Archive for the The Literateria Category

The Shape of Fiction: Structuring the Novel

Posted in The Literateria, Upcoming Events with tags , , , , , on 02/03/2017 by Janet Fitch

On Feb. 10, I was invited to speak on a panel about the Shape of the Novel with Christian Kiefer (The Animals), with whom I frequently teach at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers,  also Jeff Jackson (Mira Corpora) , Esme Weijun Wang  (the Border of Paradise) and Kirsten Chen (Soy Sauce for Beginners).

Like most writers, I am fascinated by the shapes the novel can take. What a commodious form it is.  It encompasses everything from straightforward chronological  stories– from the 19th Century novel in third person, Anna Karenina say, to the more contemporary and voice driven version first person variety, like Sapphire’s Push, to braided narratives like Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible–where the story is handed off between stories or characters, each advancing the work further. It’s a shape popular among writers, because it’s so useful. It gives us somewhere to go when we’ve exhausted  a certain narrative burst–we can hand it off to the next character’s story line.

There’s the retelling of a story from the point of view of a minor character (The Wind Done Gone, Grendel) and the Rashomon-style narrative, where the same territory is readdressed by  a number of different points of view.  A work like the Alexandria Quartet involves many of these shapes. The first book, Justine, is Darley’s story,  but the second book, Balthazar, interlineates the first one, “here’s what you didn’t know at the time”–like Rashomon. The third book , Mountolive, goes back and describes how the situation came to be (prequel), and the fourth, Clea, moves the narrative forward again.

There are novels made up of single sentences, like Markson’s work–Readers Block is my favorite–and Carole Maso’s Ava, and novels that are one single sentence, like Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch. There are novels that are closed universes (Pynchon’s novels, especially Gravity’s Rainbow) where everything comes around again, and there is no ‘outside’ the system.  There are epistolatory novels–novels in letters like Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The White Tiger, and novels in diary form, like Diary of a Madman and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and novels with framing devices (an older character thinking back in time, say, like Evening by Susan Minot) or a past story and a present story like A.S. Byatt’s Possession.

Then there are novels which begin with shape as a game.  Mark Danielewski’s genre-breaking visual novels  the multivolume The Familiar,  House of Leaves and Only Revolutions all contain literary and visual games.  Only Revolutions, for example,  has 360 pages, 36 lines per page, and eliminates whole categories of vocabulary in support of its protagonists, young his-and-her gods in the making. So no religious words, no structural words, no interior words. I loved the way that the two narratives begin, his and hers, one at either end of the novel, and cross in the middle.  You read through and then you flip the book over and start again.

The ultimate gamester is the Oulipo group’s Georges Perec, the one who eliminated the letter e from his novel A Void–which called for a tremendous discipline, as e is the most used letter in the French alphabet, and precludes the use of “the”(le) or “I” (Je.) The Void was not only  the absence of ‘e’ but also the story of an absent person the others search for. The obstruction absolutely shaped the story. In his novel Life a User’s Manual, stories arise from the examination of the contents of a French apartment house, rooms visited on a grid via the knight’s move, with hundreds of obstructions–which he saw as “a machine for inspiration.”

So the shapes and obstructions and rules writers set themselves  aren’t there to frustrate themselves but as challenges and  prompts to the imagination.  In Joyce’s Ulysses–very loosely based on the Odyssey–each chapter was written in an entirely different style.  Rabih Alameddine’s I, The Divine is a novel comprised all of opening chapters as a woman tries and fails to tell her story in various ways.  On the flip side, John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman gives us three different endings.

With many of the more innovative shapes of novel, the reader has to learn how to read the novel as they go.  That is certainly the case with Danielewski’s typographically intricate works, and notoriously with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the reader must decide whether to read the text and the footnotes concurrently, or get to the end of a chapter and go back for the footnote, or read all the way through, and then go back and read the footnotes all the way through.

There’s the nested novel, like Cloud Atlas, stories within stories–I call this the Sargasso Manuscript novel, from the movie where each character tells a story, and then that story is interrupted by the tale of a character within that story–going down seven layers and coming back out. Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days was an interesting example of the same-ish story being told three times, in three different genres–ghost story, noir thriller and sci fi. His novel The Hours was more a braided story, but elements of each story bleed into the others.

And don’t forget the novel in verse, which I think is enjoying a comeback due to the openness of young adult fiction to new genres and mashups–many popular young adult novels are written in verse such as Ellen Hopkins’ Crank which will result in an adult audience which isn’t as doctrinaire about genre as past generations. In the adult category, novels in verse can be anything from the tight meter and rhyme of Vikram Seth’s San Francisco novel Golden Gate–Onegin stanzas they’re called, in homage to the greatest of all novels in verse, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin–but there’s also the looser, more narrative free-verse werewolf novel Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow.

And I’m reaching to describe the brilliant motival technique of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano, which I’ve always called the Spiral Novel. This novel is shaped by the buildup of images (motifs), like a Beethoven concerto–you get the image or phrase once, then it comes around again and gains power with each repetition, as more emotion and resonance adheres to it. (Like the first time Oaxaca is mentioned, it’s just a place. Then 40 pages later, he says, “Oaxaca meant divorce.” after which every time it’s mentioned, it gains more gravity.) There are hundreds of images and phrases like this whirling around in the book–the feral dogs, the barranca or crevasse which runs unpredictably through the landscape, the Peter Lorre movie Los Manos d’Orlac ) repeating and repeating as it whirls tighter and the images grow ever more dense with meaning  until the whole thing explodes inside your head.

For myself, I’m working to shape the reader’s emotional experience. So I work mostly on what I call the symphonic level–like a longer piece of music, or an opera. I want to have big thunderous moments and quiet ones. I want to have the full chorus singing their lungs out, and then a solo, a duet, a trio. Then chorus again. I like to follow an interior scene with an exterior one, day with night, active with meditative-and keep changing it up.  I’m mostly thinking, how is the reader experiencing this?

Wish you good writing!

 

Story of a Book Cover

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , on 12/24/2015 by Janet Fitch

Having a book translated into foreign languages is probably the most thrilling experience for a writer, the times that make me feel most like an “author”. What a privilege, to be read by people from cultures very different from my own–always tantalizing to imagine what they think of this world I’ve created, Los Angeles in 1980, the punk era, the sensibilities and values. And the book covers too reflect the flavor and taste  of those countries.

Paint it Black began almost simultaneously in English and Dutch. Here’s the big, beautiful American hardbound.

pib hbd US.jpegPublisher, Little Brown and Co.

This cover surprised me–I assumed it would be BLACK!. In the UK Virago published it in two smaller formats–the tiny mass market one is adorable.

The Dutch version is also a stunner– Portret in Zwart. Such a cool title — wish I’d thought of it.  The Dutch publisher, De Bezije Bij, is a venerable and interesting house, founded during the resistance in occupied Holland.

pib dutch portret in zwart.jpeg

Many of the foreign editions used the white cover.  Here, the German hardbound version flips the image to the left and uses a green spine is –publisher, Lubbe Bastei.

pib german.jpeg

The Italians go for modernist–the cover has  cutouts, which become the diagonal-cut flap. Publisher is Il Saggiatore, Milan.

italian pib.jpg

Sweden made this beautiful swath of black. “Saknaden”–it means “Missing.”

pib swedish.jpeg Bokförlaget Forum, publisher.

The Israelis used the leather door into the grandfather’s study for their moody book cover suggestive of the madness in that household. Publisher, Modan.

PIB israel.jpg

I love the Romanian punk cover, including the character of Ming, which features in the book.  A little reprise of the girl’s back from white Oleander…

pib romanian.jpg

The Lithuanians took it in a different direction–also the girl’s back… but a more 60s graphic look.

pib lithuanian.jpgpublisher, Versus Aureus.

The Polish Paint It Black has a flap that folds out to show the entire image. It also goes with blue instead of white.  Publisher, Bertelsmann, Warsaw.

pib poland.jpg

When the paperback came out in the US, I was happy when it was decided to use the photo from the Dutch version, lightened and reddened, melded to the text design of the white book.

pib pbk US.jpegBack Bay Books, publisher.

pib turkish.jpg The Turkish version uses the same cover. Pegasus Yayincilik, publisher.

The Serbian translation, publisher Laguna, used a similar type and tone in the photo, but did a back:

paint_it_black-dzenet_fic_s.jpg

The Australian version keeps the art but turns the red type to white. (don’t know why WordPress keeps inking in weird black marks in the white, but you get the idea).

pib aus.gif

And the Dutch paperback went with a somber black and white:

pib dutch paper.jpg

What’s next?  A movie tie in cover? French? Russian?  Fingers crossed!

When I have more time, I’ll compile the White Oleanders and Kicks.

On Editing as Improvisation, a review

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , on 11/30/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t stop thinking about a book I read this summer, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch, especially the portion on revision. In honor of all the writers editing their work this winter, I wanted to share this wonderful book with you, specifically about its treatment of the revision process.  Good luck to all of you, I wish you good editing!

The right book at the right time saves lives, and man, you can say that about Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art by Stephen Nachmanovitch

The thing about play in art, is it’s a sign of strength to spare, wind to spare, like someone running a marathon who breaks out into a pirouette. Sometimes working on a long project, the task just seems monstrous–like trying to build a gothic cathedral all by yourself. This book is a reminder, for a writer in long form, that it’s not stone on stone, a heavy, exhausting thing. That play, like the free jazz that the violinist author Nachmanovitch loves, makes heavy work light. That there are other ways to solve problems, other ways to approach the page, and that improvisation, the lightness of it, the in-the-momentness of its playfulness, IS the ‘air that falls through the net’ that Neruda describes.

Here’s my favorite part — on editing.

“In producing large works… we are perforce taking the results of many inspirations and melding them together into a flowing structure that has its own integrity and endures through time…. We arrange them, cook them, render them down,digest them. We add, subtract, reframe, shift, break part, melt together. The play of revision and editing transforms the raw into the cooked. This is a whole art unto itself, of vision and revision, playing again with the half-baked products of our prior play. …

“Editing must come from the same inspired joy and abandon as free improvisation…. There is a stereotyped belief that the muse in us acts from inspiration, while the editor in us acts from reason and judgment. But if we leave our imp or improviser out of the process, re-vision becomes impossible. If I see the paragraph I wrote last month as mere words on a page, they become dead and so do I…

“Some elements of artistic editing:1. deep feeling for the intentions beneath the surface; 2. sensual love of the language; 3. sense of elegance; and 4. ruthlessness. The first three can perhaps be summarized under the category of good taste, which involves sensation, sense of balance and knowledge of the medium, leavened with an appropriate sense of outrageousness….”

I will definitely put Free Play on the shelf right next to The Art Spirit within arm’s reach of my writing desk, to remind me about the air that falls through the net. I can’t be reminded of it enough.

 This review of Free Play  first appeared on my goodreads page. 

A Night with Patti Smith

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 11/17/2015 by Janet Fitch

I can’t get enough of Patti Smith. Not since first seeing her in Portland Oregon in 1979, an artist I’d never heard of, but the ticket was $2, so why not? She took the stage, in an old theater–this skinny… boy? girl? in white shirt and necktie. She began, in a voice that was both gravelly and breathy, very very slowly: Jesus died… for Somebody’s sins… BUT– NOT –MINE! she screamed.  The audience went nuts. I went nuts.  My sins, they belong to me…. And then launched into the rock standard GLORIA–with the sexes remaining unchanged.  It was permanently mind-blowing.  My mind is still blown.  Like someone whacking the top of my head with a board.  Ever since, I’ve craved more–the music, the poetry,  the preacher-like gestures with those sensitive, little-tipped fingers–rising, hushing, reaching out. The power of her voice, her control of it, belting, murmuring. The rhythmic skeins of language–chants and incantations, true bardic rapture.  Her unabashed joy in art and in the things of the world, her sense of outrage, her sheer energy.

I have seen her turn gray, and sweeten with the years, a real surprise. Then her book, Just Kids, was published. It absolutely charmed me, a gorgeous recollection of how artists are made, that’s what got me about it, what commitment to art looks like,  the attitude of wonder and openness and goofiness and non-judgement–here’s my review of it on goodreads if you’re interested: Just Kids

A new book has now hit the bookstores, M Train, a dreamy memoir, and to celebrate, she came to LA and spoke at the Los Angeles Public Library Aloud series last night, in conversation with the novelist Jonathan Lethem. Of course I dumped everything to be there. I’d drive 100 miles just to hear how her mind works.  It’s so inspiring to see an artist who considers herself an artist. Who still has a creative vision as fresh as it had always been, whose layers of wisdom and experience manage not to rob her of her artistic vitality, her openness to the world–something I treasure more and more the older I get. How cheerful she is, unpretentious and direct, without any pose– unless naturalness itself is a pose, and if it is, it’s the best one to have.

The book sprang from a dream. She allowed one association to suggest the next, uninterrupted, and then explained that she edited it down and inserted small title heads so readers can rest and orient themselves, little ‘stations’ on the mental train… – Lots of pieces from her travels, photographs… I look forward to just spending time again inside her mind–that quick, broad, childlike, unjudgemental, alert, appreciative space.

Here are some notes from the evening I managed to jot down in the dark.

I learned that she works simultaneously on a number of books at once. “This was the first one to cross the finish line,” she joked.  She jokes a lot–I love the way she  takes her work very seriously, but not herself.  She spoke about her sense of responsibility to the reader, to the audience–“There was such responsibility in Just Kids–to chronology, and the people and the times.” To get it right. Where the new book is more a meditation, a dreamlike work.  She enjoyed writing M Train because it works associationally–didn’t have to be as responsible to truth and people in the outside world.

I liked hearing her talk about the difference between writing lyrics and writing poetry. She was talking about   a poem she wrote about Amy Winehouse and her death, which became a lyric to a song,  “This is the Girl.” She’d written it, and then her bass player shared a piece of music he’d written, and she realized that her poem would fit it perfectly. But the difference: “There’s a responsibility with a lyric, to others.” With a lyric, you have to think about the audience being able to understand you, follow you, it also has to not  violate the mood of the music.  “But with a poem, the responsibility is to the poem itself.  There are a lot of different sensations encoded in poetic language. Your blinders are on this way”–she held her hands up in front of her eyes–“in, towards the work.” The poet’s task is not to explain or make clear to the outside world, but to speak to the work, to deepen within the poem, a very intimate thing.

A lot of her musical work is improvised, a process that fascinates me, part of that shamanic element of her poetry. It often starts with a riff from the musicians, like  in Radio Ethiopia, or that incredible run in Birdland, about Wilhelm Reich and his son Peter, one of my all-time favorites. The musician starts, and then she mprovises language out of that, around that, a real bardic trance.

Great questions from the audience. Here were a few of them:

An audience member, an actor and writer, asked her about how to find/define success.  She said, “My definition of success is doing something really good. That you can read again and know it’s good. even if it doesnt get published or anything, even if nobody else sees it, I’ll read it and go, man, that was good!”    Not numbers or sales or followers, image etc. Just to do good work. “How it transformed other people, that’s another way.” Its contribution to the conversation.   And simply accepting that she’s an artist who does work across genres–“I always wanted to be Joan Mitchell. I saw her sitting in front of a big canvas in a film once, and she’s smoking and she said, ‘I’m a painter. That’s what I do.'”  But Smith’s been a poet, writer, musician, performer, mother, wife, all of those creative parts.

There were lots of references to films and other poets and writers. She lives in a cultural world, everything from Funny Face–‘that’s who I wanted to be, Audrey Hepburn in her little beatnik pants, working in a bookstore.’ to Rimbaud, Nina Simone, Blake,  Moby Dick–“I read it when I was about 13–but I skipped the whaling chapter.  I was a good reader but I’m a girl, and I skipped the whaling.”

About gender: “I staked the right not to have to be fettered by gender.”

One audience member asked her what she would recommend for reading material for juvenile offenders who are looking at long sentences. She said, “Who’s to say.  Depends on their reading level. With one you could give them the Glass Bead Game, with another it’s comic books.  The one thing that can’t be incarcerated is your imagination.  Genet was in jail at 14, and read Proust. It changed his life.  Who’s to say that a little thug like that shouldn’t read Proust. I think we should widen the choices of prison libraries.”

On the subject of responsibility, an audience member asked about writing non-fiction, ‘what if you’re writing about someone very close to you, who would be hurt…’ a question frequently asked of memoir writers.  Smith surprised us by saying that you have a responsibility to the living breathing people around you… that in Just Kids–full of real people. She felt a responsibility not to hurt anybody, even the ones who–she didn’t even say hurt her, she looked for a kind way to say it ‘weren’t that careful with me.’ “Books last a long time.  I think you should be careful with people in print. It’s up to you, but that’s what I did.”

“I’m not afraid to look uncool.” What I like best about Patti Smith is her absolute lack of cynicism, of irony, of beentheredonethat.  Her direct apprehension of reality, her mixture of air and earth–her emergence as the quintessential American artist. I left there inspired in about nine different ways. THIS is how to be an artist. THIS is how to age–joyfully.

Four Literary Questions

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , on 12/29/2014 by Janet Fitch
This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
#
 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
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The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
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I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
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1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
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2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
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3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
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4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
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It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?

The Writing Life–Coffee with Alice

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , on 09/19/2014 by Janet Fitch

 Lots of thoughts about writing and life and the writing life in this Alice Carbone interview. Online this morning athttp://www.alicecarbone.com/2014/09/janet-fitch-interview.html

Dear Mr. Bezos

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria on 09/02/2014 by Janet Fitch

The following is a letter I wrote to Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos on the Fifth of July, in the hopes of reaching him directly. As I never heard from him, I’ve decided to make it an open letter.  My books and many other authors’ books are being artificially delayed this summer, new copies often made unavailable and bargain copies substituted. The careers of new authors are being purposely crushed in the nest as the preorder buttons on their books have been removed. All these are hardball tactics in the retailer’s dispute with my publisher, Little  Brown and Co., a division of the Hachette Book Group, over the price of e-books. (Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times wrote a good capsule summary: Amazon and Hachette: the Dispute in 13 Easy Steps.)

The actual cost of publishing books includes paying author advances, editorial and clerical salaries, publicity, marketing and all the other costs of creating books for us to read. Publishers know their own business. For Amazon, it’s simply an aesthetic decision, how a certain number looks to a consumer. Like saying “all houses should cost $25,000, because people like that number.” But what houses? And who will build them?

As a middle-aged woman who has had some luck as a writer, I’d like this profession of author to remain a possibility for young writers in the future—and not become an arena solely for the hobbyist or the well-heeled. What will be lost when working writers no longer can support themselves pursuing their ideas, their art? What will be lost to this country, if these most talented can no longer make a living? I am making this an open letter, because I believe we are at a crossroads, and decisions are being made now which will affect our country permanently.

July 5, 2014, 10:41 a.m.

To: jeff@amazon.com [this is a public address at which he invites correspondence]

Subject: Service, power and responsibility

Dear Mr. Bezos,

As a reader and an author, I find Amazon does a wonderful service, but is in danger of killing the little central nugget from which the rest of your vast online business stems. Amazon is a marvelous conglomeration and delivery system for products of every imaginable function. But the book “business” is really not the same as the sale of lawn rakes or adapters for telephones. It is the intellectual and cultural lifeblood of this nation or any nation.

To have amassed such influence in our culture, and to use it in such a negative way, to give and withhold, to distort, to silence–to silence! is what is usually done in totalitarian countries with a political agenda–but which Amazon is doing for the sake of squeezing out the last drop of profit. As a result it is undercutting the ability of writers to live and create, the ability of publishers to gather and refine and put the best of the best before the public, rather than reinforcing and strengthening the components of our intellectual and cultural life whose future you, at bottom, hold in your hands.

The sheer amount of power you have gained in the literary marketplace negates any disingenuous argument that it’s just “business as usual.”  With the amount of wealth and power Amazon has accumulated, you’ve also put yourself into a position of  responsibility–wanted or unwanted–for the intellectual life of the country. You have seated yourself at that table.  I urge you to consciously accept that  responsibility, and respond to it by treating the small amount of your business which is represented by literature with fairness and even–understanding how important to the life of our society books are–preferential treatment.

The difference between a symbiotic and a parasitic relationship is that in symbiosis, the host is not harmed in any way. The two organisms work together for mutual benefit. In a parasitic relationship, the growth of the secondary organism outstrips the ability of the host to sustain itself.  Unlike symbiosis, a parasite kills its host, and eventually, itself.

I ask you to please reconsider the effect of your demands upon publishers, authors, readers, and our democratic nation as a whole.

Sincerely,

Janet Fitch