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Category: June 2009

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Author is sued over Tom Waits biography

Herbert CohenlawsuitTom Waits


Author Barney Hoskyns didn't get to talk to the notoriously private Tom Waits for his recent biography, "Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits." In it, Waits appears as a "dodgy enigma," our reviewer wrote, and "an angry ghost." 

But in a new lawsuit, it's not the musician who's angry.

Waits' former manager, Herbert Cohen, has filed a $1-million libel complaint against Hoskyns and publisher Random House in District Court in California on June 18. Cohen alleges that statements made in the book about his financial dealings with Waits are untrue.

Court documents cite several passages from the book, including this:

Waits would soon be in court with Cohen, alleging fraudulent accounting practices that had robbed Waits of royalties for years. . . . "I thought I was a millionaire and it turned out I had, like, twenty bucks," Waits told me in 1999. "And what followed was a lot of court battles, and it was a difficult ride for both of us, particularly being newly-weds."

Cohen's suit states that he was not sued by Waits "for fraudulent accounting practices," although it mentions that there was a dispute between the two that was settled in 1983. Is this a case of poor word choice on Hoskyns' part, and is it legally actionable?

Another section seems, to my nonlawyer's eyes, hardly Hoskyn's fault; Cohen's beef is with things others have said. For example, the complaint alleges that the following passage "is false, because plaintiff has never stolen or embezzled any amount from Waits":

"Kathleen [Brennan, wife of Tom Waits] told me Herbie [plaintiff] had nicked a lot of money from Tom," says Jerry Yester. . . . "She was very smart and just had a lot of really good input." To the likes of Yester, the news hardly came as a surprise. . . . "What was so distressing was that Herbie had always been part of the family," Yester says. "It was like your father or your brother doing it to you. . . . Waits absolutely trusted Herbie to his core, and it devastated him when he found out that he had grabbed a lot of the royalties." (Ellipses are in the court documents.)

Cohen, now in his 70s, was once a high-profile musician manager, working with Linda Ronstadt, Frank Zappa, Alice Cooper and others in addition to Waits. This is not his first time in court. According to a sentence elided from the above passage, Cohen was "taken to court by Frank Zappa several years before, and was fired as his manager in May 1976." 

Have a rock journalist and his publisher gotten caught up in the backwash of a decades-old dispute between Cohen and Waits? Or is this lawsuit destined for dismissal? 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credit: Kim Kulish / For The Times

Megan Fox and Saab both go postmodern: What is postmodern, anyway?


Chris Daley noticed that "postmodern" has been popping up a lot lately in popular culture. She wanted to know how widely the term “postmodern” was being used -- or abused. Daley, who pays hundreds of dollars a month in student loans for a degree that certifies she has studied postmodernism extensively, teaches writing, writes book reviews for the LA Times and blogs at Escapegrace. She conducted a highly unscientific study analyzing the use of "postmodern" in recent items in Google News.

Before we consult the findings, let’s establish what “postmodern” meant before all and sundry began using it to sell their Saabs and Klezmer music and circus acts (in the past few weeks no less).

It was first used as early as the 1870s, but theorists Jean-François Lyotard and Frederic Jameson are generally credited with making the term “postmodern” popular. Jeffrey Nealon and Susan Searles Giroux provide a conveniently succinct explanation of postmodernism in their book "The Theory Toolbox." When used in an academic setting, “postmodern” usually refers to a sense of style featuring “disjunction or deliberate confusion, irony, playfulness, reflexivity, a kind of cool detachment, a deliberate foregrounding of constructedness, a suspicion concerning neat or easy conclusions” (126). Nealon and Searles Giroux point out that postmodernism is more concerned with process than product. This can be seen in the meta “[blank] about [blank]” construction that often identifies the “postmodern”: art about art, writing about writing, architecture about architecture, etc.

Flash forward to early June 2009. When the term “postmodern” is used in major international publications, does it bear any relation to its theoretical roots, or has it been hijacked as yet another hot, empty signifier, like "iconic" or "staycation"? Let’s take a look.

Postmodern as Two Normally Contradictory Ideas Existing in the Same Space

When Swedish carmaker Koenigsegg bought Saab last week, the company’s head honcho Christian von Koenigsegg described the Saab as “a bit of postmodern comfort, sporty, but with environmental thinking.” Sexy and green? So pomo. In Brooklyn over the weekend, a collection of prestigious designers gathered to sell their wares in a “rough-edged” raw space, or as the New York Times would have it, a “postmodern, high-end yard sale.” An article in the Washington Post praises Judd Apatow’s “postmodern alchemy,” crediting him for the ability to “plumb the shallow depths of manhood” and actually discover something interesting.

Postmodern as Root of All Evil

Apparently, the postmodern can be blamed for the collapse of the Christian church and the economy. The site RenewAmerica claims that the “emergent church” is really “a postmodern cult disguised as a church” and that “[two] earmarks of the present postmodern church are hostility to truth of any kind, and the acid bath of skepticism.” This is otherwise known as the Postmodern as Acid Bath school of thought.

Historian Harold James blames the economic crisis on “general cultural developments [that] are sometimes termed post-modernism, which involves the replacement of reason by intuition, feeling, and allusion.” And then the banks fail.

Postmodern as nonsense, an out for people who take themselves too seriously, for all music genres and for insta-intellect after the jump.

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Old mag tries new trick: Granta and Flavorpill launch short-film contest


I admit, I don't know diddly about Eleanor Catton's book "The Rehearsal." But it's described as titillating, as a novel "toying bravely with narrative and form to conjure the hormonal aftermath of a high school sex scandal," which is enough to spark my curiosity.

But apparently Granta and Flavorpill are taking another route. Today, Granta, the venerable, 100-plus-year-old British literary journal launched a short-film contest with Flavorpill, the less-than-10-years-old online arts and culture venue, around the book.

We’re seeking out film or digital shorts that touch on the broad theme of “life as performance.” We’ll be posting our favorites on Flavorpill through the month, with the winner to be decided by a high profile judging panel and announced at the School of Life on July 23 and worldwide through Flavorpill.

An interview with author Catton on the contest page discusses the novel's engagement with form, so maybe its beyond-bookishness was something of an inspiration. But exactly why Flavorpill and Granta got together to do a short-film contest -- around this book in particular -- isn't entirely clear. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

What is clear is that while the contest is worldwide, the winner will be feted in London, because that's where the wonderfully innovative School of Life is located.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Chris Anderson's 'Free' appears to borrow freely from Wikipedia and other sources

Freebychrisanderson Late Tuesday, the Virginia Quarterly Review posted startlingly similar passages from Chris Anderson's new book "Free" and several Wikipedia entries. Language common to both was highlighted in bright yellow. "Chris Anderson's 'Free' Contains Apparent Plagiarism," Web editor Waldo Jaquith wrote.

The common passages -- which include definitions for the phrases "Free Lunch," "There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch" and "Learning Curve" -- appear without attribution within the text. The book has no footnotes or endnotes.

The VQR also saw similarities between "Free" and a book excerpted on the website of the New York monthly the Brooklyn Rail, as well as on an archive of an old bbs. Other careful Googlers have found at least two additional samples of text in Anderson's book that seem to match online resources.

Anderson responded to an inquiry from the VQR by e-mail.

"All those are my screwups after we decided not to run notes as planned, due to my inability to find a good citation format for web sources," he wrote.

As citations for Web sources have been established for some time, this seems an odd explanation from Anderson, who is no publishing novice. His previous book, "The Long Tail," was a bestseller, and he is currently editor in chief of Wired magazine.

The book's publisher, Hyperion, sent a note to VQR, which it posted at the end of the day.

We are completely satisfied with Chris Anderson’s response. It was an unfortunate mistake, and we are working with the author to correct these errors both in the electronic edition before it posts and in all future editions of the book.

The lack of attribution may indeed have been a combination of mistake and lack of oversight. But as one commenter on Gawker lamented, "Can't decide which is more embarrassing -- failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source."

Wikipedia is one of the resources Anderson lauds -- in  "The Long Tail," he called it a phenomenon. In this one, he writes,  "there is the amazing 'gift economy' of  Wikipedia," later explaining, "Wikipedia makes no money at all, but because an incomparable information resource is now available to all at no cost, our own ability to make money armed with more knowledge is improved."

The whole point of Anderson's "Free: The Past and Future of a Radical Price" is to explore what he calls "the paradox of Free," in which "people are making lots of money and charging nothing."

Anderson's hardcover costs $26.99. Wikipedia is still free.

And within hours, Anderson's Wikipedia's entry had been updated -- with attribution -- to reflect the charges of plagiarism. Updates to "Free" are expected to take a while. Which proves Anderson's point -- I think.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

When pop goes postmodern: Scarlett Thomas

Colleen MondorPopCopostmodernScarlett ThomasThe End of Mr. Y


Colleen Mondor would not say she is an expert in postmodernism -- but she happens to like the work of some authors, like Scarlett Thomas, who write deliciously readable books that quietly veer into postmodernism. An England native, Scarlett Thomas has published seven novels with an eighth due later this year; Colleen Mondor is a reviewer for Booklist and columnist for Bookslut. She has recently completed a memoir on Alaska aviation and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

As the last English course I attended was in 1986, my understanding of postmodernism remains frozen in the frenzied period of study prior to my AP exams. I did manage to retain a great love for books in spite of many high school literary traumas, however, and can certainly recognize a complex and satisfying read when I find one. James Joyce may not be my cup of tea, but Scarlett Thomas is another matter entirely. With her fun skewering of our capitalist economy in "PopCo" (2005) -- which includes pirates, World War II code breaking and the evils of Hello Kitty -- she sold me on a style that willfully includes all the things that interest her at the moment.

Where Thomas’ mind took her in "PopCo" was the life of Alice, raised by code-breaking grandparents on a continuous diet of ciphers and puzzles and a very real mystery of lost pirate treasure. Readers learn of World War II espionage through flashbacks while Alice’s contemporary life plays out at a corporate "Thought Camp" where she and her fellow employees are tasked with designing the next big material object for teen girls; it will exist solely for the purpose of ownership and serve no function. (This would be where Hello Kitty’s ubiquitous example comes into play.) From a childhood tasked with finding solutions to an adulthood that has landed her as a servant of capitalism, Alice is at a serious crossroads.

If the book were only about Alice's career, it would be one thing, but Thomas refuses to let go of the mathematical equations that have propelled Alice through every moment in her life:

One of the most famous contemporary uses of a Caesar shift cipher is, according to SF geeks, in the naming of the fictional computer HAL from "2001: A Space Odyssey." Taking into account a Caesar shift of minus-one, "HAL" of course reads "IBM." I used to have a little Caesar-shift wheel.... 

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Chicks can't write sex

erotic revieweroticamensex writingwomen


The new owner of the British magazine Erotic Review has declared that it'll be seeking male contributors to prevent the magazine from being "drowned in estrogen." On a show on BBC Radio 4, the editor said that women "have an agenda, they complicate sex, they make layers, it’s conditional."

The editor? Her name is Kate Copstick.

While some have noted that this may simply be a successful publicity ploy, Copstick's statements can't help but get people a bit worked up. Take what she told Reuters:

I think women, too many of them, whether it's nature or nurture or politics, they're not straightforward about sex.... It's almost like writing about food ... Ladies who lunch should not really write about food because they don't really love food. They don't salivate at the thought of a great steak.

"Firstly, Copstick is working from a false assumption," Rachel Kramer Bussel told Jacket Copy. "Women DO salivate at the thought of steaks, and sex." Bussel, a former Village Voice sex columnist, writes about sex (and also, unrelatedly, cupcakes) and has edited several erotica anthologies. When asked whether she finds Copstick's interpretations accurate, she responded:

"What I find odd about her argument is that I am constantly asked why there are so many more women writing and publishing erotica than men. Of course it’s her prerogative to edit the Erotic Review however she sees fit, but it’s ironic considering that she’s a former writer for them and that there are all kinds of women’s erotic writing coming out now. It’s not just about Charlotte Roche; in the U.K., there’s Black Lace, here we have the Best Women’s Erotica series, and mainstream romance has gotten decidedly more dirty. Maybe that’s not what Copstick wants to read, but that doesn’t mean she should discount women entirely … or assume that men have a specifically 'male' way of writing about sex. I think if there were a blind submission process, while some pieces would be easy to pick out as gendered, many would not."

Bussel notes that writing erotic fiction -- and nonfiction -- is nothing new for women. "Anaïs Nin wrote about sex, Erica Jong and Gael Greene wrote groundbreaking erotic novels. Male versus female just isn’t a valid dichotomy," she says. These days, "women’s erotic writing is just as explicit, detailed and dirty as men’s."

What's more, male writing about sex isn't necessarily what you'd call good. "So many contemporary sex scenes -- the Bad Sex Award-winning 'Charlotte Grey' by Sebastian Faulks, for example, or the later work of John Updike -- read like a hard day’s work at the orifice," author Kathy Lette wrote in the Times of London. "When scribes from Philip Roth to the scriptwriters of 'American Pie' have entrenched the idea that men will have sex with anything with a hole and a heartbeat, and then count the legs afterwards (not just tethered, reasonably domesticated livestock are in demand, but even room temperature pies) -- it doesn’t take much to make women look over-emotional."

That's right -- pies. Writing about sex seems, suddenly, very hard. Some tips on how to do it right after the jump.

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What are Elliott Gould and Jules Feiffer reading?

Last night, actor Elliott Gould joined cartoonist Jules Feiffer at a Los Angeles screening of "Little Murders," the 1971 film produced by and starring the former and written by the latter. If this were a film blog, I'd tell you all about the movie, which was funny, dark, anti-violence and strikingly uncomfortable in parts. I'd tell you about how Gould had, at one point, wanted Jean-Luc Godard to direct it, and his conversations with the French master (Alan Arkin directed, instead). I'd have asked Feiffer a question about another movie he wrote, "Carnal Knowledge." But it isn't a film blog; it's a book blog.

After the screening -- at the modest Cinefamily, which has recently been doing phenomenal programming -- Feiffer signed his books on a back patio. Fantagraphics has reissued several, including the comic collections "The Explainers" and "Passionella" and the novel "Harry, the Rat With Women." During the Q&A, Feiffer -- a successful cartoonist, screenwriter and playwright had claimed not to have been able to master the novel form "because I couldn't describe anything," he said. "That's why my cartoons have no backgrounds."

Novels aside, Feiffer, who has won an Obies for his playwrighting, an Oscar for an animated short, a Pulitzer Prize for his cartooning and accolades for his childrens books, has certainly mastered many other forms. He seems decades younger than his 80 years and probably would have answered questions longer if they'd let him.

So what is Feiffer reading? "Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920," by Jackson Lears.

As for Gould, he's just finished "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. "I loved it. I think the guy's great," he said. Gould likes to keep up with the books his daughter reads -- she studied literature at the University of Vermont. He particularly liked "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," because, he said, he recognized in one of its characters "my inability -- unwillingness -- to compromise."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Elliott Gould and Jules Feiffer. Credit: paperhaus via Flickr

A rocker who wants to write, John Edwards, John Berger and more book news

Andrew Younghistoric newspapersJohn BergerJohn EdwardsMikel JollettThe Airborne Toxic EventTwitteratureuniversity presses

Mikeljollett_coahcella Mikel Jollett, the lead singer of the Airborne Toxic Event, says he'd like to finish his novel-in-progress, but it's too hard while the band is on tour. Jollett, who has written for the L.A. Times, is a literary rocker; he got the name of his band from the Don Delillo novel "White Noise."

Andrew Young, the longtime friend of John Edwards who accepted financial support to take in the candidate's mistress Rielle Hunter and claimed, for a short while, that he was the father of her baby, is shopping a book to publishers. Sara Nelson reports: "The situation became too much for Edwards, Young’s proposal alleges, when the National Enquirer outed the senator for his affair with Hunter, and when Elizabeth Edwards became aware of the financial arrangement. But when Young voiced his concerns to Edwards, he was cut off by the candidate, and has had virtually no contact with him or his family since."

Penguin has bought rights to a book called "Twitterature: The World's Greatest Books, Now Presented in Twenty Tweets or Less" by two college students. If there is a Twitter feed that provides examples of, say, "The Illiad" in 20 tweets, I can't find it. I can find the pre-book website, though, if you want to see some of the elements of a successful book proposal. ("Within is the birthday, Christmas, Hanukah, and 4th of July gift for every hip young person between the ages of 18 and 35 in this country.")

The British Library's head of modern manuscripts, Jamie Andrews, is tweeting about his visit to John Berger's rural French estate to collect the papers from the Booker Prize winner. Some of his Twitter links go to AudioBoo reports, which seem popular with Brits -- they have one photo and an audio recording. So far, Andrews has captured the ambience of  steep hills and cowbells. As he retrieves Berger's papers from their storage space -- a barn -- he's also agreed, as a condition of the donation, to harvest hay.

Friday, we wrote of Britain's historic newspapers; our Library of Congress and National Endowment for the Humanities have been just as busy as the British Library. There are now more than 1 million pages, from 1880 to 1922, that can be found online at Chronicling America.

The Assn. of American University Presses annual meeting has just concluded, and though they might be down, they're not out. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports: "Bloodied but still standing, the university presses that gathered here for the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses could have been a grimmer group. With sales down by double digits and budgets in tatters, the presses may feel as if they are going through the worst of times — although next year could be worse still. But scholarly publishing, and scholarly publishers, just refuse to die."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mikel Jollett performs with the Airborne Toxic Event at Coachella this year. Credit: Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Writing memoir: Whose underwear is it, anyway?


L.A. writer and performer Sandra Tsing Loh is getting divorced, not that it's any of my business. Except Loh has made her life the basis for her stories -- she includes her children, their education, her father and, in one famously unbleeped moment, her musician husband -- so writing about the divorce was probably unavoidable. In a piece in the Atlantic Monthly:

Sadly, and to my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued.

Loh writes of what she did for the marriage, then turns her attention to a few marriage books. But she really gets going when she recounts conversations she's had with her girlfriends, who share their marriage complaints with Loh once hers has broken apart. From the piece:

Passing note: Ellen has been married for 18 years, and she also, famously, never has sex. There were the hot 20s with Ron and the making-the-babies 30s, and in the 40s there is … nothing. Ellen had originally picked Ron because she was tired of all the bad boys, and Ron was settle-down husband material. What she didn’t know was that after the age of 38, thanks to Mr. Very Settled-Down, she was never going to have regular sex with a man again.

Well, if Ellen's marriage wasn't exactly famous before, it sure is now. But are there boundaries that should be respected when writing memoir? Should anything be considered off limits?

That's what Marion Winik asks in an essay in today's Times book section. Winik, who has written about drug use and assisted suicide, considers the moral implications of the memoir.

This was the beginning of my understanding of the most serious moral principle of memoir: The act of writing about another person occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.

Winik is concerned that the doctor author of "The Addict" may not have informed his patient that her story had formed the basis of a new book. "Was it possible that this patient not only hadn't agreed to be portrayed in the book, but did not know Stein had written it?" She asks. "And if so, wouldn't that be a terrible violation?"

Yet she notes that a memoirist always has his or her own memories,  perceptions from which that person writes. After all, the doctor treated the patient -- so the story is his too.

Is it possible to draw a line around what a writer cannot use in a story? Do the family members and friends of memoirists have any right to ask that they be excluded from the work? When it comes to airing laundry -- clean or dirty -- will it always be the person with the pen who decides what's fair game?

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Sandra Tsing Loh presents L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa with a pair of panties from her Mothers on Fire campaign for more parent choice in public education in May 2009. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

A century of British newspapers goes online

Charlesdickens_papers More than 2 million pages of newspapers go online today, courtesy of the British Library. Dating from 1800 to 1900 and including lushly illustrated papers like the Graphic, the database includes 39 media outlets and is easily searchable. Many of the newspapers can be viewed for free.

I found an account of a banquet held in Charles Dickens' honor as he left for a trip to America -- but while I could see that many sentences were interrupted by cheers, the best parts were too illegible to decipher. Who knows -- maybe the newspaper smudged, a copier got jittery, a microfilm camera was tricked by a big black image on the pages' reverse side. It's impossible to tell exactly where the technology went wrong, but not everything online is perfect.

But what I did find is Dickens' farewell speech in New York, given as his American trip was concluding, which was printed in the Penny Illustrated paper on May 9, 1868. He spoke at Delmonico's to members of the press.

When I received an invitation from a private association of working members of the press of New York to dine with them to-day, I accepted that compliment in grateful remembrance of a calling that was once my own and in loyal sympathy towards a brotherhood which, in the spirit, I have never quitted ('Good! Good! and applause). ...

I have for upwards of four hard winter months so contended against what I have been sometimes quite admiringly assured was 'a true American catarrh [gob of phlegm]' (Laughter) -- a possession of which I have throughout highly appreciated (Renewed laughter), though I might have preferred to have been naturalized by any other outward and visible signs (Shouts of laughter). ...

Even the press, being human (laughter), may be sometimes mistaken or misinformed, and I rather think that I have, in one or two rare instances, known its information to be not perfectly accurate with reference to myself (Laughter and applause). Indeed, I have now and again been more surprised by printed news that I have read of myself than by any printed news that I have ever read in my present state of existence (Laughter). Thus, the vigour and perseverence with which I have been for some months past been collecting materials for and hammering away at a new book on America have much astonished me (Renewed laughter). ...

What Dickens thought of America ... after the jump.

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