The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- Stephen King says his next book, Joyland, will be available only in print. He recently told The Wall Street Journal: "[L]et people stir their sticks and go to an actual bookstore rather than a digital one." Interestingly, King was actually one of the first mainstream authors to go digital: Back in 2000, Riding the Bullet was released as the first mass market ebook. A New York Times article from that year discussing the quaintly described "Internet-only novella" quotes one prominent literary agent as saying, "That's a fellow sitting up in Maine having fun, but it's not a way to run a business."
- Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka takes on Western critics who call the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe the "father of African literature" in an interview with SaharaReporters: "It legitimizes their ignorance, their parlous knowledge, enables them to circumscribe, then adopt a patronizing approach to African literatures and creativity. Backed by centuries of their own recorded literary history, they assume the condescending posture of midwiving an infant entity." Achebe died in March.
- Raymond Maxwell, one of four State Department officials disciplined following the attack in Benghazi, Libya, expresses his thoughts on the scandal with some vitriolic poetry. One poem, quoted by CBS, reads "The Queen's Henchmen / request the pleasure of your company / at a Lynching - / to be held / at 23rd and C Streets NW [State Dept. building] ...A blood sacrifice- / to divert the hounds- / to appease the gods- / to cleanse our filth and /satisfy our guilty consciences..." Subtle.
- The Australian airline Qantas is commissioning novels that supposedly last the precise lengths of their most popular flights. The project, a collaboration with publisher Hachette, is called "Stories for Every Journey."
- Judith Thurman considers the legacy of Soren Kierkegaard for The New Yorker: "Either/Or...ought really to be subtitled Neither."
- Children's book author Bernard Waber died on Monday, according to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Lyle, a crocodile that lives in a bathtub, was the star of Waber's two most famous books, Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and The House on East 88th Street.
- In an interview with Guernica magazine, Claire Messud talks about making the protagonist of her latest novel, The Woman Upstairs, a female "fury." She says: "I always loved reading the ranters and the ranters are all boys, and I thought, well, what would it be like?" (You can also listen to novelist Lionel Shriver discuss Messud on NPR's All Things Considered.)
Seeing The National live in concert can be an intense and cathartic experience. Seeing the band play new songs in the cozy confines of The Cutting Room Studios takes that experience to a new level. The band is in fine form here, as it performs "Graceless," one of the many stand-outs on the new Trouble Will Find Me.
Both the former IRS commissioner who was in charge when the agency singled out some conservative groups for extra scrutiny and the man who replaced him will be appearing at a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday morning.
Douglas Shulman, an appointee of President George W. Bush who left the IRS last November, and acting commissioner Steven Miller (who is losing his job because of the scandal) are due at the 10 a.m. ET hearing.
Also set to testify: J. Russell George, the Treasury Department's inspector general for tax administration, who reported last week on the "inappropriate" criteria that some IRS personnel used when considering the applications for tax-exempt status from groups who identified themselves as "tea party" or "patriot" organizations.
On Friday, Miller told a House committee that "foolish mistakes were made by people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection." He insisted that the actions were not partisan. Republican lawmakers did not buy his explanation. Democrats, while expressing outrage over the singling out of some groups, tried to make the case that because the extra scrutiny began in 2010 — when Bush-appointee Shulman was running the IRS — partisanship was not a factor.
Tuesday's hearing will be Shulman's first opportunity to address the scandal in public. We'll watch for news from the hearing and update.
Related post: Turnabout Is Fair Play: Senators Have Many Questions For IRS.
J. P. O'Malley
Halfway through The Unwinding, George Packer — author of the highly praised The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq (2005) — delineates how quickly political idealism can disappear when one becomes exposed to a world of easy money.
Jeff Connaughton, who served as a legal advisor in the Clinton White House and then cashed in, making millions as a Washington lobbyist, candidly describes how the professional classes changed in the 1980s: "When the benefits exploded on Wall Street and Washington, when it became possible to make millions of dollars in corporate booty...when norms began to erode and disappear that had held people back at least from being garish about the way they made money, the culture changed."
Connaughton is just one of many colorful characters Packer introduces us to in this book, which documents the drastic social, political and economic upheaval the United States has experienced over the last three decades. Reading almost as a collection of short stories, Packer's narrative — which owes a literary debt to both George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier and John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy — follows the personal triumphs and failures of various individuals from across the United States. Others we meet along the way include Dean Price, the son of a tobacco farmer and an evangelist for a green economy in the rural South; Tammy Thomas, a Rust Belt factory worker trying to survive the financial collapse of Youngstown, Ohio; and Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who questions the true worth of the technology economy.
At first glance it seems as if Packer is simply documenting the change that took place as the social order of the Roosevelt republic gradually collapsed. But as this book progresses, it becomes apparent that a very pertinent question is being asked: What common bond do those who are ostensibly held together by an idea of American democracy actually share? It's a question the author doesn't definitively answer, but in his quest to find out, a few home truths are discovered.
Through his nuanced style of literary journalism, Packer portrays the complexities that lie behind an argument most readers will be familiar with: The outsourcing of manufacturing jobs; the deregulation of the financial sector; and the shift to the right and rise of free-market principles in both the Democratic and Republican parties has led the U.S. to its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Packer carves out his thesis by letting his characters tell their own stories. The argument, in short, might read something like this: over the last 30 years, American democratic values have been undermined by the powerful lure of unregulated capitalism.
For a journalist, this method of subtly pushing your polemic through other people's opinions can be a liberating experience. We meet, for example, Matt Weidner, a real estate lawyer fighting foreclosures in Tampa after the property crash of 2007, who opines that the economy is in the doldrums because "our parents were fat and lazy. ...Our grandparents would have never mortgaged everything and lived off credit." Weidner then asks one of his hard-pressed clients, Jack Hamersma, why all the unemployed homeowners in foreclosures across the country don't come together and form a movement? To which Jack replies, "Imagine getting up every day and not having a purpose. You're not working, your self-worth goes down the toilet."
This degrading poverty is then poignantly contrasted with tales of colossal wealth, as the gap between the rich and the poor continues to rise. A friend of lobbyist Connaughton, whom he meets on the Joe Biden presidential campaign, arrogantly declares, "This would sound strange to ninety-nine percent of Americans, but four hundred thousand a year doesn't go as far as it used to." For Peter Thiel, who amassed a fortune of $1.5 billion from his investments in Facebook and PayPal, a seminal moment for American capitalism arrived in 1997, with the publication of a Silicon Valley novel called The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest. Thiel recalls how in the 1980s, a person was considered wealthy in the U.S. if they were a millionaire. In the culture of Silicon Valley now, getting rich means amassing billions.
Packer's strength as a storyteller lies in his ability to marshal a diverse range of voices from across the class divide, in a nation deeply divided by social status. But the scattered nature of the narrative — which starts in 1978 and ends in 2012 — means it inevitably lacks a sense of continuity and feels slightly long winded for what it has to say. Moreover, the very brief biographical sketches Packer drops in every few chapters — of famous artists, celebrities and politicians, from Raymond Carver to Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich — ironically steers the book in a direction it otherwise tries to avoid, since Packer is clearly passing judgment on elements of American culture that have evolved since the late 1970s. When he tells us how gangster rap is eroding America's principles, his tone becomes slightly elitist.
Packer believes the seismic shift in political and economic life, which has left the social contract in tatters, will inevitably mean that members of an increasingly isolated American society will find themselves alone, having to "improvise their own destinies, plot their own stories of success and salvation." Despite The Unwinding's minor flaws, the book is a fitting reminder of the paradox of democracy in America, where ideas that are seemingly sacrosanct can be eroded and replaced within a generation.
J.P. O' Malley is a freelance journalist based in London. His work has appeared in The Spectator, The Economist, The Daily Beast, New African, The Sunday Times and many others.