June 21, 2014

I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read My Beloved World.

In a piece titled "Royalties and Teaching Help Fill Bank Accounts of Justices," the NYT reports:
Justice Sonia Sotomayor did not report any book earnings in 2013, though she received nearly $2 million in advances in 2012 for her memoir. Sales may not have exceeded the advances.
Oh, really?

How many copies of the book "My Beloved World" would need to be sold to cover a $2 million advance?

Is it ridiculous to think that such a book would sell that much? Maybe not. Look: It sits atop Amazon's "Best Sellers in Hispanic & Latino Biographies" list. Doesn't it fit the agenda of public schools that have been assigning "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" all these years?

I'm thinking about "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," not because of the recent death of the author, Maya Angelou, but because there was a post up at Andrew Sullivan's place yesterday titled "Do Critics Really Matter?," which quotes a Evgenia Peretz Vanity Fair piece about Donna Tartt's book "The Goldfinch":
[W]e might ask the snobs, What’s the big deal? Can’t we all just agree that it’s great [Tartt] spent all this time writing a big enjoyable book and move on? No, we cannot, say the stalwarts. Francine Prose, who took on the high-school canon—Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury—in a controversial Harper’s essay, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read,” argued that holding up weak books as examples of excellence promotes mediocrity and turns young readers off forever.
Now,  I bet the death of Maya Angelou happened after the Vanity Fair issue was beyond recall. The reference to "I Know Why the Caged Bird Cannot Read" became — unwittingly — indelicate. But I was motivated to reread Prose's 1998 essay (subtitled "How American high school students learn to loathe literature"). You'll need a Harper's subscription to get in there, as I did, and unfortunately, the PDF is just photoscans of the old magazine pages, so I can't cut and paste the passages. [ADDED: try here.] But I'll type a few things:
First published in 1970, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is what we have since learned to recognize as a "survivor memoir, a first-person narrative of victimization and recovery....

One can see why this memoir might appeal to the lazy or uninspired teacher, who can conduct the class as if the students were the studio audience for Angelou's guest appearance on Oprah. The author's frequently vented distrust of white society might rouse even the most sluggish or understandably disaffected ninth-graders to join a discussion of racism; her victory over poverty and abuse can be used to address what one fan, in a customer book review on Amazon.com, celebrated as "transcending that pain, drawing from it deeper levels of meaning about being truly human and truly alive." Many chapters end with sententious epigrams virtually begging to serve as texts for sophomoric rumination on such questions as: What does Angelou mean when she writes, "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is rust on the razor that threatens the throat"?

But much more terrifying than the prospect of Angelou's pieties being dissected for their deeper meaning is the notion of her language being used as a model of "poetic" prose style. Many of the terrible mysteries of college freshman can be solved simply by looking at Angelou's writing.
Prose loathes Angelou's "murky, turgid, convoluted language" and the muddled metaphors and similes, like "The man's dead words fell like bricks around the auditorium and too many settled in my belly."

But this is what educators want to upload into young brains, and why wouldn't "My Beloved World" become an equivalent bestseller? One hypothesis is that Sonia Sotomayor didn't suffer enough or that she was insufficiently critical of American society. I haven't read the book, but the description at Amazon says she had "a precarious childhood, with an alcoholic father (who would die when she was nine) and a devoted but overburdened mother," but:
With only television characters for her professional role models, and little understanding of what was involved, she determined to become a lawyer, a dream that would sustain her on an unlikely course, from valedictorian of her high school class to the highest honors at Princeton, Yale Law School, the New York County District Attorney’s office, private practice, and appointment to the Federal District Court before the age of forty.... Through her still-astonished eyes, America’s infinite possibilities are envisioned anew in this warm and honest book, destined to become a classic of self-invention and self-discovery.
American's infinite possibilities! A poor girl figures out how to excel in the legal profession by watching television! Wonderful, but how is this destined to become a classic of self-invention and self-discovery?

Ironically, it sounds like exactly the view of America that conservatives love — freedom, opportunity, mobility, optimism. But Sotomayor is a liberal judge. Conservatives aren't going to champion it. As for liberals, her story doesn't fit their agenda of teaching kids about the terrible injustices and secret oppression that is everywhere in America.  And I suspect it's written in a straightforward style, not with any of these rusty razor blades to the throat and auditorium bricks in the stomach.

And that's why the caged bird cannot read "My Beloved World."

47 comments:

Michael said...

The Angelou book is crap. Millions of kids have been forced to read and talk about this excreable writing as though it were a work of great art.

I am sure the publishers thought, and maybe rightly, that the judge's work would be another of those compulsory best sellers, a goldmine with veins stretching far into the Latino, the wise Latina, future.

Witt's End said...

Professor Althouse, the text of that article is available here: http://markthis.edublogs.org/2007/10/24/i-know-why-the-caged-bird-cannot-read-part-1/ (that's a link to part one; link to part 2 is at the bottom of the page.

surfed said...

Here's how she sells that many - Librarians are given X amount of dollars. They have a list of books from the established vendors. The vendors want to move said book. It's prominently listed as a Supreme Court/Female/Minority book and it checks off all the major boxes and so saying gets ordered. Repeat that for every middle school and high school college library and public library in the United States.

William said...

Do people still read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith seems to have had many similar experiences to that of Sotomayor. Her father was was an alcoholic who died when she was young. Her mother was hard working, but the kids grew up in poverty. The novel was set in the years just before WWI. Poverty was a far nastier phenomenon back then. It could literally kill you......The main characters in the story all survive and, indeed, prevail, or, at any rate, go on to become members of the middle class.......I remember it as a hopeful book. Those who worked hard and saved and kept their kids in school came out all right in the end. But, of course, they were all white so there are no relevant lessons for the children of minorities.

Hagar said...

A long, long time ago, before any racial or other modern day problems to be corrected were heard of in Norway, Norwegian high schools still managed to instill in their pupils aversion and abhorrence of anything called "literature."

It takes a while after you grow up to come to the realization that at least some of it actually is quite good and worth reading.

Saint Croix said...

I found it here.

Ann Althouse said...

@Witt's End Thanks. I added that link to the post.

Ann Althouse said...

"Here's how she sells that many - Librarians are given X amount of dollars…."

I agree that it should get in libraries, but I don't think it will be a required book for the classroom like Angelou's book.

That was a HUGE advance.

cassandra lite said...

Calculations for whether a book earns out--that is, makes back its advance and goes into profit for the author--are easily done if you know the list price of the book. On the first 10,000 copies sold, 10 percent of the cover price accrues to the author's account. On the next 5,000, 12.5 percent per copy sold through at retail accrues. Every book sold through beginning at 15,001 copies earns 15 percent of the cover price.

I don't feel like doing the math, because I've never had a $2 million advance. For quarter million-dollar advances, you need to sell about 60,000 copies at retail--and I should add that these numbers don't change regardless of the actual retail price.

It's not easy to sell 60,000 copies, as Hillary discovered this week.

Oh, there are also other revenue streams, such as foreign rights, which in the Justice's case aren't likely to be high, and ebook royalties, which can be. Those are calculated according to a liquid formula that can be unique to each publisher. Book of the Month Club revenue is often helpful but rarely determinative, and of course there's always the paperback version. Those royalties accrue to the same account at, for trade paper versions, 7.5 percent of the cover price.

Film rights never (or almost never) are shared with the publisher. That money goes straight into the author's pocket and thus has no impact on whether the book earns out.

Skeptical Voter said...

In my neck of the woods, if I want to hear from a "wise Latina", I talk to my neighbors.

Ann Althouse said...

@Saint Croix I got that far, but for me it goes to a dead end after the first page.

cassandra lite said...

Library sales on a book with a $2 million advance won't budge the needle much, if only because they're not usually sold at the full rate. "Special sales" and bulk sales use different calculations.

madAsHell said...

Poverty was a far nastier phenomenon back then. It could literally kill you......

Today, it just makes you fat.

Chance said...

I'm too old to know, but are any books written after 1980 required reading in today's high schools? So to even speculate that a current book could find itself required reading seems a waste, as the most important criteria for making the cut is the passage of time.

Anonymous said...

I think Obama had it right: Write the books before your achievement, and tightly control and pump-up your image and see how far you get.

People are desperate to have certain 'narratives' fulfilled these days, way beyond facts and empirical evidence and even the kinds of change they'd like to see achieved over time (progressivism is all about cramming change down everyone's throats RIGHT NOW on the way to utopia, often without facts and evidence but with ideology and emotion).

***This strengthens the argument for me that in lieu of religious morality tales, many people are choosing popular narrative forms in which to see themselves and regurgitate the proper conventional wisdom and dominant ideas of the day.

But notice how upset some people get if feminist, or woman's equality, or diversity goals, or the right messages aren't portrayed in popular culture.

This allows some people to influence the culture through ways that real artists will always challenge by staying true to their art, whatever truths they have to tell.

Birches said...

Do you know which was the most popular required book in my high school? Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. The teachers loved it because they knew that most of their kids would actually read the book and enjoy it! I doubt it's still on the approved list.

I thought of A Tree Grows Up in Brooklyn too.

If teachers are looking for proper, check the box perspective that's also interesting, perhaps they should assign The Blind Side. But then again, it might not fit the oppressed narrative either.

Sotomayor's story can seem rather conservative, unless you've read her opinion in Schuette.

rhhardin said...

Today Dick walks Spot with a pooper-scooper.

Levi Starks said...

I'm waiting for the "middle aged white men who've done nothing of any special significance biography" category to be created, then I'll see how big of an advance I can get.

St. George said...

Her publisher Vintage is a part of Random House, and Random House is part of the globe-girdling media conglomerate Bertelsmann that's involved in TV, radio, internet, books, magazines, cable and God knows what else. She should recuse herself from every since case involving the media!

Paying a U.S. Supreme Court Justice $2,000,000 is good business. Doesn't matter if she doesn't sell a copy.

Her agent took 15-20 percent. The ghost writer probably $100k. After taxes, the Justice probably took home $750 maybe over a period of 3 years. Nice work for probably 20 hours of chats with a writer and reading what that person wrote.

As for Maya Angelou, anyone with kids now in school will tell you that literature classes have been chopped into politically correct segments with books by Black author being read at certain times, books by Indians, books by Black Women, etc. It's all fairly dismal. Here's the Maya Angelou link above which quotes her abysmal text.

EDH said...

Public officials and others subject to ethics and conflict of interest laws should only get royalties from books sold, not out-sized advances.

Advances for low-selling books are nothing more than conduits for bribes.

MayBee said...

It depends how her advance was structured, whether she has to pay it back or not.

Didn't Wonkette get into some trouble lately for not making her advance?
For the most part, I think publishers just give their political favorites an advance as an income, not really intending or hoping to actually make money off their book.

Michael K said...

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is actually a good read. The rest is crap. Kids don't read even when there are good books, like "The Redwall Series" of children's books.

The parents who are brave enough to do without TV, and there are a few, are far ahead of the game, especially if they homeschool.

Fernandinande said...

Justice Antonin Scalia took more trips than any of his colleagues in 2013, filing for reimbursement on 28 excursions, including one to Peru, one to Germany and two trips to Italy.

Why should he be reimbursed for his vacations?

Bill Harshaw said...

Never read the Angelou but you might be right the Sotomayor book wouldn't have the same appeal to the (far) left. I liked it and I'm left. However, this Atlantic article says her advance was $1.175 million. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/how-sonia-sotomayors-memoir-outsold-clarence-thomass/273064/ which roughly agrees with wikipedia, though she had a separate contract for the Spanish version. My guess would be we'll see a correction or explanation in succeeding days.

john said...

Needless to say, Angelou was never nominated for membership into the Pancho Barnes TBATTW* Club.

(You would be interested to know that with Carole Kaye nominating her, Jerrie Mock got in, first round.)

*"I'm Too Busy Accomplishing Things To Wallow (in This Victimhood Crap)".

St. George said...

You can be sure that her advance was structured so that she wouldn't have to return a penny, and obviously she got her money up front because everyone involved knew it would only sell a paltry number of copies in Spanish or English.

Ann Althouse said...

"Today Dick walks Spot with a pooper-scooper."

Spot wasn't even leashed. No one walked Spot. Spot ran around and did what he liked.

Probably got hit by a car every year or so and got replaced by a new Spot, also called Spot.

It was risky of Mother and Father to go with a spotted cocker spaniel. Mother and Father were the daring type, I guess. In my 1950s family, they got a honey-colored cocker spaniel, named it Honey, and when it got hit by a car, they got another honey-colored spaniel, named it Honey, and no one had to tell the little daughter a dog had died. With a spotted cocker spaniel, a kid might get suspicious. I don't remember this paw being black.

Then Honey 2 got hit by a car, and my parents didn't keep up the scam with a Honey 3. "It's too sad when they die," my parents said.

Not like the daring Mother and Father of Dick and Jane. There's always another spotted cocker spaniel to palm off as "Spot."

Somehow nobody ever got the idea to put up a fence or tie up the dog.

Life in the 50s.

Ann Althouse said...

"I'm waiting for the "middle aged white men who've done nothing of any special significance biography" category to be created, then I'll see how big of an advance I can get."

Those are the most adulated writers of all. Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen… the literary gods.

The genre categories are the affirmative action after years of exclusion.

We'll let you know when Ordinary White Man needs a boost.

Ann Althouse said...

"Why should he be reimbursed for his vacations?"

The judges go to conferences and do lectures at law schools (in pretty places). They not only get reimbursed, they get fawned over.

I admire the judges who don't spend their free time that way, like Justice Thomas, who RVs around America and former Justice Souter, who went back home to Weare, New Hampshire.

Kelly said...

My daughter will be a Junior next year. So far she has had to read Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Book Thief, Romeo and Juliet. I'd much rather have her read The Color Purple than Caged Bird, but I guess that's a matter of taste more than anything.

David said...

Hat tip to Francine Prose, a excellent writer, who is a member of the no bullshit party.

Hillary's $2 million pay day was not an advance. It was a legally sanctioned bribe. They know it's pretty unlikely that a second rate, punch pulling self aggrandizing pre campaign book is going to earn back their investment (which is considerably more than just the $2 million.) But they do not care if they earn it back. It's an investment. (And a tax write off.)

Hillary could easily write a book that would earn more than $2 million. But it's not this book.

William said...

"You didn't build that." That's only applicable to white men. White men who overcome adversity only serve to demonstrate the awesome power of white male privilege. Women and especially women of color have the only true inspirational stories of courage and fortitude........There used to be stories about pioneers and sodbusters clearing a farm, raising a family, and fighting Indians. We now know that they are the villains of American history. Their story is now openly mocked. See the recent Lone Ranger flop......Betty Smith's great novel of Immigrant life, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, was updated by Mario Puzo. In The Godfather, an immigrant family succeeds in America not by hard work and endurance but by being more corrupt and violent than the American society that surrounds them. Oh, horseshit.......I don't think all that many Italians owed their success in America to Mafia connections. I do think that Maya Angelou and Sonia Sotomayor would have fared far worse in countries that celebrated African and Hispanic values as regards ambitious women.

David said...

My dog Spot was actually named Ginger. She lived for 17 years, and died after a happy and well loved life. We got Ginger when I was about 6 years old, and she died after I graduated from college. A sweet, sweet dog.

Ginger ran loose, as did all the dogs in our neighborhood except for one or two that were essentially house dogs. We lived in an area of very low traffic, and nearly all the traffic was from people who lived more or less in the same area. This was very safe for Ginger, who was very smart about cars.

Later we moved to an area where it was less safe for dogs to run loose, but by then Ginger had the hang of it. She was old and after years of roaming with the neighborhood child pack, she preferred her own yard.

Good old Ginger, gone all these years but certainly not forgotten.

David said...

Scalia is on a mission, and will speak as often as he can. He enjoys speaking and enjoys the interplay with students and audiences. Just like Thomas enjoys his RV trips and Souter loves New Hampshire.

Kirk Parker said...

St. George,

"literature classes have been chopped into politically correct segments with books by Black author being read at certain times, books by Indians..."

The latter CERTAINLY not including V. S. Naipaul.

Jupiter said...

"A motion passed by the San Francisco Board of Education in March 1998 mandates that “works of literature read in class in grades nine to eleven by each high school student must include works by writers of color which reflect the diversity of culture, race, and class of the students of the San Francisco Unified School District…The writers who are known to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, shall be appropriately identified in the curriculum.”

Your children are not guilty. Do not send them to prison. Homeschool.

Michael K said...

"Somehow nobody ever got the idea to put up a fence or tie up the dog.

Life in the 50s."

When I was in the 8th grade in 1952, we got a cocker spaniel named "Esquire." He became my father's dog and, when my father died in 1969, Esquire was 17 and had trouble getting up so I had to put him to sleep. He was never restricted to the yard and never "neutered." There must have been 50 dogs in the neighborhood who looked like him. That's probably why he lived so long.

broomhandle said...

When I was in high school it was Black Boy and Native Son. Wright is ten times the writer that Angelou is, but he had the white liberal's number so it wouldn't be surprising if they were no longer as comfortable with him.

cassandra lite said...

@St. George said:
"You can be sure that her advance was structured so that she wouldn't have to return a penny, and obviously she got her money up front because everyone involved knew it would only sell a paltry number of copies in Spanish or English"

All advances in mainstream publishing are given "up front"; hence the word "advance." And no advances are returned no matter how poorly the book does in the market. Once the publisher accepts the manuscript, all advance monies are guaranteed--unless there's some uniquely unusual clause.

Gahrie said...

I'm too old to know, but are any books written after 1980 required reading in today's high schools?

In my experience, yes.

I am a high school History teacher. I was shocked to learn that my students don't read Shakespeare every year. Much of what they do read is feminist writing, Latino writing etc.

I am considered quite the Neanderthal when I argue with them that the kids (yes, even the Brown and Blsck ones) should be reading Shakespeare every year. ( we read two every year)

Gahrie said...

We'll let you know when Ordinary White Man needs a boost.

No you won't. If you would, the hot topic would be "How do we help more men go to, and graduate from college" instead of "how can we make college safer for women and punish men at the same time."

Levi Starks said...

"We'll let you know when ordinary white man needs a boost".
Implied "never", and in fact accurate.

rcocean said...

Yes, Jupiter I remember that SF Board of Education mandate and was quite upset about it. I was going to write a letter to the Chronicle, but then realized that 95% of HS students don't give a rats ass what's taught in English Lit. And that 95% of American adults would rather jump in bed of cactus then read Great Literature.

Anonymous said...

Seems I remember the press giving Gingrich's several books (and more substantial revenues) a much harsher review and treatment (calling them K-Street bribes, etc. - similar to many similar dem members of congress texts written before then - that they'd never bothered to call out) - until it turned out that all the income went to his educational foundation or somesuch. But that was never reported either.

Mary Beth said...

Slightly OT, but there is a Chrome extension that will let you copy text from an image - Project Naptha.

St. George said...

Mary Beth...nice painting as your image. Very clever. Very.

WiseAssLatino said...

2 million in advances. Wise Latina, indeed.