Would you pay $150 for what might very well be an original Paul Theroux handwriting scrawl of the phrase “Fuck you”?
The fact that a Massachusetts rare book dealer just sold the above curiosity-bundled with a Theroux first edition and a piece of correspondence between the bookseller and Mr. Theroux’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin-is the latest literary fallout from the famously failed friendship between Mr. Theroux and his former mentor, author V.S. Naipaul.
What drove Mr. Theroux to jot said epithet across a piece of paper and then mail it back to Massachusetts? It all began last year, when Houghton Mifflin published Mr.Theroux’s bilious memoir of the Naipaul saga, Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents . In the book, Mr. Theroux writes of his shock upon picking up a rare book catalogue and seeing that his old pal Mr. Naipaul was selling his personally inscribed copies of Mr. Theroux’s books. The bookseller, who is not named, draws Mr. Theroux’s ire for his “extortionate” pricing ($1,500 apiece for Fong and the Indians and Sinning With Annie ). Mr. Theroux writes, “I knew that Vidia would have received only a fraction of that-Modern Firsts is one of the adjuncts to the rag-and-bone trade, and its practitioners are little better than junk dealers.”
When Ken Lopez, the bookseller in question, read the above passage on page 339 of Mr. Theroux’s book, he was not happy. “I guess I took offense at being characterized that way,” said Mr. Lopez. “If he’s going to characterize it like that, he should at least get his facts straight. Mrs. Naipaul sold the books to a British bookseller, and they appeared in at least two catalogues. I bought them from a dealer who had bought them from the first dealer.”
Which would explain the high prices. “Basically, when you buy from another dealer, you don’t do it if you can’t mark up 100 percent,” said Mr. Lopez. “It’s a typical rule of thumb. You’re going to try to cover your overhead and expenses. I actually argued in a letter to Houghton Mifflin that rather than being ‘extortionate,’ I had been told [Mr. Theroux's signed works] had been priced remarkably low. When authors have books inscribed by longtime friends, they usually don’t like to sell them. A couple of dealers said, ‘I’m tempted to buy those from you and double the price myself.’”
Mr. Lopez exchanged several letters with Houghton Mifflin, in which he defended his honor. His persistence has paid off. Houghton Mifflin will publish the paperback edition of Sir Vidia in 2000 with changes approved by Mr. Lopez. The “junk dealers” reference will stay, but some effort will be made to explain the pricing.
Mr. Lopez then decided to sell the final letter in his correspondence with Houghton Mifflin, in which he thanks the publisher for mapping out the book’s route a bit better and clearing up what Mr. Lopez termed “unsubstantiated, bordering on libelous remarks” by Mr. Theroux. That letter had apparently been forwarded from Houghton Mifflin to Mr. Theroux: Someone, seemingly the author, had written a note, capped by the aforementioned expletive, across the bottom of the letter, and returned it to Mr. Lopez in an envelope with no return address, but bearing a Hawaii postmark. Mr. Lopez’s catalogue described the note as being ” presumably in the hand of Theroux” and containing “a sentiment expressing an emphatic absence of ‘consideration’ in this matter, with an added emphatic and obscene slur.” (Mr. Lopez refused to say what the rest of the note had said, explaining that to do so publicly would detract from the value of the missive.) He included the Hawaii-postmarked envelope and his own first edition of Sir Vidia’s Shadow in the package.
How did Mr. Lopez arrive at the $150 price tag? “At first I put $1,000, as kind of a joke, and then Holly [Keith, his colleague] said, ‘Are you nuts?’ I said, ‘You price it.’ Holly priced it too low. We got 15 or 20 orders for it, which is a lot. Even some of my employees were thinking of buying it. If I hadn’t been so close to the situation and were using bookseller judgment, it would’ve been $300 to $400.”
Mr. Lopez seems to have gotten over his hard feelings toward the author. “I had an idea to call Paul Theroux and ask him to write 15 or 20 letters like it and we’d split the profits,” he said. Mr. Theroux could not be reached for comment.
Alfred A. Knopf, which publishes brand-name novelists Anne Rice and Michael Crichton, has taken branding to a new level. Call it a family affair. To wit, Knopf is the unofficial house of the Minot clan.
Last fall, Knopf published established author Susan Minot’s novel Evening . In November, it will launch a first novel from Eliza Minot, who, at 29, is the youngest of the seven Minot children. And currently under contract is a novel set in New England, titled The Blue Bowl , by brother George Minot, age 39. (Susan, 41, is the second oldest sibling.)
Eliza Minot’s novel, The Tiny One , is told from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl in the wake of her mother’s death. Knopf gave away 3,000 advance reader’s editions of the novel at the recent Book Expo America in Los Angeles, which took place from April 30 to May 2.
Knopf editor Jordan Pavlin, who edits the elder Ms. Minot, signed the younger Ms. Minot in August 1998. “While a painful novel, it’s also intensely celebratory,” said Ms. Pavlin of The Tiny One . As for publishing the Minot sisters, Ms. Pavlin said, “That’s not interesting to me. What’s interesting is publishing the best writers.”
Eliza Minot said she had not expected Ms. Pavlin to offer her a contract. “I thought Jordan would just have a good idea of ‘You know who you should show this to?’ I did not think I’d end up at Knopf.”
So what’s it like sharing an editor with her big sister? “It’s nice!” said Eliza. “It’s obviously a strange thing, looking from the outside. The consideration for me was not about where my sister was, but being a tiny fish in a big pond, about not going to a smaller place.”
But being where her sister is will invite some pretty heavy comparisons. Susan Minot’s autobiographical first novel, Monkeys , published in 1986 by Seymour Lawrence’s imprint at the former E.P. Dutton, was about the Vincent family of New England. Toward the end, the mother, “Mum,” gets killed in an accident. The mother in Eliza Minot’s book is also called Mum.
“Calling a mother Mom to avoid being like the Vincents seems a strange thing to do,” said Eliza Minot. “It’s a different mother from my true mother and from the Vincents.” Readers of the two books may notice that both Mums say “Thank you, ma’am” when driving over bumps. They may also notice that each book features a choking episode at a family meal.
Novelist Mary Gordon, who was Eliza Minot’s mentor at Barnard, questioned the wisdom of her young charge’s signing with Ms. Pavlin and Knopf. “I just think it’s not great for Eliza in terms of people linking her with Susan, and saying, ‘Oh, she just got there on her sister’s coattails.’ She’s more than accomplished enough on her own to have gotten there herself. You could see the anointing on her temples from a mile away.”
“She’s not the kind of person who has an eye on the main chance and being at the right place at the right time and with the right people. That’s not the way she operates,” said Ms. Gordon, who got to know Ms. Minot even better when she baby-sat for the little Gordons. “She’s very shy.”
Eliza Minot worked in television one summer. (She said she also cleaned David Letterman’s house, “regular maid stuff,” during the year.) Most recently, she worked as an associate producer for Michael Moore’s series The Awful Truth.
Like sister Susan, Eliza Minot doesn’t mind writing in exotic locales. (Susan wrote Evening in places like Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Vineyard Haven, Mass. and Montana.) In March 1997, she took four months off to go to Bali and write. “Four months was all I could budget for,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere safe and warm and cheap.” She wrote the bulk of The Tiny One in the Balinese coastal town of Sanur, and wrote some more pages in Vail, Colo.
Generally speaking, writers use footnotes to reassure readers they’ve done their homework. Recently, young authors such as David Foster Wallace and Rick Moody have had fun with footnotes, Mr. Wallace throughout his essays and his behemoth novel Infinite Jest and Mr. Moody in his story, “The Apocalypse Commentary of Bob Paisner.”
But rarely does a reader find footnotes which explain that the writer actually doesn’t know the facts, and isn’t about to go nosing around in some library to look them up. Now comes Beside the Shadblow Tree: A Memoir of James Laughlin , by award-winning poet Hayden Carruth, and the footnote may never recover. Mr. Laughlin started New Directions, the modernist publishing powerhouse, in 1936, when he was a sophomore at Harvard. The first anthology included contributions from Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams. Mr. Carruth, a great friend of Mr. Laughlin’s, has variously been author, editor, clerk and typist at New Directions.
Shadblow ‘s first footnote comes four words in, after “In 1951, or thereabouts.” It reads: “I’m writing this entirely from memory. No research. Conditions are not the best.” Mr. Carruth, 78 years old, has struggled most of his life with chronic depression.
Footnote No. 3, referring to a woman whose name Mr. Carruth forgot, reads: “I think it was Peggy Guggenheim.”
Footnote No. 31, after a series of names of people, goes: “I could, I should, check these and other names for spelling and to get their complete forms. Forgive me. I am old and my health is not great …” Mr. Carruth’s editor, Sam Hamill, writes in his preface, “[This] is not meant to be a definitive statement on James Laughlin.… Historians will order the facts.”
Mr. Carruth could not be reached for comment. “He doesn’t always answer the phone,” explained Mr. Hamill.
The Publishing column can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.