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July 2012

Jonah Lehrer: Blowin' in the Wind

Jonah_LehrerI have to admit, when the news broke a few weeks ago, that New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer (of the now removed-from-sale Imagine) had plagiarized himself--i.e. he'd recycled some of his words and ideas from previous articles or posts published under his name--I breathed a big sigh of "So What?" Haven't we all done this, at one point or another? Especially lately, as the mantra is to Tweet and Facebook and publish, publish, publish, some self-repetition seems inevitable. And yet, Lehrer was called out for this, and while he was allowed to keep his prestigious job at The New Yorker, editor David Remnick was "reluctant" about it, according to the New York Times.

But, now--or actually at least a year ago, the publishing cycle being what it is--Lehrer has really done himself in by making up quotes he then attributed to Bob Dylan. That's a particularly stupid idea, and not only because it violates journalism's rule #1, the one that says you can't make stuff up. But misquoting Bob Dylan, of all people? Not only are there, to estimate conservatively, at least 47 million Dylanologists out there (I have several amateur versions in my own family); not only is Dylan still very much alive and sometimes even talking, mostly in his own memoir; but even a casual observer could see, if he looked, that Lehrer's quote--"It’s a hard thing to describe. It’s just this sense that you got something to say"--couldn’t possibly have come from Dylan: IT WAS WAY TOO COHERENT. (A friend remarked that a more believable quote would have gone something like this: Mumble, Mumble, Mumble [harmonica chord] Mumble.)

So why did Lehrer do this? Because he was in a hurry and, after all, it wasn't such an earth-shattering statement he attributed to Dylan? Because he was lazy or overwhelmed by pressure to succeed? (That's often the excuse: Remember Jayson Blair from the New York Times, or Stephen Glass from The New Republic?) Or maybe, just maybe, we're going to find out that the self-plagiarism and the Dylanism were Jonah Lehrer's gateway drugs, the first steps on a slippery slope of lies that lead we know not yet where?

Years ago, I wrote about the now famous James Frey scandal, which involved the author allegedly fictionalizing key aspects of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. (Question: Is it self-plagiarism if I tell you I'm doing it while I’m doing it?) There was also the case of Norma Khouri, whose Honor Lost was found by an enterprising Australian reporter to be a hoax. I could go on... but I won't, because I don't want to keep on promoting books that ripped readers off. But I do notice that with Lehrer, as with Frey and Glass, there's an element of self-destructiveness in these acts. I mean, if you really want to get away with something like this, wouldn't you pick a much more obscure plaigeree than the Bard of his Generation? And wouldn't you bury your deed a bit, instead of putting it in the very first pages of your book?

I'm not saying that Lehrer is conscious of this, of course--and let me say clearly that I have never met the man, and have only skimmed his book. Still, even an amateur psychotherapist--I've got several of those in my household, too--can see that this wasn't an accident. "The lies are over now," Lehrer said to the New York Times. "I will do my best to correct the record." Let's hope so.

--Sara Nelson


An Exclusive Guest Q&A With Dean Koontz

Perpetual bestseller Dean Koontz's new novel, Odd Apocalypse, goes on sale today. We're happy to share this conversation between Koontz and fellow prolific novelist Michael Koryta, whose new book, The Prophet, goes on sale next week. (Watch this space for a reciprocal interview between Koontz and Koryta on August 7th.)

MICHAEL: In the new novel, Odd Apocalypse, you write that "between birth and burial, we find ourselves in a comedy of mysteries." That statement could be a guiding light for the Odd series, and perhaps even your work in general of late. Was allowing the laughs to join the darkness a conscious decision?

KoontzDEAN: Humor began to enter my work as far back as Watchers (1987), and by Lightning (1988), my agent and publisher at that time became alarmed and counseled me that suspense and humor never mix. They were not able to offer a cogent explanation of why the two never mix. One of my favorite films of all time is "North by Northwest," which is tense and funny; so I just kept doing what I was doing. By the time I moved to Bantam Books with Fear Nothing (1998), humor became the binding glue in all of my books except for The Taking, Velocity, The Husband, and Your Heart Belongs to Me.

Odd Thomas is speaking for me when he says, "Humanity is a parade of fools, and I'm right up front with a baton." Odd is a spiritual guy, and in my experience, genuinely spiritual people--as opposed to those for whom faith is either a crutch or a bludgeon--have a great sense of humor. They recognize that our fallen world is not just tragic but also absurd, often hilariously absurd, and that laughing at humanity's hubris and reckless transgressive behavior is a potent way to deny legitimacy to that hubris. Besides, if a character is able to make you laugh out loud, a bond is formed that ensures you will worry more for him when he finds himself in jeopardy. And I will always remember that it wasn't my looks or my sartorial splendor or macho toughness--ha!--that won Gerda; she says that she laughed so much on our first date, her stomach hurt the next day. That was better than being told, as I expected, that her stomach hurt because, after I took her home, she spent the night throwing up.

MICHAEL: A three-part short novel titled Odd Interlude was released in ebook-only form this summer. Tell us a little about the way this was conceived and written. Did you have that planned before the new novel or did it come to you later in Odd's journey?

DEAN: I had written a 32,000-word ebook novella, The Moonlit Mind, to intrigue readers about a forthcoming novel, 77 Shadow Street. The novella sold very well and drew strong reader response. In fact, I'm pretty sure a lot of people liked Moonlit better than 77 Shadow Street! So as I was finishing Odd Apocalypse, my publisher asked me to write a 60,000- to 70,000-word short novel in three parts to reintroduce readers to Odd. It was outside the seven-book arc of the series, and I had great fun with it. By the way, those readers who don't do ebooks tend to get exercised about a piece appearing only digitally. In order to avoid being whacked by an irate reader while waiting at the counter for my Big Mac, I am happy to tell you that Odd Interlude will be published in paperback within a few months.

KorytaMICHAEL: Rumor has it a movie of Odd Thomas is on the way, and that you're pleased with it, which is anything but the rule when it comes to adaptations. What can you tell us about the film version and why you are so pleased with Stephen Sommers' take?

DEAN: I have a glowing review of the film at and on my official Facebook page. Anton Yelchin and Addison Timlim give wonderfully nuanced and affecting performances. Steve's sense of pace and his writing are even better than his previous best, and his scene transitions are amazing, something really new and highly effective. The picture drops much from the book, but at the same time it's absolutely true to the book, to its characters and its themes.

Steve is also a great guy and a family man. When he'd send me long emails about progress on the picture, he'd write also about his daughters and family things. After one such email, I wrote him back to say that he was so normal, compared to most of my Hollywood experiences, that I was getting suspicious. I said I was steeling myself to wake up one morning and discover that he'd been arrested with Charlie Sheen, crossing the border from Mexico in a school bus loaded with drugs and explosives.

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Marvelous Books on Marilyn Monroe

"It was a strange feeling, as if I were two people. One of them was Norma Jeane from the orphanage who belonged to nobody. The other was someone whose name I didn’t know. But I knew where she belonged. She belonged to the ocean and the sky and the whole world." –Marilyn Monroe

Metamorphosis-MMSince Marilyn Monroe’s death on August 5, 1962, at age 36, hundreds of books have emerged, some celebrating her legacy, others scrutinizing her life in obsessive detail. Controversies still swirl, but we know many of the facts: She grew up in foster homes, devoutly religious and shy. She married her first husband at age 15, and when he went off to war, she started modeling and found the power in a snug sweater to keep up troop morale. She worked her curves on and off camera, propelling herself from wholesome girl next door to ultimate platinum vamp—a transformation most stunningly depicted in David Willis’s Metamorphosis. We learn from Marilyn in Fashion that she often worked with designers to create looks to enhance the Marilyn image, defining sophisticated '50s style. She had dozens of affairs (some public, others deeply private), but Norman Mailer noted—in his seminal 1973 biography, Marilyn, later paired with Bern Stern’s photographs in a lavish Taschen tome—that her “greatest love affair was conceivably with the camera.”

Much of her life beyond her legend remains enigmatic. Marilyn famously said she didn’t want to be rich, she just wanted to be wonderful, and too often she didn't realize that she already was. On film, we saw Marilyn luminously at home in her body: Lawrence Schiller, who photographed her on the sets of Let's Make Love and Something's Got to Give, describes her in Marilyn & Me as a tough, ambitious agent in her own career and a self-assured model.

But her incandescent confidence was a veneer barely concealing her vulnerability and self-doubt, a conflict masterfully dramatized by Joyce Carol Oates in her novel Blonde. Marilyn grew to deeply resent and resist the prison of the sex symbol role in which she had cast herself. She longed to be taken seriously, and despite her stutter and deepening battles with addiction and depression, she devoted herself to becoming a great dramatic actress (beyond the comic genius so evident in Some Like It Hot), and she showed every sign of getting there.

MM-My-StoryShe made up for a missed education by devouring books, writing poetry, and developing intense friendships and affairs with artists, intellectuals, and, most (in)famously, politicians like the Kennedys. Some believe that her autobiography, My Story, was altered after her death to the point that it’s not entirely reliable, but her genuine wit and intelligence is undeniable. Lois Banner's MM—Personal offers the most revealing look inside her everyday life (photos and art and other objects that mattered to her), while we see the introspective, intellectually hungry Marilyn most directly in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, which culminates in a spread of her most cherished books.

 Many assert that Marilyn was coming into her own as an artist and learning to speak with her own voice just as her life ended. Adam Braver's new novel, Misfit, centering on her last weekend at Frank Sinatra's Lake Tahoe resort, brilliantly imagines her struggle to create an authentic identity and the tragic consequences.  Several writers and historians contend, citing convincing detail, that she was decisively silenced: Donald Wolfe makes a meticulously researched    homicide case in his nonfiction work, The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe, and J.I. Baker's The Empty Glass is a breathlessly paranoid noir thriller that draws on much of the same evidence.

MM-Passion-ParadoxI feel the full loss of her when I imagine how a well, vibrant Marilyn—a woman who pushed the cultural boundaries of the 1950s until they strained at their seams—might have expressed her creative and intellectual self over the course of a full lifetime. Her husband Arthur Miller observed that "to have survived,  she  would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. Instead, she was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” Lois Banner describes in Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox how Marilyn's private funeral, arranged by Joe DiMaggio (whom Marilyn had planned to remarry that same week) ended with fans rushing her grave "in one big wave," tearing apart every floral tribute in their frenzied desire for souvenirs—much like people had tried to take pieces of her dress or hair when she was alive. Marilyn gave too much to deserve that. Books make much more marvelous souvenirs. –Mari Lynne Malcolm

See more of our favorite books about Marilyn Monroe.

A Writer's Audience: Important or Not?

Writersdontcry Why WriteOne of the biggest debates among writers is whether you should write for an audience or not. This debate goes hand-in-hand with the debate over what defines “good” books—and how it relates to “popular” books.

Some people say screw the audience! That if you consider the audience, you are selling out. That if you write for anyone but yourself, you are selling out. That if you write exactly what is in your heart, it will be wildly popular—and if it is not wildly popular, then at least it will be good writing, unlike those popular books, which clearly feature authors who sold out and write with less coherence than a sock puppet.

Other people say worship the audience. That if you don’t keep your fingers on the pulse of your audience, riding the latest trends, you are ignorant. That if you listen to your audience, it will be wildly popular—and if it is not wildly popular, then at least it makes people happy, and you are not being haughty and self-indulgent, the way those nearly incomprehensible artistic books are.

But before we can talk about whether an audience is important or not, the “proper” way to pursue writing, or even what constitutes “selling out,” I think it might be helpful to talk about our goals. After all, our literary goals radically inform how we think about our writing--as well as how we can most happily and successfully pursue it! So. To help you start that scintillating bit of conversation with yourself (if you haven’t already had it), I’ve composed a flowchart designed to help you figure out why you write with a minimum of buzzwords—and thus, who your audience truly is. Or at least, who your audience truly might possibly have some (however distant) relation to.

All you have to do is head on over to the top of the article and take the flowchart test. Then, read up on your type below the cut. And, because it's such a loaded, buzz-filled word, you may also want to check out what I mean by "consider your audience..."

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Clive Barker Exclusive: “Why Do You Choose Any Story to Tell? Because It Excites You”

Clive BarkerClive Barker — writer, artist, and master of the horror genre — speaks exclusively with Amazon Studios about the true nature of fear, finding the right arena for his stories and his Neverland dreams.

What separates great horror from the things that go spatter in the night?

Clive Barker: Metaphysical despair. That the world is meaningless and we’re just bouncing around on it and when we’re finished we die and that’s the end of it. That’s scary. That’s existential. When Sartre put the idea of existentialism in front of us at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of human hope was possibly at its lowest ebb. The bombs were going off. Europe was trashed. Economies were in ruins. And worst of all, we’d learned new ways of killing each other. Existentialism arose from the ashes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and we had to address that very seriously.

There are horrific moments in movies (and not necessarily horror movies either) when something is evoked that has an awe-inspiring emptiness. When we are imbued with the sense that the cosmos is huge … and empty.

Pascal says, “We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.

What that phrase evokes is the sense of a limitless empty meaningless space we as human beings have no control over and a total inability to impress meaning upon.

We think we have the power to impress ourselves upon the world in some fashion — through having a family, through feeling love, through our associations with political parties or to a church — and when we feel those connections we feel momentarily safe. And that’s horror; it is only momentary. It’s about reducing our sense of importance. Most horror says, “You think you’re fine and fancy, don’t you. Well you’re not. You’re meat.”  That I can be so easily erased.  In my estimation, all of that is as far from a simple ‘boo’ as it gets.

You tell stories in so many different arenas (books, movies, comics, video games) … how do you decide which is the right one for a particular idea?

Barker: I don’t. They choose it for me. I’ll start something with the intention of being a novel for example, and through one circumstance or another, it will end up a comic book. Or a movie. I’ve found that the story will end up being the format it wants most to. I just try not to get in the way of that.

If you could create a mashup with one of your worlds with one of someone else’s, which would you choose?

Barker: Neverland and my very real, very personal world. As a child it was always Neverland that caught my imagination. I didn’t read Narnia till quite a lot later by which time some of its charm had waned. I was rather too old for it.  I was a very shy kid. A very solitary kid. I couldn’t play games in the play yard. I wasn’t the kind of guy that played war. You have to remember this was twelve years after the second world war. It’s all everyone still talked about. And the cleanup is going on all around us. And we still had ration cards. It’s bizarre to think this, but that’s what was going on. So there was me feeling like a solitary little kid and when the wind came along, I was just carried away. I’ve always loved the sound of the wind. The sound of the wind to me is about the far away.  And there was just something about Neverland that I adored. As a child I used to see myself as Peter Pan and still do to some extent, I suppose.

What has been the hardest story for you to tell?

Barker: My life story. It’s an ongoing story, and I don’t know what happens at the end yet.

Read more from Barker, and learn more about Barker's work with Amazon Studios.

One of Our Great American Novelists Crowns Another

Our thanks to John Irving for sharing his thoughts on John Boyne's The Absolutist, one of our Best Books of July.


I became an admirer of John Boyne’s writing with his first novel, The Thief of Time.

His latest, The Absolutist, is a novel of immeasurable sadness, in a league with Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and a no less masterful handling of the first-person narrative voice than Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table.

Boyne is very, very good at portraying the destructive power of a painfully kept secret — not to mention the damage done by the self-recriminations (and other condemnations) that are released when that secret is revealed.

AbsolutistThe Absolutist is one of those great stories that is not what it first seems, though what the story appears to be is a powerful enough premise to begin any novel: a young soldier, returning from World War One, is traveling from London to Norwich to deliver some letters to the grieving sister of a fallen comrade.

We presume that the worst of what has happened is what we already know or have imagined of those trenches in northern France. (Boyne is also very, very good at historical fiction; The Absolutist begins in September 1919.) But the young soldier, who is twenty-one, has something to confess; this is a forbidden love story, a gay love story, but one with a terrible twist. . . .

>See all of John Boyne's books

>See all of John Irving's books

Graphic Novel Friday: Passport Comics

BlacksadSilentHellHCRegular Omni readers might remember that I take an annual vacation into the Canadian wilderness to unplug and catch up on my leisure reading. I plan to bring up far more books than I will likely ever get to, but that's all part of the fun--to leave books for next year. Already packed:

Blacksad: A Silent Hell by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido (Dark Horse): The previous installment's anthropomorphic detective is back and full of hardened expression, with a cast of characters rendered without parallel. There are several great, regularly published crime comics, but Blacksad walks a far different class of beat.

Dungeon Quest: Book 3 by Joe Daly (Fantagraphics): Skyrim fans (self included), take note: if you can laugh at your obsession while still poring over weapon and armor upgrades, the Dungeon Quest series should be on your couch next to the game manual and open laptop. Millennium Boy and Steve continue their quest for…something or other and dispatch their villains with most excellent skills and fuzzy strategy. It’s absurd, engrossing, very adult, and pitch perfect.

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A Deleted Scene From Ivy & Bean

For new readers (ages 6 and up) who have discovered chapter books, a great series to get them hooked on this summer is Ivy & Bean.  When Ivy and Bean meet in the first book, neither girl imagines that they will become fast friends, but a shared sense of humor and love of mischief quickly brings them together. 

Ivy and Bean have been together through eight books so far, most recently in Ivy & Bean No News is Good News, when they set out to create a neighborhood newspaper that turns out to deliver a lot more news than the grown-ups intended.  On September 5, the ninth adventure of the dynamic duo begins and early readers won't want to miss it when Ivy & Bean Make the Rules for their own camp--no big sisters allowed. 

Below is a deleted scene from the new book (involving an important phone call, toilet paper, and the inexplicable logic of children) sent to us by author Annie Barrows--you can read the rest after the jump.

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Kids Summer Reading Exclusive: Good Reads with Liz Kessler

When I was a kid I loved stories of mermaids and (I'm dating myself here) liked to pretend I was Darryl Hannah in the movie Splash.  I would have loved Liz Kessler's Emily Windsnap books, and recently passed them along to my nine year-old neice--she now has mermaid fever and is spending the summer reading and dreaming her way through the series.  Kessler does a fantastic job of creating fun summertime reads for girls--in her Philippa Fisher series fairy godmothers are not only real, but they also have help from fairy godsisters--so it's fitting that she is this week's featured Summer Reading author.  In the exclsive video below we travel with her from a big blue rocking chair, to a gorgeous seaside, to the inside of the phone booth, and beyond, while she talks about the books she loved as a kid and some of her more recent favorites:


"In Preparation for Necessary Mutations" - Walter Mosley’s Approach to Science Fiction

The-Gift-of-Fire_MosleyOne of the pleasures of attending Book Expo America in New York City early in June was meeting Walter Mosley, best known for the Easy Rawlins mysteries. He’s also a science fiction writer whose book The Gift of Fire/On the Head of a Pin is comprised of two novellas. “The Gift of Fire” takes as its inspiration the ancient myth of Prometheus, but is set in present-day South Central Los Angeles. In “On the Head of a Pin,” researchers find something hiding in high-tech animatronic film footage that leads them beyond reality. The book is the first of three sets of unique doubles by the O. Henry Award winner, part of his “Crosstown to Oblivion” series.

Mosley participated on the SF in the Mainstream panel at BEA, along with me, my wife Ann VanderMeer (The Weird), and John Scalzi (Redshirts). A relaxed and free-wheeling conversation in the green room beforehand included Mosley’s ruminations on airlifted crocodiles in Australia, among other topics.

As for the panel, at 30 minutes it was too short. I felt we were just getting into the meat of the topics when we had to stop. Early on Mosley called science fiction “the kind of writing that prepares us for the necessary mutations brought about in society from an ever changing technological world,” and as a result “The mainstream hasn’t excluded SF; the mainstream has excluded itself. No one told Jules Verne he was a science fiction writer, but he invented the 20th century.”

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