by Pat Holt

Friday, May 5, 2000:


To New Readers: "Holt Uncensored" is a free online column about books and the book industry written by former San Francisco Chronicle book editor and critic Pat Holt. You can subscribe or "unsubscribe" by clicking here.





Critics and readers share a notion I've come to call The Basement Theory, which is simply that everybody has a basement when it comes to judging art and pop culture.

There is some line each of us draws that says, well, this is as low as I go - everything beneath it is so offensive and ugly to me, I'll store it in the basement and never go down there again.

The Basement Theory is not as simple as likes and dislikes, of course. Interpretation is everything: Andre Serrano's "Piss Christ" image of a crucifix set in urine may send an offensive message to some (Christ defiled by urine); but to others it is an artistic statement (Christ's beauty can't be defiled by urine; Christ's power is so vast it makes urine beautiful, etc.).

On a "lower" level, I think the writers of "South Park" are masters at pretending to pander to base tastes (of, say, adolescents who crack up at toilet humor). In fact (well, to me), they appeal to "higher" tastes by satirizing and indicting a society that itself exploits adolescent obsessions (ah, the flatulence movie-within-the-movie).

Literary critics often feel that book reviews are only part of a running conversation with readers about the way such standards work. Danielle Steel's novels may not measure up to the usual standards of literary criticism (no brainer there), but it's fascinating to see how discriminating her readers can be when it comes to setting their own standards. In the romance genre, this readership can smell a phony a mile away, even when many romance readers devour 80 to 100 novels a month.

All of this comes to mind as the groundswell builds to stop Simon & Schuster from issuing "Panty Raider," the sub-sub-basement CD game discussed in #149 (see update below), and as a new groundswell has been initiated by http://www.TomPaine.com . This is an Internet journal of opinion that has, bless 'em, taken us all down to the sub-sub-sub-SUB (nearing China) levels of radio personality Don Imus and his producer, Bernard McGuirk.

Last Friday, Father Tom Hartman and Rabbi Marc Gellman appeared as guests on "Imus in the Morning" when McGuirk did his impression of New Jersey Nets basketball star Jayson Williams. Central to the comic appeal of his performance, McGuirk apparently decided, was the fact that Jayson Williams is black.

" . . . Yo, Father Tom, Rabbi," McGuirk said with what he perceived as an African American accent. "A salaam a lekem, man. What's up with you all, man? [laughter] I don't mind hangin' out with the rabbi, but I don't like hangin' out with Father Tom, 'cause every time I hang out with Father Tom, he gets the bitches and I don't, man. [huzzahs]"

Of course, this is the kind of race-bashing-and-baiting that Imus thrives on: Not only intended to shock some listeners while appealing to others, it's also timed to put the priest and the rabbi in the hot seat. As "the God Squad," as Imus calls them, these two may represent a different perspective, but they also want to appear tolerant and "with it," not preachy and punitive.

How far down their basement goes, however, is another matter. "I got a wife, but ain't no thing," McGuirk says, still impersonating Williams. "I got enough [women] left over for a gang of ho's, man. [laughter] Ain't no thing. That bitch be lucky I don't be slashin' her ass up with a knife. [huzzahs]"

Whoa, McGuirk has moved from racism and mysogyny to sexual-mutilation-as-hate-crime. It's repugnant and horrifying. But what a terrific opportunity for the rabbi and priest to discuss the limits of comedy and the need for respect or all people; the seeping of cusswords like "bitches" into daily parlance; and the routine use of demeaning and violent images for shock value. Surely few listeners are finding it humorous to imagine a star basketball player slashing his wife's "ass" with a knife.

But lo, the priest and the rabbit say nothing. Worse still, McGuirk finds himself on a roll. As Williams, he refers to himself as "a half-black kid like me from the projects makin' millions banging skinny white models, man." Also, in a recent basketball game, "Reggie Miller played like his sister Cheryl, man. . . By the way, I think Reggie and his sister, they share the same girlfriend."

By now you'd think the rabbi and priest have got to speak up, yes? No. They have found an exit from their own basement and . . . sneaked out the door! Undaunted, McGuirk refers to another radio program as " 'The Vagina Dialogues. ' [laughter] You know why? Bunch of pussies talkin' bout nothing. [sustained laughter and huzzahs]."

This is not the first transcript from "Imus in the Morning" that http://www.TomPaine.com has excerpted. There one finds the most incredibly cruel and ugly references made by Imus and McGuirk toward the disabled, African Americans, gays and "bitches." When Father Hartman visits, the offending speaker is admonished to "say three Hail Mary's and three Our Father's," and everybody laughs.

Here again, no one's calling for Imus to be censored or banned, though note should be taken that only a few years ago, station managers would have been fearful of FCC repercussions and cut out this kind of stuff immediately.

Rather it's a question of consumers everywhere - not just in Imus' syndication - knowing what a show like this is saying. It's a matter of each of us deciding if Imus has hit that basement line and what it means when audiences turn away.

Remember how Imus' book awards with Barnes & Noble (now there's a dream marriage) blew up in everybody's face? At some point that cocky humor cracks open just enough to show the fear and desperation underneath.



I have to admit to a certain naivete for thinking that "Panty Raider" - the CD-ROM game that encourages players to demean and undress supermodels down to their "sexy" underwear for the sake of "horny" aliens - would go the way of Bret Easton llis's "American Psycho."

Readers may remember that the only person to do anything about the many complaints among staff workers at S&S regarding pornographic elements of "American Psycho" (in which a serial killer mutilates women and couples with their severed limbs, and that's just for starters), was somebody way over the heads of S&S,who was appalled by the book and got it cancelled.

Of course this is the WORST way to deal with complaints about a book - by fiat from somebody outside the editorial process who most probably (it was said) killed "American Psycho" out of fear for the controversy that would tarnish the corporate image. The sorry result was that Vintage, a Random House imprint, picked up the rights and, thanks to the way things were handled at S&S, had an instant bestseller as soon as the book was published.

Nevertheless, "Panty Raider" is so repugnant and its impact so potentially harmful I wish somebody upstairs would at least take a look at the awful thing and take a position that's not as ridiculous as Simon & Schuster Interactive's present defense.

"It's so over the top," said S&S Interactive's Peter Binazeski to USA Today yesterday. Referrng to imges of the supermodels in "Panty Raider," he added: "These are obscenely large-breasted women with zero waist."

In other words, your "mature" male will see it as a satire and coolly play the game for its intellectual challenges, like throwing "goop" on the supermodels to make their clothes disappear and ogling their "panties" with X-Ray glasses.

"The game is . . . never directed or intended for kids," says Binazeski, but "no adults that I know of" will play the game, Chris Krama of Dailyradar.com, a website for game players, told USA Today. "There was something so unctuous and irritating about 'Panty Raider,' " he added, that Daily Radar.com has launched a "worst game ever" contest because of it.

And according to Dads and Daughters, the nonprofit organization that first spoke out against "Panty Raider," if the game were aimed at adults, "the supermodels would be stripped down to full nudity."

Ah, but S&S Interactive has a little trick up its sleeve: According to DiversityInc.com, "Since the company knew te 'subject matter was questionable,' Binazeski said Simon & Schuster Interactive sought an Entertainment Software Review Board rating." Isn't that upstanding! "the rating hasn't been determined yet, but it is voluntary and only informational," he added.

I'll bet. Wouldn't it be something if the "Panty Raid" CDs went on sale with XXX ratings from the Entertainment Software Review Board? As Diversity.com reminds us, "Simon & Schuster has no control over retailers selling the game to youngsters." Aw! That means the only verification young boys will have that the contents of "Panty Raider" are just as obscene as they ever hoped will be that XXX rating.

But look what Dads and Daughters started. They called on S&S to withdraw the CD on April 28. Not only have USA Today and Diversity.com written their own stories, but coverage is coming from www.familyeducation.com, one of the largest family sites on the web (70 mllion visits last month), Washington's Feminist Faxnet, Fox News, the Lifetime channel, CBS and Wired.com.

"I am not optimistic that we will turn S&S around," writes Dads and Daughters chairman Michael Kieschnick, "but it is not impossible either. I think that some combination of author pressure and consumer pressure might do the trick, but I am confident that they would be giving up lots of money if they pull the game."

So give it up, S&S! You did it with "American Psycho"! You could win a lot of points if you do it again.


NOTE: The Fran Lebowitz story will appear next week.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was horrified to read about the "Panty Raid" CD-ROM from Simon & Schuster. A check of their web site confirmed all the information in your article. Readers may be interested to know that they can send comments to Simon & Schuster on upcoming material by accessing the following:


Natalie Danford New York, NY danfordpierleoni@compuserve.com

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re the Panty Raider "game," I will stop barfing long enough to say how sorry I feel for the women (and there must be some) who work for the company that produced this "game." Their self-esteem and self-respect must be nonexistent; I wish for them a better future.

Barbara Lehman Mill Valley

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As an author who has published her first novel with iUniverse.com and in the ebook format with book-on-disc.com, I was curious as to the feeling of independent bookstores on holding booksigning events for ebooks. I understand that the discounts might pose a problem. However, if a bookstore orders directly from iUniverse for the event, they receive a 40% discount. If the store buys the books from the author, they can negotiate up to a 45% discount (where the author would break even, but the books would be sold!). I was also wondering if anyone has actually STOCKED an ebook in their store. I've heard from another author that their discs are IN a Barnes and Noble, but I've never actually SEEN one in any store. I did discover that my ebooks at $5.00 sold faster than the paperback at $13.95 at the recent Los Angeles Times Book Festival at UCLA. I did make contact with Crown and B&N representatives, but would like to know if I should contact the independents as well.

Robin C. Westmiller Author, Red Wine For Breakfast http://www.westmiller.com/robin Paperback available from www.iUniverse.com CD-ROM Ebook available at http://www.book-on-disc.com and www.ebookshoppe.com.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'm writing to you as the owner of a struggling independent bookstore in Woodland, California. My wife and I started our bookstore, about a dozen miles away, in Davis, back in 1987. We had both worked in small independents and then as management in chain bookstores for years. When the chain mentality became too much, we took the leap and started our own little 1,100-sq. ft. empire.

In 1998, we chose to leave Davis rather than to watch our eleven years of blood, sweat, and tears go down the literary drain. We left because a Borders superstore (one bigger than all ten existing Davis bookstores combined) crashed and crushed its way into town with the blessings of the City Council, UC Davis, and the local newspaper. A misguided city council was told (by an "impartial" university and developer) that book sales and TAX REVENUES would soar. As for the university, they sold their land (for millions) to a big-time developer from Sacramento · from whom they expected big money contributions (more millions). Money was talking · no · money was a yelling · and demanding things.

Vicky and I announced, from the beginning, that our store would leave town before Borders opened. We made it very clear in our many letters to the editor, store displays, and countless flyers and handouts, that we were being forced to leave because we couldn't take even a 10% hit in sales and survive. We are a typical small independent, with a "slim" profit margin, a lack of any capital reserve, and the knowledge that many of our good customers (no matter how strongly they professed their distaste for big-box) would be looking and buying at the giant new bookstore. We could hear in our sleep -- "Why it's so big · it must have every book I could ever want. And I'll shop at those little old bookstores once in a while -- that'll be enough to keep them in business."

We helped to form a citizens group to fight the new mall and superstore. We also hosted weekly public meetings in our store, met with the developer (he just wanted to HELP us booksellers by -- "lifting all the boats in the harbor"), held literary/food events, and met with countless members of the media to get the word out. We were greeted by a few with negative comments because we had crossed that line -- we had mixed business and politics, and we were a rowdy and literate rabble. Our much-loved label of RABBLE came from the unthinking developer in one of the many puff pieces that the newspaper ran. I guess we were supposed to crash and burn with professional civility. Some polite people don't want to hear any ugly truths.

But, when it came to large numbers of Davisites, we weren't alone in our view of things. We quickly collected over 4,500 signatures on petitions to the city council, asking them to work with the developer to bring some retail to town that was actually needed. Scores of businesses joined us in newspaper ads publicly showing their support. City Council and Planning Commission meetings were packed with impassioned people, speaking for hours on what the existing bookstore community meant to them.

But, as is often the case, it was a done deal before the public had caught scent of anything, and the threat of lawsuits from the developer gave the City an excuse to change nothing -- "let's get building." There is a lawsuit about the project, by the citizens group against the city for violating planning law, but it's lost in the courts as Borders continues to sell books and drive independent bookstores out of town.

We started looking for a new home. After looking around the West Coast, and seeing the identical damage being done to the social and business communities of countless cities by big-boxes and superstores of all types, we decided to lease a 5,000 sq. ft. space in a wonderful 1904 rice mill building right here in Woodland. The welcome from the Woodland community has been great, especially after the disturbing Davis scene.

Our bookstore is beautiful, we offer countless, quality services, we have a regular clientele and a fine staff ... and yet, we continually stagger from tax payment, to overdue publisher bills, to financial crisis. We operate "close to the bone" with six full and part-time employees, my wife, Vicky, doing the ordering, and running the sales floor, and I do the accounting, marketing, and build the fixtures. Still we struggle.

About a year ago, we had a real fiscal "crunch time" and asked our customers for help. We encouraged investment, prepaid gift certificates, for everyone to tell their friends and relatives about our store and to do anything that they could think of to help. The response was great, and we got over that rough spot. We made improvements to the store, we got some press in the local newspaper (the Woodland paper is four square behind us), and we saw the ever-important sales numbers climb. It was looking like we might be on our way to that point where we could fulfill our dream of getting current on bills.

But, of course, that scenario was not to be (at least, not yet). Once again, we find ourselves in jeopardy. We've prepared another request asking for help and to show that the battle will go on and on·.

John P. Hamilton & Vicky Panzich The Next Chapter Woodland, California http://members.aol.com/nextchap

Holt responds: When I wrote last time about independents exhausting all resources in their fight to stay alive, and then coming back to the store to fight some more, I couldn't have put it more eloquently than the letter above and The Next Chapter's message to customers, excerpts of which follow:


We are, yet again, at a bad spot in the road, and we need your understanding and, if possible, help to bridge this pothole on the way to Prosperity (or Solvency?). To those of you who have lately placed special orders and were told your book would arrive within a week, we regretfully have to renege on that offer. Our major supplier has stopped shipments until we are current with payments. It could take up to a month for us to get those books that we need. We apologize for any inconvenience that this might cause and understand if you can't wait for your order. We are always able to order directly from the publisher; however, this process does take at least 3-4 weeks.

We wish to assure you that we haven't given up hope that we will, eventually, reach solid ground. But we have given up on the idea that it will happen, like magic, soon. When we issued our appeal for investments and help in any form last year, we had previously gone through many ups and downs but were still optimistic that solvency was right around the corner. The amount of support many of you -- our dear customers -- provided was invaluable. It allowed us to continue through a successful Christmas season and to expand the tutoring program which we hope to run indefinitely. We have been able to enlarge some categories and have been enjoying a 10-15% increase in business.

And over this past year, some major truths have emerged, and they are that the struggle to maintain an independent bookstore is ongoing, and that, beyond our own commitment, we will always need our community's support. When we reflect, like Blanche, that we "have always depended on the kindness of strangers" (and friends and family), we could grow despondent (and have actually) but the bigger picture is that this IS the nature of our business . . . Even though we've survived for 13 years, the path does not necessarily get any easier.

That we are still here is not only a testament to our stubborn character, but the commitment of our customers. When that disappears, so will we.

We still encourage investment in our future. Investments may be made in the form of money that earns interest or store credit after one year or money put on account toward purchases, which earn a discount. You could tell your friends and neighbors about our store or do your holiday shopping in May (and then forget it's done and come back in December to do it all over again!). Besides the usual strategy of running our business on the thinnest shoestring imaginable, John and I are now actively searching for outside employment. That will certainly help the cash flow problem, but, again, we will not survive without your commitment, understanding, and help. All creative ideas are appreciated. And, above all, never underestimate our commitment toward you. Thanks for being there.

The Next Chapter