Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 5, 2002


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I can't believe the increasing silliness of ads for Viagra. "You must have a prescription for Viagra," radio commercials announce somberly. "So call right now! Doctors are standing by!"

Really? What kind of doctors would ... Well, apparently the same kind who are waiting in cyberpharmacies all over the world to give us Viagra via the Internet. "You don't have to go through embarrasing (sic) appointments, unnecessary delays, or risks to your privacy any more," says www.24houronlinedrugs.com.

"All you have to do is place an order through our secure website and, if your consultation is approved by a Licensed Physician, receive your pills within 1-2 business days!"

I love the capital letters in Licensed Physician. These doctors are so licensed they throw in a Free Pill Splitter with your order (not that you would ever use one with Viagra), promise free overnight delivery and best of all, "Discreet Packaging!"

It's all very American and amusing, as former Senator and former Viagra spokesman Bob Dole can attest when he's watching Britney Spears in a Pepsi commercial. "Down, boy," he says - and ha ha! - he's not talking to the dog! Adolescence sells when you're aiming at the middle-aged, it seems.

But the one ad I've had a hard time understanding is the television commercial for Viagra that's narrated by a middle-aged wife about her lively yet bashful middle-aged spouse.

To paraphrase: "I'm so proud of my husband," she says as they're seen gardening and hugging over the begonias. "When we talked to our doctor, we just weren't sure." They do this holding hands while she asks all the questions in dr.'s office.

"But now that we know Viagra is safe, I love my husband all the more for making the decision." On the couch she looks at him with just the slightest self-importance as he smiles back with manly satisfaction. "After all," she says lovingly, "he's doing it for us."

Well now she can do it for the both of them. Menopausal women who experience a lessening of sexual desire have found that a testosterone cream they simply rub onto the back of their hands has had dramatic effects.

So don't worry, men! If the Viagra ads are "right" in terms of what society wants from women, all we have to do is prescribe this cream to everyone from senior women to pre-teens. Just you wait. Doctors will be standing by.



When a group of published authors decided to form their own press, EdgeWork Books (see #296 and #297), and edit themselves through a peer review process that encourages each person to write without constriction, several things happened: Flashes of brilliance appear all over the books, as do passages of competent-to-very-good writing, as well as unfortunate lapses of mediocrity.

The question for readers: Is it worth it to plow through the ho-hum parts for the streaks of true invention and surprise? In many cases, it was for me.

But let's stick with brilliance for a moment as we turn to Kim Chernin's novel, "The Girl Who Went And Saw And Came Back." This oddly named story is about a 12-year-old girl whose nickname is Charlie. (Her real name is Cheryl, but with three other Cheryls in her class, she's the feisty and athletic one so she gets the tomboy name.)

One day a new girl is introduced to the class. She's French and the kids don't like her. They want to call her "MIGG NONE" but learn to pronounce it MinYon since her name is spelled Mignon.

Something about this girl is very different, Charlie notices. At 11, Mignon is surprisingly composed, sophisticated, kind of alluring, maybe even seductive (not a word Charlie uses) in her insouciant way.

Charlie speaks to us in the way she rides her bike, always at breakneck speed but never reckless, just determined to outpedal everybody, even her own breathless, scary thoughts.

"[Mignon's] eyes were too dark, they were just too large for her face ... So maybe that was why no one liked her with her eyes knowing things kids should not know, and staring into those hard things and I thought she would never be able to see us, we just wouldn't be able to show up among the things she looked at."

The one thing Mignon does look at is Charlie. Almost without discussion she becomes Charlie's pal, then an overwhelming presence who puzzles the whole family. Charlie's older brother Jonathan (a music prodigy), and her fragile younger brother Sam, as well as both her parents and Charlie herself, all become obsessed with her.

Mignon, it appears, is in some kind of trouble; it could be that her father is abusing her, but no one knows for sure. Charlie and soon Jonathan want to save Mignon from whatever horrible circumstance she's in, but she seems to duck their advances even as she invades their lives, stirs them up (emotionally and sexually) and makes everybody wonder if she's making things up.

Charlie is the most beguiled. "My father did not seem to care if what Mignon said was the real truth or not, what mattered to him was she was trying to say something we should be trying to understand, like she was pointing to something she couldn't really express, trying to show us something. It wasn't the terrible things that had happened to Mignon. It was what these things had made her know."

Charlie talks a lot about "the knowing I had before I'd been taught to know," perhaps meaning the essential truth inside that we cannot articulate as children and lose sight of as adults. Since Charlie's father is a philosopher (once a student of Wittgenstein) and her mother a psychoanalyst (once treated by Freud), a number of questions emerge as to what is true and what is imagined.

About her mother, Charlie asks the question every child wants to know: " 'If she loved me she'd choose me instead of her truth, wouldn't she?' And my father said, 'A truth is tyrannical. She can't choose.' "

Charlie and her older brother find themselves lurching, as one does in one's growing-up years, from devotion and rescue to abandonment and betrayal. Charlie begins to sound so distrustful she verges on paranoia. When Mignon is not there, they tend to "find" her again in other people. Charlie thinks that one day a little girl is going to look up at her "and say, reproachfully: 'But you're not Mignon. Where is she?' "

Such hints remind us that a therapist is writing this novel for a publishing concern whose founders are all therapists, and that the meaning of the title reflects with metaphoric precision the psychotherapeutic process on almost every page.

In you're in psychotherapy, if I understand the process right, you send your adult self back to your childhood to witness events that threw you off track psychologically. If you can relive those painful events, you may be able to heal and redirect the course of your life today. At least that's the hope.

But suppose the "you" as an adult appears as an actual person to the "you" as a child - takes you over, stirs you up and changes you so profoundly that your hold on "reality" seems to veer into madness? Suppose just by being incarnated in your own childhood you act as both as a mirror of reality and a lure to another realm of the imagination.

Of course, it could be that the adult you is experienced by child you as life. After all, Charlie starts out at an age (12) when a person feels throttled by questions that rage inside. The whole family - distrusted and rebelled against - reacts with shock and fear, and who knows? The throttling is so emotionally violent that you could put a name to it, and in this book, that name is Mignon.

The mind buzzes with possibilities as the story continues. The "Girl Who Went" could be the adult Charlie who goes into the past. "The Girl Who Saw" witnesses what happened to the girl Charlie. "The Girl Who Came Back" reports to an astonished self - not what really happened (who ever knows?) but the truths that are meaningful, useful today.

The novel kept reminding me of "Six Characters in Search of an Author," a stage play that ponders what would happen if the playwright decided to scrap a play he had almost finished, abandoning the characters whom he created almost to completion. Now they have broken free of his mind and live on in spite of his plans, roaming rehearsals of other plays in an attempt to act out "their" play.

The characters they are now and the characters they're "supposed" to be almost perfectly parallel the essential self of our "knowing" as a child and the outward personality we create that protects us from getting hurt, and that we advertise as the "real" us.

It's a dazzling premise that works - is hinted at, developed metaphorically and revealed from several angles - yet it also bogs down everywhere. Chernin has a tendency to restate, repeat, reiterate, reword and refashion her points so often that our own irritation gets in the way of her vision.

Some of the dialogue sounds forced; sometimes the voice is precious beyond credibility; images are labored; pacing slows to a standstill; descriptive passages feel endless; events go on and on; experiences are stilted. And so forth.

Nevertheless, we can't help rooting for Charlie, and ultimately for Chernin. If as a writer she is trying to free herself from the constraints of the mainstream publishing industry, there could be few better ways than this highly original if flawed idea-as-novel.

See you for the final installment, Part IV.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

You missed the boat on the answer to the woman writing about her experiences trying to get "The Final Days."

The reason the woman couldn't find the book anywhere had nothing to do with censorship. Our store couldn't get it in either, very simply, because the publisher was out of stock. It turned up again when they got it back in.

The clerk that gave her friend that response was just voicing an uninformed opinion.

Maybe she should have tried the BookSense website and supported independent bookstores or her local independent bookstore.

Jill Palmer
Chaucer's Books

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your EdgeWork series and comments about mainstream editors: These days, I am given to understand that the traditional editor is DEAD. When it comes to fiction, **Acquisitions** Editors buy finished books. Serious editing isn't part of the mix. So where does editing get done in the modern world? Why, in the authors' critique group!

That's just what I've heard.

Mary E. Tyler

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As a former book editor, I have to say that the EdgeWork article is fascinating but infuriating. When Kim Chernin says "The sense is that finally, writers are bringing their work to other writers, to people who really know language, know form, know content," I want to say: "What do you think editors know, cooking? And hey, maybe we know some things about *publishing*, too." Though I applaud the effort to break out of convention and, of course, her effort to support the true voices of midlist writers, I found Chernin's generalizations about editors truly insulting.

Karen Silver

Holt responds: Each time I brought this up, Kim would say, "but where are they, these great editors?" And I think she has a point. Many of the good editors left publishing in the late '90s after marketing directors took their power away from them, and some who remain are acquirers who give their books to assistants to edit. She grants that the bestselling and prestigious authors don't end up with assistants, but that mid-range authors often do. Because of this a lot of people advise authors to find a manuscript consultants before submitting a book because chances are, you won't find an editor who's professional and can guide your manuscript through the publishing process, champion your book in the house, etc., or if you do find a good one, chances are equally bad that he or she will leave the house right in the middle of the editing and you'll find yourself orphaned. This kind of thing happened to all of the EdgeWork founders, and that's why they are turning to each other in desperation first, then relief.

Karen Silver replies: I don't think Chernin's take is all that wrong. But I do think this Golden Age of editors is long gone, and the assistants are not the sniveling bunch of idiots she makes them out to be (having been one myself). Also, the musical chairs effect among editors is an East Coast phenomenon; if these authors looked in their own backyards they'd find editors who've been there for years, toiling away. I worked for an editor who's been trying to get some respect for the house's fiction list for a decade, and he *never* "streamlined" a book. I also think that an editor can help an author stay on point (self-published authors tend to ramble), stay organized (sometimes they don't see what should go where), and meet deadlines. This function might be done well by peers, but not if they have no power to persuade the author. If, in the end, she can do whatever she wants, why bother with editing at all?

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I can't help but wish any new venture such as EdgeWork well. As a journalist, writer and author - whose day job was 40 years in every facet of the dreaded "publishing industry" -- my skeptic's antenna rises when I hear of authors who want to fire their editors (which can be done, by-the-by), and otherwise have nothing good to say about them.

To the contrary, I must say that every editor who edited an article, news story, or book of mine made me look better. Am I lucky? Perhaps, but I'm also humble enough to accept positive criticism. As a book editor my job was (and is, as a freelance editor) to elevate ever so slightly the author's vision of her/his own work -- not to slant it to fit some sales/marketing cabal. Generalities spawn trash talk.

Richard O'Connor

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your first 2 parts about EdgeWork Press, you quoted Kim Chernin as saying:

" ... let's say you get eight writers in the circle. Somebody will say idiosyncratically, 'I got confused - I couldn't follow that part,' and another four will say 'No, it wasn't confusing; it was very clear there.' "That's helpful to the writer, because when she hears a consensus, she can weigh it against the one who doesn't agree. And when she thinks about the one, she may consider, 'Well, what do I know about her? Why would she be confused?' and conclude that there's something subjective there. Her suggestion is more a comment on the reader than the book."
On the copy desk of a newspaper where I worked as an editor we would say: If one of four of your peers "doesn't get it," consider that that's 25% of your audience. You may not want to rewrite for that 25%, but if the aim of a book, or a newspaper headline, is communication with its readers, you surely wouldn't want simply to dismiss the confusion of that 25%, either. As to "subjective," well, the simple truth is there is no "objective" reading. Or writing, for that matter. You wrote:

"I've felt that way watching many independent presses, and witnessing gifted editors carry on inside the system (and in spite of it). But the insistence here of authors finding their own path, creating their own audience, raising their own money, staying within their own budget ("after all, if each book sells a thousand copies, we'll be fine," says Chernin), striking out on a new design and even being their own editors ..."

With full knowledge that Holt Uncensored can't be all things to all publishers, still I confess that this three-part essay made me more than a little wistful. What you say about EdgeWork is exactly what some of us have struggled with - in the case of Hardscratch Press, for 10 years and a baker's dozen of what we're often told are "fresh, simple," handsome designs of painstakingly and empathetically edited, high-quality, limited-run books (printed at a place where people make a living wage, even if the editor/publisher doesn't!).

Many of us are devoted to our particular genre or niche, as in the case of EdgeWork, and to our writers and readers and that above-mentioned communication. And any of us would weep for joy (probably faint from shock) at a fraction of the encouragement offered this group. That's the plaintive truth.

Jackie Pels
Hardscratch Press

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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