Thursday, July 14, 2016

Slings and arrows …

… Helen DeWitt, America’s Great Unlucky Novelist -- Vulture. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

The Last Samurai was a sensation even before it appeared. The toast of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, with rights sold to more than a dozen countries, the novel came out in 2000 to wide acclaim, sold in excess of 100,000 copies in English, and was nominated for several prizes. But for DeWitt, this was the beginning of a long phase of turmoil that still hasn’t abated. The book’s success was marred by an epic battle with a copy editor involving large amounts of Wite-Out; typesetting nightmares having to do with the book’s use of foreign scripts; what she describes as “an accounting error” that resulted in her owing the publisher $75,000 when she thought the publisher owed her $80,000; the agonies of obtaining permissions for the many outside works quoted in the novel, including Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai — which was the title of The Last Samurai until it was deemed legally impossible. Her second novel, Lightning Rods, finished in July 1999, was then stuck in limbo after her publisher, Talk Miramax, folded. When it did finally appear, from New Directions in 2011, it garnered a legion of devoted readers too young to have read The Last Samurai before it went out of print. (The best and funniest satire of capitalism I’ve ever read, Lightning Rods concerns a firm that provides corporations with undercover prostitutes for their male employees in order to relieve them of urges that might cause them to commit sexual harassment.)
I was under the impression that titles could not be copyrighted. There have been a number of novels called The Devil's Advocate, the one by Morris L. West, and another by Taylor Caldwell. The title of the Kurosawa film, by the way, is Seven Samurai. (You can take the copy editor away from the copy desk etc.)


  1. Frank you are right -- I do copyright law -- but there may have been another reason, e.g., international law, some type of contractual conflict, etc.

  2. Thanks, Julie. I figured there had to be something else going on. Actually, I don't think giving it the same name as a classic film was a good idea.