Top Ten Literary Feuds of the Aughts: A Special Edition of Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries
Arguably, it is publishing's ultimate — albeit unintentional — marketing device. Nothing sells books (or at least gets them attention) quite like a literary feud. With the New Year fast approaching, I thought it might be fun to take stock of some of the squabbles, law suits, accusations and bitter backbiting that launched the book world's 21st century. Herewith, in a special edition of my weekly column, are my picks for the top-ten literary feuds of the last decade, aka "the aughts."
10: Nega Mezlekia vs. Anne Stone
Few remember this one now, but it was a doozey, making national and international headlines. When Nega Mezlekia won the 2000 Governor-General's Award for his memoir Notes from the Hyena's Belly: Memories of My Ethiopian Boyhood, freelance editor Anne Stone (backed by her lawyers) popped up claiming to have ghostwritten all but the last 20 pages of the book. Mezlekia shot back, saying he’d simply hired Stone as a copy editor. Then some menacing and semi-literate letters to Stone surfaced in the National Post. Signed “Nega”, the letters, allegedly from Mezlekia, called Stone "dull, colourless, humourless, vulgar and a complete failure", they carried vague threats, and they also labeled Stone a “bitter, vulgar slut.” Meanwhile, and even more disturbingly, another Post article excerpted an early draft of Mezlekia’s manuscript which contained details of a scheme to murder six members of McGill University’s engineering faculty. Mezlekia, an engineer by trade, denied authorship of the letters, said the massacre plan was written as fiction, and launched a multi-million dollar libel suit against Stone, her publisher Insomniac Press, and the National Post. A truce was arranged in a 2002 out-of-court settlement that remains confidential, though it has been reported that neither money nor apologies were exchanged.
9: Ryan Bigge vs. Leah McLaren
In February 2006 freelance journalist Ryan Bigge slammed Globe & Mail columnist Leah McLaren’s fluffy ChickLit novel The Continuity Girl in a Toronto Star review, saying the book’s very font “endured unspeakable molestation courtesy of McLaren’s prose.” Maybe Bigge himself should have remained unspeaking, because within 24 hours Quillblog broke the news that his blistering review was actually a revenge act. Five years earlier, after an unpleasant encounter with Bigge at a party, McLaren wrote a Globe column about his book, A Very Lonely Planet, in which she labeled him a “Lurper.” Explained McLaren: “A Lurper is angry, sometimes clever, and full of a terrible, mind-warping envy. He hates other people for having the many things he lacks — success, confidence, fame, money, sex, charm, recognition, art, conversational ease, style, respect, drugs, a sense of wonder.” Although it was not the only review to trash McLaren's book, a crapstorm blew up in the blogosphere over Bigge’s apparent conflict of interest and a week later, as reported by Off the Fence blog (the Star's archive has been purged) Toronto Star books editor Dan Smith published an egg-on-face apology (scroll down to Feb 20) to his readers for not informing them of Bigge’s predisposition against McLaren. The storm died down, McLaren went back to shoe shopping and Bigge went on to teach journalism at the University of Toronto. Remind us please, what is it they say about those who can’t?
8: Dale Peck vs. Rick Moody
It remains one of the most notorious lines in the annals of contemporary literary criticism: “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.” Certainly not the only bad review of Moody’s 2002 memoir The Black Veil, Dale Peck’s 6,000-word evisceration of the book, for which the above jab served as opening line, catapulted Peck from the back pages of The New Republic into the literary limelight as the angriest of angry young critics. Moody was not Peck’s only victim, as suggested by the title of his 2004 collection of criticism: Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction. Novelist Stanley Crouch, whose 2000 novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome had also been the target of Peck’s poisonous pen, reportedly slapped Peck in the face in 2004 at New York’s Tartine restaurant, allegedly warning of worse if Peck ever slammed his work again. Moody himself never responded publicly to the Peck review (that I know of), but he did eventually get his chance at some Crouch-esque revenge at a 2008 charity event in New York at which raffle tickets were sold to watch him hit Peck in the face with a cream pie. And oh yes, there’s a video. Listen closely and you can hear the cream-smeared Peck complain, “It’s very cold. It’s very cold.” Yes, well that’s how revenge is served, isn’t it?
7: Jonathan Franzen vs. Oprah Winfrey
It wasn’t exactly Sartre turning down the Nobel, but Jonathan Franzen’s snub of Oprah Winfrey’s book club certainly smacked of the Emperor’s...er, make that Empress' new clothes. Franzen’s novel The Corrections was tapped as an official Oprah Book Club selection on September 24, 2001. Such is the dream of many novelists, but in media interviews, Franzen expressed concern at the gold Oprah Book Club sticker that would adorn the cover of his book, suggesting it was “a logo of corporate ownership” that co-opted his work. He further suggested that his book was in “the high art literary tradition” compared to the lowbrow stuff Oprah normally read (presumably he wasn't referring to the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Bernard Schlink). And on NPR he said he was worried male readers would be scared off by the Oprah endorsement. The “she ain’t wearing no clothes” kicker came when he told journalists that he and his publisher, FSG, felt that for Oprah to have his book — already a bestseller — on her show "does as much for her as it does for us." The self-appointed Empress of Hobby Reading got the message and disinvited him, announcing on her October 22 show, “Jonathan Franzen will not be on The Oprah Winfrey Show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection.” Franzen issued a half-hearted apology blaming the media. Despite the kafuffle (or perhaps, in part, because of it?), The Corrections would win the National Book Award in November and remain on the bestseller list into the new year.
6: Stuart Ross vs. Halli Villegas & Myna Wallin
This nasty bout of online disinhibition started in November 2007 when poet and micro-press publisher Stuart Ross wrote a post on his blog that was openly critical of how that fall’s Toronto Small Press Book Fair had been promoted and organized by its coordinators Halli Villegas, owner of Tightrope Books, and Myna Wallin, a poet and editor at Tightrope. Though he no longer played an official role in the twice-annual fair, Ross had been its co-founder many years before, and he was also a participant, selling his micropress publications. According to Quill & Quire, Villegas and Wallin took exception to being called out on Ross’ blog and made their feelings known on the fair’s Facebook page (from which all related posts have since been expunged). Battle lines were drawn as members of the small press community split into two camps, Ross supporters vs Villegas/Wallin supporters, and blogs, rival Facebook pages, listservs and website comments sections began flowing with debate that often boiled over into rather nasty invective, bile and snark. Then, in January, claiming to have been the target of defamation and harassment from Ross, Villegas and Wallin (backed by their lawyers) slapped a “cease and desist” letter on the poet, threatening a libel suit. The tactic was like putting out fire with gasoline. Though Ross’ voice largely retreated from the debates, the blogosphere exploded and some people questioned if such measures were warranted. The Lexiconjury listserv, a popular discussion forum for the small press community, was even shut down because the debate became too heated. That June in the National Post, on the day of the spring fair, Ross alleged to have suffered personal defamation as well, stating, “I don't believe that people who hire a lawyer to try to silence and censor another writer have any place running a fair devoted to free expression and diverse voices." Despite the outcry, boycotts of that spring’s fair had limited impact and efforts to launch an alternate fair fizzled. Battered and bruised, Villegas and Wallin stepped aside in 2009 and new fair coordinators were installed. Life goes on, though one suspects the wounds from this spat are still festering.
5: Martin Amis vs. Terry Eagleton
In August 2007 Marxist scholar Terry Eagleton sparked a battle of words with Martin Amis when he went after the novelist via an attack on his late father, Kingsley. In the introduction to the second edition of his book Ideology: An Introduction, Eagleton wrote that Kingsley was "a racist, anti-Semitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals." He further asserted that the apple, Martin, had not rolled far from the tree in views expressed post-9/11. According to Eagleton, writing in The Guardian, the attack was triggered by an Amis essay titled “The Age of Horrorism”, published in The Observer in 2006. Eagleton claimed certain Islamophobic statements — "The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order. What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation - further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip-searching people who look like they're from the Middle East or from Pakistan ... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children..." — were contained in the essay. Amis, responding by letter in The Guardian, called Eagleton “A marooned ideologue, [who] has submitted to an unworthy combination of venom and sloth”, and wrote, “Can I ask him, in a collegial spirit, to shut up about it?” Amis further pointed out in a BBC interview and elsewhere, that the offending statements, which were widely reproduced in the UK press, actually came from an interview Amis did with Times journalist Ginny Dougary and were offered in a knee-jerk reaction in the days after a plot was uncovered in which fundamentalist Islamicists planned to blow up planes departing from British airports. Amis has since admitted, in an interview with the Globe & Mail, that those comments were "a stupid thing to say." Eagleton’s shoddy research aside (one expects better from the John Edward Taylor Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester), the British press latched onto the controversy and printed reams of opinion, most of it slamming Amis, but also much that came to the defense of Amis and his father’s reputation. The newsprint finger pointing continued for months, with Amis finally publishing a piece in The Guardian that December titled "No, I am not a racist", in response to further accusations by Ronan Bennett. The furor died down until February, when the 65-year-old Eagleton was informed by the University of Manchester that he would be forcibly retired that summer. The school, then some £30-million in debt, needed to eliminate 650 jobs. Ironically, the previous summer, Amis had been appointed a professor of creative writing at the school. Still just a chipper 59, he was being kept on to teach a contracted 28 hours per year for a salary of £80,000. As reported in The Guardian, Eagleton was rankled, and got in a parting shot: "It is certainly profoundly odd that during this financial crisis they can afford to hire someone like him."
4: Christopher Hitchens vs. Henry Kissinger
In February and March 2001 journalist and political commentator Christopher Hitchens published a two-part article in Harper’s magazine titled “The Case Against Henry Kissinger”. The essay was excerpted from his forthcoming book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, to be published that May. In the essay (and book) Hitchens put forth arguments painting Kissinger — a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, former US Secretary of State, and former US National Security Advisor — as a war criminal who should be prosecuted for human rights abuses. Hitchens presented evidence contending that Kissinger undermined the US Constitution by covertly and illegally participating in the subversion of the 1971 Paris Peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War (the link is to a speech in which Hitchens explains these charges) in order to help Richard Nixon win the US Presidential Election that year. There were other accusations as well — complicity in the ousting and murder of Chilean President, Salvador Allende; support for Allende’s replacement, the murderous Augusto Pinochet, himself later indicted for human rights abuses; and the Vietnam War-era covert bombings of Laos and Cambodia. That spring, after the book came out, Kissinger was served two summonses, neither legally binding, to testify at trials in both Argentina and France. Kissinger refused to appear in court and responded to questions from media about the accusations by attempting to defame Hitchens, saying in television and radio interviews that Hitchens was a holocaust denier. Hitchens — half-Jewish himself — threatened to sue Kissinger for libel. On the Internet, he posted correspondences with Kissinger’s lawyers which refuted Kissinger’s allegations and had forced Kissinger into what Hitchens called a “mealy-mouthed and surly and grudging” retraction. Later that summer, Kissinger again refused a judge’s request to testify, this time from a Chilean court seeking answers about his knowledge of the murder of American journalist Charles Horman at the hands of Pinochet’s death squads (a story made famous by director Costa-Gavras’ film Missing). The international justice community, it seemed, was closing in on Kissinger, but then came the attacks of 9/11 and interest in Kissinger’s alleged crimes waned. In fall 2002, he was even tapped by George W. Bush to head up an independent commission to investigate 9/11, but when it became apparent he’d have to disclose information about his private business dealings, he resigned. In 2003, a documentary film titled The Trials of Henry Kissinger revisited the subject of Hitchens’ book. Ironically, Hitchens had by then made his infamous shift to the Right to become an apologist for Dubya’s dubious Iraq war.
3: James Frey vs. Oprah Winfrey
The chronology is all laid out on James Frey’s website. In September 2005 Oprah Winfrey chose Frey’s autobiography A Million Little Pieces for her talk show’s book club, heralding it as the riveting true story of Frey’s harrowing years as an alcoholic and drug addict. But was it all in fact true? In January 2006, The Smoking Gun website published an article titled “The Man Who Conned Oprah” exposing a number of factual embellishments Frey had introduced into his story. Some of what Frey wrote, it seemed, didn’t happen exactly the way he said it did. The old Empress of Hobby Reading was not impressed. Later in the month, Frey was summoned back to Oprah’s show for a tête à tête about the Smoking Gun report. “I have to say it is difficult for me to talk to you because I feel really duped,” Winfrey told Frey on the live episode, which then turned into a tongue lashing that had Winfrey scolding Frey like a schoolmarm for fibbing. The media exploded with headlines about the story, and Frey went to ground. New editions of the book contained an explanatory note and in September of that year Frey and his publisher, Random House, settled a class action suit which offered a refund to any readers who felt defrauded by the book, which by then had sold over 4.5 million copies. Things calmed down a bit until July 2007, when Frey’s editor from Random House, Nan Talese, made a speech at a writers conference, castigating Oprah for her “sanctimoniousness” and for telling a few fibs of her own. (That’s Joyce Carol Oates on the stage in the video. Talese is in the shadows in front of the stage with a handheld microphone.) Something in all of this must have given the big “O” pause for thought. Just over a year later, in the fall of 2008, Frey received a phone call from Oprah during which she apologized for the ordeal she’d put him through. “When I heard her say, ‘I felt I owe you an apology,’ I was very grateful,” Frey told Vanity Fair. But was he grateful enough to put her in his new book? As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, in March 2009 the paperback edition of Frey’s most recent novel, Bright Shiny Morning, appeared with an additional section of text that had not been in the hardcover. The addition, titled “Chat Show Host”, described the novel’s protagonist’s experience visiting a talk show where he was targeted as a liar, an occurrence which made him start recording all of his phone calls, including one from the chat show host herself, in which she confessed that she had a book she had never published. “She told him a story about a book she wrote,” Frey wrote in the novel, “and about what was in it, and about why she decided to halt the publication of it, and who helped her make the decision. He taped everything...Someday he might tell his side of it. Someday he might play the tapes. Someday." Did Frey actually possess a compromising audio recording of Winfrey? When asked for comment by the New York Post, Frey reportedly laughed and delivered the ultimate touché: "The book is fiction. Interpret it however you want."
2: The families of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson vs. O.J. Simpson and Judith Regan
It was arguably the most salacious moment in book publishing during the last decade. In November 2006, when New York power publisher Judith Regan announced that ReganBooks, her imprint at HarperCollins, would be publishing a new book by O.J. Simpson, titled If I Did It, a crapstorm exploded on the web and in the news media. In the book, Simpson was to explain how he would have hypothetically gone about killing his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. Although Simpson was acquitted on charges in the 1994 murders, the New York Times reported that Regan said the book was Simpson’s “confession.” To promote the book, Fox Television — which along with HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp — was planning a two-part television interview with Simpson. The families of Goldman and Brown both expressed outrage at the proposed book and TV show. According to the N.Y. Times “Simpson owe[d] $33.5 million plus accumulated interest to the families after being judged responsible for the deaths in civil court.” Royalties on the book deal were said to be going to Simpson’s children. The controversy generated so much bad press for Regan, HarperCollins and News Corp that Murdoch himself pulled the plug on the project, and then after Regan bad-mouthed Murdoch for the decision, he pulled the plug on her as well, firing her that December. Two years later, in December 2008, it was reported by Bloomberg.com (via Quillblog), that Regan subsequently sued News Corp for wrongful dismissal, winning $10.75 million USD in a settlement. As for Simpson, as reported on Fox news (don’t you just love irony?), right about the same time Regan was collecting her massive settlement, O.J. was being sentenced to a minimum nine years in prison, convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping in an unrelated 2008 offense. The former NFL star is currently cooling his heels at the Lovelock Correctional Center in Nevada.
1: Books vs. e-Books
In the last couple of years, major battles have erupted over the question of how a paper-book world is going to accommodate electronic books. It is an issue that will define many of the challenges to be faced by publishers, booksellers, writers and readers over the next decade. Here are some of the squabbles that will continue to play out over the coming years as a result of the Great e-Book Transition.
- predatory pricing — In the past, publishers set prices for books, but now, adopting an iTunes model, Amazon is applying a blanket pricing formula to e-books, selling new titles in the $10 to $12 USD range, far below both wholesale costs and the retail price of the average new hardcover. The strategy takes control away from publishers in a potentially dangerous manner, say some analysts. Not only does it take a bite out of hardcover book sales, but as reported on mediabistro.com and elsewhere, it has raised concerns that, although Amazon may be eating their losses on such products now, they are also training consumers to undervalue e-books and that could destabilize the publishing industry if Amazon tries to force publishers to come into line with their deeply discounted pricing. Meanwhile, this fall's online price war between Amazon and Walmart saw prices on a handful of new hardcovers drop below $9 USD, thus further devaluing books in the eyes of consumers.
- stalling tactics — Reacting to Amazon’s low e-book prices, some publishers have introduced staggered release dates for e-books, as reported in USA Today and elsewhere. This means some new titles will not be made available to consumers who read on the Kindle and other e-readers until months after the hardcover release. That’s a long time to wait if you’ve just spent hundreds of dollars on an e-reader and you want to read a hot new book, but publishers argue that the tactic is no different than delaying the release of paperback editions. Amazon reacted cynically to the news by dropping the pre-order prices of key seasonal e-books to $7.99, further increasing tensions with publishers.
- fighting for rights — The rights to publish digital versions of paper books that were originally published decades ago are, it seems, up in the air. Some publishers have been attempting to claim that they hold e-book rights for their backlists, but agents and authors disagree. Meanwhile, a watershed moment came in the fall of 2009 when author Steven R. Covey sold e-rights for his self-help bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People directly to Amazon, circumventing his traditional publisher, Simon & Schuster. Look for more such moves, and no doubt a few legal battles over the issue, during the coming years.
- hardware smackdowns — When Amazon’s Kindle hit the market in 2007 e-readers were relatively new devices and there were few competitors. Today, e-readers are being launched at a dizzying rate and at a variety of price points. Smart phones have also become e-book compatible. Sony and Barnes & Noble both already offer popular e-readers, while, according to Quillblog, Borders has partnered with Chapters to launch their own e-book service, called Kobo, to be complimented by the launch of dedicated e-readers in 2010. Analysts say the market is poised to flood with options in 2010, especially with the promised onset of new tablet e-readers from Apple and Plastic Logic. Look for price wars and incentives as developers try to attract consumers to their platforms and services, and also look for some big financial flops, since some of these offerings are bound to fail.
- settling the score — Perhaps the biggest issue in the whole e-book war is Google’s attempts to get in on the game. It has become a snakes nest of lawyers, but here’s the short-ish version: since 2004 Google has been actively scanning millions of out-of-print “orphaned” books to build a database they hope to sell online through the Google Books Library Project. Publishers and authors reacted negatively, saying, “Hold on, we own those works!” The Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued Google in 2005 citing copyright infringement, generating the Google Book Settlement, which included provisions for payment as well as the possibility for authors to opt out of the project. Numerous outside parties voiced opposition to the settlement, including a group called the Open Book Alliance, which includes Google’s main competitors Amazon, Yahoo and Microsoft. One of the key points of contention was the settlement’s requirement that authors opt out of the program, even though their works were already protected under copyright law. Another was the threat of monopoly posed by the settlement, which spurred the US Department of Justice to open an anti-trust investigation. Foreign governments also objected, with France even convicting Google of copyright infringement and penalizing them €300,000 in damages and levying fines of €10,000 a day for posting copyrighted French material on their site. A revised settlement was issued in November 2009, but it remains in legal limbo. Expect a bitter and protracted battle over this one.
There are other issues surrounding e-books, such as the threat of piracy (Quillblog reports that U.S. publishers estimate they lost $600 million to digital piracy in 2008), the threat to privacy (the Electronic Frontier Foundation reports that the Google Book Settlment may leave readers open to surveillance), the struggle to agree on formats (Computer World reports that Amazon and Adobe, makers of the popular .pdf e-book format, don’t quite see eye-to-eye), and the very slippery terrain of e-book ownership (networld.com reports that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos ate crow this year after his firm remotely deleted works from customers’ Kindles).
That’s if for the top feuds of the aughts. See you in 2019 for a roundup of the battles that popped up during the “teens”.