By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The Net reaction to Strauss's complaint was swift and vociferous. Comments on his own blogs ranged from "How dare you bitch about that!" to "You don't deserve to have more than three people, you're a loser!"
Two other blogs—deliberately composed of unpublished individuals who wore their rejection slips as badges of integrity—launched slashing attacks on Strauss without having read any of his work, mocking his complaints, the "smirky" author photo, his theories about writing and literary history, and the "millions of dollars" that had supposedly been spent promoting him (an exaggeration of More Than It Hurts You's publicity budget by several hundredfold). Vulnerable as only a writer with a new book out can be, Darin was goaded into responses that he would soon admit came to seem, well, pathetic.
"You guys are quite mean. And you certainly have your set opinions, without having read a word of my novels," he wrote one blogger, then told another, "Keep having your laughs at my expense, in your little playpen"—comebacks embarrassing enough to leave Strauss, months later, laughing ruefully at himself. What took over was that overriding need, again, not to be misunderstood or misrepresented—that need to prove "I'm a good guy."
"I think the thing that bothers me most, because of the accident, is people out there having mistaken ideas about me," he sighs. "People saying, 'He looks like a jerk,' or 'I haven't read the book, but it seems like it's crappy.' So I had to address every single blogger who said the slightest thing about my book."
To acknowledge a blogger is, of course, like giving rain to toadstools. "Does the WHOLE WORLD have to love him, read him, praise him?" read a typical reaction. When Strauss sent one of his tormentors a free copy of Chang and Eng, imploring him to at least read some of his prose before blasting it, the player-hater spent a week ripping the work apart practically line by line on his site, refusing to find any merit in it or even to acknowledge that the prologue Strauss had written to the novel was the actual beginning of the book. What followed was a further tumble down the rabbit hole, in which Strauss ended up exchanging gibes with him about the critic's own, unpublished writing and arguing over the book sales of Melville and Hawthorne. Less pedantic, or amusing, was an individual who described herself as an anti-Semite, announced that she would be dead before the end of the year, and repeatedly threatened Strauss and his family until he went to the police.
It was a cautionary experience, as any number of other writers could have told Darin it would be—yet it may also be filling an awkward silence in our cultural conversation.
"It's ridiculous to engage the reader on any level when they're bitching and moaning, but kudos to Darin for crawling down the wires and dealing with these people," says the novelist Colum McCann. "One of the reasons that happens is that writers aren't fighting with each other anymore. There are no spirited debates among each other"—so fighting with one's public may have to take up the slack.
"It's like walking into the devil's chamber," says George Hagen, author of the novels Tom Bedlam and The Laments. "But ultimately, it's kind of a devil you have to let in the door, because there are hardly any newspapers left. Anything you can do to make a fuss [is worthwhile]. There should be feuds among writers. There should be vendettas!"
Back in the mid-19th century, literary magazines promoted themselves by putting the nastiest reviews they could get on their covers. Both the targets' friends and their enemies rushed to buy them, to pore over every word in Village saloons and coffeehouses. A century later, there was Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman battling it out on Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson. Now that the novel is, in Strauss's words, "a much diminished thing," the Internet might just have to take up this promotional slack.
The book tour is, after all, just one more dying relic of old-school book promotion, another example of how clueless the publishing industry currently is about pushing its own product. Word is the tour is being phased out, but publishers don't seem to have anything to replace it. For decades, the major way to sell books has been through newspaper reviews and "by hand"—that is, on recommendations made by the owners and employees of independent booksellers. Both venues have crashed. Newspapers are sinking all over the United States, and they're jettisoning their book-review sections first—they've vanished even from publications as prominent as the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Independent bookstores are disappearing even faster. In 1994, the independents' trade organization, the American Booksellers Association (ABA), had more than 4,600 independent member companies, with some 6,000 stores. Today, it's down to less than 1,500 companies and about 2,000 stores. Book publishers, unsure of how to cope with this World War I landscape, have continued to do mostly what didn't work all that well before, including dispatch writers on long, fruitless loops around the country.