Books — staid and intellectual cultural artifacts that they so often are — were not all just staid or intellectual this year. Not nearly. There were, in fact, scandals, at least a few of them surrounding books and their authors and publishers, and there were times in which discussions of books and the business grew dramatic and tension-filled. Near-scandals! Other times, these conversations were simply very, very interesting, full of twists and turns, much like a good book. Remember when Philip Roth took on Wikipedia to clear up what he described as false perceptions of The Human Stain? (It was a big year for Philip Roth news altogether, really.) Or what about when Penguin sued authors for their advances, citing nondelivery of manuscripts, thereby breaking with the industry's long-standing tradition of, well, generally not suing authors for that? Then there was Fifty Shades of Grey, its popularity and hype and the various sensational headlines therein. A lot happened this year in publishing, and this year in general, but these are the scandals(!), events, and incidents that made everyone remember that the book business is (almost) as fraught with drama and controversy as anything else — and that, despite all the doomsaying, it is surely most alive!
Fifty Shades of Scandalous There were so many shades of Shades this year! Fifty Shades of Grey was the most talked-about book throughout this year, the book that garnered the most headlines, the one that spawned the most absurd trend stories. At one point, the New York Post reported a run on rope at hardware stores. Everyone was reading Fifty Shades, from teens to grandparents to Mitch Albom, all around the world, in virtually every language. Then there was the related merchandise, the massive merchandising deal, the soundtrack, talk of the upcoming movie. And let's not forget about the bad (or underwhelmed) reviews, those defending the book with "better" reviews, and talk of publishing in general and what this post-Fifty-Shades world all means anyway. Would self-publishing be the new test of a book's success? Were works initially intended as fan fiction suddenly destined for semi-greatness, and huge advances? And how many spin-offs and parodies and pieces of competitive erotic fiction could the market bear, really? Toward the end of the year, Random House employees were awarded a $5,000 bonus largely due to the ginormous success of the Shades trilogy. (Random House, it bears mentioning, also published success stories like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, though any scandals related to that book were confined within its pages.)
The Outting of the Fox News Mole and the Neverending Book Deal In April, a guy calling himself the "Fox News Mole" appeared to reveal an array of potentially enticing "dirty secrets" from the Fox News mothership by way of Gawker. Less than 24 hours later, Fox News management found him, fired him, and threatened the exploration of "legal options" for vengeance. The Mole turned out to be a guy named Joe Muto, but all was not lost, even if his job was. By May, he had that book deal we'd predicted, paler shades of Greg "Why I'm Leaving Goldman Sachs" Smith's $1.5 million advance, to the tune of six figures. The biggest "scandal" (more like an accepted norm) in this is that, really, anyone can get a book deal, as long as they're willing to sell out a high-profile employer in a mass media sort of way. Is six figures enough to pay off your legal bills if Fox News sues you?
No Pulitzer Prize Awarded for Fiction The decision in April by the Pulitzer Prize Board not to bestow a prize in its fiction category this year disappointed literature lovers for a few reasons. First, because each of the shortlisted contenders — David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Karen Russell's Swamplandia!, and Denis Johnson's Train Dreams — would've made fine selections. Second, because while the Pulitzer fiction jurors had chosen those three as their finalists, the 18-member Pulitzer board, presented with the three equally ranked options, declined to choose from them, offered no award, and gave no reason for the decision. Maureen Corrigan, who was a juror along with Susan Larson and Michael Cunningham (who wrote of the experience for The New Yorker), told us of the jurors' process, in which they read more than 300 books and discussed them thoroughly to come down to the final three: "We did clash and argue, but God, we took it seriously. That's the part of the process that really made me angry, when we heard — we heard when everyone else did that there would be no prize — and that there would be no explanation. Of course I was angry about the work I did, but also about the [false] impression it gives that the novels aren’t up to snuff." As Cunningham wrote, "We were, all three of us, shocked by the board's decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimetres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto." So what really happened? Only the Pulitzer board truly knows ... and they're still not saying.
The Apple eBook Lawsuit As fun as it is to watch authors trade cruel barbs, the stakes in your typical book scandal are usually pretty low. But more than a few bruised egos were involved in the Department of Justice's lawsuit against Apple and a handful of publishers for supposedly fixing the price of e-books. The alleged colluders were hauled in by the DoJ back in April. What Apple and the publishers call the agency model — a system under which publishers stipulate that retailers must charge full price — the DoJ calls swindling book buyers. Hachette, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster wanted no part in the proceedings, settling in the summer and agreeing to let their titles go for the low, low average price of $9.99. Apple, Penguin, and Macmillan soldier on, planning to defend their preferred price point of $14.99 in court next summer. Meanwhile, Amazon — the price-slashing party many hold responsible for this whole controversy in the first place — dances merrily outside the courthouse, handing out e-books for loose change.
Pippa Gets Panned Poor Pippa Middleton! Her sister marries the prince, and she gets the book deal. Which might not be so bad, really, except that Pippa's party-planning book, Celebrate, was subject to more ridicule than perhaps any other tome this year (well, maybe). Eventually she responded to criticism that her tips were "glaringly obvious" by saying she "had to cover the basics." Turkey is good for a holiday meal, isn't it? Middleton got a 400,000-pound advance for shaking the dust off her obvious suggestions, reportedly, so whatever people say about the book we presume she can laugh her way to the old bank — even if there's no forthcoming sequel.
The Too-Nice Debate Are we too nice or too mean? Too mean, or too nice? This is a kind of trumped-up Internet conversation we have over and over again that can just apply generally to "how we do the Internet," but this year it became a book publishing industry discussion in particular, when Jacob Silverman wrote in Slate that novelist Emma Straub (pictured) was exemplary of online book culture's persistent niceness — and that there was an epidemic of this niceness, in fact, "having a chilling effect on literary culture, creating an environment where writers are vaunted for their personal biographies or their online followings rather than for their work on the page." Where were the good old days of curmudgeonly fogies screaming insults at each other?, the nostalgists asked. Over at Time, Lev Grossman wrote that he'd given up writing really nasty reviews, and in New York magazine Nathan Heller took the discussion wide yet again — we're all just too nice on the Internet these days. As for Silverman's post, Emma Straub, who is indeed very nice, "struck back" (in the nicest possible way) with her own Tumblr response, in which she wrote, "I do try to be delightful, in part because I find complaining in public terribly gauche ... The internet is big enough for all of us—the rabble rousers, the misanthropes, the goof-offs, and yes, the enthusiasts." To her point, this epidemic of "niceness" has hardly stopped other warring book factions, as listed in other scandals in this post, and elsewhere on The Atlantic Wire, too, from happening this year. There really is room here for all of us! How nice.
Philip Roth vs. His Wikipedia Page On a Friday in September, The New Yorker posted an open letter from Philip Roth to Wikipedia on its Page-Turner blog. The letter began, "Dear Wikipedia, I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel The Human Stain. The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip—there is no truth in it at all." Roth went on in wonderfully readable fashion (read the letter, seriously) to elaborate on why there was no truth in said item, which is that The Human Stain had been "allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard." (Turns out, Roth explains, he only met Broyard three or four times over the course of three decades, once while playing football on the beach!) And for Roth's pains, there are now two graphs in the Wikipedia page for the novel outlining the "Anatole Broyard controversy."
Philip Roth vs. Himself And the next month, Roth told a French newspaper that that he'd never write again — and in fact, that he'd retired. His publisher confirmed the news in November, and the American media response began in full, with The New Yorker's David Remnick and others weighing in on the whys and hows and whats of it all. In a New York Times interview — apparently his last — Roth explained to Charles McGrath that he was quitting, essentially, "because he feels he has said what he has to say." But: Roth is collaborating on a novella via email with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend, even if he was forgoing the traditional form. More recently, when a Twitter account was mistaken briefly for his actual one, Roth spoke out again, this time by way of his biographer, Blake Bailey, who tweeted that not only should expect neither a novel nor a Twitter account:
The real Philip Roth--yes, him--would have it known that he has NO twitter account, and it is MOST unlikely he ever shall. @philiprothoffic
— Blake Bailey (@BlakeBaileyOn) December 26, 2012
Penguin Sues Authors, Penguin Sued by Editor In late September, The Smoking Gun broke the news that the Penguin Group had filed lawsuits against 12 writers, including Elizabeth Wurtzel, Ana Marie Cox, Rebecca Meade, and Herman Rosenblatt, for failing to deliver books they'd contractually promised to the publisher. Penguin sought repayments, plus interest, of those advances, causing mega-agent Robert Gottlieb to speak out against what he called the breaking of a gentleman's agreement. He wrote in a comment on the Smoking Gun piece, "Penguin this is wrong headed. Authors beware. Books are rejected for reasons other than editorially and publishers then want their money back. Publishers want to reject manuscripts for any reason after an author has put time and effort into writing them all the while paying their bills. Another reason to have strong representation. If Penguin did this to one of Trident’s authors we could cut them out of all our submissions."
Penguin faced their own lawsuit during the year, too, from Marilyn Ducksworth, who worked at the company for 27 years and sued in September (after resigning from the company) over age discrimination. This caused blogger Edward Champion to ask, via Twitter, "Why did Penguin wait until NOW to go after advances? Has Ducksworth been settled? And are authors having to pay up for discrimination?" Of course a writer would attempt to connect the dots; that's just good writing.
Lena Dunham and the Book Proposal More big advance news! In October, Lena Dunham (she of Girls fame, of course) was said to be shopping around a proposal "set to go for a minimum $1 million," according to Page Six. Quick as you can say "slim leg!," it went for more than three times that. Then Gawker got a hold of the proposal and posted it, describing it as "more of an invitation to get lost in the mind of a girl who is lost in her own mind." We at The Atlantic Wire saw it as, actually, a pretty decent proposal, something that would make haters continue to hate (as they do) but also give Dunham fans exactly what they wanted (more of her brand of quirky, honest humor; a modern twentysomething channeling Helen Gurley Brown mixed with Nora Ephron mixed with her own damn self). And, really, any proposal that gets this much attention pre-publication should, generally, get at least that afterward, one would imagine. Anyway, more drama ensued, with Dunham's lawyer getting in touch to impart a demand that the leaked proposal and its quotes be removed from the web site, and Gawker writer John Cook responding as only Gawker writer John Cook can. The proposal was removed from the site, though all the quotes were not.
Love Pentagon Ostensibly more of a political scandal, there was a book publishing element here, too. Paula Broadwell's All In: The Education of David Petraeus was the book that got a sales bump for all the wrong reasons after her extra-marital affair with the former general was revealed to have been going on during the writing of the book, which could be described as a kind of fan fic about Petraeus himself. (Amazon reviewers are not amused.)
The Casual Vacancy Beloved Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling was bound to create some controversy writing a novel for adults, and so she did, including sex, drugs, and cursing in The Casual Vacancy to the horror of some while being taken to task for the novel's "blandness" from still others. Her depiction of Sikhs in the book was also a subject of controversy. And then there's the matter of the A.P. releasing its book review early, embargoes be damned, which is sort of the publishing version of an unforgivable curse being uttered.
Amazon "Sockpuppet" Reviews On the Internet, no one can hear you giving your own book five stars. At least that's what authors like R. J. Ellory, who got caught sock-puppeting online book reviews this year, were hoping. These wise guys thought that they had devised a foolproof online self-promotion strategy: create anonymous user accounts on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, gush about your own titles, pan books by other authors, sit back and watch the money and fame roll in. And they would've gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for readers clever enough to notice that many of their online "fans" sounded too similar. The sock-puppeteers didn't expect these sleuths to notice when their "reviewers" responded to chat room questions directed at authors who forgot which account they were using.
Bookstores vs. the Amazon Imprint Independent book shops and chain stores like Barnes & Noble seemed united on one point this year: they didn't want to be a showroom for a company that's cutting so heavily into their market. Sorry Amazon, they said, but we won't carry titles from your New Harvest imprint. Plenty of small stores stuck to the boycott, but Barnes & Noble let a few of Amazon's books through the cracks.
The Disappearing Shadow of the Navy SEAL When Penguin's surprise announcement surfaced, that a retired Navy SEAL would be offering a tell-all account of Team 6's successful hit on Osama bin Laden, to be released on September 11th, the author of No Easy Day was supposed to be known only as "Mark Owen." But Fox News made Matt Bissonnette a buzz name in the book world this year when they outed him just days later. Bissonnette had obvious reasons for wanting to use a pseudonym: attempts at retribution from al-Qaeda members, not to mention possible criminal charges for not clearing the book with the Pentagon. Some say Bissonnette shouldn't have revealed sensitive military information. Others say Fox News shouldn't have endangered his personal safety. In any case, now he can get personal credit not only for helping to kill bin Laden, but also for whetting the publishing business' insatiable apetite for SEAL memoirs this year.
Brett Easton Ellis Twitter Rants These are something of a perennial — Easton Ellis taking to Twitter to say things offensive to one, some, or all — and they happened again in 2012, when the American Psycho author tweeted freely about Lindsay Lohan, Kathryn Bigelow, Fifty Shades of Grey (specifically, the movie's scriptwriter; specifically, not Easton Ellis), Nikki Finke, and David Foster Wallace ... and people got mad.
Barraged today by people who think I'm "sexist" and "toxic" for thinking the beautiful Kathryn Bigelow is overrated because she's a woman...— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) December 7, 2012
He apologized for what he said about Bigelow, so maybe our little author is growing up! In less directly offensive to others Twitter rants, don't forget, also, the late-night Twitter "brainstorming session" in which he went on for five hours about what a sequel to American Psycho might look like. An outlet, every artiste needs an outlet.
Random Penguins Many major publishing houses came down with a case of merger mania this year. The first afflicted party was Penguin, the property Pearson sold off to Random House's corporate owners Bertelsmann in October. That news made the specter of layoffs loom large in many publishing professionals' minds. But, hey, at least Penguin didn't end up in the hands of Rupert Murdoch, who tried to nab Penguin at the last minute so he could merge it with with Newscorp's HarperCollins. And at least we got a mildly funny meme out of wandering what they'd call the new mega publisher. But there won't be any Random Penguins to keep us amused if the next likely merger — between Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins — goes through, winnowing what used to be the Big Six down to a Big Four.
Don't Speak About Mo Yan's Stance on Censorship This year's Nobel Prize winner in fiction came under fire for being too cozy with red pen-wielding Chinese authorities. Yan, whose nom de plume translates as "Don't Speak," didn't exactly help his case by comparing state censorship of literature to routine airport security in his acceptance speech. Salman Rushdie called the author a regime "patsy." Pankaj Mishra said critics like Rushdie were subjecting Yan to a Sinophobic double standard. People on the Internet — who had no censors to stop them — kept making the same dumb joke, over and over.
Monica's Millions Remember when everyone was all like, "Wow, did you hear Monica Lewinsky got a $12 million advance for her tell-all?" And then remember when we were all like, "No she didn't"? We hate to say we told you so, but it's been a few months now, and we're still not seeing any dearly bought sequels to Monica's Story on lists of upcoming releases. Well, there's always 2013.
Insets via Flickr/kiyong ahn; Emma Straub via Twitter; Lena Dunham via AP; Random Penguin via AP.