Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Division of Child & Family Services Investigates Reports of Child Endangerment at a Stable in Bethlehem

CFS: Bethlehem, from The Huffington Post:



DATE: The reign of Cæsar Augustus, when Cyrenius was governor of Syria, in the days of Herod the king; Tuesday.

COMPLAINT: An anonymous epistle reporting a newborn infant living in unsanitary and possibly unsafe conditions.


COMMENTS: Accompanied by Rookie Agent Zebedee, I proceeded to the scene of the complaint. This was easy to locate as it was directly beneath an unnaturally bright stationary star shining in the night with a tail as big as a kite. (Agent Zebedee was once blown several leagues by a runaway kite and can verify the accuracy of this description.) The light from this star was so brilliant that we were temporarily blinded and had to feel our way around the property until our eyes could adjust. During this time Agent Zebedee fell down a well.

Entering the premises, we discovered the child living in a stable family environment, in the sense that the family was living in a stable. We found the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. He appeared to be in good health, but laying the child in a manger was irresponsible in my opinion. The animals quartered there had not been fed in some time, and a few were licking their chops. Fortunately our arrival served to draw their attention, though this resulted in Agent Zebedee suffering a nasty lamb bite to the thigh and some minor goring by a peckish ox. [See accompanying petty cash voucher to cover poultice expenses.]

The scene was chaotic, with people arriving and departing at all hours and various individuals loitering about. We questioned a couple who identified themselves as the infant's parents. Our suspicions were aroused when Mary, the woman claiming to be the mother, also claimed to be a virgin. (We never even asked.) The account given by her male companion, Joseph, gave us strong reason to believe he is not the child's biological father.

Also present were certain poor shepherds who had been abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. They said a chorus of angels, singing of peace on earth, good will toward men, had instructed them to seek out the child. Their own off-key singing, and some depleted wineskins in their possession, made us think there might be more to it than that. When Agent Zebedee asked the shepherds why this jubilee, they smote him on the head with a crook. They insisted their encounter with the heavenly host had left them "sore afraid," but we think they were just sore about their working conditions. Despite their claim of a supernatural encounter, we felt their decision to abandon their flock was more likely a job action to protest having to work the night shift.

While we were there three adult males arrived, dressed in fine garments and carrying gold and other valuable commodities. They were unable to give a consistent account of themselves--for example, they claimed at various times to be "kings," "magi," and "wise men from the East." They told us they came bearing gifts for the child, but frankincense and myrrh seem odd presents to give a newborn when what he really needs are a decent crib and a binky. We suspect they were actually well-to-do travelers from the nearby inn who went "slumming" for thrills in a rough neighborhood. Either that or they got lost on their way to the privy.

We found an unaccompanied little boy on the premises who was pounding a drum in an apparent effort to entertain the infant. The alleged mother, Mary, nodded as if to encourage this awful noise even though the monotonous rum-pa-pum-pum beat shook straw dust loose from the rafters, creating an unhealthy atmosphere.

Also contributing to this miasma were the cows, sheep, and other animals housed in the stable. They produced a powerful stench, swarms of flies, and substantial deposits of solid waste that Agent Zebedee had difficulty navigating. [See attached reimbursement request to cover one pair of soiled sandals.]

Among the livestock was a donkey named Dominick, brought from Italy as the mascot of a Roman legion. This beast was decked out in a harness of bells that produced a chingety-ching sound to accompany the animal's frequent hee-hawing. This racket alone was enough to prevent the infant from getting any sleep. When combined with the lowing and squealing of the other animals, the incessant drumming, and the raucous singing of the shepherds, the result was a dreadful din that was enough to drive one mad. Indeed, Agent Zebedee began twitching and moaning and made several attempts to put his head through the wall. [See accompanying request for indefinite paid medical leave.] Incongruously, in the midst of this ear-splitting uproar, a little lamb asked a shepherd boy, "Do you hear what I hear?"

The number of people and animals present clearly exceeded the legal occupancy limit set by the Fire Pharisee. The radiant heat from the star, in proximity to the hay and straw stored in the wooden structure, presented a real risk of combustion. (In fact, the seat of Agent Zebedee's garment began to smolder, and he was forced to extinguish it in a trough of water, in fulfillment of the prophets.)

One other thing seemed odd: You have visitors coming and going all night and no one puts something out for people to eat?

CONCLUSION: I strongly recommend that the infant be removed from these premises and placed in the protective custody of King Herod at the palace. Admittedly, our stern monarch has not previously shown much sympathy for disadvantaged children, but since the star appeared he has expressed an intense interest in the number, status, and specific whereabouts of all the newborns of Bethlehem. He maintains his custom of stoning or beheading supplicants who displease him, so the agent assigned the task of appealing for sanctuary on the child's behalf should possess the utmost tact and diplomacy. I suggest Agent Zebedee.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The God Particle of Literature

You see this? *

You probably see an asterisk. I see the most potent and powerful typographical symbol of all time. And that includes the interrobang.

The asterisk is no mere glyph. As I explain in a Soapbox piece in the current issue of Publishers Weekly, the asterisk is nothing less than a repository for every book ever written. It is a microdot containing all the volumes ever published. It is the God Particle of literature.

Seriously--no sh*t!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Researching The Rogue: Selected Entries From the Secret Journal of Joe McGinniss

From The Huffington Post:

To research his book The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, author Joe McGinniss spent the summer of 2010 in a house immediately next door to the Palin home in Wasilla, Alaska. The following are excerpts from McGinniss's private diary from this period.

May 23 -- Took possession of the Wasilla house today. There must have been bad blood between the Palins and the previous tenant -- some of it's still on the living room rug.

May 24 -- Todd Palin dropped by to say hi to his new neighbor. You should have seen the look of surprise on his face when I answered the door! I gather he misheard my name as Joe Guinness and was expecting to meet imported Joe Sixpack.

May 27 -- Seemingly overnight, the Palins have erected a huge fence around their property. This temporarily obstructed my view, until I made a few peepholes with some power tools. Drill baby drill!

June 1 -- Sarah Palin called me out on her Facebook page, practically accusing me of being a stalker and pedophile! Is there no depth to which she will not sink? Fortunately I had the chance to air my side on the "Today" show, where I took the high road by saying she'd sicked the Hounds of Hell on me and comparing her to Nazi storm troopers.

June 4 -- Spent the day familiarizing myself with the Wasilla terrain. Turns out the bedroom with the Justin Bieber poster is Sarah's, not Piper's.

June 5 -- I constantly have to ask the Palins to turn the music down. Every night they play the same song over and over at ear-splitting levels. How many times can you listen to "Barracuda?"

June 7 -- The Wasilla Welcome Wagon paid a call today. I can't decide which aspect of this visit was more surprising: The fact that Sarah Palin drove the Wasilla Welcome Wagon; or that she aimed it at my house and then leaped from the vehicle and ran away, sending it crashing through my front door and obliterating my pantry. I called the authorities to complain--they told me Sarah had chosen that moment to resign as Welcome Wagon Lady, half-way through her term.

June 8 -- The Palins challenged me to a hockey game on Lake Lucille today. Foolishly I took this as a friendly gesture. I hurried out to the lake in my skates and pads and nearly drowned. Turns out there's no ice this time of year! I'll bet the Palins knew that the whole time.

June 10 - There have been press reports that Sarah had her breasts enlarged. Sarah went on Glenn Beck's radio show to say that if her bust seems larger, it's because "Joe McGinniss stuffed my bra with surveillance devices." Is she insane? How did she find them so quickly? Beck took the opportunity to endorse the bra as a wholesome accessory for women who love freedom but not too much freedom.

June 11 -- Coming back from the store this afternoon I saw a familiar figure hurrying from my house into the Palins' yard. It was Joe the Plumber -- I recognized his crack as he climbed over the fence. I couldn't imagine what he'd been up to, but when I went inside and ran the kitchen faucet, my dishwasher drenched the room like a water cannon.

June 15 -- In an apparent attempt at rapprochement, the Palins invited me over yesterday for a tea party. Enchanted, I stepped next door anticipating Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches. Instead, I was nearly lynched by a mob screaming about taxes and limited government. One man shouted about keeping government hands off his Medicare, but couldn't be convinced to keep his hands off my windpipe. Having barely escaped with my life, I have decided to ignore today's invitation to be a fourth at bridge, as I am convinced it will be bridge to nowhere.

June 17 -- Yesterday evening I was indulging in a beloved childhood pursuit: catching fireflies in a jar. Suddenly Sarah was overhead in a helicopter, picking off the lightning bugs one by one with a .30-06. So typical of her to use too much gun! Diving for cover behind the gazebo, I had to admit it was a remarkable display of marksmanship. Subsequent forensic examinations confirmed that each insect was shot between the eyes.

June 19 -- This morning I took a seemingly random stroll along the Palin's fence line, projecting the casual air of a man trying out a new pair of stilts. (I'd borrowed a set from the fellow who plays Uncle Sam at Wasilla's Fourth of July celebration.) From my elevated position I was trying to sneak a glimpse over the fence into my neighbor's yard when suddenly Todd was in my path, sticking out his leg to trip me. Just before I toppled from the vertical to the horizontal, slamming into the ground at a velocity normally attained by only our most daring test pilots, I couldn't help noticing that I could see Russia.

June 27 -- I successfully infiltrated the Palin compound today by dressing as a moose. I enlisted the aid of a local man named Zeb who bears the Palins a grudge -- he once got in an argument with Sarah at a Little League game and she tried to field dress him. With me in front and my confederate bringing up the rear, we crossed into Palin territory, moving with a very satisfactory approximation of the stately gait of the Alces alces. Indeed, our performance may have been too convincing, for as we reached the center of the yard, gun barrels appeared in each window of the house and discharged simultaneously, laying down a withering fusillade that left Zeb and me no choice but to beat a hasty retreat. We did our best to stay in character by imitating the frenzied gallop of a frantic moose, but I fear our cover was blown. An observer in the house would have seen the escaping moose suddenly bifurcate, with the rump preceding the head around the fence to safety. I'm happy to report that I escaped unharmed and my companion suffered only a flesh wound, though unfortunately it was in the fleshy part of his liver.

July 4th -- In anticipation of a quiet Independence Day observance, I purchased some sparklers from a local dealer and thoughtlessly left them on my front porch. I'm certain someone from next door tampered with them. I lit one this evening expecting to enjoy a delightful spray of harmless glittering sparks. Instead, my taper detonated with the same force that must have rocked Indonesia when Krakatoa blew, leaving everything above my abdomen singed and smoking.

July 14 -- The Palins hosted a little dinner party last night in honor of Bristol and Levi's engagement. Sarah even made a short speech. (Note for book: At rallies, Sarah reads speeches off her hand, but in the intimate setting of this casual family dinner she read off the Hamburger Helper hand.) There was a discussion about what song the happy couple should dance to at their wedding, and they quickly settled on "Barracuda." Then they played it. All night.

July 16 -- It was hot today, so I decided to cool off by jumping through my sprinkler. When I turned on the hose, the ice dispenser in my fridge began firing cubes like a Gatling gun. My kitchen is so full of ice it looks like the hold of a swordfish boat. Even now I can hear the Palins and Joe the Plumber sniggering through the fence.

July 20 -- Last night Sarah and Todd had a bitter argument over a Scrabble game. Sarah was insisting that "refudiate" is a real word but Todd wasn't buying it, especially not for a Triple Word score. They both screamed at the top of their lungs, but even with the shotgun microphone I was using I could barely hear them over "Barracuda."

July 28 -- I did some pogo-sticking near the Palins' fence today, which afforded me intermittent glimpses into their den. Here's the amazing thing: I spotted Putin's head in there! It's mounted on the wall, right next to a moose. I guess Alaskan airspace is secure, but it made me pretty uncomfortable. Do they have a similar fate in mind for me?

August 4 -- I realize the Palins are using amplified music as a psychological weapon, in much the same way that Santa Anna had his band play "El Degüello" to torment the occupants of the Alamo. Mustn't let it get to me. Must remain strong. Bar-ra-cu-da. Bar-ra-cu-da. Bar-ra-cu-da.

August 12 -- Had a dream last night in which Sarah Palin literally unleashed the Hounds of Hell on me -- all pit bulls wearing lipstick.

August 17 -- I'm seriously thinking of abandoning the book. Sarah P has told friends she has me in her "crosshairs." When I got home, someone had drawn bull's-eyes on all my pajamas.

August 22 -- I woke up screaming this morning, convinced the Palins had put a horse's head in my bed! It turned out to be the headpiece from my moose costume -- I forgot I was mending the bullet holes last night when I dozed off. Just another indication of the state of my shattered nerves.

August 30 -- I've decided I can't take it any longer. No book is worth this torment! Tonight I tore up my notes and ripped the manuscript to shreds. When I tried to flush the pieces down the toilet, my washing machine overflowed.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

In Honor of the 60th Anniversary of The Catcher in the Rye: Still Trying to Rip It Off

Today is the 60th anniversary of the publication of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. In honor of the occasion, I thought I'd revisit my brilliant idea for an unauthorized sequel. It's what the kids nowadays are calling a mash-up, combining characters from The Catcher in the Rye with plot elements from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I'm calling it The Snatcher in the Rye.

The plot: Holden Caulfield has finally realized his dream of working in a big field of rye where children are playing. His job is to catch them before they fall off a nearby cliff. It doesn't pay much, but since there aren't a lot of employment opportunities of this sort, Holden considers himself lucky to have it.

One morning Holden notices that overnight, crop circles have appeared in the field of rye. He soon learns that these elaborate designs are a message from an alien race! They come from a planet almost exactly like earth, except on their planet they don't have to dial '1' when making a long-distance call. Turns out these aliens do all their writing in crops. A field of grain is their preferred medium for writing and information storage, and they have long since run out of room on their own planet, even with abridgements. They picked up an old radio broadcast from earth that mentioned "amber waves of grain," and have come looking for something to write on.

Holden tries to convince the authorities that the crop circles are an advance warning of a secret alien invasion. No one will listen to him, mostly because they can't understand why anyone would give advance warning of an invasion if it's supposed to be a secret. The police also suspect Holden of being an unreliable narrator. He is further hampered in his efforts by the fact that he's about 103 years old. Even kindly Dr. Miles Bennell won't listen because he's too busy hitting on Becky Driscoll.

Back at the crop field, Holden finds strange seed pods growing amidst the rye. They soon turn into exact duplicates of the children, who are then replaced by their emotionless alien doppelgangers.

The story ends with Holden running into traffic in the middle of the Interstate screaming, "They're phonies! All of them! Can't you see? They're all a bunch of goddam phonies!"

Publishers: Don't be discouraged by the fact that the Salinger estate is guaranteed to bring a massive and devastating lawsuit if you attempt to publish my book. It's  just too good to pass up.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Ahab at Starbucks

From The Huffington Post:

Whenever it was a damp, drizzly November in my soul, I would drop by Mr. Starbuck's for a steaming double-cupped grande vanilla latte with extra foam. Our industrious First Mate made a habit of buying coffee from local growers in whatever far-flung lands The Pequod made port -- from Brazil to Peru, from Sumatra to New Guinea -- hand-selecting beans at the peak of their ripeness and flavor. He would double-roast them in the same vats we used to render oil from whale flesh, then grind and blend them into full-bodied brews that bore aromatic hints of tropical flora and blubber. His potables were quite popular among the crew; in particular, I found his Spermicetti Breakfast Blend to have a dark, robust flavor that was more palatable then it sounds.

Such shipboard entrepreneurial enterprises were not unusual among seamen of the day. Many an evening Queequeg and I took our supper at the berth of Popeye, a sailor whose fried chicken and biscuits were counted a bargain; and Long John Silver was said to serve up a hearty batch of popcorn shrimp and hushpuppies for a reasonable price.

Captain Ahab was not known to visit Starbuck's often, nor to partake of his offerings. The Captain kept to his cabin and preferred the consumption of grog to coffee drinks. He was thought to consume the former in such prodigious quantities that it was common for members of the crew to jest that Ahab must have a hollow leg. This witticism was one of the few sources of mirth aboard The Pequod, the other being the assertion that the Captain's wife was named Peg.

One evening a cohort of the crew was gathered at Starbuck's, sipping their drinks and staring at their laptops (where they were carving scrimshaw). Outside in the passage we heard the approach of Ahab's familiar measured tread -- clip-clop...clip-clop... clip-clop. In he limped, a scarred, brooding figure, whose powerful chilling effect on the men was diluted somewhat when his ivory leg became momentarily stuck in a knothole. So fearsome was his countenance that none dared snigger at his predicament.

As Ahab hobbled further into the cabin Mr. Starbuck called out to a waiting seaman, "Here's your white mocha, Dick!" The Captain, who counted poor hearing among his sundry afflictions, misconstrued Starbuck's cry for an alarm that Moby Dick had been sighted. He became violently agitated and barked a confusion of orders at the men -- "In stunsails! Down top-gallants! Stand by boats! Over the side! Larboard! Starboard! Prepare to dive! Luff a point! Hoist the mizzen! Flush the heads!" Soon The Pequod was sailing in figure eights. It was some time before the Mate could convince Captain and crew that Moby Dick was not in the immediate neighborhood.

The White Whale was the object and focus of Ahab's vengeful wrath, but in truth his hatred extended to all cetaceans, no matter their shape, size or species. Some months earlier, on the occasion of Ahab's birthday, the Fourth Mate, Mr. Carvel, had surprised the Captain with his playfully configured comestible Fudgie the Whale. The Captain instinctively snatched up a harpoon and drove the iron straight through the frozen confection. To save face, he then ordered us to take it below and boil it down for the marzipan.

"I would speak with ye, Mr. Starbuck," said Ahab.

"Aye, sir," said Starbuck. "But first, might I get thee a cup of joe?"

"If ye must," growled the Captain. Starbuck then pressed him for his preferences, employing the arcane lexicon of his avocation as if he were a medieval alchemist. The captain grew increasingly perturbed as the First Mate wielded cryptic words such as grande, venti, trenta, and frappuccino.

"Damn it, man!" thundered Ahab. "Are ye speaking in tongues?"

"I'll just give thee a latte," said Starbuck, and set about preparing the captain's libation.

"I wish to speak again of Moby Dick," said Ahab.

"Thou knowest my feelings in the matter," said Starbuck. "'Tis blasphemous to seek vengeance on a dumb brute. I have told thee this before."

"Hark ye," cried Ahab, "I strike at the inscrutable malice behind the White Whale! All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks--"

"Speaking of pasteboard, Captain, here's a little sleeve for thy cup, that thou wilt not burn thy fingers."

"Hmm? -- er, thank ye," said the Captain, accepting the cup from Mr. Starbuck. As he raised the brew to his lips, Starbuck said, "That will be $4.86," which caused Ahab to spew foam like a typhoon straight into the First Mate's face.

"Mr. Starbuck," said Ahab, his brow darkening like thunderheads on the horizon, "I would sail round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I'd pay five dollars for a cup of coffee!!"

"'Tis the customary price," said Starbuck firmly, "the same for Captain and seaman alike."

"Blast!" cried Ahab, and swearing oaths that were terrible to hear, he checked all his pockets and looked inside his lone shoe and the band of his Quaker hat, but came up empty. Then his stern visage brightened and he snapped his fingers. "There's a gold doubloon nailed to the mast!" he cried. He scurried out to fetch the coin as quickly as his mismatched legs would carry him, and we listened to his staccato steps sounding twice as fast as when he entered -- clipclopclipclopclipclop -- which faded as he mounted to the upper deck.

I immediately took out some foolscap and a quill and began this account of all that had transpired. Mr. Starbuck stood over me and inquired about my labors.

"'Tis a book," I told him, "a full account of our voyage."

"That's grand, lad," said he. "Perhaps when ye publish it, I could make it available right here. Folk like something to read with their coffee. Have ye a title for it?"

"I think I shall call it A Long Way Gone."

"That's a fine title for a whaling man's book," said he. "We'll make it a Starbuck's Book Pick!"

"Call me Ishmael Beah," said I.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Second Anniversary

Two years ago today, HarperCollins and I parted ways. One year ago today, I took stock of my situation on the first anniversary of my layoff. This second anniversary seems an appropriate occasion to do so again.

This is my fourth day into my new job at Free Press and it feels good. Coming here felt a little like coming home. There are so many familiar faces, from the distant past and the more recent past--there are more than a few alums of Harper now roaming the halls of S&S. I’m glad to have colleagues again, and I’m glad to have these colleagues in particular. It’s all very new--I’m still in the process of figuring out how to access digital assets, get an outside line, or find a serviceable pencil—but it’s familiar too. I think it’s going to turn out to be OK, and even better.

I was sustained in the last year by a freelance association with the renowned publishing PR firm Planned Television Arts. It was an arrangement that suited me very well and saw me through some thin times. I’m grateful to my friends at PTA and hope they feel they got their money’s worth.

My blogging and some of the other writing I do has continued to draw occasional attention from trade press such as Shelf Awareness and GalleyCat, as well as other outlets. This blog you’re reading right now, and the role it played in landing my new position, became fodder for Joyce Lain Kennedy’s “Careers Now” column, syndicated by Tribune Media, which hit earlier this week--just in time for my first day on the new job.

I continued to contribute to the health, feeding, and education of my children. I still managed to have some fun along the way.

This will be the last time I will use my layoff as a reference point for taking stock. That incident fades with each passing day, and I can’t be bothered with it now. From here on, I’ll be fully occupied with looking ahead to see what comes next.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Enter the Free Press: One Door Closes and Two Years Later, Another One Opens

Here's the lede: I got a job! Starting February 7th I will be bookflacking full time for the Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Here's the background: I started this blog about 21 months ago to chronicle my efforts to publicize myself into a new position. The month that HarperCollins folded the Collins division and my colleagues and I were laid off--February 2009--about 650,000 other people also lost their jobs. The economy was such a basket case, the unemployment rate so high, and competition for jobs so fierce that I knew I had to do something beyond sending out resumes, searching job sites, pressing for "informational" interviews, and all the traditional things you do when looking for a job. So being a publicist, I decided to publicize myself.

I met with some significant success too. I was featured by CNN, Fox News Channel, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, the New York Post. I started this blog and another, Classics Rock! Books Shelved in Songs, hoping they would help keep me in front of the publishing industry. Those efforts also met with some success, getting me into such industry media as Shelf Awareness, GalleyCat, Publishers Weekly, the New York Times's "Paper Cuts" blog, CNBC's "Bullish on Books" blog, BookSlut, and Publishing Perspectives. I started writing for The Huffington Post, McSweeneys, and other outlets hoping this would be another way to stay visible, and that too has paid off. (A full list of these media hits appears on this page.)

So: Did all this self-promotion ultimately lead to the new job? Hard to say. In the end, it came about the way it often does--through a friend, who alerted me to an opening and connected me to the appropriate party. Still, I have to believe that the publicity I generated played a part, even if it was a subliminal one. No one ever said, "I saw you on CNN and I'd like to hire you." But I like to think that if someone in the industry was looking to fill a position, and my name came up, they would at least say: "Oh, yeah--I've heard of him."

It all goes to a point that I try to make with authors: Publicity isn't always about making the sale. Sometimes it's just about being visible and spreading awareness.

Thanks to those of you who've been following along. This blog long ago strayed from its original mission, and it will continue on an irregular basis, whenever inspiration strikes (or I get a major media hit!).

Here's the announcement from the Free Press, sent out by my new colleague Carisa  Hays, V.P., Director of Publicity:

I am very happy to announce that on February 7th, Laurence Hughes will be joining the Free Press Publicity Department as Associate Director of Publicity, reporting to me.  

Larry has proven himself, over many years in the business, to be one of the leading book publicists in our industry.  He has held senior publicity positions at several major houses, including: HarperBusiness/Collins, NAL, and Dell/Delacorte.  Most recently, Larry has worked as an independent publicity consultant  working with publishers, literary publicity agencies, and authors who have hired him directly.

In addition to his work as a book publicist, Larry blogs for the Huffington Post, and also writes two personal blogs:  Classics Rock! and Book Flack at Large.  He has written articles that have been published in The New York Times, New York Post, Publishers Weekly, The Author, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and the anthologies Mountain Man Dance Moves (Vintage, 2006), The McSweeney’s  Joke Book of Book Jokes (Vintage, 2008), and Book: The Sequel (Public Affairs, 2009).

In addition to working on many of our upcoming titles, Larry will be responsible for  Free Press’s online publicity campaigns, which have become a  significant part of our overall publicity efforts.

Please join me in welcoming Larry to Free Press.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Belated Birthday Greetings for Edgar Allan Poe

[Today is the day after Edgar Allan Poe's 202nd birthday--time to revisit "Five Belated Birthday Greetings for Edgar Allan Poe," from The Huffington Post.]

"It is what Edgar Allan Poe might have called 'a mystery all insoluble': Every year for the past six decades, a shadowy visitor would leave roses and a half-empty bottle of cognac on Poe's grave on the anniversary of the writer's birth. This year, no one showed. Did the mysterious 'Poe toaster' meet his own mortal end? Did some kind of ghastly misfortune befall him? Will he be heard from nevermore?" - Associated Press, January 19, 2010

Hope you're not inclined to scold me, but a little birdie told me
That I missed your birthday, which I've never done before.
With the dawn I should have hurried to the place where you are buried
But the dawning found me napping, napping with a lusty snore.
When shall I next miss your birthday, napping with a lusty snore?
Quoth that birdie: "Nevermore!"

It's not 'cause I'm forgetful that I missed your birthday, surely!
I just went catatonic and was buried prematurely.
Which means I had to spend the anniversary of your birth
Clawing through a coffin lid and several feet of earth.
Caked in blood and dirt, and raving mad, I'm here to say:
So sorry that I missed it--hope you had a special day!

I know I'm late! I thought this year I'd take a different tack
And bring Amontillado, not the usual cognac.
I sought some from old Montressor, an amiable feller--
Until he chained me up behind a wall down in his cellar!
So on your special day I wished us both returns, we two:
That Montressor returns for me--and returns of the day to you!

I know I missed your birthday--a serious omission.
I confess, I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition!
Imagine my surprise to find that on your special day
I was brought to trial, followed by auto-da-fé.
The pendulum swings lower and will soon cut me in two,
So I want to say I hope your day was really swingin' too!

True! Your birthday's come and gone with no cognac or roses.
The old man said they're wasted on someone who decomposes.
For that remark, I did him in! He'll bother me no more.
I chopped him up and stashed the bits beneath my humble floor.
And yet from underfoot I hear his heart's incessant beatings!
So, from both our hearts, we send belated birthday greetings.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sanitizing Twain--To the Nth Degree

[From The Huffington Post]

When I saw the recent headline that Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben was removing all the n-words from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, my first thought was: Good! Those narratives will flow a lot better without words like neologistic, numismatic, and nanotechnology cluttering things up.

Then I thought: What if he goes too far? Do we really want all the n-words removed? Would Twain's humor and stylistic charm shine as brightly without words like Nerf and nudnik? We might even want to add some n-words. I think Huck and Tom's adventures could be spiced up considerably by more frequent use of the words naked, nude and nubile.

I became alarmed: Just how far would Gribben take this crusade? It's possible that perfectly blameless words that merely sound like n-words would fall under his editorial scalpel. How empty and lifeless would Twain's prose be without words like pneumatic, knockwurst, and gnu? It would be a tragic case of lexicographical guilt-by-association.

I resolved then and there to counter Gribben by creating my own editions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which would consist entirely and exclusively of n-words. Of course, I'd have to change the titles to Nom Nawyer and Nuckleberry Ninn, and the author's name to Nark Nwain [née Namuel Nlemens]. I just hoped I could interest a publisher like NAL or Norton in the project. It might look silly coming from Nandom Nouse or Nimon & Nuster.

All that thinking and reacting and resolving left me exhausted. I fell back on my beanbag and tried to relax by moving beyond the headline and actually reading the accompanying story. There I learned that Gribben didn't have it in for all n-words--just certain n-words. In particular, the n-word. A word that can lead to violence, provoke outrage, inflict pain and reduce people to tears. A word used to hurt and repress. A word weighted with centuries of racial hatred and conflict. A word with more power to make your head explode than the Ark of the Covenant.

The word is "nigger," and it appears 219 times in Huckleberry Finn alone. In each instance, Gribben has substituted the word "slave" in his edition. "I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer," Gribben told the New York Times. "And I don't think I'm alone."

We've all heard that sticks and stones will break our bones but words can never hurt us. Of course it's nonsense--words can hurt deeply. But I've always believed that words, in and of themselves, only have the power to hurt us if we grant it to them. Easy for me to say--I've never been on the receiving end of the n-word myself (incoming for me is more likely to be "dork" or "jackass"), and history has shown that people who use the n-word are often perfectly willing to underscore it with sticks and stones and whips and chains and nooses and guns and fire hoses.

Still, there is some truth to George Carlin's observation that there is no such thing as a bad word--just bad thoughts, bad intentions. What were Twain's intentions? He wasn't being hateful in using the n-word--he was offering an accurate depiction of an idiom in use in the period and location he was writing about. As for his broader intentions--well, his depiction of Jim's efforts to get to freedom can hardly be considered an endorsement of the institution of slavery. But who can be bothered considering historical context or literary themes or the author's intentions? That just sucks up precious time that could be put to better use getting offended.

Of course, the n-word is hardly limited to Twain's work--there are plenty of other offenders around that might require attention. Charles Portis's novel True Grit is enjoying renewed popularity thanks to the new film version, and guess what? There's the n-word right on pg. 19 of my ancient Signet paperback edition--and again on pg. 84. Mr. Gribben--your next project! Unless it's a matter of degree. Portis's two references compared to Twain's 219 may not be sufficiently offensive to make it eligible for altering. Nor does the fact that, unlike Twain's work, Portis's is protected by copyright. Or that unlike Twain, Portis is still around to object.

Perhaps we could take on the rap music industry, where the n-word is ubiquitous--even celebrated--and then perhaps go after any number of stand-up specials on HBO and Comedy Central. And Jabari Asim, author of The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why--better watch out: we may be coming for you too!

Or we could take another approach: Just leave it alone. Once you start sanitizing it's hard to know where to stop. Huckleberry Finn is a product of its time. Hate it, debate it, deplore it, ignore it, but don't take it upon yourself to change it to suit your own mores and values. I suspect that if Twain were alive today, he'd have another n-word for someone who presumed to rewrite his work: Knucklehead.