Back Bites -- and Scratches
The annals of book publishing are replete with tales of author abuse -- agents who demand 15 percent commissions on manuscripts they never sell, publishers who order new printings but find it more profitable to let the books rot in a warehouse, publicists who schedule readings or signings on Super Bowl Sunday.
But the case of James Richardson, author of the new biography Willie Brown, struck us as particularly egregious, because the abusers in this instance appear to be his fellow scribes. A recent trio of magazine profiles on Hizzoner (The New Yorker, Newsweek, the San Jose Mercury News' West magazine) seem to borrow rather liberally from Richardson's research and character insights, but credit him only marginally -- or not at all in Newsweek's case. (Rasky confesses partisanship on this point; she read the manuscript and wrote a praiseful blurb for the book jacket.)
Just to be sure, though, we asked Richardson. Is he being ripped off, or is this fair use? And journalistic niceties aside, is he laughing all the way to the bank?
"The marketer in me is quite happy," Richardson says, noting that the book has been in stores for only two weeks and is already in its second printing. "But the artist part of me says people have taken my painting and repainted it. These ethical issues are subtle sometimes, and just because you have your name mentioned in the article doesn't mean the author attributed the work properly to you."
A veteran reporter at the Sacramento Bee, Richardson says dealing with the media, particularly the major national media, from the other side of a notebook is strange -- and difficult. He's been bombarded with calls and queries from reporters who want to pick his brain for choice Willie anecdotes. While loath to refuse a fellow writer in need, he says the experience is not altogether pleasant.
The piece that rankled most was Marshall Frady's lengthy profile in the Oct. 28 New Yorker. Frady, best known for his 1968 biography of George Wallace, did not interview Richardson, but requested a copy of his manuscript and cited it four times -- for minor quotes. Richardson's editors at the University of California Press couldn't have been more pleased, and his parents figured their boy had hit the big time.
But Richardson, trying to be philosophical, is having a hard time feeling grateful to Frady. "I'm a first-time author, and he hasn't hurt me. He's probably helped me sell books," Richardson says. "My mother is delighted. My father says, 'The New Yorker mentioned your name four times, what's your problem?' But the Frady piece borrowed a lot of detail out of my book without ample attribution. I thought it was very graceless to do it that way."
We, being somewhat less generous than Richardson, would say it was more than graceless. When Frady mounted his stylish prose on Richardson's journalistic foundation, the least he could have done is acknowledge it. The article would hardly have suffered, and Richardson wouldn't have had to.
A different, but more classic, tale of publishing woe has been experienced of late by local authors Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson. Their 1985 book Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass was reissued earlier this year by Hyperion after no less a celebrity than Bruce Springsteen started mentioning it in concerts as the inspiration for his The Ghost of Tom Joad. The Boss even penned an introduction to the new edition.
An author's dream come true, right? Wrong, says Maharidge, who reports that a deluge of newspaper stories about Springsteen's connection to the book notwithstanding, Hyperion editor Brian DeFiore has done zip to promote it. Maharidge, now on tour for his latest effort, The Coming White Minority: California's Eruptions and the Nation's Future, says he consoles himself with a simple mantra: "Bruce, wonderful. Publisher, Satan."
Fishing for Bear
Novelist William Kotzwinkle, another author embittered by the publishing world, found a sweeter form of consolation: satire. His new novel, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, pokes loads of fun at the buzz-driven denizens of the Hollywood/Manhattan axis, dosed to the eyeballs on Zoloft, and intent on making authors into commodities. However, Kotzwinkle ends up trapped in his own device.
In his broad comedy, a bear stumbles on a manuscript written by a down-at-the-heels English professor at a small rural college in Maine. It's the teacher's second attempt at fiction while on sabbatical, after his crass imitation of a best seller was destroyed in a house fire. This new work, though, is "from the heart."
On the strength of a few phrases he deciphers about sex and fishing, the bear decides to dress himself in human clothes, take the MS to the big city, and use it as his ticket to the glories of personhood, symbolized mainly by sweets and females who shave their legs. The professor, meantime, retreats farther and farther into the wilderness and his own internal wildness.
A high-powered agent soon scoops up the bear, who has concocted the name Hal Jam for himself. Jam is transformed into a star, complete with seven-figure movie deal, endorsement contract, eager-to-be-bedded babes, and celebrity-studded parties. His innate bestiality thrills the jaded airheads who surround him.
The real-life progress of The Bear Went Over the Mountain mirrors the course of Jam and his imaginary book. Movie rights to The Bear ... were snapped up by Jim Henson Productions (Babe) before it had come off the presses, and the Book-of-the-Month Club wasn't far behind. Just as Jam's novel is lauded by people solely on the basis of the publisher's summary, the Doubleday publicity department's two-page precis of The Bear ... is all you really have to read. It's very high-concept.
Kotzwinkle seems to be having it both ways: He's cited as a "cult" writer, but is happily living off the profits from his 10-million seller, the novelization of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, a novel that Kotzwinkle wrote after the screenplay (by Melissa Mathison).
Needless to say, positive reactions have rained down from the very industry types Kotzwinkle's attacking, starting with the New York Times and Publishers Weekly. In reviewers' rush to show they can take the joke, Kotzwinkle's been compared favorably to Jerzy Kosinski, Voltaire, and Jonathan Swift. But they've overlooked the sad fact that The Bear Went Over the Mountain is a light spoof, nothing more.
Though sure to make a great screenplay.