5 MobyLives.com



a MobyLives guest column
by Steve Almond

Editor's note: Last week's guest column by Elizabeth Clementson decrying the influence of MFA programs elicited more reader response than any other story on MobyLives so far this year, including numerous requests to write a guest rebuttal column. Regular MobyLives contributor asked first.

27 JUNE 2005 — Reading Elizabeth Clementson's column Down With MFAs left me with a renewed sense of wonder: just how much fraudulence can one aspiring writer pack into one column? The answer: a lot.
     There are plenty of others who have already exposed her flimsy, self–involved arguments, so I'm not going to waste time on an extensive rehash.
      But I do want to make a couple of points, mostly because I'm so entirely sick of these "outsiders" who blame their own artistic failings on some supposedly inimical establishment that refuses to recognize them.
      First point — Clementson loaded the deck.
      She writes:

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'll put aside Clementson's need to inform us that her program was "prestigious," as well as a necessary skepticism over whether an MFA instructor would ask students what goals they hope to obtain. There's a bigger problem here. I don't believe this happened — not for a second. Because the one thing that MFA students don't do (particularly on the first day of class) is glibly announce their own commercial ambitions. They do everything possible to obscure these motives.
     I'm not suggesting that candidates don't have commercial ambitions. But the basic aim of these programs is to foster young artists, not breed cash cows. The students all understand this. They all know the language.
     So Clementson is either exaggerating, or taking some satirical comments way out of context.
      Why else? To make herself look noble by comparison.
      There she is, the innocent little artist, surrounded by vulgarians. The innocent little artist, mind you, who traveled to New York expressly to work in publishing and — oh, by the way — make lots of literary connections. (Is anyone else starting to smell the unctuous musk of an unreliable narrator?)
     Sadly, working in publishing was apparently not enough to land Clementson the book deal she so richly deserved. No, it turns out swilling drinks with the Manhattan swells doesn't do the trick.
     She writes:

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.

     Now here is an assertion of such startling vagary that it's hard to know where to start. It came to my attention? Was there a memo going around? Does anyone actually believe that Clementson was told this? Please.
     What more likely happened is that a few people in publishing urged her to get an MFA, probably after having read her work and having decided — I'm just going to throw out a wild guess here — that she still had a few things to learn.
     No editor or agent gives a shit whether a writer has an MFA or not. All they care about is the work.
     If anything, there's a bias toward authors who don't have MFAs, because they are viewed as naturals who don't need some sissy workshop to produce works of genius. Like Hemingway.
     And this is why, every few months, some dumbfuck reporter will obediently write a story about how MFA programs have ruined American letters, homogenized the prose, blah–blah–blah. It's such a tired song.
     MFA programs are like any other educational opportunity: what you put in is what you get out. The reason they exist is to help young writers develop the humility and gumption necessary to keep writing in a culture that largely ignores literature. They are welfare states for artists, basically.
     Are there workshops that turn mean and judgmental? Sure. I was in one of them back in grad school. I absorbed a lot of criticism. And you know what? I deserved most of it. My stories sucked.
     This criticism had nothing to do with the mandates of delivering a "'sellable' plotline that publishers want." It had to do with my writing being amateurish and false.
     In any event, I didn't learn much from working on my stories. That's not how most people actually learn in MFAs. They learn by critiquing the work of others.
     A sustained critique forces the reader to articulate how and why a piece of writing succeeds and fails. It helps us move past the easy biases of sensibility and envy, to the intended function of actual words and sentences. The point of a workshop, in other words, isn't to produce manuscripts, but to help the members of the workshop develop a critical faculty.
     The best thing I did in grad school was to help edit the literary magazine. I read 1500 stories in a single year, most of them nowhere near ready for publication. I saw the same mistakes over and over again: the muddled plots, the garbled sentences, the unnecessary adverbs, the clichés. And I began to recognize (gradually, reluctantly) the same mistakes in my work. I was just as insecure, after all, just as desperate to dazzle the reader, and to avoid telling the truth.
     I'm not sure that Clementson would understand any of this. She seems deeply invested in the notion that her failure to learn was a function of her brave iconoclasm. Whatever. That's her thing to work out.
     As for the rest of us, howsabout we try to stop whining about MFAs and book deals and who has what and who doesn't and focus on the highest aim of art, which is to awaken mercy.
     Seriously now: our species has staggered to the brink of self–annihilation specifically because we're too vain and aggrieved to keep our moral priorities straight.
     Literature should be addressing this crisis, not aping it.

Steve Almond is the author of The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories. Excerpts are available at BBChow.com.

Link to this column.

©2005 Steve Almond

Previous columns:

DOWN WITH MFAs . . . In a guest column, MFA dropout and publisher Elizabeth Clementson say MFA programs are ruining literature and the publishing buisness.

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.

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Friday 1 July 2005

In Letters: A Shocker . . .
Someone has written in with a letter about something other than whether MFAs are hazardous to your health . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Secret Man a secret no more . . .
Bob Woodward's new book about Deep Throat, The Secret Man, isn't due out until next Wednesday, and is under embargo until then, however, USA Today says it purchased the book yesterday "at a store in Fairfax County, Va., that had mistakenly put copies out for sale." It spills the beans in a report by Mark Memmott. Among other revelations: The garage where Woodward met W. Mark Felt — Deep Throat — was at 1401 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington; and "Watergate aficionados who were thrown off for years by the fact that Woodward had said Deep Throat smoked cigarettes — while Felt had said he did not — should not have been so concerned. Felt did smoke during their clandestine meetings, Woodward writes, possibly out of nervousness."

RELATED: "Actor Robert Redford was spotted leaving the Georgetown home of The Post's Bob Woodward yesterday with a copy of the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist's new book, The Secret Man: The Story of Watergate's Deep Throat, which is due out Wednesday," reports The Washington Post itself, in its Names & Faces column. Woodward wouldn't say if a movie was in the works, only that "There was a very serious discussion and the focus was on Watergate. . . . Redford, like me, has this endless fascination with Watergate. He gets it." As Michael Cader noted on his Publisher'S Lunch e–newsletter (unavailable as a link), the story "begs the question, is the item a bad plant, or is the newspaper actually staking out their own reporter's home?"

UK bestseller Rock Me Gently "strikingly similar" to 1933 novel . . .
One of the UK's biggest nonfiction books of the year, Rock Me Gently, a memoir by Judith Kelly, seems to bear "striking similarities" to the 1933 Antonia White novel Frost in May, according to a Reuters wire story by Jeffrey Goldfarb and Cheryl Juckes. Kelly's book was released in February by Bloomsbury and shot up to the top ten of the non–fiction bestseller list, and is still selling extremely well (it was number 469 on Amazon.co.uk yesterday). But the book, about Kelly's claim of having been abused as a child by nuns at a Catholic orphanage, "includes numerous passages and characterisations that are similar, and in some cases identical, to those in Antonia White's acclaimed semi–'autobiographical novel," say Goldfarb and Juckes. Kelly wasn't talking, but Bloomsbury editor in chief Alexandra Pringle admits "There are striking similarities to 'Frost in May' and other books" (a charge the Reuters story doesn't make, and doesn't herein follow up on). However, Pringle continues, "We have sought legal advice and apparently there are not enough similarities to count as infringement of copyright." But the Reuters story notes something else strange about the story: when Frost in May was reissued in 1978 by Virago Modern Classics, the editor at Virago was Alexandra Pringle.

Steve Wasserman proving impossible to replace . . .
"The L.A. Times, in the throes of a search to fill one of the most influential review jobs in publishing, is winding down the process and could name someone as early as next week," reports Steven Zeitchik in a Publishers Weekly story. The report says among the candidates are San Francisco Chronicle critic David Kipen (as first reported on MobyLives), former The Reader editor David Ulin, Atlantic Monthly literary editor Benjamin Schwarz, and Times staffers Susan Salter Reynolds, Nick Owchar, and Kenneth Turan.

Bill Clinton, Iranian bestseller . . .
"Iranians may shout Death to America and burn the Stars and Stripes in demonstrations, but the memoir of former US President Bill Clinton is on the way to becoming a runaway bestseller in the country," according to an Agence France Presse wire story. Other recent bestsellers there: Harry Potter, Hillary Clinton's Living History, and George and Laura : Portrait of an American Marriage. Publisher Farhang Fattemi says "outgoing President Mohammad Khatami's role in relaxing regulations had greatly boosted the number of books published in the past eight years," and expressed "hope that ultra–conservative president–elect Mahmood Ahmadinejad will go easy on publishing." Clinton's My Life has just come out as a two–volume hardback "costing a hefty 150,000 rials (16.5 dollars)" and is selling well after authorities took nine months to vet the book. Authorities also halted sales for a few days, saying "Clinton's picture on the cover would be arousing for women." Without further explanation, the AFP simply reports, "The problem was later resolved."

Mailer, unaware of Eggers' dictum, pisses in the very small and fragile ecosystem that is the literary world . . .
After attacking Michiko Kakutani in a Rolling Stone interview, Norman Mailer has himself come under attack by Dallas Morning News reporter Esther Wu, who is president of the Asian American Journalists Association. The interview is not available online, but as a Daily Telegraph article by Harry Mount recaps, Mailer said of The New York Times' lead book critic, "She is a one–woman kamikaze. She disdains white male writers, and I am her number one favourite target. She trashes it just to hurt sales and embarrass the author. But the Times editors can't fire her. They're terrified of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, she's a threefer: Asiatic, feminist and, ah, what's the third? Well. Let's just call her a twofer." He also called her a "token." Now, as Lloyd Grove reports in his Lowdown column for The New York Daily News, Wu has written a letter to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner saying, "Calling out Norman Mailer as a racist . . . would be easy. . . . We take greater offense at his reference to her as a 'two-fer' and a 'token' because she's 'Asiatic, feminist,' which essentially diminishes the accomplishments of all women and journalists . . . To Mr. Mailer, we'd simply like to say: Shame on you." Mailer tells Grove the letter is "an excellent example of high-octane political correctness." Kakutani had no comment.

The movie, apparently, will arrive before the paperback . . .
Star Tom Hanks, director Ron Howard, and the rest of the cast and crew of the upcoming $100 million movie of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code "have started filming in Paris and are to take over the Louvre museum — a key location," according to an Agence France Presse wire story. French media has been refused access, says the AFP, but filming started at the Ritz hotel before moving to an all–night shoot at the Louvre. After that, it's on to England "for several location shoots, although officials there have refused to make Westminster Abbey available to recreate an important scene because the book's premise was considered theologically unsound."

The Revolutionary evolves . . .
The Capital Comment column in The Washingtonian recalls that "After Trent Lott was deposed as the Republicans' Senate majority leader two years ago, he signed a $200,000 book deal with HarperCollins publisher Judith Regan, in part to settle scores with his replacement, Bill Frist, and every senator who sided with Frist against him." But now, however, Frist has appointed Lott to "the powerful chairmanship of the Senate Rules Committee," and "has carefully solicited Lott's advice about counting votes and making deals." Plus, with Frist leaving the Senate to run for President, "Lott hopes he can get his leadership position back." As a result, the apparently already–written book — Master of the Game: Tales from a Republican Revolutionary, co–written with "celebrity biographer" Peter Harry Brown — is, according to one insider, "unofficially DOA."

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

Thursday 30 June 2005

In Letters: MFAt Lady has yet to sing . . .
As it turns out, there were still some things left unsaid about the MFA brouhaha, some of which will make you say ha ha . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Koen Books in trouble . . .
One of the Northeast's major book wholesalers, Koen Book Distributors, may be on the verge of bankruptcy. As Judith Rosen reports in a PW Daily story, the company, headquartered in Moorestown, New Jersey, has suffered, as have all distributors, from "low margins, high returns and a decline in the number of independents," but for Koen "the squeeze is now so intense that it has been forced to forgo sales for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," because the company is "on credit hold" with publisher Scholastic. Company president Bob Koen says he is optimistic he will be able to avoid bankruptcy, but meanwhile he has stopped accepting fall orders. John Mutter, on the daily e–newsletter Shelf Awareness (unavailable as a link), reports that the company is jointly owned by Koen and his wife, Pat Koen, who together formed the company in 1972 and are now divorcing.

Tristan Egolf's right–wing doppelganger — his father . . .
"The recent death of 33–year–old Tristan Egolf, a novelist cursed with promise at an early age, has given rise to a literary detective story," says Alex Beam. In his Boston Globe column, Beam observes that "Obituaries published last month failed to name Egolf's birth father, Brad Evans, a flamboyant writer, political activist, and right–wing adventurer who shared many of his son's gifts and demons — and who, like his son, died by his own hand." Beam reports, however, that Evans moved "further to the right in a society that was tilting leftward," while his son was an ambitious leftist activist who gained some prominence for protests against George W. Bush. Evans was involved in "extreme–right fringe groups" and drifted "into the ambit of William F. Buckley's National Review magazine." Nonetheless, Egolf, who only met his father a handful of times, reportedly "idolized" Evans. So, "Why was Brad Evans purged from his son's obituaries?" Says Evan's father — Egolf's grandfather — Warren Evans, "I'm speculating, but I think [Egolf's mother] Paula didn't want to share her grief with us."

Elizabeth Edwards shopping book about living with a man who has hair like Bob's Big Boy . . .
Elizabeth Edwards, wife of former vice–presidential candidate John Edwards, is reportedly shopping a proposal for a memoir about her "life as a military daughter, the death of her son, the 2004 campaign and her recent struggle with breast cancer," according to a PW Daily report by Steven Zeitchik. Edwards is being represented by famed Washington attorney Bob Barnet (who represented both Bill and Hillary Clinton in their book deals), Zeitchik says. Her husband is already at work on a book of his own (his second since the campaign), and Zeitchik reports "the idea is for both books to come out next year, though in different seasons."

Some homes are more equal than others . . .
It's gone decrepit with age, damaged terribly over the years by monsoons and earthquakes, it's hundreds of miles from the nearest city, and armed gangs of robbers and kidnappers openly roam the nearby highways, but authorities in India say that by the end of the year they are going to turn the birthplace of George Orwell into a "world–class heritage site," according to a report in The Independent by Justin Huggler. The house, in Bihar, India, will be restored, an "Orwell Park" will feature "trees from Britain, India and Burma, where Orwell also lived," and there will be "a giant replica of Orwell's book Animal Farm, with passages from the text inscribed on it." L. M. Singhvi, a former ambassador to the UK who is now chairman of the Heritage Foundation of India, the organization funding the project, says he hopes to make the place where Orwell was born on 25 June 1903, the son of the local British opium agent, "a heritage site of international importance. And we are quite optimistic that by the end of 2006 it will become a hub for all foreign tourists visiting India."

iPod, uPod, we're all gonna Pod . . .
"That folks can pick up a gadget approximately the size of a cigarette lighter at their local library, programmed with a current bestseller for their listening pleasure, is the realization of countless sci–fi movies and Philip K. Dick novels," and, says Rachel Deahl, "The future has clearly arrived: Apple's immensely popular iPod — the software company shipped 5.3 million of the variously priced and sized devices in its second fiscal quarter of 2005 alone — is making consumers more comfortable with the idea of downloading audiobooks and listening on–the–go." In fact, in an in–depth report for The Book Standard, Deahl talks to many who say that iPods are having a immediate—and immense—impact, but other kinds DAB's (Digital Audio Books) are doing remarkably well, too. Perhaps driven by lower costs (DABs are often as much as 40% less expensive than other kinds of audio books) they have done well with the traditional Baby Boomer demographic, but they also attract younger listeners as well. Says Deahl, " For an industry constantly confronting the fear that it is thoroughly invested in a dying product, the growing popularity of DABs may point to salvation, promising to bring in younger, and more, consumers."

What Auden really meant . . .
"To judge from two recent novels, Ian McEwan's Saturday and Vendela Vida's And Now You Can Go, it might be easier to save your bacon with a neatly deployed rondeau than anyone ever suspected," observes David Orr. "In each book, an impending act of violence is prevented not by the arrival of a SWAT team but by the recitation of a poem — and not a 'spoken word' poem, or a pop lyric masquerading as a poem, but a regular old poem poem." In his column for The New York Times Book Review, Orr says, "If you're a poetry reader, it's hard not to feel heartened and vaguely flattered by these scenes. Not only do the characters seem to enjoy poetry (and to know it cold), but poems themselves come off as active and useful — powerful, even." It's enough to inspire Orr to consider Auden's statement that "poetry makes nothing happen," and give it a fresh reading: Auden, he says, is "making a tremendous boast in the form of a dismissal. After all, any beginning comes from nothing."

Crispin despoils Eggers' fragile ecosystem . . .
In her column for The Book Standard, Jessa Crispin comments on Dave Eggers' recent criticism of Neal Pollack and Eggers' statement in that criticism that everyone can write a book and "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." Crispin observes, "Just about everyone in the 'literary world' remembers the firestorm that followed The Believer's manifesto, declaring that when you give a writer a bad review, you hurt people's feelings. Eggers just upped the ante, now declaring that if you give someone a bad review, you are HURTING THE CHILDREN." What's more, she says, "Building a wall around writers and saying that all of them are equal is just delusional. Not everyone should write a book. And not everyone who does write a book is deserving of praise, as if the literary community is one big Special Olympics. That's not interesting, and it's not how you foster growth."

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

Wednesday 29 June 2005

In Letters: MFA this, MFA that . . .
The letters are still pouring in about the worth of an MFA in creative writing. Among other new letters, one reader says he thinks MFAs are "gentrifying" modern fiction, while another says MFA programs "weed out the whiners" . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Hail & Farewell: Shelby Foote . . .
Shelby Foote, the writer famed for his writings about the Civil War who became even more of a celebrity when he appeared in Ken Burns' PBS documentary about the war, has died of undisclosed causes in Memphis, Tennessee at age 88. As an Associated Press obituary by Woody Baird notes, Foote had published five novels when, in 1954, "Random House asked him to write a single–volume history of the Civil War. He took the job, but it grew into a three–volume project finally finished in 1974." The result, The Civil War: A Narrative, was hugely successful, making Foote's fame as a historian with the techniques of a novelist. Explains fellow historian James M. McPherson, "He had a gift for presenting vivid portraits of personalities, from privates in the ranks to generals and politicians. And he had a gift for character, for the apt quotation, for the dramatic event, for the story behind the story." Subsequently appearing in Burns' famed documentary, "Foote became an immediate hit with his encyclopedic knowledge of the war, soft Southern accent and easy manner," writes Baird. "With his gray beard and gentlemanly carriage, he seemed to have stepped straight out of a Mathew Brady photograph." Foote was also a throwback in the way he wrote: with an "old–fashioned dipped pen." Reports Baird, "Foote said writing by hand helped him slow down to a manageable pace and was more personal than using a typewriter."

MORE: A Reuters obituary notes that Foote once said of his father, who died when he was just 5, that "(He) never had any intentions of doing anything with his life, so far as I know, until he married my mother and lost all of his money."

MORE: A New York Times obituary by Douglas Martin (and including material from the late Walter Goodman) notes the criticism of Foote's work: "Critics suggested that Mr. Foote played down the economic, intellectual and political causes of the Civil War. Some said that Mr. Foote may have played down slavery so that Southern soldiers would seem worthy heroes in the epic battles he so stirringly chronicled." The Times also details Foote's 60–year friendship with novelist Walker Percy.

On the bright side, the overdue fines could be considerable . . .
A leaked confidential report from the French government says about 30,000 19th and 20th century books, including some 2,000 "precious" books — rare books of great value — have been reported missing from the collection of the National Library of France, and the "disappearances could date as far back as the end of World War II," according to an Associated Press wire story by Sophie Nicholson. The books "were missing during an inventory before the library moved its main site from central to eastern Paris in 1996," according to the report, first revealed by the daily Le Figaro when it "published excerpts of a confidential document on security measures ordered by the Culture Ministry in September after the discovery that Hebrew manuscripts had been stolen." Nicholson reports "A former chief curator of the Hebrew manuscripts, Michel Garel, is under investigation for alleged theft and is suspected of having passed them on to art collectors. He denies the accusations."

Actual Indian says fake Indian Ward Churchill more powerful than you think . . .
According to an InsideHigherEd.com report, Indiana University law professor William C. Bradford has "riled up plenty of people in Indiana," and Bradford himself says he's heard he won't get tenure and is "being punished for his unorthodox views" — especially, he says, for not supporting Ward Churchill, the controversial University of Colorado professor who wrote that the victims of the World Trade Center attacks were "little Eichmanns." InsideHigherEd's Scott Jaschik reports that Bradford, a Chiricahua Apache, says his refusal to sign a petition supporting Churchill has turned other profs against him. "The presumption was that I've got to sign this thing because I'm an Indian, but I can't do that," Bradford says. "I'm the anti–Ward Churchill. . . . If you can't figure out that the architect of Nazi mass murder isn't the same as people who went to work in the World Trade Center, you don't belong teaching."

Women writers reaching historic sales numbers in Iran . . .
"Over the past decade, Iran's bestU–selling fiction lists have become dominated by women, an unprecedented development abetted by recent upheavals in Iranian society," observes Nazila Fathi in a New York Times report. There are about as many women writing as men, says Fathi, "But the women's books are outselling the men's by far, thanks to simple - some critics say simplistic - language and compellingly personal narratives, often delving into once-taboo subjects like romance and sex. While the average Iranian novel is issued in print runs of 5,000 copies, some women's books have enjoyed printings exceeding 100,000."

T.S. Eliot, publisher . . .
In 1943, after Faber & Faber published an anthology of Welsh poems, 25–year–old Scottish poet Maurice Lindsay wrote to T.S. Eliot in his position as Faber's director of publishing and told him he should publish an anthology of Scottish poems. To Lindsay's shock, Eliot invited him out to lunch and, over "tea and cucumber sandwiches," agreed to publish one if Lindsay would edit it. Three years later, Modern Scottish Poetry was published. Now, sixty years later, as Jennifer Veitch reports in a story for The Scotsman, Lindsay, an accomplished poet himself, "is about to come full circle": In July, Edinburgh University Press will publish an updated version of the anthology, "the biggest collection of 20th century Scottish poems available," The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth–Century Scottish Poetry; edited by Lindsay and Lesley Duncan. Asked who's the most influential poet included, Lindsay says, Hugh MacDiarmid, "without a doubt. He was a genius, but he could also be a hell of a bad poet. He thought that everything he wrote was genius, and the older he got, they all started to get political. He got terribly angry if anyone dared criticise what was obviously awful work. But for about ten years he was a genius, which is not bad."

It always pays to have a wacky judge . . .
Last Friday in Moscow the winner of one of the country's leading book prizes, the National Bestseller Prize, was announced in "a lavish ceremony in St. Petersburg's Astoria Hotel." Mikhail Shishkin's novel, Maidenhair won the prize known as "the least literary and the most oriented toward popular tastes." But as Victor Sonkin reports in a Moscow Times story, what really sets apart the "Natsbest" "is the ceremony itself": "The National Bestseller jury reaches its decision in public. Each member casts his or her vote, and the result becomes known when one nominee has earned more votes than the rest. This year, the first three speakers each favored different books." The first three judges — a designer, an editor and a deacon — all voted for different books, but "Television personality Svetlana Konegen and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov sealed the prize's fate by giving their votes to Shishkin. This meant that the vote of the last jury member, the secretive writer Viktor Pelevin — who of course failed to appear in person — didn't really matter. Yet Pelevin still managed to deliver some entertainment value. In a letter, he described his arduous efforts to divine the winner through a Chinese ritual that ultimately yielded Shishkin's name."

Doctor, it hurts when I do this . . .
"I've just come back from a book tour in America," says Hillel Halkin in a Jerusalem Post commentary. "It's called a 'book tour,' it turns out, because of all the airplane flights and hotel rooms that have to be booked for it." But as he recounts, this tour was a disaster, and "Before I returned to Israel we held a post-mortem at the publisher's. 'You know,' I said, 'this was pointless. We wasted my time and your money. What did we do this for?' My publicist looked at my editor. My editor looked at my publicist. I had the impression that no author had ever asked them such a question before. 'We didn't want to disappoint you,' my editor said. So now I knew: Book tours are designed for authors who love flying from city to city to entertain small groups of people who have been unable to obtain theater tickets or bridge club invitations for the evening. It would be cruel to disappoint them."

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

Tuesday 28 June 2005

In Letters: MFA wars continue . . .
The letters are still coming in about the value of MFAs in creative writing, with some readers wondering if it isn't time for Steve Almond to have a candy break . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Kadare stands up for true dissenters . . .
In Scotland to accept the inaugural Man Booker International Prize, "Albanian dissident and author Ismail Kadare said Monday that his small victories in smuggling work out of his homeland inspired him to continue writing in the face of oppression." As an Associated Press wire story reports, "Kadare's works were banned by Albania's former Communist regime and his manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country to his French publishers," until he was granted political asylum by France in 1990. "Each time we were able to publish anything, even just a page, we got a great moral satisfaction out of it. Each occasion was a great triumph," he explained to reporters in Edinburgh. "That's what kept us going throughout this whole period. Otherwise we would have gone mad or we would have just given up." He also noted "the fashion now in the former communist countries of the ex–Soviet Bloc for people to say 'I could have been a writer but I wasn't allowed.' The people entitled to speak about that period are the people who did something and not the people who kept silent and have retrospective nostalgia."

Government agency finds corruption in French book awards . . .
"The Paris literary scene was shaken yesterday when the government's anti–corruption watchdog warned that France's most prestigious book prizes were wide open to corruption," according to a Guardian report by Jon Henley. Henley says, "France's major literary awards such as the Prix Femina, the Prix Médicis and — most prestigious of all — the Prix Goncourt have long been accused of rigging their votes, taking it in turns to reward big publishers." Now, the SCPA, which Henley identifies only as "part of the justice ministry," has issued what is apparently an internal report (that was in turn apparently leaked to the newspaper Le Parisien) saying it is "difficult to distinguish between jury members, who are generally the authors of literary works, and the houses which publish their books. There is a risk that fair competition rules may be being broken." One anonymous independent publisher tells Henley, "When you realise the millions of euros that a good Goncourt winner can generate for its publisher, you start to see the immorality of the whole thing. French publishing, and particularly the whole prize charade, is all about mutual back–scratching."

With potentially devastating Finkelstein book about to be released, Dershowitz drops his opposition . . . sort of . . .
"I think it's a first," says Andre Schiffrin, longtime head of Pantheon Books and founder of the New Press. He's talking about Alan Dershowitz's effort to get California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to block publication of a University of California Press book that is critical of Dershowitz. (See previous coverage in the MobyLives archive for 16–20 May 2005.) In an in–depth report for The Nation, Jon Wiener takes a look at Dershowitz's ongoing battle with Norman Finkelstein over Finkelstein's book, Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti–Semitism and the Abuse of History. Weiner notes in particular Dershowtiz's ongoing letter writing campaign, and denial of same: "In a phone interview Dershowitz denied writing to the Governor, declaring, 'My letter to the Governor doesn't exist.' But when pressed on the issue, he said, 'It was not a letter. It was a polite note.'" So what is Dershowitz so upset about? Weiner says newly circulated galleys of the July book reveal: "Beyond Chutzpah describes Dershowitz's Case for Israel as 'among the most spectacular academic frauds ever published on the Israel–Palestine conflict.' In Dershowitz's book, 'It's difficult to find a single claim...that's not either based on mangling a reputable source or referencing a preposterous one, or simply pulled out of the air.' He charges that Dershowitz 'plagiarizes large swaths' of his book . . . . [and] challenges Dershowitz's defense of Israel's human rights record by citing the findings of mainstream groups, including Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch." And making the case all the more difficult for Dershowitz: "Finkelstein somehow obtained a copy of the uncorrected page proofs of The Case for Israel containing some devastating footnotes," wherein Dershowitz instructs his assistant to simply copy another book's sources. In a follow–up report by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, Dershowitz calls Finkelstein's book "a sequel" to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and now says he's dropped his opposition to its publication. "I want to see his book published now," he tells Jaschik. I want to see it demolished in the marketplace of ideas."

Get out of here, Get Out of Here . . .
The novel supposedly written by Saddam Hussein, Get Out of Here, Damned One (see last week's MobyLives news digest), has been banned from publication in Jordan "on the grounds that it could harm relations with its eastern neighbor," according to an Agence France Presse wire story. The Jordanian director of the "state press and publications department," Ahmed al–Qodah, says "more than one publisher had called his department seeking approval to print the novel but they were turned down," reports the AFP. Says al–Qodah, "We took the decision because we consider that this effort will have repercussions on the good relations between Jordan and Iraq."

MORE A report from The Daily Star of Bangladesh suggests that "Get Out of Here, Curse You" is a better translation of the book's title.

Steve Florio has left the building . . .
When word leaked last week (in a Women's Wear Daily report) that Steve Florio, the former longtime CEO of the Condé Nast magazine empire, was shopping a book proposal, "it set off a scrum in Manhattan publishing circles," says David Carr in a New York Times report. Florio's propsal, says Carr, was a "third–person self–hagiography that made the proposal a sort of instant classic. As Florio says in one passage, "I was not short on nerve or ego, and I carried a heavy chip on my shoulder. They'll bury me with it, too. I was still Steve Florio. I was there to get the job done." Says Carr, "In the proposal, the chip was plainly evident as he proceeded to eviscerate several former colleagues, including William Shawn, the former editor of The New Yorker, and Ronald A. Galotti, the former publisher of GQ and Talk and once one of his best friends." As Steven Zeitchik reports in a Publishers Weekly report, "Almost immediately after [seeing the proposal], Crown's Rick Horgan confirmed to PW that a deal had been signed." But Florio tells the Times' Carr that he was "horrified" by suggestions in the press that "he was writing a tell–all about his days of running Condé Nast." He says someone else wrote the proposal for him and now, "Because of what was said and how it was taken, there will be no book."

Literary estates busting cybersquatters . . .
The literary estate of Antoine de Saint–Exupery has "won a cybersquatting case to evict a Virgin Islands operator whose Web Site sells memorabilia linked to the creator of The Little Prince," reports a Reuters wire story. The case to return antoinedesaintexupery.com, and saintexupery.com. back to the Saint–Exupery estate was decided by "three neutral arbitrators" appointed by the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which has also recently decided cases in favor of J.K. Rowling and the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Ed Klein's dirty secret? . . .
Another angle on the attack by Ed Klein against Hillary Clinton that got little attention amongst all the right wing commentators knocking Klein last week comes from Tina Brown, who, in her Washington Post column, speculates that "Maybe it's a secret fantasy of girl–on–girl action that makes Ed Klein obsess about Sen. Hillary Clinton's supposed lesbian ethos." Brown notes that "Every time Klein describes anyone female in Hillary Clinton's circle, you hear the clump clump clump of stereotype–lesbian footwear. Melanne Verveer, her White House East Wing chief of staff, is 'dark haired and mannish–looking.' Susan Thomases has 'frizzy salt–and–pepper hair, frumpy clothes, down–at–the–heel shoes and an expletive–laden vocabulary.' Evelyn Lieberman, the White House deputy chief of staff, is 'short, a little overweight with grayish hair,' while the orientation of the Hillary–driven picks for Cabinet appointments, Donna Shalala and Janet Reno, 'are shrouded in deep ambiguity' (not)." The approach failed with conservatives, says Brown, because "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that misogyny is a sure boomerang." It failed with many others because it begged the question: "At what point is a successful woman permitted to move on? If George W. Bush can be born again and be absolved for his dopey frat–boy past and eat his National Guard records, when does Hillary get to slough off the ancient scaly legends of her relationship with Bill . . . ?"

Slough of despond . . .
In England, "A Sikh couple had to abandon their wedding when a group of protesters raided the Slough hotel where the event was being held and seized a holy book," reports a BBC News wire story. The report says a "40–strong group" of Sikh protestors "wrestled the Guru Granth Sahib book from the priest and took it to a nearby temple." It was the second time the protestors had broken up a wedding to perform what they call a "confiscation." They say the book, "the most holy book of the Sikh religion," "should not have been taken out of a temple, and to take it near alcohol and cigarettes was disrespectful." A rep for the local police station says, "Our community and race relations officers will be working hard in Slough in the next week or so."

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

Monday 27 June 2005

In Letters: MFA Wars continue . . .
It's still pretty heated . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

With only three previously known, scientists unearth fourth poem by Sappho . . .
"A love poem written 2,600 years ago by Sappho, the greatest female poet of ancient Greece, was published on Friday for the first time" since it was rediscovered as part of the "papyrus wrapped around an Egyptian mummy" last year, reports a Reuters wire story by Tim Castle. A more detailed report by John Ezard for The Guardian notes "The poem is the rarest of discoveries. Sappho's pre–eminent reputation as an artist of lyricism and love is based on only three complete poems, 63 complete single lines and up to 264 fragments." The poem itself appears embedded in a Times Literary Supplement essay by Sappho expert Martin West, who explains and contextualizes his translation, and gives some background to the discovery, noting that the papyrus dates to the third century BC, meaning it was copied "not much more than 300 years after she wrote." In the poem, he says, "she addresses a group of younger women or girls, whom she calls (to translate literally) 'children', contrasting their blithe singing and dancing with her own heaviness of heart and limb": "You for the fragrant–blossomed Muses¹ lovely gifts / be zealous, girls, and the clear melodious lyre: // but my once tender body old age now / has seized; my hair's turned white instead of dark; // my heart's grown heavy, my knees will not support me, / that once on a time were fleet for the dance as fawns."

Deep Throat was out for revenge, says his old boss . . .
L. Patrick Gray, the Nixon appointee who ran the FBI immediately after the death of J. Edgar Hoover — and thus, during the height of the Watergate scandal — says he believes his number two at the Bureau, W. Mark Felt, "became the anonymous source known as Deep Throat because he was angry at being passed over" as Hoover's successor and because he "wanted to sabotage Gray." According to an Associated Press wire story by Douglass K. Daniel, the now 88–year–old Gray said on ABC's This Week's Sunday news talk show, "I think there was a sense of revenge in his heart, and a sense of dumping my candidacy, if you will." (Felt has denied that elsewhere — see the MobyLives archive for the week of 30 May – 3 June 2005 and thereafter.) Gray also said he trusted Felt "to the point of putting Felt in charge of investigating FBI leaks," reports Daniel. However, said Gray, the leaks continued. Said Gray, "I couldn't stop it because my No. 2 man was the guy that was doing it."

"Omnigooglisation" breeding widespread "anti–omnigooglisation" . . .
The Google Print project continues to alarm librarians and publishers not just in the U.S., but in Europe and elsewhere as well, according to articles in some foreign newspapers this weekend. In France, for example, several methods are being enacted to fight what the French call "omnigooglisation." As a BBC News wire story by David Reidnotes, "With the Google Print project planning to put 4.5 billion pages of English onto the web, France has decided to do something similar with French, though on a smaller scale," involving La Bibliothèque Nationale de France. "The project they call Gallica has already put some 80,000 works and 70,000 images online, and it is currently working its way through the BNF's basement of 19th century newspapers." And in England, Stephanie Merritt reports in a Guardian story that "few British trade publishers willing to sign up until they know exactly how Google plans to distribute their content and what kind of payment will be offered." Not only librarians and publishers are leery, she reports, but also "successful authors such as Antony Beevor have concerns for copyright and sales." Says Beevor, "The prospects at the moment are really rather scary."

McGahan comes up big down under . . .
Novelist Andrew McGahan has won Australia's most lucrative literary prize, the $42,000 Miles Franklin Award, for his book The White Earth, "which is about a young boy's experience growing up in rural Queensland." An unattributed report from the Australian Broadcasting Company says the judges cited the way the book "revisits the conventions of the Australian pioneering saga and the gothic novel, investing them with remarkable imaginative force and contemporary significance . . . ." They also cited the way McGahan subjects "postcolonial Australia to a searing analysis."

First order of business for the editor: Teach them how to spell "serious" . . .
Judith Regan's has become famous for the fact that her HarperCollins imprint ReganBooks has had an extraordinary series of bestselling books. But when news broke last year that she had conducted an affair with former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik in an apartment reserved for Ground Zero workers, her fame really skyrocketed. Now, Chuck Taylor and Anna Weinberg report in a Book Standard story that Regan is set to cash in: she's "signed with Sirius Satellite Radio for a weekly two-hour talk show that will air on Sirius Talk Central." Sirius president Scott Greenstein says the show, slated to start in October, will be a "no–holds–barred forum for frank conversations and provocative discussions with a variety of personalities, authors, opinion makers, celebrities and others . . . Movies have trailers, television has commercials and now books have Judith Regan on Sirius."

Is Amazon really winning over independents? . . .
Bookseller Robert Gray, buyer for the major Northeastern indpendent the Northshire Bookstore in Mancehster, Vermont, was struck by the recent Zogby poll that said "Online bookseller Amazon.com is more popular with Americans than local independent bookstores." In a moving commentary on his Fresh Eyes blog, he asks, "Should we just shutter the windows and bar the doors and surrender to the chain store blitzkreig? If Americans really want to buy all of their books this way, shouldn't they get the bookstores they deserve?" Gray also speculates that similarly dispiriting statistics might have been the result if Zogby had asked respondents "how many of the books they purchased were published by small and independent publishers?", which could lead to another depressing question: "Should small and independent publishers cease and desist?" But moving beyond questions of market share, he presents an alternative path of investigation that might reinvigorate independent bookselling: "Or do we look more closely at such numbers and ask another, quieter question, a question less likely to generate headlines: What good are independent bookstores and why should anybody care?"

Billy Graham, Satan, NY Times participate in circle jerk with NY publishing . . .
Readers of the New York Times no doubt noticed the stunning saturation coverage of a New York appearance by Billy Graham that appeared in the newspaper for most of the last week. The coverage included at least two articles a day about Graham, usually on the front page, or with a lead–in from the front page, and utilized a wide swath of the paper's reporting staff. Examples from just the last few days alone include this article, by Andy Newman, from the front page of today's Times; this one by Newman, from yesterday's Times; this one, by Michael Luo, also from yesterday's Times, where it appeared on the front page of the Week in Review section; this one, by Newman again, from the front page of the Saturday Times; this Newman article, also from Saturday's Times; this one, by Daniel J. Wakin, from the front page of Friday's Metro section; or this one, by Robin Finn, also from Friday's Times . . . . and there were numerous others in the days before that. It was painstakingly obvious that the full–page ads placed by the Billy Graham Crusade — usually on the back page of a section, charges for which run in the six figures — ads that ran almost every day last week, were of course a large part of what motivated such extraordinary coverage . . . coverage that was made all the more notable by the fact that on almost all of the days it ran not even the war in Iraq merited front page mention in the Times. But whatever prompted the Times to such relentless presentation of Graham as the dominant and friendly face of American evangelical fundamentalism, and to so wildly overstate his impact upon the residents of New York City, the impact of the coverage, and the resonance between the New York media, can be seen in a brief Publishers Weekly report by Steven Zeitchik. Zeitchik details a book deal between Warner Books' Christian imprint Warner Faith and Time magazine writers Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy "to write on the evangelical leader's relationships with eleven presidents, going from Truman to Bush II. The book promises 'the details of the relationships, how they evolved — in some cases over several generations — and how they altered the larger political landscape.'" And Zeitchik says Putnam, meanwhile, has announced it will publish transcripts of Graham's New York appearance as soon as next month.

Yeah, but what if they were reading WHILE they were watching TV, eh? . . .
A Candian Heritage study has "found a discrepancy between the self–declared preferred leisure activities of Canadians and the actual hours spent in pursuit of them." As Caroline Alphonso reports in a Globe & Mail story, while "reading shares first place with television as a favoured leisure activity, Canadians spend only 4.6 hours a week reading for pleasure, but as many as 23 hours watching television or listening to music." What could explain the discrepancy? "Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture and director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said the inconsistency could be linked to the fact people have a tendency to choose reading as a favourite pastime because television is 'considered a lower pursuit.'"

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

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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)


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