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April 23rd, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; News, Politics & History; Publishing & Bookselling

Neal Gabler’s Reporting for the NY Times Lends Credence to Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact w/Hitler”

Collaboration coverFirst, a refresher for readers who may not have seen several posts I wrote last fall I wrote about the revelatory book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand, Junior Fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, published by Harvard University Press:

In one of those posts I had questioned what I saw as biased commentary on, unfair reviews of, and some weird carping about Urwand’s thorough, careful, and unsensational book about the failure of Hollywood moguls, most of them Jewish, to do much of anything to save Jews in Europe during WWII.

David Denby in The New Yorker had a shockingly censorious piece urging that the book be taken out of circulation until Urwand had revised it. Were such steps ever taken it would be an appalling abuse of free speech, violating the moral right of authors writing history to follow documentary evidence and publish their interpretation of events as they’ve come to understand them. The jaded Denby also claimed that much of what’s in the book was already known, but this missed the point: even if Denby’s post was accurate, can there no new or alternative interpretations of previously examined events, even plural interpretations, arrived at in good faith.  Moreover, though, Urwand’s sources included archives and business records that no English-speaking historian had ever worked with, so how could the book have failed to contain new material? Denby never addressed those points, as I read him.

The push-back against Urwand’s book included attacks on him by Alicia Mayer, grand-niece of mogul Louis B. Mayer, who wrote on her website: “I need your help. Imagine for a moment that your family has been accused of collaborating with Hitler and the Nazis.” I urged media outlets to cover her accusations skeptically, taking into account her obvious personal stake in seeing that her great-uncle remain untainted by a critical historian. Another blogger critical of Urwand thought it somehow relevant to question his degree of observance as a Jew because it had been reported he ate a (non-kosher) lobster salad during an interview with a journalist.

Following my posts about Urwand and his book, his publicity tour brought him to the Museum of Tolerance in NYC on October 17, where I went to hear him lecture and meet him in person. The mid-30s Australian scholar’s talk was particularly illuminating, and personal. He began by explaining that he had actually been working on an academic thesis, about Hitler’s taste in movies, information that’s accessible because of Nazi records stating what he showed for himself, and guests, in frequent screenings he held.

Working on his paper, Urwand found records showing that, even before Hitler came to power—because of protests and agitation by Nazis with the weak Weimar regime—the German government lodged protests in Hollywood about “All Quiet on the Western Front,” produced by Jewish film executive Carl Laemmle, head of Universal Studios. He was a German-born Jew, by then living in the US. The movie, based on novelist Erich Maria Remarque’s global bestseller, depicted pacifism on the part of German soldiers’ in the WWI drama, inimical to the emerging nationalism and militarism in Germany. This sort of influence, flowing from Germany toward Hollywood—often including successful attempts at meddling in the actual scripting and editing of films—continued during the pre-war years, and then once the war began.

Thanks to the slides Urwand showed, he was able to illustrate the documentary trail of evidence he had followed in his research. A handful of those images may be viewed by clicking here.

After a flurry of coverage last fall about Urwand’s important book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitlerthings had quieted down until earlier this month when a lengthy article by film historian Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, was published in the New York Times. “Laemmle’s List: A Mogul’s Heroism” reported on the strenuous and often productive efforts of Laemmle to rescue imperiled Jews from Germany.

Though far as I know Gabler holds no special brief for Urwand, his article lends significant support to the thesis of The Collaboration.

For in his piece, Gabler writes,

“It may seem strange that Laemmle alone among the Hollywood chieftains—a group that included Adolph Zukor of Paramount, William Fox, Louis B. Mayer of MGM, Harry Cohn of Columbia and the Warner Brothers—sought to save Jews, since all of those studio heads were Jews themselves and nearly all of them had emigrated from Eastern Europe, over which Hitler was casting his ominous shadow. But almost from the inception of the American film industry, the Hollywood Jews were dedicated to assimilation, not religious celebration. They had come to America to escape their roots, not embrace them.”

It’s a pity that Carl Laemmle died so early in the war, 1939, or I bet he’d have saved yet many more German and European Jews. He was a good-hearted and generous man whose worries about the fate of many of his co-religionists consumed him to the point that his studio work was set aside while he lobbied Hollywood colleagues and such hard-hearted, anti-semitic officials in the US government as Secretary of State Cordell Hull.

I’m hopeful that the appearance of Gabler’s article will move some of Urwand’s critics to reconsider what I view as their reflexive and unreasonable opposition to his book. Watch this blog for further developments.

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April 12th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, April 11-Stefan Zweig’s “Letter from an Unknown Woman”

The title story in this collection of four tales of psychological disturbance is built around a mysterious epistle an unnamed author receives, announcing a distant lover’s passion for him that due to his own myopia of many years he learns about, for only the first time. Zweig (1881-1942) was born in Vienna and among many works of short fiction wrote the stories that inspired filmmaker Wes Anderson to make the recently released “Grand Budapest Hotel.” Another collection of Zweig’s work has been selected by Anderson, titled The Society of the Crossed Keys, also translated by Anthea Bell. These books are brought out by Pushkin Press, a London publisher of literature in translation and belles lettres, with newly translated works by writers like Zweig, Alexander Pushkin, Antal Szerb, and many other writers, such as the Catalan author Marc Pastor, whose crime novel Barcelona Shadows I look forward to reading soon. While choosing and translating the books very thoughtfully, they also design very handsome editions, as you can see on this page at their website. Pushkin PressBarcelona Shadows

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April 10th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; News, Politics & History; Publishing & Bookselling

Fearing Lawsuit, Cambridge University Press Pre-emptively Quashes Investigative Book on Vladimir Putin

Out of fear of libel action in the UK, Cambridge University Press has declined to publish a new book by Karen Dawisha, Professor of Political Science at Miami University who had earlier published seven well-regarded books with the scholarly press. As first reported in the Economist, Cambridge judged the book—reportedly chronicling Vladimir Putin’s ties to organized crime—likely to draw a lawsuit by Putin and/or the oligarchs covered in the book. Britain’s libel laws have long been regarded as a friendly haven for claimants crying “libel,” and even after a recent improvement to these laws, Cambridge declined to proceed with the book. In an exchange of emails with the press published by the Economist, Dawisha laments,

“One is left to conclude that the main lesson to prospective authors is not to publish in the UK anything that might be seen as libelous. Leaving aside the amusing thought that using the standards of ‘comfort’ set out in the letter–deftly written, one assumes, by your legal department–even the King James’ Version should probably also have been published outside the UK, I do think the field of political science and Russian studies (but also Middle East studies as evidenced by CUP’s pulping of Alms for Jihad) needs to come to terms with the difficult situation that no empirical work on corruption (and probably many other topics) should be published with a British publisher. Last week the EU and the US Government issued a visa ban and asset freeze on the very inner core that is the subject of my book. Many works will now come out on the makeup of the list and why each individual was placed on it. The answers to these questions are in my book. Isn’t it a pity that the UK is a ‘no-fly’ zone for publishing the truth about this group? These Kremlin-connected oligarchs feel free to buy Belgravia, kill dissidents in Piccadilly with Polonium 210, fight each other in the High Court, and hide their children in British boarding schools. And as a result of their growing knowledge about and influence in the UK, even the most significant British institutions (and I think we can agree that CUP, with its royal charter, 500-year history and recent annual revenues in excess of $400m, is a veritable British institution) cower and engage in pre-emptive book-burnings as a result of fear of legal action.”

Washington Post foreign policy blogger Adam Taylor also covers the fate of Professor Dawisha’s book, publishing an illuminating Q&A with her. Here’s a sample:

Adam Taylor: Are you able to describe any of the new evidence you found or how you found it?

Prof Dawisha: I rely on published sources, especially Russian investigative journalists in the period before press freedom was attacked. Many of these documents and reports disappeared from the Russian Internet, but I have been able to get hold of them. Interviews were used for background only, but lots of them in many countries. As to the details, I would rather people read the book since the cases I cover provide quite a clear picture of Putin’s role.

Adam Taylor: Do you feel like Putin’s St. Petersburg days are especially relevant now, what with the Crimea conflict and the U.S. sanctions against his associates that time?

Prof Dawisha: Absolutely. Almost all the key players, including (Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry) Kozak, who was just named as Putin’s federal representative to Crimea, started together in St. Petersburg. All the people on the sanctions list are key players in my book….

Adam Taylor: What’s your plan for getting the book published now?

Prof Dawisha: I will seek a U.S. publisher, although this decision has certainly cost me time. And it is a pity because this is a story that should come out sooner rather than later.

Like the author I do hope a US publisher will pick up the title for publication here, though the house that does so will have to try and prevent even single copies being shipped to UK customers, lest Putin and his cronies use these sales as a pretext to claim the book has officially been published in the UK, giving them (spurious) grounds to sue the US company.

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April 4th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, April 4–A Week for Bookselling & Publishing Memoirs: “Amazonia” by James Marcus & “Stet” by Diane Athill

Amazonia #FridayReads, April 4–AMAZONIA: Five Years at the Epicenter of the Juggernaut by Employee #55, James Marcus’s witty and winning memoir of working at Amazon from 1996-2001, which he published with The New Press in 2004. Having earlier this year read and written about Brad Stone’s THE EVERYTHING STORE: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which briefly cited Marcus’s book, I also read Marcus’s review of it in Harper’s. I made a point to also read George Packer’s February 2014 New Yorker articles on Amazon, “Cheap Words” and “Amazon and the Perils of Non-Disclosure.” In the latter piece, Packer likens Amazon executives, secure in their Seattle redoubt parceling out only the most limited information about the company, to American officials during the Iraq War confined to Baghdad’s Green Zone who only shared information that suggested the war was going great. I found this analogy quite striking, and suggested, that at least from Packer’s perspective, things may not be going so well for the retail “juggernaut.” Seeing that Marcus was a quoted source for Packer, Marcus’s book has been squarely on my radar for a few months, so I’m glad now to have gotten a copy and begun reading it. It’s immediately enjoyable, with Marcus chronicling the decidedly weird and geeky culture of Amazon and his first meeting with Bezos, when the Amazon founder asked him to “explain a complicated process in as simple a manner as possible.” Humor is sprinkled throughout, as when he begins his new editorial job by writing a 45-word spiel on the seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brian.Amazonia back

I’m also reading STET: An Editor’s Life, Diane Athill’s London publishing memoir spanning the end of WWII 40s to the 90s with Andre Deutsch Ltd. Athill knew and edited many great writers, including Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler for several of their early books. She recounts having also published Philip Roth’s first novel, LETTING GO, which did well enough that they were going to make an offer on his second book, WHEN SHE WAS GOOD. I love the way she presents this embarrassment:

Stet “[We] decided to calculate the advance on precisely what we reckoned the book would sell–which I think was 4,000 copies at the best–and that [offer] was not accepted. As far as I know WHEN SHE WAS GOOD was not a success–but the next novel Philip wrote was PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT.

This space represents a tactful silence.”


These are illuminating and humorous recollections, gossipy but never malicious, coupled with a wise presentation of editing essentials. She’s also a very endearing narrator. I heard a lot of good things about this publishing memoir when it came out in 2000, and bought it on a trip to a Bay Area publishing sales conference back then. I’m glad I’ve finally made time to read it.Stet

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April 1st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Sports

The Day Gandhi Pinch-hit for the Yankees

In honor of April Fool’s Day and the start of the new Major League Baseball season, I’m re-reading and sharing a very clever New Yorker sketch–Chet Williamson’s “Gandhi at the Bat,” in which the writer imagines a ballgame where the Mahatma, or the “Nabob of Nonviolence,” one of many funny names the author assigns him, played an inning with the 1933 Yankees, including Babe Ruth.  I love the whole piece, especially the set-up. The sketch is viewable below. You may hit the pause button in the blog’s slideshow to read each page (Apologies to Mr. Williamson, who I want to add has had a very interesting career, and The New Yorker for scanning and screen-grabbing my old clipping.)New Yorker baseball sketchChet Williamson sketch

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March 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Philip Turner's Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

#FridayReads, March 21–Jan Wong’s Engrossing Memoir of Surviving Depression, “Out of the Blue”

WongBeginning last week when I made Out of the Blue my #FridayReads for March 14, I spent much of the past week reading and being enthralled by Jan Wong’s scalding memoir of surviving a severe depression that was triggered when an article she’d reported and written became controversial. Her employer at the time, the Toronto Globe & Mail, completely failed to support her as as the story, about a mass shooting in Montreal, blew up over several weeks and months, even though her editor had praised the approach Wong took to the story, which while reporting on the tragic incident also considered ethnic politics in the francophone province. Wong’s editor had even asked her to carry this part of it further. As she began getting death threats and vile messages, the Globe & Mail hung her out to dry, implicitly criticizing her and pandering to the haters arrayed against her. Wong tells her story in first person, a compelling narrative that follows the course of her struggle for fair treatment by her employer, and the torturous path of her illness, with records she later got from the insurance company that tried to deny her disability claims for what was basically an injury that occurred on the job.

The setting is mostly Toronto and Montreal, where Wong’s father had long owned a Chinese restaurant whose business fails when Wong’s reputation suffers amid the controversy. She travels a lot in the course of her narrative, even while she’s ill, for what she and her medical providers hope will be a “geography cure.” She goes to Finland with her son for a hockey tournament, and travels with her sturdy sister to Paris. As an alum of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, she visits New York City and the Columbia campus, near where I live. The Globe & Mail tries to make an issue of her ability to travel, while not working, failing to recognize that it was their careless treatment of her in the newsroom that had triggered her illness, and was continually re-injuring here.

She pays sincere homage to her predecessors in the field of depression memoirs–William Styron, Andrew Solomon, and Kay Redfield Jamison–quoting strategically from their books. She also laments something I’ve written about on this blog, in the context of my own departure from Sterling Publishing in 2009, “the baleful influence that today’s HR mindset casts on our culture, full of its own hermetic vocabulary, with bland euphemisms, opaque acronyms, and inhumane doublespeak. Shunning and banishment are two of the signature modes of behavior in this modern HR culture.” Wong experienced this far worse than I ever did. And yet, it would be wrong to paint the book too bleakly. Despite unable to write for most of the two years, and suffering huge losses in cognition and her social comfortability, I was conscious while reading the book that she’s writing it from some post-depression standpoint. Amazingly, she also manages to inject mordant humor in to the tale, as she portrays some of her managers and the contortions they took to deny how sick she was.

To top it all off, there’s also a triumphant backstory to the publication of the book, which came out in 2012. Out of the Blue has done well, with many recognitions and healthy sales, and yet she was forced to publish it herself after Doubleday Canada canceled it shortly before the manuscript was due to go in to copyediting. They evidently became uneasy over the legal climate around the book, since Wong, the Globe & Mail, and their insurer had had so many legal battles during the course of her ordeal. I read a lot of first-person literature, and this is one of the best examples of it I’ve read in a long time.


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March 21st, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing; Publishing & Bookselling

Most Over-Hyped Publishing Story This Week

A headline teasing a new Buzzfeed publishing story caught my eye this morning, something about a decline in sales of conservative books, so I later clicked the link and read the story. The title and tagline of the piece were way over-hyped:  Killing Conservative Books: The Shocking End Of A Publishing Gold Rush

Reporter McKay Coppins talked with some conservative agents, editors, and publishers who told him that their books aren’t doing well, or at least not as well as they were doing during some halcyon earlier time. They complain that publishing is tough right now, with declining sales, which they gravely lament. Here’s a nugget from Coppins’ piece: “I think the problems in the conservative publishing arena are more acute than in the rest of the industry,” said Keith Urbahn, former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, who now runs a communications firm in Washington and works as a literary agent for conservative authors.” His grandiosity is fairly stunning, and it’s like that throughout the story: this is an example of people living in a bubble who think their problem are worse than everyone else’s. They’ve just noticed that times are tough, and are acting like they discovered a trend.

My response to these agents, editors, and publishers, especially the latter who’ve paid ridiculous advances to officeholders, cited in the story, like $800K for Marcio Rubio: As Republicans are fond of demanding from others, “Tighten your belts.”

My view is that all this right-wing publishing that was doing better until recently reaped the benefit of being on the up side of a boom cycle that has finally begun coming back to earth. These guys have feasted for years creating chimerical boogeymen (the Clintons, Barack Obama, progressives, liberated women, etc.) in their political messaging, then reaping the dividends of it all in many areas of media, including books. For a time this allowed them to inflate their sales among low-information right-wing viewers and readers who knew little and for a long time believed much of what they heard and read. Evidently many of those people are wearying of the ceaseless clown show put on for them, or at any rate, have tired of buying the books.

My response to McKay Coppins: the book business is struggling in a lot of areas these days. Your story took a really myopic view of this situation, by focusing almost entirely on hard times for your chosen subjects, and overlooking what’s going on for all political books, as well as current affairs and history titles, and in many other areas of consumer publishing.

My headline for Coppins and his sources: “Welcome to the book world of 2014!”

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March 18th, 2014

By Philip Turner in: Books & Writing

Publishers Weekly Makes a Key Correction to a Story about Ebook Rights

Open Road Media lost this ebook rights case, but are not in jeopardy for damages anywhere near what PW had at first suggested. Although I don’t have a screenshot of Publisher Weekly‘s first version of their story, they had stated that penalties for willful infringement could run up to $150,000 for each copy sold of the infringed work, reporting that the damages could potentially run in to hundreds of millions of dollars. Later, they revised that to say the penalty could be “per work infringed.” As they put it now at the bottom of the story they ran this morning,

Correction: An early version of this story mistakenly put the damages as applying per infringement, rather than per work infringed. In fact, there is a single infringement involved here, not multiple infringements. Thus, damages could not run into the millions. We regret the error.

In a penultimate paragraph that also was not part of PW‘s first Web version of this story, they point out that in its filing Open Road Media had asserted that the author whose ebook rights were at issue, Jean Craighead George, author of Julie of the Wolves, would have preferred to publish an ebook of the book with HarperCollins, given her long print history with them, but she objected to the 25% net royalty on offer by them. Open Road offers 50%, and so George went with them, or so Open Road implies. The entire issue of ebook royalties–and the 25% difference between the sum offered by Big 6/Big 5 publishers and other publishers, such as Open Road–has been a flash point of disagreement for several years among agents and authors on one side, and the Big 6/Big 5 houses on the other.

For the record, this is a link to the full Publishers Weekly story, as it ended up late on Tuesday, March 18, including the penultimate paragraph and the correction.

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