by Pat Holt
Friday, October 27, 2000
A TALK WITH DEBRA DICKERSON ('AN AMERICAN STORY') - PART 1
I can't help laughing, after Debra Dickerson tells me she's about 10 weeks pregnant and hasn't been hit with morning sickness yet - about an incident from her book, "An American Story" (Pantheon; 285 pages; $24).
It's one of those great family car-trip scenes that any child stuck between siblings in the back seat will remember with equal doses of horror and laughter.
In it, Deborah's African American family has stopped for hamburgers on the way to Mississippi from their home in St. Louis, and everybody except their father (who's very angry for some reason) has wolfed down the food so quickly they've forgotten their practice of blessing the meal first.
We know from previous descriptions that the children have been taught they each must bless the food with a quote from the Bible, or there will quite physically be hell to pay when the food hits their stomachs.
In fact at each mealtime, as far back as Deborah can remember, after her father delivers formal thanks to God for the food in front of them, he goes around the table so that each child can offer a biblical quote.
Of course, most of the kids pick the shortest one they can get away with, "Jesus Wept."
Deborah, however, who seems to be the born reader, the born intellect, the born performer and to her father's consternation, the born rebel of the family, has begun memorizing long passages from the bible for just such occasions.
So after the table abounds with a linked blessing from the other kids ("Jesus Wept," Jesus Wept" "Jesus Wept"), Deborah has been reciting such lengthy passages from the bible that she's had to ignore lengthy sighs from her mother and kicks under the table from her siblings.
Dickerson has masterfully set all this up so that by the time we get to the family car trip to Mississippi and the stop at the hamburger joint, we understand the horror of the kids when they realized they've forgotten to bless the burgers before wolfing them down.
For one thing, they've been distracted by something awful and scary - their father not only walked out of the hamburger joint furious about something that happened inside, he has been leaning on the horn so hard that white people in the restaurant are coming to the windows to see what's wrong.
The sight of all those faces getting perturbed and then angry causes Deborah's mother to burst out of her side of the car, race around and close the door of her husband Eddie's side, race back around to her own side and get in quickly, saying, "Eddie, you drive this car now." This he finally does, keeping the horn blaring nevertheless.
Then the mother turns to the kids in the back seat.
"Listen to me," she tells them. "God knows you forget sometimes and thass all right long as you right quick say your verse. You only get sick when you don bless your food and you know durn well you shoulda. So let's quick everybody say they verse."
"She turned to Daddy. 'Eddie, whyn't you -- " He sped up a little and the car fishtailed. 'I know,' Mama recovered. 'Dorothy, you start.'
" 'Jesus wept.'
" 'OK, now you, Debbie.'
" 'The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me - "
" 'Good! Now you, Wina. Sit up straight, that's right.'
"Wina struggled herself upright and puked in both directions like a lawn sprinkler, drenching me and Necie. I looked down at myself, over at my sisters. Necie's eyes met mine, and we puked in unison. Mama faced forward again and slumped in her seat.
" 'Eddie,' she said, her voice drained. 'Pull off so we can find a Laundromat.' "
It's a tribute to Dickerson's gripping story and vivid writing style that this scene comes instantly to mind, simply at Debra's mention of morning sickness. The fact is that the family care trip seems initially to have nothing to do with the bold and sometimes outrageous positions Debra takes throughout the book.
Becoming the ambitious one, the brilliant student, the lofty one, Debbie questioned her father's brutal authority and was thus beaten so badly that eventually her mother got up the courage to steal away with six kids, very little money and few prospects for shelter.
Yet Debbie, the iconoclast of the family would follow in her father's footsteps and join the military, seeing in its discipline and structure a chance to break out of the poverty and racism of North St. Louis and become someone who believed she "knew that hard work was all that was required for a successful, stable life."
Those African Americans who were still marginalized were "losers," Debra had come to think. "I was not 'black'; I was a 'human being' who was looking forward to voting for Ronald Reagan in the next election." Now when she visited home, "my eyes would narrow evilly when I spied new microwaves, new floor-model TVs and VCRs in every room of a household teetering on the brink of eviction . . .
"I wouldn't own any of those appliances until after 1986 when I was an officer and, finally, middle class; my money went for my education and to bail family members out of the disaster du jour."
Oh, she's a tough one, that Debra, and look at all the space I've taken up just getting us in the door. More to follow with Debra heading straight for Republicanism and Harvard Law School before she makes the U-turn of a lifetime.
BERTELSMANN CLAIMS FRANKFURT AS ITS OWN
I could not believe that story about Bertelsmann head Thomas Middelhoff showing up at the Frankfurt Book Fair and gazing expansively across the exhibit floor to say, "You know, it really is my fair. It is the Bertelsmann Book Fair."
Honestly, that kind of blatant self-knighthood sounds a little boastful.
It doesn't help that Times writer David Kirkpatrick was following Middelhoff around and writing about Random House employees "hurr[ying] to their stations to prepare for a visit from the chief." Or that "Mr. Middelhoff is without a doubt the most powerful man in international book publishing."
Heavens, what does that have to do with anything? Years ago Random House head Alberto Vitale said that Frankfurt had lost its excitement for him because all the big books were traded among the big houses long before the Fair opened its doors.
What a bunch of One-Note Charlies. At Frankfurt, you get to roam through something like eight football fields of exhibits where the feeling is that every book is equal to every other. The idea of bigness is silly; there are just too many books. You can't get to them all, you can't control them all, you can't dictate to the reading public, and today we can say (thank heaven) you can no longer withhold the mechanics of publishing from people who want to pubish
I realize Kirkpatrick was setting the stage of Middelhoff's perceived power to show that "not everyone is happy with Bertelsmann's growing clout." Bertelsmann after all was "stirring anxieties" of competitors. Small publishers at the Fair "now worry that the cream of the rights market will trade via the interoffice mail of international companies like Bertelsmann."
But probably while some people resented the way this "Media Titan Surveys His Empire" (this was the headline, for heaven's sake), many others went about the time-honored business of buying and selling books they loved, finding ways to spread their passion for each title they represented and feeling privileged to work with authors whose gifts are only now being discovered.
And say, did anybody happen to ask Middelhoff about Part II of that study by UCLA historian Saul Friedlander to investigate allegations regarding "Bertelmann's Nazi Past"?
Early this year, the first part of the Friedlander report took issue with the company's official history (see #124 at http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column124.html ). It stated that Bertelsmann did not resist the Third Reich but instead thrived during World War II by producing Nazi propaganda for the military. "No other press so extensively furnished the German soldiers with reading matter," the report notes.
Middelhoff issued a statement: "We regret that [the commission's finding] was unknown to us before and that our corporate history has in part been misrepresented as a result."
Since the next part of the Friedlander report isn't out yet, one would think that before declaring the giant Frankfurt Book Fair his own private Idaho, the head of Bertelsmann would cool it with the bigger-than-thou stuff.
Bertelsmann once had a reputation for valuing the not-so-big book - for publishing books its editors loved and its marketing people believed in. It didn't matter if these books were "small" or "big" - what mattered was their originality, individuality, independence of thought and of course their style of writing.
So today, if we don't hear those values when the head of Bertelsmann speaks, when he makes a sweeping gesture across hundreds of thousands of books and misses the point because of some self-aggrandizing preoccupation, well, we'll just bypass hearing from "the most powerful" flavor of the month and listen instead to those who see books not power but as the foundation of a business they love.
AMAZON SURVIVES 3RD QUARTER....OR DOES IT?
This week Amazon.com slipped out of another noose when the company surprised analysts with its third-quarter results and triggered a little rally that got its stock on the rise again.
Only a year ago, Wall Street and the media would have cheered Amazon for its courage and resilience and leadership and vision for announcing a third-quarter pro-forma loss of 25 cents a share, simply because that loss was lower than the 33 cents analysts had expected.
But something's happened to Amazon.com since it decided to try making an actual (not pretend) profit. The tide of public opion has turned - well, not against the company but certainly away from its glitz-and-glimmer image of old ("old" meaning as long as three weeks ago).
A few examples as quick as I can make 'em:
** A disastrous study was recently conducted by stock analyst Lauren Levitan, who placed a number of orders with Amazon.com and concluded that the company is losing money on most orders it processes.
Other analysts said Amazon.com's delivery system is more complicated than the test allowed, but the point is that these days, the first impulse is to blame rather than celebrate Amazon.com. Sure enough, the analyst's "small and unscienfific" study resulted in a $3 drop in Amazon's share price the next day.
** Then came The Street's Herb Greenberg's response to a little-known admission in Amazon.com's 1999 annual report. It said that the company is exposed to "significant inventory risks" because its "systems are not well-developed or well-integrated."
The problem had spread to the "forecasting, purchasing, receiving, reconciliation, accounting and payment" systems," creating havoc everywhere.
Here again, there was a time when Amazon.com would have been praised for its honesty and forthrightness with investors and customers and media alike. Now all Herb Greenberg could say was, "Yikes!" at the alarm he felt reading this (by now) old but proven report.
**Then there was the shutting down of Amazon's co-branded website with Sotheby's about the same time that the famous auction house's scandal involving price-fixing, collusion and anti-trust violations emerged for all to see.
Even I didn't think that cruel joke was funny about what happens to upstanding people when they partner with Amazon.com. (I didn't!) It was just noteworthy, I felt, that here was another example of popular opinion turning from adoring to disbelieving to jaded and mean-spirited.
**Then Amazon.com head Jeff Bezos made a comment about e-books taking off that sounded dimwitted to many. "It's possible to invest too early in industries and have it be a disaster."
Well, gee, he was right. E-book companies are going through a sorting-out process (notwithstanding that fascist Gemstar mentioned last time), so be careful. But look what John Blackford of Computer Shopper makes of the comment:
"This from the guy [Bezos] whose promise to sell books on the Web so dazzled investors that Amazon's market value went to the moon. When you hear yesterday's innovators bad-mouth the new kid on the block, take note. E-books could make Amazon a dinosaur."
Wow. Amazon.com a dinosaur? Do people suspect this already?.
**It didn't help that Amazon.com stopped advertising in that admittedly insipid Fib Box on Yahoo. That's the right-hand corner box promising readers that Amazon carries books on whatever subject readers are trying to find on the search engine.
Leaving Yahoo was regarded as a good move on Amazon's part because the 24-hour-a-day ad is so hugely expensive. At last Amazon.com was acting responsibly! Going for the black!
And yet the company looked weak when the announcement was made because there was nothing dazzling or hip about it. Amazon struggling toward profitability by slimming down a few hundred million here and a few hundred million there is not a pretty sight.
** Then this week came those Securities and Exchange Commission inquiries into Amazon.com's accounting methods.
Amazon.com has tried to sound pretty low-key about this, but the media are no longer taking the company's word. As reporter have noted, the practice under question (using website partners' stock as payment over time, even if the value of the stock fluctuates) is worth scrutinizing by investors.
Here was a person who was "shocked" to see that "my own pocketbook was threatened" as Amazon.com lowered its famous discounts.
So shocked and dismayed was Online Shopper that it was as if all of Amerca should now see the "real" Amazon.com for what it was - not glitzy, not profitable, not "customer-centric" in terms of price. Now receding into a bank of "others" online when it comes to figuring discount (if any), postage, delivery time, etc.
Gee, we think (using the Online Shopper's point of view), if Amazon.com hadn't stepped in front of everybody four or five years ago, the book-buying scene online would have been chaotic and difficult to navigate for a long time.
The Shopper ends with the thought that despite its rising prices, shopping with Amazon.com is a good bet - she's been branded and she's sticking to it - as long as we, the consumers, are constantly vigilant.
Not original, but contageous: As more online bookselling sites appear, especially from independent bookstores that offer just as many titles as Amazon.com plus the sense that customers are walking into a real store, with a knowledgeable and trustworthy staff and integrity up the smoke alarms, what a sight it will be to see how the new Amazon.com - trying to be profitable for real by 2001 and dropping all pretense of razzle and dazzle (drop that, Hunky! you too, Dory!) - faces its future.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your readers may be interested in the letter I sent to Verso/New Left Books after reading Andre Schiffrin's "The Business of Books." (See below). Needless to say I was surprised at the errors. I'm also surprised that neither you, nor any of the "astute observers of the book scene" quoted in your "Holt Uncensored #191," noticed these gaffes.
Verso/New Left Books
Holt responds: It used to be that a mistake or two in any book was the subject of horror in any publishing house, but over the years I've come to expect quite a number. These things rarely pop out at me, but even I caught some that you missed (it was Marc not Mark Jaffe of Bantam) and was willing to give Schiffrin a wide berth -- until now. [In any case, Part 2 of my story, which includes an interview with Schiffrin, will appear next week.]
Stephen Blackmer replies: I would like to add that I have great respect and admiration for Mr. Schiffrin and his outstanding career in publishing. For whatever single reason or set of circumstances that allowed this book to see print without benefit of copyediting, I think the significance of its premature birth is to show that there is more wrong with publishing than corporate takeovers and centralization. Unless itâs just a weird fluke that this book by this author on this subject from this independent publisher just happened to fall through the cracks÷I donât think so. The lesson is that publishers (or booksellers) are not necessarily endowed with superiority or quality just by virtue of being independent.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
[Regarding Mark Nemmers' lengthy letter about the "nightmare" he felt readers endured because Borders dominated the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival]: We share your reader's concern with the welfare of independent bookstores. The Festival's history with independent and chain booksellers offers the best explanation for why Borders was present at Poetry Festival 2000.
At the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in 1986, we did not contract with any bookstores. Instead, publishers, small presses and literary journals were allowed to set up tables and booths in Waterloo Village. This open-door policy required layers of organization to register and supervise vendors that the Festival had neither the staff nor the budget to provide. The resulting flea market atmosphere--which included reams of paper litter from handbills, brochures, and coupons blowing around the village--convinced us that book sales had to be contained in a single location.
In 1988, 1990, and 1992 we contracted with an independent bookstore. At all three of these Festivals, the bookstore could not keep up with the scale of the event: Stock regularly sold out well before the Festival was over. In many cases particular titles, and even the entire inventory of an individual poet, would be sold out halfway through the Festival. By 1992, teachers who had attended previous Festivals would make a mad dash for the bookstore after a poet's first appearance; they knew from experience the odds were that the title they sought would no longer be available. If they did get a hand on the desired title, they would risk missing much of the next scheduled event waiting in line to purchase it because of inadequate bookstore staff. Neither the teachers, the general audience nor the poets were being adequately served.
Despite these ongoing difficulties, we continued to work with this independent bookseller because we believed that they, like us, were learning with each Festival how to better manage an event of this scale. We offered them the contract again in 1994, but, due to circumstances unrelated to the Festival, they withdrew. We then approached three other independent booksellers, all with reputations for maintaining strong poetry lists, to run book sales at the 1994 Festival. All declined because of the scale of the staffing and advance ordering required. With the Festival drawing near, we went to Barnes & Noble by default.
In 1996, we again approached independent bookstores, four in total; they all declined. One was interested initially, but would only take on the job on the condition that all orders would be placed from their distributors' catalogs. After it was made clear that many of the poetry titles required for the Festival might not be stocked by their distributors, and that this would require them to make direct contact with individual publishers, this vendor, too, declined.
It was then that we contacted Borders. In 1996, and again in 1998, the Borders staff did a job far superior to any book vendor we had worked with in the past in stocking titles by the poets appearing at the Festival and in handling the demands of the public. They pursued every avenue to obtain small-press titles, out-of-print books, and literary journals not readily available through distributors' catalogs. For these reasons, Borders was invited back for Festival 2000.
Over the three Festivals that they have worked with us, Borders has taken hundreds of titles on concession. Of the approximately 100 poets who work each Festival--as Featured Poets, Poets Among Us, and Dodge Poets--only a small fraction are represented exclusively by large publishing firms. Most have been published by small presses, many by regional presses that do not have distributors, and many have only published one or two books or chapbooks, which are out of print. In 2000 alone, Borders took on 70 titles where the sole source for that out-of-print book was the poet. No other vendor has been willing to make this kind of committed effort for the poets at our Festival, especially those who do not have the kind of national status that would guarantee large sales.
Something needs to be said about the scale of the Festival to put this in context. Over the course of four twelve-hour days, readings, discussions, conversations and performances take place in a dozen locations spread out throughout Waterloo Village. For the first two days of the Festival, we registered over 4,500 students and nearly 2,000 teachers. For the vast majority of these participants, this is the only occasion when they will have the opportunity to encounter so many poets and have immediate access to such a wide selection of their books. This doesn't even begin to address the numbers of the general public who attend.
For Festival 2000, Borders ordered over 500 titles and stocked over 20,000 total copies. This required hundreds of man-hours to contact approximately 100 publishers, as distributors did not have many of the titles sought. In addition, the forty members of their staff logged in another 1,000 total man-hours to work the Festival itself. Borders provides the Festival with 15% of its gross sales. It is worth noting that the independent bookseller who worked with us in '88, '90' and 92 could not meet the demands of the event even while donating 0% of its profits to the Festival.
Contrary to the impression given by Mr. Nemmers' letter, book-singings were not confined to one tent. There were spontaneous book-signings all over the village and after every event in every location, with the exception of the concert tent. In fact, the poets could not venture anywhere in the village--to get lunch, to use the bathrooms--without being stopped and asked for autographs. At one point, I passed Mark Doty standing off to the side of a footpath signing books, only to pass him more than half an hour later still patiently signing.
In the past, poets attempting to leave the main stage after their reading in the concert tent were blocked by audience members trying to get books signed. The resultant chaos often caused delays in the evening's program. Worse, the crowd that would surround the poets would make it impossible for them to find a comfortable place to sit during what would often stretch into a 30 or 40 minute signing. A small tent, with tables and chairs, was placed just outside the main concert tent for the convenience and physical comfort of the poets, and to allow the program on the main stage to continue.
It is our belief that any event, regardless of who sponsors it, that results in impressive book sales by living poets is good for the larger poetry community. It benefits poets and small presses, and it sends a clear message to larger publishers that people will buy poetry books if the opportunity is made available. Most important, it actually gets those books into the hands of the students, teachers, and readers who want them. Our first responsibility in this area is to the audience that comes to the Festival and then hopes to obtain books by the poets they have just heard. Our second responsibility is to the poets, that those who work the Festival have their books available. Borders' participation has allowed us to meet those responsibilities.
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.
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