Nick Cohen

Christopher Hitchens’s lefty publisher begged from him – and then betrayed him

Why is Christopher Hitchens’s old publisher turning on him?

Christopher Hitchens’s lefty publisher begged from him – and then betrayed him
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Before the crash of 2007, as aid agencies were asking the governments of what we once called ‘the rich world’ to wipe out poor countries’ debts, Christopher Hitchens received a begging letter from his publishers.

Verso, if you have never come across it, boasts that it is ‘the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world’. Its old stagers are Tariq Ali and Perry Anderson, Marxist-Leninists of the upper class, who had been Hitchens’s comrades on the soixante-huitard left. Hitchens told me that along with aristocratic style of their fine offices in London and New York went the classic capitalist desire to expropriate the fruits of the workers’ labour.

As ‘debt forgiveness’ was in the air, Verso had said to him, would he forgive the debts of his publishers by allowing them to keep his royalties? ‘They think,’ said Hitchens, his eyes shining with incredulous glee, ‘that I’m the equivalent of the World Bank and that they’re the equivalent of a banana republic.’

Verso looks like a tin-pot dictatorship now. The publishing house has done something I have not seen since the passing of communism: denounced its dead author for his ideological deviations. It recruited one Richard Seymour, a Marxist Leninist hack, to produce Unhitched. (Geddit?) Among his many, many other sins, Seymour accuses his Verso colleague of being a ‘terrible liar’, ‘career-minded’, a ‘power fetishist’, ‘a cliché’ an ‘ouvrierist’ and, worst of all, an apostate who abandoned ‘the left’ to support the West’s wars against al-Qa’eda and Saddam Hussein.

As that ‘ouvrierist’ suggests, nature did not intend Mr Seymour to write. Whatever you think of Hitchens’s arguments, he loved the English language, and it loved him back. Seymour read the collected works of that compelling stylist and still produced sentences such as, ‘Turns to the right among the intelligentsia were drawn out processes punctuated by miniwaves and with distinct temporalities.’

People write this badly when they have something to hide. Seymour and Verso’s secret is that when they say ‘the left’ they mean the far left, which in our age is also an ally of the far right: the 21st-century equivalent of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Verso publishes the speeches of Osama bin Laden. Without irony or self-awareness, Seymour denounces Hitchens’s support for Salman Rushdie and opposition to Ayatollah Khomeini. This is a world where any enemy of the West, even a clerical and reactionary enemy that executes leftists, must be supported; where Seymour can say ‘the ascendant form of resistant politics had become one or other variant of Islamism’ and mean ‘resistant’ as a compliment.

The trouble is that the heretic-hunter fears that the reader may see through his double standards. It is therefore not enough for him to criticise his target’s ideas, he seems to want to destroy his target’s character too. But how? He can say he was a bad man in private. Intelligent readers will just separate the writer from the work, the gossip from the gist, and shrug.

The practised calumniator knows there is only one killer charge to level in these circumstances: plagiarism. Everything about the writer becomes fraudulent then, because ‘the work’ becomes stolen goods.

Deplorably, Seymour levels it at Hitchens. Seymour writes that ‘a great deal of his work on Bill Clinton’s betrayal on health care’ in No One Left to Lie To, Hitchens’s polemic on the Clinton administration, was ‘lifted’ from another journalist. Shocking behaviour, I am sure you agree. But Seymour does not say that the section on health filled a modest part of the book. And in the endnotes he concedes, ‘In fairness, Hitchens credited [the journalist’s] work in the chapter in the paperback edition.’ In other words, Seymour is a critic who makes an allegation in the daylight of the main text and withdraws it in the gloom of the small print.

His most sensational charge is that Hitchens’s The Missionary Position, a celebrated assault on Mother Teresa, was straight theft. Verso said when it published in the 1990s that Hitchens had based it on a documentary, Hell’s Angel, that he had presented on Channel 4. Hitchens certainly made the programme, you can still see it on YouTube. But Seymour says an Indian author ‘produced most of the original research’ for the book. Verso thought the manuscript needed rewriting. Its editors passed it to Hitchens, who then won fame and notoriety by passing it off as his own work.

‘Who was the Indian author?’ I asked a Verso press spokeswoman. She did not know. ‘Why didn’t Verso insist on crediting him or her on the dust jacket?’ Ah, came the reply, the mysterious Indian ‘didn’t mind’ Hitchens’s theft. He must be the most easy-going writer in human history, I thought, but went along with the spin and asked, ‘Well why didn’t Seymour say that?’

The spokeswoman did not know; but the true answer is that ‘the left’ detests Hitchens’s ‘betrayal’ and cannot grant him the smallest concession. One of Hitchens’s stock of quotes was a warning against allowing hatred to so grip your mind that you no longer cared what you said. ‘The man who thinks any stick will do will pick up a boomerang.’ I think it is from Chesterton, but cannot find the source, but I am certain that if Richard Seymour and Tariq Ali look up they will see a boomerang whirling through the air to smack them in the face.

While I had the Verso PR woman on the line, I remembered that it had published my own book Cruel Britannia in 2000.

‘I can’t remember the last time I saw a royalty statement,’ I said.

‘Ah well, we have been upgrading our royalty department for a couple of years,’ she replied.

Years, I thought. It takes years for a small publisher to ‘upgrade’?

‘I want any money I am owed now,’ I said, and hung up.

Young lefties beware. If you can write, or even, as in the case of Seymour, you cannot, Verso will offer to publish you. Stay away. The record shows that it will try to take your money if you toe the party line, and trash your reputation if you do not.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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