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.