Sunday, September 21, 2014

Big chill around the campfire: how writers are being silenced

A Writerly Chill at Jeff Bezos’ Fire


(Blogger's note: this is a New York Times article which I have illustrated in my usual non-literal/linear way. I have added italics for emphasis. A lot of italics. A lot of shit going on here.)

Jeff Bezos of Amazon has rented Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa in Santa Fe for Campfire, a literary gathering, this year. CreditRick Scibelli Jr. for The New York Times

When Jeff Bezos tells writers to keep quiet, they obey.

Every fall, Mr. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, hosts Campfire, a literary weekend in Santa Fe, N.M. Dozens of well-known novelists have attended, but they do not talk about the abundance of high-end clothing and other gifts, the lavish meals, the discussion under the desert stars by Neil Armstrong or the private planes that ferried some home.

Writers loved it. There was no hard sell of Amazon, or soft sell, either. The man who sells half the books in America seemed to want nothing more each year than for everyone to have a good time. All he asked in return was silence.

For four years, the bargain held. But the fifth Campfire, which writers say is taking place this weekend, is a little different. Amazon’s acrimonious battle with Hachette, the fourth-largest publisher, is fracturing the secrecy and sapping some of the good will. (Amazon will not confirm that the event is even happening.)

The struggle between the retailer and the publisher is ostensibly over the price of e-books but really over profit margins and, ultimately, the future of publishing. The conflict, which is unlike any in recent publishing history, has inflamed tensions across the literary spectrum. It began six months ago and appears unlikely to end any time soon.

Jeff Bezos Credit Win Mcnamee/Getty Images

Some repeat Campfire attendees who have supported Hachette in the dispute say they were not invited this year. Others say they are having second thoughts about going. The event has become as divisive as the fight.

“My guess is a lot of writers turned it down this year,” said James Patterson, who attended last year’s festivities. Mr. Patterson, whose novels are published by Hachette, gave a speech in May, when he warned that Amazon needed to be stopped “by law if necessary, immediately.”

“I wasn’t invited again, and I wouldn’t have gone if I had been,” he said. “I would feel very odd being there.” He noted, however, that the event had been “terrific.”

Hugh Howey, a self-published science fiction novelist who is one of Amazon’s most dedicated defenders, is in Santa Fe but said he had not wanted to go.

“I asked not to be invited back this year, as I want to be able to speak my mind and not have any hint of a quid pro quo,” he wrote in an email.

But this kind of openness is not for everyone. Some writers, when contacted about their past attendance and asked whether they were going this year, reacted with something akin to terror. One writer begged not to be mentioned in any way, insisting that it was a private, off-the-record event and should remain so, lest Mr. Bezos be offended.

The Amazon mogul does not make attendees sign nondisclosure forms. His team just cautions them that the weekend is off the record. Even those who like to share their every thought on Twitter and Facebook have kept it that way.

Ayelet Waldman has attended Campfire with her husband, Michael Chabon. Both novelists signed an open letter this summer in support of Hachette authors, whose books Amazon is making it harder to buy as a way to achieve leverage in the dispute. Ms. Waldman, who gained fame by publicly chronicling some of her most intimate feelings, including loving her husband more than her children, did not respond to emails about Campfire.

An Amazon spokesman declined to discuss Campfire. A spokesman for Mr. Bezos did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Traces of Campfire on the Internet are decidedly rare. A publishing newsletter mentioned the 2011 event, saying it included Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and the directors Jason Reitman and Werner Herzog. Diversified Production Services, which helped stage the 2011 event, describes it on its website as a “private gathering and conference of influential artists, writers, activists and scientists for a sharing of inspiration and stories.”

The company listed the “featured talent” that year as Mr. Armstrong as well as Margaret Atwood, the musicians T Bone Burnett and Moby, and George Martin — presumably the “Game of Thrones” novelist George R. R. Martin and not the Beatles producer.

A spokeswoman for Ms. Atwood declined to comment except to point out that the writer was in Europe this weekend. Mr. Martin could not be reached. Mr. Armstrong died in 2012.

Whether or not fear of Amazon is legitimate, it exists.

When Authors United, a group of writers, reprinted the open letter denouncing Amazon’s tactics in the Hachette dispute as an advertisement in The New York Times, 17 writers and a trust split the bill. Douglas Preston, the founder of the group, said the writers willing to be identified were Mr. Patterson, David Baldacci, Lee Child, Nelson DeMille, Amanda Foreman, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Stacy Schiff and Scott Turow. Mr. Preston also paid a share, as did the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Seven other contributors asked to remain anonymous. “They were quite specifically worried about the possibility that Amazon would single them out for punishment,” Mr. Preston said.

An Amazon spokesman did not respond to questions on the subject of fear.

Campfire this year is being held under the conditions of utmost secrecy, as usual. Mr. Bezos has rented the entire Bishop’s Lodge Ranch Resort and Spa, which is set on 450 acres a little north of Santa Fe. If you call the front desk seeking a particular guest, the operator will not ring the room or even take a message. There are guards at the front gate to prevent the curious from getting too far.

Mr. Bezos, who built Amazon from its dot-com roots as a bookseller into one of the country’s biggest retailers, knows the psychology of writers, several past attendees said in interviews. “You come to this exclusive event, you are treated fabulously and you get access to the next Steve Jobs, who happens to control how many books you sell,” one said.

Employees at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle have to pay for their perks, down to the treats from vending machines. And the company is famously tough on its suppliers; the Hachette conflict is just one example. At Campfire, however, there is no stinting.

There are impressive dinners, accompanied by live music. There is horseback riding, skeet shooting and lazing by the pool. In the mornings, there are formal talks on highbrow topics. One guest fondly recalled that the swag included down vests, fleeces, shoulder bags and small suitcases to carry all the loot home. Getting back to mundane reality was postponed for the attendees who took one of the private jets. (Others say they took scheduled flights.)

Mr. Howey said Campfire was nonpartisan. “They invite all kinds of people with all kinds of stances,” he wrote in his email. “You’re the first person I’ve heard suggest that people turned this down, so I’m inferring from you that the Hachette standoff has created tension?”

The literary world overflows with tension and invective these days. People are choosing sides.

Maxine Hong Kingston, who was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Obama in July, was a Campfire attendee but is not coming back. She signed the open letter.

“It seems that I’m not invited,” she wrote in an email. She declined to say anything else.

Like I said, a lot of italics. 
It is hard to know where to start here. I feel like I'm reading about William Randolph Hearst, so powerful that no one dared to stand up to him - so, no matter how corrupt his actions, everyone had to be his "friend". They were too frightened to be anything else.  I am disgusted at all the elitist fat cat writers who gleefully took the bait while pretending not to know they were being seduced: hey, aren't writers supposed to be more aware, more conscious, more sensitive, even more conscientious than the rest of us? Surely they would KNOW if they were being bribed into silence. But could it be they KNEW they were being seduced, and didn't care because it's nice to be dipped in melted butter once in a while? 

What bothers me most of all is the emphasis on secrecy, on keeping it quiet. This means that people in the writing community are being effectively silenced, and putting up with it because they are afraid that speaking out will cost them too much. Sacrificing your integrity is a mighty high cost for a deluxe weenie roast, I'd say. Don't go on the record saying anything against Amazon, or - . Oh! God! There goes my career, Henry! The fact I don't have one, and Amazon is partly to blame for charging junk-sale prices for my novel, means I can say whatever the hell I want.

The irony is that for years I thought Amazon was the best online company to deal with: I never once had a problem with cancelling an order, or returns, or getting things late, or ANYTHING. I have dealt with them for years, because - why? Because, like Kleenex Brand, they were "there", and slowly but surely getting bigger and better at their particular brand of con. With all the lying, deception, intrigue, secrecy, bullying and fear, there's a trace of McCarthyism here, of witch hunt, of who's-side-are-you-on, and it stinks to high heaven, while everyone is looking around sheepishly and saying, "What?" Don't you want your books to sell? What's wrong with discounting them, anyway? Isn't it an advantage to be able to buy six or seven copies for the list price? What are you complaining about?

. . . But that's just me.

It wasn't so long ago we were hearing a version of this in Canada, only it was about Chapters-Indigo. Now that particular brew-haugh-haugh has died down, mainly because now we know that it's no use, we're not going to change anything or get any of our real book stores back by snarling about a high-end gift shop with a few books in the back. Since there are no book stores in my community, none, I (an author, yet) don't go to bookstores any more - I can't get to one. I have to order them online. But where can I go for the best prices, best service, etc.? I think the only answer is to stop buying books altogether.

I don't like hearing about campaigns of silence because they reek of the dynamics of abuse. It means there is something SO special going on that if you tell anybody else, something very bad will happen. So hey, just keep it to yourself, don't say anything. It's our little secret, remember?  That's how it is with special things, and special people. And that is how it is going to stay.

Scat-singing Popeye

There must be, somewhere, and I know there is, a better version of Popeye's famous or infamous scat-singing version of I'm Popeye the Sailor Man. But I can't exactly go through 211 cartoons or whatever it was, to find one. This is from the dreadful 1960s made-for-TV series, which I had the misfortune to spend $40 on for a boxed set, thinking my grandchildren might enjoy it. Don't buy these, please, they're complete duds, not only poorly animated but with no plot whatsoever, no story. This is the only good feature, and it comes complete with transcription for singing along. So toast up some marshmallows, roast some weenies, gather the kiddies around the fire, and Sing Along with Popeye. Or try to.