This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

August 13, 2001 — The book business is rife with tumult and controversy and flat–out weirdness nowadays. Nothing emphasizes it like an update on some of the top stories I've covered in recent columns.

Take the sad demise of James Howard Hatfield, author of "Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President." With its allegations that Bush had a cocaine bust covered up by his father, the book made headlines when first published in late 1999. Then it was mysteriously leaked to the press that Hatfield had a record of his own, for attempted murder. Abruptly, publisher St. Martin's pulled the book from distribution and dramatically announced it was burning every last copy.

Although soon picked up by another publisher, the small, independent Soft Skull Press, focus had shifted to Hatfield — there was a devastating profile of him on "60 Minutes," for example — and sales never amounted to what they might have.

On July 18, Hatfield's body was found by a housekeeper in a motel room in Springdale, Arkansas. The Dallas Morning News reported he had "overdosed on two kinds of prescription drugs." A Washington Post report added that he'd left notes for his wife and 3–year–old daughter, and that police were looking for him at the time of his death to arrest him for credit card fraud.

"Jim was on the verge of collapse due to financial difficulties, and part of this was due to the failure of the book," said Soft Skull publisher Sander Hicks, who noted Hatfield lost two other book contracts after the "Fortunate Son" debacle.

Hatfield's friend David Cogswell said, "There is a tragic irony in the fact that the damning drug bust scandal was only added to 'Fortunate Son' as an afterword at the insistence of St. Martin's, who wanted to make the most of the story that had already been broken by Salon."

Meanwhile, a story with a more predictable outcome was that of Alice Randall and her "Gone With the Wind" parody, "The Wind Done Gone." That saga ended with a U.S. District Court in Atlanta chastising a lower court judge for finding the book had infringed on copyrights owned by the estate of GWTW author Margaret Mitchell; Randall's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was allowed to go ahead and release the book.

And, what with all the publicity the Mitchell estate had generated with its hopeless lawsuit, "The Wind Done Gone" immediately became a bestseller despite nearly unanimous bad reviews.

What wasn't so predictable, however, was an incident at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta, now a museum, where Randall was invited to give a talk and sell some books. Strange enough in itself, but things got stranger during a Q & A session before a large crowd when Randall berated an African–American woman who rose to defend Margaret Mitchell against charges of racism.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, when Kelsey Aguirre pointed out that Mitchell had "paid for numerous African–American men to attend medical school," Randall tore into her, telling her she'd "internalized" Mitchell's book, and demanding that she sit down. Later, Aguirre said she wanted to give Randall "my copy of her book back, so I can be an ignorant black woman who didn't go to Harvard," referring to Randall's many mentions of her alma mater during her talk.

Still, that isn't as bizarre as the fact that Joseph Ellis is still employed by Mount Holyoke College. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian who lied in his classes about being a combat veteran still hasn't admitted to lying — he only admits to "having let stand the assumption that I went to Viet Nam." Nor has he apologized to people who actually did go to the war.

Mount Holyoke College hasn't said anything further, either, since announcing a committee to investigate Ellis a few days after he was outed in the Boston Globe. Now, however, with school starting in just a couple of weeks, it appears Ellis will be back in the classroom before you know it.

There was one recent story in the book business that actually lessened in outrageousness, however — that of Nell Freudenberger, the 26–year–old New Yorker magazine staffer who, after publishing a short story in the magazine (that ran along with a sexy photo of her), was fielding offers for $500,000 for a collection of her stories . . . even though it was the first one she'd ever written.

But surprisingly — and refreshingly — Freudenberger turned down the mega-bucks and took an offer from the relatively small Echo Press for $100,000. That's still a pretty amazing amount of money for a collection of stories by a first–time author, but what strikes me as more amazing is that Freudenberger reportedly chose Echo and the lesser sum for literary reasons — because she wanted to work with Echo's editorial director Dan Halpern.

Meanwhile, the story that comprised the year's biggest mystery — what prompted Broadway Books to withdraw T.A. Alderson's mystery "Subversion" from publication after they'd already manufactured the book and sent it to critics — remains a mystery. Alderson still isn't talking, and neither is his publisher. Two days after I filed my column about tracking down Alderson, the Washington Post ran a story saying the same thing I'd said — namely, that the best guess was that Alderson had modeled one of the characters in his mystery novel on a real–life acquaintance who'd threatened to sue.

Finally, remember the week when it seemed every prestigious newspaper in America suddenly cut back on book reviews? The New York Times Sunday Book Review dropped two pages and editor Chip McGrath said he heard "not a peep" from readers. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle and others lessened the number of reviews they ran and closed their Sunday stand–alone book sections.

Since then, I've gotten several letters from people saying they'd written to McGrath before his comments appeared and were wondering what constituted a "peep."

But in San Francisco, reader opinions apparently carry more weight than they do at the New York Times: protests to the Chronicle have been so severe that Salon reports the paper's editors are considering going back to the original number of reviews and reviving the paper's stand–alone book section.

I told you it was a weird business.

Last Week’s Column: SPOON RIVER REVISITED The first–ever biography of Edgar Lee Masters serves as a reminder of the impact of his "Spoon River Anthology" on modern poetry, and prompts some interesting memories from his son.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.