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August 18, 2004

Some Guys Just Bring It Upon Themselves

by Ron Hogan

Paul Maher dropped me a note to complain about his rough treatment at Beatrice's hands. Now, when a writer gets a bad review, he can either let it slide, or he can try to set the record straight, but the danger in the latter approach is that, well, it might make the writer look even worse than he did when all people had to go by was the book and the review. Accusing your reviewers of being "bitter and dead-ended" may help you sleep better at night, but it doesn't make your book any better.

Of course, if you're going to try to defend your work in public, it helps if you don't run around saying stupid shit. "For the record," he claims, "the 'definitive' part of my title isn't mine, it belongs to the sales reps and marketing geniuses of my publisher who feel that misaligning one's work to sell books and make room on bookstore shelves counts more than reading the work and finding where the title of the work relates to the intended thesis." Would anybody care to try interpreting that in plain English? More to the point, would Maher like to explain why, if the title of his book came about only because he caved in to "sales reps and marketing geniuses," his Authors Guild home page states that he's currently working on another "definitive biography," this time of Thoreau? If you're putting it in your own bio (twice!), it's because you believe it, not because corporate flunkies are twisting your arm--and hiding behind your publisher is, in any event, the refuge of an intellectual coward.

If Maher wants to shrug off the book's numerous "typos" and "factual inaccuracies" as minor problems to be corrected in later editions, that's his business, of course, though a true professional might have taken greater care to make sure his first book came out the right way the first time around. (His publisher holds some responsibility in this regard, to be sure, but didn't the man proof his own galleys?) And he's right to call me out on referring to his work as "intellectually dishonest;" upon reflection, I'm more willing to concede that this is the best he possibly could have done given his limitations.

It's interesting, though, that Maher continues to accuse other Kerouac biographers of fabrication, though he doesn't name any names in his letter here, claiming that his version must be truer than, say, Ann Charters' or Ellis Amburn's because "I chose to remain as close to the primary sources as I could without relying upon previous biographical material." Well, just because Kerouac wrote it down in his notebooks doesn't make it so. And he accuses me of "character assassination" in my original review, saying that I'm accusing him of homophobia when he denies Kerouac had sex with men. The truth is much simpler: the evidence seems pretty strong that he did, and Kerouac's claims in his journals to have fucked hundreds upon hundreds of women don't stand as sufficient evidence that he didn't. I don't think he's homophobic for taking Kerouac's side on this issue, just incredibly naive and selective in what he chooses to believe.

In any event, that was only one minor instance of the biography's larger problem, which I suppose we might call one of "character recuperation," or, as I summarized the issue in my review, "Maher bends over backward to clean up his subject, suggesting Kerouac's persistent expressions of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia were somehow aberrational or else an unfortunate side effect of alcoholism, for which excuses also abound." And I stand by that assessment, too, plus the underlying judgment of the book as uncritical "hero worship."

But Maher's got more to say, so follow the jump!

Maher claims, "The new material I unearthed about Kerouac's formative years in Lowell has been positively received by many who know and love Kerouac's work." If that's true, they've been awfully quiet; a Google News search on "Paul Maher" and "Kerouac" turns up only the Globe and Mail pan. Expanding the search through all of Google does turn up Mr. Maher's home page, which has a few excerpts from positive reviews by unnamed writers for publications like Smoke magazine. Since only one of the reviewers is named, it's hard to tell how well they "know and love Kerouac's work," and the one fully attributed blurb (from Library Journal) is pretty tepid:

"A useful piece in a difficult puzzle.... sheds new light on a writer of considerable interest."

Sounds to me like there's a lot missing in those dots; I'd be curious to learn exactly what. Because the only lengthy praise I've seen for the book was in its own introduction.

Then Maher wraps it all up with a little personal dig, claiming that he can forget about me because he's written a book and I've just got a website. Putting aside the half-dozen books I've coauthored, which have undoubtedly sold more in their two years in print than his will in its first two years, when a man has to announce to the world that he "can forget you," it's usually because he can't--because deep down, he knows you're right, and your being right sticks in his craw. But like I say, whatever helps a bad writer sleep at night is okay by me. I'll just keep watching for more of those reviews...


One more thing; the PW review was "unnamed" as well. If I respect anything about the Ray Robertson review, its that at least he put his byline to it. Incidentally, I am a fan of his writings.

Posted by: Maher at August 18, 2004 06:18 PM

Publishers Weekly does not byline its reviews as a matter of editorial policy; I am personally always happy to claim ownership of my reviews when the opportunity presents itself, and accusing me of not putting my byline to a review for a publication that doesn't include bylines merely provides further evidence of intellectual sloppiness.

Whereas I'm quite certain that all the reviews you quote on your home page were bylined, yet you somehow chose not to include the reviewers' names save for one instance. That, Mr. Maher, is what I meant by "unnamed."

Really, you should just prevent yourself from looking even more foolish and just stop commenting here. Why not enjoy the fact that I'm probably the only critic in America who will ever mention you in the same breath as Stanley Crouch?

Posted by: editor at August 18, 2004 06:27 PM

Sorry to exrpess myself, I won't bother you anymore.

Posted by: Paul Maher at August 18, 2004 06:48 PM

I read Mr Maher's book and I happen to find it to be very interesting and informative. Yet I sit here and read you gloat over your rash and biased PW review and all I can think of is that you're jealous .Not only do you sit here and tear down Mr.Maher's work (while using colorful terms like "Fucked") but you also do so with numerous other authors.You say you have co-authored other books and yet, I wonder, if they sell twice at all using the cliche-ridden expletives you seem to use with careless abandon under the liberties of your role as "literary critic." Perhaps you are best in writing cheap erotic novels . My other concern is that you try too hard to tear down these authors; I wonder if it is something personal you have against them?
Is it because you fear for anyone who succeeds where you do not? Not to mention it is very unprofessional to rip apart others work if you are in the same field? Is there no solidarity? Isn't life hard enough for you writers than to turn on one another like starving wolves in a little pen? How is anyone suppose to take you serious ?
I have read the journals you have so glowingly reviewed, and in them you seem to not have a problem with Kerouac's constant womanizing
(PW review: "Still, there's plenty of the familiar Kerouac on hand: all-night drunken conversations with other Beat writers, casual sexual encounters and a final notebook entitled "Rain and Rivers," filled with real-life episodes in an early version of the freewheeling style that transformed Kerouac from a promising young novelist to a literary legend. These journals are an essential resource for American literature scholars, but the force of Kerouac's personality makes them an engrossing read for lay admirers."), yet when Maher stated as such for his biography, you have an issue with it. I would ask you what concrete "evidence" there is that Kerouac had sex with men?

But then again, I am "call[ing] it like I see it" which seems to be your calling card Mr. Hogan. When you blast back your trite retort, remember to have manners or you will bring yourself down to the level of the talented writers you abhor so much.

Posted by: Fresca at October 4, 2004 01:25 PM

If all you can think of in response to my posts is that I'm jealous, Fresca, well, I'm not responsible for the limitations of your imagination. And if "colorful terms like 'fucked'" were good enough for Kerouac, they're good enough for me, especially to describe fucking. (Though, for the record, no published book to which I've contributed to date includes that word, but then I don't write about sex or Jack Kerouac in any of them.) By the way, just because I didn't explicitly criticize the "casual sexual encounters" of "familiar Kerouac" in the review you cite doesn't mean I approved of them--and as I pointed out before, Kerouac on the subject of Kerouac is a lot better than Maher on the subject of Kerouac, even given the extent to which Maher leans on Kerouac's writings as a crutch.

It is not in the least unprofessional for a writer to criticize bad writing, and it is only unprofessionally inept writers who try to claim otherwise, in my experience. "Solidarity" does not extend to propping up the untalented, and I see no reason to cut Paul Maher any slack just because he knows how to use a word processor. "How is anyone supposed to take you serious?" Well, perhaps because I know the difference between an adjective and an adverb.

As for the "evidence" that Kerouac had sex with men, well, Gore Vidal said it, and I believe it. You might also check out some of the other Kerouac biographies; when you do, it would be interesting to note if you think so highly of Paul Maher afterwards.

Posted by: editor at October 4, 2004 01:52 PM

Thanks Fresca for your kind comments. I would not give this person any credence. Judging from the numerous positive reviews out there, it seems Mr. Hogan and Robertson are in the minority (to wit, "What makes Paul Maher’s story of Jack Kerouac, Beat writer and a tragic figure in American letters, stand out from other Kerouac biographies is his factual tone and his reliance on formal evidence in recounting Kerouac’s life and making a case for his place in American letters. " and "Maher succeeds on many levels and nails the advertised "definitive biography." - see my Author's Guild web site for sources and more). Hogan comes across as a prissy little queen pointing out homemade gowns at a high school prom. If I had devoted a whole chapter to Allen Ginsberg's and Gore Vidal's questionable testimonies, he surely would have given the book a rave review.

Posted by: Paul Maher at October 4, 2004 04:01 PM
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