Renata Adler’s Newest Enemy; Pass the Popcorn and Classics

If John J. Sirica Jr. has his way, a little bit of Renata Adler’s memoir Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker might be gone sometime soon. On Valentine’s Day, the son of the late Watergate judge faxed Simon & Schuster Trade Division editor-in-chief Michael Korda requesting the removal of certain passages about his father from future editions and the issuance of “a written, public retraction.”

The text in question appears on page 125. Ms. Adler mentions a book by the Watergate judge that she might review. “In the course of research, I had found that, contrary to what he wrote, and contrary to his reputation as a hero, Sirica was in fact a corrupt, incompetent and dishonest figure, with a close connection to Senator Joseph McCarthy and clear ties to organized crime. I did not review the book.”

“I would defy Ms. Adler to produce any evidence whatsoever to support her contention that my father was a ‘corrupt, incompetent and dishonest figure,’ or that he had ‘clear ties to organized crime,'” reads Mr. Sirica’s letter.

Mr. Sirica, 46, a longtime reporter who now is a special projects writer at Newsday , calls Ms. Adler’s assertions “irresponsible and malicious.” He first saw the book on Feb. 10.

In a telephone interview, he said, “I know the libel laws well enough to know that’s in there because he’s dead, but it’s a disgrace. In this business, it’s often wise to let something go, because it becomes a bigger issue. I can’t let it go. It’s portrayed as factual. You would think the lawyers would have vetted this more.”

Mr. Korda was out of the office, and according to his assistant Rebecca Head, had not yet seen the fax by press time.

IF YOU BELONGED TO ONE of the biggest writers groups in America, would you trust Amazon.com Inc. to help screen entries for a literary award with your group’s stamp on it? If you’re PEN American Center, you would. On. Feb. 8, Amazon.com announced the launch of the PEN-Amazon.com Short Story Award. The winner gets $10,000 and publication on Amazon.com and in The Boston Book Review .

“Amazon.com editors will screen the stories we anticipate receiving, and will present the final judging panel with a short list of about 20,” said Nicholas H. Allison, editor in chief of the division called Amazon.com Book Store.

The PEN writers Jamaica Kincaid ( Autobiography of My Mother ), David Guterson ( Snow Falling on Cedars ) and Sherman Alexie ( The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven ) make up the judging panel this year. “They will pick a winner,” Mr. Allison said.

The new outside sponsor will be contributing $10,000 toward the expenses of the awards and the overall expenses of PEN American Center. This will come in handy; support for general operating expenses are difficult to come by in the nonprofit world.

And whose idea was it? “The short story contest originated with Amazon, but has definitely been developed in a collaborative way with PEN,” Mr. Allison said. The new award, one of 16 literary prizes offered by the 2,700-member-strong organization, will help PEN cross-pollinate its brand name.

And keep Amazon.com’s bookish features in fine fettle. “If you look at the history of bookselling, Scribner’s was a bookseller and published Fitzgerald and Hemingway,” said Boston Book Review president Kiril Stefan Alexandrov. “Amazon could follow that kind of pathway, be some kind of funder and publisher of new writing. There’s certainly no reason why it shouldn’t take more of a publisher’s role, a legitimizing agent role for writers.”

PEN American Center is part of the international group PEN, which stands for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors and novelists. The organization is known for its dedication to free expression. Asked if Amazon.com is aligned with that mission, PEN executive director Michael Roberts said, “I understand this award supports their desire to support the advancement of literature.”

According to spokesman Kay Dangaard, Amazon.com’s mission statement is: “We want to be the place where people come to find and discover anything they might want to buy on line.”

At least one PEN member was pleased by the announcement. “It sounds like excellent news,” said writer Cynthia Ozick, “to give publication and notice and cash to a writer who hasn’t been noticed. As far as I’m concerned, Amazon.com has no existence. It’s a chimera. Yes, I hear it all the time, and we’re surrounded by waves of verbal dot-com, but it’s an ocean in which I’ve chosen not to row my boat. I think when they started up they put a notice in The Times and wished me a happy birthday, so how could I have anything but the most benevolent feelings toward Amazon.com? I suppose the commercialization [of a literary prize] could be something, but the main thing is the boost that is given to a young or unknown writer; that overcomes everything. Maybe if the devil were behind it, it would be a good thing. It’s not genetically engineered tomatoes, and I don’t think it’s a pollution of natural resources, either. It’s just America doing its thing with goodwill and corporate backing.”

IS A.O. SCOTT GETTING TIRED of sitting in the dark? Six weeks into a new job as film critic at The New York Times , Mr. Scott is already busy at work on a book proposal for Sanford J. Greenburger Associates agent Elyse Cheney.

“It’s at the conceptualization stage,” said Mr. Scott, who will also be writing for the Times magazine and the Times book review.

“The project is a very long-term endeavor and nothing that is coming out any time soon,” Ms. Cheney said. “It will be a historical narrative based on key literary figures. The essence of the book is: What is an American classic?”

Wait: Haven’t we heard this before? This is a fine time to be invoking T.S. Eliot’s 1944 essay, “What Is a Classic?” Indeed, Andrew Delbanco, Harold Bloom and Italo Calvino have dilated upon this question in, respectively, Required Reading: Why Our American Classics Matter Now (1997), How to Read and Why (coming in June from Scribner), and Why Read the Classics? (1999).

“I don’t think Delbanco or Bloom are wrong, but I think one of the things that putting this in historical perspective might suggest is that what gets remembered is the product of always very complicated and specific histories,” Ms. Scott said from his chair at 229 West 43rd Street. “One example is Melville. When Melville wrote Moby- Dick , it destroyed his career, and he dropped off the radar screen.” He went on. “This book is attempting to participate in a conversation that they’ve [Mr. Delbanco and Mr. Bloom] advanced. I’m interested in how the literary culture got where it is today, the enshrining of personal experience, of the primary experience, the boom in memoirs. There’s a tendency to be suspicious of anything that can’t be verified.”

And so Mr. Scott is paddling along the current Zeitgeist . In more ways than one, because mainstream trade publishing houses are also asking, “What is a classic?” And the answer goes something like: “A book that doesn’t demand a new advance.”

New York’s biggest houses are putting a lot of muscle into repackaging the old books–in publishing parlance, the backlist–and gussying them up in new clothes. Sometimes there are new bells and whistles (photographs, author biographies, what have you).

Between 1991 and 1999, the Knopf Publishing Group, Scribner, Doubleday, Harper Collins, Penguin and the Modern Library all launched or relaunched classics lines.

“Publishers are seeing that they already own books that can work with retooling, repackaging,” said one publishing executive. “If you throw on a nicely designed new cover … You don’t have to pay an advance. You don’t want to just do front-list publishing, or you’ll die. Publishers are under pressure to increase their revenue every year.”

Mr. Scott does not have to be concerned just yet about that kind of pressure. He’ll be mulling the academic question as he tromps off to the movies. “The one thing I’m shocked about is that at press screenings there’s no popcorn and they don’t show any trailers. That’s how I know it’s a job.”

WHEN IT COMES TO CHOOSING a suitable publisher, an author usually wants either money or love, but in a large, single-book deal on Jan. 31, an author chose the house of W.W. Norton on the rather unusual basis of company ownership.

“It was one of the reasons, and a significant reason,” said Nicole Aragi, of Watkins-Loomis Agency.

Three publishers made it to the final round of bidding for a first novel called The Death of Vishnu , by Manil Suri, but Mr. Suri remained unimpressed even by Harper Collins’ best bid of $405,000, going instead with Norton’s $350,000 offer.

Mr. Suri likely reasoned that because Norton is an employee-owned company, his book will not be subject to the kind of tremors–in particular, the stampede of departing editors–that regularly rattle the mainstream publishers. Most of those are owned by publicly traded media conglomerates. If Norton’s people are betting its own money, goes the argument, they will be that much more invested in an author’s success.

The book is the first volume of a planned trilogy about the Trimurti, the three main gods in Hindu mythology. Still to come: the life of Siva and the birth of Brahma.

For Norton, it was also a first: The amount was the highest the house has ever paid for a first novel.

Where did Mr. Suri learn such attention to principle? Possibly the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where the 40-year-old author teaches numerical analysis.

So far, the literary life has been good to Mr. Suri. Days before he settled upon a home, he stopped into The New Yorker ‘s offices to discuss changes on an excerpt from the as-then-unsold novel. The story, “The Seven Circles,” appears in the Feb. 14 issue. Norton plans to publish the book in January 2001.

The Publishing column can be reached at emanus@observer.com.