Saturday, August 27, 2011


“Publishing” “books” under the guidance of a benign, self-effacing and all-knowing editor and thereby becoming rich and famous -- aside from curing whatever psychosis was imposed on you in childhood -- is a myth that has died. Now what?  Like, what vocabulary can we use?  I’m going to use my own inventions and you can just gather from context what I mean.  But these thoughts are too new to be easy.
The merchandizing of the arts is older than the commodifying of grizzly bears in an effort to “sell” the value of wilderness.   But it follows along in the same pattern:  if you want people to value something, you have to assure them that it’s scarce, that they are privileged because they have been initiated on the subject, and that you can help them continue their nice prosperous life while providing a little more titillating inside info that will impress the neighbors.  Since even your arms and legs, as well as your mind, have been commodified on insurance compensation lists (in case of trauma and mutilation), one can be confident of getting good value in the arts if likewise the price is something definite, not on a sliding scale of some mysterious kind.  We expect sticker prices -- but we expect to dicker.
The merchandizing of narrative is one big segment of the print biz, whether on paper or bytes.  We’ll have to separate poetry off to the side, because poetry has always had a privileged status, sort of like abstract expressionist paintings or ballet or opera.  I mean, no one expects them to make Money.  They are high prestige phenomena that a few people like to explain and that have therefore become markers of sophistication even if you can’t grasp them yourself.  For those who write poetry, the act is the compensation: the true poet needs no other compensation.  Poetry is insuppressible. (Which doesn’t mean poems are not a lot of work.)
Narratives that are “immersive” (to get lost in) have split into two streams, one that purports to be made up and one that represents itself as truth.  Some people stand on a bridge between:  I’m listening to Diana Gabaldon’s novels which involve time travel  (I assume that’s invented.) but also history.  (The Scots Jacobite rebellion, which I’m told really happened.)  Thus some women don’t mind others knowing that these books are packed with sex and violence in graphic detail, because they are “reading for the history part.”  (Since I’m listening to an audible book so I can deny “reading” any part.)
The issue of what REALLY happened to whom is a third-rail issue in today’s world.  Lie, exaggerate, disguise, displace, co-opt and the press will be on you, wielding their branding irons.  (Of course, they do those things all the time themselves, but they are Journalists and therefore entitled.  They are the ones who keep the politicians honest so it’s okay for them to use any means.  But wait, isn’t that what the politicians think?)
See:   Here’s a quote from Kevin Fedarko, one of the co-authors of the now notorious Greg Mortenson’s second book:  “Stones for Schools.”  It’s a glimpse of a reality I’ve experienced myself:  editors want sales.  The hell with ethics.  They don’t sign their names anyway.  It’s on the author.  But the editor controls it.

A few years ago, for example, I [Fedarko] got upset when an editor at Outside expressed interest in publishing a particular photograph to accompany a story I had written about the Siachen War in the Himalayas. I feared the photograph might provide the Indian Army with some clues about the exact location of a Pakistani military base I had visited—a concern shared by the art director and the photographer. The editor went ahead and published it anyhow. Several months later when the military base in the picture was hit by an Indian artillery shell that killed three men and a string of high-altitude pack ponies, a number of my friends pointed out–correctly–that there was probably no connection between the photo and the explosion, and they advised me not to say or do anything that might upset the magazine. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” they urged. “You cannot afford to piss off Outside.” 
In short, even if you were actually there and are telling the absolute truth about what you saw, your editor may insist on something else.  And then deny it, hiding behind the fantasy of what an editor is like.
Bob Scriver used to say,  “But wuz you THERE, Chollie?”.  It occurred to me to Google to find out where this phrase came from.  It’s a vaudeville catch-phrase that may have emerged from war stories.  (“What did YOU do in the war, Dad?”)  One uses it as a satirical query to someone who tells wonderfully far-fetched tales of adventure.  The proper ending, modeled on frontier legends of derring-do, is “And then the bear et me.”  Maybe that explains the impulse of GI’s all over Europe who scribbled “Kilroy was here!” to leave a record that some farm boy was in Europe though he could hardly believe it himself.
Really sensational stories with political overtones, a history lesson of sorts, might attract investment capital to get a tale actually on paper, advertised and distributed.  That’s “publishing.”  The author does not control it.  The editor and publishers control it.  Writers just have marching orders.  Is the story a reality if it is controlled by someone in an office who was NOT there?  Someone whose ethics are dominated by profit?
Other undertakings that attract capital might come out of idealism, like the stories of wise men who go to live in some strange place where they produce advice about good living for those who can find them, like -- say -- Carlos Castenada.  Big Bucks.
Or maybe there’s money for the aggrandizing of ancestors, though the past is a lost land.  As Barnaby Conrad III discovered in “Ghost Hunting in Montana,” family history can be a rather checkered undertaking.  Maybe the writer and publisher are creating an archive, some kind of inventory or theory or explanation that they feel should be preserved, however quietly.   Maybe not. 
Maybe composing a catalogue raisonée (using French terms helps) with a list of someone’s work plus a bibliography plus illustrations and analysis is fact-based enough to guide investments in that art.  Maybe not.  One art can help to sell another art media, as the fast food restaurants know when they put miniature figures of the latest movie fantasy heroes in the children’s Happy Meals.  The churches, of course, have always gotten a lot of worldly capital out of hagiographic paintings.  True?
Not everything sells and what sold well yesterday may not sell today.  Things go out of fashion -- then without warning they come back.  Like Westerns.  What does it mean that cowboy movies were passé and now are coming back?  Does it mean there is money in them?  Or is it that very popular male actors who can call their own scripts are remembering the heroes of their youth?  Harrison Ford can’t pay “Spidey,” after all.  But we love him anyway.  Unless “Cowboys and Aliens” doesn’t make money.  Same with Charlie Russell, though the latter hasn’t quite failed us yet.
Commodification destroys possibilities as well as writers and even the subjects of their stories.  This ethical change is disguised by the furor over ebooks.  The accusations of hoax are sniffing something right enough -- but not what they think.

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