Wednesday, December 05, 2012

DAVID OLIVER RELIN: The Conflagration of Publishing

The phrase “the fog of war” has become familiar shorthand for the confusion and misunderstanding that gets mixed into what happens when people are full of adrenaline and trying to kill each other or destroy their worlds.  

What is the right phrase for the state of publishing today?  I suggest “the conflagration of publishing.”  Not book burning, but author burning.  The fires of desire -- to be admired, to be rich, to have influence -- those burn in the authors and sometimes consume them as they have now consumed David Oliver RelinGreg Mortenson has been badly burned, but he’s alive.  It is the presumed readers who demand the burning.  (I’d bet that some of them have never read the books in question.)

I’ve never met either Mortenson or Relin, though I vaguely know a few people from the mountain climbing community. I do know Corbett, a little rural mountainside community near Mt. Hood, not a good place to be depressed in the rainy season.  The beverage of choice is not tea.  In the Seventies when I was on the Multnomah County sheriff’s radio, we heard about Corbett quite a bit.  If Relin committed suicide near I-84 and the railroad, he was down on the Columbia River, in the Columbia Gorge, a place of waterfalls and bridges high enough for a lethal fall, an ironic death for mountain climbers, but then Relin was the not the climber -- he was the writer.  The story I heard months ago was that Mortenson had adventures, the kind you tell around a campfire, but was a lousy writer.  Relin was a guy who could throw the tabasco sauce on the steak.  Publishers like their books hot.  

The version I had was that the publisher asked Relin to write an incendiary book.  It’s a tradition as old as the class-based 19th century English publishing when adventurers went out to explore the empire and returned to finance the trips by writing a book for senior sorts of fellows with tweed jackets and pipes.  The new dynamic is that it’s not enough to perform exploits like climbing mountains or shooting elephants.  Now one must also be a conservationist or do-gooder for the innocent Third-World young, preferably female.  If you are not admirable in the moral dimension, the liberal “entitled” (not titled since they are merely American middle-class voyeurs) will punish you with lawsuits.  Rising young lawyers welcome the cases; experienced old judges who have seen it all, throw them out.  There are better things to do.

When I set out to write the biography of Bob Scriver, I had no idea at all about the nature of publishing.  Pretty soon I had been painfully taught it’s not about the books or the authors these days:  it’s about the profits for the publishers and about their politics.  They have major convictions about what will sell which they don’t hesitate to impose on their writers.  Often they have unreal notions of heroism, cynically derived and meant to seduce credulous liberals, especially women, Facebook bunnies who spend time drinking tea (Oh, I mean “chai,” of course.) and going thumbs up or thumbs down on issues and people they know little about.  

No one has hammered the publishers.  Punish the puppet, not the puppeteers.  Now that Relin is dead, expect much blame to be heaped on him, though exaggerating adventures is not usually a capital crime.  But in our culture getting too rich is split between admiration and condemnation.  Where did Relin’s rumored millions go?  The court has traced all of Mortenson’s share.  (He’s already paid back the million he owed.)

What I’d like to see is a book written by one of those tea-serving villagers in Afghanistan, and I don’t mean a doctored-up, publisher-tweaked translation.  I’m thinking  about a similar little conflict over “The Bookseller of Kabul,” written by Norwegian Asne Seierstad and translated by Ingrid Christophersen.  Seierstad lived with the bookseller in question, Shah Muhammad Rais, for three months as a member of the family.   The book she wrote was NOT what he expected and a lawsuit ensued. (Apt pun.)  He felt mocked and demeaned.  The court cleared Seierstad but I don’t think it was a Kabul court.  

Cultural parallax is a book begging to be written, specifically about the Middle Eastern countries and the issues at stake.  If you know of a good one, tell me.  For a while there was much deconstruction of such distorting and conflicting points of view, esp. when it came to American Indians, but that enterprise has died down now that so many are assimilated.  We’re beginning to be “post” deconstruction.  The original philosophy is hard to understand -- a little bit because Algerian French lacks translators who can write plain English and partly because it’s not just the words that need to be translated.  How do we get to the realities of other cultures?  Their deepest assumptions about what counts?  (This is why I’m reading Wilshire.)

We can’t even get a clear “take” on ourselves.  Too much is spin.  Money is too big a motive for Americans.  We simply can’t fathom a culture where things are far more spare and direct.  And we give a free pass to those people, like publishers, who distract and entertain us.  Ironically, probably some of the most honest recent film-making has been science-fiction, because it is a direct portrayal of the makers’ values and assumptions.  Also ironically, now more money will be made by the secondary market for writing about the case and the suicide. 

Publishing is a many-layered business, split out in many ways into sub-categories.  Like anything else, it is radically vulnerable to technological change, which means an appetite for exploitation.  What 19th century explorer could have envisioned cameras being carried to the top of Mt. Everest or today’s glamour class calling Martha Stewart to report from a base camp up there?  The capacity to record and communicate everything on this scale is new.  Deep convictions about the worth of doing something “special” and praiseworthy are old.  The judgment of what IS special or virtuous is so flawed it’s tied into paralyzing, suicidal knots.

“Publishing” is no longer a matter for lesser gentry with excellent educations and the leisure to read before a comforting hearth.  Now it is prosperous young women with political aspirations who sit in fashionable cafés tweeting each other about what is righteous.  For every dollar they spend on a book, they spend twenty dollars on high-end coffee.  While throwing another author on the fire.  Preferably a male one.  

Behind the Scenes: "Three Cups of Tea" Authors Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin.!


Jennifer said...

Thank you for this blog. I have been following this story, as both a friend and colleague of Greg Mortenson's, since it broke. Yours in the first to question the role of the publisher, an examination which should actually have started with "Into Thin Air," and its incendiary rewriting of the facts for financial gain and fame. My own investigations into 1996 on Everest and CAI in Pakistan are revealing one common thread; this lesson of history is that it is written by mortal man, many of whom have an agenda. Be careful as you consume, hook, line and sinker, others' versions of "the truth." It rarely is.

mscriver said...

Additional information released by Outside magazine, which has been the context for much of the relationships among these mountain climbers, says that Relin went under a freight train. Also, his wife says that he had been trying to "kick" one of the two anti-depressants he had been taking and that is notorious for causing suicidal thoughts when one stops taking it. He had two counselors, was in an improving situation moneywise, legally, and in terms of publishing another book.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

"Deep convictions about the worth of doing something “special” and praiseworthy are old. The judgment of what IS special or virtuous is so flawed it’s tied into paralyzing, suicidal knots."

How about none of the above? How about "useful" or "needed"?