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At The Margin
Vol. 2, Issue 4 (Whole Issue #18)
Monday, April 30, 2001
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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This issue of At The Margin is sponsored by Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop. "Most of our rights have already been traded away by those who prefer the safety of government control to the anarchy of individual freedom. Very few people understand the Faustian bargain they have made. This shop is dedicated to those who have rejected the bargain. It is open to those who might reconsider." Come see us at 339 Newbury Street in Boston or visit our website: http://www.avenuevictorhugobooks.com/
Editor's Note: Readers should be aware that sponsorship of At The Margin does not imply endorsement of (or even agreement with!) anything you read in this issue. The editor, in fact, hardly considers an issue successful if he hasn't offended the sponsor a little bit.
1. Margaret Mitchell's Nephews Will Never Be Hungry Again!
2. Borders and Barnes & Noble "Vindicated"
3. Too Many Academic Books
4. Interacting with the Author Rather than the Novel
5. Messages to the Editor
7. Do You Know Me?
8. Blue Underlined Words
1. Margaret Mitchell's Nephews Will Never Be
The Federal District Court in Atlanta has granted an injunction to suppress publication of the novel The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall, which was scheduled for release by Houghton Mifflin on June 6. The injunction was sought by the Mitchell trusts, which administer the estate of Margaret Mitchell.
The Wind Done Gone is the narrative of Cynara, who is a slave in the Tara household. It is said to ridicule the patently demeaning portrayal of slaves found in Gone with the Wind. The Mitchell trusts (I don't know why they are plural) claimed the book infringed on the copyright that enriches Margaret Mitchell's nephews (and, presumably, the administrators of the trusts) with license fees, royalties, and who knows what. The judge found in favor of the Mitchell gang because he said the Randall novel uses 15 characters, several scenes, and some dialogue from Gone with the Wind, all of which he deemed protected by copyright. He said the book was, in effect, an unauthorized sequel. Nobody is allowed to write a sequel to Gone with the Wind without enriching the Mitchell trusts.
Houghton Mifflin brought in a number of heavyweights to testify (Harper Lee, Toni Morrison, Shelby Foote, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., among others) in favor of the novel. But the Mitchell gang countered by hiring a well-known First Amendment lawyer, who produced testimony from literary critics saying the book was mediocre and unoriginal and wouldn't have much appeal except for the popularity of Gone with the Wind. You can find a description of the case at http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/21/business/21BOOK.html, which is where I got this information. [The article is free -- although registration is required -- for two weeks from April 21, 2001. After that, it is an archived item and it costs money to read it.]
Gone with the Wind has sold more than 21 million copies in the U.S., and it continues to sell about 25,000 hardcover and a quarter million paperback copies a year. (Personally, I don't understand this. I tried to read it and gave up after about 30 pages, finding the novel vacuous. Life is too short to spend time on a book that doesn't get underway in 30 pages.)
A reasonable person has to ask what's the point of the injunction? By any stretch of the imagination, could the publication of The Wind Done Gone reduce the value of Gone with the Wind? It can't of course. The problem is it may divert sales from the sequels that have been authorized by the trusts (talk about mediocre and unoriginal!).
This may be more than just a business question, however. Pat Conroy, who considered writing an authorized sequel to Gone with the Wind, was said in The New York Times story to have "provided a letter testifying that the trusts asked him to promise not to include interracial sex or homosexual sex." The suppression of The Wind Done Gone (which is said to include both interracial and homosexual sex) may appear to be the strategic move of a modern firm, but it also has the earmarks of a desperate culture's emotional reaction to the questioning of its mythology.
As many great novels have done, Gone with the Wind codified a vision of history in the popular imagination. From sometime after the ugly and corrupt termination of Reconstruction until the 1960s, the predominant American view of antebellum slavery was that it had its bad side, sure, but it was benevolent in many respects, and we wouldn't have had to fight a war over it if only we'd shown a little more understanding toward each other. In this view, the slaves were among the beneficiaries of southern paternalism, and most people (at least those whose ancestors weren't enslaved) thought the slaves' tolerance of the system was proof that plantation slavery was a fairly benign way of organizing agricultural production.
Starting in the 1960s, however, revisionist history like The Political Economy of Slavery by Eugene D. Genovese and The Peculiar Institution by Kenneth M. Stampp began reminding people that plantation slavery was based on the purchase and sale of human beings. Breaking up families, brutal punishments, even sexual abuse were routine parts of the system. Recent works have further clarified the picture. The 1999 book, Runaway Slaves by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, shows that antebellum slavery was characterized by substantial resistance (escape, sabotage, and sometimes overt rebellion) on the part of the slaves. Soul by Soul (1999), an analysis of the slave trade by Walter Johnson, shows just how easily slaveholders discarded promises, implicit and explicit, to treat their slaves like family. It also describes the myths and self-delusions created by slaveholders to maintain their belief in their own humanity.
Most people get their history (directly or indirectly) from novels and movies. In 1976, Alex Haley's Roots began to codify the new understandings of antebellum slavery in the imagination of the majority, but by then Gone with the Wind had been a major player in race relations for 40 years. Margaret Mitchell is dead 52 years this August. Her fairy tale view of antebellum plantation slavery is still a potent force in shaping the majority American vision about our country's past. Especially since it has the federal courts to back it up.
2. Borders and Barnes & Noble "Vindicated"
The American Booksellers Association, which represents independent bookstores, has dropped its suit against the giant chain bookstores Borders and Barnes & Noble. Certain kinds of distribution arrangements are illegal under U.S. Antitrust law, and the independent bookstores argued that Borders and Barnes & Noble had used some of these arrangements to compete unfairly. The ABA settled for $4.7 million ($2.35 million from each chain), which does not cover the $18 million it has spent toward legal costs. The news story is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/20/business/20BOOK.html. [The article is free -- although registration is required -- for two weeks from April 20, 2001. After that, it is an archived item and it costs money to read it.]
The ABA has posted on its website some of the evidence that emerged from the trial (including a memo from a Borders executive that can be read as claiming Borders was trying to wipe out the independents): http://www.bookweb.org/home/news/btw/4541.html. Much of it is pretty technical, but it shows the two big chains were indeed getting major advantages over their smaller competitors.
The federal judge who heard the case said he would not allow the ABA to be awarded damages, so apparently there wasn't much to gain by continuing the suit. Borders and Barnes & Noble described the settlement as a "vindication."
In the end, some ABA members were embarrassed the lawsuit was even attempted. It is possible to promote independent bookstores without enriching lawyers. Booksense (http://www.booksense.com), for example, which is an ABA program, gives independent bookstores an online presence. (Booksense still needs a lot of work to become half as exciting as Amazon.com, but at least it's there for customers who buy from independent bookstores as a matter of ideology.) And it's probably a little naive to expect the federal courts to protect small market players against well-heeled, heavily lawyered behemoths. When have they ever done so?
3. Too Many Academic Books
University presses now publish about 10,000 books per year, and according to one university press publisher, that's too many. Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press says "university presses are publishing books that they should be turning down." It is not, according to Waters, that the books are unworthy, "just that they do not justify the expenditure of time and money that goes into them."
Waters says that books in the humanities (he includes history) usually sell between 275 and 600 copies, regardless of quality. At his press, he says, they plan on a $10,000 loss for every book that sells fewer than 500 copies. Waters says university presses, faced with such a losing proposition, try to protect themselves by publishing more books. (It's a little like the old retailing joke, "We lose on every order, but we make it up in volume.")
Increasingly, he says, university presses can only afford to publish monographs in the humanities if they can subsidize them by publishing more popular trade books or by inducing their universities to cover their losses. On the other side, humanities departments are busily stuffing the pipeline with books because they require scholars to publish books (and more books -- some of them require two) in order to get tenure.
Waters says the situation is precisely backwards from what it should be. "The exaggerated emphasis on the publication of books pushes young scholars to go on record earlier and earlier, with less and less to say." (You can see a similar situation in commercial fiction, where publishers often give prizes and hold searches for the best "young" writers. This helps them find and publish fiction that has all the depth of soft drink advertisements. The writer who has something to say before he or she reaches the age of 30 is unquestionably rare, and forcing writers to bloom in their twenties is not a long-term strategy.)
Waters traces the problem ultimately to science-envy in the humanities. And in fact, basing tenure decisions on the number of books published does smack of a counting fetish, doesn't it?
Humanities departments, he says, have outsourced their tenure decisions to university presses. He suggests they consider essays as evidence of scholarship and try to value quality rather than quantity of work. Read his thoughtful article in The Chronicle of Higher Education at http://chronicle.com/free/v47/i32/32b00701.htm.
4. Interacting with the Author Rather than the
When you a read a novel, do you interact with the work or do you interact with the author? This is a question of some importance to readers and critics of science fiction author Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick flourished (if that's the word -- he had repeated bouts of psychological problems and was pretty much a lifelong drug abuser) in the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote more than 50 books, nearly all science fiction, that were published between 1955 and 1982. (He also wrote a dozen mainstream novels, only one of which -- Confessions of a Crap Artist -- was published.) He wrote about psychosis, drug abuse, censorship, religious understanding, and the difference between the real and the unreal. The profundity of Dick's novels was often disguised by their titles, many of which were more suited to comic books: The Zap Gun, Clans of the Alphane Moon, Galactic Pot Healer. He may be best known for Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was made into a film called Blade Runner. It is the story of a policeman in a world of the future whose job it is to retire (i.e., kill) rogue androids. Dick received the major science fiction award (the Hugo) for his 1962 novel, The Man in the High Castle, a story that takes place in Colorado in 1962, when California is in the hands of the Japanese and the Germans have occupied the eastern half of the country. The story's main character makes his decisions by consulting I Ching (it is said Dick made his decisions for the story in the same way). A Scanner Darkly, one of his later novels, concerns an undercover narcotics agent struggling with drug abuse. In a touch characteristic of Dick, the narcotics agent goes undercover by assuming his real identity and only uses his disguise for interacting with his police employers.
Dick was a tremendously imaginative writer, but one of his most distinctive qualities was that the characters he put into these strange worlds were down-to-earth working stiffs. Much of the impact of Philip K. Dick novels is in seeing ordinary people struggle with extraordinary technological, moral, or even cosmological problems.
Dick died in 1982 at the age of 54. By the 1970s, however, he had been discovered by leftist intellectuals, who characterized him as "the Shakespeare of science fiction" (literary theorist Fredric Jameson) a "visionary among charlatans" (Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem), or a writer capable of a "deconstruction of bourgeois science fiction" (critic Peter Fitting). Dick was on cordial terms with most of these people.
What the leftist intellectuals did not know, however, was that while they were praising the brilliance of his work, Dick was writing a stream of letters to the FBI about them, claiming they were importuning him to put coded messages into his novels on behalf of "covert organizations involving politics, illegal weapons, etc." He told the FBI that he had figured out Stanislaw Lem was a KGB agent running a large conspiracy that included Jameson, Fitting, and others. The FBI apparently did nothing more about Dick's information than to send him an occasional thank-you note.
When Dick's letters surfaced in publication (1991), the critics who so admired the author learned the whole time they had been lionizing him, he was -- in his psychotic way -- "ratting them out" to the FBI. And the critics, many of them personally betrayed, had to face the question of whether in reading his fiction they had been interacting with the work or the author. At least one of them, Peter Fitting, has revised his opinion of Dick and decided he was not brilliant, just confused. Much of the information in this item comes from a long article, well worth reading, by Jeet Heer in the magazine Lingua Franca, "Marxist Literary Critics Are Following Me!" It's online at: http://www.linguafranca.com/print/0105/cover.html.
It is difficult to imagine anything more reprehensible in a writer than regular denunciations of his colleagues to the authorities, although doing it to critics might not be quite so bad. But does Dick's moral deficiency (or psychosis) detract from the brilliance of The Man in the High Castle or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's something to think about the next time you're tempted to ask a writer "What did you intend by that?" The writer may be a person whose intentions are not nice or may be a person so out of balance psychologically as to render the concept of intent meaningless. In any case, what the writer intended to put in the novel may be less important to you than what you find there.
5. Messages to the Editor
Readers Comment on Audio Books
Floyd, by gum, that's the most interesting issue [ATM #17] ever of the most interesting newsletter there is.
Nice job on the article about your experience with audio
books. Also, I went to your website "thirdlion.com" and greatly appreciated
"Seven Decisions," your theory on novel writing.
In the last ATM, you remarked on the joys of reading aloud and being read to. I
thought you might be interesting in knowing that there are small groups dedicated
to reading to each other.
We call it Storyreading. The original group was founded by Yale undergraduates who read stories to each other once a week. The graduates have since dispersed and founded new groups. My husband and I am semi-regular attendees of the Boston-area Storyreading. (We're not Yale grads ourselves.) I understand the Yale group is still going strong. I believe there are active Storyreading groups in such places as Berkeley and Palo Alto.
I enjoyed your take on books on tape. Those of us who are
or have been hard road commuters have known the joys of Recorded Books for quite
a while. During those years when I was doing 50 miles twice a day on the Interstate,
I would often find myself in the parking lot at work wondering how I had gotten there,
so preoccupied had I been with my current book. I strongly recommend the Patrick
O'Brien Jack Aubrey novels. I believe there are 16 of them beginning with Master
and Commander, and they are wonderful. If you ever thought Hornblower was grand,
you'll find Jack Aubrey smashing. And if you think Moby Dick was long, you
should see Pat Conroy's Beach Music.
Just because I retired, I have not given up recorded books. Oh, no. They allow me to do hand work while I listen in the afternoon sun. I am currently "re-reading" Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. It is as fine a listen as it was a read 30 years ago.
[In the interests of full disclosure: Adilee is related to your editor, being his mother's sister. As you may infer from her message, your editor comes originally from Delaware, which many people unfortunately perceive as nothing more than a particularly wide part of Interstate 95 between Maryland and New Jersey. But Adilee is correct in saying it is a hotbed of literary effort. The Delaware Literary Connection, which she mentioned in her message, published an anthology in 1999 titled Terrains, which is filled with poetry, fiction, interviews, and creative nonfiction, much of it with an environmental slant. If you're interested in the book, a note on the inside cover promises that it's available at RainBow Books, a retailer in Delaware. You may not be able to buy the book on the web, but the store has a site: http://www.rainbow-online.com/default.asp. You can at least get the phone number and call. Another disclosure: one of the pieces in Terrains, a funny and touching story called "Kayaking on Dry Land," was written by your editor's lifelong friend, Robert Hambling Davis.]
Another Note from Delaware
This was a good edition [ATM #17]. In the past, time and other limitations cause me to have not read your newsletter carefully. But I read this one completely.
[Editor's Note: the Newark Free Library is in Newark, Delaware. This is beginning to look like our special Delaware issue. Jim Neal is a friend of your editor. He's right about Samuel Johnson. Johnson got just about seven and a half pages in the fourteenth edition of Bartlett's, but perhaps even more telling: he got 13 footnotes, which may be the largest number for any individual in the edition.]
More On Pat Schroeder and, Incidentally, the Modern Age
A cavil regarding Pat Schroeder ["Former House Rep Beats Up on Librarians," ATM #17], who I agree is an impressive and admirable ex-Congresswoman. (I felt that Mondale should have chosen her rather than Geraldine Ferraro as his Veep in 1984.) Howweverrr...., as Professor Irwin Corey used to say, I think that she had a deleterious effect on American armed forces and readiness just because of her influence in the Congress, relegating virtually every other military concern to the one issue of the status of women. Luckily, we can afford some of this right now since both Hitler and Brezhnev are dead.
[Editor's Note: Modern Age is published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Its website (http://www.isi.org/) describes the winter 2001 issue as "devoted to the theme 'Science and Conservative Thought.' As the issue's guest editor, John Caiazza, formerly an academic dean at Tufts University, explains in his introduction, ours is an age in which the natural sciences have made the principal contributions to the advance of human wisdom. To say as much, however, is to discover a problem. Scientific knowledge is but one portion of human knowledge: 'The theories, insights, and discoveries of science must be integrated in some way into the vast fund of human knowledge and experience, as represented by the traditions of Western civilization.'" Another disclosure: John Caiazza is a good friend of your editor, who has been known to fraternize with conservative thinkers. Thanks for the copy, John. It is coincidence that the Intercollegiate Studies Institute is located in Wilmington, Delaware.]
At The Margin has 947 readers, not all of whom are related to or friends of the editor. Most of them, however, are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 946 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (firstname.lastname@example.org).
6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to email@example.com. Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.
This Issue's Sentence:
There will be a short interval.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
That night, Martin Laing dreamt of Cosima for the first time since leaving New York.
There was one guess this month. Gavin, webmaster of Small
Beer Press (http://www.lcrw.net), correctly identified the book as Baraka by John Ralston
Saul. Gavin also had this to say: "So do I win some kind of prize at this point,
or do I have to overtake Brian Doyle (with about 16 correct guesses) :)"
7. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.
The Luddite Reader
"...is the website for the technology dysphoric, phobic, paranoiac, and the merely cranky. It features selected books, films, music, and other resources for folks who would like to turn their backs on technology, if only they could be sure that it would not sneak up on them so. " http://www.ludditereader.com/
People have been writing in the margins of books since there were books. Somebody has made a study of this (Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books by H. J. Jackson), and Frank Kermode has written a long review-essay about the book. http://www.thenewrepublic.com/032601/kermode032601_print.html
This site is the online catalog of The Museum of Depressionist Art, founded by Bagasse Mumblestoats with paintings "liberated from French restaurants, bars, and bordellos" during World War I. You can see "Moaner Lisa," "Madonna on the Rocks," "Still Life with Prozac," and "Self-Portrait of the Artist with His Ex-Wives," among many others. http://www.dearauntnettie.com/museum/
Nearly all e-mail messages you receive with requests to forward them are hoaxes. That includes all those virus warnings, pleas for Afghan women, children who want postcards, promises of money for forwarding e-mail, all of them. If you don't believe it, then bookmark this site so you can check on some of these messages before you forward them. Clogging up Internet bandwidth with useless messages is as irresponsible as littering in a national park. http://hoaxbusters.ciac.org/
A Nice, and Developing, Effort
Bob Brooke is a writer and photographer who is turning his website into a resource for writers. If you click on the "Writer's Corner" button, there are links to pages of tips on grammar, book proposals, marketing, avoiding writer's block, copyrights, and some other stuff. He calls the site "Writing At Its Best," and while it looks useful, I think perhaps he exaggerates. Be warned that the site plays Scott Joplin music at you as soon as it begins to load (if you prefer silence, press the pause button on the slider on the left side). http://www.bobbrooke.com/
If you liked this issue of At The Margin, forward it to a friend, and encourage him or her to subscribe.
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(c) Copyright 2001 Floyd Kemske
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