At a party in Brooklyn not too long ago, I confronted Tao Lin's publisher. His name is Dennis Johnson, he's the cofounder of a great independent book-publishing concern called Melville House, and he's the only person who's ever caused me to close my office door so I could yell at him over the phone. Last fall, we were working on a parody of Time magazine's schmaltzy, pretentious way of writing about books—a parody that involved putting Lin on the cover of The Stranger in exactly the same pose as Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time—and Johnson tipped off some people about it. Soon, a writer for a major literary blog called to confirm the details. Johnson didn't seem to understand that if the joke got out before we'd told it, it wouldn't work.
I guess reminding him of that wasn't the best way to start a conversation. We were at the 2011 Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers—an award invented by Melville House. (Incidentally, Franzen got one for worst performance by an author.) Lin mumbled that he and Johnson aren't really speaking to each other. Which is unfortunate, because Johnson owns the rights to five-sixths of Lin's books. Lin said that it was because Johnson "didn't approve of the relationship" in Lin's latest novel.
The relationship in Lin's latest novel, Richard Yates, is between a 16-year-old and a 22-year-old. It seemed hard to imagine Johnson's position. Their names are Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment—as if you weren't already clear that they are fictional characters. The sexual descriptions are fleeting, and all but one encounter takes place in New Jersey, where the age of consent is 17. (The other takes place in New York City, where the age of consent is 16.) Plus: Romeo & Juliet? Plus: Lolita? Plus: Why would you publish a work and then spend your energy undermining the writer's confidence in the worthiness of that very work, so much so that you end up not speaking to each other?
As a guy who's published smart books by smart people (Bernard-Henri Lévy, Paul Berman, Hans Fallada), he had to be willing to explain his side, right? "We had our issues, but they're between me and Tao," he said coldly when I brought it up. I mentioned that he chose to publish the book, and he said, strangely, "I published the writer, not the book." I said, "You published the book!" He said, "I published the writer." And so it went until an exasperated Johnson said he just didn't want to talk about it, which I said was an unimpressive answer coming from someone who publishes ideas for a living, and he replied, "I'm not an impressive person."
Lin stood behind me recording the conversation with his iPhone, and said he felt exhilarated eavesdropping on it. Later, I sent Johnson an e-mail inviting him to explain his position—e-mail being less confrontational—and got the ultimate nonconfrontation: an auto-reply saying he was on vacation until June 20. Maybe by the time this column goes to press, I'll have heard back.