Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Yesterday I was visited by the fortuitously named Hope Good, the publisher of “Treasure State Lifestyles Montana,” which is a complimentary magazine supported by advertising and intended for native Montanans. She has been asked to prepare an issue on Valier for the town’s hundredth anniversary and has only three weeks to “get ‘er done.” Anyone would be daunted, but Hope doesn’t sit around hoping: she’s a hustler in the better sense of the word.

She strongly states her position as a person who grew up near a small town (Moccasin) on a ranch and who represents the “mainstream culture” of the state. This turns out to be the same as the culture of the cowboy art crowd, though she left the Ad Club’s CM Russell Auction in favor of the “Western Heritage” group that runs parallel as a benefit for the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, also in Great Falls. It is, in a word, commercial. These people intend to make a living.

Hope was roughly four hours late, suggesting she’d be by at 3PM and finally turning up at 7PM, not out of negligence but out of diligence since she was selling ads. I was grateful we weren’t meeting for lunch. But this didn’t improve my attitude and then I was horrified. First, because I slowly realized I was being interviewed for an article ABOUT me (and here I am, more or less hiding behind Bob Scriver) and then because I began to understand that this woman’s education had left her high and dry, confirming every prejudice I have about Montana high schools.

Hope Good
aspires to be a “publisher,” even though she already is one. I gather she means, like, those Manhattan pipe smokers in tweed (recently replaced by monsters in spike heels). In other words, the prestige, the knowledge, the access to resources, the worldliness, the possibility of hitting the jackpot that Hollywood always reinforces. But when I asked her, as a self-described book-loving Montana ranch girl, which of the many book-writing Montana ranch girls she loved most, she hadn’t read any of them. When I suggested Mary Clearman Blew, she’d never heard of Blew, who is often bracketed with Ivan Doig. She HAD heard of Doig. She owned a copy of “The Last Best Place” but has not read it.

She didn’t know that publishing as the world has known it is now gone, the victim of a one-two punch, first corporation takeovers that demanded high returns, gutting the staffs to improve profits and insisting that only block-buster airport books were worth attention; then, the ePrint revolution that has wiped out the market for print on paper-- along with the booming used book on-line sales which overshadow new books.

She’d heard of Kindle but not Kindle 2, wasn’t aware of the tussle over copyright and payment, and said she could only find good Montana regional books at websites, even though she regularly delivers her magazine to Oasis Bookstore in Choteau, one of the very best -- and not online -- sources of books about the West and Montana. She didn’t know that regional literature has joined the dodo march except for a few stubborn people fixated on Cormac McCarthy or maybe Annie Proulx.

Of course I’m exaggerating and being totally unfair to Hope Good, but she’s one tough and determined lady and will not be hurt by this encounter, though she may rather regret it. And she truly IS representative of Montana small town mainstream culture. The biggest lack is a total absence of context outside of the commercial world. As an example of her major nonconformity, she told me she didn’t really approve of Custer, without any hint of awareness about the storms of opinion and research surrounding the whole clearing of the plains, much less how it fits into the major world genocides on this planet.

The upshot of this realization -- once she gets her head around it, which will take a little time -- will be the dizzy feeling of Oz’s curtain dropping, revealing the world behind the world. Then she’ll have to convey some of this to her staff and keep up the confidence that makes her a successful sales person. She can do it. It’s a major opportunity to connect with some of the writers who have been locked out, overlooked, ignored in this state.

Increasingly I’m aware of a whole “layer” of men who are mature, consistent producers, not academic, and from Montana. I’m thinking of Allen Tooley, Lance Foster, Gary J. Cook, Sid Gustafson, Robey Clark, Darrell Kipp. There must be others. Some of them have pretty good contacts and get their work out to a kind of niche audience, but they are not generally recognized as “Montana writers.” Their names don’t come up among the gatekeepers of the category, who are largely academic.

Ironically, the Montana Festival of the Book, which sort of has the category by the throat, in spite of being organized as “academic,” is transparently commercial, promoting writers published in the old-fashioned paper way by publishers that at least pretend they are saluting quality as they define it. That is, whether it fits the “brand.” With great grudgingness, the Festival has begun to allow self-published books, most of them meant to make a little money for people writing their life stories. They will not address blogs or ebooks or anything else that happens online, including the Western Writers of America or the website maintained by the Western Literature Association.

People have been quietly grumbling and wondering about a kind of failure of energy in the genre categories of Western writing and Native American Lit. Maybe even the Western History Association. The tsunami of theory that washed over us debilitated the innocent joy of reading about landscapes and animals and people we know and live among. If people like Hope Good can be pulled into the field with her high energy and focused determination, maybe that will put the match to some accumulated kindling so that we could have conferences where people shout and pound the table instead of being shushed and compelled to attend workshops on civility meant to reassure newcomers. And all about BOOKS! BOOKS about RIGHT HERE! Who cares how we get access or whether they are paper! STORIES! Give us STORIES! On mp3, on Kindle, on paper, on radio, around a firepit. And the REAL stuff, not sentimental same-old, same-old.

1 comment:

Sid Gustafson said...

Hi Mary,
Happy trails.
To Blackfeet Indians.
Remembering the Baker Massacre, and the smallpox.
The starvation winter.
The perseverance.
Keep up your fine work.
Regards, Sid