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W.W. Norton decided to stop publishing Blake Bailey's “Philip Roth: The Biography” this week.
In less than a month, Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth raced from published to praised to paused to pulped. That may be a record. Tuesday, W.W. Norton announced that, in light of sexual assault accusations against Bailey, it would stop selling “Philip Roth: The Biography” (review). The company's extraordinary — and expensive — decision has ignited a national debate about whether a book should be judged by its author’s alleged behavior.
The withdrawal of Bailey’s biography came just a day after hundreds of Simon & Schuster employees submitted a petition demanding the publisher drop its two-book deal with former vice president Mike Pence (my two cents).
There is a precedent. In January, Simon & Schuster backed out of its book contract with Josh Hawley after the fresh-faced Missouri senator became a leading proponent of Trump’s lies about the presidential election. But now that a lot more money is involved, Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp is singing the praises of liberal tolerance. That strikes some of his employees as self-serving and specious.
One of the signers of the petition, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid employment retribution, tells me that Simon & Schuster must learn to “differentiate between right-wing voices within mainstream political discourse and extremist right-wing voices that directly have incited violence and directly animated White nationalist organizing in this country.”
For these Simon & Schuster staff members, the Trump administration was not a “normal” chapter in American history that should be validated by doling out seven-figure advances to its collaborators. “Every American has to understand that Pence has covid blood on his hands and that he, as head of the covid task force, as a part of that administration, not only ignored scientific evidence but lied to the American public, and now we sit with how many dead as a partial consequence of those actions.”
The person I spoke with said many employees are willing to leave Simon & Schuster “if this pattern continues, if this story plays out the way we hope it won't.”
Losing staff members would be inconvenient for Simon & Schuster; losing influential authors and celebrities could be catastrophic. Saeed Jones, Jesmyn Ward, Rachael Lippincott, Daveed Diggs and thousands of other writers, publishing workers, booksellers, agents, librarians, filmmakers and readers reportedly also signed the petition. If Simon & Schuster gets a reputation as a sugar daddy for crypto-fascists, that could quickly alienate most of the literary community.
Regnery Publishing; Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) in Washington, April 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Because we still have at least a little competition left in American publishing, Sen. Hawley’s “The Tyranny of Big Tech” will go on sale next week. Washington-based Regnery picked up the book less than two weeks after Simon & Schuster dropped it — and why not? After all, as we've seen with books by Don Jr. and Sen. Ted Cruz, the GOP has created a guaranteed profit cycle. The Senate Conservatives Fund, founded by former senator Jim DeMint, has already paid nearly $65,000 to Regnery for advance copies of Hawley’s book (story).
I love the pre-satirized convenience of a political action committee placing a massive order for a book called “The Tyranny of Big Tech.” But it was always thus. Sixty years ago, conservatives set up a dummy nonprofit imprint to spit out copies of Barry Goldwater’s “Conscience of a Conservative.” (Naturally, his “Conscience” was ghostwritten.) Right-wing fat-cats bought up thousands of copies in bulk to juice demand. Best of all, it was a tax-deductible business expense!
You can read more about these old-new shenanigans in Rick Perlstein’s “Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus” (2001). He describes how Phyllis Schlafly and two other patriots went whole hog in the publishing racket: “This kind of right-wing cultural entrepreneurship might never have been reckoned with at all had reports not begun filtering out . . . that self-published books by three conservative authors had sold enough copies to supply one out of every ten men, women, and children in the country.”
Villa Quattro Venti, once owned by friends of D.H. Lawrence, is for sale on the island of Capri, Italy. (Courtesy of Lionard)
It's hard to remember now, but in the Olden Days, books were canceled because of their sexual content. In 1928, “Lady Chatterley's Lover” was so hot that D.H. Lawrence had to have it privately printed in Italy (story). Two years later, Sen. Reed Smoot survived a perusal of “Lady Chatterley's Lover” and warned his colleagues that it was “written by a man with a diseased mind and a soul so black that he would even obscure the darkness of hell.”
Now’s your chance to own the house where that diseased mind may have conceived some of the randy antics of Lady Chatterley and her untamed gamekeeper. Villa Quattro Venti on the island of Capri has just come on the market. This spectacular two-story home, built in the early 1900s by the American symbolist Elihu Vedder, overlooks the Bay of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. It comes with a lavish garden of lemon and olive trees, rose bushes and lavender.
In 1925, Lawrence stayed for a few months at Villa Quattro Venti, which was owned by his friends, the artists Achsah and Earl Brewster. This visit to the island went better than a previous one in 1920 when Lawrence wrote, “I am very sick of Capri: it is a stewpot of semi-literary cats.”
The real estate company handling Villa Quattro Venti declined my repeated requests to learn its price, but even in Italian, I could tell it was more than I could afford.
My edition of Reese Witherspoon's Gift of Reading Box looked just like this but came with a copy of “Infinite Country," a new novel by Patricia Engel, whom our reviewer called “a gifted storyteller whose writing shines even in the darkest corners." (Photo courtesy of Reese’s Book Club)
Reese Witherspoon’s career has long been bound to books. I’ll never forget her hilarious performance in the adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s “Election” way back in 1999. But as Witherspoon continued working in Hollywood, she grew dismayed by the roles written for women. In response, she turned her attention to identifying good books for movie and TV adaptations. That decision has made her a publishing and producing phenomenon. Her many successes include “Gone Girl,” “Wild” and “Big Little Lies.” She’s currently working on an adaptation of a little novel you may have heard of called “Where the Crawdads Sing.”
Three years ago, Witherspoon started an online book club, which now brings her eye for high-quality, popular books to nearly 2 million followers on Instagram. Yes, of course, there's also an app (details). Membership is free, but this month the club began selling gift boxes for $54.95. Despite my initial skepticism, I think it’s kind of genius.
With each purchase, you choose a book from more than 50 titles that have been past club picks. Then that book gets shipped with a colorful scarf, a handmade candle, nine cookies and four ounces of ground coffee.
The subscription box field is crowded, but Witherspoon isn’t competing with those services (roundup). This is a one-off purchase, intended primarily as a gift, and it’s nicely designed for those occasions when sending “just” a book doesn’t feel quite right. Yes, the attendant products are swaddled in Gwyneth Paltrow’s goopy lingo (“An exclusive handmade soy candle by artisan Zoet Studio, featuring book and succulent miniatures with a soothing aroma of champagne, pine, and musk”). But the program works because the list of books to choose from is so good. You can send Anna North’s “Outlawed” (review), Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age” (review), Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book” (review) and many other favorites of mine. (And did I mention cookies?)
Reese’s Gift of Reading Box has proved insanely popular. A spokesperson tells me that the club “significantly underestimated demand,” and the boxes sold out in a few hours! They’re restocking now and planning new boxes with seasonal and special editions, so check back later if you’re interested.
By the way, Witherspoon is using all the profits from the Gift of Reading Boxes to support diverse voices and promote literacy. If you’re an unpublished woman who identifies as diverse and you have a completed manuscript, you can apply for an all-expenses-paid retreat, a three-month mentorship with a published author and marketing support from Reese’s Book Club. The deadline is May 30 (more information).
Just a few of the highly dangerous books from Belt Publishing.
Facebook is still determined to protect Americans from political ideas they can’t handle. You may remember when I told you that ads for John Cribb’s historical novel, “Old Abe,” were banned from Facebook because former vice president Mike Pence called it “the best book on President Lincoln I have ever read” (story).
Somehow, the social media company that can track every synapse of every brain on planet Earth can’t figure out that Pence’s book blurb is not a call to storm the Capitol.
This idiocy can have particularly adverse effects on small publishers. Consider Anne Trubek in Cleveland. She’s the founder of Belt Publishing, which releases about 14 titles a year. She’s found advertising on Facebook effective, but the company has been banning more and more of her books because the titles contain triggering words. We’re talking about such incendiary works as “Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts” and — send the children to their rooms! — “The Post-Pandemic Liberal Arts College,” which explores steps small colleges can take to survive.
Trubek says she gets the same response again and again: “This violates our policies.” She knows she could get around Facebook’s barriers if she were willing to “sign up as a group that does political content,” but she’s not willing to take that step. “It’s probably very easy,” she says, “but I'm not going to say that I’m a political organization. I’m not. I’m a book publisher.”
This is the intolerable situation we’re in: A monopolistic corporation is dictating how publishers represent themselves and even how they title their books.
Fearing he might be completely forgotten, former senator Rick Santorum volunteered for another round of national ridicule. Last Friday, he told the Young America’s Foundation, “Yes, we have Native Americans, but, candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture” (story).
CNN employs Santorum as a “senior commentator,” which is what happens when a liberal organization tries to create a semblance of ideological diversity by hiring the most ridiculous figure among its political opponents.
David Treuer was one of several authors who immediately pushed back against Santorum’s racist remark. He tweeted, “*US Constitution is based on the Iroquois Confederacy re separation of powers *Native people showed Washington how to prepare and cook corn to break the famine at #ValleyForge. WANT ME TO KEEP GOING?”
If you answered, “Yes,” get a copy of Treuer’s most recent book, “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present.” He demolishes the claim that “there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture” (review).
By the way, this week is Preservation Week, an annual celebration by the American Library Association. This year’s theme is “Preserving Community Archives.” Those small collections all across the country — often containing material overlooked by traditional museums and libraries — provide the building blocks for restorative and enlightening works of history.
On the Preservation Week website you can find information about all aspects of historical curation — from saving libraries and museums to preserving your own family photos, letters and documents (more information).
Riverhead; Random House; Riverhead; Bloomsbury; Knopf
Literary awards and honors this week:
Danielle Evans won the $50,000 Joyce Carol Oates Prize. This annual award, conferred by the New Literary Project, honors a mid-career fiction writer. Evans is the author of two celebrated story collections: “The Office of Historical Corrections” (review) and “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” (review). (Full disclosure: I nominated Evans for this award.)
Deepa Anappara’s “Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line” won the Edgar Award for best novel of the year from the Mystery Writers of America (rave).
The shortlist for the U.K. Women’s Prize for Fiction is particularly great this year:
- “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett (review)
- “Piranesi,” by Susanna Clarke (review and video)
- “Unsettled Ground,” by Claire Fuller (forthcoming in the U.S. May 18)
- “Transcendent Kingdom,” by Yaa Gyasi (Top 10 of 2020)
- “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House,” by Cherie Jones (review)
- “No One is Talking About This,” by Patricia Lockwood (review)
Library of America
On this day in 1870, William James had a breakthrough. After a harrowing months-long bout of depression, he wrote in his journal, “My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” He decided to act — whether it was true or not — as though he could exercise a degree of control over his experience. That bold declaration at the age of 28 didn’t save James from future periods of self-doubt or depression, but it began a process of self-invention that saved his life. He went on to become America’s first great philosopher and psychologist.
Tin House; illustration by Oliver Barrett
Raymond Antrobus is a spoken-word poet whose first collection, “The Perseverance,” won a raft of honors when it appeared in England in 2018. It’s finally available in the United States, and it’s remarkable. Antrobus, who was born deaf, writes about grief, race and violence in lines that are startlingly immediate and provocative. The following poem, which concludes with the illustration above, refers to the killing of a deaf man named Daniel Harris in North Carolina in 2016 (story).
Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris
When Daniel Harris stepped out of his car
the policeman was waiting. Gun raised.
I use the past tense though this is irrelevant
in Daniel’s language, which is sign.
Sign has no future or past; it is a present language.
You are never more present than when a gun
is pointed at you. What language says this
if not sign? But the police officer saw hands
waving in the air, fired and Daniel dropped
his hands, his chest bleeding out onto concrete
metres from his home. I am in Breukelen Coffee House
in New York, reading this news on my phone,
when a black policewoman walks in, two guns
on her hips, my friend next to me reading
the comments section: Black Lives Matter.
Now what could we sign or say out loud
when the last word I learned in ASL was alive?
Alive -- both thumbs pointing at your lower abdominal,
index fingers pointing up like two guns in the sky.
From “The Perseverance” by Raymond Antrobus. Excerpted by permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2021 by Raymond Antrobus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Illustration by Oliver Barrett.
Dawn and I are obsessed with the seedlings in our new tabletop garden. (Ron Charles/The Washington Post)
For my wife’s birthday, my folks sent her a self-contained countertop garden made by a French company called Veritable. It looks like something from the Starship Enterprise. Dawn and I are more obsessed with our hydroponic seedlings than the most nervous parents with a new baby. We can't wait till harvest time when we can sit down and enjoy a small $200 salad.
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