Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #378
by Pat Holt

Thursday, November 6, 2003

 







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HOW MEANINGFUL ARE THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS?
LETTERS

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HOW MEANINGFUL ARE THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS?

When people say that mainstream publishing is too elitist and "too New York," here's one reason. Last week I received an invitation to the National Book Awards ceremony and dinner, to be held November 19 at the New York Marriott Marquis.

I can't make it to NY for the awards but am always curious what it would cost if I did. Apparently you have to attend the dinner, so I figured that must be, say, $75 for the usual fresh-frozen forgettable fun hotel special, plus, say, $25 for the costs of the National Book Awards themselves. So a hundred bucks for the night was my guess. Steep, but the NBAs are a big deal.

Then I noticed the return card says the evening's program takes place "to benefit the educational outreach programs of the National Book Foundation." This must be standard invitationese for "we have more costs than we realized so we're gouging you," which I figured might add another hundred bucks (going overboard just for guessing purposes), or a total of $200 per head.

Then I remembered serving as an intern back in the paleolithic era of the NBAs (Lillian Hellman won, so you know how prehistoric it was). After the NBAs officially took a header (one of many), I was a judge when the awards were called TABAs (Alice Walker won, so we're in the early '80s). TABA, by the way, stood for The American Book Awards after the NBAs tried to muscle out the  Before Columbus Foundation, which had been giving out their own American Book for years and refused to give them up.

All this to say that throughout more than three decades of NBA watching, I have never heard of this "educational outreach," and I wouldn't want to bring a baseball bat to the awards, as that would be judgmental.

If the dinner and ceremony are going to cost upwards of $200 (okay, just for fun, let's add *another* hundred in case the "educational outreach" is truly national, which in publishing lingo means West of the Hudson River, bringing the estimate to $300 for the evening), I oughta check out the website - http://www.nationalbook.org.

And what an eye-opener it is. Here at the National Book Foundation, we find such projects as the following:

  • American Voices - this program brings NBA authors (Sharon Olds, Gary Snyder are pictured) to Native American reservations, where they work with students to "help preserve the ancient Native tradition of storytelling" all over the country. It's sounds like a beautifully executed idea, and it's separately funded (Lannan, NEA, etc.) and operated by "NBA leadership."

  • The Book That Changed My Life - a nice list of NBA finalists and winners talking about the first book that influenced them for a lifetime. I hope it's been circulated widely to school libraries and bookstores, but there's no indication on the page.

  • Settlement Houses, Family Literacy Program, Writing Camp, Gold Medal Tour - all programs, also separately funded, in which NBA authors work with students, but limited to New York, Vermont and "the tri-state area."

  • Windows on the Writing Life - a cyberspace project affecting "millions of readers" (but where?) separately financed by Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Fund.

So you have to hand it to the NBA for broadening the scope of its mission from a bunch of literary prizes to true "educational outreach," although I still worry that without true *national* outreach to bookstores, schools and libraries, the programs, like the awards, still have that regional mainstream-publishing New York feel.

Also, I'm sure I'm not the first to have wondered how the NBA judges are able to decide on nominees *and* winners for the whole year, each year, by November, when we're only halfway through the Fall season. Of course they get early galleys (not, I hope, unedited manuscripts), but having served on the National Book Critics Circle Board for many years, I can tell you that collecting and reading all the good books of any given year takes a *lot* of time - yes, I'd say a motherlode of time - which is to say *all year long.*

Okay, so the NBA juries work like - well, work horses - and they probably don't get paid, but look at this: "The Winners," according to the NBA website, "receive a $10,000 cash award and a crystal sculpture," which means $10,000 x 4 categories (not to mention the lifelong achievement award, this year presented to...Stephen King? Okay, Stephen King, who may not get a cash award. Probably not. But what *does* he get, another "crystal sculpture," perhaps?  I would like to know how much those "crystal sculptures" cost, and what they are. If they're plaques, fine. If they're models of books with the winner's name etched on the cover, fine. If they're nice vases, hell, I've got a houseful of them, a motherlode of vases I'd be glad to donate.

Such questions made me raise my guess for the cost of a single ticket to $400, which I must say is simply prohibitive for somebody on the outskirts of the mainstream. And anyway, it's public knowledge that most of the seats are bought by publishers: First, those houses that have published a nominated book by a finalist are told right on the invitation to "reserve two places at each table of 12." They're also encouraged to buy tickets for guest authors, including past and current Award Winners, Finalists, and Judges."  Second, if you want to be considered a serious contender in the game that publishers pay, you really have to buy a full table.

Okay, final estimate per ticket, $500 tops. Hard to imagine, but - then I looked at the ticket fee on the invitation, and guess what it is? A THOUSAND DOLLARS A PERSON. I'm no mathematician, but if that means publishers pay 12 THOUSAND DOLLARS PER TABLE.

And for one night!

So the next time you hear an editor or agent say the house simply can't afford more than a $5,000 advance or even a $50,000 advance, now you know why. These evenings in which publishers go to see and be seen, not just purely for show but to be ranked in some arcane measure of who's in and who's out of the publishing ranks, are not just expensive in terms of money. They're costly in terms of the exclusivity, the elitism, the New York-is-everything sensibility and yes, a certain condescension toward the rest of the country. As soon as somebody objects to that word "condescension," I'd like to ask the NBAs to hold their next dinner in Denver or Seattle or Berkeley or Milpitas where guess what? They won't find many people dumb enough to pay $1000 per seat for *anything.*

Why not give the winners $1,000 and use the rest of the  money to send them on the road, say, to bookstores, libraries, literacy centers and schools, with media interviews set up along the way?  And forget the crystal sculpture while you're at it. A gold star, maybe a little paper hat. Isn't it the thought that counts? The prestige, the fame, the recognition? Right. Excuse me, I always forget. It's the money.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:   I found your take on the late Carolyn Heilbrun in #377 fascinating.   She came to the Stockton Arts Commission in an odd way: through a former lover who at the time was an Arts Commission member and who had, over the years, kept in touch with her. In fact, in his published World War II memoir there are references to, simply, "Carolyn" and their pre and postwar meetings in New York. He said he could secure Heilbrun for our author speaker series and he did, although he and his wife were traveling (intentionally, I suspect) when she appeared in Stockton.

The occasion was the publication of her biography of Gloria Steinem, "The Education of a Woman." She spoke captivatingly about researching and writing it, the state of feminism then, her battles in academia, and her double life as a serious scholar and writer and as a popular detective novelist. Her lecture was billed as "An Evening With Carolyn Heilbrun and Amanda Cross," and among the 300 it drew were not a few who expected to hear two speakers.

Before her public remarks, at a reception in a private home, she drew me aside frequently and inquired about her host and hostess, a black man and white woman. Were they married? How did they meet? Do they have children? Are they accepted as a couple? Her questions, many I could not answer, surprised me, coming from an urbane New Yorker who clearly had been around. I have often recalled the persistence of her enquiry, even more since her suicide.

I don't pretend to know much about her life and why she chose to leave it, but your column about this classy writer brought her visit to Stockton vividly back to life for me.

Vince Perrin, Director
Stockton Arts Commission


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I had written to Carolyn Heilbrun in August, moved by her essay in the Women's Review of Books.  She wrote back, supportively, and a little poignantly, saying that sometimes she felt like she was putting a message in a bottle.

When someone forwarded me news of her death, I was deeply saddened...all the more so because I couldn't find any feminist obituaries online, nor any sense of what she meant to her readers. So thank you for paying due tribute to this great woman.

Lauren Coodley


Dear Holt Uncensored, On October 11, I was at Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera, Calif., to hear Sarah Smith, Ann Parker, Camille Minichino and Penny Warner talk about their latest books.  Camille Minichino began the discussion by announcing the death of Carolyn Heilbrun.

I'm afraid I heard very little of the discussion to follow for my mind went back to another Book Passage evening in 1997 when Carolyn Heilbrun was there to discuss her book, "The Last Gift of Time."  She read a brief passage from her book then talked about writing and other writers including May Sarton.  During the question/answer period, I asked the following question:  "You've written a wonderful biography on Gloria Steinem so you know how long it takes to do the research and the writing.  Why would Margot Peters, who clearly disliked May Sarton, spend all that time writing about her?"

Heilbrun thought about it for a moment then said, "She almost stopped."  She hesitated again then said she didn't want to talk up time talking about it now but said she'd talk with me after the book signing.

After the last book had been signed, we went into the Book Passage cafe and sat talking over several cups of coffee.  She asked if I had read a lot of May Sarton and I replied that I had read most of what she had written.  "Then you know what a good writer she was," she said, and went on talking about her long relationship with Sarton and how difficult she could be.  But she focused mainly on all the women writers, including Sarton, who were never given the credit they deserved for their talent.  I did most of the listening, wanting to capture everything this brilliant, erudite woman had to say.

I had read Heilbrun's  book before coming to the book signing so I knew her feelings about suicide.  As the conversation broke off and we were leaving I asked her to do the world a favor and stick around for a long time.  She just smiled at patted me on the shoulder.

At least we had her for another seven years.  Thank you for this tribute to her.

Bonnie De Clark


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I'd be interested in your response to Amazon's new full-text search feature. It's getting a lot of positive hype, and as a librarian (and author and all-around book addict), I find it pretty exciting. At first blush, I was thrilled with the possibilities. But some questions come to mind.

First, will this hurt local independent booksellers? Though I use Amazon for a variety of purposes, I always buy books from local (and fabulous) independents. I can just imagine a staff member at Uncle Edgar's or Once Upon a Crime, two world-class mystery bookstores in Minneapolis, using this feature to answer a customer's question such as, "Do you remember which Dave Robicheaux book has the character 'Feet' Balboni in it?" Chances are they could answer it off the top of their heads, because these folks know EVERYTHING -- though if memory faltered, this could be a nice tool. But if it increases traffic to the Amazon site, will it also give Amazon further market dominance for those who shop online? And who can't do this kind of searching at an independent bookstore's website?

Second, I had to provide Amazon with a lot of personal information to use this feature. Name, address, phone number, even a credit card. I can't help remembering that when Ebrary tried to get publishers onboard for a full-text searchable database of books--with money paid whenever a searcher printed out material--that one selling point was giving publishers incredible market data. You could find out that when you published "the big book of ideas" there was one idea in particular that people looked for. So in future you could focus your publishing efforts on those things that people were seeking and the hell with all those unprofitable ideas. This, of course, takes the editor's informed hunch right out of the picture. You think this unusual book full of original thought might sell? Where's the data to support that claim? Can't you find another Princess Di book?

To go a little deeper into Paranoia-land, if that data is stored in some fashion, linked to the customer's credit information, can it be subpoenaed? Who needs legislators to agree to a Total Awareness Information program when all you have to do is write a warrant or two? And if it isn't stored--why does Amazon want all my vitals? (Incidentally, I asked an Ebrary staffer once about privacy issues--he assured me no personal data was retrained. And he understood without a civil liberties lesson why that would be problematic.)

I can just imagine one warrant (whoa, she wanted to read about this?) leading to anther (and dang, lookit this: she used the same credit card to donate to this cause and... holy smokes, she buys food at a co-op located right next to a mosque full of known Muslims!) Yeah, my imagination tends to run away with me but...

I know John Ashcroft thinks librarians are silly and witless alarmists for imagining such things, but just think what J. Edgar Hoover could have done with this kind of electronic paper trail. (Read some of his FOIA'ed files on his enemies and use your imagination.) When Ashcroft says, "we haven't been rummaging through library and bookstore files" he avoids the obvious -- "but we could if we wanted to." And history suggests we shouldn't take it on faith that someone in law enforcement -- which is full of good people doing an honest job well -- might not make a bad call again.

I prowled around the Amazon site until I found a way to raise these questions in an E-mail. But since after sending it I got an automated message -- "please note that you will not receive a response to this e-mail" I doubt I'll find out.

Barbara Fister

Holt responds: I think the Authors Guild has conducted enough research on behalf of authors to single out the worst threats, and I'll append the AG's letter to members, which I must say is quite an eye-opener. What kills me is the lemming-like way publishers seem to have instantly acceded to Amazon's wishes in this regard without thinking about their authors' exposure, let alone their own sales. But what about librarians and their readers?

Barbara Fister replies: Early returns I'm hearing from readers who have tried to use Amazon's service is that the search engine is so bad it's become instantly more difficult to find a book on Amazon than it was before. So in an odd way, this could be good for independent booksellers.

Librarians so far seem to have two reactions: "this is so cool! why didn't we do this?" (uh, because publishers would never allow libraries to do it? They panicked over the idea of loaning e-books, remember?), immediately followed by, "but this search engine is awful. What were they thinking?" (Well, they're not doing it as a disinterested public service, remember?).

The Author's Guild isn't too pleased. They have a memo to members posted at: http://www.authorsguild.org/news/amazon_launches_full.htm.

And while I haven't heard back from Amazon (yeah, right), I did come across this on their site: in answer to the question "why do I need to sign in or register?" the response is: "By monitoring the feature's use, we're able to provide both the customer and the copyright holder with a positive experience." Hmm. Jeff Bezos speaks fluent Newspeak. Besides, this is bogus -- it's  publishers they're providing information to, not copyright holders.

I have really mixed feelings. I often have wanted to "Google" a book and find a specific passage. It's really cool to take a highly specific word or phrase and be able to look for it in books, not just on the Web or in LexisNexis -- but still, I can't help having reservations. Bigtime.

Holt responds: I asked independent booksellers what they thought of the new Amazon book search, and perhaps the most expressive is this graciously stated explanation from Lilla Weinberger of Readers Books in Sonoma:

"At times like this, I always think of a quote I once read by Dylan Thomas's wife on the publication of yet another sensationalized biography of his life:  "Just another slap in the belly with a wet fish..." I'm sure [this latest Amazon offer] will affect sales in ways that we may not even be able to predict at this point.  But more important is the cumulative effect of each new little inroad into traditional book markets.

"We'll absorb the impact of the new search function just as we have absorbed the impact of Amazon itself.  But at some point we just won't be able to absorb any more.  When/if that saturation point is reached, it will become obvious to all that the business model of the independent bookstore just can't work anymore -- which is why collective efforts such as Book Sense are critical to maintaining the viability of independent bookselling."

Readers of this column may remember my trip with Lilla when she found some gems in garage sales and talked about values that keep independents like Readers surviving (see http://www.holtuncensored.com/members/column7.html ). I can't believe it's been five years since I went out with Lilla on that cold Saturday morning, but her comments are just as compelling today.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I attended Chris Lehmann-Haupt's interview with Jane Friedman, CEO of HarperCollins, at The Small Press Center ( www.smallpress.org ) in NYC this past Thursday. It's an ongoing series of interviews with noted publishers that the SPC hosts -- along with its other programs. Mr. Lehmann-Haupt interviewed Jason Epstein, Carol Baron and others.

Ms. Friedman is a wonderful speaker.  And, I am happy to report she wasn't complaining about red ink. But one thing she said took me by surprise. I am writing to ask if this is a trend among publishers.  If it is, how sad.

Ms. Friedman said HarperCollins no longer accepts unsolicited manuscripts. She attributed this to tighter budgets and smaller staffs.

When I was in publishing, Thursday night was pizza night and the editorial assistants volunteered their services.  So, the justification for not looking at unsolicited manuscripts seems pretextual.

Might it be News Corp.'s lawyers who have an entertainment bias have done away with the slush pile? The entertainment side of News Corp. is a world where submission release letters must be signed before a "property" is considered. Or, perhaps Ms. Friedman misspoke.

A Writer

Holt responds: I'm still astonished that most mainstream houses don't accept unsolicited manuscripts. It's not the "tighter budgets and smaller staffs" that are at stake, I think, but the idea that if you close off channels of potential talent, it's very easy to become close-minded.  Not so many years ago, publishing houses welcomed unsolicited manuscripts as a training ground for assistant editors. It didn't matter that 99.99% of these manuscripts were unpublishable. What mattered was that young editors had the chance to work with the energy and passion of writers who represented what one website now calls "the great unpublished." Working the "slushpile," these editors learned how to write a good first reader's report as well a respectful decline letter. Perhaps more important, when a young editor found a promising manuscript, the whole house had to grapple with a "borderline" author who either was capable of breakthrough literary work, or despite flashes of brilliance was simply mediocre. I dunno: Today if the only manuscripts you see have been filtered through literary agents who make the decision to represent an author on the basis of what can sell, how and when would you be able to detect quality writing in its own right? True, many editors can, but many others, too, could benefit from the lessons of unsolicited manuscripts.


Dear Holt Uncensored,

Sounds like you're collecting them, so here are some more "crutch words":

  1. In many Sara Paretsky novels, V. I. Warshawski "sketches a wave" to someone.  Sometimes she "sketches: more than one.  I've re-read the Warshawski books several times; I catch that wave every time.

  2. This is more of an interesting aside than a crutch, but in nearly every novel by Rita Mae Brown (except of course for "Dolley," about Dolley Madison), the main character is either a Seven Sisters graduate (Smith, Vassar, etc.), or a "wannabe."  I noticed this only after reading somewhere that Brown herself had wanted to attend one of the Sisters, but couldn't for financial reasons.

  3. My college freshman lit course included something called "The Iliad" by a guy named Homer, who overused phrases like "the wine-dark sea" and "white-armed goddess Hera," not to mention the "horse-taming Trojans" and the "mail-clad Achaians."  I told the professor that repetition was the last refuge of a lazy writer, and that Homer's editor should have been all over him.  She suggested delicately that I would make a better editor than writer.  What amazing prescience! Indeed, I now proudly boast editorial assistant experience on my resume, and I sell books instead of write them.....

Anonymous Reader


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Thanks for writing the tips diatribe. I enjoyed it. I've got some more words to add to the list of don't-ever-use words:

"somehow" - either say exactly how or don't. "Somehow" is hedging your bets.
"utilize " - what's wrong with use?
"utilization" - what's wrong with use?
"lovely" - unless used in dialogue, it's just another imprecise, bo-ring word.
"impact" - this is not a verb. The only thing that can be impacted is a tooth.

Pam Summa

Holt responds: "Diatribe?" Moi? If you mean my instructional guide, thanks for these additions - use of the word "impact" as a verb has been driving me nuts for well over a decade (she said in mini-diatribe).


Dear Holt Uncensored,

May I make one more comment on the list of manuscript errors?  The word "hopefully" garners a great deal of misplaced criticism.  "Hopefully the sun will come out," for example, is dunned. "The word 'hopefully' isn't modifying anything!" shout grammarians.  "Shame!  Shame!"

Huh.  So why are these authorities silent about a whole passel of similar words?

"Luckily she arrived in time to save him."
"Unfortunately we don't know who the killer is."
"Curiously the murderer left no clues."
"Mercifully his death was quick."
"Admittedly the police are working hard."

Oops.  Hopefully one day these grammarians will see the silliness of this particular "rule."

Steven Piziks

Holt responds: I think you're right - the "rule" is flying out the window despite sticklers like me. Every one of your examples gave me hives .


Dear Holt Uncensored,

David Bowman might find the American Booksellers Association's best seller list (www.boorweb.org) more satisfactory;  unlike the NYT list, it is based on weekly sales reports from the nation's independent bookstores, and in spite of the occasional nine-day-wonder usually consists of much better books (Danielle Steele is nowhere in sight.)

S. Ramsey
Athena Book Shop Holt responds: Of course! It's called BookSense, and not only is it more diverse and unpredictable, you get both national and regional lists at the same site. A more direct route is http://www.booksense.com.


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I loved the 8th grade class's response to the matter of including or not including "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. But their solution ("under Canada") was a quip made by the brilliant comedian Robin Williams during a phone interview with a New Yorker magazine writer, who dutifully reported it six months ago. I believe he said, "One nation under Canada, or over Mexico ... "

Bill McCullum

Holt responds: According to the source, 8th-grader Chris Mankovich, no one in the class offered, "Robin Williams says 'under Canada,'" but as Chris's mom Betsy notes, "It's not so unique an idea that it couldn't have come from more than one source - you know, Donald Rumsfeld or Rush Limbaugh.  Just kidding. But I like to think it was the class's own solution. It is just so THEM.  Simple, literal and profound. (Not the 'over Mexico' part, though - that I don't think they'd go for.)"


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