By all accounts, 2013 was a better year for the book business: Previous reports of its demise proved unfounded, as the Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin wrote recently. And thanks to the Internet and assorted literary blogs, it was a good year of literary dust-ups.
Thefts, misunderstandings, deceptions and shocking statements abounded. Here are five of our favorite scandals of 2013.
1. No, I don’t have to like my characters
Asked by Publisher’s Weekly if she’d want to be friends with the protagonist of her new novel, “The Woman Upstairs,” Claire Messud responded with frustration: “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?”
Clearly, no one would want to be best buddies with the pedophiliac protagonist of “Lolita.” Messud went on to list a coterie of classic characters you wouldn’t have a beer with: “Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in ‘The Corrections?’”
The author of “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen, soon joined what became a pileup of anti-likability comments. He told the New Yorker: “I hate the concept of likability -- it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook. You’d unfriend a lot of people if you knew them as intimately and unsparingly as a good novel would. But not the ones you actually love.”
2. Hitler did not approve this trailer
Author Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler,” made as shocking an assertion as any book in 2013. As the jacket copy on the Harvard University Press title put it: “To continue doing business in Germany after Hitler’s ascent to power, Hollywood studios agreed not to make films that attacked Nazis or condemned Germany’s persecution of Jews.” Considering the leading position of many Jews in said studios, the arguments of “The Collaboration” were doubly surprising. But they were also wrong, a number of critics and historians said.
“At its worst, ‘The Collaboration’ proceeds by insinuation rather than proof, clumsily contorting its archival findings to fit Urwand’s agenda of character assassination. Pick a page, and read it carefully, and some thread of Urwand’s argument is bound to unravel in your hands,” Merve Emre wrote in The Millions.
In the New Yorker’s blog, film critic David Denby called Urwand’s book “recklessly misleading” and added: “I’m surprised that Harvard University Press could have published anything as poorly argued as Urwand’s book.”
3. Stolen Salinger
The late J.D. Salinger didn’t want certain things he wrote published. Ever. His story “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” was written for Harper’s Bazaar, but Salinger withdrew it before it was published, and now it resides with his papers in a Princeton archive. At some point, a sneaky person entered that archive, and surreptitiously copied it. Then he or she tried to sell it on EBay, along with two other unpublished stories copied from the archives at the University of Texas’ Ransom Center. Eventually, the stories began to circulate on the Internet.
“While I do quibble with the ethics [or lack of ethics] in posting the Salinger stories, they look to be true transcripts of the originals and match my own copies,” Salinger scholar Kenneth Slawenski told BuzzFeed.
The Times’ David Ulin read the stories and called them “journeyman” work.
“It’s hard not to feel a bit guilty when devouring something that he didn’t want the world to see,” Buzzfeed’s Summer Anne Burton wrote, “and it’s harder still to imagine a less Salinger-esque way to read these stories than hastily scanned and illegally hosted online.”
4. If you don’t have anything nice to say…
The Salinger leak was reported by BuzzFeed, which in 2013 took an important step toward beefing up its literary coverage by hiring a new book editor, Isaac Fitzgerald. But not long after taking the job, Fitzgerald stoked controversy in an interview with the Poynter Institute. BuzzFeed, he said, would review books, but never pan any title. People read literary criticism trusting the critic to be an arbiter of the value and craft of a book, but that point was lost on Fitzgerald.
“Why waste breath talking smack about something?” he said. BuzzFeed would follow the “Bambi Rule,” he added. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
The play-nice statement by Fitzgerald, a former literary publicist, prompted many let’s-be-mean-instead retorts. And on Gawker, Tom Scocca wrote a subtly snide commentary titled: “Publicist Takes Constructive Stand Against Negativity.”
“Publicity is a job where you try to help people become interested in books and feel positively toward them, so that they buy books and the books’ authors feel successful and everyone enjoys things very much,” Scocca wrote. “In some sense, it could be argued that the publicist is the best friend that books have. Now BuzzFeed will also be a good friend to books. This is very nice news.”
5. Failing to credit a comic book
And speaking of critics, actor Shia LaBeouf made a movie last year about a film critic who writes a scathing review about the work of someone he really admires -- but for reasons that are more personal than artistic. The film screened at Cannes and this month he posted it online. Not long afterward, as The Times’ Carolyn Kellogg wrote, comic book fans began noticing a strong resemblance to Daniel Clowes’ 2007 piece “Justin M. Damiano.”
“Not only was it the same idea -- unhappy film critic -- LaBeouf’s film opened with a voice-over that is a word-for-word match with Clowes’ text,” Kellogg wrote.
Clowes had never met or spoken with LaBeouf. And the film actor quickly took to Twitter to fire off a series of apologetic tweets:
“Copying isn’t particularly creative work,” LaBeouf wrote. “Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.”
Later, LaBeouf explained. “I lifted the text, probably in one of my drunken stupors, probably approximately about a year ago.”
Later still, another series of apologies followed after it was revealed that LaBeouf had copied his original apologies from articles about him on other websites. So LaBeouf was in the strange position of apologizing for his apologies.