HOLT UNCENSORED #86
by Pat Holt
Friday, August 20, 1999:
LISTENING TO HEMINGWAY
ARE WE SURE WE'RE READING LESS?
LISTENING TO HEMINGWAY
The boom in audio books has inspired many readers to venture into areas of literature they might not have attempted otherwise. Not only are books on cassette informative and fun to listen to while driving or jogging or doing the dishes or gardening; audiobooks solve a lot of literary problems for the reader.
If, for example, you feel detached from the far-away character of a 19th-century novel or are made restless by the arcane form of an epic poem, you don't have to give up on it. Another approach awaits, as does an exciting world of literary experience, in the audiobook version.
Few Americans reading "Jane Eyre" may be able to hear the rich inflections of British manners, class, education, wealth and age that Charlotte Bronte injects into the voices of this classic novel. But in the audiocassette version (Bantam; four cassettes; $22; abridged), Jane, an orphaned girl who stands up to adversity on her own terms, finds perfect expression in the throaty and impassioned reading by BBC Radio actress Juliet Stevenson.
Stevenson's Jane Eyre becomes that voice of will against conformity that exists within everyone. She is childlike at first and increasingly wise, even when the heart is pounding. This is a reading that transcends all the bad movies and previous readings that have been made of "Jane Eyre," and it even inspires us to go back to the book to savor Bronte's exquisite use of storytelling and language.
Easier still to appreciate on first listening is "The Aeneid" (Penguin; six cassettes; $32; abridged), thanks to a nifty introductory booklet by translator David West. He points out that epic poems were meant to be heard "from the lips of poets,'' so this audiobook is "a more authentic rendering of 'The Aeneid' than a silent reading in the study or by the fireside.''
But no matter how much we may bone up, we're not prepared for the stunning authority and emotion with which actor Richard Pasco reads Virgil's poem. His Aeneas floats across the centuries as though directed to our ear alone. The voice is full of longing and intention, its speaker both hero and everyman. Aeneas speaks for a civilization, yet he is alone in the universe. His story is full of event and drama, of bewilderment and isolation, of piety and what West calls "the divine machinery'' of gods acting like humans in all their petty rivalry and cosmic entanglements.
How to regard, then, Ernest Hemingway's posthumously discovered "True at First Light" (Scribner; 319 pages; $26) a journal-verging-on-a-novel, only recently "licked into shape" by Hemingway's son Patrick and released as a "fictional memoir" (Scribner; 319 pages; $26).
Hemingway is considered a master of writing for his fresh, clear, direct, even terse prose. Yet here he can be seen to be laboring with language that too often is mannered, punctuationless and sloppy with hidden agendas. The novel, set in Kenya during a safari Hemingway took with his wife Mary in 1953, regards the just-passed era of "the great white hunter" with mawkish nostalgia to which Ernest, the narrator and protagonist, seems always ready to succumb.
Left by the safari's experienced British guide to lead the band of Africans and few whites on a quest to help Mary track and kill "her" notorious and formidable black-maned lion, Ernest experiences the kind of self-doubt designed to pull out the manly message about courage and bravery that so often reflects Hemingway's apparent ideal.
"Never trust any man until you've seen him shoot at something dangerous, or that he wants really badly, at 50 yards or under," the departing great white hunter explains. "Never [believe in] him until you've seen him shoot at 20. The short distance uncovers what's inside of him. The worthless ones will always miss . . . "
This is the kind of macho stuff that has caused many readers to throw up their hands at Hemingway, but thanks to the audio version (Simon & Schuster; eight cassettes unabridged; $45), we're more objective and intrigued at the way Hemingway thinks and writes decades after the Hemingway fads of the '50s. Even the question of whether this work is fiction or nonfiction doesn't seem to matter. It's just good to hear fresh material from a justifiably celebrated writer whose patched-together and not-quite-ready pieces of writing don't need to fit together quite so snugly as they must in his previously collected body of work.
Literate pondering about the writer and significance of "True at First Light" wouldn't be possible for many readers if it weren't for the patience and respect that actor Brian Dennehy brings to this reading. An old master at critical interpretation himself, Dennehy seems to believe in the authority of the writing and the wisdom behind it.
Although lack of commas and pretensious run-on sentences might drive readers crazy on the page, Dennehy pauses as a person would in the telling or in conversation, whether a comma commands him to pause or not. He is able to express conviction and meaning without the posturing or bravado of the writer's style.
Thus we are able to regard Hemingway outside the mythology that surrounded him as we listen to "True at First Light." Rather than dread the inevitable scene in which the Ernest and Mary are going to drag a proud and magnificent animal into a horrible and ugly death for the sake of their own vanity, we marvel at Hemingway's gentle indoctrination of killing as he introduces the shooting by pistol of a hyena first, then a huge wildebeest.
Here it's more intriguing than infuriating to ponder that seeming contradiction that drives many of Hemingway's characters - a deep admiration bordering on kinship and love toward animals that they also want, with all their might, to kill. "I thought what a fine and strange-looking animal he was, and that we took [wildebeasts] too much for granted because we saw them every day," thinks Ernest. "He was not a noble-looking animal, but he was a most extraordinary looking beast, and I was delighted to watch him, and watch the slow, bent, double approach of Charo and Mary" as they sneak up to murder the poor creature.
The lion, of course, is far more formidable, inspiring in Hemingway a sense of awe toward this magnificent being that is so much smarter and cagier than he is, and therefore worthy of being killed by a human bean. The fact that the animal has been designated as "Mary's lion" does not make Ernest's wife equally powerful, however. She is a cloying, dependent, self-congratulatory, petty, selfish and foolish woman who clearly hunts only to impress her husband.
"Aren't you happy I got so close to [the wildebeest] and killed him clean and good and just how I was supposed to?" she says to Ernest. He, knowing she missed the shot at point-blank range by a good 14 inches, pretends that she "couldn't have done better." Of course, it serves Ernest to be the protective husband, and we might become incensed that Ernest infantilizes Mary by calling her "kitten," the symbolism so blatant it's embarrassing. But Dennehy just roles out the term out as though Ernest were calling her "Cutie" or "Lover" or "Baby," so we're not that distracted by it.
For me, learning to listen critically but without the judgmentalism that used to ruin Hemingway in the past has opened up a whole new approach to literature I never imagined possible. They say the billion-dollar audiocassette industry is growing fast, and by the way, if the sales price for unabridged volumes is too steep, remember that you can rent unabridged volumes from Books on Tape ( http://www.booksontape.com ). With readers as good as Dennehy, more great adventures are sure to come from the listening side of literature in the near future.
ARE WE SURE WE'RE READING LESS?
Whenever I read that book sales are flat or down, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Four decades after it looked to everyone that television won the war against reading, evidence is everywhere that the tide hath changeth.
Perhaps it began in the mid-'80s with the advent of the personal computer. Suddenly reading, the much-despised symbol of too much hard work and nerdy behavior at schools everywhere, was becoming cool again. Writing email made communication much easier and more fun than using the telephone, and sometimes so profound and meaningful it was worth printing out and rereading on the "hard" copy we now call print on paper.
Then came the Internet, which not only required basic literacy but welcomed users to try new adventures in literary research and expression.
And parallel to that, didn't you feel, came the rediscovery of books and bookstores in an explosion of reading clubs and writers groups and author appearances and literary events, while online book ordering and excerpted chapters and interviews with writers began popping up everywhere on computer screens.
I may rail against the Costcos and the chain stores and the Amazon.coms and the wepaycustomerstobuybestsellers.com of the world, but boy, they sure are riding a trend, and the trend is READING BOOKS.
Watching crowds of people flood into bookstores at say 8 p.m. when only a decade ago little or nothing literary was open after six makes a person think - subjectively, it's true, but there they are, those people browsing and buying books or sitting down to listen to authors in bookstores at all hours - that maybe something wonderful about literature, maybe a new hunger or a quest or a new love of print is happening, and maybe all those folks on the bus and in coffee houses reading books are a reflection of a jubilant, insatiable, personally meaningful and STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT revolution of books and bookishness.
But now this week here comes the Book Industry Study Group (which by the way in the mid-'80s used to assure us the United States was a "nation of readers" because of data that said if you used a recipe from a cookbook you were considered a "reader") referring to a continuing "drought" of reading and book sales that's been going on for many years.
Showing a lame 4-percent growth in sales of books last year, BISG projects only a 2-percent growth through 2003, according to the New York Times. "We don't see the total market expanding in any dramatic shape for five years," says a BISG representative. "If you say 10 years, it might be even more modest."
And he adds: "I think people are reading less, and I just don't see that we're going to turn the corner and become a nation of readers."
Well, I don't get it. With the addition of many millions of online book sales and the hundreds of new superstores ostensibly making more money than the local independents they kill (or so the chains brag - remember that remark from Steve Riggio that Barnes & Noble made $15 million more than the competing Shakespeare & Co. in New York? That was only one location), who says we ain't a nation-a-readers?
I do know that the book industry has been notoriously inept at collecting accurate data and that the rate of returns has been so volatile since the mid-90s thanks to chain bookstores that studies like this one should always be taken with saltine crackers for nausea. Perhaps what we should all do is wait until provable statistics are in, and in the meantime enjoy what appears to be a flourishing of books, book events, book discussions and book readers everywhere, especially in independent bookstores.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You had an interesting line in your most recent letter. You wrote, "Remember when Walden Books thought all people wanted were generic books, so the chain started shoveling out its own nondescript genre lines and for some reason the experiment failed?"
Well, I was at Longmeadow Press--Waldenbook's in-house publisher--for two years, and the truth is quite different from what you say.
Longmeadow existed for around ten years before I showed up. It had largely specialized in blank books, calendars and the like, although occasionally the editors branched out. Few of the fliers they tried--a book by the wife of an Alzheimer's patient, a guide to making money by creating greeting cards--sold well. But overall the line was a smash hit.
Profits were greater than at practically any other publisher. Longmeadow's profits are a little hard to figure, given that they had essentially a free ride from Walden's warehouse; but believe it or not, most new books required a projected ROI of 70% before the publisher approved the deal. (At most other houses, a more typical ROI of 20% is required--and we all know how often books fail to reach the break-even point. At Longmeadow, most of the books did make 70%--or more.) We certainly had the highest sales per employee of any mid-size publisher I've heard of. In fiscal 1991, gross sales were near $30 million, and we had only 15 full-time employees.
So what happened to Longmeadow? First, Harry Hoffman, the CEO, decided to expand the business so that Longmeadow would be a full-fledged publisher, creating product potentially for all bookstores. But within a year or so, he was forced into retirement. The new CEO never understood why Walden should be accepting returns when its primary business included the sending back of returns. Longmeadow had outbid major publishers for several titles; suddenly it was prevented from getting the expected distribution.
The new CEO had bigger problems on his hands. Walden suddenly started to undergo a crisis as mall store sales started to plummet. Walden's parent organization, KMart, was also suffering mall problems. Barnes & Noble superstores and Borders were eating Walden's lunch, and Walden was slow to react. When KMart bought Borders, many Walden people were relieved, hoping some Borders top brass would come in and show Walden how to run things. Instead, the much smaller--yet more profitable--Borders subsumed Walden.
Longmeadow was left in the lurch. Turmoil both within Walden and Longmeadow led to many people leaving (myself included). When Borders decided to move the publishing operation from Stamford, CT to Ann Arbor, MI, only one person agreed to go--the lawyer who drew up Longmeadow's contracts (she spent most of her time reviewing Walden's real estate contracts).
Blank books and calendars always were the most profitable of all Longmeadow's product; packaged "bargain" books were high on that list as well. Our "generic" books were designed to create a backlist and succeeded quickly in doing that. At a time when big publishers were boasting how they were pushing the price point envelope, Longmeadow did great business by creating rival books that sold for $2 or $4 less. Were Longmeadow's books on how to study or buy a house or write a memo significantly worse than those from larger houses? No. The covers were more straightforward and tended to be two-color only. The page count might have been a little shorter. But our books were written by knowledgeable authors, and were copyedited, proofread, the whole schmear.
One book that Longmeadow published has had a significant publishing history since the demise of the company. Corey Sandler created THE ECONOGUIDE TO WALT DISNEY WORLD, and it became a Walden bestseller--indeed, outselling Birnbaum's official guide to Disney World for several weeks. Longmeadow also published an ECONOGUIDE TO LAS VEGAS, but then Contemporary Books took over the series. Sandler has since expanded the series so that 10 ECONOGUIDE titles come out each year. There are now guides to CRUISES, WASHINGTON, DC, GOLF, etc., all from NTC/Contemporary.
After leaving Longmeadow, I became an agent. I've sold one book to Barnes & Noble Books--THE ULTIMATE WORLD WAR II QUIZ BOOK by Timothy Benford. Their risk level was quite low. They didn't pay a large advance for the book. They printed only as many as they knew their stores could sell. Given also that they didn't need to put a whole lot of effort into the book, their bottom line looks great. As did Longmeadow's, when it was allowed to do its business.
I regret that Longmeadow never was allowed to fulfill Harry Hoffman's dream. We were so profitable, we could take on risky projects. We published several books that were for good causes, even if they didn't make a lot of money. The best example of this was a book edited by Don Henson whose proceeds went to preserve Thoreau's Walden Pond.
So AMS is developing a publishing arm? I say great for them. In today's world of consolidation and cutback, I'm happy to hear about most any new publisher. They've got a good opportunity to make some money and maybe even do some worthwhile books. And how much are you going to mourn if this slows the big boys from trying to rule the Costco market?
Holt responds: This is fascinating information, and I wonder if you would consider adding a paragraph on the sales records of fiction books that Longmeadow published for Walden (these were the ones I heard had flopped, in fact). Also did all Longmeadow books have an author listed and did the authors get standard royalties? One final query just to make sure - you're saying that the books generating $30 million in 1991 had an ROI of 70%? If so, it's just unbelievable the people who came in after Harry Hoffmann didn't see a gold mine when it was shining right in front of them.
Daniel Bial responds: Longmeadow didn't do much original fiction. I recall a vampire novel by Peter Rubie (also once an editor, now an agent), which did OK. There was a collection of mystery stories all set in New York to which Mary Higgins Clark was a contributor. I don't recall what sales this title had. Longmeadow did wonderfully with classic fiction. We did high-end bargain books (i.e., they looked classy, not schlocky) of the works of Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. These sold tens and hundreds of thousands of copies.
Virtually all Longmeadow books had authors listed on the cover and title page. The biggest exception to that rule--in terms of sales--was a collection of amortization tables.
We paid standard royalties except for books in the "No Nonsense Guide" series. Those were flat-fee books. In most cases we generated the subject matter in-house and looked for authors after deciding on topics.
One thing you should understand about Longmeadow's profitability: Blank books and calendars provided at least 50% of our sales. As you can imagine, the profit margin on blank books is staggering. Calendars are very profitable too--as long as you know the right quantities to print. And Longmeadow knew those figures very well, thanks to the inside information from Walden's. -- D. B.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In spite of its New England setting, "Leaving Pico," the book you review in #85, should strike a responsive chord in anyone who grew up in a Portuguese community -- which includes the Bay Area, the Central Valley, and Hawaii -- and if I were a bookseller in one of those areas, I'd market it accordingly. The Portuguese immigrants in the U.S. are a quirky, fascinating bunch (I should know; I'm half Azorean/Portuguese, with cousins-by-the-dozens all over N. Calif.), and I'm glad to hear that a talented author has finally done justice to the material! I just ordered a copy (via my local independent bookstore).
Dear Holt Uncensored: I must reply to Anirvan Chatterjee's letter in Holt #85 where he directs Holt Uncensored readers to his book site bookfinder.com, and further states "we're proud to offer easy search access to the inventories of over 15,000 independent booksellers on our site". While this is technically true, what he doesn't reveal is that he also features Amazon on his site. I wonder how "proud" he is of this.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Dan Poynter's letter to the Washington Post's Book World "Forum" was terrific. It was so well documented and persuasive, Book World would look dinosauric not to modify its review policy. To support Dan's assertion's I sent the "Forum" the following letter, which I'm sending FYI:
"As you point out, the rules of publishing are being rewritten daily. Reading Dan Poynter's defense of self-publishers, I was reminded that I once was a publishing snob who believed mainstream publishers were the only solution to bringing an interesting book to market. After all, I thought, aren't self-published books just books turned down by real publishers?
"One agent, numerous proposal submissions and two publishing offers from established publishing houses later, I learned that I was wrong. If your book is published by a mainstream house, as a first-time author you are expected to research and write your book, prepare it to your editors' desires (not your own), relinquish complete control of the look and feel of the finished product, not to mention the lion's share of the book's profits, and spend your time and money marketing the book. (The Random House division that offered me a contract described its entire marketing plan for my book in two words: review copies.)
"I wish I had seen a 'standard' publishing contract before I spent six months finding an agent and a year identifying likely publishers and going through the submission process for 'Getting in the Hollywood Writing Game: How Television's Leading Writers Wrote Their Way to the Top.' I would have saved myself the trouble of seeking out a buyer who offers very little but good distribution and the cachet of telling people at cocktail parties that you are being published by a division of Random House.
"Publishers Weekly has recognized a shift in publishing patterns brought about by anemic publishing contracts and the battle over the value of electronic rights. Their article on the subject led with my (still rare) rejection of the Random House contract. See: http://www.publishersweekly.com/articles/19990614_71279.asp
"Turned off by the mainstream editor's justification for their contract clauses - 'You shouldn't look at this as a way to make money; you should look at it as an opportunity to contribute to the canon of literature' - I went into partnership with Katharine Burkett Johnston, a former editor and my mother, to found Burkett-Street Press, which is bringing out 'Getting in the Hollywood Writing Game' in September.
We already have orders from as far away as London's Cinema Bookstore. I believe successful bookstores judge a book by its cover and content, not its publisher. Please reconsider reviewing books based on values other than who paid the printing bill . . . "
Melanie Lee Johnston, firstname.lastname@example.org
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.