Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 20, 2001





My worries about the First Amendment (see #201) took another hit the other day when I heard Judy Blume on that delightful and revealing PBS radio show called "Loose Leaf Book Company" (www.looseleafbookcompany.org).

Moderated by the Motel 6 "we'll-leave-the-light-on-for-ya" announcer and writer, Tom Bodett, with commentary from bookseller Valerie Lewis of Hicklebee's, the program reports on children's books as an important and lively news beat for all listeners, not just parents, teachers, librarians and literacy workers.

Typical of the revealing nature of the show is a recent interview with Bodett and bestselling author Judy Blume. She talks about an alarming trend in the publishing industry that makes us wonder about things like the invisibility of censorship and the limitations - real and imagined - of the First Amendment to come to the rescue.

"The 1970s were a good decade for writers," she says. Newcomers like herself were "finding editors and publishers who believed in [young writers and] who willingly took risks to help us find our audience. We were free to write about real kids in the real world -- kids with feelings and emotions, kids with real families, kids like we once were."

Because she "married young and had kids young," Blume says she found herself "desperately in need" of a creative outlet in her 20s. What an outlet: As Bodett notes, Blume wrote 20 books in 30 years and "changed the world of children's literature" .

Of course it wasn't that easy. "I tried to write around 1967. When you say my books changed the world of children's literature, I'm waiting to jump in to say 'No, writing changed MY world.' It took me several years before I was brave enough or ready enough to try telling what I knew to be true.

"That book was 'Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret,' the first book where I let go and wrote from deep inside, using everything I remembered from the kind of child I was."

"That book was the beginning of your troubles with censorship?" Bodett asks.

Not exactly. "In the early '70s, censorship was not the problem in America that it became in the '80s," Blume says.

"The '70s was a much more open time, when people were less afraid. The fear that took over somehow followed the election of Ronald Reagan. A lot of people who didn't want openness available to their children decided they didn't want it available to ANY children, and that is still what the big fight is about.

"By then I had written many books - I was very prolific at the beginning. I often wonder what would have happened if I had started out in the early '80s - if I had written that one book and been slammed - would I have gone on, would my publishers have published the books I wrote [after 'Margaret']? I'm sad to tell you that I think probably not."

Bodett seems stunned. "Is that environment in existence today for new writers?".

"It's certainly in existence today. . . It's all cyclical. In the '80s [objections centered on] anything to do with sexuality, which included puberty, in a language that was considered not proper language for children - never mind what language the children were using."

Blume calls these cycles of censorship "the three Ss - sexuality, swear words and Satan." Today Harry Potter has been "hit hard," she says, for the latter.

"You never know what's around the corner," she adds. "I tell writers that you can't write when you are sitting there worrying about every word that you write. It's just not going to work. What you think is safe today may turn out to be something that the censors are coming after tomorrow.

"There's no such thing as writing safe books, and who would want them, anyway? It's the passion that's inside the book [that counts]," she says. "And it's the passion that's inside the writer that causes the book to be written that makes readers feel something when they are reading the book. I don't ever want to see that lost."

Such observations from a veteran like Judy Blume prompt one to ponder how silently censorship moves in, and how soon it is unquestioned. Publishers used to be the great caretakers of literature in society, but pressures deepen every day to stop them from considering the unfashionable, the risky, the subversive or controversial

We certainly can't ask writers like Judy Blume to fight this battle, although young and up-and-coming authors such as Dave Eggars seem ready to leap into the fray (perhaps too much so). See below.



It could be that Dave Eggars is fighting the battle Judy Blume describes (see above) in the very style of writing he's brought to the surprise bestseller of last year, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" (Simon & Schuster; 375 pages; $24).

At the same time, the story in this Wednesday's New York Times about the coming Vintage paperback of the book made me shudder.

I knew Dave briefly in the mid-'90s when he launched Might Magazine in the same building that housed a temporary office of the Chronicle Book Review. He wrote a few reviews for the Chron - certainly eloquent in their way - but it's in this book that he proves to be an endlessly inventive and often profoundly moving young writer.

In it, he brings a feverish and stormy charm to the story of his parents dying from cancer within a month of each other and his own struggle to raise his younger brother (8 years old at the time).

His irreverence is muscular and funny, and there's a bite to it that makes the status quo - particularly the media - look complacent, stuffy and irrelevant. Just watching the flair with which Eggars and his staff launched and edited their satirical Might magazine for 20-something readers is worth the price of admission.

Make way for the Fresh and the Brash, Eggars has Might magazine say, with its crazy "nude issues" picturing unknown persons from the neck down in their underwear and its sly tributes to the passing of celebrities. Who can forget the tortured personal essay, seemingly addressed to the late Kurt Cobain - "For everything we put you through, that life put you through, that you put yourself through, I'm sorry" - and intended, we discover at the end, for "Richard Milhous Nixon, beautiful butterfly, fly free, fly strong ..."

So it's no surprise, as The Times reports, that Eggars with all his upstart ideas has convinced Vintage to publish the paperback with three different upside-down back covers. The notion seems dazzling though unnecessary - remember the different front covers for "The World According to Garp"? Who cared? So one hopes it won't distract (or detract) from the book.

What may startle many a reader, though, is the fact that Vintage is allowing Eggars to bring back 15% MORE text (an appendix he scrapped from the original), when the body of the book in hardcover is far too loaded with the author's hijinks as it is.

When I say "too loaded," I'm not talking about the charts, budgets, "floutings" or "poseurism" in the Acknowledgments - this is a joyful explosion of adolescent bravura that shows flashes of true originality, even brilliance.

And I'm certainly not talking about digressions in the text that are very much to the point, every one of them central to the whole work, as when he imagines surgeons "opening up" his mother's stomach to find "a million little podules, each a tiny city of cancer, each with an unruly, sprawling, environmentally careless citizenry" and all of them "annoyed by the disturbance, and defiant. Turn off. The Fucking. Light. They glared at the doctor, each podule, though a city unto itself, having one single eye, one blind evil eye in the middle, which stared imperiously, as only a blind eye can do, out at the doctor. Go. The. Fuck. Away . . . " or eternal references to his "creative facial hair" in the text.

I'm talking about such things as a 46-page question-and-answer section in which Eggars is interviewed by an editor from MTV - or imagines himself undergoing psychoanalysis, or feels interrogated in a Kafkaesque fantasy - and ends up about as self-serving and tedious as an author can get.

We forgive such mistakes in the hardcover because Eggars is genuinely outlandish and endearing most of the time. He's written a good but not great book, one that shows wondrous promise for the next project.

But when it comes to publishing the paperback, this guy is an AUTHOR. He is the LAST PERSON to decide that more TEXT oughta be stuffed into the dang thing. Devotees may love it, but critically speaking, additional acrobatics will do Eggars more harm than good.

It's too bad that the stuffy old Times portrays Dave Eggars as bombastic and full of himself, bludgeoning his craven publisher with the power of his bestselling status. That doesn't sound right at all. On the other hand, Eggars' fans will probably take their cue from the book and treat this story with healthy distrust, as they probably do all media over six months old.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Having spent a lot of time giving and attending readings at Carolina Clare's North Light Books (located just a few blocks from where I live in downtown Cotati), I thoroughly enjoyed your column on "Undefended Love."

I was not surprised at Carolina's handling of a potentially awkward situation; she's always been quick to make the best of such situations. But this is not of what I write.

I had a similar experience at Barnes & Noble last year, but I didn't have a Carolina Clare to help me out. Nonetheless, I was not be be denied when I showed up at B&N on July 13 in Berkeley.

There were 20 empty chairs awaiting me when it was time to start the reading as arranged by my publisher Seven Stories Press. I was going to conduct an innovative interactive reading of Upton Sinclair's "The Millennium: A Comedy of the Year 2000." It is a rare Sinclair science fiction novel I discovered and arranged with the Sinclair estate to have reprinted by Seven Stories Press in the year 2000. I wrote a brief introductory biography of Sinclair for the reprint. To do the interactive reading, I needed eleven participants and the outlook was bleak.

Out of frustration, I commandeered the store's loudspeaker system and appealed to everyone in the store to participate in the reading. This filled about a half dozen of the chairs.

I then marched up and down the store's aisles buttonholing patrons and promising them a souvenir script if they would participate in the reading. Ten minutes after the reading was to start, all 20 chairs were filled, and a half dozen people were standing in the back. The reading was a great success according to the event coordinator.

Needless to say, when I did my reading at Carolina's North Light Books, the house was packed.

My latest book is "Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century," Seven Stories Press, New York, 2000.

Carl Jensen

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re the role of used book dealers at Friends of the Library book sales. I work at a very successful used bookstore in Massachusetts. Many of our vendors are self-employed book dealers who subsist by buying books at library sales, thrift stores, yard sales, flea markets, wherever. Library sales are by far the most lucrative source for them. It's not easy to turn a substantial profit doing this. Many times I have turned away enough of the books, for reasons of condition, or because we have overstock, and the vendor has made little or even lost money. You have to develop relationships with the local bookstores and know what books they want, where you can get the most for each book, etc. Several of our vendors also deal with Follett's and Nebraska for textbooks, a business that is clearly a racket and very bad for the students. In order to succeed at this you really have to know your books.

Most people only supplement their incomes reselling used books. We have several vendors who are elderly and/or living on fixed incomes.

I personally have a great deal of respect for these people. They usually do love books. You can't make enough money at it to bother otherwise. It involves long hours, lots of lifting and driving and scheduling your life around library sales and bookstore hours. They are helping used bookstores survive all over the country which are almost always independent bookstores, when they aren't selling to textbook companies.

Sometimes we go directly to these library sales from the bookstore and purchase what we need, in which case we can drastically improve our profit margin. As an employee of a large independent, I have mixed feelings about that. After all, if they send me, at my hourly rate to buy books for the store, I make much less than I'd make if I went on my off hours and resold the books to our store myself. It is annoying if you're just looking for books to read, to deal with the competitive atmosphere at the sales. If you don't get to most sales early and get in line, all the best stuff will be gone in the first 20 minutes. But it all gets to the reader in the end, and the library makes more money. It's a dog-eat-dog world in used books.

A Used Bookbuyer/seller

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In the town where I live, the Friends of the Library found that we made significantly more money for the library when we stopped having the big annual book sales entirely. Now we have rolling library carts always stocked with books for sale and marked with the price. They're placed near the exit door, and paying for them at the circulation desk is on the honor system; still we make more money than we used to. Sometimes the books are library discards, but more often they're the very same kind of donations that went into the annual sale. The library staff does the sorting and pricing unless they get overwhelmed, and then a quiet call may go out from the Director for a Friends' volunteer to come help sort for a day or so.

I can't prove it, but I strongly suspect that one reason the library is making more money from the used books this way is that we have cut out the culling by the Friends. Those same Friends may well be contributing each year far more $$ than the books they culled would have bought at sale, so I'm not being accusatory -- it's just an interesting fact that the library is making more money this way. The money, of course, goes to buy more new books.

As to Pat's direct question about the purpose of the sales, are they a service to the community or to make money for the library, I think the answer to that is that making money for the library is always a service to the community, no matter how it's done. If dealers come in, then an individual member of the community may not get an annual or semi-annual shot at cheap books. But the extra money the dealer pays will go to buy more new books for the library.

A Friends of the Library volunteer

Dear Holt Uncensored:

If Tim Kingston would stop condescending long enough to read your past columns, he'd find that "dearest" Louann Miller and the rest of your readers are well aware of Powell's Books and their online store. Perhaps she's one of the many that sees little difference in that option.

Tim Kingston awaits Amazon.com "going belly-up with bated breath," then uses his next breath to extoll the virtues of shopping online with a gigantic Pacific Northwest based bookseller. Powell's may be wonderful but shopping Powells.com does no more for my local tax rolls or local bookstores than shopping at Amazon.com.

Comparing shopping at one online bookseller to "fast food" as if buying the exact same book at a higher price from another online bookseller was somehow more like a home-cooked meal is absurd on its face. It's the *same* book, only I get to keep more money in my pocket to shop locally or buy more books. It's about the books and the readers, not the cartoon adventures of the store cat, right?

Ed Dravecky III

Holt responds: Gee, walking into that rambling barn of Powell's with its quirky rooms and funky signs does feel like a home-cooked meal to me, and some of the books even smell like it, too. Powell's online announcements (in email and on the website) offer some of the funniest anecdotes and hippest writing on the Internet. There really is a family feel to the place, which is why customers all over the world worry about the staff during union problems and applaud the go-get-'em atmosphere online that makes Amazon look weighed-down and stuffy by comparison (not to mention two-faced when it comes to disappearing discounts).


NOTE TO READERS: Tell Bertelsmann not to buy Amazon.com for another week - we're taking a holiday (for President's Day)! See you next Friday.

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.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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