Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997

H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

The perils of "cultural pollution"... alumni in the film world earn acclaim... one wife's unsung efforts... an early morning photo shoot

Publishing's collapse is nigh
From a cursory glance, one could conclude that American book publishing is robust, and American literary culture on the ascendance. Publishers sold $20 billion worth of books in 1996, the most ever. Barnes & Noble and Borders open new superstores every month, sometimes within blocks of each other. Reading clubs have become trendy, singles have taken to spending Saturday nights appraising the clientele of bookstore coffee bars, and Time recently ran an article, "Rediscovering the Joys of Text," all about burgeoning interest in, of all things, reading.

Mark Crispin Miller begs to differ.

Miller: Good books are fighting for their lives.
"We're headed for a big collapse in publishing," Miller predicts. The professor and chairman of the Hopkins Writing Seminars believes that American publishing houses are in the hands of too few--and the wrong--owners. He expects several independent presses to fail before year's end, further reducing diversity and competition. The superstore derby has, paradoxically, made life tougher for publishers, as retail chains buy books in huge numbers to stock their miles of new shelves, only to return them in unprecedented numbers when nobody buys them. Bad books are worse than ever, he says, and good books fight for their lives. Of the media conglomerates that control book publishing, Miller says, "They have engaged in an act of cultural pollution, and we all breathe that air."

Miller recently published "The Crushing Power of Big Publishing" in The Nation. With research assistance from Janine Jaquet, he created a chart that shows how all but two major American publishing houses are owned by just eight conglomerates. Those conglomerates, he charges, have little or no interest in book publishing per se; they are interested merely in how publishing furthers their other ventures in broadcasting, cinema, music, and politics.

For example, says Miller, if Rupert Murdoch wants to ingratiate himself with the political right, he has a publishing arm that can bring out (and pay royally for) books by Newt Gingrich, Margaret Thatcher, and Oliver North. To further his broadcasting ambitions in China, he can publish what was, by all accounts, an awful book by Deng Xiaoping's daughter.

Though the conglomerates want publishing houses for "synergy" with their other businesses, that hasn't stopped them from demanding unrealistic profits, Miller says. Independent publishers once thrived on an after-tax margin of about 4 percent; their new owners expect profits of 12 to 15 percent, which the industry simply cannot produce, says Miller.

The drive for profits has led publishers to hunt for the next big score, the next blockbuster, Miller says. Thus serious authors who generate steady but unspectacular sales find themselves with little or no marketing support, while editors chase celebrities who can't even write their own books. Though he says publishers have always turned out dreck, Miller believes the lowest common denominator keeps getting lower. "There has been a definite change in the attitude of people at the top of the cultural chain," he says. "If you treat people as idiots, you will make that the case. But I think it's reversible."

Miller advocates several steps. Congress should change the tax laws regarding publishers' inventories, he says. Publishers used to be able to maintain large backlists of titles that sold slowly but steadily. Then Congress ruled that publishers would be taxed on that back stock, to such an extent that it became cheaper to pulp unsold books rather than warehouse them. Now publishers need books that sell fast because they can't afford to keep them around. That means too many good books have, in the words of humorist Calvin Trillin, "a shelf-life like that of yogurt."

The government also needs to break up the media conglomerates, Miller says: "Nobody should exert that much power over the culture. I think there should be a national media reform movement based on anti-trust."

Despite the gloominess of his analysis, Miller says he remains hopeful, in the long run: "The audience is capable of sustaining great work. It was true in Shakespeare's day, it was true in Twain's day, and it was true in Hemingway's day. I'm always heartened by people's indestructible capacity to embrace great works." --Dale Keiger

Honors at the Oscars
It's not so rare for Johns Hopkins to appear in a movie, usually as a reference in the script. What is probably unprecedented is the essential involvement of three Hopkins alumni in movies that were honored at the 69th Academy Awards earlier this year.

Caleb Deschanel '66 received a nomination for his cinematography on Fly Away Home. Larry Meistrich '89 was executive producer on Sling Blade, which copped a nomination for best actor and an Oscar for best adapted screenplay. And Walter Murch '65 scored an uncommon double win--Oscars for both sound and picture editing for this year's big winner, The English Patient. Murch already had an Academy Award for sound on Apocalypse Now in 1980; he's been nominated five other times.

Meistrich, who in 1990 had founded an independent studio in New York, The Shooting Gallery, already knew an obscure writer and actor named Billy Bob Thornton when Thornton created the central character of Sling Blade, for a 34-minute film directed by George Hickenlooper. "I brought up the idea of doing a longer film," Meistrich says. He asked Thornton to write a longer script. "What came out in the movie theaters was the first draft," Meistrich says.

Meistrich raised $1.2 million from friends, family, and investors--including several Hopkins alumni--who had made money by backing previous Shooting Gallery projects. Budget in hand, Thornton shot the movie in Arkansas, and Meistrich sold the picture to Miramax, the distributor of independent films, for nationwide release.

The Academy honored Murch and three colleagues for the sound on The English Patient. Murch was the lead mixer, responsible for blending the dialogue, sound effects, and music. [The sound] "has to be artistically supportive of whatever the film happens to be saying at the moment. The English Patient was unique in that it had 40 transitions from one time frame to another. Sound can help you a great deal in making those transitions."

Murch recalls one night scene in which Hana, the English patient's nurse, is playing hopscotch. The rhythm of her feet on the pavement becomes the rhythm of Arab music that the lead character had heard 10 years earlier, transporting him back in his mind to that time. "One tiny thing like that will unlock a whole universe," Murch says. --DK

Beyond the call of duty
Odds are you have not heard of Alice Lowe, but because of her diligence, the final works of two Hopkins faculty members--both of them her late husband's--are now in print. First she shepherded the last book by art history scholar Christopher Gray, Armand Guillaumin (Pequot Press, 1972). Then she saw to the completion of philosophy professor Victor Lowe's final book, the second and concluding volume of Alfred North Whitehead: The Man and His Work (
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

Whitehead was edited by its author's literary executor, Hopkins philosophy professor J. B. Schneewind. He says, "Allie gets no credit for these two books, but without her they would not have appeared."

Lowe was married to Chris Gray for more than three decades. He had been born with spina bifida, and though surgery in the first day of his life corrected the condition, he was in frail health ever on. "They told me he wouldn't live but 10 or 15 years," Lowe recalls. "I was married to him for 31."

While Gray was working on a book about Paul Gauguin, he befriended a wealthy European collector, Oscar Ghez. Ghez had in his collection several paintings by Guillaumin, an impoverished close friend of Camille Pissarro, whose work had been part of the first Impressionist show in 1874. Guillaumin's work had fallen into relative obscurity in the 20th century. Gray decided to write a book about him.

"The last eight years of Chris's life were a perfect delight. I went around with him every place. As Chris became more ill, I promised him I would get the book out. He died in the spring of 1970. There was quite a lot of work to be done. Hopkins Press said it would not publish a dead art historian's work, so I had to go find somebody who was going to do it.

"A group that did editing for Yale agreed to edit it and put it in order, after I decided on all the color plates and black-and-whites. I delivered it to them in the fall of 1970." A year later, she and daughter Margaret took it to the printer in Italy. "There were two people out of 400 in that outfit who spoke English! By the time that book came out, I thought I had born it!"

She subsequently met Victor Lowe at Hopkins, and the two married. He was assembling the last volume of his biography of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead's family had granted Victor access to the letters Whitehead had sent to his son in England, letters that were of significance because the philosopher had burned his other papers.

"Victor really had his hands full," says Lowe. "I had the good sense not to try to know too much about philosophy, but I did know how to help Victor get through the day. I was really kind of the extra-man Friday. He would talk to me at night about what he had done. We had got to the last few months of Whitehead's life when Victor died. Jerry [Schneewind] and I promised that we would get that book out. And boy, we stuck by it."

Victor Lowe had essentially completed 11 of the book's 13 chapters. Schneewind says, "As far as it went, the book was written out. And where it stopped, there wasn't anything--no notes, no papers, no drafts." With the assistance of Alice and a few others, Schneewind put together the two concluding chapters and the book's appendices. "What Allie did was provide me with every resource she had," he says. Hopkins Press published the volume in 1990.

Lowe is 81, but continues to travel to California to fundraise for her alma mater, Whittier College. She laughs heartily and says, "For some reason, they like me." --DK

Waxing artistic
In May, the
Homewood Art Workshops staged its annual exhibition of student drawing, painting, cartooning and--for the first time- -photography. Among the exhibitors was Sona Aggarwal '97, a pre-med chemistry major, who showed a series of untitled candlelight photos.

Aggarwal shot the pictures at 5 a.m. in her apartment. When she couldn't get the right angle using a tripod, she propped her mom's old Olympus OM camera on a stack of books and used the camera's self-timer. The hands in the photo belong to her. She says she embarked on the candlelight project because she'd always found the light pretty, and for a second, practical reason-- shooting so early in the morning allowed her to run the film to the campus lab in time to get it processed before class later that day. --DK