by Pat Holt
Tuesday, April 9, 2002
GOODBYE OPRAH BOOK CLUB? WORKING ASSETS WEIGHS IN
GOODBYE OPRAH BOOK CLUB? WORKING ASSETS WEIGHS IN
Like many readers (and viewers), I was very sorry to learn that Oprah Winfrey has decided to cancel that great interactive TV-reader phenomenon of our age, Oprah's Book Club.
Winfrey has certainly made history with this project, not only for the 47 writers she selected who became bestselling authors overnight, but also for the hundreds of thousands of readers who were inspired to raise the standard of their reading tastes in dramatic and measurable ways.
I've mentioned this before but can't help repeating it as an example of Oprah's power: Stacey's, the big financial district bookstore in San Francisco, discovered that because of Oprah's Book Club, sales of romance novels declined dramatically while sales of midlist books - Oprah's picks and books like them - dramatically increased. It was a miracle.
As to the subject that keeps emerging about why Winfrey made this announcement, there's no doubt in my mind that the Jonathan Franzen ruckus influenced her decision mightily. Oprah is one of the most influential celebrities of our time, but her Achilles heel has been a lack of intellectualism that Franzen so stupidly threw in her face.
I know he didn't mean to hurt anybody and tried to take his comments back, but he only dug himself deeper into the Brat-Spouting-Off trap. And really, ever since his famous 1996 cover story for Harper's, Franzen should have known better. Who else is our resident expert on media-dominated social manners, as evidenced by the very Franzen book Oprah chose for her book club.
Perhaps because "The Corrections" was different from most of the other Oprah picks, rumors flew that Oprah hadn't read the whole novel or chose it for reasons other than her own judgment, which I'm sure made her feel even worse.
At that point one could almost feel her distrust setting in as she turned to the next pile of books to choose from, and with the pressure cooker in which she lives always draining away her time, perhaps the decision to stop the book club was inevitable. Who could blame her, if the Franzen reaction awaited her every time she chose "better" books?
Two surprises then occurred: First, Winfrey's decision to terminate the book club hit front pages, the business wires and radio/TV newscasts across the country like a tornado. The big news was a that huge void, universally acknowledged, had opened up in the daily discourse about books, of all things. A running conversation about literature that was fun for everybody to hear was being shut off - and as everyone knows all too well, the only way to fill it would be for another Oprah to emerge, and there aren't any.
Second, I was surprised to hear that people everywhere wanted to DO something about it, wanted to at least thank Oprah Winfrey publicly for what she has done for books in the past and plead with her to return to that monthly selection that could again boost sales and reading levels in the future.
Enter Working Assets
The most influential and immediate reaction has come from Working Assets, the "socially responsible" company that runs a long-distance telephone service and sends a hefty percentage of income to progressive causes.
Over the years, Working Assets has built up a lot of muscle in generating grass-roots "actions" through its website and newsletter.
If you go to http://www.actforchange.com now, for example, you'll find quick and easy ways to keep destructive snowmobiles out of Yellowstone, Support the ICC (International Criminal Court), or oppose George W. Bush's decision to allow states to classify a fetus as an "unborn child."
Hundreds of thousands of people go to this site regularly to see what's cooking in the activism arena and take action themselves; and half a million readers do the same when they receive Working Assets' email newsletter. The results can be astounding.
Over the weekend, Working Assets decided that "because Oprah Winfrey has become a powerful and positive influence on both publishers and readers alike, it would be a grave disservice to us all to see the Oprah Book Club prematurely shut down."
Within hours, the ActForChange.com website drew up an "action" and a letter to Oprah Winfrey that readers can personalize or send intact to Oprah - and say, if you got tens of thousands of messages from your admirers asking you to do something, wouldn't you at least consider it?
So here's what to do: Go to http://actforchange.com/books where you'll find the letter to Oprah in a little box. Sign your name at the bottom and hit "Send." Voila: A big part of the letter simply thanks Oprah Winfrey for launching an idea that may well spread into radio and Internet channels.
In any case, Oprah has responded to her viewers before, so maybe there's still a chance the Book Club will resume. If nothing else, it's good to know that an idea for an interactive book club on daytime television, which once would have been laughed off the soundstages of the world, will be sorely missed by millions.
A BIG WEEK AT THE COURTS: TATTERED COVER, AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION
What a relief it was to learn yesterday that the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver in its year-long fight to stop a police warrant to seize records of customer purchases.
The Court decided that the bookstore does not have to give police the names of a customer who bought a how-to book about the making of illegal drugs.
The evidence spoke for itself, the Court noted, but so did "the substantial chilling effects that are likely to result from execution of the warrant."
I should hope so. The police had been searching a suspected methamphetamine laboratory when officers found handguns, two books ("The Construction and Operation of Clandestine Drug Laboratories," "Advanced Techniques of Clandestine Psychedelic Manufacture") and most damning of all, an envelope from The Tattered Cover.
Naturally the police assumed the store's records would link the book purchases to the suspect's name on the mailing label, and bingo, up the river he'd go.
Owner Joyce Meskis fought this invasion (after a lower court allowed a limited search of store records) so brilliantly that "had it not been for the Tattered Cover's steadfast stance," the Colorado Supreme Court said, "the zealousness of the city would have led to the disclosure of information that we ultimately conclude is constitutionally protected."
Gad! Thank you, Tattered Cover. And thanks too to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), which helped raise money to pay Tattered Cover's legal bills and organized amicus briefs on the store's behalf.
American Library Association
Well, nobody wants to jinx a favorable court ruling-in-the-making, but as Wired.com noted Friday, things are looking up in the American Library Association's lawsuit against CIPA (the Children's Internet Protection Act).
CIPA requires that libraries install filters on computers so that younger readers won't stumble upon pornography or other websites that might be "bad" for them (see #310). The problem is, as the ALA has argued, "no filtering software successfully differentiates constitutionally protected speech from illegal speech on the Internet."
It seems that the court has made every indication that it's going to agree with that stance. According to Wired.com, the trial ended with the three appellate "judges criticizing the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) as an unreasonable intrusion into the rights of Americans to view legal material online ...
" 'We're stuck right in the heart of the First Amendment when we're talking about libraries,' said Third Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edward Becker, who heads the special three-judge panel that a nervous Congress created to hear legal challenges to CIPA ...
"Every witness has testified that the statute can't be applied according to its own terms," U.S. District Judge Harvey Bartle said during closing arguments...
"Even the government's attorneys concede that no product in the roughly $250 million filtering software market can screen out objectionable websites without also blocking constitutionally protected sites, including those of Sports Illustrated, Planned Parenthood and Salon. This is partly due to the ever-changing nature of the Internet, which human reviewers can't keep up with."
All right, you judges! Keep talking that way and we may get out of yet another let's-trot-out-the-children assault on freedom of speech.
DOROTHY BRYANT'S "LITERARY LYNCHING" - CHAPTER 2: THOMAS HARDY
Turning to Dorothy Bryant's absorbing second chapter in the book we are serializing at here, I remembered a shocking (to me) lesson in publishing I learned about 20 years ago from a literary agent I'll call "Jack."
Sitting in his office one day, I happened to notice a letter from a well-known publishing house in which a prominent editor wrote something like this:
"Dear Jack: We are impressed with the manuscript you have sent us by ________. It is a serious and original effort, unique in its own right. As a first novel it has every chance of being considered an important literary debut.
I was stunned. Here was a respected editor who believed the book to be "serious and original," yet he was telling the author to rewrite it for commercial reasons. Hey, let's not "depress" readers, he was saying: They might - what, stop reading and have to make an appointment with their therapist.
"Holy cow, Jack, do you get many letters like these?" I blurted.
"Oh, you know, enough to take seriously," he said.
"But it's censorship - 'change the chapter or we won't publish it.' Won't the author be furious?"
"Are you kidding? This author will salivate when he sees that letterhead, not to mention the signature. Don't worry about it. In this business everything's negotiable."
"You mean this happens all the time? Why, here is another consequence of publishers gobbling each other up! If ever there were a need for more houses to preserve the premise of 'many voices, many ideas' of our democracy, this -- "
"Or look at it another way. This has been going on since Gutenberg."
Gad, what a lesson. No wonder it came to mind when I turned to Dorothy Bryant's chapter on Thomas Hardy. This gifted novelist and poet wrote at a time in (19th century) England when books were "regulated" not by government censors but "nearly as strictly by custom and the marketplace," Bryant writes.
"After all, the few people who possessed the leisure and literacy to read books were not likely to want to disturb the status quo."
So "the test of decency in books," Bryant explains, "was what could be serialized in magazines considered fit to be read by a 'pure' sixteen-year-old girl - that is, a middle-class virgin denied formal education....By this standard, there was hardly any subject that could not be ruled out on the basis of decency."
Hardy learned from a publisher who declined his first novel that if he was going to satirize the snobbery of the upper classes, he would never get published. First he had to write something safe, then "get a readership, a track record, security," Jack was right - it's advice as old as Gutenberg.
"Hardy took the advice to heart," Bryant writes. "If he had not, we might never have heard of him. He might have died a bitter, unpublished writer - a victim of 'pre-lynching' by publishers who feared offending readers with a politically incorrect story."
How such a writer came to be known as "Hardy the Degenerate," author of "sordid," "indecent" and "immoral" novels, vilified by critics and met with outrage by readers is the fascinating core of Dorothy Bryant's second chapter in "Literary Lynching."
NOTE TO READERS: If you are interested in the four novels by Dorothy Bryant that are being reissued by the Feminist Press, go to www.feministpress.org, put Dorothy Bryant's name in the "search" box, and you'll find these wonderful novels described on connecting pages.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding your story about Barnes & Noble's plans to publish books:
You mean to tell us that B&N will be making books more widely available, in elegant and lavish covers, with scholarly work added to some at low prices to readers? The fiend! Surely anybody who puts out high-quality books and responds quickly to consumer demand *must* be stopped immediately.
Ed Dravecky III
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Len Riggio's "revenge" is making classics available to the public in a nice package at a cheap price? Believe me, I get the independent publishing/bookseller issues -- I live in the hometown of Powell's and never shop B&N -- but that *can't* be a totally bad thing if it gets people to read. Mr. X's complaints smacks of those critics who sneer at HARRY POTTER because Ms. Rowling's irregular writing style would get her thrown out of any MFA program in the country. So what? 20 million kids reading books can't be all bad. Neither can selling *more* copies of Mark Twain or Charles Dickens.
Jay Lake, SFWA
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In your last column, you quoted your source as stating: "'White Star ... has done a beautiful job for B&N on such books as 'Lost Civilizations.' Here's stunning a hardcover that looks like an Abrams book - it's big and lavish, has gorgeous illustrations and substantial text. But while Abrams might sell a book like this for $100 or $75 or $50, B&N sells it for $29.98.' Wow. That *is* terrifying."
Perhaps I'm missing something. Why is that "terrifying"? I can't afford $100 for the book, but I might get it for $30. It sounds like a good thing for readers because then we can buy more books for the same amount of money.
Holt responds: Quite a number of readers send comments similar to the three letters above, and I apologize for not addressing this question in #312. There is certainly nothing wrong and everything to be gained when a bookseller sees a gap in the books in stock and decides to take a turn at publishing from the back of the store, so to speak. This is, after all, how James Joyce's "Ulysses" was first published, when Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris made that decision; and it's the way Shambhala Publications got started, when Berkeley bookseller Sam Bercholz decided to publish as well. Their motivation was to contribute, to add something they thought was missing in the spread of literature they brought to customers. But when a major chain bookstore decides to use its exclusive knowledge of customer trends to *compete* with publishers, to remove books from the shelves in preference for their own, the whole publisher-bookseller dynamic is thrown out of whack. B&N's motivation is cynical, vindictive and expensive to all of us in the long run. I think Len Riggio got the idea when publishers started coming to B&N for suggestions, then approval, of jacket illustrations, book design and text, but of course that's another story.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I found your column on Barnes & Noble's publishing program very interesting. I have to say though that I have yet to see a B&N book that does not exude cheapness. I can tell just by how the book opens and the smudgy text-on-newsprint that a book is published by B&N. Although I don't buy them, I know the price difference entices many people to do so. This points to a basic problem in book publishing that, with the advent of print-on-demand and web publishing, will only get worse: the book as a valued artifact in its own right is nearly dead; works on paper are instead treated as commodities no different from cans of soup or pretty Kleenex boxes -- you consume the contents and the shell is meaningless.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You have written about the difficulties that some authors face in trying to find an outlet for their work. This article in "The New Scientist" is about efforts to extend ideas from the "open source" software movement to other creative fields.
Much of the information that I read about the war in Afghanistan came from articles that were forwarded to me, some of it probably technically illegally. I have come to know of several authors as a result of this. In fact, that's how I got to be on your mailing list. Good authors might stand to gain quite a lot by encouraging readers to distribute their copyright free work and then allowing a grass-roots following to develop. Or maybe not! Anyway, it's an interesting read about an interesting idea.
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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