NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION

HOLT UNCENSORED #9
by Pat Holt

Friday, October 23, 1998

LOSING RAYMOND CARVER
PULLING THE NAIL OUT OF THE COFFIN
LETTERS
TODAY'S SLEEPER: THE FARMING OF BONES
QUICKIE: THE NUMBER DEVIL

REDISCOVERING RAYMOND CARVER

In the midst of an interview at the San Francisco Chronicle a dozen years ago, Raymond Carver put his hands flat on the table and said without preamble (this is a paraphrase), "I don't know if you're aware of this, but I spent much of my life drunk and don't remember a lot about what I was thinking when I wrote."

The statement could have come right out of a Raymond Carver short story. It was plain, straightforward, minimal. It was brutally honest, with all the complexity and pain not-so-hidden underneath. It allowed the interview to proceed on a deeper plane, if not a different realm. Instead of answering questions about author intention, Carver became almost affable as he chatted about his happier years of sobriety and his relationship with poet Tess Gallagher, who became his editor and wife - and writer of the introduction to the most recent Carver book (he died in 1988), ALL OF US: The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf; 397 pages; $27.50).

As we learn here (not for the first time), Carver hardly hid his dependence on or love for liquor. In "Luck," he remembers drinking, at age 9, from the half-empty bottles and glasses that have been left behind by guests at a party given by his parents:

Years later, I still wanted to give up friends, love, starry skies, for a house where no one was home, no one coming back, and all I could drink.

"All of Us," published ten years after Carver's death, appears just in time to combat a kind of reverse-lionization that seems to be emerging about the famous short-story writer and poet.

D.T. Max's shocker of a story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine nearly infantilized Carver a month or so ago, and Richard Ford's remembrance in the New Yorker on October 5 divides Carver into the "Good Raymond" (after booze) and "Bad Raymond" (before sobriety) modes. Sometimes it feels as though the "real" Raymond Carver is lost in the midst of articles that seem to recast rather than recapture the writer so many have called "America's Chekhov."

Max traveled to the Lilly Library at Indiana University, which has stored the papers of Gorden Lish, Carver's former editor at Esquire and Knopf. There he discovered that what has been rumored for years is true: During the editing process, Lish cut apart and even rewrote some of Carver's most famous stories.

For example, in "Fat," a waitress tells her friend Rita that she feels drawn to an obese customer. In the original manuscript, after the man hands her his menu, the narrator tells Rita, "I began to feel sorry for him right away. I couldn't help it." As Max reveals in a photograph of the manuscript page, however, Lish crossed out Carver's words and wrote instead, "My God, Rita, those were fingers."

The difference is incredible and appalling: Did Carver actually approve of Lish's heavy hand in many of the short stories? Yes, says Max, so much so that the early collections, edited by Lish, "are stripped to the bone," while the later collections (not edited by Lish) "are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality."

Critics who have recognized this difference have tried to explain it away, writes Max, "in terms of biography. The Carver of the early stories, it has been said, was in despair. As he grew successful, however, the writer learned about hopefulness and love, and it soaked into his fiction. This redemptive story was burnished through countless retellings by Tess Gallagher. Most critics seemed satisfied by this literal-minded explanation: happy writers write happy stories."

Too bad Carver wasn't consulted posthumously through his writings and statements about the early period. Perhaps he would have figuratively placed his hands on the table and informed posterity in his no-nonsense way that "I spent much of my life drunk" and that after he sobered up, he got rid of Lish and continued on. Instead, we leave this article thinking of Carver as a gifted if rather vague and even weak-willed writer because his voice (which, after all, is the only one that counts) is missing.

Ford, living in Princeon in 1977, says he met Carver during "one of those semi-fancy literary festivals that hosted public readings, panel discussions late-night discussions about books at hotel bars" and the like. Held at Southern Methodist University in Texas, the festival and all its events were collectively, to Ford, "what occupies the space of a literary life outside of New York."

Oh, well. We forgive Ford his NY tunnel vision, but look what happens to Carver in the process. From time to time Carver contacts Ford "through letters and fugitive phone calls," writes Ford. "I cannot actually remember where he was then . . . he was wherever he'd been before I met him: Noplace. Out West."

Oh dear, now that is too much. Surely a decade after his death, a prominent writer like Ray Carver can survive controversy, even an odd mythologizing. But to lose Ray Carver in a memoir where he isn't remembered as a man traveling in his place and time outside the NY scene seems a shame.

The only joy to be extracted from both these articles is their reminder that Carver lives on today as a writer and poet, one whose straightforward, honest and beautifully introspective way comes straight off the page in "All of Us."

"Don't expect / gentleness or pity / from this child, now or ever," writes Carver of a little boy, who, "devoid of mirth" and with "something rough, even cruel, in the grasp of his small hand," could be Carver himself. Do expect something eloquent, purposeful and permanent about the poems Raymond Carver left behind.

PULLING THE NAIL OUT OF THE COFFIN

It's often said that independent booksellers may survive the onslaught of chain bookstores and price clubs, but they'll never compete against Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and other Internet booksellers.

For one thing, the "barriers of entry" are just too high - if it cost the online big guys over $200 million in start-up fees, and their losses now range from $13 million to $24 million per quarter, how can the so-called little guys even think of entering the same arena?

They think about it, and they do it, because underneath this ongoing saga of "the bookstore wars" is an old-fashioned story of Yankee ingenuity that might come right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. From finding inventory at garage sales to reinventing themselves on the web, the independents that have survived so far have proven incredibly resilient and innovative against the most adverse situations.

So let's change the language of this "war" for a moment. Let's say you're an independent bookseller who decides to take on Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com by putting up a website of your own. (Tee hee, say the Goliaths of the book industry. Good luck!)

You've got an Ohio bookseller named Dick Harte on the phone, and via modem he is taking you step-by-step through a procedure that in THREE MINUTES can create a home page complete with colors and store hours and other features that distinguish your store from everybody else's.

"Those colors you've chosen are really horrible," grumbles Harte to Holt Uncensored, which is pretending to be an independent bookstore to see how the process works. Harte is not exactly the most polite man in the world, but in three minutes there isn't time to mince words.

And it's true, "Holt Uncensored Books" does look a bit anemic with its pallid blue and jaundiced yellow background, but that can be fixed in seconds, Harte explains: "Return to the palette and select again," he advises, and bam! Violet and blood orange, done! "Even worse," groans Harte.

But then, whap, whap, whap - all the components that once took weeks and millions of dollars to program into a website are placed on the home page in seconds: statements about postage, discounts, staff picks, a book club, bestsellers, a newsletter, in-store promotions and, most important, the "Search and Save" function that allows customers instant access to the range of titles they want to buy.

Best of all, there's room for scanning in full-color photos of the store, book jackets, author pix; another spot for the store's history, for messages to customers and for invitations to participate in store features. In other words, it's easy rather than impossible to haul up the very character of the bookstore and stamp it right on the home page.

This is what Harte offers in a new program called BookSite, but hold on, you say. Harte may be able to simplify technolgy and cut costs, but what about the number of titles offered? Your inventory of anywhere from 12,000 to 75,000 titles is hardly as large as the 3 million that Amazon promises its "worldwide" clientele. Heck, the farthest youíve ever shipped a book is Petaluma, and that was one trip to the post office too many, you said at the time.

And isn't this the crux of the online bookseller wars? The chains and Amazon have money to lose and the independents don't? Sure, the Goliaths may be caught in a few shenanigans (piled-on postage; invasion of privacy; and 3 million titles? - it is to laugh). But in the end, it's the Goliaths who are winning this war because all they HAVE is time and money to force out the competition. The independents have no staff, no time, no money, no inventory, no shipping room and no website moxie to fight back, right?

Wrong, says Harte: This is exactly the problem that his store, Rutherford Books of Delaware, Ohio, was facing in 1994 when "the big chains moved in [to nearby Columbus] with a vengeance, increasing bookstore space six-fold and driving existing independents into bankruptcy. I realized we were losing traffic to the chains ourselves, but they had advantages we couldnít match."

So Harte sat down with his staff "to brainstorm. We didn't just want to survive; we wanted to triple sales in one year. We considered projects ranging from rack-jobbing books for other businesses to increasing in-store promotions - all the classic choices - but the only way forward, it seemed to us, was the Internet."

Prior to this, Harte had shipped one book overseas - to a customer's daughter who had moved to Paris. But "four months later I was shipping to 160 countries and had a whole department working with UPS for a one-day turnaround. I felt I was on an equal footing with other online booksellers at the time. I was one of the first 10 banner advertisers on Yahoo. Eventually, though, I had to cut my monthly advertising expenses just at the time Amazon came along and increased its advertising budget from $50,000 to $1million a month. At that point, my sales tapered off and theirs leaped ahead."

Meanwhile, however, website technology was changing so fast and becoming so affordable that Harte found he could cut the time and expense of BookSite, the Internet system he created, so that other booksellers could buy into "a common-platform approach, a foundation that's so simple, it's scary."

The key to that founation lies in licensing agreements with Ingram and Baker and Taylor (and, soon, smaller wholesalers such as Book People in California) that allow customers one-click access to a half-million titles. It's competitive with the Goliaths, says Harte, because it costs next to nothing for independents to maintain ($350 to launch, $110 monthly).

Of course, independents have to learn guerrilla marketing anew, but they get to do their promotion locally, where they know their customers, rather than spend money like crazy people globally, where Amazon seems to love operating in the red.

And by the way, don't think Amazon is going to take a nose dive when people stop investing, Harte cautions: "The reason Amazon is losing money is its huge advertising campaign, which is geared to take customers away from independent stores. If the independents fail, the expensive branding can stop AND the new sales can contribute to turning a profit for the first time.

"My point is that for ten years, independents have been getting the stuffing kicked out of them because bloodthirsty people have been making decisions based on business criteria. Bookloving independents have been like lambs getting led to slaughter because they had neither the money nor the tools to fight back.

"Today, however, technology is not the issue; expense is not the issue; the next step has to be - and I hate this term but it's the only one that works a 'paradigm shift' on the part of independents. The ones who want to get their customers back, who want to fight for their market, have a 'new' tool called the Internet. The war is ours because we are taking control. It's not going to be easy, but it can be won."

Harte sees each battle won only in the trenches, right down to every detail of every business day. So he conducts forums online for independents using BookSite on such subjects as attracting the media, extending Mastercard promotions to customers and building reciprocal hyperlinks on the Internet.

How does it feel for customers to use BookSite? For the most part, they aren't aware of Harte's program because as they search for a book at an independent's website, they can't tell whether they're looking at the on-the-premises inventory or dipping down into BookSite's database of 500,000 titles. This gives the independent the edge, says Harte, because local customers WANT to shop online with a locally based website that gives them access to every title Amazon sells PLUS all the book news and book events they can find at their neighborhood store.

And as to Amazon's claim that it offers 3 million titles, says Harte, forget it. "There's not a single book Amazon can get that we can't. Put another way, we don't show any titles on our data base that we can't deliver. It's a difference in philosophy between people who promise big numbers as part of a marketing strategy, and people who don't want to attract a lot of orders that can't be filled."

Harte acknowledges that pulling the nail out of the coffin isn't going to be easy. "Fighting for the market in this way is a tough, tough decision for any independent bookseller," he says. "There are thousands of web designers out there bombarding bookstores with designs of pretty little sites where you're supposed to just sit back and get all the orders. Well, it doesn't work that way. To not look stupid compared to Amazon, you have to know you can say to customers, 'I can get you anything. Do business with me, not them. Here is the site. Let's find the books you want.' "

But shoot. The hardest part of this consarn system for Holt Uncensored was getting the colors right, so we've retired from the electronic bookselling business (that part took .05 minutes). But watch this space for a critical look at indies online in a regular feature called Website of the Week, beginning October 27.

LETTERS FROM READERS

Many readers responded to references here to Modern Library's controversial ranking of the "Hundred Best Novels of the Twentieth Century." Pat Cody writes to object to the use of "the word 'terrific' to describe Booth Tarkington," the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist whose 1918 novel, "The Magnificent Ambersons" hit the list at Number 100. "Maybe I am one of the few of your readers who read this racist [Tarkington] when I was a kid and going through our small town library like a dose of salt," she writes. "A mediocre at best writer, [he was] a product of his age, best forgotten rather than have his ashes disturbed by landing on a 'best 100 books.' I was truly shocked when I saw his name on the list."

As to our knock at Modern Library for its egregious self-promotion by printing the entire top 100 list on the inside back cover of each novel on the list it releases, Brad Bunnin writes, "Modern Library editions from years past included a list of other Modern Library books, on the inside of the jacket. So the neo-ML books stand in line with a noble tradition." Hm. Well, a tradition, anyway; but noble?

TODAY'S SLEEPER: THE FARMING OF BONES

It may be true that independent booksellers discovered Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat long before she received a National Book Award nomination (for her second book, "Krik? Krak!") and even before Oprah Winfrey chose the paperback edition of her first novel, "Breath, Eyes, Memory" as a book club selection (sales leaped from the double digits to 600,000 and counting).

At some point all book lovers must unite behind the vision and the gifts of a true original, and that is Danticat, who, at the ripe old age of 29, has written her most ambitious work of fiction in THE FARMING OF BONES (Soho; 312 pages; $23).

Here is a writer who is intentionally heavy-handed from Page One, when the Haitian maid named Amabelle meets her lover Sebastien, who works in the sugar cane fields and is "lavishly handsome by the dim light of my castor oil lamp, even though the cane stalks have ripped apart most of the skin on his shiny black face, leaving him with crisscrossed trails of furrowed scars."

Nothing about Sebastien is small or subtle. He takes Amabelle's face "into one of his spacious bowl-shaped hands, where the palms have lost their life-lines to the machetes that cut the cane." His arms "are as wide as one of my bare thighs." Even his gums are "eggplant-violet," his sweat "as thick as sugarcane juice," his palms so "rough callused" that they "nip and chafe my skin" as he runs his hand down Amabelleís back.

The heat and drive of that first love-making scene merges with Amabelle's recurring nightmare of seeing her parents drown in a river and leads to a conflagration of event and emotion. Promise and betrayal reverberate throughout the novel as Amabelle and Sebastien - despised Haitians living in the Dominican Republic under the dictatorship of General Rafael Trujillo - find themselves enveloped in the barbarous catastrophe that would become the Massacre of 1937.

A central factor of the Massacre is a test of language that looms large, the author indicates, on the landscape of all totalitarian countries, all stigma, all ignorance, all fear. This is where Danticat's heavy hand pays off: Not only can she keep the passion ignited for many pages, she sends a warning to present-day readers that has the power of revolution.

On her way to Alexander Book Company in San Francisco for a signing, Danticat says that today, Haitian activists in the Dominican Republic who support her books are persecuted, some even threatened with deportation. At an autographing recently, a Dominican woman told Danticat she never knew Haitians could read books, let alone write them.

"Conflicting stories about history all seem to bear the brunt of truth," says Danticat. "I grew up hearing about people who were promised money and houses if they worked in the sugar cane fields - people who went away to take those jobs and were never heard from again. You find one version in history books written about this and past times, but to me the larger question is, what is the collective memory?"

QUICKIE: THE NUMBER DEVIL

Booksellers are delighting math-phobic customers with an import from Germany that looks like a young adult title but reads like the kind of book physicist Richard Feynman would have loved. This is THE NUMBER DEVIL (Metropolitan/Henry Holt; 262 pages; $22) by Hans Magnus Enzenberger.

Here we meet 12-year-old Robert, who hates math as much as many of his readers do. For one thing, Robert's teacher won't let him use a calculator, which Robert rightly thinks is a time-wasting decision that negates the whole sense of discovery in numbers.

Full of rebellious curiosity, Robert keeps having these wild dreams in which he runs into a little red fellow in a matching red morning suit who has a maddeningly simple way with numbers. "The thing that makes numbers so devilish is precisely that they ARE simple," exclaims the Number Devil, and off we go on a wacky and instructive conversation about logic that Socrates would applaud.

How can numbers be simple, Robert asks, when "there's an infinite number of numbers?" The devil is skeptical of even this supposition, but Robert is adamant: "Either I can count to the end, in which case there is no such thing as infinity, or there is no end and I can't count to it." Rather than pursue this line of thinking in a boring how-big-is-infinity venue, the devil stops the discussion right there.

"Wrong!" he shouts. "You nincompoop!" And he launches into a story about chewing gum to illustrate his point. "I donít really NEED to count [to infinity]," he says. "All I need is a recipe to take care of anything that comes along." Is that what math is? A recipe or a map or a formula? Exactly, says the devil, and by the time we're rolling through prime numbers, the value of zero, triangle numbers, algorithms, irrational numbers, harmonic series, Bonacci numbers and the like, we've stopped wondering why nobody took the time to teach this stuff before and watch the door open to a universe - an infinity - of possibilities. Check out the full-color cartoon figures in a bookstore and see if you aren't hooked by Chapter 3.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt Send comments or suggestions to holtpat@earthlink.com

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