Friday, April 22, 2005

The Conglomeratization of Literature

MAJOR changes in the process of literature over the past fifty years have been designed to fit literature comfortably into the idea of the gigantic monopolistic machine.

The idea of the book store has changed drastically. Twenty-five years ago or so the typical bookstore was Merit Books on Harper Avenue in Detroit-- a modest tile-floored storefront biz with a few rows of titles; small magazine rack at the front; porn at the back. At the forefront of the rows of books was LITERATURE. There I encountered a back issue of a lit-journal edited by Ted Solotaroff, and bought it. Most of the essays, fiction, and poetry seemed bizarre to me-- typified by Ralph Ellison's "Cadillac Flambe'"-- yet mysteriously exciting. The bookstore operated on the premise that the foundation of the book business was literature. All other types of books were secondary. Their thinking was a legacy of the days when enormous bestsellers-- Eskine Caldwell's and Mickey Spillane's many titles (selling million upon millions in paperback)-- were, roughly but accurately, considered literature. Reading mattered to people. Most impressive about the book store was how manageable it was for the customer-- there weren't many rows, shelves, and titles under which to bury the reader; no overdone displays. What you had instead was a simple layout in a stark tiled room, with a distinct sense of clarity. For our lit movement first put on the map by a full-page Village Voice article titled "Start Making Sense," clarity remains key.

Today with the dominating monster chain bookstores the customer encounters not clarity but cacaphony. Literature is no longer the flagship of the enterprise. It's pushed to the back, where the porn used to be, or isolated on the third floor near endless shelves of books about rock music and movies. The chain bookstore no longer makes its own related art form the focal point of its promotional strategy, but instead, one of many. It'd be like Roman Catholic churches with gift shops inside the doorway selling the Koran, and statues of Buddha and Mohammed, and plastic figures of "The Lion King." In the back row on sale 50% off are still a couple dusty Bibles and a few remaining depictions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Sales might temporarily go up, but in the long run it'd be a defeatist strategy.

The mainstay of chain bookstores isn't literature, but mountains of narcissistic autobiographies, cascades of pop self-help books about dieting and psychology, Rachel Ray Two-Minute Meals for hyperactive stressed-out yuppies, and worst of all, at the front, neverending stacks of volumes of partisan propaganda from conglomerate media pundits on the "Left" and the "Right" whose overall effect is to legitimize a phony Punch-and-Judy political system which turns off 80% of the population.

Merit Books in Detroit, back in the day, was working-class in content and presentation. Today's chains go after the Affluenti, be they center city condo dwellers or far-flung exurbanites. For this class of people, incestuous establishment two-party squabbles still have meaning, so they purchase armloads of political titles. American society would be healthier if the focus were literature-- problems discussed through the art of the expression of language.

The chains contain literature, of course, but they have too much of it, like everything in these stores; an ever-circulating Niagara Falls of titles, most of them without intellectual distinction (which is found abundantly in books by underground authors); almost all of them, in style, tone, and pose, pretty much the same.

This is made possible by an attached wing of the enormous Conglomerate-Literature factory, the writer production lines; hundreds of MFA writing programs graduating thousands of certified "writers," the vast 99% majority of whom aren't real writers at all-- not the natural Jack Saunders/Wild Bill kind. They are, instead, wannabes. If they weren't, they wouldn't have believed they needed certificates in order to write in the first place! Like Stephen Crane, Jack London, Hemingway, Kerouac, and other greats, they would've simply begun writing.

The chain bookstores are killing literature because there is no way among the mass of subjects and titles for literature to stand out. Within literature there is no way for individual authors to stand out. They're interchangeable mass-produced products, generic in their sameness. Who are we talking about? Has anyone figured out the difference yet between Jonathan Franzen Jonathan Foer Jonathan Lethem? Which one is Ben and Jerry's Flavor of the Week? Is that Michael Chabon in that photo, or Steve Almond, or Dave Eggers? In upbringing pose cachet coolness attitude solipsistic sensitivity it's hard to see much difference between any of them-- fake-intellectual bourgeois products of the current age.

The ULA was created to offer competition to the Conglomerate Literature Monstrosity. To do this our task will be to maintain separation from it-- not be swallowed up by its enormity to take our place on shelf 535b row 37 aisle z in Wal-Mart-sized cultural marketplaces. Our move in and through bookstores and chains has to be tactical; temporary. They don't sell all automobiles Toyota Datsun Volkswagen Ford Chevrolet etc in one showroom. Not yet anyway. Real competition means opening a dealership with your own models across the street-- fronted by a showroom offering true difference; focus, distinction, and clarity.

For now, that new showroom is the ULA's fan site.


Noah Cicero said...

There are three book stores in the Youngstown-Warren area where I live, Barnes and Nobles, Borders, and Dorian's Used Bookstore.
I wanna tell how each of them are:
Barnes and Nobles literature section has beatiniks, Bukowksi, horror, mystery, and Ophrah bullshit all thrown into it. It is impossible to browse the section. If there is a great new or old classic in there you ain't gonna find it. Also Barnes and Nobles will not take books from local authors. Barnes and Nobles will not hire blacks or white trash. The Barnes and Nobles is in the richest part of the area.

Borders has a better literature, mostly classics and Ophrah books are in there too. But they actually have a horror section and mystery section. But they have so many classics it is impossible to browse and daunting to the normal person. They do take local books and if you bring two books with an ISBN even if it isn't local they will take them. They don't hire blacks or white trash either. The Borders is in the Warren Trumbull county which poorer and all working class. Strange, the Borders is in a poorer and more working class area is always more busy than the Barnes and Nobles.

Dorian's Used Bookstore is downtown Youngstown. A guy and his mother owns and runs it completely by themselves. You go in there, the guy gives you a free cup of coffee, and talks to you about books. He is one of those true book junkies, the kind of person that has read two books a week since he was twelve. he doesn't give a shit what the book is, he just wants the sentences, he loves the words. He's got the sections nicely divided into classics, classic paper backs for only a dollar, all the sections are nicely divided and easy to browse. And he will help you find a book if you can't find it quickly. He will talk for fifteen minutes about Bukowski and then talk fifteen amount minutes about Jean Anouilh. I've learned about several new authors froom him. His cat also walks around the whole time. His main customers are poor black people from Youngstown.

Then there are the thrift stores, a book for fifty cents. The greatest thing about thrift store book shopping is that you can get anything and not have to worry about the money. Usually you have to watch your ass in a thrift store, the schizophrenic crack heads looking for a copy of Ibsen's plays will suddenly look at you and scream, "Hey motherfucker, you fucking looking at me!" That happened to me for real.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

I don't know. A thrift store or worse yet, a remander book store can be a dangerous place. We've got a number of those here in London and you can buy six or seven brand-new books for about £20. No remander marks and actually a pretty good selection, if you're looking for recently released non-fiction or the more obscure fiction that doesn't get picked up by the chain stores anyway. It allows almost anyone to indulge in the worst/most glorious form of impulse buying possible and you only realize the cost when there are piles of unread books lying around your apartment six months later.

You're right. Borders is pretty bad but at least there's usually a fairly wide selection there. Pretty good for window shopping and then you can run home and order whatever you want from

Tim Hall said...

Good news: Barnes & Noble has placed an order for HALF EMPTY.

I don't know how many copies we can sell there, since I missed the long lead time for getting a reading there, but the fact is, sometime in the next few weeks, my copy WILL be available there (only in NYC-area stores? I don't know).

As hard as it is for us indie writers to make inroads to the conglomerate-controlled book world, I'm still happy that a no-name press with only one book and a first-time author can get their attention. We can conquer the congloms just like we're going to conquer the culture: One person, one book, one writer, one letter, one email, one phone call at a time.

Ginsberg deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award for his tireless efforts on behalf of his friends. If everybody in the ULA just took an hour or two to actually push our books to their local bookstores, we would have an immense, incalculable effect on real book sales.

What do you say, ULA? Are you up to the it?

Anonymous said...

"Ginsberg deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award for his tireless efforts on behalf of his friends."

So why is this cronyism OK, but the cronyism of the mainstream the subject of so much jejune vitriol on this blog?

chilly charlie said...

I agree. Also, consider Dean Haspiel, who gives aid and comfort to Tim Hall whois stalking you.

You didn't let him run your operation. Now he hates you and is out to get you.

Just see what he's done to Noah.

Why support Dean Haspiel?