Wednesday, December 22, 2010



After watching an old Dick Cavett show, Judy recently asked me a question that Cavett asked of a guest, “What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?” My answer was “Living to be 76 years old.”

In my last blog I wrote about the passing of three of our authors. A week ago I learned that Phil Wood died at his home in San Francisco on December 11th after a long battle with cancer. He was 72. In 1971—after working as a salesman for Penguin—he started his own press with Anybody’s Bike Book, and named his company Ten Speed Press. It was followed by What Color Is Your Parachute which has sold 10 million copies world-wide over the past 40 years and still remains in print. With an eclectic mix of titles—including some wonderful cookbooks (we sold Phil four of them—agenting two and packaging two more), Ten Speed was an incredibly successful independent press until it was sold to Random House in 2009 where it is now an imprint of Crown.

A week earlier I discovered that Stephen Minot, novelist, teacher, short story and textbook writer died on December 1, in Riverside, California, of a stroke. He was 83. We published two books of his: a short story collection, Bending Time, and his famous novel Surviving the Flood, Ham’s “Official Report of the Book of Genesis,” described in The New York Times as a “lively, at times bawdy story.” Other common ground I shared with Minot is that during the Vietnam War he counseled young men in applying for conscientious-objector status.

As soon as I read about Phil Wood’s passing I told Cathy Suter, who works in our office, that I wanted to call my next blog Death and Life, and wondered when my own obituary would appear. Then I walked into the kitchen, opened the pantry door, found a fortune cookie left over from a take-out order two days earlier, broke it in half and started chewing as I looked at my fortune which read—I kid you not—“You will be blessed with longevity.”

This was very encouraging because Judy and I love what we do and want to keep it rolling as long as possible. There is nothing more exciting than finding a fine manuscript and sharing it with the larger world. And unlike Ten Speed, we never grossed enough income that would tempt a large corporate publisher to continue this work when time runs out for us.


So, being still blessed with sound minds and bodies, here’s a season ending toast to “Life” and to some recent things we’ve been doing to bring a fuller life to the novels we’re publishing:

I’ve mentioned in the past Leonard Rosen’s debut thriller, All Cry Chaos, which we are publishing in September. When we first read his manuscript we thought it had the makings of an international thriller, as this tale takes place in France, Bosnia, Belgium, the Netherlands, and America, while touching on so many of the chaotic events plaguing the world today. We printed 800 galley copies and, to date, have sold rights to five publishers who will be releasing this mystery with us: Flamma (Spain), Epsilon (Turkey), De Arbeiderspers (The Netherlands), La Courte Echelle (French Canadian), and Blackstone Audiobooks (U.S.A.). And since word-of-mouth is what stimulates both buzz and sales, we have made All Cry Chaos available on Kindle, iPAD, and NOOK—a full nine months in advance of the release of this book itself—in order to get the word-of-mouth going. More information about Len Rosen’s thriller can be found both on our website (Forthcoming Books) and on Len’s website .

We are doing similar electronic sales for Marc Schuster’s The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl—another very special novel—five months in advance of this book’s release in May. This first novel, a hip, contemporary satire is perfectly balanced on the slim tightrope between comedy and tragedy. It’s about the perfect mother who, when her husband abandons her for a younger model, navigates the world of single parenthood and soon becomes a contemporary female Jekyll and Hyde, juggling cocaine and partying with motherhood, and not doing too well at either. Wonder Mom is also listed under Forthcoming Titles on our website. The novelist M.F. Bloxam describes it as “Part cautionary tale, part comic romp—a high speed trip through a funhouse suburbia of addiction and middle class angst.” Marc Schuster, is one of the most gifted book reviewers I’ve ever read as his postings on Small Press Reviews and the New York Journal of Books will testify.

We’re hopeful that these well-in-advance sales of electronic books will pay dividends and we will be monitoring them to see if we might expand this availability.

May the New Year be a good one for one and all!

As always, I welcome your comments. More information about our own books can be found in the Newsletter on our website.


Monday, November 8, 2010


On October 27 New York Times headlined 10 WRITERS RECEIVE WHITING AWARD HONORS. Julie Bosman, the latest reporter covering book publishing at the Times, wrote that “The Whiting Writers’ Awards are usually given to people who are not yet known even in literary circles. But the recipients are young and talented, and often go on to fame and acclaim, as did winners from years past like Jonathan Franzen, Sarah Ruhl, Colson Whitehead and Michael Cunningham.” This announcement, and a following letter we received from the Whiting Foundation, drew little more than a snooze for it was, as Yogi Berra famously said “déjà vu all over again.”

In 1989 Judy and I were hoping to get Berry Fleming, a masterful Southern novelist, fuller recognition for his life’s work, resurrected after we published 12 novels of his over a three year period of time. Why so many books so close together? Well, Berry was approaching 90 and didn’t have much time to enjoy these republications and original novels if we did a book a year. One of the things we thought would bring him even more attention was the possibility of winning an award given by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and/or gain membership to this 250 member society. However, nominations for these honors could only be made by members of the Academy.

Living and working here in the Hamptons, the only members I had ever met were Ed Doctorow and Kurt Vonnegut. I wrote to both and asked if I might send them some of Berry’s books. Doctorow said “Sure,” and I passed them on to him at the tennis courts in Sag Harbor. That didn’t work out, as Doctorow became irritable when I asked weeks later if he had started to read Fleming. “Not yet,” he said curtly. A month later I asked again and he became even more annoyed. “If you think badgering me will make me read him, you are sadly mistaken.” We never spoke or played tennis together again.

With Vonnegut the exchange was much more rewarding, for it made me realize how fruitless our attempt was. To quote from his letter:

Dear Marty—

I congratulate you on your efforts to get deserved recognition for Berry Fleming, so you and he are surely on my conscience. At the same time I feel helpless, since the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters is much like the Exxon tanker with the skipper dead drunk in the lavatory off the engine room. It doesn’t act the way it’s supposed to.

I myself no longer attend meetings because of its lack of maneuverability. Too many good writers (and no doubt painters and composers and historians and architects and so on) have gone to their graves believing that they lacked that indefinable certain something which kept them from joining the cream of the cream. Irwin Shaw and James Jones and Richard Yates have failed to get in for a couple of maddening reasons at least: first, poets campaign for each other like politicians, so that most of the writers honored are poets now, and second painters and musicians and so on get to vote on writers, too and have never heard of Yates and Fleming and are often log-rollers, too “If you vote for an artist you never heard of in my field, I’ll vote for one I’ve never heard of in yours,” and so on.

When Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win a Nobel Prize, the Academy and Institute asked him if he wouldn’t please become a member. To his discredit, he accepted.

I now say, and I am not alone, that the Academy and Institute should not exist, since its main achievement is broken hearts. Please give Berry Flemming my love.



Vonnegut’s letter came back to mind when I read about this year’s winners of The Whiting Writers' Award, which are presented annually to ten emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and plays. To quote from their website: The award, sponsored by the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation has been presented since 1985, with each winner receiving $50,000. This year three novelists won this award. Nominations come from an anonymous group of nominators, literary professionals across the country representing all literary genres who are likely to know about emerging writers at the beginning of promising careers. The majority are writers, often teachers as well, and the list has included editors, agents, critics, bookstore owners, reading series organizers, dramaturgs, and artistic directors of theaters.

Nominators are contacted by the foundation and are each asked to nominate one emerging writer of exceptional talent and promise. The roster of nominators changes annually, although some nominators have served more than once. I would also add that the judges, who receive these nominations, are also anonymous.

Having received this mail I called Kelly Rosenheim at the Whiting Foundation and asked her to remove us from their mailings, and in a follow-up email spelled out my reasons for this:


As said, it's my belief that The Whiting Awards suffer from a serious bias against small independent publishers, given the anonymity of those who refer novels to you and the anonymity of the judges who choose the winners.

Staring our 33rd year of publishing quality fiction we win more citations for our novels—per book—than any publisher in America, large or small. We've had Nobel Prize nominees, a National Book Award finalist, PEN New England and PEN Hemingway winners and finalists, Edgar and Hammett prize winners and finalisst, and a host of other citations. In 1988 we were a runner-up for the Boston Globe Literary Press Award. In 1997 we were honored with the Poor Richard's Award given by the Small Press Center for "having done much to advance the cause of small press publishing over a period of at least two decades." In 1998 we won the equivalent of a publishing "Oscar" for our previous year's list: The LMP Award for Editorial Achievement—a prize open to every publisher, large or small in America, and voted on nationally by our colleagues in the book industry. All you need do is go on our website to substantiate these assertions.

But here's the rub. We rarely sell more than 3,000 copies of any novel we do, and recognition within the industry is not the same as recognition among “the writers, teachers editors, agents, critics, bookstore owners, and reading series organizers” that you cite among the anonymous nominators you use. Additionally, nearly every other major or minor award allows publishers to submit titles. They all have transparency and list their judges. If all of the above mentioned awards were not open to publisher submission, we would likely have no citations to cite.

So my belief is that there is no reason to believe that few—if any—nominators and judges have likely read the books we and other small independent publishers produce. And if that is the case, your awards lose both luster and a certain credibility. Whiting is free to choose how they handle their awards. But to assume that their choices are the most deserving, given the secrecy surrounding the process, is arbitrary at best and folly at worst.


I never did get a response from Kelly. Nor find out what a ”Literary Professional” is.

Over and above all this, we honor three special people. Barbara Holland, the gifted writer and satirist whose Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential Mischief, Morals & Malarkey from George W to George W we published in 2003 and Jean Warmbold whose three Sarah Calloway mysteries we published between 1986 and 1990 (June Mail, The White Hand, and The Third Way) have both passed on recently.

Jay Landesman, who is still with us, but barely, is 93, confined to his bedroom and not available for conversation for the past few months has been inspirational: a valued friend, soulmate, and iconoclast who always went his own way. Born in St Louis, he first emerged as a night club owner (The Crystal Palace), went on to New York and started publishing the journal Neurotica and became a playwright (The Nervous Set—starring Larry Hagman, among others, with song lyrics written by his wife, Fran). He then moved to London, preaching the values of brown rice and organic food, and shortly afterward became a book publisher (we did co-editions together). In 1987 we published his autobiography Rebel Without Applause. Jay was the original hipster, a great raconteur and listener, someone I loved from the moment I saw him during my first visit to the Frankfurt Book Fair in the ‘80’s, where he was promoting The Good Dog’s Cookbook, wearing a chef’s hat, with a dog at his feet, ringing a bell and asking for contributions for the good dogs of London at his stand.

I think of him often, and how much he meant to me.

More to come next month concerning new approaches to marketing. Meanwhile a special thanks to Caleb Kercheval ( who has revised and redesigned our website. It is now a thing of beauty!

I look forward to your comments.


Monday, September 13, 2010


The pre-publication reviews have always been in the vanguard when it comes to providing opportunities for independent publishers and their authors, to succeed. Without Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist it’s highly unlikely that we—and others like us—would have ever been able to survive for three decades. Hundreds of good writers would have remained unpublished and anonymous, and what the public reads would be even more under the control of six major conglomerates, where profitability trumps quality as their primary concerns are publishing books for the widest possible audience.

All the more reason to applaud a new program that Publishers Weekly is starting called PW Select, which opens the door even wider by providing a service that promises to reduce anonymity to self-published authors as well. It will consist of quarterly supplements, starting in December, where, for a modest registration fee, their titles will be listed in a quarterly supplement (with a description of what their book is about), and the promise that at least 25 titles will be given a full review. Also provided is a six month online subscription to PW, which is invaluable to any writer who wants to know more about the business of books. There is little doubt that there are authors who will surely benefit from this coverage opportunity. For more information see the link to announcement made by PW President George Slowik.

Books are ultimately sold by word-of-mouth, and letting the wider reading public know about your book is only the first hurdle. So many factors—beyond talent—play a crucial part in determining success when a book is written. Good pre-publication reviews are essential for building a base of readers. That’s where fate comes into play. Call it the luck of the draw, or accidental. Depending on who is assigned to review any particular book plays a large role that can limit or enhance the possibility for success. Bad reviews nurture anonymity, while a series of good ones can make the author the talk of the town.

The late James Agee wrote that his concept of reviewing is to first understand what the author is trying to say and then judging how well he or she reached that goal (would that every critic could do this). The theater critic John Simon was famous for writing the most acerbic reviews. Critics come in with their own background. Some are published writers, others wannabes. Some are supportive or generally kind, others generally sour. Other threads affecting critical judgment might be related to finding some topics distasteful (such as unconventional love), disliking a particular style of writing, or having some personal enmity for author or publisher. Some reviewers have a literary background, others are more academically inclined. Various critics think that by being more critical they are demonstrating their erudition. As in theater, it’s easier to play tragedy than comedy. So it is with book reviewing: a critic criticizing, will find that job somewhat easier than praising. Still, taste is taste and one needn’t have to justify it. But I do believe that anyone writing a review should take responsibility for it, and that writing anonymously can affect what they say and how they say it. One can take issue with someone who has a byline, but this is impossible if the critic is anonymous.

Newspaper and magazine reviews invariably list the reviewer’s name, as do bloggers. Among the pre-pub reviewers Booklist always gives attribution, but Publishers Weekly and Kirkus do not. What follows are examples of the luck of the draw for four recent novels we published or are about to publish, and why I think every pre-pub review should be attributable to the critic who wrote it.

1. Margaret Hawkins’ second novel, How to Survive a Natural Disaster (pub date late September):
Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, wrote that “Hawkins follows her winning debut, A Year of Cats and Dogs (2009), with an even more arresting work, a droll and unnerving novel of extreme familial dysfunction. Hawkins has created an unusually incisive, rapid-fire, percussively hilarious, caustically dark, and piquantly pleasurable tale of tragic domestic mayhem and incremental redemption.”
Charles Holdefer, writing in the Dactyl Review, said that “Hawkins’ offers a literary novel that is both sophisticated and accessible and, in the end, is probably best described, for lack of a better label, as adult entertainment. She shows that it is time to reclaim the term. How many serious novels are, well, entertaining? How many metafictional games à la Paul Auster or high church cultural memoirs à la Azar Nafisi can a reader be expected to absorb before longing for something else? Hawkins grasps this problem and, without mincing or apology, presses forward. In this respect, it is symptomatic of where contemporary literary fiction will have to go, if it is going to go anywhere.”
Marc Schuster, in Small Press Reviews, calls this novel “nothing short of excellent. A heart-wrenching tale not so much of the things we do for love, but the things we do when love runs dry. One thing that makes it so compelling is that Hawkins allows each of her major characters to shoulder the burden of narration. As a result, readers come at the truth (or “truths”) behind the events depicted from a number of different perspectives. In this respect, it’s reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, though a contemporary setting and more conventional use of language lend themselves to greater emotional resonance in Hawkins’ book. All told, an expertly crafted and emotionally gripping read."
Jim McKeown, writing in, and also broadcasting on Baylor University’s NPR station KWBU-FM said that “This novel has an ensemble cast of quirky and wonderfully interesting characters. including animals, with secrets of their own. It is exactly the kind of novel I love reading. All the people that inhabit this first-rate story have a solid, realistic quality about them – some are better humans than others – but they all ring true as clear as a digital recording. Move Hawkins to the top of your reading and collection lists. 5 stars”
PW’s anonymous reviewer calls this “An unfortunate choice in structure makes this a slog to read: Hawkins dawdles her way through a narrative that is essentially a round-robin of backstory before arriving, very late in the game, at a plot development. Languid storytelling and uninspired plotting undermine what could be an enticing family drama.”

2. Georgeann Packard’s Fall Asleep Forgetting (pub date late August):
Joan Baum’s review on National Public Radio, Connecticut, set for November 18 (often rebroadcast on Morning Edition and All Things Considered), said that this “new novel about lesbian desire takes on an unusual resonance, since the story takes place in a trailer park, not your typical setting for a story suffused with poetry that’s about the need and nature of affection and love. Packard’s spare and lyrical narrative may not gain a wide readership because of its odd characters, including a Biblical spouting 9-year old named Six and a transvestite. And because of the novel’s shifting perspective and mix of styles. But for these very same reasons, it should attract readers interested in original and passionate fiction.
Sam Millar, writing in the New York Journal of Books: “Georgeann Packard’s extraordinary debut is filled with such an array of original and motley crew of characters, we become almost spoiled for choice as we turn each delicious page of erotic food and heady sex. A master class in sparse, clear prose, this is a compelling and mesmerizing read, infused with an elegiac ambience. It will make you laugh and cry in equal measures. You’ll not fall asleep forgetting this book.”
Amy Steele, writing in Entertainment “Forget reading some mindless chick lit novel; take this one to the beach instead. Fall Asleep Forgetting is full of lust, heated sexual encounters and intense emotions that stem from fresh and recharged connections.”
Sheila Deeth, writing in, called this “an absorbing novel and one I’ll find hard to forget. The loose-knit community of Cherry Grove trailer park, an odd group of misfits living on Long Island’s eastern tip, has welcomed me in. And everyone I’ve met has played their part.”
The anonymous PW reviewer concluded that this novel was “Slow moving and repetitive, especially in the sexual encounters and the story, while good in theory, needs more developed characters to create any prolonged interest.”

3. Conor Bowman’s first novel, The Last Estate (pub date late August):
The Kirkus review: “Christian Aragon, the narrator, is about to graduate from high school. It’s only two years since the end of the Great War, in which his older brother Eugene was killed. Their bullying, egotistical father had expected Eugene to succeed him as a wine-maker. Now that duty falls to Christian, but he’s resisting; he intends to make his own way in life. School is more inviting, for Christian has fallen in love with his beautiful 24-year-old geography teacher Vivienne Pleyden, who lives alone since her brutally abusive husband disappeared, to dodge the draft. Christian’s love for her is innocent, passionate and unconditional. Vivienne reciprocates it, as he discovers on an officially sanctioned school trip to Avignon where he loses his virginity to her in the confessional box of a church. There’s a murder, a crime of passion, followed by a courtroom drama and its lengthy aftermath. Bowman is a robust storyteller, and he keeps us hooked.”
Karl Wolff in The Driftless Area Review calls this “A rare miniature treat, little over 160 pages, contains multitudes. It focuses on the story of Christian Aragon, the last surviving son of a Provençal vintner. The hot summer has Christian conflicted by the opposing forces of lust and virtue, the former represented by his young geography teacher and the latter by the cantankerous Jesuit priest, Father Leterrier, who tortures his students with interminable lectures about Holy Purity while Christian yearns to escape the confines of his abusive father and inheriting the winery, which he sees as a curse.
Sheila Deeth’s comments in “Written by an Irishman, set in the wine-country of 1920s France, The Last Estate combines the darkness and depth of Irish story-telling with the beauty of a French village, and the cruel history of the First World War. The story is beautifully crafted. It starts with a cut that slices a young boy’s face; one moment, one blade to change everything. Cut again by fate and his father’s scorn, Christian seeks an unlikely healing. Love blossoms unsanctioned, cutting its own sweet way through boundaries, and a delightful love story unfolds.”
Betsey Van Horn on MostlyFiction Book Reviews: “This is a short but pungent tale about crime, betrayal, passion, love, and a scar–both real and psychic. The narrative is told in a solemn style that fits the times and setting. There is a mournful rim, but the tone is blended with the compelling and muscular verve of the protagonist. The final scene is foreshadowed with a hint of danger and a tortured suspense, and the ending is satisfying and messy, but strangely immaculate. Conor Bowman is an Irish author who spent many summers in France. Like George Moore (1852-1933), he is a largely naturalistic writer that was obviously influenced by the French realist writers, like Émile Zola (1840-1902). However, there is a healthy dose of Romanticism in this tale that offsets the harsh darkness and pervasive pessimism of the former writers. This is his first novel published in the United States. I look forward to his next novel, The Redemption of George Baxter Henry.
And the anonymous PW review: “This trite romance never finds its footing. Scenes of passion that read like schoolboy fantasy. Each obstacle heaped on the lovers' struggle only makes their already thinly conceived connection less credible.”

4. Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers (pub date November):
Patty Wetli, in Booklist, writes that “In her sure-handed, compact debut, Campbell offers a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Ivy Wilkes, born the same day that Georgia O’Keefe died, harbors the notion that she’s destined for greatness. Barely out of art school, Ivy traces O’Keeffe’s footsteps to Santa Fe, New Mexico (Campbell has a talent for setting and makes excellent use of her landscape), where she waits for inspiration and fame to strike. When neither occurs, she takes to copying O’Keeffe’s canvases, initially as a painting exercise and eventually as forgeries. Here’s where the reader might expect Campbell’s narrative to turn toward a crime thriller or artworld satire, but she opts instead for a subtle yet engaging study of her characters’ contradictions and the corrosive effect that discontentment has on their lives.”
These comments from Kirkus: “A brief, intensely introspective debut. An affecting novel about art and the ways it does and doesn't reflect life.”
Catherine Brady, recipient of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction writes that “With a painterly eye, Campbell tells a coming-of-age story that illuminates the ills of our cultural moment, in which it's so difficult to distinguish the genuine from the fake. She's also an astute and lyrical observer of the exacting demands of art, so that we see how easily a transforming impulse can become corrupted by the hunger for recognition.”
Marc Schuster in Small Press Reviews, again: “Campbell’s prose shines throughout. Whether describing the sweeping vistas of New Mexico or the longing of the human heart, she paints with words what pigments and brushstrokes might not so readily capture.”
And the final anonymous PW review: “Campbell's characters have brief moments of sparkling humanity, but too much of the story is given over to navel-gazing and overphilosophizing.”

As said, these reviews are good examples of the luck (or lack of it) of the draw and no criticism of Publishers Weekly is intended. Staffed by people who appreciate quality fiction and non-fiction, without their dedication to inform the reading world about forthcoming books, without distinguishing between those coming from large publishers and those from small presses like ours, I’d have been plying another trade years and years ago.

I welcome your comments.


Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Once-upon-a time I’d get boiling mad at human stupidity, particularly when it involved issues of war and peace, wasted lives, and wasted resources. Like the war in Vietnam: a ghastly misadventure that was so easy to predict as Lyndon Johnson escalated our involvement in that conflict. And as badly as it went, additional lives and more resources were spent until we finally pulled out a decade later, in effect, putting “more money and resources after bad.” My own sense of activism led me to establish a dump-Johnson campaign, Citizens for Kennedy/Fulbright, with offices in a dozen states that, unfortunately, led to RFK’s entering the primaries and his subsequent assassination, followed by more “good money after bad” during Richard Nixon’s presidency. Of course, the same can be said about our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. No matter the mistakes, more funds and troops are always pumped in, as opposed to just changing course, until the realization hits that this is all based upon stupidity, where the “experts” can’t acknowledge their mistakes.

I’ve made some peace with all this, telling myself that these endless official stupidities will hasten the continuing decline of the Anglo-American Empire, and that the quicker we fade from being the world’s policeman (and dominant colonial power), the better off life here at home will become. At this point in time, it comes down to realizing that getting continually roiled doesn’t necessarily work: that one can only raise one’s voice so often on particular topics and then shut up. So rather than continuing to rant on about any of this, I far prefer referring you to George Carlin’s Final Words to the World , as well as to Ivan Goldman’s July 21st latest posting, Digging Deeper, where he once again cuts to the heart of the body politic.

My bailiwick is more confined to the stupidities in the publishing business where sales and marketing “experts” at all the major conglomerate publishers—both here and abroad—continue to dictate what to do about falling sales. Their answer, not very different than our foreign policy advisors, is “Keep doing more of the same in ever increasing proportions.” The compensation to their fruitless escalation is that nobody gets killed and our tax dollars don’t support their erroneous assumptions. Also, it enables a small independent press like ours to have significantly increased book sales every year over the past three years by not following their strategy (with total cumulative sales rising over that time by nearly 90%).

And here’s the story of what made me focus on this particular absurdity: our efforts to launch an International Publishing Event in September, 2011, when we—and publishers abroad—will simultaneously publish Leonard Rosen’s thriller All Cry Chaos.

When I first read Len's novel it reminded me of John LeCarré's A Most Wanted Man (which I read this past winter), and a short review of it whose last lines called it “Poignant, compassionate, peopled with characters the reader never wants to let go… It prickles with tension until the last heart-stopping page. It is also a work of deep humanity, and uncommon relevance to our times.” These are the same qualities one finds in Len Rosen's novel, and then some. Every one of our overseas agents loved Len’s book which also reflects all of the conflicts going on in the world about us, many of them adding that Chaos has much in common with Sweden’s Henning Mankell, or predicting the same possibility of success Stieg Larsson enjoyed (though Rosen is a far better writer).

As Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha, which was on The New York Times best-seller list for two years, said, “Only the very best of writers can weave a compelling story from a maze of complicated ideas, and with this deftly crafted novel, Len Rosen has proven himself to be one of them. Drawing not only on crime and the human condition, but on math, economics, and religion as well, All Cry Chaos is both a thinking man’s mystery and a thrilling ride. I look forward to more from its talented creator.”

In any event, one of our agents quickly sold rights in Spain, and another received rave reviews from the Editor-in-Chief of one of Random House UK’s imprints who thought it was one of the most highly original thrillers he had seen and one which gathered considerable editorial support from others. He then came up against the prospect of getting it through the sales/marketing team which, to his great disappointment, would not let it pass (even though nobody on this “team” apparently read it). My suspicion is that sales of the last LeCarré or Mankell novels hadn’t proven wildly successful in England and—given falling sales at his imprint—he was instructed by sales and marketing to take only books that had bigger potential.

“One would think,” he told me, “that falling sales would make it even more imperative that an Editor-in-Chief pick books that he thinks will be successful, but that’s not the way it works any longer.” So, as in the USA, the big publishing corporations continue to chase illusory dollars by appealing to the widest common denominator and hope that it pays off better “next time” then it is paying off in “present time.”

Judy and I continue to believe that predicting success for any title is impossible (unless one publishes successful hacks like James Patterson), that there is a proven thirst for quality fiction, and that if the two of us are thrilled by a novel there are other people like us who will also want to read it. Nor would we ever trust a “marketeer" or sales person to tell us what would be successful. In our own way—validated by our own sales figures—we’re better judges of what has a likelihood of success.

I remain optimistic that when the August vacations are over in Europe and Asia, we will have a solid group of publishers around the world joining us in releasing All Cry Chaos.

I invite your comments, welcome your subscribing to this blog, and—until my September posting—hope you will check The Permanent Press web site, and our Newsletter, for reviews, news, and updates on our recent and forthcoming titles.


Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Realizing that repetition becomes tedious, and that my criticisms of book coverage at The New York Times have already been made, I’m ready for a break, as there is nothing more to be added since my June posting. But I do want to share a letter I sent to Janet Maslin on June 8, along with the Donkey Award:

Janet: I send this plaque off to you with a heavy heart, because I so much enjoyed your movie reviews in days past. Nor do I enjoy hurting anyone’s feelings. As all of the judges for The Donkey Award have affirmed in private discussions, it almost didn’t matter who “won,” as long as this plaque served as a statement that the Times book coverage fails to fulfill a longing among a great number of book readers who want to know the “Best” of what is out there—and not the “Worst.”

One of the reasons I appreciated your film reviews is that, as a movie-goer, I wanted to know what to avoid and what to see, so negative reviews of overly hyped movies were of great service…as were reviews of things you recommended. But the feeling among Danny Klein, Bill Henderson, Dan Rattiner, Marc Schuster, Joan Baum, and myself is that we—given such limited review spaces—wanted to know about the good books. Which is why a critic can be appreciated as a film reviewer yet criticized for her book reviews. And since you can choose what to review, this award fits the description of Best Abuse Of Space For The Least Deserving Books.

What is interesting is that the feedback we’ve gotten from the public shows that they didn’t consider your double review of CAUGHT and NEVER LOOK AWAY a winner. But, in fact, your review of STAR tied with that of Stanley Fish’s GOING ROGUE for first place. So the general feeling has been that you are pretty consistent in your approach to book reviewing.

If I could have my wishes granted, I would hope you would only review books you liked, for I would hate to see you get another nomination for the 2011 Donkey Award (our version, I suppose, of the Razzies), which we’re likely to present at Book Expo next year. For now, you are in a class with Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar and a Razzie last year for two different films. And I’ve always felt you did Oscar style film reviews, but that doesn’t cut it with book lovers.

My other wish is that you’ll hold on to this prize rather than destroy it. Or give it away to someone you like. It might have real value on eBay, being that you are the first recipient of this award. If so, I’d hope that would provide some compensation.

"Making-fun-of" is about the only tool left in one’s arsenal to possibly alter what may very well prove to be unalterable when it comes down to trying to change the state of mainstream media book coverage. Beyond staging another Donkey Award next year, I think it’s time to let the rest of it go for the foreseeable future. So what is there I’d like to share with you in this July blog? My own "SUMMERTIME READING" recommendations and unsolicted opinions about some writers who continue to command undying media respect for reasons that I can’t quite fathom.

Let’s start with Stieg Larsson, the trigger being Nora Ephron’s wonderful satire that appeared in The New Yorker on June 30: The Girl Who Fixed The Umlaut. It touches on everything in Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that drove me nuts when I read it. And why this was one of those cases, where the film—which I thought was superb—was so far superior to the book, as all the superfluous, repetitive writing was eliminated. This article is a hoot and I urge you to start your summertime reading with it.

Then there is Sam Tanenhaus’s excellent article in The New York Times on June 20, written in response to another New Yorker article (June 14) hailing 20 writers Under 40…an erudite and well deserved criticism of the New Yorker piece. For all my criticisms of the Times Book Review, this is a piece that deserves to be read. If I had any criticism of the New Yorker article it would be how in the hell would they even know the best young writers under 40 since they do so few reviews, and those that appear are invariably from the major conglomerate publishers. As for publishing short stories, the scuttlebutt amongst many insiders is that a personal connection is needed to be accepted at The New Yorker. And that we lack. But I will send their book editor two novels by the under 40 set that we will be publishing later this year and next—not that I expect coverage (we don’t even bother submitting to The New Yorker any longer), but just so that they will have on record for their next “Under 40” story that there are two novelists I would consider atop any list: 29-year-old Liza Campbell’s forthcoming The Dissemblers and 37-year-old Marc Schuster’s The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom & Party Girl.

Finally, my personal opinions about two perennial darlings of the British-American publishing scene: Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens. I read one of Amis’s novels years ago and found it okay but hardly overwhelming. Once was enough. As for Hitchins, I’ve never read him but have listened to him countless times on television where he is always treated as a celebrity auteur and racontour—a pal of Amis—who has wise, witty, entertaining, and controversial things to say. But every time I’ve seen him he came across as a supercilious, pompous, self-absorbed guy, constantly self-promoting, and no-one I’d want to know any better or read. To me, he’s a cunning linguist, having that gift in common with Gore Vidal. But unlike Vidal (a brilliant writer who talked about serious issues without being supeficial in his writing and not about himself when on air), Hitchens seems to me a shadow substitute. The last time I saw Hitchens was on The Daily Show where Jon Stewart had him on as a guest. Hitchens was mumbling and slurring his words and—given his reputation for hard drinking—it appeared that he was under the influence as he drank form a glass while on the show. While Stewart was laughing throughout as if this was a hilarious and terribly clever conversation, it didn’t do much for me.

As always, I welcome your comments and hope you will sign up for future monthly postings. If you have any topics you'd like me address, let me know and I'll make an honest attempt to do so in my next blog.

If you check the Permanent Press web site, and the Newsletter, you will see updates for our own titles.


Monday, June 7, 2010


The Donkey Award (Equus Asinus) was presented at a Press Conference on Saturday, June 5. In attendence were, left to right, Marc Schuster, myself, Dan Rattiner, and Joan Baum. There were six judges in all. The winner of this year’s Award had three jurists voting in her favor. A fourth vote went to some one else, and two jurists didn’t care who the Award went to (so many were worthy but one had to be picked), but felt it important to make a statement about the increasing trivialization and asininity of coverage. Nor was it accidental that all five finalists had their reviews published in The New York Times in either the Sunday Book Review or in the daily reviews.

There is no better introduction to this initial Equus Asinus Award than that written by Daniel Klein, who could not be with us at the ceremony as his play, Mengelberg and Mahler, was still in rehearsal, as it receives its World Premier at Shakespeare & Company Theater in Lennox, Massachusetts on June 11. One other note about Danny Klein: his novel, The History Of Now was a finalist for this year’s 2010 Massachusetts Book Award and received the Silver Award for Literary Fiction given by ForeWord Magazine at this year’s Book Expo. He is also the best-selling co-author of Plato and a Platypus Walked Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Here is Danny’s statement:

I did the math:
* Each year, 175,000 new titles are published in the USA.
* The New York Times receives upwards of 1,000 books for review each week.
* They publish reviews of about 30 of these each week (counting the Sunday Book Review). So we’re talking reviews of fewer than 1% of the books published.

This would suggest that the books selected for review should be in the top 1% of importance for the general reader. That, above all, they serve to alert the reader to new and significant ideas in print and major new works of literary fiction.

Not so. Not even close. Overwhelmingly, The New York Times chooses to review books of or about popular culture: celebrity biographies and mysteries by bestselling authors. Rarely reviewed are new voices in literature, philosophy, or translations by significant foreign authors.

Times reviewer Janet Maslin epitomizes this phenomenon. She moved smoothly from the film page to the book review page without missing a beat—her beat, pop culture. The print equivalent of “Entertainment Tonight.”

Thus do I choose Ms. Maslin and her double review of the pop mysteries, ‘Caught’ and ‘Never Look Away’ for this year’s Donkey Award. The books themselves are genre entertainments—I have no problem whatsoever with such books or their popularity. (There’s nothing wrong with reading for fun; I am not against fun.) But what is galling is that Ms. Maslin essentially criticizes these books for not being more literary. She has chosen to review pop genre books and then disparages them for not being more meaningful. Huh?

Maslin compounds this cognitive dissonance by writing her reviews in teen magazine prose, showing how dim the authors are by outdoing them in banality. She should receive a special award for The Worst Extended Simile for a section of that double review that begins, “When books start with such perfunctory tricks, their authors are in effect playing a classic version of Monopoly. Imagine a game board full of spaces on which the characters can land. The best destinations—Boardwalk, Park Place—are the ones that deliver truly startling plot twists.” It doesn’t stop there, or even with, “When a main character searching for a lost loved one becomes the main suspect in that person’s disappearance, the story is figuratively stuck on Monopoly’s low-end Baltic Avenue.” But enough. Enough!

As it turns out, Janet Maslin did win the 2010 Donkey Award for this double review. Yet when we asked those who read our news releases which of the finalists they would give the prize to, 50% were in favor of Stanley Fish’s review of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, 32% favored Maslin’s review of Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Beskind (once again trashing the book), and 18% voting for Nellie McKay’s review of John Lennon: The Life, by Philip Norman. I would also add that all of the judges thought that McKay’s review was unreadable, as she tried to parody some of Lennon’s writing. One item of note is that this musician/songwriter/comedienne was born two years after Lennon’s death in 1980. Her conceit reminded me of the 1988 Presidential elections when Dan Quayle and Senator Lloyd Bentsen were the vice-Presidential candidate on tickets headed by George Bush Senior and Michael Dukakis. In one debate Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy, and Bentsen shot back telling this half-wit that “I knew Jack Kennedy, sir, and you are no John Kennedy.” Nor is Nellie McKay John Lennon—a man I greatly admired and once, after meeting with Yoko Ono, wrote a letter on his behalf, in my capacity as a psychiatrist, to prevent the Justice Department from deporting John because of a marijuana conviction against him in England.

But here’s my own take on why all the finalists came from New York Times reviews:
I’ve had a long association with The New York Times, having read it for over 60 years, since attending The High School of Music & Art (one and a half hours of traveling each way, by bus and subway, leaving plenty of time to read it). In 1959 I actually worked there during my senior year in medical school as a “Night Intern,” seeing employees who had accidents or were ill. I believed then—as I still believe now—that it is the best newspaper in America. But that high regard does not extend to their book reviews, which have slid rapidly downhill over the past eight years, due to policies insisted upon by Bill Keller, a prize-winning journalist who, in July 2003, was appointed Executive Editor, the most powerful person at the newspaper after Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher. In earlier blogs I traced the relationship between which books get reviewed and which companies do the advertising. And I talked about the imbalances between quality books and passing celebrity fancies—that Danny Klein talked about. In my March blog (Applauding/Appalling) I wrote about an interview that Keller gave to Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel (in January 21, 2004), where Keller and Steve Erlanger, another journalist who became Editor of the Culture Desk in 2002(and had overall charge of the daily book reviews), announced “dramatic changes” to come, “top to bottom,”

"The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world” Keller said. "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction." More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we're told. After all, says Keller, somebody's got to tell you what book to choose at the airport. “Why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do? Contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves. Of course, some fiction needs to be done.We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me." He gets no argument from Erlanger. "To be honest, there's so much shit," the new leader of the daily arts section observes. "Most of the things we praise aren't very good. We need to do more policy and history. We need to be more urgent and journalistic." Some of the non-fiction books he reviews for "urgency" are poorly written, he admits, but for him this is less important than the book's contents. He and Keller, both see books as a launching pad for discussion. "Book reviews are partly a consumer service," Keller says, but they also "should be written for people who don't have any intention of buying the book."

I remember how I enjoyed reading the Sunday Book Review years ago when Harvey Shapiro and Rebecca Sinkler and Charles McGrath headed it. But all that was before Keller laid down the new line…one of which was that he wanted to review books that people would buy at airports. Amazingly, when I took a flight from LaGuardia to Richmond to meet Doris Buffett two weeks ago, there was A New York Times Bookstore at LaGuardia selling books that the Times had reviewed. It was a pocket sized shop, and there are at least 7 others at airports around the country with expansion plans “selling the Times brand.” No wonder Bill Keller said he wanted to review books that people could order at airports. The Times has been selling them there! One internet report said that earnings at their Airport Bookstores were over 150 million dollars a year or so ago. At LaGuardia there was a full display box of at least 10 James Patterson thrillers, which made me suddenly realize why Patterson, a very successful hack, was given a major feature in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year. Also prominent were Harlan Coben’s Caught and a plethora of other books the Times reviewed.

I became increasingly aware of how huge the Times is, and how influential—and not just The New York Times newspaper. A bit of web research show that it is a very closed self-serving system, one that increasingly fails to cover high culture—book wise at least—for very strong self-serving economic reasons, restraining trade in subtle but substantial ways. I quote from a 2005 web site posting:

The New York Times Company is a leading media company that reported 2004 revenues of $3.3 billion, which included sales of The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Boston Globe, 16 other newspapers, eight network-affiliated television stations, two New York City radio stations and more than 40 Web sites, including, and For the fifth consecutive year, the Company was ranked No. 1 in the publishing industry in Fortune's 2005 list of America's Most Admired Companies. The Company's core purpose is to “enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.”

This transition from reviewng “high-quality” books to low is striking. Moreso when you realize that their syndicated reviews go out to newspapers across the country, including those they own. I remember sitting in Becky Sinkler’s office years ago, presenting some titles to her, when she got a phone call from an irate publisher who was angered about a lousy review. Becky said “I agree with you, but that book was assigned and the critic wrote what he thought, and there is nothing I can do about it.” Some of the Donkey finalists were similarly assigned books for the Sunday Book Reviews and, mean spirited though these reviews were, they were honest expressions of what they felt. Can we fault a critic for this? Not really in this instance, but we can hold them accountable for terrible writing (as in the case of Nellie McKay’s review of John Lennon: The Life, where blame can only be truly placed at the feet of the editors who let her get away with this). But the daily reviewers, like Janet Maslin, are free to choose what they wish to review, and some of these choices are abominable.

Here’s another contrast: On June 7 the day of this posting, Doris Buffett came to New York to promote Michael Zitz’s biography: Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, a book we just released. She started off with a Good Morning America interview with George Stephanopoulis. It was so successful, feedback wise, that ABC radio scheduled her for a live one hour Radio Tour on Wednesday, June 9, with their Radio Network Affiliates, and shortly after this interview her biography jumped up to 600 on Nightline, originally set to run their filmed feature on Doris this evening, has postponed its segment until the 9th as well because of another breaking news story. On June 8 Doris appears on CNN’s American Morning, Fox Business News' Countdown To Closing, at 3 PM, And she will tape the Charlie Rose show for PBS.

This biography received a starred review in Publishers Weekly (“Zitz, a journalist befriended by Buffett, lets the dynamic philanthropist—who he describes as "a combination of Gandhi, Santa Claus and Lucille Ball"—tell the majority of her own story, making this more an oral history than a conventional biography, and a lively, inspirational read for fellow philanthropists and those who depend on them”, another excellent one in Kirkus (“Inspiring story of a woman who is using her wealth for philanthropy. The author offers moving examples of Doris’s philanthropy and rightly praises her support of prisoner education at Sing Sing and San Quentin prisons, among other causes shunned by most of her peers. Having learned what matters the hard way, she is determined to give all her money away to others who have also been unlucky in life. This is a readable portrait of a remarkable individual.”), and was lauded this past Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch (“Her inspiring tale is a stirring and profoundly moving story.”) And yet, this biography was turned down by The New York Times Book Review non-fiction editors as not being particularly noteworthy. Playing Nostrdamus, I predict that the daily Times reviewers will not see merit in it either, as it's just another product of a small press that doesn't advertise and yet challenges how they go about their assignments, though I'm sure they would have other explanations for noteworthiness.

And so I looked at the two past Book Reviews and took note of what they considered noteworthy. In the May 30 issue there was a page and a half About The Value of Silence, covering three books telling us that keeping excess noise out of our lives was important but difficult to achieve; another page and page and a half about a book written by David Lipsky (not that well reviewed), a Rolling Stone reporter, who accompanied David Foster Wallace when Wallace was on tour promoting his novel Infinite Jest in 1996 (not that well reviewed). In their June 6 Summer Reading Issue there was a full page covering two memoirs written by journeymen baseball players (not very well reviewed); a third of a page about a food writer looking to find the perfect steak (he couldn’t); a full page covering two sex-symbol actresses who wrote their memoirs: Raquel Welch (Racquel) and Pam Grier (Foxy) which unimpressed the reviewer; a full page covering two memoirs about shopaholics (The Thoughtful Spender and Spent), and another two pages covering four books about baseball and a fifth about Astroturf). All of these books were published by conglomerate publishers. Expect to see them at their airport stores.

So what has this to do with The Donkey Awards? And the five finalists? Plenty. It’s another way of pointing out the difficulties of spreading the word about quality fiction and non-fiction. Can one ever hope to make the Times coverage of books more balanced…as it once was? Who is to say? But we must continue to have hope, though it often feels like trying to divert a charging elephant with a pea shooter. We are giving an award to a critic, but then again the critics are chosen by the executives to carry out Bill Keller’s mandate. Keller does a good job of covering politics, news, investigative journalism, and has good columnists. If only he could reevaluate his book review dictates and allow the book review sections to be run by literary people, how much better things might be for readers who would like to know about new writers and new books that they might like to read or discover.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

George and Laura Bush, Doris Buffett, and the Donkey Award Finalists

It was the date that caught my eye in a headlined story in the April 28 issue of Publishers Weekly: Crown Sets November 9 Pub Date for Bush Memoir, since that’s also my birthday. The article went on to say that Crown, one of many subsidiaries of Random House, announced that George W. Bush's forthcoming memoir, Decision Points, will hit stands that day and called it a "groundbreaking new brand of memoir” that will explore the 14 most important decisions in the author's life. Decision Points will be available simultaneously in hardcover and e-book (as well as audio) and be priced at $35. Crown is also planning to publish 1,000 cloth-bound signed copies of the book, available at $350. The book, Crown promises, not only “explores Bush's personal life—from the discovery of his faith to his decision to stop drinking—but also pivotal moments in his political career and presidency, from the tense time before the 2000 election result was announced, to the moments in the Situation Room before the start of the Iraq war, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” The publisher says Bush "writes honestly and directly about his flaws and mistakes, as well as his historic achievements."

MY QUESTIONS ARE why the breathless, redundant prose and promises that are not likely to be realized? Is there such a thing as a “groundbreaking old brand of memoir?” Doesn’t the Crown publicist realize that Laura Bush, in her just released biography, takes credit for getting George to give up drinking? As for George Bush’s “historic achievements,” it’s hard for me to think of one, let alone plural achievements. Okay, they can’t expect our former president to discuss his “historic blunders,” but surely some other pitch would be more palatable. And finally, who is going to write this book for him since his mastery of the English language has never been one of his strong points or historical achievements?

A similar question arises again in the just released Spoken From The Heart, by Laura Bush. At the end of April, Michiko Kakutani reviewed her biography in The New York Times (reprinted days later in The Houston Chronicle), describing it as “really two books. The first is a deeply felt, keenly observed account of her childhood and youth in Texas — an account that captures a time and place with exacting emotional precision and that demonstrates how Mrs. Bush’s lifelong love of books has imprinted her imagination. The second book is a thoroughly conventional autobiography by a politician’s wife — a rote recitation of travel, public appearances and meetings with foreign dignitaries that sheds not the faintest new light on the presidency of the author’s husband… filled with the sort of spin and canned platitudes common in political autobiographies.”

THE BIG QUESTION HERE IS WHOSE “LIPS” DID THIS “HEART” SPEAK THROUGH? No hint on the cover, but Kakutani writes that Mrs. Bush acknowledged that Lyric Winik “helped me put my story into words.” It so happens that Winik, a 44-year- old award-winning writer, is a Phi Beta Kappa magnum cum laude graduate from Princeton, has a Masters degree in history from Johns Hopkins University, was the Washington Correspondent for Parade Magazine for eleven years where she wrote major profiles of key Washington figures, including Nancy Pelosi, Dick Cheney, Laura Bush, Ban Ki Moon, Condi Rice, and others, as well as in-depth reporting from Washington DC. Winik is under contract to Crown for her next book about Magellen’s voyage. Hardly your run-of-the mill helpmate, one can’t help but wonder who should get credit for this “deeply felt, keenly observed account of her childhood and youth in Texas — an account that captures a time and place with exacting emotional precision and that demonstrates how Mrs. Bush’s lifelong love of books has imprinted her imagination.”

In the old days, autobiographies written with the help of accomplished writers, would read, on the cover, “as told to…” But truth in advertising is no longer required when it comes to memoirs by celebrities.

Another random thought—a deeply disappointing one—comes to mind concerning Random House which once-upon-a-time set the standard for quality fiction. But since Crown, their subsidiary, also has its own imprints, it was sad to read another headlined story in PW on April 29: Crown Restructured Into Distinct Groups; Shaye Areheart Books Closed (“restructuring,” being polite double talk for “not profitable enough”). On their website, Areheart described themselves as specializing “in quality fiction, both literary and commercial, and feature a list of seasoned authors including Chris Bohjalian, Alice Hoffman, Lisa Unger, Gillian Flynn, Mary McGarry Morris, Katharine Weber, Allison Winn Scotch, Alicia Erian, Keith Donohue and debut novelists.” Yet that’s the increasing story over the last few decades: celebrities, the all consuming meat and potatoes of what big time publishing (and most big-time reviewing is about).

It makes me think of the common root shared by “celebrity,” whose prime definition is “fame,” and people who are “celebrated,” in the sense that they are honored for accomplishments regardless of how well known they are. This distinction arises since we’ve just released Michael Zitz’s Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story. Warren is justly famous, while Doris is not, though his older sister is celebrated by thousands of people whose lives she has changed. One of the great pleasures of publishing this biography is letting the larger world know how significant her contributions have been, how she not only Speaks From The Heart but Puts Her Money Where Her Mouth Is. There is a remarkable four minute and 40 second video featuring Doris taken at Davidson College this past January, and everyone I know who has watched it came to the conclusion that people like Doris represent the very best instincts human beings are capable of—and what can be accomplished if heart and mind are in synchronicity. I hope you’ll take the time to watch this video and share your thoughts with me.

You’ll also have a chance to see Doris on Good Morning America on Monday, June 7, and again on Nightline that evening. The National Enquirer issue that goes on newsstands on May 5 (but has an issue date of May 17) devotes a full page to Doris Bufffett in their bi-monthly “Acts of Kindness” feature as well.

This May we have a second book to celebrate: Chris Knopf’s stand-alone thriller Elysiana. Will Chris get the wider coverage he deserves after having written five previously acclaimed mysteries in the last six years (four in his Sam Acquillo/Hamptons series that we published and another mystery for Minotaur, an imprint of St. Martin’s). Or will reviewers, such as Janet Maslin, continue covering thrillers by better-selling authors regardless of quality— like Harlan Coben’s Caught and Linwood Barclay’s Never Look Away—two novels she disliked in her double review in the Times, back in March. Or perhaps that’s part of Maslin’s job assignment: whenever possible review fiction from one of the six major publishing conglomerates, craftsmanship be damned. But for any discerning mystery reader who is reading this blog, here are links to two fine reviews of Elysiana, one from The Richmond Times Dispatch in a May 3rd posting and another from Small Press Reviews.

Which brings me to The Donkey Awards (see January 1, 2010 posting ANNOUNCING THE DONKEY AWARDS). On Saturday, June 5, the first Award for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book” will be given out. Our six judges (Joan Baum, Bill Henderson, Dan Rattiner, Marc Schuster, Daniel Klein,and myself), all of us writers of published books, three of us publishers, and one a critic for National Public Radio, have narrowed the list of deserving reviewers to five finalists. As one judge, Danny Klein, best-selling author of Plato and a Platypus Walked into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes and other fiction and non-fiction titles, points out: “Each year, 175,000 new titles are published in the USA. The New York Times receives upwards of 1,000 books for review consideration each week and publishes approximately 30 reviews (counting the Sunday Book Review). So we’re talking reviews of fewer than 1% of the books published. This would suggest that those selected for review should be in the top 1% of importance for the general reader. They should, above all, serve to alert the reader to new and significant ideas in print and major new works of literary fiction. Not so. Not even close. Overwhelmingly, The New York Times chooses to review books of or about popular culture: celebrity biographies and mysteries by bestselling authors. Rarely reviewed are new voices in literature, philosophy, or translations by significant foreign authors.”

The Donkey Award (Equus Asinus) is intended to highlight this absurdity. The finalists include Nellie McKay for her review of John Lennon, Walter Kirn for Solar, Stanley Fish for Going Rogue, and Janet Maslin for two reviews: her double review mentioned earier and for her review of Star. All finalists will be issued an invitation to join us for the award ceremony here in Sag Harbor, where the winner will receive an inscribed donkey trophy from our jurists. A live donkey will also be present.

Be sure to check out The Permanent Press web site, where our Newsletter will have further updates, as well as information about other titles.


Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Posted April 1st

Before going to Virgin Gorda on our annual vacation in mid-February, I made a trip to the Sag Harbor dump (officially called a ‘recycling center’) to leave our house-sitter, Georgeann Packard, empty garbage pails. On a ledge were two Robert B. Parker thrillers—his first two Sunny Randall novels—discards from the Peconic Library. Since Chris Knopf’s Sam Acquillo series was frequently compared to Parker’s Spencer series, I wanted to read Parker and see what he was about.

It’s been said that vacations can give one perspective, and this trip was certainly true for me, insofar as getting a handle on what makes a book special. I found Parker spellbinding and could easily see the comparisons: start off with a three dimensional narrator, toss in a colorful cast of other characters, offer up great dialogue, add dollops of humor along with the tension inherent in any great thriller, make sure there are surprise twists, and there you have it. Knopf and Parker could have been brothers separated at birth. So now I’m adding his oeuvre to my reading list (having read more than three fourths of Elmore Leonard’s novels—the other writer critics frequently cited when reviewing Chris’ first four Sam Acquillo books: The Last Refuge, Two Time, Head Wounds, and Hard Stop).

Then I read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that Lon Kirschner, our cover artist, sent along for me to take. A bit of a slog (it could have been trimmed by 25% and been even more effective), long on sadomasochistic scenes—three of them, as gruesome as any James Patterson might concoct—and at the end of the novel there was a fourth one, advertising the next in his posthumous series, The Girl Who Played with Fire. Despite two interesting protagonists, Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Bloomkvist, I’m not likely to read the next in the series.

After going through and rejecting a manuscript, I ran out of reading material, yet had another week left on this island paradise. So I searched some other units at Mango Bay, where we were staying, and picked thrillers written by several best-selling writers. There was David Baldacci’s Divine Justice and Ken Follet’s Jackdaws. Baldacci’s hero was as two-dimensional as flattened cardboard, his thoughts and actions straight out of a third rate television film. As for Follett, an interesting plot premise but, again, the characters out of Hollywood casting: a handsome Nazi, a beautiful British resistance fighter dropped behind the enemies lines in occupied France, and her handsome resistance fighter husband. Baldacci I was able to put down after the first dozen pages. I went two dozen pages before returning Follett.

And then I was saved by discovering Carl Hiaasen’s Double Whammy. Again, a good protagonist, excellent side characters and villains, an improbable yet inventive plot, and very funny scenes, while Hiaasen’s environmental concerns came through.

When I was a psychiatric resident at Mt Sinai Hospital many decades ago, someone asked one of the attending psychiatrists what the difference was between psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He replied, “Psychoanalysis is what I do. Psychotherapy is what you do.” I enjoyed the humor of his remark, and that same pecking order comes up when defining the really good books. It’s tempting to say “Good books are what we publish,” but what is the second punch phrase? Because every publishing house comes out with some good books. It’s just that the conglomerates do so many schlocky books as well. One of the paperback editors we deal with (I think it was Rebecca Hunt at Penguin) said that this second category is what enables them to do some literary fiction. How, then, does one define an exceptional book—a question Judy raised as we sat watching a sunset on the beach. The best I could come up with after reading these novels was this:

If the major character is someone you want to know better—admire, have compassion for, want to spend time with or even someone who simply excites your curiosity in some way—this is the bedrock for a good novel. The same holds true for certain non-fiction too. Surely, there are other criteria that come into play as well (a good plot, a way with words, good dialogue and, when possible, some sense of humor), but without this affinity for/admiration of a character, these additional measuring sticks count for little. While this is entirely subjective, I could not see myself spending time with John or Elizabeth Edwards, Sarah Palin, or Karl Rove. And certainly not with the major protagonists in fiction written by Follett, Baldacci, Patterson, or Larsson no matter how many mainstream media reviews they get.

Thus, when ForeWord magazine announced after we returned stateside the finalists in their 2009 Book of the Year Awards (the finalists representing 360 publishers, selected from 1,400 entries in 60 categories), it was most heartening to discover that seven of them were novels we published. In the literary fiction category there are 15 finalists—five of which are ours: The Year Of Cats And Dogs (by Margaret Hawkins), Houri (Mehrdad Balali), Seducing The Spirits (Louise Young), The Disappearance (Efrem Sigel), and The History Of Now (Daniel Klein). In the mystery category there are 17 finalists and two of ours are among them: Every Boat Turns South (Jay White) and Hard Stop (Chris Knopf). And the one thing that every one of these novels had in common was that not only did Judy and I feel this strong affinity for the characters in these books but, quite obviously, so did the jurists.

Which brings us up to the excitement of launching two books in May where these criteria also hold. First, there is Elysiana, Chris Knopf’s fifth mystery for us. After winning countless praise and awards for his Sam Acquillo/Hamptons thrillers, which have been translated around the world, this is his first stand alone novel that takes place 40 years ago, at a beach resort off the Jersey coast. A pre-publication review in Publishers Weekly noted that “Smart dialogue and sharp social observations distinguish this stand-alone thriller from Knopf.” A starred review in Booklist adds that “A full baker’s dozen major characters swirl and collide as if in Brownian motion, moved by elemental forces. Signs and portents hint that something life changing, if not quite apocalyptic, will affect them all. Elysiana is a departure for Knopf, whose Sam Acquillo mysteries have won reviewers’ raves, but he nails it.”

Then, there is Michael Zitz’s Giving It All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, which will come out on the first of May when brother Warren’s Berkshire Hathaway Convention begins in Omaha, where both Doris and Warren will be signing copies of her biography. How we obtained this book—and the unique way we are marketing it—was the lead article in Publishers Weekly on Thursday, March 25. As for Doris, she is someone Judy and I fell in love with after reading the manuscript, for she is a philanthropic alchemist who has turned personal pain into joy by virtue of her giving away her fortune to individuals who, through no fault of their own, needed help to overcome adversity. Doris is a great example to anyone who cares about the biggest things in life—compassion, caring, and helping.

Nor does this affinity for characters end here. Two exceptional first novels that we’re publishing this year, Georgeann Packard’s Fall Asleep Forgetting, which appears in July (the same Georgeann who house sat for us while we were in Virgin Gorda to work on her second novel), and Liza Campbell’s The Dissemblers, due out in October, are also rich in people we found fascinating. We’ve nominated both for the $10,000 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize awarded by the Center for Fiction.

Kindred Matters:

Overprinting and Returns vs. Non-returnables:

One of the banes of the publishing business has been the fact that nothing “sold” to bookstores or wholesalers is actually “sold,” since returns are allowable. In no other manufacturing business is this allowed. Clothing, groceries, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, games, pharmaceuticals, appliances, cars, music, electronics—you name it: once a store has purchased your product, they sell it, discount it as it ages, or accept a loss. In book publishing in general overall return rates are close to 50%, which means that there is much wasted work (shipping books back and forth, crediting returns) and money. Among conglomerates, huge returns can mean that even a Best Seller can lose money because of overprinting. Notorious for returns are the chain bookstores. Barnes & Noble is happy to accept thousands of books knowing that there is no liability for over ordering. In a sense, they can “paper the store” with selections, filling up bookshelves as a decorator would paste wallpaper in a home. In an earlier blog posted one year ago (May 12), entitled, WHERE I LEFT OFF, I documented how Barnes & Noble returned 90% of an order they placed with us after they selected one of our novels for their Great New Writers Program—and did this as well with a book published by Jill Schoolman’s Archipelago Press. It was a wake-up call in two ways: making us decide never to try selling our titles to the chains and also planting the seed that one day it would be nice to test the non-returnable market.

With the forthcoming release of Giving it All Away: The Doris Buffett Story, I felt we had the ideal book to try this with. After all, the chains no longer hold sway. Most consumers go straight to for the best deals. Plus, anything kept out of the chains is a help to the independent bookstores that the chains have helped eviscerate. So we’ve set up a non-returnable system, in conjunction with, the wholesaler Baker & Taylor, and independent bookstores who order five copies or more—giving them a 60% non-returnable discount, while offering the chains nothing at all. So far, this experiment is off to a good start with over 5,000 copies already sold and paid for in advance of publication.

An Update on The Donkey Awards:

In my January 1st blog post, ANNOUNCING THE DONKEY AWARDS, I listed a distinguished panel of writers and critics who would choose a winner for the Equus Asinus Award , given for the “Best Abuse of Space for the Least Deserving Book.” Janet Maslin, one of the three daily New York Times reviewers had several reviews on the list of submissions, but has clearly catapulted into the lead based upon her review in the March 26 issue, covering not one, but two crappy thrillers—Harlan Coben’s Caught and Linwood Barclay’s Never Look Away (I assume they are crappy because Maslin had nothing good to say about either of them, yet still gave them ample coverage): Dan Rattiner, humorist, writer, and founder of Dan’s Papers commented “Snide, stupid, condescending. A winner.” A second jurist, Joan Baum (an NPR and newspaper book critic) wrote “I agree. JM gets the Equus Award—schlock and crock.” We still have three more jurists to hear from.

It made me appreciate the usefulness of this award, How does a book critic who takes herself seriously ignore a Chris Knopf and cover such common trash? Is it because these titles come from Dutton and Random House imprints respectively, while Chris is published by a small press? Or did her years of being a film critic just get her in the groove of seeing a very high percentage of bad films which she felt obliged to cover.

In any event, I don’t mean this as a further knock on The New York Times. There are, actually, some very good reviewers working there. Dwight Garner, in my opinion, is atop the three daily critics by far. He seems to choose books that are frequently off the beaten path, writes about them in ways one would want to read them, and doesn’t go off the deep end in savaging anything; he clearly chooses to review books he finds interesting. New novelists published by small presses would likely get a decent hearing from him were he not restricted to doing non-fiction reviews. Marilyn Stasio does an excellent job of covering mysteries she likes no matter who publishes them (she reviewed the first three Chris Knopf mysteries in her Sunday Book Review column). Nor does Amy Virshup, in her short review column, Newly Released, that appears periodically in the weekday Times, waste space on pop-trash either, choosing, instead, books that she also likes, including some from true independent publishers. My regret is that Amy doesn’t do full length reviews.

I look forward to hearing your definition of what makes a good novel, feedback on The Donkey Award, or any other topic expressed in this blog. If you haven’t yet signed up to receive notification for subsequent blogs, I hope you will do so now. And do check out our ever-evolving and changing website, where our Newsletter is also updated monthly.


Monday, March 1, 2010


Applauding: Herb Simon and Marc Winkelman

Much applause is due to Herb Simon, who has acquired Kirkus Reviews. Simon, who is the owner of the National Basketball Association’s Indiana Pacers, is also Chairman Emeritus of Simon Property Group, an S&P 500 corporation. It will operate under the name Kirkus Media and be led by Marc Winkelman—a colleague with an extensive background in the book business. Better yet, both Simon and Winkelman are co-owners of Tecolote Books, an independent bookstore in Montecito, California.

To quote Simon: “I love books and have long subscribed to Kirkus. At a time when even the definition of a book is changing, my love of books makes me want to be part of the solution for the book publishing industry.” Winkelman noted that “we want to serve the whole range of readers including librarians, booksellers, publishing professional’s, and entertainment industry insiders.” That the 77 year old Kirkus will be headed by these two people—where an interest in books is the primary reason for taking on this task—is cause for rejoicing for those who appreciate quality fiction and artful non-fiction. Other than Publishers Weekly, there are few publications left that are still functioning on that level, and Kirkus, with its 3,000 reviews a year—is vital in calling attention to new and talented writers who are largely ignored by mainstream media.

Appalling: Bill Keller

First, some background about 61 year-old Bill Keller, son of George M. Keller, former CEO of Chevron Corporation, the world-wide conglomerate formed after Standard Oil acquired several competing companies way back when. Bill became a journalist immediately after graduating from Pomona College in 1970, working for various newspapers as a reporter before coming to The New York Times in 1984 as a reporter in the Washington D.C. bureau. Then it was on to the Moscow bureau in 1986, which he headed by 1988. In 1992 he became Bureau Chief in Johannesburg. His next post was as Foreign Editor in 1995, Managing Editor by 1997, and then, after serving as Op-ed columnist and senior writer, he became the Executive Editor in July, 2003, where he still serves today. Clearly an impressive career. If you read the masthead of the Times, it becomes apparent that Bill Keller is the most powerful person at the newspaper, his name coming right below that of Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, the publisher. Keller also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for covering the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s obviously made many of the right moves, but his gifts as a journalist did not prevent him from making several clunkers to my mind—like being a “liberal” supporter of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq, calling for the resignation of Colin Powell for pursuing a diplomatic solution at the UN that he thought ineffective, and defending reporter Judith Miller for failing to tell prosecutors who, in the Bush White House, fed her a story that resulted in the outing of Valerie Palme—the CIA spy whose husband was a formidable critic of the invasion of Iraq.

Politics aside, less than six months after becoming Managing Editor, Bill Keller—a man with no known literary background—announced changes in the way that books would be covered at the Times. For those who value good books—and there are many of us out there—his decisions have had a profound effect on what is worth covering. I quote from an interview he gave to Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel on January 21, 2004. In his defense, I praise Keller for his honesty; far preferable to the run-arounds given by Jon Landman, head of the Culture Desk at the Times and Kate Bouton who, before retiring, insisted in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Times tries to achieve a balance between high culture and low. Still, I would have been embarrassed to talk so openly about disinterest in books of quality and to show such ignorance when it comes to his assessments of what is out there. The same could be said for Steve Erlanger, also quoted in this interview, who—like Keller—had journalistic assignments all over the world before he became Editor of the Culture Desk between 2002 and 2004. Here, too, I applaud Erlanger’s great honesty regarding the crap he reviewed positively.

I quote from the interview, which was entitled The Plot Thickens at The New York Times Book Review:
Publishing insiders have watched nervously since Steven Erlanger became cultural editor at The New York Times and began altering the focus of the daily "Books of the Times." Well, they ain't seen nothin' yet. When we sat down with executive editor Bill Keller last week, he promised "dramatic changes" in the Sunday section now that head honcho Chip McGrath is stepping aside. He also indicated that the top brass is rethinking book coverage top to bottom. And which way are the winds blowing?

Well, if you write non-fiction, review non-fiction, or prefer to read non-fiction, break out the champagne. "The most compelling ideas tend to be in the non-fiction world," Keller says. "Because we are a newspaper, we should be more skewed toward non-fiction."

What's more, if you're perplexed or simply bored with what passes for smart fiction these days, the Times feels your pain. More attention will be paid to the potboilers, we're told. After all, says Keller, somebody's got to tell you what book to choose at the airport.

And who will carry out this mandate? Regarding McGrath's replacement, Keller won't name names yet. But he did say that they're down to three or four finalists, none of them inside staffers. An announcement is just weeks away.

A big step in this process—and the one that may have sent the higher-ups into brainstorming mode—involved inviting about a dozen of the most promising candidates to write "diagnostic essays" on how the Sunday section ought to change. The consensus: Reviews need to be more varied in length, and more contentious. But that's just tinkering around the edges. The bigger news concerns what will be covered. Author interviews, a column on the publishing industry, a decrease in fiction reviews and more about mass market books—this appears to be the recipe for making the NYTBR less formulaic and more vital.

Although Keller's ascendancy has brought plenty of reshuffling at the Times, in the case of the Sunday book review, perceptions in and outside the paper seem to have meshed. Critics have dunned the section for dullness. Even while praising McGrath's exceptional editing skills, Keller made clear that he has different priorities. "I love that Chip championed first novels," he says, then offers the rhetorical question: But why take up 800 words when a paragraph will do? The conclusion was that contemporary fiction has received more column inches than it deserves.

"Of course, some fiction needs to be done," Keller says. "We'll do the new Updike, the new Roth, the new Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith. But there are not a lot of them, it seems to me." He gets no argument from Erlanger. "To be honest, there's so much shit," the new leader of the daily arts section observes. "Most of the things we praise aren't very good."

Traditionally, chief critic Michiko Kakutani has handled most of the literary fiction for the daily. Her star remains untarnished; Keller refers to her appreciatively as "queen of the hill." Former movie critic Janet Maslin has shown a predilection for commercial fiction, a taste the Times endorses. As with most newspapers, management is obsessed with attracting younger readers and sees mass market titles as one entry point—as long as they're done, Keller says, in a "witty" way appropriate to the Times' sophisticated reader.

Regarding daily coverage, under Erlanger "We need to do more policy and history," he says. "We need to be more urgent and journalistic." For him, this means assigning books with hopes of eliciting some sparks. Example: He asked Max Boot, a conservative on the Council of Foreign Relations, to review "Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response," by Clinton Administration veteran John Shattuck. "I like to mix it up," Erlanger says. "If I could start another Mailer/Vidal fight, I'd gladly do it."

Some of the non-fiction books he reviews for "urgency" are poorly written, he admits, but for him this is less important than the book's contents. He and Keller, both prize-winning former foreign correspondents, see books as a launching pad for discussion. "Book reviews are partly a consumer service," Keller says, but they also "should be written for people who don't have any intention of buying the book."

So there's the recipe: Emphasize non-fiction books. Demote literary fiction. Promote (judiciously) commercial novels. Cover the book industry more and individual titles less.

Given its pivotal role in the marketing of books, the Times is likely to accelerate trends already apparent in book publishing. The potential implications are huge, suggesting bigger advances for blockbusters and celebrities, including those who wish to exploit their "public service" in the nation's capital, and scaled-down high-brow fiction lists, based on the assumption that if such books can't get ink in the toney Times, they won't have a prayer in USA Today or Entertainment Weekly.

Whether or not the Times' analysis of the market and its readers is correct, it's based on Keller’s reasoning. In the views expressed by its decision-makers, too few works of fiction rise to the level of a "novel of ideas"—that is, stories that express the concerns and issues of the day as Dickens did. And given these odds, the Times would rather devote resources to fostering debate than discovering and nurturing imaginative writing.

Enough quoting and time for reflection:

Finally, it’s become clear to me why the Times reviews books as they do, and why coverage of the Sunday Book Review has changed substantially since Chip McGrath left and Sam Tanenhaus replaced him. And why the book reviews in the daily Arts and Culture pages read as they do. Critiquing reviewers, their choices, or advertisers is akin to blaming a junior officer for the war in Iraq, when it’s the people at the top who give the marching orders.

My final questions are these: How have these journalists become the high priests of fiction? And do we not have novels of ideas, expressed cogently, imaginatively and skillfully that reflect life in our times? Or has this all disappeared with the death of Charles Dickens? I’d welcome your comments.

So might Bill Keller and the publisher of the Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. The phone number at the Times is 212-556-1234; the mailing address is 620 Eighth Avenue, New York City 10018.


Sunday, January 31, 2010


Months ago, taking household garbage to the dump in Sag Harbor, I found a paperback of James Patterson’s 1ST TO DIE lying on a ledge for the taking, which I did. I’d never read him, and thought it might be worth reading on the plane when heading for our annual vacation in Virgin Gorda in February. Then, on January 24, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story, James Patterson Inc., about the author who will be publishing nine books this year with Little Brown, an imprint of Hachette, one of the “Big Six” conglomerates. I was told by two people to read this article before posting this blog, and so I did. Rather than be put-off by this profile, I was impressed by it. Here’s a guy who started out wanting to be a writer and went, eventually, from a extremely successful ad man to an author whose first mystery won an Edgar Award. I liked the fact that he had a very rich reading background; that many of the writers he read as a young guy were the same ones I’d read and admired. I appreciated the fact that he’s written in many different genre’s, including books for kids, to help encourage reading. Also, the fact that he didn’t care what most critics had to say about his work, because his audience was vast: one out of every 17 adult trade hardcover books sold in America was written by him. I was intrigued by him saying that his thrillers were characterized by dialogue and action, as opposed to lots of background and painting scenery—that they were page turners, since the three writers of suspenseful novels I treasure the most—John le Carré, Elmore Leonard, and Chris Knopf—all write exceptional page turners that feature excellent dialogue and action. So what if Patterson employed 9 “assistants” who helped flesh out his plots and whose writing he supervised? Didn’t Michelangelo also employ assistants to paint the Sistine Chapel? And so I decided to start reading his recycled paperback four nights ago.

At which time the bubble burst and a different appreciation appeared. For the dialogue could have been written by an undistinguished high school junior, the characters had no depth, and the action was gore, violent and scary, like a Freddy Krueger film: slash, frighten, and terrorize… the very stuff of pop culture. What I came to appreciate was not Patterson’s writing (I put it aside at page 41, for it was a book that would have joined the other 5,000 rejects we turn away each year had we seen it in manuscript form), but how he fit so perfectly into what the largest corporate publishers have evolved into and increasingly desire; emphasizing the lowest cultural denominator—books that provide the largest audiences in both fiction and non-fiction that favor celebrities, gossip, scandals, and frivolous political coverage. The sort of books that are regularly reviewed by critics and are not very different than what one hears and sees on television’s nightly news cycles plus Entertainment Tonight. In America, the big political debate is about Main Street versus Wall Street, while in book publishing and publicizing there is no debate at all because it’s all about Madison Avenue.

There is a tale told about a middle-aged American from Kansas who, visiting Jerusalem set off to see the sights. When he got to the Wailing Wall he came upon something he’d never seen before: a thin young man in a black coat, with long curls growing where sideburns would be, wearing a yarmulke, rocking back and forth and bringing his head into contact with the wall while chanting in Hebrew. When he was finished, the American asked what he was doing. “Praying,” he answered. “Praying for what?”
“World peace,” came the answer. The Midwesterner asked if he thought it was working, to which the Israeli replied “It’s like hitting your head against a brick wall.”

It reminded me that in my last blog I noted that many guest reviewers started to appear in mid December in the daily Arts section of The New York Times, and that this might signify a change in coverage. But with the New Year it was apparent that Kakutani, Maslin, and Garner were absent only for a Christmas vacation and were now back in full force. In order to avoid a headache by praying for a different approach, I’m taking a bye from criticizing the critics. But I would like to send you one distinguished critic’s take on his profession that appeared in in 1996, entitled CRISIS IN CRITVILLE: Why You can’t Trust Book Reviews. What follows are relevant excerpts:

In a tart and clear-eyed essay he titled "Confessions of a Book Reviewer," George Orwell once wrote that it is "almost impossible to mention books in bulk without grossly overpraising the great majority of them." And he added, perhaps unnecessarily: "Until one has some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover how bad the majority of them are.”
Q: If Orwell's thesis about critics "grossly overpraising" books is still true, how can I test it? The next time you bump into a book critic at a party, ask what he or she has read in the past six months that's really blown their hair back, that they've really admired. Chances are they'll be stumped—at least long enough for you to refill your drink— even if they've written a heap of glowing reviews during that time. (In print, they purred about the new Edwidge Danticat or Thomas Beller book. In person, they get cagey.) I propose a new rule: Critics may only praise books they're willing to force their friends to read.

Q: Why do I keep buying highly-praised books that turn out to really suck?
Three words: literary grade inflation. Critics read so much gray, mealy, well-intentioned schlock that anyone who is halfway readable—T. Coraghessan Boyle! Barbara Kingsolver! Gish Jen! —begins to seem like a Writer for the Ages. Another word: laziness. It's far easier to write a positive review than a negative one. (Think about the mash notes you've written. Now think of the break-up letters.) Certain plummy phrases—"deeply-felt first novel," for instance, or "one of the best young writers of his/her generation"—practically come pre-programmed on the junior reviewer's laptop. Dissent, on the other hand, requires a deft touch, a nice high style, and enough knowledge and vigor to make your opinions stick.

Q: Are there any great, eagle-eyed, up-and-coming attack dogs out there?
Not really. Walter Kirn, the regular book columnist for New York magazine, isn't exactly a critical hero of mine, but he had a nice run going last year, grandly letting the air out of a whole pile of overpraised novels (including Cormac McCarthy's "The Crossing" and Howard Norman's "The Bird Artist"). You felt that, among the critics writing in the glossies anyway, Kirn was at least reviewing as if books really mattered.

Q: So, then, are there any reliable young critics I can hitch my reading to?
Nope, sorry. Kirn's fine for high, inside hardballs, and he's always a pleasure to read. But he's not remarkably erudite—and he surely doesn't have the world of literature spinning in his palm the way, say, John Updike does. (Updike is, hands down, the most reliably probing critic currently writing for a popular audience.) Lit crit, sad to say, doesn't seem to be a real calling for young writers any longer. Maybe the potentially great book critics are out in the ether, writing music or film reviews. Or maybe what used to be called belles lettres simply aren't as valued as they once were. In today's literary culture, the authors of grindingly second-rate novels are far more revered than first-rate essayists. Wasn't always so.

Q: Is the literary fame game rigged, as James Wolcott implied in his bruising Wall Street Journal review of the "The End of Alice," the new novel from that New York media darling A.M. Homes?
Not entirely, but probably more than you want to know. Anyone who's toiled at a women's magazine (I have, briefly) knows that it's far easier to pitch a novelist's new book if that novelist happens to wear a size 6 and look great in Anna Sui. Similarly, if Richard Avedon has ever happened to photograph you, even if you just wandered into the background of one of his street shots in the '60s, your chances of being profiled in The New Yorker are immediately doubled.

Q: Should there be term limits for daily book critics?
Four years maximum, given the track record of the critics at the New York Times and most other dailies. Daily critics, with the Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley as a possible exception, have the half-life of snow tires. They calcify quickly. These days you can count on Michiko Kakutani to swat at anything (Phillip Roth, Nicholson Baker) that—sexually, morally—puts some sweat on her brow. And reading the Times' other critics, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Richard Bernstein, it almost doesn't matter whether they're writing pro or con; the tone doesn't vary. (Their earnest, straight-on, eight-paragraphs-of-plot-summary prose is the equivalent of what used to be called, in football, "three yards and a cloud of dust.") No one's regularly throwing sparks. Anywhere.

The entire article can be seen here. Two years later another article of his appeared in in which he had some not very nice things to say in a 1998 profile of Michiko Kakutani, where he quoted one book critic after another on how she didn't deserve her Pulitzer Prize. Months later this observant and sharp critic, DWIGHT GARNER, was appointed to join Kakutani and Janet Maslin as one of the three daily critics.

Ten years later Garner understandably recanted, denouncing his own articles in an e-mail to Media Mob, saying that "I wrote that article for Salon more than a decade ago, and its chest-thumping, know-it-all tone makes me cringe today. Michiko Kakutani is an enormously talented literary critic, and I'm honored to be writing on the same culture pages.” I can understand that, just as I can understand why Galileo Galilei recanted his belief that the earth revolves around the sun in his 1610 book THE STARRY MESSENGER (only 550 copies printed, by the way, which wouldn’t have made it in today’s publishing world, though it did get wide public acclaim) with evidence that the Copernican theory was wrong—when the Church insisted that the opposite was true. Galileo was also seen as having a youthful know-it-all attitude with his other observations before that time which had already cost him various teaching positions at universities. But, like Garner, I believe these first observations were the truest.

Before moving on to my heart’s current passion, Doris Buffet, let me add that I consider Dwight Garner by far the best weekly reviewer at the Times. Most everything I’ve seen him write shows a keen intelligence behind it, he isn’t focused as much on books by or about celebrities, and he doesn’t go in for covering so many books he dislikes—as do Maslin and Kakutani. My only disappointment is that he restricts himself to non-fiction.

I would also like to ask—as others have—that with such reductions of review space, why would the Sunday Book Review so often re-review books covered in January’s weekly Arts section—or vice-versa? Is there no coordination between the two? In their January 31 Sunday Book Review, there was a two page review, starting on the cover, of Patti Smith’s THE NIGHT BELONGS TO US, about the love between two celebrities—Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe (both Maslin and the Sunday reviewer, Tom Carson liked it). Then there was a full page review of Robert Stone’s story collection FUN WITH PROBLEMS, enjoyed by Antonia Nelson and dismissed by Michiko Kakutani in her daily review (Unfortunately for the reader, Fun With Problems is a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse, here and there, of his strengths.)

And, finally, a full page review of 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD: A Work of Fiction by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Maslin liked it but her review mimicked her criticism of the book, expressed by comments like The plotting is so irrational and structure is not Ms. Goldstein’s strong suit, and neither is narrative urgency, while Sunday’s reviewer, Liesl Schillinger, goes on and on about the plot, stating near the conclusion, that The chronology floats back and forth across two decades according to no particular scheme; some characters are less developed than others; and the insertion of e-mail correspondence and inside jokes strike the reader as unhelpfully random. Curiously, for a novel that asserts the irrelevance of God, the unifying thread that knots all pieces together, however loosely, is Orthodox Judaism. I personally, can’t see anyone rushing out and buying a copy of this book based on these reviews, so how does on account for this? Does the author, as in Garner’s Q & A article, “wear a size 6 and look great in Anna Sui?” Or are either of these reviews potential candidates for The Donkey Awards, announced in my last blog? (Incidentally, a fifth jurist is serving on the Awards Committee, the Best Selling writer Daniel Klein, and I particularly liked a comment posted on my January blog by Gayle Carline, author of FREEZER BURN, who wrote A very good, thoughtful post, albeit depressing, especially as a debut novelist with an independent publisher. I only have one complaint—sounds like the winners of the Donkey Award have done a disservice to donkeys everywhere.)

Finally, on to something bright and beautiful to talk about: Doris Buffett, a non-celebrity who deserves to be celebrated. We’re in the process of putting together a biography, GIVING IT ALL AWAY: THE DORIS BUFFETT STORY, written by Michael Zitz, an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist for The Free Lance-Star, a Virginia daily, who has known Doris since 1992, before she started to do philanthropic work with her Sunshine Lady Foundation. To me, she is the epitome of Mother Teresa in sweat pants.

At 82 years young, Doris, big sister of billionaire Warren, is on a mission. When she inherited millions in Berkshire Hathaway stock from a family trust in 1996, instead of clinging to it like a security blanket, she dedicated the rest of her life to giving it away—all of it—mostly to individuals in trouble through no fault of their own. So far she’s given away $100 million of her own money. She says she wants to give it all away; that she wants the last check she writes to bounce due to “insufficient funds.”

She began the Sunshine Lady Foundation, helping battered women, sick children, and at-risk kids who otherwise would never have had the chance to go to college. She’s also funding college programs for prison inmates, lowering recidivism. And she does it through “retail philanthropy,” often making personal phone calls to those who need help, one by one. But she still has a lot of work left to do, because each person requesting help must be checked out by the small, but dedicated, crew of her foundation.

Brother Warren also asked her to help out with the thousands of letters he receives requesting help, and supplies millions that Doris can channel to the worthy among that group. “She’s good at this,” Warren said. “She really cares about the underdog.”

The book, written with her full cooperation, begins with her growing up as the primary target of an abusive mother’s rage, goes on to talk about her having to watch every penny to take care of her family as a young wife and mother, and how, years after becoming one of the first investors in an early Warren partnership and making a fortune, she found herself $2 million in debt and almost lost her home in the 1987 stock market crash. It’s a life of many trials from which she has only gained greater strength and more magnanimity, a life in which she’s been estranged from her three children and endured four horrific marriages and divorces.

So much bad luck and pain would harden most hearts, and Doris has suffered through bouts of depression. Yet, she has kept her heart open, focusing on the needs of others. In 2007, The Wall Street Journal quoted Melissa Berman, president and CEO of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, as saying Doris’ personal approach and reliance on friends and non-professionals is unique, adding that most private foundations keep those they are helping at arm’s length, never getting involved in people’s lives.

That same year, Harry Smith of the CBS Early Show called Doris and her crew of middle-aged women volunteers a combination of “social worker, private detective and life coach.”

While the Buffett name has not meant a life of ease for Doris, it has created a sense, not only of responsibility, but of urgency to help others, and to get involved in a very personal way. She’s been knocked down repeatedly, only to get up, brush herself off, and go on. So there’s no greater joy for her than knowing she’s given someone else a hand up.

This biography fell into our hands through “marriage brokers” Howard and Karen Owen. We’ve published six of Howard’s novels over the years and a seventh, THE RECKONING, is due in December. Judy and I have become close friends of the Owens, starting in 1992 when we published his first novel, LITTLEJOHN. Both Howard and Karen are editors at Fredericksburg’s Free-Lance Star, where Mike Zitz’s columns appear. Right now we are working hard with Mike and Karen at editing so as to get our print run underway in order to ship somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 copies to brother Warren’s Berkshire-Hathaway Convention, beginning on May 1st, where 35,000 people will be in attendance.

The links below will tell you more about this remarkable woman (a Wall Street Journal article and two videos).

Wall Street Journal

CBS News

CBS Morning News - Doris Buffett Goes for Broke to Help City

One final bit of great news: Kirkus has survived!

I’m grateful to so many of you who have been spreading the word about this blog. Close to 900 hits on the January posting, Announcing The Donkey Awards, and nearly 3,200 for the last three blogs. If you haven’t signed up yet on Notifixious to receive notice when March’s blog is posted, I hope you’ll do it now. If you want more information about how our new fiction is faring, go to our website and click on the Newsletter.