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The winner of the first Booker International Prize trashed "untrue" dissident writers for keeping silent—but was he part of their suppression?

a MobyLives guest column
by Renata Dumitrascu

18 JULY 2005 — In accepting this year's Man Booker International Prize, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare criticized people from ex–communist countries who claim they were not allowed to be writers by the repressive system. He contemptuously declared "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."
     There is a lot of similarity between Kadare's rhetoric and that of other self–styled "dissident" writers from the communist period in Eastern European countries: a need to cast themselves into false roles of national anti–totalitarian heroes, when in fact, most of them led lives of privilege during the worst repression and continue to do so. Kadare's rant about distinguishing "true dissenters" from the impostors is grimly ironic once one becomes acquainted with his background. Kadare self righteously issues a verdict on who may and may not speak about the period of communist rule in Albania, seemingly anointing chiefly himself as the voice of that period for his country.
     A look at Kadare's career offers insight into the roots of this conceited outlook and shakes the very foundation of his claim that he was even a dissident at all.
     Kadare studied in Moscow in the 50's at a time communist oppression of average citizens was at an all time high in the entire Eastern block. That meant a full scholarship in the USSR at a time when only the most purebred, unblemished party clones were invited to study in the capital of the great empire, to better indoctrinate them for future positions of power in their home countries. To even be considered for such a scholarship was a feat that required a thorough background investigation of him and his entire family no ordinary citizen could pass successfully. Certainly not one with dissident tendencies.
     Next, he predictably became head of the Albanian Union of Writers, again, a powerful Orwellian post which required yet more thorough investigations. No one gets to the top accidentally. No one stumbles to the head of the pile inadvertently. Kadare had to successfully lobby for himself among the powerful Soviet hyenas that called the shots with a fist of fury. Not a job for the fainthearted or the free–spirited. How many "dissident" writers, beside himself, did he protect and propel into the public eye? If he was anything like other heads of Unions of Writers in other communist countries, he did very well for himself, held active party membership, participated enthusiastically in expelling true political critics from the Union damning them to publishing oblivion, and knew all the right people up top intimately.
     In the 70's we find him serving as a delegate to the People's Assembly, Albania's version of the Politburo, and being allowed the astonishing privilege of traveling abroad freely and even publishing there. Quite a staggering resume for a dissident. This was at a time behind the Iron Curtain when to even walk on the sidewalk on which a foreign embassy was situated got one detained and roughed up. Kadare "smuggled" his manuscripts to France where they were published and hailed as creations of a heroic opposer crushed by a monolithic communistic juggernaut. But besides having a book and a poem here and there banned (many writers of that period did, in an atmosphere of rabid censorship), we always find Kadare firmly ensconced in the bosom of power.
     I don't think it would be out of line to speculate that the People's Assembly gig likely came with a generous salary, a black Mercedes and fine dining at the best restaurants in Tirana. Around the same time, Kadare's ordinary contemporaries in Albania ate boiled fish tails and could disappear into the night if they so much as looked askance at the party insignia.
     Like most of his homologues in other communist countries, Kadare was an astute chameleon, adroitly playing the rebel here and there to excite the naīve Westerners who were scouting for voices of dissent from the East. But there is absolutely no question about what kind of animal he was and what pack he ran with; in fact, his resume screams careerism and conformity. All this present day chest–pounding is like Condoleeza Rice claiming twenty years from now that she was a dissident of the Bush regime because she got a tattoo of a crescent moon on her left butt cheek.
     Kadare is irritated that people are claiming they could have been writers but were prevented by the communist system, precisely because he worked that system so brilliantly to his own personal advantage. After all, the "moral victory" of his publication abroad was infinitely more important to him than some other Albanian bastard's "moral victory" through publication abroad. And of course, was it possible in those times to wield such power and not have victims, other people whose careers he systematically thwarted? Perhaps it is their haunting complaints he is trying to silence when he pronounces them unfit to speak of that period.
     Kadare is no Solzhenitsyn and never has been. If the head of the Union of Writers and the delegate to the People's Assembly who studied in Moscow was the dissident, who in God's name supported communism? His secretary? The janitor? His dissident credentials are rubbish, as are those of many Eastern European writers and poets who published and thrived during communism, mixing their literary career with commanding political posts.
     Kadare left Albania shortly before the fall of communism and settled comfortably in France where he has basked in his "dissident" status, winning acclaim and honors. He is yet again at the right place at the right time: Europe needs to honor men named Ismail who don't want to kill us, and it needs to pretend to pay more attention to miscellaneous future EU countries to the East; Kadare provides for the easy killing of two birds with one stone. Quite an auspicious turn of events for this man on whose career Lady Fortune always seems to smile no matter what the political system or historical circumstance.
     This is one of many literary careers built on a dubious premise. One wonders about those voices Kadare is so eager to silence. His expressed contempt for "untrue" dissenters is set to backfire in the long run. After the dust settles and the oppression of communism is relegated to the pages of history past, the real dissenters, the ones without high offices and international travel privileges, will hopefully emerge to tell their story, distinct, with the quiet dignity of truth.

Renata Dumitrascu was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1985 with her mother in order to be with her father, who had defected from Romania. She currently resides in Middleton, Wisconsin. She self–published a poetry book called Pizza Poems.

Link to this column.

©2005 Renata Dumitrascu

Previous columns:

GOOGLIZATION AND YOU . . Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop says in a guest column that Google Print does more than break copyright laws — it opens the records of patrons up to more widespread scrutiny than the PATRIOT Act.

BOOKSELLER AT LARGE . . . Guest commentator Dan Bloom says he moved to Taiwan and wrote a book that sold thousands of copies — after he took to the streets yelling, "Buy my book!"

ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE MFA BASHING . . . Regular contributor Steve Almond, an MFA grad who also teaches creative writing, responds to Elizabeth Clementson's column about the influence of MFA programs.

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."

Opinions expressed in guest columns are not necessarily those of the management of MobyLives.com.
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Friday 22 July 2005

Blair government announces ban of book by Blair's former "spin doctor" . . .
The former deputy to Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, has been told by the British government that he cannot publish his book about his time working at 10 Downing Street. According to Julian Glover in a Guardian report, Lance Price, a former BBC journalist who became known as one of Blair's key "spin doctors," has been "has been warned by the cabinet secretary, Sir Andrew Turnbull, that his account of his time working at the heart of government is 'completely unacceptable.'" While books have been censored by the Blair government before (see Monday's MobyLives news digest), this incident "is believed to be the first time that the government has attempted to impose a blanket ban on the publication of such a book." Price and his publisher, Hodder Headline, argue that, as he worked for the government from 1998–2000, he has no pressing or relevant secrets to reveal, but "He says he is happy to discuss possible changes and sent the text to the Cabinet Office for clearance." His editor confirmed that publishing the book abroad "was one of the options."

Coulter accused of plagiarism . . .
"A column penned by the doyenne of right–wing rhetoric Ann Coulter has come under fire for alleged plagiarism," according to a report on Raw Story.com by John Byrne. He says a June 29, 2005 column by Coulter called "Thou Shall Not Commit Religion" "bears a striking resemblance to pieces in magazines dating as far back as 1985." Byrne lists numerous examples of similar passages between Coulter's column and a 1995 Boston Globe column by conservative commentator Jeff Jacoby, a column from Counterpoint magazine, talking points from an attack on the NEA by Rev. Donald Wildon of the American Family Association, and a column from the defunct conservative magazine called The Flummery Digest. Byrne says he "found Coulter's work to be at worst plagiarism and at best a cut-and-paste repetition of points authored by conservative religious groups in the early 1990s."

Karp gets his own imprint . . .
Barely a month after leaving Random House, where he was editor of such bestsellers as Seabiscuit and The Orchid Thief, Jonathan Karp has been named as the pubisher of a new imprint at Warner Books. As Hillel Italie reports in an Associated Press wire story, the new imprint will be called Warner Twelve, because it will publish only one book per month. "The idea of being both the publisher and editor of the books I work on is something I've aspired to my entire career," Karp tells Italie. "And I love the idea of only publishing 12 books a year. It's so hard to get people to pay attention to books and the best things a publisher can do is lavish its own attention."

Book critical of the Times to be issued with corrections . . .
Seth Mnookin's somewhat controversial 2004 book, Hard News: The Scandals at 'The New York Times' and Their Meaning for American Media, will undergo a subtitle change and include something new and rare when it comes out in paperback next month: a corrections section. An article at Editor & Publisher reports that the subtitle of the Random House book will be "Twenty–one Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media." As for the three pages listing errors, Moonkin says it is part of his commitment to "transparency." Comments the anonymous E & P author, "Most of the corrections (like the Times') are of a minor scale."

Upside down Harry more expensive . . .
Less than 24 hours after going on sale in the UK and the US, the full text of the new Harry Potter book has been illegally posted on the Internet, according to a story from The Hollywood Reporter. It was posted on an electronic bulletin board affiliated with Tsinghua University, "one of China's most prestigious research institutions," says the report. It adds, "An electronic publishing expert said that with close cooperation and a digital camera it was possible for a team of people to get such a long book on to the Internet in one day." An English language version of the book went on sale in China the same day as elsewhere. "Over the weekend, Beijing bookstores sold some 5,000 legitimate hardbound copies of the book for 178 yuan ($21.51) each," says the report. Meanwhile, Rachel Deahl in a Book Standard story reports that some people in Canada have found defective copies of the book, where the pages are printed upside down. While the occasional misprinted book is to be expected of a sizeable print run of any book, there may have been more misprints than usual due to the huge print run of the Potter book: "Copies of Half–Blood whose pages are printed upside–down are selling for $60 and higher on eBay. The auction site also has listings for copies of book 6 with parts of the first chapter missing."

Are action women history? . . .
Why "are there so few adventure heroines? And even fewer female adventure authors?" In a commentary for The New Statesman, Kate Mosse, author of a female adventure novel herself, Labyrinth, asks "Is it down to a failure of imagination on the part of women writers? Or is it because the adventure stories women do write are invariably categorised as something different?" Mosse notes that "Writers of both sexes have always been constrained by expectation," and that there has always been a conflict between "characterisation and categorisation." What's more, she says, "There are plenty of adventurous female characters to be found" in contemporary stories. "But," she says, "these novels are placed, by publishers and booksellers alike, firmly on the shelf marked "historical fiction."

Evolving Fish . . .
In a New York Times op–ed column on Tuesday, literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote, "If interpreting the Constitution — as opposed to rewriting it — is what you want to do, you are necessarily an 'intentionalist,' someone who is trying to figure out what the framers had in mind. Intentionalism is not a style of interpretation, it is another name for interpretation itself." As Scott McLemee points out in his own column for Inside Higher Ed, the implication is that "Talk of 'a living constitution' that must remain open to the changing times — that, in short, is not interpretation, but a roundabout means of rewriting the Constitution." Which led conservatives who've long been saying the same to say, "What a voice for sweet reason! Is this Stanley Fish not the same man who turned the English department at Duke into a training camp for left–wing theoretical guerillas? Has he perhaps had a change of heart?" But as McLemee writes, "All of which underscores the difference between being well–known and being well–understood. There is nothing in Tuesday's op–ed that Fish hasn't argued many times over the years."

How to talk to whippersnappers . . .
In her Book Standard column, Jessa Crispin says that mainstream book reviewers who try to cover comics tend to come up wanting because "They didn't know comic books, and they didn't want to take the time to get to, either. But damn it all if they weren't going to judge them anyway." So, she suggests some guidelines, such as, number 1, "'They're not just for kids anymore' is not an original, interesting, clever or even remotely intelligent opening statement" and number 4, "Every single non–superhero–comic–book writer need not be compared to Art Spiegelman."

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

Thursday 21 July 2005

Norton says it will give mystery percentage of millions from 9/11 Commission book to private institutions . . .
After months of questioning — and behind–the–scenes criticism within the publishing industry — W. W. Norton & Company has finally announced how it would handle the profits from its publication of The 9/11 Commission Report, the public document that was rather mysteriously given to Norton to publish concurrent with the Commission's public revelation of its findings, in a deal that allowed a private company to beat even the government's own version of the book printed by the Government Printing Office. As Edward Wyatt reports in a New York Times story, the publisher has announced it will "donate $600,000 from its profits on the book to three programs focused on emergency preparedness and international relations." According to Wyatt, company president W. Drake McFeely said "Norton will give $200,000 each to three groups: the Center for Catastrophe Preparedness and Response and the International Center for Enterprise Preparedness, both at New York University; and the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, part of Johns Hopkins University." What, exactly, Norton would do with the money it made from a document that belongs to the American people has long been a point of angry speculation amongst some publishers in New York. As Wyatt partially explains, "Norton drew criticism because it paid nothing for the rights to publish the manuscript and was given special early access to the confidential report by the commission, which wanted printed copies available in bookstores on the day the report was released to the news media. The commission said it chose Norton because it made the best proposal, agreeing to sell the paperback version of the report for only $10." However, as Wyatt doesn't note, some major publishers have complained off the record that they were never given a chance to bid at all. Nor does Wyatt note another aspect of the deal that angered publishers: Contrary to the $10 book price cited by Congress, Norton did not sell only a paperback version of the book for $10 — it also immediately marketed a hardcover version of the book for $20. The fact that Norton is not returning anything to the national budget but rather making donations to private universities, will no doubt raise further criticism. As to what percentage of the millions in profits Norton made that the company is donating to those private institutions, the overall profit made will apparently remain obscured. Wyatt reports only that "The Norton edition sold more than a million copies, about 98 percent of them in paperback." He does not cite a source for the information.

MORE: A May 25, 2004 New York Times story, by Philip Shenon, details another reason for complaint and suspicion about the deal between Norton and Congress that angered many in the industry: The 9/11 panel's staff director, Philip D. Zelikow, "has a longstanding relationship with Norton, which has published several books that he edited or helped write."

Lapham says it again: Polanski vulgar, tasteless, and unoriginal . . .
Roman Polanski's suit against Vanity Fair (see Monday's MobyLives news digest) continued in London yesterday with author and Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham admitting he made the comments that prompted the suit, and saying he stood by them. As Mike Collett–White reports in a Reuters wire story, Lapham said he was dining with a friend and his girlfriend, a Scandinavian model named Bette Telle, at Elaine's restaurant in New York when Polanski appeared. According to Collett–White, Lapham testified, "Mr. Polanski pulled up a chair between myself and Beatte Telle and began to talk to her in a forward way ... began to praise her beauty, romance her. At one point he had his hand on her leg and said to her 'I can put you in the movies. I can make you the next Sharon Tate.'" Lapham said, "I was impressed by the remark, not only because it was tasteless and vulgar, but also because it was a cliche." Telle's then boyfriend, financier Edward Perlberg, said Telle told him a similar story afterwards. Said Perlberg, "I though this was generally creepy. I think the words that he was a twerp, or to that effect, were used."

Religious groups say Islamic stores selling "hate books" should apologize . . .
In continuing fallout from the discovery of several "hate books," including some with an endorsement from Osama Bin Laden on the cover, in some Islamic bookstores in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia, (see Monday's MobyLives news digest), "Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders have launched a joint appeal for the withdrawal of hate literature from bookstores and an apology from the booksellers." According to a report from the Tasmanian Mercury, the group, Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews, issued a statement condemning "the sale of racist texts, including The International Jew and contemporary attacks on Jews and Christians such as Sheikh Abdul–Azaaz bin Baaz's The Ideological Attack." The statement read in part, "We call on the proprietors of the bookshops to not only withdraw hate literature from sale (but) to apologise for diminishing the culture of respect which is so central to all Australians living together in the spirit mandated by our faiths."

Reasons to write, # 94: Mental freedom . . .
In a Morning News interview, Robert Birnbaum talks to Ian McEwan: "How do you now answer the question, 'What do you do?' I would say I was a literary dialogist, as puzzling as that might be. You might say you are a writer — IMcE: But thatšs not very helpful. I would say what I do is [long pause] investigate human nature within a form which also provides a degree of entertainment as well. Or absorption as well. Entertainment in its broadest sense. But to write a novel is to set yourself on a journey of investigation of our condition, where we stand at this particular time in history. Or whatever particular time you want to set the novel. RB: Does that mean when you completed Saturday, finished Atonement, that you knew things, had a grasp of things that you hadnšt had before? IMcE: Yeah. RB: So every fiction is an education. IMcE: More than an education. Every time I write a novel and I think I am getting it right, I have arrived at a degree of mental freedom that I didnšt have before."

Rushdie has fewer reasons to be grumpy . . .
Sixteen years after Islamic fundamentalists declared a fatwah on Salman Rushdie that drove him into hiding, the author of Satanic Verses is "ambling the cobbled streets in plain sight" as the star of the Brazilian Paraty Literary Festival, according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor by Andrew Downey. It signifies that Rushdie "feels at ease doing all the things he did before the death sentence was imposed," says Downey. "Shuttling between his two homes in London and New York without bodyguards shadowing his every step, Rushdie is in jovial form. Even being stopped in the street can bring a smile to Rushdie — despite his longstanding reputation for grumpiness." He tells Downey, "The people who come up to me are mostly coming up because they are interested in something I have written. Sometimes it can become intrusive, but on the whole it is not bad, really."

If a Nazi writes a book and no one talks about it, will it go away? . . .
Monday was "the 80th anniversary of the publication of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (My Struggle)," notes Carlin Romano in a Philadelphia Inquirer commentary. "You didn't miss anything. No critical panels. No conferences. No TV documentaries. . . . It's long been that way for the most notorious book of the 20th century." Romano details the history of the book, including some interesting tidbits: "Hitler preferred the title Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice. His publisher, Max Amann, knew how to edit." He also discusses the forthcoming How to Read Hitler, by historian Neil Gregor, of which Romano is critical, although he does say that it "provides a slight antidote to the more sympathetic reading of Mein Kampf by its Arabic translator, Luis al–Haj. He wrote in his preface: 'National Socialism did not die with the death of its herald. Rather, its seeds multiplied under each star.'"

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

Wednesday 20 July 2005

In Letters: Support for Kadare, and A.S. Byatt, too . . .
One reader says Ismail Kadare may have been a Communist but it's not what you think, while another asks what's with the bitch–slapping of A.S. Byatt? . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

Nonprofit publishers call on Google to cease and desist . . .
Attacks on Google Print continue, with a scathing statement from the Association for Learned and Professional Society Publishers, the trade association representing nonprofit publishers, such as university presses, around the world. According to the statement (pdf file) posted at the group's website, "Irrespective of whether the results may be damaging or beneficial to the copyright owners, the fact remains that copying on such a scale is in clear contravention of copyright law . . . ." The organization was at one time in negotiations with Google on developing Google Print for Publishers, which included an "opt–out" for publishers. But the ALPSP condemns the Library version of Google Print because it "was apparently developed without any consultation with publishers." Says the statement, "while we appreciate that publisher–by –publisher negotiations could be impractical, by working through representative trade organization, or even collective licensing agencies, it should be possible to negotiate a workable licensing framework . . . . However, Google's representatives do not yet seem willing to arrive at a practical way forward in relation to in–copyright works which the publsher has not yet digitized." The ALPSP says it "calls on Google to cease unlicensed digitization of copyright materials with immediate effect, and to enter into urgent discussions with representatives of the publishing industry in order to arrive at an appropriate licensing solution . . . . We cannot believe that a business which prides itself on its cooperation with publishers could seriously wish to build part of its business on a basis of copyright infringement."

Reasons to write books, #106: Ran out of drug money . . .
Two brothers who used to head Colombia's nefarious Cali Drug Cartel, the cartel that in its prime controlled 80% of the cocaine smuggled into the US, "are considering a book deal that would enable them to pay for their defense in US courts," says the lawyer for one of the brothers, according to an Agence France Presse wire story. "Such a book could contain explosive revelations about past connections between the political establishment and the drug trade in Colombia," notes the AFP. And indeed, Roy Kahn, attorney for Miguel Rodriguez Orejuela, says his client and his brother Gilberto Rodriguez Orejuela received an offer from a Colombian publisher that "could be particularly attractive as the brothers are finding it difficult to pay their lawyers because US authorities will not allow them to use funds allegedly originating from the illegal drug trade."

Don't think of an adjective . . .
In a New York Times Magazine article about political framing, Matt Bai profiles the recent political life of George Lakoff, formerly "an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley, renowned as one of the great, if controversial, minds in cognitive science but largely unknown outside of it." Lakoff's short book about politics, Don't Think of An Elephant, was a best seller, selling 200,000 copies through Chelsea Green, a Vermont based publisher of environmental books. His next book, forthcoming in 2006, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Bai discusses Lakoff's little–written–about academic feud with his mentor Noam Chomsky. According to Bai, Lakoff "rebelled against his mentor, Noam Chomsky, the most celebrated linguist of the century. The technical basis of their argument, which for a time cleaved the linguistics world in two, remains well beyond the intellectual reach of anyone who actually had fun in college." Bai also notes differences between Lakoff and "unapologetically partisan pollster" Frank Luntz, who believes that framing isn't as important as Lakoff thinks, especially since framing only works in selling ideas that voters are already favorable towards. Through Bai's research, the two political minds actually communicated with each other. Bai writes: "After we talked, Luntz challenged Lakoff, through me, to a 'word–off' in which each man would try to 'move' a roomful of 30 swing voters. Lakoff responded by counterchallenging Luntz to an 'on–the–spot conceptual analysis.' Since I had no idea what either of them was talking about, I let it go."

RELATED: In a guest commentary for MobyLives last fall, Lakoff's publisher, Margo Baldwin of Chelsea Green, described her bizarre confrontation with The New York Times when it insisted that Lakoff's book was a bestseller—in the "how–to" category.

Good sex awards announced . . .
While the UK has its "Bad Sex in Literature award for the worst sex scenes in a given year's fiction, an award sponsored by the Literary Review, the US now has an award for "the best literary sex scene," to be sponsored by online magazine Nerve.com. According to a press release, the Henry Miller Awards will start with five nominated passages from the editors each month for readers to vote on. At year's end, finalists will vie for a readers' choice award, and a grand prize to be chosen by celebrity judges, and worth $1,934 — "commemorating the publication date of Tropic of Cancer."

Big book . . .
An art installation in downtown Pittsburgh will project the texts of books by Pittsburgh authors—including John Edgar Wideman, Annie Dillard, and Thomas Bell—"scrolling upward along hundreds of feet of the swooping roofline of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center." According to a brief New York Times report by Lawrence Van Gelder, "The work, 'For Pittsburgh,' giving a public presence to books usually read in private, uses more than 1,500 light–emitting diode tubes to scroll the texts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in letters 36 inches high and 11 inches wide, along two edges of the roof, each nearly 350 feet long." The project will eventually include other books as well.

Truly Orwellian . . .
According to a Guardian story by Alan Travis, George Orwell was under police surveillance for much of his life. The article reports that "a secret Metropolitan police file newly released at the National Archives shows that Orwell was himself the subject of repeated special branch reports for more than 12 years of his life." Police first suspected Orwell of suspicious activities after he made a trip to northern England in 1936 to research the conditions of the working class there. Police were sure that the apartment he stayed in had been arranged for him by the Communist Party. The police also followed Orwell's career at the BBC, his travels to Spain, and they read and catalogued his writings. The police file goes on to say that Orwell had "advanced communist views" and dressed "in a bohemian fashion."

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

Tuesday 19 July 2005

In Letters: Ismail Kadare and dissidence . . .
Readers are writing in to comment on Booker International winner Ismail Kadare and what constitutes dissident writing. Also, A.S. Byatt gets bitchslapped . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

British ship of state sinking under weight of books . . .
A book about the war in Iraq written by the British "UK ambassador to the UN during the build-up to the 2003 war and the Prime Minister's special envoy to Iraq in its aftermath" has been censored by Prime Minister Tony Blair, according to a report in The Observer by Martin Bright and Peter Beaumont. The report says the book, The Costs of War, is by Sir Jeremy Greenstock, "a career diplomat of impeccable integrity." Greenstock is said to have depicted the war as driven by the U.S. and as "politically illegitimate," and supposedly says U.N. negotiations attempting to avoid it "never rose over the level of awkward diversion for the US administration." "Greenstock is also thought to be scathing about [Coalition Provisional Authority] Paul Bremer and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice," says the report. Government officials are said to be "deeply shocked" and have demanded Greenstock "removes substantial passages" in order to "avoid further embarrassing disclosures over the conduct of the war and its aftermath from a highly credible source." A follow–up report in The Guardian by David Hencke notess "The book is understood to reveal embarrassing conversations between [Greenstock], Mr Blair and the foreign secretary during the UN negotiations." But Hencke reports that "Downing Street disowned any involvement in the censoring of the book yesterday" as per The Observer's reports that "Tony Blair had wanted to block publication." The update says foreign secretary Jack Straw is the one "blocking passages" from the book. Either way, says Hencke, "the decision to demand changes is surprising given the number of critical books that have been published about the Iraq war, including an extremely critical account from Clare Short, the former international development secretary, who wasscathing about the role of some of her political colleagues," and another from Sir Christopher Meyer, "chairman of the Press Complaints Commission and British ambassador to Washington from 1997 to 2003." Meanwhile, says Hencke, "Reports that Downing Street was blocking another book by a former press officer, Lance Price, were also denied by Number 10 yesterday."

Polanski phones in his defense . . .
Filmmaker Roman Polanski, who fled the US for France when he was convicted of raping a 13–year–old girl in 1977, has been allowed by a special ruling of Britain's highest court to testify via a "live video link" from Paris in his libel suit against Vanity Fair magazine, the first time anyone has been allowed to testify without being there in person in British history. As Sarah Lyall reports in a New York Times story, Polanski feared that if he left France for Britain he would be extradited back to the US to serve his time in the rape case. As for the charges, Polanski is suing the magazine over an article about the restaurant Elaine's by A.E. Hotchner that included comments made by author and Harper's Magazine editor Lewis Lapham about Polanski. Polanski says the article "dishonors" his memory of his wife, Sharon Tate, who was murdered by Charles Manson in 1969, because Hotchner quotes Lapham saying that "Elaine's famous customers are spectacularly unimpressed by one another and that the only time he had ever seen 'people gasp' in the restaurant was in August 1969 when Mr. Polanski visited the restaurant while on his way to Hollywood for Miss Tate's burial. Mr. Lapham was sitting at a table with some friends, including 'the most gorgeous Swedish girl you ever laid eyes on . . . Polanksi pulled up a chair and inserted himself between us, immediately focusing his attention on the beauty, inundating her with his Polish charm. Fascinated by his performance, I watched as he slid his hand inside her thigh and began a long, honeyed spiel which ended with the promise, 'And I will make another Sharon Tate out of you.'" Lapham will be testifying in person, says Lyall.

Pot calls kettle black . . .
In what a company spokeswoman calls a "purely defensive measure," Amazon.com has filed a lawsuit against Cendent and its subsidiaries, including Orbitz, Avis, and Budget. According to a CNET News report by Paul Festa, "Cendant had sued Amazon for patent infringement in November. Following unsuccessful settlement negotiations, the company refiled its suit in June. Amazon subsequently filed its countersuit." Festa observes that "Amazon has walked a fine line between decrying the state of software and business process patent litigiousness and building its own healthy patent portfolio. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has advocated patent reform for years." The patents in question include "U.S. Patent No. 5,715,399: secure method and system for communicating a list of credit card numbers over a nonsecure network" and "No. 6,029,141: Internet–based customer referral system."

Dead man writing . . .
In France, the "literary sensation of the summer" is a novel from 1869 by Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas that was recently re–discovered by an "unassuming retired lecturer" ( see the 6 June 2005 MobyLives news digest). As a Reuters wire story by Jon Boyle reports, following a "paper trail of clues worthy of the Da Vinci Code," Claude Schoop found the book buried in the national archives on the microfiche of a defunct literary journal. "Comfortably installed in the Top 10 best-sellers list," the book, Le Chevalier de Sainte–Hermine, is expected to sell 100,000 copies. However, the novel was meant to have a sequel that Dumas died before writing. But thanks to a "road map . . . written in Dumas' own hand" that indicates where Dumas planned to take the plot, Schopp is writing a sequel. Says Schopp, "From the outset, when I saw the work was unfinished, I said to myself Dumas was telling me: 'I had ghost writers, you will be my last ghost writer, I'll give you the plan'."

Remembering Frank O'Connor . . .
Despite being declared by William Butler Yeats to be "Ireland's Chekhov, "Since his death in 1966, a respectful forgetting has settled over Frank O'Connor," observes Julian Barnes. In an analytic appreciation for The Observer, Barnes speculates that this is "because his finest work is in the short story, a medium more vulnerable over time. Perhaps because he doesn't require academic explication; in which he resembles some of the writers he most revered — Maupassant, Chekhov, Turgenev." Barnes goes on to analyze some of those stories, as well as O'Connor's feelings about his art, such as those expressed in his The Lonely Voice (published by Melville House), "a study of the form that has since become a textbook in American writing schools." He also considers O'Connor's relationship with one of his main editors, the legendary William Maxwell of The New Yorker, and notes one of O'Connor's most celebrated habits: rewriting, even after stories had been published. Says Barnes, "Maxwell, who knew writers well, said that 'if there is an alarming object in this world it is a writer delighted with something he has just written. There is no worse sign.' O'Connor almost never gave such a sign."

Writer in need of day job founds religion . . .
"Spiritual leader or sci-fi con artist?" Reminded by the recent antics of Tom Cruise "and Katie Holmes' creepy path toward zombie bridedom" of "how truly strange Scientology is," Michael Crowley takes a look at the writer who started it all: L. Ron Hubbard. In a column for Slate, Crowley says, "To those not in his thrall, Hubbard might be better described as a pulp science–fiction writer who combined delusions of grandeur with a cynical hucksterism." He shot to fame with his 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, which "promised to cure almost any physical and mental ailment — including wrinkles." It was, says Crowley, an "instant" bestseller, but when fame faded, "Hubbard founded the Church of Scientology. His son Ron Jr. claimed in a 1983 interview with Penthouse that money was the motive, saying his father 'told me and a lot of other people that the way to make a million was to start a religion.'"

Why adults who like Harry Potter like it: They're stupid . . .
One point of common discussion lost in the overwhelming blitz of media the last few weeks: "What is the secret of the explosive and worldwide success of the Harry Potter books? Why do they satisfy children and — a much harder question — why do so many adults read them?" In an in–depth commentary for The Daily Telegraph, A.S. Byatt postulates that "it is magic for our time. Ms Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had . . . . It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the levelling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don't really believe exists."

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

Monday 18 July 2005

In Letters: On jokes and non–jokes . . .
Librarian Christopher Allen Waldrop writes in to comment on whether PABBIS —the "Parents Against Bad Books" website — is a joke or not, while another reader writes in about Ismail Kadare . . . in the MobyLives letters section.

You can come out now . . .
It's over: The hugely anticipated release of the newest Harry Potter book occurred this past weekend, and it was everything it was predicted to be. "The new Harry Potter book sold an astonishing 6.9 million copies in its first 24 hours, smashing the record held by the previous Potter release," reports Hillel Italie in an Associated Press wire story. "Harry Potter and the Half–Blood Prince averaged better than 250,000 sales per hour, more than the vast majority of books sell in a lifetime." But what did the critics think? An Agence France Presse wire story notes that "not even Harry Potter's magic could deflect the withering verdict from some British literary critics on his latest adventure: 'wordy, flabby and badly edited.'" Things were a little different in the U.S. — in her New York Times review, Michiko Kakutani limns why she loved it.

MORE: In a commentary at Bookninja, Toronto bookseller Paul Vermeersch says the business of selling the new Potter book was much more involved than the explosive one–day lay–down: "For me it began several months ago, in April of this year, when we began taking pre-orders for Harry Potter and the Half–Blood Prince (herein referred to as HBP) . . . "

"Burn the nasties," says Islamic spokesman of books endorsing Bin Laden . . .
An Australian Associated Press wire story notes a newspaper investigation that found a number of Islamic bookstores and associations in Sydney selling "books endorsing Osama Bin Laden and discussing the effectiveness of suicide bombings." According to the AAP report, Australia's Daily Telegraph found numerous "distressing books" for sale, such as Defence of the Muslim Lands by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, "which has an endorsement from Osama bin Laden on the cover." The book includes the following passage about suicide bombing: "The form this usually takes nowadays is to wire up one's body, or a vehicle or a suitcase with explosives, and then to enter a conglomeration of the enemy and to detonate." "Muslim community spokesman" Keysar Trad says booksellers should get rid of all such books. "If they're not wise enough to go through all the material they have on the shelves and assess it and burn the nasties . . . if they're not willing to do that then we'll have no option but authorities will have to confiscate such books because it's not acceptable any more with what's happening the world."

Kids: Count the really creepy things wrong with this picture! . . .
At Anderson County High School in Clinton, Tennessee, a large group of parents are complaining over the inclusion of The Color Purple on a summer reading list after it was added "to coincide with a lesson planned about molestation that was prompted by student interest in the Michael Jackson trial." According to a Knoxville News report by Bob Fowler, "An Honors English class teacher at Anderson County High School recommended Toni Morrison's novel as summer reading for students entering ninth grade next month," but "about a third of the students' parents" have complained about "graphic passages dealing with rape and incest in the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel." Fowler says Richard Adams' novel about rabbits, Watership Down, was offered as an alternative choice at a board of education meeting, but parents at the meeting complained that students who selected the alternative would still have to be in the room when Color Purple was discussed. But Board of Education chairman Dr. John Burrell said, "We got into censoring books before, and it's a keg of worms we don't want to open up." Meanwhile, neither the educators cited in the article nor the reporter seem aware that The Color Purple was written by Alice Walker, not Toni Morrison.

Should have listened to Rushdie, says Brit critic . . .
"To understand how we got here, you have to cast your mind back long before July 7, 2005, or even September 11, 2001, to February 14, 1989," says British writer Matthew d'Ancona. "That was the day that Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a fatwa on Salman Rushdie over his novel, The Satanic Verses." In a commentary for The Sunday Telegraph, d'Ancona argues that Britain did not take in the full import of the fundamentalism behind the fatwa, and he worries that it is not taking it in now. "In The Satanic Verses, the angelic Gibreel is affronted by the "moral fuzziness" of the English, and tries to bring about a fundamentalist revolution — 'religious fervour, political ferment' — by making the weather as ferociously hot in London as it is in the subcontinent," observes d'Ancon. "Of course, Gibreel fails. The heat wave passes. The English recoil from fundamentalism, as ever, back to their treasured belief in doubt, reason and compromise. What a powerful parable for our times, from a book that marked the beginning of it all."

Dead Sea not so dead . . .
"A secretive encounter with a Bedouin in a desert valley" has led to "the discovery of two fragments from a nearly 2,000-year-old parchment scroll" that, if authenticated, would be the first such findings in the Judean Desert since the Dead Sea Scrolls, according to an Associated Press wire story by Danielle Haas. "The two small pieces of brown animal skin, inscribed in Hebrew with verses from the Book of Leviticus, are from 'refugee' caves in Nachal Arugot, a canyon near the Dead Sea where Jews hid from the Romans in the second century," according to Professor Chanan Eshel, an archaeologist from Bar Ilan University. While the way the scrolls were obtained — for $3,000 from the mysterious Bedouin — seems to make Eshel hesitant, he is also clearly excited by the find because it could mean that an area thought to be exhausted may still yield more treasure. "No scrolls have been found in the Judean Desert" in decades, he tells Haas. "The common belief has been that there is nothing left to find there."

Foetry rolls on, at home and abroad . . .
The reputation of Foetry.com and its proprietor Alan Cordle continues to spread — around the world, apparently, as evidenced by this story in the Haaretz (in Hebrew), and this Guardian article by John Sutherland. Sutherland reports that the "world of American poetry has been rocked by scandal" thanks to the site. "As a result of Foetry's 'exposé' [that anonymous judge Jorie Graham had given a prize to her husband] leading poetry contests have now introduced what is called (unofficially) the 'Jorie Graham' rule. Judges are no longer anonymous but prominently named." Sutherland is not very sympathetic, however. He says, "Graham got a raw deal. Poetry has always operated by clique. Were it not for Ezra Pound pulling strings, TS Eliot's career would never have got airborne. That's how 'schools' of poetry get started — cronyism." Meanwhile, the Chronicle of Higher Education has refused to run letters from Alan Cordle responding to an attack on him contained in an article (see the 2nd June 2005 MobyLives news digest; story no longer available on the Chronicle website) written by Ted Genoways and John Casteen IV of the Virginia Quarterly Review. Cordle notes that Genoways had interviewed him for an earlier version of the interview to run in the VQR but then never responded once Cordle answer his questions. He goes on to ask of the reforms suggested in Genoways' and Casteen's article, "how can we count on various agencies to create guidelines for which, according to Casteen and Genoways, 'participation would be voluntary' and 'oversight would be minimal'? That is exactly why the problems with poetry contests are pervasive." The Chronicle also turned down a letter in response from Foetry supporter Steven Ford Brown, a writer/translator in Boston who wrote in to note that the reforms suggested by Casteen and Genoways were "what Mr. Cordle has been saying for the past year." Cordle has now posted both letters on Foetry.

First lines that make you read the second ... or don't . . .
What are the greatest first lines in literary history? In a commentary at his weblog, Michael Berube discusses an ongoing list being put together by some academics that so far has over 150 nominations. Berube says "many of them are what you'd expect," such as "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," or "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." However, there were also some "surprises and flights of whimsy," such as, from Fahrenheit 451, "It was a pleasure to burn." (He also liked that they included the famous line from Edward George Bulwer–Lytton, "It was a dark and stormy night . . . ." However, says Berube, they "overlooked one of the greatest lines of the late twentieth century: "There are songs that come free from the blue–eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads." Luckily, he provides the name of the book it's from.

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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What others say about Moby


This week's poetry:

"Cowboy Poultry Gatherin"
(from Western and Cowboy Poetry at the Bar–D Ranch)

"Summer at the Grandparents'"
(from Licton Springs Review)

"Portrait of Soon"
(from Dislocate)

This week's fiction:

(from Gettysburg Review)

"Ghost World"
(from Double Dare PRess)

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 Helen Marx Books)

(from Basic Books)

(from Dalkey Archive)


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