Matter Notes: A lawyer's private notes on a legal matter; considered inviolate and nondisclosable. By metaphor and game, my occasional blog posts on literary matters. In both cases, a form of work product.

Recommended Article: Scott Samuelson’s “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”

Recommended:  Scott Samuelson’s recent piece in The Atlantic, “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers”  (Thanks to fellow writer Matthew Graybosch for sending me the link.)

The humanities do matter to real people.  Profoundly.  Samuelson writes about teaching philosophy to students experiencing personal tragedy: 

A mother who’d authorized for her crippled son a risky surgery that led to his death once asked me with tears in her eyes, “Is Kant right that the consequences of an action play no role in its moral worth?”

The problem is that average people, the “plumbers” Samuelson teaches, are increasingly being denied access to the best that has been thought and said.  Education budgets are decimated.  The wealthy pay for their own children to attend elite universities and “dress themselves in cultural capital” (i.e. liberal arts study) while everyone else is encouraged to consider education purely in terms of utilitarian job preparation.  As I’ve written elsewhere on this blog, and as Samuelson argues, this state of affairs bodes ill for a democracy.

Samuelson reminds us that, “We don’t intellectually embrace a society where the privileged few get to enjoy the advantages of leisure and wealth while the masses toil on their behalf. Yet that’s what a sell-out of the liberal arts entails.”

He got that right.  Worth a read.

Manhattan is Losing its Bookstores, But Not its Sense of Delusion

I haven’t posted in a while, but the current hysteria in the New York Times about the loss of brick and mortar bookstores in Manhattan is so unintentionally comical and just plain awkward that I had to comment.  The article, “Literary City, Bookstore Desert,” by Julie Bosman, illustrates almost everything that has gone wrong with New York’s “literary culture”:  misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance, stunning entitlement, understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality, pretentious whining.   This piece showcases it all.

Brick and mortar bookstores, like lots of other retailers, are leaving Manhattan in droves because, to cop a line from James “Jimmy” McMillan III, “the rent is too damn high.”  One Manhattan bookseller, who, like most retailers, couldn’t afford the $40,000 per month rent for store space on the upper west side, eventually decided to open a second store in (shudders!) Brooklyn!  Although this bookseller “fell in love with the neighborhood” (Williamsburg) and enthuses over the “magnificent” space she found, Bosman manages to make this sensible decision sound quasi-tragic.  “After spending years scouring Manhattan for a second location, Ms. McNally . . . abandoned her search . . . and settled on Brooklyn.”  The horrors!  Cue the organ music!  McNally Jackson only has one Manhattan location.  (Check it out, it’s on Prince Street, and it looks like it’s worth a visit.)

I don’t know about you, but if I lived in Manhattan and there was an enticing bookstore across the bridge, I wouldn’t have any problem paying it a visit.  Or three.  Or five.   Or simply ordering its books online, as McNally Jackson conveniently allows.  I would hope most serious readers would feel the same way.

But apparently I’m missing something.   That’s where the misplaced nostalgia bolstering a no longer warranted sense of cultural importance makes an entrance.

According to Bosman, the loss of bookstores in Manhattan is “threatening the city’s sense of self as the center of the literary universe.”  Really?  I thought the corporate insistence on publishing books based on popular websites, twitter accounts, and Klout scores rather than actual writing quality did that a long time ago. 

What’s rich is, writers who write for a small audience are very much supposed to denigrate their work as a “hobby” because it doesn’t bring in the money a cute cat book might.  But bookstores that can’t draw enough folks to keep their doors open in Manhattan – now that’s a cultural crisis and something really needs to be done!!  Like what?   Well, here’s where the stunning sense of entitlement comes in. According to Bosman: 

The closings have alarmed preservationists, publishers and authors, who said the fading away of bookstores amounted to a crisis that called for intervention from the newly minted mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, who has vowed to offer greater support for small businesses.

A crisis.  Robert Caro, a twice Pulitzer Prize winner for Biography, sums it up:

“How can Manhattan be a cultural or literary center of the world when the number of bookstores has become so insignificant?” he asked. “You really say, has nobody in city government ever considered this and what can be done about it?”

Uh, Mr. Caro.  I respect your work.  I really do.  Anybody who reads my blog knows what high esteem I have for the humanities, and for people who do serious historical research.  But Manhattan hasn’t been the “literary center of the world” – except in its own mind – in a really long time.  That’s because in our 21st century, technology saturated, post-culture way of distracting ourselves through life, there is no “literary center of the world.”  You can’t have a literary center without a meaningful literary culture.  The city government is hardly in a position to recreate one.  Your own work on political power dynamics in The Power Broker should point the way to the futility of thinking government is going to do jack on that score.

Manhattan is not special.  Brick and mortar bookstores have been dying throughout the rest of the country for at least twenty years, and I don’t recall anybody in the New York literary establishment handwringing about that devastating loss.  Maybe that’s because bluestockings like me aren’t supposed to exist outside of Manhattan, so when our bookstores disappeared nobody in your neighborhood considered it a “crisis” or really even considered it at all.  Or maybe that’s because New York really is so insular it doesn’t get the fact that if bookstores die everywhere else in the country, they’re not going to enjoy a vibrant existence in Manhattan simply because there used to be a viable literary culture there. 

I’ve been lonely for a literary culture for a long time. Then I finally came to realize that literary reading and writing is a 19th century activity, the industry (publishers and booksellers) needs to be much smaller to service the small number of serious readers in the population (which would result in higher quality product), and those few people in the population who truly are children of the word are so busy knifing each other in the back to get whatever fast-fading recognition they can that it’s better to take the veil.

It isn’t (just) the high rents in Manhattan.  It’s the right wing, higher education, artists themselves, a public who hates humanities majors, and writers and artists who view public success at their craft as such a zero sum game that they can’t bring themselves to tolerate another’s success.  Disappearing bookstores are regrettable, but they are way down the list.

Bosman writes, “[w]ith the closing of several Barnes & Noble and Borders stores, it is difficult to shop for new books in Midtown . . . .”  No, Ms. Bosman, it isn’t difficult at all.  It’s called Amazon.  Besides, as I’ve argued at length in this blog, Barnes & Noble really ought to close, because it isn’t doing its job. 

Bookstores are only a meaningful marker of high culture if serious readers actually visit them.  Outside of  New York, that’s no longer the case.  And inside of New York, that’s increasingly less the case.

And then there’s the understandable reluctance to separate idealism from reality.  Bosman reports that there is talk of publishers opening bookstores.  I like the idealism of publishers owning bookstores – I’m Victorian enough to seriously get into that.  But I’m enough of a realist to know that the corporations who own the publishing houses will ruin that lovely ideal.  It won’t be anything like the past.  It will be like the present – corporate driven hodgepodges with godawful cafes and toy and trinket sections trying to be all things to all people, while, because it’s New York, pretending to be cultural centers to the rest of the world.  And, because it’s New York, getting a handful of strivers to admire the emperor’s clothes.

Speaking of clothes, there’s this:

David Rosenthal, the president and publisher of Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, predicted that stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie would become more important in the publishing ecosystem as stand-alone bookstores decrease.

“The serendipity of hanging out in a bookstore is just diminishing,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “We’ll become more dependent on stores that are not primarily bookstores, but have some degrees of books. It’s better than nothing.”

No, it’s not.  When you now have to sell books based on how well they synergize with hipster uniforms at Urban Outfitters it’s time to call it a day.   How about we stop trying to reach literary readers through nonliterary means?  That is in large part why Barnes & Noble is failing.  How about we admit that most physical bookstores are economically unsustainable, and treat the book “business” as the small business it is, for the small number of literary people that still exist.  How about we readers and writers become an exclusive, cool, semi-secret (by default because nobody else cares) edgy intellectual club again?  

Because there’s no money in it?  You mean like now?

Yes, the rent is too damn  high.  Also, let’s stop decrying the loss of physical bookstores without acknowledging the loss of what used to make those bookstores valuable.

 

Mainstream Publishing Industry “Products” Are About to Get Even More Awful

But first, as to validation.  (See previous post.)

I was stunned to see that there is at least one literary agent, Andrew Wylie, who gets it.  Mr. Wylie said in a recent interview for New Republic what I’ve been saying here in my quiet corner of the Internet for a long time.  That the publishing industry needs to lose its corporate overlords, return to its role as a purveyor of culture, and focus on people who actually like books.  That means reducing its size to fit its real market instead of constantly trying to cobble together an ever-shifting “market” out of people who don’t care for reading.  Mr. Wylie said:

The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.

Thank you, Mr. Wylie.  As an “effete educated snob who reads” and damn proud of it, I feel like the Cassandra in the corner when I say those things.  It’s awesome that you agree.

Of course, we “effete educated snob[s] who read” are a dying race.  Folks don’t read or think critically or appreciate anything fine because they are choosing not to learn how.   Which makes the latest disruption to the culture, brought to you by Scribd, Oysters, Entitle, and other new businesses that provide ebooks to consumers, either horrifying or comical.  I vote for horrifying, based on the impact this will have on us “effete educated snobs” via the corporate-owned publishing entities.

We are now at the point where businesses can monitor your reading.  Not just which books you buy, but which of those books you actually read, when, how far, what parts you skip, what parts you linger over, whether you finish, and where you stop.  If this technology doesn’t spy on your private reactions to the text in your hands and issue reports on your intimate emotional and intellectual relationship with any given book, it’s close enough to make one feel violated.

Oyster’s “privacy” policy tells would-be subscribers: “We receive and record information regarding reading behavior on the services including, but not limited to, the books that users click or open, specific pages opened or read, and words displayed to end users.”  Scribd told David Streitfield, the author of a recent New York Times article on the subject, that it’s “going to be pretty open about sharing this data.”  You’ve been warned.

Does that mean the NSA gets dibs on who seems a bit too enamored with Sufi poetry?  Will spending too much time with the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi or Khalil Gibran get you put on a no fly list?  When are you expected to stop reading your favorite translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám before the authorities want to talk to you about your suspicious interest in Persian poetry?  How many minutes are allowed per page?  What about political books?

Anybody else find this creepy?  Reading is a private act.   Stop monetizing (or whatever the new ugly corporate-speak word is this week) my private activities.  As a reader, I don’t want some Peeping Tom spying out my relationship with the written word and pimping it out for a dime, or excuse me, being “pretty open about sharing this data.”  My reading habits are not free labor for some marketing department.  Piss off.

As a writer, I have zero interest in Big Brothering it around with my readers.  If they want me to know how they react to something I wrote, they tell me.  Voluntarily.  That’s how it should be.

The most awful part of this isn’t the privacy violation, because one can certainly choose not to subscribe to these services.  It’s the assumption on the part of the business-of-disruption types who are cheerleading for this ugly encroachment of private dreams that this data is a meaningful window into what real readers want.  It isn’t.  But the data will get used anyway to dictate the template for future books in the hope that following the model will generate more profit.  Otherwise why would anybody want to collect this information?

Everyone knows what’s going to happen next.  The latest stats will dictate the formula that must be followed for the corporate bean counters to vet a book.  And if you think mainstream “product” can’t get any worse, wait until these kinds of insights become engraved in stone by traditional publishers.  From Mr. Streitfield’s article:

 At Oyster, a top book is “What Women Want,” promoted as a work that “brings you inside a woman’s head so you can learn how to blow her mind.” Everyone who starts it finishes it. On the other hand, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s “The Cycles of American History” blows no minds: fewer than 1 percent of the readers who start it get to the end.

So did Madison Q. Reader pause her screen for 7 minutes and 43 seconds because she hated the passage?  Because she loved the passage and was reading it several times over?  Because a package came to the door and she got distracted and left her ereader on?  Did she stop reading at Chapter 4 because she hated the book?  Or because she loved the book so much she bought a physical copy at that point? (I’ve done that.)  Maybe she ordered the ebook version to have the book right away because she couldn’t wait, and then stopped reading the ebook when the physical book arrived at her doorstop?

We can’t know.  And as to the 1% of readers who finished Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Cycles of American History, which was originally published in 1986, could this be because at this point interest in that book is largely among researchers who only have use for a particular chapter?  To say the book “blows no minds” and compare it unfavorably to What Women Want (entirely different intended audience) is a preview of what’s to come.  Books that have nothing in common, including their intended audience, will be compared on the basis of the data.   Want to write a serious study of American history?  Better force it into the template of a popular dating guide!  Because our data shows that’s what readers want!

And that’s why – as an “effete educated snob” or maybe as just someone who still gets angry at the destruction of the culture – I’m outraged that this is even happening.  That tech and business people who don’t understand what literature is get to determine what sorts of things get inflicted on the reading public based on templates generated out of meaningless data.

So, because corporate culture is the best example I know of touring the world on the back of a single too-simplistic model without ever leaving home, we are in for a deluge of literary “product” written to spec.  Again, from Mr. Streitfield’s article:

The longer a mystery novel is, the more likely readers are to jump to the end to see who done it. People are more likely to finish biographies than business titles, but a chapter of a yoga book is all they need. They speed through romances faster than religious titles, and erotica fastest of all.

Imposing analytics on something as undefinable as writing is going to kill what’s left of creative endeavors.  Limiting stories to whatever template the data spits back isn’t writing.  It’s something else.  Engineering?  Hacking? Writing by numbers?  Isn’t there enough bad formula fiction available now?  Even in the literary section?

Anybody waiting for this to get applied to film?  Music?  Hey, the stats show a lot of people start talking over guitar solos, so let’s re-release classic rock albums with the instrumental breaks removed.

As a reader, I want to be surprised.   I want to encounter something I wouldn’t have been able to imagine liking in the first place, but the way the writer put the story together hooked me and gave me the pleasure of experiencing the world differently.  You can’t capture that kind of thing with data, but you can make it far less likely to happen.

 

Yes, of course writers should be paid for their work. Here’s why that’s not going to happen.

A few months back, I wrote a piece on whether writing is a dying profession.   My take was that, given the sorry state of traditional book publishers, there’s no longer any incentive for writers to honor the antiquated model of hiding their work in a drawer for years until an acquisitions editor taps it with a magic wand and declares it good enough for public consumption.

Everyone who loves books knows that publishers have abandoned their role as gatekeepers of quality writing in favor of being profit generators for corporate shareholders.  Confusing the two functions is a disservice to the culture, but it’s a disservice you can rely on.

Now there’s a firestorm on the Internet over the lamentable practice of not paying writers for their work, touched off in part by Tim Kreider’s New York Times op ed piece, “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!”   Kreider says out loud what every writer, musician, artist, actor – well, all creative persons – have been grumbling about as long as I can remember: “People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing.”  Kreider, and many other creative folk, would like to see this practice stopped.

Yes, it is outrageous.  Yes, it needs to stop.  It needed to stop twenty years ago, when club owners refused to pay bands, or worse – only allowed bands to play who paid the club for stage time.  It sucked then, and it sucks now.

But it won’t.  Stop, I mean.  

Here’s why.   For us creative folk to get paid, all of us have to say no to working for free.  That will happen when the sun turns aquamarine and spits fishes at Mars.

First, our society is neither well-read nor well-educated, so most people can’t distinguish quality writing from the gum under their shoe.  That means there’s no reason for any entity that exists solely to generate profit to pay for quality writing.  And in fact, nobody pays for writing.  Publishers care so little for it they often don’t even read the books they publish.  As an aside, if you are an indie writer who still believes traditional publishers offer some kind of mystical validation of the worth of your work, please do yourself a favor and read this.   Then get back to the hard work of creating something awesome to share with the rest of us.

What publishers are paying for is self-marketing skills. They are paying for how many people they can get a bean counter to think your “product” will bring in.  That is all.

Second, if an individual writer does say no to working for free, it won’t take long to find another who will say yes.  This means that there is always somebody who will provide writing for free or for almost-free (remember, most traditional publisher advances for first novels work out to less than minimum wage, and writers never refuse those terms).

I’m not saying all artists are scabs, but enough are to insure that getting paid, or getting paid a reasonable amount for our labor, will always be problematic.  By “artists” I mean all creative people.  I’m aware some folks find the word “artist” off putting because it’s been misused as a self-designation by a lot of pretentious twits, but I find it useful as a catchall word for people engaged in creative pursuits so I’m going to use it anyway. 

People ask for free art with a clear conscience because most of the time, artists comply.  It’s really that simple.  A lot of folks have no problem asking most service providers to work for free – attorneys, web designers, hair stylists – it happens.  There’s something about the intangible nature of time and expertise that makes some people reluctant to pay for it.  The difference between artists and other service providers, however, is that the latter are willing, as a group, to say no.  Sure, lawyers occasionally take on cases pro bono (for the public good); web designers and hair stylists might occasionally agree to donate their work to a charity, but most of the time they refuse to work without compensation.

Artists still buy the scam that they’ll help their careers if they forgo pay and work for exposure, so they let themselves get screwed by anyone who promises same. 

Writing isn’t a business – that’s a foreign paradigm imposed on writing by corporate structures.  Most of us are Samuel Johnson’s “blockheads” at least part of the time (look how many of us blog for free), and all of us have different standards for when we’d willingly give our work away.  A gift for a friend.  A donation to a worthy cause.  Maybe a really cool project we’re genuinely excited about contributing to.  I’ve written for free without regrets.  My books, however, are for sale

Where it gets messy and exploitative and wrong is when a website, publisher, music venue, or other organization “invites” an artist to donate work that a) the artist had no interest in producing before the invitation, so accommodating would be labor, and b) stands to make money from said work that the artist will never see, or c) has no problem paying everyone else associated with the project.  Business entities who do this almost always promise “exposure” in exchange for free labor.  “Give us a free article, drawing, song, live performance and all of our customers/visitors/clients will see your work and provide you with more business.  We promise they will.  We’ll even link to your website.”

Unfortunately, a lot of artists are so terrified of possibly missing an opportunity for exposure (whether or not the promised exposure actually exists or will actually translate to sales) they rarely get paid a fair amount, or get paid at all.  That’s the fault of the artist. 

Here’s a true story.

Many years ago, I met an extremely talented painter who was excruciatingly eager to tell me that he “made a living” doing book covers.  I use quotes because after we chatted awhile, he complained to me that he was in terrible financial shape. His teeth were rotting, or he had some kind of gum disease or something.  He couldn’t afford a dentist. He couldn’t afford health insurance.  He was unhappy that he wasn’t getting paid more for his art, and therefore “had to” live off  less than – I don’t remember – some yearly income that closely resembled the federal poverty line.  He could barely pay for rent, food, and art supplies.   But he wasn’t interested in supplementing his artist income with anything else, because well – if he did that, he couldn’t say he was “earning a living” as an artist!  Apparently, he’d suffer through losing his teeth to claim that badge.  Deriving his sole income from his art was that important to him.

See the problem?  If you buy the myth that you’re not a real artist if you don’t exclusively earn a living from your art, you can feel the need to so fiercely defend your self-image that you’re willing to self-destruct.  This makes you ripe for exploitation.  I suspect he knew that, talented as he was (and he was extremely talented) if he held out for better pay, there are a lot of other extremely talented artists chomping at the bit to take his place, some of whom would be happy to work for exposure.

There’s a lot more talent out there than creative jobs that require it.  Artists know this, and it makes them hesitant to demand more pay, or any pay.  Some choose to live without health care if that means being able to “make a living” as an artist.  Ego trumps all.

Anyway, it’s not just the arts.  Some businesses, like Yahoo, have adopted the practice of stack ranking, which means managers are required to rank all employees along a curve and to give a certain percentage a low rating, even if those low rated employees are extraordinarily good at their jobs.  If all of your employees are stellar, you are still required to give a certain percentage a low ranking so the company can lay them off.   This is the kind of corporate-devised template that artist was facing.  There are so many highly talented artists out there it’s easy to get stack ranked by complaining about pay.  Or complaining about anything.  With the added bonus of loss of artistic legitimacy in the eyes of a public that’s been hornswoggled into thinking that only mass-marketed art has value, or that the higher stack ranked employees really are better.  It isn’t the money, it’s the terror some folks feel of being extraordinary at something and having it go unrecognized.  For some that terror is so strong they’ll forgo the money to make it stop.  You tell me if that’s sad or silly.  But it’s clearly a factor in why we don’t get paid.

It isn’t just artists who get manipulated and exploited – it’s scientists, journalists, (also here) and everyone else who works with intangibles like time and knowledge and skill. It’s artists, however, who run the most scared of risking status for a living wage.  Although maybe that’s now starting to change. Kreider’s article has attracted a lot of interest.

So how do you get everyone to just say no?  There’s no writers union that can make that happen, no way to enforce that all writers get paid, or even to determine fairly who gets economic protection (union membership) and who doesn’t.  What would this look like?  “You can’t hire our union members to write long-form articles without pay.”  “OK, I’ll hire nonunion members who will work for free.”  “Our members have demonstrated higher skill in their craft.”  “So what, you think the average American can tell the difference? Put up a provocative headline, and we’ll get enough clicks to satisfy our advertisers.”  

And who determines how much any member should get paid for what kind of work?  Who has the stomach to navigate the ugly politics that will inevitably arise from that?

Musicians unions are useless for the majority of musicians who play in bands and freelance, and I’ve yet to meet a stage performer who will let mere money stand in the way of getting an ego boost on stage.  Sorry, it’s true – which is why artists are largely to blame for this.  Venue owners know this well, which is why they charge performers to play.  Performers historically shut up about it, preferring to maintain an illusion of being sought after, rather than paying for access to live audiences.

And what happens if you do just say no?  Note the ugly reaction indulged in by the blog editor of Biology-Online.org  when a biologist he invited to write for his blog told him that, as a professional, she expected compensation.  The scientist, Dr. Danielle Lee,  has a PhD in biology from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studies animal behavior and behavioral ecology, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher who writes extensively on her areas of expertise.   When Dr. Lee asked to get paid for her invited contribution, the blog editor who had invited her responded by asking – get this – if she was an urban whore.  What’s striking isn’t just his refusal to pay this scientist, it’s his over the top ire at the mere suggestion that he should pay her for work he solicited.

Artists get this too, with a generous dose of shaming.  “How dare you expect us to pay you when everyone else will work for free? You think you’re so much better than so- and- so who worked for free?  We don’t pay artists but we provide wonderful exposure and you should be grateful for it.  If you brought us something we value, like a following (marketing ability), as opposed to artistic ability, you might get paid.”  (More on this sensitive issue of “following” later.)

So, there’s that.   Artists naturally get convinced that asking for a fair wage for fair work will blacklist them.  Editors will talk.  Club owners will talk.  Gallery owners will talk.  People will think you’re difficult and no one will ever want to exploit work with you again.  You’ll never make it.  Better shut up, lower your eyes, and work for smiles.

As to the sensitive issue of bringing people in.   Here’s the reality.  The part that sucks harder than geese on candy.  No business pays for talent.  They pay for your platform, and for how many people (dollars) you bring them. In other words, for your marketing skills.  One has nothing to do with the other.  So you sacrifice years of your life to your craft and the guy down the road who can barely write coherently or play three chords gets the gig because he’s more successful at self-marketing.  Contrary to what many writers have been told, traditional publishers are not in the business of “validating” your writing ability.  They are in the business of making money.  Those are separate issues.

For perspective, check out who just got “validated” by Random House.  A New York Post Page Six reporter just got a book deal for blogging about the 300 sandwiches she’s been making her boyfriend as a means to earning an engagement ring.  Nobody even bothers to pretend this deal is based on writing ability, because it isn’t.  The blogger has a platform, a cutesy blog full of recipes and photos of sandwiches, and a cutesy concept.  I’m not dissing her (from her copious food photos I’m sure she makes a mean sandwich, and who can fault her for exploiting it?) – I’m using her story as perspective for writers who beat themselves up thinking they must be “validated” by a commercial publisher for their work to be good enough, and out of this desperation work for free for anyone who asks.  Commercial publishers validate what they can monetize, your writing talent has zip-all to do with it.  Put up a blog of sandwich photos and recipes, have a platform reporting celebrity gossip for a well-known paper, be in publishing circles (she is long-time friends with a couple of Random House editors) and you’re in.

Revisionists like to argue that the arts have always been that way. “Dickens wrote for money.” But the fact is that until recently the arts have always been a mix.  There was a time when publishers and record labels (who for all practical purposes no longer exist) had room in their budgets, and enough religious faith in the taste of their acquisitions people, to release lowest denominator focused money makers and take chances on more experimental, sophisticated work, sometimes multiple chances on brilliant stuff that took a while to catch fire.  The culture was better for it.  Then the bean counters rolled over the industry and declared that everything has to turn a profit at all times, and destroyed the arts.  (Yes I’m being glib here, but not by much).

So here we are.  If you see a way out of the morass, drop me a line.

 

Risingshadow.net Guest Post

I haven’t posted here in a few weeks, but I did write a guest post on my Enemy Glory series for the speculative fiction website Risingshadow.net.  Risingshadow has a facebook page.

It also has tens of thousands of books in its database, and the folks who maintain it are truly passionate about sharing information with readers of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, alternate history, and other genres that emerge from that side of reality.  Or, as the site says, “Beyond the Reality.”

Risingshadow is “run by dedicated speculative fiction fans for other bookworms” and is well worth a long browse for readers of all varieties of speculative fiction.

I’m honored to have been invited to contribute. 

 

Why I Plan to Read a Book about Capitalist Fiction

I haven’t read Edward Younkins’s newest book, Exploring Capitalist Fiction: Business Through Literature and Film.  It gets released on October 15.

But I am acquainted with Dr. Younkins.  (More on that later).  He is a professor of Accountancy and Business Administration in the Department of Business and Technology at Wheeling Jesuit University.  He founded WJU’s undergraduate degree program in Political and Economic Philosophy, and is the founding director of WJU’s MBA and Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) programs.

He’s also cool.  How cool is he?  Well, how’s this for cool?  As an educator of future business leaders, he’s written a book that, according to his publisher,  “shows how fiction is a powerful teaching tool to sensitize business students without business experience and to educate and train managers in real businesses.”

That is why I’ll be reading his book.  I’ve always thought that humanities study, that encouraging students to think and write about the profound complexities of the human condition that form the context all businesses thrive and fail in, is a necessary part of the education of future CEOs, venture capitalists, and everyone else whose decisions have the power to shatter the culture into something awful.  Nobody else (that I’m aware of) in higher education business programs or humanities programs is doing this, that is, reading and writing about fictional portrayals of capitalism with the purpose of exposing business majors to the kind of critical thinking normally found in literature classes.

That is a tragedy, and as with all tragedies, the results are predictable.  It’s the nature of the form.

The problem with Wall Street is not that its denizens insist on misreading Atlas Shrugged and making the rest of us suffer for it.  It’s that none of them understand Dickens.

Anyone who reads my blog and books knows that although I like to play with purist, libertarian free market ideals in my fiction (see how Threle works in Enemy Glory), I loathe the way real life has distorted these ideals into the deadening corporate living nightmare culture that’s destroying higher education, the humanities, the middle class, and everything else.  I like the aesthetics of the unfettered free market in the same way I like paintings of shipwrecks and battle scenes.  Excess is exciting when real people aren’t getting hurt.

Here’s a sampling of Amazon reviews:

Although his prior books establish Dr. Younkins as a scholarly and prolific philosopher of liberty, Exploring Capitalist Fiction focuses not on the philosophy of business but on the complex lives of fictional men who implement it. Its twenty-five plot summaries illustrate, unsurprisingly, that businessmen are neither more nor less moral or confused than the rest of us, from the crony-capitalist railroaders in Norris’s The Octopus, Cahan’s wealthy but unhappy David Levinsky, and Lewis’s terrified conformist Babbitt to more heroic, less conflicted figures like Hawley’s Cash McCall, Kesey’s Stamper family, and King Vidor’s Steve Dangos. Dr. Younkins occasionally offers a valuable philosophical or economic insight, but the book is principally a welcome, fascinating, even-handed study of business and capitalism in literature.  — John Egger, Towson University

Lawyer and statesman St. Thomas More argued that the study of literature provides greater moral understanding than does the study of law. Edward Younkins strengthens that argument through his perceptive and insightful examination of both pro- and anti-business fiction and film. — Samuel Bostaph, University of Dallas

Ethical issues are the star. Indeed, the book could easily be used as a text in business ethics courses. — Jerry Kirkpatrick, California State Polytechnic University

These particular reviews reflect my personal experience with the author.  Dr. Younkins is a rarity – an unapologetic capitalist who truly is even-handed in his treatment of capitalism.  Here’s how I know.  A few years ago, I wrote an odd, whimsical essay about my responses to the character of Dagny Taggart and to the behavior of a group of Objectivists I’d once met.  Just describing this group, without embellishment, resulted in a helplessly satirical piece guaranteed to offend any of the true believers Rand’s work attracts, and who capitalist scholars count among their readers.

Dr. Younkins published it anyway, in his fine collection of essays, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion.  Of course, I caught flak from every Randroid from here to New Zealand for that one, and Dr. Younkins risked the wrath of his readers.  That’s why I believe his new book really is going to be the even-handed treatment the Amazon reviewers promise.

But what matters is that Dr. Younkins wrote a book designed to use literature to teach business majors to think critically about the ethical issues of their chosen profession.  We need more of that.

About Leda

I don’t write poetry.  Well, not really, but a poem did show up around last Easter and another one showed up now, referencing the myth of Leda and the swan.  It’s the damnedest thing.

About Leda    

Leda went ‘round the world at large
In her cottage by the sea
And heard three Fates with a broken star
Singing a homily.

The first spun stones from empty air
The second measured sand
The third cut lines like strangled swears
In Leda’s faultless hand.

And so when Zeus the swan doth come
To tickle Leda’s palm,
She keeps that furtive writing mum;
Rough secrets from the gods.

It’s hard to say if maid saw God
Within that mortal thread;
Or if she executed fraud.
Tomorrow, Troy plays dead.

My last post concerned a crime against the humanities; this one concerns the expected demise of Barnes & Noble

Despite being the only remaining national chain physical bookstore in the USA, and having a near-monopoly on shelf space, Barnes & Noble can’t make money selling bad coffee, embarrassing trinkets, and an occasional book so it’s closing more stores.  CEO William Lynch has resigned and, according to USA Today, Barnes & Noble is not planning to name a successor any time soon.  If ever.  In fact, according to Bloomberg,  it isn’t looking for one.  CFO Michael Huseby will be president, reporting to Leonard Riggio, the largest shareholder.  The company has also announced that it is going to stop making Nook color tablets

One problem is that Barnes & Noble can’t make money when the few remaining readers who actually shop there hoping to find something worth reading check out books online and buy them at home.  “Showrooming,” it’s called.   Indie bookstores have the same problem.  So do lots of other brick and mortar stores. 

I don’t know what it’s called if you hear about an interesting read and simply buy it online in the first place.  Perhaps the “free market” where consumers shop for the lowest price on a good.  I assume that a publicly owned corporation like Barnes & Noble would support that concept in any other context.

Some are arguing that the death of Barnes & Noble will result in the death of the industry, including eventually the death of Amazon, because Amazon benefits from people “discovering” books at Barnes & Noble.

I can’t get worked up about this.  I wish I could, because I wish Barnes & Noble still mattered.  But the fact is, I haven’t “discovered” a new book through Barnes & Noble in a really long time.  I remember when spending an afternoon browsing through their selections was a choice way to spend hours.  Then something happened. 

This is purely anecdotal, but it probably matches the experiences of a lot of readers.  The stores got louder.  They went from dignified havens in which the book reading public could retreat and explore new books, to glorified cafes, replete with live music and lots of chatter.  They became self-styled “community centers” rather than bookstores.  This is from their website:

We pioneered the concept of a retail store as a community center . . . Our relationship with Starbucks is a key reason why Barnes & Noble is such a popular coffeehouse destination across the U.S. And more importantly, an integral part of the Barnes & Noble experience that keeps our customers coming back again and again.

So right there, Barnes & Noble began to think the way to keep customers coming back was to offer them a different product than the one that attracted them in the first place.

Starbucks, which has always been something of a jokey haven for pseudo-intellectuals who like to write Important Stuff on their laptops in public so people can notice how cool they are, has turned Barnes & Noble into another jokey haven for pseudo-intellectuals.  The problem is, if you have cultivated a customer base of book readers since 1917, and now feel that to expand your audience you need to emphasize a different product, you are doing something really wrong. 

I’m a customer.  I can drink coffee at home.  Until Amazon, I couldn’t find new books at home.  So B&N, it’s the books that used to bring readers like me into your store.

I remember a time when you could quietly browse those books.  Then, as the atmosphere changed, quiet went right out.  Parents started bringing screaming babies and toddlers into the store and using the place as a babysitter.  Did the management respect the original clientele by asking people to not disturb the reading customers?  Hell, no.  They enhanced the children’s section to encourage noise and expanded the “community center” concept to include families and exclude actual book buying customers.  

The link is to a story about an Arizona Barnes & Noble that threw an elderly gentleman out of the store because he had the poor judgment to be shopping for books for his grandsons in the children’s section while being male.  The poor guy was asked by an employee if he’d “heard about kids being molested in bookstores.”  He was told that men were not allowed to be in the children’s section “by themselves.”  He was escorted out.  So, here’s an educated reader (the unfortunate 73 year old grandfather, Dr. Omar Amin, is the “director of the Parasitology Center Inc. in Scottsdale and an expert in infectious diseases”) attempting to foster a love of reading in his grandchildren and he gets the boot. 

But you can bet Dr. Amin is going to think twice about returning, when he can buy books from Amazon with far less unwarranted embarrassment and gender profiling.  So – screaming toddlers disturbing reading customers is fine, but don’t you dare be a male buying books to help educate your grandchildren or you will be treated like a criminal.  This single incident, for which Vice President Mark Bottini has apologized, has wider significance.  It’s redolent of the kind of politically correct, knee jerky, unimaginative corporatized parlor “bookstore” Barnes & Noble has become, and of how far the general atmosphere in these stores has moved away from reading.

So Barnes & Noble doesn’t offer quiet book browsing space anymore, which is one of the reasons people like me used to go there.

Then there’s the role they play with publishers.  A lot of writers and readers don’t know this, but Barnes & Noble is partly responsible for the decline in quality books that has become so apparent in the last 20 years.   That’s because for an editor to sell a novel in house, he or she has to get the Barnes & Noble fiction buyer on board.  This individual decides which novels Barnes & Noble will stock, and therefore pretty much gets veto power over what kind of fiction gets published.  Barnes & Noble is a public company, so it cares about sales potential, not quality.  Naturally, this means that sophisticated stuff is right out, and 8th grade reading level pabulum that doesn’t challenge anybody is right in, further alienating the original customer base. 

And then there’s the godawful attitude of the employees.  Customers don’t enjoy being sneered at for their purchases.  Books are highly personal items, so sensitive bookish bluestockings like me like it even less.  My last visit to a Barnes & Noble was when I asked a twenty-something behind the counter if she could order me a copy of Plutarch’s Lives, and said that I was interested in an edition that included his biography of Alexander the Great.   The supercilious twenty-something whose job it is to help customers find the kind of books they are interested in, to recommend books to the customers, insisted there was no such thing, never heard of it, and exchanged snobby looks and head shakes with another employee, who hadn’t heard of it either.  And then pointedly moved on to another customer because my poor request clearly annoyed her.

So you know, I ordered it from Amazon, where there is a lovely selection of exactly what I was looking for. 

Oh, sure I could have bought it on line from Barnes & Noble, but undergoing a kind of public shaming at the physical store for wishing to read Plutarch was such a miserable experience I chose not to.  Just so you know, B&N.   By the way, does that count as showrooming?

Uh, B&N, this is why you lose customers.  It isn’t Amazon, it isn’t the long tail, it isn’t showrooming, it’s you.   The only thing you might be able to offer “showrooming” readers anymore is a great reading atmosphere, knowledgeable courteous staff that truly cares about matching readers with what they might like, and books chosen for quality that readers can’t easily find or learn about elsewhere.  All intangible, human type stuff that public corporations simply aren’t set up to provide.  But when your own damn staff laughs at people for requesting a classic of ancient literature and throws innocent old men out on their ass for attempting to buy books for their grandchildren, the problem is you.

And here’s the irony.  Barnes & Noble has been driving the compartmentalization of literature for years, exerting pressure on authors to only write in one genre, so their books can be shelved in the same section of the bookstore, and to never mix genres, because Barnes & Noble is too ham fisted to sell books to readers that don’t fit a neat marketing category (particularly if they can’t hire knowledgeable staff).   So perhaps Barnes & Noble should follow it’s own lead.   Stop mixing business genres, decide which “genre” it wants to be in, and which section of market space it wants to occupy.  If you want to be a bookstore – be a goddamned bookstore, focus on the book readers, and accept that smaller is better.  Hire staff that is stellar at matching books to readers.  You have a goddamned monopoly right now – you can do it.

If you want to “mix genres” and be all sorts of things to all sorts of people: play centers, community centers, coffee houses, useless gift shops – well keep swaying around in the wind because right now you really aren’t anything at all.   That’s the real reason you’re closing stores and losing money.

Choose an identity, be that identity, and you’ll attract your base again.

Go private.  Drop the damn shareholders who have robbed you of your original identity.  Stop driving the publishing industry, and allow the acquisition editors to do their job without interference.  Be smaller and focused.  Be a “community center” for what remains of literary culture.  Stop being a shill for Starbucks and stupid toys and cutesy novelty “books” and stop being afraid of excluding people.   Real reading is elitist; if you still want to be in the book business, get used to it.

So, here’s hoping that somebody out there will buy those closed stores, run them like real bookstores, convey a tone that reading and learning matter, and basically kick your butt by filling a much needed space in the market.  I’d be first in line to shop at those stores.  That would get me out to a physical store again.

Or listen to Praveen Madan, president of Kepler’s Books, who said in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

If I were in their shoes, I would deepen the commitment to a broader stock of books, to displaying and promoting books from small presses and university presses. They should also be more involved with local schools and libraries. They may have to run fewer, smaller stores, but that’s how to do it. There is absolutely a place for them if they embrace the commitment to books and ideas. But if they are a profit first, general retailer, then I don’t think there is a place for them.

Be a bookstore!  Or don’t, and former customers like me will drink coffee at home in more comfortable chairs while buying books through Amazon.

A Keen and Crankish Rant on a Crime Most Foul Against the Humanities

Some jackbag bint from Carcaliu, Romania told authorities that she stuffed seven original paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan into her wood-burning stove and lit a match, rendering those particular visions of those master painters into ashes.  The paintings were taken from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam in October 2012.

The jackbag bint, Olga Dogaru, did it out of some consummate talent for codependency or some breathtakingly dysfunctional version of maternal love.  You see, Mrs. Dogaru originally claimed that she hid the stolen paintings at her sister’s. Then she buried them in her garden. Then she dug them up and buried them in a cemetery.  But fearing discovery, she decided that she simply had to destroy these irreplaceable works to prevent her worthless son, Radu Dogaru, from doing time for stealing them.

As the New York Times reports:

Mrs. Dogaru told investigators in May that months earlier, in February, she had shoved the stolen artworks into a stove used to heat a sauna at her family home and then set them alight, in a desperate attempt to destroy evidence and save her son from going to jail.

Mr. Dogaru has reportedly admitted to the theft.  

But then, also according to the New York Times, Mr. Dogaru is reputed to be highly experienced at stealing stuff:

“He has known only one thing since he was 4 years old, and that is stealing,” said Stefan Karpov, a Carcaliu resident who recalled Mr. Dogaru as a bully notorious for his brushes with the law.

But then again, the Dogarus are known as a lawless bunch:

Referring to the Dogarus, Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu [the director of Romania’s National History Museum] said, “It seems they were not very honest, because apparently a lot of members of the family had a long judicial history.”

Now that Momma Dogaru is facing charges in Bucharest for destroying the paintings, she says she lied.  She never burned them.  But she can’t produce them, and neither can her son.  That’s because a “mystery man in a fancy black car” now has them.  Somewhere.  She thinks.

Sadly, forensic evidence supports her first story:  

[Mr. Oberlander-Tarnoveanu] said his team had discovered material that classical French, Dutch, Spanish and other European artists typically used to prepare canvases for oil painting, as well as the “remains of colors, like red, yellow, green, blue, gray.” The pigments included cinnabar, chromium green and lazurite — a blue-green copper compound — as well as tin-lead yellow, which artists stopped using after the 19th century because of toxicity. In addition, copper nails and tacks made by blacksmiths before the Industrial Revolution and used to tack canvas down were found in the debris. Such items would be nearly impossible to fake, he said.

So Mrs. Dogaru is now being charged under Romanian law with “destruction with very serious consequences” which carries a 3 to 10 year sentence, “supporting a criminal group” and “assisting criminals.”

If Olga Dogaru is found guilty of these charges, then she is also guilty of a crime against humanity, against the citizens of the world.  To protect her adult son from the consequences of his own admitted criminal actions, she took out, according to her first story, an irreplaceable piece of our western cultural heritage.

But if she did burn the paintings, as the forensic evidence suggests, I wouldn’t send her to jail.  I think a more appropriate punishment would be to make her sit through art history MOOCs over and over again, and make her write and rewrite and rewrite a series of lengthy, heavily researched essays on why what she did was such a bitch slap to western culture.  Although I’m against using writing as a form of punishment, I would make an exception in this case because I’m guessing that people who burn paintings would probably prefer jail to being forced to write essays every day.   Then, she should have to stand outside the Kunsthal with digital copies of the destroyed paintings displayed on whiteboards and a sign explaining what she did to the originals.  And she should have to listen to whatever the museum visitors choose to say to her on the subject.  And she would be required to explain, over and over again, to the world as it passes into the Kunsthal, why she burned Monet’s “Charing Cross Bridge, London” and listen to the public’s responses.  Every. Single. Day.  For ten years.  Then she can go do her time on the other charges.

Yes, Momma Dogaru pisses me off.   But there is a possibility of redemption.  If this punishment should accomplish the unlikely result of Olga Doguru becoming a brilliant art critic, through constant writing and rewriting and exposure to art history, then I suppose we could get something back in the form of a strange evocative story of a panicked woman burying master painters’ works in a cemetery, burning them, and then being able to speak of nothing but that atrocity while eking out an existence writing about art.  Imagine the tropes that could spin off from that story over time.  Imagine the fiction and poetry and paintings that could come from it. Horrifying as the original is, the elements hold an undeniable archetypal interest.  So western culture could possibly get something back from future artists and writers playing with the tale.  But that’s all fancy.  The horror of what happened will fade like horrors do.

However, the other misery-inducing aspect of this story are some of the comments that keep showing up in the New York Times and elsewhere, and what they say about us and our relationship to art.  Some people are outraged at the loss of the paintings, and at the sheer savage ignorance that facilitated their likely destruction.

Others are outraged that this is even a news story.  Their complaints fall like this:

That the paintings weren’t the best work of the artists so somehow, by the fog lights of our winner-take-all society, it doesn’t matter that they got destroyed.  It’s not like Olga Dogaru got Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise” or one of the “Water Lilies” paintings, so why care?  Because of course a master painter’s minor works have no intrinsic value in a culture where only “the best” (usually meaning the best known) matters.  This argument gets made all the time in America, where people are either #1 or considered losers.  It reflects the awful degradation of our appreciation for the sort of excellence that falls just short of #1.  It leads to dissing even Matisse’s minor works.  It’s embarrassing.

That artists destroy their own work all the time, so what difference does it make?  Uh, if you can’t distinguish between an artist destroying his own work as a form of self-editing because he knows he can do better, and a jackbag bint from a family with a “long judicial history” burning museum paintings to save her son from jail, I would respectfully suggest that a course of serious humanities studies is a great way to get exposed to critical thinking.  It’s a damn shame that sort of thing is turning to metaphoric ashes in the USA.

That the “real crime” is poverty, and the “real issue” is Detroit declaring bankruptcy.  No, the “real crime” is burning the paintings, and the “real issue” is, well, burning the paintings.  Sure, what’s happening to the US economy is another crime, and perhaps there’s an argument that the destruction of the middle class is in some ways another crime against humanity.  But it’s a both, not an either/or. To say otherwise is just plain weird. 

That at least we have digital copies.  Sure, and god bless technology, but that doesn’t make the burning of the originals any less mortifying. There’s a difference between standing in front of an original painting and experiencing the intensity and immediacy of the artist’s energy, and seeing a digital copy on a website.  But I agree that digital copies are a mercy in this situation, so here’s a link to digital copies of what we lost.

That the art world is a joke, anyway.  Yes, absolutely.  The contemporary art world is another slap in the face to the western cultural heritage – you’ll get no argument from me there.  But what does that have to do with burning an original Monet?  I’m sorry, two original Monets, because according to her first story, Momma Dogaru also took out “Waterloo Bridge, London”. 

And the worst argument – that any mother would burn an original Picasso to help her son get away with committing a major crime.  Of course, this is all normal, civilized behavior.  We should be more understanding.  So maternal love gets a pass on destroying a piece of my cultural heritage?  What about stupidity?  Does that also get a pass? Olga Dogaru didn’t have to destroy the paintings to “protect” her son.  Those paintings were worth millions of dollars.  She could have offered to return them to the museum in exchange for the promise of reduced charges.  Or she could have kept them buried in the damn cemetery.

Frankly, the comments make me uncomfortable.  Because if western culture (us) can minimize or excuse this act, we’ve lost something even more precious than the paintings.  We’ve lost the ability to mourn the obliteration of a piece of our collective imaginative heritage.  And to the extent that heritage forms part of our identity as westerners and world citizens, some of the comments suggest that part of that identity went to ashes long before Momma Dogaru lit the match.  If there is a “real story” beyond the travesty of the burning, it’s that one.

Is Writing a Dying Profession?

Ewan Morrison thinks so.  In a piece in The Guardian called “Are books dead, and can authors survive?” Morrison predicts that ebooks will kill paper books within 25 years.  He provides numbers: Barnes & Noble now sells three times more digital books than physical books. Amazon sells 242 ebooks for every 100 hardbacks.  Also, baby boomers (like me) tend to buy physical books, and when we go, they go.

He argues that the ascendency of ebooks and epublishing will destroy writing as a profession: 

The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free.  Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist.

And we should care why?

I don’t mean to sound glib here, but I’m not convinced that writing, well fiction writing anyway, which is where Morrison takes all of his examples from of professional writers who were “paid a living wage” to create important literary works, needs to be a profession in order to be a viable art form. In fact, writing has never been a profession for the vast majority of writers, including many who ended up canonized, but not on Morrison’s list.  But to his argument.

Morrison begins by asking us to “leave alone the question: why should authors live by their work?” I didn’t know it was a “should” – I didn’t even know it was a question.  Some do, some aspire to, some do for short periods and then don’t, some few do reliably . . . is there a “should” in there?  Who’s asking?  Dickens lived off his work, as Morrison notes.  Keats didn’t.  Contemporary literary poets as a rule don’t.  Herman Melville didn’t. Neither did Henry David Thoreau.  Emily Bronte made some money but didn’t get wealthy off Wuthering Heights.  One can play that parlor game all night.  But it seems to me that in a piece lamenting the imminent passing of writing as a profession, that the question of whether writing needs to be a profession, whether authors “should” live by their work, ought to be at the threshold. 

But if you take Morrison’s suggestion and leave aside the question of whether authors “should” make a living by their work, his argument makes some salient observations about the state of publishing today, and how that is likely to affect writing as a profession in the near future.   So while I found myself questioning his starting assumption, I also found myself agreeing with many of his points.

Morrison observes that right now, publishers are drastically cutting author advances, focusing on short term profit, and dropping midlist writers.  Without an advance, or with greatly reduced advances, authors who live by their work need to make their money from future sales, an iffy prospect even for bestselling authors.  So authors are increasingly leaving publishers and opting to publish themselves.  

At the same time, Internet booksellers like Amazon have learned that they can profit from selling one or two copies of millions of obscure books (known as “long tail” selling).  Traditional publishers typically profit by selling millions of copies of a few best sellers.  Amazon’s long tail has forced traditional publishers to cut prices and to largely restrict themselves to putting out sure bet, no risk kinds of books.  If you have to discount your product to compete with Amazon, and traditional bookstores are drying up, and you depend on short term profits from a hit, what can you do?   Take a chance on something experimental and risky?  This is a huge reason so many truly uninspiring books get published today.  If it doesn’t sell to the lowest common denominator, it doesn’t sell.

Morrison observes that “every industry that has become digital has seen a dramatic, and in many cases terminal, decrease in earnings for those who create ‘content’.”   He has a point.  This has happened to home videos, music, computer games, newspapers, photography, and is starting to happen to books.  Add piracy into the mix, and economic forces will shutter the price of books to zero, because consumers won’t pay for content.  When that happens, writing will “become something produced and consumed for free.”  Any money to be made will be in using the free content to draw attention to advertising.

Morrison says there’s no “simple solution” but proposes that authors forgo publishing themselves in the long tail:

Authors must respect and demand the work of good editors and support the publishing industry, precisely by resisting the temptation to “go it alone” in the long tail. In return, publishing houses must take the risk on the long term; supporting writers over years and books, it is only then that books of the standard we have seen in the last half-century can continue to come into being.

Yes.  Right.   First, mainstream publishers have been so thoroughly colonized by their corporate owners they aren’t going to take a risk supporting any new writer for years in the faith that book #5 or #6 will be a classic.  Editors may want to, but shareholders aren’t burdened by visions of long-term value.  Second, authors now have zero incentive to forgo self-publishing in the long tail or otherwise, and this is partly (maybe mostly) because of the corporate culture that has infected traditional publishing.

Here’s why.

Morrison may very well be correct about the death of writing as a profession, but he’s wrong to say that the only way high quality books can “come into being” is through the support of advances doled out by traditional publishers.   He’s also wrong when he begins his article by saying that “most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage” and that the system of publisher advances is necessary to facilitate great work.

Here’s the reality.  With very few exceptions, most publisher advances do not, by any stretch, constitute anything resembling a living wage, particularly if you divide up the advance by the hours the writer probably put into writing the novel.  Most of the time, for most writers, it works out to maybe minimum wage, maybe less.  People are obviously not writing their first (yet unsold) book while living off a publisher’s advance, and rarely are they living off the advances offered for second or third books.  So unless you make the bizarre claim that early books are never masterpieces worthy of support, I don’t understand why the death of publisher advances will destroy the production of quality writing.

The issue isn’t publisher advances being the only means for someone to survive while having time to write a masterpiece.  The basic issue is writing time, which I take up here.   The funny thing is, writers, artists, musicians and other creative types have been finding ways to get that time without publisher advances for centuries.  I’m not naively suggesting that writers need to be members of a leisured class or have a wealthy patron as was done in the past.  I am suggesting that, if writing is important to you – there are ways to organize your life, to become ruthlessly spartan with your time, to get those 2 or 3 hours a day (or whatever it is you require) to just write.  My link has some suggestions (which won’t work for everyone, but may be helpful for some).  Other writers develop methods that work for them.  I mean, writers are a creative bunch.  I manage to run a busy law practice and still carve out writing time without depending on a publisher’s advance to buy that time.  When I was getting publisher advances, I certainly didn’t live off them (nor did I expect to).

Oh, and since Morrison’s point is that great writers need that kind of support (unlike the rest of us, because ultimately their work will matter more) here’s a list from Publisher’s Weekly of notable writers who managed to support themselves with paying jobs while writing.  Here’s a short list of canonized writers who kept their day jobs throughout their lives while maintaining a writing schedule:

Geoffrey Chaucer (civil servant)
Sir Walter Scott (Clerk to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Deputy-Sheriff of Selkirkshire
Anthony Trollope (wrote mornings before going to work at the post office)
Herman Melville (customs inspector)
William Carlos Williams (physician)
Wallace Stevens (insurance executive)
Philip Larkin (librarian)

Also consider:

John Grisham (wrote his first two novels before going to his law practice or court in the morning)
Joseph Heller (wrote evenings)

And you know, just about everybody else, with the exceptions Morrison lists in his piece.

So there’s that.  In fact, most writers already do that.  And I would argue it’s having that day job, that contact with the real world every day, that brings a sense of authenticity and life to writing.  You can’t be a writer without solitary time.  You also can’t be a writer without carefully observing and drawing from the day to day messiness of humanity.

According to Morrison, since traditional publishers find it increasingly difficult to turn a profit under their current business model, writers are supposed to avoid the long tail (forgo self-publishing) to help out the publishers.  In exchange for what?   What are publishers providing writers that is so damn valuable that we’re supposed to put our work in the closet to help them out in tough times?

An advance that doesn’t and isn’t meant to support writing time?  The almost nonexistent promotion? Space in rapidly disappearing physical bookstores that are more interested in selling baked goods and children’s toys than actual books and that can’t compete with online sales?  Nostalgia for what publishing with a traditional publisher meant 20 or 30 years ago?

WTF?

The only thing publishers maybe sort of offered until the last several years was the promise that a particular book had been vetted by gatekeepers and so probably had higher quality than the mass of stuff out there.  But publishers have lost even that high ground, because they have to chase the safe mass market to even hope to make a profit against the long tail.  And that means investing in celebrity books and formula over literary novels.  So they are not only increasingly losing authors, they’re losing real readers, the kind who used to be fans of a particular imprint but who now, when they bother to visit one of the few remaining physical bookstores, see that the quality of mainstream published books is not necessarily better overall than indies.

At least the coffee is reliable.

What do authors need publishers for anymore?  Today, anybody with access to a computer can download books directly to the reader, take payment directly, and promote their work as they feel appropriate.  More people read my blog lately than buy the average literary novel, and I do very little promotion.  I’m not unique in that regard.

Writers aren’t going to save the publishing industry by refraining from self-publishing.   Only publishers can save the publishing industry – by actually publishing stuff worth reading again, and by being willing to downsize economically and to focus on the fraction of the population who actually cares about books.  Because discerning readers are browsing the long tail to find a reading experience that fits their needs, and they’re doing so because traditional publishers have largely abandoned them for a broader, less discerning, higher profit audience. 

You get what you market to.

So if market forces result in the death of writing as a profession, so be it.  Writers aren’t going anywhere.