by Pat Holt
Saturday, June 28, 2003
'LITERARY HEALTH' - PART I
I will never forget the look on Star Lawrence's face as he leans past the microphone to speak directly and passionately to an SRO audience about the book that has thrilled him since he read it in manuscript at his publishing house, W.W. Norton.
It's called "The Cruelest Miles" (303 pages; $24.95). Have you heard of it? Exactly the point.
Not a sniffle or shuffle or pin if it were dropped can be heard in the packed auditorium as the crowd leans forward in turn to catch every word about this amazing book that Lawrence admits needs a little oomph in spreading the word.
Here's the scene he has described so far: Caught in a raging blizzard in Alaska in 1925, a 20-husky dogsled and its human "musher," Leonhard Seppala, are struggling to complete a 674-mile trek amidst temperatures that often drop beneath 60 below zero.
Their mission is to retrieve a box of antidiptheria serum in Nulato (337 miles) and bring it back to Nome (337 miles) in time to stop an epidemic that may very well wipe out the entire city's population if not treated in time.
This is the race against time that the Iditerod competition commemorates every year, Star explains, except that in 1925, the snowstorms were so bad that ice slashed through the lungs of the dogs, who, despite their muzzles turning red with blood and Seppala pulling them off the "gang line," had so much heart for the job they fought to stay on the team.
No plane, no train, no horse, no boat, no human could make it across the ripped-up, storm-lashed, sleet-buried terrain of snow and ice that cracked and popped and split in front of the long train of animals and sled, with its human master stepping off the rails to push along with the dogs. Often the lead dog was the only member of the team to spot dangers ahead and signal the dogs behind him to dodge, circle around or race beyond one lethal catastrophe after another.
The most treacherous part of the journey was a shortcut across the Norton Sound, where a fissure in the ice could cut open and separate a chunk of ice on which the sled team might find itself drifting out to sea. Despite this, Seppala didn't hesitate to head out across the Sound for the serum run. He knew his lead dog, Togo, could be trusted even in gale conditions to make split-second decisions that would stump a veteran musher.
And this is where Star has brought us so far: An anecdote about the last time Seppala tried the shortcut in blizzard conditions. He heard but didn't see a crack in the ice and could only watch as Togo, leading the dogs at breakneck speed toward the nearest point of land, reared up and somersaulted back onto the dogs behind him. At that moment, everybody skidded to a stop; Seppala ran up to the front and realized the sled had almost tumbled into the spreading divide of water only six feet ahead.
Seppala hoped that the chunk of ice on which the team now found itself would drift back to solid land, but no: With the gap too wide for the sled dogs to jump, Seppala grabbed Togo and tied the sled's long towline to the dog's harness. Then with all his might, he hurled the big husky across the abyss to the other side, knowing that if Togo with all his massive strength could find purchase in the snow, he could pull the floe with Seppala and the dogs on it back to the land mass.
But then! The towline snapped in two! Togo whirled around in horror and watched, along with a speechless Seppala, the line fall into the water below. The floe started to pull away again, but Togo did not hesitate. He leaped *into* the freezing water and grabbed the towline in his teeth, then scrambled back up the icebank with it and, once on flat ground, rolled around in the snow so the towline would loop twice around his shoulders. When it did, Togo dug his toenails into the ice and pulled so hard into the roaring wind that the floe breached the gap enough for Seppala and the sled team to get across.
Well! The silence of the room is interrupted by a whoosh of expelled breath as people break out in applause in thanks for a great story from Star, who leans back with a hopeful expression (in the book, the serum is saved, but can so much be said for the first printing?).
Yet for anybody who races out afterward to buy the book and read it frantically in one sitting, as does the entire staff of Holt Uncensored, Star's anecdote turns out to be only a fraction, just a tiny sliver of this incredible story told in "The Cruelest Miles" (what a terrible title! How about another phrase from the text: "The Run of His Life"? Okay, pardon.)
And here's a fun way to spread the word: Tell two friends to go to a bookstore, turn to page 3 and just *start* "The Cruelest Miles." See if they can put the book down after learning about Nome's heroic doctor, Curtis Welch, whose life is fascinating from the beginning because he loves the solitude of complete whiteness for the seven months *after* the last boat departs, and the ice settles in to lock the little city away from the rest of the world.
We follow this doctor's growing terror as he treats the first, second and third cases of what he hopes against hope is tonsilitis until it's clear that the rarest of all diseases, diptheria, has arrived, and the doctor's emergency supply of serum is not only inadequate but out of date.
Then there are the little nuances we pick up about dog-sledding! Did you know that after a full day's run, Alaskan huskies love the work of pulling sleds so much that even when they're exhausted, they huddle together for a "thank-you howl" before going to sleep? (It's just like Jack London said!)
You may be asking: But, staff at Holt Uncensored, why go into this at such length? There were five other editors at this "buzz session" panel the night before BookExpoAmerica got started, so why not spend some time with them? What books did *they* present to the crowd?
Well, let's go back: The idea behind this panel is that editors, with their passions and their commitments to good writing and their high standards and their nonmarketing approach (I know it's a myth from the old days but there's still some truth in it) would have a chance to address booksellers directly about *upcoming* titles set for publication in the Fall.
That's what the BEA is all about, right? *Future* books, *advance* reading copies, *expected* first printings, *planned* author tours - all the stuff that's so much fun at this stage because it's far enough ahead of us for everyone to enjoy a lack of guilt.
And yet: Almost every editor at that panel announced that he or she was going to "break the rules," as Star Lawrence did, and talk about a book that had just been published and was already *in* the stores. So *in* the stores, in fact, that the audience got the feeling - as Star Lawrence indicated - that not enough customers were buying the books to get them *out* of the stores.
At the same time, every book the editors brought out to show the crowd, and there were many, many more to be found later at BEA, offered exactly the kind of literary muscle as did "The Cruelest Miles," the kind that makes readers - not all readers, mind you, but enough - love the book and root for the people in it and turn the pages with anticipation and excitement, and miss it when it's over.
To me, "literary health" is at its best when all sorts of readers are hearing about all sorts of books, are talking about books and meeting in book groups and having costume parties at bookstores and borrowing from libraries and most of all *reading* books that have become so woven into daily life that they are thought about as much one thinks of family members or pets or life events.
So when I hear about flat sales and a poor economy and a lack of adventurism in travel and book-buying, all of which is true, I like to think of people "out there" who would love a good book that's right up their alley if only somebody would make the "right" connection, would take the time to put them on to just the "right" kind of book.
Watching the way word is exchanged about books from BEA to BookSense to Internet listservs and behind-the-cash-register suggestions will be the subject of many a column this summer as we explore the notion of "literary health" in America at the turn of the century.
But for now, let me say what a joy it was to listen to the kind of editorial passion that is typical of editors in the book trade, many of whom have sadly been disinvited from sales conferences and book conventions and "power positions" because it's believed they don't have enough marketing moxie.
Well, having come from the marketing side of publishing, I know how important it is to face the realities of the commercial world. But I never want to forget - along with Star Lawrence's earnest belief in conveying the heart of "The Cruelest Miles" - that this plain, old-fashioned, (editorial) love of books is at the heart of everything, for all of us in the industry.
SHAME ON THE SUPREME COURT
I just love the tough no-nonsense clarity of the new CIPA law - that's the Children's Internet Protection Act that the Supreme Court upheld last week.
CIPA requires librarians to use a filtering system on computers that are hooked up to the Internet. The reason is we don't want children to glimpse a screen showing naked women or couples copulating, especially when kids can see Sharon Stone doing her famous leg-crossing scene and copulating nakedly with Michael Douglas (her knife at the ever-ready) at home.
Of course filters don't work, the Court has admitted. They block sites using forbidden words; they can't take the context of those words into consideration. Remember that anecdote about the town of Essex, Maryland (see #226)? Well, you can't find it on any computer with Internet filters because of that dirty three-letter word those naughty town founders tried to bury behind the prefix "Es."
Such "overblocking" is so pernicious that gosh, it makes people wonder if filtering doesn't wreak havoc with First Amendment rights. But this is where the Supreme Court has outdone itself by negating its own decision.
Acknowledging that library patrons might have good reason to, say, visit Super Bowl XXX or look up Dick Cheney or poet Anne Sexton, the Court has allowed librarians to "unblock" filters when they want to! But they better not turn 'em off for the wrong reasons, either: Remember, the FBI, which has been storming through libraries demanding patrons' reading records, will be watching.
The other outcome I love about this decision is the promise of filter manufacturers, who are about to make a bundle, heaven knows, to "make filtering First Amendment-friendly." You don't say!
The whole situation reminds me a newspaper copy editor I'll call Hannah, who was assigned to edit my book review columns for the San Francisco Chronicle for about five unendurable years.
Hannah had been given the job of being my censor - excuse me, "watchdog of good taste," as she put it - after I had described a scene in "Annie John" by Jamaica Kincaid that I had thought beautifully written and very touching. In this scene, when two girls who are best friends discover that one of them has started menstruating, the other wears a sanitary pad as a gesture of solidarity.
Uh oh, not good for a "family newspaper," I was told, so Hannah got the job. Every morning she arrived at my cubicle with a print-out of the next day's book column in hand. Words branded as "suspect" had been marked in red and had to be "discussed" until I, like the librarians facing CIPA, learned to regard each suggested deletion as an opportunity for obedience rather than as an example of censorship.
Some of Hannah's classic examples: If a boy said it was hard for him to dance with a girl, if he came to her house, if her gaze was penetrating, if the suspense reached a climax - all that was considered offensive and had to be rewritten.
My complaints about Hannah went unheard until the day she demanded breathlessly to see for herself the name of James McAnaly, a character in an Irish novel. I pointed it out to her on the page and watched her face cloud with indignation. "Well, I don't know what kind of book this is," she said hotly. "But I've never, ever seen the word 'anal' hidden in a person's name before, and I think you should take it out."
So here we have the Supreme Court acting just as arbitrarily. Placing the entire weight of CIPA's enforcement on the shoulders of individual librarians is not only the height of irresponsibility, it is also a signal that chaos is about to reign - You can't look at that! I can too! Oh, Miss! Tell him he can't do that! Children, cover your eyes! Hey, get that off the screen! - in of all places, your local library.
THAT HARRY POTTER 'SCANDAL' ON MSNBC
Last week the office was deluged with calls (okay, three) from people in the media looking for "a different angle" on the new Harry Potter book.
It just kills me that so much of the coverage was *about* the coverage of the marketing of the book rather than about the book itself, its appeal to readers young and old and the fact that its phenomenal length at 750 pages was seen as a *plus* by readers, not a drawback. (A typical example, I think: My friend Peter's daughter got the book on Saturday and finished it on Monday, wishing it were longer.)
The most intriguing call came from Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" show on MSNBC, which typically had "a nice B-roll in the can" - that is, film of Harry Potter "products" (not the book) flying off the shelves at Toys R Us - and an interview with a trademark specialist who said that exploitation is fine as long as people want to buy.
This wasn't enough bite for that cute Keith Olbermann, who used to be one of those irreverent sportscasters on ESPN and now ranks each day's hot news stories on "Countdown" from 1 (biggest story) to 5 (least important). Hard to believe, but the Harry Potter story that day was "only" a 4.
The fun of being a pundit, or expert, or wise elder, or - most important - the only person the producer could get on the phone, is that you don't get a chance to think: The call comes at 2:30, you agree to do it at 3, figure out what you're gonna say by 4, race downtown by 5 and say "Hi, Keith," at a borrowed TV news studio by 5:15.
The story concerned pre-publication "leaked" copies of Harry Potter #5 and the lawsuit brought by J.K. Rowling's British publisher against the New York Daily News, which had found one of the "leaked" copies and not only described a dozen key scenes in the book but reprinted a couple of pages, all this 24 hours before the official release date.
I knew this would form the basis of our discussion but not the premise of Keith's "angle," funny and misguided as it was.
Keith began: "Several publishing sources have told 'Countdown' that the copies of the book leaking out before Saturday's big release date is viewed in their industry with extreme suspicion."
Suspicion? I turned from my makeup session (awright, a handheld mirror found under the desk).
"In other words, they think [the leaking] was deliberate," Keith continued. "Four books wind up on sale at a New York health food store on Monday, creating *publicity.* Today it turned out another three were bought at a Wal-Mart in Montreal, creating *publicity.*"
Keith cited more instances of *publicity* in Canada and Brooklyn, and then that cocky grin appeared as he poked a little fun at Harry Potter in the news.
"Perhaps you're also aware of the more conventional marketing of this book, like the way you'd be aware of the *sun,* or the way you'd be aware if somebody tapped you on your shoulder - nonstop - for a *month.*"
And then it hit me: This man thinks the publisher has created a marketing frenzy to attract readers, when it's clearly the other way around. Readers are so sold on the book that they dictate to the publisher exactly how it should be distributed and released, and they don't need a lot of fancy-shmansy marketing ploys in between. (A costume party at 12:01 a.m. in their local bookstore with cake, games, music and drinks is just fine.)
"So what have we got here?" Keith asked gravely. "The steps necessary to sell 8.5 million units of anything? Or, marketing gone mad?"
Keith then referred to the "spontaneous releases" of the leaked copies. He said of all the people he knew in publishing, "not one of them [believes] it. They are all convinced these [leaked copies] were stunts."
"Let me be the first to say the opposite," I said to Keith. With 8.5 million copies out there, mistakes were going to happen, a few copies were going to get out by mistake, and "and believe me, they [Scholastic] don't need more publicity on this book, as you pointed out..."
"Well, sum it up for me, Miss Holt," Keith concluded, wrapping up our 3 minutes. "Which is better, the writing or the marketing?"
"I like the writing because it helps young people get into books that maybe they wouldn't have read otherwise," I said, "and then the door is open. Then they can get into maybe J.R.R. Tolkien or Lois Lowry or Philip Pullman or other really wonderful authors whose books are a little bit, you know, just a little bit higher in terms of literary quality."
"Let's hope so," said Keith, grinning like the Mr. Cutie Pie he is to the end. "Let's hope so," I echoed with my trademark winning smile
Dear Holt Uncensored,
Knowing you to be the fierce champion of independent booksellers, I thought you might enjoy the story told by my granddaughter, a resident of Duluth, Minnesota. She told me Sunday about the Harry Potter party thrown by local indie bookseller Anita Zager, owner of Northern Lights Bookstore. (Anita happens also to be prez of the Upper Midwest Booksellers Association).
Here is Lauren's story:
"LOCAL HEX TURNS INTO LUCKY CHARM
"What would you do if on the night of the release of one of the most anticipated books of 2003, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the street your bookstore was located on was closed? Many people would have been defeated, but not Anita Zager, owner of Northern Lights Books & Gifts, in Duluth, Minnesota.
"Anita Zager found a creative solution to the problem. Due to Grandma's Marathon, the street on which Northern Lights is located, was closed for the only time it would be closed all year. Instead of being discouraged, she decided to have a release party at the local train museum.
"Hogwarts' teachers, recreated by Zager's employees and neighbors, ushered the line in. Upon entrance, fans were fed with chocolate frogs and jellybeans. They then proceded to several Hogwarts-themed activities, including a potions demonstration by a local high school teacher and some of her students, a eastern screech owl named Archimedes, and a sorting hat trivia game.
"At midnight, the Hogwarts Express was backed into the station and excited fans were able to receive their books from Harry Potter himself. Many of the excited fans of all ages, some even dressed in Harry Potter costumes, began to read the long-awaited book as soon as they received it.
As an excited fan who finished the book almost as soon as I got it, I would say the party was a success. Attendees, young and old, were entertained and delighted by the event. If you happen to be in Duluth, Minnesota, during the release of the sixth book, and Northern Lights is doing another event like this, you might consider coming down and picking up a copy of the book yourself."
Now Grandma's Marathon is a big event; this year it drew some 9,000 runners, a body of people that does have some effect on a city of some 100,00 people (larger if you count the surrounding market area).
The local train museum is housed in the Depot (surprise), the restored depot along with a children's museum, a art shop and a local dance school. It's a great old building, and with the train backing in, a perfect setting.
Just thought you'd enjoy the creativity displayed.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I have to take issue with the lady who wrote to scold you for writing about "your political opinions." Speaking as someone who was an editor at a (non-book) division of Harcourt (back when it was HBJ and William Jovanovich was still stalking the halls like Godzilla), a reviewer and occasional feature writer for PW, a reviewer for Kirkus, currently working on my third book for my third different house, I can't imagine anything more intimately related than the publishing business and political opinions, especially when so much of what you are dealing with has to do with freedom of expression and freedom from fear of an increasingly intrusive government.
Perhaps what she meant to say was that she wasn't interested in political opinions that disagreed with her own. I'm sure her spell-check kicked in and fouled her up. Keep fighting the good fight.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You wrote: "* How far can they go (1): 'Texas has passed a new 'sex police law' that says a minor female who comes in for contraception has been sexually abused because she's underage. Therefore she has to be reported as a victim of sexual abuse.' "
Can a good attorney work up an argument that the sexual abuse was committed by the parents since they did not supply the child with the contraception she is seeking? I believe once such charges are proffered and a judge allows the matter to come to trial the law would change as quickly as a legislator pockets a cash bribe.
As to the fact that George H.W. Bush supported family planning in 1970 and your thought, "(Junior must have been in his teens by then)"...
Junior graduated from Yale in 1968.
Holt Responds: Just as I thought.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
The story of abortion advocate Gloria Feldt trying to get an audience with the Attorney General, hoping thereby to get more justice for law-abiding people supporting legalized abortion who are being terrorized, brings to mind a proverb of Solomon ...
I think a wise abstinence-based program for teenagers wouldn't be based on fear, but on the desire and hope for a better life. Institutions which reject the Holy One and His purposes for marriage and family, such as public schools dominated by secular humanism, will not take that approach.
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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