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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Will Publishing End Up With Just 2 Houses: Amazon and B&N?

Well hell, the word is ending somewhere, for someone, every single day.

I just read articles in the NY Times, Bloomberg News, Harper's and The Author's Guild that tend to support the notion that This Is It For Publishing. The wolf is at the door and it's hungry. Those are death rattles you here, etc. Here's the link for Businessweek/Bloomberg:

There's blame to go around, but Harper's traces it back to 1981 and Milton Friedman's Chicago School of Economics that gave us our free market/job destruction model, including trickle-down and privatization of basic things like water and transport. (So, thanks, Milton. Why didn't you just go run Chile with Pinochet?)

Okay, the takeaway: like newspapers. Yeah, look at the carnage. Feels familiar to where we were 10 years ago and the loss of classifieds to the internet hit the news industry like Dutch Elm disease.

Flash forward 10 years. Most papers are gone. Only one I read that's any good without a paywall is the LA Times and we know that won't last. But... Now the NYT paywall is working, sez NPR yesterday, hooray. The numbers are mingy, but at last the executives realize you can't give it away. The readers who will go elsewhere now have nowhere to go, unless it's to free cheap delights, which means they're not NYT people anyway.

Key observation: know your audience.

I can only find 7 things to read on the web--the NYT (restricted by paywall), WSJ (ditto), LA Times, Slate, The Atlantic and The New Republic (both thin online reads, but daily refreshed), and Tyler Cowen's economic aggregator blog, Marginal Revolution (he finds or gets great stuff). There's more out there, but I don't search for it or track it. The Guardian, Salon, etc. I do get an email blast from The Rumpus. He's got staying power, even if I need to take a shower afterwards.

Then there's my professional, ha, researches in the literary field. Not much going on in a daily basis at McSweeney's and its adjuncts. I keep forgetting the others, not a good sign. So where does this leave us?

And that was my last thought: B&N is now the distributor of traditional publishing, Amazon the rising Mafia that's snapping up all the channels and throwing nets of legal language around authors. Both B&N and Amazon are also publishers--but Amazon is going into it bigtime.

I think publishing is about to converge if the FCC will let it (who knows?). We will have two publishers left standing: B&N and Amazon. Just as the Big Six ate 40 imprints by 1983, we're heading to the Big Two. That will mean fewer authors-with-advances-and-marketing support, fewer new authors breaking out, and factories like James Patterson churning out more schlock with the help of hired elves.

Those of us who read the more literary stuff will be left on the outside looking in. To which the answer may be best borrowed from Billie Holliday:

God Bless the child that's got his own.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Lost Kingdom by Julia Flynn Siler, Q&A and review

This appeared in The Honolulu Weekly:

The Queen’s Speech

As the principals of The Descendants prepare to stroll down Oscar’s red carpet, and the 119th anniversary of Queen Liliuokalani’s overthrow is observed, a major and masterful new book about Hawaii hits the shelves. Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar Kings, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, is big, scholarly and highly readable. In it, Julia Flynn Siler traces the shady land transactions, the snares of debt and the extra-legal maneuvers that strangled the Hawaiian nation in its crib. Scrupulously fair-minded, she also doesn’t spare the monarchy, the alii and the court advisors their follies, such as King Kalakaua’s attempt to seize Samoa with a one-ship navy. But the cool telling and preponderance of evidence leave no doubt in the reader’s mind where the blame, and shame, ultimately belong.

This is a deeply researched book, filled with illuminating details. Can you describe some of your discoveries?

JFS In the four years I spent researching and writing this book, I tracked down pages from the royal cashbooks detailing loans to King David Kalakaua from Claus Spreckels, the Gilded Age tycoon known as the “Sugar King.” The king’s indebtedness was one of the reasons that his sister, Liliuokalani, ended up in such a difficult position when she ascended to the throne in 1891. I also found letters and other documents that offered glimpses of Liliu’s personality–her moments of scolding her sister for being flirtatious and her wifely pique at her husband for not picking up the fish she wanted, for example, as well as her diary entries which recorded the hot anger she felt at the white men who held her captive in her own palace.

Any other surprises?

JFS At the Bishop Museum archives, I found a page that Liliu had torn from the Book of Psalms. She had written in pencil: “‘Iolani Palace. Jan 16th 1895. Am imprisoned in this room (the South east corner) by the Government of the Hawaiian Republic. For the attempt of the Hawaiian people to regain what had been wrested from them by the children of the missionaries who first brought the Word of God to my people.” Finding that yellowed page, which she had presumably torn out of the Bible and written on during the first night of her imprisonment after a failed counter-coup, gave me chicken skin.

What were other influential sources?

JFS Meeting David Forbes, who is a leading bibliographer of Hawaiian history, influenced the shape of my book. He’d recently finished a many-year project to collect and transcribe every letter and document he could find involving members of the Hawaiian royal family. He gave me early access to that collection, which he’d generously donated to the Hawaii State Archives. Some of those letters have never been published before.

In the Wall Street Journal, you recently wrote about the legal issues underlying The Descendants.

JFS The filmmakers reached out to University of Hawaii law professor Randall W. Roth and others to drill down on the legal issues underlying the plot. Roth provided guidance on trust law to the filmmakers, particularly on the somewhat arcane subject of the rule against perpetuities. It’s a key point in the plot. Matt King and the other descendants of a Hawaiian princess and haole banker have inherited a piece of land, which is held in trust. They must decide whether to sell it because the trust itself, under the rule, must be wound down by a set date.

Can you comment on parallels between 1893 and now? An economic depression. Gambling on the legislative agenda. The economy dependent on sugar then, tourism now. The American military presence growing.

JFS Interesting comparison. Do you think we’re heading towards a new “Committee of Safety”?

Maybe the fruition of the old one. Was Liliuokalani handed a similar bum set of cards to Obama’s in 2009?

JFS No doubt, they both faced serious challenges when they took power. The difference is that Queen Liliuokalani was set up to fail in almost every respect, while President Obama, who entered office inheriting two wars and a global economic crisis that threatened to topple the US financial system, also had powerful political momentum on his side and a strong electoral mandate. Although President Obama’s critics would surely like to stage a coup against him, he’s still in office and may be again for another four years.

When Liliuokalani attended Queen Victoria’s Silver Jubilee, you say she was influenced by the lavish spectacle and the power and respect accorded this tiny woman at the center of the world’s greatest empire. Did she recognize Victoria’s position as largely symbolic?

JFS Queen Liliuokalani combined a western view of the somewhat limited role of a constitutional monarch with the ancient Hawaiian reverence for the alii–the high chiefs who held absolute power over the commoners. The view of the kingdom’s largely white business class was that she should just be a figurehead. She hoped to restore some semblance of real power to her position by introducing a new constitution in January of 1893–a move that became a pretext for her overthrow.

Was there ever a chance Hawaii would emerge a sovereign nation from the colonial squeeze play between Great Britain, America and Germany?

JFS Sadly, I think that was unlikely, given its strategic position in the Pacific. It was only a matter of time before it was swallowed up by a superpower. As the prescient nineteenth-century Hawaiian historian, David Malo, predicted, “they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”

How disastrous was King Kalakaua’s military adventurism in Samoa?

JFS It was a public relations disaster for him–his enemies turned it into a propaganda victory against him and the Hawaiian monarchy. But considering the energetic empire-building that was going on in the rest of the world at the time, it was truly a small matter.

How significant was Liliu’s talk of beheading the plotters of the Overthrow?

JFS The challenge of writing history is that you can’t ask your subjects to explain themselves. In this case, her statement about having her enemies “beheaded” was in the form of a conversation she’d had with a US envoy. That envoy then wrote down his dialogue with the queen in a memorandum and Liliuokalani signed it, attesting to its truth. Here were her words as reported in the memorandum: “There are certain laws of my government by which I shall abide. My decision would be, as the law directs, that such persons should be beheaded and their property confiscated to the Government.” My guess is that she spoke out of anger because she later retracted what she’d said. However, just as her brother’s Samoan misadventure was used against him, Liliu’s angry words were used against her.

As author of a book about America’s first family of wine, the Mondavis, do you see similarities to the Spreckels sugar family?

JFS Both in their talent for business and their passionate disagreements with each other, the Spreckels were the nineteenth century version of the Mondavis.

Do you see a parallel between the Mondavi sibling rivalries and those among the Hawaiian royal lines leading up to the Overthrow?

JFS Yes, there are parallels. But I challenge you to name a single dynasty–royal or otherwise–where there aren’t sibling rivalries or succession issues. These conflicts just seem to be part of human nature, though they stand out more clearly in cases where the families are powerful.

The Flowers of War, film review

This appeared in The Honolulu Weekly:

Band of Sisters
Zhang directs a visual stunner

Set during the 1937 Japanese siege of Nanking, The Flowers of War pivots around two groups of very different Chinese women who must rely on the stereotypical drunken Western rogue male, played by Christian Bale, to rescue them from a fate worse than death. Given that one group is a band of famous whores, the Ladies of the Qin Huai River’s Jade Paradise, and the second consists of a dozen helpless convent girls, you might think we’re in for some mildly titillating banter, a scary moment or two, sealed by a chaste kiss.

Instead, this is one crazy kitschy bloody lollapalooza, comparable to Katherine Bigelow’s Point Break in its staging of can-you-top-this scenes. Filmed in High-Steven-Spielberg-Definition so that you experience battle in all its gory verisimilitude, Flowers raises the stakes by tackling its most disturbing issue head-on. The threat of gang rape hangs over the convent girls the entire time, and not every girl escapes with her virginity intact, or her life. Think of Madeleinethe Orpheline with a Dragon Tattoo vibe–if you can stand it.

So that’s a warning for the faint of heart. This reviewer was no stranger to the Nanking atrocity, having stumbled on photos in an old Time-Life book on my grandparents’ shelves when I was eight or nine. And my father, who was in Shanghai when it fell in 1947, used to hold me enthralled with tales of the “open city” panic. Like many of Chinese ancestry or those with a China Hand in the family tree, I followed the saga of Iris Chang as her 1997 book, The Rape of Nanking, rose to bestseller status and triggered a vicious backlash. Even so, I was taken aback by several of the scenes (the most gruesome of which is documented, with photos, in Wikipedia’s “Nanking Massacre” entry. Discretion advised).

But director Zhang Yimou is hardly throwing a pity party. In transmuting Geling Yan’s novel, The 13 Women of Nanjing, Zhang adopts an operatic approach to counterpoint the hyperreal detail: Imagine Tarantino doing the Holocaust. The result feels like nationalistic myth-making, and, while stunning, is less history than propaganda. In what might be read as an overture to the West, the PRC censors even allowed Zhang to pull out every Christian-themed stop: stained glass windows, bare ruined choirs, choral singing, a humble organ. Though party-line correctness is refreshingly absent in the details, it rules both outline and affect.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t see it. Visually and acoustically gorgeous, with flashes of Bollywood amidst the Grand Guignol, Flowers is on a par with China’s Olympic Games’ opening and closing ceremonies, which Zhang also directed. Those spectacles paired Busby Berkeley with Leni Riefenstahl, far removed from Zhang’s early tragedy of 1920s Chinese marital customs, Raise the Red Lantern.

As the male lead, Bale is a poignant reminder of his movie debut in Spielberg’s underrated film of China, Empire of the Sun. Back then he played the ingenue, and John Malkovich the rogue. Now it’s Bale’s turn to follow the redemptive arc. I wish I could say he pulled it off without a hitch, but he’s been saddled with anachronistic lines that sound like a loop from Spike TV. (Often the trouble with these international vehicles–the writers trying to sound hip in three languages.)

As the leader of the fallen women, Ni Ni is alluring (with her own arc to complete). Indeed, all the scenes with the Jade Paradise gals are infused with poetic and historic allusions to China’s courtesan culture. But the film’s true find is the 10-year-old boy played by Tianyuan Huang, who has been running the convent school since the death of the old priest. The power of his performance stems largely from the role he plays in the story, but like Bale in Empire, he’s made his mark out of the gate.

Lorrie Moore once wrote that opera is sculpted howling. That pretty much describes The Flowers of War. It’s mind-blowing, but that’s not entirely a compliment–we need our minds in these times. Still, if you can stomach the roller-coaster ride, it’s a helluva flick. You won’t want to ask for your money back.