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Confronting Tao Lin's Publisher, Part One

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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. recommended

 

Comments (8) RSS

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1
interesting
Posted by poooooooooo on June 23, 2011 at 7:09 PM · Report this
2
nobody cares bro
Posted by the internet on June 23, 2011 at 10:43 PM · Report this
3
these bros care: http://htmlgiant.com/snippet/68281/#disq…
Posted by bros on June 24, 2011 at 8:12 PM · Report this
Estey 4
What happened?! Did he get back to you? The idea that a publisher would -- put perfectly in your own words, Christopher -- "publish a work and then spend ... energy undermining the writer's confidence in the worthiness of that very work" is insane. And needed this unveiling. And I'm dying for Part Two to find out. (And I think Tao Lin deserves all the attention The Stranger has given him.)
Posted by Estey on June 26, 2011 at 8:16 AM · Report this
5
Why did you jump in the middle? Is there a backstory that makes what you did less presumptuous and meddle-y?
Posted by KultKaren on June 27, 2011 at 9:49 AM · Report this
6
@ 5 -- Nah, I'm just presumptuous and meddle-y. In my defense, I get paid to be.
Posted by Christopher Frizzelle on June 30, 2011 at 5:04 PM · Report this
7
Chris, do you a financial stake in the profits of Tao Lin's "Richard Yates"? It was widely reported, as you know, that Tao sold 60% of the "shares" of the novel to six investors (unnamed) who are getting 60% of the profits of the book from Tao, who pays them out of his share of the royalties, paperback and foreign sales, movie deals, etc.

There's a rumor around town that you are one of the six investors and thus your column is a totally unethical attempt to complain about the lack of money that you expected to get and are not getting.

If so, your bosses should fire your ass immediately, as it is the first rule of journalism that a writer shouldn't use his public platform to make money for himself on the side.

If this is not true, can you find out who the investors are? Are they unhappy with Dennis Johnson?

Furthermore, while you say he is not offering his support, that's true just about of every author I've known: they complain no end about their publishers not being supportive. So this is business as usual in New York trade publishing, a big yawn, and not worthy of one column, much less two. (Maybe you will answer this in your next column.)

So what exactly has been the consequence of Johnson not "supporting" the book? It has sold very well, is (I think) optioned for a movie, and it has appeared in translation in many foreign countries. What effect on the novel -- and in fattening your own wallet on the proceeds -- are you complaining about?

Finally, when authors are not happy with their publishers, they go to their agents to do something. Why don't you leave this Tao's agent instead of making this public? I'm sure Tao has a smart Manhattan literary agent who will do what every author does when they're unhappy with their publisher: take their next book somewhere else.

Certainly Tao has the clout to do this. If he is as unhappy with Melville House as you claim, he will get his agent to take his new work to a different publisher, one which will get him more money and more support.

You're doing a good writer a disservice by making him look like a whiner about his publisher. Are you some kind of secret enemy of Tao Lin? Are you jealous?

If you're not an unethical moneygrubber, what's your motive?
More...
Posted by youthwantsto know on July 1, 2011 at 9:33 AM · Report this
8
OK, so, Chris, there never was a part two, was there? And you never answered my questions.

I think this column shows why you are an irresponsible writer and the Stranger needs to get rid of you ASAP.

As I wrote in my last comment six weeks ago, "Finally, when authors are not happy with their publishers, they go to their agents to do something. Why don't you leave this Tao's agent instead of making this public? I'm sure Tao has a smart Manhattan literary agent who will do what every author does when they're unhappy with their publisher: take their next book somewhere else."

That's obviously what Tao did. I had no inside knowledge that Tao would have Bill Clegg at William Morris as his agent or get a 5-figure advance for Vintage for his next novel, but I was not surprised at the recent reports in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, New York Observer, etc.

Why don't you at least admit that this column was thoughtless and a big mistake that reflected badly not on Dennis Johnson, a great small press publisher, or on Tao Lin, an accomplished writer, but on you -- a talentless, out-of-the-loop guy who thinks because he's got a book column he can say anything that comes to his small brain.

You're an idiot.
Posted by youthstillwants to know on August 15, 2011 at 5:44 AM · Report this

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