Friday, September 27, 2013

Vintage books

Earlier this year I was out in the wilds of Brooklyn talking to some bookseller buddies when one of them said, "Penguin and Random House are going to merge -- what do you think of that?" It takes so little to transform humans back into apes -- a rubber mask is all -- but we were sitting in a divey joint, a few doors down from the center of the cultural universe, better even than Berlin, drinking tea and coffee and beer and one of us -- I can't remember who -- was having the corn chowder, and we were behaving ourselves, talking about the holiday season and all the work that retail entailed, when the topic came up. Human beings can't do too much thinking -- it fuckin hurts the head -- but we were thinking that afternoon, as best we could given that we were in King’s County, New York and all those culture mavens were walking around with their big heads and visible egos and insatiable hunger. The joint was crowded and the streets were packed. It gets crowded in places where people hang out to impress each other.

This was shortly after Random House had given each of its employees a $5,000 bonus because of all the copies of Fifty Shades of Gray and the rest of the E. L. James trilogy it had sold. Porn is both king and queen in the States supporting an enormous number of people from San Diego to Bar Harbor, from Newtown Creek to Jamaica Bay. But the Fifty Shades trilogy is not really porn -- it's too romantic, too much a fairy tale, despite the BDSM. Good subservient girl confers an honest-to-god conscience onto a callous male sadist. In the end, her suffering makes him shine. Reminds me of Jimbo the incurable drunk whose wife wouldn't leave the marriage, believing she could magically reform him. Her tenacity earned scars but Jimbo stayed sloppily himself, a blubbering, hurtful child reeking of booze.

Plus Fifty Shades says "Vintage Books" on the spine. Same as Faulkner, Naipaul, Egan, and Messud, among others. We are known by the company we keep, n'est-ce pas?

The afternoon light lengthened as the four of us discussed the two companies becoming one, trying to imagine one publishing house that huge. Hoo-boy. We closed our eyes and saw the size of it: an acorn under Amazon's oak. Soon after the big announcement, Harper and Simon revealed that they too were thinking about merging -- to produce an even smaller acorn. One that would hardly sustain a chipmunk. Someone swallowed some soup and said, "At least it will give them something to do for a couple of years. You know, the logistics of bringing all those departments -- all those people -- together under one roof. Eighteen months of steady employment." Before the consultants' reorg plans get implemented and the real layoffs hit.

Even out there, across the East River, within a stone's throw of the world's number one financial machine, with its universities and museums, its much-lauded diversity, where scaffolding and jackhammers wipe out tradition on a routine basis, one could feel a certain unease: the world of publishing was turning into a rustic backwash compared to the bright new digital world growing up around it. Hell, books were a commodity -- like sneakers or reality TV shows -- to be marketed and sold just like any other, literature being another victim of the great leveling that had begun in the late sixties and ripped through Western Culture over the last half century. C. smiled and said, "The Bible had it wrong -- Babel isn't a tower -- it’s a vast plain. Nothing short, nothing tall, everything equal, one endless horizon, all tongues approximating pidgin English." Like too many of the manuscripts I'd been reading for the job. Big ideas, no plot. Complicated plot, flat characterizations. Sordid confessionals, no expiation. Symbols running all over the pages like Tranströmer's deer, leaving an indecipherable language in a frozen landscape.

It wasn’t a happy moment, to sit there getting boozy, picturing one big publishing company astride the cultural scene -- an entity too big by far, from A. A. Knopf to Watson-Guptill, from Ace to Viking. Almost as big as God. Amazing how God hadn’t been leveled away, pushed aside for good, knocked into oblivion by science, rationality, and boatloads of money. God was making a comeback and not just in Texas. God was everywhere, the sonofabitch. Even in publishing.

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