Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

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  #383
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, April 6, 2004

 







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THE 'SHELF LIFE' OF YOUNG READERS
CENSORING HISTORY IN FRONT OF ABE LINCOLN
LETTERS

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THE 'SHELF LIFE' OF YOUNG READERS

Thanks to the many readers who wrote in aghast at "Abridged Too Far," a recent article in Salon.com that laments "specially adapted" (read: dumbed down or slashed to bits) modern editions of children's classics.

I'm not sure what to think about it. Granted, it's painful for parents to realize suddenly that a book like "Black Beauty" or "Wind in the Willows" has been abridged or revised until they find an explanation in the fine print, writes Hilary Flower - or until their kids start yawning with boredom because the books are too empty and "Disneyfied" to bother with. (Read the article at http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2004/03/29/willows/ )

By the same token, this "conspiracy to rob [children's] classics of their drama, their passion and their soul," is not exactly new. The problem of commercializing children's literature as "product" is so old, you have to figure it's just one of those side effects of the public domain. I remember gnashing my teeth as a critic at "newly illustrated!" versions of classic books that offered more pictures than text, and cost about ten times what they were worth. Today it's 20 times.

The big worry to me is whether messing with children's classics has gotten worse over the years. With increasing pressure from corporate publishers to market children's books to the lowest common denominator - what is perceived as the least thinking, least literate, least educated buyer - maybe infantilized versions of children's classics are more prevalent than ever.

So I asked one of the most respected and experienced children's librarians I know, Linda Perkins of the Berkeley Public Library, who's been monitoring the situation for decades, if she has any thoughts on the matter, and here is her response:

LINDA PERKINS: It's true that people - publishers, writers with all kinds of agendas, and even some "famous authors" - have always reduced, rewritten and generally dumbed down the classics. Unfortunately, the books sell because people are familiar with a title, and they don't pay much attention to the small print.

Atheneum has begun a series they call "Scribner Storybook Classics." These are boiled-down versions of such books as James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans" - in 51 pages - but with the distinguished N. C. Wyeth illustrations as attractive bait for unaware book buyers.

I wouldn't recommend "The Last of the Mohicans" to a child I loved, but it probably made Lynne Cheney's list of children's classics. (But that's another story.) One of my personal favorites is a temperance retelling of "Cinderella" from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. It's a hoot.

I think the most egregious example is Disney, which protects its corporate mouse within an inch of his little tail, but has lived off the public domain and feasted off writers like A. A. Milne. Only Disney can touch Mickey, but Pooh belongs to everyone. But I know this is a familiar story for many of your readers.

Robin McKinley, a very fine writer, rewrote "Black Beauty" and cooked it down to 68 pages - most of them illustrated. It's basically a picture book. The original "Black Beauty" finds new readers with each generation, despite the fact that within the story, author Anna Sewell does some expounding about the cruel treatment of horses, which was fairly common at the time.

She not only describes this cruelty within the context of the story, she also inserts extraneous lectures on the subject. Editors today would probably edit - or edit out - these digressions. Kids tend to skip or skim those passages to get on with the story. However, when "Black Beauty" is "retold," this isn't the only part that's reduced. Contemporary "retellings" usually cut descriptive passages (especially the horsy parts that true horse fans adore) and character development, to focus on ACTION.

Most libraries try to stick with the original, unabridged versions of books, so we disappoint those parents who come in and want a picture-book version of something like George Orwell's "Animal Farm." (I am not kidding on this.) The most recent disappointments were about Peter Pan, as some people really wanted "the original picture book of Peter Pan." Well, there isn't one.

HOLT: Do you think the problem of writing children's classics is worse than it's ever been?

PERKINS: No, it seems to be just more of the same.

I do think - and I hope I don't come off as a prim, old-fogey librarian here - that the marketing of all children's media has become relentless. I feel for parents who try to protect their children from TV, film, and fast-food pitches. They're everywhere. Many of these push pseudo-books that promote a particular line of toys or other products.

I realize that this is the American way, and people do ask, what harm is done? Well, it is harmful when children wear clothing featuring Pooh and see Disney's films but never read -- or have read to them-- A. A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh," as well as his wonderful poetry.

It's sad when children watch a lifetime of formulaic television and miss "My Father's Dragon" or Lloyd Alexander's robust adventures or Laura Ingalls Wilder's chronicles.

Children have a shelf life. They're only ripe for particular books at particular points in their lives. If they miss "Millions of Cats" or "In the Night Kitchen" when they're very young, they are not likely to read it later. Their time in childhood is short, so let's give them the very best. Whoops! It's that "librarian part" seeping out again.

HOLT sums up: Gad! Bless the conscientious children's librarian, the teacher, the children's bookseller and other professionals who watch these trends and can gently steer young readers to literature that will help make them readers and thinkers for life.

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CENSORING HISTORY IN FRONT OF ABE LINCOLN

I don't mean to be a one-note-Charlene about gay weddings (see #382), but it seems that same-sex marriage may be the tip of the wrong iceberg.

Last time, I reported on gay marriage as part of a civil rights movement that seemed unstoppable after San Francisco began issuing marriage licences and other cities followed. Sure, state courts stopped it, state legislators continue to ban it, and the President does have backing for a constitutional amendment against it.

But gay unions, which used to be quiet and separate and never legal, have suddenly burst out of the closet with such force that observers were saying "gay people are too powerful" to ever let the door close. (They are? sez my 5-year-old, 10-year-old, 20-year-old old self: Who woulda thought?)

HOWEVER. Power is a relative thing, right? All along, the Bush administration has been putting gay rights *back* in the closet, and silencing other Constitutionally protected issues as well. For example:

* The new head of the federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC), Scott Bloch, has reinterpreted civil service laws about discrimination. Guess what he decided: Language in these laws doesn't really specifically actually exactly precisely protect federal staffers who are gay.

Oh, don't get him wrong. Events are protected - you can't be fired for going to a gay march. But beingness isn't! It's so Sartre! If you're fired *because* you're gay, the law as Bloch reads it can no longer protect you.

Huh? do I hear you say? And here's the way Bloch talks: "It is wrong for me, as a federal government official, to extend my jurisdiction beyond what Congress gives me in the actual interpretation of the statutes." So now you know. The guy has "Christian right" and "Bush administration" written all over him. Wait, what am I saying - he IS Bush administration. Over to you, George Orwell.

*Since 1995, an 8-minute videotape has been shown at the Lincoln Memorial to give visitors an idea of the historic marches, protests and celebrations that have taken place on the Washington mall. But last December, by order of National Parks Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy, images of gay people at such gatherings - including the tens of thousands who participated in the giant Millennium March in 2000 (one of the largest since the '60s) have been removed from the videotape.

Apparently (and this is a reason?) conservative groups complained about images in the videotapes of same-sex couples kissing and holding hands. Well, we can't have that, Murphy decided, and while we're in the cutting room, why stop there: Images of anti-Vietnam war and pro-choice demonstrations also got the ax because this kind of film "implies that Lincoln would have supported homosexual and abortion rights as well as feminism." Goodness, cover your kids' eyes and ears. We don't want anyone thinking that Abraham Lincoln supported, you know, equality or equal rights or anything like that (and by the way, the Emancipation Proclamation was a mistake).

Seeking a "more balanced" version of events, Murphy has added film of the right-wing Christian men's group, the Promise Keepers, and pro-Gulf War demonstrators, even though their events did not take place at the Memorial. Are those tears on Lincoln's statue or am I confusing his face with the tortilla Jesus? Only people like Murphy are allowed to know.

*The above has been brought to you by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (http://www.peer.org), a great watchdog group consisting of park department insiders. So let's move sideways from gay rights to First Amendment issues at http://www.peer.org and see what else Mr. Murphy has decided.

You may have heard that three bronze plaques quoting Bible verses, in place since the 1960s, were finally taken down from public viewing sites at Grand Canyon National Park. Free-speech groups asked for their removal because "religious displays violated the First Amendment." Well, duh, but it took legal advice from the Department of the Interior before action was taken to remove the plaques.

Well, all that legal mumbo jumbo meant nothing to the above mentioned National Parks Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy, so he put the plaques back up. Not only that, in a letter to the plaques' sponsoring group, the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, he wrote, "I regret and apologize for any intrusion that may be resulting from our actions." And guess what? National Park museums and bookstores now sell a book called "Grand Canyon: A Different View," that hawks creationism rather than evolution as the reason the Grand Canyon is, you know, so grand. (No space here to go into the Park Service's legal battle over an eight-foot-tall cross on the top of a 30-foot-tall rock in the Mojave National Preserve. Guess which side Murphy is on?)

*So you know the Federal Communications Commission under Michael Powell has gone berserk over "indecent speech" when uttered by the likes of radio talk show host Howard Stern. And you know that Stern was fined and later removed from several Clear Channel Stations when he discussed someone having sex on the toilet. The FCC ruled Stern indecent for "portraying sexual and excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium."

And you probably know, too, that the FCC did *not* fine Oprah Winfrey for discussing the definition of two terms - "salad toss" and "rainbow party" - that are currently fashionable among America's youth, it seems. According to Winfrey and her guest, "salad toss" means "oral sex to the anus" and a "rainbow party," where all the girls put on different shades of lipstick so that when "each one puts her mouth around the penis of the gentleman or gentlemen who are there to receive favors," a colorful array of joyous imprints appear thereon, "hence, the term rainbow." [Now what could be more wholesome than that, as Auntie Mame might say. I blame Christian right fanatics who have insisted that "sex education" in schools insists on abstinence only. Gee, the kids are so good and obedient that instead of intercourse, the girls service boys who, by the way, don't seem to return the favor. Conservative Christians must be happy because at least there's no feminism involved.] So the point to all this: Perhaps you *don't* know that Howard Stern was going to respond to the FCC by playing a recording of the Oprah Winfrey segment on salad tosses and rainbow parties on his show. He started to say something like (I'm paraphrasing), "Let them sue me for this," but according to Internet columnist Jeff Jarvis at www.buzzmachine.com, a bunch of cowardly lawyers rushed in and stopped him. Perhaps he then played "Lipstick On Your Collar Told a Tale on You" with a small alteration.

*Jarvis above also explains that the FCC isn't the only federal agency arbitrarily censoring free speech. Now the Federal Trade Commission is "getting into the business of regulating media and speech" by expanding its "complaint system" in the area of "media violence." According to an announcement on its own website, the FTC is now tracking complaints "about the advertising, marketing, and sale of violent movies, electronic games, and music." This will enable the Commission to "identify issues of particular concern to consumers." Uh-oh. As. Jarvis says. "Another line. Who draws it. And where do they draw it?" It's so nice to know the Federal TRADE Commission is calling the shots on freedom of speech.

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LETTERS




Dear Holt Uncensored

I too worked at Bookpeople (the wholesale book outlet that is closing after several decades years) and currently live in an area of the country that essentially has no independent bookstores. So not only do I mourn the loss for my comrades, I worry about the accessibilty of small press titles, particularly in the areas of GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender] studies and alternative health and spirituality.

When I was on the stacking lines at Bookpeople, (and everyone works on the stacking lines eventually) I used to thrill at the thought that "someone is going to buy a book today!" I'm not sure I will ever work again in an environment that was so rewarding, accepting, educational and electrically charged. Bookpeople's closing is a tremendous loss for booksellers worldwide as well as the Bay Area. In a climate where we see more and more independent bookstores closing, we should all mourn the loss of Bookpeople.

Martha Evans




Dear Holt Uncensored,

Why has not anyone publicly raised a fuss about Ingram's recent policy change requiring "micropublishers" to either use a distributor to fulfill bookstore orders through Ingram -- or else pay Ingram a 60% discount and all kinds of prohibitive fees for the privilege of continuing to do business with them?

Ingram defines a "micropublisher" as any publisher that, over a two-year period, does less than $20,000 worth of business with them. To emphasize that point: that is not $20,000 worth of business overall. That is $20,000 worth of business strictly with Ingram. This literally affects most small publishers in this country.

I am a member of several publishing listservs, and many of us are extremely upset about this, although no one seems to have any workable suggestions as to how to bypass Ingram completely.

What is your take on this? Ingram is making the price of staying in business very unenticing. Is there anything small publishers can do to encourage bookstores to order books through Baker & Taylor instead?

William A. Gordon
Publisher

Holt responds: The worst part about this, to me, is that Ingram used to pride itself on carrying a wide range and diversity of books from hundreds of small publishers as a competitive edge. Try us first for every title you need, they used to say to booksellers, and you'll be surprised how seldom you have to go to Baker & Taylor. And Ingram knew even then that less than 20% of its titles probably accounted for 80% of their business, so don't tell me this is a new cost-of-doing-business move. It's a matter of how you value the costs of doing business. My "take" on this as a critic is that here's another way readers are gradually losing options on the books they choose to read. We may not see it in a bookstore where we're surrounded by thousands of titles, but we'll feel it in the long run in the thinning of literature that also continues as a result of mergers in corporate publishing. Add to this the tragedy of Bookpeople closing, and the future of wholesaling, as is true of so many areas in the book business, looks pretty bleak.




Dear Holt Uncensored,

Regarding "Deliver Us From Urinal Scenes," let me say, "Hear, hear!" Somewhere along the line, it became acceptable, even expected, on network TV and elsewhere to show men standing at urinals having important, heart-felt conversations. I have to say that as a male, I've spent my share of time at urinals, and I've never once had a conversation, let alone an important or heart-felt one. Let's explore some other scenery, guys. Life's too short to spend time wondering who forgot to zip up.

Steven Harper Piziks




Dear Holt Uncensored,

About your comments on "urinal scenes" in commercial literature and movies, my first thought was to compare them to restroom scenes in the ladies room. In most cases, these conversations don't happen through the walls of the stalls, they happen at the sinks, while the women are fixing their makeup and hair. When it comes to men, by the time we get to the sinks we're not hanging around, we're washing up and getting out of there. The only time we're standing around is while we're at the urinal.

My point is that picturing a scene in which men are at the sinks, chatting each other up while fixing their hair and makeup, would seem ridiculous to most, so the urinal is the only other place to have such a conversation within a restroom.

Now, I'm not defending placing scenes within a restrooms in general, it's just that, as a guy, I think that seems to be the logical place for guys to have the conversation.

Michael Sauers

Holt responds: I wonder where men talked before the urinal scene became so ubiquitous in movies and books? I know! Everywhere but at the urinal!




Dear Holt Uncensored

You wrote: "As literary/cinematic references go, we haven't seen a woman sit down on a toilet seat to 'take a whiz' since Jane Fonda played George Segal's wife in 'Dick and Jane 40 years ago."

Actually it was done a couple of years ago. Nicole Kidman in "Eyes Wide Shut." Agree with you on the trend though.

Carol

Holt responds: No kidding. I watched that whole wretched movie and must have blocked it out. Well, it's good to know, I guess, that an update exists on the toilet seat scene in American cinema.




Dear Holt Uncensored:

Even one of my all-time favorite movies has a urinal scene, though it's not properly a urinal. I'm talking about the splendid, romantic "Midsummer Night's Dream." We get to watch Stanley Tucci, as Puck, take a totally gratuitous whiz against a wall. I hold a Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature - that means Shakespeare - and I know that's not in the play! Not only that, Puck's whizzing against the wall adds nothing to the story or the characterization. I think you're right; it's a guy thing. And all those guys are 19 years old.

Barbara Ardinger




Dear Holt Uncensored,

While I agree with you for 99.9% of movies, the opening scene of the "Richard III" movie with Ian McKellan was reasonably effective, where he gives the "winter of my discontent" speech to the mirror.

Nancy Phillips, M.D.

Holt responds: Thank you for this, but he wasn't in the bathroom, was he?

Phillips replies: Yes, he delivered the speech at the washbasin after he used the urinal - but they didn't show him below the neck while at the urinal.

Holt falls off chair: Well, there you are. I loved that movie but completely forgot the urinal scene - and good thing, too, as it would have been too distracting [Hey, what is he doing? Another coy above-the-neck shot! It's the urinal of our discontent!] - and missed the opening soliloquy.




Dear Holt Uncensored,

As near as I can figure it, the urinal/stall cliche was laid down in the 1987 film "ROBOCOP," whereby junior executive Miguel Ferrer and CEO Ronny Cox engage in extremely silly macho banter in an executive washroom. ("I remember when I was a young executive. We used to call the Old Man names. Ironbutt. Boner. Sometimes, we even called him a------. But there was always respect. And you've just stepped over it, buddy boy. You've insulted me and you've insulted this company," seethes Cox between clenched teeth. And, yes, the truly sad thing is that's all from memory. Such are the stupid mnemonic tricks of a media-addled junkie.)

And I was with you up until you objected to the euphemism "taking a whiz." Perhaps in your generation, men didn't announce that they were "taking a leak" (Vonnegut mirror-related or regular), or "going to pee," or "taking a whiz." But today they do, particularly when they are among other men and particularly when alcohol is involved. I've seen this with almost every age level. So it's not shocking at all to see this in print, and certainly not nearly as scatological as you make it out.

I will agree that Meltzer went a little crazy there on the pissing paranoia front. But the fact is that men quietly view urination as an intimate moment of camaraderie. While ladies go to the restroom in groups, and talk about what they need to talk about, the male approach is similar in its goals, but a bit different. Men prefer to go to the bathroom when they need to, running into people by chance, and often joking about something at the urinal. It's a bit similar to riding an elevator, holding silence for a few floors and then, when someone's left, talking with the person you know.

Personally, I find this kind of bathroom sociology fascinating. I'd love to see more of it in literature. These are the kinds of details that nobody talks about. And I'm also in agreement with you on women opening up the doors in literature, so that readers can see what goes on in their public restrooms. Me? I have to ask questions from trusted female friends and draw inferences, and vice versa. Sort like swapping sociological recipes. :)

Ed

Holt responds: Pardon me, but did you dismissively refer to "my generation"? I'll have you know that every time my father would say, "I'm going to go see a man about a horse," we all knew he wasn't coming back with Seabiscuit. If only we had cars in those days, he could have just gone to "meet a man about a gas station." By the way, I'm *not* advocating "women opening up the [toilet] doors in literature" or in the movies. No equal opportunity tinkling! Let's just get over the trend.




Dear Holt Uncensored,

How right you are [about poor writing styles of modern commercial fiction authors] re Brad Meltzer, Robin Cook). I fear that we've gone so far in turning the world over to middle schoolers that we'll never recover true humor, etiquette, respect, music with melody, lyrics we can remember (okay, even some of those oldies might have been a bit silly), good literature that we want to re-read again and again, etc., etc.

Though I am a sometimes fan of "Saturday Night Live," its originality long ago evolved into juvenile, potty-mouth skits. I obviously am a member of a long-ago generation that could understand what was going on in movies when a love scene was interrupted with a switch to waves crashing against the rocks. And a generation that doesn't want to know that Queen Elizabeth goes to the potty. And a generation that is in awe of a youngster who can speak in complete sentences without the ubiquitous "like, you know," or whose only practiced adjectives are "incredible," "awesome," and the like. Sadly, as you point out, many of those who learned from "Saturday Night Live" are now in control of the media.

Robert Compton Garland, TX




Dear Holt Uncensored,

Thank you for your really neat piece about the gay marriages in San Francisco. What Gavin Newsom has started will, one hopes, become a movement that will sweep the country, and as a resident of the North Bay, (Dry Creek in Sonoma Co.) I think it will be a lot of fun to say I was at least "that" close to something wonderful. It's about time.

Heterosexual Gramma (married to a guy for over 30 years, but we are both thrilled with what is happening.)

Holt Responds: I've received many letters from heterosexual readers and who, it turns out, have been cheering silently from the sidelines all along. Like other gay people I assumed straight readers were supportive of gay marriage, but until these emails flooded in, I never realized how emotionally moving their response could be. Thanks to all.




Dear Holt Uncensored,

Oh Pat, Pat, Pat

Believe me, I understand the joy of being a supercilious grammar and usage maven, but I've also come to understand the risks. We all have our little crosses to bear. I like to nitpick about which vs. that, and you're currently on a present-participle tear.

The problem with setting yourself up as the expert, of course, is that it hurts so bad when you fall. If you're going to demand perfection, you'd better exhibit perfection, lest you look like the fire and brimstone moralist preacher who spends all his free time in search of hookers and blow.

You wrote: "It's quite a treat to observe ministers, judges and other 'marriage commissioners' reverently selecting the perfect flowers for "their" couple of the moment, who in turn accept each bouquet with shining eyes, even if their already loaded down with flowers they've brought themselves."

Sorry Pat, I couldn't resist. As they say: They're is no their their.

Zac Unger

Holt responds: Others have pointed this out but not with the fun and the nudge of your message, which I must say is much deserved. Applicant #1 is my editor and I'd put the blame on Mrs. except that marriage does change a relationship, even after 20 years, so for the sake of peace in the family I was just going to let it go....until your email. So Zac, if we're the first gay couple to divorce, you'll know whom we can thank.




Dear Holt Uncensored,

Before you think that I am homophobic, I will say that I love people - all people. However, I don't believe that our country is doing anything positive by allowing gay marriage.

God, as any good parent, set about to protect us, his children, with a few rules to keep us safe and happy. He designed marriage to be between one man and one woman. He designed children to be the result of that union. Just as the child who disobeys his loving parent, we arrogant humans will have consequences for disobeying our heavenly Father. He loves us. He sent his Son to die for us.

Each and every one of us will die one day. We may choose to ignore life after death, but it will happen. It's our job to find the truth and obey it. It's that simple.

When we disobey God's laws, we are deceiving ourselves into a false sense of security. We have been lulled into a belief that there is no moral bottom line. We can't cheat the God of creation and continue to get away with it forever. A child can disobey his parents, but he isn't really getting away with anything except hurting himself.

I love you, but I refuse to contribute to the lies you have been led to believe. May you find the true peace that only God can give.

Sheryl Simons

Holt responds: I did feel the love coming right through this email, and since then, Sheryl Simons and I have discussed parts of the bible that lead to such conclusions and how much love is available even to those who live in sin (not a term she used). At the time of my own wedding, I remember feeling grateful to the many people who disagreed about this issue of same-sex marriage and stayed at home to do it.




Dear Holt Uncensored,

I was at a conference last week and took on the general counsel of a large media company (which shall remain nameless), when he told us that in the wake of the Tasini v. New York Times case (which says that writers do not automatically relinquish their rights to electronic reprint when they sell articles to serial publications), his company does writers a favor by requiring them to sign a contract giving the publishing company all rights. He said that the writers ASK him to do this, and that they beg him not to take their articles off the [huge research engine] LexisNexis. (Of course, if your article is on LexisNexis, why should another publication buy it -- or if they do, pay you more than a pittance?)

I had never before actually met the proverbial 500 pound gorilla -- the one that sits anywhere it wants to -- but it was interesting to hear the attorney say that he was taking all rights as a favor to the writers, and for the writers' own good. Yeah, and we're from the government and we're here to help you....

Ellen

Holt responds: Some writers will give up their reprint rights to get the larger exposure, and I think they should be allowed to make that choice - if it truly is a choice. But when companies like AOL/Time Warner publish magazines that actively and loudly dump articles unless writers sign an agreement relinquishing these rights (see #257), that, to me, is literary fascism. And it's hard to stop, particularly when lawyers like the one you mention brag that they're doing writers "a favor."


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