hoaxes go, Edmond Caldwell perpetuated a relatively small one - but he clearly
got his intended target's goat.
This summer, the Boston Book Festival printed and distributed 30,000 free
copies of Richard Russo's short story "The Whore's Child" as part of Boston's
second annual "One City, One Story" program (read my interview with him about his selection here). In conjunction with outreach
workshops, the pamphlets were scattered in lobbies, coffee shops, and libraries
throughout the city. BBF also distributed the story for free, online, in four
Caldwell hijacked the program by forging near-identical pamphlets and hiding
them with the copies distributed by the BBF. Some readers were surprised to
pick up what they thought was the Russo story, but instead found an
introduction calling it "a tired old piece of crap . . . that only a book-club
yuppie, a city bureaucrat, a corporate publishing executive, or a professional
literary critic would consider art." Then, in place of Russo's story, Caldwell
substituted an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. He blogged about his antics on his blog under the heading #occupyculture.
After receiving a number of complaints, the Book Festival's director of
communications and development, Norah Piehl, posted a warning on the BBF website in which - without
mentioning him by name - she referred to Caldwell as a "literary squatter" and
called his prose "an unreadable run-on paragraph that is a chapter of an
unpublished and, evidently, unpublishable novel." (Caldwell responded on his
blog that he does, indeed, have a publisher: the small independent house Say It
With Stones, who will publish Human
Wishes / Enemy Combatant this December.)
Certainly it takes a special sort of literary curmudgeon and / or Situationist
rebel to ankle-bite a non-profit foundation dedicated to offering free public
access to authors, literature, and the culture of reading. Asked about Caldwell
this week, Boston Book Festival publicist Joyce Linehan said, "I feel like he
kicked Santa Claus in the balls."
On the eve of the Book Festival, I called up Caldwell to take the measure of
the umbrage he's taken over the BBF's choice of literature. [Full disclosure:
the Phoenix is a sponsor of the Boston Book Festival, and I appeared as an
unpaid moderator on this year's program.]
"I don't have anything against Richard Russo," Caldwell told me when I phoned
him on Friday. "I'm arguing against the people who are spending all this money
to distribute 30,000 copies."
To make his argument, the Newton Highlands resident says he spent "multiple hundreds of dollars" of
his own money to produce the fake "One City, One Story" pamphlets. He
systematically went through the list of venues that carried the BBF pamphlets,
hiding his fake version among them and crossing the locations off after each
visit. He estimates he hit at least 75 percent of the distribution locations,
some on more than one occasion.
"I always delivered in very small batches," he said. "I knew they would be onto
me very quickly."
Caldwell says he dislikes the aesthetics of the literature represented by the
BBF, characterizing it as "tight-ass," boring, and middlebrow. "I have an
objection to that as an artist," he said.
More broadly, Caldwell objects to corporate publishing and corporate
sponsorship. "Bank of America, Target, and Verizon all gave the Boston Book
Festival money," he said. "Let's ask a larger question: is there any connection
between a certain type of art and a certain type of corporate sponsorship?" It
goes without saying that he thinks so. Caldwell says the BBF's choice of
authors reflects of the values of the professional-managerial class.
"This guy makes us out to be a fascist organization trying to force some kind
of literary conformity," says Deborah Z. Porter, the Founder and Executive
Director of the Book Festival, in an email. "And while he changed our tag line
to ‘One City, Many Stories,' he was out promoting his own story. So his intent
is self-promotion and only self-promotion, nothing more noble or revolutionary
than that. And to promote his own work, he felt he had to literally steal our
cover and disguise his story within our own, and to be crudely negative about
the distinguished author we chose. All I can say is that this self-proclaimed
literary genius, this heir to James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, should find other
ways spread the word about his work that don't freeload on the public service
we are trying to provide."
"The Boston Book Festival's ‘One City One Story' initiative is about
encouraging people to read literary fiction," she adds. "That's really all it
In addition to the public smackdown by the Book Festival, Caldwell has also
been getting hate mail for his stunt. He doesn't seem to mind.
"I consider it a badge of honor," he said.
READ CALDWELL'S FAKE "ONE CITY, ONE STORY" BELOW: