Two weeks ago, I wrote about Amazon.com de-ranking books that the retailer had suddenly deemed "adult," and how their action had disproportionately targeted books by LGBT authors. At the end of the post I said that I wouldn't be ordering anything else from Amazon until the situation was satisfactorily resolved - "satisfactorily" being the operative word. The story was covered by a lot of progressive blogs, and it was literally Twittered to death - so the online bookseller, after first blaming the problem on a "glitch," eventually fessed up and issued a statement that said the de-ranking was caused by a "ham-fisted cataloging error." (People can be ham-fisted, but computers never are.) Literary icon Edmund White told Hour: "I don't think it was a glitch. It's shocking that someone in that organization has the power to get rid of gay books... Frankly, if one of the custodians of Western culture is a corporation like Amazon, perhaps they should be regulated like the financial world. We need regulation in the cultural world too so that they don't restrict anything..."
Amazon eventually re-ranked the de-ranked books, but it hasn't provided customers with a credible explanation or response to the "error," something like... "Mr. Homer Phobe in the Rankings Department tried to inject his personal values into our cataloging process. He has been fired. Sincerely, Amazon." That would be satisfactory. Mr. Phobe is certainly entitled to his personal prejudices, but when those prejudices result in business decisions which negatively affect the royalties of gay and lesbian authors, he should be held accountable. It would be the same thing if Mr. Peter Longshaft or Ms. Holly Heathen had taken it upon themselves to de-rank Christian-themed material.
I ended the April 13th post with "Half-Price Books, here I come!" And y'know, that very evening I actually went there. It was a bewildering experience. I've been ordering books from Amazon for so long I'd forgotten what it was like to browse titles non-virtually. It's time-consuming, for one thing. And frustrating. But oh, the rewards! It was through this antiquated/gut-instinct method of book buying that I came across the best novel - actually, the best three novels - that I've read in years. I'm talking about the Josephine Bonaparte Trilogy written by Sandra Gulland, over a thousand pages of fascinating historical melodrama that has kept me enthralled for fourteen days. (You can purchase these books individually - but in a show of Half-Price solidarity I opted to buy the omnibus, in paperback.)
Although I have a soft spot for well-crated historical novels, the title of the first book - The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. - almost sent me fleeing to the police procedural aisle. And there was a guy working the register who looked like he could bench press 500 pounds while waiting for the log cabin he just built to settle. I figured I might as well toss Love's Savage Splendor on the counter and be done with it. But after reading some glowing reviews on the back of the book, I put aside my misgivings, gathered my courage, and bought the thing.
Gulland is a remarkable author. The novels are written in the form of a diary, which could be a tricky undertaking for a less-confident writer. But the woman who claimed Napoleon Bonaparte's affections speaks so naturally, so vividly, that the reader is captivated almost immediately - and Josephine doesn't even meet Napoleon until the end of the first book! It's filled with gossipy intrigue and historical detail that breathes life into the late 18th, early 19th centuries. The section where Josephine is caught up the in French Revolution is particularly harrowing.
So something good came out of Amazon's churlish de-ranking policy. It forced me back into the world of book shops - half-price ones, anyway.