Posnanski's 'Paterno' bio has worse problems than bad timing, say those who've read it

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Joe Posnanski writes that while he was working on his biography of Joe Paterno, he decided he "could not allow myself to get caught up in the shifting winds of this story."

Posnanski embedded with the Paterno family to write the book and was with them when the coach got fired from Penn State. An excerpt from Posnanski's book published in GQ (Posnanski's old employer Sports Illustrated declined to excerpt it) shows just how strong those winds were: It runs with footnotes that add some devastating context his book predates, like this note:

According to the Freeh report, internal e-mails between Curley, Spanier, and Schultz suggest that the three men had initially agreed to alert child services about Sandusky until Paterno persuaded them to reconsider.

In his review of "Paterno," New York Times critic Dwight Garner says Posnanski "had the worst literary timing since Aldous Huxley’s. Huxley had the misfortune to die the day President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas. No one knew for months that he was gone." But Posnanski doesn't transcend fate's caprices, Garner writes.

“Paterno” is breezy and largely sympathetic. It doesn’t contain (reverse spoiler alert) any especially startling revelations about what Paterno knew and when he knew it. It adds grain and texture to the historical record, though, while mostly skimming the surface of its subject’s life.

Sebastian Stockman writes in The Kansas City Star that Posnanski's book "has complicated the issues of the Penn State story, re-enraged me and then left me with at least as many questions as before." Particularly enraging, Stockman writes, is the dissonance between the portrait of Paterno that Posnanski paints, almost comically scrupulous and detail-oriented, with a guy who may have falsely told a grand jury he didn't remember allegations against Jerry Sandusky.

Men in their early 80s do forget things. But it strains credulity to believe that Paterno, whose players often praised his remarkable memory for things like the cheesecake their mothers had served him on recruiting visits, forgot allegations of pederasty involving an employee whom he not only hated but who had founded and run a charity for wayward adolescent boys.

It's hard not to feel sorry for Posnanski, whose boat was already rolling down the ramp, more or less, as the cannons started firing; he writes in his USA Today piece about the day after a grand jury released a presentment charging Sandusky with child sex abuse. "Every few minutes, it seemed, there were new details, rumors, accusations, defenses, truths, lies, so many it was hard to see straight," he writes. "I suspect I will never have a more difficult task as a writer — I've been told by several authors that no biographer in American history has had a book change so drastically in the course of reporting."

The book comes out Tuesday; it's No. 25 on Amazon's Best Sellers list, up two points from last week. In July, Julie Bosman wrote about the book's seemingly doomed release:

Simon & Schuster acquired the book for a reported $750,000, and Mr. Karp said he expected the company would print close to 75,000 copies. Printing and related costs can run from $1.50 to slightly more than $2 a book, not including possible extra costs like advertising and paid promotions in bookstores.

If Simon & Schuster were to lose close to $1 million on the book, it would be an unpleasant but not particularly significant sum for an imprint of its size.

It was Sara Ganim's reporting, not Posnanski's, that changed his book's course well before that cruel day in November. Dom Cosentino got an advance copy and writes in Deadspin that Posnanski told Paterno "people expect more from you." Readers may have expected more from Posnanski too.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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