the complete review Quarterly
Volume IV, Issue 1   --   February, 2003


Epistolary Fictions
Gabe Hudson doesn't write the President

Introductory Summary:

I. Gabe Hudson gets published
II. Critical Reaction
III. "When you have a letter from the President you know you have a letter from the President"
IV. After the Satires
V. "My claims (...) were meant as satire"
VI. "Things that I don't have any control over"
VII. Truth, Lies, and Expectations
VIII. "Censoring the citizens he serves"
IX. Write a Letter to the President
X. Why ?
XI. What harm ?
Conclusion

Links

Appendix - Gabe Hudson doesn't write us




Introductory Summary:

  1. Gabe Hudson published a work of fiction, Dear Mr. President (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).
  2. On his website (www.gabehudson.com) and in numerous interviews, Gabe Hudson claimed:
    • to have sent a copy of his book to sitting American President, George Bush Jr.
    • to have received a reply from Bush, in which the President called the book "unpatriotic and ridiculous and just plain bad writing"
  3. The White House denied that the President had sent any letter to the author.
  4. Gabe Hudson acknowledged, through his publisher, that his claims were fabrications and that he had never sent a copy of his book to the President or received a letter from him

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I. Gabe Hudson gets published

       Where does it start ?
       Perhaps here:
The Honorable George Bush
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

DEAR MR. PRESIDENT,
       So begins Gabe Hudson's (first) epistolary fiction, Dear Mr. President, a story first published in the 18/25 June 2001 issue of The New Yorker.
       The President Bush being addressed is the country's 41st chief executive, the father of the current President Bush -- and the story actually begins with a date line: "October 17, 1991". It's not a real letter: it's a work of fiction -- it even says so there, above the title, in The New Yorker: "Fiction", just in case, perhaps, there are any doubts. "By Gabe Hudson" it also says, beneath the title, though the story-letter is signed: "Lance Corporal James Laverne".

       Dear Mr. President was published in the "Début Fiction"-section of The New Yorker's 2001 "Summer Fiction Issue", alongside works by Jonathan Safran Foer (currently enjoying great success with his début novel, Everything is Illuminated) and Nell Freudenberger (who received a good deal of press coverage and a fat book contract largely on the basis of her story's appearance here; see also our piece Whoa Nelly !) With the story -- or rather: with the publication of this story in such a prestigious, high-circulation periodical -- the previously practically unknown Hudson burst onto the literary scene. Like the other debutantes, Hudson received considerable media coverage (though much of it unkindly focussed on the embarrassing Katharina Bosse publicity still accompanying his text, Hudson posed with a gas mask and some toy soldiers, pretending to ponder and pen weighty words at the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park). The inevitable two-book deal also followed.
       Dear Mr. President the story grew, augmented by several additional pieces of fiction, into Dear Mr. President the book. Venerable publishing imprint Alfred A. Knopf released it in August 2002.

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II. Critical Reaction

       Dear Mr. President was fairly widely reviewed, though not especially prominently -- so, for example, The New York Times Book Review did cover it, but only in a "Books in Brief"-review (by Chris Colin, 15 September 2002).
       Many reviews were quite or even very favourable; see these links for many of the reviews available online.

       Chris Colin called it "acutely inventive" (whatever that means) though occasionally "frustratingly whimsical". Other, fairly representative review-quotes include:
       "Hudson's attention to detail, ability to sustain a unique tone and mood and, above all, his scary situations cut with humor merge to create a solid collection." Mark Luce, San Francisco Chronicle (15 September 2002)

       "Other stories (...) read more like playful-but-failed experiments, and thus lack much of a punch. Some of the stories are far more successful and reveal Hudson's imaginative talent and promise." Martin Wilson, The Austin Chronicle (20 September 2002)

       "Equal parts travesty and tragedy, it manages to be both febrile and funny, sad and sardonic. In wiping away the sheen of heroism typical of war myths, Hudson stands on the shoulders of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller" Camille Dodero, Boston Phoenix (19-26 September 2002)

       "Despite his acidic and biting observations, Hudson's collection has an uneven and choppy feel, while his narrators tend to all sound quite similar. (...) Moreover, one gets the sense that Hudson doesn't quite know what to do with the neurotic and messed-up narrators he has created in these stories, and so more often than not, he kills them off" Heather Lee Schroeder, The Capital Times (28 September 2002)

       "Hudson (...) writes like a grounded, focused combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Kurt Vonnegut." Tasha Robinson, The Onion (2 October 2002)

       "Gabe Hudson is a major new voice in fiction, and in this era of Ashcroftian fear and censorship, Dear Mr. President is a gutsy and intelligent look at the America we don't want to admit we've become." Eric Miles Williamson, Houston Chronicle (4 October 2002)

       "Dear Mr. President is built of irony upon irony; the stories donít just strain credulity, they often abandon it altogether." Chad Galts, Brown Alumni Magazine (January/February 2003)
       (See also Hudson's Dear Mr. President-page for a large (though hardly objective) selection of other review-quotes.)

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III. "When you have a letter from the President you know you have a letter from the President"

       Eventually, Gabe Hudson would go on to claim he had sent a copy of his book to President Bush (the sitting one) -- and received a reply. The claim itself seems to have gone through a slow gestation period, before then quickly snowballing out of control.
       The idea of sending the junior Bush a copy of Dear Mr. President is hardly a far-fetched one; one might have expected it as a matter of course from Hudson and/or the Knopf publicity people (as, indeed, one might have expected them to send a copy to the elder Bush -- the original "Dear Mr. President" to whom the fictional letter was addressed). But amazingly no one bothered to actually do it
       When it did occur to Hudson fantasy prevailed over reality; rather than actually mail a copy he spun out (in increasingly fantastic fashion) a wild scenario until it ultimately collapsed on him.
       A 26 September interview with Robert Birnbaum, published at identity theory suggests some of where Hudson was coming from (in his younger days, he notes, "I had been pranking and pulling pranks and I wasn't aware that one could construe a prank as a piece of art"), but doesn't mention any presidential reactions to his book yet.
       An early trial balloon appears to have been an interview in the October 2002 issue of Bold Type (a Random House publicity vehicle dressed up vaguely as a literary magazine) conducted by Brian Niemietz. The subject comes up:
GH: Well, I did send a copy of the book to the President and I received a sort of weird letter from him that I will be reading from when I go on tour.
BN: Had the pages been colored ?
GH: We sent him the Braille version. When I signed the book I wrote "there's no anthrax in here so not to worry."
       That was the extent of it. Niemietz didn't bother pressing on, and it sounds as though neither took the idea very seriously. The exchange actually borders on the incoherent: Niemietz trying to make some sort of joke at Bush's expense, Hudson claiming it was a Braille version sent to the President (why ? the President may have many limitations, but blindness -- of this sort -- isn't one of them).
       The nature of this conversation -- a publicity puff-piece put out by the folks trying to promote Hudson and his book -- make it difficult to gauge how the content is to be perceived. Niemietz does ask some sensible questions over the course of the "interview", but any independent journalist would have obviously questioned Hudson more closely on this particular claim. Niemietz appears to treat it as the absurd fabrication that it eventually turned out to be (as, to some extent does Hudson, saying he sent a Braille version of the text), but since it appears in a Random House publication -- and since Hudson promises to read from it on his tour -- it also has the sound of a promotional teaser, suggesting there really might be something to it and that it's better only revealed once Hudson is out on the book-flogging tour.

       Hudson apparently liked the idea and proceeded to embellish it. On his website, promoting the book, he used the letter-writing idea as a publicity stunt, inviting visitors to his website to "Write a Letter to the President". He wrote there:
About a month ago now, Gabe mailed a copy of his book, Dear Mr. President, to President Bush Jr. at the White House. Several weeks later, much to his surprise, Gabe received a brief letter from the President, in which the President stated, among other things, that his book was "unpatriotic" and "ridiculous."
       (Note that this text -- previously posted here -- is no longer available at the site.)
       This, then, was the story from then on -- with a little more fine-tuning along the way. A first step was in the 13 October Contra Costa Times where Georgia Rowe offered a review/profile and mentions:
Not everyone has responded favorably. Just after the book was published, Hudson sent a copy to the White House and received a curt reply. "It wasn't clear who wrote the letter, although I'd like to think it's from the president," says Hudson, smiling. "They clearly were not in favor of the book. It was just a couple of sentences, but the line that stood out said the book was 'unpatriotic.'"
       Hudson was apparently still afraid to go all-out and claim Bush himself had penned the words. A few days later, however -- in the presumably friendlier confines of McSweeney's (where Hudson has published and pranked before), and in conversation with the amenable Deborah Treisman (the fiction editor at The New Yorker) -- he was already stating he had received a letter and that it was definitely from the President:
But, one thing I can say for sure, when you have a letter from the President you know you have a letter from the President.
       The Treisman conversations -- parts one and two (apparently first published 16 and 17 October) -- are even titled "I Got a Letter from the President". Again, it's a difficult piece to gauge. For one, McSweeney's apparently has a reputation for a certain type of humour, suggesting that not everything to be found on these pages is to be taken seriously. (Editors' note: we acknowledge and confess to being entirely tone-deaf to the McSweeney's approach to writing, generally unable to differentiate between what might be meant seriously and what is meant to be funny. We simply don't get it. As many others apparently do, the fault surely lies with us; nevertheless even awareness of the problem doesn't make us more receptive to the McSweeney's antics (or whatever they are). In any case, readers should be aware of this and take it into account when considering our comments.)
       Also of significance: the interviewer is someone of considerable literary stature -- Treisman now runs the fiction show at The New Yorker -- and one might expect a certain seriousness from her. However, in her capacity as an editor at The New Yorker Treisman was also instrumental in Hudson achieving his initial success. Presumably she has a vested interest in seeing to it that a talent she has discovered and/or fostered meets with continued success -- leaving her, perhaps, more susceptible to going along with Hudson's games.
       Treisman does ask the hard and obvious question when Hudson claims to have received a letter from the President:
Hudson: At first I thought it was a joke. But, one thing I can say for sure, when you have a letter from the President you know you have a letter from the President. The stationery alone is intimidating. It's a weirdly terrifying letter to have in your hands.

Treisman: Are you telling the truth about this ? I have to say, you haven't always been completely honest with the reading public.

Hudson: It's true, I have done some strange stuff in the past, but I will say on my behalf, there was always a point to that stuff. I was always trying to make people think about something. This one is true, though, and I honestly wish it wasn't.
       Hudson certainly sounds convincing. Equally significant: Treisman -- a person who knows Hudson, and who knows he sometimes hasn't been "completely honest with the reading public" -- sounds convinced. Or so it surely appears to the unsuspecting reader. (McSweeney's habitués may, of course, have known better.)
       Deborah Treisman kindly responded to our inquiry regarding Hudson's doings, and specifically her interview with him:
No, I was surprised but not dismayed by the aftermath of our McSweeney's interview, mostly because I didn't, for a second, think that Gabe had actually received a letter from George Bush. He wasn't "lying" to me, as you suggest; he was joking, parodying, satirizing, as he does so effectively in his stories. Gabe's a wonderful generator of fiction, and a good old-fashioned prankster with a great comic imagination. What was surprising to me is that anyone would take seriously the idea that President Bush had written to a constituent to accuse him of producing "plain bad writing." Not seeing it as clearly a joke seems, to me, akin to believing that President Bush makes frequent appearances on Saturday Night Live.
       Certainly, it is one way of interpreting Hudson's statements. (One does wonder, however, if she "didn't, for a second, think that Gabe had actually received a letter from George Bush" why she allowed the interview to proceed in the manner it then did.) In a sense -- because it was presented so convincingly here (thanks in large part to Treisman's (unsuspecting ?) role) -- it was on some level even very successful "joking, parodying, satirizing".
       (Note that the interview is still available at McSweeney's, without any clarifying notes or corrections. It is also the page Hudson sends visitors to his own site to who click on the link "Read More About the Contest" (that being his "Write a Letter to the President Contest").)

       After this, Hudson also used the same story with the press.
       A brief (and surprisingly casual) mention came in The New York Observer, in the 28 October article, They Might Be Authors, by Joe Hagan and Rebecca Traister, basically summarizing Hudson's claim (and presenting it simply as fact). This issue of The New York Observer was available by 23 October, and among those who read it was Kevin Canfield, who in turn looked into the story and interviewed Hudson.
       It was Canfield's article, President To Author: Your Book Is Unpatriotic, in the 30 October Hartford Courant that then received the most attention (enthusiastically linked to on the Internet, and even getting a mention in The Washington Post, which also didn't (immediately) question the claims made there.) The Hartford Courant article includes the unfortunate lines:
If Hudson is telling the truth -- and there's no reason to think he isn't -- Bush recently sent the young author a two-paragraph note, complete with his own review of Dear Mr. President.
       Hudson uses a similar rhetorical device in his explanation to Canfield that he used with Treisman, expressing incredulity about the whole idea before his interlocutors are able to. "At first I thought it was a joke", he told Treisman, before she had a chance to ask (to her credit she still went on to ask: "Are you telling the truth about this ?"). And Hudson told Canfield:
I didn't think it was real at first. I mean, who would ? But once you hold the thing and read it, there's no doubt in your mind. I mean, nobody could fake the authority of that letter.
       It's a convincing twist, a neat rhetorical move, and certainly appears to have helped lull Canfield into believing Hudson's outlandish claim.
       In an interview in the 31 October-7 November Boston Phoenix Camille Dodero also wonders: "How do we know youíre telling truth ?" Hudson deflects the question by promising the letter "will eventually be published in a national publication" -- and by invoking respect for the office of the President:
I will say we want to handle this with as much grace and dignity as possible. This is, after all, the president.
He also offered some detail about the letter -- again a device to make it seem more real:
The letter came in regular US mail. There was a sticker on it that I gathered was for tracking. Very regal White House stationery. The letter began by thanking me for sending the book. Also, Iím from Austin, Texas, and the president touched on the fact I was a fellow Texan. But he was setting me up for the one-two punch: he called the book "unpatriotic" and "ridiculous" and "just plain bad writing." He clearly wasnít crazy about the book or what the book addressed.
       That was pretty much as far as the story went: within days of the first Hartford Courant article the story collapsed. Attempts to confirm Hudson's claim met with White House denials and then Hudson himself admitted it was all a fabrication (see also this article).

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IV. After the Satires

       The Hartford Courant and The Washington Post printed follow-up articles apprising readers of Hudson's shenanigans, and The New York Observer printed an errata notice (though the online copy of the original article remains uncorrected and without this notice). There were also a few articles and weblog mentions about these events. Hudson's website for a while sent users on to this article in The Hartford Advocate (from the 7 November issue), but otherwise, to the best of our knowledge, Hudson has not publicly commented on these events. (Our efforts to elicit a comment or reaction from Mr.Hudson did not meet with success; see Epistolary Fictions: Appendix.)
       At this time (January 2003), there is no acknowledgement on Hudson's site of this particular satire; the link to The Hartford Advocate-article having been discontinued. Hudson continues to offer visitors an opportunity to Write a Letter to the President (in conjunction with McSweeney's where the letters are then posted). The claim that Hudson himself received a letter from the President is no longer printed there, but readers who click on the link to "Read More About the Contest" are directed to part two of the Treisman-interview -- where the claim remains (without explanatory notes or elaboration).


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