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Big dust-up over a 'new' Stegner book

November 24, 2007|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

WITH little fanfare, a new book by Wallace Steg- ner, set in a dry land and exploring natural resources -- an obsession his western fiction explored -- has just been published. In the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Nick Owchar called the book "a great adventure story."

But according to some of the author's inner circle, the book -- written as a work-for-hire job for a group of U.S. oil companies based in Arabia in the 1950s -- should never have seen the light of day.

Stegner's agent, Carl Brandt, said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that the published book does "a massive disservice" to Stegner's legacy because it is not the author's original version but rather the company-approved edition that Stegner disliked. One of Stegner's biographers, Philip Fradkin, concurs.

The book, "Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil," was released in September by the tiny Vista, Calif., publisher Selwa Press.

Publisher Tim Barger stands behind the book, and "Discovery!" will be discussed by Thomas Lippman, journalist and adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and the author of its introduction, on Wednesday at the Library of Congress.

-- Writing assignment

The novelist was commissioned to write the book by ARAMCO, a consortium also known as the Arabian American Oil Co. and headed by Barger's father, during Stegner's tenure at Stanford University. It was a time, in the early years of his literary career, when extra cash was welcome. But the company sat on the book, publishing it only in heavily edited excerpts in its in-house magazine and, later, as a cheap paperback in Beirut. That's the version that has been reissued.

"This is something that I really care about," said Barger, whose company has published five previous books, all on early Arabia. "I spent most of my first 30 years in Saudi Arabia. I think it's better if people can see [the Saudis] as people instead of objectifying them."

For others, Stegner's reputation is more important. Fradkin, a former Times reporter, said in a letter to the paper that "Stegner has not been well served" by the book's publication. In researching his biography, due in February, he came across correspondence in which Stegner expressed his frustration with the project and his sense that his criticism of the House of Saud had been softened.

Publishing Stegner's original text, he said by phone from his home in Marin County, would be a contribution. What exists now, he said, is "a fraudulent portrayal of how he saw ARAMCO and the Saudi Arabian government cooperating."

In "Wallace Stegner and the American West," he writes that the book "became a victim of company and international politics. What resulted years later was a bland series of articles in the company magazine and a book titled 'Discovery!' that never circulated outside the confines of the corporation."

-- Words of support

Other observers were more enthusiastic.

"Though 'Discovery!' is a company-approved bit of propaganda," wrote Owchar, "the book is an invaluable part of our understanding of an important American writer. Much of what we appreciate about Stegner's touchstone work -- the taming of a vast frontier, the colorful characters enlisted for the job -- is here."

In his introduction, Lippman, calls the book "a brisk, muscular and well-reported -- if occasionally breathless -- account of the creation and development of the oil industry in Saudi Arabia by American geologists and engineers in the 1930s and 1940s, one of the most important developments in modern Middle Eastern history."

At issue is the exact agreement, half a century ago, between Stegner and ARAMCO. Barger said that the text published in installments by ARAMCO's magazine in the late '60s belonged to the company, not to Stegner, and this is what he has reprinted, after attaining the rights from the Saudi national oil company.

"Somehow (Brandt) thinks I'm ruining this man's reputation even though most of the reviews have been positive," Barger said. "He's trying to harrass me, I think."

Agent Brandt, who did not return a call, disputes this.

Whether the book is worth Stegner's name, the text shows the writer's gift for prophecy. "The American involvement in Middle Eastern economic, cultural and political life," the author wrote, "would grow deeper, more complicated, and more sobering. Not inconceivably, the thing they all thought of as 'progress' and 'development' would blow them all up, and their world with it."

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

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