HarperCollins paid about $1 million for the U.S. rights to Jonathan Littell's novel, but really what it bought was controversy in a box. That product is working as advertised.
That is to say, Motoko Rich of the New York Times has a section-fronting article on The Kindly Ones today, and that's just the icing: Michiko Kakutani slammed the title in the same space last week, former Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda raved about it in the Daily Beast, and the whole hullabaloo is a repeat of basically identical controversies in Britain, Germany and originally in France, where it the novel made its debut three years ago.
Kindly Ones involves brutally graphic Holocaust memories — gassings, beatings, worse — of an unrepentant former SS officer, along with his raw sexual fantasies. Littell, an English-speaking American, wrote the book in French. One French critic called it the "new War And Peace." Kakutani: "a pointless compilation of atrocities;" Korda: A work of "astonishing brutality, originality, and force."
If the debate over what Kakutani called an "odious stunt" sounds familiar, that might be because Jonathan Burnham, the publisher who brought the book to the U.S., presided over a similar hubub when HarperCollins bought James Frey's post-fabrication novel, Bright Shiny Morning.
If Burnham is building a reputation among some as a sensationalist, at least he's showing the especially-troubled book industry how to take the right sorts of risks — and in so doing to better compete for consumer attention, as basically every other form of traditional media has learned to do — along the way.
(Pic of Littell by AFP via Getty)