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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Name This Column

by Bruce Bethke

As I began writing this column this morning, I abruptly realized: it's 10 a.m. on 10/10/10. How often does that happen?

Once in a century, I suppose.

When I picked up the newspaper on the doorstep this morning, I of course turned to the important section—the funnies—and was shocked. Everything was pink. At first I thought the Pioneer Press had had yet another quality control failure in their printing plant, and then I realized: it's National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

As happens, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer just before Labor Day and had a mastectomy last Wednesday. She's home from the hospital and resting comfortably now (which is to say, drugged out of her gourd), and thus we are quite excruciatingly aware of breast cancer this month. So while I know everyone else is parading around with their pink ribbons today, may I please be excused from being aware of breast cancer for a few hours?


Instead: if you missed it yesterday, M was kind enough to find and post a link to this interview with Peter Stampfel, Associate Editor and front-line open-submission-slushpile reader at DAW Books. It provides a fascinating snapshot of the current state of the American fiction publishing industry, and if you haven't read it already, I recommend that you do so.

As is so often the case with candid snapshots, though, the most interesting details are in the background, and not immediately evident. But before I point them out, I want to take a few minutes first to tell you about a strange and alien land.

In the 1850s, after the bloody failure of the Revolution of 1848, many of the survivors and refugees came to America, to create a worker's paradise free of counts and kings. For the first two or three generations the colonizing mission went fairly well, until the 1914-1918 unpleasantness in Europe made it expedient to jettison their grandparent's languages and customs and become something more Anglo. (Honestly, considering that most Caucasian-Americans at the time were descendants of either Irish or German immigrants, it's almost astonishing that America chose to enter the Great War on the side of the British Empire.)

Another half-century later, after successive waves of Italian, Polish, and generic Central European immigration, followed by a wave of American Black south-to-north migration, an interesting hybrid Anglo-Prussian culture had evolved. It spoke and read a recognizable form of English and considered itself descended from the thirteen original colonies that had fought for independence from England in 1776, yet its political, educational, and cultural institutions were largely those created by the German Socialist Forty-Eighters after they arrived. It had some measure of strong ethnic flavoring in some neighborhoods, but as a whole, the GRCC (Generally Recognized Common Culture) was remarkably homogeneous. Even on the black side of town—and yes, even in the city where I grew up, there was de facto segregation, and I can remember traveling to other states where de jure segregation was still in force and being very confused by the signs on the bathrooms and drinking fountains—the following norms seemed almost universal.
  1. Families consisted of a mom, a dad, and one or more children. Divorce was rare. Unwed parenthood was found only in the poorest and trashiest neighborhoods and widely frowned upon.

  2. Dad worked, at either a blue-collar factory or white-collar office job, and the kind of work he did determined the family's economic status, social status, and choice of residence. Mom might work a part-time job, but families with two full-time wage-earners were rare. A tremendous number of families lived in apartments or duplexes, often with grandparents living in the other half of the duplex.

  3. The family was religious, at least in the sense of going to church regularly and going through the motions. If you've had no experience with pre-Vatican II Catholicism, you really don't understand how literal "going through the motions" is.

  4. That "one or more children" was typically "or more." Sometimes lots more. Single-child families were rare. People whispered about childless couples.

  5. The family had one car. If the family had an older teenage son who had a job and some mechanical aptitude they might have a second, very used and not overly reliable, car. In general, though, working teenagers were expected to contribute to the family's general well-being before buying their own toys.

  6. The family had one telephone, usually in some public place like the kitchen or dining room. Only affluent families had an extension. Only doctors and lawyers had two separate phone lines going into their homes: one for the office and one for the residence.

  7. The family had one television set, usually in the living room. This set received, at best, five channels: the local NBC, CBS, and ABC affiliates, a local independent, and a local public educational channel. The independent station was often on the UHF band and only intermittently clear. Most stations went off the air between the hours of midnight or 1 a.m. and 5 or 6 a.m.

  8. Large stretches of America simply had no television service at all, because the 70-miles-on-a-good-day maximum range of broadcast television made service in those areas unprofitable. This state of affairs continued as late as the 1970s; I know, because I lived in such a town for several years.

  9. Cities had curfews. For example, in my hometown, all the television stations simultaneously interrupted their programming at 11 p.m. every evening to announce that it was curfew time, and to ask, "Parents, do you know where your children are?" Getting caught out on the streets after curfew meant you risked getting a ride home in a police car—or if you talked back to the officer, a ride to the precinct house, followed by a phone call to your parents, and that never turned out good.

  10. First-run movie theaters were always downtown, and expensive. If you were lucky you had a second-string movie theater within walking or bus distance, and your choice of picture was always the one the movie theater owner felt like showing this week. Some movies stayed in circulation for years on the second-string, third-string, and drive-in circuits, because they were cheap for theater owners to rent and because watching a scratchy print of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the Avalon was still better than watching it on TV.

  11. If you had a taste for the fantastic in films, your choices were to hope that the local UHF station ran a late-night creature feature on Friday or Saturday night and your parents would let you stay up to watch it, or to wait for the latest wretched mess from Hammer, Toho, or American International Pictures to show up at your neighborhood theater. There was no third option.

  12. Ergo, if it was too dark or cold to play outside, there was nothing good on TV (or your parents wouldn't let you tune-in The Twilight Zone), you didn't have the money for a movie, and you were desperately seeking some way to temporarily escape the joys of living cheek-to-jowl with your siblings, there was only one other viable option left: reading.
I write all this not to express some sort of paean to the Good Old Days, or to demand that they be brought back. Certainly the GRCC was rife with hypocrisies and failings, the most serious being the overt and omnipresent racism.

Rather, I cite all this now to point out that, in relation to the interview with Mr. Stampfel and his complaints that readers are aging and it's the rare young person who takes to reading now: the alien culture I describe above was the mass-market whose tastes the modern book publishing industry was created to serve. Particularly when it comes to science fiction, the modern industry was created to serve the demands of a religiously ambivalent baby-boomer consumer market that began in roughly 1955, and had ceased to exist by 1985.

Demographics is destiny. The English-fluent, at least high-school educated, blue- and white-collar baby-boomer kids who grew up in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s by and large chose not to have children in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Ergo the current state of the publishing industry is not the result of its having to compete for attention with VCRs, DVDs, the Internet, and so on: it's a direct reflection of the 100- to 150-million 10- to 30-year old middle-class American book consumers who do not now exist.

Instead, in their place, we have a replacement population that is not fluent in English (if they speak it at all), is not a part of that formerly semi-homogeneous "American" culture, and has no interest in reading books created to appeal to that market. And as long as writers and publishers fail to recognize and respond to this profound demographic change, they will continue to write and publish books designed to appeal to a market that no longer exists — and then wonder why their books don't sell.

And no amount of kvetching about having to compete with the Internet will change this reality.

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