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by Andrew Gallix


DR DOO-WOP IS BACK! 11/25/2003

Underground legend, editor, serial bigamist, controversial author, 3AM friend and art critic, Bill Levy, has found a new home for his Dr Doo-Wop: Bawds of Euphony programme after almost five months off the airwaves. Check it out every Tuesday "at high noon" on Amsterdam's Radio Patapoe (97.2 FM or live stream on the Internet).


Michael Jackman of the Underground Literary Alliance has sent us the following article about the evolution of the Borders strike in the USA:

Ann Arbor, Michigan doesn't leap to mind as a labor town. It rather conjures up images of the young and still-idealistic tie-dye and trust-fund set enjoying the marijuana-fogged affluence of a university town, basking in the granola afterglow of the sunny Sixties. It was here, for example, that the Borders bookstore chain got its start, hiring an educated staff to guide patrons through what the world of letters has to offer. In the Seventies and Eighties, the company earned a reputation as an enlightened enterprise, compensating its employees well and appointing female executives.

Given this reputation, it must be startling for shoppers who find Borders' flagship store on Liberty Street besieged by Borders striking workers, who say that the company is resting on its progressive laurels while engaging in unfair labor practices, union-busting and corporate profiteering. With a starting wage of $6.50 per hour (up fifty cents over the last 12 years) the store is in the middle of an expensive neighborhood where it costs $9 to park for a shift. Meanwhile, the CEO of Borders makes about $586 per hour.

According to strikers, Borders, which went public in the mid-Nineties, has cloned the concept across the country, and with each new store the management has brought the stores more and more into line with standard conglomerate practices. Strikers say that the company is abandoning the original mission of the store, and is trying to turn its outlets into cash machines so the board can buy back hundreds of millions of dollars in company stock.

When the company tried to institute its big-box practices in the flagship store, the management found itself up against an educated, progressive workforce that balked at selling books the way a supermarket sells groceries. The staff did what workers at twenty other Borders stores have tried to do: organize a union. That's when the store began retaliating with petty enforcement of rules. Managers revised their bag-check policy so that workers would suffer the humiliation of having their bags rifled through in full view of the customers as they left their shift. One worker was dismissed for substituting a complimentary and expensive coffee drink with a cheap bagel. A complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board charged Borders with breaking the law by, among other things, coercively interrogating employees about the union campaign and threatening employees with punishment if they discussed discipline with other workers.

After negotiations where the management simply kept proposing the employee handbook as their "contract," the workers voted to go on strike on November 8, 2003, and half the employees are out on the street daily, picketing the store. As soon as the strike began, the management of the "enlightened" company started calling the police. (To date, the police have responded to calls at least 45 times, although they have made no arrests.) They also stood out in the street photographing strikers, which organizers say was calculated to intimidate labor protesters.

The strikers are mature workers, people with families to support and mortgages to pay. The store's training supervisor, Hal Brannan, 47, is an 18-year veteran of Borders with a wife and three kids. Like many of the strikers, he is passionate about books. He asks, "Where are the young booksellers and music sellers going to come from if they can't afford to keep on working here? Where is the next generation of supervisors going to come from? They can't stay on! They get here, they say, 'Oh, no, I can't move out of mom's basement!'" And Brannan is acutely aware of the importance of organizing retail workers. With American companies sending blue-collar jobs overseas, most of the new jobs being created are in the service sector, catering to the white-collar elite who still have plenty of spending money. Brannan cheerfully soapboxes, "Borders needs to understand that we are the blue-collar workers of the 21st century and we should be making a living wage."

Striker Jim Kirk, 52, talks of how the management wants to replace educated and knowledgeable sales staff with "stocking teams" who simply unpack books and shelve them. His face pinches a bit as he explains how it feels to have his intellect disregarded.

Brannan is more upbeat, preferring to talk up the success of the action. Indeed, the Teamsters and UPS have refused to cross the picket line, which means the store will have to rely on non-union Federal Express. Those costs are sure to add up. Brannan exclaims, "We have great community support, we have a strong membership, we have the potential for taking it national. We have e-mails coming in from north, south, east, and west, and the UK, asking, 'What's the best way to help?'" Speaking of the UK, Brannan adds that, according to a few union members, Billy Bragg, recently appearing at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, knew of the strike and had, "some very kind things to say". Kirk seizes on the subject, declaring passionately, "In the UK, bookselling is still an honorable profession".

After spending a few hours talking to the strikers, they encourage me to go into the store (though they ask that I do not buy anything) and talk to the manager. Brannan fairly laughs, "Then you can see what we're up against".

The store has an eerie vibe, perhaps because the company has brought in so many employees from other locations in an effort to make the store look crowded, as not many patrons have blithely crossed the picket line. They stand around, goldbricking uneasily. The merchandising is looser than usual. Tip-in subscription cards lie around the magazine racks, new titles are simply stacked on the floor. I ask to see the manager, and it is about ten minutes before I'm told he's too busy to see me. I press the point and am told I will have to wait. I wander around the store some more.

Something polarizing does happen in the midst of a labor struggle. In this normally relativistic world where everybody has "differing perspectives" and subscribes to different "shades of truth," a good old-fashioned picket line brings matters into sharp contrast. As the old labor song goes, "Which side are you on?" It's disturbing to see the works of establishment writers stocked for sale to those who would cross a picket line. Would "moving" a "unit" be a mark of shame to any of these writers? Are they even aware that they are "scabs of the stacks," so to speak?

Among the titles prominently displayed by the union-busting management are David Sedaris' Naked, Chuck Palahniuk's Choke and Jonathan Franzen's How To Be Alone. I even feel a pang of bitterness upon finding a big stack of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex in the anti-union store, recalling that he grew up in the posh east-side suburbs, son to a mortgage banker, when I grew up in a solid union neighborhood of auto workers. Multiple copies of Martin Amis' Yellow Dog grace a rack in the literary section, no doubt intended to complement his appearance in the store, which was cancelled.

Finally, the manager, who has worked at the store for only 14 months, arrives. His meek and courteous demeanor baffles me, and he evades questions by seeming not to hear them. He proffers a printed statement from the company and asks me to call the management. After trying repeatedly to get answers from him, I abandon my inquiry. Where there's cautious and empty courtesy, mendacity cannot be far behind.

I walk back outside to talk to Brannan. A few interested strikers huddle in to listen. Brannan laughs a bit at what happened. "After he got done talking with you," Brannan says, "I'm sure he went in the back room and he went, 'Yes!'" The warmth of the strikers' humor and enthusiasm is welcome after my chilly reception.

I point to a paragraph in the prepared statement that describes Borders as a competitive retail environment and ask if that's true. Brannan spells it out carefully, explaining, "Borders is a real competitor in the book business, and it is a competitive retail environment, but they're not doing the best they can. What I'm out here to say is that balancing the needs of their employees, their customers, and their shareholders, they have swung way too far to the shareholders. It's not that we're asking for our employees at this store for compensation and benefits that exceed those offered by retailers of our kind. It's time to change the way people are compensated in the retail environment. They should become not just competitive, because that's a race to the bottom. They should lead the way.'" (Picture: the Underground Literary Alliance by Eric Aberasturi.)


Philip Higgs interviews Martin Amis in Nerve: ". . . I think, like every other man, there's a bit of me that would be perfectly happy looking at pictures of naked women for the rest of my life and doing nothing else at all. But I'm also of the generation that is slightly squeamish and resists it. I'm not evolved in that way. I have moral doubts about it, and they're increasing as pornography surges into the mainstream. What strikes me is that it has now taken the place of sex education, and the idea of one's children's sexuality being formed by some medallion-in-the-chest-hair artist in Los Angeles is daunting. . . . If babies were made by other means -- like telepathy or sneezing, say -- then women wouldn't have a reason to object to pornography, because then it doesn't attack their sort of raison d'etre: the power to give birth. And let's be clear: what pornography deals with is the sexual act that peoples the world, an absolutely fundamental act. Women don't object to gay pornography for that reason, I think, because nothing's going to waste; it's not to do with their primeval power. . . . In Yellow Dog, it's the sort of unembarrassed nature of pornography that I'm getting at. Along with other failures of modesty in the contemporary landscape. For instance, the mobile phone, and the new democracy of the midriff. And reality TV shows and all the rest of it. The loss of inhibition is so complete and, as it were, effortless, that it makes me feel -- every now and then and not for very long at a time -- like a sort of medieval puritan. . . . It's not a collective decision; it's a kind of drift. No one's forced it on them, it's spontaneous. It's in flux. It feels like a good thing in that people seem to be less inhibited about their bodies -- they'll show you their midriff no matter how tubby or stretch-marked it is. That seems to be a plus. On the other hand, you get the feeling that people have never been more obsessed by their bodies -- putting spikes in your lips or in your tongue, which is a tremendously assertive way of magnifying the importance of your body. If you talk to [people with piercings], that's what they say it is: they say they now have a relationship with their tongue that they didn't have before because they've got a jewel festering in the middle of it. So it's very much being into the body, but at the same time being away from it. That's one of the many contradictions. We'll just have to await developments. . . . The real paradox about masculinity is that it rests on potency and the ability to have an erection, and now that that's chemically available, and -- though no one's whispered a word of it yet -- what that will do to masculinity is truly revolutionary. . . ."

KUNZRU TURNS DOWN 5000 QUID 11/23/2003

English novelist Hari Kunzru, author of The Impressionist, has rejected a £5,000 literary prize because it was sponsored by The Mail on Sunday: "Mr Kunzru turned down the John Llewellyn Rhys award for his novel The Impressionist, objecting to the Mail on Sunday's backing for the prize. He said its 'hostility towards black and Asian people' was unacceptable and asked for the prize money to be donated to the Refugee Council charity. Judges plan to select a new winner 'as soon as possible', a spokesperson said. The John Llewellyn Rhys award is presented annually to a writer aged under 35 for a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry. The second oldest literary prize in Britain, it was established in 1942 and has been sponsored by the Mail on Sunday for the past 15 years. Hari Kunzru's debut novel beat four shortlisted books to the prize, but the 33-year-old did not attend the award ceremony at London's Reform Club on Thursday. Instead Mr Kunzru issued a statement, read out during the event by his agent Jonny Geller. In it he claimed the Mail on Sunday and sister newspaper The Daily Mail 'pursue an editorial policy of vilifying and demonising refugees and asylum-seekers'. The statement continued: 'As the child of an immigrant, I am only too aware of the poisonous effect of the Mail's editorial line. The atmosphere of prejudice it fosters translates into violence, and I have no wish to profit from it.' He added that The Impressionist was 'a novel about the absurdity of a world in which race is the main determinant of a person's identity'. . . ."


Bernard Butler to produce the second Libertines album. New issue of the Barcelona Review. Priceless: the Bondage Jukebox although they've forgotten to include Cherry Vanilla. Gore Vidal describes his wartime experiences. Has Hoxton become unhip? The Oxford Student's top 10 Oxford literary legends. An interview with Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The Village Voice Literary Supplement. The new rock Brit pack. Free your books with BookCrossing. George Steiner on the fascism of vulgarity. 3AM contributor Luke Palermo of New York Waste recently took part in a collective NYW exhibition. Paul Ash of Sniffy Linings is publishing his new book entitled What I Think About When I Go to the Job! Simon Price in the Independent on Sunday on Mark Simpson's Saint Morrissey.


Mark Simpson, the "skinhead Oscar Wilde" (Philip Hensher) of "metrosexual" fame, has just published Saint Morrissey which the Independent describes as "a thoughtful and often illuminating account of a man at odds both with himself and the world". Fiona Sturges writes: ". . . One of the many paradoxes surrounding Morrissey is that, despite having remained an enigma to his most his ardent devotees/detractors, much can be gleaned from studying his songs. Listen hard enough and you'll hear exactly how, over his 20-year career, this most private of pop icons has repeatedly bared his soul. Simpson ploughs an absorbing narrative through Morrissey's many obsessions, from Sandie Shaw, Coronation Street and James Dean to his literary idols Oscar Wilde and Shelagh Delaney (whose play A Taste of Honey he brazenly plagiarised). While his early passions reveal a literary loner with a penchant for Little England and retro hairdos, later lyrical dalliances with young ruffians, rent boys and the Kray twins uncover the darker workings of the Morrissey psyche. As for the enduring conundrum that is his sexuality (until the early Nineties, Morrissey claimed to be celibate), Simpson refers us back to the lyrics which so artfully toy with notions of masculinity and femininity. Morrissey's celibacy, he says, is 'the symbol of his central contradiction. For all his bravura posturing as the loneliest monk, he can't make up his mind whether he is rejected or rejecting.' Simpson's own obsession with Morrissey is detailed in a touchingly fervent description of the day he saw him on television singing "This Charming Man", which will ring true to anyone whose life has been irrevocably changed by pop. 'I was alone with this man for less time than it takes to boil an egg,' he notes, but 'he made sure it was two and a half minutes I would never get over.' . . ."


Just discovered a promising new e-book publisher: Pulpbits (link through HP Tinker). A new English literary magazine called Aesthetica has just been launched. Relive Penguin's paperback revolution. British authors Susan Elderkin, Romesh Gunesekera, Sinéad Morrissey and Toby Litt are currently touring China on the Writers' Train. You can read some of the material Toby Litt has used for his Chinese talks here. Watch Franz Ferdinand's great "Darts of Pleasure" video. Erotica 2003.


Scottish genius Alasdair Gray interviewed by Euan Ferguson in The Observer: Lanark ". . . was hailed as shatteringly brilliant by the likes of Anthony Burgess, roundly supposed north of the border to be the first Great Scottish Novel of the post-war years, and comparisons were drawn in London to Dante, Bunyan, Blake, Huxley and even Hieronymus Bosch; much more recently, Will Self described Gray as 'a great writer, perhaps the greatest living in Britain today', and only a matter of weeks ago Lanark made it, against centuries of fine (and far more English) competition, on to this paper's alternative list of the 100 great novels of all time. Yet when you mention his name in literary London today you're met with strange looks. . . . You read Gray in the way you visit a great gallery: occasionally anxious to get out of a snaking side-passage, but only because you know there's another thumping big idea around the corner. And afterwards you press it urgently on friends but fail signally, as I am doing here, to explain with any degree of concision just why they should read it. 'What is the novel about?' asked Burgess, rhetorically, of Lanark. 'I suppose the answer must be: what is Liszt's second Hungarian Rhapsody about?'

The answer to what Gray's writing is about, if there is one, is that it's about art. Art as he sees it, which is to set down experiences, through writing or drawing, with the intention of changing someone's mind, somewhere, some day. It's significant that he fails to draw any distinction between visual and written art: more than once when we meet he refers to someone as simply an 'artist' and has to be pressed on whether he can remember to which discipline he's referring. He illustrates his own books -- priapic cherubs, post-industrial wastelands, da Vincian scientific jokes are all handled with the same stylistic etcher's line -- and plays with the typography; and loves little genre-subverting visual tricks such as the insertion, into every edition of 1982, Janine, of a piece of paper reading: 'This erratum slip has been inserted by mistake', or his practice of making his stories speak to you by announcing, on their last page, 'GOODBYE.' Of the point of art, he now says, 'I believe the more people are stimulated into thinking about their feelings, and feeling about their thoughts, which is what a work of art does, the less we're likely to be taken in by the mindless power of government or manipulated by those who regard themselves as the bosses; and that makes political disaster, cruelty and, in the long run, unkindness less likely.' It is deeply refreshing after my own years in London, boiler-house of the modern publishing world, where the eager talk is of £200,000 advances for fashionably unwritten novels, and a pretty face on a pretty jacket wins a world more interest than a new idea, to come up to the soft rain of Glasgow's west end and hear Gray talk so unapologetically about politics, socialism, inequity and other such deeply unsexy issues; to hear him refer to his writing not as any desperately worthy endeavour but simply as 'a branch of the entertainment industry', and hear him just be so difficult. It's not that he's not charming, for he can be, and courteous, too; but he doesn't make an easy interview. He could no sooner give a simple soundbite than limit his writing to haikus. . . . It's like the Goon Show, or trying to get a precocious child to tell a straightforward story. Appropriately enough, I later come across another quote from Burgess, back in 1984, when he is comparing Gray to Joyce -- 'Certain innovative writers have to avoid becoming fully adult in order not to learn the drab world's fear of innovation.'

Along the fascinating way, however, a few pictures begin to emerge, and one is that, no matter how refreshing the contrasts are for me, for him they've been anything but romantic. It was all, quite simply, hard graft, and made significantly more difficult by a lack of money. . . . 'It's important, the money, to artists, especially when you haven't got it. I remember being introduced about 20 years ago to a young artist -- I forget now whether it was a writer or a painter -- and the person who introduced us, asking, 'What advice have you for a young artist?' I said I think the best you can do is get hold somehow through rent or mortgage of a house with a couple of rooms that you don't need, and then let them out to lodgers, because in that way you'll be sure of a steady income and that might give you the chance of concentrating on your art. The young man felt I had insulted him by giving a frivolous answer, but in fact it was deadly serious. Of course life would have been different if I'd had money. . . . Lack of money changes your plans. I was quite sure, in my early years -- I'd planned to write this great novel, Lanark, which would be my only novel. There would then be a book of short stories, all perfect of their kind, and then a book of poems, also perfect of their kind, then a book of essays, and a book of plays, and then a book of my pictures. And each would be perfect of its kind.' His swaying ironic accents rob him of pomposity. 'Necessity changed that. And money would have made a difference to peace of mind, which you shouldn't underestimate. Look at many of the world's great artists -- the Impressionists, Seurat and Cézanne and Degas, they inherited enough money not to have to depend upon selling, and that let them concentrate. Cézanne said, in later years, 'My father was the true genius: he left me a million francs.'' Somehow, Gray survived, with help from Cape and later Bloomsbury (which Liz Calder had gone on to co-found), and by painting murals for local pubs and restaurants in exchange for meals and drink. And 1982, Janine got published. The book 'made me realise that contemporary fiction could still be a vivid and vital way of interpreting the world', said Jonathan Coe. '1982, Janine revived my flagging impetus to continue writing fiction myself.' It is Gray's own favourite; his best work, he believes. 'Better than Lanark because Lanark, unluckily, was too autobiographical. Half of it was a picture of the artist as a young Glasgow student. I was very much influenced by Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but I wanted to make it different, of course: I knew from early on that my artist was going to fail, and was going to commit suicide in a fit of depression and possibly insanity. Though I have no intention of doing so myself, and I promise you I haven't. I also feel that artists, writers, in modern society -- many of them know so little about other kinds of people that they have a tendency to write stories about other writers. I want to write about folk who are not specialists in the entertainment industry. So Jock, in 1982, Janine, is an electrician who installs security alarms. It's also my most political book, I think -- Jock's a working-class Tory, like many in the Thatcher years who were able to join the professional or higher trades. This bloke is quite consciously anti-Socialist. He believes Socialism has no chance at all, social justice has no chance at all, and he's simply glad that he's getting good wages -- and that's why he was interesting to explore, because he's very much not me.' . . ."


Today's Observer announces the long-awaited launch of Ambit's website. Ambit editor Martin Bax (who was interviewed last year by 3AM's HP Tinker) will soon publish a novel entitled Ten Lords a-Leaping. Also in The Observer, literary editor Robert McCrum pays homage to the late George Plimpton and his Paris Review: "So-called little magazines haunt the world of books like brilliant but needy friends, dazzling you with a poem or a story while in the same breath touching you for a fiver. The greatest little magazines can shape a generation of writing: Horizon in the Forties, the New Review in the Seventies, Granta in our own time. And however influential they are, however much they sponsor a vital originality, they also consume barrow-loads of rich men's patronage. Like love-affairs, little magazines have their own life-cycle and significance. A lot of them fizzle out after the second or third issue. The good, and the lucky, ones perhaps survive a decade. But in recent years only one has reached its golden jubilee. Issue no 167 celebrates 50 years of the Paris Review, described by Time as 'the greatest little magazine in history'. The Paris Review was conceived in the cafes of the Boul' Mich by three expatriate Americans (Peter Matthies-sen, H. L. 'Doc' Humes, and George Plimpton) and first published in 1953, a year that is both near and far, another world and yet still contemporary. . . . The guiding principles of the Paris Review were, says editor George Plimpton, 'disarmingly simple': to devote the magazine largely to creative work (short stories, excerpts from novels and poetry) and to put the critical stuff, which tended to dominate literary magazines, at the back. Since then the magazine has published the first writings of an extraordinary galère of twentieth century writers, from Jack Kerouac to Philip Roth to Jay McInerney. The Paris Review would also track down and interview important writers, then print near-verbatim transcripts of the conver sation. The first to submit to this process was E. M. Forster who caused quite a flap by discussing frankly why he had been blocked since 1924. One of the few greats to elude Plimpton's net was Thomas Mann who, the story goes, actually died as the Paris ReviewParis Review interview has become a much-imitated minor art form.

. . . But the thing that makes issue 167 such a memorably bittersweet experience, and one to linger over, is that on 26 September, the day after reviewing the galley proofs, George Plimpton died of a heart attack in his sleep, aged 76. Plimpton was the Paris Review, a classic Bostonian, described by my colleague Andrew Anthony as 'the gadfly of American letters...a journalist, soldier, playboy, film actor, novelist, gossip, sports fan, biographer, ornithologist and all-round participant'. He was also the author of The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, one of the best comic novels of recent years, and undeservedly neglected. Every great little magazine has its presiding genius. Plimpton, an immensely tall, good-looking patrician, was that genius, a gentleman amateur in the best English sense, whose ironical nonchalance infused everything he did with a rare and radiant joie de vivre. By the end of his fascinating life he had become an offbeat celebrity, a friend of presidents and a mixer who was never afraid to join a sports team (he pitched for the New York Giants), do stand-up comedy, play in an orchestra or take part as a film extra (his contribution to Lawrence of Arabia ended up on the cutting-room floor). 'There are people who would perhaps call me a dilettante because it looks as though I'm having too much fun,' he once said in a voice so elegantly aristocratic that it's said Martin Scorsese asked the cast of his film The Age of Innocence to speak like Plimpton. 'But I have never been convinced there's anything inherently wrong in having fun.'

The current issue includes some great pictures by Gerard Malanga.


Lit blogs I've just discovered via the Complete Review: MoorishGirl, Collected Miscellany and the NewPages Weblog. An article on the Underground Literary Alliance. Booker Prize winner DBC Pierre interviewed in The Village Voice. Steve Almond on the North American Wife Carrying Championships. John Carney on the Purple Hearts and Alistair Fitchett on The Playwrights, both in Tangents. DH Lawrence's "awful and a bit weird" paintings.

SIX IN NEW YORK 11/08/2003

English photographer Six will be taking part in a car-themed group show at Cooper Classic in New York (137 Perry Street, New York NY 10014). The exhibition runs from 20 November 2003 until 18 February 2004.

GÜLCHER (ART) ROCK! 11/08/2003

3am contributor Laurence Remila is now lead singer with an excellent Parisian art-rock combo called Gülcher who played their very first gig at the Pop In bar earlier this week. Check out the pix in the 3AM Fotolog.


Oxfam to open more second-hand bookshops. It's National Novel Writing Month again. Read more about it here. The Guardian has launched a baton story started by Michael Moorcock. Read the first part of "Crowning the Kitten" here. There's hedgehogs and then there's very naughty hedgehogs. An interview with NY dance-punk combo The Fever. Pictures of Flowers in the Dustbin's recent charity gig in Germany. Dee Rimbaud, former member of anarcho-punk band Crass, has published a series of poems in the excellent Retort Magazine.

SLOW TOE 11/02/2003

We've posted a few pictures from Slow Toe Publications' February '03 book launch which took place at the Bowery Poetry Club. Here you can see (from left to right): 3AMer and Slow Toe supremo Matthew Wascovich, Todd Colby, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Alex Gildzen. See all the pictures in the 3AM Magazine Fotolog. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo are also among the contributors to Wascowich's poetic and photographic take on New York's recent blackout.


3amcontributor Laurence Remila has published an article on the Prix Goncourt (France's most famous literary prize) in today's Observer: "It happens once a year in France, in the autumn. The verdict varies: some years, it's 'bland', others 'fruity'. Very occasionally, it is 'acceptable'. The intelligentsia, meanwhile, scoffs. This is not Beaujolais nouveau, but the Goncourt, France's most prestigious -- and decried -- literary prize. Earlier this year, the Académie Goncourt promised 'something special' to mark its one hundredth anniversary (the prize was created by writer Edmonde de Goncourt in 1903). In the event, instead of picking an innovative book or a smaller publishing house, the jury simply chose to reveal the winner's name in October rather than November. 'What they've done this year just goes to show how totally lacking in class they are,' says Iegor Gran, referring to the Goncourt jury's decision to make its announcement two weeks early. Gran has made his own contribution to the centenary celebrations: a satirical novel called Truoc-Nog (anagram of 'Goncourt'). Published by POL, one of the many small imprints that has never been within spitting distance of the prize, it tells the tale of a young writer who panics when he discovers he's on the shortlist because, 'as everyone knows, the Goncourt is attributed to the season's most insignificant book'. 'It's not just the way the prize always goes to stodgy naturalistic fare that bothers me,' Gran continues. 'There's also the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring, the hazy compromise. It's a side of France I can't stand.' Goncourt's decision filled column inches, but it also left most observers puzzled: why would the jury go to such lengths to reward a book as predictable as Jacques-Pierre Amette's La Maîtresse de Brecht, an imaginary affair between Bertolt Brecht and one of his actresses. Gran is not alone in pointing an accusing finger. Over the years, many have bemoaned the fact that the same publishing houses are rewarded year in year out (Gallimard, Grasset, Le Seuil or, as was the case this year, Albin Michel). Recently, a group of smaller publishing houses petitioned for the jury to be changed every year. Under the current system, jurors, who are all writers, are elected for life. This means the Académie Goncourt is made up of five men and women in their eighties, three in their seventies and two youngsters of 58. Once elected, a juror is spoilt for attention. Signed up by a leading publishing house, he or she can lay claim to advances that have little bearing with the amounts of books sold. Such institutionalised cronyism means major books are sometimes ignored for rather prosaic reasons. Its biggest blunder was overlooking Louis-Ferdinand Céline's epochal Journey to the End of the Night in 1932 in order to reward some minor writer published by Gallimard. . . ."


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