American Culture

Authors and reviewers: our new criminal culture

There’s no nice way to say this, so just let me say it plainly: We live in a criminal culture. This culture rewards bad behavior well; it rewards worse behavior even better. It is a culture where image creation means more than talent, where manipulation means more than hard work, and where self-obsessed self-aggrandizing at any cost is the only game that anyone with “smarts” (read total lack of ethical standards) believes matters.

There are still some, including many of the writers who post their sometimes thoughtful, sometimes provocative musings here, who still believe that we still have a culture worth saving. A few (I’m looking at you, Bonesparkle) realize the sad truth, however; once a culture adopts a model that follows the following tenet nearly exclusively, it’s asking to be doomed:

“The business of America is business.”

This is a quote from one of our poorer presidents, the inimitable Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge’s mantra has been adopted as the national mantra for too many Americans. But the truth is not everything is business. Whether one subscribes to the scientific or magical views of language development (go read Chomsky and Levi-Strauss to understand the differences), one cannot help but notice that we have all these words that stand for things that are not business: education, art, science, religion, government. Yet the demand that all forms of human endeavor be forced to be or conduct themselves as if they were “business” continues to be hammered into our collective and individual consciousness every waking moment. It subjugates all human activity to the pursuit of economic gain.

Despite the efforts of those who would have us all be Gordon Geckos or George Babbitts, many of us are not; some of us are scientists, some teachers, some priests, some artists. It’s that last group I want to talk about.

I’m a college professor and novelist who writes what is called in the jargon of publishing dead on arrival artsy stuff with no vampires, zombies, mild bdsm aimed at bored 25-44 years old women or anything that sells literary fiction. This is known in “Big Publishing” as “mid-list,” as damning a term as publishing has for writers whose books are more about quality of writing than quantity of supernatural soft porn. Whereas under publishing’s old ownership models writers like me might get a book deal because an editor saw literary merit in my work, under corporate ownership that chance is reduced to somewhere just under zero percent because of the howls that would arise from the most important department at any major publisher, marketing.

As publishing has, then, like the movie industry, moved towards a model that uses sales as its only measure of a work’s worthiness, many who write more seriously and passionately than they market have moved to where I have spent my career as an author. I’ve just published my third novel – again with an independent small press. (And the link here is to their web site to give them props, not to my book to get you to buy it. Although…no, no, that way lies madness….)

Gee, there’s no escaping it, is there? We’re victims of a culture where we can’t talk about our work and art without seeming to be trying to sell it. But it’s that overwhelming demand that we sell, sell, sell – that we succeed as a business – that is the point of this piece.

That pressure to succeed as a “business” – to be a “brand” and have an “image” is not the point of art. I think we all, in some way, know that. But since “traditional” publishers have become merely arms of corporate entities instead of labors of love run (often) by families with long histories of intellectual and artistic interest that often trumped their desire for maximized profit, sales are all that drive the book industry.

* * * * * * * *

A basic way that books, like movies, music, or other modes of art are discovered and recommended (or not) to the public is, as we all know, the review. But as most of us know, book reviews in “traditional” venues such as newspapers have been disappearing at an alarming rate for some time. And as John Palattella of The Nation observes, “Speed is king in the digital realm…” and “…writing about books and ideas…favors deliberate and measured analysis of questions without obvious or easy answers….” As any small press editor or author who tries to find a review site on the Internet can attest, finding such oases is challenging at best, discouraging at worst.

And then, of course, there are the crooks.

In any transitional period (and we are in a transition to arts reporting and reviewing occurring on the Web rather than in print sources) there is bound to be a period of chaos, a period akin to the old Chinese proverb’s “interesting times.” Nowhere in arts writing is this truer than in book reviewing. The demise of traditional newspaper based reviewing which usually appeared on Sundays and gave not only national but local and regional authors consideration is now a cacophony of book blogs, some of which offer reviews, some of which offer exposure and promotion of authors through interviews and features, some of which do both, and pretty much all of whom make sure their reviews are posted at the agorae major where people try to learn about new books in our overstuffed literary landscape, Goodreads and Amazon.

Reviews at Amazon and Goodreads, despite their general brevity, are often drivers of sales. A book with many reviews suggests popularity; a book with many rave reviews suggests a winner. A book with a number of negative reviews may fail, even if the majority of reviews are positive. The one bad apple theory applies all too successfully to as fragile a thing as a book’s success, some unscrupulous types have found

And that’s why we get this behavior. And this behavior.

It’s bad enough that authors post glowing reviews of their own work. That shows a complete lack of ethics, integrity, and other big words that mean that one cares about something other than money and celebrity.

And there’s this guy – who became both rich and a celebrity not by faking reviews of his own books as the above assholes did, but by faking reviews of other writers’ books. As for his sense of ethics, as he says himself: “These were marketing reviews, not editorial reviews.” This, of course, is a complete perversion of the idea of the book review – at least the book review as described in this silly definition from Princeton: “a form of literary criticism in which a book is analyzed based on content, style, and merit.”

Responses to this disheartening news about lying, cheating, and outright criminality from authors, reviewers and even publishers (see this on William Morrow’s “new rules” for blog reviews and the ensuing flap) is all over the map ranging from the angry tweets found in Jane Friedman’s blog to the “keep calm and carry on” stoicism of Kristin Nador. But here’s one from Chad W. Post at Three Percent that reflects my position pretty accurately:

Oh, John Locke, you tricky little man! So not only did you pay for positive reviews, but you paid for people to buy your books! That’s both dishonest, and a bit desperate seeming. Granted, you’re still a millionaire, and I’m sitting in a library trying to convince freshman to take translation classes, but well, I have my dignity.

Still, in my more frustrated moments trying to find reviewers for my latest book, I daydream a little about inviting the likes of Locke, Ellory and Rutherford into musty catacombs somewhere with the enticement of a superior Amontillado. And then leaving then as Fortunato left Montressor, in the same circumstances and with that same benediction:

In pace requiescat!

7 replies »

  1. To quote a great man, I feel your pain. At least you write fiction, where you might theoretically find a few readers. Try being a poet. 🙂

    This discussion maps onto one you find in any scholarly debate over culture or political economy. When I say that we have evolved a context in which cash is the only logic remaining, I’m sure you’ll know exactly what I mean. Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital” is apt, but I think our society’s brightest minds would love to be playing for something other than a consolation prize.

    Of course, any society that relegates its brightest minds to the career version of the NIT is doomed, and you have to be a barking silly-ass not to understand how the clock is winding down on “the greatest nation on earth,” don’t you?

    I can think of two characters in your novel who’d understand where I’m coming from when I say that it’s hard times being a man with a soul living in a society without one.

    Great piece. And doomed.

  2. “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” Good old Shelley – he had the sense to make that best of all career moves: dying young.

    The above seems apropos to your comment, Sam, because while I have tried to be the best writer I can (in my more lucid moments- when I’m duck walk crazy, of course, I go out and try to be a musician again, perhaps the only career path in that’s more quixotic that one in literature these days) and while I have been told again and again by people who ought to know (writing profs in college, NY editors, agents) that I have real talent, I always seem to end up lost in some undefined ozone that belongs to those of us who have “endorsed” talent – but who cannot, for the life of us, makes ourselves pedestrian enough to appeal to “the average American.”

    Maybe Mencken was right….

  3. It’s a gloomy, painful prospect to be an artist of any type today. The ‘starving artist’ has been accepted as the norm for a long time – if you want to have monetary value you’d better have been dead for a few decades. How foolish to think that doing something meaningful and, at times, beautiful could at least be appreciated in its own time. What we’re dancing around is underlying causes for ‘failure’ of literature, poetry, art and music to be valid endeavors. I see four (and I’m sure there a lots more): foolishly wanting to be able to obtain enough sustenance to survive while doing something you enjoy and that will enhance others’ lives; the desire for art (my silly endeavor) to mimic what can easily be produced with a camera (thank you photo realism). Why would anyone want to buy something (or just view it in a gallery) that doesn’t have a technical drawing (or projected image) as the base; the dumbing-down, activity-ramping-up, time-trapping-social-media-participation, that makes many people want to read only that which allows them to ‘escape’ (not think) and which can be read, if not in one sitting, at least simple enough to browse through at lunch, or in the waiting room, or on the bleachers; self-absorption….nothing else matters but ME and MINE…thus, if I want to get good reviews, representation, readers, [fill in the blank with your choice], I should be able to purchase it/them. The sad fact is that terribly few will ever care. It’s so much more important to talk about the drug using athletes than the ignorance of the average American when it comes to culture….or can we even call it culture anymore?