a MobyLives guest column
by Robert Lasner

14 March 2005 — Elisabeth Sifton, then Editor–in–Chief of Viking, wrote in the May 22, 1982 issue of The Nation that, "the average first novel sells only about 2,000 to 4,000 copies. This readership represents about .001 or .002 percent of the population." Combine those sobering sales statistics with last year's NEA report, "Reading at Risk," which showed a ten percent decline in literary readership since 1982, when Ms. Sifton made her comments, and it is clear that things are not going well for literary first fiction.
     As a publisher and a first–time author, I understand the problem all too well. In 2002, I decided to self–publish my debut novel For Fucks Sake because I knew, as someone with no connections in the literary world, how difficult it would be to get published. Not wanting the self–publishing stigma hung around my book, my wife, Elizabeth Clementson, and I decided to build a publishing house around For Fucks Sake, and Ig Publishing was born.
     Nostalgic for the good old days, when publishers actually tried to build an author's career, we dedicated Ig to publishing the work of "overlooked or first–time authors." While we heard phrases like "sixty percent returns," used to describe the failure of first fiction, we were confident that we could sell literary first novels. (Fortunately, we were also savvy enough to publish other, more commercial fare, or I would be writing this as a former publisher.)
     We published two first novels. Each was imaginative, and different than a lot of other stuff that passes for imaginative and different. Each author was non–connected—no agent, no "following," no MFA. Each book was non–genre specific—not a mystery, not a thriller, etc.—and non–classifiable—not a gay novel, not a punk novel, etc. In short, both were just good literary reads and, as we discovered, the worst thing to publish these days.
     Both books received a few reviews and a few orders upon release, and, then, three to six months after release, the returns started to roll in. (The sixty–percent figure was right on.) Publishing, for those who don't know, is a consignment business, and if your book doesn't move off the shelf in ninety days or so, it is removed from the shelf and sent back, hopefully still in sellable condition, to the publisher, wholesaler, or distributor from which it came.
     We were crestfallen. We had spent a lot of TLC—time, love and cash—on these novels, and all we had to show for it were boxes of books gathering dust on our distributor's shelves.
     Today, as our house passes the three–year mark, we, quite frankly, are wavering on our commitment to literary first fiction. And it is not just because of the failure of those two novels. (My novel has actually sold well, despite a grand total of one review when it came out, because the title and the edgy content helped it to develop a word of mouth following.) It is that we have also, sadly, learned "the business of publishing."
     Ignoring the hot MFA grad you read about in Publisher's Weekly whose novel starts a big house bidding war, literary first novels are almost impossible to introduce into the marketplace. Bookstores will only order them in small quantities, if at all, and it is difficult to get reviews, especially in places that really matter. Additionally, getting a bookstore reading for a first fiction author is an effort that would make Sisyphus proud. A well–established independent bookseller once told me flat out that he would never book a first fiction author into his store.
     Furthermore, to even have a chance of selling, a first novel has to be classifiable, meaning it has to fit neatly into a genre or niche—mystery, thriller, crime, etc. A one sentence selling line also helps. However, literary fiction often cannot be easily classified or described. Try boiling Ulysses or Crime & Punishment down to one sentence.
     Nowadays, when an "unclassifiable" first novel is submitted to us, we find ourselves considering the book's salability more strongly than the quality of the work. "Excellent writing, good story, can't sell," is the conclusion we often reach. I wish this weren't the case, but we need to make money to stay in business, and, the fact is, first novels don't offer much of a chance of doing that. Furthermore, as a fairly young small press without an impressive fiction backlist, there is not a lot we can do to help a first novel get the attention it needs to succeed.
     Is there anything that can be done, then, to save first fiction? I believe there are a few solutions that could at least give first literary novels a fighting chance. To begin with, alternative review sources—such as the free alt weekly of Anytown, USA—should stop publishing reviews of big press books that are already covered by the mainstream review sources. Do we really need to see another review of Eggers, Moody, etc., after their books have already been reviewed in NYTBR, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, et al? Too many alternative papers go conservative when it comes to the book section, often reviewing the same books as the major newspapers and magazines. While many alternative sources do pay attention to small presses, as a whole, they can do better.
     Then there are bookstores. Though most independents have limited resources, they can be innovative in ways that the chains can't. One example is that of Cindy Dach, of the Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe, AZ, who books "First Fiction" author tours, where groups of first–timers read in bars, which makes the often staid author reading experience a bit more lively, and a lot less sober. These tours are jointly sponsored by publishers and independents, and are a good example of different parts of the book industry working together to benefit first–time authors.
     Even the monolithic evil chains can play a part in promoting first fiction. Borders was partly responsible for the success of For Fucks Sake. First, they actually ordered the book, and second, instead of placing single copies on the back shelves of all their stores, which guarantees high returns, they placed multiple copies in select stores, in this case college and urban areas where For Fucks Sake would be better appreciated. As a result, my book sold several thousand copies through Borders.
     Finally, big publishers can help literary first fiction by not paying for it. Huge advances to first novelists creates the "one and done" phenomena, where an author is dropped by a big house when their book doesn't earn out its ridiculously high advance. One of the worst things about the swallowing of big publishing by international media conglomerates is that big houses have completely lost the concept of building an author's career. They just go for the big hit—or, in most cases, miss. I am willing to bet that the bottom line of many publishers would be improved if they stopped throwing money away on advances that will never be earned back, and instead tried to nurture author's careers. It would make for happier authors, and, in the long–term, happier publishers.
     However, none of the suggestions I have made will matter it we don't increase the appetite for literary reading in this country. And short of destroying every single television set, I don't know what can be done. Literary reading is becoming a lost art, and according to "Reading at Risk," the greatest decline in literary reading is among the young, which is not a good harbinger of things to come. However, if something is not done, soon, not only first fiction, but all literary fiction, will disappear as a viable part of the publishing world.

Robert Lasner is the author of the novel For Fucks Sake and co–publisher of Ig Publishing in Brooklyn, New York. You can write to him at igpublishing AT earthlink.net.

Link to this column.

©2005 Robert Lasner

Previous column:
HOW I MANAGED TO GALVANIZE THE RIGHT–WING HATE MACHINE WITHOUT REALLY TRYING . . . In a guest column, Steve Almond tells what happens when you write a simple little book about your love for candy and you give maybe just the slightest little mention of your politics . . . .

  Letters policy: You can write to MobyLives at: dlj AT mobylives.com. All letters must be signed and include an affiliation and/or hometown, although MobyLives will, upon request, run letters that are not linked to a return e–mail address. Correspondents are asked to keep their letters under a million words.

Friday, 6 May 2005

Mitch Albom's apology: An interpretation . . .

I made a careless mistake in a column. It wasn't malicious. It didn't harm the subjects. But it was factually incorrect in four paragraphs. I assumed something would happen that didn't. That was wrong.

Let's keep this in perspective, people, this is all a tempest in a teacup.

We were going to run a correction. Then we decided to go further. I apologized on the front page of the sports section, something unprecedented, but indicative that we took it seriously.

Take that "we were" in the first sentence to mean "I was." Then take that "we decided to" in the next sentence to mean "my bosses made me."

And if I ever needed to learn the stinging irony of this business, I've had my chance. In the race to report on my journalistic error, you could barely count the mistakes and falsehoods that were committed.

All I'm saying is, who's the real victim, here, and who are the real offenders?

If I ever needed a humbling reminder to slow down, something I've struggled with for years, here was that lesson again. That column was filed in a hurry on a day when I wrote another column right after it. Too fast. Too dangerous.

My only sin is being too productive, and working too damn hard. Oh, and living on the edge all rugged and maverick–like.

So I will not swipe at those who swiped at me.

Oh, wait, I already did.

I write for you.

I write for readers.

Not that liberal elite latte–swilling abortion–loving gay–wedding–attending New York media.

Well, you kids need to know that what I did was a mistake. It was careless, and you should learn from it. Be better than I was on that day. Know that you can't assume something is going to happen, even a sunrise, because the one time you write it as if it happened, the sun might not rise.

See how tiny and unavoidable my mistake was? Who in their right mind WOULDN'T assume that the sun is going to rise? Wait, what do you mean I wasn't actually writing about sunrises? You're missing the point. . . .

Derek Weiler
Toronto, Canada

McLemee redux . . .

Brenda Eckles makes a number of good points about the Chabon/Maliszewski affair. But not, alas, about my column on the matter — which, among other things, urged people to read Maliszewski's essay before pretending to have an opinion. Eckles comments, "That's obvious and shouldn't have even needed saying."

Well, perhaps, though the column did quite a bit more than that. There may be some value to a timely and needful statement of the obvious, in any case. But I didn't put in a marathon writing session just to warn people in blogland against running off at the mouth. (The thought of doing so is enough to make Sisyphus weep.)

Eckles states that commentators "missed entirely" that the Times article "was an obvious work of character assassination, as only MobyLives pointed out bluntly." Well, my column said that, too — if not in precisely those words, then at least by calling the Times piece "gossipy and curiously inane." I also pointed out that there is a range of kinds of hoaxing — and even tried to situate Maliszewski's work in literary history by pointing out that his dual role as hoaxer and debunker is in some ways a continuation of what Poe did.

In short, there was a bit more going on in that piece than an impersonation of the superego. But hell — why have a column at all, if you can't impersonate the superego from time to time?

Scott McLemee
Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, 4 May 2005

The Chabon mess . . .

This week's guest column is a brave and interesting piece — imagine, a writer who it appears made half a million dollars off his last book reduced to selling his follow-up in a supermarket. That's the real story of American fiction, and bravo to Larry Baker for telling it (and sticking to it).

However even better were the two columns preceding Baker's, which tell another important tale not being told elsewhere about the shallow ways of our major writers in dealing with the serious and complex issues of the day. First, there was Steve Almond's piece about Jonathan Safran Foer, which was the most thoughtful consideration I saw (and there were so many!) of that troubling book. As much criticism as it has generated, most critics seemed blinded by all the flash, or by the author's famous youth; it's as if no one had the nerve to say that it contained some regrettably conservative and hopelessly simplistic thinking about 9/11. The fact that Almond was able to conduct this discussion with a certain degree of kindness toward the writer made it even more admirable.

Perhaps even more important, though, was the commentary about Paul Maliszewski's essay on Michael Chabon's Nextbook lecture, and Dave Eggers' personal attack on Maliszewski via the New York Times, an effort to deliberately direct our attention away from matters of great import. To me, it was a watershed moment in the differences between the mainstream media and the alternative media — or, as it sadly turned out, not. The new leaders of contemporary writing and publishing used the old media to perform a classic hatchet job, while, for the most part, the greater spaces and freer thinkers of the Internet came up with a response every bit as reflexive and shallow as what we've come to expect from the mainstream media. Personal attack turned out to be more popular than complex thinking.

But anyone who took the time to listen to Chabon's lecture and read the Bookforum coverage couldn't help but agree that Maliszewski's take on it was dead on (not to mention fascinating). To those, like me, who have wondered how Chabon has gotten the acclaim he has for his childish stories that reduce complexities to entertainment pablum, it will come as no surprise that in the lecture Chabon comes off as an utterly fatuous, egotistical ignoramus. Who knows what he is actually trying to say? The speech is a disorganized mess, with the components adding up to nothing except Chabon's enchantment with himself as a "story–teller." This is supposed to exonerate him from all signs of any learned intelligence and excuse even the most egregious mistakes. As long as you're charming and good looking! In a woman it's called a dumb bimbo. In a man it's called a Pulitzer winner (an award Chabon manages to mention in every interview, by the way). It would all be pitiful if he hadn't cloaked himself in the Holocaust (by declaring an actual writer a Nazi, no less. But hey, it's a story! It's a story!)

What made the whole thing all the more upsetting was the reaction of the literary world at large. The fact that Nextbook did not reconsider their support of Chabon, and instead attacked the more thoughtful and diligent Maliszewski with a series of false claims about what he wrote, will forever speak against them. Do they really want to support someone appropriating the Holocaust for such self–serving purposes like that? Do they really stand for such thin, conservative, and opportunistic thinking about Judaism? And of course, Chabon himself only looks worse for having friends like Eggers conduct a personal attack on his behalf, rather than directly addressing the issue, or at least simply dealing with it himself. All concerned seem no less than intellectual cowards.

Then there is the press response. What a wonderful chance this offered for Internet journalists, at least, to finally discuss issues of literary interest and importance in some depth. But what happened? Despite the fact that bloggers, for example, typically despise the New York Times (think how they all become devilishly acute media critics when the Times dares to write about comics, for example) this time out most bought its version of events hook, line and sinker. No one seemed to notice that the report said nothing about Chabon's speech, and spoke to people about things that had no relevance; they missed entirely that it was an obvious work of character assassination, as only MobyLives pointed out bluntly. I even saw one blog say that Maliszewski should be on medication. Such writing compounded the error, in other words, and also completely failed to engage with a difficult subject intellectually. Despite the fact that most book bloggers have been regularly bashing Chabon's dim–witted wife for her revoltingly vapid writings on the web, they weren't about to question the genius who puts up genre superheroes against Nazis and calls it thinking. Easier to beat up on a woman, I suppose.

And now it all seems to have gone away. Chabon will go on charging his lovely mane of hair heroically into issues over his head, to great acclaim. Meanwhile, no one covered the other side of the story of his lecture the way they covered the attack on Maliszewski. It's a crime that Maliszewski wasn't given equal time, if for no other reason than that he's more interesting. The few blogs that linked to anything linked mostly to Scott McLemee saying, well, everyone should read the Bookforum article before saying anything more. But that's obvious and shouldn't have even needed saying. By running away from the complexity of Maliszewski's writing, everyone missed an interesting story, and thereby became complicit in a much larger, deepening problem.

Brenda Eckles
Los Angeles, CA

Monday, 2 May 2005

Shill . . .

Let me get this straight: Jennifer Weiner says Beringer is hosting parties for her (where I'm sure their name and their product will be obvious) and she's working for them as host of a contest (either for money or publicity — she's recompensed) and she's NOT a shill? Spare me. Fine if you want to lie to yourself, but don't lie to me.

Yvonne Delong
Queens, NY

Friday, 29 April 2005

Shill? . . .

Much as I would have relished the opportunity to dress up as a giant bottle of girlie–wine and hang around in supermarkets menacing the light beer drinkers and asking to be sniffed and swirled, I am not actually a spokesperson or advertiser (much less a "shill") for White Lie wine.

Beringer Blass Wine Estates is going to be hosting some parties around the release of my fourth book, GOODNIGHT NOBODY, and the premiere of the film version of "In Her Shoes." Over the summer, I'll be judging a writing contest for them, which will give an unpublished author a chance to have her short story appear in a major magazine.

If any of this has contributed to the demise of modern–day feminism, or upset anyone who prefers reds to Chardonnay, I apologize.

Jennifer Weiner
New York, NY

Thursday, 28 April 2005

Whine about Weiner wine . . .

Low–cal wine for the ladies? The fall of western civilization is now complete. Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer. How could you?

I write this in the company of a big, fat, juicy red California zin. Yum.

Monica Wood
Portland, OR

About that Bullshit . . .

Actually, the Washington Post also uses the full title On Bullshit when referencing the book by Harry Frankfurt. Indeed, "On Bullshit" is on the Post's bestseller list — selling briskly on the Hill, no doubt.

Joe Barbato
Alexandra, VA

Monday, 25 April 2005

How men got in with those women writing to Oprah . . .

I really liked Christian Bauman's comment. I think a lot of writers did respond, though, back during the Franzen debacle. Of course, Word of Mouth didn't exist back then. Maybe if we had, we could have made a concerted reply. The most wonderful thing about the Oprah letter is that it's shown that writers can come together to express a view that's important to our community.

A slight correction to Christian Bauman's comment: Men were not asked to sign on to the Oprah letter as a segregated group. Industry custom when an organization issues a letter is for people outside the organization sign on as "friends" of the organization. If you check wordofmouthwriters.org again, you'll see that both women and men who are not Word of Mouth members signed on as "friends."

Paula Sharp
Word of Mouth

Friday, 22 April 2005

Oprah, just so you know, none of us have talked to J–Franz ever since . . .

In regard to the Oprah letter, I couldn't be more in agreement with the sentiments, and just got back (in a cyber way) from signing it (men, it seems, are allowed as "friends" of the women's group).

Not to be cynical, but one thought I think deserves a collective chewing on, for when this type of thing happens again: Where was the support and thanks for Oprah from the literary community when the actual incident that prompted Oprah's withdrawl occurred? We've got approaching hundreds of published American authors thanking Oprah for the interest she generated in contemporary fiction, asking her to please do it again. So, where was everyone when she was made to look a little bit foolish? Which famous author stood up publicly in disagreement when labels of low-brow were being placed on her? Where was the group love when she grumbled about stopping the book club, and then did just that? It's great that we're thanking her now. Perhaps an apology might also be in order.

Christian Bauman
author of The Ice Beneath You, regular contributor to NPR's All Things Considered
New Hope, PA

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

The Flook report . . .

I think your headline referring to Maria Flook's book ["Garbage man puts lie to bestselling book," since changed] is at best misleading. The arrest of a suspect in the Worthington murder does not reflect badly on any thing Flook wrote or opined.

And as for those outraged parties, their outrage seemed hypocritical and self–serving. What does it mean to be promiscuous in this allegedly post sexual revolutionary epoch? No one was outraged at Worthington's father of her child and one time lover's adulterous and promiscuous behavior. Flook's portrait of Worthington was respectful empathetic. When I spoke to Maria Flook, I was concerned about how her book would affect Christa's child Ava:

RB: I know you said that you have no interest in hurting anyone. You close the book with a report of Ava's ongoing and perhaps life long therapy. At any point in the writing of this book have you thought about what effect her reading of this book would have on Christa's child?

MF: When Ava reads this book she will see that Christa wanted her. Christa loved her wholly. In the first two and a half years of that baby's life Christa was there for her. Ava was her whole world. I think that one reason Ava is doing so well now is not just that she is in a very good setup with Amyra Chase and her husbandŠbut I think one of the smartest things Christa did was to name Amyra as guardian for her baby. But even before her new mom, Ava had a fantastic start in those first two and half years. One reason she is so strong and doing so well now is because Christa immersed herself in that baby. Ava will have to absorb and analyze the more distressing facts about her mom, but I also think that she can admire a lot about her mother when she reads this book. Christa was a savvy individualist, not a careerist but a woman who really loved to write. And I don't know why she never stepped aside and tried to write her novel like some of her friends suggested. That's a hard row to hoe and maybe she didn't have the kind of commitment you need for that. Because in fashion writing you have immediate return. A small return.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the resentment that Flook's (an animus, I confess I also held until I actually read it) is that involved parties feel proprietary towards the story (any claims to violations of privacy by the Worthingtons should be viewed in the skeptical light cast by their attempts to sell the story to Hollywood.) and journalists resent a novelist treading on their turf. All this being said I feel comfortable forwarding the view that Invisible Paradise is a compassionate and thoughtful, and yes, a well–crafted book.

Robert Birnbaum
Boston MA

Thursday, 23 March 2005

That dern Chesterton again . . .

In Charles Dickens, Last of the Great Men, G.K. Chesterton said "It is not my intention here to mediate between those who like life and long novels and those who like death and short stories. . . ."

Susan Ramsey
Athena Book Shop
Kalamazoo, MI

Ruining first fiction: filthy lucre . . .

I can't tell you the year, because I don't know it off hand, but there was a literary revolution in Europe, particularly in France, as new writing started coming out in something called "paperback." At the time, it had not reached the U.S. The beauty of it was that more people — as in the less affluent and less elite — suddenly had access to literature, and thus the number of readers of literature grew. I can tell you it was near the turn of the century. Not this recent one — the one before it.

I can also tell you that Ernest Hemingway's first agreed–to advance was in the realm of $200 for In our time, published in the U.S. by an extremely small at the time house after an even smaller publisher, a Paris friend, published a very limited number of copies. in our time, as you'll all recall, was a collection of short stories (a nod to Mr. Almond's reasoning).

I can lastly state I was taught to approach writing a novel in the same way as Mr. Almond talks about writing short stories — relating a story to friends or people whose attention you have briefly, who are willing to listen so long as you don't bore them or maybe you keep buying them drinks. A novel, I was taught, is essentially a collection of short stories that relate to each other. A chapter should be tight enough ideally to stand on its own. As should a page, a paragraph, or just a sentence.

Hemingway, receiving or culling attention from F. Scott Fitzgerald, wound up writing a parody of the most notable writer on his first publisher's list, his Chicago acquaintance Sherwood Anderson, resulting in his getting the first publisher to break their two-book deal with him. That move made him free of obligation, and he wound up in Maxwell Perkins' "stable" at Scribner's, publishing the parody — The Torrents of Spring — first and the next novel, The Sun Also Rises, second. Both were hardcover books at the time, and are still selling handsomely as paperbacks more than 79 years since The Sun was first published.

In other words, I agree completely with both Baumann, who should know, and Lasner, who also knows, that part of the problem with first fiction appears to be too much money offered on a hunch or speculation resulting in large returns and reaffirmation that whoever is picking the "next thing" is probably better off doing something different with their lives.

Because of the money involved, writers appear to have no "loyalty" to publishers (Hemingway even today is published by Simon & Schuster, which owns Scribner's — and his posthumous output is rivaling that of when he was actually writing). Likewise, publishers appear to be looking for "quick kills," the one–shot wonders who help their bottom line when they pick the right one, and who kill the hopes and dreams of the would–be Maxwell Perkins when the one shot is over, whether it succeeds in aiding the publishing house or not.

As a hopeful first–time novelist (hopeful in the sense as someone who has written more than one novel but hopes eventually at least one will be published, since writing for me has become a terminal disease and I'm going to continue doing it until I can't, whether it's short stories, novels, screenplays, memoirs or just Christmas cards), I hereby declare several ways I am willing personally to rescue first fiction.

1) I am willing to accept an advance that appears reasonable, as I'm intending to continue writing for the rest of my life and am not, currently, dependent on fiction for my livelihood. I also have no desire to buy a house or several houses in expensive parts of the world only to discover I must return my lucrative advance because nobody's left in my immediate family to buy the book.

2) I am willing to grow with a publisher who sees potential in me for not only future sales, but a future, mutually–beneficial relationship. In other words, as my name and hopefully following grows, so should the publisher's.

3) I am willing to be published in paperback first, hopefully in hardback second, if it means getting my writing to potential readers that much more quickly and affordably. And if it means fewer returns, few enough that I get to keep my advance. Though, like Baumann, I'd prefer to see my paperback novel on the "New Fiction," rather than "New Paperback" table.

Everybody wants to get rich in this country, it seems. Lucre isn't really the best motive for art, for literature, I think. Exposure of your ideas, maybe. A livable wage, maybe. But riches? It never seems to be enough when we're alive, and when we're dead, it just goes to somebody who might, as my father always feared, wind up on a balcony at Monte Carlo having squandered it all on the baccarat table, wearing a tuxedo and black tie with a pistol to their temple.

Terin Tashi Miller
Maplewood, NJ

Wednesday, 23 March 2005

Contemptible hardbacks . . .

Although I'm not particularly concerned about first–time authors, I think it would be great if more of 'em were published as trade paperback originals. I can't stand hardbacks and don't buy them. (This has nothing to do with cost. I'm 22 and my disposable income is devoted to entertaining myself.)

Susan Ramsey cites Middlesex as an example of a book that wasn't a bestseller in hardcover but did better in paperback, presumably because it was cheaper. So it was, but it was also more handsome than the ugly hardback and could be held comfortably aloft in one hand for well over an hour, even by a bookish weakling.

Hardbacks are contemptible. They're heavy and inflexible. They take up too much space in your bag. And they come in a silly paper wrapper. If people loved to wrap their books up in paper, there wouldn't be a market for stretchy nylon book jackets, but there is.

This is pointing out the obvious, right?

Erica Grieder
Austin, Texas

Eight reasons why you should write novels . . .

If a fellow (Steve Almond, in particular) wants to write short stories, who's going to argue with him? Not me, especially since I have read and enjoyed a few of them. But if he wants to give us a list of reasons why, and most (all but one) of those reasons don't make sense, then I will observe:

(1) The stories as we encounter them in real life (bar room, campfire) are jokes, anecodotes, and musings, not art. So short stories are the closest things to real life stories only if you bias your definition of real life story in that direction. Along the same lines you could argue that the novel is the closest literary thing to some other real life thing — a given person's life, or history, or extended reflections on life or history. And there you go, reason number 1 why you should write novels.

(2) You were inspired by a good short story.

(3) You, in fact, prefer short stories, and thus you write them.

(4) In reading, you like a handful of short pieces instead of something longer than you are apt to finish. So you write short too.

(5) Your ideal audience is a group of adults who don't read literature but read yours because they know you. Do they read it, how shall I say, one page at a time? But Steve, sounds like they might do the same with poetry, if that's what you wrote.

(6) For economic reasons, some people get bad novels published, so you write short stories.

(7) Some people write bad novels, so you write short stories; also a "great short story" is, you know, great.

(8) You like fiction, but not stories.

Barton Yeary
Ann Arbor, MI

Monday, 21 March 2005

Saving first fiction: Display isn't everything . . .

I'd like to suggest that booksellers don't help first time authors simply by placing their book under direct light in a prime location in their stores. Rahter first–timers are helped by booksellers who read and hand–sell their book.

If Christian Bauman is ticked off that paperbacks aren't in the "New Fiction" section of the Barnes & Noble, that's likely becauuse money hasn't changed hands to put it there. The impetus is on the publisher to spread co–op money around to any book inquestion.

The process is a bit different in an independent shop. At the shop in which I work, if I like it, the book gets prime real estate. Right now, I'm putting Sam Lipsyte's Home Land into as many hands as I can, because it's a brilliant trade paperback original. Bauman is right that booksellers should defer to trade paperbacks on principle because of the price point. The Da Vinci Code doesn't need my help, but there are lots of paperback original authors that might, and frankly, that's where the good writing and storytelling tends to be.

If Bauman wants to get the second book off the ground, independents sell books, chains display them (and return them in huge numbers quickly).

Dave Worsley
Ontario, Canada

Thursday, 17 March 2005

Saving first fiction: authors and booksellers have to help, too . . .

Here's an author's perspective on Susan–the–bookseller's comments below (and bookstore owners, please see my note to you at the bottom!):

It's very easy to get frustrated with publishing houses for not getting the simple logic for publishing fiction in trade paperback. Really, it's about as close to a no–brainer as one can get. True, in theory both publishers and authors make less money on trade papaerbacks than on hardbacks (authors usually make a higher percentage on hardbacks), but what's a higher percentage worth if the whole pie isn't much above zero?

With the way things are today, I consider myself very fortunate to be published by the Touchstone division of Simon & Schuster. Part of Touchstone's business is reprint paperbacks of books published in hardback elsewhere (Robert Stone and Robert Morgan, for instance), but they also pub some novelists original to the house (myself, Regina McBride, a handful of others), almost always in trade paperback. The authors and books are handled just like they would be in hardback, the publicity formulas are almost exactly the same (I have a fantastic, hardworking publicist at Touchstone), but the books are a helluva lot cheaper. For first–time and midlist authors, this is critical.

For example: my second novel is coming out in September. With the industry climate the way it is, I doubt very much that this second book would be getting published if my first had been published in hardback. There's just no way we would have sold enough books. What made possible the good but modest sales we got were (just as Susan says below) book clubs, college classrooms, and — far in the rear — NPR impulse buyers (first from being on Fresh Air, then later from my work on ATC). None of these things could have happened if my novel was $25.00. Book clubs wouldn't do it, college students simply couldn't afford it, and few people shell out a twenty for an impulse.

What really makes you shake your head in amazement at the fiction houses is the fact that there have been screaming literary successes in trade paperback. Does anyone remember a little Pulitzer Prize winning story collection by Ms. Lahiri? A trade paperback original. How about "Bright Lights, Big City"? A trade paperback original. (Both of those books were LATER pubbed in hardback, a brilliant move.) And how many novels have sold absolutely nothing in hardback but went on to modest (or even great) sales in trade paperback? This is an industry that seems not to learn from its successes.

Now, having said all that, I'd like to make a comment aimed directly at the booksellers out there:

As a group, you folks have been the vocal champions of fiction in trade paperback. Thank you. But my experience (both with my first novel and from paying close attention to other books) is that you're not always great with the follow–through. Let me explain. . .

You asked that fiction be pubbed in trade paperback, but when it is you often treat it like a second–class citizen. It's easy to see why publishers (and authors) get nervous about pubbing in trade paperback. Until YOU start treating trade paperbacks as "real books," publishers aren't going to jump onboard.

A simple example: When "The Ice Beneath You" came out, it was almost never on the "New Fiction" table or shelf. Instead, it was on the "New in Paperback" table (if it made a "New" table at all; it frequently didn't). No big deal you say? I disagree. As a reader, I know that when I'm browsing for a possible impulse buy, for a new voice, I go to "New Fiction." The only reason I'm likely to go to "New Paperback" is if I'm looking for a specific title and am just checking to see if it's in paperback yet. It's just not the table people go to for new fiction.

There are of course bookstores that are exceptions to this. But frankly not many. Booksellers, if you want publishers to give you fiction in an affordable medium, then you have to take the first step by treating that medium as an equal to anything coming out in hardback from Knopf.

Christian Bauman
New Hope, PA

Wednesday, 16 March 2005

First but not last . . .

Robert Lasner missed one possibility which might save a literary first novel, even if it bruises the author's ittle feelings. Publish the sucker as a handsome trade paperback immediately. If you're not one of the five big novels of the year (and often even if you are) it's the book clubs who are going to save your hide, and they're not going to do it until you hit paper, so why suffer for a year? Middlesex, for all its good reviews, was not a bestseller in hardcover. You're a better writer than Eugenides?

Having published in paper, get advance readers' copies to independent bookstores, whether it's through The White Box, direct mailing, or pinning notes to their blankets which say "Raise Me Literate." And ask, beg, plead, that they nominate your novel for Book Sense. Some days the magic works, some days it doesn't, but handselling by the indies has put on the map authors from Barbara Kingsolver to Jumpha Lahiri, whose The Namesake has never met the NYT bestseller list but has a permanent address on the American Booksellers' Association list (www.booksense.com)

And maybe, just maybe, if you're torn between publishing two equally good novels, you should meet the authors, see them give a reading. Good readings don't just sell books, they build readerships, and those are the people who will take over the job of selling your book for you.

Susan Ramsey
Athena Book Shop
Kalamazoo, MI

Friday, 11 March 2005

Letter writer apologizes to Galvin . . .

Unfortunately, in my recent letter about the University of Iowa Press Poetry Competition, I incorrectly identified James Galvin of the Writers Workshop as the judge of the series. He has not been the judge of the University of Iowa Poetry Series Competition for the last five years. An attorney at the University of Iowa provided me with the names of the judges for fiction and poetry for the past five years upon my request. The correct judge of the Poetry Series Competition for the past five years as identified by the University of Iowa attorney is Mark Levine of the Writers Workshop. I am not aware of any comments about the Poetry Series Competition and complaints about it by Foetry.com that have been made by Mr. Galvin or Mr. Levine. My apology to Mr. Galvin for the misidentification of him as the judge of the Poetry Series Competition.

Steven Brown
Boston, MA

Thursday, 10 March 2005

Contest scandal: It's worse than you think . . .

Again, thanks to Foetry.com for standing up and printing the truth. In perusing the Foetry.com site you discover that the University of Georgia Press has been running their poetry contest for twenty years and when asked refused to name the judges of their Poetry Series Competition. An Open Records Act request to the state of Georgia Attorney General's office forced the Press to release the records which revealed a remarkable number of conflict of interest choices in the winners of the Poetry Series, including Jorie Graham's selection of her husband (and Harvard English Department colleague) Peter Sacks as a winner in the series. Ms. Graham's selection of Sacks was done under cover of darkness, as a backroom deal, a no one is supposed to know deal as all judges — until the forced outing by the Georgia Open Records request — were anonymous. Numerous other judges in the Georgia Poetry Series Competition were revealed to be noted professors who had selected former students, friends and colleagues as winners in the Poetry Series Competition.

The University of Iowa Press runs a fiction and poetry contest series (although the fiction series may not currently charge a fee the University of Iowa Press received taxpayer dollars from the National Endowment for the Arts to help fund the series) that has over the years taken in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from unwitting writers who submit their manuscripts, not realizing that the screeners of the manuscripts are graduate students in the Writing Workshop, that the judge for poetry has been (for the past five years at least) James Galvin (Galvin teaches in the Workshop) and the judges for fiction have been (or are) teachers and/or graduates of the Workshop, and recently six out of eight winners were graduates of or former teachers at the Workshop or employees of the University of Iowa (English Department). Asked for comment the two recent Iowa graduated winners of the Iowa poetry contest did not return telephone calls made by the student newspaper at the University of Iowa when they did a story on this issue. Frank Conroy, outgoing Director of the Workshop, asked by Foetry.com for comment had no comment. James Galvin has apparently been silent on this issue, as has Bin Ramke, editor of the Georgia Poetry Series Competition. Where else are we to find out this information? Thank you Foetry.com.

Steven Brown
Boston, MA

Tuesday, 8 March 2005

Shun the winners . . .

It's about time somebody outed these fiction and poetry contests for being so corrupt. And to think everyone used to consider these awards such a mark of honor! Now I'd shun any writer who would accept such an award. You'd think at least one of them would have the class to give one back when the fix is revealed, but you'd think wrong.

Sheila Carnahan
Boston, MA

Nothing racist about Sambo, say letter writer . . .

Re: The Japan Today story that Little Black Sambo is going to be republished in Japan . . .

I've just re–read what appears to be the original version of Helen Bannerman's story. There's nothing at all racist in it that I can find. Of course, when translated into Japanese, the children's tale may well have been rewritten.

Carol Anne Sundahl
Seattle WA

Monday, 7 March 2005

Hats off to Foetry, hats on to Iowa . . .

This is to cast a vote of support for Foetry, and to MobyLives for hooking up to this story. It's really outrageous how the University of Iowa has behaved for years with their poetry and fiction contests. Everyone knows it's a joke. The solution has been obvious for 30 or 40 years now — make faculty, employees, and recent grads ineligible. Duh. Do they do it? No, they just keep slamming true arts promotion by smearing anyone who calls them on it, just like their spokesrobot is doing to Foetry. Any wonder why more and more people disdain places like Iowa and contests like these? Shame on them, and to the winners who participated when they should know better. Winning a rigged fight is nothing to be proud of, in fact quite the opposite. To me, it says they're all missing something pretty essential.

Tom Jenkins
Baltimore, MD

Japanese publisher deluded, in more ways than one . . .

Re: The Japan Today story that Little Black Sambo is going to be republished in Japan . . .

Company president Tomio Inoue "has said he believes it is worthwhile to pass on the book to the next generation," reports Japan Today. Says Inoue, "I think it's necessary to think deeply about what constitutes discrimination. In India, 'sambo' generally refers to a child's name."

Having lived in India on-and-off from the age of 3 on, and having become fluent in Hindi (reading and writing), and fluent in Urdu (spoken, which is similar to Hindi but in an arabic, as opposed to devanagari script), I cannot recall a single instance either as a child or an adult in which I heard the term "sambo" used to refer to a child's name. Samaj&3150;guya (phonetically spelling using English script) means "I understand."

I believe the term is more likely Swahili, if not bastardized English as in "some body," or "some boy." Sahib (sometimes written as Sahab or even Saib) is Hindi for "Gentleman," or "boss."

At best, it could possibly be a regional dialect — there are over 400 technically in India — but I believe Mr. Inoue is being...innaccurate. If I'm not mistaken, the story itself actually takes place in, or relates to, an African (not Indian) child — at least, that's the version I recall hearing as a child in the U.S., in Wisconsin...

Terin Tashi Miller
Maplewood, NJ

Friday, 4 March 2005

He oughtta know . . .

I'm a current Iowa MFA fiction student. I helped judge the Iowa Book Prize as part of my financial aid research associateship job. I looked at every submission, along with another student. First, it should be clarified that the Iowa Book Prize does not charge an entry fee, that no money changes hands (no cash prize, no advance, no royalties), that it's all about validation and publication. The Iowa Press website clearly states that no entry fee is required. Second, let it be widely known that the first readers of Doug Trevor's manuscript put an exclamation point next to his name after we reviewed his submission. (An exclamation point! Not a measly "check.") We didn't know he was a professor. His handwritten cover letter, in fact, made us think he worked at the Hamburg Inn Diner. It only said "Please consider these stories for the Iowa Book Prize" in shaky pencil. Very cool, we thought. Third, dozens of recent Iowa grads — some with serious literary publications and creditionals, some who also attended the Workshop with Kevin Brockmeier (by all accounts, a super–sweet, scrupulous, infinitely sensitive/harmless man) — didn't make it to the semi–final round, let alone the final round Kevin read.

Lee Klein
Iowa City, Iowa

Wednesday, 2 March 2005

Discredited Moby . . .

I was sorry to see MobyLives.com reprinting anything from Foetry.com as a news item.

In the case of Boise State University, you wrote, "Foetry also claims retaliation from other contests it has 'outed' in the past, including at the University of Georgia and at Boise State."

First of all, there was nothing to "out" at Boise State. Everything we've done has been above board, and we've been completely open about our process. The site refuses to acknowledge that and has defamed both judges and winners with purely malicious accusations they have been unable to prove because they are inventions. Secondly, Boise State has not "retaliated" against Foetry.com, except to block incoming spam e-mails from the site. The e–mails contained fabrications about me and called for my termination; they were deemed a nuisance by the president, provost, dean, and attorneys to whom they were sent, as well as by me.

The Foetry.com site is entirely anonymous. Its pretense to "naming names" is particularly ludicrous given that fact. That MobyLives.com or anyone else lends them credibility is to your discredit.

Janet Holmes
MFA Program in Creative Writing
Director, Ahsahta Press
Boise State University

Tuesday, 4 January 2005

Stupid Moby critic . . .

Loved the letter from the gracious and sophisticated Republican in North Carolina. His argument: It's really stupid that you suggest people should direct their hard–earned dollars toward corporations with whom they share political beliefs . . . except for when HE does it. If this isn't a typical example of the fundamental hypocrysy, not to mention the hysterical stupidity, of the fundamentalist right then I don't know what is. I also love that he couldn't resist pointing out that "there are more of us than there are of you." That's the 3 percent mandate, i guess.

Terry Burke
Andersonville, SC

Whack job . . .

Regarding the letter from the whack job . . . .

My question is: What the fuck are these childish bullies so pissed off about? News flash to Rutherford: You won! Try reading a newspaper instead of trolling the Internet looking for fights to pick like a drunken thug crusing bars and you would be aware of that. Now, in the immortal words of one of your own, Bob Dole, why don't you crawl back under your rock?

Towson, MD

Monday, 3 January 2005

Stupid Moby . . .

Your column, Blue Christmas, surprised me. Suggesting that liberals...or is it progressives now...spend their money with businesses that match their political leanings sounds somewhat stupid. Have you forgotten that there are now more of us than there are of you and that the gap widens day by day? Roe effect, possibly? Or do you really think that none of us can read "Buyblue?" Let us try this purchasing method for an election cycle and see which companies fold first, shall we?

I would credit you with steering my dollars away from B and Borders but I had read "Buyblue" sometime ago and had decided to purchase only from a private bookstore in my hometown or from Amazon, both of which "Thinkred."

Ron Rutherford
Brevard, NC

Wednesday, 22 December 2004

The "red tint" of Scamazon . . .

I love the revelation that Amazon is a Republican–friendly outfit, but I'm puzzled that some progressives feel so betrayed by this. Given the massive deficits of both America and Amazon, it seems a Bezos/Bush convergence is obvious.

But more to the point, the lack of movement around state taxes on Internet sales comes from inaction at the federal level, and it makes the red tint of Scamazon a bit more obvious.

For wha it's worth, McNally Robinson in Manhattan gives my American cousins a real jewel of an option.

Dave Worsley
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

You can lead a Wolfe to irony, but he still wears the plantation owner's suit . . .

Tom Wolfe says, "There's an old saying — 'You can lead a whore to culture but you can't make her sing'."

That should be ". . . you can't make her think": a Dorothy Parker (mis)quotation. According to DorothyParkerNYC.com: "When challenged to use the workd 'horticulture' in a sentence, for instance, Parker replied, 'You may lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.'"

Dave Lull

Tuesday, 21 December 2004

Paying authors their share . . .

While I agree that independent is the way to go, I'm not sure Powell's qualifies anymore. Further, as a writer, it's very frustrating to think they'll send used copies of my books to buyers before new. At least with B&N I'm getting a small cut of each sale. There's plenty wrong with B&N, but their blue allegiance and the fact that authors get their royalties wins out with me.

George Murray

Real world view . . .

In response to Krista McGruder:

While I must admit I didn't quite follow what ever points Ms McGruder was making, I found her liberal/conservative dichotomizing as limp and pointless as whomever she is attacking. But that's not why I write.

I recall calling publishers such as Stuart Applebaum "dumb Jews" since he bid for and secured the future writings of the creators of the supposedly Christian "Left Behind" series. Why do I call him dumb? Because as far as I know Jews don't fare so well in the apocalyptic world of those, uh, Christians. Not to mention, but I will, that said Left Behind cabalists are zealous proselytizers of a fundamentalist world view that does not embrace Jews and other non Christians. I probably don't understand Christianity very well but that doesn't seem Christ–like to me. And for a Jew to promote such a, un –brotherly world view seems to me to be at least dumb if not self destructive.

Robert Birnbaum
Boston MA

Monday, 20 December 2004

Don't forget Powell's . . .

I'm fortunate to be able to buy Blue and local, since I live just a few blocks from the Powell's headquarters in Portland, Oregon. But online shoppers can enjoy the vast inventory at www.powells.com and know that their book buying dollars are supporting a vibrant, unionized, independent business whose owner donates thousands of dollars to Democrats and progressive causes.

Karynn Fish
Portland, OR

"Lib–lit logic" . . .

In the ultra–red corner of the red state where I was born, raised and maintain my legal voting residence, folks employ an expression—simile for snooty writers—that I apply to liberals who whine that conservatives will "take over" the publishing industry. The attribution makes those whiners out as useless as tits on a boar hog.

I've got nothing but respect for tits and boars but no patience for liberal literary types who complain they will be marginalized by members of some vast, right–wing, take–back–the–NEA–from–raving–leftists conspiracy. Fretful literary liberals have obviously never bothered to listen to fellow liberals' rants and drones during the past three years of book festivals. Sessions about political fiction or current events were given over to Bush–bashing. North, South, Southeast, West, red and blue states: literary conferences overwhelmingly showcased authors, editors and agents disdainful of the administration. Even kiddie–friendly sessions, those presumably devoted to narrative entertainment, were anti–war, anti–GOP and contemptuous of people—patrons included—who might differ with their pro–DNC, Bush–hating hysteria. This capitalist has no problem with literary festivals' and bookstores' liberal biases. Free speech encompasses the freedom of my butt to leave and freedom of my credit card to spend elsewhere. Liberals should not, therefore, complain when filthy lucre receipts (another reader's "instruments of financial exploitation") drawn from book festivals and book sales are disappointing and represent less than half the population's spending preferences. In lib–lit logic, only conservatives are to be condemned for writing and buying books with which they might agree. Meanwhile, publishers and customers of liberal content are to be praised for "reason and clear thinking." In lib–lit logic, citizens of rogue nuclear nations are praiseworthy for trying to thwart U.S. sanctions against commerce with said nations. Meanwhile, publishers are described as "dumb Jews" for promoting a popular Christian book series, legally, in the U.S. (And yes, dear lib–lits, sending American dollars to nations under commercial embargo—even a few dollars exchanged for badly written words spouting ugly against America—constitutes illegal commerce. No matter how intellectually negligible the content.)

Lib–lit logic also navigates, brilliantly, the fundamental moral divide between people who choose not to expose genitalia in church and those who donate to the homeless.

Or perhaps not.

One letter writer bemoans that red–staters buy "Wal#150;Mart choir robes" instead of contributing to homeless shelters with tax–exempt dollars. But the writer seems content to allow blue–staters to employ tax–exempt instruments of financial exploitation to subsidize public university literary journals expressing liberal political viewpoints. Shouldn't the good, reason–imbued journal editors at public universities in Nashville, New York and San Francisco cease printing and exploiting and instead, donate their tax–exempt subsidies to homeless shelters? Or is it possible that choir members might decide against singing in the buff and still contribute time, money and elbow grease to the Christian–founded Habitat for Humanity?

Only in the bizarro world of lib–lit logic are choir robes and homeless charities mutually exclusive but liberal, state–subsidized print journals and homeless charities are not.

Finally, with respect to Ms. Corley's fear that publishers will "cow–tow" to conservatives: she needs to visit my farm in the Ozarks. She might then understand that a "cow–tow" would require a medium horsepower tractor, a pulling wedge and a hyperbolically cooperative bovine. None of which, I propose, are inventoried at even the most right–leaning publishing house. So let not her heart be troubled.

Though I enjoy Ms. Corley's journal, WordRiot, her doomsday scenario of publishers bulldozing tree–huggers and old–growth forests to kowtow to the political right is implausible, if for no other reason than most conservatives are too busy kicking sand on welfare mothers, warmongering in Middle Eastern deserts, driving SUV's plastered with NRA and Jesus Saves stickers, and, oh yes, voting, to worry about liberal literary editors and professors who select liberal literary writers for public prizes, public university fellowships and redneck taxpayers' dole money.

Krista McGruder
New York, NY

Friday, 17 December 2004

Buy blue, or buy local? . . .

I have mixed feelings about buying blue. Knowing that 100% of the political contributions made by Borders went to Democrats makes me feel a little better about shopping there, but only when I have to.

For one thing, I haven't forgotten the Mobylives column "You've Got Nerve," originally published February 21, 1999, which is specifically about Borders. Supporting the Democratic party nationally certainly helps Deomcratic politicians, but driving out small businesses and doing nothing for the local community beyond providing books at a discount hurts the constituents those polticians are supposed to represent. I know Borders is hardly the worst offender in this regard, but to suggest buying blue reminds me we have a political system where dollars speak louder than people and multinational corporations call the shots.

If you think "buying blue" means supporting the community, protecting local jobs, and even saving the environment, then many local businesses are, by their very nature, blue. After all, no local business owner wants to lay off a neighbor or llive in a toxic waste dump.

What kind of Democratic party are we getting if we buy blue anyway? After November's election a frigthening number of Democrats were hornswoggled into thinking they needed to reach out to "voters with values" because this group represented a whopping one–fifth of the total number of voters. No one specified what sort of values these voters held, and the unfortunate assumption seems to be that "voters with values" are homophobes who believe in using their chruch's tax exempt dollars to buy Wal–Mart choir robes instead of contributing to homeless shelters.

Of course I'm exaggerating, but it's frightening how quickly Democratic leaders jumpt to the conclusion that the way to win elections is to become Republicans. "Buying blue" should supplement, not replace, writing to my representatives in COngress, speaking out, and other forms of traditional activism. I'll buy blue if I have to, buy locally when I can, but won't let any corporations—blue, red, or chartreuse—speak for me. They don't necessarily have my, or my community's, best interests at heart.

Christopher Waldrop
Nashville, TN

Thursday, 16 December 2004

What freedom of speech really means . . .

I find it odd, although I guess not surprising, to see all the commentary today celebrating the shift in the U.S. Treasury Department's rules on importing and publishing writing from Cuba, Iran, Sudan and other countries unilaterally designated as enemies by Washington. What is the great victory here? That the government realized it was shooting itself in the foot by censoring its own allies in the propaganda war against these countries? So Washington is going to "permit" criticism of countries whose governments Bush is trying to bring down—this is some great step forward for free speech? The U.S. government's spokesperson made clear in his statement that all other writings from these countries will still be barred.

The real victory for free speech would be if writers who do not side with Washington could get their voices heard here. But no. This the U.S. government cannot allow.

This is the real battle of ideas, and Washington cannot permit equal access to ideas. The most dangerous idea of all, of course, is that socialism is a superior system to capitalism. And so U.S. readers must not be permitted, for instance, to read the work of Cuban writers who side with their own revolution in the great effort to build a society of equals, rather than siding with the illegal, immoral, murderous, internationally condemned 44–year–long U.S. blockade of their country. Worst of all would be to allow people in this country to read the commentary of Cuban writers who refute U.S. claims about repression inside their country.

It's not as though you can go to Cuba to see for yourself—not unless you're willing to risk prosecution, fines and imprisonment, for the U.S. government bars travel to that country.

It would be good to see people who advocate free speech in this country extend their advocacy to even that speech which runs contrary to their own and/or the U.S. government's views. Even for those who buy into the U.S. government's portrayal of the situation inside these other countries—a portrayal that ranges, in my view, from distorted to false—even, no, especially, for those who criticize these countries' rulers, wouldn't an honest commitment to full and free access to ideas compel them to demand that Washington truly end the censorship of international writing and permit all voices, including those the White House on behalf of Wall Street deems enemies, to be heard?

Shelley Ettinger
New York City

Wednesday, 1 December 2004

Render unto Gatenby . . .

Just as I was wondering what non–lethal (as opposed to the lethal kind that is a hallmark of our federal government) nonsense was going to take up the slack from the recent New York Times sponsored National Book Awards festschrift, along comes l'affair Greg Gatenby. Thank you, book business. This story beats reading about the dumb Jews in the book business bidding for the next "Left Behind" series.

Janet Taylor makes some good points though she ought to draw out the causal chain to its ultimate silly end point. Which when you do think about it should put a big X through the notion that there is anything free in this life. If anyone needs me to draw out the argument that the books I and others receive in the course of our work are not free feel, uh, free to contact me and I will delve in to matters axiolgical.

But let's stay real here. And in that spirit I refer you to the delightful calculations made by Micahel Orthofer (always masterful with the numbers) at the Literary Saloon, regarding the time Gatenby Has devoted to ammassing his 28,000 tomes. By Orthofer's calculations over an hour and a half every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for 36 years. Now who would begrudge that man, who by all accounts, performed admirably in the service of the Toronto book thingy, his payday?

Actually, I have had first–hand experience with that begrudging type. In the 90's I worked for a short–fingered vulgarian, who when he would see me schlepping books to my automobile would take the opportunity to tell me that these books were company property. I didn't take this seriously until I discovered that the company regularly shipped boxes of review copies to a bookstore in New York for cash—a bookstore by the way reputedly frequently offering for sale new editions before a books editors had copies. Needless to say hanky panky is no stranger to the noble book business. Later when I left the company, that same vulgarian included a claim on my review copies in threatened legal action. At the time I wondered if I was going to have to retrieve the countless books that I had given way to various contributors, interns, clients, friends, and other of the short–fingered vulgarians in whose employ I found myself.

It is no doubt safe to say that only a very short–sighted person would consider a career in journalism for the perks (book, movie screenings, industrial gatherings of varying opulence, product smaples, junkets, t–shirts et cetera). I have always found it amusing that acquaintances of mine grouse about this imagined mother lode of which I am assumed to be a beneficiary. Let's see, I make a barely livable to reasonable income but I receive books and such. If I were in a lucratvie field I would probably make two or three times what I have made in my brilliant career on Grub Street. That's a smart trade–off, huh?

There is another element in the issue of book ownership. Who pays for the reading of these books? One could and should argue that's part of what literary and other journalists are paid for — to read. Not so, friends. They are paid to report or to comment. And as we have seen recently, occasionaly to fabricate. The good ones, and you know who they are, read. But that's who they are. Gail Caldwell or Jonathan Yardley are so obviously life–long readers that it is a distortion to argue their life habits are part of their job description. Conversely, it is no trade secret as so many of my conversants attest, that many so–called journalists they meet have not read the books which are the occasion for their meeting. Bad news. And sad.

I am glad that Greg Gatenby is asking and may get a few shekels for his signed editions. Over the years I have accreted a body of signed contemporary first editions which it is my intention to leave to my most beloved son. So every time I hear that the value of such things has appreciated, I feel a little less ashamed that I have failed to assemble a portfolio of securities and other instruments of financial exploitation. Hopefully, my son will feel the same way.

Robert Birnbaum
Boston, MA

Writing where you're at . . .

Fifty years ago, when the alert was over and our gear was unloaded and we were back in the barracks, I wrote about what it was like to be, simulaneously, on an all–time adrenaline high and scared semi–shitless. Russian tanks had rolled into Hungary, and we expected to be sent to the front line of World War III.

he war never happened, and my scribbling never was published. In fact, I never showed it to anyone, and when it resurfaced a few years ao I decided to leave it that way. It was clumsy, it was overblown, it was barely literate.

But. It was something I could not write today, nor I think could anyone else my age. So what the hell does the phrase mean, "coming of age writing"? Next year I'll be writing "coming of age 70" pieces, which neither I nor anyone else could have written at age 20.

My point (sorry, I seem to need ever more foreplay these days before plunging into the action): A twenty–year–old writes an 800–page novel about international intrigue, the trauma of mid–life anxiety, and the mixed joys of raising a family probably should not expect to see me at the reading. A twenty–year–old who writes — and writes well — about being scared shitless on the eve of battle will earn my respect, my envy, and maybe my twenty five dollars.

Phil Sheehan
Schenectady, NY

Tuesday, 30 November 2004

Age has nothing to do with writing talent . . .

While I agree with Ms. Corley that overzealous publishers, anxious to cash in on prodigies a la Shirley Temple or what have you, can ruin a literary career before it has a true chance to start, I am and have always been of the opinion that talent is talent, and that, despite the vagaries of the market, a good first novel is as likely to come out of someone young as a more seasoned, experienced writer.

Now, I hear your point, that no one wants to listen to a 20–something wax philosophical about his world, but frankly, I don't want to hear the same thing coming from my elders and betters. I want to read a novel that speaks with a clear voice, that illuminates some reality that is defined and separate. And anyone has the ability to see that — it doesn't need to be cured for months and months in someone's journal, to be unearthed and re–digested later. Sometimes what we need is a good, cold jolt of something new. Whether that will come from an older writer or a youngblood, who can say?

But if you're going to condemn the young writers themselves as strongly as you condemn the practices of publishing houses, then you've got yourself turned the wrong way round. Writers of all ages need to be encouraged to write, to publish, to release their visions. If the market doesn't buy it, so what?

Finlay Logan
Swarthmore College, PA

Monday, 29 November 2004

So whose books are they? . . .

RE: Greg Gatenby's books

..not intended for resale. Right. And we don't want you to eat those hors d'ouevres at cocktail parties instead of making a nice nutritious dinner either.

I produce and host an interview show that airs on an affiliate of Oregon Public Broadcasting. I get hundreds . . . no thousands . . . of books from publishers. If they aren't mine, will you send someone to get them please?

The "not intended for sale" seems to indicate publishers feel they are giving you something for nothing. But we're giving you access to the audience. No charge either. Well. . . you could bring cookies, or gin, to the interview. Or fedex a hunkster who hasn't learned the only way to get ahead in radio is to screw the vice president for programming not the producer/host.

If you really want to have fun with the situation turn it around: if the books don't belong to the festival organizer, to whom DO they belong? Are they free range books? Served with a nice vinaigrette I'll take MY James Ellroy raw please.

(Now, back to Bleak House and a man who REALLY knew scary things about the law.)

Janet Taylor
Producer/Host: Profiles, GH Radio Network
Brooklyn, NY

Wild concept: What if you didn't know how old the writer was? . . .

I've been trying to bend my brain around the gist of Jackie Corley's essay, and I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that honestly, nobody really wants to hear anything from somebody under 25, if not even 30. There's a level of resentment toward anybody who scores a publisher at that young an age — it seems Brett Easton Ellis is only now getting over the fact that Less Than Zero appeared when he was eighteen.

Readers in the age bracket want to identify with older writers, and older writers don't think a younger writer has anything important to say. So. I think it's best to just keep age out of it, really, and let the writing stand on its own. It's one of the areas where author info doens't help, and it should come as a pleasant surprise that something you enjoyed was written by someone so young, not that they're being hyped as the hot new Johnathan Safran Foer, or whoever that kid is who writes about being a teenage male prostitute for heroin. I've been called a kid enough in my early twenties to know that my age didn't help my credibility any.

As to a Gen–Y voice. . . I still don't know who the Gen–X voice is, so good luck on that one. I pretty much subscribe to the "tribe" theory of writers — I've got a group I like that may be totally different than those you like, and there is plenty of room on the current battlefield for that. Why try and constrain it to one dude or dudette?

James Stegall

Friday, 26 November 2004

Reflections of a failed enfant terrible . . .

Hats off to Jackie Corley's column of Nov. 22.

When I was 17, a literary agent took me under his wing and convinced me to try writing a novel. I wrote it. When I was 18, the agent sent it to Knopf and to Thomas Crowell. Fortunately, it was roundly rejected, or my "literary career" would have died almost instantly.

I've spent the 27 years since trying to prove the agent — who actually claimed he'd found in me an "enfant terrible," a la Hemingway or Fitzgerald — right.

The agent, Ray Puechner, died of cancer about 10 years after first taking me on. I visited with him the afternoon before the night of his death. Not only had I not managed in his lifetime to prove his support of me well–placed, but I was losing whatever he had seen to "write–what–sells" urgings.

About 7 years after Ray's death, I was posted to Spain to cover the country's entry into the European Monetary Union. My father died a month after my arrival in Madrid. My grandmother died a couple years later. My mother died a few years after we came back from Spain. My father's sister died a year later. My brother died the year after that — the same year months later we witnessed the attack on the World Trade Center from our street in Jersey City. My wife gave birth to twins the next year – one of them, Hannah Rose, died after a valiant, 4–month struggle.

If art is a reflection of life, I think you need to spend some time living — and maybe knowing in your soul that everything and everyone you've ever loved or seen or been with, ends, as do you — before you can hope to create any real art. The knowledge can come to you early, or late. I wish the 20–somethings all success, and some "tempering" of their talent and spirit to prevent their burning too brightly or quickly and dying before they've even lived a fraction of the life of some of their potential readers.

As the motto of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music says (translating from Latin) "Life is short. Art lasts."

I'd much rather have a spokesman — or spokeswoman — for humanity than just for one generation of people in one country, anyway.

Terin Tashi Miller
Maplewood, NJ

Friday, 5 November 2004

Time for some purple prose . . .

I'd like to second the points made in Mr. Waldrop's letter. I submit that a Bush supporter would be happy to bide his time while Michael Moore was preaching (badly) to the choir. Absent in many anti–Bush books is any discussion of faith as it should apply to progressive politics. Publishers hav a real market and some self-interest in exploring this further.

By all means, read Thomas Frank, but John Shelby Spong and Jean Vanier deserve a prominent place in publishers catalogs (and co–op budgets) also. If books don't count for much in the bright red states, they better start showing up in the purple ones, and not just more of the "Bush is an idiot" variety because as other letters have stated, that doesn't wok. Faith moves the numbers and publishers should be there when the Democrats (if they are smart) run an Edwards/Obama ticket in 2008.

Dave Worsley
Ontario, Canada

Thursday, 4 November 2004

Dissent can be written and published—but will it get read? . . .

Before the election I wondered what authors of books ranging from the serious—like Rise of the Vulcans by James Mann and House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger—to the not–so–serious, like the only half–joking works of Michael Moore and Al Franken—would do after the election. Franken, of course, was subjected to one of the most ludicrous lawsuits in history by people who complain that our judicial system is clogged with frivolous lawsuits, but the important thing is that an overwhelming number of people used historical studies to build a very effective case against the re–election of George Bush. The problem is that very little of the work was read by people whose minds could have—it's tempting to even say should have—been changed. The fact that many anti–Bush books—as well as documentaries and the new Air America radio station—have been financially successful is only a sign that the already–converted 49% were happy to be preached to. I don't know where we go from here. Clearly we were energized. The problem is there just weren't enough of us. I used to be concerned that the Patriot Act's provisions allowing law enforcement agents to go through any individual's library records without judicial oversight were an attempt to crack down on dissent. Now I'm not sure those provisions will be necessary. Is it really dissent if it's merely a minority community talking to itself? And is there any need to crack down on it if it's ultimately ineffective? Writers and publishers of books that force us to look seriously and critically at the present administration have only two things to fear: that they may not be able to change anything, and an excess of material.

By the way, welcome back. Moby Lives has been gone far too long. I'm glad to see it's back with a vengeance.

Christopher Waldrop
Serials Coordinator, Vanderbilt University Library
Nashville, TN

Prediction: Conservatives will take over publishing just as they did the country . . .

I suspect that with the growth and implementation of the right–wing agenda and with the enthusiasm with which a vast swell of the country seems to lap that ideology up, we'll see a boom in the number of conservative publishing companies cropping up on the scene.

The achievements of Christian novels and publishers were well–documented following the frenzy surrounding Mel Gibson's the passion. I think conservativism is primed for a sudden surge in the publishing world, whether it's tied in with religious fundamentalism or not (though it is very difficult these days to try to interpret right–wing political ideology without the shine of evangelical fervor peering through).

I expect that left–leaning publishers will have quite a struggle on their hands in the years to come, as various forms of media will be forced to come to terms or even cow–tow to an increasingly uncompromising conservative populace. Hopefully, the indy publishers like MobyLives/Melville House, who are used to struggle by their very position as independent companies, will be able to continue fighting for perspectives that aren't necessarily popular in this Dark Age we've seemed to enter.

Jackie Corley
Word Riot Press
Middletown, NJ

Publishers: reconsider your role . . .

Writers and publishers can continue doing what they do best: honor words and ideas, celebrate reason and clear thinking. All of these have been under ceaseless attack in the past four years and will continue to be held in contempt by those in power. In the service of ideology, the present Administration has evinced a constant disregard for facts, dissent, and world opinion. We must not grow bitter. We must simply keep on in the knowledge that the more generous and thoughtful impulses of the American people will one day come to the fore. We can help hasten that day through mindful writing and publishing.

On a practical level, some publishers have been feeding the market for mean–spirited right–wing claptrap. They've given respectability to radio talk show nonsense by packaging it in hardcover and delivering it to bookstores. On the one hand they are free to ppublish as they please. On the other their books celebrate the sort of yahoo thinking that has granted the Bush administration carte blance for the next four years. Perhaps these publishers ought to reconsider their roles and responsibilities.

Joe Barbato
Alexandra, VA

Friday, 22 October 2004

Kakutani lessons . . .

A proposal for Melville House: a collection of pieces which ought never to have been written. It could serve as an instructional tool for young writers. A whole chapter might be devoted to Kakutani's piece on the Yankees. The second paragraph, for instance:

"And the Yankees' very identity as destiny's darlings had been shredded as well in a spectacular reversal of fortune in which baseball's eternal losers, the scruffy, hopelessly jinxed Boston Red Sox, pulled off the unimaginable: toppling the once–proud Yankees in the most shaming and mind-boggling fashion — after the Bronx Bombers had been ahead, three games to none, in the American League Championship Series and a mere three outs away from the World Series."

That alone provides a litany of lessons. Do not write in a genre with which you are unfamiliar. Do not elaborate on the obvious. Do not write down to your audience. Do not write a 74–word sentence and try to disguise it as a paragraph. And above all, do not masturbate in public: even if it does not embarrass you, it's an imposition on others.

Perhaps, on the model of J–Lo, we could call her M–Kaka?

By the way, welcome back.

Phil Sheehan
Schenectady, NY

Thursday, 21 October 2004

BHL v. Ramadan: The real issue? . . .

First, kudos to you for your attention to European viewpoints and prose. In light of current American polemical writing and political literature, their superior education, clearer thinking, greater consideration of history and concern for passion and poetry simultaneously is sorely missed here, and in Bernard–Henri Lévy, you have championed one of the best. In particular, you are to be commended for publishing Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, in which he anticpated the much–later headlines concerning the Dr. A. Q. Kahn that Dick Cheney is so fond of citing — that is, the Pakistani official found to be selling nuclear weaponry to Iran and North Korea. Lévy takes a lot of criticism for his flamboyance, but receives not enough praise for his bravery—a Jew going undercover in Karachi?—and perceptiveness. I am currently reading his newest from you, War, Evil, and the End of History, and I see here, too, that in a book that originally came out in France in 2001, he was writing about suicide bombers and the genocide in the Sudan . . . long before the New York Times seems to have heard about it.

So, it is a pleasure to see him writing for your website. Now, as to the point of view he takes in this instance, is he, once again, ahead of the curve? Is Tariq Ramadan an anti–Semite? Anyone who has spent any time in Europe knows that Lévy, who is on television every five minutes, is no fan of Ariel Sharon, nor are most of France's intellectuals, Jewish or not. So this is certainly a questionable linakage for Ramadan to make. And it is interesting to note that this linkage seems to secure a point Lévy has made elsewhere, such as in the War, Evil book, which is that there are great atrocities going on elsewhere in the world, such as in the Sudan, being enacted upon Muslims in some instances, that perhaps deserve more attention than the endless strife between relatively smaller populations in Palestine. In France, they will also point to a core hypocrysy in Ramadan posing as if to represent Muslims of the "banlieues," when if fact he lives a very comfortable bourgeois life in Geneva. And then of course there is the fact that he casts all his opponents in Paris as "Jewish intellectuals," whether they are or not.

So he is clearly an anti–Semite, and given the nature of the world today Lévy once again shows his steadfast bravery in his virulent denunication. But the nature of the argument between Ramadan and Lévy does have one troubling aspect, and I wonder if the heat of Lévy's response doesn't contribute to it: the question, raised with increasing regularity, of whether we can discuss the state of Israel critically without being called anti–Semites. It seems to me that, at the end of the day, this is in itself a worthwhile question, and whether or not Ramadan meant to raise it, it is good that he has, even if it isn't a legitimate defense of his own views.

Sandy Lewis
Towson, MD

Tuesday, 19 October 2004

About time . . .

Welcome back! You were sorely missed, even though it seems a garden full of imitators sprang up in your absence.

I am especially glad to see your first guest editorial, from Bernard–Henri Lévy. Having spent some time in Europe lately, I was aware of the furor over Ramadan's anti–Semitism and was suprised it was getting so little mention in all the stories about all the professors infuriated at the government on his behalf. Figures. You don't hear anything about politics from our fearless academics until late in the day now, and when they finally pipe up, they're not fully informed. And it was great to read the other side in that beautiful French style, with such literary fervor! What a relief from dreary American polemicists!

And what a pleasure to have you back!

Juliette Gilbert
Los Angeles, CA


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.