Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, August 7, 2001





I'm hardly the first to say that paying $10 million to Bill Clinton (as Knopf reportedly did yesterday) or $8 million to Hillary Clinton or $7.1 million to Jack Welch or $64 million [for a five-book contract] to Mary Higgins Clark is obscene.

The authors don't need the money, the publishers won't earn back the money (if they do it would be a fluke), and the idea that these books pay the way for "smaller" books by "real" writers is one of the giant fibs of the century.

What grates about the Clinton/Knopf deal is the embarrassment of watching publishers work themselves into a frenzy over a celebrity book which many did not even meet with the author to discuss nor did they see anything in terms of a book proposal in print or outline (or paragraph?) in print.

Of course, why should they have to do that when, according to reports, the interest among publishers throughout was on what Clinton will say about the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater affairs rather than what light he might shed on the making of American history at the end of the 20th century.

"At issue for many publishers was how much Clinton would say about the scandals during his presidency," writes Sara Nelson at Inside.com. "One senior publishing executive suggested that a book that spoke to Clinton's inner policy wonk, for example, would not be worth such a high advance."

Hell, we know he'll tiptoe around the scandals. The big story in this book for many readers is whether Clinton can demonstrate that he did have a transforming effect on the American economy, from his revelation that "it's the economy, stupid" motto that helped him win the election to his ability (if that's what it was) to create or contribute to eight years of unprecedented prosperity.

If he can document that, especially as it dovetailed with the effect of rising dotcoms on the stock market and on the beginnings of huge Internet spending, what a historic book it would be - one that could effect the Bush administration and Gore's return to run again in three years.

Instead what we get from book publishers is an insane replay of the media's obsession with Monica Lewinsky. More dumbing-down we don't need. It's arrogant and narrow and an insult to American audiences.

The only positive aspect of this deal is Bob Gottlieb, who was a terrific editor at Knopf before he went to the New Yorker and on to become a literary agent, and who could, as the "contract editor" in this case, inspire Bill Clinton to write something more than a self-serving memoir.

That idea of a "contract editor" called in from the outside, by Knopf of all publishers, is also interesting. Perhaps the many editors who have left publishing (some to become literary agents as well) will find a way back as independent contractors doing the work they love most.



Now that the library in Anchorage, Alaska, has been allowed to restore its exhibit on gay and lesbian history (thanks to an ACLU lawsuit - see #248), word has come that another library - this one in Alamagordo, New Mexico - is facing a similar controversy. In this case, the response by library director Jim Preston is worth framing.

According to the New Mexico State Library weekly newsletter, dissenting groups at a City Commission meeting in Alamagordo protested the library's display (24 books and a sign) that celebrated June as Gay and Lesbian Pride Month.

"The reverend Jack Brock of Community Christian Church agreed that the City Commission does not have the power to limit religious or political speech in library common areas," the newsletter reports, "but asserted that homosexual groups do not fall under those umbrellas.

" 'Yes, they represent a lifestyle,' he said. "But so does the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan movement with their swastikas and their racial hate. We certainly would not allow these people to use our public libraries for displays.' "

Other groups countered that "homosexuals are not pedophiles, Nazis, communists or Klan members," as the Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians pointed out.

But the greater issue concerned what libraries are supposed to do in a democracy and how they can make people "aware of the breadth of material the library's collection covers."

At the meeting, library director Preston stated, "The public cannot and should not attempt to deny basic rights and protection afforded by the Bill of Rights and granted by our courts to those they dislike or disagree with. The public library, supported by all tax-paying citizens from all walks of life, must provide access to a wide variety of information, ideas, and opinions for the benefit of all," he said.

Here's the part I think is suitable for framing: "If there is no free speech or dissemination of information in our public libraries," Preston said, "there is no 'public' in our libraries."



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Just thought I'd point out a problem in Geoff Shandler's reasoning about the effect of Soundscan [a computerized sales-recording system for determining bestsellers] on the music industry, from the viewpoint of someone who actually covers the music business. To wit [from #248]:

"Soundscan is a terrifying example, according to Shandler. Once music companies got hold of its data, 'the charts got worse,' he says. 'That is, just about everything became Britney, Faith, Puffy - in short, junk. Every so often something interesting got through, but on average, records slipped to the lowest common denominator.' "

But it's simply not true that once Soundscan went up, the charts were overrun with Britney Spears clones the next day. In fact, Soundscan began in 1991 and was a key part of the rise of both country (see: Garth Brooks) and alternative rock (see: Nirvana), as well as other smaller genres like Christian rock/pop and world music. Britney/et al came along many years later, and were as much a product of corporate mergers and shifting taste cycles as anything else.

Soundscan data might well figure into that; but it's so far down the list of causes as to be inconsequential. It's also worth noting that Soundscan is also not impossible to manipulate [see #251].

David Menconi

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your point [about cover photos of people with their heads lopped off] is well taken, as was your critique, not long ago, of disembodied lips on book jackets. Then as now, I agree: on book jackets and elsewhere, women should be full-bodied or not bodied at all.

BUT..."Augusta, Gone" is not a novel; it's a memoir. Relevant, since I doubt the author would have agreed to have the actual Augusta, her once-rebellious teenage daughter, photographed (with or without head) for the cover.

Meredith Maran

Holt responds: I apologize for the error, but egad, lopping of the head of a cover model on a book of nonfiction is even worse.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In regard to your column #254 [about Cynthia Crossen's attack on Oprah Winfrey's choice of books for the Oprah Book Club] -- way to go. While our book group does not read "every" Oprah selection she makes, we have read many of them over the past 3 years. We always have a lively discussion, and have discovered that each of us has dealt with our own situations and issues as best we could. At times, we have been able to say, "Thank the powers that be, I did not make the choices some of the women have in the books," but we can certainly understand and sympathize with their choices.

Indeed, real life can be as dark and unforgiving as portrayed in the books. Having recently left the social service field, because of total burn-out, I have been unable to finish a couple of the books. Too many familiar faces, with similar problems, imposed themselves on the characters in the novel. It can be very hard to accept that one can not save everyone. And it is harder still to remember those women who could not make it and save themselves or their families and indeed did make the choice to "end it all." But that is the reality of life, and I find it difficult to believe that people either are unaware (?) or oblivious (?) to what exists around them.

Crossen must be on another planet, or at the very least, in a very high ivory tower. One can only hope she never has to face a situation depicted in one of Oprah's choices. She is ill-prepared to do so.

Nancy Coughlin

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for the reality check from Marty Brooks of bol.com. It is a pleasure to hear from someone on the inside how corporations function. Oddly enough they seem just as dysfunctional as their public sector counterparts. Somehow this reassures me.

Tim Kingston

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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