This Week’s Column:

How to Make Literary Journalists Nervous

by Dennis Loy Johnson

New York, 2 April 2001 — Let’s say that you’re an author with a new book out and it gets a bad review. What do you do? Why, take out a bounty on whoever wrote the review, that’s what.

At least, that’s what Jaime Clarke did when his novel, We're So Famous (Bloomsbury USA, $14.95), got an anonymous bad review in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly (where, in fact, all the reviews are anonymous). Clarke immediately fired off an e–mail to the editor.

“I am putting up $1000 of my advance money from Bloomsbury USA for the name of the person who authored the review,” the 29–year old novelist wrote. “You need not reveal your identity to collect this bounty, but you must be able to substantiate your information.”

Clarke not only sent the e–mail to PW’s editor–in–chief, Nora Rawlinson, he c.c.’d it to most of her staff and a large number of editors and journalists at other publications. It didn’t take long for’s associate book editor Maria Russo – one of the recipients – to break the story.

PW boss Rawlinson, meanwhile, sent an e–mail back to Clarke (and to his long list of c.c. recipients). “Your offer of a reward sounds like a veiled threat,” she told him. “If you wish to take this further, you should take up your complaint with the magazine, not an individual reviewer.”

It was, of course, exactly what a good editor should have said, and every reviewer I know, including several who write for PW, heaved a hearty, “Here, here.” News of the bounty had spread amongst them like wildfire, and left them angry. Clarke had taken things to an outrageously personal level.

Still, those who saw the PW review that started it all agreed it was harsh, especially for a first book. It said Clarke’s story of three young women who become inadvertent pop stars featured “puerile protagonists” and was “not clever enough to wade out from the shallows it purports to spoof.”

What’s more, not only was it a bad review, it was a bad review in Publishers Weekly, which, alongside the New York Times, is probably the most powerful and influential publication in the book business.

That’s because PW goes out to reviewers, librarians and bookstore owners across the country who need to know about books months before they come out. The dozens of short reviews they publish each week are based on advance copies from publishers — often, unproofed galleys. Thus, a PW blurb can result in significantly increased — or decreased — orders for the finished book. Which is what makes PW, like the Times, one of those publications people are generally afraid to complain about in public.

In fact, if he hadn’t in effect threatened them, more reviewers might have agreed that Clarke made a brave point when he declared, “I strenuously object . . . to the fact that Publishers Weekly which, as ‘the International News Magazine for Book Publishing and Bookselling’ has tremendous power with bookbuyers, allows the publication of such reviews anonymously.”

He's right that that’s not fair, and this has long been a complaint of just about everybody I know in the book business. The anonymity of PW reviews seems more like an attempt to give the magazine monolithic power than anything designed to express an honest opinion. And writers, of course, should always take responsibility for their words.

So how much responsibility will Clarke have to take for his? I spoke with him and, while friendly, he simply won’t comment further. He sounded, in fact, like someone who’d had the riot act read to him, saying, “My publisher really doesn’t want me to talk about it.”

Clarke did say no one else has called him about this. And newspaper reviewers so far seem to be ignoring his book, although it’s still early.

There's no question Jaime Clarke went too far with his bounty. The over-the-top response also resonates with anti-intellectual trends amongst some other prominent young writers who have recently objected to anyone criticizing their work -- such as last year when Dave Eggers wrote, "Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, do not dismiss a movie until you have made one . . . ."

Bah, humbug. "Ishtar" was a bad movie, and "We're So Famous" isn't a great book — but it deserves better than it’s gotten. It’s a social commentary of the type we don’t get enough of — that is, thoughtful and intelligent — and it’s technically ambitious, and admirable on both accounts.

And if it wasn’t for that bounty, I’d give the author credit for bravery, too. Of course, if it wasn't for the bounty, we probably wouldn't be talking about any of these issues now, either.

Last Week’s Column: “NPM Means Not Poetry Month” A survey of poetry books due out before, during and during National Poetry Month.


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