More Mark Twain

[On the Media]

Well, now Mark Twain’s Autobiography has really arrived. On this week’s Saturday Night Live, Bill Hader trotted out his terrific Julian Assange impression. “If I am falsely imprisioned for one more day,” Hader-slash-Assange says, “anyone purchasing Mark Twain’s new autobiography on Amazon as a Christmas present for their father will instead send him the book Everyone Poops.”

The joke makes sense, as enough people are buying the book to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list, hovering between second and third. But Twain’s success started long before the holiday shopping season. This summer, the media came together and anointed the Autobiography’s forthcoming edition as a major literary event. The Times didn’t get there first, but it did put Twain on the front page. And its story is wholly representative: coming this fall, after a century-long embargo, readers will finally meet a realer, darker Mark Twain. A few weeks later, Newsweek devoted its entire cover to Twain and his upcoming book (“Now we must get reacquainted all over again”). Thanks to the coverage in the Times and Newsweek and elsewhere, Twain went viral.

But there’s success, and then there’s success. And Twain’s book has exceeded everyone’s expectations. Plenty of bookstores have run out of copies and had to create wait lists, as the Times noted in another lengthy story. In fact, Twain’s autobiography has become a holiday success story with a full roster of heroes: the author (a serious literary figure), the publisher (an ideas-driven university press), and the printer (a small, employee-owned press based in Michigan). The book got an initial print run of 7,500, but there are now more than 500,000 copies in print — still only a third of the initial print run for authors like George W. Bush and John Grisham, but enough to turn heads even in publishing’s blockbuster age. To keep up with the demand, Twain’s Michigan printer has kept three shifts going — it even rehired some of the people laid off during the recession — and taken to shipping the book off in semi trucks packed with 10,000 copies each.

So, again, it’s a holiday success story, and I don’t want to sound like a literary grinch.  But it’s worth examing how, exactly, the book became such a hit. The media continues to commission tons of reviews, but here, at least, reviews never seemed to matter since the book debuted on the best-seller lists at a time when only one or two had been published. Instead, the book seemed (and seems) to benefit from its pre-release hype — the kind of embargo-powered nonsense that led Saturday Night Live to describe it as a “new” book. A few weeks back, I wrote a story for Slate outlining why the embargo was nonsense, and some of the better reviews — the New Yorker‘s, the Washington Post’s —have also pushed back against the hype. In this week’s Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor goes a step further, in a review that might be best described as affably brutal: Twain’s Autobiography is “a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin” and, later, “a powerful argument for writers’ burning their papers.”

I also don’t want to sound like I’m taking credit for this; if you review a 736-page “autobiography” that, thanks to various scholarly apparatuses, amounts to only 264 pages of text, you damn well better point it out. But the bigger point is that nothing the media has done can stop the media’s snowballing hype. Let’s remember that, this summer, the editors from the Mark Twain Project, which handles Twain’s literary estate and receives his royalties, gave the Times a few juicy quotations and some “exclusive” online excerpts of Twain “speaking from the grave.” As recently as 2009, the Project was in deep financial trouble. Clearly, that’s no longer the case — and all it took was the Project sacrificing its scholarly integrity. I’ve had chances to follow up on my Slate story with interviews on CBC’s Q show and on NPR’s On the Media, both of which you can find on my handy new media appearances page.

And speaking of financial trouble: it doesn’t bode well for Tina Brown and Newsweek that I completely missed that cover story while researching my original story.


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