Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Wednesday, August 7, 2002


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Did it seem strange to you that novelist Jonathan Franzen appeared on "The Today Show" Monday morning as sole official judge of the next title for the program's book club?

Host Matt Laurer wondered about this, recalling that Franzen got "disinvited" from the Oprah Winfrey show after Winfrey picked Franzen's book, "The Corrections," for The Oprah Book Club.

The reason Winfrey cancelled her invitation, Laurer said, was that "you started to have misgivings about the segment" in which she was going to televise a dinner party in which Franzen, Winfrey and readers from the Oprah Book Club would be discussing the book.

If Franzen had misgivings about that segement, "why be involved in *this* segment [on the 'Today Show']?" asked Laurer.

"Well, I don't really think I had misgivings about the [Oprah] segment," Franzen replied. "I have nothing against book clubs per se - quite the contrary. They're an opportunity to bring attention to books that might not get the attention [otherwise]."

Huh. Perhaps it was just a short-term memory lapse, but Franzen had said pretty much the opposite on several occasions. He mentioned to Terry Gross of "Fresh Air," for example, that the Winfrey dinner party was little more than a "coffee klatsch" and that he was worried about alienating male readers because men had told him they ordinarily would have been "put off by the fact that ['The Corrections'] is an Oprah pick" because "those [Oprah] books are for women."

This was quite a slap to Franzen, who considers himself "solidly in the high-art literary tradition," while Winfrey and her viewers are low, low to the ground. Because of them, America has become a country, Franzen has said, where "so much of the reading is sustained by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever."

So articulate, but never mind. In the case of "The Today Show's" need for a book club title, art seems to have won out after all. The book Franzen has chosen - "You Are Not a Stranger Here" by Adam Haslett (Nan Talese/Doubleday; 224 pages; $21) - is, judging by the excerpted story on "The Today Show" website, every bit as wise, funny and dire as Franzen indicated. If you don't like the condensed format of short stories, just start reading this one, "Notes to My Biographer," and see if you're not chuckling and wondering and unable to stop within 5 minutes at http://www.msnbc.com/news/789229.asp.

At the same time, Franzen's method of choice seems awfully rag-tag. You'd think that an acclaimed author who's asked to make a selection like this would read as many new books as possible.

But no. Franzen said he taught a writing workshop 10 years ago, and Adam Haslett was his student. Having watched Haslett develop as a writer for the next decade, Franzen decided Haslett's book seemed a good choice.

The process smacks of the kind of the old boys' club that Dale Peck mentions in his New Republic article about Rick Moody (see #338) - but oh, well. Sales are already soaring for Haslett's book, so perhaps women are reading it while men watch golf on TV anyway.

Meanwhile, what intrigues many publishing observers about book club selections on the national level is that almost every one of these selections has first appeared on Book Sense 76, the list of upcoming titles that independent booksellers are excited about and recommend to customers each season.

That's quite a track record for the next Jonathan Franzen or anybody in a future judging position: Instead of picking an author with whom you share connections, read the titles on the latest Book Sense 76 for a wider range and a fairer list of candidates.



The year is 2020, and an "infoterrorist attack" worries Attorney General Ann Coulter.

"We've got to squash them all like bugs," she says of the MLF (Media Liberation Front), "or they'll chew right through the fabric of our great republic." Agreeing with Coulter is Bo Derek, head of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Yes, it's satire time again (what took it so long?), and if you're sweltering away in an office this summer, take a mini-vacation by clicking over to http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=13671.

This is a funny and inventive article about future news reporting by "Tucker Ellis" originally written by NYU media professor Mark Crispin Miller for the Columbia Journalism Review, and now picked up in "a different version" by that great website for alternate news, AlterNet.Org.

It's called "20/20 Hindsight," but most of its lengthy space is taken up with the history of news reporting since that awful year, 2002, when "the hodge-podge of competing [media] firms" created vast "inefficiencies" for advertisers.

Since nearly a third of all radio income was controlled by two companies, Clear Channel and Viacom, more mergers became a vital next step in 2003. With them came the need to terminate the Federal Communications Commission because of its "murky mission" to "serve the public interest."

By 2007 "the last four remaining media corporations -

AOL/Time Warner/Sony/Liberty/Vivendi; GE/DisneyBertelsmann/Gannett; Newscorp/AT&T/Comcast/Knight Ridder/Viacom/Clear Channel; and Microsoft/The New York Times/Washington Post/Dow Jones

- merged into an umbrella corporation that also absorbed "sports teams, cable systems, movie studios, record labels, Internet search engines, theater chains and book publishers" as well as "multiplexes, concert halls, arenas, stadiums ticket services and advertising agencies."

This ultimate conglomerate - The Company (tm) - is now headed by Lachlan Murdoch (Rupert's son, of course), and continues to slash budgets and space for news "while mixing in such popular material as serial murder, satanic cults, Bill Clinton's crimes and other topics of great interest to Americans."

So in the present year of 2020, while "most of us cannot recall the vast wasteland that was TV news, with its confusing and irrelevant accounts, its slow and talky style," the Company's fresh approach in recruiting anchors from entertainment spheres has brightened up TV shows considerably.

For example, L'il Kim, N'Sync and Cameron Diaz are now correspondents on the venerable newsmagazine show, "Fifteen Minutes." And the best thing about news shows is not the news, of course; it's the ability of viewers to "just click on the anchor's necktie or nose-ring to find out where to go to purchase one just like it."

You'll laugh out loud (and wipe a tear away at the same time) at the absurdity of the direction we're headed - and the certainty of it, too. In the same way, it's amusing and a bit terrifying to learn that "Nightline" is now hosted by Matt Drudge and that the World Trade Organization has classified investigative journalism as "an unfair trade practice."

But then, so much of the article makes sense. The new Disaster Channel, with its horrible freeway pile-ups and, logically, its many auto-body ads, now dominates TV. And those cranky old news programs from 2002 have been replaced by "the things that really matter to us - Hyper-Lotto, new food products, U.S. military victories, sex scandals, and the latest episodes of 'Triage' (tm), 'Thugs' (tm) and 'Makeover' (tm)."

It gets so you don't remember what's satire and what really happened. Oh well, happy mini-vacation to all.


SUMMER HOURS: We're on a once-a-week schedule until vacation at the end of August. See you next week. Pat



Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote with passion (and length) about what's happening in Big Publishing under Big Corporate Control and how writers are squeezed out and readers lose out. Tell me, please, is there any hope for the new small presses and indie booksellers? Can we find dependable ways to separate the wheat from the chaff and are there additional ways to let the reading public know what's good out there?

Pat Goudey O'Brien
Warren, Vermont

Holt responds: To me the good news is that although corporations continue to grow into behemoths that seek global control, independent publishers with their own energy and vision are emerging so fast it's impossible to keep up with them. While I hate panel discussions and other venues in which mainstream publishers say that small presses are "picking up the slack" or "taking care of unknown authors" or "making sure that no good book goes unpublished," (it's really unfair to place this burden on independents), I do think that readers who look for independent imprints will find them everywhere and be richly rewarded over time. On the retail side, independent bookstores have survived so many assaults since the '70s that they have become as "dependable" as one can hope in advising readers how "to separate the wheat from the chaff."

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I applaud your editorial on corporate purges and want to add a coda of my own. While AOL Time Warner was apparently cheating investors and taxpayers, it was also stealing from writers.

Their ski magazines demanded their longtime, loyal writers sign contracts that grabbed all rights to their own words, usually with no extra pay. It was sign on the line, or hit the road. The best of 'em hit the road, and, I'm glad to say, now write for magazines that don't steal from the poor to give to the CEO. I'm proud that Ski Press and Ski Press USA, the magazines I'm lucky enough to edit, are in that ever-diminishing number.

Jules Older
Albany, Vermont

Holt Responds: See HU columns #257 and #262 for the background story on this shameful move by AOL Time Warner.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

In reference to the comment from a reader:

"Couldn't disagree more about the purpose of book reviews. Since when does "service to readers" ... not include pointing out naked emperors .... ?"

I cheered when I read your original piece on reviews, and again when I read your reply. My two cents? Pointing out naked emperors is one thing;, ridiculing them is another. The kid in the fairy tale did not shout, "Hey, everyone, this guy's so ugly naked even his mother couldn't love him."

Cruelty may be profitable in some industries, but it will not become so in mine, if I have anything to say about it.

Margot Silk Forrest
"A Short Course in Kindness"

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Regarding your piece about the exploitation of 9/11 in the new "$2001 Twin Tower Dollar Bills": I just returned from New York where I saw several T-Shirt vendors selling products that claimed to "commemorate" the events of 9/11 and "honor" the victims.

So, for just $15 bucks, you can wear your patriotism not only on your sleeve but on your back and shoulders, too. What a bargain.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I was so pleased with Holt Uncensored #338. The part about book reviewers getting off on being nasty and why that is not a good thing to do (as well as the informative view of Maya Angelou) was a "thinker." I had already sent an e-mail to Attorney General Ashcroft but appreciated your mentioned of Working Assets' form.

But it was the last piece - Bob Haas's letter to Dorothy Bryant - that topped my morning's read. I wish someone would write an article about progressively run corporations and describe in detail such actions as this one that Levi Strauss took re AIDS. I know there are lists of progressive companies, but I don't know the the specifics of why they are called such. As a career-long reference librarian my favorite bumper sticker has always been "Question Authority" -- would be an interesting article if someone questioned (interviewed) authorities such as Bob Haas.


Holt responds: In fact, there are books that tell us in detail how much the Haas family's progressive politics have protected workers, communities and the environment for many generations. The most recent book about Levi-Strauss is "Levi's Children" by Karl Schoenberger (2000) about the struggle of the company to stick to its principles in the global marketplace.

One quote from the book shows the dilemma Bob Haas faced as CEO (he has since stepped down, but is still Chairman of the Board): "The company has to survive as a viable and profitable business before it can carry out its ethical mandate to the hilt ... Levi Strauss must be taken seriously by its competitors ... To leave a legacy of ethical business principles that can be adopted as the norm by other companies, Haas must reap healthy profits and at the same time manage an extraordinarily vulnerable public image by sticking to his principles."

The book is not optimistic, and the last few words of it are "if Levi Strauss can't do it, then maybe nobody can." The author includes an excellent bibliography of references about the company. Levi-Strauss *never* laid anyone off during the Great Depression, and wonderful stories of the earlier days of the company can be found in "Levi's" by Ed Cray (1978). And the Bancroft Library in Berkeley contains the oral history of the wonderful and beloved Walter Haas, Bob Haas's father.

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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