Saturday, July 24, 2010

Books by Those Who don't Like Books

By guest-blogger Laura Penny

When I was pitching my second book, More Money Than Brains, I thought I had a pretty good line for the marketing types. I kept saying it was a book for readers, a book for people who really like books. Sounds totally sensible, right? You have doubtless heard countless commercials touting steak for steak-lovers and booze for real boozers. I was just trying to do what capitalism said on the teevee!

This is one of the many reasons why I have an agent.

The bizarro market of publishing functions differently. There is actually plenty of money these days, it seems, in catering to the tepid/sporadic reader or the people who despise bookish elitists and their snooty tomes.

I leave it to others to debate whether or not big hits, like Twilight and Dan Brown's oeuvre, eventually convert book-a-year folks to reading on the regular. I'm more interested in the latter phenomenon. Two of the biggest recent publishing success stories, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, are stellar examples of people who write books for people who hate book people.

Beck has managed to move millions and millions of units of his own merch, which includes sentimental slop (The Christmas Sweater), pseudo-history (Glenn Beck's Common Sense), and bloviation (Arguing with Idiots). His latest bestseller is an ostensible thriller called The Overton Window. This sounds Ludlummy, but it is actually a think tank term for the acceptable spectrum of policy ideas. Anything too wacky is “outside the window”, so to speak.

The function of many think tanks and lobbies and clowns like Glenn Beck is to open that window, and encourage America to jump through it, into free-market free-fall. Which is precisely why the plot of Beck's book is that the left---the liberal, progressive elites who really run the government and big corporations---are forcibly defenestrating a once-great nation.

Beck has also become like unto the Oprah of the wingnuts; to bum a comparison from USA Today. His say-so has propelled all sorts of crazy stuff up the bestseller lists. Perhaps the best example of a Beck favourite is Cleon Skousen's The 5000 Year Leap, which he has described as “divinely inspired”. Now there's a blurb to set the marketing department all a-flutter!

Alas, Skousen was far more inspired by the John Birch Society than that hippie from Nazareth. Skousen was an anti-commie zealot, too right-wing for the Mormon establishment, and precisely the sort of conspiracy crank old-school cons like William F. Buckley snubbed and marginalized in order to develop an electable conservative movement.

The titular leap is the miraculous birth of the Constitution, issue of the holy union of the Bible and the Founding Fathers. Hundreds of 5 star Amazon reviews from Beck's faithful insist that the book should be taught in schools. It's important for kids to know that the Thomases Jefferson and Paine loved Jesus more than reason. A special American Jesus that wants to abolish welfare and taxes!

If the common man actually spoke in the style of Sarah Palin's smash hit, Going Rogue, I woulda superglued my Sonys to my ears quite some time ago. One of the most scathing reviews of the book, by conservative journalist Claire Berlinski, argues that the problem is not that the book itself is cliched, intellectually lazy, vulgar, and phony as Tiger Woods' apologies.

That's bad, but what is worse is that millions of North Americans believe this cheesy ghost-written, committee-cobbled blend of pap and polemics is “real” or “authentic”. Berlinski contends that this is evidence of something much more dire than bad literary taste: it is a “communism of the soul” to pretend the doggedly ordinary are Presidential material.

Palin's next book involves even less pesky authoring. America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith and Flag, scheduled for release in November, is a mixtape of texts that have inspired her. It should not cost much, or take interns much time, to collate quotes from her dad, the John Birch Society newsletter, jock bios, Reagan speeches and the Taco Bell menu.

The fact that Palin and Beck cannot be bothered to write their own badly-written books might give book people the vapours. But the kind of people who buy Beck and Palin in bulk sneer at the suggestion that writing is a valuable skill or job, or. that publishing is an actual industry. Publishing is just a way for coastal elitists to get money for nothing and chicks for free.

This is simply to say that these recent publishing successes are actually based on venerable American marketing traditions best described by P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken. And while ghostwritten pap or paranoid crap are certainly not new, it is a bummer to see publishers underwriting and promoting products that insist the product—writing—is immaterial or inherently elitist and antique.

Laura Penny is the author of Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit and More Money Than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They're Right. She teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University and the University of King's College, in lovely Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

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