Posts Tagged ‘Saul Bellow’

The Amazon Paradox

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

oasis-tales-conjuror

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2013)

“Surrealism to me is reality.” John Lennon

My books are for sale on Amazon. New and used. So are my music CDs. My books and music are downloadable from Amazon, and that includes audio books of my work narrated by yours truly. Do I feel like a rat and an enemy of local bookstores and local music stores? No, because with the exception of a few extremely local bookstores where I am personally known to the proprietors, my books are not available in any local bookstores in America or even in the few remaining chain bookstores, and that is also true of my music. This is also true for the vast majority of writers and musicians (those who produce books and albums) in this country. Without Amazon and a few other online sites, most writers and musicians would have nowhere, practically speaking, to sell their work.

Ironically, local independent bookstores with their extremely limited shelf space carry almost entirely mainstream corporate product (i.e. imitative junk) because that is what most people buy. Amazon, on the other hand, has unlimited shelf space and carries everybody’s books and music, including works by the most esoteric poets and writers and musicians in the world, works no one else will carry. Amazon has also been a fantastic boon to used booksellers, many of whom were going out of business before Amazon provided a way for those used bookstores to reach millions of people who otherwise would never have known about them.

Before the advent of Amazon, many well-meaning people believed that shopping at chain bookstores would bring about the demise of local bookstores. However, my first five novels were only (albeit briefly) available in chain bookstores and not in local independent bookstores because the chains had shelf space for less known and less mainstream books and the independent stores only carried what the New York Times said was worth buying. If you don’t know it already, the New York Times only reviews and touts books published by their major advertisers, the giant corporate publishers, which are wholly owned subsidiaries of huge multinational corporations. Local bookstores thirty years ago, and local bookstores today, carry books, with very few exceptions, that get reviewed in mainstream newspapers and magazines owned by huge corporations who also happen to publish nearly all the books that get reviewed and advertised in America.

You see the problem. We are told to support our local bookstores in their selling of corporate product because…why? Doing so pays the salaries of a few local bookstore clerks? If local independent bookstores primarily sold books published by independent publishers, that would be a different matter, but if they did that they would immediately go out of business because most people, including hip savvy happening people, only buy books and music they’ve heard about through the corporate media, which includes National Public Radio and The New Yorker, and don’t kid yourself that NPR and The New Yorker aren’t corporate bullhorns.

What if, just for the sake of discussion, Amazon did exactly what it does, except Amazon employees were treated humanely, paid handsomely, given fabulous benefits and fat pensions, and worked in environmentally marvelous solar electric facilities sending forth goods in recycled biodegradable organic packaging material transported by environmentally fabulous systems of purveyance? Would it then no longer be a sin to shop at Amazon? Less of a sin? Is it how Amazon does what it does or what Amazon does that makes them so awful-seeming?

To sum up a prevalent notion of reality shared by way too many people who should know better: if you can’t get a gigantic corporation to publish your books and spend tons of money getting those books reviewed and advertised and distributed to local indie bookstores, you should just stop writing. And stop recording music, too. Just make a living some other way. Don’t even try to be an artist unless you can be immensely successful and have articles written about you in The New Yorker. To do otherwise is unfair to small businesses. Got it?

Am I a pimp for Amazon? Nay. I buy almost nothing from them. I walk everywhere and drive very little. My carbon footprint is a few toe indentations compared to the average American. Still, I struggle with the paradox of knowing that my books, the ones recently published and the ones long out-of-print, have lives (in the sense of being available to people) almost entirely because of Amazon. Nor were my books readily available before Amazon. Prior to the advent of Amazon, if someone asked where they could get a copy of one of my books, I would say, “Well, if you have a stupendous and well-endowed library system or access to the greatest used bookstores on earth, you might find a few of them.” Now all my books are readily available from independent used booksellers availing themselves of Amazon’s organizational system to sell their goods. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Could it be better? Of course. By the way, I don’t make a cent from the sales of used copies of my books and I make almost nothing from the sales of my new books, but I’m still happy that people have easy access to my work.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

This just in. The National Library of Norway is planning to digitize all the books in Norwegian by the mid 2020’s (hundreds of thousands of books). This will mean that if your IP (Internet Protocol) address proves your computer is in Norway, you will be able to access all the Norwegian books ever published, even those still under copyright, for free. The article did not say how publishers and authors are to be compensated for their work under this plan, but Norway is wealthy and socialist, with a highly literate population, so I imagine Norwegian writers will not be dissuaded from continuing to write because of this mass digitization.

It has never been easy for artists to make livings from their art, and for millennia now in the so-called advanced societies virtually every artist we’ve ever heard of was beholden to some king or prince or wealthy merchant or powerful editor or rich person to subsidize the making and dissemination of those famous artists’ art. Is this a bad thing? Is selling books and music and artistic creations on Amazon (because there is nowhere else to sell such things) any worse than beseeching (or having sex with) a powerful duke or prince so the big idiot will commission a sonata so you can pay your rent and buy food? Is getting in bed with Amazon worse than playing footsy (or having sex) with a Medici or two so they’ll pay you to sculpt David out of marble and paint the Sistine Chapel? You tell me.

When I published my first novel in 1978, I was invited to join the Author’s Guild, an esteemed organization that claimed at that time to represent some seven thousand American authors published by major publishers. I joined because my literary agent said it was a good idea, but I eventually resigned because the Author’s Guild was forever asking members for money to help writers from other countries while doing nothing to help American writers, including and especially their own guild members. However, before I resigned, I took part in a survey with my seven thousand fellow members of the Author’s Guild, and the results were that less than one-quarter of one per cent of the seven thousand writers surveyed made even a minimalist living from their writing. Some vibrant culture we’ve got, huh?

“Take away the paradox from the thinker and you have a professor.” Soren Kierkegaard

I am now publishing books at Zo, Mendocino’s finest and only copy shop. This does not preclude future offers from daring, creative, prescient publishers who wish to publish my work, but from now on the first editions of my novels will be Zo Editions, unless Zo goes out of business before I cease to produce books. My first venture, the novella Oasis Tales of the Conjuror, launched in November, has now sold thirty-one copies, and as of copy #28 my design and manufacturing costs have been covered, which means the last three copies I sold (through my web site) have brought me massive profit, easily enough to take Marcia out for lunch at the Mendocino Café, if we share one of the less expensive entrées and two large glasses of water, hold the bubbles.

My publishing experiment proves (to me) there are three kinds of people. By far the largest number of the three kinds are those who react with contempt and pity and varying degrees of disgust when they hear of my comb-bound individually hand-numbered and signed publishing venture, the second largest number are those who smile and say “Neato!” when they hear of my new old way of bringing out my fiction, and the smallest number are those who don’t hesitate to say, “I’ll buy one,” and they do.

The sad and undeniable truth is that most people in our society do not consider writing fiction or composing music or drawing or painting or any kind of art making to be real work. Ours is essentially an anti-artist culture, which is why most people need those corporate stamps of approval before they will believe something has value. Talk about a paradox. The Amazon Paradox is an easy ten-piece jigsaw puzzle for small children compared to the paradox of why so many seemingly intelligent people still believe the corporate media communicates anything other than advertisements for the products of huge corporations, and only by accident and once in a blue moon allows something so subversive as original art to reach a large audience.

All Or Nothing

Friday, January 7th, 2011

“Every day: meditation, chocolate, a glass of port wine, and flirting with young men.” Beatrice Wood at age 98 on her secret to longevity

“I’m never drinking coffee again,” said my friend, reciting his New Year’s resolutions. “And no more alcohol. And I’m off all sugar. And I’m joining a health club and I’m gonna work out for at least an hour a day, every day. Without fail.”

“Wow,” I said, having heard similar declarations from this fellow before. “Sounds draconian.”

“Look,” he said, piqued by my hint of sarcasm, “it’s all or nothing with me. One cup of coffee, I’m hooked again. One piece of chocolate, I’m a goner.” He glared at his big round tummy. “Moderation doesn’t work for me.”

“There can only be one winner, but isn’t that the American way?” Gig Young

I’ve often thought ALL OR NOTHING could be our national motto, for the concept infects virtually every aspect of our political, economic, social, and emotional lives.

“The only way I can figure out what I really think about anything is to write about it.” Norman Mailer

Throughout the 1990’s I worked with hundreds of writers to help them improve their writing. Some were beginners, some were advanced, and several were published authors, but they all began their time with me by confiding that they felt like failures because they did not write for at least two hours every day and produce piles of inspired prose as prescribed by those iconic books about how to be a writer. I will not name these bestsellers, for you may own one or two of them and believe they possess some value. I will only testify that these tomes have dampened the spirits and aspirations of countless writers rather than helping them in any meaningful way.

To those who have been wounded by such knuckleheaded all-or-nothing strategies, I offer the following insight. The most straightforward way I know of to establish a writing practice is to make writing your habit. There are many ways to become habituated to writing, but the underlying mechanism for developing any habit is to do the thing, the would-be habit, on a regular basis. For instance, I have a habit of making a cup of herb tea every morning after I get the fire going, and then I drink the tea whilst considering what lies ahead. This making and having a cup of tea every morning became my habit because I did it almost every day until the making and drinking became routine. The same holds true for establishing a writing practice.

“The most beautiful words in the English language are “You’ve lost weight.” Christopher Buckley

My father helped establish a clinic at Stanford Children’s Hospital for psychosomatically ill children and adolescents. These kids are so ill they have to be hospitalized or they might die. The vast majority of the patients in this clinic are starving themselves to death for fear of being fat; or as one psychotherapist put it, for fear of not being skinny enough.

What I found most interesting in learning about these anorexics was that nearly all of them quickly improved once they got away from their families and schools and television, and many of them just as quickly relapsed when they returned to the outside world. What could be going on in our society to make so many young people feel they cannot be skinny enough, while so many other people are eating themselves into morbid obesity? I see the twin epidemics of anorexia and obesity as symptoms of the all or nothing nature of our society.

“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.” George Bernard Shaw

There is a movie by Cameron Crowe called Singles. I haven’t watched the film since it came out in 1992, but the scene I remember most vividly (and my memory may have rewritten the scene somewhat) involves a character played by Bridget Fonda who wants to have her breasts enlarged because she believes her boyfriend played by Matt Dillon will love her more and not be interested in other women if she, Bridget’s character, has much larger breasts.

So she goes to a doctor who specializes in breast enhancement and the doctor falls in love with her at first sight and thinks she’s perfect just as she is. Oblivious to the doctor’s romantic interest in her, Bridget and the doctor stand shoulder-to-shoulder staring into a computer screen where a drawing of a woman’s torso and head can be manipulated with a dial to make the breasts grow larger or smaller. At first the drawing displays girlish breasts the size of Bridget’s breasts, and Bridget turns the knob to make the breasts grow larger and larger until each breast is nearly as big as the head of the woman in the drawing. Then the doctor spins the knob the other way and the breasts shrink to the size of Bridget’s breasts, and then Bridget commandeers the knob and makes the breasts bigger. Back and forth. All or nothing.

“There is only one way to defeat the enemy, and that is to write as well as one can. The best argument is an undeniably good book.” Saul Bellow

“Todd is a writer,” said a hostess introducing me to a well-heeled couple at her party. And then, winking ironically, our hostess fled.

“Written any bestsellers?” smirked the man.

“Honey,” said his wife, nudging him. “Don’t be rude.”

“What’s rude? Maybe he has. Have you?”

“No,” I said, feeling a strange admixture of shame and a desire to punch the guy in the nose. “Not yet.”

“Get on Oprah,” said the man, nodding authoritatively. “That’s the way to do it. She tells the world she loves your stuff, you’re a made man.”

“I’ll give her a call,” I said, looking for the nearest exit.

“You wish,” said the man, snorting.

A silence fell and the chasm of all or nothing opened between us.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” John Emerich Dalberg-Acton

I will never forget a long ago conversation I had with two writers, a woman from France and a man from Germany. This was in 1982, but the scene is still vivid in my mind. We were sitting in a modest café in Santa Monica, sipping wine and discussing our shared passion: movies. The next thing I knew, these charming people were sincerely trying to convince me to move to Europe because, as the woman put it, “Your government is doomed to fascism, and as your government goes, so goes your culture. Can’t you see? If you have only these two identical parties, there can be no voice for socialism. This is why the big corporations are buying the movie studios. To promote their agenda.”

“Besides,” said the man, who admired my stories and plays, “there is no place for your writing here. You will have an audience in Europe. Your work is character-driven, as the agents like to call anything even slightly nuanced, which is the kiss of death in Hollywood. But in Germany we love stories about real people. Everything here is a cartoon now. You should come to Europe.”

“Your work is too subtle,” said the woman, sighing. “And your characters are not predictable. They hate us to be unpredictable here.”

“You will be ignored. Come to Germany.”

“Or France,” said the woman, smiling assuredly. “We will sponsor you, and within a year you will have a play produced, I’m sure.”

“You can make a living as a writer in Europe,” said the man, nodding. “You might not get rich, but you can make a living with your craft. Isn’t that what you want?”

But I was too enamored of the vision of rising from nothing and getting it all—uncompromising art and riches; so I stayed in America and rode the rollercoaster of my career up and down, mostly down, to this roughly level ground where I stand today, a habitué of these hinterlands, writing because it is my habit and my passion, sharing these words with you through the auspices of our instantaneously reactive Universe that loves everything from the tiniest Nothing to the grandest of Alls. Or so I like to think.

“It isn’t necessary to imagine the world ending in fire or ice—there are two other possibilities: one is paperwork, and the other is nostalgia.” Frank Zappa