Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman's The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]‘ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman’s The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]‘ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

More on the status of teachers

There’s a bad New York Magazine article in this week’s issue called “Miss Grundy Was Fired Today” on how teachers are becoming politically and socially unpopular. Great premise, except for one problem: I don’t think teachers are losing status, and the article doesn’t provide evidence they are. Teachers’ unions are losing status, and the cherry-picked quotes in the article tend to show this: opposition a “union-controlled hiring and firing process,” or a mention that “Some teachers ‘aren’t measuring up,’ Booker wrote, ‘and ought to find another line of work.’ ” Notice the key word: “some.” I doubt any reasonable people, including teachers themselves, would disagree.

Over the long term, efforts to remove bad teachers and nurture good ones will probably raise the status of teaching—which the New York Times wants to do. I have a long compendium of big, popular-press articles on teachers, and reading through it tends to point to teachers’ unions as the major villain too. In most professions, being terrible at your job will get you fired; in professions where that doesn’t happen, people will eventually get angry about why they’ve been fired but you haven’t, especially if they’re paying you.

The original point of this post, however, was that New York Magazine seems to have done blogger levels of research for their article, which is disappointing. Uninformed speculation is free these days, and the comparative advantage of magazines should be informed speculation.


In related news, Freakonomics points out that New Jersey public school per pupil spending approaches that of private school tuition.

Big Sex Little Death — Susie Bright's Memoir

Big Sex Little Death is weirdly boring. I say “weirdly” because you’d expect a book about sexual awakening, development, politics, and exploration to be more exciting; this Slate article on Bright and being wrong convinced me to buy the book. Skip it: read the reviews instead.

Big Sex Little Death has some clever lines and individual section, but as a whole the memoir feels prosaic. There’s an obligatory section on birth, parents, sides of the family, unlikely anecdotes; we find that “My mom didn’t drink” and that “My grandpa was a butcher and ran a chicken ranch,” which is eminently respectable in a memoir and somewhat tedious too. There’s a conventionally slightly broken childhood—isn’t it a requirement that people writing memoirs focus on childhood?—that leads to an adulthood that should hold the reason we’re reading the memoir. It does explain that, sort of, and tells a story about economic sexual censorship that I didn’t realize existed as late as the 1980s. Then again, looking at Amazon and Apple’s policies towards sexually frank books, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I also hasn’t realized that Bright’s women-run erotica magazine, On Our Backs, even existed.

In disentangling herself from the financial pit that On Our Backs turns out to be, Bright finds the only thing rarer than a hooker with a heart gold: a lawyer with a heart of gold, whom she has say, “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you,” without making her pay. Reviews of memoirs often want to engage the question of how much is “true,” and I can believe the whole thing except perhaps for the exchange on page 310. Gun threats, underage and unwise sex, cruelty: all believable. Kind lawyers: less so.

There’s not a lot about the intellectual development that led Bright to work on On Our Backs, or that led her not just to get a lot of action but to write about getting a lot of action. Maybe it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to describe what leads to intellectual engagement: “I read a lot, liked it, thought about it, and transformed thought in my mind” isn’t very satisfying. And it’s not easy to make actions symbolize intellectual development. If someone knows a good example of such changes shown effectively in literature, I’d love to hear them (one exception: The Adventures of Augie March. Bildungsromans might be as close as we get).

Once Bright gets past the parent bits, she describes how, as a teenager, she starts having sex with socialist, many of them older than her; she says that “lucky for me, some of them were really, really good in bed—and since everyone was down with women’s liberation and nonmonogamy, that made things extra good for me.” This continues:

I was in no one’s debt; I was no one’s property. What little I thought about school anymore involved feeling bad about how scared everyone was: scared of having sex, scared of leaving their gilded cage, scared of dreaming about anything that hadn’t been premeditated by their parents.

And they still are. It’s one of the moments in the book that translates across generations and feels right, since so many parents still treat their children as property. Elsewhere, Bright has finely observed moments, though they sometimes go slightly awry:

People always imagine there is something happening in Los Angeles because of the celebrities. They think that because they see a movie star buy a bag of marshmallows, it must be an event. They think wiping their ass with the same toilet paper that a movie star’s maid wiped her ass with is an accomplishment. This is a company town, and Hollywood is just as crushing as a Carnegie Steel mill. The vast majority of Angelenos have so much nothing in their lives that ‘celebrity nothing’ makes them feel like they have something.

This is almost true: people do imagine something is happening in L.A. But the next sentence is choppy, with all the “t” sounds and the repeated use of the word “they:” “They think that because they see. . .” Still, Bright understands the vacuousness of celebrity worship, but she’s wrong when she says L.A. is “a company town.” There are at least five major movie studios, compared to a single Carnegie Steel mill, and L.A.’s economy is much vaster and more diverse than Pittsburgh’s ever was. That’s part of the reason it was able to thrive; as Edward Glaeser describes in Triumph of the City, cities with diverse economic bases tend to thrive. L.A. is one, even if the movie studios—notice the plural—are very visible.

During that time in L.A., Bright says, “I could not take one more minute of trying to convince the people of Los Angeles that a workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society were a tiny bit more exciting than getting a bit role in a Burger King commercial.” I’d like to know what exactly a “workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society” means. Revolutions don’t have a great track record, since they tend to include a lot of mindless bloodshed and power struggles. The “workers’ revolution” in Russia that led to the Soviet Union might be the single bloodiest event in human history, according to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. These demands aren’t a coherent political platform; they’re teenage angst writ large and the result of a mind that would be much assisted by taking some economics classics. I’ll take the Burger King commercial and maybe a faster CPU next year, thanks.

So her politic-politics might not be great, but her sexual politics and stories sometimes make more sense. Bright says that women making porn was shocking in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, however, women making porn for women is still news, and people are still going, “This is still news?!” I don’t see an end to this cycle. In the personal ream, Bright’s memoir could be titled, “Getting Some Ass From Unusual Places,” since relatively few people have gotten it from such diverse places: a union organizing camp; from college dropouts after she dropped out of high school; from lesbians; from men; and probably people in between. An appropriate subtitle might be, “And Then Thinking About It Afterwards,” Like Karen Owen, Bright has taken quite a survey of her escapes; unlike Owen, Bright isn’t alienated from herself or desires. She’s also more explicitly political, which can be both annoyingly polemical and deeper. Most people don’t think of their lives in overtly political terms, even when it might help them too, and it makes someone who does unusual.

That might be the biggest difference between Bright and many other writers about and havers of sex: she doesn’t regret what she’s done, has actualized her experience, and has never particularly bought into the sex-is-bad paradigm that, although weaker than it once was, still dominates culture for many people. We like everything leading up to sex—sexiness, attractiveness, revealing clothes, preening, buying expensive objects—but we still judge the people who move from signaling to action, despite or because of our own desires for action.

Bright imagines that, after the sexual revolution,

Women wouldn’t be catty. No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You’d get to see what everyone was like in bed. You’d learn things in bed, and that would be the whole point. Romances would seem like candy cigarettes. You could have all the sex and friendship you wanted for free. Exclusivity would be for bores and babies.

I’m all for it. Alas, the pragmatist or realist in me sees this as so unlikely that I want to label it idealist in the worst sense of the word. Bright knows as much, however, and the eyes of experience looking backward demonstrates that she knows precisely how unlikely this is.

I wish there was more connective tissue between Bright’s experiences and better writing when she describes them. She knows the problems memoirs tend to have:

At the onset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up to date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth—the parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

I think she gives men’s memoirs too much credit, since so many of them are equally inane and poorly written. And there are probably reasonably interesting memoirs written by women out there, but I think the bigger problem is “reasonably interesting memoirs” in general. Alas: I’m not sure Big Sex Little Death is one.


You can read more about Bright in this interview. Consider it and the other links in lieu of the book itself.

Big Sex Little Death — Susie Bright’s Memoir

Big Sex Little Death is weirdly boring. I say “weirdly” because you’d expect a book about sexual awakening, development, politics, and exploration to be more exciting; this Slate article on Bright and being wrong convinced me to buy the book. Skip it: read the reviews instead.

Big Sex Little Death has some clever lines and individual section, but as a whole the memoir feels prosaic. There’s an obligatory section on birth, parents, sides of the family, unlikely anecdotes; we find that “My mom didn’t drink” and that “My grandpa was a butcher and ran a chicken ranch,” which is eminently respectable in a memoir and somewhat tedious too. There’s a conventionally slightly broken childhood—isn’t it a requirement that people writing memoirs focus on childhood?—that leads to an adulthood that should hold the reason we’re reading the memoir. It does explain that, sort of, and tells a story about economic sexual censorship that I didn’t realize existed as late as the 1980s. Then again, looking at Amazon and Apple’s policies towards sexually frank books, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. I also hasn’t realized that Bright’s women-run erotica magazine, On Our Backs, even existed.

In disentangling herself from the financial pit that On Our Backs turns out to be, Bright finds the only thing rarer than a hooker with a heart gold: a lawyer with a heart of gold, whom she has say, “Ms. Bright, I’m going to take care of this for you,” without making her pay. Reviews of memoirs often want to engage the question of how much is “true,” and I can believe the whole thing except perhaps for the exchange on page 310. Gun threats, underage and unwise sex, cruelty: all believable. Kind lawyers: less so.

There’s not a lot about the intellectual development that led Bright to work on On Our Backs, or that led her not just to get a lot of action but to write about getting a lot of action. Maybe it’s impossible, or nearly impossible, to describe what leads to intellectual engagement: “I read a lot, liked it, thought about it, and transformed thought in my mind” isn’t very satisfying. And it’s not easy to make actions symbolize intellectual development. If someone knows a good example of such changes shown effectively in literature, I’d love to hear them (one exception: The Adventures of Augie March. Bildungsromans might be as close as we get).

Once Bright gets past the parent bits, she describes how, as a teenager, she starts having sex with socialist, many of them older than her; she says that “lucky for me, some of them were really, really good in bed—and since everyone was down with women’s liberation and nonmonogamy, that made things extra good for me.” This continues:

I was in no one’s debt; I was no one’s property. What little I thought about school anymore involved feeling bad about how scared everyone was: scared of having sex, scared of leaving their gilded cage, scared of dreaming about anything that hadn’t been premeditated by their parents.

And they still are. It’s one of the moments in the book that translates across generations and feels right, since so many parents still treat their children as property. Elsewhere, Bright has finely observed moments, though they sometimes go slightly awry:

People always imagine there is something happening in Los Angeles because of the celebrities. They think that because they see a movie star buy a bag of marshmallows, it must be an event. They think wiping their ass with the same toilet paper that a movie star’s maid wiped her ass with is an accomplishment. This is a company town, and Hollywood is just as crushing as a Carnegie Steel mill. The vast majority of Angelenos have so much nothing in their lives that ‘celebrity nothing’ makes them feel like they have something.

This is almost true: people do imagine something is happening in L.A. But the next sentence is choppy, with all the “t” sounds and the repeated use of the word “they:” “They think that because they see. . .” Still, Bright understands the vacuousness of celebrity worship, but she’s wrong when she says L.A. is “a company town.” There are at least five major movie studios, compared to a single Carnegie Steel mill, and L.A.’s economy is much vaster and more diverse than Pittsburgh’s ever was. That’s part of the reason it was able to thrive; as Edward Glaeser describes in Triumph of the City, cities with diverse economic bases tend to thrive. L.A. is one, even if the movie studios—notice the plural—are very visible.

During that time in L.A., Bright says, “I could not take one more minute of trying to convince the people of Los Angeles that a workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society were a tiny bit more exciting than getting a bit role in a Burger King commercial.” I’d like to know what exactly a “workers’ revolution and a complete overhaul of society” means. Revolutions don’t have a great track record, since they tend to include a lot of mindless bloodshed and power struggles. The “workers’ revolution” in Russia that led to the Soviet Union might be the single bloodiest event in human history, according to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. These demands aren’t a coherent political platform; they’re teenage angst writ large and the result of a mind that would be much assisted by taking some economics classics. I’ll take the Burger King commercial and maybe a faster CPU next year, thanks.

So her politic-politics might not be great, but her sexual politics and stories sometimes make more sense. Bright says that women making porn was shocking in the 1970s and 1980s. Apparently, however, women making porn for women is still news, and people are still going, “This is still news?!” I don’t see an end to this cycle. In the personal ream, Bright’s memoir could be titled, “Getting Some Ass From Unusual Places,” since relatively few people have gotten it from such diverse places: a union organizing camp; from college dropouts after she dropped out of high school; from lesbians; from men; and probably people in between. An appropriate subtitle might be, “And Then Thinking About It Afterwards,” Like Karen Owen, Bright has taken quite a survey of her escapes; unlike Owen, Bright isn’t alienated from herself or desires. She’s also more explicitly political, which can be both annoyingly polemical and deeper. Most people don’t think of their lives in overtly political terms, even when it might help them too, and it makes someone who does unusual.

That might be the biggest difference between Bright and many other writers about and havers of sex: she doesn’t regret what she’s done, has actualized her experience, and has never particularly bought into the sex-is-bad paradigm that, although weaker than it once was, still dominates culture for many people. We like everything leading up to sex—sexiness, attractiveness, revealing clothes, preening, buying expensive objects—but we still judge the people who move from signaling to action, despite or because of our own desires for action.

Bright imagines that, after the sexual revolution,

Women wouldn’t be catty. No one would bother to be jealous. Who would have the time? Sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You’d get to see what everyone was like in bed. You’d learn things in bed, and that would be the whole point. Romances would seem like candy cigarettes. You could have all the sex and friendship you wanted for free. Exclusivity would be for bores and babies.

I’m all for it. Alas, the pragmatist or realist in me sees this as so unlikely that I want to label it idealist in the worst sense of the word. Bright knows as much, however, and the eyes of experience looking backward demonstrates that she knows precisely how unlikely this is.

I wish there was more connective tissue between Bright’s experiences and better writing when she describes them. She knows the problems memoirs tend to have:

At the onset of my memoir, I thought I would bring myself up to date on the autobiography racket. I researched the current bestsellers among women authors who had contemplated their life’s journey. The results were so dispiriting: diet books. The weighty befores and afters. You look up men’s memoirs and find some guy climbing a mountain with his bare teeth—the parallel view for women are the mountains of cookies they rejected or succumbed to.

I think she gives men’s memoirs too much credit, since so many of them are equally inane and poorly written. And there are probably reasonably interesting memoirs written by women out there, but I think the bigger problem is “reasonably interesting memoirs” in general. Alas: I’m not sure Big Sex Little Death is one.


You can read more about Bright in this interview. Consider it and the other links in lieu of the book itself.

Tea Review – Fujian Jasmine Pearl

[I've started drinking tea after reading A Hacker's Guide to Tea, and I'm going to start posting reviews here because, well, maybe the world wants to know what I think.]

Fujian Jasmine Pearl, for lack of a better term, “chemically.” I made it for the first time and found its smell to be more like tea drenched in an artificial flavor devised in a PepsiCo™ lab by food scientists than actual tea. The taste was an improvement over the smell, but not so much that I’d actually like to make it again. I love the smell of tea as much as the next guy, but I want it to be fundamentally like tea, not the inside of a warehouse or a perfume.

What gives? I’m guessing that I got a bad batch or that its extreme price makes people like the tea. It’s like a monetary placebo effect. Dan Ariely describes how this works in chapters 9 and 10 of Predictably Irrational, which describe “The effect of expectations: Why the mind gets what it expects” and “The power of price: Why a 50-cent aspirin can do what a penny aspirin can’t.” Both chapters describe how we manage to think our way into liking things. If you want someone to love your product, charge more for it and convince them to buy it. Cue people citing Apple as an example. But you have to offer something aspirational about it; in the case of Adagio, they put Fujian Jasmine Pearl in their “masters” collection. There’s a little story about the tea. There are dozens of glowing reviews. None of them take the Coke-Pepsi challenge on it.

Summary Judgment: Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Industry in the Twenty-First Century — John B. Thompson

Merchants of Culture is like a book about the administrative, political, and economic structures of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1915. Sure, it might be extraordinarily nuanced, but I get the sense I’m reading about a system in the throes of such tumult that a book about present practices already feels like ancient history.

Still, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ancient history, and Merchants of Culture tells it reasonably well, explaining the publishing in detail that’s hard to summarize and sometimes absorbing. Agents grow in importance; publishing houses consolidate; houses become more focused on short-term profits even as they struggle to find the next big writer; new, nimble behemoths like Amazon appear; and writers keep writing. Actually, that last one comes from me. There’s a lot of, “This change created opportunity and danger” for publishers and others, which could easily be lifted from this book and put into any book about a turbulent industry. Since virtually every industry is turbulent save government, and a lot of the arguments border on the obvious, large sections are easy to skip and feel academic.

Some parts feel eerily prescient: “. . . there is always the fear, expressed by this sales director and by others, that Amazon might use its ability to remove books from its site or disable the ‘buy’ button as a weapon in the struggle to improve terms of trade” {Thompson “Merchants”@44}. This is exactly in the spat with Macmillan (see here or here for more about this teapot tempest).

Publishing houses and agents, most of all, have no idea what will sell, and they’re basically pitching about in the dark, hoping to grab a pot of money instead of a viper. For example:

. . . one of the key characteristics of trade publishing is that, for a large part of the frontlist . . . no one really knows how well a book is going to do. It is a high-risk business in which serendipity plays a large role. Hence editors and publishers are constantly looking for ways to back up the risky judgments they have to make every time they decide to take on a book by a new author, or a book by an author who does not have a clear track record and established readership.

As William Goldman points out in Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” The same is true in books and, probably, many other fields. Everyone’s collective judgment is basically an attempt to make one another feel better. We just pretend we have control over things we don’t, like shamans calling for rain. Thompson uses another, more polite phrase: “At the heart of trade publishing is what I shall call a web of collective belief and, in the absence of clear-cut evidence to support judgements, the backing of a trusted agent lends credibility to authors and books.”

But if the judgment is still essentially random, then it’s no more good than a child who believes his teddy bear will protect him than boogeymen. Sure, the bear might make him feel better, but it doesn’t do anything beyond generate those feelings. That appears to be the only thing supporting this “web of collective beliefs,” which could also be called the “web of collective delusion,” since no one knows. I’m repeating myself mostly because people have all these superstitious beliefs without any evidence supporting them. We’re like 18th Century “doctors,” who contemporary doctors would rightly call quacks.

This “absence of clear-cut evidence to support judgements” might explain why the publishing industry is so afraid of ebooks—especially indie ones. Not only do such books undercut conventional books on price, but agents and publishers have no idea what might actually be popular. They only know what of the material they publish is popular. No doubt the vast majority of the material they reject is dreck, but a small amount of it isn’t—and that’s the amount that will siphon off readers.

The closest we get to a sure thing comes from the authors who, by some mysterious, unknown process, go from random schmoes trying to make some cash to the literary equivalent of Coca-Cola, Apple, and the Tomahawk Missile (now with more ultra-violent mayhem!): “Brand-name authors are important for two reasons: first, their sales are predictable, and second, they are repeaters.” Being “predictable” means that readers will return the writer like dogs to their own vomit, although the analogy is mine. Thompson goes on to say:

This kind of loyalty is more common in fiction than in non-fiction, and more common in commercial fiction than in literary fiction. . . it is more common in commercial fiction because this is an an area where genre publishing is normal. . . and where brand loyalty can be developed particularly effectively. Readers of literary fiction tend to be more selective in the books they buy and read, and will move from one authors to another with less sense of loyalty to a particular writer.

The phrase “less sense of loyalty” might be awkward, and Merchants of Culture is stylistically competent but boring. I look in vain for a aesthetically delightful or astonishing phrase and find none. Still, the sentiment expressed above remains, despite some stodginess. So does the sense that “loyalty” translates loosely to “willing to forgive” or “unable to recognize” bad writing. But lack of taste has always been the slander against mass readership by hoity types like me and probably always will be. If anything, the problem will probably get worse, not matter, with the reduction of gatekeepers enabled by the Internet.

Discussion of the Internet, however, is Merchants of Culture’s weakest point and yet probably the most important one for the future-oriented. The problem, of course, is that no one knows what’s going to happen two months from now, let alone two years from now. The Austro-Hungarian Empire probably looked pretty solid in 1915. By 1918 it was gone. If I ask my students about it now, maybe one or two would dimly know of it. The same might soon be true of those curious artifacts that consist of words printed on dead trees in the age of the Nook.

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