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Q&A with Matt Thorne, author of Prince, and Agate publisher Doug Seibold

From Doug Seibold: Today's shocking news about Prince arrived just as I was preparing to post this lengthy Q&A I did with Matt Thorne, the British novelist and culture critic whose Prince: The Man and His Music we've just published in its first (and updated) US edition. I am reaching out to Matt now for more of his thoughts about Prince and his career. Still in shock here as we're processing this terrible news. Look to this space for more updates.

Doug Seibold: While I am not remotely the kind of Prince fan you are, I have loved his music since the early ’80s, when I was a college student. The first of his records I heard was Controversy, and at the time I remember that the Stones had asked Prince to open for them on tour, and that many of their concert fans had expressed more than usual displeasure with their opening act. For a lot of teenaged white listeners, like me, Prince was mostly known at that time for being a highly sexed provocateur. 1999 was a huge record for me, and then of course Purple Rain became a huge record for the entire world. I’ve seen him numerous times, most recently in 2013. You, however—you’ve achieved an entirely new level of devotion to his work.

Matt Thorne: I first became aware of Prince at the age of ten, when Purple Rain hit the mainstream, and followed his career from then on, but it wasn't really until the release of Sign O'The Times, when I was a teenager, that I became properly fascinated and went back to get all the early albums, and then started buying vinyl bootlegs. I think the real starting point for the interest that eventually led to the book so many years later was learning the secret reference points in the lyrics on the Sign O'The Times album. For example, discovering that the reference to a Crystal Ball on the song “Hot Thing” was actually referring to the unreleased song “Crystal Ball.” Hearing some of those early bootlegs, and realizing just how many incredible unreleased songs Prince had created, hooked me for life. Around the same time, I was also fascinated by the stories of his nocturnal life and the fact that he would stay up all night writing, playing, and recording songs. To a young aspiring author, his round-the-clock creativity was incredibly inspiring. Because Prince often records songs and then leaves them in the vault for a while, I was also fascinated by the differences and similarities in production sound between albums. My desire to make sense of this by looking at it as closely as I could was possibly the biggest inspiration for writing the book. Most musicians produce records that sound quite similiar, but the extraordinary development between, say, Purple Rain and Lovesexy has always fascinated me.

            The actual impetus for beginning writing the book, however, came when I was at a conference on the future of the short story with my editor Lee Brackstone from Faber, and I had to leave the conference early because I was going back to London to watch Prince play a few shows on the 2002 One Nite Alone... tour. I discovered Lee was also a lifelong Prince fan, and when he realized how much I was interested in Prince, he suggested I write the book. It took me seven years, but it only deepened my appreciation for Prince's music. 

Doug: Why is Prince so important? My own personal feeling is that he is the colossus of contemporary pop music, whose influence is so great as to be almost imperceptible (unless you’re listening to the latest D’Angelo record—that guy should really be paying Prince royalties).

Matt: The D’Angelo connection is interesting. He’s managed by Alan Leeds, who managed Prince in various capacities (road manager, etc.) during the ’80s. I actually interviewed Alan while he was over in the UK with D’Angelo and I think the way he has handled D’Angelo’s comeback was incredibly impressive.

            Getting back to Prince, I would argue his influence is greater than that of any other popular musician, especially if you take into account the breadth of said influence, which extends from every form of dance music to rock. He has also had an important impact on the way the music business is run, on helping musicians get their independence. And the influence goes way up. Aside from the political dimension to some of his songs, he is beloved by many politicians, from President Obama to the UK’s Nick Clegg.

            But for me, more significant than any of that is the singularity of his body of work. Aside from a handful of duds, almost every song he has recorded has something of interest, either musically or lyrically, and he has sustained a near daily output of songs for coming up to forty years. It must be a lot easier to record an album when you know that Warner Brothers is going to promote it to the best of its ability than it would be when, to choose an example at random, you’ve already released hours of music that year and there’s no guarantee that anyone beyond the hardcore is going to care. Prince’s body of work is an artistic achievement that will maintain its relevance and value for generations to come.

Matt Thorne

Matt Thorne

Doug: How did being a novelist shape your approach to this book?

Matt: I really hate those biographies (and there is at least one like this about Prince) that “fictionalize” the subject—e.g. “Prince walked into the studio. His argument with the Warner Brothers executives had left him feeling raw and determined to record a hit”. But equally I didn’t want to write the sort of dry biography in which the author just summarizes what the critics said at the time and the chart position of various albums. My favorite music books present the life via the work—Paul Williams in his various books on Dylan, for example, or Will Friedwald on Sinatra—but also show the artist in the round as it were. As a novelist, I’m focused on language and how to present the contemporary world in the most “realistic” way (obviously what constitutes “realism” in the twenty-first century is a complex issue and one I continue to explore in my fiction and review work), with a particular interest in pop culture. Prince is the perfect subject to explore changes in popular culture over the past fifty years or so, as he’s usually at the forefront of any new developments. At the same time, the hardest thing for me in writing this book (and the reason, aside from the time it took to set up interviews and absorb Prince’s work in toto, why it took me seven years to write it) was coming up with the right voice.

            I’ve been a published novelist for eighteen years, and writing fiction since I was a child. I’ve reviewed fiction for most British newspapers for the same amount of time, and regularly review film and TV for the radio. I’m not a musician, though I am an avid consumer of music and go on average to three gigs a week. I am a fan of a wide range of music. And I’ve always loved music journalism as much as I love music; I love reading along with an album, testing my own thoughts about it with the perceptions of critics and other listeners. My intention with this book was to start out by trying to find anyone who was involved with the music on the actual albums or shows and getting their first-hand perspectives. Then I talked to the people who were working for or with Prince around the time of these shows or recordings to see if there was any more context they could add. For some records (e.g. Emancipation) Prince would do quite detailed interviews about the process of recording the songs, so he was the next source. After that, I generally moved into my own critical reading of the records, taken in relation to his work as a whole. Before I started the book I was a fairly hardcore fan, but there’s a difference between listening for pleasure and the kind of intent, focused listening you need to do to make any wider points about an artists’ work. And the more I sought out the nooks and crannies of Prince’s enormous body of music, the more impressed I became.

            One of the things that makes Prince unique is that he seems to truly live in the moment as an artist; he’s likely to produce a moment of true magic at 4.30 a.m in front of an audience of fifty people, or squirrel away a song better than most musicians’ entire careers as a bonus track on his least regarded album. This is the sort of thing that’s been missed in a lot of the previous books on Prince, which focus on the hits. But at the same time it’s just as important to me to look at the biggest successes as well as the obscurities—and to finally answer your question, maybe that’s where being a novelist comes in most useful, as there are so many narratives running through Prince’s career, and as a novelist, it’s these stories that most interest me.,

Doug: What do you see as the highlights of Prince’s career? The lowlights? My own favorite is Sign O’ the Times, and now I’m happy to have the image in my mind of that record connecting with teenaged Matt Thorne. Lowlight might be that whole name-symbol thing, or possibly sitting through Graffiti Bridge.

Matt: The movie or the album? If the latter, I understand. For me, and I think the majority of music fans, the absolute highlight is the run of albums he recorded from ‘78’s For You to ’88 Lovesexy. That stretch of albums represents an achievement you could put against any run of albums by anyone ever. But part of the reason I wrote this book is that I think there is just as much of interest in the records he’s released since then, even if it’s not as consistent when you take it album by album. On the albums from For You to Lovesexy, that first decade of his career, we now know that what he left off those records was as significant as what he included. After ’88, the albums become less consistent (with some exceptions), but some of the highlights are better than anything in the earlier part of his career. As for lowlights, it’s always tricky to say with certainty that any one era of Prince’s music is substandard as it frequently emerges that he was recording great songs at that time, but putting them in the Vault instead of releasing them.

            To give you an example: as much as I enjoyed it when it was released, for me Diamonds and Pearls has dated. But when you hear some of the demos of what he was working on around that time, and see the direction he might have gone in, you realize it wasn’t a question of his talents deserting him, but simply that his intention or need at the time (to record a really successful popular album) led him away from the more interesting corners of the sound he was pursuing. For me, that’s the value of writing a critical study of his work: a more conventional biography might focus on the numbers, or merely rehash what the reviewers said at the time. In a critical study of this length, there’s space to look at these records diachronically as well as synchronically.

            Sometimes the media campaigns or press attention can detract from the quality of the work as well. The only time I’ve stopped listening to Prince was between 1993–95, and that was mainly because of the way Prince changing his name to a symbol was presented in the press. In ’95, when I became interested in his music again, I went back and listened to that era and realized most of the music was great. This was one of the periods I most enjoyed writing about in the book, but at the time it seemed like a lowlight. Observing how his reputation has risen and fallen over the years is another part of the narrative. Largely because it’s interesting to see how this has impacted on Prince’s creative process.

            Perhaps another bleak period was before the millennium, round about the Rave Un2 The Joy Fantastic album, when nothing seemed good, not even the shows. But that’s me really forcing myself to be critical. It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that because most musicians usually have a rise followed by a long fall, sometimes it has seemed as if Prince’s career is tailing off.. But he’s among the select few recording artists who have produced significant albums throughout their career. Everyone will have their favorite “underrated” Prince album from later in his career, but for me, the four big ones are Emancipation, The Rainbow Children, 3121 and Art Official Age.  

Doug: What are your top-three personal favorite Prince albums? Prince songs?

Matt: Album-wise, I can never quite decide whether Sign o’ the Times or Lovesexy is my absolute favorite. Sign o’ the Times is such an extraordinary achievement, but I find it distracting to know about all the songs that got left off the album, and the alternative albums it might have been. If we ever get a proper Sign o’ the Times box-set including all of the songs from that era, then I think that won’t just be Prince’s finest album, but one of the greatest artistic achievements by anyone in any medium. But to stick to what we do have, Lovesexy might just surpass it for me. I love the depth of that album, the way it still doesn’t completely give up its secrets to this day. For me, lyrically, it’s the perfect midpoint between Prince’s clearer, more narrative-driven songs and his more cryptic lyrics. And musically, it has a density that makes it a true headphones album, with more to discover no matter how often you listen to it. The third position changes all the time, but today I’d say Dirty Mind.

            For my top three favourite songs, though, I’d like to be greedy and pick a top three well-known Prince songs, and then top three more obscure ones, as this will maybe give readers a sense of my book’s true breadth. My top three well-known songs would be “Thieves in the Temple,” “Anna Stesia,” and “Crystal Ball.” Top three obscure-ish songs would be “Wasted Kisses,” “Beautiful Strange,” and “Electric Intercourse.” And then there are my favorite covers he’s done, or songs that aren’t so good on record that work better live. And so on and so on. Sorting this out has a lot to do with why I wrote the book.

Doug: Do you have a favorite Prince band, or favorite particular sidemen or collaborators?

Matt: Obviously like everyone I like the Revolution, but I am equally fond of the line-up he had from 2002–2012. This was a line-up that went through several changes over the years of course, but I thought that the One Nite Alone tour was one of the best tours he ever did, second only to the Lovesexy tour (and that’s another great band there). After the One Nite Alone tour, I was less keen on the Musicology run, but I loved the one-off shows and aftershows the band did, and then I loved all the aftershows in the mid-aughts, especially the many aftershows I saw during his 21 Nights stint at the O2 in London, which I write about in the book.

            My general musical tastes are pretty broad, from free jazz and noise to the most mainstream pop, and what I loved about the band in this era was that it was such a diverse group of musicians, from Mike Philips to Renato Neto, and you never knew what you were going to get. Shows could be ninety minutes or four and a half hours. They might jam or reinvent a song for twenty minutes, then follow up with a straight rendition of a hit. You could have a whole night of Sly Stone covers, or unreleased songs, or forgotten tracks from Prince’s most obscure albums. It wasn’t just the diversity, though, but also the unique sound. It’s a shame that the only official documentation we have of the later part of this era is the Indigo Nights album, which isn’t really a good reflection of that band’s strengths.

Doug. How do you think Prince compares to other pop stars of the past forty years, or the past sixty years?

Matt: Well, the only artist I make an explicit comparison to in regard to their entire career is Madonna, and I think Prince easily comes out on top, even though there have been times in the past when her star has appeared to burn more brightly. During the ’80s, there were lots of comparisons between the three main pop figures—Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince. I’ve never been much of a Jackson fan. It’s not that I don’t like his music, it’s just that he was the opposite of artists I like (e.g. seemingly uninterested in improvisation, not very prolific, concentrating on producing a very polished product).

            For critics more interested in rock music, the obvious comparisons are to the big guys: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc. In terms of interest in image and fashion, there’s a comparison to be made with David Bowie (and it’s interesting that Prince covered “Heroes” recently). In terms of jazz and funk, there’s also a comparison to be made with Miles Davis and James Brown. You could also compare him in his popularity and ability to create pop hits to McCartney, Brian Wilson, the Rolling Stones, etc. In terms of the occasional eccentricity of his output and singled-minded pursuit of his vision, you could compare him to cult artists like Todd Rundgren, Aphex Twin, Kook Keith, The Fall or even (if you were feeling a bit perverse) Jandek. Some people have made comparisons to classical musicians—the obvious one being Mozart, even if Mahler is the one Prince himself makes reference to.

            But, ultimately, I’m not sure any of these comparisons get us anywhere. What I find more compelling is looking at Prince’s core influences, which have remained static since he first started recording home demos (Rufus and Chaka Khan, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, to name just a few), and then the records and artists that capture his attention when they hit the charts. Like David Bowie and many other great musicians, Prince alternates between trying to compete with the charts and writing less accessible records, and it’s this back and forth that interests me. Some fans don’t like it when he moves away from his core sound to songs that are more likely to date, but those are some of the eras that most interest me. I like it when he gets into a certain drum or keyboard sound that only stays around for a while. It’s seeing what his talent does with these restrictions that really interests me.

             

 

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Q&A with Raymond Lambert, author of All Jokes Aside

Raymond Lambert's new book, All Jokes Aside: Standup Comedy is a Phunny Business, follows up on his critically acclaimed 2012 Showtime documentary about America's one-time preeminent black comedy showcase where stars like Jamie Foxx, Mo'Nique, Chris Rock, Steve Harvey, and Dave Chappelle began their careers. It is an uproarious, insightful memoir that provides a deep look into Lambert's successes, failures, and lessons learned from running All Jokes Aside.

To see when Raymond will be in your city, see our events page. Below is a Q&A with the author.

Raymond Lambert

Raymond Lambert

Why did you decide to write this book after already having produced a successful documentary about All Jokes Aside?

It is virtually impossible to compress 10 years of history into an 85-minute documentary.  You simply have to leave a lot of the good stuff literally on the cutting room floor. I would get questions at every stop while screening the film about my background: What else happened during the heyday? What did you do after All Jokes Aside? What are you doing now? So I felt that a book offered the opportunity to dig deeper, share more details of my journey before, during, and after All Jokes Aside. And there is a lot more to share, but I needed the right collaborator(s). Then I met Chris Bournea, and later Agate’s Doug Seibold. Here we go.

 

You spent the beginning of your career as an investment banker on Wall Street. How did your experience in the financial sector inform the decisions you made as a comedy club owner?

I worked in sales and trading, which is charged with providing liquidity in the capital markets, the marketplace where stocks or bonds are bought and sold. This liquidity allows a company to raise the capital needed to launch and grow its businesses. But before I sold or bought anything, I had to study the company—its business, management, financial data, annual reports, etc. I became very good at analyzing data. So from the beginning when my business partner and I were evaluating the opportunity to launch a comedy business, I used the same analytical skills that I had learned in business school and on Wall Street to determine if the idea appeared legit. Just as important, if not more so, is that fact that this training also gave me the framework for monitoring our progress and keeping things under control as we jumped in, grew, and expanded.

 

When you opened All Jokes Aside, you had no direct experience running a comedy club. How long did it take you to feel comfortable in this new career?

I have a history of starting things for which I have no direct experience, so it was not unusual for me to open a comedy club with no prior experience. In fact, I have had little to no experience in practically every job that I have ever had. Youth and inexperience are bliss. But humbly speaking, I have always felt that if it has been done before, I can do it also. A wise man once said, “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.” I believe that. 

 

Chris Gardner mentored you. Which of the lessons he taught you proved most beneficial as you navigated your way through this uncharted territory?

Chris was not very happy with me when I decided to leave his firm. He had big plans for me, and like a recalcitrant kid, I decided to throw it all away and join the circus. He didn’t speak to me for several years. But one thing that he and I have always agreed on is the idea that you must claim ownership of your dreams and relentlessly pursue them.  You may disappoint others along the way in that pursuit, but you must be unreasonably willing to pursue them. Flash forward twenty years, our visions once again align, and now we are business partners on a slate of new exciting projects.

 

What advice do you have for young MBA-holders who are unsure of what sort of career path to follow?

I joke that I have never had a career: I’ve had a series of jobs. All jokes aside, George Bernard Shaw said that nothing great is ever accomplished by a reasonable man. Be unreasonable. Find what you are not only passionate about, but obsessed with, and find a way to make a living from it. And whatever you do, don’t compare yourself to your classmates. It’s not an easy thing to do, but comparison is lethal to contentment. 

 

Do you have a favorite act that performed at All Jokes Aside? What was it?

I am asked this question all the time, and it’s like asking a parent who’s your favorite child. I have had the good fortune to work with some of the greatest stand up comedians in history. It is impossible to choose. That said, if it were my last meal of jokes, and I could only see one act that I have worked with . . . I am forever indebted to Steve Harvey. He saved our lives and taught me the comedy business. Then there is George Willborn, who was the heart and soul of All Jokes Aside. But before I met Steve and George, I witnessed Bernie Mac. After seeing him perform for the first time, I had all the confidence I needed to jump into the stand up comedy game. I recall thinking that if I had cats like that in my own backyard, then there must be dozens of cats around the country at least half as good. And that’s pretty damn good.

 

 What’s next for you?

My primary interests are in social entrepreneurship, entertainment, strategic consulting, and fatherhood. With respect to social entrepreneurship, I want to use my entrepreneurial skills and apply them to solving social problems that plague our society. Hunger. Homelessness. Disease. Pay Day Lenders. In entertainment, my motivation is essentially the same: how can we collectively use our talents as artist, comedians, musicians, and filmmakers to address these same social ills? And I want to work closely with result-driven organizations by consulting with them on affecting social change. Last but not least, my most important job is to be the best father that I am capable of being. For now, that’s enough to keep me busy.

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Guest Post - How Divorce Court Saved My Marriage

Judge Lynn Toler is the author of the newly released Making Marriage Work (Agate Bolden 2012) and My Mother's Rules (Agate Bolden 2007). She's also the featured judge on Divorce Court, the longest running court program on television. A longer version of this essay previously appeared on Huffington Post Weddings.

Judge Lynn Toler

As the judge on Divorce Court, I am familiar with the thematic mistakes made in marriages. Yes, I know the show is often a little silly, but when my husband and I were staring into the marital abyss, I learned a valuable lesson from Divorce Court that helped me out at home.

I learned this particular lesson from couples who couldn’t figure out how they had gotten to Divorce Court in the first place. They had marriages that went awry in such small increments they didn’t know what had happened. But before me they were forced to compress years' worth of trouble into a short presentation. Each telling me a different story the other was usually surprised to hear, they often found that they were coming apart not because one or both were wrong, but because of unexamined needs. Seeing that scenario play out before me over and over again helped me figure out what was going wrong in my own home.

Lynn and Big E on their wedding day

By year 19, my husband, Big E, and I were off the road and deep in the weeds. Having become a father at 19, my husband married his first wife and had four children by the time he was 26. As a result he never got to do as he pleased because he did so much for others. When he looked at me he saw new and unencumbered. He saw me as the first installment in a lot of choices he was owed. 

I, on the other hand, was raised in a house that rocked and rolled on the rhythm of whatever was wrong with Dad, who was brilliant, principled, and also bipolar. Stuff was jumping off at my house all of the time and you never knew when or why. When I looked at Big E, I saw stable, safe, and secure.

Once we married, however, every time E didn’t get his way it was another drop in a bucket of sacrifices. By being willing to give me the children I sought—which, when you think about it, is huge—he took everything else off the table. Any desire I had that didn’t match his got me a little static. Though E was just ordinary, everyday annoyed about things, I didn’t see it that way. Even the mildest objection he raised prompted that voice in the back of my head to say, “Shut it down; it could go bad.” So instead of engaging in any meaningful exchange, I capitulated, repeatedly.

If you keep selling surrender like that, eventually the other person buys. Over time I taught my husband that by merely furrowing his brow he could get me to back off my position. And once you start that nonsense, the person whose pardon you are continuously begging begins to believe that you are, in fact, a perpetual problem. 

Of course, the hardest thing in the world for anyone to see is oneself. I didn’t know all this was what we were doing until I stepped back from where we were and looked at it as if I were on the bench. That’s when I saw all of the small stupid that landed us where we were. Once I got past the anger I started to address my own fears and learned how to communicate effectively. He followed suit because he saw that I had changed in a way that was in his best interests. We then decided to fight the problem instead of fighting one another.

Lynn and Big EOf course, this does not guarantee we’ll get to happily ever after. Marriage is quite the journey and things change all of the time. But our marriage is better now because it is a mindful one. We keep an eye on our competing needs. We no longer act on that right-now feeling without considering long-term consequence.  We have made a conscious decision to be consciously married. We also have our fingers crossed.

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Agate Bolden Gets a Facebook Page

We're pleased to announce the launch of a Facebook page exclusively devoted to our Bolden imprint. Agate Bolden publishes intelligent, accessible, and thought-provoking fiction, nonfiction, and memoirs by African-American writers. The Bolden Facebook page will feature interviews with your favorite authors, updates on forthcoming books, giveaways, and links to insightful articles from around the web touching on the issues facing African Americans today. Like us to stay connected to the Agate Bolden world.

Agate Bolden is the home of National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward's debut novel Where The Line Bleeds; Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr.'s novels Before I Forget and the forthcoming Freeman, memoir Becoming Dad, and collected columns Forward From This Moment; and daytime television star Judge Lynn Toler's My Mother's Rules and the forthcoming Making Marriage Work.

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Free Ebook Giveaway: Creatures Here Below (Part 2)

Loyal blog readers will recall our giveaway last month of the ebook version of O.H. Bennett's powerful new novel, Creatures Here Below. They may also recall our little hiccup regarding the availability of the ebook on Amazon. We felt so bad about this inconvenience that we wanted to offer everyone a second chance to download this terrific and very moving book. You can get the ebook for free on Amazon, or if you prefer the EPUB format, you can download it here.

This giveaway serves as a fitting end to our Black History Month celebration (you can still see our discounted titles here). We really appreciate the insights of everyone who participated in the discussion on this promotion of our Bolden titles, which is our imprint dedicated to the best in African-American fiction, nonfiction, and memoir. But we can't stress enough, as our friend Troy at the AALBC commented on our blog post (linked above): Black history month is not a panacea for all the ills heaped upon Black Americans -- far from it. But every little bit helps. Even though February is ending, we hope that readers will continue to recognize the contributions of African-American writers as well as continue the dialogue about race and representation in this country. These aren't ideals reserved for a single month, but rather necessary topics to keep in mind year-round.

As always, we promise to keep delivering intelligent and accessible work throughout the year by some of America's best African-American authors. We hope you enjoy this free ebook of O.H. Bennett's "moving and poignant coming of age novel" and find it as vivid, rewarding, and bold as critics have. In the meantime, we'll keep fulfilling the request of our friend Tayari Jones by bringing you more books by talented brothers (and sisters).

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Ebooks and why we celebrate Black History Month

From Agate’s Zach Rudin, sales and marketing coordinator: We have another special offer for you. For the entire month of February, we’ll be offering discounted prices on ebooks from our Bolden imprint, which is dedicated to African-American fiction and nonfiction. This week, Denise Nicholas’s Freshwater Road is $2.99 and Leonard Pitts, Jr.’s Becoming Dad is only $0.99. In the coming weeks, different titles will be offered at steep discounts on our site, as well as on the sites of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and more.

We work hard to promote awareness of great African-American writers all the time, and we appreciate the support of our readers and friends. People enjoy reading and finding new authors, and one of the benefits of being an independent press is that we get to play an important role in that process. We’re proud of the books we publish and feel they contribute to our culture. However, companies like Heineken are also proud of their product, enough so to slap a Black History Month-focused ad for the Dutch brew on a bus and unabashedly parade it around major urban markets.

 

The gap between the negatives caused by brazen ad displays and the positives produced by increased focus on African-American culture causes tension every February. In the wake of 2009’s presidential inauguration, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Cynthia Tucker put forward the idea that “Black History Month has come to seem quaint, jarring, anachronistic…suffice it to say that the nation of Tiger Woods, Oprah and Barack Obama no longer needs a Black History Month.” In 2005, Morgan Freeman told Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black History is American History.”

 

This year, PBS will be airing a documentary during Black History Month titled More Than a Month by filmmaker Shukree Tilghman, as a part of the Independent Lens series. The documentary, as the Lexington Herald-Leader’s Merlene Davis explains it, follows Tilghman as he “crisscrossed the country for a year exploring the good and bad aspects of having a month dedicated to the history of black Americans.” Tom Jacobs of Miller-McCune writes that Tilghman “finds the commercialization -- not to mention the shift of focus away from actual history -- simultaneously amusing, puzzling, and disturbing.” Jeff McWhorter of The New Republic, in a New York Times video interview with Glenn Loury of Brown University, proposes that the month has outlived its usefulness.

 

So for us here at Agate, the question “Why have this sale?” begins to blend together with the ongoing debate “Why have this month?” Naturally, there are counterpoints to the above arguments against Black History Month, as eloquently expressed in an NPR interview by Dawn Turner Trice of the Chicago Tribune, and even as a direct retort to Tucker by Pamela Reed in the Daily Voice.

Black History Month is unique in that it is both a celebration and commemoration. Observing Veterans Day, a commemorative holiday, doesn’t preclude us from honoring those who served our country during the other 364 days of the year. Likewise, the ideals of Christmas ask that we spread good will to all mankind throughout the year, not just in anticipation of getting more presents underneath the tree.

While Black History Month is clearly a holiday of greater complexity in terms of how it is observed, it’s similar in that it is a specified point on the calendar that reminds people of its message. It is difficult to constantly feel the same front-of-the-mind reverence for service-people day in and day out that we do on Veterans Day. We attempt to give thanks for our blessings every day, but having a holiday to appreciate all that we have serves to emphasize rather than replace.

Holidays exist to deliver a message; they’re a reminder for us to learn about and to observe the day’s significance. Whether the message is ideological, spiritual, or memorial in nature, we insatiably consume information regarding the holiday’s subject matter before and during its observance. Today, in America at least, nearly every holiday acts as a vehicle for, yes, consumption.

As a publisher, this reminds us of another debate, namely the question of how people want to consume their media. There is an emerging rivalry between physical and electronic books, and the cultural conversation about ebooks is contentious. From authors like Jonathan Franzen, Maurice Sendak, and more who staunchly oppose the medium, to retail juggernauts like Amazon that want to be your one-stop shop for all types of books, the debate is not getting any less heated.

 

In our view, how people choose to consume media or information should be up to them. We love being able to offer print and ebooks, as they both have their virtues. Similarly, having a month that celebrates black history (even if it also raises many troubling issues) is a welcome complement to the understandable if undesirable pattern that sees great expressions of black thought and writing too often occurring in response to insensitive, widely panned hypotheticals.

We hope that you enjoy this offering of discounted Agate Bolden ebooks for Black History Month. We hope this might, in some small way, get more people engaging with African-American literature and culture. We hope that you continue to read and enjoy our newest releases, our forthcoming releases, and our many other print and ebook titles by exceptional black authors. We hope that Black History Month can be a time (not the only time) when we pay extra attention to the uniqueness of black history and culture. If you need an example of the month's value, ask Nikky Finney why she’s celebrating the bare arms of black women. Or ask Jesmyn Ward, another National Book Award winner, whose first novel we proudly publish, why she thinks Black History Month feels like a miracle, an act of defiance, like hope every February.

 

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Amazon glitch with Creatures Here Below

We're sorry, but it appears the Creatures Here Below ebook won't be available free on Amazon today, though it has been free on Nook, iBooks, and here on Agate's own site. We apologize for the inconvenience. More as we learn it--we hope to make this ebook free on Amazon in the near future.

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Free Creatures Here Below ebook

Last February, Agate offered readers a free download of the ebook edition of Wading Home by Rosalyn Story, partly as an experiment to see if we could raise greater awareness of this title. That experiment was a success, and we're now going to try it again this year with O.H. Bennett's terrific Creatures Here Below. The ebook will be available as a free download from our website in both PDF and EPUB formats, and from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. We are making this free download available for one day only: this coming Friday, January 13.  (Actually, it will be available on Agate's site from Thursday night through late Friday--we're not exactly sure how long it will be free on the retailer sites.)

Creatures Here Below is O.H Bennett's third novel. You can learn more about it here, on the book's webpage on our site, from which you'll be able to download it on Friday. Agate's Bolden imprint has gotten a lot of attention lately for publishing the acclaimed Where the Line Bleeds, the first novel by 2011 National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. We also publish Pulitzer Prize winner Leonard Pitts, Jr., and our novels in particular have earned terrific reviews and award recognition from across the country. Creatures Here Below is another great example of the fiction we publish here--readerly and absorbing, but also treating the realities of African-American life in all its breadth.

One of the great things about ebooks is the ability to do a promotion of this sort and reach people who might not have taken a chance on a book otherwise. Please tell everyone you know about this one-day offer. We hope that if you enjoy Creatures Here Below, you’ll spread the word about it--O.H. Bennett is the kind of writer whose work truly merits the attention.

O.H. Bennett

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On Jesmyn Ward

When I learned late last night that Jesmyn Ward, the author of Agate's 2008 release Where the Line Bleeds, had won the 2011 National Book Award for fiction for her new book Salvage the Bones, my reaction was one of delighted shock. I know something about how the sausage is made when it comes to literary awards, having served on my share of prize panels, so I tend to cast a cold eye on the whole process. But it was such an unanticipated surprise even to see Jesmyn nominated for the award, let alone winning it, that my hard-boiled take on such things has largely melted away this morning.

Jesmyn Ward, author photo for Where the Line Bleeds

In my opinion, it's always a good thing when the awarding of prizes stirs up controversy, and this year's National Book Awards have been the beneficiary of a nice little dust-up about whether the fiction nominees were insufficiently appealing to the broader general readership. I think that Victor LaValle, one of the judges, did a great job addressing this criticism, but really, the whole back-and-forth can only help in the always-uphill struggle to bring more attention to good work that doesn't engender an immediate popular reaction. Jesmyn's work has many, many virtues, but she writes about people and places that too many people in this country find it too easy to ignore. This makes her work more important, more worthy of attention, not less. If you haven't read her work, you should. The more people who do, I believe, the more who will react the way Ron Charles did in his recent Washington Post rave review of Salvage the Bones. Good for you, Ron Charles, for copping to the fact that Jesmyn Ward almost got by you all together; and good for you, National Book Award, for helping to wake up the Ron Charleses of the world to the work of Jesmyn Ward.

Because the sad truth is that it's too easy for important critics like Ron Charles to pass over writers like Jesmyn Ward (as Ron Charles has admitted). The daunting statistics such critics face are overwhelming--the number of new novels published each year runs into six figures, and every critic has to make choices about which books to read, and write about, that are every bit as harsh and reductive as the choices made by prize committees, bookstore buyers, magazine editors, TV producers, and the other gatekeepers to the broader general readership. It's hard for people to appreciate writers like Jesmyn Ward if they never even hear about them.

Here at Agate, we couldn't be happier about Jesmyn's success. We are proud to have published her first novel, and gratified that she singled us out in a recent blog post about the evolution of her career. You may not have heard about Jesmyn Ward before last night, but the truth is that Where the Line Bleeds did a good deal better--both in terms of sales and in terms of reviews and recognition--than most first novels. It sold out its first printing (and is about to sell out its second); it was an Essence Book Club selection; it was featured in elite literary journals like Bomb and The Oxford American; it got a starred review from Publishers Weekly and numerous favorable reviews in other newspapers and journals.

What it didn't do was "break out," as we say, the way Salvage the Bones now has. Why? Because as hard as it is for any publishers to get attention for any first novels, it's harder for small independent publishers like Agate to get attention for first novels by writers like Jesmyn--specifically, black writers who choose to write about black characters in places like the impoverished Gulf Coast region. While I'm glad Ron Charles has found his way to Salvage the Bones, of course I regret that he never took note of Where the Line Bleeds. Same with Laura Miller of Salon.com, who helped kick up the aforementioned controversy. Same with the influential critic/editor I won't name here, who breathlessly touted Salvage the Bones in her coverage of last spring's BookExpo America as Jesmyn's "debut novel." Does this have something to do with the fact that Jesmyn is African-American, like all of the writers published by Agate's Bolden Books imprint? Or does it have more to do with the perennial challenges we independent presses face in getting attention from the most prominent gatekeepers?

This is what a winner of the National Book Award for fiction looks like.I wish I knew. Of course, as of this writing, the New York Times, that gatekeeper of gatekeepers, has still not taken notice of any of Jesmyn's books. But surely that will not be the case for too much longer. Meanwhile, we are happy to keep doing everything we can to make more readers aware of her work.

Congratulations, Jesmyn. Congratulations, Brigid Hughes, whose magazine A Public Space brought out Jesmyn's first published story in 2008. Congratulations, Elise Cannon and the rest of the passionate sales reps at PGW, Agate's distributor, who championed Where the Line Bleeds to our nation's independent bookstores. Most of all, though, congratulations to you, reader, if this is the first you are hearing of Jesmyn Ward and her beautiful, important work. I hope you will enjoy it.

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Manie Barron

I did not know Manie Barron well (and I don't know the author of this piece, Chris Jackson, at all, except by reputation), but I did acquire at least one book here for Bolden from Manie. Chris Jackson, if you don't know of him, is one of the very, very few black men with a significant job in big NY book publishing, and this piece really captures what is still a preposterous employment situation in that industry. Manie Barron was a trailblazer at a time when there were virtually no black people in big publishing; what's especially sad is that a generation later, there are still so few men like Chris Jackson walking down that trail. As with so many aspects of publishing, it's better out here in the independent world. But the way Jackson communicates his dismay here is very powerful.

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