2008 was kind of a rough year for American publishers, culminating in the bloodbaths of November and December which saw hundreds of firings, major restructuring at Random House, and a crisis at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt which may yet prove fatal. Industry professionals are understandably looking for a silver bullet to reverse the trend: a new blockbuster from Dan Brown? A trilogy of teen sorcerer novels from Jhumpa Lahiri? Saddam Hussein's memoir, written from beyond the grave?
But what if the answer lies not in finding the right book to publish but in finding the right book not to publish?
That book just might be the memoir-in-progress by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
We all know the drill: disgraced Bush insider-cum-war-criminal licks his wounds for a year or two, then publishes a "tell-all" that either tells us what we already knew (cf. Scott McClellan's What Happened, which shocked the world by revealing that the White House had lied about its justifications for invading Iraq) or blames everyone else for what happened (cf. George Tenet's At the Center of the Storm, which excuses its author for his "slam dunk" comment by writing off its context as a mere "marketing meeting"). Prurient readers, believing mistakenly that they've breached the wall of executive secrecy, buy truckloads of the slimy documents, and the morally deficient scoundrel makes a ton of money and hits the lecture-and-talk-show circuit to make a ton more.
The list is disgracefully long: Paul Bremer, David Frum, Ari Fleischer, Karen Hughes, Paul O'Neill, John Yoo, a parade of mediocres, ideologues, and dupes cashing in on their blindness and cowardice. In many cases the author has been applauded, and handsomely remunerated, for the "scathing indictment" of the administration and for the candor he has so courageously displayed now that he's out of the administration and has absolutely nothing to lose (the main exception being Hughes, who still seems to see her former boss as a cross between John Wayne and Paddington Bear). We roll out the red carpet and fluff the seat cushions on Larry King, rather than measuring the writer for an orange jumpsuit and sending him off to a CIA black site for processing.
And the trend is likely to continue after Inauguration Day, as more brave souls decide to blow the whistle now that the whistle has retired comfortably to Crawford. Donald Rumsfeld's book is on its way, and Laura Bush is auditioning editors in the East Wing.
Here's the publishing industry's chance to regain some dignity and credibility by refusing to give a platform to one of the administration's most ardent bootlickers, a man who helped justify torture, undermined the Geneva Conventions, defended spying on American citizens, fired U.S. attorneys who wouldn't toe the Bush line, presided over a thorough politicizing of the Justice Department, and repeatedly lied under oath to Congress. Gonzales has been a major player not only in an eight-year subversion of the American judicial and political systems, but in a war that has claimed the lives of 4,000 U.S. soldiers and half a million Iraqis, and led to the dislocation of several million and the detention without Habeas Corpus of thousands of others.
And he has the gall to tell The Wall Street Journal, "I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror."
Leaving aside the question of what punishment is deserved by this man, we can all agree that what he does not deserve is a book deal. Whether to point fingers at others or defend his own rectitude, anything Alberto Gonzales has to say now can and should be said under oath.
Now, I understand this is a tough pill for the publishing industry to swallow. Though some might believe that the industry's mission is to produce and disseminate works of literary and/or historical merit, the truth is of course that its real purpose, like that of any industry, is to make money. Publishers can't be expected to be guardians of the nation's morality or taste any more than, say, pornographers or auto executives can. Why else would there be rumors of a $7 million advance for the memoirs of Sarah Palin, a woman whose every utterance is a calamity of both syntax and rational thought, and whose only true achievement has been to spend $150,000 on clothes? Why else is there already a book by Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, a.k.a. "Joe the Plumber," a man whose keen insight into American values was honed while practicing a trade for which he was not licensed?
The unpleasant truth is that there's a market for this crap. People will buy just about anything that smells of controversy, and if the public wants to believe they're learning something new or valuable or even remotely connected to the truth, it's hard to begrudge publishers for reaping the profit.
Still, there are limits, as when HarperCollins canceled the publication of If I Did It, O.J. Simpson's quasi-psychotic volume of filth about how he "hypothetically" could have murdered two people he probably did murder. Even Rupert Murdoch, never one to put ethics before profit, balked at this steaming turd; a month later Judith Regan, who bought the book, was out of a job.
As horrific as O.J.'s deeds were, as nauseating as his public behavior in the years since, he can't hold a candle to Fredo, as the President calls him, who has aided and abetted the torture of thousands and the murder of hundreds of thousands and can still ask, in apparent indignation, "What is it that I did that is so fundamentally wrong?"
Then there are the liars, the list of recent "memoirs" canceled in the eleventh hour when they turned out to be hoaxes. Say what you will about Margaret B. Jones or Herman Rosenblat, at least they were never sworn in before Congress.
So there's precedent, and what I'm asking is that publishers stick to their guns (at the moment, no one has bid on Gonzales's scribbles) and resist the cynical sirens in Sales and Marketing. In fact, how about a moratorium on memoirs by Bush insiders not currently residing in the Hague? The temptation is enormous, as the industry tries to find a parachute to stop its current freefall, and any potentially high-profile book looks like a ripcord. It's counterintuitive to walk away from a potential goldmine. But every industry has to draw a line, and the publishing industry's line should be drawn at mass murderers.
Which brings me back to saving the publishing industry. Frankly, it's a longshot. Publishers are in deep trouble, and it's going to take a while to dig their way out. Dan Brown ain't gonna do it, and neither are the hordes of reprobates scurrying off the decks of the U.S.S. George W. Bush. Focusing on blockbusters, to the detriment of America's public discourse and literary traditions, is part of what got publishers into this mess. By racing to sign the author with the juiciest gossip, the dirtiest secrets, the most fantastic life story, without regard for the truth or for the consequences of validating the actions of criminals, the industry has cheapened its brand and endangered the loyalties of intelligent readers. Rebuilding their image as serious curators and promoters of our culture seems like a worthwhile way to spend their time in the wilderness. When they get out, they'll be able to claim not just the public's money, but its respect.