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The New York Times, Spinand Entertainment Weekly offered We're So Famous praise. Publisher's Weekly, an influential publication in the book biz, panned it.
The bad review rankled Clarke. He kicked up literary dust when he shot off a huffy e-mail to the editor-in-chief at PW. He c.c.'d the note to other journalists and editors.
"I am putting up $1,000 of my advance money from Bloomsbury USA for the name of the person who authored the review," wrote Clarke.
Reviews in Publisher's Weekly -- which generally do not carry author credits -- can greatly affect book sales, particularly for a first-time author.
PWeditor Nora Rawlinson responded, telling Clarke that he would be better served taking up his veiled threats with the magazine, not the individual critic.
Clarke's overzealousness put We're So Famous in the news. While many derided him for being thin-skinned, his impassioned if naive response was seen by others as a cheeky and brave gesture.
"Oh, now we are moving into dangerous waters," Clarke says warily. He says that responding to the review wasn't the brightest thing to do. "Bloomsbury put the kibosh on me not to talk about this stuff, but yeah, that's true . . ."
What irked Clarke the most, he says, is the fact that, as a rule, Publisher's Weekly eschews bylines. The young author should be pissed. If only for the sake of credibility, critics should show accountability for their words and opinions.
"It's just my basic thing about reviewing," explains Clarke. "If you see a bad review by Roger Ebert and you say, 'Well, I never agree with him so I'll go see this movie anyway,' at least you have that information."
The Montana-born Clarke moved with his family to Phoenix in 1983. After graduating from Brophy Prep, he worked as a runner for Charles Keating. The job atmosphere, he says, took precedence over studies and he eventually flunked out of ASU, where he was majoring in English. The work, at least, had aesthetic bonuses and allowed him access to the old man's shiny fleet of cars. The book even makes mention of a jailed developer -- a thinly veiled allusion to Keating.
"It was way more interesting to go to work for Keating than it was to go to class. A lot of beautiful women worked there 'cause that's all Charlie really hired. When you're in college and 18, that's pretty much it. Some days it would just be taking all the Mercedeses to the car wash, or driving around and listening to the radio."
After his stint with Keating, Clarke studied creative writing at the UofA, and, later, Bennington College. He continued writing, relocated himself to New York, and worked at the venerable NYC literary agency Harold Ober Associates. He quit the job in December to promote the book.
We're So Famous is actually Clarke's second novel. His first, A Complete Gentleman, which follows a convicted rapist as he tries to resume his life in Phoenix after serving his time in prison, yielded two years' worth of rejection letters, before Clarke decided to essentially self-publish the title through Xlibris, a company associated with Random House Ventures. The experience taught Clarke a valuable lesson: that writing is separate from publishing "even though one depends on the other. My agent sent that book to every publisher big and small, and all rejected it. Of course I was bummed."
When Clarke pitched We're So Famous to his agent, she passed on it. So he got a deal without her. A friend at Bloomsbury got Clarke in the publisher's door. "I sent it to him and he liked it. And that was that. I did it as a shortcut. I did the deal without an agent, which I don't really recommend. What is sort of telling is that the editor at Bloomsbury is only 25, so you can see why he would like this book."
Clarke says the unbearable idea of going through life being unable to read is what sparked him to donate half of his royalties from We're So Famous -- roughly 50 cents a book -- to the Literacy Volunteers of Maricopa County. The nonprofit organization helps adults age 16 and older learn basic reading and writing skills. Maricopa County claims a half-million functionally illiterate people. He says the donation isn't some PR ploy.
Belinda Chron, a staffer at Literacy Volunteers, agrees. "He doesn't get a lot of money for his work. I mean, quite honestly, he's not getting a lot in return. It's not like he's going, 'Hey, look at me! Look at me! Look at all the money I'm donating.'"
Years ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a star. People read his short stories with the same zeal they apply to prime-time television programming today. Fitzgerald's legendary climb to celebrity status -- from decadent Roaring Twenties reveler to Hollywood script doctor to wasted alcoholic -- is ultimately what finished him off as a serious writer.