Last spring a Canadian writer contacted me by phone. She’d been referred to me by another Canadian writer, a friend. This caller had an idea for a book that would be nonfiction, a sort of journalist’s extended piece, proposing that people needn’t look at retirement as a long, grim decline into poor health and diminishing money, but could see it as a chance for the gleeful recreation they had never had before. (Remember these are prairie Canadians we’re talking about.) She had petitioned my friend, who writes rather mordant fiction and memoir, to come up with examples of people in this happy circumstance so that she could interview them as the substance of her book. She was sure that such a cheerful book would sell. (I’m always impressed by the number of publishers -- esp. regional magazines -- who say they want “up-beat” material.)
As it happens, she called me just after my brother died, aged 63, indigent, living in his truck except that a stranger took him in after he had a serious heart attack. I didn’t have enough money to go intervene when he had his heart attack and I didn’t have enough money to go when he died. In fact, I couldn’t really afford the phone bills so I appreciated the phone card my cousin sent for Christmas. Luckily my other brother did have money to go and cope, but all there was to do was order cremation and sort what was in the truck. He gave the truck to the kind stranger.
Also, from this time of year until maybe April, I am COLD -- not because this house can’t be kept warm, but because I don’t have enough money for the fuel necessary to do that. (The fuel people, of course, say that if I would just INSULATE, though this house was previously insulated in a desultory way in a publicly funded Help-the-Elderly way, or that I could get a subsidy if I would only APPLY. The application requires me to allow access to all records: bank, medical, property ownership, etc. Very useful info to some and a total invasion of privacy.)
So I was less than gleeful.
The writer never called back. She must have interviewed someone else, but I haven’t seen or heard about the book. But then, there’s a kind of wall between here and Canada except when a Canadian city advertises in the Great Falls Tribune, which specializes in “focused” advertising inserts.
Today’s insert is called “What Women Want” which is meant to bring in customers to an “Expo” at the Civic Center which is mostly an orgy of shopping.
In addition to the shoe ads I see more than six full-page ads for medical care, mostly cancer, backed by text “stories” that are related. If someone from Outer Slobbovia were to wonder what women want in this region, they would probably deduce that they want to look about 25 years old and be willing to undergo bariatric surgery (restricting stomach capacity) and a new thing called “lipodissolve” (unapproved injection of chemicals directly into fat) to achieve that, plus spending lots of money on makeup, exercise clubs, and chemical peels. Also, of course, they must be hyperalert for cancer which seems about as prevalent as pregnancy. There are NO ads for abortion clinics or Planned Parenthood.
There is a single clever ad for the CM Russell Museum which imitates a singles ad: “Man Seeking Women.” “I am a handsome cowboy lookin’ for some good lady pals. My interests include tellin’ stories, spending time with friends, and creating masterpieces. I am very good with my hands.” “My friends call me Charlie.” No mention of the well-known fact that many of Charlie’s best friends were prostitutes.
What are we to make of all this? Heck, I’d just laugh, shrug and go on, except that there’s this bio of Bob to market. Clearly the “romance ethic” either dominates the female reader market or is thought to dominate it. This means that the “love affair” between Bob and me or between him and the second wife, Jeanette, should be exploited but not in a realistic way that considers things like compatability, the dynamics of success, what intimacy really means, or how and why women contribute to the success of men. Much less female alcoholism which is the shorthand version of Bob’s fourth wife. Or teen pregnancy -- that's the first wife.
There are two stories in this women’s section about women who are considered exemplars in High-Line communities. One is the wife of a discredited judge who has had to go back to private practice. The other is the wife co-owner half of the local complex of weekly community newspapers who keeps an iron grip on content, often excluding Indians or any bad news. Bad from the point of view of her husband, who coaches the local basketball team. I won’t go into detail, but you know what the sports issues are these days.
The GF Trib is not a bicoastal newspaper. You will not find real singles ads in this section, nor anything about contraception, nor anything about marriage counseling or issues like co-dependence. If you want to be a feminist, go for it. Just understand that takes you off the marriage market. But does it? This is a trickily two-layered region: your basic mostly-Scandinaavian homesteader-rancher stock overlaid with people with way too much money who came here to escape the kind of environment where a person CAN make too much money. So on the one hand, people will admire a self-made Montana sculptor uncritically on the basis of his subject matter without any sense of what his career might mean internationally except how much money his work is worth. The people who came here from the outside will divide between those who only value artists like those in their university art history course and those who want to be “regional” and dive into the local arts world.
How much should a marketer be local (the U of Calgary Press sees itself as a “Heartland” press) and how much should be international outreach? Would two separate approaches interfere with each other?
This matters for writers. When the Montana Festival of the Book started, it was given a big boost by a number of writers who had national reputations but for whatever reason lived or had roots in Montana. Now most of the people who moved to Montana, thinking that would make them better-selling writers, have discovered it wasn’t the key and have moved away again. But there IS writing among the local people, sprung up like grass and unpromoted. No one knows anything about it and they aren’t likely to find out much, not even where to order it. Barnes & Noble will not sell it.
Meanwhile for the Manhattan publishers, out-sourcing to foreign countries is the name of the game. They want the story of some suffering African or Afghan child who barely escaped to tell about it and who inexplicably seems to have discovered how to write a book and contact an agent. These have sold well in the past, so the marketers, who call the shots, assume they will sell well now. They are not inclined to experiment because a wrong decision will cost them big bucks. Even drawing on the internal Third World of the black ghetto and the red rez has turned out to trigger firestorms. Not safe.
What this “women’s” insert shows me is only another example of the circular media reasoning that is globally guiding us away from a constructive future by refusing to look realistically at the present. What this means to me and to other writers is an open question. In the meantime, I may not be having a “gleeful” retirement with lots of travel, home upgrades, and free time, but I AM living out a lifelong intention to write. This is not an end for me but a beginning and -- like all beginnings -- tough, sometimes lonely, risky, and enormously satisfying. And I could care less what I look like.
This insert is not for me. How could it be? What I want is not for sale. The media these days IS.