THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AUTHORS and paranoids is this: not all paranoids write books. And once a book is published, it's possible for the sensitive writer to perceive a vast conspiracy--which includes his very own publishing house, the review media, bookstores and even the U.S. mail--aimed at thwarting its reception by the public. Everyone who knows a published author has doubtless heard these horror stories, which range from the commonplace "There I was in Sheboygan to do interviews and not a single store had my book in stock" to the rarer, and perhaps apocryphal, tale of the first novel that was mistakenly pulped before it ever left the warehouse. The worst thing about such tales is that they're often true.
Thus, it's hard to know whether or not retired naval officer James M. Ennes Jr. is justified in his belief that his 1979 title, Assault on the Liberty (Random House) has suffered because of hostile forces working against it. The book is a first- person account of the bombing, in June 1967, by Israeli forces, of the U.S.S. Liberty, an American ship in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula. It was at the height of the Six-Day War and the Israeli government, which issued a formal apology and later paid $6 million in damages, has insisted that the Liberty--which was flying an American flag --was mistaken for an Egyptian vessel. Thirty-four of his fellow crew members were killed and Ennes himself was wounded. Just about all of the U.S. personnel involved, many of whom recently held a reunion, are convinced that heavy pressure from Israel has caused there to be a cover-up of the truth behind the tragedy. And, in addition, Ennes believes his book has lost out on sales and attention because it involves a controversial episode that Israel would rather have the world forget.
However, as everyone knows, a little controversy usually boosts sales and attempts to suppress a book often make interest run higher. Ennes' case for the conspiracy against his book would be a lot stronger if Assault on the Liberty weren't in its fourth printing (22,500 copies off the presses to date), with articles about the book appearing and orders for it trickling in, almost three years after its publication date. (That's enough to turn your average author very green.) "It does make my claims less credible," Ennes admits, as he recounts incident after incident of hearing from strangers all across the country who want to buy his book but find it difficult. Sometimes they're told the book is out of stock ("It's been out of stock for a couple of weeks, like any book," says his editor, Bob Loomis) or they're discouraged from buying the hardcover and told to wait for the paperback which is coming out momentarily (it's not-- there's been no sale to paper). Occasionally, a potential buyer hears that the book's been recalled because it's libelous (untrue). One man, Ennes says, told him "he spent three days and $70 in long-distance calls trying to obtain Assault on the Liberty." Unfortunately, as much as the accumulation of these stories bothers Ennes, there's nothing particularly sinister about such happenings. Ask any author.
Often, you see, bookstores resist special ordering, on which the profit margin is slim, and very few of "last year's" books remain on the shelves, a fact which most authors have to struggle to accept. What's more, bookstore clerks can be as imaginative as some of the fiction around them in devising reasons why they don't (and can't) have a book on hand. Ennes, though, has a couple of enemies in his sights: aside from the Israeli Foreign Office and the Anti-Defamation League (whom he believes to have engaged in a writing-and- pressure campaign against his book), there is a gremlin in the Random warehouse in Westminster, Maryland, whom he thinks is "helping the orders disappear. But obviously not all the time or we wouldn't be in a fourth printing." He cites, as an example, a large West Coast wholesaler's order that he says "simply vanished" between California and Maryland.
As Bob Loomis says, "We've had our warehouse turned upside down to try and prove this." But, he goes on, Ennes has simply "run into the inefficiency of the industry." Ennes, he thinks, has a "real reason" for some of his suspicions, but it only serves to aggravate the exasperations authors routinely experience. After all, according to Ennes himself, who appears good-natured despite his complaints, the Random House warehouse can be impartial in its slights. "They once refused orders for Sophie's Choice, saying no such book existed."
THE TROUBLE WITH "EDIE"
WHEN LISTENING to publishing folk chat these days, one often hears uncharitable remarks about Edie, the Jean Stein and George Plimpton-edited chorus of '60s voices all hymning lurid paeans to the titular anti-heroine. Edie's received reviews just about everywhere except Popular Mechanics, and one of the things you hear people saying is that if it hadn't had the publisher Alfred A. Knopf's prestige behind it, it would have seen a lot less ink. It will certainly be interesting to see if all the critical attention can translate itself into actual sales; what was once Pop now seems awfully parochial, and most of the natural readers for Edie probably received review copies.
Actually, it's possible to tell who's been reading Edie: their eyes look glassy from trying to gulp all 400-plus pages at one sitting, and they blink a lot as if coming out into the air from a strobe-lit disco. It's mesmerizing, albeit in an awful way. And one of the most repulsively fascinating components is the character of Edie's father, Francis "Duke" Sedgwick, who apparently indulged in emotional Grand Guignol with his children and saw himself as a stallion with the ladies. So, it was intriguing when one of the publishing types, in talking about Edie, said she'd heard a rumor that Jean Stein's old friend Norman Mailer had had a hand in the sections depicting Edie's dreadful daddy. Could Mailerisms be detected in some of the more priapic passages?
At first, when queried, Stein said she had shown the book to friends at different stages. (After all, it's been a decade- long project for her, with thousands of pages of transcribed interviews--about 500 hours worth, she estimates.) But though it's true "that the book was edited, no words were put in anyone's mouth that they didn't say." Later, however, Stein clarified her earlier statement by describing the process by which the many smooth transitions in the book were made. "We'd call people and explain what we needed" to see if they could come up with something that would help out. Occasionally, even, it appears, Stein would create a bridging sentence or two herself, checking it with the the interviewee. Still, according to her, nothing on paper from Mailer.
And what about the poetic touches, the literary metaphors and turns-of-phrase which so many of her subjects so surprisingly exhibit? "Some of these people had just amazing ways of expressing themselves. I told Saucie Sedgewick (Edie's elder sister) she should be an essayist. One writer I talked to, who'd been blocked for years, afterwards told me he'd bought a tape recorder when he realized how easily it came that way."
FOR ONE DOLLAR MORE
BOTH NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY and the Viking Press have written to correct a "Book Report" item on Stephen King's latest advance (June 27). King's upcoming novel, Christine was not licensed to Viking by NAL "for a considerable bit more" than the $1 NAL paid King in this precedent-setting deal. Rather, NAL got a second buck from Viking for the right to bring the book out in hardcover, and King got a set-up similar to the one he has at NAL where he will be recieving "more frequent royalty payments."