Dear Stephen Bentz of Pages for All Ages (tm),
In response to your request of (Wednesday, 15 January 2003, 14:10:31) “Please remove this page from the web. You are using our trademarked brand name without our consent,” we the Unknown have collectively composed this response in the form of an open letter, relevant, we feel, to anyone who has a stake in free speech, contemporary literature, the internet, satire, Illinois, or building community among those for whom the language still speaks louder than money.
We believe that there are no legal grounds for your request. We are not using your logo, which may in fact be trademarked. We are neither slandering nor libeling your store. We are not attempting to use your name or URL as our own corporate name or URL to draw competing business away from your store. We have not attempted to make any money off our hypertext.
One does not wantonly edit an established work of literary fiction, such as The Unknown, Ulysses, or the Odyssey. At this point, editing The Unknown would interfere with the work of those people who are writing dissertations about our multisequential fiction (see Gillespie, “Drugs, Machines, and Friendships,” Cybertext Yearbook [forthcoming]). In literary scholarship, proper citations are important. Suppose we removed the page you requested, and a Norwegian hypertext scholar were to confront her thesis committee and discover that the texts she cited in her paper, comprising months of scholarship, are no longer there. What business, we might ask, does Pages for all Ages have jeopordizing the academic careers of Norwegian hypertext scholars?
If you are upset that The Unknown comes up second on a search for “Pages for All Ages” on the Google search engine, we would encourage you to take up your issue with Google. In fact, The Unknown comes up on many searches for many things, by virtue of the fact that it is a critically acclaimed work of literature, is encyclopedic, and has a massive vocabulary. One important aspect of a web page that affects its Google ranking is how many pages link to it, and The Unknown is widely linked to. We are not in a position to affect Google search results.
And as a practical matter, one cannot simply remove a page from the web. The page has been cached by Google and will continue to come up second and be readable even if we remove it from our server. And will you send a cease-and-desist to the people who maintain archive.org, in which the page you have asked us to remove has been archived many times over? And if you would consider that, don't you think that others have also considered that? And what about the approximately 1,250 other uses of your trademark on the Web a Google search calls up? Whatever damage you are afraid of has been done.
But in all likelihood, the fact that your store is mentioned in one comic scene of our novel has enhanced your credibility as a seller of serious literature and possibly even brought you some business, as readers of our work may have sought out the actual store referred to in the virtual space of the comic hypertext novel. This has happened before.
Now that we've covered the basics, let's proceed to the graduate level. At these altitudes you may encounter some shortness of breath, and nosebleeds are common. Up here, works of literature are read and discussed, not merely sold or censored. Your request has deeper overtones and in fact touches on issues of first amendment rights, but even more disturbingly, betrays an extremely short-sighted attitude with regard to literature on the part of your bookstore. In essence, your request is highly ironic without being at all funny.
One of the many themes of The Unknown is the triumph of the independent bookseller, publisher, and writer (and collaboration between them) over the overbearing corporate publishing giants that rule trade publishing, which organizations are profit driven and ultimately do not have the readers' best interests in mind. Pages for All Ages is one of the “feisty little independents” who are quite literally thanked in the pages of The Unknown. Indeed, until now we were your loyal customers. Other such booksellers (such as Urbana's exemplary Priceless Books) have been grateful to us for mentioning them, and have even hosted Unknown readings in their stores. We are firmly on your side, and if you take this conversation a step beyond your trademark, you will understand that.
To remove proper names from the text of the work would be to eviscerate its intent. Were we to remove “Pages for All Ages,” we would be allowing a dangerous precedent—that we, as writers, are willing to compromise our novel in order to appease corporate entities. Should Barnes & Noble or Microsoft, which are in fact the targets of our critique, demand that we remove their corporate names from the text of the novel, the intent of our novel would be all but obfuscated.
Let us explain fiction to you: the page in question is not a scene about Pages for All Ages any more than Robert Coover's The Public Burning is a biography of Richard Nixon. Again: Pages for All Ages has no bowling alley. The subtext of this scene is that the large chains, by trying to consolidate too many services into the sites of their superstores, are undermining the very real value of literature and its place in society. In the fictional scene you think we will take off the web, the feisty independent “Pages for All Ages” is trying to compete with the superstores, and the result is a corruption of what a bookstore is meant to be. Please reread the scene and notice how the customer in the bookstore spends no more than one dollar on books, and even then only as an afterthought. Imagine trying to browse poetry while a rock band is performing ten feet away. We think this page is not only funny but meaningful. Haunting even.
The Unknown is a cry for help from four scholars of English Studies who find that America no longer has a literary culture that can accommodate them, given that the interface between literature and readers is controlled by a very small number of consolidated private interests. The exceptions are libraries, independent publishing houses, writers who are intrepid and obnoxious enough to create their own venues when the mainstream venues are not open to them, like the Unknown, and the feisty independent booksellers, like Pages for all Ages.
Browse some of the books in your store. What would Michael Moore do, for instance, were he to receive a similar request from Nike? Did Eric Schlosser get explicit permission from McDonald's to mention their trademarked name in Fast Food Nation? Did David Foster Wallace ask for permission to use Depend Adult Undergarments in Infinite Jest? We suspect, and hope, not, because if that isn't fair use, then ignorance is strength. Of the scores of individuals and corporate entities mentioned in The Unknown, you are the first to object to the use of your name within the novel. Given the fact that The Unknown has been freely distributed on the Internet since 1998, that you would raise objection in 2003 is even more remarkable. It shows that not only do you object to free expression, and that you lack a sense of humor, but that you just don't read the Web.
That's the graduate level, now let's get personal. Aside from the respectable Illini Union bookstore, Pages for All Ages is the closest thing to a local independent retail trade bookseller the University of Illinois at Urbana has. As such, you have a responsibility to foster literary culture in our community. Attempting to censor award-winning works by local writers certainly goes counter to building a literary community. We are indeed quite shocked that, as a bookseller, you are not fighting for the rights of novelists to freely express themselves, rather than against that right. Yes, it sucks being you. Not only do you have to survive the competition of Barnes and Noble and Borders, but you also have to be the one with integrity. Literature is no cake walk, take it from us.
We would encourage you to reconsider your request. Though, as a freely distributed hypertext novel, we have no assets to speak of (indeed it costs us money to keep the novel available to its global audience), there are attorneys among our fan base, and we are quite prepared to engage in whatever struggle might be necessary to protect novelists' right to free speech. Until now, we feel, we have brought you only positive publicity. This is still our preference, but this could change. Should you press this matter, we will get you famous. And we will also ask that you never again use the word “Unknown” anywhere in your store.
But we hope to avoid a conflict, as we have bigger fish to fry. And, frankly, as your once and hopefully future customer (and vendor), we would suggest that your energy might be better spent embellishing your poetry and fiction sections with more small press titles, such as, for starters, Dalkey Archive Press (The Human Country, by Harry Mathews), Green Integer (The Twofold Vibration, by Raymond Federman), Sun and Moon (My Life, by Lyn Hejinian), Couch House (Eunoia, by Christian Bök, winner of the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence), and Soft Skull (Hideous Dream, by Stan Goff).
PS. Attached is an article from today's Publisher's Weekly Newsline. This week, Random Trade Publisher Ann Godoff was fired, because the division, considered to be one of the finest literary imprints in big publishing, was deemed not sufficiently profitable by its parent corporation. In other news, the attached article concerns an independent bookseller in Austin, Texas, a community that is comparable to Champaign-Urbana(-Savoy) in many respects, except that it has a thriving literary culture thanks in no small part to the independent booksellers who struggle to make it so. Enjoy:
P.P.S. Your name, Mr. Bentz, reminded me of a sordid story of love and betrayal that I cannot repeat here because that would truly be a violation of something, if only good manners. But imagine that your bookstore was secretly seeing someone behind your back. That after you lock up at night and return to your home to enjoy a fabulous tuna casserole and a re-run of “Friends” on TV, your bookstore is… well… letting others turn her pages, if you know what I mean. You return the next day and there's a musty odor in the air, and while nothing is conspicuously out of place, you get the sense things are disheveled and damp, like sheets on an unmade bed. All day your bookstore remains coy, less responsive than you're used to. The cash register seems to be struggling with its conscience, reluctantly opening its drawer when required, but unenthusiastically. Your customers sense something is different, too. They get a quizzical look in their eyes when they first enter, then they sniff the air and crinkle their noses at the result. Their stays are short. No one can seem to get into proper browsing mode. Some, after visiting the back of the store, leave hurriedly, apparently embarrassed by something they've discovered. They glance at you with a look akin to pity as they rush for the door. This goes on for awhile, but nothing relieves your puzzlement until you discover that your bookstore has a prominent position in certain Google searches. It's worse than you could have ever imagined. Your bookstore, the business you have nurtured for years with your love and your money, your bookstore is consorting with the electronic enemy, hanging out with literatures that threaten your very livelihood, literatures that can't be sold in a bookstore like yours, literatures you don't even want to recognize as being literature. And your bookstore doesn't even seem to care. Certainly, it doesn't apologize. Look, we're sorry. We didn't expect it to end up like this.