Book Reviews · Culturalism · Self-Improvement · Uncategorized

Why Publishing Failed

Before her death in 2016, the legendary Ursula Le Guin gave a short acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in which she outlined the problems with modern publishing. At that stage of her career, she could safely issue the criticisms without fear of financial repercussion, but the observations were nevertheless poignant. They rest firmly on the role which capitalism can play in diminishing the value of literary art by commoditizing various genres for mass market efficiency. Some particularly biting lines are as follows:

“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

Right now, we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

One cannot deny the truth in those words. The more that technology advances, the less substance matters, and this can be witnessed across various mediums. A person with great content on YouTube will swiftly get buried by the excess of “corporate friendly” channels letting our dopamine-hungry brains feast on countless jump edits and sound effects. Movies with independent or unique origins are disregarded, while studio money pours into toxic remakes, and the coarse boredom of social justice slinks into genres where it was always present, albeit with class and subtlety.

Books are no exception to this rule. As others have observed, the idealized vehicle for publishing success has become a pantomime of the same writing style and setting, regardless if it lacks originality. Even the famous fantasy series popularized by an unknown homeschooler relied on heavy borrowing from the Star Wars movies, to a degree that is almost comical. But it still sold, because publishers are more interested in what fits the market than anything resembling genuine art. It’s not a stretch to say that Paolini would have been laughed out of the room had his book done something truly beyond the bounds of “comfortable” prose.

Le Guin went on:

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers, in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an e-book six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience, and writers threatened by corporate fatwa. And I see a lot of us, the producers, who write the books and make the books, accepting this – letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.

Books aren’t just commodities; the profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

I believe in this case Le Guin was referring to Amazon, and rightly so. The compounding growth of Bezos’ bright-eyed promotion of publishing hides a more sinister reality: Amazon’s attempt to form an effective sales monopoly and reduce current royalty rates. Part of the approach involves encouraging authors to publish with Kindle Create, a clunky and unhelpful software designed to coral authors into the Bezos marketplace indefinitely:

Ultimately, it is hard to say what the future will hold. Perhaps Le Guin is right, and change will arise. For myself, I know that my hesitation in publishing fiction as opposed to non-fiction (and especially self-help), stems from a recognition that the themes depicted in my stories would be swiftly dismissed, if not entirely deleted, from the Amazon platform. But that is the tragedy of being a writer: you can’t help but write, even if the outcome is a pittance. It is an extension of the soul, and not doing so feels tantamount to betrayal of the spirit.   

Book Reviews · Culturalism

Russert Family Wisdom

This past week I read through Big Russ and Me, an autobiographical tale from the late Tim Russert, one of the last genuine journalists in America. Although a self-described Democrat, he made an effort to present unbiased and competitive material on Meet The Press, heralding an era of media practice which has long since ridden off into the glorious sunset. Unsurprisingly, his book is filled with exceptional anecdotes and lessons in wisdom from both himself and his father, so I decided to recount some of them in this post.

On Meeting People

“Dad insisted on a firm handshake, and he worked with me until I developed one. ‘When you meet somebody,[…] you want to make them feel that you’re proud and happy to know them. So don’t put a wet fish in their hand. Give that hand a good shake, snap your wrist, and look them in the eye. People are people, and if they like you, they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Treat them the way you’d like to be treated.’”

On Family Honor

“All I’m asking—wait, I’m not asking, I’m telling you—is, Don’t do anything to embarrass our family name. If you embarrass yourself, you embarrass all of us. We all make mistakes, but if you go out there and do something you know you shouldn’t be doing, that’s a tough one.”

On The Role of a Father

Russert talks about growing up in Buffalo, New York during the 50s and 60s, when most men held two or three jobs to make end meet. This was simply the way of life, although I’m sure it might seem like a anathema to some of the manosphere. He sums it up as follows:

“The primary obligation of a husband and a father was to provide for his family, and if it meant working two jobs, that was what you did.”

On Identity Politics

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Russert describes the excitement among Irish Catholics over the ascendancy of John F. Kennedy. His father’s friend Edwin Dill asks him about this:

“Timmy, why are you for Kennedy?

“Because he’s Irish Catholic,” I replied.

“And if there was a barber who couldn’t cut hair, and he was Irish Catholic, would you go to him?”

On Weak Parenting

“In this respect, I believe that parents of my generation have often failed our kids. We are so eager to be understanding and sympathetic that we end up being too lenient, even as we further undermine the already diminished authority of teachers, coaches, and principals.”

On Buying a Luxury Car

After Russert made it big in the news media, he offered his father any luxury car he wanted as a gift. “Big Russ” asked only for a Ford Crown Vic, with the following explanation:

“Do I think it’s  a better car? No, of course not. But If I came home with a big fancy Cadillac, do you know what people would say? ‘What happened to Tim? He’s showing off. He got too big for us. His kid made it and how he’s driving a Cadillac.’ No, I can’t do that. A Mercedes? A Lexus? Can’t do that either. We beat those guys in the war. This is what I want: a good American car. This is who I am, all right?”

On Student Loans

His father had an interesting idea of student assistance for college which makes a lot of sense in principle when we think of the national debt problem:

“If you can’t repay those loans, that money won’t be there for the next kid.”

“The sooner you pay them off, the sooner that money will be there for somebody else.”

On the Vietnam War

‘’We can be for peace without supporting the enemy. We can be against the war without rooting for the other side.”

On Human Loss

After a childhood friend of his died, Russert’s dad attempted to comfort him:

“Would it have been better if Paul’s family had never known him? Or should they be grateful, even in their grief, for nineteen years of love and memories? Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence had suffered a terrible loss, but if they had been offered the possibility of having Paul in their lives for nineteen years, they would have taken the deal without question.”

On Advice For His Son

“You do, however, owe this world something. To live a good and decent and meaningful life would be the ultimate affirmation of Grandpa’s lessons and values. The wisest commencement speech I ever was all of fifteen words: ‘The best exercise of the human heart is reaching down and picking someone else up.'”