Kicking Santa in the Balls: An interview with the Boston Book Festival’s Literary Squatter

As literary 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 languages.

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to Caldwell as a "literary squatter" and called his prose "an unreadable run-on paragraph that is a chapter of an unpublished and, evidently, unpublishable novel."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 is."

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.


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