in are Christian imprints from the major conglomerate publishers. Random House imprint Doubleday–Broadway, for instance, "recently announced plans to more than double the sales of its religion unit," slated in July to include the Christian chick lit title Emily Ever After. Meanwhile, Harlequin has also started a Christian romance imprint, Steeple Hill. "My first thought was Christian girls just want to have fun too, so why not do a variant of chick lit," explains executive editor Joan Marlow Golan. Her guidelines for that fun? "The stories may not include alcohol consumption by Christian characters, dancing, card playing, gambling or games of chance (including raffles), explicit scatological terms, hero and heroine remaining overnight together alone, Halloween celebrations or magic or the mention of intimate body parts."

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

Tuesday 21 June 2005

In Letters: MobyLives to offer MFA in letter writing . . .
Recent grads of MFA programs continue to write in in response to Elizabeth Clementson's "Down With MFAs" guest column . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

ALA report seems to show hundreds of Patriot Act investigations at libraries — and a "chilling effect" setting in . . .
The American Library Association has revealed the results of a study of 1,500 public libraries and 4,000 academic libraries concerning "a question that was central to a House vote last week on the USA Patriot Act: how frequently federal, state and local agents are demanding records from libraries," and as a report in yesterday's New York Times by Eric Lichtblau details, the results are rather ominous and seemingly contradictory to statements made by the Bush administration. As Lichtblau notes, "The Bush administration says that . . . officials have yet to actually use their power under the Patriot Act to demand records from libraries or bookstores." But the $300,000 study says "Law enforcement officials have made at least 200 formal and informal inquiries to libraries for information on reading material" since October 2001, when the Act was passed, and may have made as many as 600. "What this says to us," says Emily Sheketoff, director of the ALA's Washington office, "is that agents are coming to libraries and they are asking for information at a level that is significant, and the findings are completely contrary to what the Justice Department has been trying to convince the public." The Justice Department disputes the findings. It observes that the ALA was restrained from asking specifically about Patriot Act investigations "because of secrecy provisions that could make it a crime for a librarian to respond," so the survey's results "could relate to a wide range of law enforcement investigations unconnected to terrorism or intelligence." "Even so," Lichtblau notes, "organizers said the data suggested that investigators were seeking information from libraries far more frequently than Bush administration officials had acknowledged." The survey also found that "public concerns about the government's powers" has led to a "chilling effect": "Nearly 40 percent of the libraries responding reported that users had asked about changes in practices related to the Patriot Act, and about 5 percent said they had altered their professional activities over the issues. . . ." Meanwhile, some librarians revealed that they "chafed at the notion of turning over such material" and that they turned down informal requests on behalf of their patrons. Harking back to then–Attorney General John Ashcroft's 2003 ridiculing of ALA complaints about the Patriot Act as so much "baseless hysteria," Sheketoff says "the other side has been mocking us for four years over our 'baseless hysteria,' and saying we have no reason to be concerned. Well, these findings say that we do have reason to be concerned."

Newest conservative attack book draws fire from Penguin's other authors, as well as charges of innacuracy, gay baiting, and, gulp, boredom . . .
Today is the official publication date of the embargoed book about Hillary Clinton being touted by conservatives as "a work so damning it could destroy any possible bid for the presidency," as an Associated Press wire story by Marc Humbert reports. Published by Penguin's recently launched conservative imprint, Sentinel, The Truth About Hillary: What She Knew, When She Knew It, and How Far She'll Go to Become President, written by former New York Times editor Edward Klein, "portrays the New York senator as a ruthless and ambitious woman who would stop at nothing to protect her husband's presidency and promote a Clinton II administration headed by her." Klein tells the AP, "I think she would be, in the White House, a Nixonian president and a danger to the republic," and as Humbert notes, the book is getting huge support by conservative groups — even to the point of being touted by a rival publisher, the Swift Boat Veterans' originator Regnery Publishing in its Conservative Book Club. And NewsMax.com, the conservative website backed by arch–conservate Richard Mellon Scaife, is offering free copies of Klein's book to new subscribers. A report at MediaMatters.org, however, documents " errors and distortions" in the book, while also noting that Al Franken, who is also published by a Penguin imprint (Dutton), attacked his publisher on his Air America Radio program. "This is a shameful thing," said Franken. " . . . this is the Pearson group [Penguin Putnam's parent company], which is a multi–billion–dollar organization out of England. And, on their website, it says, 'Our values: In everything we do, we aspire to be brave, imaginative and decent.' Well, this is not a decent book." Also on Media Matters: an open letter from David Brock to Penguin head Susan Peterson Kennedy, asking for "a public explanation of what, if any, editorial standards and fact-checking processes the Penguin Group applies to its imprints." Brock details numerous factual errors by Klein and also decries repeated instances of "gay–baiting innuendo." Brock tells Peterson Kennedy, "I can assure you that if this matter is not redressed satisfactorily, Penguin's actions won't be forgotten as progressives shop for books." Meanwhile, despite the embargo on the book, Publishers Weekly editor–in–chief Sara Nelson published a review of the book yesterday. In a withering critique, Nelson says, "What 'news' [Klein] turns up is too minor to make even Entertainment Tonight: the former First Lady drinks decaffeinated coffee, likes to sleep late in the morning (unlike her early-riser husband), and is self conscious about her thick legs. . . .Klein seems intent on rehashing the rehash in this too–boring–to–even–be–execrable title." She calls the book " superficial, clichéd, and gender obsessed."

Zogby poll of book buyers contains some surprises . . .
A new Zogby poll of book buyers has found that "Online bookseller Amazon.com is more popular with Americans than local independent bookstores, with 23% of American adults preferring the online bookseller versus 21% who prefer their local bookstore. However, both options are dwarfed by bookstore chain Barnes & Noble, which is the choice of one–in–three adults (33%)," according to a press release on the company's website. Among the interesting results of the poll — which interviewed "15,556 American adults nationwide" — was that B&N "particularly strong with consumers under the age of 30, with 36% of this group preferring the chain," while Amazon's strongest group was "consumers age 30 and over, where it is preferred by 24%-25%." Also, "The survey found surprisingly cross–demographic stability for most bookstores, though interestingly, Amazon.com did much better among self–described members of the investor class."

Hail & Farewell: Larry Collins . . .
John Lawrence "Larry" Collins Jr., an author best–known for the numerous bestsellers he co–authored with French writer Dominique Lapierre, including Is Paris Burning? and O Jerusalem!, has died of a brain hemorrahage at his home on the French Riviera. He was 75. As Wolfgang Saxon notes in a New York Times obituary, Collins and Lapierre's books "revisited the sites of some of the 20th century's most conroversial events and interviewed many protagonists and witness," and usually "won critical approval" as well as "brisk book sales." Collins, who started out as a reporter for United Press International, also wrote several solo works, including the novels Fall From Grace and Black Eagles. In 2004, he re–teamed with Lapierre to write, Is New York Burning?.

RIP: James Weinstein . . .
James Weinstein,the author of several books on the history of the American left and the founder and editor of the progressive magazine In These Times, has died of brain cancer at his Chicago home at age 78. As Margalit Fox details in a New York Times obituary, Weinstein's most recent book was The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left, published in 2003.

MORE: In his InsideHigherEd.com column, Scott McLemee notes: "There will be a meeting tonight in Washington to celebrate the life of James Weinstein . . .I suppose one thing we will all have in common is an inability to refer to the deceased as 'James Weinstein.' He was Jimmy. It's a fair guess that the turnout will include union organizers and progressive lobbyists and a few journalists. There will undoubtedly be an academic or two — or several, if you count the defrocked, the ABD's, and the folks who otherwise decided (contra David Horowitz) that university life is not necessarily conducive to being a leftist."

Harry Potter Harry Potter Harry Potter . . .
"Barnes & Noble, Inc. announced Monday that pre–orders for Harry Potter and the Half–Blood Prince have topped 750,000 copies, well ahead of the pace of the last Potter book, which came out two years ago." In an Associated Press wire story, B&N CEO Steve Riggio says, "The Harry Potter series has shattered all records in publishing history, and the enormous amount of pre–orders to date confirm that the latest Harry Potter title will be the most popular yet. In fact, we predict that our pre-orders will top one million."

It's fake, it's untrue, it's plagiarized ... and it never goes out of print . . .
It was a book "that Hitler looked to for inspiration and Henry Ford disseminated for general consumption," and now it will be the subject of an exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As a JTA report by Avi Mayer details, the book seems to have acquired a "new life" even though it has been proven a forgery. It purports to "outline a plan for world domination supposedly compiled by a gathering of Jewish leaders held during the First Zionist Conference in 1897. In the account, the characters lay out a step–by–step strategy to fool gentiles — referred to as 'goyim' — into doing their bidding." The exhibition traces the history of the book, which is believed to have been "plagiarized from an 1864 pamphlet written by French satirist Maurice Joly lampooning Napoleon III's political ambitions, and had nothing to do with the Jews." The show also contains copies of the book from various cultures, including some "adorned by classic anti–Semitic images, including representations of globes trapped in the clutches of massive 'Jewish' snakes, arachnids, tentacled, squid–like creatures and conniving, hook–nosed faces." Among those copies, says Mayer, "The language that appears most prominently among the artifacts is Arabic, with numerous issues from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Egypt." Kenneth Jacobson of the Anti–Defamation League notes that The Protocols "portray the Jews as secretive, conspiratorial, alien, all–powerful," and he notes "the resurgence of those themes in bookstores and television screens around the Islamic world." Says Jacobson, "The Protocols never died. They've never gone away. They're at the core of historic anti–Semitism."

Who could resist? . . .
In Japan, the prefectural government of Nara "has published a book containing 119 marriage proposals." According to a report from Asahi, the 128–page book, The World's Happiest Words of Love, is part of a "campaign to help curb the declining birthrate," and it has "spawned a two–hour TV show." Among the proposals contained: "I am a firefighter, but I will never put out the flames of love."

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

Monday 20 June 2005

In Letters: Well, at least you can't say MFA grads don't write . . .
In response to Elizabeth Clementson's guest column for MobyLives this week, the pros and cons are being workshopped . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Chickens coming home to roost for big publishers outsourcing jobs to foreign sweatshops . . .
The American book industry lost an estimated $571 million to book piracy last year, according to a Book Standard report by Rachel Deahl. What's behind it? "Ironically," says Deahl, the rapidly increasing outsourcing of everything from editing to production to foreign companies, particular to those in India and China "is a major driver of intellectual–property theft." As Frank Romano of the Rochester Institute of Technology's School of Print Media tells Deahl, "The cynical saying goes: The day shift works for the major publishers and the night shift does the pirating."

Pate details struggles to do what she loves best: Read . . .
"I don't know how Flannery O'Connor did it," says Nancy Pate, referring to the fact that O'Connor wrote her great works while "a semi–invalid" due to her battle with systemic lupus, the "mysterious auto–immune disease that eventually killed her in 1964, at age 39." Pate, the popular book editor of the Orlando Sentinel, who has been a MobyLives contributor and is more famous for regularly being the first critic in the country to review each new Harry Potter book, now explains her mysterious disappearance from the Sentinel's pages some months back: "I have lupus," she writes in a moving column. Pate has been out for a year, and while she managed to co–write her second mystery novel, Marsh Madness, during the early stages, she now says her condition has left her overwhelmed with fatigue, and "most difficult of all is what is known as 'lupus brain fog," which has left her unable to do her favorite thing: read. "That's the hardest. I'm surrounded by books, but I can get through only a few pages at a time before I zone out." She says she's heartened to learn her novel is arriving in stores, but says her goal now is to reread the collected works of Flannery O'Connor and, she hopes, the new Harry Potter. "Our lives unfold like stories, and I'm on to the next chapter," she says. "One page at a time."

MORE: Readers and well–wishers can write to Nancy Pate at patebooks@yahoo.com.

So in conclusion children, you should, er, do what I say, not what I, well, do . . .
Last heard from in public attacking the personality of a writer who used to work for him in a highly vindictive, and seemingly planted, New York Times report (see the MobyLives column Anatomy of a Hoax) — because that writer had critiqued a lecture by his crony Michael ChabonDave Eggers has launched a milder, but considerably longer, attack on Neal Pollack for his New York Times Book Review column yesterday in which he discusses the creation of Pollack's literary persona (that of "the world's greatest living writer," described by some, according to Pollack, as an "ego carnival"). In a McSweeney's commentary apparently posted hastily yesterday, Eggers accuses Pollack of misquoting him and gives a detailed disavowal of any involvement in the crafting of Pollack's persona, saying, "The only thing I ever spoke to Neal about that might approach, in some way, this idea of a 'new age of literary celebrity' was my hope that whatever came next in the literary world would be different, mellower, less tense, less rivalrous, and thus altogether better . . . We also talked about how writers of previous eras would fight with each other publicly, backstabbing and insulting and generally making the book world look like the playground of too many antisocial and insecure teenage boys . . .It was our hope at McSweeney's, and continues to be our goal with The Believer, that the literary world could be one of community, of mutual support, of spirited but nonviolent discourse . . . It's what we teach at 826 Valencia, too: that books are good, that reading is good . . . and that anyone pissing in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world is mucking it up for everyone — and sending a very poor message to the next generation. "

Tax–free writers taxing patience in Ireland . . .
In 1969, perhaps to make up for its reputation for "banning and exiling its greatest literary names," such as Joyce, Beckett, Wilde and Shaw, Ireland's then–finance minister Charles Haughey enacted a rule declaring "All income from a 'creative' work such as a novel, play or song would be exempt from tax." Haughey told bestselling British author Frederick Forsyth, who immediately moved to Ireland, that the idea of the plan was "not so much to bring you bastards in, but to stop the outflow of Irish talent." But as Angelique Chrisafis reports in a Guardian story, the move to Ireland by still one more in an ongoing series of bestselling UK writers — in this case Irvine Welsh — seems to have triggered secret talks within the Irish government on "whether to scrap the scheme." And the recent release of the names of 1,000 or so artists getting the tax sanctions "caused sharp intakes of breath" when it was revealed to include major moneymakers from writer Michel Houellebecq to musicians Sinead O'Connor and Elvis Costello. But one politician says the release of the list was a "smokescreen" meant to "detract from the real issue that the top 400 earners in Ireland paid little or no tax thanks to other more questionable schemes." Labour politician Joan Burton says "80% of tax–exempt writers and artists earned less than 50,000 a year and needed to be supported." And Chrisafis says the Irish Arts Council is also "outraged," and argues that Ireland should not retract "one of the most enlightened pieces of legislation ever introduced for the arts in any country."

Lambda troubles confirmed . . .
A New York Blade report by Rhonda Smith confirms earlier reports that appeared on last week's MobyLives digest about a shakeup at the Lambda Literary Foundation, just a week after "the success of the biggest–ever Lambda Literary Awards. Longtime executive director Jim Marks is indeed stepping down, saying he tendered his resignation when Lambda's board of trustees voted to end its membership program — its source of "primary fund raising" — and to cease publication of its magazines, The Lambda Book Report and James White Review. "I didn't see how the organization would be feasible without the membership program and without the magazines," says Marks. A statement from the trustees, meanwhile, says "the pending sale of the building where the Lambda Literary Foundation was based," in Washington, D.C., "combined with the consistently precarious financial state of the organization throughout its history, led to the changes."

London library just can't make people see: It has too many damn books . . .
When the Octagon Library at the Queen Mary branch of the University of London decided it was time to refurbish, there was one problem: What to do with its surplus books? As a Guardian story by Duncan Campell reports, the Octagon's surplus books including first editions and other rare volumes, "have now been dumped in skips outside the library, to the outrage of staff and students who were clambering through them yesterday to find what they described as literary gems." A library spokesperson says, "We had only a very short window to remove a large quantity of books." But author, publisher, and "campaigner for libraries" Tim Coates says, "It's awful. A library is a collection of books, it's not a building. Throwing out books because you are having a refurishment is like moving house but saying I won't bother taking my family with me." Meanwhile, students and others have been flocking to the dumpsters, some out of outrage, and others out of other motivations. "It's a great way of furnishing a flat," one tells Campbell.

Book give–away to turn Edinburgh into treasure island . . .
As part of a plan to publicize Edinburgh, Scotland's new status as UNESCO City of Literature, 10,000 copies of native son Robert Louis Stevenson's classic children's adventure tale Kidnapped "will be distributed free across Edinburgh in cafes, train stations or even taxis, with a sticker saying 'I'm free, take me home and read me,'" reports Tim Cornwell in a story for The Scotsman. The book was selected over books by other Scottish writers, including Irvine Welsh's romp about "Leth drug addicts" Trainspotting and Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Project director Sophy Dale explains, "Various books were mentioned that wouldn't have worked at all. It's harder to do the Trainspotting primary school teachers' pack."

The irony of hate mail . . .
In a "counter–argument" to Lynne Truss' wildly successful tirade against poor grammar, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Australian linguistics professor Kate Burridge has published Weeds in the Garden of Words, "a book that celebrates slang and poor punctuation." In a story for The Independent by Genevieve Roberts, Burridge says, "Today's weeds — non–grammatical expressions and pronunciations — are often rewarding garden species if left to grow." For example, she says that "E–mail chat over the internet is a kind of speech written down, it has loosened the straitjacket effect to language that writing had. For example, the word 'gonna', as opposed to 'going to', is a marker of future time to replace 'will'." But so far Burridge is not getting the ecstatic reception Truss experienced. "When I suggested on radio that the possessive apostrophe should be dropped from the language because people get it wrong so often, you would have thought that a public flogging would not have been a severe enough punishment," she tells Roberts. "I received hate mail, and letters from the apostrophe support group, though not all of them used the apostrophe correctly."

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:

"Fists for Hands"
(from Identity Theory)

(from Slow Trains)

This week's poetry:

"Mohammed X Goes Mex"
(from Exquisite Corpse)

"The Last Surviving Reality Show Contestant Addresses the Colonists from Mars"
(from La Petite Zine)

"The Veil of Ether"
(from Agni)

This week's fiction:

"Fists for Hands"
(from Identity Theory)

(from Slow Trains)

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 Basic Books)

(from Dalkey Archive)

(from Soft Skull)

(from Ig Publishing)



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