Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Sunday, March 06, 2005
I have been an unreliable blogger. I've come to admire those who post every day, or multiple times a day: I can barely eke out a post every month, and that only upon nagging by my assistant. But deadline pressures -- this book-a-year gig -- combined with all the pre-publication madness that takes up so much of my time -- make it hard to keep at this. So for those of year who visit this blog from time to time wondering what's going on here, I apologize. I'm taking a break as I try to get a good chunk of my new book done before I go off on book tour. If sometime comes to me that demands to be blogged, I'll post it here. But otherwise . . . . I'll be back around book tour (April 19th on).
Monday, February 21, 2005
Sunday, February 20, 2005
Wednesday, February 02, 2005
I’ve been thinking a lot about blurbs these days — by which I mean author quotes: the endorsements that one writer will give another for use usually on a book jacket. I’ve been thinking about this because I get asked to do blurbs more and more, ever since my novel Paranoia hit the NYT bestseller list.
Calvin Trillin once proposed that anybody who gives a blurb should be legally required to state right on the book jacket his relationship to the author. Like, “brother-in-law.” Or, “we have the same agent.” Or, “met him at a bar.” Kurt Vonnegut recently said, “Blurbs are baloney. Anybody who reads a blurb is crazy.”
Is anyone really persuaded by author endorsements? Actually, yes, I think so. It’s just us writers who are cynical about the process. Most publishers think they’re important. My editor worked his tail off to get blurbs for Paranoia.
Within the publishing industry, there are some writers who are dismissed as blurb whores — they’ll give a quote to anyone who asks. You see their names on every other book in the store — sort of the literary equivalent of Rex Reed, who’s never seen a movie he doesn’t like. Call it literary Weimar currency — quotes by the wheelbarrowful. I doubt the regular book-buyer cares, though. Take the famous literary recluse Thomas Pynchon — even he has gone through a recent flurry of quote-giving, I’ve noticed.
I know some writers who absolutely refuse to give quotes to anyone for any reason. This policy inevitably causes them no end of grief. A couple of writer friends of mine — whose own first books were launched with quotes from Famous Writers — subsequently refused to help anyone else out. On the one hand I respect this — they’re helping to strengthen the currency of the quote, keep it as strong and fully valued as the Swiss franc — but on the other hand you can’t help thinking, Oh, so now that you’ve reached the summit you won’t give anyone else a hand up? It feels stingy.
One of the dirty secrets in the blurb biz, of course, is that a lot of authors give quotes without bothering to read the books. Some will say, just tell me what you want me to say and I’ll say it. That’s usually in the case of a favor he or she is doing for a good friend.
So how can you tell if a writer is truly pushing a book and an author he really admires — or he hasn’t even read the book? You can’t. Take The Da Vinci Code — I happen to know that a couple of the writers who gave Dan Brown’s novel enthusiastic blurbs hadn’t read his book. They did it as a favor to his agent or his editor or whatever. One of them later told me he’d just read The Da Vinci Code and thought it was great — a year after it came out with his quote on the back. (This isn’t a knock against Dan Brown’s novel. It’s just the way the biz works.)
I know that sounds awfully unsavory, but is it really wrong? It all goes back to the question of whether anyone really believes in the legitimacy of the blurb. Dan Brown wasn’t going to complain at the time — he needed all the help he could get, back when he was just a writer who’d published a few clever, fast-paced books that had all but disappeared. I’ve received quotes from writers who I know hadn’t read my book —- do you think I was so ungracious as to say, No, I really can’t accept that, sorry, it’s not legit?
It’s totally understandable to me why an author would blurb a book he hasn’t read — some authors who do a book a year barely have time to read their own drafts. The more successful a writer is, the more often he or she gets hit up for quotes — and the less time he or she has.
Believe me, I don’t get asked for blurbs as often as, say, Nelson DeMille or Tom Clancy . . . or Dan Brown — not even close — but I still have to deal with requests fairly often, and I’ve gotten a little jaded about the whole business.
See, I’ve been burned. I once did a quote for a thriller writer without having read the book, and I still regret it: I was dismayed at how many people came up to me, angry and betrayed that I’d recommended this book that was, as it turned out, pretty crappy. I should have read it first. Learned my lesson.
Then there was the time, maybe five or six years ago, when an editor pressed me hard for a quote, and I dropped everything to read the book and do the blurb — and then they never used it. They got bigger names. They gave me the line — one of the great lies — that there wasn’t room on the jacket, but we’ll be featuring it prominently in promotional material. Yeah, right. Never happens.
Then there was the editor, a guy who used to be right near the top of Warner Books (he’s no longer there) who asked me a few years back to do a blurb for a thriller he was publishing — I figure he struck out with the big names and ended up with me. I actually read the book, liked it, and did a blurb. So did Mr. Bigshot Editor ever thank me? Nope. He didn’t even send me a copy of the book with my quote on it. No class.
And there’s the Almost-Bestselling Author whose editor asked me for a quote — the editor really pleaded — and I did it. Had to read the damn book of course, and though I didn’t dislike the book, I didn’t love it, so I was able to scrape together some nice, honest things to say. Not faint praise, either. A good, selling quote. And the writer didn’t even thank me — not a note, not a book, nothing. Pissed me off. Never again, I decided.
A few weeks ago I noticed a blurb on this same Mr. Almost-Bestselling Author’s latest thriller, done by a friend of mine. I called my friend, asked him why he’d contributed the blurb. A favor to their mutual agent, he said, adding, “And you know, that bastard writer never even thanked me.”
Sunday, January 09, 2005
A Life In Our Times
Well, here's a book I can't wait to read -- Richard Parker's JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH:His Life, His Politics, His Economics. It's coming out in February from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. OK, so you may wonder why I'm so eager to read it. After all, what can there possibly be left to say about Ken Galbraith that . . . he hasn't said himself? Has ever an economist written more about himself? Not about personal "affairs," of course (Angie Dickinson, anyone?). But I've always thought you can tell a lot about a Great Man by the way he treats those he thinks aren't important. Which takes me back to a little anecdote about the great Harvard economist that hasn't been told -- and which certainly won't appear in Mr. Parker's volume. Allow me to blog it for you here . . .
In 1982, when I was working on my first book -- a nonfiction book called RED CARPET, about the most powerful American businessmen who had personal connections to the leaders of the Soviet Union -- I wrote to Galbraith to ask his help. Galbraith was then retired from Harvard but kept quite busy. He was on the board of an organization called The Committee on East West Accord whose purpose was to lobby for increased trade between the U.S. and the Soviets, on the notion (false, as history has shown) that the more a country trades with another country, the less likely it is to go to war. This theory was really popular immediately before the First World War. And of course, all that trade between American bankers and the Nazis in the 1930s didn't do a whole lot to moderate Adolf Hitler. But I digress. . .
Anway, Galbraith was on this committee along with Dr. Armand Hammer and Donald Kendall (the chairman of Pepsi, an impressive guy who did much to make Pepsi an international brand, and also introduced Pepsi to the Russians. Galbraith knew these guys, whom I was writing about, and I figured he could shed some light on them.
But Galbraith wrote back to say, no, he really knew nothing about East-West trade, that wasn't his area of his expertise. I persisted, wrote to him again (this was before e-mail, after all). And he wrote back saying, I'm afraid I really won't be of use to you -- I know nothing about the subject.
So three guesses as to who reviewed my book for the New York Times Book Review.
Yep: old Ken. And he trashed it. Really a hilarious review, actually, filled with such pomposities as "Still, truth has its claims" and "I, sir, was there." He insisted my book was full of mistakes (for instance, that I got the details of a meeting that David Rockefeller had with Nikita Khrushchev -- not knowing that my sources for that meeting were the only two people who were at the meeting, David Rockefeller and his daughter Neva). He even lambasted me for writing that Henry Ford was the father of the assembly line -- which I never said in the book. (I think maybe Galbraith skimmed the book, clearly didn't read it;)
The Times Book Review was quite apologetic when I called to complain -- I had the chutzpah to call and talk to the editor himself. They told me that Galbraith had requested to review the book, which is quite unusual at the Times, where they normally assign books. And why did he request it? Because he considered himself an expert in the subject -- and he was friendly with the men I wrote about, knew some of them well.
Galbraith, it turns out, was put up to this by Dr. Hammer, who was furious that I had revealed Hammer's ties to the KGB. Hammer threatened to sue me for libel, then tried to get my publisher to kill the book, and when that didn't work, he bought up all the copies he could. Then he got Galbraith to serve as his literary hit man.
So there I was, 23 years old, and I'm attacked in the New York Times Book Review by John Kenneth Galbraith. Ken probably figured I'd never find out why he asked to review the book -- or, if I did, that wouldn't tell anyone.
In the letter I eventually wrote to the Book Review, I was tempted to quote President John F. Kennedy on the subject of John Kenneth Galbraith: "If you gave Ken a good enema," the president wrote, "you could bury him in a cigar box."
I'm wondering whether I'll find that quote in Richard Parker's book . . .
Saturday, December 18, 2004
The Italian Alps
Who knew Mont Blanc was in Italy? I had no idea -- until I was invited to appear at a festival there, a few days ago. I and a couple other writers, American and French, were guests at something called the Noir In Festival in the incredibly beautiful town of Courmayeur, Italy, in the Italian Alps: a French name, yes, because that's a French-speaking part of Italy. The Noir In Festival is both a film festival and a literary one; "noir," in Italy, means suspense, crime -- i.e., books and movies that have something to do with crime. In Italy, "noir" doesn't have that Raymond Chandler/Dashiel Hammett association that it does here. They invited a small group of American writers, including the Irish-American writer Michael Collins, who was short-listed for the Booker Prize; Ian Caldwell, who co-authored THE RULE OF FOUR; Jenny Siler; the award-winning novelist Frederick Busch; and moi. And from Scotland, Anne Perry. Anne told me that in England she doesn't sell a fraction of what she sells in the U.S., where she's of course a major bestseller: no doubt that's some kind of weird British provincialism; her novels are set in Victorian England, which is less exotic over there than it is here. It's funny the way that works. I met a French writer at the festival, Maxim Chattam, who sets all of his novels in New York and other American cities -- obviously that's more alluring to French readers. And a number of Italian mystery writers I met set their novels in the U.S. as well.
The flipside of that is, the French (for example) have no interest in American novels with a French setting. I remember one of my earlier novels, with a terrific (I thought) sequence set in the Paris sewers and catacombs, excited no interest in France. (Sort of like the way not a single Italian publisher was interested in buying Dan Brown's DA VINCI CODE, given all the Italian art/history background -- until it became a mammoth bestseller and they had no choice.)
Fred Busch and his wife, Judy, and I became fast friends. And here's the strange part: shortly after I met Fred, I suddenly remembered that he gave me my first bad review as a novelist. It was for THE MOSCOW CLUB, and Fred was at the time writing a mysteries/thrillers column for the Chicago Tribune. It was quite the negative review. But it was also quite a thoughtful, intelligent review. At the time I wasn't happy about it, obviously, but even in my unhappiness I remember being impressed by how smart and insightful it was anyway. Okay, so he and I saw each other several times over the course of the festival, neither one of us mentioning the bad review, until he happened to mention his reviewing gig, and I said, "I remember -- you gave me my first good bad review." He apologized, unnecessarily, and I told him I appreciated the way he took my novel seriously, even if he didn't like it. And I meant it.
I got lots of questions from Italian journalists about the "social and political themes" of my novel, PARANOIA. One of them said, "I believe your novel is about the alienation of the American worker in the capitalist system." And I just nodded sagely and said, "Hmmm. You're right." Yeah, right.
One of them asked me how it felt to represent the "most despised nation on earth." To which I said, in my most Jimmy Stewart, righteously indignant way: "I love America, and I love Americans. I love American music -- and so do you. I love American movies -- and so do you. I love American TV -- and so do you. I love American technology -- and so do you. And no, I don't like the guy in the White House, but are you guys so proud of Berlusconi?" Take that.
One more thing. One journalist made a comment to me about Frank Sinatra, to which I responded by singing a lick from Sinatra's version of "Fly Me To The Moon." The word got around the festival that Finder could sing (I used to sing in college), and that night, while I was doing a live radio interview on national radio, on RAI, the interviewer said something about how the bestselling author Joseph Finder is also a singer, and before they translated that for me, the interpreter pulled out a guitar and started strumming chords, and all of a sudden they expected me to sing. I was so taken aback, and unprepared, that I did it -- sang "Hey, Good Lookin'" on national radio. And I wasn't even drunk.