Saturday, May 13, 2006

You've Got Mail

Have just been watching You've Got Mail on ITV2. I've seen it once before, a few years back, when I was still working in TV. That time I thought it was tedious, manipulative schmaltz. This time I realised that it was in fact cinema verite. When Meg Ryan (god knows what her character name was; as ever she was playing Meg Ryan) had to lock the door for the last time on her beautiful, quirky independent children's bookshop because it had been put out of business by the behemoth double-double-discounting chain book megastore that opened up down the road I nearly wept. Although I'll admit that the pathos of the moment was spoilt a little by intrusive bookseller thoughts like "I don't think much of those shelves", "you'd never be able to get a pushchair in there," and "hmm, we really need to get in some more Richard Scarry." I'm nothing if not a romantic. In any case if I followed this chain of thought to its logical conclusion, I would end up unknowingly locked into a torrid internet affair with Bookseller To The Stars so perhaps we'll leave it there.

By coincidence, over on BBC3 they were showing the far superior High Fidelity, of which one of the principal messages appears to be "anyone who owns or works in a small independent record shop is an irredeemable sad sack with no sense of ambition and a wasted life who would be better off as a DJ / singer / anything." Hmm. I think tonight I might snuggle down in bed with a copy of 84 Charing Cross Road and dream about the good old days. I quite fancy myself as Anthony Hopkins. With more hair. And full moons.


  1. Yes, I agree that would be ghastly. Me with my Ramones records and alcohol habit and you in your birkenstocks watching Doctor Who 24-7. Not a good combination. I'm glad you still think of old Bitsy though.


  2. Because I ran a successful children's bookstore that was put out of business by superstores, I've had to deal with the "It's just like 'You've Got Mail' " comment for the past decade. However what I realized immediately upon watching You've Got Mail is that it's a takeoff on Pride & Prejudice that carefully manages to leave off the final scene in P&P that shows Elizabeth Bennet as the Mistress of Pemberley. In other words, consider the fact that Meg Ryan, upon marrying Tom Hanks, will effectively have taken over ownership of the superstore! I wrote an essay on this, and it's a footnote in my book, "Rebel Bookseller" (which incidentally just won the 2006 Independent Publisher Book Award in the U.S. for best book about Writing & Publishing!):

    The Nora Ephron film You’ve Got Mail contains several subversive subtexts, the most significant of which is that the strong-minded children’s bookseller, in marrying the non-literary chain-store owner, effectively obtains power and influence over the superstore (in any sequel: i.e. behind every great man there is a great woman). While chain-superstore owner Joe Fox (presumably modeled after Barnes & Noble’s Steve Riggio, and played in the movie by actor Tom Hanks) can only draw on his lunk-headed Godfather-movie notions of competition (his oft-repeated phrase “to the mattresses” means “man the barricades and conduct sneak attacks”), the independent bookseller Kathleen Kelly (played by Meg Ryan) deploys her weakness to co-opt her attacker. This power of the weak message echoes a similar theme in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), the novel from which substantial elements in You’ve Got Mail derive, and not incidentally Kathleen Kelly’s favorite book, which she insists Joe Fox read. Jane Austen promoted the Wollstonecraftian heroine in a softened form: the woman who obtains power via a male intermediary. “[Austen’s] ironic narrative subjects systems of authority to damaging skepticism; she celebrates intellect, feeling and moral sense in her heroines and ridicules their absence in others. With concerns close to Mary Wollstonecraft’s, she adopts a conservative approach to accommodating women’s aspirations to existing social structures.”—“Jane Austen,” The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present, Virginia Blain, Isobel Grundy, Patricia Clements (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990): 40. Compare, in particular, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, fantasizing about becoming the mistress of Mr. Darcy’s estate Pemberley while on a tourist visit, and finding herself unexpectedly face to face with Darcy himself—this during the very period when the two are feuding—with You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen Kelly, irrepressibly (if tearfully) hand-selling Noel Streatfeild Shoes books during a foray into Joe Fox’s superstore, at a moment she should be capable only of anger since he’s just put her own store out of business—Joe Fox then unexpectedly appearing to witness her salesmanship among his customers (presumably the character Kathleen Kelly, in visiting Joe Fox’s store, is subconsciously modeling her actions on those of her own fictional favorite, Elizabeth Bennet). Both characters—Elizabeth Bennet and Kathleen Kelly—will go on to win covert authority over their future husbands’ holdings, post-nuptials. As a key additional subtext—perhaps unintended by auteur Ephron—consider Virginia Woolf’s analysis, in the feminist classic A Room of One’s Own (London: The Hogarth Press, 1929), of Jane Austen’s artistic situation. Woolf suggests Jane Austen, writing without privacy in the family sitting room—implicitly operating under analogous ideological scrutiny—placed her social commentary between the lines. Similarly, Nora Ephron, a published author with books for sale at chain superstores, encodes her message about chain stores’ impact on individuality and expression. (If authors’ voices weren’t stifled for fear of being banned from chain bookstore shelves, they’d come right out and shout—together now—“Screw the chains!”) As it stands, thanks to Nora Ephron’s clever delivery of sexy subtext, You’ve Got Mail—a staple of American culture because it promotes America Online, owner of Time-Warner Cable, which therefore perennially airs it—has helped maintain the romantic allure of independent bookselling, to the detriment of those big corporations that would prefer the public forget what it is excellent indies offer: outstanding booksellers in residence.

  3. You really ought to read Between Silk & Cyanide. It's 84 Charing Cross Road, the Espionage Years!

  4. I like You've Got Mail, it's one of my favourite films.

    I'm glad to see that people like Andy are really thinking about it - I shall now never be able to watch it again, though.

  5. I still like You've Got Mail (went and watched it after reading this), it just added an extra thought to the film.

    As for 84 Charing Cross Road, great book, never seen the film.