Category Archives: Book Publishing

Where Did that ‘Foreigner’ Go

People who make decisions about media — heads of publishing houses, TV producers, Hollywood studio chiefs— believe that most Americans aren’t interested in anything “foreign.”

an old cliche

Typical Arab? an old cliche

As a result, for many years, much of what we heard about people in the Middle East were stereotypes of “rag heads,” exotic belly dancers and cowardly “A-rab” soldiers running away when the real fighting began.

Then came the attacks of 9/11, and the only possible benefit: that unheard-of prospect of a first novel about everyday life in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, selling in the millions. Since then an outpouring of novels and memoirs about the Middle East have been published that we might not have seen otherwise.

"The Kite Runner" published 2003 (Riverhead)

“The Kite Runner” published 2003 (Riverhead)

I don’t mean to say The Kite Runner will stand as a great or exceptional novel. As critics noted, the details are accurate and the story is told earnestly and sometimes grippingly. The author, too, is something of a phenomenon, a promising first novelist whose family was given political asylum in California, where he became an M.D. and was practicing as an internist while writing Kite Runner in English, his second language.

So: Intriguing story, commendable author and trustworthy descriptions of a country that most of us knew little about. What’s the problem?

Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini

Well, plenty, according to a 2009 essay I found only recently called Can the West Read? Western Readers, Orientalist Stereotypes, and the Sensational Response to The Kite Runner by an Occidental College student named Sarah Hunt.

Drawing from Orientalism, scholar Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1978 study of stereotypes about Arab culture, Hunt suggests that The Kite Runner uses simplistic Western ideas to make the Middle East “a cultural backdrop against which to create and celebrate Western identity.”

The plot, she says, reads more like an American coming-of-age novel than a story that might have emerged organically from modern Afghanistan. Americans shouldn’t think that by reading The Kite Runner, they’re “creating a ‘bridge of understanding’ between themselves and Afghan culture.”

'Orientalism' by Edward Said, 1979

‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said, 1979

I never thought people ran out to read The Kite Runner in a conscious effort to correct American ignorance or become better world citizens. Rather a phenomenal word-of-mouth said The Kite Runner was a terrific novel you couldn’t put down about everyday life in Afghanistan, a country we were currently bombing because of 9/11.

Fine, but remember, says Sarah Hunt: People don’t just read a novel for the story, and then go on to another story, and another.  We bring our own biases to the page. We seek confirmation of preconceptions that have been on our minds, perhaps subconsciously, for decades.

In The Kite Runner, Hosseini makes his protagonist, Amir, “less and less ‘foreign’ ” to the Western reader, says Hunt, and more an “extension of the imperial self by using the East, in all its forms, for his own Westernized benefit.”

Don’t you love academic language like that — so literary, so righteous, so nostalgic (you Western imperialists, you bums). So pointy.

But I’m glad that someone like Sarah Hunt is here to keep the critical conversation going. Americans  love The Kite Runner because we do learn a great deal — about boys and dads, games and customs, geography and money exchange in Kabul — against the backdrop of huge societal changes in Afghanistan, from Soviet occupation to the entrance of the Taliban.

Edward Said

Edward Said

Of course, that’s the plot. Hunt, like Edward Said,  is more concerned about form. If Amir becomes less and less “foreign” and more like Western readers, so then do Amir’s friend Hassan (the victim) , and Assef (the villain) become more “foreign.” Hunt believes each character plays out unseen stereotypes that reassure Western readers of the “inferiority” and “barbaric” nature of Orientalist (in this case Afghan) characters.

Something like that.  It’s easy to poke holes in Sarah Hunt’s essay because she, too, is guilty of simplistic reasoning. But it’s equally important to note that Can the West Read? represents a critical conversation that is vital to a free culture. This kind of questioning flows around every piece of art we see, and every work of commercial entertainment in front of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Unlike plainer, shorter reviews that tell us whether a work in question is good or bad, the kind of cultural questioning that Hunt represents stretches and tests the reader — challenges us to notice  prejudices that stop us from having the empathy to understand how “foreigners” themselves feel about being exploited over and over again in Western works.

'The Panther' by Nelson DeMille

‘The Panther’ by Nelson DeMille

Take for example those toughboy action-junkie spy thrillers. (Seven Days from Sunday, National Security, American Assassin) that make so often characters from the Middle East swarthy evil bad guys with bad teeth. An example would be an otherwise fine novelist like Nelson DeMille turning his knowledgeable-wiseacre detective, John Corey, into a swaggering fathead. In book after book (The Lion, The Panther) Corey single-handedly saves the world from Middle Eastern terrorists who need to be killed for the benefit of humankind. He wins, as Americans must, because after all, We’re #1.

The scimitar guy in 'Raiders' - who could blame Indy?

The scimitar guy in ‘Raiders’ – who could blame Indy?

These bad-guy Arab characters come out of comic-book fantasies, so why take them seriously? Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the threatening black-robed giant Arab guy swings his scimitar around so dramatically that Indiana Jones just shrugs and shoots him dead? The audience exploded with laughter when I saw it in a theater. There was no opportune moment for a rational critic like myself to stand up and point out the problems of cheap humor against the We’re #1 backdrop of American big shot storytelling.  The audience couldn’t be critical because they know the Western hero is always going to win — he just gets more points when he does it humorously.

And extends the fun by reporting that Harrison Ford in his role as Indiana Jones was suffering from dysentery at the time, so he “persuaded [director Steven] Spielberg to try the scene this much shorter way. (One could say Ford was given “the runs” of the place.)”

"Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire" or shoplifter of sacred objects?

“Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire” or shoplifter of sacred objects?

Ha ha, those Snopes writers sure got into the spirit of a real “rag head” moment. “Indy” gets away with using his gun instead of a whip because the villain is too stupid to notice that white people are his superiors in every way.  Plus Ford and Spielberg didn’t have to feel guilty for filming that scene because Raiders was just a kill-the-desert-rat movie for Americans anyway. Not to mention a let’s- steal-treasures-from-the-primitives theme, but that’s another story.

But what about those American viewers?  Why would an American audience raised on the concept of free speech and enjoying more choices than just about anybody in the world, give up its discriminating voice for easy laughs at other peoples’ expense?

For the answer let’s turn to the Showtime television series Homeland and the very amusing stunt pulled by Middle Eastern street artists a week or so ago.  They were hired to spray paint “authentic Arab graffiti” on the walls of the show’s sets which had been built in Berlin, for Season 5.

'Homeland is racist'

‘Homeland is racist’

But these artists had something else in mind, and I don’t know which is more hilarious –

1) that the graffiti didn’t say things like “God is great,” as the artists were told to write, but rather “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is a joke,” “Homeland is a watermelon” (i.e., a “sham,” a “fake”) — and nobody on the Homeland staff noticed.


2) that the show’s co-creator tried to sound hip and cavalier about it by announcing to the press: “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air … but we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.”

Ha ha, sounds like something they’d say on except this guy at Showtime went on TV and put it in a press release.  He wanted to be witty and cool so he could dodge the real question, which is: You don’t have one person working on Homeland who speaks Arabic?

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out ...

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out …

And other questions that follow: You don’t have one fact-checker for scenes set in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria? You don’t care that CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is an agent trained in Arabic who botches words she should pronounce perfectly, or when the converted POW Brody prays with his shoes on (“a big blooper”), or when “a bustling metropolitan city” like Beirut is reduced to “dilapidated neighborhoods…(with) armed militias in jeeps terroriz(ing  residents) and Hezbollah commanders leaving their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk”?

Well, the producers don’t have to answer questions like that because they believe the audience doesn’t care. Homeland is a star vehicle for Claire Danes, goddamnit, so it doesn’t matter if Carrie’s blond hair flies everywhere as she runs around those filthy Middle East streets, or that she miraculously sneaks into a heavily guarded prison to find the one inmate who blurts out the show’s pivotal secret, or that the swarthy deodorant-needing Arab guards race in, missing Carrie’s miraculous escape by seconds.

Or is it the #25?

Or is it the #25?

That kind of slipshod action stuff doesn’t matter, because this is TV, where audiences check their critical standards at the door. I know I do. Do you ever care, for example, that surgeons on ER/Grey’sAnatomy/ChicagoHope/CodeBlack keep using a #10 scalpel blade when the obviously better #12 is sitting right there?  No, we want enough fake medical talk to get us into the scandal, the sex and the violence that make hospital shows so great.

I did love what a sardonic Tel Aviv critic said about Homeland being based on a successful Israeli TV series. The story in both versions is essentially the same, he said, but with this difference: In Israel, the show is about terrorists and the Mosad, while in the United States, it’s about terrorists and Claire Danes.

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

I thought that was so funny and so true that it shed new light on the reason a TV audience may silence its own critical voice. Give us romance, humor, action and stars we love, and we’ll tune in, period. (I so love Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary that it doesn’t matter how badly the show dumbs-down every political reality known to heaven. This Secretary of State does the dishes at home, for heaven sake, and she kisses that cutie pie husband Tim Daly over the soapsuds before flying off to stop nuclear war. What more can you ask from TV?)

Maybe that’s the reason CIA experts say about Homeland,  ”It’s a good show, but it’s not an accurate portrayal of what happens inside the military or the intelligence community.” Duh. They mean it’s a good show for TV — it’s got intrigue, back-seat sex and torture. Throw in a homemade suicide bomb for the POW to wear at a reception with the Vice President and it doesn’t have to be authentic.

That may be why viewers turn a deaf ear to blistering revelations such as a Washington Post review that Homeland is “the most bigoted show on television, “churn(ing) out Islamophobic stereotypes as if its writers were getting paid by the cliche.” (That’s true but listen, it’s more important to know if Carrie is pregnant or what?)

The larger problem is that American institutions take Homeland so seriously they’ve awarded dozens of coveted prizes  – Emmys! Golden Globes! SAGs, Directors/Producers/Writers Guild awards, even an AFI, Edgar, Television Critics and Peabody (whaaaat?) — for being high-minded, intellectually stimulating and instructive.

That’s what makes the street artists’ “Homeland is a joke” graffiti so delicious. They showed what can happen in a culture where free speech may seem less and less valued until — bingo — something truly subversive hits a nerve.

Heba Amin

Heba Amin

And thanks to a statement issued by the lead graffiti saboteur, the Egyptian artist Heba Amin, the message proved just how serious people from the Middle East take English-language TV.

“The very first season of Homeland explained to the American public that Al Qaida is actually an Iranian venture,” says Amin. “This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream ‘knowledge’ in the US and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets. Five seasons later, the plot has come a long way, but the thinly veiled propaganda is no less blatant.”

Heba Amin is a person who’s felt outraged and frustrated for a long time that American television not only gets away with shameful inaccuracies but contributes in dangerous way to volatile relations with countries already angry with the U.S.

But the fact that her crew’s graffiti endured censorship (if only somebody had known) proves this lesson: You can drive a big-budget, overproduced, propaganda-loaded and flat-out bigoted blockbuster down the throats of capitalist viewers and get away with it for a while. But somewhere, dissent is going to come out — not the truth but a truth. And it’s going to be heard because the people who make decisions underestimate the people watching.

True, Homeland will probably go on with higher ratings and the usual awards, but from now on, the fun for viewers will be watching the kinks and the mistakes and the slapdash marks of a true “watermelon” production.

Meanwhile, I’m glad I work with books rather than other media. It’s in books that readers and writers meet according to centuries-old literary standards that are embedded in our psyches. Does that sound high-falutin? Doesn’t matter. The critical conversation goes on every moment of every day, whether we’re ready to hear it or not.












Oliver Sacks (1933-2015): A brief remembrance

One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult “to negotiate your San Francisco hills,”  he said.

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.

My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.

Going down California Street, Nob Hill

Tough on the knee: going down California Street

Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be “conspicuous, don’t you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.

But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act ‘conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! You’re famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe what’s going on in the mind.

I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a “linguistically complete” language all its own.

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students’ protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).

But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.

We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when it’s nurtured by the community and culture around it.

Vintage edition, today

Vintage edition today

Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.

And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain “conspicuous,” thank heaven, forever.



Hey Bernie! Listen to Barney

If you’re already in awe of the fact that rogue Senator Bernie Sanders has been drawing as many as 10,000 people to hear his speeches about running for president, here’s an episode from Barney Frank’s memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (Farrar), that may be of interest.

Barney Frank

Barney Frank

Early in the 2000 presidential campaign, Frank, the irreverent and tough-minded Democratic congressional representative from Massachusetts, sent a memo to Al Gore’s advisers about Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate.

Although observers were saying the vote between Gore and George Bush would be close, few worried about Nader’s effect on the campaign — except Barney Frank, bless his iconoclastic heart. He believed that Nader could pull enough votes away from Gore to give Bush the win.

Ralph Nader

Ralph Nader

So Frank came up with this great idea. He sent a memo to Gore’s advisors proposing that a group of high-level Democrats meet with Nader to convince him to drop out of the race before he could become a real threat to Gore.

Of course, Nader considered Democrats loathsome and ineffective and surely would have refused any such meeting. So, Frank writes, “I suggested that Ron Dellums, Pat Schroeder and I — an African American, a woman and a gay man — become core members” of a delegation Nader could not turn away.

It was a prescient move on Frank’s part, and it kind of wrenches the gut to read about it in his book, since we know that Gore could have won if Nader had dropped out of the running and encouraged his supporters to vote Democratic.

But no. “The (Gore) campaign’s first reaction,” Frank recalls, “was not to have one. My memo was ignored,” and as a result, nobody held Nader responsible for the consequences of his continued candidacy, and Bush creaked into office.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

And what a cautionary tale it is! Every time Socialist-turned-Democrat  Bernie Sanders hits these high numbers, a little voice from 2000 is saying, Well, hooray this early in the campaign for a guy like Sanders whom many people love. But let’s learn from the RALPH NADER FIASCO OF 2000 (not Barney Frank’s words) that there IS a difference between Republicans and Democrats so we can be sure to make the pragmatically correct move and help Sanders step out when the time comes.

Warning: Policy Wonk Gobbledygook

Glimpses behind the scenes like the Nader memo are everywhere in Barney Frank’s memoir and should make this book more fun to read than it is. We expect it to be entertaining because in person, Barney Frank is a genuinely witty political presence. (About Ronald Reagan falling asleep during meetings, Frank once announced, “It’s not the dozing off of Ronald Reagan that causes us problems. It’s what he does on those moments when he’s awake.”)

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Barney Frank chaired the House Financial Services Committee

Frank’s  publisher describes him as a “disheveled, intellectually combative gay Jew,” so he’s been accustomed, he writes, to “being in the minority.” And yet even with that garbled New Jersey accent, after 32  years in the House of Representatives (he retired in 2013), Frank’s ability to surprise and delight makes him oddly charismatic whenever he speaks into a microphone.

The problem is that whenever Barney Frank puts the same material down in book form, his message is so burdened with policy-wonk gobbledygook that the eye glazes over midway through every sentence.

Here, for example, is what he says about the long-term problems of having an idealist like Ralph Nader around in 2000:

“My fervor in this effort was stocked by more than my fears of a Bush victory. Throughout my career, I’d been troubled by my allies’ tendency to choose emotional gratification over tangible, albeit insufficient, progress. The fact that Nader appeared eager to help the right regain the presidency because he found the Democrats imperfect perfectly illustrated what was wrong with this approach.”

Wait. You what? They who?

What he means is that the Naders of the world use “extreme negativism” as a kind of “game theory” that says, “never let the other side think you’re satisfied.” When you play this game, you “maximize your gains in fact by minimizing them in characterization, until and unless you are 100 percent successful.”

Okay, the gobbledygook turned bippity-bappity there but his point is that if you complain about  your opponents giving you anything, they’ll “soon realize they can obtain the same response by giving nothing at all,” and that would be the end of negotiations.

I tried listening to Frank read his story for the audiobook version from Macmillan Audio, and the experience is much better.  His jowly marbles-in-the-mouth way of speaking keeps the ear intrigued in parts where the eye would stumble.

Barney Frank and Tip O'Neill in 1982

Barney Frank and Tip O’Neill in 1982

For one thing, you can’t help but laugh when Frank tries to do his impression of the Irish accent that made Tip O’Neill famous as the Speaker of the House when the two became friends during Frank’s early years in Congress.

One very touching scene occurs when Barney was forced to come out as a gay man in the early ’80s before the release of a book that would have exposed his homosexuality. In those days being “outed” could ruin a politician’s career, so Frank sought help from the influential O’Neill, who didn’t know much about gay life or gay language but promised to help. Approaching sympathetic members of congress to support Barney when he came out of the closet, O’Neill, also famous for his malapropisms, told his aides, “We might have an issue to deal with. I think Barney Frank is going to come out of the room.” (Frank’s reading: “I tink BAH-ney is gonna come outta da rum.” )

Surprise in San Francisco

There are plenty of surprises in the book, especially for San Franciscans who remember the exhilaration that spread across the city and the national LGTB community when Mayor Gavin Newsom decided to legalize gay weddings in 2004.  Despite the many ways Barney Frank strengthened the gay rights movement throughout his career, he reacted like a negative fuddy-duddy when Newsom proposed the idea in a phone call to Frank early on.

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Gavin Newsom and newlyweds

Opening City Hall to same-sex marriage would be a “well-intentioned mistake,” said Frank, and even today he believes it was a “drastic move” by Newsom that “regrettably bolstered the GOP argument than an antimarriage amendment was needed.”

In fact, Frank says, the backlash that occurred after photos went viral of gay couples celebrating outside San Francisco’s City Hall crippled the whole gay-marriage movement so much that Newsom’s actions “made no substantive progress at all.”

Man of the People

Well, you don’t have to agree with him to admire Barney Frank’s reputation as a man of the people, whether “the people”  liked the way he represented them or not. Take his dislike of folksinger Pete Seeger’s hit, Little Boxes, written by Malvina Reynolds in 1962. “The song was a mockery of the postwar housing that had been built for working-class and lower-middle-class Americans,” Frank says.  Even at the time, “I recognized (that disliking it created a) gulf that divided me from many others on the left.”

And he hated the lyrics, Little boxes on the hillside / And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same. “At one concert I attended at Harvard, most of the audience — filling Harvard’s largest venue — appeared to find this a hilariously accurate critique. They were oblivious of the fact that these ‘little boxes’ had been built on a large scale to be affordable by families who would not otherwise have been able to be homeowners.

Pete Seeger sings 'Little Boxes'

Pete Seeger sings ‘Little Boxes’

“The aesthetic disdain Seeger and many of my fellow students felt for these units was not, I knew, shared by the occupants, most of whom were happy — and proud — to own them…But Seeger, and many of his listeners, preferred to think that the capitalist profit-making system was depriving people with limited incomes of the chance to live in large, individually designed houses — which they of course could not afford.

“When I insisted that the inhabitants of this ‘ticky-tacky’ were very satisfied with their ‘little boxes,’ I was often told that they did not have the knowledge — or the sensibility — to know they were being mistreated.”

Goodbye, Barney

Goodbye, Barney

Well, good for you, Barney Frank, fighter for the little guy you have been from the start, and always on your terms. I just wish you had written this book a little more — oh, how to say it — down to Earth, where you always leveled with us before.


The Harper Lee Backfire

Don’t you think the whole debacle about Harper Lee’s “new” novel sounds like a Christopher Guest mockumentary?

For Your Consideration movie poster

For Your Consideration movie poster

Guest’s satires on American foibles about dog shows (Best in Show), folksingers (A Mighty Wind), small town theater (Waiting for Guffman) and the Academy Awards (For Your Consideration) portray big, big hopes for greatness building up all over the place in ways that are so, so stupid and so incredibly American that we have to laugh, even if the parody stings a little bit.

Go Set a Watchman jacket

Go Set a Watchman jacket

In the case of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, big, big print runs and really absurd hopes for another To Kill a Mockingbird are backfiring all over the place while a lot of people are making big, big money whether the author wanted the book published or not.

You have to admit, it’s funny.

On the one hand, we have America’s beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, turning into the worst, most fatuous and disgusting racist of the new century.

On the other, what timing! Go Set a Watchman comes out in the midst of kill-a-mockingbird-1edwhite police officers killing African American men more frequently than ever, the mass murder of an African American bible study group in Charleston and a President calling for new gun control laws that prompted this no-nonsense patriotic reply: Yes SIR, Mr. President! Our response to mass murder by yet another white supremacist is to … remove the Confederate flag! That’ll show we in the South mean business. Just ask Atticu– well, better not.

In fact, a mockumentary might use this occasion to get to the heart of the real problem about Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

First, just to confirm: It’s a fine novel that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m glad it’s taught in schools.

But come on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a white person’s view of racism that’s set the tone for scores of books and movies since its publication in 1960. It says that bad white people created slavery a long time ago, so now good white people have to fix the damage. African Americans get to stay in the background for the sake of this heroic modern story.

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

This view also goes back to that awful 1961 book, Black Like Me,  in which a white person darkened his skin — under a doctor’s care, mind you — so that he could travel in the South and tell the world what it’s like to be black.

We couldn’t trust African Americans to tell us this same thing because after all, they’re black. It could be emotional and confusing to explain their experience to objective white America.  As Atticus Finch says in that new blockbuster from HarperCollins, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

Isn’t he great?  Such a kind man, and he shows us why truly committed white writers are needed to set history straight. Wouldn’t Atticus have loved William Styron, for example, the humble white author who in 1967 wrote  The Confessions of Nat Turner in the voice of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

“I was especially lacerated and hurt that [The Confessions of Nat Turner]  was labeled racist,” Styron told an audience at the Library of Congress. “That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.”  Aw.

But see? Here is another  kind white man generously pushing African American writers aside so that he can become the heroic figure. “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation  and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.” What a guy. He knew the words “politically incorrect” would shield him from increasing criticism only for a while. In the end, he said, what really mattered was creating “a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.” Who else would know?

Also, a good mockumentary about Go Set a Watchman would feature heartfelt comments from all the legal advisors who’ve been in and out of the author’s nursing home for years. You’ve got to hand it to them. They not only helped Harper Lee unearth the manuscript that she herself kept buried for decades.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including "One Flew Over the Cosmo's Nest."

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”

They also took helped her apply for a trademark in 2012 on important To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise (there’s a Tequila Mockingbird guide to cocktails, you know), and create Mockingbird Co., a nonprofit company to control literary rights like a spinoff play that’s been running in the famous courthouse of Lee’s hometown (though it’s now closed, apparently because of the nonprofit).  Royalties from the novel still bring Harper Lee something like $3.2 million a year, so you know she’s anxious to pick up extra dollars for those hardworking agents and lawyers and friends who’ve recently stepped into her life.

The mockumentary would also interview the publisher at HarperCollins who ordered only a “light copyedit” of the Watchman manuscript so that nobody could be blamed for Atticus Finch turning into a big, fat American bigot.

Of course, the question could be asked:  What about those dedicated lifelong editors with high editorial standards who might have advised Harper Lee to be careful of shocking readers over the abrupt transformation of Atticus Finch? Well, those editors got to stay in the background, too. Who, after all, would want to change a word of the historic question Atticus poses to white people everywhere: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do  you want them in our world?” Nobody was going to touch that one.

As to marketing, that’s easy in the case of Go Set a Watchman, the publisher could say: You just make a big, big deal of its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird and keep silent about its, um, difficult contents right up to publication date. That way readers could pre-order millions of copies and have the fun of discovering an all new Atticus Finch by themselves.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the mockumentary concluded with big, big dumpsters all over the country collecting piles and piles of a book everybody bought but no one wanted to read? Nothing like a giant literary embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day mucking up the legacy of “our national novel,” as Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As the credits roll, the camera could then go back to the classroom and show us books being taught that all audiences love, written for example by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Octavia Butler, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Al Young, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Gaines, Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alex Haley, Sherley Anne Williams, Bell Hooks, Walter Mosley, Paule Marshall, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Edward P. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Marita Golden, Lalita Tademy, Frederick Douglass, Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, Cynthia Bond, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jesmyn Ward, J. California Cooper and Pearl Cleage, to name a only a few.







Brooke Shields and the Publishing Revolution

This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir, There Was a Little Girl (Dutton), about the death of her mother and former manager, Teri, in 2012:

“I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.

Teri and Brooke Shields

Teri and Brooke Shields in the 1970s

“They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?

“The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.

“ ‘I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.’

“ ‘Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.’ ”

[The back-and-forth conversation goes on. The Times reporter keeps insisting; Shields keeps refusing. Finally, the Times reporter gets one question answered (about the location of a city) and that's it. Brooke thinks it's over.]

“A few days later … I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.

“The first line read, ‘Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.’ What an opener!

The 1978 People headline reads: "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films"

The 1978 People headline reads: “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films”

“The obituary’s author highlighted—completely out of context—the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse—’Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.’ This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.

“Who the fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.

“Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. I ran into the kitchen and began pacing around the table as I sobbed and rambled: Why are they so cruel? Why can’t they let her be? Why can’t they let her die without being nasty?  Why can’t they be kind to her just once? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.”

So: what does this excerpt say about the “publishing revolution”?

First, there is the obvious point that huge changes in computer technology in the ’80s-90s were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry. What followed was the phenomenon of millions of readers leaving print for screen, and millions of writers publishing their own blogs, books and websites.

But the motivation that fuels a revolution rather than simply a transformation in publishing is this very outrage that launches Shields’ book — that of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” and publishers who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.

Brooke Shields in a scene from "Pretty Baby" (with Keith Carradine)

American Film, 1977 — Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine in “Pretty Baby”

When even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the status of being an outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of people across the world who are furious with media entitlement.

Granted, Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, she did manipulate the fashion and magazine industries, and she did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon. 

But none of that, Brooke insists, “damaged” or “wounded” her, as press stories suggest. Early on, she even grew accustomed to that brutish tendency of magazine publishers to make controversial subjects like Brooke and her mother defend the media’s rapacious appetite for scandal.

New York magazine, 1977. The caption reads: "Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell."

New York magazine, 1977. “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.”

What did cause hardship in her life (Teri’s alcoholism, for example) is, Brooke insists, for her discuss through that fine old platform for personal  truth, the full-length book. 

In the case of the NYT obit, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone. When it comes to an obituary, she says, the facts of a person’s life are sacred (as every obit writer used to know).

Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to anything that will increase audience ratings. Where was the human decency? she says about the New York Times in particular. After all, someone’s mother just died.


Something Literary

You’d think a traditional publishing person like me wouldn’t be intrigued by a tiny collection of iPhone snapshots such as this:IMG_1114Not a “real book,” right?  It’s smaller than a deck of cards, has fewer than 50 unnumbered “pages” and no text at all except the words iPhone Photos  Julie Gebhardt on the back page.

And yet I was drawn to this mini-book from the first moment I saw it, for one thing because it’s so cute (note the green push pin, placed there for scale) and is even kind of classy with its oversized spiral binding and heavy photo-card stock.

Production elements like these would have shot the costs up years ago, as would four-color printing (which I must say is sensational), but the price is affordable ($20) and shipping is free when you order directly from the author by emailing

But I kept thinking the term “snapshot” isn’t right, “collection” isn’t right, even “little” or “quickie” is disrespectful because there’s something bigger to ponder here, something even literary going on, which I’ll get to below. True, you can just flip through it like a keychain souvenir, but I guarantee that every time you close it, a larger conversation will follow you around in “real life.”

Julie Gebhardt

Julie Gebhardt

The author, Julie Gebhardt, caught the photo bug three years ago after acquiring an iPhone and reading a New York Times story about Instagram, the social network for sharing photos that’s used by subscribers all over the world (more than 150 million of them by now).

After downloading the app and looking at probably thousands of Instagram posts, Julie, or @juliegeb, began walking around the streets of San Francisco to see what caught her eye. Something as commonplace as building exteriors — walls, doors, windows,IMG_5865 gates — had personality and character when framed by her iPhone lens. She was particularly attracted to things that “are old and a little dingy, or made of cheap quality material, or that show the weathering of time.”

Even today, “I like corrugated metal any time I see it,” she says.  Aging paint, water stains, odd splotches, loose flashing — these may be signs that a building is falling apart or soon to be condemned, but for Julie they add a touch of animation and surprise to the eye, even if the thing itself is a little grim. IMG_1265

I’ve walked right by many of these scenes on my way to important appointments so it’s startling see the allure of decay — an ugliness that appears beautiful to me now, just because Julie decided to shoot them that way.

Sometimes you can detect a story behind the image. In the photo below, doesn’t it look like somebody was spray-painting that light blue color on the door oh, so carefully but messed up enough times with the blotches on the top and lower sides to think, All done! I have to go to an important appointment now — and left it that way? IMG_3313

This kind of Oh Well Art (not her term) happens often, she finds, when people are trying to spiff up or cover up rust or old paint or corrosion. So Julie created hashtags (categories within categories) like #sloppy_job and #graffitipaintout. That way, other subscribers can contribute their own photos, just as she can add to theirs.

For example, the photo on the right below, with its enormous bushy eyebrow sculpted over the door, appears in Julie’s feed as well as another subscriber’s as “Nature’s Comb Over” (#naturescombover).  IMG_8345

Things get a bit more complicated when the idea of intention crops up behind paint jobs of exteriors. When she came upon the brick wall below, for example, Julie believed she saw a Rothkoesque quality to clouds of different-colored paint and was particularly delighted by the unintentionial part, a dangling wire that so beautifully interrupts the action.IMG_5628

Soon she realized that any architectural element such as the drainpipe to the left (what gifted soul decided to paint it blue?) canIMG_6667 be part of that vast creative effort called “street art,” which is constantly percolating and newly visible wherever you look (or someone like @juliegeb looks) on the urban scene.

It was probably inevitable that Julie would make her own artistic decisions. She noticed that the iPhone camera doesn’t allow for much depth, so most of the photos are going to look pretty flat.  Instead seeing this as a problem or weakness, she developed an interest in “two-dimensionality as a style.”

In the photo below, for example, you have to look twice to see that a door is built into the graffiti-covered wall, and that theIMG_8841 artist — maybe commissioned by the building’s owner OR maybe just an unknown  person with half a dozen spray cans in a hurry because police or home owners or neighbors might be near and not happy — took the time to set it off by coloring inside the doorway lines, so to speak.

The startling orange-and-purple facade to the left offers a more dramatic and deliberate use of color that in turn defines the surrounding blocks of tile, wall and brick. And here Julie stands just far away enough so that the iPhone, IMG_5807for all its two-dimensional lens, can’t help itself: the leafy green branches billowing into the upper left corner give this photo unexpected depth and substance.

And this one at right is just a square of yellow wall with a mailbox, wouldn’t you say? (It’s another setting I’d walk right by without noticing.)IMG_8837 But I think because Julie sees a kind of geometrical art in squares upon squares sinking into that joyous yolky color, you can feel your fingertips anticipating the goosebumpy texture of the stucco wall beneath. Somebody also took the time to choose a stylish font for the address –  “the scroll of number 3 is so lovely,” sighs Julie. And there’s even a comical touch to the oval mail slot, which is stamped with the word “MAIL”  in case your letter carrier forgets what it’s there for.

So far, I’ve been talking about intriguing street scenes that Julie turns into photos with an artistic edge. But to get back to this gnawing feeling that something literary is going on in the book,  we need to see if that larger conversation I mentioned actually exists, starting with Julie’s notion of surrender.

You’ve probably assumed a continuing truth about street art is that everything’s changing all the time. Julie says most of the places she’s photographed are gone now — they’ve been taken down, painted over, razed, vandalized or re-graffiti’d shortly afterward, often overnight — which means every walk with her iPhone is going to be different: some new piece of something or overgrowth or fixer-upper or illustration is always going to pop out.

We would expect that to happen with a painting like this, where the beauty and IMG_8178freedom of the artist’s visual language (fascinating when you see it up close) might one day be dismissed as ugly by the owner of that building, who’ll “fix the problem” by covering it up with a layer of paint. That’s just the reality for anybody, artist or vandal, who takes to the street.

But it’s sad to see this enormous (see the pigeons on the sidewalk below), soulful face — part of a mural that Julie discovered in a back alley in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin district  — already being eaten away by other people’s graffiti, which has begun to invade the picture from the sides and top.IMG_9945

“I have so much admiration for anonymous muralists who pour their heart and effort into these paintings,” Julie says, “and then just surrender them to the public. The minute they walk away, the art is transformed.”

Very often a sense of humor sneaks in that’s soIMG_5124-1 touching, like a wink from a dying building, that even people on their way to important appointments can’t help but slow down and chuckle.

Speaking of the humor that crops up in street art, while I’m not a fan of comic book art, I but have to say the question depicted in the painting below  — is it the colony of giant ants or the loss of his iPhone that causes this headless guy’s IMG_7942anguish? — offers a funny and arresting comment on modern life.

The always-changing nature of street art makes a person realize that for Julie, everything in a city scape must feel like nature in fast-forward, as in that YouTube video where you see the dead fox decaying and the skin peeling and teeth baring and the bones emerging while the remains of the fox get smaller and smaller until nothing exists in the spot where life once flourished — until the next object like a rock or egg or baby fox rolls into view.

Just as you could walk up to that fox and shoot a thousand different images, so do buildings on the street “host” something new or strange every day that will change in a second. Julie, bless her, respects this phenomenon but does not want to document it. She is not interested in going back to photograph the muralist in tears repainting his subject’s jaw or eyeball in the midst of cooing pigeons because that would be a human interest story and is really none of her business. Her iPhone is not there to intrude.

But it is there to capture the images she treasures. “I broke into a run when I saw this,” she says of the scene below.  “It’s a hillside near the ocean with a little IMG_8171shed in front that has no door and a rotting-away floor that’s full of sand. No roof exists, and the hill above it is bulging down  the back wall.  To think they’d [the owners or the army or the coastal commission] would paint this exterior bright red at some point is amazing to me.”

Right, the red paint, even when fresh, would be lost on the seagulls and snowy plovers that inhabit the coastal dunes, so even the people who built this shed surrendered their casual artistry to the elements at one time. And then Julie came along to capture that incredible mixture of beauty and decay that fits so well with the endless carving-out of cliffs and coast by ocean waves and weather.

The idea of surrender has a literary bent to it, I think –  a writer must surrender the work-in-progress to the reading public or it will never be finished –  but that’s not enough of an answer to my gnawing question about something literary going on in Julie’s mini book of photos.

I do know that just browsing through it gives me the impression that a larger conversation is taking place, and that philosophical connections are being made all over the place.  You can see an obvious example in the way Julie pairs photos in two-page spreads, often using color –  IMG_1122

– or themeIMG_1154–or artistic intentionIMG_1164as her bridge. (Pardon shoddy photos — these were taken of the book with my iPhone and they didn’t come out too good.)

But it’s in the pairing below that this larger conversation really comes out, at least to me, and I do think it has a literary nature. Both images are similar because of the color blue, of course, but it’s their differences that make an impression: the photo on the right emphasizes rigidity and corrugated metal as we have seen, while the photo on the left is fizzing with excitement, tossing about balloony yellows and stringy pinks and sly greens in a 1950s palette gone slightly berserk.IMG_1116

“I shot these two photos on different days,” Julie says, “but they have a relationship that’s more than a happy accident. Maybe it’s the piece of cardboard in each that might have drifted in, or been placed there. Who knows?”

Right, we don’t know anything except what we see: “An insanely dizzy wall on the left that seems to dance around a garbage bin, of all lucky things, across from the quieter but still varying tones, also of blue, in straight lines that nevertheless have a flow to them.”

Hold that thought for a moment as we apply the same curiosity to the photo below. Granted, it’s just IMG_1141a keyhole, one of so many locks that Julie started a hashtag called #keyholelove, to which hundreds if not thousands of Instagram users have already contributed. This one’s got some touches of red and green paint that could be accidental (another #sloppy_job photo?) but seem polished and deliberate.

In fact, says Julie, this keyhole is part of a huge and colorful mural that extends along the backs of several fences in the Mission District of San Francisco (where street murals abound). Of course you don’t have to know the keyhole’s function as a small detail in the overall canvas to sense a certain gravity about it that Julie doesn’t need to interpret: Her eye has focused on this one aspect of the mural, the brass lock. She loves it, and her camera loves it. She shot it close up in a way that makes me, the viewer, love it, too.

But the photo gains in significance when Julie as author puts it next to another picture with a completely blue exterior that also happens to have a keyhole, and this one shines out with no paint on it at all.

IMG_6575I find it kind of amusing that the vast Rococo design of the wrought iron with all its squares and circles, its graceful Xs and Os, its blocks and scrolls and flourishes, started out as just a gate to keep the bad guys out, and then somebody decided to make it stylish and pleasing.  And then again, the whole artistic presence of the thing was designed to fade and recede as the eye zooms in on that tiny, shiny brass keyhole.

Granted, the gate is painted that way to make it easier for the keyholder to find the keyhole. That’s fine. But look what happens when Julie pairs it with the keyhole-in-the-mural:IMG_1130First,  I like the idea of a universe arranging itself around a tiny speck, as we see on the right, placed as it is across the spiral binding from the unique and purposeful image of the similar tiny speck (now so big it’s a universe of its own) on the left. That’s one “conversation” between the pages in which we viewers get to participate (and only if we want to!).

But there’s more. As you flip through the book, every pairing of photos brings up the same Big Idea, something we humans ponder all our life, which may be stated in this way:  Time rushes by so fast in our high-tech, fast-paced world that suddenly we’re old, and our tenure is almost over, so the question is whether it’s possible, while hurrying off to important appointments,  to slow down and actually find meaning in life.

Julie’s book says YES, people may get jaded and hardened by the chaos of street life, but just the act of noticing something like what these pages bring to light can give life meaning. This is hardly an original thought (Buddhists sum it up with the word mindfulness all the time, although that’s more a spiritual practice), but it is an unexpected discovery in a tiny book like Julie’s.

Another question: Does this dialogue between readers and photos happen only as you turn the pages of Julie’s book. Yes again, I think — some kind of power is exchanged even without the presence of text.  For example, look at this: IMG_1155

On the left is a walled-off mausoleum sort of building with heavy columns and portico that’s hard to see because the whole thing is boarded up and surrounded by fences. (Another advantage to iPhones, says, Julie: “The lens is small enough to shoot through the tiniest of holes”).

On the right is such a rare discovery that I’m going to enlarge it below.  Can you guess what it is (I couldn’t at first)? IMG_3150Here’s what happened:  Julie and her husband Allen (also taking pictures but with a “real” camera) got into “this abandoned old warehouse that was entirely covered in graffiti,” she recalls. “The walls, the ceiling, the doors were all drenched in color and shafts of light were streaming down through broken windows, so just being inside, just seeing the character of the place was thrilling.

“Then in the middle of the floor we saw this ruined piano, every key ‘defaced’ by paint and tiny drawings, so I leaned over the keyboard looking straight down and shot it, missing keys and all. What comes forward is so abstract in shapes and colors that all we can see is  transformation.”

Again, we readers don’t have to know that it’s a piano keyboard, because something’s being said in a conceptual way that will come to mean whatever our eye decides it to mean. But what I feel most gripping about it is the way this photo relates to the deadly silent building on the left, which by contrast appears to have been caged up, locked down and blacked out for years. Here it is again:IMG_1155So when I talk about a conversation going on, I don’t mean to say these two photos actually tell us something. I mean there’s a connection here that’s interactive and open to participation with the reader. And when something like that keeps bubbling out of a book, page after page, with the kind of energy that strikes a nerve as deeply as it does in Julie Gebhardt’s teensy spiralbound collection, well, that something is literary.

Admittedly, I get romantic about these things, but because art is subjective, I also get to draw the line.  This photo on the left may IMG_3335-1show us exuberant examples of street art all talking at once  (ain’t the color gorgeous?), thereby forming a remarkable avant-garde image that only Julie Gebhardt can see amidst the mayhem. But I have to admit it’s messy and repugnant to me. If I came upon it in the street, I’d  walk right by with my face turned away. Perhaps  that too is a testament to the author who uses her book to present rather than hit us over the head with what she sees.

But because I’m also the traditional book publishing person, I remember when costs were astronomical and people had to (still have to) fly to China and Italy just to print expensive art books, which the publisher then had to ship to bookstores where very few customers could afford them. And then after a few months the bookseller with heart sinking had to ship the books back to the publisher who either dumped them off as remainders (sale items) in Australia or pulped them regardless of artistic message because nobody ever saw or appreciated the art.

Which brings us to today. Don’t you get weary when people keep asking whether the use of computers and the rise of the Internet are “good” or “bad” for books, for publishing, for bookselling, for reading? The fact is, technology has this infuriating way of changing the world before we know it. Asking questions about its value gets us nowhere. The Internet (like the other universe) is indifferent to human needs and wants.

But if Julie’s book teaches us to slow down and notice things that give life meaning, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the Internet as one big sorting machine that uses a toolbox like Instagram where talented, self-taught people like Julie are actively supported by an international community of millions. By the way, her personal followers total 28,542 as of yesterday.

So if you think a traditional publishing person like me should decry the way websites on the Internet may be gutting mainstream book publishers like Rizzoli, Abrams, Taschen, Thames & Hudson, Phaidon, Aperture and others of the once-honored opportunity to produce gorgeous oversized artbooks that sell comparatively few copies (well, enough to libraries, colleges and some collectors to make a buck);  and also may be robbing independent bookstores of hundred-dollar-plus purchases (Rizzoli’s All the World’s Birds sells for $350, but give them credit, that’s a lot of birds); let’s remember that before the computer revolution, the odds for unknowns like Julie to get anybody in the book industry interested in her potential as an author were zilch, especially for a tiny book like _________ (you see? it doesn’t even have a title).

Today we don’t talk about the bookstore or gallery approach where very few people get to view an art book, let alone buy it. Today we talk about the community approach where Julie felt encouraged to see “nothing precious” about jumping into a rushing stream of 150 million other photographers, and where she is increasingly supported by an audience she built from scratch that loves and appreciates her work.

Plus! It’s not just the mini book she created at Social Print Studio that’s for sale. Five of her photos are featured in This Is Happening, a book about the Instagram phenomenon from Chronicle Books. The wonderfully named Casetify has snazzied up many iPhone

Julie Gebhart iPhone case

iPhone case from Casetify by Julie Gebhardt

cases with Julie’s images, such as the one on the right, and thanks to an even more adventurous 60-page collection of Julie’s photos is available in hardcover ($36.95) and softcover ($25.99).

You can buy her photos at all sizes and in different frames, and at least one museum has displayed photos like this one below, which shows Julie finding a way to bring depth to that tricky two-dimensional style, after all (note the teensy red chair to the right: another speck in the universe! Okay, will stop here.)

IMG_4880I’ve probably finished “reading” Julie’s book a dozen times by now, and I always come away  thinking that the next time I start to dismiss some discomfiting  image on  the urban landscape, I’ll have been taught by Julie to notice if there’s something creatively interesting, even frameable there, for me.  And I’ll ponder more about it because of the book’s continuing conversation.

That’s all I’ve learned from the blessed thing, and yet what I’ve learned is kind of monumental. After all, when “real life” is out there calling, you want to have the eye to see it.








The Art of the Movie Tie-In — Part I

The phenomenon of the “movie tie-in” has become so important over the years that many publishers regard it as a small art form.

I certainly do.  Since motion pictures can give us only a slice of the book, the job of the movie tie-in is to lure viewers from screen to print, and heaven knows that’s not an easy sell. Hollywood’s target audience — young males aged 13 to 25 — reportedly believes that reading a book is harder, duller and less relevant than watching a film.

So most publishers have mistakenly decided that the movie tie-in — instead of rousing and inspiring potential readers! (which we’ll get to in Part II) — must calm and reassure. It must show moviegoers that reading can be less taxing, more fun and just as passive as watching a movie.

For some years, publishers did this by inserting a fat section of color photos from the movie into the pages of the text. Just open the book to these photos, the movie tie-in beckoned, and you’ll see it’s all the same movie experience. There’s nothing literary or challenging here.

Photo inserts are expensive, however, and besides, it’s the cover illustration that must erase any artistic-looking stuff from the book.  That’s one reason this gorgeous jacket art (“Celestial Eyes” by Spanish artist Francis Cugat), which appeared on the first edition of The Great Gatsby –

Picture of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, original jacket illustration, 1925

–was replaced at one point with the pulp-fiction look below, where a big-chested Alan Ladd removes his shirt just in time to be shot.

The Great Gatsby, 1947 movie tie-in edition

The Great Gatsby, 1947 movie tie-in edition

Pulp fiction covers had an extra allure. They reminded readers that movies were heavily censored at the time, while explicit sex scenes in books were protected by the First Amendment. So the marketing line at top — “The Great Novel of the Sinful Twenties” — promises that reading a book might be better in terms of active personal engagement with the story that’s not allowed in a movie theater.

New tie-in art for The Great Gatsby arrived with this photo from the 1974 movie, where Robert Redford and Mia Farrow try hard to emote under those nifty hats. Here the message seems to be that failures of the upper class can be just as entertaining as sinful sex.

The Great Gatsby jacket

The Great Gatsby, 1974 movie tie-in

Then came your basic larded-with-celebrities illustration in this Art Deco cover for the 2013 tie-in. Too bad it looks like a dreary office party from The Wolf of Wall Street. It might be cold, clinical and tiresome. It might be manipulative, cynical and boring. But it’s safe.

The Great Gatsby, 2013 movie tie-in

The Great Gatsby, 2013 movie tie-in

So movie tie-ins  try to lure or trick us to look inside, but sometimes they’re more honest than the publisher’s original illustration.  For example, the first book jacket for The Help seems to be saying, let’s-not-talk-about-RACE-for-god’s-sake  in Penguin’s U.S. edition, since it doesn’t even allude to the story inside –

The Help, 2009 jacket

The Help, 2009 jacket

– or does it? Let’s see, one bird sits apart from two other birds, and that’s a metaphor, right? So it must mean …. I know! Birds of a feather should do the laundry together!  At least in the United States. In England, the jacket may have resembled a documentary film cover, but at least it provided a glimpse of the story’s theme inside.

British edition of The Help

British edition of The Help

Eventually, after the movie came out, the skittish publisher decided that famous actors from the movie could, in the American tie-in, give the reader an idea of the story:

The Help, move tie-in edition

The Help, move tie-in edition

Or wait. These characters seem to look like birds, don’t they? — all lined up in a cartoonish and nonthreatening way. Aw. And here the publisher is trying to make everything entertaining and fun with a marketing line that says, “Change begins with a whisper.” Isn’t that simple?  It’s your basic no-risk movie tie-in.

Which brings us to 12 Years a Slave and the subject of truth in book cover illustrations. When you look at the movie tie-in photo of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the role of Solomon Northup, what do you see?

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

12 Years a Slave, 2013 movie tie-in

I think the cover says, This is an escaped slave who is running for his life.   I bet it was selected as the “brand” for movie posters and book covers because it suggests that: 1) here is an “action” movie and not some boring treatise on slavery that will make white viewers feel guilty; and 2)  Solomon Northup survives the 12 years of the title, so don’t worry about a sad ending.

The irony here is that we never see Solomon Northup running like this in the movie. We see him speed up on his walks between plantation and store; we see him explore the swamp and contemplate escape; we see him nearly hanged and chased around a hog pen, but we never see him running so desperately, so wildly, so fearfully fast.

In the book, however, the running scene does exist, and it’s a pivotal episode. I’m not sure why the director didn’t bring it to the screen (what an idiot), but readers will find a thrilling, awesome passage in the book that keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Next: So what if a cover photo never appears in the movie? Why the difference matters.



A Mistake and a Debate about ’12 Years a Slave’

I loved that moment at the Academy Awards when John Ridley, accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, stated fiercely that almost every word in 12 Years a Slave came from the original book by Solomon Northup, who wrote it in 1853.

John Ridley

John Ridley

In later interviews, Ridley added that he  saw his job as “reductive — take 12 years and fit it into what ended up to be about 2 hours — but not additive. I had nothing other, better, greater to say” than what Northup put on the page. At last: a commitment to print from the translator-to-film.

Question #1: The Out-of-Place Scene

So I’m wondering why director Steve McQueen created a scene for the movie that’s not only missing from the book but is weirdly, to me, out of place.

In this scene, Solomon Northup is trying to sleep on a floor crowded with other slaves when he notices that the female slave next to him is staring beseechingly and soon insistently at his face.  Without warning,  she grabs his hand and uses it to massage her breast. Then she briefly kisses him on the mouth and brings his hand between her legs to masturbate herself to orgasm. Then she turns away from him and bursts into tears  — in shame or hopelessness or release, we’re not sure.

McQueen has said he created this scene for the movie because “I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.”

His choice of words sounds odd to me because “tenderness” is completely absent in the scene, and the idea of “taking control of her own body” had not been conceptualized for women at the time (i.e., no Our Bodies, Ourselves lying around.) Since we know from the movie that female slaves were raped repeatedly by white men along the way, it’s hard to believe this manic rubbing would provide the kind of “sexual healing” McQueen mentions.

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

Of course, directors throw new material into adapted screenplays all the time, and I’ve always believed it’s not the business of the viewer to question WHY a decision was made.  (We simply get to say it works for us or not.)

But in this case, Ridley’s pride at the Academy Awards reflected more than a faithful script. He wanted us to appreciate the enormous achievement of Solomon Northup, an ancestor who so perfectly captured every detail of his experience that the truth of it, coming to us through the political chaos of a century and a half, must be respected and preserved.

And Ridley is hardly alone in his praise for Northup. Usually in the case of an adapted screenplay, only one edition of the book exists, and that’s the movie tie-in. But 12 Years a Slave has been valued by so many  audiences that there are more than 20 versions — illustrated, annotated, footnoted; with interviews, introduced by scholars/celebrities, written for children — now available.

McQueen himself is quoted as saying that when he first read 12 Years a Slave, “it felt as important as Anne Frank’s diary.” That should have meant Don’t mess with what the author left us in print.

News stories suggest that Ridley and McQueen argued during the filming and  aren’t speaking to this day, which is why they snubbed each other at the Oscars.  I wonder if the made-up masturbation scene is the reason.  The worst part of it, to me, is that McQueen inserts the scene again later in the movie to show us (I guess) all the things Northup endured in his 12 years of slavery. The unfortunately comical message we get at that point is Wow, what a great guy! Show him your needs and he’s a veritable Dr. Ruth. No puns allowed about lending a helpful hand.

Question #2: The “Mistaken” Scene

One of the big no-no’s in movie tie-ins is that the publisher must never step in and “correct” the original work, even if there are misspellings and grammatical errors aplenty.  The thinking goes that once you open that door, your own biases could intercede, distorting the author’s intentions without your conscious knowledge.

Several times while reading 12 Years a Slave I imagined frustrated copy editors tying their hands to the chair upon viewing Northup’s many misplaced modifiers (“having been fed, preparations were made to depart”), lengthy sentences and pronoun confusion.

12 Years a Slave book cover

12 Years a Slave book cover

See, for example, if you can sort out who is who in this passage below. The speaker is Solomon Northup, and he is describing  the hatred that Mistress Epps bears for Patsey, the slave whom Mr. Epps sexually prefers:

“Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.”

Yikes, so many uses of “she” and “her” could inspire a person to pick up the blue pencil, but noooo. Just as Northup is to be respected for his thoroughness in historical/geographical accuracy, so must he be allowed a few bafflements along the way.

But readers get to have their opinions, so what do you think:  Is it Mistress Epps or Patsey herself who is depicted asking Solomon to put her (Patsey) to death?  The pronouns make it impossible to tell, so the filmmakers chose Patsey to be the one pleading with Solomon to put her out of her misery.

#2On the Internet, however, by my count, most viewers who debate this question believe Northup was writing about Mistress Epps –for one thing, she can afford the kind of bribes Patsey could never offer; for another, Patsey is not suicidal even after the whipping scene (though her spirit is altered terribly).

I also believe the author meant Mistress Epps,  but this time, unlike the first example, I’m not worried about the filmmakers’ mistaking the author’s intention. The scene is so well acted and scripted that it feels authentic and fitting in terms of the movie’s view of the world, and that’s good enough for me as a viewer.

Question #3: The Jacket Illustration

What film producers decide to put on the jacket of the movie tie-in is something I wonder about all the time. Like many readers, I tend to stare at it the cover illustration while pausing between chapters, and if its message even remotely misrepresents the book, I find myself thinking that all of Hollywood is illiterate.

So I’m wondering what comes to mind when you view this photo of Chiewetel Eliofor, the actor who plays Solomon Northup, running across the cover of Penguin’s official movie tie-in cover.

I’ll try not to bang on the table in the next post, The Art of the Movie Tie-in, when describing what I think is going on.

movie tie-in book cover

movie tie-in book cover

Penguin Random House: ‘A Couple of Drunks Propping Each Other at the Bar’

If the biggest publisher in the world says that its recent merger “should not be interpreted as a couple of drunks propping each other at the bar,” what image comes to mind?

I would say it’s two drunks propping each other up at a bar.

The comment was made by the head of Penguin Random House, John Makinson, to the Economic Times of India.

He said that Random House and Penguin didn’t merge because they were “worried about our survival or that we were too small to be competitive” against the “impact of companies like Google, Apple and Amazon and how they disintermediate publishers.”

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

John Makinson, chair of Penguin Random House

Really? That sounds exactly why Penguin and Random House merged, why Hachette bought out most of Hyperion, why Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins may decide to merge as well.

Afraid of being obsolete and technologically small, Penguin Random House is trying to buy its way into the competition with Google, Apple and Amazon. Feeling overpowered again and again, it will seek new mergers to cover the pain.

The bar metaphor is so true — Penguin and Random were drunk with power during the physical-book years. Now the print-on-screen years make them feel unnecessary and confused, so back to the bar they’ve gone to feed that acquisition addiction.

A big mistake of many CEOs like Makinson is to dwell on growth and power for traditional publishers rather than the centuries-old system of publishing procedures inside — the timeless discipline practiced by salaried professionals of selecting, editing, designing and producing literary works of merit.

I know it’s easy to criticize the mainstream (since I do it all the time), but deep inside these gluttonish corporate structures are at least a few people struggling to keep  the house’s standards high when it comes to literary quality and commercial appeal.  It’s too bad these dedicated pros have become the pearl in the oyster (irritating everyone, dismissed and often overruled by management) because they’re also invaluable.

A second mistake: Makinson said that “publishing is growing but the growth of bookstores has come to a stop.” Wrong. Independent bookstores are on the rebound, as recent statistics have shown. A smart publisher should know that word-of-mouth for new authors still begins at the brick-and-mortar level and is much more stable and accurate information than, say, sales rankings at any time on Amazon.

And the reason independent bookstores are strong?  For many, the key is to stay small, serve the local community well (book groups, author appearances, children’s programs, First Amendment protections) and hand-sell, hand-sell, hand-sell.   (As opposed to the direction Penguin Random House and other merger-minded publishers are going, which is to “grow” [what an icky word] dozens of boutique imprints but deny them freedom to publish.)

I loved the way novelist Ann Patchett, who started her own bookstore in Nashvllle, Tennessee, in 2010, described “the comfort about being around books” in a retail environment when she appeared with Terry Gross recently on NPR’s Fresh Air:

“Bookstores are home,” Patchett said, speaking as a reader and customer.  Any “building full of books that can come home with me,” she added, is “a world of endless possibility and opportunity.”

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Ann Patchett (right) with co-owner Karen Hayes of Parnassus Books

Patchett opened Parnassus Books after the other two bookstores in Nashville closed.  As she told USA Today, starting a new bookstore in the Digital Age felt like “opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire.” The fact that Parnassus is thriving today does not mean that Patchett and Hayes are bucking a trend. “We are the trend,” she says, bless her.

But here’s the point of all this for me. When I hear people like John Makinson malign independent bookstores, or Jeff Bezos slash prices for the purpose of knocking out bookstores (why else would he do it?) or Barnes & Noble whine about unfair competition against its e-book reader Nook (aw. take another dose of your own medicine), I want to stop all that noise and do something about the problem.

Happily, bookstore owners believe that readers can make a difference. In fact, that’s the heart and soul of what they believe.

As Ann Patchett said to Terry Gross, for independent bookstores, proactive customers are the answer: “If you want a bookstore in your community — if you want to take your children to story hour, meet the authors who are coming through town, get together for a book club at a bookstore, or come in and talk to the smart booksellers — then it is up to you. It is your responsibility to buy your book in the bookstore, and that’s what keeps the bookstore there.

“It’s true for any little independent business. You can’t go into the little gardening store and talk to them about pesticides –  when do you plant, what kind of tools do you need –   use their time and their intelligence for an hour and then go to Lowe’s to buy your plants for less. That you cannot do.”

Ann Patchett's new book of essays is "This is the Story of a Happy Marriage"

Ann Patchett’s new book of essays is “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage”

It’s refreshing to hear a bookseller speak directly and unequivocally about readers acting independently and responsibly to secure the future of bookstores.

Heaven knows the  book industry will be sinking further into chaos for some years to come. That’s what makes it, for me, a privilege to pay full price for a physical book or an e-book at an independent bookstore.

You know where each sale’s profit is going — not in the pocket of some meglomaniac billionaire or corporate giant but into the store’s budget for more books, each one deemed worthy to sell to any one of us, and to programs that enhance the neighborhood’s cultural roots.








Two Terrific Books (And Amazon Blows it Again)

The most controversial book (by far) at the NCIBA trade show* was Tiger, Tiger, the true story of a pedophile in his 50s who not only befriended a 7-year-old girl but became her “playmate, father and lover” for 15 years before he committed suicide and she ended up in her twenties becoming both an incredibly mature author and a — well, you hafta wait and see.

Not one parent at the show could open Tiger, Tiger to even begin page one because it’s so menacing, so terrifying and so creepy …. or so it seemed by the look of it.  The fact that the author, Margaux Fragoso, lived to tell the story would seem astonishing enough;  that she writes in a beautiful, gripping narrative voice with the most astounding insights opens our ears (and, incredibly, our hearts) to otherwise unspeakable matters.

I can say that once you do open the book and you do begin reading, it’s impossible to put down. And boy, is it needed. Fragoso refuses to be either victim or avenger. What she learned about herself and human nature keeps us appalled and instructed every step of the way. From the start, her choices in life are so unexpected and in a way so thrilling that … well, again, you hafta see for yourself. The wait may be excruciating, because Tiger, Tiger is going to simmer (and not on the back burner) at Farrar, Straus & Giroux until its March publication.

(BTW, thank you, Autumn, at From The TBR Pile, a blog for readers that’s turned up a good handful of other books named Tiger, Tiger [or Tyger, Tyger in goblin speak] that you can find here. And extra thanks of course to poet William Blake who started it all.) Continue reading