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Book News: This Town, That Town. A Squabble Worthy Of Washington

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

N.B. — Book News is going on vacation next week. Your faithful correspondent will be in California sans laptop and praying that Jonathan Franzen doesn't choose this week to reignite any feuds with daytime talk show hosts. In the meantime, as always, leave your hot tips, scurrilous attacks and existential questions in the comments section or direct them to @annalisa_quinn on Twitter.

Mark Leibovich's This Town is an abrasive and entertaining send-up of the politicians, lobbyists and journalists who make up the Beltway establishment. But a dispute over the book's title has sparked a mini-controversy worthy of Leibovich's tale of ego and excess in Washington, D.C.

Leibovich, who is the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, says he got the title from his publisher, and that it is "a play on the two-word refrain that people (in This Town) put into so many sentences — a cliché of belonging, knowingness, and self-mocking civic disdain," as he explains in the epilogue of his book. But two separate D.C. insider-types have claimed that Leibovich lifted the title from them.

Almost two decades ago, the journalist and former President Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal's play This Town satirized a Washington press corps that believed that "news starts when zippers come down." The play was clever and well-received (though marred by occasional bursts of song: "Arrange the chairs on the White House lawn! Throw me a scapegoat conveniently wrong! Save me a seat at the sacrifice! I'm licking my chops over scandalous vice!" goes one ill-conceived interlude accompanied by the howling of wolves), and it was staged several times in the 1990s, including at the Washington Press Club.

In an email excerpted in This Town, the 2013 version, Blumenthal wrote to Leibovich's editors at The New York Times demanding he acknowledge that the "origin of the phrase and concept" was Blumenthal's "widely produced and reviewed satirical play." Blumenthal wrote, "Of course, titles, unlike trademarks, can't be copyrighted, but they shouldn't be plagiarized. Perhaps Leibovich is unaware of the problem. Perhaps he was born yesterday. But he should not open himself to a silly plagiarism problem." The rest of the email, which was obtained by NPR on the condition that it not be quoted directly, went on to state that the title had never been used by anyone before Blumenthal. (Frank Sinatra might beg to differ.)

True to form, Leibovich responded with a mocking "acknowledgment," announcing that "future editions of this book will hereby be known as the New Testament." He writes, "I feel bad to have inflicted hurt unto Blumenthal by overlooking a play that's been forgotten by nearly everyone, in 'this' or any town."

Asked whether the title dispute might be an example of the ego he mocks in his book, Leibovich answered, "Sid's claim is hilariously consistent with the book's conceit that Washington is over-packed with people so convinced on their own centrality in the capital that even the most innocuous two-word verbal tic must surely reflect on someone's singular brilliance."

Reached by phone, Blumenthal tells NPR, "I've said all I have to say."

The third player in the mix is Washingtonian's Carol Joynt, who writes a blog called, of course, "This Town!," though she began using the title for a D.C. gossip column she wrote under the pseudonym "Michael Strange" in Washington Life. She titled a recent personal blog post, "Mark Leibovich I'm Flattered You Lifted The Name Of My Blog For Your Book," though she says in an email that she thought the issue was "really silly." Joynt adds, "It's a big world. There's room for a lot of This Towns." She says she may even have gotten the idea from Blumenthal in the first place, but "who the hell knows?"

In any case, inside this microcosm of the Washington media, Frank Sinatra's 1967 rendition rings true: "This town is a make-you-town / Or a break-you-town...This town is a love-you-town / And a shove-you-down and push-you-'round-town."

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Annalisa Quinn
Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.
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