Few of us would be so gauche as to walk up to an author we hadn’t met at a party and say in front of other guests: “Hey, I just reviewed your book! Let me tell you how much I hated it.” But the digital equivalent occurs on Twitter whenever people tweet links of negative reviews to the authors of the books they’ve panned. David Duhr, the books editor of the Texas Observer, asked six critics, of whom I was one, to comment on the practice. You can see our answers in his post on Publishing Perspectives.
December 18, 2013
May 14, 2013
January 20, 2013
Follow #classicschat on Twitter to learn about Moby-Dick and other classics
Want to learn more about classics you have — or haven’t — read? I’ll be co-hosting a Twitter chat about Moby-Dick on Friday, Jan. 25, at 4 p.m. ET/9 p.m. GMT with Kevin Smokler, author of the forthcoming essay collection, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. We’ll be joined by Christopher Routledge, who is working with the editor of Power Moby-Dick: The Online Annotation to produce a handsome, annotated limited edition of Herman Melville’s novel as part of a marathon reading event at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, in May 2013. The Moby-Dick chat this week is the first in a series of monthly Twitter conversations about fiction and nonfiction classics at #classicschat.
May 21, 2012
[Update, May 24: After this post appeared, NPR acknowledged Nancy Pearl's conflict of interest in a note that appears at the top of her post at http://bit.ly/NPRconf.]
A librarian doesn’t tell listeners about her financial ties to one of her “great summer reads”
By Janice Harayda
You expect some objectivity when you tune into a report on books by a regular commentator on NPR. You know that authors who appear on a broadcast are usually there to promote their work and gain financial benefits. But you assume that an experienced host or commentator will provide the professional distance needed to maintain credibility for the nationwide network of radio stations.
Think again. The latest meltdown of ethics at NPR involves the librarian Nancy Pearl, the author of Book Lust and a regular commentator for the network. In January Pearl drew fire from independent booksellers when she said she had signed a deal with Amazon to write the introductions and other material for about six novels a year in series called “Book Lust Rediscoveries.” She just made that situation worse.
Today Pearl released on the NPR website and on its “Morning Edition” a list of seven “great summer reads” from among the thousands of books that will appear this spring or summer. And – you guessed it – one of her favorites is the first book in the series from which she stands to make money under her Amazon deal. Equally disturbing is her failure to spell out her conflict of interest clearly. Pearl says coyly on the NPR site that A Gay and Melancholy Sound is “the first book brought back into print as part of the Book Lust Rediscoveries series.” She doesn’t mention her financial link to it.
This lack of disclosure betrays the trust of the millions of people who tune in to “Morning Edition” and other NPR shows. It may also violate Federal Trade Commission disclosure rules. The FTC rules say that bloggers or online endorsers must disclose “the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service.” Pearl appears to have a “material connection” to Amazon (“the seller of the product” she endorsed) that she did not disclose. And it’s hard not to wonder if that isn’t exactly what the online retailer was hoping for when it signed her to a deal.
Pearl’s failure to tell the full story of her involvement with A Gay and Melancholy Sound seems also to flout NPR ethics codes. Those guidelines note that “partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete.” Pearl has told NPR listeners a partial truth about her “great summer reads,” and NPR should respond by amending its website and broadcasting a correction about her financial tie to a product she enthusiastically recommended. NPR can foster only cynicism about its work by asking people to believe that from among the thousands of books Pearl could have chosen, one her seven favorites is the one most likely to put money in her pocket.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist and former book editor the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 19, 2012
April 18, 2012
Update, Thursday, 2:50 p.m.: I’ve learned since writing this post that when juror Michael Cunningham was an unknown, nominee Denis Johnson helped to launch his career by providing a blurb for his first novel, Golden States (Crown, 1984). Johnson helped Cunningham again more recently by allowing Cunningham to reprint his work in an anthology he edited, Land’s End: A Walk in Provincetown (Crown, 2002). Juror Maureen Corrigan says in today’s Washington Post that the jurors “unanimously agreed” on the books they nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. If she is right, Cunningham failed to recuse himself from the judging as would be required by many other awards, including the National Book Critics Circle awards. Cunningham’s conflict of interest in promoting the career of someone who promoted his work is all the more reason why the Pulitzer Prize Board acted correctly in rejecting Johnson. Jan Harayda
The Pulitzer board angered people when it gave no fiction award Monday, but it made the right call
By Janice Harayda
My newspaper nominated me for a Pulitzer when I was the book critic for the Plain Dealer, and I didn’t win. Many of my colleagues who have done worthy work have failed to earn a medal. And Pulitzers have often gone to books that, as a critic, I saw as less deserving than those that went unrecognized.
So I know that the loss of a prize can hurt. And I know that the Pulitzer Prize Board, the ultimate arbiter of the awards, has at times appeared to wield its power with the neutrality of a Soviet-era figure-skating judge.
But the board made the right call when it said on Monday that for the first time in 35 years, it would give no fiction prize, a decision that caused an uproar in the publishing industry. Choosing a winner sounds straightforward: Every year a three-member Pulitzer jury selects three finalists for the award, and from among those nominations, the Pulitzer board picks a winner. Or it rejects all candidates and gives no prize. That’s what happened Monday when the board declined without explanation to give a medal to any of the jury’s choices: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, all books by authors much-honored for their work.
The torrent of protests that followed gushed with the strongest force from publishers and others who would have profited from the sales bump the award provides. One of the more bizarre outbursts came from Ann Patchett, the novelist and Nashville bookseller. Patchett said in a New York Times op-ed piece that she “can’t imagine” a year that had more “need” of a fiction Pulitzer even though none was given in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was bombed.
Was the board’s decision so terrible? Consider the books nominated by the jury. Johnson’s Train Dreams is a long short story that appeared in the Paris Review, that had about 50 pages when reprinted in a PEN/O. Henry Prize anthology, and that its publisher repackaged to look like a novel by using a large font. Foster Wallace left The Pale King unfinished, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, completed it after his death. Russell’s Swamplandia!, the strongest candidate, is a B/B-minus novel substantially less deserving of an award than many previous winners.
Whatever their merits, these three books comprised a seriously flawed shortlist. Should the board have honored a single short story by Johnson, however good, when it gave the Pulitzer to an entire book full great ones in The Stories of John Cheever? Should it have rewarded Foster Wallace for a novel written partly by someone else? Should it have given a medal to Russell’s B/B-minus book instead of to the A/A+ work that a Pulitzer implies?
Choosing any of those books would have had drawbacks that outweighed benefits such as a sales boost for the winner. Rewarding unworthy books fosters cynicism among readers and devalues literary prizes. In this case, it would also have lent the imprimatur of the board to nominations that seemed almost willfully perverse, given that the list ignored a host of more deserving candidates, including Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (a National Book Award finalist that won the National Book Critics Circle prize for fiction) and Pulitzer winner Steven Millhauser’s We Others (which won the Story Prize for short fiction).
Ann Patchett rightly notes that reading fiction matters because it allows us to imagine lives other than our own. But no evidence shows that the failure to award a Pulitzer will keep people from doing that. On the contrary, research has found that by adulthood, people generally have a habit of reading or they don’t. Those who have it won’t give it up because the Pulitzer board fails to pick a winner. They will instead get literary recommendations from friends, bookstores and libraries, reviews in print and online, and other sources. That process will lead some people to fiction they will enjoy more than the three books nominated by the Pulitzer jury. For that, we should be grateful.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button.
(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
April 16, 2012
The Great Gatsby didn’t win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and neither did these modern classics
By Janice Harayda
Consider this if your favorite book doesn’t win one of the Pulitzer prizes that will be announced at 3 p.m. today: The judges for the 1930 prize looked at Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and gave the fiction award to … Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. And those classics are hardly alone in having been snubbed. Some noteworthy losers and the novels that won the Pulitzer instead in the years listed:
Loser: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Winner: The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor
Loser: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Winner: The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
Loser: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Winner: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
Loser: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Winner: Nobody. No award given.
Loser: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
Winner: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Losers: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Winner: Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge
Loser: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Winner: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder
Loser: The Great Gatsby
Winner: Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
Loser: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
Winner: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
This is a re-post in slightly different form of an article that appeared on this site in 2007.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
April 14, 2012
Critics have hailed Heda Kovály’s Under a Cruel Star as a modern classic about one woman’s experiences first under Nazis and later under Stalinist tyrants who falsely accused her husband of treason and executed him along with his co-defendants in an infamous show trial. Alfred Kazin wrote when the memoir first appeared in America more than 30 years ago that “it is written with so much quiet respect for the minutiae of justice and truth that one does not know where and how to specify Heda Kovály’s splendidness as a human being.” One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of the book next week.
April 11, 2012
It’s April, and Frog thinks Toad should get out of bed and have fun with him. Toad has other ideas in Frog and Toad Are Friends, the first book in an award-winning series about a pair of amphibian best friends who enjoy gentle pleasures such skipping through meadows and swimming in a river near their neo-Victorian cottages. One-Minute Book Reviews will have a review of Arnold Lobel’s modern classic on Saturday.
April 8, 2012
Ishmael Beah Foundation Didn’t File Tax Returns for 3 Years, IRS Says / Revokes Exemption for ‘A Long Way Gone’ Author’s Group
The author of a bestseller billed as a “memoir” of a former “child soldier” may face thousands of dollars in penalties
By Janice Harayda
For years reporters have faulted the accuracy of some of the claims made by Ishmael Beah in his bestseller, A Long Way Gone. Now the Internal Revenue Service has faulted Beah’s fund-raising arm, the Ishmael Beah Foundation (IBF), for failing to comply with tax regulations.
The Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax-exempt status of the foundation after the IBF failed to file the required IRS Form 990 or 990-EZ for three years in a row, according to Guidestar, a leading provider of information on charities. Guidestar warns potential donors: “This organization’s exempt status was automatically revoked by the IRS for failure to file a Form 990, 990-EZ, 990-N, or 990-PF for 3 consecutive years. Further investigation and due diligence are warranted.” The IBF could face penalties of up to $10,000 per return ($50,000 if the IRS considers it a large organization) or up to 5 percent of its gross receipts per year, if the foundation hasn’t already paid such fines.
Guidestar’s comment that the foundation needs “further investigation” isn’t likely to surprise anyone who has followed closely the story of A Long Way Gone, a bestseller said to have sold at least 700,000 copies since the Sarah Crichton Books published it in 2007. Sarah Crichton bills Beah’s book as a “memoir” by someone who spent more than two years as a “child solider” after being forced at the age of 13 to join the Sierra Leone army during its civil war with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
But some of Beah’s most important claims faced challenges from The Australian in Sydney, the Village Voice in New York, Sierra Eye in Sierra Leone, and other media. The questions raised by the book or news reports on it include:
Was Beah a “child soldier” and, if so, for how long? Beah says he fled his village and joined his government’s army after attacks occurred in his region in 1993. The attacks actually took place in 1995, the Australian learned from published reports and interviews in Sierra Leone. That would mean Beah was a soldier for much less time than he says. “Instead of being a child soldier for two years from the age of 13 he may for instance have been one for two months at 15, which at that time would have been too old to be technically considered a ‘child soldier’ under UN provisions outlawing the use of under-age combatants,” reporters for the Australian said. (The use of children under the age of 18 as soldiers was generally outlawed in 2002, when a multinational treaty raised the previous standard of 15 years set by the Geneva Conventions.)
Did Beah fabricate or embellish events? In a dramatic scene in A Long Way Gone, Beah says that a fight killed six people at a UNICEF-run refugee camp in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after he arrived there as a refugee. UNICEF found no evidence that such a fight occurred, a spokesman told the Village Voice. Others have asked whether Beah sensationalized his story to please reporters, human rights activists, his editor, or Laura Simms, a professional storyteller whom he calls his “adoptive mother.” Those who have had questions include Neil Boothby, a distinguished scholar on children and war at Columbia University. “My take on this from the beginning was: There was some kind of exaggeration,” Boothby told Graham Rayman of the Village Voice. “I’ve seen it over and over.” Children of war, he said, “are encouraged to tell the sensational stories.” Residents of Sierra Leone further challenged Beah’s accounts a Sierra Eye magazine article called “A Long Way Gone Is a Long Way From Truth” republished in the Concord Times of Freetown, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere. The Concord Times article requires a subscription, but One-Minute Book Reviews summarized some of the main points.
Are Beah’s parents and brothers alive? In A Long Way Gone Beah says that his parents and two brothers are dead, but his story leaves open the possibility that they may be alive. On the evidence of the book, he believes his parents are dead because he was told by by one man that they were in a house that burned down. When he went to investigate the blaze, he saw “heaps of ashes” but “no solid form of a body inside” in the charred dwelling. This account leaves open the possibility that his parents escaped from the house or that his sole informant was wrong and that they weren’t there at all. And since the publication of A Long Way Gone unconfirmed rumors have circulated that at least one of his brothers may be alive.
Did Beah use composite characters or pass off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own? Beah refused to answer when Rayman of the Village Voice asked if he had used composites or passed off other child soldiers’ experiences as his own. If he wasn’t pretending to have had others’ experiences, why not just say “no”?
Anyone who wants answers to such questions gained another way to ask them last fall. Ishmael Beah (@IshmaelBeah) joined Twitter in October and said tweet to his followers: “I am still trying to figure out what to post! Maybe I should ask you, what it is that you would like me to post on here?” Beah might start by explaining why he didn’t file tax returns for three years. He might also answer the question: How can we trust anything in him book when we can’t trust him to meet one of the fundamental responsibilities of every resident of the United States?
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and the book columnist for Glamour. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.