In the introduction to his first book, You Back the Attack! We'll Bomb Who We Want! published in 2003, Micah Ian Wright wrote about being an Army Ranger: "The Rangers kicked ass; we did what we were trained for and we did it well. We jumped into direct fire and survived. We were proud of ourselves and of our unit." And then, three pages later, he wrote about his turn to pacifism: "Standing in Panama City in 1989 on the roof of a six-story apartment building and looking out over a burnt-out ruin the size of a medium-sized American town, I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity: Everything I had been told while growing up was a pack of lies."
Wright wrote You Back the Attack... 14 years after being there in Panama City, in response to the Iraq war. The book was a collection of "remixed war propaganda," World War II promilitary posters that Wright reworded, and it was pretty successful with the liberal crowd. After all, it was created by a military veteran vehemently against the war in Iraq. Wright appeared in a lot of media, from NPR to the Washington Post, where, in the July 6, 2003, edition, he was asked if he ever killed anyone and replied: "That's one of those questions that I really don't like to answer.... Put it this way: I never shot at anybody who hadn't shot at me first."
Kurt Vonnegut—American literature's most famous soldier turned antiwar agitator—blurbed Wright's book, and things were going swimmingly until May 2, 2004, when Post columnist Richard Leiby, tipped off by some real Rangers, debunked Wright's entire story. Turns out, Wright never served in the Army Rangers, never went to Panama, and never shot at anybody because nobody ever shot at him first. Leiby got in touch with Vonnegut for a comment, and Vonnegut's heartbreaking response seemed to close the book on the whole affair: "The romance of his military background rang a bell with me and made me like him a lot. You almost want to say, 'So what else is new?' Human beings are terrible liars. I still like what he did. He's a liar, but I still like his pictures."
This is where Wright publishes an apology and disappears from public life forever, shamed and humbled, right? Well, no. Two months ago, Seven Stories Press released Wright's new book, Surveillance Means Security, more "remixed war propaganda" focusing on NSA wiretapping and USA PATRIOT Act–era civil liberties. On Amazon.com's listing for the book is a single blurb—er, a remixed quote, cut down from Vonnegut's comment in the Post, that reads, simply: "I still like his pictures."
Amazon.com's gall is impressive, using Vonnegut's comment minus the all-important "He's a liar, but" to sell this book to people who might not keep up with book news in the Post. After repeated attempts to contact Vonnegut proved futile, I sent an e-mail to Wright and to Dan Simon, Seven Stories' publisher. I asked whether they thought that Amazon.com using Vonnegut's remixed blurb was the right thing to do, and if Wright had taken any steps toward reconciling the truth with the Rangers who'd come forward in the Post. The response I got from Simon was, to say the least, unsatisfying: "Just as I do not believe in capital punishment, nor do I believe that we had a responsibility or even the right to censure Micah or to banish him indefinitely."
What Simon didn't realize was that in his e-mail to me, he inadvertently forwarded along an e-mail Wright had sent to Simon about me, which ended like this:
Unless you tell me to, I'm not planning on writing him back. Anyone who asks a question like "what steps toward reconciliation [have you] taken" is the kind of guy I feel is looking to punch me in the eye.
Meanwhile, we should put some thought into coming up with some answers for these kinds of questions.... I'm sure this fellow isn't going to be the last.
I sat down and wrote an article about all this for The Stranger—an earlier incarnation of the article you're reading now—boiling with anger and disbelief. How could Seven Stories be releasing another book by Micah Ian Wright and not have considered some kind of response to the question of why another book by Micah Ian Wright was necessary or even the right thing to do? I sent both Wright and Simon another e-mail notifying them that Simon had forwarded their exchange and asking if they had formulated a response yet, and Simon suddenly became more forthcoming: "He made a mistake, a stupid and unnecessary mistake that gained him nothing and cost him and us. And we've come past that." I got a response from Wright this time, too, an e-mail that read, simply, "Can we talk off the record? —M." I replied that we could, but he didn't reply.
I assumed, in the first draft of this article, that Surveillance Means Security was going to get a lot of media attention—after all, this has been the year of literary fraudulence. Surveillance Means Security was published, however, to a resounding void of attention. It's safe to say that it's not selling in local bookstores or on Amazon.com. It might even be fair to call it a bomb. There was no press attention, no outrage, no blowjob profiles in small-town newspapers. My initial theory—that the first book was sold entirely on Wright's ostensible military experience—has been borne out, because without it, he isn't selling. I should be satisfied, right? There's no reason to even write about it, right? Anyone give a shit? Didn't think so. For me to literally lose sleep over Wright seems a bit, how do you say, over the top.
Nevertheless, I lost sleep over it. I got mad. I'm still mad. The reason, I think, is that Wright's transgression happened in the most dishonest part of the publishing experience: in the selling of the goddamned book. That Wright's books were sold on his personality and a faked experience was, to me, endemic of a larger problem: virtually all books, be they authored by O. J. Simpson or by 2006's debut ingénue Marisha Pessl, are now sold less as works of art and more as works of personality, the testament either of celebrity or of someone you'd like to have a beer with. Lazy book journalism, the kind that celebrates quirky, one-sentence leads ("The author spent a whole year—ka-boing!—dating any guy who'd ask her! Stay tuned...") and that doesn't ask hard questions for fear of not getting access to authors, only furthers the problem. Wright's story didn't break until some real Army Rangers, deeply offended that their experience had been co-opted, alerted a reporter. The soldiers had to do their own fighting—everyone else in the literary press was too busy remixing press releases into inoffensive, sales-ready pabulum.