by Pat Holt
Wednesday, November 8, 2006
A Publisher Survives Bombing Raids in Lebanon
Last summer I kept hearing the most amazing things about a publisher in Lebanon called Dar al Saqi.
The Israeli-Hizbollah conflict had just erupted, missiles were flying, and in one horrible melee, Dar al Saqi's warehouse was bombed. Family members in the South fled to the managing editor's apartment, distribution channels dried up and electricity failed sporadically.
Yet the staff refused to stop publishing, and who could blame them? Already respected throughout Europe and the Middle East as an "outstanding independent house" and a "superb source of books from and about the Arabic world" (London Independent), Dar al Saqi has been publishing an eclectic line of books since 1984 that would make any reader's heart pound.
You'd expect titles on art, history, war, politics, food and cultural traditions of many Arabic countries, and Dar al Saqi has certainly published them - American readers may remember Fatimah Mernissi's "Beyond the Veil" - but what consistently surprised observers was the publisher's long list of internationally acclaimed writers, such as Booker prize-winner Ismail Kadare (Albania), Alberto Manguel (Argentina), Aamer Hussein (Pakistan), Dubravka Ugresic (Croatia) and others.
Perhaps because the press was founded by two exiles from the civil war in Lebanon, Mai Ghoussoub and Andre Gaspard, who opened a bookstore in London in 1979 and established its publishing office in London and Beirut five years later, Dar al Saqi gained an incredible track record for publishing incendiary voices under the noses of repressive governments.
Imagine how hard it must be to publish "Sexuality in the Arab World" in countries where the word "sexuality" is banned. Or to give voice to that most invisible and homebound population - women - by publishing short story collections by female writers from Palestine, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
I'll save for a later column the unbelievable launch of "Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East" and other titles that must have blown the lid off censorship offices in one country after another.
For now, let's turn to the glorious shock and awe of a Harold Pinter poem that begins a new collection from Dar al Saqi called "Lebanon, Lebanon."
Here again, with a title and publisher like these, you'd expect essays and poems about Lebanese traditions and history, the Israeli-Hizbollah war and meditations on violence all over the globe. And indeed, these writings are provided by yet another stupendous mix writers, such as:
Paul Auster, John Le Carre, Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, Robert Fisk, Hanif Kureishi and more from the West, and
Orhan Pamuk, Mazen Kerbaj, Nada Awar Jarrar, Hussein Madi, and others from the Middle East
But you wouldn't expect the very first piece in a book called "Lebanon, Lebanon" to be a poem by Harold Pinter called "American Football." I hadn't read this poem before - like other writings in this book, it was donated by the author to help Dar al Saqi raise funds for children's charities - and since it was new to me, I have to admit to nearly falling off my chair when I first saw it.
Bold, beautiful, obscene and revealing, "American Football" deserves to be read in all its quasi-religious, quasi-pornographic power. I still have to keep reminding myself it's the first entry in a collection of writings called "Lebanon, Lebanon," from a very brave and savvy publisher called Dar al Saqi:
By Harold Pinter
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
We blew them into fucking shit.
Praise the Lord for all good things.
We blew their balls into shards of dust,
We did it.
Now I want you to come over there and kiss
What struck me beyond the obvious is the daring of Anna Wilson, the editor at Dar al Saqi, for running Pinter's poem right up front in a thoughtful collection of provocative but not incendiary writings about Lebanon.
Because, man! You cannot continue on to the next piece (a rumination on the bombing of suburbia in Lebanon - "those architectural dinosaurs that disappeared without a scream") without wanting to pound the table or chew up the scenery and because calming down is not exactly an option.
Soon, however, the book offers thoughtful and provocative ruminations that helps us understand why Lebanon is not, as some short-thinking Western commentators would like us to think, a puppet of Iran and is instead part of a global catastrophe that began long ago (thank you, John Le Carre). The language gets a bit tougher as we hear from "the unspeakably cruel Messrs. Bush and Blair, and the well-dressed Condoleeza Rice" that Americans consider the deaths of Lebanese civilians as "legitimate" (thank you, Jean Said Makdisi).
And if smoke doesn't continue pouring out of your ears after the Harold Pinter poem (which I again admit is not the purpose of "Lebanon, Lebanon," - the purpose is to be calm, be educated, be thoughtful - but I can't help it, the guy is wonderfully seditious), read Doris Lessing's tribute to her friend, the writer Rachid El-Daif, not the first to observe that "all victims become executioners."
I admit to thinking that the purpose of this poem is to answer American readers' post-9/11 question, "Why do they hate us?" (because we're a bunch of violence-loving infidels!) but the fact is, you hear this kind of language at soccer events outside the U.S., and since the rest of "Lebanon, Lebanon" is calmer and more considered, I figured there must be another reason.
So I emailed Anna Wilson of Dar al Saqi's office in London to ask why she chose "American Football" for the start of the collection. She wrote back without even mentioning American linebackers ripping each others' heads off and feeling good about themselves afterward.
The press chose "American Football," she says, because "it is a poem about the terrible logic of war, the lazy thinking and the superficial decision-making that lie behind any group decision to be violent. And along the way it exposes some other pretty horrible demons, like the glamourisation of battle, and the irrationality of 'triumph.'
"All these themes struck us as very much to the point as Israel bombarded Beirut and Southern Lebanon with a kind of terrible energy, that would lead, inevitably, to pointless slaughter and a worsening of the general chronic hostilities in the region."
"American Football" was read aloud at the publisher's launch party in A West End Theatre in London, and the reaction "was pretty dramatic," writes Anna Wilson in what is probably the understatement of the year, Why, that poem, to paraphrase Pinter, probably blew the curls right out of their hair.
More about Dar al Saqi, whose books are just beginning to hit the United States, so get ready, next time.
(Note: It's been many months since I sent out the last Holt Uncensored, but the issues raised by the James Frey incident early this year - the topic of the last column - are still timely, unfortunately enough. If references to the author lying his head off or the myth of the White Bread Theory aren't clear, please go to the archives for Holt Uncensored #396 - it's a bit windy but honestly, the guy still makes my blood boil.)
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I'm in agreement with your thoughts but am still not a fan of Oprah Winfrey for basic reasons which she once again displayed in her interview with James Frey over misrepresentations in his memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." For starters, Oprah never lets anyone finish a sentence and continuously interrupts people, which makes it hard to get anyone's story. But I was most frustrated by the intense feeling that this segment wasn't so much about scolding Frey for being untruthful - it was more about Oprah berating him for humiliating her. Really, I don't think it should be about how embarrassed Oprah was - it should be about how a whole host of readers were betrayed. And more importantly, it should be about the addicts who may feel even more compromised by the roller coaster this controversy created.
I am most afraid that new readers (who may still look up to Oprah regardless) will now be turned off to memoirs, or be distrustful of anything labeled as non-fiction. The bookseller in me is just really bugged about this from a publishing standpoint. Frey certainly needs to take responsibility for it, but so does his agent (who solved matters by firing him and providing vague answers to a few PW questions), and Nan Talese of all people needs to take a leadership role and set a good example. You don't need to hire a fact checker to look up every tiny thing, but geez, how hard is it to look at public records?
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I cant imagine any publisher handing us sideliners a better issue than the "subjective truth" of Frey's book.
Other than getting some serious discussion going on "Creative non-fiction," I don't think James Frey deserves the light of day -- his stalwart defense of his "truth" before it withered in the face of reality, and his willingness to ride on unearned success, moves him into the shunning category where people for whom authenticity is not a consideration can enjoy his writing.
How far would the book go without what Random House claimed on its website is "an uncommonly genuine account of a life destroyed and reconstructed. It is also the introduction of a bold and talented literary voice."
And I agree, simple disclaimers are meaningless.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I'm sure you saw this in PW. I thought the dollar amounts were most interesting:
"Many publishers acknowledged the importance of the fact-checking issue, and the call for change by the book industry’s biggest media patron, though many remain circumspect about the viability of hiring fact-checkers, as suggested by a journalist on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Grove’s Morgan Entrekin did the math: someone earning $35,000 a year could check 10,000 words a week at most, adding roughly $8,750 to the cost of producing a 125,000-word nonfiction book. 'That’s more than the type-setting, copy editing and proof reading cost combined—and it’s just not viable,' he said."
Holt responds: How about this in-house copyeditors simply asking authors of nonfiction works to supply documentation that every fact is truly a fact. Surely, that's "viable."
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I watched the Oprah show live and was especially stunned and dismayed at Frey's publisher, Nan Talese, who was inarticulate and timid, and unprepared to speak live to millions. At one point, she said, "Well I had root canal work without Novacaine so I believed James when he wrote about his root canal without drugs." Another comment: the house passed the book through Legal to be sure it was not libelous, and that was their "fact-checking." Nan Talese was far from the literary powerhouse she had always been built up to be.
I was waiting for a listener to phone in and note that James Frey was oddly, very oddly subdued and seemed sedated. He was inarticulate as well, mumbly and repetitious. But he seemed out-of-it to me (a nonexpert on drugs) and when we saw clips of him on the day Oprah announced that his book had been chosen, he at that time was rosy and alert and chipper. Not now.
Pat, you are right. Publishers do not fact-check! Never!
Dear Holt Uncensored,
... I too am a great admirer of what Oprah Winfrey has been doing for books and readers, and am so glad she wasn't scared off in the long run by Jonathan Franzen. I liked your opposition to the White Bread Theory, but I do get jumpy about the good versus the bad books. I'm no exception to the general run of readers who have strong preferences in their reading. At the same time, I really resist the whole "beach reading" concept. Why can't I bring W. G. Sebald to the beach and enjoy him there, and stay home in my serious book-lined office (joke) reading Tony Hillerman? And while we're on the subject, I WAY prefer Hillerman to Barbara Kingsolver. (When people find out I'm a writer, there's a good percentage that tell me that they just LOVE Kingsolver, who for some reasons or other ones, possibly many of them suspect, I happen to loathe.) I'm going on about this at length to point to the vagaries of taste, and to keep encouraging the conversation you mentioned rather than bludgeoning people about their good or bad taste...
I agree with everything you said about the James Frey "incident." Someone mentioned to me that Frey had tried and failed to sell his manuscript as fiction. Evidently people are much more hungry for "the truth," particularly if it is lurid, than they are for an author's creative re-workings. I believe, with you, that once someone says they are telling you a true story, they and their publisher have responsibilities that go along with that promise. At the same time, this area of "faction" is a bit of a mess these days, and ethical issues abound. I for one support the guy who did the bio of Reagan and ended up deciding on the strategy of messing with the form, putting himself in there, making up stuff. The reason this is different, I think, is that he was very honest about what he was doing. Some don't agree and thought it was awful. I think Lewis Norden's "Wolf Whistle" is one of the great 20th century American novels. In it he really messes with the true story of Emmett Till's murder. Is this okay? I think yes again, particularly since it is such a great book. Someone else might disagree, and call it exploitative -- unfair to use and mess with the truth in this way. And then there is "In Cold Blood" (one of, or the, grandaddies of creative non-fiction) where it could be said that Truman Capote made a Faustian pact to get the information he did, and he and the work ended up paying a price for that.
All of this doesn't change my opinion about the basic rule of non-fiction: that the facts in it should be true. I'm just drawn to discuss the more troubled questions of responsibility when you step away from that position of strength.
Holt responds: I think the Reagan bio you mention is "Dutch" by Edmund Morris, a true idiot, respectfully speaking.
Dear Ms. Donna Quixote,
Where did you get the idea that publishers ever accepted any responsibility? They only see this [James Frey episode] as a second round of a bookselling promotional tour. Even network television is destroying "commercial television," so they can profit from downloads and cable premium channels. America has allowed the destruction of all things good. We have left the era of "Ozzie & Harriet," "Leave It to Beaver," "Father Knows Best" behind and are now into reality shows meant to embarrass, humiliate, and sicken us with "South Park," "Fear Factor," "Survivor," etc.
My only question is who will publish the E-version of the final chapters: "The Rise and Fall of the Great American Empire." Or, who will pay to read it if "Desperate Housewives" is on?
Holt responds: You mean "Father Knows Best" wasn't meant to embarrass, humiliate and sicken?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re the James Frey dustup: Who cares? I don't. What do you expect from a guy whose brain is fried on drugs -- a detailed remembrance of everything and everyone? Give me a break. I can't remember what I ate yesterday without prompting.
And how can the news devote hours of soul-searching for the truth of this book when they can't even get around to the truth of the current administration. I don't see any reporter asking the president of the U.S. about his lies.
Fed Up with The Media
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I thought you might like to see what Barbara Peters [of The Poisoned Pen bookstore and press] wrote in her Enews about the Frey incident:
More comments on James Frey as distilled in PW: Writers, many who had done their own memoir, came out as one of the most solidly opposed blocs to Frey. Alexandra Whitney, a ghost writer from Connecticut, said she was most put off by the fact that Frey had positioned the book as a source of encouragement for those struggling with their own drug additions. "Can you imagine the stir," she wrote, "if, for example, he chronicled his road to beating cancer - when in reality all he really had was a cold?"
Kathryn J. Hudson, a memoirist and personal essay writer from Baltimore, MD, said the book now stood as "the fabrication of a man who simply wanted to sell books." And Larissa Phillips, a writer from Brooklyn, NY, said the publishing industry is "shooting its favorite cash cow in the foot by insisting there is nothing wrong with a memoir being a complete fabrication.
[Frey] passed a bad novel off as fact, and it sold for the very reason that people were shocked that such a terrible story could be true--and because they trusted the publishing industry.
And for a coda to Frey last week, Oprah decided to clean up her skirts. Instead of ripping up Nan Talese, the publisher from Doubleday, she tore into James Frey. What a disgraceful spin doctoring all around; the author (and his agent) had marketed the book first as fiction and now followed Talese's advice. Anyone who thinks Frey misled her rather than that her imprint took a calculated risk to get more market share with a "memoir" rather than a "bad novel" – well – I hope the outcome here sends a message! Interesting that his agent has remained closed mouth; if anyone knows how Frey's book got into print, it should be the agent, no?
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Maybe Frey was just trying to prove to the Bush administration that he had the right stuff to work for them, a facility for lying being one of the main requirements.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Regarding your comment:
"And about Nan Talese's statement that publishers don't do fact-finding - that's been true as long as I can remember. Magazines like the New Yorker confirm every fact they can find; publishers of books figure that authors are laying their entire careers on the line because books are permanent - they're written for posterity - so it's the author's job to check every fact."
... I have always wondered about the no-fact-checking policy in the non-fiction book industry; it's just asking for trouble. Now that they have it, why haul the policy out as a defense? It seems to me that there is no ethical Big Brother that mandates what any given publisher should, or should not, do in service to its customers. If Talese wants her firm to check an author's facts, either randomly like an audit, or every one, in any proposed non-fiction book, there is nothing to stop her except the choice she makes.The industry should consider the Frey event as an opportunity on several levels.
An opportunity for a small publisher of non-fiction to market the idea that each fact in their books is checked, or your money back. Or, if cost to a publisher is a prohibitive factor, it sounds like a great opportunity for somebody to set up a fact-finding company, and contract with every publisher on a piece-meal basis to look after the necessary work. Or maybe book publishers should be encouraged to jointly fund such an outfit on a cost-shared, co-operative basis to serve all those who throw in start-up money. Having SmokingGun.com do that sort of thing is free to the industry, of course, but there's no free lunch. There's no guarantee, for instance, the editors of SmokingGun would chose to do it in every case, for every book, in the time frame that's useful to the publisher.
That, of course, doesn't even get to the idea of describing what 'the truth', literally mercurial and often just as toxic, actually is. Truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
I make no apologies in all of this for Mr. Frey's version of the truth or how he tells it. It's his story, it's his truth, not ours. He was allegedly caught embellishing or mis-remembering parts (but not all) of his book, so does any of that tarting-up lessen the take-responsibility-for-your-own-life point he was making as the over-arching concept he wanted his version of his story to endorse? Was the point he was making a lie, or "the truth"? Did he take responsibility for what he did, which would be in keeping with his book's point of view? If there was no effect on the major concept, should readers get a full refund, or just a partial one? What about all those docu-dramas one sees now on TV, as events are recreated, such as how an airplane crash occurred? Could Frey's publisher simply put a stamp on the cover of the existing copies of the book, and call it a "non-ficto-drama'?
Telling the truth, Pat? That's easy. But just one question before we start: Should the version of the truth be mine, yours or theirs?
Holt responds: I do think it's simple: All the facts in a nonfiction book should be true.
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