Monday, July 02, 2007


I grumble all the time (probably defensively) that the paradigm most people have of writing is the Life magazine genius pattern they developed for Hemingway, Steinbeck and Picasso. Writing is seen to be a great eruction (careful how you spell that) from an inspired secret world that is as valuable as pearls and as self-generated.

Other forms of print, like directions, are treated with contempt. You can tell from the lack of care in writing them. “Ha! Understand THIS, you scum!” seems to be the basic attitude, and in four languages. But surely there must be something in between that is simply basic information carefully conveyed.

Then there’s the thesis approach to writing. One of my fellow students in seminary averaged ten footnotes to every page. Talk about covering your butt. I tried to launch out into some original theory but, partly because my life experience was so different from everyone else (esp. faculty), I was squashed in a hurry. The point of a thesis is not to be original -- it is to flatter one’s advisors.

There ARE books that are bought, not because they are works of genius, but simply because they are needed and useful. The people that want these books will go in search of them -- no need to beg for reviews except enough information for people to buy them. With search engines, little escapes notice.

Though I originally started out with the idea of the works of genius myself, life has taught me that genius is usually a matter of long, hard preparation -- finally presented with an opportunity. And I have the strong idea that many pearls of genius never get out of the oyster, so to speak. To publicize and sell is quite different from writing -- which is why publishing houses will probably go on existing -- just greatly changed. Now that they have shifted from trying to assess the writer to trying to survey and analyze their readers, they only have to broaden their understanding of what a reader is. So far, the conviction seems to be that readers are not quite genius enough to write books, but still exceptional enough to wish they did and to read the kind of books they would write if they could. Mostly living in college towns or Manhattan. The publishers haven’t changed their “paradigm of privilege” -- just slid it over to the readers.

When I was in the UU ministry and trying to “grow” congregations, which was what everyone insisted was the duty of the minister in the Eighties and which was defined in terms of member numbers, we used the rule-of-thumb that one in a thousand people would be a natural Unitarian. There were only two cities in Montana that even approached a hundred-thousand people and they would yield only a hundred people. Not enough to sustain a minister and building. But there are two cities in Alberta that number over a million citizens, which would predict a thousand Unitarians. Yet each supported only a modest 300 member church plus a small splinter. Still, as a rule of thumb for the commodification of an ineffable (religion), it was useful. So a publisher could think in those terms.

When Vine Deloria, brilliant rabble-rouser, had a new book about Indians coming out, he asked his publisher how many copies they expected to sell on Vine’s home reservation. “None,” said the surprised publisher. “There are no bookstores there.” Like children, assuming that books are sold only in bookstores and shoes sold only in shoe stores. But maybe some shoe stores would sell books, if they were about Nike! Shift from selling the book qua book to selling the book by content.

So Martin Murie sells his gentle conservation stories in bait shops, service stations, bars, general stores, and whatever else kind of establishment in northern New York might intersect with people of the right sort. The principle is exposure to an assortment who will self-select, rather than zeroing in on only the largest cut. (The Big Box stores in Montana say they will not stock MAC products because they are only 10% of the computer users. I tell them that if they would set aside a corner for MAC products, they would gain 10% more customers. But they are controlled by corporations far away. I buy on the Internet.) I didn’t know until recently that Ivan and Carol Doig started out selling “This House of Sky” from their car while driving around Montana. That was twenty-five years ago and it was necessary to impress the publisher by guaranteeing sales themselves.

We’ve gotten way off on the “best seller” conceit, believing that a book that’s not a best seller is not worthy. People check the lists in The New York Times Book Review or The Globe and Mail or Amazon, and think that tells them something about the value of the book. “If everyone else is reading it, I should read it!” So the point is not the book, but chatter about it. Maybe that’s a leftover from being in a college class where everyone reads the same thing at the same time. The great thing about this “long tail” notion is that it ought to help break up this prejudice, which is really a way to sell the entities who make up the lists. Can’t reading be a private and unique affair? Aren’t there many books that I love dearly but wouldn’t suggest to others because I strongly suspect they wouldn’t strike the same chord?

After I was fired from teaching in Heart Butte and stranded on my mother’s sofa in Portland, I went down to the library and checked out every book I could find about how to get a job. One of the most useful said this brilliant thing: “Half the people out there will not hire you. Your task at this point is to figure out where the other half are and how to make contact with them.”

With my books, I’m clearly aiming at Blackfeet and the people who visit the reservation or who love the people or who are part of the 8,000 member Blackfeet diasphora. Useful books about history and place. Local shops, schools and blogs seem to be the natural methods. The newspapers are afraid of political implications. These books are not appealing to the tides of wealthy and romantic white people who surge through the state, buy slick magazines that advertise hot tubs and McMansions. The writers who do sell to those latter folks are a circle that doesn’t really like to admit newcomers anyway.

With the University of Calgary Press book, “Bronze Inside and Out,” I’ve hedged my bets. Cowboy artists, sure -- not just the artists but the battalions of people who staff the museums, galleries, and “historical centers.” Not just cowboy artists but lovers of classical sculpture. Montana folks, right. Alberta people, who have just discovered he was under their noses all the time. Blackfeet. And then there’s the love story.

The old advice about “write what you love” still holds true. Let’s hope the people who respond to that will find out the book exists.


Rebecca Clayton said...

I'm an avid reader of "how-to" books, directions, scientific treatises, and other "boring" things, and I have a few favorites that I revisit periodically because they are so well-written. I was particularly pleased when I found Darwin's complete works are now available on-line, because I can reread his monographs on barnacles (as I sit here on a West Virginia mountaintop, 500 miles from the nearest barnacle). Darwin was brilliant at describing small things, and conveying their beauty and significance with no "fuss or muss."

As much as I love John Donne, I've spent more time with my favorite book of knitting patterns than I have with his collected works. That sounds terrible, but I think it means directions, manuals, and practical guides deserve more respect than they get.

Ivan Doig peddled his own books--amazing. He's a favorite author of mine, but then, I also read barnacle monographs. I always learn something fascinating and unexpected from your blog.

Robin Edgar said...

If one person in a thousand were U*U there would be over 30,000 U*Us in Canada. Can you explain why there are less than 6000?

prairie mary said...


1. There is no "UU" in Canada. The Universalists on that side of the border have remained independent. You may have noticed that the Universal inclusion and forgiveness is missing.

2. The Unitarian Service Committee is so successful in Canada that it serves to replace the institutional church dimension.

3. Internal and international politics.

4. You can't build a church on members who hate churches and ministers.

5. It's a Yankee rule-of-thumb anyway and skewed by a large New England contingent.

Prairie Mary