by Pat Holt
Friday, December 20, 2002
MARYJANE DUNSTAN: A BOOKSELLER'S LEGACY LIVES ON
Maryjane Dunstan lies in bed directing traffic in her small Larkspur, Calif., home. A dozen file folders have been distributed throughout her bedroom as two of her colleagues move about, collecting and sorting.
"See that thick file over there?" she points to the end of a couch. "Now right on top you should find lists of the authors who've appeared at Literary Luncheons over the years. When you take over, it's always a good idea to mix local and touring authors. It doesn't matter if they're well-known. What counts is how you present them."
So true. Heaven knows, sustaining any program of author luncheons in a small town is no easy task, no matter how loyal the following. But in this hillside hamlet with its single main street, its woodsy homes and church spires emerging like Brigadoon from the morning fog, Maryjane's Literary Luncheons have been thriving for nearly 20 years.
She started the program in the early '80s, about a decade after co-founding Artist's Proof in Larkspur. A "tiny gem" of a bookstore in its comfy brick-and-mortar setting, the store had an inviting, elegant atmosphere. Maryjane offered coffee to browsers throughout the day and wine by the fire at night when the store was semi-closed and people came by to talk about books and news around town.
Readings and book groups were held regularly, but the store was called "Artist's Proof" because upstairs, Maryjane's business partner, Sherana Frances, a painter in her own right, taught workshops in graphic design using hand-operated presses and marble inkstones. The bustling yet cozy scene drew artists, readers and authors from afar.
It's no surprise today, when Maryjane points from her bed to the letters she used to send out to introduce each Literary Luncheon, that we can see just how eloquently she "presented" such authors as Louise Erdrich, Martin Cruz Smith, Gail Tsukiyama, Anne Lamott, Paul Hawken, Adrienne Rich, Josephine Carson, John Osborn, Alice Adams, Joe Gores, Cyra McFaddin, George Leonard and dozens of others.
"The best part of doing something like this is that the really good authors never stop coming," she says, handing over the last file - instructions about caterers, publishers, newspaper editors, mailing lists and First Street Books, the bookstore nearby that handles book sales at the luncheons.
"I know you'll do a good job," she says with mock sternness. "Remember: I'll be watching."
It's hard to believe that only a month ago, Maryjane was diagnosed with cancer and given not very much time to live. At 77, she has taken the news in stride with her usual pragmatism and bent for planning. "My goals are simple: I want to walk down Magnolia (Larkspur's main street) and play one more round of golf."
A plaque above her bed commemorates Maryjane Dunstan's hole-in-one some years ago, so we know this goal is entirely within range. In fact, there is not much that Maryjane hasn't done in her life.
A former WAVE during World War II, she took advantage of the GI Bill to study journalism at the University of California at Berkeley in 1946. But she was crestfallen when a professor told her "in no uncertain terms that women do not write about sports - women write for the 'women's page,' " she recalls. "I stayed one semester."
To make ends meet, she worked in some of the famous San Francisco bookstores of the time (Paul Elder, City of Paris) before becoming a reservation agent for United Airlines. But working conditions were so bad that "I suggested a union," she remembers, "and that did it. I got fired. It was the best thing that happened to me."
Sure enough, something big awaited. After returning to college for her bachelor's and master's degrees, she taught English to foreign students and initiated an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, complete with reading labs, at Merritt College in Oakland. Her work was so well regarded that the State Department asked her to teach in Burma as a Fulbright lecturer in 1958.
That one-year hitch turned into four when Maryjane was asked to bring the teacher-training programs she had established in Rangoon and Mandalay to remote mountain villages where few Westerners had ever traveled. "Hell, I might be there today if it weren't for the military coup of 1962."
Although foreigners were kicked out of Burma that year, photos she has kept over the years show row upon row of Burmese teachers who came to love Maryjane, many of them visiting her at Artist's Proof when they traveled to the United States. Later Maryjane wrote two children's books about Burma for the Viking Press.
Perhaps the only person on the planet who hasn't liked Maryjane Dunstan was a representative from Barnes & Noble who arrived at Artist's Proof Bookstore with something none-to-pleasant on his mind. To hear Maryjane tell it, the visit "wasn't very satisfactory" for her either. "He sounded a bit condescending about the size of our store," she says.
Maryjane's tone is serious and her lips are pressed firmly together, but she can't suppress the grin that slips out, almost against her will, and soon she is laughing at the memory. "Oh, the whole thing was just ridiculous," she says.
The "whole thing" took place before the superstore era, when Barnes & Noble was known primarily as a chain of campus bookstores. At the time, B&N entered into a deal with the Marin Community College Distict to operate the campus bookstores for the College of Marin. But soon plans were made (and became public) by Barnes & Noble to stock bestsellers and other trade books as well.
The matter turned controversial when Artist's Proof, First Street Books and other local merchants sought an injunction to stop Barnes & Noble from taking over the College of Marin's campus stores. As Maryjane wrote in the Marin Independent Journal, B&N wanted to make its trade department a "showcase" and had "no qualms whatsoever about putting small bookstores out of business. They brag about it, in fact."
Although the Marin Community College District intended to make a profit on the bookstores by bringing Barnes & Noble in, Maryjane and her co-plaintiffs pointed out that state law and the District's own policy prohibited campus stores from selling trade books in competition with surrounding bookstores. ("It is not the intent of the District," the policy stated, "to compete with or detract from businesses offering the same services.")
Things heated up when the independents won their suit in Marin Superior court, though the case dragged on, on appeal. "The District and Barnes & Noble lost in the courts *four times*," Maryjane recalls, holding up four fingers from her bed as though she can't believe it herself.
Enter, then, the B&N visitor, who was not a happy man when he walked into Artist's Proof to meet his nemesis of the moment, Maryjane Dunstan. "He stayed only briefly," she recalls, "but he made his point: How could I, a lowly independent bookseller with a store you could probably fit in his car, dare to stand in the way of progress? Well, if this was 'progress,' I wanted nothing to do with it."
She tries to be dismissive, but the grin slips out again, and who can blame her? The fact is that the size of a bookstore - hers or a mighty chain's - means nothing to Maryjane. Like thousands of independent booksellers who maintain very small bookstores across the country, she is less interested in a chain bookseller's perceived power than in the power of books themselves.
At Artist's Proof, Maryjane believed in spreading the word about good books one customer at a time. At her Literary Luncheons she greeted each guest with a personal hello that made everyone in the room feel welcome and newly curious about the onstage interview-to-come. Every book she recommended that a customer came back to rave about, every Luncheon that brought people out to hear an author speak, every conversation about reading that was triggered by a cup of coffee at Artist's Proof - these were all reasons that made living worthwhile to Maryjane. Being polite to a chain bookstore representative was not.
The controversy continued until the District and Barnes & Noble "went to the chancellor's office in Sacramento" and got a state senator to "attach amendments to a bill having *nothing* to do with this issue." The bill passed, changing state law; the college district repealed its policy; "and Barnes & Noble moved in," Maryjane says. "And look what 'progress' brought us."
The irony is not lost on anyone that before she opened Artist's Proof Bookstore, Maryjane had for 10 years been the head of the Communications Department at the very same College of Marin she tangled with over the Barnes & Noble fiasco.
Not only had she brought in visionaries of the time (Buckminster Fuller, Arthur C. Clarke) to lecture in a curriculum she created called "Inventing the Future," Maryjane put together a weekend "Future Fare" featuring geodesic dome builders, laser holograms, an "immortalist," a called One World Family, tapes by John Cage and Marshall McCluhan, films with Fuller and Alvin Toffler, a three-hour "Future State of the Union" simulation game, newfangled machines called personal computers, TV monitors everywhere, a future news broadcast and a representative from the Chartered International Cryobank who "hawked the virtues of frozen sperm." The year was 1973.
Maryjane also co-wrote a book called "Worlds in the Making" for Prentice-Hall that could be used as a textbook for other classes in Future Studies and as "provocative reading for all," as one reviewer put it. And even after retirement from the bookstore, she worked so diligently to gain support for affordable housing - at one time an unheard-of concept in affluent Marin County - that a new building with 24 affordable units will soon be named after her.
As she used to say to students and customers alike, "The point is never to take anything for granted. Question everything that goes on. There is never enough questioning." The fact that she questioned from the heart, just as she sold books, presented authors, campaigned for worthy causes from the heart was not lost on her many followers.
Lying in bed with an oxygen tube draped around her face, her lungs weakening and her body "shutting down," as the hospice nurse says, Maryjane has just read "The Piano Tuner," set in Burma a century ago, and is intent on finishing "From the Land of Green Ghosts" by Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe as her last reading goal.
And with each instruction ("See that red basket over there? It has every sales rep's address you'll ever need ..."), she issues orders like the great general she has always been, gently delegating responsibilities to her bumbling, tearful troops. Soon we all come to depend on one thing Maryjane has predicted about the future: Whatever happens to books and authors in and around Larkspur, Calif., she'll be watching.
HOLIDAY READING FOR 'DEPLOYED SOLDIERS'
To distract Americans from the notion that war with Iraq might serve the interests of Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon has launched "a great initiative," according to Rear Admiral Stephen Pietropaoli, Chief of Naval Information, to bring "quality reading material to our troops on the front lines."
You may ask, "what front lines?" in a war that hasn't been declared, but this is not the point. Let us instead harken back to World War II, when 123 million paperback books, published in "Armed Services Editions," were "a big hit with the greatest generation," Pietropaoli adds.
Now, he says, "it is heartening to see the publishing industry looking for ways to support the men and women in uniform who are defending America today."
The heart swells as we see, from a press release issued by the Department of Defense last week, that orders for 100,000 copies each have already been placed for reformatted editions ("in the same 'cargo pocket' size" and with "the same vintage appearance as the original American Service Editions from World War II"), of the following titles:
"Henry V," by William Shakespeare (Dover, 2002).
Lists of these and similar titles have been made public around for some time, and letters from irate citizens have insisted that the books are part of a war propaganda effort. Many have asked, why not send soldiers on the front something more stimulating, perhaps even more challenging?
But no. The books listed above "will be sent to deployed U.S. forces this month," announces Pietropaoli, and say: Does this mean 100,000 troops have already been "deployed" in the Middle East near, say, Iraq, or does it mean that all troops abroad are preparing for war? Just curious.
What astonishes me about all this is that someone at the Pentagon thinks the medium really is the message: "Reformatting" these titles to call up the "good war" of World War II is going to "reformat" our soldiers' sense of purpose and make them feel better about themselves. Nevertheless, one gets the idea that few soldiers are going to be reading Shakespeare in the trenches in the coming war.
THE VIEW FROM 'MANUSCRIPT EXPRESS'
Thanks to the many authors and literary agents who have sent works-in-progress to "Manuscript Express," the fast-turnaround editorial/promotion service I began in late September (see http://www.holtuncensored.com/manu_express.html).
Among the many lessons I've learned from working on these mss. is the embarrassing fact that it's taking far more time to complete work on the manuscripts than I thought; that I need two weeks rather than one to send them back; and that the rates should be raised, and soon.
So here's the deal. In January the basic fee will go up to $600 and in February to $750. I'm booked for the rest of this month, but if you want to take advantage of the old rate, let me know before the end of the year. Even if I slot you in for mid-January, I'll still charge the original fee of $500. Contact me at email@example.com.
Each year the staff gets more creative with our two-week break over the holidays, and this year is no exception. Rather than shushing down the Alps or renting an island in the Pacific, we've decided to stay in our toasty office building and work on . . . Manuscript Express! What a joy this little business has become for the holidays. See you in January.
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I'm grateful for your dispatches - and weblinks - as we go deeper into this war frenzy. May I also remind you of the excellent work Gore Vidal has done in alerting the world to America's oil-fueled quest for conflict. His political essays, published by Thunder's Mouth press, have never been more needed.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In Thierry Mayssan's version of 9/11 in which you say he attempts to prove that it was a cruise missile, launched by the American military, that hit the Pentagon, not American Airlines flight 77: What happened to Barbara Olson, the Solicitor General's wife who called from AA #77 before the crash?
Holt responds: Meyssan devotes six pages in "Pentagate" to Barbara Olson's "alleged" call to her husband Theodore, who of course is suspect in Meyssan's eyes because as Solicitor General he "pleaded George W. Bush's cause" to the Supreme Court re the elections in 2000 and he who "defended vice President Cheney over refusing to transmit documents to Congress in the investigation of the Enron scandal." Thus the idea that Theodore Olson could have been "in on it" is set up early on.
Barbara Olson called her husband twice, according to CNN journalist Tim O'Brien, a friend of the family, to say the passengers of AA#77 had been herded to the back of the plane by hijackers armed with knives and cardboard cutters. Theodore Olson immediately called the Justice Department, which knew nothing. In one of the calls, he says he asked where the plane was headed, but she didn't know.
Meyssan's position is that the American military is the only source we have about the Pentagon attack. Civilian air controllers in Dulles who spotted an object on the radar moving quickly toward the Pentagon believed it was a military plane because of "the speed, the maneuverability, the way that he (the pilot) turned." The first person who said it was a *commercial* airplane was Donald Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld says the media fell on this because of the missing AA 77 - and because of Barbara Olson's phone call.
Meyssan doesn't mention phone records - instead of using her cell phone she called collect on an airplane phone - but still, there must be a record that she did make the call. Even so, says Meyssan, "Barbara Olson only indicated one thing: at 8:55 am, the plane had not crashed but had been hijacked. This source thus does not confirm that flight AA 77 was headed for the federal capital, as the army claims."
Of course Meyssan gleefully parcels out quotes that support his case. He points to Theodore Olson's statement as Solicitor General before the Supreme Court that "It is easy to imagine an infinite number of situations...where government officials might quite legitimately have reasons to give false information out." I just can't imagine that includes a conspiracy that murders your own wife (IF she's dead, of course).
In any case, I'm glad you inquired about Barbara Olson because the scenario depicted here seems to be typical of the many pieces of "evidence" that formed a clear picture at the time but now seem oddly one-sided. Looking at the episode through Meyssan's eyes reveals how quickly the media and American audiences pounced on the extremely small bit of information we were given - that American #77 crashed into the Pentagon - because it was the only thing that made sense at the time. I still think AA #77 was the culprit, but that healthy skepticism is a better way to meet government information than blanket acceptance. For example, it would be helpful to hear more from those Dulles air controllers, from American Airlines, from the phone company, from the FAA and the military, but it's probably too late.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I am writing in regard to this comment in Holt Uncensored #353:
"That number of 500,000 dead children [in Iraq], by the way, is not arbitrary. It has been acknowledged as fact by then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said in 1996 that imposing sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children was "a very hard choice," but, she added, "we think the price is worth it."
In reality, that number was not acknowledged by factual evidence and probably is not factual. Estimates in other studies cite numbers of 300,000. However, in the Albright case, Ms. Albright neither confirmed nor denied the number. She was asked about it in a televised interview, and did respond that she thought 500,000 dead children was worth the price. If memory serves me correctly, you should be able to find an article on this incident at the FAIR web site, http://www.fair.org.
Holt responds: The interview was on "60 Minutes" on May 11, 1996. Lesley Stahl asked Madeliene Albright about "the half-million children" who died as a result of U.S. sanctions imposed on Iraq. Albright responded: "It's a hard choice, but I think, we think, it's worth it." We have to assume that if Albright thought the number was 300,000, she would have said so.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read with interest your interview with Laurie Gold, who runs the All About Romance (AAR) website, an online site that reviews romances and provides a number of chat rooms/message boards for romance fans. I've known Laurie a long time, since before she began AAR, and I actually recommended her for her first paid reviewing gigs. I am in awe of her energy and organizational skills in maintaining this popular site.
However, as a writer of genre fiction and also a librarian/researcher who reviews books and videos (for Library Journal, Electronic Media Reviews Online, and other periodicals), I view amateur or reader reviewing sites with mixed feelings. There are a number of them: The Romance Reader, Romance Reviews Today, Romance Reader's Connection, Books for a Buck, The Nonesuch, Rakehell, Mrs. Giggles, Epinions, the reader reviews on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, et al.
People freely discussing books is a great and democratic idea, and though many of these sites do an excellent, even professional job, they are out-shouted and obscured by the less than author-friendly sites and the negativity, if not the outright hostility, that these happily serve up on a daily basis. In my opinion, based on my perusal of and participation in these websites recently over a number of weeks, I've come to the conclusion that author-unfriendly reviewing sites encourage disrespect in their attached chat rooms and are responsible for setting the tone of the discussions there.
A good deal of what goes on is trashing authors (note that a favorite label for authors is "whiny"), and another is berating professional reviewers from the print media establishment, who are scorned as out of touch with what readers like and unfriendly to romance. The librarian-reviewed print media like Library Journal and Booklist are scoffed at, but Publishers Weekly takes most of the heat both because of resentment against PW's anonymous reviewing policy and because the editors there are perceived as especially anti-romance.
The truth is that Library Journal, Booklist, and, yes, even PW, are extraordinarily open these days to romance. Those who edit the romance reviews in those publications are fair-minded and do a wonderful job. They do not look down upon the genre, not by any means, and they know what is happening in the industry.
The online reviewing sites began as an understandably natural reaction to the sappy romance-reviewing print venues prevalent in the '80s and '90s that awarded every romance novel the highest accolade possible, whatever the quality of its writing. That did not serve the genre well. Rather, it made romance a laughingstock, and romance writers with any sensitivity cringed with embarrassment at these overly-effusive, too-gushy reviews.
Chere Coen/aka/Cherie Claire, a Kensington author, writes about this online reviewing website phenomenon in an article called "I.Heard.About.It@an.Online.Chat.So.It.Must.Be.True.Com," in the December 2002 issue of Romance Writers Report, the journal of the Romance Writers of America. It is a fascinating analysis. Ms. Coen quotes a number of name romance authors such as Robin Lee Hatcher and Christina Dodd, as well as AAR website owner Ms. Gold, in a thoughtful look at this growing and potentially dangerous phenomenon.
Dangerous? Yes, dangerous. Why mince words? The ease with which any wacko can post any opinion, no matter how ignorant, or to make any remark, no matter how ill-advised -- or possibly libelous -- is a danger to any of us who are trying to make a living from the sale of our books. This is especially so when owners of online reviewing websites have no compunction whatever for fanning the flames of their volatile membership base in order to attract more traffic and more publicity to their site. Despite website owners' disingenuous protests to the contrary that they are simply encouraging open discussion and the airing of varied and all opinions, one wonders what hidden agendas are really at play.
Those with most potential to be harmed are the newbies, authors just starting out, whose sell-through figures will determine whether or not their second or third book is published. The sales of bestselling and popular authors cannot be badly hurt, if at all -- this would be very difficult even for the most determined online nutters to accomplish -- but these reviewers and message-boarders can do something possibly equally as destructive to this latter class of authors: they can humiliate them publicly online.
Most sites have letters/numbers/stars/hearts or other such rating systems. AAR rates books from A to F, plus or minus. They especially seem to delight in passing out D and F ratings to well respected, established authors. Latest victim: Patricia Veryan, for "The Riddle of the Deplorable Dandy." Those unfamiliar with Veryan should know that many consider her a star among living writers of historical romantic fiction, a writer with a markedly elegant prose style. For people who have no publishing credentials themselves save what they can post on the Internet, this has to be a real rush, this bashing of literary celebrities by assigning failing grades to their books. One imagines it could be quite empowering.
Writers who say this online reviewing nastiness doesn't affect them at all, that, moreover, they make a point of never looking at these sites, much less engaging these purveyors of spite, envy and malice in reasonable dialogue, may convince themselves it's true by simply saying so, but, like the website owners who protest innocence when they stir up flame wars, I don't really believe a word of it.
Coen quotes bestselling author Christina Dodd, "...when you publish a book, you've made yourself a public entity...and are a target for gossip, innuendo, envy and lies." It doesn't matter if what is said in a review or on a message board is not true, or is governed only by the most appalling kind of mean-spiritedness. It spreads, and at some time down the line it will be quoted as gospel.
Unless authors stand up for themselves and confront these envious wannabe-reviewers, that is. Coen's article relates the unfortunate experience author Robin Lee Hatcher had with AAR's message boards when she chose to speak up concerning misquotes in a newspaper interview someone sent to AAR. The barrage that hit her (and also bestselling author Suzanne Brockmann in another recent incident) because they dared to defend themselves was neither unusual nor surprising, as the same thing happened to me when I dared to challenge a review that someone with too much time on her hands posted not only on the AAR chat site but on Amazon.
This self-styled reviewer -- possibly miffed because she may have wanted me to send her a free copy of my hardcover Regency romance (which retails for $26.95) -- actually used public online websites to tell people not to buy my book because 1) it cost too much, 2) I didn't deserve to be published in hardcover, and 3) it had several historical errors. Oh, yes, she didn't like the plot, either.
For the record, the so-called "historical errors" were in the reviewer's mind and revealed her ignorance of the time period; I don't set the price of my publisher's books; and I was published in hardcover because my publisher, Five-Star Authors, at the time my book was acquired, only published in hardcover. (They have now branched out into mass market, and my book was among the first selected for a paperback edition, but this was six months after appearing in hardcover.)
Anyone is entitled to his/her opinion of a book and to hate someone's plot, but no one has the right to spout outright lies, half-truths, or their own misunderstandings of history as facts. When I took this cyber-bully on, I exposed myself to the full force of those who populate these online websites. Having vilified me on Amazon and AAR, the battleground has now moved to Epinions. I have also chosen to defend myself there, and, WOW! has the smell of freshly drawn blood brought out the flamers and the ad hominem remarks! Scary.
I feel that no self-styled reviewer out for sport or self-aggrandizement has the right to deliberately damage the potential sales of any author. There are also legal issues involved. Coen quotes Jennifer Murray, a writer and member of the Louisiana Bar: "...if an untrue or damaging statement is posted on a public listserve with intent to harm the other person, you can sue."
Malicious intent may be difficult to prove, but it is not impossible, despite what owners of reviewing websites and listserves may aver. A case could well be made against any individual who pursues an author from public website to public website for the primary purpose of telling people not to buy his/her books, thus negatively impacting potential sales. Remember, too, that postings on message boards have a way of migrating to and showing up on Google searches. It doesn't end on the public websites.
This is a serious issue, and it gets more serious when authors ignore it and hope it goes away. I want to stress, however, that the majority of the websites I mentioned in this letter are neither dangerous nor vindictive, not at all! Many of them genuinely support and love books, post well-written, critical reviews (as opposed to uninformed opinion), show intelligence, and refrain from character assassination of authors. Surf around the Web and you will quickly see for yourself which sites are which. (Mrs. Giggles is definitely in a class by herself, and do check out a new site, Mrs. Gaggles!)
My momma always told me to stand up to bullies, fellow-authors, and I urge you to consider her advice as well. It is not inappropriate and it is not demeaning to do so. Cyber-bullies aren't much different from the ones who tried to knock you down and pummel you in the playground when you were a child. If you let them do this to you, they came back and did it again. Granted, this is a virtual playground, but the bullies haven't changed, nor their methods of intimidation. Bashing, whether physical or virtual, should be addressed in kind. Or so my momma told me.
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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