Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #311
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 2, 2002

 







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DOROTHY BRYANT: WHY SELF-PUBLISH
DAVID BROCK: 'BLINDED' OR SERVICED BY THE RIGHT?
LETTERS

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DOROTHY BRYANT: WHY SELF-PUBLISH

Here we are with Dorothy Bryant's husband Bob, who's driving around Berkeley, Calif., doing errands in the 1970s.

Suddenly a car pulls in front of him with the license plate "ATAKIN."

Holy cow,thinks Bob, this can't be a mistake or coincidence - it's got to have something to do with Dorothy's second novel, "The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You."

That novel, published by Random House, has gotten off to a rocky start, Bob knows.

It's the story of a desperate man who finds himself flung from a car crash into the arms of a strange group of people. These beautifully enlightened "kin of Ata" use their dreams to design and understand their life, work and art. They inspire this once-selfish and bitter man to fall in love for the first time, and to embark on a spiritual journey that "we all must take," as Bryant says.

Although Dorothy made quite an impact as a young novelist with her first book, "Ella Price's Journal" (published by J. B. Lippincott, a fine trade house at the time), "The Kin of Ata..." knocked around New York as a manuscript for so long that Bob and Dorothy finally gave up and published it themselves under their own imprint, Ata Books.

Then a small imprint (Moon Books) of Random House decided to publish it, though not a lot of editors or marketing people ever really "got" the theme or message of the book.

Dorothy's own agent has refused to handle it, and there's a lot of confusion about whether to market the book as a science fiction novel,love story, Jungian journey, spiritual fable, fantasy novel or utopian adventure.

The fact that Dorothy insists it's a religious allegory hasn't helped - "sounds too CBA" (Christian Booksellers Association), some have said.

So here is Bob staring at a license plate that says "ATAKIN" right in front of him, and - heck, he has no choice - as the car makes an abrupt left, Bob starts to follow the guy. Across the Berkeley flats they go, turning upward toward Arlington in the hills and onto a secluded woodsy area, where they stop.

Bob gets out to look around and realizes he's on the grounds of a church and has just followed the minister home. After a brief conversation, it turns out everybody in the church has read Dorothy's book, which they *do* see as a religious allegory, plus all the things that marketing departments don't know what to do with.

To make a very long story short, this core group, along with other spiritual organizations and book clubs and many, many solitary readers, will keep word of mouth spreading for the next three decades (total sales so far in 2002: about 150,000).

But here's the problem: Dorothy's first book, "Ella Price's Journal," took three years to publish, "The Kin of Ata ... " four years. By then, Dorothy was two books ahead and growing justifiably impatient. Publishers, her agent had warned, did not like it when an author wrote a different book each time.

To go back to Dorothy's first book for a moment: "Ella Price's Journal," the story of a suburban housewife who enters college in middle age and begins to think subversively about marriage and motherhood, was drawn from Dorothy's experience as a teacher in a community college in the mid '60s. She had trouble getting it published because editors said "we all know women like this, but they're not of enough interest to sustain a novel."

But by the time the book got published, the reentry-women movement had received so much publicity that one reviewer said Dorothy Bryant was obviously "capitalizing" on a trend. Nevertheless, Bryant, considered a champion of "ordinary women" (the Redbook condensation of the novel "drew 3 times as many letters from our readers as any Redbook novel in recent years," the magazine editors wrote), was expected to write her second book about more risks taken by more housewives from more suburbs.

No wonder, then, "The Kin of Ata..." had so much trouble finding a publisher. It was so different from the first that Dorothy was advised either to rewrite it completely or withdraw it from consideration - "for fear of prejudicing publishers against you," one publishing representative wrote.

That did it. "I remember holding that letter in my hand," Bryant wrote later for the University of Colorado's Frontiers magazine, "shaking it at my husband Bob: 'Do you know how many writers have published their own books?' I shouted. 'Virginia Woolf! Thoreau! D.H. Lawrence! Upton Sinclair! Blake! Shelley! Whitman!'

" 'O.K.' Bob said quietly. 'Let's do it.' "

Thus Ata Books was born, put on hold when Random House picked up "The Kin of Ata," but revived again when publishers were aghast to see the manuscript of Dorothy's third book, "Miss Giardino" (pronounced JARdino).

This story about a 68-year-old spinster school teacher who wakes up in a hospital with amnesia and reviews her life as a "hatchet-faced" English teacher was deemed of little interest to readers and rejected.

Dorothy and Bob published it under the Ata Books imprint and within six months had sold out its first printing of 5,000 copies, with a good portion of the second printing already back-ordered.

The next novel, "Prisoners," the story of a Berkeley liberal who befriends an ex-con with serious consequences, received the worst response of all from the mainstream publishing industry. As one agent (her third) put it, "You get a few Brownie points for recreating a liberal ethos, but other than that . . . "

This dismissal so unhinged Bryant that she put "Prisoners" on the shelf and published her fifth novel, "Garden of Eros," the story of a blind woman who fears her husband has left her and gives birth alone while waiting for him to come home.

This one, too, published under the Ata Books imprint, sold out its 5,000-copy first printing within six months.

And so it went with Dorothy Bryant. Every book she wrote was so different from every other one that the only thread connecting them was an almost prophetic vision of what was to come.

With "Ella Price's Journal," for example, Bryant anticipated the movement of middle-aged women returning to college in droves; "The Kin of Ata ..." was the first of many spiritual-mentor novels by such writers as Carlos Castaneda, Lynn Andrews, Dan Millman and others; with "Prisoners," Bryant foresaw the trend by liberals such as Norman Mailer of sponsoring the release of convicts (remember Jack Abbott?) they knew nothing about, and didn't want to ("Prisoners" got the best and most reviews of any of her books, but the lowest sales); her novel, "The Test," was among the first books to recognize the dilemma of middle-aged baby boomers caring for both their own kids and their own aging parents; "A Day in San Francisco" was her portentous 1983 novel about a mother's concern over her gay son and what Dorothy calls "a liberation movement gone astray" (only a year before "gay bowel syndrome" was recognized as a disease called AIDS).

The fact that nobody in mainstream publishing appreciated this kind of literary prescience in Dorothy Bryant did not stop her - she was that rarest of rare things, a successful self-published author. She used to say friends, "instead of putting energy into gnashing my teeth, I put it into publishing myself."

I go into her history at some length because it seemed to me that Dorothy was becoming one of many writers to be systematically excluded from consideration by mainstream publishers. By "systematically" I don't mean a conspiracy was afoot. I mean her talent and her range were (and are) so wide and accessible that publishers didn't know what to do with her. Instead of embracing and promoting Dorothy (and how many others) as an eclectic midlist author whose diverse interests could take readers on one great literary adventure after another, publishers just stepped away.

Perhaps her writing was too quiet, too .... midlist? Or did she mind being referred to as a midlist author? I asked her this recently "Are you kidding?" she said. " 'Midlist' is a sales term. As far as I'm concerned, it has nothing to do with quality or longevity.

"Now take this book" - she picked up the short-story collection she was currently reading, Alice Munro's "Hateship, Friendship ... " "For 30 years, Alice Munro was considered a midlist author, but now she is hailed as 'our' Anton Chekhov. So yes, I'm more than comfortable being called a midlist author.

"You pick up one of my books, and at one level or another, you can understand it - it's got a plain, straightforward style, what we used to admire in people like Willa Cather. In many cases, the more you know, the more you get out of it. 'The Kin of Ata...," for example, is used in theology classes at the postgraduate level, but it's also taught in high schools to students with low reading skills, because they quickly get taken up by the fantasy. But that kind of appeal isn't particularly admired at this point."

Bryant has also written four produced stage plays, one of which shared the Best Script award with "Angels in America" in 1991 from the Bay Area Critics Circle, and launched the Aurora Theater Company. (Try to get hold of a tape of her most widely praised work, "Dear Master," a two-person play based on the letters of George Sand and Gustave Flaubert. You needn't know anything about the two to be caught up in the heady debates and high drama of the characters' lively, often angry, always articulate and delightfully humorous exchanges).

Bryant has also written two nonfiction books, a collection of essays and short stories, and "Writing a Novel," an enlightened guide that is so supportive of writers and brings such inspiration to their task that I often pick it up myself (and I will never write a novel) just to get the juices rolling.

Dorothy's latest nonfiction work, "Literary Lynching" (see #309), has also been nixed by publishers but is so important and wonderful to read that I'm serializing it on my website, http://www.holtuncensored.com (click on New! "Literary Lynching").

The best news is that the Feminist Press has just reprinted four of Dorothy's novels - "Ella Price's Journal," "The Test," "Miss Giardino" and "Confessions of Madame Psyche," another book that is almost beyond description, the story of a Chinese American woman who portrays herself as a psychic (having "predicted" the 1906 earthquake), knows she's a gifted fraud and turns the Greek myth of Psyche and Eros into a contemporary page turner.

Each of the Feminist Press books carries a critical essay about Dorothy Bryant's books by reviewers who finally pay Bryant the respect and embark upon the thorough literary investigation that her body of work deserves. Here we perceive the possibility that posterity will judge Dorothy Bryant as a gifted, if unheralded, novelist (and playwright) of her generation.

Again, I go into Dorothy's background not only because she is the author of "Literary Lynching," a work-in-progress I believe is important, especially in these post-9/11 months, but also because in these days of print-on-demand publishing, it takes veteran self-publishers like Dorothy Bryant to create a new model.

Maybe this is the core statement of that new movement:

"You know, when I first stared to self-publish I was angry at the larger publishers," Dorothy says. "But then I learned how big business works, and I realized it was just a matter of economics. The way publishers run their business, they just can't handle the kind of products I offer. If they did, they'd have to retool their entire operation, and why should they? They do what they do. And now, so do I.

"However, I do resent it when anyone tries to say that the decision to publish certain people and not others is based *solely* on the notion of quality. That is a lie."

Dorothy told me this more than 20 years ago. She may not be a self-publisher any longer, but her comment is as true (or truer) today as it was then.

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DAVID BROCK: 'BLINDED' OR SERVICED BY THE RIGHT?

A quick word about David Brock's "Blinded by the Right," in which the former American Spectator reporter confesses that he knowingly spread lies about Anita Hill and others, and used the Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky cases to help sabotage Bill Clinton for the radical right.

It would be easy to dismiss this self-serving book as one fake mea culpa after another - I was wrong! sobs Brock. Forgive me, Anita! I feel terrible, Monica! Blame me, punish me, and hey, keep the spotlight on me because I'm still an up-and-comer! - but dismissing it would be a great loss.

For one thing, Brock has created a blueprint for what *not* to do when you're a young, hotshot reporter with a talent for the quick backstab who can easily be seduced by "the halls of power," as he calls backroom Republican politics.

For another, Brock's description of the way that Washington works - via one "A" list party after another, one I'll-get-you-smashed-before-you-get-me-smashed drunken conversation after another, one manipulation after another - is an invaluable statement about why American politics, as well as the standards of journalism, have dropped through the floor in the last 20 years.

If there is one rule every good journalist should know, it is that a reporter must *never* step in front of the story. One *never* distracts the reader from the facts presented; one *never* directs attention to the personality and advertised celebrity of the person writing the story.

This has been Brock's stock-in-trade - until, of course, he gets to the part about the Free Press publishing his book. At this point, he steps away from the blame and graciously allows his editor, Adam Bellow, and his publisher, Erwin Glickes, to show us how much a publisher can grovel for the favor of press attention.

When we see how these two (Bellow and Glickes) deploy every sentence to manipulate gossip columns and fraudulent "controversies" as a way to push Brock's book even higher on bestseller lists, another blueprint comes into view: That is, how *not* to publish a book, *not* to underestimate the audience, *not* to place celebrity above journalism after all.

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LETTERS

Dear Readers:

So many people have recommended Ellen Goodman's eye-opening column, "Hollywood Gets Away With Its Lies," that I thought I'd provide the Internet address (the column was first published in Newday and is now reprinted on Common Dreams) for those who haven't seen it:

http://www.commondreams.org/views02/0328-06.htm

Here Goodman makes the critical link between Hollywood standards (or lack of them) with mention of the recent Oscar Awards for "A Brilliant Mind," and publishing standards (or ditto) with mention of historians who've been caught taking shortcuts such as Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodman and others.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your comments on the American Library Association's lawsuit against CIPA {Children's Internet Protection Act]: I wanted to respond to #310 and let you know that in the technology industry, this issue has been getting a great deal of press. I refer to a popular Tech show called The Screen Savers.

http://www.techtv.com/screensavers/interact/story/0,24330,3377790,00.html

The overwhelming response to their story and poll is to let Librarians be Librarians and Parents be Parents - working hand in hand, but not making each others' decisions. One quote from the Talk Back section makes a great deal of sense:

"Libraries are public access points to information. No one should be required to pass judgment on the information that is available to the public. If they were, perhaps the 'Catcher in the Rye' would not be available upon its shelves."

Edrie


Dear Holt Uncensored:

In your article about the tendency of pornography "filters" to block legitimate information from appearing on computer screens in libraries, you wrote: "The town of Essex, Maryland, has been blocked from inquiries on the Internet because filter software has detected the word 'sex' in the town name."

Recently I uploaded to Half.com a book that had a preface by Dick Cavett. I was warned to change my book description because it contained profanity or I might be knocked off the system. It took me over a minute to discover the profanity in question, Mr. Cavett's first name. I wonder what they do about books written by Philip K. Dick?

Kal


Dear Holt Uncensored:

About your investigation into the use and definition of the word "lynching" over the years: The *exceedingly* white punditress Kathleen Parker used the same phrase in an article for the Lansing State Journal, accusing gay rights activists of a "virtual lynching" of "Dr." Laura Schlessinger. I got a letter to the editor into the paper contrasting what happened to Matt Shepard with what happened to "Dr." L. I sent Ms. Parker a copy. Oddly enough she didn't respond. Here's the letter:

"The Josef Goebbels Prize for Journalism to Kathleen Parker for her efforts to turn Laura Schlessinger into a victim ("PC types lynch ol' Dr. Laura") because her "opinions on homosexuality have nearly derailed her career." Parker asserts that gays and lesbians organizing a boycott of Schlessinger's advertisers is "media driven assault." Parker pities Schlessinger, almost silenced by the militant homosexual hordes, with only a nationally syndicated radio show and a nationally syndicated television show and a monthly newsletter to spread her views.

"Parker even had the gall to conclude that "her virtual lynching is still a lynching." I suspect Matthew Shepard's parents disagree. Recall that, for the crime of being what Schlessinger calls "a biological error," their son was pistol-whipped, beaten insensible and left to die tied to a fence in a freezing Wyoming night. Poor, poor Dr. Laura.

John Gear


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Your views on the modern use of the term "lynching" reminded me that Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and other conservatives are saying that Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering, who's nominated to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, is the victim of a "liberal lynching."

Marya Grambs

Holt responds: Thanks to the many readers who sent me this astonishing item. What a reversal! Here is Pickering, "a man who worked closely with segregationists throughout the 1960s," as John Nichols of The Nation puts it, "and whose judicial tenure has been characterized by a deeply disturbing antipathy toward the voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections," using the term "lynching" to attack those who challenge his position. This is surely the opposite of the lynchings that left thousands of African Americans hanging in the trees - and of the extra-legal punishments exacted by a man named Lynch against the Tories during the Revolutionary War.


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