Letter-writing cranks R Us

In early April, Laila Lalami broke the news that, after many delays in naming winners, Zoo Press founder Neil Azevedo cancelled the first two Zoo Fiction contests via email.

Azevedo explained that the company had already spent the entry fees ($25 per manuscript) to advertise the now-defunct contests in prominent magazines and would therefore be unable to issue refunds. He tried to appease contestants by offering them, in lieu of a refund, the opportunity to forward a check for $1.42 in exchange for two poetry titles.

Now Poets & Writers has published an article by Thomas Hopkins that details the contests’ failure.

The article establishes that Azevedo neglected to take even the most basic step to identify a contest winner: he never forwarded any of the 350 manuscripts to the advertised judge, Atlantic Monthly fiction editor C. Michael Curtis.

“If I wasn’t prepared to back the book… then it seemed unfair to send it to Mike,” he explains.

Curtis, meanwhile, expresses surprise that Azevedo deemed none of the entries worth a second read, and said he was sorry he didn’t get to see any of the manuscripts.

Exactly how bad were the entries? Well, Azevedo concedes that they weren’t “crap,” exactly:

“They just weren’t interesting.” …. [He] says there were some manuscripts that “had some interesting things happening in them,” but none “worth going into debt to salvage.”

The debt fears are real, according to Hopkins. Entry fees totaled around $7,000, but it would have cost Zoo Press $20,000 to $30,000 to publish the two titles.

And Azevedo is not without his sympathizers. When the news was announced, Soft Skull Press associate publisher Shanna Compton leapt to the defense of Zoo Press, noting that the publisher retained in the fine print the right to withhold the award in any given year, that the rules said the fees were nonrefundable. She said these contest policies are standard.

As Hopkins observes, I and a few others remained skeptical.

On her eponymous blog, fiction writer Maud Newton wrote, “The small press shtick wears thin when there’s an entry fee involved.”

Let me be clear about one thing: I didn’t enter the Zoo Press contests. Consequently, I have no personal stake in the outcome of this debacle, except insofar as it is in the interest of every fiction writer to know, when he or she considers parting with money to participate in a literary contest, that all the entries will be read by the judge — and a prize awarded or the fees refunded.

The purpose of an entry fee is not to enable a fledgling press to increase its clout by funding contest announcements in respected magazines — particularly not when the press later refuses to name a winner and tells the entrants, “Oops, sorry, money’s gone. Can’t be helped. We used it to promote the contest.”

Regardless of whether Azevedo’s actions are technically legal, they smack of bad faith. To announce a contest and a judge and then proclaim the contest entries worthless without even passing them along to the supposed arbiter of quality is deceitful at best. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it were illegal under the laws of some states.

I don’t have time to research the various states’ consumer protection laws on contests, but I’d encourage fiction writers who entered the contests and don’t want to forward $1.42 to receive two backlisted poetry titles (which weren’t, after all, what they bargained for) to send email to the attorney generals of the states where they lived when they submitted their manuscripts. Continue reading…

Overdue books

In an effort to recoup funding lost with budget cuts, public libraries are assigning overdue library book collections to debt collection agencies. The New York Public Library has been doing this for at least three years — er, so I hear.

Back in 2000, I read that some Detroit libraries were issuing arrest warrants for overdue books.

Coral Gables LibraryThis news inspired a string of nightmares about the librarian at the Coral Gables Public Library, in Miami, with whom my mom picked a fight over a copy of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, which I, at 7, claimed that I’d returned.

In fact, I’d shoved the book into a small suitcase with a half-eaten tangerine. I’d been reading in my closet after my parents put me to bed. I wasn’t allowed to eat or get up (except to use the bathroom) once they tucked me in, and I heard my father’s footsteps in the hall and panicked.

I made it back to bed before he looked in to check on me. But I forgot about the tangerine and the book until my mom received an overdue notice in the mail two months later.

I went back to my bedroom and opened the suitcase. It and the book stank of mold. The tangerine was greenish-white and oozing brown liquid. I was afraid it would make me sick if I touched it. Back in the living room, I told Mom that I remembered dropping the book in the return slot.

Later, while she was napping, I filled the suitcase with rocks and threw it in the canal behind our house. I pushed it to the bottom with a cane fishing pole. Sometimes, at low tide, you can still see the corner of it next to a small, mushy island that appears beside the sea wall.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I see no reason to repeat myself less frequently on the blog than I do in person, so: my favorite short story about overdue library books is Grace Paley’s “Wants.

Have some cleansing tea on hand, in case there’s a lexicographer in the room

Zadie Smith’s recent lubricant advice for young people (unscented) reminds me of her A-Z list, which includes a tip on discussing hash in mixed company:

It’s important to know the right word for things. Say hash and you say hash but somewhere somebody is using the mid-nineteenth century term charas and getting away with it. I’m not saying you have to use it, but next time you’re getting stoned you might want to think about it, is all.

Love is a Dog from Hell

Litsa Dremousis suggests titles for Charles Bukowski’s children’s books:

Why Is Grandpa Heaving?

The Years Will Fly Like Hummingbirds and One Gray Day You’ll Die

Love Turns to Crap Like a Sandwich

The Alley Cat and the Wounded Dog Share Scraps of Bird and Dung

Other, recent lists from McSweeney’s: J.D. Finch’s Downsized Works of Literature (including A Tale of a City) and Sam Thielman’s Judy Blume’s Lesser-Known Philosophy Texts (e.g., Blubber and Trembling, Starring Sally J. Freedman as the “Self”).

Harry Potter and the something-something

The title of the sixth Harry Potter book — Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — has generated more news stories than you can shake a stick at, although the novel has yet to be written.

While we’re on the subject, last week Daniel Radosh reported on a “fractured yet oddly literary retelling” of the first Harry Potter film:

“Wizard People” isn’t a movie, exactly. It was conceived as an audiobook that tells the story — or rather, a story — of Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts Academy. Creator Brad Neely, 27, recorded narration to be played while watching the first Potter movie, 2001’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” on mute…. “Wizard People” belongs to a small but growing movement — in the loosest, most accidental sense of the word — of what [one expert] calls “illegal art.” D.J. Dangermouse’s “Grey Album,” which reinvents Jay-Z’s “Black Album” through the filter of the Beatles’ “White Album,” is the most notorious example. “Art that appropriates other work is one of the few taboos that are left,” said McLaren.

My Pet Goat: no such book?

Richard Grayson notes in email that “nearly every article that refers to the scene of Bush in the second grade classroom in Sarasota on 9/11 — the scene shown to great effect in Fahrenheit 9/11 — refers to the ‘book’ he was reading with the class as My Pet Goat.” Determined to track down a copy of the book “so riveting that it kept GWB there for seven minutes (that’s another book, by Irving Wallace, referring to the length of the sex act),” Grayson did some poking around and discovered it doesn’t exist. Instead, according to

Lexis-Nexis and articles in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune and Washington Times, … Bush and the class were actually reading Lesson 60 on Page 153 or Page 163 (accounts differ) from a second grade reader, whose title I have not been able to find out.

The lesson is titled “The Pet Goat,” not “My Pet Goat.”

It begins: “A girl got a pet goat.”

“But the goat did some things that made the girl’s dad mad.”

“The goat ate things.”

I won’t go into further detail for those who want to read this for themselves — actually, the accounts of this story don’t reveal more plot development, but I did learn the last line of the lesson:

“More to come.”

Speaking of the Moore film, Mike Gerber says his theater was packed, even at a Monday 4:45 pm screening — “And it was packed with a bunch of different kinds of people, not just well-meaning palefaced liberals like myself.”

Graham Greene on the problem of “I”

On Saturday I did my semi-annual rereading of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and was struck as always by its perfection. Greene himself had many regrets about the novel. If you can brave the bad design, here’s the text of an essay he wrote about it:

Many a time I regretted pursuing “I” along his dismal road and contemplated beginning The End of the Affair all over again with Bendrix, my leading character, seen from outside in the third person. I had never previously had to struggle so hard to lend the narrative interest. For example how could I vary the all-important “tone” when it was one character who was always commenting? The tone had been set on the first page by Bendrix — “This is a record of hate far more than of love” — and I dreaded to see the whole book smoked dry like a fish with his hatred. Dickens had somehow miraculously varied his tone [in Great Expectations], but when I tried to analyze his success, I felt like a colourblind man trying intellectually to distinguish one colour from another. For my book there were two shades of the same colour — obsessive love and obsessive hate….

Sedaris uncertain whether fellatio techniques help make him funny

Gawker’s man in Atlanta reports on a recent David Sedaris Q&A session. After calling the “pack a day or more” smokers to the front of the line, and getting everybody settled, Sedaris fielded the first question:

“Why do you think there are so many funny gay people?” To which Sedaris answered, “Just so everyone heard that question, she asked me, ‘is there a relationship between me putting a penis in my mouth and being witty at a dinner party?’ You know, I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Imagine that: in Ireland, journalists learn to interview, rather than fellate*, their subjects

While I was away last week, Irish reporter Carole Coleman raked Bush over the coals — which these days means simply that she questioned him like a reporter rather than a PR whore. Mr. Maud recited the interview nearly verbatim upon my return and after we finished cackling with glee I tracked down all the commentary at Daily Kos and similar political sites but figured the U.S. media would continue to bitch about Michael Moore’s film and ignore the implications of Coleman’s actual journalism.

Today Boing Boing links to John Nichols’ nice, short opinion piece entitled, “Pampered Bush meets a real reporter“:

The president complained five times during the course of the interview about the pointed nature of Coleman’s questions and follow-ups – “Please, please, please, for a minute, OK?” the hapless Bush pleaded at one point, as he demanded his questioner go easy on him.

After the interview was done, a Bush aide told the Irish Independent newspaper that the White House was concerned that Coleman had “overstepped the bounds of politeness.”

*Sorry, Steph.

Boozy bookstores

Assisting those of us* at MaudNewton.com in our quest to track down a bookstore where we can get hay hook-wielding drunk on whiskey, Sarah Groff-Palermo of Soft Skull reports that Washington D.C.’s Kramerbooks serves liquor and brunch. “If only they would let me set up a cot in the basement, I would vacation there twice a year (at least),” she says.

Have another bookstore to report?

*By which of course I mean me.

I didn’t know it was a profit-making venture

Richard and Judy, hosts of a wildly popular U.K. morning television book club, are profiled at the Independent. Bookninja picks out this tidbit: “‘The key difference between Oprah and us is that she makes money out of it,’ says Ross.”

Update: Mark Sarvas posts a clarification from Publishers Lunch that Oprah doesn’t get kickbacks from book club sales.

A quick search reveals that some independent booksellers have banded together to donate money from sales of the latest selection to Oprah’s Angel Network charity. Perhaps that initiative was the source of the confusion. Proceeds from sales of book club products through the website also go to charity.

Nicholson Baker gets into would-be assassin’s mind

The protagonist of Nicholson Baker’s forthcoming novella, Checkpoint, “sits in a Washington hotel room with a friend and talks about assassinating President Bush.” Although the character doesn’t act on his threats, and the 1968 Supreme Court case of Brandenburg v. Ohio establishes that threats against the president in a work of fiction can’t “be forbidden or punished unless the speaker’s purpose is to provoke an assassination attempt and that is likely to be the effect,” Linton Weeks predicts in the Washington Post that the book is likely to be as incendiary as Fahrenheit 9/11.

Checkpoint is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf, which has just published the Clinton memoir. It will appear on Aug. 24, the eve of the Republican National Convention. The turnaround must be quick; the book doesn’t show up on Amazon yet. (First link via TEV.)

What can reading habits tell you about a neighborhood?

Library Journal has introduced a new bestseller list designed to reflect U.S. library patrons’ actual reading, rather than purchasing, habits. The list records the most borrowed and requested books at hundreds of public libraries — “from a bookmobile in rural Washington State to branch libraries in New York City.” As Laila notes, there’s a dearth of fiction on it.

Statistics maintained by New York City-area Barnes & Noble stores suggest that readers’ habits vary significantly by neighborhood. New Yorkers’ appetite for sex books thrives the city over, except on the Upper East Side (where the men presumably find it more convenient just to keep a mistress downtown).

And of course there’s Amazon’s insidious (but informative and entertaining) purchase circles feature, which allows customers to search bestsellers by community.

Last fall my sister mentioned that female-to-male sex change operations are all the rage among 19-year-old Smithies in Northampton, Massachusetts, a/k/a the lesbian capital of the States, and Sister’s home for the last seven years. When I came across Amazon’s purchase circles a week later, I discovered that Middlesex was the top seller in the area.

English majors at home

Robert Birnbaum interviews Barbara Wallraff, Atlantic usage guru, author of Your Own Words, and the woman to whom Mr. Maud once aired one of our most private, frequent and violent arguments.*

At least he didn’t mention all the dishes I’ve broken and holes I’ve punched in the wall over it.

* Link now dead, but the upshot is that Mr. Maud ill-advisedly advocates the use of “they” as a singular pronoun.