Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 17, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Selling Harry, Princess Academy, Headphones, ComicCon
I haven't read it yet, so there's I'm not reviewing the new Harry Potter. Besides,
this book will be in more homes than the Bible, so it's not as if anything I say
will affect sales.
Keep in mind that while many millions of dollars are being earned this weekend
by the rush of Harry Potter sales, almost none of that money will be earned by
bookstores -- not directly, anyway.
That's because a surefire seller like this becomes an immediate loss leader for
the big discount stores. Sam's Club and CostCo have to provide copies to their
members at such a ridiculously low price that they're certainly losing a few
cents on every copy they sell.
It's worth it to them because it's vital that they keep the confidence of their
members that they offer the lowest prices anywhere.
WalMart, Target, KMart and others probably sell slightly above cost -- but
that's not profit, since they have to spend so much time stocking the book.
And as for the bookstores, any profit they make is swallowed up in the extra
employee hours involved in staying open past midnight on the laydown date
and moving stock around to make room for the enormous Harry Potter
Even the publishers run the enormous risk that by printing enough copies to
meet the anticipated demand, they might have inadvertently overprinted and
will be stuck with copies they can't sell. Even if a book sells ten million copies,
if you printed eleven million, you've got a million unsold books.
So only Rowling is guaranteed an enormous profit from the book. And that's
fine -- she created it; it's hers.
Don't feel sorry for the bookstores, though. They think it's worth it for the
simple reason that many people don't buy just the one book. (People with that
idea in mind -- "Let's buy this book and nothing else" -- probably don't buy it
at a bookstore anyway.)
Bookstores are trying to piggyback other products onto the rush of Harry Potter
sales. There are even bookstores that are touting my new novel as something
that might appeal to Harry Potter readers.
Of course, there's also the theory that the Harry Potter novel is so thick that
many people won't need to buy another book for months, thus depressing sales
of everything non-Harry.
So we in the book business contemplate Harry Potter with Smeagol-like
I've been telling people for a long time that some of the best contemporary
literature is being written and published for children. And I'm not just
talking about Harry Potter.
And it takes nothing away from J.K. Rowling's series to tell you: I just read a
book that is, quite frankly, better than any of the Harry Potter books. (Though
of course it won't sell as well. Nothing does!)
It's by a writer named Shannon Hale, whose previous books (Goose Girl; Enna
Burning) got a lot of well-deserved praise.
The title is, of all things, Princess Academy.
It's a perfect title for a book, if the target audience is dreamy-eyed ten-year-old
And dreamy-eyed ten-year-old girls will adore this book. But not one whit
more than this old man did.
I believe it's a book for everybody. Grownups especially.
It's been a long time since I've read an adult novel with anything like Hale's
knowledge of human nature and human communities.
The story sounds almost formulaic in the simplicity of its situation. In an
imaginary kingdom, the priests announce that the heir to the throne will
choose his bride from among the girls in an obscure territory -- not even a
It happens that the only people who live in that territory are villagers high on a
mountain, who make their living by quarrying valuable linder stone for
So the rough, uneducated daughters of these quarry-folk are gathered up and
assigned a stern teacher who will make ladies out of them -- including the
training they'll need to help govern a kingdom. And at the end of a year, the
prince will come and choose one of them to be his bride.
What makes this book more than the predictable imitation of Princess Diaries
that it might seem to be is that Hale creates real girls who don't all want to be
princesses, and who are tightly bound to each other and the mountain.
There is a magical element in their world, and it's crucial to the story; but there
are no spells or fairy godmothers or pumpkin coaches. Instead, there are real
girls learning real-world lessons that nevertheless will set readers dreaming in
completely unexpected ways.
Above all, Hale knows that "realistic" doesn't have to mean "unrelentingly ugly."
In an era when writers strive to be "edgy," which invariably translates into
creating truly vile characters and situations, Hale offers us a world full of grief
and fear and loneliness -- but also full of love and trust and decency.
I was moved to tears and to laughter, and caught up in the grace and beauty of
the way Hale smoothly moves us into this village and the lives of these girls
and makes us feel at home there.
There are adventures and dangers, and the most compelling, believable,
poignant love story I have read in many a year. Compared to the life of this
academy, Rowling's Hogwarts seems almost a caricature of a school.
Don't buy this book as a gift for a child. Read it for yourself, then share it with
anybody you love.
And speaking of this love story, it's a relief to be back in a world where the
press of two hands or a few whispered words can be far more emotionally and
romantically charged than any amount of the nonsense that passes for
"romance" in our movies and tv shows and lives today.
By being so "free" these days, we have stolen romance from our children. Our
daughters grow up thinking they have nothing to offer a man but their bodies;
our young men grow up thinking that someone is cheating them if they can't
satisfy themselves however they wish.
It's sad that the gentle romance of this novel will feel like a fantasy to
many young readers.
But when I was young, this was the romantic world I lived in -- where a held
hand was full of daring and excitement, and it didn't occur to me for a long,
long time that I could even hope for more.
Where a first kiss might not come until late in one's teens, and decent young
men and women did not want to sully themselves by attempting sex outside of
Am I the only one who remembers that world? Of course many of my
generation were impatient with the rules that seemed to restrict us. But it was
those very rules -- the chaperones, the separation between the sexes, the
"repression" of "natural desires" -- that made romance even possible.
Why couldn't we, as a generation, have had the sense, the unselfishness to give
that same gift to our children? To let them chafe against the limitations that
kept them from disastrous mistakes and bitter memories?
Like cliche stage mothers, my generation acted out our youthful sexual
fantasies through our children's lives, turning them loose to fumble about in
matters too difficult and feelings too powerful for children to deal with.
Those who should have been chaperones instead taught little children about
condoms and thought that would make them "safe." From some things,
perhaps, but not from the worst thing: the cheapening of one of life's most
precious gifts into a small coin to be spent too soon, to gain too little.
A few years ago, some friends gave me a wonderful gift: Bose noise-cancelling
headphones. I had already owned a pair of Panasonic 'phones that supposedly
did the same job, but the Bose pair cupped my ears far more comfortably, and
the noise-cancelling was far more effective.
I could put them on during a long flight and tamp down all other noise so I
could sleep or concentrate on work or on whatever book I was reading.
So naturally, in the haste to get off an airplane and make a connection, I
idiotically left them nicely tucked away in the seat pocket of one flight or
another. It broke my heart. What a fool!
I went back to using my old Panasonics, but now I was unhappy with them.
So I tried the Brookstone ear-cupping headphones. They came much closer
to matching the much-missed Bose 'phones.
But recently I went another direction entirely. In a Laptop Lane I saw a display
of Shure earphones -- little earplug-style headphones.
I've tried earbuds before, and they always fall out of my ears almost
immediately. Unless I jam them in so tightly that they hurt.
They had models you could test, however -- which they cleaned off
antiseptically between users -- and I discovered that the tips of the earphones
were a comfortable, flexible, somewhat rubbery plastic that slid comfortably
into my ears and stayed until I wanted them out.
This in itself was somewhat miraculous. But even nicer was the fact that the
'phones I was about to buy had a selection of different-sized caps to let them fit
into many different-sized ears.
$179. That's way less than the Bose headphones, but way more than your
normal earbuds (which are usually given away free with MP3 players).
Here's the verdict: Worth it! To me, anyway.
They don't work like noise-cancelling headphones, which "listen" to the
ambient sound and emit frequencies that cancel out loud, continuous noises.
Instead, the flexible caps on the Shure earphones shut out everything.
This is a good thing, for some purposes -- sleeping on an airplane being one of
them. But if the flight attendant asks you a question, you literally cannot hear
a sound she's making, whereas you do hear voices, however faintly, through
regular noise-cancelling headphones.
And I wouldn't wear these earphones while running or walking on the street,
because safety requires that I remain able to hear vehicles approaching from
These earphones are so good at shutting out noise that they could get you run
over by a truck.
But for long flights -- especially west-to-east red-eyes, where it's essential that
you get some sleep or you'll be the walking dead upon arrival -- I have found
nothing that does a better job of shutting out unwanted noise while providing
excellent music quality and staying comfortably in place for hours on end.
I'd heard of ComicCon in San Diego -- the world's biggest convention for
consumers of illustrated fiction -- but figured that because I didn't read comics
or graphic novels, it wasn't for me.
To my surprise, however, during my current book-signing tour they booked me
to spend four days in San Diego -- the whole convention!
Why are they wasting time like this? Yes, I've recently authored a comic book
series, but the publisher who sent me to ComicCon was not the publisher of
those comics! No, I was being sent there to sell a regular book, the kind with
Guess what? There's a reason why a hundred thousand people flock to San
Diego to attend one or more days of this convention. Because it's about a lot
more than just comics -- though comics remain at the heart of it.
Traditionally, comics conventions grew out of the sci-fi convention tradition. A
bunch of fans get together, rent hotel space, and charge enough money to pay
the bills. They have panel discussions about various aspects of the art that
brings them together, they have displays of artwork, many of them wear
costumes as if they were characters in one of the made-up worlds -- and they
have a "dealers' room," where a few hardy entrepreneurs sell books and media
tie-ins and other paraphernalia. Everybody has fun, nobody gets rich, but the
bills are paid.
Add steroids, and you have ComicCon.
They still have panel discussions -- which are attended by hundreds and
hundreds of people.
But it's the "dealers' room" that dominates everything. Because instead of a
few hardy entrepreneurs, the big guys show up and the exhibits go on and on
Major movie studios have huge displays promoting current films, with teasers
and making-of featurettes playing on big screen tvs.
Electronic games publishers noisily promote their games, and people line up
in endless queues to play new games for a few minutes at a time.
And the comics publishers are all there, big and small. Marvel and DC, of
course, but also the quirky publishers who bring out innovative, clever, funny,
dark, compelling, delightful, or (sometimes) downright filthy comics, all of them
hoping that at this convention, their work will catch on with the public.
Artists and writers also attend in large numbers. For instance, I ran into a
booth where Roger Dean himself, the man who redefined fantasy art with his
magnificent covers for Yes albums back in the sixties and seventies, was
signing his work (http://www.rogerdean.com). (And the vendor who was
selling Dean's work was from, of all places, Apex, North Carolina!)
Then there was the booth where Michel Gagné was selling and signing copies
of his brilliantly perverse book Insanely Twisted Rabbits and other delights, like
Odd Numbers, a counting book in which each number is expressed by
particular body parts on extremely unusual creatures. Gagné and his wife
publish his work, and both were there in person to chat with and sign books
for all comers (http://www.gagneint.com).
There are many good fantasy artists, but the exigencies of illustration -- you
have to paint what the art director will buy, and you have to meet the deadline
-- often mean the work is hasty or ill-constructed. And, to be candid, not all
artists are equally skilled, so that paintings that look fine on book covers turn
out, on closer examination, to be ill-composed or badly executed or full of
incompetently drawn human figures.
A few artists, however, look better and better the more closely you examine
their work; one of them is the brilliant fantasy painter Ciruelo. His work is
painstakingly detailed, like that of the best wildlife artists, and his composition
and use of light are exemplary (http://www.dac-editions.com).
And there he was, in person, selling prints and books and t-shirts emblazoned
with some of his most compelling images. A charming, shy man; I was torn
between being irritated that he had to sully his own hands with selling instead
of staying home painting something, and being thrilled to have a chance to
meet him and get a couple of his books personally signed.
Then there's Robert A. Kraus ("RAK"), who creates tiny paintings of famousfigures from films, comics, and literature -- all given an ironic, perverse twist.
Each one can be purchased on a small card, personally signed by the artist,
and packaged in plastic so they'll get home protected. Three dollars each; two
if you buy in bulk. And there he was, drawing yet more darkly funny figures
There are many dealers selling comic books, new and used, and many others
selling t-shirts and action figures and art prints. There are even book dealers
-- San Diego's own Mysterious Galaxy bookstore was there with a large
selection of science fiction, fantasy, and mystery books (including mine, which
is the most important test of a bookstore's quality).
But for me, the greatest enjoyment came from walking among the artists' and
small-publishers' booths to find work that is blazing new trails, or talented
newcomers that I can hire at ridiculously low rates to create illustrations for
my new online fantasy/sci-fi magazine. I hit paydirt several times; and in the
meantime, had a chance to talk with talented young (and not so young) artists
for whom the future is still wide open.
I was delighted to find one publisher specializing in comics for young girls. I
loved the delightfully drawn and cleverly written "Amelia Rules" series, which
is being joined by more kid-centered comics series. (You can get a sample at
the AmeliaRules.com website, but it hasn't been updated since 2003, judging
from some of the entries.) You can order Amelia Rules comics from Amazon.
And I fell in love with some of the work being done by Art Thibert's Hack Shack
Studios. Thibert himself is a well-known comics artist; he has assembled a
team that produces really interesting work. My favorite is Chrono Mechanics,
a series of brilliantly drawn comics about the crew whose job it is to repair the
flow of time whenever and wherever it goes awry
There are lots of artist co-ops, too, where up-and-comers join forces so they
can afford to display and sell samples of their work -- while hoping to be
discovered by one of the big publishers.
I had a great time, spent too much money, had to ship stuff home in two
separate boxes ... and I'm coming back next year, bringing my then-twelve-year-old with me, because she would love this show.
Besides, it's in San Diego, where the weather is almost always perfect, they
have a great zoo and many other tourist attractions, and some fine restaurants,
which of course is my minimum standard of civilization.
ComicCon is worth the trip, folks -- whether you're a comics geek or merely a
consumer of popular culture.
We opened last night, but there's still one performance of Steel Magnolias.
It's free of charge, and the performances are splended.
The curtain opens at 7 pm tonight (Thursday) at the LDS Church at 3719
Pinetop (right across from Claxton Elementary).
It's a grownup show -- no one under age ten will be admitted.