Monday, March 22, 2004

To Hell With The Stars

No, the title notwithstanding (I love that word by the way), this blog is not about astronomical theological pronouncements from Milton. No, it's about a pet peeve of mine that I know that I've written about before in my blogistory. Actually, there probably isn't a pet peeve that I haven't written about. Actually actually, there probably are many more pet peeves - a pet store of peeves - nay a zoo of peeves or even a grand national animal preserve of peeves dwelling within me I have not written about.

Ahem. Previous-written-about-status notwithstanding (yup, still luv that word), I deplore the winner-take-all nature of our society. Where we become passive consumers of global "entertainment" at the expense of neglecting our community's artists, where CEO's make 500 times the average salary of their employees, where cities have baseball teams of players making $25 million a year but a miniscule amount of the city's population do not even participate in any sports at all, and where I feel it is the most pernicious - the WalMart phenomenon where local communities had shopowners that lived in the community and the money, expertise and good will from those shopowners contributed to and benefited from the community are now out of business or struggling because a non-union, specially tax benefited, custom-zoned thanks to payoffs to the city council, ugly big box megastore with a humongous parking lot has opened outside of town.

Now I know the benefits of these situations. The global artists in many cases are extraordinarily talented, the CEO's in one or two cases out of thousands are extraordinarily talented, the sports players are extraordinarily talented, and it is much cheaper to buy toilet paper from WalMart than from your local drugstore or grocery store.

But I think the hidden costs are too high. When I see global artists charging $100 for a ticket, that money is not going to the local jazz group or baroque chamber groups who are extremely talented as well. Studies have shown that CEO's in most cases don't influence all over results that much - but we let them walk away with incredible pay packages because they have risen to the top of the star heap at the expense of raising the standard of living of the people doing work under them or in fact letting them keep their jobs. And of course, the cost of WalMart is having 10 percent of our workforce working in WalJobs that have no future, no union to ensure better pay and conditions, neutron-bombed Main Streets, and vast parking lots of unmitigated ugliness surrounding the most soulless shopping experience you will ever see. The next time you are standing in line at Costco, look at your fellow people illuminated in the harsh fluorescent light reflected from the bare concrete floor and standing amidst the cacophony of a huge impersonal warehouse designed for the pure financial benefit of the store's owners. Look at the people, do they look happy? Don't they look like they have just spent their life in the Department of Licensing waiting for their driver's license? They look like they should be euthanised. And all this because it is cheaper. No, for me, Costco is the most expensive place I ever visit even though I spend less.

Okay, what brought on this latest rant? I just read a piece in Salon about the travails of a midlist author. The anonymous writer seems like somebody who should be able to make a living at what she does from the facts that she presents (editor comments, reader comments, awards etc.) Her books seem to always grab an editor, agent or a publisher which is notoriously difficult. Her readers seem to be dedicated - but she just doesn't have enough of them - always in the low ten thousands. She doesn't make back her advances, which puts her in a negative feedback loop where the publishers won't market her, which leads to worse sales leading to not making back even the lower advance etc. She seems to be doing all the right things, but she is not getting anywhere and may stop writing.

You probably know where I put the blame - the winner-take-all star culture. Now, every author should not be guaranteed of everything that they want. But how do we foster growth of our culture if talented but not breakout or celebrity authors cannot make a living? Or to look at it another way - from the reader's perspective. I would love to be able to find quirky first novels or midcareer novels of somebody I hadn't heard of before or local authors if there was a way to find out about them. I subscribe to about 5 periodicals that carry book reviews. The overlap between them is about 100%. In other words, the same books are reviewed in all of them. It is nearly impossible for me to find out about the other 99% of the books out there that I would love to read. I have thought of subscribing to the Library Journal or Kirkus Reviews just so I can read blurbs about likely novels that will not receive any other press.

So isn't the point of the efficient marketplace that sellers can hook up with buyers that want what they have? I mean it works for commodities - hence the WalMarts. But the market does exist for the non-stars! When given a chance, the Salon midlist author sold respectably. And I really doubt the difference between Dan Brown's tax return (#7 on the NY Times list) and the midlist writer in Salon is in pure quality. No, it has more to with marketing budgets, product placement in Barnes and Noble, blah-blah-blah. I feel like starting a website of reviews for unpublicized, neglected books, because that is what I would like to see and one way to get what you want is do it yourself.

P.S. After writing the above, I read the companion story in Salon where she gives five steps on how to reverse the trend (and proved her worth of a writer by saying in one sentence what took me far too many words: "If you're outraged because you'd rather live in a world of farmer's markets and local bookstores than a world of Wal-Marts and Bland & Ignoble superstores, here are a few things you can do."). The main thing is to frequent your local independent bookstore. Which I will do. I am going to go to Fremont Place Books and ask them for a recommendation on a new, little publicized new novel. I'll blog what I come up with. And my violinist neighbor is performing this Wednesday, and I am going to put my local preachiness in practice.

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