HOLT UNCENSORED #90
by Pat Holt
Friday, September 10, 1999:
SUSAN FALUDI: THE SYSTEM SPEAKS
BOOK REVIEW: "CRUDDY"
One reason that Susan Faludi's new book, "Stiffed," is going to be so wonderfully talked about when it's published from Morrow in a few weeks is that here is the once-outraged feminist author of "Backlash" - the bestseller that came out during the Anita Hill /Clarence Thomas controversy and led to the the so-called Year of the Woman elections of 1992 - now writing a sympathetic book about the many ways men are exploited, lied to and betrayed by modern society as well.
And Newsweek, celebrating this new direction in Faludi's career, provides a more restrained text than usual on the cover of this week's issue (September 13): "Susan Faludi: Why MEN Should Get a Break - A Feminist's Surprising Take on the New Male Dilemma."
So far, so good. But the cover photo makes Faludi look as waxen and forbidding as a reject from Madame Tussaud's. Something about the lighting, the attitude, the pose and the angle of the camera makes her look like a barracuda - smirky, armored, threatening - or at least like the Scheming Media Slut of the Month who's been lured toward the camera as if to say "I'm going to eat you alive."
Granted, photo images are subjective. But remember that famous cover photo in Time or Newsweek of Faludi and Gloria Steinem? This was back in the "Backlash" days of 1991-2: For some reason these two appeared so gritty and hard that they looked like a couple of drug addicts meeting for a shoot-up in a condemned building. Why does this happen? Newsweek seems to want to balance the present Faludi cover by offering an informal photograph on page 59. Here she sits on the floor looking pixieish and giggly in a ruffly blouse and jeans, grabbing her bare feet by the toes like a sweet little nonthreatening six-year-old. This is not balance; it's another lurch in the opposite direction.
Perhaps it goes without saying that Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winner from the Wall Street Journal, a New Yorker writer and a NEWSWEEK CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, for crying out loud. The text and interview inside the magazine show that editors at Newsweek respect her as a serious writer, one of the few writing about gender issues today who has proven herself tough-minded and fair-minded at the same time.
In the excerpts from "Stiffed," we see that Faludi is regarded elsewhere as the kind of journalist to whom people of all sexes are drawn - even the most violent and swaggering men tell her their innermost thoughts and expose feelings they have never revealed to anyone else.
So why the strange photo? It wasn't until Viacom announced its plans to acquire CBS on Wednesday that Faludi's own message suddenly made sense out of everything, including and especially her "handling" on the cover of Newsweek.
Gad! Viacom owns CBS! Disney owns ABC! General Electric owns NBC! And people think Holt Uncensored gets a little exercised about consolidation of power.
As the New York Times pointed out, entertainment conglomerates want to grow into giant one-stop-shopping vehicles so they can offer deals and discounts and packages and shell games to advertisers. It's an adolescent and ruthless game of King of the Hill that is getting increasingly out of control.
As PW Daily noted, Simon & Schuster, still considered a major player in trade publishing, now becomes such a small potato in Viacom's sack of goodies that it could be sold or traded or or mismanaged to death with the flick of a corporate eyebrow.
Of course, the meaning of mergers, corporate takeovers and conglomerate acquisitions is never lost on anybody, right down to the housekeeping and mailroom staff: All jobs are up for grabs, all subsidiaries and departments are in jeopardy, all management is replaceable and all employees are expendible.
Looked at that way, why, "the battle of the sexes" is like a conspiracy from the "X-Files"! It's just a distraction to keep us from seeing how oppressed we really are, male and female alike, by One Big System after another.
And here comes Faludi in "Stiffed" saying that very thing: "The fix was in from the start," she writes about corporate promises of secure jobs and vital roles for men after World War II. "With pink slips, with massive downsizing, union-breaking and outsourcing," The System has "stiffed" the very workers who have made it so big.
"The boy who had been told he was going to be the master of the universe and all that was in it found himself master of nothing." That's as subversive as anything she wrote in "Backlash." The difference here is a sympathetic voice, one that has matured beyond outrage.
I'm not saying that Faludi's photo was deliberately distorted because somebody high up at Newsweek or the Washington Post (its parent) decided she was the enemy. The Post is not a part of one of these huge conglomerates (not that this makes any difference), and if anybody gave out an order like that in just about any business these days, there would be hell to pay up and down the lines of hierarchy.
Rather it's The System again, silent and invisible, infecting everything. In any corporation - and especially the media - a company line always exists about what's "in" and what's "out" that people kind of breed among themselves without question or comment. Faludi may be "in" these days because she's not the hostile feminist who scared everybody (except Anita Hill and women voters) in 1991.
But her message in "Stiffed" keeps her just "out" enough to end up looking a little doctored, a little threatening, a little pasty-faced and a little smarmy so readers won't believe her all that much when they turn to the excerpts and infantilizing photo inside.
It's intriguing to see the difference between the Newsweek cover and another full-page photo of Faludi in the press. On page 36 in the current issue (Sept./Oct.) of Mother Jones, the image is straightforward and neutral, apparently without biased point of view or angle.
Of course, Mother Jones is a liberal publication that probably supports Faludi's criticism of "a consumer culture that [is] focused on money, on winning, and on dominating everything and everyone." Perhaps she is less a hot potato to Mother Jones than to Newsweek, and the photographs portray her as such. But her message this time is far more incendiary and complex.
The motivation behind so much of our consumer-driven culture, says Faludi is "the biggest market share" mentality. We saw it brayed and trumpeted about during the announcement of the Viacom-CBS deal.
Corporations from Viacom to Bertelsmann have made it clear they want nothing more than to get bigger and more powerful. The same King of the Hill game is being played on lower echelons - where, for example Barnes & Noble sells half of barnesandnoble.com to Bertelsmann and attempts to buy Ingram; or where Amazon.com can't make it on books so buys up companies selling drugs/pets/collectibles/groceries/warheads/eyeballs.
If they all want to get so big, why not leave room for independent endeavors, one might ask, like booksellers. No one else on the retail side cares about the unhyped book, the unknown book, the midlist book, the literary book, the serious book as they do. And since independent bookstores have proven time and again that bestsellers can grow out of "small" books ("Backlash" was one), it would seem the key to bigness can be found in areas that aren't so easily acquired, traded or gobbled up.
It's when that "the biggest market share" mentality gets its clutches into a thought, or idea, or way of behaving, or expression of dissent, or art, or literature that independent bookstores (and libraries) offer the possibility of respite. Their way of finding good books and connecting with readers offers hope fora future of personal enrichment, discourse, intellectual adventure and freedom.
By contrast, the "futuristic vision" offered by bigger and bigger conglomerates and a "biggest market share" mentality, says Faludi, comes down to two things: "our lonely selves and our credit cards."
CRUDDY, Lynda Barry (Simon & Schuster)
The world is soon to hear of the enormous potential of cartoonist Lynda Barry as a writer of fiction and boy, does she grab us and shake us in the early pages of the protagonist Roberta's diary in her first novel, "Cruddy."
The fact that Barry's potential is not fulfilled doesn't lessen the excitement of discovery. Her writing is original, daring and hilarous at the same time. That it falls prey to its own sophomoric penchant for violence and horror is both tragic and sad.
But first, the best part.
We learn the meaning of the title "Cruddy" right off the bat as Roberta begins her story, "once upon a cruddy time on a cruddy street on the side of a cruddy hill," stopping every so often to warn "her cruddy sister who I WILL KILL IF YOU TOUCHED THIS, JULIE, AND IF YOU DID I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL KILLYOU." Even as Roberta pours out her tale, "her little sister will NOT shut up she will NOT shut up SHE WILL NOT SHUT UP and Roberta is about to BASH her little sister's HEAD IN IF SHE DOES NOT SHUT UP AND
"Now it is later."
That deliberate flinging of the language in a pre-teen fit of maniacal expression so characterizes "Cruddy" that for the longest time we don't care what kind of story Roberta has to tell.
She invents words exactly the way rebellious girls like to move their lips ("blorked," "skorkish," "rasty," "squidded"). She inserts a fake formality as Roberta judges adults as cruelly as possible ("The mother blorked out her fake medical information in horrible breath explosions").
And she captures the lust for melodrama and hormone-driven repudiation that often overtake the language of American youth. When "the mother" yells at her, Roberta sits "very still but she was thinking AS IF!!!" and later "AS IF! AS IF! AS IF!"
It isn't until Chapter 3 that Roberta decides to begin her tale with appropriate fanfare - "And now the story can be told, and must be told, the truth can finally be revealed." Her bent for histrionics is such, however, that only a paragraph away, she decides to herald the tale again: "And now the story can be told. And must be told. In this book the truth will finally be revealed about the horrible murders and then the author must die."
We think she's exaggerating, but no. From now on, this increasingly bloody and brutal journey becomes so bizarre and twisted that it's hard to know why we're following it. Roberta, we learn, is covered with scars (from her own and her parents' abuse), filled with self-loathing (having been told she's as ugly as a boy with Mongoloid features), driven by inner demons to kill herself and dragged off by "the father" on a murderous alcoholic binge in which he talks about past victims and threatens to kill her.
Meanwhile we hear a parallel story of Roberta and her skaggy friends that sometimes lights up the page with sly humor. For example, she meets a boy named Turtle who's so wasted on drugs he communicates with all living things that slowly capture his attention. "A very fat fly lifted itself and made a worn-out buzzing sound and flew a lop-sided circle around [Turtle's] face. He followed it with his eyes and said, 'Not now.' "
That kind of humor disappears way too fast in a tale that grows more bizarre and gory by the page. By the time we see what kind of spine Roberta is really made of, it's almost too late to care. The father and mother become cardboard characters, the story one-dimensional, and Roberta herself drowned in the blood that covers her act of survival. It's too bad. This is a memorable character whose courage and humor create an actual poetics on the page - but by the end we can't find her.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I worked for Stacey's for many years and indeed we did (and they still do) carry "bodice rippers," as a reader mentioned in an earlier letter. However, we at the store noticed a growing trend with these books: As the sale of trade paperback titles rose, the sale of the mass-market romance titles went down, so much so that Stacey's had to reduce the amount of space devoted to them by nearly half. We always wondered if perhaps the rise of book clubs and the Oprah phenomenon was letting the reader of the traditional romance expand their reading choices.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Thank you for your report on Borders and Neal Coonerty's Bookshop Santa Cruz in Holt Uncensored #89. I can't help but wonder if people would see these events differently, however, if they weren't fit into the familiar storyline of a national chain trying to squash a local bookseller.
Let's imagine this struggle involved a different product, without the delightful connotations of books--automotive parts, for example. In that case, we'd imagine one big parts store in town. The owner is politically connected: he's a former mayor, whose "voice and presence in regional politics continue to have deep and long-lasting impact." He's also incoming president of the Washington lobby of automotive-parts dealers.
A company comes to build its own large parts store in a nearby town. The local dealer leads political opposition to that plan and stops it. The company then seeks to locate in existing space, even closer. The local dealer "move[s] quickly" to put a legal obstacle in the way. Among his arguments is that a national chain is out of place in his neighborhood--even though it hosts several other chain outlets that don't compete with him ("The Gap, Starbuck's, Wherehouse, Jamba Juice and Taco Bell"). The parts dealer insists, "We do have competition." Yet he reveals three examples of how he and other local dealers have chosen not to compete. He says, "I had to obey every Planning Department dictate"; left unsaid is that members of the town council are now creating a new "special use permit" to block large stores.
If you were hoping to buy or sell automotive parts in this town, might you see a local bigwig using his influence to preserve his advantages?
Of course, there's more to the story than that retelling contains (there's always more to the story). Santa Cruz's rebuilding, the sad coincidence of Mr. Coonerty's wife dying, and the ABA's lawsuits complicate the situation. We should be having more discussion about how to build communities, the value of free trade, and even whether books should be treated like other products. But those issues, and this particular situation, seem too complex to reduce to another tale of "local bookseller good; chain bookseller 'belligerent' and 'vindictive'."
J. L. Bell
Holt responds: Well, goodness, reader Bell, you make Coonerty sound like a well-paid lobbyist who's created a Tammany Hall in Santa Cruz. Here's the one independent bookseller in the entire nation who seems to have strong political connections and voila! he's portrayed as a "bigwig" with "advantages" that appear to be equal to those of Borders! Why, you big bully, Neal Coonerty! Quit throwing your weight around that little Borders and its tuberculin developer, Redtree Properties! In fact, I think that Redtree should have noted the "sad coincidence" of Candy Coonerty's death and for that reason alone waited to announce its plans for a Borders store. As independent bookstores prove every day, that kind of sensitivity to one's colleague and neighbor can be "business as usual."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In your response to the writer regarding paperbacks with their covers torn off being donated to schools, you neglected to note that such a practice is illegal and is stealing. The covers are torn off and returned to the publisher in lieu of returning the entire books -- the stores are given credit for the returns. Doing anything but destroying these copies is theft -- the publishers receive no money for them, and more importantly neither do the authors.
That being said, such a practice highlights the insanity of a business which throws away such a large percentage of the product they produce. With business practices such as these, how can we be surprised by the actions of the publishing conglomerates and chain bookstores?
Dear Holt Uncensored:
When I had to do the returns at Waldenbooks, ripping the covers off books tore my heart out. But, consider this: Making the books themselves probably cost somewhere around $.25 more or less. To ship the whole books back, the shipping cost would be more expensive than what the books are worth. The difference between shipping two pounds of covers and 50 pounds of books is substantial, especially when added up over a year.
What I would have liked to have seen happen more often at the bookstore would be taking the stripped books to a recycling center instead of to the dumpster.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
When I worked for an independent bookstore in California in the mid-70s, our returns person also was required to strip the covers off paperbacks and send them to the publisher for return credit. But she also crated up the unused, coverless books and shipped them off to prisons all over the state. She shipped out boxes & boxes of books every week, for which she received many effusive thanks from inmates and prison officials, alike.
Reading is always the point of books.
(Sign me) Name Withheld to Protect the Felonious
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I would like to respond to the letter published in #88 which attacked the ABA for supporting a sales tax initiative on Internet commerce.
I commend the ABA for being the first trade organization (to my knowledge) to address this critical issue. The failure of America to create a consistent and uniform sales tax policy on Internet commerce is a national scandal.
Two parties are harmed under the current system where large corporations evade sales tax in order to undercut independent and community-based booksellers.
1) The independent booksellers are harmed because they must sell books at higher prices and suffer the consequences .
2) The states and local communities are harmed, because they are unable to collect taxes which are used for needed services such as schools, roads, and social programs. These funds have created the orderly markets which have permitted Internet commerce to flourish. It seems altogether appropriate that these Internet companies ought to do their part to support the communities who buy their books.
Instead, the large Internet booksellers, Barnesandnoble.com, Borders.com and Amazon.com are seeking to evade their responsibilities to the communities which are enriching them. This is a colonialist model for business activity, in which the business simply seeks to exploit the market without giving anything back in return.
I am proud that the ABA has sought to cast its lot with the people and the communities which their members serve, to support good corporate citizenship and to encourage a fair and consistent tax policy that promotes a level playing field and a healthy competitive environment.
The (unsigned) letter attacking the ABA was mean-spirited and entirely
lacking in any sense of fairness. I believe that most booksellers and most
Americans would like to see a better way of collecting sales tax which helps
communities and fosters competition.
Cody's Books, Berkeley CA