by Pat Holt
Friday, February 15, 2002
ABOUT AUTHORS AS 'PACKAGED' ENTERTAINMENT: ANN BEATTIE'S NYT COLUMN
While I don't agree with her, I was glad to see that Ann Beattie put the kibosh on publicity tours for literary authors in her "Writers on Writing" column for the New York Times this week.
Beattie's comment that "writers have been overexposed, caricatured, asked specious questions to elicit amusing answers" and generally "packaged" as on-the-road entertainment certainly rings true.
There are two ways to look at it. On the one hand, as a critic I'm supposed to believe (and do) that reviews, not interviews, tell us if a book is worthy of attention. After all, information in an interview - what the author thinks about the book or about politics or about breakfast that morning - is irrelevant and distracting.
On the other hand, I remember watching Jacquelyn Suzanne joke around with Johnny Carson on TV those many decades ago and shaking my head in wonder at how funny she was, but passionate, too, about her characters in "The Valley of the Dolls."
The interview is now considered a breakthrough of sorts: Here was an author who publicized her books by virtue of her personality, not (heaven knows) by the literary merits of her writing. It was wonderful fun, perfectly conveying the spirit of her novel, though it bothered me that in just a few minutes, any critical review of her book had become irrelevant.
Suzanne almost single-handedly started that "packaging" avalanche to which Beattie refers. By the 1970s, word had spread among publicists that book reviews were too stuffy and reached fewer and fewer people, while feature interviews hit a wide cross-section of just about everybody.
Then came the let's-go-crazy era of book publicity in which airplanes advertising the novel "Jaws" flew over NY beaches with banners reading "JUST WHEN YOU THOUGHT THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE TO GO IN THE WATER AGAIN..." more entertainment, more "packaging."
By the 1980s, it seemed to me that everybody at a newspaper like the one where I worked (San Francisco Chronicle) should find every angle they could to support the idea of helping people find good books to read.
If I as book editor loved a book and the author was coming to town, why not share the fun with readers by interviewing the author as a fan would, with excitement and flat-out gratitude?
It still seems to me that sometimes that approach, of bringing the author's face and personality right up to the reader's eyeballs, can convey the book's essential elements more effectively than (or I should say differently from) a book review. Sometimes.
It took a long time for authors to get on the publicity circuit that worries Beattie, but now they have achieved a visibility and conversance with readers that is astounding - it's an everyday and unremarkable phenomenon yet life-altering at the same time.
For instance, at the recent Berkeley YWCA "Festival of Women Authors," cookbook author Marian Cunningham got up to speak about - well, everyone thought her speech would be about cooking and (eventually) it was.
However, Cunningham, now 80, started off talking about the time (at age 20) she felt severely "agoraphobic, and I was a hypochondriac, too." This was after she first married and her husband was gone during World War II.
To paraphrase: "I couldn't leave home," she said. "I was entirely unsuited for work in those days, having barely gotten through high school. But one day I saw a sign at a Union gas station that read, 'Replace the Men! We're Desperate for Help!'
"I got up the nerve to sign up as long as a friend came along. It was the first job I did well. I changed oil, worked on differentials, tested spark plugs, washed cars and loved all of it.
"My friend, though, couldn't figure any of it out. Gas stations gave tons of service in those days, and part of it was going around the car checking air in the tires. My friend couldn't do that, either. She had such a hard time fitting the air hose into the valve on the tire, that each time she bent down to do it, she'd pretend to hook it up and make this sound -- 'SSSSSSSSS' through her teeth.
"Of course I loved cooking, but I didn't grow up in a house where recipes mattered much - I would follow my mother around getting food ready, and in the same way I never paid much attention to commas . . . "
And on Cunningham went, making her career as a food writer sound easy and painless, as though she just happened to revise "The Fanny Farmer Cookbook" and become James Beard's good friend and co-author.
Finally Cunningham got to her new book, which is still in the writing stages, she says. "It's called 'Lost Recipes,' but the title is misleading because it's not about recipes - well, they're in there - as much as it's about the lost family meal, so as you can imagine it's really a book about leftovers . . . "
I think what struck everybody at the time was the fact that this author, who was once terrified of leaving the house, had by now become so comfortable and chatty in front of an audience that she sounded like an old friend. One walked away feeling as enriched by her personality as by any of her books, and the next time one faced a difficult challenge - well, there was always that unforgettable picture of winging it with a little SSSSSSS sound here and there.
Of course, some writers adapt to speaking engagements more easily than others. Michael Chabon's humor and even John Irving's pugilism delight audiences at bookstores and lectures despite the fact that they'd both obviously prefer to be alone working on the next book.
Perhaps they agree with Ann Beattie that authors who are "packaged" with their books as entertainment-for-hire only add to the cultural clutter and even endanger the literary process. "Nothing is made better by audiences', and the media's, silly attempt to glamorize writers," she says, and she's right again.
But from the reader's point of view, there's something so touching, even intimate, that happens when an author - not an actor or an astronaut or a magician but someone who writes for a living - gets up to speak.
A famous story from the Clark County Library in Springfield, Ohio, refers to the time Dave Barry was delivering a lecture on one side of the stage, and a signer on the other side was interpreting his remarks for the hearing impaired.
At one point, Barry referred to someone "giving the finger" to someone else, and then stopped, realizing the signer might have a problem describing the gesture without performing it for the audience. The signer had stopped as well, afraid of offending people if she demonstrated it but not sure how to describe it in sign, and looked over at Barry.
For a long moment, the two stared at each other, the audience looking back and forth to see who would make the first - well, gesture. The signer didn't move. "Coward," said Barry, and the eruption of laughter was all she needed. Turning back, the signer flipped the bird clearly and distinctively - but she did it so fast, you'd have missed it if you blinked. Even Barry laughed this time.
The exchange was so spontaneous that it couldn't have happened anywhere except live theater, with the audience adding the kind of tension that made a tiny but explosive moment so memorable.
But can serious speakers be part of the "entertainment" Beattie describes as well? Recently at a luncheon for the American Association of University Women, two authors got up with prepared speeches that kept everybody chuckling and clapping.
The third speaker was sociologist/psychotherapist and author Lillian Rubin, whose latest book, "Tangled Lives," is an unflinching portrait of Rubin's cruel and abusive mother, whose beatings and emotional abuse of Rubin are still "tattooed," as she put it, across her heart and body.
Rubin's talk ranged from growing up in extreme poverty to lashing out against politicians who decry working-class families to "learning to face old age" (she's in her late '70s) to suffering a pulmonary embolism on an airplane as she traveled across country to give a speech.
(Trouper that she was, Rubin figured if she didn't die on the plane, she was "probably over the worst part," so she canceled a dinner that night and delivered her planned speech the next morning. Then she flew back home and was hospitalized for the next two weeks in Intensive Care.)
The AAUW audience - chatty as schoolkids before Rubin's speech - turned dead silent as she spoke except for sudden gasps here and there as Rubin let 'em have it with her very serious, very tough-minded talk, especially about what it means in our youth-oriented society to grow old.
Clearly, this was not the kind of light and humorous talk they had come to see. But afterward, they bought all the books by Lillian Rubin that neighboring Willow Glen Bookstore had brought to the event (more than 40), and the line for autographs extended around the very large room.
I've long been a fan of Rubin, but that day, something about her courage and dignity hit home. Of course her books must be judged on their merits; but what a joy it is to come face-to-face with one gutsy lady in the meantime.
Ann Beattie believes that after you hear an author interview or speech, "to come to conclusions about the writer is irrelevant to the writer's work," and she's right again. As authors who are both afraid of being "lost in the shuffle" and of being kept out of the shuffle altogether, she says "we can only hope that our work transcends us." True again.
Beattie's case is particularly significant because when her books first came out, critics and feature writers and media gadflies lifted her to the level of high fashion, comparing Ann Beattie favorably to Raymond Carver, declaring her queen of the New Minimalists and pioneer of a trendy new short story form.
Beattie had nothing to do with this, bless her heart. She just kept writing and growing long after the bandwagon had gone on the next trend-setting writer, and sales of her books changed as a result.
Somewhere in there, I had the honor of interviewing Ann Beattie, and what a literary powerhouse to place in front of reader eyeballs she turned out to be. Articulate, impassioned, no-nonsense and gracious, she responded to questions with such openness and welcome that one forgot how uncomfortable the interview process made her.
Even now, lambasting the idea that authors who make public appearances only "add to the problem" of creating more clutter, more noisy entertainment shuffle, Beattie gives us new accessibility to serious fiction. She adds to, not subtracts from, an important discourse.
And I think she needn't worry. At some point in all good reading, our imagination joins with the writer's, and we are transported to another world. In that act alone, the work in question gains its own transcendent power, and we leave the "clutter" behind.
NOTE TO READERS: It's become a tradition here that Presidents' Day is picnic day, with everybody bringing kids and dogs and inner tubes to the company pool for a day off. Have fun and see you Friday.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I realize that the following remarks will not be welcome in this forum and I'd hate to see a single indie bookseller go out of business -- but I really have to say this: Not every place is a vibrant urban center. Where I live there's one small general indie where I place my textbook orders (rather than the B&N outlet on campus). There's a children's bookstore that I wish I frequented, but don't. There are three or four religious bookstores, each of them sectarian, and several of which I patronize. Then there are the chains--two at the Mall, and a big B&N a few blocks from it.
If I feel like buying a book I wasn't looking for, I go to the indie. (If I'm looking to spend the day in accumulation, I savor the wonders of Manhattan.) If I'm looking for something specific, and especially if I'm short of time, I go to B&N.
You're right. The staff doesn't know much, and the initital impression of a vast selection is an illusion of display. But here's this big store where no big bookstore was before, no big independent would dare to open, and no specialized indie could survive.
So the big chain is performing a unique service. And the same is true in many suburban locations, Chains have sprung up where there were no bookstores at all. It doesn't seem to me that these compete with the indies downtown, though I could be wrong.
I may be slow-witted and wrong-headed here, but it seems to me that the chains are doing some limited good.
Of course I'd rather shop at a good indie. But it isn't always possible. Not where I live.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your story about journalists given large payments by Enron for sitting on an Enron "advisory council":
Do we have the list of people given contributions by The Sierra Club? Or doesn't that matter because they are on the "correct side"?
All this has to do with selling books how?
Holt responds: Until Enron, we didn't have any lists journalists taking payments in this fashion and then "covering" news about the payer. I'd like to know if it happens on the "other" side, though isn't it doubtful? The Sierra Club is a non-profit organization, not a profit-making corporation. Do you think it has enough money for $50,000-$100,000 bribes to individual writers (not to mention politicians and other payees)? As to what this has to do with selling books: Very often, prestigious journalists like these become authors of books about the fields they cover. Perhaps more important, these are the journalists who create the context of accepted fact - if they're on the take, authors of books that say anything contrary have a long uphill road to climb, starting with agents and publishers who may not consider against-the-grain books in the first place.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: Jonathan Yardley's column about bookstores in the Washington Post.
A book reviewer is not a marketing analyst. In fact bookstores are only an outlet for excess books to most reviewers. Would you ask the guy who writes about Detroit to fix your car?
Leave Yardley alone! He knows not what of he speaks. He just happens to have a large soapbox on a good corner.
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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