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Sherman Alexie says My “Arrogance was Astonishing”

I am an arrogant person. No less an authority than Sherman Alexie thinks so.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a review of Sherman Alexie’s new novel, Flight, for the Rocky Mountain News. I am a big fan of Sherman Alexie, but felt he didn’t fully realize the concept that he set out for himself in this time-traveling narrative. (My full review is here.) I wondered why the first novel by Alexie in over a decade would be brought out as a paperback original, and I wrote, “Unfortunately, Flight is disappointing, and the signs are that the publisher knew it – why else would a novel by such a major writer be brought out as a paperback original?”

Before the review ran, I asked the Rocky’s Books Editor, Patti Thorn, whether she felt that this assertion seemed accurate enough to run. She thought it was a fair statement, so she ran it. Then, yesterday the Boulder Weekly ran Dale Bridges’ interview with Sherman Alexie, in which he said, “It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing.” That’s right, he actually remembered my name, something that I sometimes have trouble doing myself. He goes on to call the newspaper “the Rocky Mountain Fucking News,” a name catchy enough that it just might increase circulation if they were to switch to it.

Here’s the full exchange:

BW: Some critics thought it was strange that Flight was not published as a hardback.

SA: Actually, we did that for a number of reasons. There are so many returns of hardcovers that it’s an economic model that’s broken for most writers. So I did this to try to remove some of the stigma from publishing a paperback original. I took a lower advance, and we published in paperback to send a message: This is the way [writers] are going to be more successful. It’s also the way more first-time and experimental writers will get published.

BW: But not everyone saw it that way?

SA: This is the first time I’ve gone public with the idea — with the Boulder Weekly. Part of it is that I’m responding to a review in the Rocky Mountain News by Jenny Shank. She thought Black Cat (Flight’s publisher) hated the book, and publishing a paperback original was like a studio not allowing a movie to be reviewed before its release. It was shocking to me that someone with very little experience in publishing like Jenny Shank would even have a guess at that. The arrogance was astonishing. So I’m telling the Boulder Weekly all this so you guys can hammer on your competitor, the Rocky Mountain Fucking News.

BW: We definitely will.

SA: Good.

Alexie is right, I have “very little experience in publishing”–I’ve never worked for a literary agency or a publisher, for example–so maybe don’t have any right to comment on this. But on the other hand, this informative article in yesterday’s New York Times business section discussed how even the experts in publishing are just guessing about how to conduct business most of the time.

The irony is that right there on the front page of the galley for Flight was a glowing review by me for his last book–I called him “An absolutely fearless writer.” In the prepublication galley, they include my name. On the back of the paperback, they omit my name, but the quote is mine. Flight is the only work by Alexie that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. I still remember the first time I encountered his writing, the short story “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” in one of the Best American Short Stories collections, a story that featured a sublime blend of humor and heartbreak. I knew that I had to read everything this guy ever wrote from then on. I still plan to.

In retrospect, even though I stand by my opinion of Flight, I wish I would have omitted the sentence in my review that provoked Alexie, because it seems to have distracted from my over-all thoughts about the book. But hey, I’m currently a stay-at-home mom writing book reviews for $50 a pop, trying to read and review as many books as I can during the few minutes when my 11-month-old deigns to nap, and I mess up sometimes.

I always read the entire book I’m reviewing, and give my honest opinion. The lone exception to this is when I’m reviewing a first-time author—I don’t see the point in criticizing them too harshly when the publishing world is stacked against them as it is, so I find what is praiseworthy in the book and write about that. For well-established authors like Alexie, I pull no punches, but I never approach a book trying to find something wrong with it or hoping to make fun of it. I am giving over the little free time I have to read and write about books and I am always rooting for them to be good. In my own, astonishingly arrogant way.

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  1. Jenny, you deserve a lot of credit for this post. It’s not easy to highlight an author’s disagreement with you, nor to publicly announce that you now wish you’d written an article differently. Hats off.

    But just to confirm Alexie’s point: plenty of publishers are going with paperback originals. It’s hardly a new trend — it goes back at least as far as Jay McInerney’s “Bright Lights Big City” in 1984 — but it may be especially increasing today given the uncertainties of publishing (the fullness of which that Times article only hints at).

    What little market research exists suggests that buyers don’t really care if a book is in hardback. Well-produced trade paperbacks hold up through multiple readings, are easier to transport, and less expensive for both reader and publisher. So some publishers are coming to suspect that it’s only reviewers who favor hardbacks. Thus I admire Alexie for trying to bring them better review attention. I can also see how he might have been upset that this very issue was used against him in the review. And to follow your bracingly honest example, I have to admit that this view may be biased — because my own book has just been published as a paperback original.

  2. Thanks, John. I’ve of course heard about the trend going to paperback originals, but from what I’ve seen, this is more frequently done for first-time authors, small presses, or other situations in which a writer is trying to gain an audience. I’ve been reviewing books for a long time, and I’ve never seen a novel written by an author as well-known and with as many accolades as Alexie being published as a paperback orginal–I mean, he’s been on Oprah! My editor at the Rocky tells me that she never heard from his publisher about why this was.

    And, like I said, I don’t retract the rest of my review. Just that one sentence.

  3. It’s not strange at all for Sherman to come out with a trade paper. It’s commendable. As John pointed out, the trend has been there for years. Only recently have publishers of integrity (like Black Cat) started publishing more and more in paperback originals. And, Black Cat in particular has been publishing amazing works. Sherman clearly could have published with whomever he wanted and in any format. It’s a ballsy and cool move by Sherman to go with it. It’s similar to good wine companies starting to go with screwtops. Hardbacks are the SUV of books. They’re cumbersome, pretentious, and priced ridiculously. But also, many big names have published books that weren’t debut in soft-back: Wendell Berry, Richard Ford, to name a few. It’s understandable that like any reviewer, you’re under a ridiculous amount of duress (esp. with a baby)—I’m sure SA realizes this. He’s probably more, and rightly so, pissed that your editor allowed a review that supposes on behalf of an amazing publisher like Black Cat.

  4. Regardless of the details of the publishing industry’s slow embrace of the paperback, this sounds to me like a very reasonable conjecture and one that, as a reviewer, you’re certainly allowed — particularly in light of your overall view of the book.

    Solidarity, JS. I’ve had some weird times myself this month with a writer who had a hard time with my review and let me know about it. Writing critically about literature, music, film, or art is a tough racket, and so many artists have the (pretty understandable, but nonetheless irritating) notion that they are the only ones qualified to comment on their work.

  5. Jenny,

    I was right with you in being surprised that the book came out in its initial run as a softcover, and I buy and read quite a number of books (actually, the buying is well ahead of the reading — the queue grows faster than the finished pile!). Or at least surprised that a “name” author like Alexie would publish first in softcover. The comments you have received so far seem to make that a commendable move on his part, provided that really is the case. I guess we’ll just have to take his word for it. If it is so cost effective, I wish the publishing industry would dispense with hardcovers altogether.

    I’m a big Alexie fan, though if you read enough of his interviews and commentaries then you realize that him referring to anyone else as arrogant is certainly an acute case of pot-meet-kettle! I like his writing, though I did find his latest to be a bit too much of a lightweight. Especially given how long it’s been since his last one.

    Nice job with your review; hopefully you aren’t sweating the backlash too much. If anything, his comments probably will have people seeking out your review to see what all the hubbub was about!

  6. Jenny,

    Having published fiction, including novels, for over 40 years, I not only have read the masters, I have listened to many, many of them speak at events all across the West, including Sherman Alexie. I can think of not a single writer to whom the term “…astonishing arrogance…” more aptly applies than to this over-rated writer. Ah, would that he were indeed good enough to have earned that term for himself without question.

    As for issuing books in original paperbacks, that’s a common practice in parts of Europe. However, they go one step further and then issue the hardcovers well AFTER the paperbacks come out so that hardcore book lovers [like myself] will have them to shelve and love. Maybe that’s what Sherman has in mind?

    Keep up your honest opinions, Jenny. Writers and publishing need you more than Sherman Alexie!

  7. Hey Jenny,

    This is actually a left-handed compliment on the part of Sherman Alexie. Authors picking fights with their critics…it’s a rich and noble tradition — Mailer vs. Michiko, Rushdie vs. Updike, Tom Wolfe vs. everybody. And now, indeed, Alexie vs. Shank.

    Keep up the good work.


  8. I think Alexie comes off looking like a candidate for anger management classes and that any publicity is good publicity. Perhaps he himself is angry that his book didn’t come out first in hardback, publishing trend or not. Either way, his name-saying rant will probably attract more readers to your work. The fact of the matter is, people like to read reviews, short stories, blog entries, whatever by some one they’ve heard of. As far as I’m concerned (but I know nothing about publishing here), I think he’s done you a great favor,

    Whatever your knowledge of publishing may be, it’s up to your editor to decide what you can and shouldn’t comment on. If she felt your statement was viable, she’s probably right.

    Never been big on Sherman Alexie’s work, by the way.

  9. Please don’t apologize and most especially don’t use being a stay at home mom as an excuse. it’s a cliche– our brains aren’t weakened down by breast feeding. Stand by your writing. It’s quite good.

  10. Thanks Manuela. I didn’t mean to suggest that moms’ brains are weak–only that I don’t always get to do as many drafts as I’d like before I publish something because of the time constrictions.

  11. Critics have been around since the Kings and Queens of Melchizedek days…The first amendment gives the right of free speech.
    Like I tell my critics.. New West has a voice some cannot hear.. even when I books began to hit the light I expect some controversy and critics..
    Keep ya Chin-up Jenny we a still read’n ;o)

  12. I love Sherman Alexie. I’m currently in Greece so I haven’t had the opportunity to purchase this book.

    Two things, as an American who spends a lot of time abroad, I love paperbacks. They don’t weigh down my luggage as much as hard back books. But whether the book was published as a paperback or in hardback had nothing to do with your review. Seems to me you were using that as a way to justify your review — see even the publisher agrees with me.

    Also, don’t be so self deprecating. My mother told me that the best jobs were those where you are paid to think. Obviously, you have one of those.

    Next time, just focus on the writing and let the rest of it take care of itself.

  13. so jenny are you coming out to the boulder bookstore tonight to slug it out with sherman or what?

    i’m looking forward to his usual comedy routine and him making fun of us white people while white people laugh at themselves, the irony is funny in itself.

    your review is valid, although i really enjoyed the book and blasted through it in one sitting.

    i’d like to see more first run paperbacks. i bought it for $13 and surely wouldn’t have popped $25 for a hardback. (although the cover art it really great and it would’ve been cool on a dust jacket)

  14. Since the dawn of time, the norm in France has been to publish in paper covers. Didn’t hurt the reputations of Balzac, Zola, or Camus. Maybe America will finally figure out that this model works. Yes, hardcovers are the SUVs of publishing. I loved Flight and commend Grove/Black Cat for going with paperback original. It’s a quick book, and that in itself is a brave thing for an author to do with all this useless worrying about posterity. As a former reviewer, my advice to Jenny is to focus on the book and don’t worry about reviewing the packaging.

  15. Printer Bowler

    Jenny, you pushed one of Shermie’s many buttons in a sincere and gracious manner. Nicely done. Now let’s slash through the doo-doo and acknowledge that in America, publishers will go with a hardback if they think it’s good enough to sell. Period. The publisher makes more, the author makes more, the booksellers make more. Period. Paperbacks are not, as the press releases and interviews would have us believe, about being innovative or brave. Paperbacks are handy to handle, less expensive, more mobile, but ultimately they are about limited marketability. Politically correct and euphemate that all you want, but that’s it.

    And thanks, J, for not tip-toeing around Mr. Alexie’s fragile ego. He’s basically ridden a racist horse as far as it will take him and the poor thing is getting worn out. (My definition of a racist is one who identifies and relates to others primarily as members of a race; and rarely, if at all, as kindred people.) If he wants to transcend the ethnic genre he’s milked so thoroughly and extend his considerations to the rest of humanity, he might possibly become interesting. The refuge and bane of ethnicity has run its course as a relationship model, even though so many, including Alexie, have yet to notice. Maybe when he was a kid nobody read him Dr. Seuss’s “Sneeches on the Beaches” or the like.

    Anyway, thanks, Jenny. I love your style, gumption, spark and intelligence. I enjoy reading your literary notes; so how about putting it all into your own book sometime?

  16. printer bowler:

    i can’t argue your opinions on sherman’s faults, although i don’t agree 100%, they are valid (and eloquently) stated criticisms and observations.

    however, i do believe that your old school “nothing’s ever going to change” mentality is what perpetuates stereotypes and antiquated business practices.

    this book is a quick read – about two hours. hardcover would’ve been overkill, not to mention wasteful. not every new book needs to be hardback. this felt perfect at the under $15 price mark. i wouldn’t have wanted to pay $24.95 for this book. and if under this model, a publisher can sell more copies for less, they might just end up making more money, which seems to be what’s happening with this book.

    maybe the differences in profitability that you point out between hardback and paper back have traditionally been the norm, but who’s to say that can’t be changed?

    it’s pretentious and assumptive to say “this is how it’s always been, this is how it will always be.”

    at least sherman and his publisher are trying something different. is it really an aesthetic judgment on the book? i think not. maybe just innovative and practical.

  17. Ha ha. Don’t you know that you’re not allowed to criticize Sherman Alexie? He’s not white, so under no circumstances can he be criticized. Printer Bowler said it best. Alexie is just using a gimmick that got him to the top of the literary world despite the fact that he’s not even a writer. He’s a memoirist and a mediocre one at that, but shhh. Don’t ever say that or you’re a racist. White guilt and the fact that the pc psychology simply ran over the literary world is the only reason that his junk gets any attention. Of course he fires back at you when you criticize him. If anyone gets anywhere near the fact that he can’t write and can’t create anything, he simply rages at them with an unspoken or sometimes spoken accusation of racism. He’s through, like a lot of the ethnic ‘writers’ who simply penned their adolescent angst journals and got a free ride through the literary ranks. A few novels later and people finally start to realize that they have no ability to create.