A central fact about Ed Champion, the book blogger-turned-pariah, is that he lacked power within the publishing industry. He had access to writers, and over the course of nine years interviewed hundreds of them, and he got invited to parties, but his influence remained on the margins—among people who, like him, lived and breathed literature—it never bled into the mainstream. As Champion tweeted in June, “No money, no job, no gigs, no agent (a MS out with three).”
It’s worth remembering this, in light of the incident that has probably ended his career. Before Ed Champion threatened Porochista Khakpour—he promised to release on Twitter the name of the man who had taken a nude photograph of her—and became “the most hated man in books,” he couldn’t monetize his life’s work.
I mention this, not to elicit sympathy for Champion, but to point out why, at least for me, the decision of editors, publicists, publishers and writers to tolerate him for so long was so vexing. It’s especially bewildering, given that the Khakpour affair was hardly the first one could characterize as abusive, or at least deeply creepy. As Laura Miller recounted on Tuesday:
…former Salon film critic Matt Zoller Seitz has written that Champion “threatened to put out a cigar in my mouth after I confronted him over his silly preening.” New York magazine writer Boris Kachka received a voice mail in which Champion threatened to punch him in the face for commenting on his blog. Later, Champion would characterize this message as “performance art.” The writer and blogger Ron Hogan has tweeted that Champion “threatened to assault me at a book party.”
Other targets were hounded more than menaced. The critic and editor John Freeman, who went to high school with Champion, was the subject of several strange autobiographical blog posts. Champion began to email Freeman as well, and for a period Champion turned up whenever Freeman spoke at a literary event, “taking my photograph and blogging about my appearance and other stuff like that.
Even as early as 2006, TIME’s Lev Grossman was compelled to highlight the frequent antagonism of the man “unswervingly committed to the position that I am a complete tool.”
Emily Gould, about whom Champion wrote several months ago, has her own theory about the blogger’s persistence. She was a recent recipient of Champion’s ire; the subject of an 11,000-word essay that is, more or less, a takedown of Gould and her mostly young, mostly female contemporaries (Champion proudly calls them “middling millennials,” a coinage which hasn’t caught on). There’s a vein of literary criticism running through it, but lines such as “when a minx’s head is so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine,” as well as the half-dozen photos of Gould which dot the piece, give away the game. The target was as much the person as the work.
“I think the latent, underlying sexism of the book industry is maybe somewhat to blame,” Gould said. But it’s also a matter of politics and diplomacy. “Publishing is a really small world. People are really loath to burn a bridge or alienate anyone because you don’t know how things are going to shake out and who might be instrumental in helping a book of yours break out.”
I find this explanation most persuasive. A novelist who’d been interviewed by Champion said something similar when I asked why he’d appeared on the podcast. ”Publicizing a book is hard, you’re grateful for anyone who seems to care, so there’s some automatic warmth for someone who has read the book,” he emailed.
Sad but true. Ed Champion’s longevity as a book blogger is quite likely owed to the weakened state of the publishing industry. As Miller put it:
It has become notoriously hard to win press attention for new books. When not pursuing some irrational vendetta, Champion has been willing to devote coverage to debut authors and some commercial novelists, like Jennifer Weiner, who have not been treated seriously elsewhere. … Champion isn’t the only blogger to do such things, but because he has been at it from the very beginning of the blogging boom, he has a larger audience than some.
(As an aside: Miller, in her piece, takes a “don’t feed the trolls” stance with Champion. That’s nice that it worked for her, but Emily Gould provides a nice counterpoint for the efficacy of such a tactic.)
The audience isn’t even that large. Indeed, Khakpour, who had been friends with Champion, confirmed that neither of her appearances on the show resulted in a sales bump. But she has no regrets. She went on the show for the same reason the industry stood by him. “He was actually good at what he did,” she said. “He was a very good reader and he would take authors seriously when a lot of other people wouldn’t. So the best interviews that I still have to date—in audio form certainly—are from Ed Champion. Nobody’s read the work the way he has.”
She offered a horror story: In May, Khakpour was interviewed by a magazine. The reporter hadn’t read her book. When she asked if he’d like to reschedule, he replied, “It’s cool. I’ll Google you,” and asked that she write her own quotes. Writers who want to sell books routinely put up with such nonsense, so one imagines Champion’s literacy and inquisitiveness was, for many, sufficient.
Others were not so eager to talk to Champion. Joanna Rakoff, who appeared on the show in June, did so unwillingly. On Facebook, she wrote, “I had a couple of awful incidents with him, and asked not to do his (awful) show this time around.” Her publicist told her, “We don’t want to make him angry, as he might go crazy and smear you.” That concern was a two-way street. “I have feared that he would harass/embarrass my author if I said no (or continued to say no) to his interview requests,” tweeted a Bloomsbury publicist.
I assume that fear was real, given the lack of discernible commercial incentive for a writer to appear. When I asked Kathleen Schmidt, publicity director for Weinstein Books, why Champion hadn’t been blackballed, she replied, “It’s interesting to me that he is even a big enough deal to blackball.”
Another theory concerns Sarah Weinman. She’s the news editor of Publisher’s Lunch, an important industry newsletter that highlights book deals and sales. She also is, or was, Champion’s girlfriend of nine years and is seen as his protector and reason he has not, until now, been written off. Although this theory sets off my sexism alarm bells, and I’ve yet to be persuaded that she holds real power, I’m not quite willing to write it off.
Certainly, others—all of whom are far more knowledgeable of the industry than myself—don’t dismiss it. “You can’t tell the full story of Ed Champion’s abuse and intimidation without discussing how Sarah Weinman enabled & abetted it,” tweeted Ron Hogan. This isn’t without merit; she’s a “contributing editor” to Champion’s site and, in the wake of the Emily Gould piece, disclosed that she’d read every word prior to publication.
Jacob Silverman, who’d been in a writing group with the couple, wrote to Champion—who once told Emily St. John Mandel, a writer he’d interviewed, that she ought to “swallow a glass of cyanide”—about the misogyny of the essay:
I worried this would eventually happen. Ed, all of this pains me. But I hope you examine this situation and try to think critically. On one side, there is a nearly unanimous assemblage of people — among them many smart people, maybe even people you like and respect — who find this essay troubling and misogynist. On the other side is you and a few scattered supporters. Perhaps everyone is wrong and you are right. Maybe you are the last righteous man in literature. But maybe you also crossed the line this time. I hope you can consider that.
And of course Jacob, it never occurred to you that I might have signed off on this piece 100 percent. Or am I a card-carrying misogynistic cult member unworthy of being contacted?
Have a lovely life, far away from us.
In at least one case, Weinman appeared to threaten a writer. Michele Filgate was friends with Weinman and Champion, but ended the relationship in March, after the “cyanide” tweet, in an email to the couple. Replied Weinman (who, according to Filgate, was aware that Filgate was working on her first book): “That was a most interesting email. And now that the bullshit’s out of your system, let’s get to the heart of the matter: why now? I have my theories; I assume my question will be unanswered. … It’s too bad, really. And, in the end, a tactically stupid thing to do.” (Neither Weinman neither Champion replied to a request for comment.)
The third and last theory: simple ignorance. Ed Champion may have been a boil, this theory goes, but he wasn’t well-known enough to lance. “There’s a lot of turnover in book publicity,” said Rachel Fershleiser, a former publicist. “A lot of book publicists are very young and they don’t necessarily hang out in the same circles as their writers. So it’s entirely plausible to me that a lot people still didn’t know.” Schmidt agreed. “Don’t get me wrong, I respected what he did,” she wrote, “but I don’t think a large % of people in book publishing actually know who he is.”
Maybe so. It’s unfortunate that a lot of people are just now learning of Champion’s misdeeds at the very moment he’s set to fade from the scene.