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Following in the unreliable footsteps of Steinbeck

Geert Mak: In America – Travels With John Steinbeck.

It looks like I’ll be spending the rest of my life trying to get the credit I deserve for exposing Steinbeck’s fictions and lies in “Travels With Charley” and ruining the fun for Steinbeckies everywhere.
The Herald Scotland reviewed Geert Mak’s “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck” on Jan. 10.
It was a good review, but it made the usual mistake of not crediting me for what I did. (“Several scholars and journalists” outed Steinbeck, wrote reviewer Ian Bell.
I doubt that this self-promoting comment I sent to the Herald will get past its moderators, who don’t work weekends and  have  better hours (and more dumb rules) than bureaucrats or government regulators.
For the record, here is what I wrote:
If the readers of Scotland want to know the sordid details of just how much fictionalizing and fibbing Steinbeck did in “Travels With Charley,” and how I exposed his literary crime after 50 years, I urge them to seek out my Amazon ebook “Dogging Steinbeck.” As Geert Mak generously points out in his fine book, in 2010 I proved with my journalism on and off the road that “Travels” was so full of fiction that it could no longer be considered an honest work of nonfiction. (Because of my troublemaking, Penguin Group changed the introduction to “Travels” to say just that.) Also: Mak and I retraced Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip concurrently in the fall of 2010, but we saw two different countries through our windscreens. That’s because he’s a proud Euro-socialist and I’m a proud libertarian. I like the (mostly) prosperous, safe and psychologically healthy country I saw better than the impoverished, fearful and diminished one he saw. Everything any Scot would want to know about my Steinbeck trip — including links to video and many photos — can be had at www.truthaboutcharley.com

Jan. 10 Update:

My mad attempt to penetrate the Herald Scotland’s over-regulated and asinine comment process continues. I hope this email — which I posted on their web site to give their mindless moderators something to do — annoys them. I repeat what I wrote here, so as to shame them for their tight-ass stupidity. The Herald Scotland is one of the oldest newspapers in the world and it acts like it.
As far as I can tell, my three attempts to add a comment to the Jan. 10 review of Geert Mak’s book “In America” have failed because I dared to mention my own Amazon ebook, “Dogging Steinbeck.”
Will a rational adult — and not a lawyer or former bureaucrat or mindless robot — please moderate my attempts to add a comment?
Pick one, any one, of the comments I’ve sent you. Ask Rosemary Goring’s advice.
 The fact that I am the veteran newspaper journalist who first exposed the heavy fictional content of “Travels With Charley” in 2010 and changed the way “Charley” will be read forever, is, while admittedly self-promotional (sorry), both important and interesting to the larger discussion of Steinbeck and “Charley.” No?
Despite what Mr. Bell implies in his review, in recent years “several scholars and journalists” did not simultaneously come to the same conclusion about “Charley’s” untruthfulness by accident; they only did so after I blew the literary whistle on Steinbeck’s fraudulent work, which had been passed off as a work of nonfiction for 50 years.
Geert Mak mentions me about 10 times in his book, credits me with my discoveries, repeats them and generously praises my dogged journalism.
Further proof of my claim: The New York Times editorial page praised my expose here in 2010 after its arts and entertainment section wrote about me here.
Travel writer Paul Theroux, Reason magazine, the Weekly Standard, NPR and the CBC, among many others, have covered my discovery and mentioned or reviewed my book, which I dare not mention again in a promotional way so as not to offend a publication that makes its profit selling advertising.
Your reviewer, unlike the reviews of Mak’s book in the Spectator and the Guardian, did not mention me. Fine.
But the Guardian and Spectator both allowed me to add my comments, criticize their reviews, correct their mistakes about me and blatantly flog my self-published book without posing a threat to the sanctity of their commenting processes or the credibility of their publications.
Is it too much to ask that the Herald — which, not surprisingly, has zero comments attached to the Mak review — figure out how to allow me to do the same?

In the Sept. 3 Daily Caller’s  opinion piece Just The Facts: Bill Steigerwald Exposes A Great Writer’s ‘Literary Fraud’ In Dogging Steinbeck, author, musician and creative fiction practitioner Robert Dean Lurie of Arizona serves up a fair, fine and thoughtful review of my literary expose/travel book.

Lurie, who also discusses the eternal  fight between facts and fiction in Thoreau’s “Walden” and elsewhere, is a writer who leans toward the creative/ fiction side of creative nonfiction. He isn’t a just-gimme-the-facts kind of guy, like most career journalists.

Nevertheless, Lurie says that my exhaustive — and sometimes clunky — journalism won him over.

One might think, given my stated positions above, that I would be fundamentally opposed to Steigerwald’s assertion that Travels With Charley is a “literary fraud.” And, indeed, I fought that premise tooth and nail throughout much of the book, even while falling in love with Steigerwald’s jocular style, his unvarnished political opinions, and, yes, his honesty. But the wily devil wore me down in the end. The mountain of damning evidence is just too massive to ignore.

When I get my first million in royalties, I’ll be sure to send Mr. Lurie and the great guys at the Daily Caller their checks. Until then, here’s a plug for his book, “No Certainty Attached.”

As Publishers Weekly said …

Lurie remains stridently impartial in this skillfully balanced assessment of his musical idol, Steve Kilbey, the esoterically minded front man for the Australian rock band the Church. Into his noisy myriad of interviews with Kilbey and his circle, Lurie mixes his own personal journey as a fan, musician and first-time author, offering something to both Church devotees and the uninitiated. The result is a quietly and thoughtfully structured narrative that entertains as well as informs.

robert dean lurie's book

 

route66 cover - 2 - finalHalf literary expose and half American road book, “Dogging Steinbeck “is the honest and accurate account of my long journey with the great John Steinbeck and his beloved work of BS, “Travels With Charley.”

It details how I stumbled on to the truth about Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip with his dog Charley and how I exposed the fraudulent nature of the allegedly nonfiction book Steinbeck wrote about his journey.

“Charley” is not very true or honest. It’s mostly fiction and a few lies. For only $5.99 you can learn every true thing I found out about Steinbeck’s trip, plus read about my crazy 2010 road trip on the Steinbeck Highway.

My “true nonfiction” book is a multi-hybrid — literary detective story, traditional American road book, primer in drive-by journalism and how the media work. All from an openly libertarian point of view.

It’s also part history lesson of 1960 America, part book review, part Steinbeck bio and part indictment of the negligence of Steinbeck scholars who failed to discover Steinbeck’s literary deceit for 50 years and then blithely excused it as inconsequential or irrelevant after I told them about it.

Guess I should have included footnotes.

The liberals manning the New York Times editorial page liked what I learned. So did the leftward boys at “On the Media” on NPR. So did Paul Theroux, Brian Lamb and my 96-year-old Mom.

But a lot of people — especially young and/or romantic diehard “Charley” fans — don’t appreciate me for ruining the romance of Steinbeck’s flawed book. Just look at the dumb 1-star reviews on Amazon.

But sorry, Steinbeckies, what I did with my humble work of journalism has changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore. From now on, no 14-year-old who reads Steinbeck’s classic road book will be fooled into thinking it’s a true story.

The author Curt Gentry was a big Steinbeck fan and he went out of his way to kindly help me with my book “Dogging Steinbeck.”  Here’s the beginning of his obit from the San Francisco Chronicle today:

Curt Gentry, a San Francisco author who wrote or co-wrote 13 books including best-sellers “Helter Skelter” about the Charles Manson case and a harshly critical biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, died July 10 in a San Francisco hospital.

Gentry was incredibly kind to me when I met him in the spring of 2010 while doing research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.” He bought me lunch twice and gave me his notes and the draft of his Chronicle article (see below) from his encounter/interview with Steinbeck in the fall of 1960, when Steinbeck and wife Elaine stopped at the St. Francis Hotel on Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” trip.

Gentry was one of the first to read my book and he wrote a wonderful blurb about it. When I read it at my book store/library appearances, I can hardly keep from choking up.

He was a great guy with great stories. I’ll always be sorry he was too sick to meet with me the last time I was in San Francisco.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with John Steinbeck in 1960.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with  Steinbeck in 1960.

The blurb Gentry wrote for my book, which was perfect and fair:

I still believe John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers and I still love “Travels With Charley,” be it fact or fiction or, as Bill Steigerwald doggedly proved, both.  While I disagree with a number of Steigerwald’s conclusions, I don’t dispute his facts. He greatly broadened my understanding of Steinbeck the man and the author, particularly during his last years. And, whether Steigerwald intended it or not, in tracking down the original draft of “Travels With Charley” he made a significant contribution to Steinbeck’s legacy. “Dogging Steinbeck” is a good honest book.

– Curt Gentry

Author of “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” (with Vincent Bugliosi)

John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

In my never-ending quest to get a legacy publisher to publish “Dogging Steinbeck” so it can get into libraries and bookstores where it deserves to be, I left a phone message and sent a token pitch to the University of Nevada Press.

The folks there were nice and responded, which itself was a rare treat.

Here’s the response I got:

Thank you for telling us about your book Dogging Steinbeck.  I regret that we cannot take on this project because it has already been published and is available on Amazon.  I do agree that there will be new attention to Steinbeck this year, given the anniversary celebration of The Grapes of Wrath. You might find that the best use of your time is to try again to promote the book you have already released.

 

It was a typical response. And so, in response to their response, I wrote this gripe, which applies to every publishing company big and small in America:

It’s a pretty annoying and strange publishing system we non-famous, non-tenured authors are up against.

I couldn’t get a book advance from a major New York publisher in 2010 — despite my fine proposal — because I was not famous, because road books don’t sell and/or because no one cared about Steinbeck anymore (these were the top reasons I was 0-35, despite my readable, crazy style, according to my Madison Avenue agent).

I went ahead anyway, did my trip and wrote my book. On my own time, on my own dime.

I got lucky, I met many memorable Americans along the Steinbeck Highway, I made real literary news by exposing the deceptions of a major American writer. And I forced a major publisher, Penguin Group, to confess that, after 50 years of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, “Travels With Charley” was really a bunch of fiction and dishonest BS.

You’d think that in the declining world of publishing, all this would be worthy of a book. But after I took my road trip I still had no interest from legacy publishers.

I did everything right and got really lucky, thanks to the Steinbeck scholars who were asleep at their desks for half a century.

I wrote a road  book that tells, in an entertaining and authoritative way, how I made major literary news, how I changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore, and how I — by my self-promoting self — got media attention and editorial-page praise from the New York Times, got praise and plugs from the world’s most celebrated travel writer (Paul Theroux), got on NPR and CBC radio in Canada, got written up in the pages of the Washington Post and, best of all, got an hour of airtime with Brian Lamb on CSPAN.

I also got grief, not praise or thanks, from the Steinbeck scholars.

Then, after I self-publish my book and have some success, I hear from some small and medium publishers that they can’t publish my book because I did too good of a job promoting it and my “scoop.”

Then I hear from other publishers that it’s too late for them to publish my book in print (so it can get into its natural market of libraries and bookstores) because I already published it as an ebook on Amazon. (I’m sure you know I can take it off Amazon in 30 seconds.)

Then, when it turns out I was ahead of the curve on the 2014 Resurrection of John Steinbeck and my book is timely and topical, it still doesn’t matter.

What earthly difference does it make to librarians and independent bookstore owners, and their clientele, whether my book already exists as an ebook somewhere?

It doesn’t exist yet in print, in stores. How can a small publisher looking to sell 10,000 copies of a book with a long commercial tail that has already proved its value and credibility not want to take advantage of the work I’ve already done?

It has nothing to do with an advance or royalty terms. It’s just a “rule.” I bet if my book started selling 100 ebooks a day a publisher would break the rule — I know it’s happened with other books.

So far I’ve sold 1,000 copies without any help from a publisher or its marketing department.

I’ve heard a dozen newspaper book editors say they don’t review self-published books.

I’ve heard two dozen very short-sighted bookstore owners tell me they won’t carry my self-published book because they can’t return it.

Other, even more clueless, bookstore owners have told me I can’t even appear in their stores to talk about my book and sell POD copies of it because I was hooked up with the Devil — Amazon.

I know Amazon is the bad guy who’s mean to bookstores (most of whom are stuck in 1850 and can’t handle the competition).

So I guess it makes the soon-to-be-gone bookstore owners feel good to do unto nobody authors like me what Amazon does unto them. Can you understand why I might not shed a single tear when I hear a bookstore had died?

Thank God for Amazon.

I wouldn’t have a book without it. I would never have gotten emails of praise from Holland, where the book “Travels Without John in Search of America” by super-star Geert Mak is a best-seller, has been translated into several languages and is headed to America soon. (Mak retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 trip the same time I did in the fall of 2010 and he credits me and my dogged journalism a dozen times in his book — in Dutch.)

Amazon made it possible for me to get around the braindead publishing industry and get a book distributed around the world without costing me a quarter. Now Amazon is keeping me from getting a “real” publisher?

I’ve proven in the marketplace and in the conflicting worlds of journalism and academia that my book “Dogging Steinbeck” is a valuable piece of literary and travel journalism.

I caught Steinbeck and his publisher with their literary ethics down. I got praise from some of the smartest travel writers and journalists on the planet.

And all I get — still — from publishers is the same Catch 22s.

It’s no wonder the publishing industry is collapsing. It deserves to.

Ah, the great power of C-SPAN.

After my hour-long interview with Brian Lamb on his March 3 “Q&A” program, sales of “Dogging Steinbeck” surged nicely.

I’m not ready to retire yet.  But before my C-SPAN appearance, my ranking on Amazon’s various Journalism and Travel categories was never higher than No. 4 (which it hit briefly after a rave Weekly Standard review by Sean Macomber).

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN took me to these dizzy heights Monday morning. Staying up there will be tough without help from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Charlie Rose, but being No. 1 in something for even just a little while is kind of fun.

Dogging Steinbeck, March 4, 2013

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,672 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Journalism & Nonfiction
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