GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘Overwhelming Silence: A Review of 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef’

All of which, with the use of this smooth, clever transition sentence, leads me to my topic, 99 Practical Methods of Utilizing Boiled Beef, a book that has sweetened me on self-published books (even if it’s not technically self-published). A few years ago, when I was ready to publish my first book, the award-non-winning novel Barn Again: A Memoir, I learned, after a year of researching and querying agents and publishers, that no one else was ready for it to be published. Skip to the part where I finally say fuck it, I’ll publish the motherfucker myself and unlike certain people I’ll actually proofread it. And to mask the shame of self-publishing I put it out under a phony publisher name, Malarkey Books. And because of that this website exists and other people are even writing for it, and dozen of people have read my books, and I’m writing this review of a book that was published by another small-time publisher. The thing is, you won’t hear about it on the news or any of the big magazines or literary websites, but some of the most interesting books being published today are being self-published or released by extremely small presses that use the exact same publication method as the self-publishers, which is print-on-demand. Usually with either CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. Obviously Malarkey uses Ingram Spark because CreateSpace is owned by Amazon and Amazon is an anagram for Satan. Cow Eye Press, the publisher of Boiled Beef, also uses Ingram Spark. I asked, but I didn’t need to. You can tell. CreateSpace books are easy to spot because they have this crease near the spine on the front and back covers. You’re right, they should change their name to CreaseSpace. Ingram, once you hold a few, you can tell by the feel of the cover, also the barcode at the back of the book.

You’d have to be sort of nuts to buy this book. You’d have to be sort of nuts to publish it. I mean, it’s just a book of recipes, none of which is particularly detailed or—can’t even tell if this is the vegetarian in me or the old picky eater in me—appetizing, for cooking boiled beef. But it’s not just a book about boiled beef. It’s also a meditation on publishing and independent literature. What the good folks at Cow Eye Press have done is pluck an obscure manuscript from the public domain and turn it into a metaphor for the existence of the modern writer. The twenty-first-century update of Boiled Beef is prefaced by a note from a fictional intern, who thinks “no more than five people will read this new edition.” But it doesn’t matter how many people read it, the point of this book is that “Nobody’s gonna read a book of recipes for boiled beef” is not a critique but a formula. “Nobody’s gonna read a book of/about/for/by” + whatever category or genre doesn’t really sell. For writers and publishers outside the publishing establishment, we know this, and we do it anyway. Because we’re stubborn or vain or deluded—or because it’s worth doing, even if there ain’t a big fucking market for what we do.

“As an independent publisher,” writes Natalie Zeldner in a note at the beginning of the book,

I sometimes wonder why we even bother. It is unlikely that anyone will take note of the books we publish. No reviewer will discuss them. Bookstores will not stock them. The common reader, already drowning in a sea of heavily marketed titles, will never suspect that ours also exist. Our books will be excluded from the prominent “Best Of….” lists and literary awards that have become the last refuge for gaining editorial credibility and an external audience — but that to this day remain the privileged birthright of the publishing establishment and its legacy of patronage and prestige, of old money, of esoteric tradition, of economic expediency, of timeliness, of genre.

She still went and published this book. That’s what we do. Agents tell us no, so politely. Book reviewers ignore our emails. Bookstores charge us consignment fees. We keep writing. We keep publishing. We keep reading. Boiled Beef is more than a book, it’s an homage to those of us who work in the dark, whose publications exist and matter and are met, as Cow Eye Press put it on twitter, with overwhelming silence. For those of us in the independent publishing world, we don’t have publicists or marketing teams. We don’t have agents, managers, or brand strategists. All we have is each other.

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GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship’ by Louis Menand in THE NEW YORKER

‘There is a whole taxonomy of authorial falsification, from ghostwriters and noms de plume to plagiarism and forgery, and within each species there are moral boundaries. No one feels betrayed by the revelation that the mystery writer Ellery Queen was really two people, neither of whom was named Queen, or that Franklin W. Dixon, whose name is on the cover of the Hardy Boys detective stories, did not exist, and that the books were written by a series of contract writers. (Well, as an early devotee and binge reader of the Hardy Boys books, I was a little crushed when I learned this.) Pen names are accepted in genre fiction: Saki, O. Henry, Amanda Cross. They are understood to belong to the package, to be part of the entertainment. Readers are not being tricked.

Mary Anne Evans was trying to trick readers by pretending to be a male author named George Eliot. But many women writers have adopted male names, and some still do, or use initials to go gender-neutral. It’s an accepted convention. J. K. Rowling’s publishers thought that she would sell more books to boys if they did not know her name was Joanne. On the other hand, people were upset when, in 2015, a writer named Michael Derrick Hudson got poems accepted for inclusion in “The Best American Poetry” under the name Yi-Fen Chou.

Hoaxes have played a role in literary history. Probably the most famous hoax in English literature is an epic cycle about a warrior named Fingal, published in the seventeen-sixties. This was advertised as translations of poems written by a third-century Gaelic bard named Ossian. In fact, the poems were fakes, cooked up by a Scottish writer named James Macpherson. Although a few people—Samuel Johnson was one—had suspicions, Ossian’s work was read and admired in Europe and America and translated into many languages, and his fake poems are considered a major influence on Romanticism—a literary movement that made authenticity a supreme value. If you were editing an anthology of English literature, would it be right or wrong to include something by “Ossian”?

A hoax with consequences closer to home is “Go Ask Alice.” The book was published in 1971, and purported to be the diary of a fifteen-year-old girl who starts taking LSD, gets sucked into the drug underworld, and ends up dead. Miller says it may have sold five million copies. The real author has not been conclusively established, but the copyright belonged to a Mormon therapist who claimed that she had merely edited a real Alice’s diary, which was under lock and key at the publisher’s. Which is a strange alibi. “Why did someone not ask for it to be ‘unlocked’?” as Miller inquires. He suggests that the scare story in “Go Ask Alice” contributed to the launching of the war on drugs, which led to the crackdown on recreational-drug sales and produced a wave of incarcerations.

Miller’s particular subject is literary hoaxes—that is, books that are deliberate, flat-out violations of the pact. The name on the cover is not that of the person who wrote the contents—the name on the cover is deliberately misleading—and the reader has no way of knowing it. Miller examines several types of hoaxes. There are literary impersonations, in which the author assumes the racial or ethnic identity of someone else. These are usually memoirs, autofictions, or books that pretend to speak for the group to which the fake author is assumed to belong. Miller calls these intercultural hoaxes. There are hoaxes designed to insinuate a subversive message through a benign-seeming work, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing text. Miller calls these Trojan Horses. And there are hoaxes aimed at exposing the poor judgment of editors, critics, or readers. He calls these time bombs.

After you know, of course, the deception can seem blatant. But, as Miller says, you can’t unring the bell: you can’t ever read the text again in its pre-exposed state. “Famous All Over Town” no longer seems especially Chicano. It seems, in fact, like what it is: a fictional re-creation of life in East L.A. by a sympathetic writer with a mainstream education. But Daniel James surely knew that such a book would not have received an excited review in the Times.

Are hoaxes unethical? Of course they are. At a minimum, a book is being marketed under false pretenses. And some hoaxes, like the Ern Malley hoax, are intended to damage the reputations of other people. Are hoaxes illegal? Not per se, but a cloud of lawsuits does hang over the phenomenon. James Frey’s publisher agreed to refund buyers who felt cheated, and set aside more than two million dollars for the purpose. (Not many wanted their money back: the total refunds came to less than thirty thousand dollars—a victory for the higher-truth defense.) On the other hand, Misha Defonseca, the author of “Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years,” a hoax published with a blurb from Elie Wiesel, sued her publisher for withholding royalties, which, you have to admit, was pretty chutzpadik. A judge awarded her and a collaborator thirty-two million dollars. (The award was set aside after it emerged that Defonseca was a Belgian Catholic who spent the war years in school.)

Exposed hoaxes often have a lucrative zombie afterlife. If the books are popular, it is often in everyone’s interest to continue pretending they’re genuine. They just go on being published. You can go into a bookstore in Paris today and buy a novel by Paul Smaïl. The University of New Mexico Press, the publisher of “The Education of Little Tree,” advertises the book on its Web site as “a classic of its era, and an enduring book for all ages.” You can go on Amazon and order James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” described as the “acclaimed account of his six weeks in rehab.” “Go Ask Alice,” by Anonymous, is sold on Amazon as “a classic diary by an anonymous, addicted teen.

Does this mean it’s all a game? Yes, in a sense. Literature is a game with language, and hoaxing alerts us to the fact that the rules are not written down anywhere—in the same way that someone who goes barefoot to a wedding alerts us to the fact that there are actually no regulations governing these things. Those acts draw our attention to the thinness of the social fabric by tearing a little piece of it. Literary hoaxes appeal to critics and theorists because they expose the fragility of the norms of reading.

If it is a game, then, does it really matter who wrote it? The old literature-professor response was that authorship, like identity, is a construction, and so it doesn’t. The response of what Miller calls “the new identitarians” is that we should not accept representations of experiences that the author could not have known, and so it does. Both arguments are provocations. They should get us thinking about what we mean by things like authenticity and identity. What they should not do is prevent us from reading.’

“Perhaps I’m a novelist after all, Gabbler? How creative I’m being now–branching out from the truth like this.”

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