HOLT UNCENSORED #82
by Pat Holt
Friday, August 6, 1999:
WHEN BOOKSELLERS JOIN TOGETHER
THE FIRST FEMALE SUPERHERO
WHEN BOOKSELLERS JOIN TOGETHER
I had such a great and heady time interviewing Patricia Cornwell last night that I decided to hold these here presses and talk about an unusual collaboration of three independent bookstores, one publisher, one bestselling author and a maverick columnist - and an audience of very adventurous readers - all attempting to try something new.
As Cornwell stated herself during the interview, she is yet another bestselling author who owes her success to independent booksellers "who talked to me when nobody showed up" at in-store events many years ago.
Now on her tenth novel featuring Virginia medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, the just-released "Black Notice" (Putnam; 415 pages; $25.95), Cornwell joined an increasing number of well-known writers - Barbara Kingsolver, Adrienne Rich, Stephen King, Larry McMurtry - to say that if it hadn't been for independent booksellers who discovered her way back in the first and second book, she would not be known at all today.
But given the present realities, what could she do now, she asked. Only chain stores are large enough (not true but this is what she believes) to accommodate crowds of hundreds and hundreds of people who now show up for a Cornwell appearance. Time on her crowded schedule had not permitted her to visit many bookstores, so she was delighted when word came about trying something a little less conventional from the independents.
The idea was to combine the forces of three Bay Area bookstores - Kepler's, Book Passage and A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books - and work with Putnam on producing an onstage interview at San Francisco's historic Palace of Fine Arts. There the huge lobby could accommodate many a houseful of people wanting to buy the book and get an autograph from Patricia Cornwell.
Timing was difficult because the book's publication had been iffy for months, making advertising and promotion too last-minute to have the intended effect. The event was to be free to those who bought the book (each purchaser in the three participating stores got two tickets), but Cornwell resisted the idea that people who didn't buy the book should have to pay to see her when she's on tour, so some confusion arose as to what the tickets meant and how seating would be arranged.
"The newspaper advertisement said, 'Tickets available with purchase of [Cornwell's new book] at [local bookstores,]' " wrote irked Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll. "Later in the ad were the words, 'Early arrival recommended. Tickets do not guarantee admission.' Well, if they don't guarantee admission, they're not tickets, are they? They're . . . well, they're nothing. A worthless piece of paper with every purchase! This process indicates a profound lack of respect for the consuming public, but God knows the consuming public is used to a lack of respect."
Well, so a little part of the presentation was botched - something to learn for next time - but the energy was high and expectations grand as many hundreds of people poured into the theater. To rev up our engines even further, I offered my theory about Kay Scarpetta (see below) as a way to ask the audience to help me as onstage interviewer get past the usual surfacy stuff (who's your favorite writer, what do you eat for breakfast) and probe more deeply into the larger significance of Cornwell's protagonist.
The gist of it is that Cornwell began talking about death as a living concept that Scarpetta has opened up for many readers. She described the way people sometimes get stuck in life (as her three main characters do in the new book) and find they must confront a kind of living mortality. The whole idea was something Cornwell found herself afraid of, "so I put it aside and wrote 'Southern Cross' instead," she muttered, disgusted with herself. "I didn't want to face it."
And who could blame her? She had created in Kay Scarpetta a character who is a master at interpreting death for the living, yet from the opening pages of "Black Notice," Kay cannot express her own grief at the death of her lover, Benton - is in fact choked with it, paralyzed by it and of course taken advantage of because of it. So, too, do Lucy, her undercover-agent niece and Marino, her homicide detective sidekick , become so devastated by internecine battles of their own that they appear strangled with emotion so fierce they can't get a word out about the turmoil that has beset them.
Exactly how these characters have come to live in Cornwell - and live with her as demanding soulmates when she's writing a Scarpetta novel - kept popping up as we went with her to FBI labs (it's not her fame that convinces secret agents to tell her their secrets), crime scenes and helicopter lessons.
The audience, when its turn came for questions, was engaged and adventurous. It's always an amazement to me to see how much readers feel they "own" a character like Scarpetta, and want to protect her from what they see as others' misinterpretations, or how they fear the author may go awry at some point. One woman asked Cornwell "never to compromise" and write books that will be superficial enough for Hollywood to make into movies. Cornwell snorted and said her track record with Hollywood is so abysmal nobody has to worry. (Why no movie about Kay Scarpetta? Cornwell says that Kay is too strong as a female character and that her own need to maintain "some aspect of creative control" has stopped many otherwise enthusiastic producers.)
The point to the evening for everyone, though was the uplifting feeling that when independent bookstores join with a publisher to create an event, everybody turns to the occasion with a different kind of excitement, author included. Everybody gets to be more candid, more engaged, more committed - and lots and lots of books are sold.
THE FIRST FEMALE SUPERHERO
As a literary critic I'm always astonished to see culture changing because of a book or books, though for years I've suspected that Patricia Cornwell's character of Kay Scarpetta has been one of those rare triggers that speeds cultural change along. What a joy it was last night, then, to see evidence of the evidence - an audience that clearly saw in Kay Scarpetta something larger than the usual detective hero - and try out on them a theory (aspects of which have been mentioned here) I've been constructing for more than a dozen years.
My theory about the character of Kay Scarpetta is not very complicated: She is the first true female superhero.
If you look at cultural heroes from cartoon characters through the latest in commercial fiction, the ones that pop out right away are Superman and Batman, or Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, or the tough heavy guys out of Tom Clancy and Robert Parker, or characters made famous by Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. These are all larger-than-life heroes, wisecracking and fearless, swaggering and fit, who stand up to bad guys, slay dragons, solve murders and otherwise protect us all from evil.
But women characters don't pop out quite so quickly. Wonder Woman with her magic bracelets is fun but clearly a copy of male counterparts. Xena the Warrior Princess has the tough-guy swagger but in a campy role that mocks the form. V. I. Warshawski and Kinsey Milhone are great detectives who stay pretty much down on earth. Society doesn't like the idea of women heroes who are giants among us - even Joan of Arc had to be nuts to lead her soldiers into great battle.
But when you talk about a larger-than-life character verging on the superhero, consider Kay Scarpetta. She is a doctor, she is a lawyer. She is an FBI consultant and crime expert and master detective. She is a deep sea diver and world class chef. She speaks and acts with a formality and dignity that immediately distinguish her from everybody else in fiction or real life. When stopped or questioned because she appears to be a woman who doesn 't belong, she is a person of tremendous power and presence who cuts through, walks through, moves through adversarial barriers to get the job done.
And Kay herself sees her work on a higher realm: She doesn't just perform autopsies that solve crimes. She comes to the examination table with tremendous respect for the people who once inhabited the bodies she's about to carve up. She talks to them, finds personality traits in them, works hard to be worthy of them.
In Cornwell's new book, "Black Notice," we even discover that Kay keeps the bones of victims from unsolved crimes in various lockers and drawers around her lab. Somewhat like the rest of us but not quite, it's hard for Kay, without knowing that she's done everything to answer all of life's questions in each case, to let the dead go.
For Kay is to us a master at death; it is to Dr. Scarpetta we send all the dead people about whom there are questions still affecting the living. It is she who extracts the answers through her now famous Y-incision, and when she plops the corpse's innards on her scale for exact measurement, we know the answers are very near.
Speaking of autopsies, we see the same professionalism in forensic anthropologist and author Kathy Reichs , but here the problems of everyday relationships keep her protagonist, Temperance Brennan, on a mortal plane. There is something of the apologist, the cajoler in Tempe that limits her in readers' eyes. She is an interesting character but in no way a giant before us; the mysteries are good, but they don't take us on the kind of quest for civilization to which Kay Scarpetta is summoned in every Cornwell book.
Perhaps the only other character who comes close to Kay Scarpetta in print or onscreen is Dana Scully of 'The X Files.' It's not a coincidence that she, too, bears a brilliance and power that seem to emerge from the way she performs autopsies. And though she is fearless, the only problem is that she 's too often cast in a supportive role to her partner, Fox Mulder.
But I think of Kay Scarpetta as the first female superhero in commercial fiction because she DOESN'T wisecrack or swagger. Cultural roles are so ingrained in most of us that it wouldn't be seemly for a woman to pick fights or wisecrack in the face of danger, or unleash the ego in acts of posturing and bravado.
Quite the opposite happens with Kay, who is plagued by a kind of legitimate paranoia that constantly makes her vulnerable to evil.. Her fears would not be palatable in a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes because of the obvious cultural stereotypes. But since Kay really is stalked by the monsters of our society, she mirrors the fears all women have when they find themselves walking alone down a dark street and hearing footsteps behind them. The difference is that Kay, as we see in "Black Notice," gets out her seven-shot Smith & Wesson revolver whenever she walks those mean streets.
Unlike us, Kay takes on the serial rapists, the killers and the terrorists. She may be fearful, but perhaps that's the point. Unleash the deep and abiding power in a woman like Kay Scarpetta, says Cornwell, and watch how she overrides her fears to slay the demons of the day.
In fact the real chink in Kay's armor is her regard for loved ones -- particularly her feelings of guilt and overprotectiveness toward her niece Lucy, who is dangerously close to becoming one of those bitter and punitive law-enforcement types who use their anger as an avenging tool.
Kay is also devastated by the death of her lover from previous novels, FBI profiler Benton Wesley. Such obsessions are her voices, like those of Joan of Arc -- they distract her at the same time that they pull her into the fray, where the hidden monsters lurk.
I've thought about this theory for a long time because of the way audiences all over the world have embraced Kay Scarpetta as a mythic hero rather than as a protagonist in a mystery series. Of course in terms of conducting an onstage conversation with Cornwell, in the old days I would have said the interviewer should never bounce a theory like this off the author because usually the one who writes the book(s) is the last to know. And by all the "rules" of literary criticism (of course there aren't any) the audience is hardly the place a critic should look for larger truths about the work under scrutiny.
But all bets are off during "the bookstore wars." Thanks to the energy of independent booksellers, the support of the publisher and one often humorous, game-for-anything author, big ideas got to be batted around, tossed out the window and taken seriously in equal measure. I'd almost say the whole exchange was just as "interactive" as anything on the Internet, but then, the Internet has been copying the kind of interactive audiences found in independent bookstores all along.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
About "poor" people and the price of books... On AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), $27.50 would go to a weeks worth of groceries and not to a hardcover book. There are no credit cards or computers. Quite frankly, discounted books at Costco - or anywhere else - would be a complete luxury.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re: The sponsorship of the Poetry Slam competition by Borders. I trained as an adult literacy tutor at my local public library recently. Imagine my shock when the glitzy "special training"we received was sponsored by Philip Morris! All of the materials had the Philip Morris logo and the trainer, sent by Philip Morris, mentioned her corporate sponsor throughout the training.
I talked with our local Adult Literacy coordinator afterward and she admitted to being troubled by the association with a tobacco company.
The problem was that no one else had stepped forward to offer, not only a trainer but materials and an integrated approach. With her meager resources she didn't feel she could afford the luxury of turning PM down.
Would it be possible for the ABA or some other consortium of the independents to put some resources together to sponsor such worthy, literature related projects? The people who work on such programs are no doubt aware of the negative impact of some of these corporate sponsors, but no one else is providing any alternative funding. Give them a choice and I'm sure they would prefer to support the independents.
Dear Holt Uncensored
As I was reading through your latest issue of Holt Uncensored, the letter from Kris Kleindienst of Left Bank Books about receiving torn book covers and posters brought back a number of memories.
I've worked as marketing director for a number of the major publishers in New York over the last ten years or so. I remember all too well the number of marketing planning meetings where someone would say, "Wouldn't a mailing of posters/postcards/easelbacks/etc. be great to do for the bookstores?" Everyone would agree that this would "truly help the bookseller handsell these books."
So, we'd go back and print up twenty-five hundred easelback posters with quotes on the book, spend a day packing them into jiffy bags, and then have them sent UPS (many times even FedEx!) to the bookstores. I estimate that 1,000 went to B&N, 1,000 went to Borders/Waldens, and 500 went to our top independent bookstores. Production on these posters would run about $3-5,000, and mailing would be another $1-2,000.
Once these posters were sent off, everyone would heave a sigh of relief and we'd go back to our business--until the next request for posters came through, probably 3-4 weeks later. I've often wondered just how many bookstore owners would get these things in the mail, wonder where on earth they came from, and toss them. I'm sure that most of the chain stores that received them (and they probably received three or four posters a week from various publishers) tossed them out as soon as they arrived--after all, it's only when a publisher signs up and pays for a co-op program that they receive in-store signage.
Once in a while, sales and marketing would say, "Hey, the stores are being besieged with this stuff. Why don't we include it as a "free item" on the order form and let them make the decision to use it?" Unfortunately, the fact is that most orders for books are placed many months before the book arrives. Once the poster is finally sent out, most booksellers have forgotten that they ordered it.
One sales director I worked with once demanded that we do a window sticker for the bookstores so they could paste this notice on their front door or window to let customers know the book was available. I argued that most bookstore owners would not want to put up such a permanent item as a sticker for a book that had a shelf life of a few weeks. But this wasn't thinking "outside the box."
Given what I know of the economies of small bookstores, I'm certain that most of them would want increased co-op allowances instead of jiffy bag after jiffy bag of posters/bookmarks/etc. It would be interesting to hear how most bookstore owners and personnel respond to such a waste of money and paper.
A former publisher
Dear Holt Uncensored,
What possible objection could you have to a company like Borders using some of their mega-profits to help children gain a love of poetry and maybe change their lives? One of the leaders of the environmental movement, Patrick Noonan of the Conservation Fund, was once challenged about taking corporate funding. "You call these 'tainted' funds," he asked. "Well, they tain't enough for me." Is it OK for a bad company to fund good things? Of course it is. You, however, bash them if they do, and you bash them if they don't. Do I care how or where these children gain a love of literature and poetry? Hell, no. I can't wait until Friday's report to find out what are your concerns about this sponsorship.
Larry Bram Teaching Strategies, Inc.
Holt responds: Rats, you stole one of the great lines I quote from the nonprofit community (running Tuesday, not today): Tainted money? T'ain't enough of it! The fact is I don't know if it's OK for a bad company to fund good things - that's why I wrote the story. I think such funding makes a company think it can get away with murder. According to Chevron (or is it Shell?) we're all supposed to love those sunken oil rigs rusting away because they provide little forts for fish. As to Borders, I do think we should expect deep pockets companies to support programs like teaching poetry to kids; and we should be extra vigilant along the way.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Your recent article "Following the Money" presents a misleading account of the money, organizations and people that support WritersCorps and the important work that they do in our community. Although WritersCorps is the beneficiary of corporate contributions from Borders, they also receive support from numerous individuals and organizations that are in the trenches working to preserve a place in today's bookselling environment for literature and the independent spirit .
Take for example the work that we at Small Press Distribution are doing with WritersCorps. For the past year, SPD has been working with WritersCorps on the Book Spot -- lending libraries located at four social service agencies where WritersCorps instructors teach. GASA and Log Cabin ranch are two Book Spot sites. The Book Spot libraries have books from all types of publishers, including many of the small, independent publishers supported by SPD. Although some of the books in the libraries are donated, most are bought so the project also supports the economic system that can help keep independent publishers alive.
We also provide training led by a professional librarian to help the sites establish lending and collection development policies and to train the youth in managing a library. The goal of the Book Spot is to give young people access to reading materials that compliment the work they are doing in the writing workshops led by WritersCorps instructors. We've also printed special posters and bookplates, bought carpets, sofas and shelving all to create an environment that is comfortable and conducive to "kickin' it" with a new book.
SPD, like WritersCorps, is a non-profit organization. So, we have to raise the funds to make The Book Spot possible. Local foundations as well as SPD's publishers and customers have all contributed money to support the project. Some donations from individuals have exceeded $2,000.
Your article was correct in that it does all come down to money - but not all of the money is tainted. There's a whole network of people and organizations in the publishing and bookselling business that cares about disadvantaged youth and is doing something help them.
Small Press Distribution