by Pat Holt
Tuesday, March 26, 2002
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DOROTHY BRYANT'S 'LITERARY LYNCHING' - PART I
I thought I knew all the ways that authors can be censored until I talked to novelist Dorothy Bryant about her 13th book, a nonfiction work-in-progress called "Literary Lynching."
The title almost says it all, especially when we remember what happened to some of the country's most respected authors after September 11.
Susan Sontag, Michael Moore, Barbara Kingsolver made statements and wrote essays critical of the government and the president. As a result they were skewered by the media and vilified in public arenas.
That's a tiny glimpse of the way literary lynching can work - speak your truth at the "wrong" time and you get whacked. Speak up at the "right" time and you're celebrated.
Michael Moore is the wildest example: His "Stupid White Men..," was so critical of the president at the "wrong" time that it was almost withdrawn by the publisher in October. Finally published this month, it became a runaway bestseller because in it Moore says the same thing that nearly got him beheaded six months ago.
All that crazy, panicky outrage and name-calling seemed to be a function of the peculiarly messianic patriotism of 9/11. But as Dorothy Bryant points out, something about that reaction is not the result of a single event - in fact it's centuries old; it happens all the time; it's often invisible; and it hasn't been explored or articulated until now.
Usually "when we talk about censorship," Bryant writes, "we mean the silencing of writers by ruling powers, religious or secular."
Every kid growing up hears about these silenced writers: "Galileo's life and Salmon Rushdie's life threatened by religious authorities; Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Allen Ginzberg, etc. dragged into court for 'indecency'; a whole generation of writers terrorized or killed by Stalin or Hitler or Mao or dozens of lesser dictators."
Of course, "these are the most serious threats to writers," Bryant adds. But they are "not the only ways to suppress a book."
Granted, I wanted Bryant to describe my "favorite" form of censorship - the way mainstream publishers routinely reject very good manuscripts because they think the books won't be commercial enough to sell in quantity.
But while this has happened to Dorothy herself (more on this Friday), that's not what she means by "literary lynching." Rather, Bryant is talking about an "unofficial censorship" that so savages a book and author that it resembles "the spontaneous, irrational gathering of a lynch mob."
Literary lynching often begins "with a furiously irresponsible attack by a reviewer" of a book that's just hit the stands, Bryant writes. Ordinarily the review will "just sputter out or become a controversy - that is, a heated exchange of differing opinions."
But because the attack arrives at a panicky time of political or social confusion, when emotions are running high, it hits a nerve, triggering a brutal reaction against the author. Soon more attacks of a similar nature "distort or reinvent the contents of the book and throw whatever nasty labels are current ('traitor,' 'racist,' 'pornographer') at the author."
Here's the worst part: "These labels are then spread by people who have never read the book (and may even make statements vowing not to)," Dorothy observes.
Reputations can be ruined. An "unofficial blacklisting" and even a "silent withdrawal" of friends and family can be "more shocking to the author (and more lonely) than official government suppression," Bryant says.
The reason for all this reactive whacking is that "sometimes the author has written a truth that many people know but are unwilling to see revealed," Bryant writes.
The outrage is often short-lived about a remark on TV or an essay in a magazine (Sontag appears unscathed, for example). But books are full-length, permanent and still considered important to posterity. Their inflammatory nature can have an effect for generations.
Witness Hannah Arendt, the philosopher-author who was assigned to cover the trial of former Nazi Adolf Eichmann by the New Yorker. When Bryant recently mentioned the book Arendt published about the trial in 1963, readers she respected were "tearfully furious," launching into "bitter diatribes" about the "fact" that Arendt "blam[ed] the Jews for their own destruction."
Even the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Dorothy points out, states that Arendt claimed "the victims were partly responsible for the slaughter by their failure to resist."
But this is not true, Bryant states. In her chapter, "Banality, Justice and Truth," Bryant meticulously and convincingly shows us that Arendt did *not* blame the Jews who died during the Holocaust.
Bryant does this by explaining the context of the times and the body of work Arendt was building when the Eichmann trial began. Within this context, Bryant writes a mini-biography of Arendt, a critical synopsis of Arendt's other books, the effect of the New Yorker piece, Eichmann's background and trial, and the conflicting biases of the times.
I go into this at some length to show how thorough Bryant can be in exploring the concept of literary lynching, not only in the life of Arendt but in the life of each of her subjects.
For example, William Styron faced a similar outcry when he wrote "The Confessions of Nat Turner" and was, Dorothy reports, "condemned as a liar, a racist, and a defender of slavery who stole, then maligned, not only a black hero but all African Americans."
For those (myself included) who thought Styron deserved these charges, Bryant again so painstakingly investigates the life of the author and his books, as well as the literature, politics and racial atmosphere of the times, that we are compelled to rethink the meaning and the long-lasting importance of the attack against Styron and why it was, as Bryant puts it, "destructive to literature" in the larger sense.
Indeed, one needn't know anything about Styron or Arendt - or Thomas Hardy, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Ivan Turgenev and Bryant herself, each of whom are given a lengthy chapter in the book - to find these treatments eye-opening and increasingly enjoyable.
Like a veteran teacher - she taught high school and college English for 20 years - Bryant knows how to tell a good story. Her style is erudite yet conversational. Her humor and insight, her way of teaching us to spot the stirrings of controversy in the lives of the gifted, her love of literature and compassion for the writer's life all make reading "Literary Lynching" an unexpected joy.
Dorothy made a couple of tentative queries to publishers, but they seemed puzzled. "What is the market for this book?" they asked. Their reaction is more than frustrating.
I know that if you could just start the first chapter of the book (on Ivan Turgenev), you'll feel as though you've walked into the life of a writer who's intriguing and human and successful - until, of course, the lynch mob descends.
So I asked Dorothy if she might be willing to publish "Literary Lynching" in serial form on the Holt Uncensored website. "Why not?" she said, game as always. Since no money has changed hands, we're offering the book free to readers, beginning with this week's first installment.
Just click on "Literary Lynching" to find the Introduction, Table of Contents and the Turgenev chapter. You can also print out and copy whatever portions you like.
I hope readers will print it out for personal use (the first chapter is 28 pages) and read it in installments over lunch or other breaks. The great surprise is that we learn so much about Ivan Turgenev that's intriguing in its own right, even before he's blindsided.
After Chapter 1, for every two weeks I'll introduce a new chapter from Bryant's book - each one the story of a different writer. I can tell you right now that as the chapters move chronologically toward the present, each one packs a bigger wallop.
Bryant was a high school and college English teacher for 20 years, and she knows how to keep things lively and informative. "Literary Lynching" is a fun way to grasp the importance about some of the great writers of Western history - to see how they get knocked down! How they get up again (some of them)! How no one's ever going to keep them down!
At least, not while Dorothy Bryant is around.
THOSE LETHAL UNDERWIRE BRAS
I've been writing in this column about people who are stopped at airports because of the books they're reading ("Hayduke Lives!" by Edward Abbey was the first). Last week I referred to Anna Quindlen's column in Newsweek about counter-profiling, that phenomenon in which airport security singles out white American women to demonstrate there is no bias against Arab-looking men.
When Quindlen indicated that underwires in women's bras were now considered a threat at airports, I thought she was joking. But it seems that at least as far as Denver International Airport security personnel are concerned, women with underwire bras should be pulled out of line and given a "enthusiastic new search technique."
So writes Patricia Calhoun's in an article for Denver Westword called "Busted: When Underwires Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Give Uplift."
Calhoun describes a female colleague who went through the "magnetometer" (the security box that travelers step through on their way to boarding) at DIA when, with no audible alarm, the machine apparently signaled authorities to take her to another line.
"First a male security guard searched her with a hand wand, bumping it all over her body in the process," writes Calhoun. "Then she was turned over to a female guard wearing rubber gloves [holy cow, rubber gloves! - Pat], who had her raise her arms and then patted her breasts, very thoroughly, before turning her around and doing the same to her backside."
Nearby a National Guardsman was "watching and smirking," Calhoun adds. "Not only do women have to suffer through the indignity of the pat-down,they're being watched like entertainment."
Calhoun decided to try it herself, removing "every piece of metal except for my fillings and a modest underwire," and sure enough, "as soon as I stepped through the box, even though no alarms sounded, I was sent to a special screening line."
There something even worse happened: The female guard "proceeded to give me a thorough groping" to make sure "I was not smuggling any vials of anthrax in my 'lady bumps'..."
Egad. Calhoun says this kind of search does not seem to happen in other airports, but the arbitrary nature with which it takes place in Denver doesn't give much hope that the practice won't be taken up elsewhere.
Investigative reporting does no good. " Try to find out what policy supports that groping, and you'll encounter a bigger bunch of boobs than those that raised the alarms in the first place." You tell 'em, Calhoun.
Maybe there's an upside: Perhaps the young man who wanted to read "Hayduke Lives" should consider moving to Denver. There's no threat there. For male readers of "subversive" literature, there's no threat there.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I broke out into a sweat reading the list of charges against Barnes & Noble that you listed in #308 regarding the lawsuit against chain bookstores filed by Wallace Kuralt.
[Note to readers and apologies to Wallace Kuralt from Pat for my mistake: I printed Kuralt's first name as Walter.]
The list reminded me of why I got the hell out of trade publishing. While I can't personally verify more than a handful of the items on the list, the general thesis that B&N has grown largely by muscling its suppliers is probably accurate.
There is one item on the list that I know to be incorrect, however, and another item that does not appear there. The incorrect one is the extra discount for distribution centers. I have done the math on this myself, and I must tell you that DCs save big money for publishers, provided that (and this is very important) the shipments to DCs are in carton quantities.
Illustration: it costs somewhere around $.35/unit to pick a book from a warehouse. It costs the same amount to pick a carton. If a carton holds 20 copies, by shipping carton quantities to a DC, a publisher saves $.35 times 19. The numbers vary with different companies' operations, but you get the idea. It is rare that an independent bookstore or, for that matter, a single store of a national chain, can order carton quantities of anything.
So the chains buy in cartons, open them up, and then ship smaller quantities out to their stores. There is some justification for additional discount for this. (But how much?) On the other hand, when publishers drop-ship to the chains (which means that the publisher ships to the individual stores, not a DC), this extra discount is absolutely unwarranted.
The item that is not on the list is, alas, the really big one. I mean the really, really big one: the cost of maintaining a field sales force. One sales call to B&N gives you access to a thousand stores. One rep handles B&N; the same rep may handle a couple other major accounts as well. To put reps in the field means calling on countless stores, with each sales call costing (and this varies by company and by accounting method) $150. Alas, once again, when you do the math, the extra discount for national buying is warranted. The question is, To what degree?
I wish to be clear that I am not arguing B&N's or anyone's case here. I just have this old-fashioned urge to work with facts and would not want this matter or any other to be decided on the basis of ideology or the force of personality. I should add that I do not myself see any solution to the problem (at least I call it a problem) of the growing concentration of retail sales dollars in fewer and fewer hands. To which I say: Thank god for Amazon! Not because Amazon is itself the answer to these problems, but because it teaches us where to look for answers.
Joseph J. Esposito
Wallace Kuralt responds:
Regarding the response of the former publishing staffer concerning Regional Distribution Center (RDC) allowances and costs of sales representatives:
It's true that shipping in carton quantities would cost less than picking and packing, perhaps as much as 2% of retail less in a worst-case scenario. But not all independent orders are for single copies, and B&N and Borders often ignored the carton-quantity requirement and were not penalized for it. We calculated a realistic publisher "saving" of about 1/2 of 1 percent on average. But there were additional expenses -- both chains required that each shipment be separately labeled (an expense) and marked for a certain area of the warehouse (a violation of the RDC terms).
Then too, the deal was not just an extra 2% above retail trade terms, as published; it was maximum discount plus 2% on absolutely everything that went into the warehouse, including single copies. And 4% for mass market. Add an extra 1 percent for shipping from the chains' warehouses to their stores. Plus special timing of several weeks before everyone else got their books, because they were so inept at doing their own distribution. Plus an automatic fee paid by publishers for presumed errors in shipping, short ships etc. Plus penalties to be paid by the publisher that failed to follow the chains' long lists of rules and timing. Plus the fact that all of these books still had to flow through the publisher's warehouse, requiring much extra space just for chains' shipping.
Then the chains demand a 1% fee for consolidating their voluminous returns, much of it only good for remaindering or shredding, damaged and with stickers all over them. The great bulk of their purchases simply flowed through the warehouse to the stores, with little remaining on the shelves for quick restocking -- there, they also used the wholesalers because of speed, saving the publisher nothing. The total benefit comes to some 8% and more, depending upon the DNA being employed.
Purchasing. Our computerized purchasing systems allowed us to maximize the use of the rep while minimizing his/her stay. First we bought every single title in our backlist, hardcover and paper, for all nine stores, and provided the rep with copies of orders for each store plus a pulling and packing list for all stores, with totals and extensions for each discount group. We did returns, and included in this service were transfers between stores (rather than returning everything and reordering selected items). This saved everybody time and money, including us, and kept returns down to sensible levels of 10% or so overall, but almost zero on backlist. Our buyers knew the books, had access to all sales info for all stores (on one screen) and could access sales for the author's earlier titles, even if from another publisher. Random took the whole day (often 12 hours), others much less.
Then the same buyer tackled the new titles - now armed with sales trends from the backlist. We skipped a few titles, usually because of an unrealistic price, but not many.
Then the juvies, and then the remainders, white sales and author appearances. The Random rep spent two days twice a year, and got $1.7 million in sales at cost, including ledger items - about $400,000 a day - for about 2% of the rep's year. Each chain had the rep helping with inventory counts, used multiple reps at times set only by the buyer, and communicated almost constantly with the reps on everything from titles to advertising to credit claims to negotiating sessions to author appearances and more. For our orders this cost the publisher some $2,000, or 1/10 of one percent of the purchases at net, versus about $500,000 for each chain (not counting huge amounts for executive time for the publishers), or about 2/10 of one percent of some $250 million in gross purchases.
But the chains returned some 40% or more of their purchases, while we returned just 10% -- a huge difference in cost to the publisher there. What's really important, though, is that it cost the publishers - net - just pennies for sending a rep to us - costs easily justified by a rep who could easily double our purchases on many new titles by virtue of the inside information we could gain.
We started small and were given great attention for the reps (mostly commission reps) because of our enthusiasm and our success in picking accurately the best new titles and making big sales from the backlist. Every year when we got fall dating we "tried out" titles we hadn't had, or might have forgotten, many of which became standard back list for us. The sales rep helped immeasurably, and the fall dating made it all possible - and also pumped up our summer and early fall sales.
Yes, it may cost a small amount more per storefront to service the independents that are especially small, but it should be considered an investment. How can the smaller store grow effectively without the tremendous help a good sales rep can give, especially when backed up by good terms (such as fall dating). And it can be done with such little risk - unless the industry is being ruled by companies who break the law some 1,000,000 times every year and benefit only themselves.
-- Wallace Kuralt
Carl Person responds:
Here are my comments in response to the staffer's questions concerning Regional Distribution Center (RDC) fees and the expenses of a publisher's sales personnel in servicing independent booksellers:
The Background - Discovery of a Variety of Publisher Rebates to Superstores - Valuation Requires Analysis of a 100-Element "DNA Code" The questions involved two of the many types of rebates which Wallace Kuralt and I have uncovered, not only in the Intimate Bookshop lawsuits against Barnes & Noble (B&N) and Borders, but in other industries as well.
We refer to all of these types of rebates as a "DNA Code," to reflect the secrecy of the rebates and the inability for anyone to know how much a book (or auto part or television set) really costs a superstore without having to do a massive analysis of the value received by the superstore for each of perhaps 100 different ways (each way being considered a rebate). Independent booksellers and regional chains such as The Intimate Bookshop did not get any of these DNA Code elements. All Intimate got was the Red Book terms and various industry-wide special deals, with co-op allowances being unavailable because they had to be sought only for reimbursement of money actually spent and proven, with restrictions on use making co-op advertising more and more impossible. Meanwhile, B&N and Borders were getting co-op money shoveled to them without any requirement of proof of expenditure, amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
This takes me back now to the staffer's questions, about whether the RDC element and the "missing" expenses for sales personnel are not exceptions to our DNA Code. The answer is "No." Each of the DNA elements carries with it an element of rebate for the superstores, and no rebate for the independents.
The Publisher's Cost of Sales Personnel Analyzed: The question suggests that Publishers are spending money for independents which should be reduced from the value of the discriminatory discount received by the superstores. I don't believe that suggestion is supported by the facts. Merely because there are some savings for a publisher in a DNA category (such as a volume discount) doesn't mean that any discount for volume is lawful. Accordingly, just because sales personnel cost money doesn't justify a volume discount differential of any size for stores using fewer sales personnel hours. As Wallace Kuralt points out in his response, sales calls to Intimate were very profitable for the Publishers. However, the Publisher's high level and daily servicing of the demands of B&N and Borders are probably a higher percentage cost to each Publisher -- but nobody bothers to calculate or even refer to that cost.
These costs include
Has anyone looked at the real costs to the Publishers of allowing themselves to be negotiated to death (as to DNA elements) by B&N and Borders?
Analysis of a Publisher's Costs and Benefits of Paying for Superstores' Regional Distribution Centers: As to RDCs the same is true as with volume discounts. As to a given chain and given Publisher, when looking at all services, costs, and savings, there could be established a legitimate dollar amount or percentage discount for the services involved, but why do some Publishers say 1% is enough and others say 4% is enough, while others say "No, thank you! We don't want any of your RDC business!"?
Furthermore, if RDC activities are good for Publishers, why aren't they actively soliciting small chains or even helping to establish regional or local buying cooperatives of booksellers to accept the same dollars being paid to B&N and Borders for RDC services.
The issue is not whether a volume discount or RDC allowance involves a justified saving for the Publisher, but how much is saved, and at what cost to the Publisher, and is it being made available to all booksellers on equal terms (just to let the independent booksellers and the Publishers' auditors and attorneys believe that the amounts being given to B&N and Borders are reasonable and lawful)?
Where does any Publisher spell out the RDC terms between it and B&N or Borders, and offer those terms to all other booksellers?
--Carl E. Person
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your January 18th article on John Nash and "A Beautiful Mind."
It's so insulting for Hollywood to try to think for me. Do they really think they need to rewrite history to entertain? I don't think its any mystery that more people turn to the Discovery channel when watching TV, because the "entertainment" coming from the mainstream media is such ridiculous drivel. This movie borders on the travesty of Disney's absolute raping of Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame." Why they felt the need to take a classic and turn it into a disgusting farce is a slap in the face, and a mystery to me. Ron Howard's adaptation of Nash's life follows the same path. He should stick to the things he knows, like "Happy Days."
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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