Friday, July 29, 2011
THREE CASES OF BOOK BIZ
In 2006 a great hue and cry was raised about Tim Barrus using a pseudonym (Nasdijj) and writing from a pseudo-identity in three books (published respectively in 2000, 2003 and 2004.) Also in 2006 I self-published a book called “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” but there was no hue and cry though I'm white. How come?
Before 2000 Sherman Alexie complained to Tim’s editor (who had previously been Sherman’s editor and who asked Sherman his opinion) that Tim had plagiarized his writing. A panel of experts hired by ICM, Tim’s representing agency, sat down and compared the writing of the two men but found no copying. (IMHO there is no similarity at all, and I’ve read most of both men’s work plus a wall-full of other Native American writing.)
No one accused me of copying “Twelve Blackfeet Stories,” even though most people, in spite of the blurbs, assumed that I had written “my” version of those Napi stories that are rewritten and rewritten, becoming paradoxically more Christian (to please the missionaries) and more obscene (to please the new anthropologists who hadn’t learned Latin so could no longer hide those passages that way). Anyway, there wasn’t much publicity and though I handed out free copies to a few key people, no one actually read it. Books tend to be political objects.
I designed a really nice cover though, bright red with moccasins over the controversial foot/feet vowels. I was not rebuked for it. The locals might have gotten stirred up if they had realized I got the moccasins from “Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” by Bob Scriver, (which is photographs of his notorious million-dollar collection) and that each of my twelve stories (which are generational tales meant to illustrate historical moments up to and including the present) is prompted by an object from the Scriver artifact collection (a copper tea-billy, a medicine bundle pipe, a horse fetish, a bear-knife, and so on). But they had read neither Bob’s book (a picture book) nor my book. They only spread rumors. They didn’t read Tim’s books either -- just opinions about them.
What’s puzzling is that Tim’s books, which actually were TRUE in the sense of being his real experience, were reviled for being false, and mine was simply ignored, but now if you google it, copies are for sale everywhere: India, Australia. The same copies that can be downloaded as a pdf for free from my Lulu site: www.lulu.com/prairiemary are now sold online around the world but no royalties or evidence of sale through Lulu are arriving. You can find Tim’s books on the used book sites: abebooks.com, alibris.com, powells.com, and even through Amazon. Prices are rising.
I spend a lot of time puzzling over this. Some of it is about category. Tim is a “genre” (people’s popular writing) writer as well as a specialty niche (gay porn) writer. No one cares much who writes genre popcorn so long as it’s a good story. My guess is that when the “Nasdijj” books were promoted in the “literary” context, the rules changed. People get very pretentious about literary writing and want to analyze everything for truth, justice, and semiotics -- like the French who so love Jerry Lewis. In fact, no one in France is horrified by Tim’s scandal, not even the S/M stuff. (It’s seems mild now, anyway.)
I have stigmas: I am female (but not as pretty as J.K. Rowling) and I am local. And I write “literary” as well. I’m dumpy, contrarian, and over-intellectual. But I have discovered a group of women writers somewhat like me, even in my age group. The trouble is that they’re lesbian and transgender. Not that I hold it against them, but I’m not. I wouldn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. (Sometimes that happened in the ministry. Usually needy guys. I was NOT accommodating. In fact, I got pretty cross.)
Over the years since 2007, which is when I made contact with Tim, thinking he was Nasdijj, I’ve been very curious about what “really” happened in 2006 when Matthew Fleischer’s article called, catchily, “Navahoax,” appeared in the LA Weekly (NOT the LA Times). Aside from a tabloid-type story about a murder, Fleischer had nothing else notable published before or since. Tim himself won’t talk about it much.
Every few days I google three people: Bob Scriver, myself, and Tim Barrus. The great furor of Tim’s “hoax” has sort of died down and a pentimento (I wish it were a REpent-imento) of the causes of the hoax have emerged. Bob Scriver is also no longer “hot,” ironically because of all the entrepreneurs who tried to corner his work and demanded that he make lesser, cheaper work that was easier for them to sell -- thus eclipsing his really fine monumental work. I’m not talking about the Lewis & Clark statues, which were finished and placed. I mean the Blackfeet portraits (“Transition,” “No More Buffalo,” “Return of the Raiders”) that were meant to be the basis for a promenade in Browning. The small pieces churn through the auctions, leaving the impression that Scriver was a minor artist who did trivial work. So much of fame and fortune is simply happenstance.
Blog posts about Tim since he left both writing and the United States to explore videos and continue his work with boys have almost disappeared while, interestingly, the readership of his books sneaks upwards and a new production of “Anywhere, Anywhere” is sometimes mentioned.
And me? I can’t even get arrested, as the saying goes. Although, there’s a certain formerly very friendly male official of the Western Literature Association who was so horrified by the knowledge that I was writing with Tim Barrus that he forbade me to ever contact him again. So much for rough and rugged frontier types! I am woman, hear me ROAR!! Cougars go everywhere! Even Connecticut!
All through this, I can’t help feeling that if I were a man, if I were in Manhattan, or even if I were Queer, everything would be much more advantageous. Because all is platform and people understand those platforms. They do not understand anyone who doesn’t HAVE a platform. If I call myself “Prairie Mary,” I ought to have a prairie platform. (Whatever that is.) If I entitle a book “Twelve Blackfeet Stories” they ought to be Napi tales, the familiar myths, because that’s their platform.
If you do things that have not been done before, if you work with people who are not on the approved list, if you belong to yourself -- well, you’ll just never be rich and famous. Okay. So be it. I’ll put that on the list, along with reviewers who think that smarmy (if patronizing) praise will get them invitations to the beds of minority writers, with liberals who like to keep the books of flashy iconic Indian writers on their coffee tables, and academics who can’t keep up with either the high theory or the low morals of Paris.