Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

June 6, 2014

Not Comics: Two Prose Publishing Conversations

* while Amazon and Hachette continue to negotiate in private over what many believe are issues of e-book pricing in a way that will restore that site's full attention to having the mega-publisher's works available, the public debate about what's going on continues to frustrate and even confuse. Even a very good writer like Nick Gillespie builds a lot of his case here savaging an admittedly goofy collective overreach on comparisons from over-eager advocates for the publisher and its authors rather than a more upfront engagement with any core issues at hand. The eventual treatment of those arguments then seems to depend on a "lowest pricing is the consumer's only interest in an industry" base as simplistic as any unfortunate evocation of Vladmir Putin.

I remain convinced that the most alarming issue here is the casual yet upfront nature of Amazon's treatment of the publisher during negotiations. While it's indeed ridiculous to conceive of a mega-corporation like Hachette as a natural ally of literary publishers in the same way it seems weird to assume a natural relationship between what a mini-industry like James Patterson does and what most other writers do, that's not a necessary set of relationships to establish in order to project a troubling continuity of treatment across the board when future disputes arise. As for the core consumer's relationship to any company, to any industry, one's options change as those industries change. For Gillespie to suggest via rhetorical flourish that Amazon's move at worst forces us back into the habits of 30 years ago is frustrating, because I don't have that option now: my local bookstores have all closed, including the one that could get me just about anything in 10 days, and was better than Amazon has been at recommending books I might want to read other than the one I just bought. I like and use Amazon and have since the company's beginning, but that doesn't mean I'm so dazzled by getting the lowest price that this is going to be my only concern. That's a model from 30 years ago.

image* this article at Slate has led to a very comics-industry reminiscent backlash against the ideas presented. It's another case where the rhetorical excesses are the basis of most of the responses rather than the substance of the piece. I'm admittedly very sympathetic to the article's point of view that if your primary engagement with an art form is limited, there are likely to be limited returns. I'm also on board with an underlying argument present that a lot of the claims of respectability that come with a surge of popular interest, particularly when it's a category rather than a specific work cited, are due to a combination of boosterism and an "everyone do as they please" value given agency. I have to admit that it's been fun to read people accused of limiting themselves to processing art with a juvenile element react like people with the worried-about, resulting juvenile mindset: strident proclamations of this being a fight, rallying the troops, exaggerating the arguments being made, taking the whole thing as a personal insult.

I read whatever I like, for dozens of different reasons. That is my relationship to most art, but it's certainly true of comics and prose. In comics my reading includes a lot of superhero comics and other unabashedly genre-soaked material, some of which I consume for pleasure, some because it has qualities and ideas I think it's beneficial to encounter and some because I'm curious about art more generally. In prose my consumption doesn't really involve a healthy dose of Young Adult Fiction -- I'm not familiar with the title around which the arguments in this article are coelescing, for instance -- but I do read kids' books when I want, and I want to reasonably frequently. I just re-read The Magic Of Oz the other day, which I love for its good-natured spirit and cast of oddball characters. That's a very pleasurable read, and it has monkeys. It's not the entirety of my relationship to prose, or even strongly typical. I just started a Theodore Dreiser collection, and I'm next looking for a good between-the-World-Wars political history. But you know what? That's just me. Everyone's different. To some of my friends, the fact that I read at all is startling. To others, that I spend as much time with some of the work that I do is something they use to make fun of me every single time we're sharing a room and two beers into our conversation. There are a million ways to go through life. I don't care if all you read is books about girl wizards or perfect boyfriends or if the only comics you read involve people in costumes ripping off each others' limbs. And even though I'm skeptical, I'm perfectly cool with someone building their relationship to art on a belief that the material they're reading is the best material available, and stands shoulder to shoulder with work that other people think is more sophisticated or otherwise more laudatory in terms of approach or execution. I know and love a lot of people that have that relationship to art, over which I do not get a vote.

What strikes me as deeply unfortunate is the inability to process a viewpoint that might be criticial of those choices.

A stamped-foot tantrum that involves maudlin declarations of the "I guess because I read this stuff I just read shit not worth anyone's time" variety seems embarrassing to me, 100 times more so because it's supposed to be coming from this place of confidence in one's choices on how to spend one's hours on this planet and sounds anything but. One additional odd thing about that mindset is that these arguments -- and similar arguments in comics -- come at a point where the overwhelming weight of rhetoric, money and attention supports the position of the folks acting so aggrieved and combative because like four random people a year might file a public objection in language that's designed to attract eyeballs. It's kind of like watching a summer camp of 1400 kids having an Olympics Day with the next door camp of 85 kids reconceive of itself as Camp North Star the moment some random kid from the smaller camp wins a race. The most cliched storyline at work here doesn't involve any movie about to open, it's the idea that someone having a different opinion about our choices and values, even literary ones, is an assault on personal identity. I want something for adults.
posted 8:15 am PST | Permalink

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