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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A Lot More to It Than Word Count

I. Revisiting an Old Question

A while back -- and not for the first time -- I was musing on the difference between novels and short stories. I revert to this subject again and again, in part because so many modern fiction readers avoid short stories like the plague, and, as a bookseller, I’m always trying to figure out why.

So many gifted writers work in short forms, and you’d think that, with busy schedules and multiple demands on limited time, readers would embrace the short story eagerly. Such is not my experience as a bookseller, however, and it is not, with a few outstanding exceptions, the experience of most writers trying to place short story collections, either. I’ve heard writers blame agents and publishers for treating novelists like stars and fending off short story collections, but agents want what they can sell to publishers, and publishers want what the public will buy. The question is why short stories are such a hard sell. Because they are. So I’m continually looking at the forms themselves for clues to an answer.

What I came up with in my last musing session was that a short story is more like a movie, a novel more like a long television series. Clearly, that distinction (whether you buy it or not) is made from the reader/viewer’s point of view, but it hardly solves the avoidance problem, since very few watchers of series programs avoid movies. I guess my distinction gave a pitch for stories (“Try them!”) rather than answering the question I’d posed.

The brilliant fiction writer Bonnie Jo Campbell, in a recent interviewgave as analogy to the short story/novel distinction the contrast between dating and marriage.
No need to be honest or consistent or thorough on a date—just be interesting. Mysterious is good on a date.
Flash fiction, she adds, is like a one-night stand. Campbell sees the short story reader as taking a brief dip into “a magical world of suspended disbelief,” easily entered, easily left behind (a date), unlike the experience of being immersed in a novel (committed to marriage).

Well, as good as that sounds, I wonder. I believe in the characters and situations of good short stories as much as those in good novels. They feel very real to me. Besides that, short stories can have downright haunting power. (Campbell’s are definitely haunting!) Continuing to push on her analogy, I’d say that even a one-night stand can be a life-changer, for better or for worse. (“Novels can brilliant, life-changing.”) “Trailing the novel’s blood” into your real life after you lay the book down? A reader coming to the last page of a short story has no guarantee she will not trail its blood through her real life for days and weeks to come! Exiting the world of the short story does not necessarily mean leaving it behind, since that world can enter the reader and inhabit the heart and mind in a most disturbing way long after the book has been closed.

II. Stumbling Upon a Path

“By appointment or chance” is a good description of my reading life. Our reading circle discussions, review copies, long-awaited books by favorite authors: all of these might be called reading by appointment. The vast majority of my reading, however, falls into the “by chance” category, especially since the majority of books in my bookshop are used volumes. Chance is a lovely feature of life! While a planned experience may disappoint or exceed expectations, the chance encounter carries no baggage. A book comes to hand. I open it and begin to read. Either I set it aside or continue. Not much lost either way.

[Digression. This is for authors and publishers, something I have learned in my years as a bookseller. The cover of a book must say “Pick me up!” The open book in hand must say, “Don’t put me down!” I told this to Bonnie Jo Campbell, and she urged me to write it somewhere, so here it is, and now it's yours to do with what you will.]

And so, not long ago, into my hands came a little volume called The Reaper Essays. The Reaper was a journal not of but about poetry. Criticism, that is. In the journal two writers (both poets themselves), Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell, created a persona from which to expound their views on modern poetry.

Most fundamentally, they decried the absence of narrative, and they were nothing if not prescriptive. The first of their ten demands (“How to Write Narrative Poetry: A Reaper Checklist”) was for a poem to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Just as it is hard to get the whole story, it is hard to allow a story to tell itself. Poets become enamored of a segment, an anecdote, and are content with nothing more. When this occurs, like the detached tail of a lizard, the story just wriggles and dies.
That, you understand, is a prescription for narrative poetry and criticism of modern poetry the authors see as failing, from two writers. Their view is not the view of the literary majority of critics (and how would it pertain to something like haiku?), but it can hardly be dismissed as uninteresting, uninformed, or incoherent. The entire book of essays is one I recommend to any writer of poetry or prose. Agree of disagree, you will find food for thought.

Okay, now fast forward a couple of days, when my new issue of New York Review of Books (January 14, 2016) arrives and turn to a review by Charles Baxter of a new volume of short stories, Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, by Joy Williams. Baxter examines the short fiction in Williams’s book through the lens of Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story, first published in book form (earlier O’Connor gave lectures on the subject) in 1963. Baxter seems to agree with O’Connor’s claim that “we do not identify with most short-story characters.” (I’m not sure about that, but for the sake of argument....) O’Connor believed short fiction to be, as O’Connor puts it, “a more private art than that of the novel,” its characters “more solitary, isolated, and uncommunicative,” the main feeling delivered, therefore, that of loneliness.

Baxter goes from there to the stories in Visiting Privilege, narratives he finds thriving on
...impulsive action that comes out of nowhere, that is unpremeditated, unplanned, and unconsidered and is therefore inexplicable.
Baxter notes that short stories don’t have time to develop lengthy histories.
But if you cut out much of a character’s history, you also cut out much of his motivation for action. ...[W]ith the contraction of narrative time, and with the character’s past chopped off and a possible future truncated or missing altogether, the protagonist simply acts, going from here to there without entirely grasping why she did what she did and often having no idea of how she ended up where she is now. She experiences the tyranny of the present presiding over an obliterated past.
I should confess that I have not yet read any fiction by Joy Williams. I will in the near future. My interest today, however, is the way her stories are characterized by Charles Baxter.

A few years ago I devoted a winter to writing fiction and achieved a complete draft of what I called a “cycle” of ten short stories (still homeless, by the way) linked by a common setting. More than one reader was intrigued and pleased while reading individual stories but ultimately frustrated by not having any answer to the question, “Then what happens?” I felt the question was unfair. These were short stories, not novel summaries!

But now, having read Jarman & McDowell, and in the wake of chewing over the Baxter review, looking back over my own short story collection and what I still think of as the most successful poem I ever wrote (that's my opinion and perhaps only mine) and recalling conversations with bookstore customers who shook their heads and told me, “I don’t like short stories,” I think I’m finally getting a handle on what frustrates modern readers about the short story form.

III. My Tentative, Perhaps Temporary “Conclusion”

In terms of narrative, a modern short story is all middle.

The reader of a modern short story is plunged willy-nilly into a situation, shoved up against strange, unfamiliar characters, shaken up and spun around, and then left by the side of the road. Some short fictional encounters are gentler, and some much more violent, but the common denominator, I believe, is absence of beginning and end. That is, introduction to character or characters and resolution to the situation are equally lacking.

Metaphorically, if not actually, in a short story someone we know nothing about has been tied up and thrown in the water. We see a flailing about, a struggle to survive. We begin to fear. And then the lights go out, and the curtain comes down. How did the character come to be in this situation? Will he or she survive? How? We have no idea.

Let me be clear. Please! I am not faulting the modern short story or saying that every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. It is what it is, as the young people say, and a raw slice of fictional life can be insightful as well as brilliant. I would not wish the best of our modern short story writers to abandon what they do or tailor their work into something else. What I’m going back to, yet again, is my question (which is really only one question but can be phrased many different ways) about audience: Why is the audience for short stories not larger? Why do more people not read short stories? Why do so many readers consciously avoid short fiction?

We are – and we are constantly told that we are – story-telling animals. “Tell me a story” is the child’s constant refrain. Finding meaning to one’s life is largely a matter of being able to see one’s life as a coherent story. Every culture is shaped by its stories.

In so many ways, the cutting edge of modern Western culture has left telos behind. Science concerns itself with how and no longer asks why. Evolution, we are told, is not purposeful but blind. Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood will not be coming back out of the woods. And yet the yearning of our species for the “whole story” remains. We would not be satisfied to wake with no memory and to live with no vision of a future, and that dramatic, narrative arc -- from beginning to end -- is clearly what readers continue to hunger for in fiction, however that hunger may be characterized as unsophisticated by those on the cutting edge.

Perhaps we can do without a fictional beginning more easily than we can sacrifice the end. Plunge us directly into the story with the first sentence, and we’ll find our way. That works. What’s hard is that being left on the side of the road with no words of parting. It is not a question of authors manipulating endings to satisfy readers, either, because a manipulated end is as unsatisfying as or worse than no end at all.

Again, I am neither criticizing nor prescribing but simply trying to understand what is missing in the short story experience for so many readers, and I think I’ve finally hit upon it. What do you think? I really want to know!

But now, in closing, to veer into prescription, I still encourage readers to be adventurous and try the short story experience! When you travel, you wouldn’t turn down interesting street food because it isn’t a five-course meal, would you? Or, if a different analogy will better serve my purpose, don’t expect the short story to be a trip from Point A to Point B. Think of it instead as an exciting carnival ride – frightening and exhilarating at the same time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Snow or No Snow

Greetings of the Season
Happy New Year to All!


Tuesday, Dec. 22, 11-5
Wednesday, Dec. 23, 11-5
Thursday, Dec. 24, 11-3

Saturday, Dec. 26, 11-5

Monday, Dec. 28, 11-5
Tuesday, Dec. 29, 11-5
Wednesday, Dec. 20, 11-5
Thursday, Dec. 31, 11-3

Saturday, Jan. 2, 11-5

VACATION Jan. 3-12
(open by chance or appointment only)

Wed. through Sat., 11-3

(Sarah reminds you that sale prices continue through the month of December: 20% off new books, 50% off used books.
The only exceptions are consignment items.)

Friday, December 18, 2015

Invisible Passage

When Sarah was a puppy

Time. We don’t see or hear or taste it and feel no rush of wind as it races by (or as we race through it), but traces of its passage impose on consciousness. People kept remarking on Sarah’s greying face and how she’s looking like an old dog. “No, that’s just her coloring,” I kept saying. “She’s only eight years old.” Then I looked back at pictures of the puppy we brought home in January of 2008. Her face does have more grey in it. Sigh!

Winter. Would it ever arrive? Would we have winter this year? We’d all begun to wonder, especially after Tuesday night’s historic overnight high temperature for northern Michigan in December. It’s still too soon to say what January will bring or even how the rest of December will play out, but while roses were in bloom yet on Thursday, the wind was chill, and there were some snow flurries. Seasons are such mysteries. Their formal divisions – based on movements of heavenly bodies – often seem irrelevant to life on earth, which is always particular to where one is living that life.

Business. As elusive as time, as uncertain as winter! I don’t expect lines to form at midnight, crowds camping out on the sidewalk, impatient for my bookstore to open. Mine is not that kind of business, Northport not that kind of town. My in-store December sale, though, is a good one: 20% off new books in stock, 50% off used books in stock. Consignment items (few) are the only books not discounted this month. Everything else is fair game – fine bindings, first editions, the rare, the beautiful, the treasures calling your name!

Hours. Tuesday through Saturday, 11-5, are my regular hours until the end of the year. Closed December 25 (and January 1), and probably closing early on December 24, too. The sale is on now and will continue through December 31.

And now, from Time to Hours, we have come full circle, the perfect signal for me to close this post. Just think -- in only a matter of days, we will be having more light again between morning and evening dark!

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Words Are Inside

Old books

New books

Books of all kinds

Treasures old

Have you finished your holiday gift-shopping?
I have a sale going on!

Treasures new

If you believe in fairies, clap your hands!

Monday, December 7, 2015

INFINITE JEST: Book Report Fragments

Infinite Jest
by David Foster Wallace
Orig. pub. 1996

You can go to any number of sites (e.g., here) for a synopsis of the novel and list of its various characters and plot lines, and I have no interest in coming up with my own poor replication of what has been done so many times before. It may be helpful to look up one of those synopses first, if you are the kind of reader who needs the whole map in front of you. The thing is, when you pick up the book and open it to begin reading the novel you don’t get a map, and David Foster Wallace did not list his dramatis personae before launching into his narrative. You enter the world, that’s all. You, the reader, are immediately plunged into the novel’s world without a map, and only gradually do you begin to put together the map for yourself.

The narrative does not so much jump as it steps carefully from one seemingly unrelated story line to another, and it is difficult to say when the various strands begin to be loosely braided together. The world of the novel is, after all, a single world, sometime slightly to the future of the time in which it was written, a world recognizable to readers in the year of its publication as it continues to be recognizable today, even though many of its more bizarre aspects have failed (so far?) to materialize. And so, there is the novel’s world, and here is that world’s omniscient narrator, checking in first on one set of characters, then another, moving effortlessly through space from Tucson to Boston as only fiction allows, and the reader follows the shifts more and more easily as the novel progresses.

One way to conceptualize the different story lines is to think of each as a separate musical composition. All of them, we are sure, as we read along, will eventually come together into a single work, although for hundreds of pages we need to keep track of separate orchestras on separate stages, and we cannot help but marvel at the author’s ability to compose and orchestrate such complexity. Then we notice – was it there all along? – a subtle, nearly inaudible background line connecting the various orchestra’s themes, not yet doing anything so overt as tying together the different story lines, but underlying them all the same. Onstage in one developing scenario a character thinks he hears a door hinge squeaking. It’s a familiar sound, characteristic of that particular door. Too late he realizes the rhythmic, mass quality of the squeaking, caused by a phalanx of wheelchairs “moving with the indifference of things at the very top of the food-chain.” It is a group of the legless French-Canadian terrorists, coming to look for the master copy of the “Entertainment” film cartridge, the novel’s unholy grail. The terrorists approach like “the devil’s own hamsters, moving with placid squeaks just beyond view,” and soon a scene of unbelievable violence and carnage ensues.

Cut to the waiting room of the headmaster of the Enfield Tennis Academy, where a student called in for discipline notes the squeak of a waiting room chair.

Another cut or two, and an unidentified first-person narrator (not the main omniscient narrator to whom we are accustomed) is telling the story of his father demanding assistance in tearing apart the parental bed to locate a squeak that is driving him mad. The dismantling and moving of bed parts proceeds in excruciating detail, but before the problem is located the first-person narrator escapes upstairs to his own bedroom and jumps onto his narrow twin bed in an attempt to produce a squeak.

But all this as I have described it foregrounds the squeaking theme, whereas, the way it plays out in the pages of the novel you almost don’t notice it, and when you start to be aware you can’t be sure if it’s at all important. Or could it be the brilliant, masterful author simply adding a bit of fun, for himself, to the novel’s more serious work? And perhaps there are other background or low-level connecting themes that have escaped me? Because this one very minor theme I have identified is surely much less worthy of note than hundreds of other feats performed by DWF. I only note it as an example of the subtlety of the work, an indication of how very much is going on.

Much more noteworthy and so obvious that no reader can miss them are the occasional showstopper pieces, if you will, where all hell suddenly breaks loose in one of the story lines. At the Enfield Tennis Academy, for instance, there is a sequence involving students engaged in their favorite, unbelievably complicated, intellectual and physical extracurricular game, “Eschaton,” and a similar explosion of high-speed action in a crowd scene is later set just outside Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. In each of these instances, the buildup to the scene’s explosion proceeds slowly and deliberately, the minutiae of detail lulling the reader’s suspicions that anything big might happen. “The night is cold and glycerine-clear and quite still.” Then the “ruckus” begins, but even then , as the character Gately is observing the scene, himself becoming cool and clear, “All this appraisal’s taking only seconds; it only takes time to list it.” And list it the author does, all the simultaneous action in the scene, as well as the high-speed sequences, and what would take seconds in a movie takes pages in the book, because writer and reader both need time to assemble mentally and block and keep track of every move made.

(Confession: I did much better following the Ennet House “ruckus” than I did the Eschaton game run amok.)

Certain descriptive phrases, whether they occur in long, lyrical paragraphs or jump out unexpectedly between lines of dialogue or out of a scene of mayhem brimming with loathesome, decadent, scatalogical detail, make me catch my breath, as Wallace strings together impressions and words that have never before been joined, and the result is exquisite.
The urban lume makes the urban night only semidark, as in licoricey, a luminescence just under the skin of the dark, and swelling.
Like that. Luscious.

Here’s the thing. I tried to read Infinite Jest once before and didn’t get very far, but since the author’s father was on my dissertation committee and I was his teaching assistant for two courses, and since I have read DWF’s short stories and essays with appreciation and admiration and enjoyment, I really wanted to read the novel, and so I began again this fall. It was heavy going at first. Although I did not find it as daunting as on the first attempt, and while some of those lyrical sentences and phrases rewarded me along the way, at first I did approach my morning or evening reading in the spirit of duty. And, it must be said, so much of the novel’s atmosphere is depressing, adding to the feeling of duty.

Only about page 500 did a shift occur for me. About then the various plots began to flow more easily in my brain, as if only then had I truly entered into the author’s world. And following on the heels of the ease came a slowing-down. I stopped compulsively glancing down at page numbers as I turned pages. The overall map of the novel’s action, the various stages and characters – all had their places, and any urgency I had felt earlier to get through the book vanished. I’m in no hurry now. Infinite Jest is a parallel universe to the one I inhabit at home, to my bookshop world, and to the world of my own modest novel-in-progress, whose characters often visit me at unexpected moments, besides the late night or wee morning hours when I invite them into my mind.

I told my David some of the Infinite Jest story and read him a few bits from the book, and he was intrigued, commenting, “It’s a real luxury to get lost in a long book.” Indeed. I said, “What will I do when I finish it?” But there is really no danger. Beside me on a corner of the table is Proust, and on shelves in the living room are Jane Austen and James Joyce, and re-reading favorite books, revisiting fictional worlds, has been a pleasure of mine for as many years as I have been a reader, devouring over and over again Alice in Wonderland, The Black Stallion, The Silver Nutmeg, The Borrowers, and so many other magical stories.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Retracing One Path in Children’s Literature

What books were being given to boys and girls as Christmas presents in the year 1928? Many probably received a set of Book Trails. The first volume, Book Trails for Baby Feet, begins with “Little Black Sambo,” a story told in many different editions over the years and revived in three new versions not long ago. It’s a story that’s been loved and hated and that has given rise to legends in which some vague, powerful, conspiratorial “They” pull out all the stops to censor children’s literature by making the story unavailable.

Here are a few facts from the book world as I have come to know it.

·     Children’s books, read over and over and not always treated gently, tend to survive in smaller numbers than adult books, and a family of several children probably had no more than one copy of a beloved book when the children were small. The likelihood of that copy having survived is small.

·     Popular and well-loved children’s books, like other published titles, usually go out of print over time.

·     Why isn’t a popular book reprinted? Most publishers of children’s books are conservative business people. They do not want copyright problems, and they don’t want storms of social protest -- unless the storms are going to sell books.

But also –

·     Every year publishers are bringing out new titles for children.

·     Illustration styles change over the years, as do parenting methods.

·     Social awareness grows.

Does anyone think the Dick and Jane readers fell victim to censorship? Well, actually, a few people probably do think that, but evolving (or at least changing) theories of education are a more likely explanation. As for why Dick and Jane books and Little Black Sambo have commanded such high prices on the secondary (i.e., not new) book market for as long as I’ve been selling used books, the answer is simple: supply and demand. When people remember books from their own childhood, want to get their hands on the books again, and the desired titles are out of print and surviving copies in short supply, prices go up.

It is not a conspiracy. If booksellers were that canny, we would all be rich.

But those who object to the character of Little Black Sambo as depicted in the story have a serious point to make. The little black boy in the pictures presents a stereotype, as does his name and the names of his mother and father, and so the story fosters continued stereotypical thinking about darker races among young white readers, while showing young readers of color nothing they can recognize that relates to their own lives.

Growing social awareness is obvious in another book that came to my hand recently, Bright April, by Marguerite di Angeli.

As soon as the book is opened, the illustrated endpapers invite the reader into April’s world, Philadelphia’s Germantown following the close of World War II. We learn that she has a sister and two brothers, that her father is a postman, and that she belongs to a Brownie troop.

In this mid-century African-American family, April helps her father clear the sidewalk of ice and snow and helps her mother set the dinner table, always trying to live up to the secret Brownie motto, “D.Y.B.!” There are hints of difficulties to come when other little girls say unkind things or when April’s serviceman brother (the year is 1946) writes home that he has been assigned to laundry duty rather than given an architectural assignment for which he was educationally trained and eager to execute. Today, perhaps, April’s parents would give their children more emphatic, less gentle lessons, but de Angeli certainly left “Little Black Sambo” behind.

And yet, simply comparing these two fictional characters misses something else. “Little Black Sambo” and April Bright are completely different kinds of stories, just as “The Milkmaid and Her Pail,” by Aesop, another story in Baby Feet, is entirely different from an almost infinite number of realistic fiction for young people written in the 20th century. Fairy tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White,” feminists point out, gave starring roles to female stereotypes, not fully realized fictional girls and women. And what about all the charming princes? Ever meet one in real life who looked and talked and acted like the ones in fairy tales. And how about all the wicked stepmothers?

In fairy tales and fables the emphasis is on a simple plot, large actions, and lesson to be learned, while realistic fiction, for readers of all ages, present an ambiguous world peopled by distinct individuals trying to find their way in it.

Is there a place in our world today for fables and fairy tales? That’s a serious question. I wonder what others think. And where does contemporary YA dystopian literature fall with relation to fairy tales and realism?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Couple Things I Don’t Often Do

One thing I seldom do is to mark up the pages of a hardcover book, one in pretty good shape with a nice, sharp dust jacket. In this case, however, I am not the first to desecrate the pages, as a previous reader went at the text with blue highlighter, and I am making my own contributions lightly, in pencil.

Another activity from which I refrain as a general rule (though, obviously, not an ironclad law) is using this forum to discuss a book I recommend people not buy.

I could add a third item to the list. Rarely do I take the trouble to read fifty pages into a book before deciding it isn’t worth any more of my time.

Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, by James B. Twitchell, published in 1999 by Columbia University Press with a retail price of $90 for hardcover (subsequently $30 for paperback), is the third in the author’s trilogy on American popular culture. Preceding volumes were Carnival Culture: TheTrashing of Taste in America and Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. While Columbia publishes many titles I wish I could stock in my bookstore, they offer no wholesale discount through Ingram, my major national distributor, and paying full retail price plus shipping to put books on the shelf on spec doesn’t work for me. This time, exploring the opening chapter of this book, I was glad I hadn’t paid full price, and I would not want to ask a customer to do so, either.

Before the first chapter, as early as the introduction, I found the author’s style annoying. He was going to take a position and presenting a thesis, but he was taking his sweet time about it, inscribing slow circles around a vague center while taking potshots at all manner of easy targets, such as the selling of self-help books to wean people away from consumerism. When what sounded like the main thesis made an appearance -- “We live through things. We create ourselves through things.” -- it stepped in quietly, sideways, at the edge of a scene, rather than taking center stage. And far too much word count is given over to list-making. When the lists are clich├ęs – sometimes presented in quotation marks and other times without – they are particularly irritating. For example:
On the bumpers of self we slap stickers: “Shop ‘til you drop,” “He who dies with the most toys wins,” “People who say money can’t buy happiness, don’t know where to shop,” When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,” “But I can’t be overdrawn! I still have checks left!,” “I’m spending my grandchildren’s inheritance,” “Nouveau riche is better than no riche at all,” “A woman’s place is in the mall.”
Soon the marketplace would capture this offloaded meaning and apply it to secular things. Buy this, you’ll be saved. You deserve a break today. You, you’re the one. We are the company that cares about you. You’re in good hands. We care. Trust in us. We are here for you.
My point is, he belabors his points. It’s insulting. Maybe it’s padding. Or both.

This author of nine books, as of the one next to me right now, teaches (or did in 1999) English and advertising at the University of Gainesville in Florida, but he clearly has contempt for academia in general and academic cultural criticisms in particular.
Nine times out of ten [clearly a rhetorical flourish rather than a statistical report], if you take a course in anything described as Cultural Studies, you will find that individuals are invariably seen as victims, while your instructor is the sage protector.
Your sage protector, I think he must mean to say. But note the academic author distancing himself from academia. Given his faculty position, one cannot help suspecting him of attacking straw men.

I made my first marginal notation on page 22, where the author lays out what he calls a “naive” four-part thesis. He begins the first of his four parts as follows:
(1) Humans are consumers by nature. We are tool users because we like to use what tool using can produce. In other words, tools are not the ends but the means.
He begins by claiming, in other words, that tools are tools. Forgive me for saying this, but – Duh! Next he claims that (2) consumers are “rational,” which he must do in order to oppose to what he presents as the widespread notion that consumers are helpless “victims” but which also, at the same time, ignores studies going back as far as 1979 (Tversky & Kahneman) that have tackled the classical economic model of rational decision-making. He wants to (3) cast doubt on the existence of “buyer’s remorse,” arguing that “consuming what looks to be overpriced kitsch may be preferable to consuming nothing.” He will go on later to say that we give our lives meaning by buying stuff, so buying nothing would yield a meaningless life, but then no one buys “nothing” in his view, and we’ll get back to that in a minute. Finally he would have us rethink the separation between production and consumption, which I would be perfectly willing to do if I were not already so put off by the paucity of claims (1) through (3).

Buying “stuff,” Twitchell wants us to believe, “is how we understand the world,” because if we’re not buying “overpriced kitsch,” we’re buying vacations or high culture experiences or the good feeling that comes from giving to charity. I’m not making this up.
One might well wonder if there is anything more to American life than shopping. After all, we are all consumers now, consumers of everything – consumers of health services, consumers of things and ideas, consumers of political representation, even consumers of what high culture there is left.
Note the clever move, blocking off the exit toward which you had turned. You may not be consuming kitsch, but aren’t you still consuming – say, opera or dental hygiene or philosophy. Every decision you make is a consumption decision.

For Freud, all dreams and all desires were basically about sex, and for Twitchell, everything you do is consuming. But if everything is consuming, all we can learn by investigating consumption will be more about consumption. Which is fine with Twitchell because while he concedes there are other important questions – happiness, justice, crime, divorce, drugs, pornography, etc., etc. – he declines to address them. Fair enough. Every writer gets to limit his domain of concern as he wishes. But saying that everything is just all this one “x”? Sorry, Charlie, not going there.

In an attempt to explode the consumer-victim straw man he has set up, the author asks readers to consider television viewing as an analogy. We are told, he says, that watching television is passive. He disagrees.
Most consumption, whether or entertainment or of what’s in the grocery store, is active. We are engaged. In fact, observe yourself watching and you will see that unlike reading, which really is passive, watching television is almost frantic with creative activity [italics mine].
Excuse me, but isn’t there a contradiction there? Oh, no, he qualified his statement with that “Most” at the beginning of the sentence, so reading can still be consumption, by his lights, but I’d sure like to hear a little more about how it “really is passive”! He could hardly think so were he to see the pages of my copy of his book, interaction demonstrated by the previous reader’s blue highlighting and my pencil underlining and marginal notes! The far more serious problem, however, with the claim that television is active and reading passive is that, once again, the author has completely ignored serious research studies in brain science. Channel-surfing to maximize images of sex and violence, the author’s self-avowed approach to viewing, is not evidence of creative brain activity or proof that screen input is more engaging than the printed page.

One thing I will say in the author’s defense, or at least to give him the benefit of doubt in the matter of political faddishness, is that he cannot easily be labeled either liberal or conservative and thus dismissed by half (assuming a 50/50 split) his audience. He derides consumer protection but quotes Marx and Weber approvingly, and then – surprise! He finds his intellectual soul-mates in French intellectuals. French academics, no less!
The French sociologists see consumer culture as multiple and interpenetrating discourses or fields, rather than as a singular dominant ideology that can be accepted or resisted. In the spirit of reader-response theory in literary criticism, they see meaning not rigidly super-applied to consumer goods by producers who hold the meaning stable, but rather supplied by the user who jumbles various interpretations simultaneously. Consumers are just [sic] another interpretive community. They are readers.
Readers? Wait, wasn’t reading “really ... passive”? And yet, the author concludes from his agreement with French sociology, that “the process of consumption, therefore, is creative and even emancipating.” We are creating “lifestyles,” today’s “secular religions, coherent patterns of valued things.”

I cannot say that I was completely bored by this book, that is, by the introduction and first chapter I read. Impatient, yes, annoyed, yes, but if I were still in the academic world myself I would probably have gone on to read it all, arguing with the author page by page. But life is short and calls me in too many other directions.

Why bother at all with this lengthy critique? Arguing is another thing I don’t do nearly as often as I used to – but sometimes it feels good to indulge myself!

Postscript: It was by the merest coincidence that David and I spent part of the evening watching a film we thought from the title was going to be a historical drama but that turned out to be a contemporary documentary of materialistic excess, "The Queen of Versailles." What a counterpoint to the book just that preceded it! Which was more "active," my reading or my viewing? What difference does it make? Yuck and ugh!