Friday, February 24, 2006

Liar, Liar Gets Put on Fire

This article claim that Riverhead Books, the publisher of A Million Little Pieces, has ended its relationship with author James Frey after he admitted that his "nonfiction"books had been fabricated.

While this seems a natural and sensible reaction by the publisher, I smell a betrayal. According to Frey, he had written the book as a piece of fiction but the publisher claimed they could not sell it in that genre, so they labeled the book nonfiction and went ahead with its publication. Now with the flap over the authenticity of the book, the publisher has dropped Frey despite the fact that A Million Little Pieces sold nearly two million copies last year and that this and another of Frey's books are currently on the New York Times' top ten Best Seller list.

Gregg Easterbrook of The New Republic wrote this piece in which he claims the real decievers are the publishiing company:

"Frey looks at the literary world and sees fictional or partially fictional books posing as true personal narratives, such as the bestseller Mutant Message Down Under. At least there is an element of truth to what Frey is selling; he's The New Yorker fact-checking department compared to some of these books. He sees blockbusters marketed as "nonfiction" in which extensive sections of what must be paraphrased dialogue are presented as direct quotes, such as some Bob Woodward narratives, or books that blend fact and fiction in a manner that leaves readers no way on Earth of knowing which is which, such as the bestseller The DaVinci Code. And Frey sees that in every case, the author got to keep the money."

To be clear, I have no love for James Frey. He made decisions that were unethical and make it harder for the rest of us working in nonfiction. But let's be clear about who was deceptive. The publisher went along, and perhaps initiated, the decision to sell fiction as nonfiction, made millions of dollars off of his work, and when things went bad, at least in terms of public relations, they left him out to dry.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

In Memoriam: Peter Benchley

Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws, passed away today at age 65.

Benchley (son of Nathaniel Benchley and grandson of Robert Benchley) was a Harvard graduate and had worked as a reporter for The Washington Post and Newsweek, wrote for magazines such as National Geographic and was a speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson. He also worked as an ecological activist and he hosted and produced a library worth of documentaries on sharks and marine life. His other books included Beast, The Deep, The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, and Q Clearance. His last book was Shark Trouble, a collection of non-fiction pieces about his underwater experiences.

Benchley was one of my earliest literary heroes. Jaws was the first adult novel I ever read and I wrote dozens of short story imitations of this book while I was a child. These imitations were the first fiction that I can remember writing on my own and I can still feel the influence of Benchley's books in my current work.

When I was thirteen I wrote him a fan letter, telling Benchley how much I enjoyed his books. To my amazement, Benchley replied, thanking me for the note and filling me in on some of his future plans. It was not a prefabricated response. I still have this letter.

In high school I was on the forensics team and used the opening pages of Jaws for my performance in the Oral Interpretation of Literature - Prose category. It was in these performances that I began to appreciate the fun of thrilling and scaring people through language and I won a number of medals while doing it.

In college I began to study literature and film in new ways, appreciating craft and dissecting work based on theoretical models. I discovered a richness to Benchley's work that elevated his books above mere adventure stories and into insightful political and social commentaries. I continue to strive for this kind of richness in my own work.

I have read many of Benchley's imitators but none have been able to equal the quality of his work or the passion that he had for his subject matter. He remains one of the best writers in his genre and certainly one of my favorites.

He will be missed.

Friday, February 10, 2006

More Cartoon Updates

Christopher Hitchens has weighed in on the Mohommed cartoon debate. Here is an excerpt:

The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a "holy" book. But I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object. It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger. But these same principles of mine also prevent me from wreaking random violence on the nearest church, or kidnapping a Muslim at random and holding him hostage, or violating diplomatic immunity by attacking the embassy or the envoys of even the most despotic Islamic state, or making a moronic spectacle of myself threatening blood and fire to faraway individuals who may have hurt my feelings. The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.

Coincidently, the Pope has also given his opinion of the issue, saying that "The freedom of thought and expression, confirmed in the Declaration of Human Rights, can not include the right to offend religious feelings of the faithful."

This means that, fundamentally, the Catholic Church and the hoards of angry Muslims are on the same philosophical page. Neither of them really believes in freedom of thought or speech, the cornerstone of democracy.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Weekly Reader

On Thursday, February 9th, I will be one of three screenwriters featured on The Weekly Reader, a literary radio program broadcast every Thursday at 10:30 AM on 89.7 KMSU. The show is hosted by local writer and literary personality Rachael Hanel. The broadcast time is approximate so tune in about 10 minutes early to make sure you don't miss anything.

Jared Mason and Amanda Higgins are also featured on the show.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Yes, we have the right to caricature God" - Headline from France Soir

The publication of the above cartoons has instigated massive protests all over the Middle East. Hostilies continue to grow as "the drawings have prompted boycotts of Danish goods and bomb threats and demonstrations against Danish facilities, and have divided opinion within Europe and the Middle East."

According to Aziz Duwaik, a pariliment member of Palestine and a part of Hamas, "These cartoons are a reflection of rampant Islamophobia in Europe, which is very similar and nearly as virulent as the anti-Semitism that existed in Europe, especially in Germany, prior to World War II."

The trouble with Duwaik's comparision is that the Muslim community reinforces and validates the Islamophobia with actions like torching Danish and Norwegian embassies over these cartoons.

Although I have often been regarded as a diversity advocate (I served as the chair of a UW Oshkosh diversity committee for the 2000-01 academic year and was recognized with a number of awards for my programming efforts), time and experience has tempered my perspective.

I know in our politically correct time it is considered a faux paus to elevate one culture over another, but as Peter Vandermeersch, editor of a Belgian newspaper that printed a the cartoons, observed, "Two values are in conflict here. One is respect for religion and the other is freedom of speech." Western culture, for all of its flaws, has elevated the freedom of speech over the respect for religion while the Middle East has retained its respect for religion. This strict allegience to Islamic dogma has come at the cost of advancement in Middle Eastern culture while Western culture, with its protections for free speech and criticism of religious and governmental institutions, has grown.

I know these acts of terrorism do not represent all Muslims, but let's not pretend that this is a flash in the pan either.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Static "Best Of" Issue

The February issue of Static magazine is out. It is the yearly "Best Of" issue and includes my picks of Best Movie Theater, Best Place for Food After the Bars Close, Best Public Men's Bathroom, Best Public Transportation, Best Cemetary, and Best Eyesore.

The issue also contains "Coming 'Round the Mountain," an essay about Brokeback Mountain and Hollywood's reaction to it.

Static is available for free throughout southern Minnesota.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Cindy Sheehan's Arrest

Last night, before the state of the union address, Bush Administration opponent Cindy Sheehan was arrested. Varying accounts of what led to her arrest have hit the airwaves, but here is Sheehan's own words:

My ticket was in the 5th gallery, front row, fourth seat in. The person who in a few minutes was to arrest me, helped me to my seat.

I had just sat down and I was warm from climbing 3 flights of stairs back up from the bathroom so I unzipped my jacket. I turned to the right to take my left arm out, when the same officer saw my shirt and yelled; "Protester." He then ran over to me, hauled me out of my seat and roughly (with my hands behind my back) shoved me up the stairs. I said something like "I'm going, do you have to be so rough?" By the way, his name is Mike Weight.

The officer ran with me to the elevators yelling at everyone to move out of the way. When we got to the elevators, he cuffed me and took me outside to await a squad car. On the way out, someone behind me said, "That's Cindy Sheehan." At which point the officer who arrested me said: "Take these steps slowly." I said, "You didn't care about being careful when you were dragging me up the other steps." He said, "That's because you were protesting." Wow, I get hauled out of the People's House because I was, "Protesting."

I was never told that I couldn't wear that shirt into the Congress. I was never asked to take it off or zip my jacket back up. If I had been asked to do any of those things...I would have, and written about the suppression of my freedom of speech later. I was immediately, and roughly (I have the bruises and muscle spasms to prove it) hauled off and arrested for "unlawful conduct."

The charges against Sheehan have been dropped, which strengthens the believability of her account.

This is not the first time this kind of story has come up. In the campaign leading up to the 2004 election, people were only allowed into Bush-Cheney events if they signed a letter of support for the Republican candidates.