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Archives: January 2005

GC Gets Proppian

I wasn’t joking yesterday when I said articles about book culture repeated the same (five, six, seven — the number doesn’t matter) plotlines. During my worst days, the repetition makes reading claustrophobic — like I’m living in a Groundhog day constructed from newsprint, and nothing changes except the nouns in the papers’ mad lib blanks.

I know this is isn’t the best attitude for a blogger to have or, worse, express; I should make reading the news feel like infectious fun, everyday a wild ride into our culture’s eccentricities. But, I’m proposing an experiment: instead of relaying the more familiar articles about dead writers’ shacks/houses/villas, teenage girls with sexy memoirs, and self-mythologizing retrospectives in UK papers about becoming writers, I’ll begin relaying these articles solely for classification purposes.

For example: here’s an article about the Burns National Heritage Park being in crisis. The larger, archetypal plotline: Dead Writers’ Property, In Need of Rescue. (And maybe once I’ve compared more examples of this plotline, the Burns National Heritage Park will also exemplify a sub-type … I’m thinking this new classification project should be as precise as it is shrug-inducingly pointless — at least, for non-semiotics majors.)

I’ve a long queue of articles, found over the past 24 hours, to be categorized and then reported. But I’d also love contributions — ideas about what categories are absolutely necessary (“the debut writer’s horror story”? “the complicated literary friendship”?), or links to articles you’ve already rolled your eyes at.

Update: Here, however, is a story I’m not sure I’ve read before.

The Man Booker Prize, a “World Federation Wrestling Match” for Bookworms and Bookies

disgrace.gifFor those who credit the Booker Prize’s success to its fly-to-shit relationship with controversy, the appointment of John Sutherland to this year’s judging panel can leave no room for doubts. Here, a short timeline of Sutherland’s most controversial Booker moments:

Jan. 21, 2005: The Guardian reports that “members of the hallowed Man Booker advisory committee … are spitting blood at the appointment of John Sutherland to chair the award panel this year.” Called an “appalling choice” by an anonymous committee member, Sutherland previously judged the Prize in 1999, during which time he published numerous “indiscreet” articles about the judging process. According to some, Sutherland turned the Prize “into a circus,” irrevocably “diminishing” the Booker’s stature. 1999 co-judge Boyd Tonkin sums up the sour feelings in the Independent, where he intones that
“Sutherland, an inaccurate and impenitent leaker of our panel discussions, has been rewarded for his imprecisions by elevation to the chairman’s role.”

The Guardian article, meanwhile, continues:

Asked if Prof Sutherland was a potential liability, [Man Booker administrator Martin Goff] said: “That’s the very word I have used to him tonight. I have laid down certain rules.”

But he said Prof Sutherland was a “brilliant man”, adding: “Have you seen his CV?”

Jan. 20, 2005: Sutherland sounds the bell for the 2005 Booker Prize publicity thump-down, announcing — as the Guardian reports — “that the judges are unlikely to read all 130 books in contention” and that his fellow judges are “light on the minorities.” Sutherland goes on to liken the judging process to a “world federation wrestling match.” No one asks if the simile is meant to emphasize not just the likelihood of literary feuding, but the likelihood of those feuds being staged.
The Scotsman, in a later report, says “[Sutherland's] comments provide the Man Booker with its first whiff of controversy of the year.”

Oct. 26, 1999: Sutherland, writing in the Guardian, calls the judges’ choice of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace the “quietest (most boring, some would say) Booker for some years.” In later articles, Sutherland’s fellow judges object to Sutherland’s description of Coetzee’s win as an uninpired compromise — an observation which prompted Sutherland (again, in his Oct. 26 Guardian piece) to denounce the Booker Prize as “a lottery, not a literary competition.”

Sep. 22, 1999: Sutherland, having made the Guardian his public diary, comments at length on the Booker’s loving relationship to controversy. “… After the winner is announced, will come ‘The Scandal,’” he writes. “If it doesn’t come, someone will confect it. All in the good cause of clearing 50,000 copies of a hardback novel and getting quality fiction into headlines.” He then proceeds to concoct imaginary scandals for each of the nominees (with the exception, however, of Ahdaf Soueif’s Map of Love, Sutherland’s stated favorite).

Sep. 5, 1999: Commenting on a supposed leak of the Booker longlist, Guardian lit editor Robert McCrum observes that,

Over the years, Goff has proved a master of press management. I think he long ago realised that while the British reading public didn’t give two hoots for literary prizes, it was fascinated (if that’s not too strong a word) with bookish feuds.

Sep. 2, 1999: Sutherland, again writing for the Guardian, denies having been the Booker snitch. Nonetheless, the professor notes that “publicity, even bad publicity, is good for the Booker.”

What kills prizes is indifference. Can you name one James Tait Black winner? It’s the most venerable fiction prize in Britain. It is run, from Edinburgh University, with exemplary discretion and intellectual scrupulousness. And the prize does sweet Fanny Adams for the sale of books.

So there you have it: the play-by-play behind-the-scenes instruction manual for rigging Booker “scandals.” (Just remember that, as Roland Barthes said about wrestling: “The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle.”)

Further Reading:

  • “Booker chairman ‘gags himself’ until winner is named,” the Telegraph, Jan. 22, 2005
  • “Backstage at the Booker: Publishers bicker, judges complain, sponsors waver,” Salon, Oct. 28, 1999
  • “Judges snipe in Booker war of words,” The Guardian, Oct. 27, 1999
  • The Richard & Judy Punch

    “The Richard & Judy Book Club, which kicked off last week with The Shadow of the Wind (Orion) by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is once again having a substantial positive influence on sales, booksellers reported this week,” PN Online reports. Jon Howells, Press and Communications Manager at Ottakar’s, comments, “It’s taken off earlier this year, there’s more recognition of Richard & Judy as a brand. Customers seem to be buying books early, before they’re featured on the book club, so that they’ll know what the people on the show are talking about.” If only lecture hall professors could inspire such preparedness.

    Judging Covers, Covered

    The Chicago Tribune‘s recent profile of Jessa “Bookslut” Crispin included a little addendum by the name of “Crispin’s guide to judging a book by its cover,” which boiled down to this: if it looks good, it is good. “It seems like the more attractive it is, the more edited it was, the more people cared about the book. Someone was paying attention to it.”

    Sometimes, though, things just don’t go that way. From the Telegraph‘s review of The Pope’s Daughter by Caroline P. Murphy:

    Alas, she has reposed too much trust in her publishers, Faber, who do not appear to have used a spell-checker, let alone a proof-reader; the caption to a crucial painting makes a nonsense of Murphy’s painstaking analysis of it, and she is saddled with a dust-jacket worthy of a romance by Jean Plaidy.

    Normally these criticisms would fall into the traditional category of minor quibbles; but The Pope’s Daughter is a masterpiece and deserves better.

    Paris Review ousts editor Brigid Hughes

    “Her contract expires March 31 and we will not renew it,” said Thomas Guinzburg, president of the magazine’s board of directors. Guinzburg declined Wednesday to offer specific reasons for not retaining Hughes, but expressed general concern about the Paris Review‘s future, saying it needed more subscribers and a more businesslike approach.

    Later in the USA Today article, Guinzburg adds that the magazine’s finances are “solid,” but that “the informal managerial style under which the Paris Review long operated no longer works.”

    He continues: “We’ve always counted on word of mouth, the whole Plimptonian style, but we’d like to get things under solid management.”

    “Fast-forward to a blowjob”

    Last month, Ms. Curtis Sittenfeld asked, “If women do indeed have groupies, might I acquire some for myself?” She answered her question’s first half on her own: Indeed, they do, especially if the woman author “writes a lot about sex.” As for the second half: it’s too early to judge, but the NY Observer‘s review of Prep, Sittenfeld’s debut, shows the author trying her best.

    Fast-forward to a blowjob … Surely [Prep's narrator,] Lee isn’t the first preppie to suggest that the discomfort of giving one confers “a sort of nobility – a kinship with all the girls who’d done this before.” But she may be the first to admit to “an affection for myself for being willing to do it.” It’s one of the reasons we come to be so fond of Lee and, by extension, Ms. Sittenfeld.

    (Have I been getting the two mixed up? Blame the publisher, who made the questionable decision to send out press materials that feature photos of Ms. Sittenfeld’s real-life Groton School junior class, and even of her heartthrob – presumably the recipient of her oral largesse.)

    “Oral largesse”? Let the groupie-love begin.