Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The system cannot be fixed

It's a series of moral binds. Here's one: I despise the consumer culture that drives our economic system, the over-indulgence, the "never enough, never enough," the waste, the wanton destructiveness of it, burning up non-renewable resources, the selfishness that leads to bloat, remorse, and, finally, boredom. The overwhelming lassitude that inevitably follows gorging oneself. It is disgusting to observe, from my own position at the feeding trough, the behavior of my fellow citizens, mirroring my own. It makes me sick when the ass in the glass grins.

I am dependent on this system, the system I so despise. I need people to spend money heedlessly, in my case on books. I need people to buy books for themselves, to buy books for others, as gifts, as decorations, as filler, as signs of their good taste. I need them to buy more books than they can ever usefully read. I need to have people
consume books, I need waste. I need the big fourth quarter, the aggressive discounting, the shark-like retailers who'll run come-on promotions, I need as much advertising and publicity as I can afford -- I need the whole contemptible marketing machine running at full tilt to induce consumption. I also need to sell my books in places I would never shop -- Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, Amazon, the soon-to-be-dead Borders -- the big retailers for whom books are merely another category of product. I know they don't give a shite about content, but I've got to deal with them, boors though they may be: we're talking volume here. I'm a publisher -- I need to move lots of "units," especially given the amount of money I spend on advances. Some bubbles haven't burst yet.

I want to deal only with independent booksellers, those who love what they do, care about content, and haven't lost their self-respect, even though they too are in the same moral bind, dependent on their fellow human beings behaving like consuming machines. They too have to push the new at the expense of the old, to cope with a raft of new titles coming down the pike every week. They too need to overpraise the competent, to make hyperbolic claims for the merely good, in order to sell as many books as possible. I know they share my dismay at the sad and wasteful spectacle of our American consumer culture and publishing's ugly little corner of it. I know their hearts are in the right place, doing their best to ignore the spectacle of self-immolating publishing houses pumping out junk to fill (still) bloated seasonal lists and to keep overpaid executives fat.

The moral bind is real. The system is brutish, dehumanizing, profoundly sad. I know it, most of my friends and acquaintances, in and out of the business, know it. But we're dependent on it: we're in the business of peddling books, the more the merrier. We may congratulate ourselves on the nobility of our profession, on the essential seriousness and moral fitness of our enterprise, but, at bottom, we are contributing to, and helping perpetuate, an unsustainable and vicious economic system, dependent on zombie consumerism. Thus we find ourselves in a moral bind.

So we amuse ourselves with the big lie -- that one can change the system from within. That one can put on a human face on it: yes, it's possible to wean people off the inflated consumerist teat, lower profit expectations, and live in a sustainable relationship with the marketplace, only generating enough revenue to keep the enterprise going, eschewing double-digit profits and shutting off the overheated marketing rhetoric. Sounds lovely, doesn't it, poot? But what about those hard-nosed realists who warn us, "If you're not growing, you're shrinking. If you're not wresting a gilded future from the leaden present, you'll be facing extinction." If you've been in the game for any length of time, those voices live inside you. And the ass in the glass smiles.

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