Last month, my publishing company managed to do the impossible: put a book on the New York Times best seller list (as well as on several regional lists).
The book is "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate – The Essential Guide for Progressives," written by George Lakoff, University of California professor of cognitive science and linguistics, founding senior fellow of The Rockridge Institute, author of "Moral Politics" and other books, and, according to Howard Dean, "one of the most influential political thinkers of the progressive movement." Why? Because he talks about language and how it's used to frame the issues and political debate, something that the conservatives figured out long ago and a major reason why they are now in power.
In short, it is a revolutionary kind of book.
I say we did the impossible for many reasons. One is that we're a small, independent book publisher, not a corporate conglomerate media company.
Another, that we published and launched the book in a mere five weeks, from draft manuscript to finished book. We did it with no advertising budget or the services of an outside promotional firm, and two weeks before the publication date, we had no advance sales (neither commission sales reps nor key account buyers had even heard about the book).
Finally, we achieved the impossible because even as the book was climbing onto the Times paperback nonfiction list (35 titles long), it was deliberately bumped and dumped into the "Advice/HowTo/Miscellaneous" category (15 titles long, and so off that week's list): the publishing world's version of the bookghetto.
Of course, if we had actually published a HowTo/Selfhelp title, we'd be ecstatic, but we didn't. We published a political book, which is now #9 on this list slightly below "The Sweet Potato Queens' Field Guide to Men," immediately following "FixIt and ForgetIt Lightly" and just before "Relationship Rescue."
Naturally we protested this categorization and naturally the Times, in all its elitist, arbitrary and arrogant "wisdom," refused to change it. (Read the entire e-mail exchange.) Luckily for us, the trade email newsletter of PulishersMarketplace.com, Publishers Lunch, picked up the story and ran with it, making it clear to all in the publishing industry how capricious and decidedly unscientific (dare I say political?) this list selection is. Also cloaked in secrecy.
There appear to be no objective criteria for deciding how a book is categorized beyond what Rich Meislin, the editor of News Surveys, the department at the Times in charge of these lists, declares is the judgment of "people of good will."
People of good will?
How about people lunching with editors and others from the big New York houses with lots of ad money to spend? How about people who don't particularly appreciate the upstart progressive views of independent media? When challenged by Jennifer Nix, the book's editor, on why Ann Coulter's book, "How to Talk to a Liberal," was not similarly categorized, Meislin wrote, "We made it past the 'How to' in the title of Ann Coulter's book and discovered that it was a collection of her essays and didn't read like a how-to book at all. (In much the same way, we discovered that Jenna Jameson's 'How to Make Love Like a Porn Star' isn't a how to book, either, despite its title.) That's why, when they had the appropriate level of sales, they made it onto the nonfiction best seller list."
I wonder if you can guess where Bill O'Reilly's conservative rant (a form of advice, isn't it?), "Who's Looking Out for You?" goes? Equally incongruously, "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" (an Englishwoman expounding on the use and misuse of punctuation marks) is not considered advice either! However, MoveOn's "50 Ways to Love Your Country: How to Find Your Political Voice and Become a Catalyst for Change" (a collection of essays, by the way) was dumped, like our book, into Advice/HowTo, despite the protest of its (independent) publisher, Inner Ocean Publishing. I'm confused.
How strange that the authors, editors and publishers that usher books into the world have no input on how these books are categorized – perhaps by people who don't even take the time to read the books that cross their desks. Mistakes can happen, but when pointed out, they should be righted.
Thankfully, only the New York Times marginalized our book in this way. And, in spite of them, Lakoff's book continues to find its way into readers' hands.
So, what's the moral of this story, aside from the usual "money talks" and the systematic marginalization of independent (dare I say political?) voices by the mainstream conglomerate media? Perhaps it's that the entire Times bestseller list "stamp of approval" is fast becoming totally irrelevant in today's Internetsavvy, missionrelated, blogging world. It's one more example of how the emperor has no clothes.
The real story is that in the heat of this incredibly potent political season, a small publisher from Vermont was able to publish a critically important and timely book (it couldn't be doing as well as it is if it weren't so relevant), and get it out literally overnight by partnering with key progressive organizations (AlterNet, MoveOn, Sierra Club, Democracy for America, Apollo Alliance, Institute for America's Future, Hightower and Associates and many others) who helped launch it on the Internet. They posted information about the book on their Web sites and sent buyers first to Amazon and other Internet sellers. Then, once the word started to spread, especially via the blogosphere (DailyKos' rave review alone sent it up to #8 on Amazon), key independent booksellers across the country got behind it and made it the bestseller it is.
No big ad buys, no big NYC publicity firm lobbying the Times and other review media, no significant advances at the big chains, although they too have done just fine saleswise. The real story is that serious book publishing no longer needs the Times, and maybe that's why they tried to disappear the book.
Of course, it would be fun to see the book climb to #1 on the Advice/HowTo list.
Well, 'tis the season . . . for war books, apparently. Although you wouldn't know it based on the local bestseller lists in New York. They are, as usual, replete with the kind of books that make you despair for mankind in other ways.
On the New York Times bestseller lists, for example, there's John Grisham's "Skipping Christmas," and David Baldacci's "The Christmas Train" -- numbers 2 and 3, respectively, on the hardcover fiction list.
"The Sopranos Family Cookbook" is number one on the "advice" list. Disgraced historians Stephen Ambrose and Joseph Ellis appear on the paperback nonfiction list. And the top three books on the paperback fiction list are so much mindlessness from Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts and James Patterson. (Both Patterson and Roberts are on the hardcover fiction list, too, at numbers 1 and 5, respectively.)
But walk into some of New York City's leading independent bookstores and ask them what their bestsellers are and you get a different story. That's what I found, anyway, when I conducted an informal survey at some of my favorite haunts. Almost all of the clerks I spoke with cited two books that were moving fast and had been for a while: Noam Chomsky's "911," published by Seven Stories Press, and "War On Iraq" by William Rivers Pitt, published by Context Books.
They also cited another book related to the whole schmear of war that started in the World Trade Center, stretched to Afghanistan and now seems about to envelope Iraq -- Bob Woodward's "Bush at War," which has indeed debuted on the bestseller list.
But there are key differences between that book and the other two. For one, Woodward's book was published by a big house (Simon & Schuster) that's part of a conglomerate (Viacom), whereas Context and Seven Stories are two very small independents.
For another, it's written by one of the leading mainstream reporters in the country, so of course it gets a lot of attention. (Except, that is, for the really preposterous parts where Woodward professes to know what people are thinking, and the parts where he reports on scenes he couldn't possibly have witnessed. Those parts, nobody ever seems to notice.)
For another, Woodward doesn't take a stance for or against war, whereas both Chomsky and Pitt are scathingly anti-war, no ifs, ands or buts. For another -- well, as mentioned, Woodward's book is on the bestseller list.
So, if Chomsky and Pitt are selling so well, how come they're not on the bestseller list too? Well, they have made some bestseller lists (the San Francisco Chronicle's, the Los Angeles Times'), and they have made what's known as the "extended" New York Times list -- a longer version of the list that appears online at the Times website. But they're not in the list that appears in the actual paper -- the most powerful list in the country (lots of stores put Times bestsellers in front of store displays), and the one that really boosts sales.
In fact, the Chomsky book mysteriously disappeared from even the "extended" list -- after spending seven weeks on it, climbing to number 17, which is two places shy of being in the newspaper version -- in the very week that "sales spiked much higher than they'd been the week before," a Seven Stories rep told me.
Calls to the Times got them no explanation. "It's a mystery," he said. "It's like the Bermuda Triangle. Our sales flew up, and we disappeared."
Meanwhile, Seven Stories has shipped a whopping 225,000 copies of the book since its November 2001 pub date, and "sales are still shining bright," with the book now in release around the world in 25 different languages. It's doing so well Chomsky and Seven Stories will release a sequel, "Power and Terror," in February.
To Context head Beau Friedlander, there's no mystery about why the mainstream media has, for the most part, ignored his book, "War on Iraq." "I don't think there's any active censorship going on -- the bottom line is the media wants to go to war. The larger mainstream media outlets have become transparently involved in political policy -- the news is being reported by General Electric and Westinghouse. And war is good for business."
It's an interesting theory, especially in light of recent hit books decrying the left-leanings of the press -- books such as Bernard Goldberg's "Bias" and Ann Coulter's "Slander," both of which, er, made the Times bestseller list and got lots of coverage.
But Friedlander says there's a "dearth" of "truly oppositional" commentary, and people have become so distrustful of the media that books like his actually pique interest. All of which, he says, proves an old book industry adage: "Word of mouth really does sell books," he says.
It's selling his, in any event. Barely a month after an initial print run of 125,000 copies, "War on Iraq" is about to go back to press for a second printing. The revolution may not be televised, nor covered by the Times, but if these two independent publishers are any indication, there will be a book about it.
Dennis Loy Johnson is the editor of MobyLives.
Now that I'm a publisher, I have entered into what is no doubt the most difficult and treacherous area of writing known to mankind: rejection letters.
You'd think that having gotten them myself for years now it would be easy for me to just whip one off. The problem is, having gotten them for years now, I know how fraught with hidden meaning they are to the people who get them.
For example, take this typical rejection letter: "Thank you for sending us your work. We read it with pleasure, but are unable to use it at this time."
Most writers would translate that as follows: "You are kidding yourself. This thing never had a snowball's chance in hell here. In fact, we found it so hysterically bad that we shared it with everyone we know for a good laugh. Still, what a sick individual you must be. Send us another manuscript and we'll take out a restraining order."
Sensitive, you say? Not really. For one thing, often enough, that is what it means. But put yourself in the writer's place.
Here's the situation: You sent the best thing you've ever written to the prestigious albeit somewhat obscure literary magazine, Noble Dirt. It is important to you that Noble Dirt finds your work suitable for publication because:
1. You haven't published anything in a long time and you're coming up for tenure; or
B. If you can publish something in a reputable journal, a book publisher might become interested in doing an entire collection of your work, which would make the delusion that you are making a living at writing a hair less insane and/or help you get the kind of job where you can start worrying about tenure; or,
iii. You have given up everything and been living like a Bohemian for so long that if you don't finally publish some damn thing or other your entire identity will collapse.
As added background, let's say that, as is typical with many literary publishers, it's been approximately 27 years since you sent that work off to the aforesaid magazine which has a policy against simultaneous submissions -- and you've been waiting to hear back ever since.
So when the big day comes and you finally see, in your mailbox, that the SASE you sent off with your submission to Noble Dirt has come back to you, you immediately become one tense chihuahua.
Here's what you're likely to find inside:
A. A detailed plea, perhaps several pages long, perhaps in expensive brochure form, asking that you take out a subscription to Noble Dirt;
2. More promotional material featuring quotes from many famous writers you never heard of attesting to what a great publication Noble Dirt is;
III. A teeny, tiny slip of paper with the Noble Dirt logo on it (the outline of a pile of dirt) and the following lone sentence: "Thanks but no thanks -- The Eds."
That's it. You don't even get a full-sized piece of paper. They don't even spell out "editors."
Plus, you paid for the stamp. And the envelope.
Oh, all right, so not every publication is quite so cold. Or at least, there are levels of rejection. From the editors of Another Chicago Magazine, I once got a form rejection that was a checklist with three choices. The first said something like "Thank you, please try us again." The second said, "Thank you." The third said, "Whoever told you you could write?" (I got the first one checked off, thank you very much.)
The topper, though, has to be the rejection letter sent out by a Chinese economics journal that was quoted in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years back: "We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of a lower standard. As it is unthinkable that, in the next thousand years, we shall see its equal, we are, to our regret, compelled to return your divine composition, and to beg you a thousand times to overlook our short sight and timidity."
You can imagine what a good writer would read into that. Economics scribes are probably heading out the door right now to go jump off a bridge.
So you see my dilemma. My solution? "We've decided not to publish your work because (you fill in the blank)."
We'll see if people can accept that.
Dennis Loy Johnson is the editor of MobyLives.
It was, to put it mildly, a harsh review: John Updike's new book "Seek My Face," said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times on Nov. 12, is "graceless" and "bogus in every respect," a "blatant and gratuitous" book written by "a lazy, voyeuristic and reductive hand."
It was typical of the no-holds-barred writing style favored by the Times' lead reviewer. As probably the most powerful book critic in the country, she's already positioned to make enemies. But her particular command of the language, combining keen intelligence with, often enough, scathing anger, makes her a lot more.
Which may explain why so many people have jumped on her lately over her very command of that language; in fact, for her use of one word: "limn." It started last month when a MobyLives reader named Peter Kuntz wrote in to note that Kakutani had used the word in her (negative) review of Zadie Smith's new "Autograph Man"; Kuntz observed that, in general, Kakutanni used the word a lot. That opened the floodgates.
Another MobyLives reader, Matt Gross, an editor at New York magazine, saw Kuntz's letter and decided to do a little research. In the Nov. 11 New York, he helpfully noted that "For those unfamiliar with the word (yes, that included us), it means to outline something 'in clear sharp detail.'" Then Gross went on to list numerous reviews in which Kakutani had used "limn." Included were reviews of books by Gish Jen, Oscar Hijuelos, Ann Beattie, Sebastian Junger and more.
Alice Munro "has created tales that limn entire lifetimes in a handful of pages," she writes in one citation. Robert Olen Butler "draws upon [the] ability to limn an entire life in a couple of pages," she says in another. The word "appears to be a critical part of good writing" for Kakutani, observed Gross. "Though perhaps in her own work, she might consider using it a tad less?"
It was a playful piece, funny and fair, as was Kuntz's original letter, and as was a subsequent treatment given the story by Michael Cader, proprietor of the popular industry e-newsletter Publishers Lunch. Cader linked to Gross' New York article, and ran a search through the Times' online archive. "Dating back to 1996, the search engine returned 21 Kakutani reviews in all featuring limn," he wrote, "including four so far this year and a banner seven last year."
But things got decidedly less playful immediately thereafter, when Karen Sandstrom, the book section editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, waded in. She wrote in to Cader to take credit for having been the first to complain about critics using "limn," in a column she wrote last May.
"Some words become reviewers' clichés, and some clichés signal that the writer has developed a sense of superiority over her readers," declared Sandstrom. "It's one more way of separating the sophisticates from the commoners."
And suddenly, what had been an amusing and even interesting critique of Kakutani's prose became a nasty accusation of classism ... all for using so incredibly "sophisticated" a four-letter word as limn.
By the time, just days later, that the Times Magazine's "On Language" column by Kakutani's colleague William Safire weighed in on the matter, it seemed like so much piling on. Safire declared limn a "vogueword," a neologism of his own, and said, "Literary types and their followers use it instead of illuminate."
Well, nervous as it makes me to disagree with esteemed book review editors and the language maven himself, permit me to say: Hello? When in the world did a simple little four-letter word become such a freighted, obscure signifier of such upperclass arrogance?
Those "literary types" Safire cites (or at least me, and I think Kakutani) do not use limn "instead of illuminate." They use it simply to mean what the dictionary says it means: "To outline in clear sharp detail," if I may quote so sophisticated a source as, er, my Webster's.
What's more, it's no "vogueword." While Safire says limn is such a trendy word that "I give it six more months," Webster's cites six examples from a variety of literature, including that most snooty of high-brow publications, Time magazine, going rather far back, and indicating it's been in use for a while.
And why not? It's a perfectly good and useful word, particularly in the limited space of a book review.
Let me show you how useful it is: The furor over the use of the word "limn" limns the shallow nature of the culture war these days.
How else to explain how book review editors, of all people, not to mention our leading language columnist, could not know the definition of a word so common that they decry its supposed overusage? Worse, that they could then use such ignorance as a weapon, and call someone prejudiced for using the word correctly? Further, that they could advocate that newspaper writing should be dumbed down to the level of "commoners"?
And there we see the real nature of the culture war at the moment: a regular series of rather rabid attacks on the slightest hint of intellectualism. It's a war against culture, not for it.
Not that it isn't easy to understand how reviews as heated as Kakutani's could generate such animosity. But, to use a genuine cliché, all that heat isn't generating much light on the part of her critics. I mean, there are far more substantive issues to take up with Kakutani. For example, the extremes of her anger could inspire a consideration of the nature of reviewing itself. Her over-the-top lambasting of Updike, for instance, may make one recall Kurt Vonnegut's comment that "any reviewer who expresses rage or loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has just put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split."
On the other hand, there's something to be said for a reviewer to whom books are a matter of life and death. And the alternative seems worse, not to mention pointless, a thought that came clear to me last spring at a BEA panel discussion when I heard the book editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution declare she had a policy against negative reviews. I thought then what I think now: Why bother? What good does it do your readers to run only good news?
A less facile, more useful analysis of Kakutani's actual writing would be to consider whether her angry language replaces or heightens a legitimate point. For example, barely a week after the Updike attack she launched yet another vicious attack, this time on "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World," by Mark Hertsgaard.
She called it "a hectoring, fuzzy-minded book that devolves into an angry personal rant," in a diatribe of her own that begins by comparing Hertsgaard's book to another book, Benjamin R. Barber's "Jihad vs. McWorld." Kakutani calls Barber's book "provocative" and "very prescient," and says she is disappointed that Hertsgaard did not "take up where Mr. Barber left off."
But as another of my readers, a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly named Joe Barbato, points out in another letter to Moby, "in other words, Kakutani reviews the book Hertsgaard did not write. That is a violation of Book Reviewing rule #1."
Indeed it is, and Barbato's comment provides a much more insightful reading of the way Kakutani's criticism does or doesn't work. Yes, it's a sophisticated reading, but it isn't rocket science, and what is a good critic supposed to go for: substantive discussion, or dumbed down accessibility?
Whatever you think about Michiko Kakutani's writing, such mindless condescension never seems to have occurred to her, limn what you will. Her critics, though, are another matter.
Our culture has become so bovinely accepting of the idea that leisure time is for shopping that it influences literature in a couple of ways. One, along with television it has pretty much decimated the idea that reading is a viable way to spend your free time; and two, it encourages the notion that new things are best. Thus, there are whole swaths of the country where people are generally unaware of the fact that a certain number of pretty good books were written before Jonathan "High Literary Artist" Franzen came along.
The sad evidence abounds: Open the newspaper and what do you see? Bestseller lists (an enabler of the herd mentality if ever there was one). You walk into Barnes and Noble and what do you see? The bestsellers themselves, great tottering stacks of them threatening to kill you. You will wade deep into that shiny, brittle landscape, past vast deposits of Senior Franzen's bloated extravaganza before you find something that isn't new -- before you find, say, "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger.
Er, on second thought, you probably won't find that one. In most B & N's "Catcher" isn't on the shelves -- it's kept behind the counter and you have to ask for it, for reasons that have been variously explained to me: either it's among the most-likely-to-be-shoplifted books, or it's too obscene or subversive or something for today's delicate (don't let those tattoos fool you) young people. In fact, "Catcher" isn't the only book kept behind the counter at B&N (go ahead, ask them). All kinds of other major subversives and experimentalists are back there, too, from Vladimir Nabokov to Jack Kerouac to William Burroughs to the heinous Paul Auster.
And, in a greater sense, and for equally depressing reasons having ultimately to do, I think, with clearing shelf space for the higher-profit-margin new -- what, the explicit sex and vulgar language of "The Corrections" is better for kids than hearing Holden Caufield talk about "goddamn phonies"? -- there are numerous other books kept behind the metaphoric counters of modern America. This is true especially if they are edgy -- I mean, really edgy -- and/or experimental, and especially if they are more than a year or so old. And it's especially especially true if they are written by a dern foreigner.
Nonetheless, let's just say for argument's sake that you're a perverse so-and-so and you would like to read such. Where to go?
Hop on the Internet and visit the website of the Dalkey Archive Press -- http://www.centerforbookculture.org/dalkey/index.html -- the site of perhaps the most quietly subversive publisher in the country.
Dalkey has made it its mission to "keep in print as many of the great experimental books of the last 100 years as possible," including many books that were out of print in America when Dalkey first published them, as editor Chad Post explained it to me when I tracked him down at company headquarters in Normal, Illinois. And of the 240 books Dalkey has published so far, only two have been allowed to lapse out of print -- both books of interviews with Latin American authors that had simply gone out of date, Post says.
I first came upon Dalkey when I was looking for books by the great French surrealist Raymond Queneau. Then I discovered that Dalkey also published Celine. Its British list was particularly impressive -- lots of Henry Green, Aldous Huxley and Nicholas Mosley. And of course, on their Irish list was Flann O'Brien, author of the book that gives the press its name, "The Dalkey Archive."
But Dalkey doesn't just publish old books by non-American writers -- it's also the home for numerous American authors, including many still in their prime, thank you very much. They've picked up out-of-print titles from William Gass, John Barth and Stephen Millhauser. And they're the exclusive publisher of one of my favorite short story writers, Harry Matthews (including his newest, "The Human Country," due out this fall).
In fact, the company is currently headed by one of the modern novel's better innovators, Curtis White. And it was founded by one of its better analysts -- John O'Brien, who started the press in 1984 when he realized that most of the books being discussed in the magazine he'd started four years earlier, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, had gone out of print. Founded as a non-profit and housed on the campus of Illinois State University, Dalkey's first book was "Splendide-Hotel" by Gilbert Sorrentino (the press has since published 11 more of Sorrentino's books). Two years, later, Dalkey began publishing new books, as well.
Currently, Dalkey publishes about 16 books per year, 4-6 of which are new titles.
Most of their books, you'll note, are precisely the kind of books that are kept behind those metaphorical counters that I mentioned earlier. And yet, interestingly enough, the press is doing better than ever, thanks precisely to the fact that mainstream publishers have adopted a repulsion similar to that of chain booksellers to books that are truly edgy or subversive or, often enough, particularly arty.
As Dalkey's Post says, "A lot of interesting things are becoming available because conglomerate publishers treat books as a commodity, not as art objects."
Granted, being a non-profit makes it a little easier to be daring. Post admits being a non-profit "allows us to do all kinds of things other publishers would think was crazy," but then goes on to add, "such as keeping a book in print forever!"
The fact that keeping important books in print could be considered crazy gives you some sense of where things are at in mainstream publishing these days. It gives you some sense, too, of why we should be grateful to publishers such as the Dalkey Archives Press.
Dennis Loy Johnson edits the MobyLives Web site.
One of last year's most embarrassing-slash-depressing admissions made by anybody in the book biz -- although not, perhaps, the most surprising -- was the one made by the New York Times' "Making Books" columnist Martin Arnold, who wrote that he was looking forward to his time off over the Christmas holiday because he didn't have to read anything then.
"I've read enough books this year," he declared.
Icky, no? I mean, if that's the attitude of the senior columnist covering the book beat for the most prestigious newspaper in America's publishing capital, is it any wonder that across the rest of the land these days there is a growing sense that reading is a darn chore?
This is the time of year when you may become even more aware of that attitude, because right around Memorial Day is when the notion usually heightens into a frenzy about summer "beach books" -- typically, books that are promoted using various euphemisms for the word "mindless."
Now, don't misunderstand, I'm not saying that reading for "entertainment" -- the most popular of those euphemisms -- is a bad thing. Indeed, I think a sense of pleasure is a necessary element of anything I would consider well-written.
But do you have to be such a numbskull to be entertained? More and more, in the great age of lowest-common-denominator publishing, what they're selling every summer is something less and less idiosyncratically memorable.
Can you remember last summer's big book? Can you remember any of last summer's books? They're all of such silly sameness that they blur together, until we realize that we're not being sold books, but rather a bill of goods that says now that you've got time to read, get yourself a book that's so lightweight, so devoid of any quality whatsoever of interactive thought, that your vacation will be the equivalent of a low-grade coma. Yes, run out and get that fat new Tom Clancy book and just start hitting yourself over the head with it. No need to read it. Books, it seems, are actually supposed to be thought-deadening.
Well, who knew? Except this year, even as the mainstream book biz throws itself into that perfervid sales pitch as hard as it ever has, it does seem there are a few people out there who don't know.
Perhaps it's just wishful thinking on the part of your faithful book snob, but it does seem as if there are some books of quality more visible in the mix this year. Perhaps it's a follow-up to some trends observed last fall, when readers in the new, post-9/11 world passed up lighter fare in favor of books about spirituality and politics, etc. Perhaps it's just the mini-rebellions made inevitable by the creeping crud of conglomerization taking over all aspects of the business. But whatever the reason, in this year's installment of early summer book chatter, newspapers (outside of New York, at least) seemed to talk about some better literature than usual.
In the Raleigh News & Observer, for example, book editor J. Peder Zane led off his summer roundup by citing forthcoming books not by the likes of Clancy and Jackie Colllins (although they are, indeed, both at it again) but rather by J.M. Coetzee, Ward Just, Richard Russo and Haruki Murakami. (Notice not just that Zane mentioned them, but that those are the type of books typically not released during the summer.)
In the Orlando Sentinel, editor Nancy Pate reminded readers about some other books that should be entertaining even though most likely well-written, such as the new Walter Mosley and the new Oscar Hijuelos.
Well, throw in some small press titles and you've got a promising summer. For example, from Cinco Puntos Press there's "Six Kinds of Sky" by Luis Alberto Urrea , a collection of beautifully written and wonderfully observed short stories covering territory from Mazatlan, Mexico to the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, and including a cast of Gringo, Mexican and Native American characters.
Another great story collection, "Cross Roads," by Karel Capek is from the tiny Catbird Press, a Connecticut publisher that specializes in translating Czech literature and has brought forth some really wonderful work overlooked by the big pubs. Catbird is concurrently publishing a biography of Capek Ivan Klima, "Karel Capek: Life and Work."
Other small press books of note:
"Flotsam & Jetsam" by Aidan Higgins (Dalkey Archives, $15.95)
A collection of short prose and fiction from one of the most respected Irish writers of the last 50 years.
"The Violence of the Morning" by Cal Bedient (University of Georgia, $16.95)
Dubbed "a go-to guy in poetry" by Publishers Weekly, Bedient's second collection features startling imagery, an interesting variety of forms, and a mordant wit.
"Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago" by Eric C. Klinenberg (University of Chicago, $ 27.50) An investigation of why the great Chicago heat wave of 1995 was one of the deadliest in American history.
"Steal Away" by C.D. Wright (Copper Canyon, $25)
A selection of this fearless poet's best work, along with a new series of poems on incarceration.
"Separation of Church and State" by Philip Hamburger (Harvard, $49.95)
A quirky look at American history and contemporary politics that argues it wasn't the Founding Fathers or the First Amendment that separated church and state -- it was the people, to endorse a level of intolerance that may ultimately be un-American.
"Little Casino" by Gilbert Sorrentino (Coffee House, $14.95)
Grounded more in images and characters from his native Brooklyn than in plot, the latest work from this wry and lyrical innovator explores what a novel can do in a refreshing manner.
"Approximately Paradise" by Don Schofield (University Press of Florida, $12.95)
A haunting collection of poems that focuses primarily on a haunted culture -- that of Greece, considering its landscape, history and people with tender yet clear-eyed and ultimately timeless vision.
And finally, from the University Press of New England there's "Intimate Appraisals: The Social Writings of Thomas J. Cottle," a collection of essays by the eminent sociologist that covers a wide range of subjects. Basically, Cottle observes individuals' behavior in response to larger public and historic events, ranging from bussing in Boston to the O.J. Simpson trial. It's a revealing look at our present-day zeitgeist.
As is the growing attention being paid to such books.
Dennis Loy Johnson publishes MobyLives.com
I thought she'd never leave.
You know who I'm talking about -- Oprah.
The thing is, it seems there were a lot of people who couldn't wait for her to close down her book club and get out of Lit City.
No sooner does Winfrey announce she's closing up Oprah's Book Club than does the book industry launch a righteous, rip-snorting mockery of her for her parting comments about there not being enough "compelling" books. "Not enough compelling books?" they howled. IN ALL OF RECORDED HISTORY? Clearly, the remark revealed that Winfrey didn't have the brainpower for the job.
Her declining sales influence confirmed it, said others. She was making such poor selections that it had gotten to the point where her imprimatur only guaranteed a book a rise in sales of a measly three or four hundred thousand copies.
But not to fear -- it wasn't long at all before a series of intellectuals stood up on behalf of the American book industry to announce that they were going to host book clubs that would feature something a tad smarter than those dim-witted Toni Morrison books. or the books written by obscure Canadians, that Winfrey favored.
For example, just two days after Winfrey's sayonara, a press release announced that Katie "Cute as a Button" Couric and Matt "Cute as a Couric" Lauer would host a new book club on the NBC "Today" show, just as soon as they could build a new set that looked like a library.
Then USA Today announced it planned to host a book club, too, as soon as editors could figure out how to represent multi-syllabic words with colorful charts.
Then Kelly Ripa, who replaced Kathie Lee Gifford as resident egghead and sidekick to the immortal Regis Philbin on what is now known as the "Live with Regis and Kelly" program, announced she was going to spotlight books, too, just as soon as she figured out how to open one of the dern things.
And just like that, it was Oprah Who? Because not only did those book clubs promise, they delivered.
Yes, the first results are coming in and they are impressive.
According to the New York Post, the day after Ripa announced that her first choice was the thought-provoking "If Looks Could Kill," a murder mystery by Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, the book shot up from number 7,000 on Amazon.com's bestseller list to number 7. The book's publisher, Warner Books, immediately ordered 25,000 more copies printed. The next day, the A.P. reported the book had climbed to number 4. Warner ordered another 50,000 copies.
Meanwhile, the intelligentsia ruling USA Today made a difficult but discerning choice, too, and one that, happily, gave another formerly obscure writer a leg up. After considerable thought, one Friday they announced they'd chosen the book that had won that most obscure of all literary prizes, the Pulitzer Prize, the previous Monday: Richard Russo's "Empire Falls." According to the Associated Press, the book's paperback publisher, Vintage, is giving all the credit to USA Today for driving the book into its sixth printing and bringing it up to 285,000 copies in print.
Over at the Today show, they're still building the library set, but you can sense the industry-wide tingling about which hidden treasure Matt and Katie will rescue from the dustbin. My bet: "The Greatest Generation," by their own former host, Tom Brokaw. In case you've never heard of it, it's a book about World War II.
Which is all great news for the book industry -- God knows, these are all worthy books that would have gone absolutely nowhere without some help from literary champions such as Ripa, Lauder, and Al Neuharth. No use promoting the kind of wide variety of books Winfrey got behind when you can consolidate things and promote the same books the publishers and booksellers have already decided to promote most heavily. This way, things are a lot less confusing.
In fact, I am so impressed by the lockstep now overtaking the industry that I have rethought my own decision to launch "Dennis' Book Club."
I must admit I was fantasizing about seeing little "DBC" stickers on book jackets.
However, I now realize that my tastes are as out of step with the mainstream as, well, Oprah Winfrey's. Why, I won't even tell you what my first choice was going to be.
But have you ever noticed what a great coaster the Encyclopedia Britannica makes?
When you think "writer," what image comes to mind?
Hemingway in his safari outfit, cradling a rifle over a dead gnu? A guy typing in a beat-up fedora? Some unshaven Kerouac in threadbare chinos and a ratty sweater feverishly scribbling like mad in a garret?
How about a clean-cut, professionally-styled guy sipping a nice little aperitif and wearing an impressive Prada suit that cost just shy of $1800?
That's the image given in a recent New York Times Magazine piece that's been the talk of the town, and the topic of a lot of my mail -- a fashion spread that masqueraded as an article called "Men of Letters."
Purportedly about the writers who hang out at one of New York's literary hotspots, the KGB Bar, it featured lush full-page photographs of several notable "literary" writers in the bar, with each photo accompanied by a brief plug for the writer's newest book, maybe a briefer-still quote, and voluminous information about what they were wearing and where you can get it.
For example, one caption reads, in its entirety, "Imraan Coovadia, author of 'The Wedding,' in an Hermes jacket, $3,900, at Hermes stores."
Another says, "David Schickler, who wrote 'Kissing in Manhattan,' in a John Varvatos jacket, $2,555. At Barneys New York. Coast Shirt, $165. At Bergdoff Goodman Men."
Revealing, isn't it? And I'm not just talking about the fact that a bunch of highly paid editors apparently missed quite a few incomplete sentences. At the New York Times, $3.
No, I'm talking about how this shows you what the leading newspaper in the publishing capital of the world considers to be books coverage (while they concurrently cut back on the amount of space given to book reviews). And I'm talking about what this says about the writers involved, who apparently think this was an essentially honest thing to do.
I know, I know. Times have changed since Daphne Du Maurier said, "Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard." I know that nowadays the average new novel, as B.R. Myers has famously observed, is "just a three-hundred page caption for the photograph on the inside jacket."
Still, even the youngsters Myers is referring to must realize that they're posing for the ultimate writerly fantasy, that the character in those photos is no more real than the movie stars they're starved down and dressed up to resemble.
I mean, everybody knows that the overwhelming majority of writers make next-to-no money, right? That it's essentially a lonely act? That good writing is a process of delving deeper than shallow appearances?
So imagine my surprise to see that guy in the Prada suit -- Melvin Bukiet, a terrific novelist and editor, as well as an acquaintance of mine. Melvin is famous for being disheveled and unkempt -- he looks like what central casting would send over if you shouted, "Swifty! Get me a writer!" Known around the Apple as a writing teacher and the host of readings and literary panels, Bukiet looks like what he is: a guy with more important things on his mind than combing his hair or tucking in his shirt, such as, say, his next book. In fact, even as I type this, the galleys for that next book -- an anthology of essays on the Holocaust he edited -- sits on my desk. I'd wager he got maybe a $1,000 advance for that one.
And yet there he was in that suit in full, glorious color, and I couldn't have been more surprised than if he'd been pictured sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office.
Also featured was an old classmate of mine, Steve Rinehart, the author of a wonderful short story collection. He wore worn workshirts when I knew him. I'd guess he didn't make a lot off his book of short stories, either. Yet he, too, had a great Prada suit.
Dale Peck ("DKNY leather jacket, $750"), Colum McCann ("Donna Karan cotton shirt, $150"), Victor D. Lavalle ("Ralph Lauren Purple Label leather blazer, $1,995"), even Pulitzer-winner Michael Cunningham ("in a John Varvatos jacket, $895"), all fine writers, and all apparently happy to perpetuate this hoax.
Does this seem petty to you? It's not. This is what's wrong with our culture now: everything comes down to money, or appearance. Writing is supposed to examine that, and remind us to look deeper. If writers actually participate in the obfuscation, and further our disconnect from meaningfulness, then all is lost.
J'accuse, baby. For whatever it's worth, j'accuse.
To most people, it must seem like a no-brainer: Which is better, an independent bookstore or a chain bookstore? Whichever one has the book you want at the lowest price, natch. And let's face facts -- lately, the winner of that contest has been the chains.
However a surprising recent survey says that regardless of price, people actually feel they're more apt to be satisfied shopping at an independent. Meanwhile, the rabble-rousing plaintiff in an incendiary court case claims the chains' low prices are illusionary, achieved by illegal strong-arm tactics, and may actually be insuring higher prices down the line.
First, the survey, which was conducted by Consumer Reports in January -- it found that most people felt the chains or the equally giant on-line booksellers did indeed offer a better deal price-wise. Nonetheless, independent bookstores generated a higher level of customer satisfaction than even the cheapest chain retailer. In fact, independents scored "on a par with the highest-rated stores from any survey we've done in recent years," said the magazine.
What's more, Consumer Reports also noted the illusionary quality of the chains vaunted discounting -- chains, it said, had "quietly hiked prices by reducing discounts."
Of course, if buying books were the same as buying widgets -- an experience where price was all that mattered -- then in the comparison of independents to chains there would be no need to consider anything beyond those disappearing discounts.
But buying books is not the same thing as buying widgets, and as the survey's findings about "customer satisfaction" seem to indicate, there is indeed more to consider.
Which is what the aforementioned legal case -- being heard right now before a Federal District Court in New York City -- stresses vehemently, and in such a way as to make it seem that what's going on now in book retailing is microcosmic of what's going on in the greater society.
You probably haven't heard about it, though (which is microcosmic of mainstream media coverage of conglomerate America, but that's another column -- although I must point out the irony that the plaintiff in the case is the brother of the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt). But anyway, in brief: Walter Kuralt, owner of a bankrupt mini-chain called Intimate Bookshops, is suing Borders and Barnes & Noble for illegal activities -- such as demanding secret discounts from publishers -- that gave them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
Sound familiar? Well, it didn't get much coverage either, but in another case last year, the American Booksellers Association and 26 independent bookstores sued the chains for the same thing. But that suit -- years in the making -- ground to a halt when the judge ruled the independents couldn't collect damages even if they proved their case, because it was impossible to determine the dollar value of any harm done. Already outspent and with a doubtless lengthy appeals process before them, the independents settled for enough to cover their legal fees and claimed moral victory.
But the decision, or lack thereof, begged not only the actual question -- do the chains engage in illegal practices? -- it rendered unanswerable still larger questions that get at the heart of life in contemporary democracy. To wit, is it wrong for the chains, victors in the marketplace after all, to throw their weight around like that? Isn't that -- as the judge observed at one point -- "what capitalism is all about"? Or is it about competition and choice driving commerce? In essence: Is bigger better?
Well, the Intimate case provides a second chance for answers. Walter Kuralt doesn't seem about to settle, and as a Publishers Weekly report observed, "when it comes to juicy allegations," his case "takes second place to no one."
In a memorandum filed to counter the chains' request for a dismissal, attorney Carl Person outlined Kuralt's charges that the chains strong-armed publishers into providing a 60 percent discount off the cover price -- as compared to the 40 percent to 46 percent discounts smaller booksellers like Intimate were limited to. (Remember those figures the next time you hear B&N head Leonard Riggio complaining -- as he did last fall, and did again this week -- that publishers are to blame for prices so high he calls them "abominations." Considering that publishers share what's left with printers, distributors, warehousers and, oh yes, authors, even if B&N is getting only a 50 percent discount, it's making considerably more than those who actually created the book. Who's driving the price?)
Meanwhile, Kuralt set up a website (www.lawmall.com/rpa/rpa_whk1.html) providing an exhaustive list of "discriminatory payments and benefits received by the chains -- and largely not disputed by the chains." The list includes "co-op funds exceeding costs of advertising," "free freight," "free books not offered to others," "special allowances for fixtures," "access to information regarding competitors," and more that he says "permit the chains simply to expand at will and overwhelm any smaller competition."
But Kuralt doesn't stop there. He says the case is part of a "national disaster" resulting from "the Wal-Marts and Mega-Malls." What would happen, he goes on to ask, "if all national chain store companies were required to observe the law"?
If the judge doesn't dismiss the case we may finally get a chance to find out. We might also learn which is truly better for the consumer: chain stores, or independents?
Dennis Loy Johnson writes for MobyLives.com, where this article first appeared.
As everyone must know by now, conglomerization hasn't worked out all that well in the book business. It's been obvious for a long time that it hasn't been that great for the consumer -- notice how few books are discounted at Barnes & Noble now that most of the competition is gone?
But interestingly enough, it hasn't been all that great for the perpetrators, either. As a recent Los Angeles Times article noted, "when it comes to books, the market's invisible hand has refused to bless the economy of scale. In fact, it has given the outlets of conglomerate publishing -- Random House, Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins, for example -- a solid smack upside their managerial heads."
This was particularly noticeable last fall, when the big pubs didn't have the kind of serious fare many Americans wanted, and the bestseller lists were suddenly full of books from small independents and university presses.
But will the big boys learn? Probably not. One thing making me think this is the way that, long ago, most of the big houses completely ceded the publishing of poetry to smaller presses, and they haven't looked back since.
Thus, when the seventh annual National Poetry Month rolls around next month, the failings of conglomerization will be on particular display once again.
But also on display will be what many suspect is the kind of old-fashioned literary publishing that may very well be entering a period or rapid renewal.
Take the many new offerings from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Long one of the nation's most prestigious poetry houses, Pitt has put out an even greater number of poetry books than usual this winter and they're going full speed ahead into the spring.
It started with a terrific first book of poetry from Joanie Mackowski, "The Zoo" ($12.95), in which, with a unique eye and an unerring ear, she observes the teeming zoo of modern life, and gently prods the comedy of consciousness. Dean Young's homegrown Surrealism is on display in his fifth book of poems, "Skid" ($12.95), which show off his characteristic free-wheeling wit -- such as in the book's last poem, "How I Get My Ideas," which advises, "Always turn in the direction of the skid." The title of David Wojahn's "Spirit Cabinet" ($12.95), meanwhile, comes from a piece of Shaker furniture used to contact the dead, and in his poetry, Wojahn, too, uses mostly traditional forms to plumb the spiritual world.
For Poetry Month, Pitt will publish Jan Beatty's new collection "Boneshaker" ($12.95) a paean to the wildness of love and the fierce pain of its loss, and Robert McDowell's "On Foot, in Flames," which shows off the poet's gift for redemptive poems featuring strong, lyrical narrative lines (no surprise, perhaps, coming from a poet who is himself the publisher of the Story Line Press). And Pitt has one of the month's most eagerly anticipated collections in Alicia Ostriker's "The Volcano Sequence" ($12.95), a brave and powerful interrogation of desire -- for love, for justice, for God -- in which the rigor of her intelligence is beautifully matched by the passion of her questing.
Meanwhile, another of the nation's leading poetry publishers, Copper Canyon Press, is in the midst of a particularly laudable series of publications -- reprints of the eight unpublished manuscripts found on Pablo Neruda's desk when he died. Just out are the first five: "The Book of Questions," "The Sea and the Bells," "Winter Garden," "Stones of the Sky" and "The Yellow Heart" ($14 each). Each is a beautifully-produced bilingual edition with updated introductions, and featuring the wonderfully mischievous and passionate poet, although obviously aware of impending death, at the peak of his powers.
And lest you think translations is all they do at Copper Canyon, Thomas Centolella's "Views From Along the Middle Way" ($14) navigates with a distilled lyricism the complicated journey from the everyday to the transcendent.
Another significant university press, the University of Chicago Press, just released one of the year's most sumptuously-printed poetry books, "Surrealist Love Poems," edited by Mary Ann Caws ($22.50). It combines photographs by Man Ray, Claude Cahun, and others, with poems by Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Octavio Paz, Frida Kahlo, and more. The combination beautifully illuminates the wild joy and eroticism of the Surrealist movement.
During Poetry Month from Chicago, Peg Boyers' "Hard Bread" ($14), poems written in the character of Natalia Ginzburg, is a stunningly inventive act of ventriloquism, while Doreen Gildroy's "The Little Field of Self" ($14) is a book-length poem that's a lyric investigation of devotion and conflict within the self.
Other recent or upcoming small press publications of note: Robert Pack and Jay Parini's wonderful anthology for the Middlebury College Press, "Contemporary Poetry of New England" ($40 hardcover, $19.95 paperback), which features a wide range of recent work from writers well-known and new. And just after NPM, look for the smart and funny collection "The Red Bird" by Joyelle McSweeney ($12), from the new Fence Books, the book-publishing arm of the edgy literary magazine Fence.
Finally, giving credit where credit is due -- there are still a few big houses in New York publishing good poetry. Among them is Knopf, which will be publishing Marie Ponsot's "Springing: New and Selected Poems" ($25), a long-overdue collection of the 80-year-old poet's elegant and playful verse. Houghton Mifflin is also publishing a significant new and selected -- Grace Schulman's "Days of Wonder" ($25), which spans three decades of her graceful celebration of the mundane and the miraculous. And from Scribner, David Lehman's "The Evening Sun" collects more of his poem-a-day project, which showcases his savvy wit and intelligence, not to mention his refreshing concision.
Of course, looking for these books you may run into another problematic aspect of conglomerization: where to find books from independent presses. Most chain stores have limited poetry sections to begin with, and don't stock much from small presses either. If you don't have a good independent bookstore nearby, you're left with only one alternative: ordering the book from the chain. Still, thus do revolutions begin.
Dennis Loy Johnson writes for Moby Lives, an online literary magazine at www.mobylives.com.