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At The Margin
Vol. 3, Issue 2 (Whole Issue #28) March 12, 2002

Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.

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This Issue:
1. From Food Service to Literary Excellence
2. Writer Gets Out of Jail
3. A New and Sinister Meaning for "Reading List"
4. Production Notes
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words

1. From Food Service to Literary Excellence
Did you ever wonder where the Booker Prize came from?

Booker Brothers & Co. was founded in 1834 to trade in rum and sugar. In 1900, it merged with John McConnell & Co. and, in the 1920s, the company was the largest property owner in British Guiana. In 1968, it became Booker McConnell, and at that point it was a vast, diversified international business. It had a profitable publishing operation and published such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Dennis Wheatley, Georgette Heyer, and Harold Pinter. Also in 1968, Tom Maschler, a publisher at the firm of Jonathan Cape, approached Booker's management with the idea the company should put up a small percentage of its publishing profits to create a literary prize modeled on the French Prix Goncourt. The company liked the idea and agreed to fund a prize to be given annually for the best full-length novel in the British Commonwealth of Nations. The first Booker Prize went to Something To Answer For by P. H. Newby in 1969.

Booker McConnell continues to evolve independent of the prize. In 1999, one of its divisions, Booker Foodservice, renamed itself 3663 First for Foodservice. Booker plc is now part of the Big Food Group plc. Big Food Group has three main units: Booker Cash & Carry (which does food wholesaling), Woodward Food Service (which does food service), and Iceland (which does food retailing and owns the Booker Prize).

The prize is administered by Booktrust (an independent charity that promotes books and reading) and Martyn Goff OBE. Booker judges are selected from England's leading critics, writers, and academics. The prize amounts to 21,000 pounds, but these days the prize money is dwarfed by the worldwide sales increase the prize causes for the winner. The last five winners were The God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997), Amsterdam by Ian McEwan (1998), Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1999), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000), and True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2001). The next prize winner will be named in the autumn.

Last year, with the sanction of Booktrust, a television production company put a four-part television series on the BBC called Before the Booker. In the run up to the prize award ceremony, Before the Booker gave awards to novels published before the prize existed -- for the years 1847, 1928, 1934, and 1961. The show featured distinguished experts, moderation by Clive Anderson, and studio audience participation. The short-listed nominees included Catch-22, Tender Is the Night, I Claudius, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Jane Eyre, The House at Pooh Corner, and 10 others. Unlike the regular Booker Prize, the Before the Booker Prize allowed American books into the competition.

It must seem very strange to the management of a food service company that it puts up the cash each year to reward excellence in novel writing. And, in fact, Iceland Group has asked the Booker Prize Management Committee to find a new sponsor. The committee is in negotiations with a number of "interested parties" and is confident of finding a funding source.

For more on the Booker Prize, see The British Council page at http://www.britishcouncil.org/virtual/booker/ and the Booktrust site: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/.

2. Writer Gets Out of Jail
Speaking of the Booker Prize, one of its winners just got out of jail. Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, spent a day behind bars in India's Tihar jail for contempt of court. Roy was a leader in the Indian protest movement against the Narmada dam project. The dams would have displaced 400,000 people. For Roy's role in the protest, the Indian authorities accused her of inciting violence. She wrote an affidavit for her trial, which she published in a mass circulation magazine. The Indian Supreme Court cited her for contempt but let her off with a censure in 1999. But she has continued to argue with the court, and ultimately the court gave her a "symbolic" sentence of one day in jail and a fine of Rs 2,000. She was told if she didn't pay the fine, she'd have to serve another three months.

Roy went to jail on March 6 and spent the night deciding whether to pay the fine. In the morning, she paid the fine and was released, saying, "Paying the fine does not in any way mean that I have apologised or accepted the judgment. I decided that paying the fine was the correct thing to do because I have made the point I was trying make." She said the conditions in the jail were much better than she had expected them to be. The story is at The Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow.asp?art_id =3098554&sType=1. For background on the case, see this page at her publisher's web site: http://www.southendpress.org/books/arundhaticourt.shtml.

Roy's latest book, Power Politics (2001) includes a section about the behavior of Enron in her country, which was even more shameful than it has been in the United States. In 1997, the company was actually cited by a watchdog group for violating human rights when it hired thugs to beat up those who opposed its Dabhol power plant and paid off the police to look the other way. When the Indians stopped making payments on a plant that wasn't economical enough to sell power at less than seven times the going rate, Enron called in the U.S. government. The company even induced Vice President Cheney to act as its bill collector. You can read more of the story at http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0120-03.htm. For an exhaustive account: http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=12525.

3. A New and Sinister Meaning for "Reading List"
Last month, we ran a story about Tattered Covers, the Denver bookstore that resisted a police demand for its sales records in order to protect the privacy of a customer. Like many courageous actions taken on principle, it attracted considerable attention, with public meetings to support the bookstore and foreign and domestic press coverage about the case.

The law enforcement people don't like being made to look like bullies and snoops, and they really don't like it when people who refuse to cooperate with them are made to look like heroes. So Congress has taken steps to protect the FBI from the kind of coverage that the Denver police got in that case.

A law enacted last October doesn't just require booksellers to comply with law enforcement requests for customer records. It forbids them from telling anyone when a request is made. If the FBI shows up at a bookstore with a FISA (for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court order, which is sought and granted in secret proceedings, the law forbids the bookseller contacting anyone about it. If you think you can protect your privacy as a reader by going to the library instead of buying books, forget it. Librarians are subject to the same provisions: same surrendering of records, same gag order about it. It sounds like the kind of ordinance that might be dreamed up in the most backward of town governments, but it's not. It's a national law, and it applies to any bookstore or library in the U.S.

Can the FBI really keep a bookseller or librarian from calling anyone when its agents show up with one of their secret court orders? "Although the wording of the law seems to suggest that contacting anyone about the court order is forbidden," American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression advises booksellers, "it is ABFFE's belief that you remain entitled to legal counsel. Therefore, you may call your attorney and/or ABFFE. Because of the gag order, however, you should not tell ABFFE that you have received a court order under FISA. You can simply tell us that you need to contact ABFFE's legal counsel." But ABFEE's letter goes on to counsel booksellers to cooperate if the FBI won't let them contact attorneys. (http://www.abffe.com/fisa_letter.html)

The law in question is the USA PATRIOT Act. The law's name is an acronym for Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. It is obvious that more thought went into devising the acronym than went into protecting the privacy rights of American citizens.

In fact, no thought went into protecting the privacy rights of American citizens. In an unusual move, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Congress suspended its normal procedures, reviews, and hearings to pass the law. So its sponsors were never given the chance to explain how bookstore sales records have been used to track down terrorists (or how they might be). Now, if you live in the United States, your choice of reading material (unless you steal all your books or buy them at flea markets) is a matter to be reviewed by the Department of Justice. This is not simply an abstract idea. At least three of these FISA court orders have been served already, but nobody knows on whom (or how many others might have been served) because nobody's allowed to talk about them. Such orders may have been served on your local library or your favorite bookstore (or your local Wal-Mart). Right now, people at the Justice Department may be taking a break from covering up the department's nude statues to look over the titles you've been reading. For your sake, I hope it hasn't been anything that might get you in trouble. What kind of reading could get you in trouble? That's probably a secret, too.

For a story about the gag order provisions, see this Nat Hentoff column: http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0209/hentoff.php. For a librarian's view: http://www.ala.org/alonline/netlib/il302.html. The Electronic Frontier Foundation's analysis of the law's provisions: http://www.eff.org/Privacy/Surveillance/Terrorism_militias/20011031_eff_usa_patriot_analysis.html.

 

4. Production Notes
I did not keep my promise of an extra issue in February to make up for the one missing from January. I've been a little busy lately, teaching a course in novel writing. I am teaching for the Gotham Writers' Workshop in the online section. If you're interested, you can find out about GWW at
http://www.writingclasses.com/.

Online teaching has been a fascinating experience for me. Except for an optional one-hour chat each week, my course is entirely asynchronous. Each week, I post a lecture (actually a 2,000-3,000 word essay). The class discusses my lecture topic via messages posted to a web page, and the discussion goes on until the next week, when I post the next lecture. At the same time at another web page, four students submit chapters to be read and criticized by the entire class in the same way, via messages. My 18 students are all over North America, but two are in England, and one is in India.

After I've been through the course a term or two (they are 10 weeks each), I expect I will be able to meet my responsibilities more efficiently and will have more time to attend to other parts of my life, including At The Margin. So I should be able to send the extra issue sometime before the end of the year.

Floyd

 

5. E-mail to the Editor
Editor's Note: The messages we receive here at ATM often take on the character of a dialogue or conversation with the previous issue. You can find that issue on the web:
http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM27.html.

Portland as King of Used Bookstore Cities?
Your magazine (for that's what it is, really) is tart, strong, and hilarious, as usual. Two points:

1. I nominate Portland (Oregon) as the king of used bookstore urbs, partly for the inimitable Powell's (three million books and a store so vast and motley that maps are issued at the door, marriages have been performed in the aisles, and a baby was born in the science fiction/fantasy section), but also for Cameron's, which has no organizational principle at all, other than comics on the south side and essay collections in the front window. There's also the Listening Heart, a "spiritual books" store that sometimes seems to be where it is and sometimes seems to have moved, and the Looking Glass, which began in 1970 as a storefront passing out anti-war literature, and Broadway Books, which has drawn so many people to the store for music and poetry nights that the crowd spills into the street and has the reading there, and many more.

2. On the matter of translation, my favorite remark ever is from a young Japanese woman named Miss Imai, who, charged with translating an essay of mine from English to Japanese for an anthology in Japan, wrote to me to say, charmingly, "Dear Mr. Doyle: I do not understand your work at all."

yrs Brian Doyle

[Editor's Response: No man is a hero to his translator, Brian. Thanks for the laugh.]


Branding Still Works In France
A note regarding branding:

In bookstores in France, it is not uncommon to see a number of tables each with new releases by a particular publisher. Most books are published in trade paperback, often with a minimalist design distinctive to that publisher, and new books have "belly bands" announcing the publisher's name ("GALLIMARD" in 2" letters, etc.).

One particularly vital French brand is "Que Sais-Je?" ("What Do You Know?"), a series of very short books on various subjects published by Presses Universitaires de France which has several thousand titles in print.

I think branding by publisher was quite common until about the early 1960s in Anglo-American publishing. The Penguin Classics are one of the few examples of a viable brand in modern Anglo-American publishing. There have been some recent efforts to create brands -- Penguin has a short biography series called "Lives" which seems to be doing well. Branding is also active in some submarkets (Gambit in chess books, Springer Verlag's yellow books in math and physics).

One of the unfortunate consequences of the demise of branding in Anglo-American publishing is that new poetry and drama have largely fallen off the lists of major publishers. When publishers distributed their own catalogues, it was a mark of prestige to have poetry and drama sections with well-respected poets and playwrights (even if they weren't profitable).

Best regards, KWH

 

The Permanent Record Has More Problems than Acid Paper
I read your piece on acidic paper tonight and thought I would add my bit to "make your life a living hell." I am a picture framer near Washington D.C., who became interested in the preservation of art and artifacts 20 years ago. I have recently become concerned about the long term visibility and viability of documents written with felt-tip pens. I recently saw some inscribed photos from Bill Clinton that were about 5 years old. The message was almost faded. This modern palimpsest (my wife the other night mentioned this word and I am glad to use it before it fades from my memory) is occurring all over the world. If you think of all the modern writers who use computers with floppy disks, that retain information only for a limited number of years, and the handwritten manuscripts that were created with felt- tip pens, you will see that much of the history of this period will be lost.

I enjoy your newsletter when I have time to read.

Unsigned

 

A Report On the Naked Novelist
Don't worry about getting Real Player on your machine. It's simply not worth it. She stretches provocatively and giggles at something or other for about a minute and a half and then it's done. Looks like videos come out weekly too. Quite a meager offering to what looks like a huge audience. As for the actual writing... well you can check that out yourself.

Thanks for the great newsletter. Love it. Keep it up!

Aaron Kessman

[Editor's Response: Thanks for the reconnaissance, Aaron.]

 

Fun with Constitutions
While researching state constitutions, I found this in the Massachusetts document. I guess it means it is unconstitutional for you to be "without sincerity" or to be "bad-humored." I think it's wonderful that the founders saw fit to include this section. I like the virtues of "punctuality" and "generous sentiments." All men should heed.

Chapter V, Section II. The Encouragement of Literature, etc. Wisdom, and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties; and as these depend on spreading the opportunities and advantages of education in the various parts of the country, and among the different orders of the people, it shall be the duty of legislatures and magistrates, in all future periods of this commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences, and all seminaries of them; especially the university at Cambridge, public schools and grammar schools in the towns; to encourage private societies and public institutions, rewards and immunities, for the promotion of agriculture, arts, sciences, commerce, trades, manufactures, and a natural history of the country; to countenance and inculcate the principles of humanity and general benevolence, public and private charity, industry and frugality, honesty and punctuality in their dealings; sincerity, good humor, and all social affections, and generous sentiments among the people. (See Amendments, Arts. XVIII, XLVI, XCVI and CIII.) http://www.state.ma.us/legis/const.htm#cart103.htm

Unfortunately, the later amendments are far more humorless and much less generous in spirit. Written by stone-faced do-gooders.

Kennard R. Wiggins Jr.

[Editor's Response: Massachusetts did away with the Humor Police some time ago, but the Sincerity Police are still active and making life difficult for our advertising industry.]

At The Margin has 1,134 subscribers, most of whom 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 1,133 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (fkemske@thirdlion.com).

 

6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book by a famous writer that is at least 10 years old. 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 fkemske@thirdlion.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

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?

I'm waiting for your guesses.

Last Issue's Sentence

He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.

Of all the quizzes we have run in 27 issues of At The Margin, this one attracted the largest number of guesses -- eight. Jack Cline, Chuck Groth, Ed Hoffman, Elizabeth Hogan, John Lepre, Tom Owen, Susan Phillips, and Carl Wikander all correctly identified Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini. This is obviously a well-loved book among ATM readers.

Sabatini was the author of 31 novels, eight collections, a half dozen nonfiction works, one play, and a host of uncollected shorter works. He was born in 1875, the illegitimate son of two successful European opera singers, Anna Trafford and Vincenzo Sabatini. They traveled so much that, to give the boy a stable home life, they sent him to live with Anna's parents near Liverpool, where he acquired English. His parents retired from the opera when he was seven, and he went to live with them, first in Portugal and then in Milan. Like most middle-class children of the time, he was sent away to school, spending his teenaged years in Switzerland. He left school at the age of 17 to make his way in the world. Vincenzo, assuming the son's shrewd intelligence and command of several languages would be useful business tools, sent Rafael back to his mother's people in England, where the young man embarked on a career in international trade.

Sabatini had grown up a voracious reader, and at the age of about 20, he decided to take up fiction writing. Although he apparently had the choice of several languages to write in, he chose English because, he said, the best stories were in English. He wrote constantly and within four years began to sell short stories to magazines. For ten years, he later recalled, he got as little sleep as any man in England, while he continued to hone his craft. He began writing his first novel in 1901 at the age of 26. By the time his second novel was published, in 1905, he felt he could leave his day job and work at writing full-time. Thereafter he produced about a book a year.

In the same year, he married the English daughter of a Liverpool merchant. Four years later, they had a child and named him Rafael- Angelo, although they always called him Binkie.

From 1905, Sabatini continued to write novels with middling success for 15 years. During the First World War, rather than suffer conscription into the Italian army, he became a British citizen. He worked during the war as a translator for British Intelligence. In 1921, after being rejected by several American publishers, Scaramouche was published in England. It became an international best-seller and launched Sabatini on a successful career as author of swashbuckling historical romances, which ultimately included Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Fortune's Fool, The Black Swan, and The Sword of Islam. In the mid-1920s, he was both a celebrity and wealthy. In 1927, Binkie, driving his mother, wrecked his car. Sabatini himself happened on the scene of the accident in time to witness Binkie's death from his injuries. Sabatini's wife, who was thrown from the car, survived the accident unconscious and never had any memory of it. They divorced in 1931.

Sabatini's sales began to decline in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He retreated from public life and devoted himself to remodeling a house on the River Wye. He remarried in 1935. Then, when the Second World War broke out, his stepson, Lancelot Steele Dixon, joined the RAF. Dixon flew his airplane over the house on the Wye, and apparently showing off for his mother and stepfather, tipped his wings and crashed before their eyes. In the 1940s, Sabatini was demoralized by the war and his output of a book a year slowed. He died in 1950, on his annual trip to Switzerland. His wife, a talented sculptor, created a statue for his grave of a fallen man with a pen in his hand. For his epitaph, she chose the first line of Scaramouche.

Scaramouche, which takes place during the French Revolution, concerns the adventures of Andre-Louis, a young lawyer of unknown parentage. (Even without pretensions to psychoanalysis, it's not surprising that illegitimacy was a frequent theme in Sabatini's novels.) Andre-Louis is swept into the politics of the National Assembly and becomes a firebrand on behalf of the people. Along the way, he works as an actor and a fencing instructor and spends time as a fugitive.

Scaramouche begs comparison with A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel, both of which dwelled more on the horror of the Reign of Terror. But the reading public of every age has found a mirror for its fears, aspirations, and longings in the French Revolution. The audience for which Sabatini wrote was still grieving its losses in the First World War and trying to come to terms with the cynicism the war engendered and the plutocracy it seemed to expose. As the French aristocracy had given way to the French people, the genteel ways of the Victorians were finally giving way to the democratic brashness of the 1920s, although everyone hoped the Victorians would depart with less bloodshed.

Sabatini died in 1950. Other than my own musings about the French Revolution, I found the information for this item at a web site called The Life and Work of Rafael Sabatini, where you can find a picture of him (he was quite handsome), an extensive biography, a bibliography, reviews, and information on joining the Sabatini mailing list. But you will have to work through quite a few cookies, popups, and popunders: http://sabatini.virtualave.net/

 

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.

Copyright Is Out Of Balance
The Copyright Act of 1790 provided protection for 14 years. Congress has extended the protection period several times, most recently in 1998, so that it now stands at 95 years, an interval that makes no sense for individual authors but makes a lot of sense for corporations that want to monopolize properties like Mickey Mouse. Fair Use is pretty much gone. This article, unexpected in Business Week, suggests we should be better off if corporate copyright owners were not the ones writing copyright law.
http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/mar2002/tc2002034_ 6498.htm

Monsanto to Organic Farmers: "See You in Court"
Here's a case that shows you how difficult it is to write satire in this day and age. Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian organic farmer who complained his crops were being contaminated by genetically modified crops nearby (the "genetic drift" phenomenon) was sued by Monsanto in 2001 for stealing the company's patented genes.
http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=2146

Animal Self-medication
Why are sheep in a remote moor in the Shetlands biting the heads off live Arctic tern chicks? Maggie McDonald, an expert on the subject, says this bizarre practice is animal self-medication. She cites other instances of animals filling their own prescriptions. Interesting interview.
http://www.newscientist.com/opinion/opinterview.jsp?id=ns23315

Another Perspective on Predatory Sheep
This article acknowledges that sheep on that moor have a calcium deficiency that may drive them to attack baby birds. But it also observes that three miles from one of the documented attacks, a flock of sheep pushed a woman off a cliff, resulting in her death. Maybe they are just really nasty ruminants.
http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2-2002080998,00.html

Everything You Wanted to Know from Some Dead People
I love this site! During the year 2000, some web developers in England wanted to give students the opportunity to ask questions of influential (but dead) people such as Jane Austen, George Orwell, Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf and so on. They organized panels of experts to answer the questions in the first person, and then opened for business. The questions flooded in. They eventually had to stop, but they have archived the questions and answers. The Thomas Hardy page explains the origin of the phony marriage ceremony in Tess of the D'urbervilles that appeared in the serialized version but never made it into the book. Fascinating.
http://www.talkingto.co.uk/

Fooling Web Users for Fun and Profit
Another instance of unintentional satire... Seeing online advertising in crisis in 2001, a consortium of industry players created a nonexistent brand called YesSirNoSir and created an online ad campaign for it. Subsequent research showed "that online can have a dramatic effect on Brand Awareness and Message Association."
http://www.yessirnosir.net/

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At The Margin is published monthly, but is otherwise charmingly erratic. It aims for release sometime during each calendar month.

(c) Copyright 2002 Floyd Kemske

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