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Books

Philip Roth

As a rule, I read few biographies, and certainly not of authors, people whose most significant life events are spent alone. In my case, Churchill, Swift, and Dostoyevsky are the exceptions that prove the rule; world-historical figures who can't be understood outside the context of their times.

So I'd already decided not to bother with Blake Bailey's ballyhooed new book, Philip Roth: The Biography—even though Roth was a friendly acquaintance who'd given me help and encouragement way back when. After all, his novels were semi-autobiographical; his memoirs a veritable hall of mirrors.

I agreed entirely with what Bill Clinton said in awarding Roth the National Medal of Arts: "What James Joyce did for Dublin, what William Faulkner did for Yoknapatawpha County, Philip Roth has done for Newark." (Actually, historian Eric Alterman wrote the lines.) Roth rendered the city's dense particularity universal through the stories he told.

To know Roth at his best, read his 1997 novel American Pastoral, a penetrating portrayal of the "the indigenous American berserk" of the 1960s.

Actually, it was Newark that got us acquainted. I'd reviewed his baseball book The Great American Novel, stressing that he wasn't so much a "Jewish novelist"—a label he resisted—as a "New Jersey regionalist."

New Jersey, the Smart Aleck State.

He wrote asking how somebody in Arkansas knew all that, and urged me to expand upon the theme. The result was an essay called "The Artificial Jewboy," about growing up Irish-Catholic among Jews in neighboring Elizabeth. (One character in American Pastoral, a former Miss New Jersey, has my exact biography, right down to St. Genevieve's parish.) My essay contains more clumsy sentences and awkward kicks at the stars than the rest of the book it's printed in. But Roth saw something worthwhile and helped get it published. I've remained eternally grateful.

He'd even helped me see an aspect of my wife's character I'd taken for granted. After a long lunch at his country place in Connecticut, we'd gone for a walk in the woods. An excellent mimic, Roth could be terribly funny. He got Diane in a single take. What he liked most about her, he said, was her reserve.

"She doesn't care how famous I am," he said. "She's trying to figure out if she likes me in spite of it."

He thought that she hadn't yet decided.

That's Diane, who tended to be leery of literary narcissists based upon a couple of hard-drinking celebrity authors we'd encountered along the way.

Through her daddy the coach, I told him, she'd grown up knowing famous ballplayers. Roth respected that. Groupies are the bane of all famous people.

Anyway, although we'd lost touch years before he died in 2018, I figured I had no need to read his biography.

I knew he'd had a couple of terrible marriages; for all his perceptiveness, he appeared to have terrible judgement about women. Or maybe it was a two-way street, as in my experience of life, it normally is. He'd always had fierce critics among feminists and professional Jews: the very fiercest have tended to be both.

A literary provocateur, Roth was far too easily provoked.

How bitterly ironic, then, that his seeming need to win arguments even after death led him to choose an authorized biographer who, within weeks of his book's successful launch, stood accused of rape and everything short of child molesting by a chorus of women—many of whom he'd pursued starting when they were his eighth grade students in a New Orleans middle school.

Faced with those accusations, which Blake Bailey and his attorney vigorously (if none too persuasively) deny, publisher W.W. Norton abruptly took the book out of print. At one level, the affair resembles Roth's novel The Human Stain, about a professor hounded for using the word "spook" (in the sense of "ghost") to describe missing students who turned out to be Black.

Is it right to "cancel" a book because the author's a creep? Put that way, no. The book exists independent of its author. As Eric Alterman puts it, "Many writers are terrible people. (I am perhaps not so great, myself.)"

I'll second that.

Or at least I would have before reading Eve Payton Crawford's Slate essay about Blake Bailey, her eighth grade teacher who raped her when she was a college girl of 19. "You really can't blame me," he said when she cried. "I've wanted you since the day we met."

She was 12 that day. "I still wore underwear with Minnie Mouse on them," Crawford writes. Along with an exhaustively-reported companion piece titled "Mr. Bailey's Class," Slate depicts a sexual predator in action, flattering young teens and becoming deeply involved in their personal lives for years before making his move.

A very sick puppy who made the mistake of soliciting fame, and the fate of whose Philip Roth biography interests me not at all.

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Sen. Ted Cruz

Reprinted with permission from DailyKoa

The problem with having a base that isn't particularly interested in reading anything more than a headline is that it is hard to sell books to those folks. You couple that with holding and promoting wildly unpopular positions on health care, foreign policy, economics, race, and justice, and a proclivity to act morally hypocritical and you are creating the kinds of conditions most book publishers would shy away from. Add to that most of the things you say are factually incorrect, a potential lawsuit in the waiting for a publisher, and it is a wonder how any of these conservative jokes get publishing deals in the first place.

However, the conservative oligarchy-bubble has figured a way around promoting an unpopular product—buy the perception that it isn't popular. For some time news outlets have reported on the self-dealing, bulk-book buying tendencies of campaigns and Republican committees, that help propel books by people from people like Sens. Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, and cosmic embarrassment Donald Trump Jr., access to national best-seller lists. Being on a best-seller list—especially from one of the Republican proclaimed fake news sites like the Washington Post or the New York Times, can boost your sales further being the premiere advertisement for literature and nonfiction in the United States.

The Washington Post did a report on the shady-quality of this practice, pointing out that "Four party-affiliated organizations, including the Republican National Committee, collectively spent more than $1 million during the past election cycle mass-purchasing books written by GOP candidates, elected officials and personalities, according to Federal Election Commission expenditure reports." The practice is not simply deceitful in promoting a false sense of popularity for unpopular ideas, but because authors of books make serious money if they can get on best-seller lists off of royalties from hundreds of thousands of dollars in book sales.

One of the more well-publicized self-dealings in recent months was Texas's answer to intelligence, Rep. Dan Crenshaw, whose book got a $400,000 boost in sales from the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). The NRCC defended its purchase of Crenshaw's book, saying that it had fundraised no less than three times the amount off of the book (signed copies, etc.), making it a legitimate purchase. But the Republican former Navy SEAL, who holds an elected office based almost entirely on the truly twisted Republican gerrymandering of a Texas district, was able to point to his best-seller status as proof of the popularity of his opinions.

Trump Jr., his dad the Donald, truly unpopular Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, unpopular China-phobe Sen. Tom Cotton, and Capitol insurgent supporter Sen. Josh Hawley all got lucky with bulk purchases of their books this past election cycle according to the Post. Hawley's big pre-buy got sidetracked when Simon & Schuster canceled the book deal with Hawley for his sweeping endorsements of anti-Democratic, fact-free election fraud charges—though he forgot to mention he likely kept some of the advance while he whined about freedom of speech.

Tom Cotton, best-known for being a slimmer, cleaner-shaven, and more hawkish version of Ted Cruz, seems to have received quite a bit of help from political action committee the Senate Conservatives Fund. According to the Post, they spent close to $90,000 buying Cotton's book—the title of which is something like Soldier Duty, Soldier soldier, duty duty, I hate China and Democracy. Coincidentally, this was the same PAC that threw $65,000 at "Regnery Publishing, [Ted] Cruz's publisher, for advance copies of Hawley's forthcoming book."

Last week, campaign finance watchdog Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against Sen. Ted Cruz, with the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee. Highlighting Cruz's 15% royalty rate and his campaign's expenditure of around $18,000 on Facebook ads promoting his book, the complaint accuses Cruz of violating "the ban on the personal use of campaign funds at 52 U.S.C. § 30114(b)(1)." The complaint also reminds the two committees that the evidence they are presenting is just the Facebook advertisements and there might very well be Cruz campaign expenditures promoting his garbage tome on other platforms.

In the three months following the publication of Cruz's book, Ted Cruz for Senate paid third-party booksellers Books-A-Million and Barnes & Noble over $154,000 for "books." Other Facebook ads offered supporters a signed copy of the book in exchange for a contribution (while also urging viewers to "pre-order a copy today at Amazon or your local book retailer") and linked to a Ted Cruz for Senate fundraising page.

This isn't news for Ted Cruz, who has long bent, if not broke, the laws of campaigning and campaign finance. His interest in honesty has never existed and he has never shown the slightest of moral compunctions. And while Ted Cruz may technically be considered more intelligent than someone like Donald Trump Jr., the two men participate in identical cynical and corrupt behavior. In Junior's case, it's his actual daddy that helps pay for his lack of popularity, while in Ted Cruz's case, it's the Republican Party machine and his own campaign that he treats like a rich daddy.

Technically, the issue here is that Ted Cruz's campaign did not bulk buy directly through the publisher. The reason why this is important is that this issue has long been understood to be a thorny problem, and the FEC has made rulings on it dating back to 2014. Buying directly from the publisher, according to the FEC, allows the publisher to count those sales outside of the sales of books that they owe royalties to authors for. Cruz's campaign spent thousands directly through retailers. This makes it much more like that Cruz's royalty payouts got a direct personal bank account boost from his own campaign's funds. He's not the only one, as everybody's favorite know-nothing-at-all Dan Crenshaw's book got almost a quarter of a million in sales from a retail direct purchase by the NRCC.

Before you let that friend of yours that says chem-trails control the weather chime in, the Post explains that this level of bulk-buying, padding out the book sales, is largely a GOP "phenomenon."