Holt Uncensored

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by Pat Holt

Friday, September 22, 2000





I experienced one of those great Aha! moments while interviewing Margaret Atwood about her new book, "The Blind Assassin" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 521 pages; $26; buy online at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books, http://www.bookstore.com )

Unfortunately a thousand people were watching so I had to close my mouth and get going with the sophisticated questions.

Not that Atwood needed any. We were sitting onstage at a City Arts & Lectures event in San Francisco discussing the way famous people sometimes become the subject of popular mythology.

I thought that like a character in her novel, Laura Chase, who becomes a cult sensation after a novel in her name is published posthumously ("The Blind Assassin"), Atwood herself has been mythologized by readers who have been obsessively reading her books for a quarter of a century.

"Oh, I can't be mythologized," Atwood said. "You have to be dead first, and it's best if you're young. Think of Princess Di, or James Dean."

Besides, mythology about a person is best when there's a sense of sacrifice, Atwood believes. "Graves have been discovered in ancient Mesopotamia, where you'd find a princess laid out in elaborate clothes with her court attendants nearby, many having brought musical instruments with them, all having apparently taken poison at the same time."

Sometimes I think Margaret Atwood lives with such minutiae for so long that she doesn't know when her observations turn a little wicked. "Elvis didn't count as a human sacrifice," she added, "because he got too fat. The former, thin Elvis may come back in supermarkets because people just get rid of the part they don't like. When Elvis returns as an apparition, he's in that white suit. Thin."

Atwood has a reputation for being a bit stony with interviewers, but she was both funny and forthcoming at this event, and certainly few readers will ever forget the "blind assassin" of the title. On its most accessible level, the term refers to a science fiction story about a faraway planet in which children are sold as slaves and grow up weaving carpets so intricate that they go blind at an early age. In fact (more blistering humor), the more children are blinded in the making of the carpets, the higher the carpets are valued.

Once their sight is ruined, boys and girls alike are sold to brothel owners, and those who survive become expert dead-of-night assassins, because they can "walk without sound" and "smell the difference between a deep sleeper and one who was restlessly dreaming" - and because they "killed as softly as a moth brushing against your neck," Atwood writes.

One blind assassin, sent to kill a young maiden who's about to be sacrificed (long story), escapes with the girl into dark tunnels under the city that only blind people can navigate. We think we know what Atwood is doing when the two sisters who dominate the "real" novel, Laura Chase and her sister Iris (who's now in her '80s), are regarded as routinely sacrificial when the family fortune is in jeopardy and a wealthy industrialist comes a'courtin.'

That's only the start of a novel with so many layers and intersections that it leads us into a dozen different tunnels of interpretation of our own.

"There is a parallel in the two sisters," said Atwood carefully. "But men are sacrificed as well. They always are, you know, one way or another."

As an example, she offered a small parable: "Let's say you live in primitive times and you're in a group of people running away from a very large predator, like a tiger. If the tiger catches someone in your group, wouldn't you think that person has given his or her life to save everyone else?"

Absolutely. And I'd feel guilty, too.

"Well, the idea with sacrifice is that something has to have been accomplished by it -- that those who remain have been protected or saved in some way by the one who didn't make it. That certainty is what people turned themselves inside out to believe about World War I. They desperately wanted to believe something had been gained by it because you cannot look at such carnage and believe it was useless. That's not within our human nature to do.

"Sacrifice is an old motif; it's been with us for quite a while. Think of the Bible. One of the big things that occurs in the Old Testament, something that people were very pleased with God for, was that you could use sheep instead of humans. That's why, when you hear the term 'the lamb of God,' it isn't Jesus. It's really a lamb who's become the substitute sacrifice."

That's when my jaw dropped. I heard a gasp in the absolutely silent theater and realized it was me. So that's what this novel is about, I thought. A few leaden moments passed as Margaret grinned and the audience waited and I tried to - well, to get back to the sophisticated questions. People laughed a little, too - a book critic who learns the heart of the novel from the author, of all people, is a purty funny sight.

Afterward, the remarkably long line of customers wound out from the lobby, where Atwood and A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books were doing a land-office business, all the way to the theater's stage door.

Two reviews had just appeared they had probably read. In one, Atwood was criticized for making Iris's story "flat as a pancake" (let's hope others delve more deeply into the novel). In another, Atwood was praised for keeping the story "largely unencumbered by the feminist ideology that weighed down such earlier Atwood novels as 'The Edible Woman' and 'The Handmaid's Tale.' "

Well, Atwood fans smile and forgive that kind of talk. It's tantamount to saying that Toni Morrison is "weighed down" by a civil rights ideology in such novels as "The Bluest Eye" and "Song of Solomon."

Later I looked at a very tired Atwood and wondered if this book tour, which had just begun, was already exhausting. "Well, I never find myself completely spent until I get to the Swedes," she said gamely. "Book events sometimes go on all night there." A pause. "They like to sing."

And say, did the "blind assassin" story remind you of anything? More about this next week.



Partnering with Borders probably seems like a small concession to Neil Baldwin, executive director of the National Book Foundation - but according to poet and author Adrienne Rich, even the smallest of concessions comes with a huge price tag.

To raise money for the NBF, Baldwin is compiling an anthology of essays by well-known authors called "The Book That Changed My Life." He has the support of Random House, which will publish the book pro bono, and of Borders, which will join as a partner with NBF to promote it.

When Baldwin asked Rich to contribute to the anthology, however, she refused, fearing "a particularly intricate and disingenuous connection between Borders' harassment of the independent bookselling community and its self-promotion via the National Book Foundation.

"To put it bluntly, the National Book Foundation is presently providing credibility and respectability to a corporate enemy of independent bookselling," Rich wrote to Baldwin.

"I should not need to detail to you, of all people, the vital importance of both independent presses and independent bookstores to any genuine freedom of diversity of expression, in a country where media are being swallowed by media, and fewer and fewer ideas are made available by the resulting conglomerates."

This was Rich's second letter to NBF refusing the invitation. Baldwin has declined to post his response to Rich, but we can deduce from Rich's note that he portrayed the NBF as helping the independents by, for example, providing stickers for them to place on titles whose authors won National Book Awards. This, Rich believes, is not the point.

" . . . it strikes me that you are using the independents to promote the National Book Awards as much as vice versa," she wrote. "Offering NBA 'stickers' to independent bookstores hardly addresses the issue of the independents' stuggle to survive -- not just as businesses but as locations of independent thinking and a wide variety of books.

"Finally: how do you support independents by promoting corporate efforts to destroy them? Here, I think, neutrality is not an option."

Then there is the Dupe Factor, as Rich explains: "Borders has a practice of using such affiliations to gain credibility and access to communities which are debating the invasion of box stores and chains.

"When pressed they--like other chains--argue the merits of a competitive market. But with Borders' already existing economic leverage or huge proportions relative to independent stores, there is no competition here...

"It's one thing to accept money as a philanthropic foundation. One might wish to scrutinize the sources. But it's another thing to sell validation in return, validation which participates in injuring a leading, indispensable component of our intellectual environment: the independent bookstore. I truly hope you will consider this."

Well, so far we haven't heard that Baldwin is cancelling the NBF partnership with Borders. But thanks to Capitola Book Cafe in Northern California, one of Rich's favorite bookstores, you can read all of Rich's letters at www.capitolabookcafe.com/adriennerich1.html and www.capitolabookcafe.com/adriennerich2.html .

Rich has long been a champion of independent bookstores (you can read her stand about Borders in HU #29, 1/15/99, at www.holtuncensored.com/members/column29.html ). Each time that she, or Barbara Kingsolver, or Larry McMurtry or other authors speak out about the importance of independent bookstores, often risking their own book distribution, you can be sure that customers everywhere are listening.



But now Powell's Books of Portland, Oregon, the largest new and used bookstore in the world, has made a controversial decision about publishing a book of its own.

This is "The Powells.com Interviews: 22 Authors and Artists Talk about Their Books," featuring interviews with such writers as Michael Ondaatje, Annie Leibovitz, Roddy Doyle, Ha Jin, Mary Higgins Clark, Susan Orlean and others.

Powell's, a long contributor to literacy causes, says that all proceeds from this book will benefit Literacy Volunteers of America.

And Powell's, turning to Print on Demand as an inexpensive and quick way to get the book out by the Christmas season, has selected iUniverse.com to publish the book.

A number of readers hit the roof when the announcement was made this week. They want to know how Powell's, which calls itself "the legendary independent bookseller," could not know that 49 percent of iUniverse is owned by Barnes & Noble, a chain bookstore that's as much a "corporate enemy of independent bookselling," to borrow Adrienne Rich's term (see above) as Borders.

"I don't see the problem," said Miriam Sontz, reached by phone at Powell's. "If Barnes & Noble were the sole distributor, I would certainly worry, but that's hardly the case. The book is going to be sold through independents AND the chains. When Powell's is the publisher of the book, our job is to find as many channels as we can to sell it."

Couldn't another POD publisher have been found? I asked Dave Weich, who conducted the interviews and supervised the project. "That's a legitimate question," he said, "but you know, when you get into bookselling and now publishing on the Internet, the unfortunate truth is that there are only so many opportunities out there. At the rate with which companies are bought and sold, if your only consideration is who you'll partner with, you'll end up partnering with nothing."

Powell's did look at other options, but time was a'wastin', he says. "We were talking with iUniverse about selling their books at Powell's, and when this title came up, and everyone talked about the proceeds going to Literacy Volunteers, iUniverse wanted to take it on and waived all the fees; they helped with PR, and got it through quickly."

And you didn't think about the chain bookstore - one that Powell's doesn't sell used books to, at least not directly - behind iUniverse? "No, because we're not dealing with Barnes & Noble. The product doesn't have the B&N name on it. No matter what my personal feelings about B&N may be, I had to acknowledge that iUniverse was giving us everything.

"Remember when Michael Moore asked how you could use Earthlink when you knew that Amazon was its book distributor? Well, that's a possible analogy. I'd be glad to hear from anyone about any alternatives out there. But in this case, given that iUniverse did not charge us for this, I can't imagine a more competitive offer."

"Look at it this way," says Sontz: "Random House is a publisher that sells books through Barnes & Noble, but that doesn't mean we would stop selling Random House books at Powell's."

Well, of course Random House is owned by Bertelsmann, which owns 40% of Barnes & Noble's online bookseller, Barnesandnoble.com, and Barnes & Noble owns 49% of iUniverse, and so on. But that too is irrelevant to Sontz. "The concern for us was getting the book published, and contributing to Literacy Volunteers."

At least so far, Powell's has not experienced the problems with iUniverse that have been reported by other self-publishers here and in the mainstream press.



Well things certainly change quickly on the Internet, as we know. Today was to be the big switcheroo for Holt Uncensored from free-to-fee basis, but the overwhelming message from readers has been to keep the column open to the public, which means remove all clamps and allow this forum the freedom and reach it seems destined to have on Earth as it does in cyberspace.

Of course I love the idea of keeping it open to everyone, and thanks to the regional bookseller associations (and now some writers organizations) that have come forward to help bring some needed funding to both the column and new website after its first two years.

So the fun part: I've taken off all the member restrictions on the new Holt Uncensored website. You don't need a password or registration to roam around, and member features such as Hot Off the Keyboard and Book Reviews are being brought forward from the back sections to the new home page.

The hard part: Support from regionals and other organizations will cover only a portion of the costs at this juncture, which means I'll still need support from individual readers and be VERY happy to discuss funding with related groups (any and all suggestions welcome!)

The new part: I now have nonprofit sponsorship through Media Alliance in San Francisco, which means that subscriptions and contributions are tax-deductible.

The best part: This change in direction would not have been possible if so many readers hadn't sent in individual memberships of $40 a year. I simply can't thank you enough. You have given the column and new website an anchor that's keeping the old barge afloat (not me, the column) in these stormy book-industry waters.

And the next part: While organizational support is being pursued, the hope for this unique forum still lies with individual readers. I like to think of it as an "honor system" membership - if you haven't sent in $40 as your contribution to keeping Holt Uncensored alive, please go to www.holtuncensored.com and click on "How to Subscribe." Again, many thanks to all (and don't forget those suggestions).



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your story about Print-on-Demand books: The problem for bookstores like mine is that buyers are being inundated by emails from "new" authors coming from the iUniverse site - authors who haven't yet educated themselves about the industry, passed any kind of editorial quality control, learned how to publicize or advertise their own works, or generally work within guidelines that have for a century (or more?) been the machine that drives the printed word.

Publishers want to make money. Authors provide the raw material to make that money. Publishers are not "in the way" of freedom of ideas. But they do represent to booksellers some sense that an editorial mind has been at work, giving some stamp of quality in advance to a work that one is buying sight unseen.

So far? iUniverse has been a giant pain in the neck for us; our email workload has increased exponentially. One letter consisted of a single sentence: "I am a published author with iUniverse, and I was wondering what your bookstore will do for me." This seems to indicate that iUniverse accepts money for publishing but does no real-world training for their authors. How then is this more than a vanity press, all tarted up with Internet trimmings?

A Bookseller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for your discussion of POD. My title languished for 5 months without action before I fired iUniverse and went to Xlibris only to find out that it takes them 3-5 weeks to fulfill orders. So then I decided to learn everything I could about POD and subsequently started my own publishing house, Foreshadow Press. I'm currently with Digitz, which guarantees a 48-hour turnaround on all orders. What a mess.

My book, "Road to Belmont," chronicles the largest educational scandal in US history from my first-person perspective as a state legislative appointee who exposed the scandal. So far, I've spent almost $10,000 on editors, lawyers, insurance and graphic artists but expect it to all pay off at least here in the LA/California market where the story is set. With POD, I can change any aspects of the book when I transition from local to national sales.

Bryan Steele

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your report about iUniverse and other POD in your newsletter #186 made it sound like the whole industry was falling apart and would never get it together again. In Publishers Weekly, Sept 18, page 20, there's a slightly more liberal explanation of what's going on and the measures taken to correct things. Rebecca Lieb, director of corporate communication for iUnivese told PW that late in May, "during migration to a new software system, 400 titles" didn't transfer. (And how many companies have gotten into trouble with that problem!) All were restored to the system within six weeks, and most more quickly than that.

The article goes on to state that while they are having difficulty keeping up with production, since they are growing 10% to 20% per month, they have increased staff and are doing their best to answer questions and correct problems that are arising. Apparently POD printers are also having problems keeping up as the new technology roars forward. (I think it's forward. Isn't it?)

As for National Writers Union complaints, their president, Jonathan Tasini, told PW that while there have been complaints, "investigation is a loaded word. We're in discussion with iUniverse." Tasini also told PW, "Writers will find that these POD publishers are no different from old publishers. How do you market all these titles? Complaints to come will be about why these books haven't sold. That hasn't changed."

I had my own experience with ordering books from iUniverse in June, in the midst of their problems. A representative did telephone me in person, apologize for the problem, promise to remedy the situation (they did) and was completely upfront about the problems they were having with their computers. There was no effort to hide the problems or put a "spin" on them.

I am writing this because: 1) Like it or not, I believe that POD, ebooks and the Internet are here to stay; 2) we need to understand where we are with the technology, that there are and will continue to be for several years as we learn more about what nobody knows about yet (don't forget how long it took to get regular printing presses up to speed!). We can and should complain when things go wrong, but we should insist on them getting fixed rather than crying that the sky is falling, and 3) I believe that POD, ebooks and the Internet are our brightest hopes for the the democratization of the printed word and freedom of speech in the midst of the corporate takeover of the publishing industry.

While I haven't published anything through the Internet or by POD yet, I have published 30 plus books with both large and small publishers. And as an author with some success in publishing, I have become increasingly dismayed at what's happening with the corporatization of publishing. Most publishers on the Right Coast are frankly seeking books that will sell well from the front tables of the chains. That's censorship via the cash register. POD, ebooks, the Internet and a hopefully growing new maturity among independent book sellers and more independent traditional book publishers, will eventually overcome the serious threat to freedom of speech and the press which the corporatization of publishing and the media represents. Meanwhile...thanks so much for being a bright and powerful light through some of the darkest days of our transition through this new technology.

Hal Zina Bennett, author

Holt responds: I think if I hadn't seen so many horror stories and heard so much frustration I would have felt a lot better reading the PW article. Of course POD is a blessing and will be for years to come; but the situation for authors and smaller publishers seems far more serious than a few kinks needing to be ironed out.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Read your piece on POD. I'm a writer (articles for Salon, National Review) who turned to iUniverse for my first novel (I've written 2 others that I'm shopping to traditional publishers).

I think a lot of the snags and the snafus in POD are true--my own book took longer than I thought.

On the other hand, the obstacles and hurdles in traditional publishing now seem so huge for new fiction writers (and I have a tale to tell there), I feel that pod is the future, even if it takes a while for the system to work out all the kinks.

Anyway, just my two cents. I would be interested to know how book reviewers are handling pod books (from writers with credits).

John Farrell

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Speaking as a writer of crime fiction, may I say that the stalker/slasher/serial killer device so currently beloved in the genre is just that, a device? Along the lines of Raymond Chandler, who admitted that when action got slow, there was not much to do but bring in a man with a gun. I fear that although such books no doubt contain elements of Facing our fears and Personifying evil, very often the writers are merely flailing around for means of generating tension. I personally find many so-called thrillers dead boring, because any reader who has seen more than two of them knows precisely what's coming.

I am, however, in the minority. When I was a new writer, closed into an elevator with a couple of fans at a mystery conference, one of them asked me what kind of books I wrote, and was disapoointed to find that they were not serial killer novels. "I just love serial killers," she gushed, and no, I am not making this up.

I got out at the next floor, rather nervously.

So you see, despite Right Thinking Critics, there is a strong market for stalker/serial killer books. The rest of us will just have to continue digging for writers with style and smarts.

Laurie R. King

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re Stalker novels: I am an avid mystery reader. About five years ago, I stopped reading mysteries whose hook was the torment or torture (including rape, of course) of women and children. I also stopped reading ALL serial killer novels. I have made a few exceptions -- Ruth Rendell's "Simisola," for example -- but in general I have held to it.

(I don't mean to suggest that I had no problem with novels describing the torture of men, which I find equally abhorrent. But my feeling of revulsion was only increased when I realized that lingering descriptions of torture, physical abuse and rape had become a commonplace in setting up a story and that the victims were almost always women or children. For whatever reasons, people who write such novels rarely put grown men into such degrading situations.)

Know what? I haven't missed a thing! There are so many good books out there, it has simply left me more time to read.

Elizabeth Lynn

Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote: "When you look at the current 'angry white guy' movement that has spawned an appallingly venomous anti-Hillary [Clinton] campaign, you have to see all of this as part of a larger and really atrocious mosaic."

No, you don't. There is stupidity in all walks of life, and just because there are stupid guys attacking Hillary Clinton and stupid guys (and gals) writing misogynist thrillers doesn't mean they're the same stupid guys, or that their respective brands of stupidity stem from the same source. There is causality in the world, but there's also plenty of unrelated coincidence.

I'm no fan of stupidity or misogyny, but no fan of unjustified "connections" either.

Joshua Brody

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your column mentioned that horrible Nike ad. Thanks to thousands of women writing e-mails, calling, NBC announced today that they're pulling the ad. Nike plans to still run the ad on ESPN, I understand. Keep those e-mails going to: http://www.nike.com/support/talktous.html

Carol Schmidt

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[NOTE: I don't usually run advertisements for businesses, but this sounds like a new company that many readers might want to investigate. Pat]

Here is a reaction from the Netherlands, from a company called Gopher Publishers, on your column #186:

Gopher Publishers is an Internet publisher, offering publishing-and-printing-on-demand in the Netherlands. We exist since September 1997. Since June 2000, we opened a subsidiary in Simi Valley, Los Angeles. As a publisher, we have the exploitation rights to about 100 books, momentarily mainly in Dutch, but some already in English and in German. We store all our books digitally, meaning we have no physical stock, but we are never out-of-stock.

The books can be ordered on the website, www.GopherPublishers.com We print the book through print-on-demand after it has been ordered and paid for. We usually deliver within 6-7 working days, the delivery by mail being the largest portion of the time needed . . .

Danny Jolink


Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.