Manuscript Thefts

An article with the title ‘Hunt for the Book Thief in a literary Whodunnit’ by Anita Singh appeared in the 7 January 2022 issue of The Daily Telegraph.

“It was a mystery which gripped the publishing world: who was the secret fraudster behind a scheme to steal unpublished manuscripts? The scammer targeted hundreds of victims by assuming the identities of editors, agents and literary scouts in a global fraud spanning five years. On Wednesday, the FBI announced it had arrested and charged a suspect – Filippo Bernardini, 29, who had a lowly job in the rights department of the London office of Simon & Schuster.

Filippo Bernardini

“While it had long been suspected that the culprit had links to the publishing industry – they used familiar abbreviations such as ‘ms’ for ‘manuscript’ – the arrest came as a shock. Some of those targeted had dealt with Mr Bernardini on a professional basis. Mr Bernardini, an Italian citizen who studied for a masters degree in publishing at University College London, was arrested at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport. He is charged with wire fraud and aggravated identity theft. Prosecutors allege the Mr Bernardini impersonated, defrauded and attempted to defraud hundreds of individuals. The indictment did not mention the manuscripts in question. However authors who have been targeted by such a scam over the last five years include two of the world’s bestselling novelists – Margaret Atwood and Jo Nesbo and their books The Testaments and Knife – and at least one Pulitzer Prize winner.

“The charges allege that between 2016 and July last year, Mr Bernardini ‘engaged in a scheme to fraudulently obtain valuable prepublication manuscripts of novels and other forthcoming books, as well as synopses and other notes and reports related to unpublished books.’ He allegedly did this by creating lookalike email addresses – for example, replacing the letter ‘m’ in with ‘rn’, a tiny, easily overlooked adjustment. According to prosecutors, Mr Benardini registered more than 160 fraudulent internet domains. All would forward to a single email address that he controlled.

The Indictment says Mr Bernardini devised the scheme to obtain ‘money and property by means of false and fraudulent pretenses’. However the motive is obscure, as some of those targeted were little-known novelists. No ransom demands were made, and the manuscripts were never pirated. . . . Michael J Driscoll, of the FBI, said ‘he was allegedly trying to steal others’ literary ideas for himself.'”

It seems to me that Mr Bernardini was indeed trying to steal others’ literary ideas for himself, as he made no apparent attempt to monetise the information he obtained. We authors must be careful in our correspondence with publishers, agents and literary scouts. And the industry needs to tighten its internal controls.

Review: It Can’t Happen Here

This novel by Sinclair Lewis caught my eye at the 30th Street Station in Philadelphia when I was in the States visiting family for Thanksgiving. It was published in 1935 when the US was still in the valley of the Great Depression, and parts of Europe were in the grip of fascism. In his introduction to the book, Michael Meyer, Professor of History at the University of Connecticut, says, “Engulfed by the complexities and vulnerabilities of our post-September 11 world, Americans of nearly all political persuasions are likely to find that It Can’t Happen Here, though firmly anchored in the politics of the 1930s, surfaces as a revealing and disturbing read.”

Harry Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 in Minnesota. He attended Yale where he was editor of the literary magazine. After graduation in1907, he worked as a reporter and editor of various magazines, newspapers and publishing houses. His first novel, Our Mr Wrenn, was published in 1914, but his first successful novel, Main Street was published in 1920. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Arrowsmith in 1925. In 1930 he became the first American writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1951.

Sinclair Lewis

It Can’t Happen Here is more a political commentary than a novel. Set in the mid-1930s it describes how the political climate at the time results in a fascist government taking power in the United States. It is all seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, the editor and publisher of a local newspaper in Vermont. Senator Buzz Windrip is elected President, having promised to restore American prominence in the world while providing $5000 per year for each American citizen. Dissent is outlawed by the new Corpo (short for corporate) regime, the American Congress is neutralised, power is removed from the states and given to new, autocratically-run districts. Women are disenfranchised; a. powerful new, savage militia known at the Minute Men is created, justice is administered by military tribunals, dissidents are imprisoned in concentration camps or executed. Doremus joins the New Underground resistance movement, secretly publishing the truth of what is happening. He is imprisoned, is tortured, escapes to Canada, and is assigned the territory of Minnesota to encourage resistance to the Corpos, who have started a diversionary war with Mexico, as the country descends into civil war.

At a personal level, viewed either from a liberal or an authoritarian position, the story has credibility. A gardener becomes a high-ranking Minute Man, with life and death power over his former employer. The motivations and emotions on each side are clear. The book is filled with minor characters, right- and left-leaning, filling many different positions at local, district and national levels, adding credibility to what is happening. The tone of the book is largely neutral: atrocities are reported factually, so that it is not a grand polemic, but a sober report. There are elements of satire and humour in the descriptions of some events, which make it clear whose side the author is on, while preserving his credibility.

The book is a sobering attention-getter without suggesting an action plan. Lewis was not a political thinker; he was an independent liberal who believed in individual rights. He was a reporter of what he saw and could foresee.

It seems unlikely that even with the concerted efforts of group of powerful fanatics America could become fascist as easily as it did in It Can’t Happen Here. It would not be easy to overcome the democratic forces exerted by an aroused US Congress, the US judiciary and the armed forces. But given what happened on January 6 2021, one has to pause for thought.

One-Hit Wonders

The Sunday Telegraph had an article about authors who wrote one brilliant novel and never published another. The article is written by Claire Allfree, who is a freelance writer covering arts and entertainment in the UK. I quote from her article below.

“When the New Zealand novelist Keri Hulme died last week at the age of 74, she joined a venerated group of authors not known for winning the Booker Prize – which she did in 1985 with her Maori magic realistic epic The Bone People – but for the production in her lifetime of only one complete novel. Emily Bronte, Margaret Mitchell, J D Salinger, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Anna Sewell all wrote a single, game-changing, long-form masterpiece. To that list can be added novelists equally or better known for other art forms – the poets Sylvia Plath and Boris Pasternak; the playwright Oscar Wilde; the short story writers Alice Munro and Edgar Allen Poe, although Bronte was also a n accomplished poet and Salinger a revolutionary short story writer. Nonetheless the image of the artist who produces just one perfect piece of work and then lapses into silence, often out of sight of the public view, is seductive. How admirable to leave just a single artistic legacy, its brilliance undimmed by inferior additional works, untainted by the siren call of game or ego.”

“Seductive, but rarely true. Few writers calmly put down their pen after dashing off a fabulous big hit, with the possible exception of Margaret Mitchell, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Gone with the Wind was published in 1936. Mitchell always insisted she would never write another book, partly out of horror at her new-found celebrity (she expected Gone with the Wind to sell 5000 copies; it sold 50,000 on its first day). But while she refused all interviews, there were rumours she was considering a second, when she was killed in 1949 by a drunk driver at the age of 48.

The writer who comes first to my mind in this category is Harper Lee, whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic. “Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, but possibly not for want of trying. ‘Success has had a very bad affect on me,’ she later said. ‘I’ve gotten fat – but extremely uncomplacent. I’m running just as scared as before’. “

Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, which was published in 2015, has confirmed to be an early draft of Mockingbird. In my opinion it was not even close to the calibre of Mockingbird.

“No, the messier, more complicated truth would appear to be: once a writer, always a writer. Some radical figures like Hulme, Salinger, Mitchell and Lee do not necessarily believe that everything they write needs to be published, or that writing – that most solitary of forms – should be considered a public spectacle.”

“In fact Hulme, who when told by telephone that she had won the Booker replied, ‘Oh, bloody hell’, rejected the idea that her writing was for the benefit of other people. A pipe-smoking, white-baiting aficionado who lived alone in a small settlement on New Zealand’s south island, in a house she built herself. Hulme embraced a maverick obscurity, yet she continued to write after her win, producing short stories and two further manuscripts that remained unpublished at her death. ‘It might seem that I’m low in the productive stakes. I don’t think it’s about being a celebrity at all. It’s about creating stories and songs that will last. Otherwise, it’s not worthwhile.”

“Meanwhile Salinger, who in 1953 retreated to a house in New Hampshire where he remained virtually unseen until his death in 2010 following the zeitgeist-defining of 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye told the New York Times in a rare 1974 interview that, ‘There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.’ All the same. rumours abound over what manuscripts may be gathering dust: in that same interview he said he continued to write ten hours a day, while his daughter Maureen has spoken of a vault filled with rigorous notes on what was to be published after his death. Nothing has so far materialised, with Salinger’s son and widow, who control his estate, as tightlipped and suspicious of public scrutiny and the publishing machine as Salinger was.”

I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye in 1955 when I was in high school in New Hampshire. At the time is was suggested reading for the senior class.

Ms Allfree goes on to say that “Salinger, Mitchell and Lee all attempted to exert absolute control over their writing, pursuing unscrupulous publishers who tried to produce unlicensed editions of their work.”

This kind of conflict ultimately benefits no one.