Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, January 29, 2002


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Authors may always complain about publishers, but these days, who can blame 'em? With editors bolting from the house or turning manuscripts over to assistants, it's no wonder authors feel abandoned early on.

And angry.

But now a group of writers in Berkeley, California, have joined together to "create a viable alternative to New York publishing houses" through a system of peer review and editing, literary salons, publication of "rounds" rather than lists of titles and fresh ideas about the "incubation" of new writers.

The group, EdgeWork Books, consists of 12 founding members - all women, all caucasian and all over 50 years of age; most of them are therapists and most of them are published authors.

The story goes that when they first began comparing notes on their experience with mainstream publishers, the room exploded in fury over the way good books that didn't fit obvious markets were being rejected as "too literary," "too feminist" or "too unusual."

"It was a remarkable moment," says writer and novelist Kim Chernin, who had instigated the meeting. "Every person there felt the same way. Every single one."

Stories abounded about one writer after another struggling against publishers - especially when "inexperienced editors changed titles, deleted controversial passages and insisted on changes for the sake of fitting books more squarely into marketing niches."

Some examples:

    * "A copy-editor sent back a manuscript that mentioned Colette with this note in the margin: 'Colette who? Is this a friend? Please identify, and use a last name.'"

    * "A book designer said of Virginia Woolf, 'Oh, are there pictures of her? I didn't know they had photography back then.'"

    * "An editor accepted a work (that went on to become a national bestseller) reluctantly, because it was 'really too intelligent for women.'"

Say the founders: "These examples, while humorous in the telling, are indicative of a troubling larger trend."

I'll say. EdgeWork author/editors say they "worry about the integrity and presentation of their work" and WANT their books to be "intentionally literary," a deadly term in many a corporate environment.

They also worry about their sameness in age and racial background and have "committed our press to becoming inter-generational, multicultural and multiracial." EdgeWork, they say, will create "a publishing vehicle for the work of young authors, who may feel they have even less power and control in the current climate."

Chernin, who has become such a firebrand for EdgeWork that she is now called the "initiating founder," has one of the more successful publishing track records in the group.

Her early books, beginning with two bestsellers, "The Obsession" and "The Hungry Self" in the early '80s, were among the first to address eating disorders as a serious and important phenomenon in women's lives. "In My Mother's House," a disturbing yet often hilarious memoir of her famous Communist mother, Rose Chernin, became a small classic in the field of mother-daughter psychology.

Many of her 13 books have landed Chernin on national shows ("60 Minutes," "Today," "Good Morning, America"), so she enjoys a significant "platform" (gad! let's get rid of that ridiculous term!) of audience appeal.

But although she received a sizeable advance for her next book (over six figures, she says), Chernin decided to give the money back to her publisher and throw in her lot, and her next books, with EdgeWork.

Her decision was initially "very personal," she says. "Something in my writing was emerging that didn't want to be constricted in terms of a dominantly commercial publishing industry. New York publishers seemed to have certain goals in mind for writers. They were not my goals, but the message was that I had better conform to them.

"I think that's probably not true for a bestselling writer. Someone like Alice Walker is not limited by that kind of proscription.. But all the midrange authors sitting in the circle that night felt they had been asked to submit to publishing demands that said, 'This is what we want from you.'

"I didn't want to write that kind of book anymore. I returned my advance to Viking Penguin as a statement to myself: 'Spread your wings - go somewhere else.' "

Independent publishers are out there in number who could have published Kim Chernin's next book very well, one suspects - and who have published others without the "constrictions" of the mainstream.

But Chernin felt that she and the others wanted to do something entirely new. "We each believed something was emerging in our work that didn't belong to the commercial world," she says. "It was a voice - a female voice, a creative voice - a voice closer to the edge, closer to madness in the most creative sense. And we didn't want anybody censoring it."

Wouldn't it be thrilling, the 12 writers asked themselves, if someone started a new model, "something that would be motivated by visionary zeal rather than marketing studies or focus groups," says Chernin. "And we began to think, well, if not us, then who?"

That zeal got translated into a statement of intent that reflects the founders' "truest, purest" ambition: "Our mission is nothing short of effecting a significant change in publishing," they say. "We intend to drive the decentralization, transformation and democratization of the publishing industry."

Wow. If that sounds a little mighty before the first book has been published, think of the financing they had to raise from private investors (done), the budgets, publishing staff (Cypress House), marketing plans, legal work and support staff they had to create to launch a new press (done).

With all of that behind them, three things are necessary if EdgeWork will indeed be considered right on the edge as a publishing contender:

1) the physical appearance of EdgeWork books will have to be distinguished from all others published today - that means these titles must be noticeably different, instantly accessible, welcoming and erudite all at once (done, believe it or not - see Part II)

2) the way that authors edit each other in a peer-review atmosphere of constructive criticism will have to be as professional and effective as the traditional editing process at its best; and

3) each book must deliver on EdgeWork's promise to provide a new kind of literary quality in which authors are given both the freedom to reject colleagues' editorial suggestions and the responsibility to refrain from self-indulgence.

In other words, if EdgeWork titles represent that "internal sense of abundance" that Chernin says defines the way the press operates, the titles must demonstrate true literary merit as well.

See Part II: ARE THE BOOKS ANY GOOD? next time.



Well, here we are reading this fun story in the New York Times yesterday about tiny and "offbeat" New Jersey telecommunications company IDT (market value $1 billion) evading a takeover by "Wall Street darling" Winstar Communications ($11 billion) last fall.

Oh, that Winstar was one big fish about to swallow up one little minnow, IDT. But then only last month in one of those great Wall Street turnarounds, Winstar went broke, and who should buy the company in bankruptcy but IDT, which by now "has made something of a specialty of capitalizing on the flashy flame-outs of the telecommunications crash."

The good guy in the company seems to be IDT founder and chair Howard S. Jonas, who doesn't care about "being rich" or "maximizing shareholder value" and "makes no bones about his irritation with Wall Street and its analysts, many of whom he said had focused on rapid growth at any cost rather than on profitability during the heyday of telecommunications financing."

Attaboy, Howard. Most of IDT's business (nearly 72%) is in prepaid telephone calling cards, but Jonas wants to expand into broadcast media through the defunct Winstar's "package of voice data and video services - not through wires or even optical fiber,but using radio waves."

Oh, oh. Could this be the wireless version of Warner buying America Online? Well, something like that on a minor scale. At least at the start. Since telecommunications are moving to the airwaves, a smart, savvy company like IDT could combine format and content by buying up radio and TV companies slowly and quietly in the background.

Sure enough, "in its first foray into the media business, IDT bought the Talk America radio syndication network for $3 million, and it has not ruled out buying radio stations down the road if prices fall," the Times reports.

OK, that's small potatoes, but Jonas doesn't mind revealing the vision of his dreams:

"Sure I want to be the biggest telecom company in the world," he says, "but it's just a commodity. I want to be able to form opinion. By controlling the pipe, you can eventually get control of the content. If anyone can make it work, we can."

Hey, wait a minute. When you are a publisher or a broadcaster, "controlling the pipeline" doesn't mean you get to cram your message down people's throats. Does it?

But Jonas has already formed a company called Broad Street Entertainment, which "is exploring cable programming for business customers. His goal is to provide content for workers who do not have time to watch traditional prime-time programming in the evening but who would be captive audiences at their computers during the day."

What fun. If you were too busy to see "Yes, Dear" in prime time, Jonas gets to tape your eyelids open so you won't miss a word of the latest show to come through your work station computer, "Why I Love My Company and Worship That Santa of Modern Telecommunications, Howard Jonas."

Heaven knows it's all possible. the Times reports that Rupert Murdoch, who already controls far too many pipelines, is among the "heavy hitters" to whom Jonas is pitching the idea.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your story about the sale of Publishers Group West to Advanced Marketing Services: I've been with PGW since 1986, and have nothing but good things to say about Charlie Winton and staff. They're the best, have kept up with new sales trends, expanded to rope in things like gift and academic sales, and helped keep me in business, even in lean years. And when Feral House books get controversial and dicey, they withstand the outrage.

I have noticed that Charlie has brought on new hires the past year or two to assist with profit margins. As a result, the monthly sales check is nickled and dimed in new, unanticipated ways. These charges do add up, and create problems in this bootstrapped business. PGW is able to pass on expenses in this manner; chains can demand bigger discounts and peculiar marketing fees; printers can raise prices when paper gets pricier; freight companies pass on fees reflecting higher gas charges (and somehow fail to bring the price down when the price of gas falls). All a publisher can do is raise the price of the book, but this means higher royalty payments and pricing a book out of the range of affordability. Book sales do not cover expenses (overhead, printing, salaries, royalty -- and our rent and salaries are truly marginal), so thank god we get a couple foreign rights sales and movie options. If we didn't, we'd be out of business.

Lance Tilford, who handles Feral House for PGW, assures me that the AMS deal will not affect the way it does business. Unless AMS was engineering some sort of evil deal to bring down the biggest independent distributor in the industry, it would seem suicidal to start raining on the way PGW conducts business. Let's hope so.

In the meantime, I wish Charlie Winton and his crew at Avalon a continuingly successful publishing career.

Adam Parfrey
Feral House

Dear Holt Uncensored:

One of your readers wrote a query about vending machines selling books - not the computerized kind but the more conventional ones "with the 'spirally thing' that kicks out the product. Any ideas? Leads?"

In some Paris Metro stations, for what was 10 francs and whatever Euros now, you can buy Polar to Go from vending machines. Polar is the term used in France for mystery books. These Polars are slim, pulp novels either new or reprints. At one time, new polars were coming out every week! Parfait for those long Metro rides...(an idea for BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] and other subway systems?)

Talking about best movies and Hollywood...what about "The Third Man," which went from novel to movie? Graham Greene, the author, adapted it himself...not Hollywood. Cara Black

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I believe Dell had a vending machine that sold 10-cent books at bus and train terminals, but it was not a success. This was in the 1940s.

Kal Palnicki

Dear Holt Uncensored,

Regarding your columns about adaptations of books into movies: What I think many of the readers are missing and, if I may be so bold, you are trying to say about translating "true life" stories to Hollywood film is that the hegemony attached to such adaptations is culturally damaging. Hollywood has a foothold in every corner of the world, yet the stories told are virtually always about a certain strata that isn't even representative of Orange County, let alone the rest of the world. I once heard Terry Gross interview Carrie Fisher on "Fresh Air," and Fisher said that in Hollywood, 28 percent of the roles were for women and that after women reached the age of 40, that dropped to 2 percent. And those are roles for beautiful, straight, white women.

Yes, Hollywood is there to entertain, but with the way that American movies permeate the rest of the world (I live in Norway and get a full dose of American entertainment every night, and I do not have cable), it is a shame that often the richness and complexities of the stories told are sacrificed to a bland set of generic values. The movies themselves miss a chance to provoke people to think about life on a more complex level. It happens with virtually all movies, but it's particularly infuriating when you have the book or true life to compare it with and can see exactly what was changed, modified and adapted.

This is one more reason that it is vitally important to continue to fight to keep publishing from becoming just a paper version of Hollywood.

Betsy Schneider

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Am I the only one who recalls that just 2 years ago Norman Jewison's "The Hurricane" was being heavily criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts of boxer Rubin Carter's biography, a charge that is widely understood to have ruined the movie's chances for awards and consequently its performance at the box office? Here we are two years later, and "A Beautiful Mind" is being hailed by critics, pocketing accolades by the bucket-load and doing, as they say in the trades, "boffo box office" despite being guilty of the same charge.

This bothers me tremendously because I feel "The Hurricane" is the better picture and, more to the point, is a good example of how film biography can merge characters, change timelines and rearrange events and yet still remain truthful to the emotional core of a life. It's a fine line, obviously: adaptation from book to film is an art in itself; adaptation from a life to a book to a film is perhaps an even tougher nut to crack.

Yet it strikes me that Ron Howard's "A Beautiful Mind" remains truthful to little from either Nasar's biography or Nash's life. From this movie-goer's perspective it commits the ultimate of cinematic sins: It takes a fascinating story and makes it boring. Even at the most basic level, one might expect to come away from this film about a paranoid schizophrenic who wins the Nobel Prize for Economics knowing something about paranoid schizophrenia or the work for which Nash won the Nobel prize. Dream on. Beyond this, any detail from Nash's real life as you have pointed out in your column (his homosexual tendencies; the true source of his delusions; the true arc of his marriage) would be much more interesting than what we get.

To make matters worse, many reviews of the film have tended to review Nash's life, or Nasar's book, and not really engaged the film critically at all. Roger Ebert's review is a good example of this. I'm left with the unpleasant - albeit completely unprovable - idea that the different critical response to "The Hurricane" and "A Beautiful Mind" has something to do with the fact that one is about a black boxer, the other about a white Princeton mathematician.

To quote Elizabeth Taylor in "The Mirror Crack'd": "I could eat a can of Kodak and puke a better movie."

Oh well. I's only Hollywood, right? Shame on me for taking my brain along to the movies.

Richard M. Smith

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re: "A Beautiful Mind" - I was unaware of the issues you raised about the true story, had seen the film a couple of weeks before that and really enjoyed it - I think there's some real truth to the movie's depiction of supportive social relations being critical to someone battling mental illness. As a film in itself, I think it's very worth seeing. It's also a real shame that Hollywood continues to be so "Hollywood" in its insistence at simplifying real events - Raging Bull is a great example of a warts-and-all biographical film, but then the point of it was not any kind of feel-good story.

Steve Adelson

Dear Holt Uncensored:

We extraterrestrials were especially offended at being omitted from the movie version of "A Beautiful Mind." WE gave Nash many of his insights.

Holt responds: And he even gave you credit!

[NOTE TO READERS: Don't read the following letter if you haven't seen "The Talented Mr. Ripley"]

Dear Holt Uncensored:

About the movie adaptation of "The Talented Mr. Ripley," you wrote:

"....not only do we find ourselves rooting for this triple murderer, we also hope that Tom will find happiness with that cute music scholar at the end. (Of course, Tom murders him instead, and that's another story - but even then, he earns our sympathy.)"
I guess there's no accounting for what constitutes sympathy, but I found Ripley a despicable character, and not at all sympathetic. Because his mental mystic and insecurities were interesting studies, that in no way makes his deviance excusable. He was a sociopath with no regard for human life, love, affection or loyalty. He certainly didn't get any sympathy from me. (That cute music scholar, on the other hand, is something else again,) I agree that "A Beautiful Life" was a beautiful lie, and Crowe did an admirable job of painting the portrait of severe mental illness, but I've lost a bit of respect for "Opie" [director Ron Howard, who played Andy Griffith's little boy in the TV series many years ago).

Harriet Robbins Ackert

Dear Holt Uncensored:

The deep pain experienced by authors and publishers when their books are made into movies that modify the story is reflected in the number who insist the movie title differ from the book title. Those who share their book titles appear to be grimacing all the way to the bank, never mind what they step in to make the trip.

How many movies based on books must one see to learn that they're always second cousins, never parent and child?

Carol Chittenden

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Contestants swim a river infested with crocodiles. If they survive, they become millionaires. Other contestants "Treadmill for Bucks." If they answer trivia questions incorrectly, the treadmill speed increases. If they don't drop dead of heart attacks, they, too, become millionaires. And in the ultimate game show, an ordinary man must run from hunters who have orders to kill him on sight. If he survives for thirty days, he wins the grand prize: one billion dollars.

Next year's prime time? No, it's from a Stephen King novel written back in the early 1970s, when he was Richard Bachman. It's called "The Running Man." It was made into an execrable movie with Arnold Schwartzenegger and Richard Dawson, but never mind that. As TV tries to cater to some imagined collective sadism with so-called "new shows" like "The Chair" and "The Chamber", they're in fact rehashing old scripts. Big Steve isn't even the first writer to come up with lethal game shows, but the bleak landscape he created is a haunting mirror of what's crawled out of the set recently.

Now, I realize this isn't the correct forum to whine about TV shows, but hear me out for just a second. Where is all this leading us? Hopefully not to the nightmare world Big Steve envisioned, where entertainment comes packaged as "Free-Vee" cable for the masses and "perverto" theater and only the rich have library cards. Critics have for years accused popular novelists of pandering to the "lowest common denominator," but where do novelists get their inspiration? From the real world, where people cheat on their significant others (Temptation Island) or squabble over pots of water (Survivor Africa) on national television. The sad thing is that so many of us are willing - and eager - to watch. Whatever sells will continue to be made, at least until somebody dies and the lawsuits commence.

Anyway: If you want to watch this sort of thing, you have a lot of options. If you want to know why people want to watch this sort of thing, head over to your local library - while they still let ordinary people in - and pick up a copy of "The Running Man."

Jennifer Jonsson

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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