Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Tea and Fog

with 3 comments

It’s Sunday, and the first thing I have to do is apologize to some of you. 

It is the case that when things go wrong I tend to disappear for a while, but that’s only when things go very, very wrong, or when they entail a lot of getting up ridiculously early and running around.

When things go sort of standard catastrophic wrong, I tend to be more in evidence than ever, because I get all revved up and can’t sleep and can’t concentrate, so I write.  At least I write blog.

I am much more likely to disappear  into the mist when  things that have been going wrong start going right.  Once I feel I can relax, I do things like fall asleep on the love seat or zone out for three hours in front of silly television programs. 

When you’ve been running on adrenaline for a long time, it’s hard to move once the adrenaline dissipates.

All this is being by way of saying that Greg is fine–the condition that turns out to have predated his cataracts is mild enough, and what we’re left with now is that he has the vision he had before the cataracts started. 

This is, admittedly, not as good as the perfect vision we were hoping for, but it’s not in the least catastrophic.  After all, before the cataracts, Greg had vision that was only borderline for needing distance glasses. 

So, we’re doing well.

I just don’t seem to have the energy to do much of anything sensible.

With all that said, however, we come to the book I’m currently reading, and an issue that is far bigger than it alone.

I know I said I was going to read At Bertram’s Hotel this week-end, and I may still get to it.

But yesterday, when I first sat down on the love seat to listen to music before being able to watch a full season of America’s Next Top Model, I was at one end of the love seat, and At Bertram’s Hotel was at the other end of the love seat, and in order to get hold of that book I would have had to lean way over and stretch.

Okay.  Yeah.  I get that bad when I get really tired.

This book, the book I’m reading now, happened to be on the love seat halfway between to two ends, so that all I had to do was put my hand out and I had it.

I don’t know what it was doing where it was on the love seat, because usually the only books on that particular piece of furniture are the one I’m reading, the one I want to read next, and a few general reference things I think I need to look at.

This book was on the coffee table with the rest of the TBR pile, and from what I remember, it was pretty far down in the stacks.  I had no particular interest in reading it any time soon. 

Or, possibly, ever. 

I hadn’t bought it for myself, and it sounded, from the title, like a kind of book I have no patience for.

The book is by a man named Michael Knox Beran, and here’s the title:  Pathology of the Elites:  How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life.

 Now, let’s be honest here:  the assumed subject matter of this book is one in which I have a deep interest.

I don’t really mind social programs per se.  I never have minded them, and I even tend to think they’re a good idea.

What I do mind, however, and more than mind, is the expansion of bureaucratic social control that often comes with them–if society is going to pay for your health care, society ought to get to tell you how many calories you eat, how much you exercise, what you weigh, and whether you smoke cigarettes or not.

Unlike some people, I do not believe that the existence of social programs necessarily results in an expansion of bureaucratic social control.  We have been able to run Social Security and Medicare for decades without allowing either to devolve into that kind of thing.

I do think, however, that the existence of such programs provide an opportunity for bureaucratic power grabs that must be carefully and explicitly defended against. 

And we rarely do that kind of defending.

But if all the above is the case, you’d have thought that I’d be interested in this book, rather than thinking that it’s something I’d rather eat nails than read.

And that’s how we get back to the title.

Look at that title.

Titles always signal something serious about books, and that title says:  this is a bunch of catch phrases and cliches strung together for an audience who doesn’t want to read anything it disagrees with or anything it would be too much work to understand.

There are a lot of books like that out there, and they come on the left as well as on the right.  The big difference is that the ones from the left tend to have larger vocabularies and to revel in their commitment to “science” and “evidence,” while the ones on the right are more obviously written for people who do not read as much and who think that most of what they’ve been told is “science” is crap.

But although I am happy to read books on both sides of the political divide, and although I go out of my way to make sure I read some at least that disagree with what I believe, I draw the line at the self-congratulatory exercises in partisan groupthink.

Listening to somebody repeat the same 57 cliched arguments I already know the counterarguments to–while pretending that those counterarguments don’t exist–does absolutely nothing to cheer up my day.

So this book lay around on my coffee table for weeks, and I didn’t touch it, because that title says that this book is just that kind of thing. 

And then, yesterday, I actually sat down and read it.

And it wasn’t.

I don’t know how to stress the extent to which this book is not what its title makes it sound like.

It is, instead, a series of essays about a number of different things–Hannah Arendt,  Lionel Trilling, the relationship of Ralph Waldo Emerson to the Calvinist tradition–that I am finding very interesting, but I’ll absolutely guarantee that most of the people who will buy this book will not.

Most of the people who look at this book and at this title will buy it expecting to see the kind of thing they got in Ramesh Ponnuru’s The Party of Death or anything at all by Ann Coulter. 

In the meantime, the sort of person who would like this book–like, for instance, me–would never even bother to pick it up in the bookstore. 

In the end, this book will be read by fewer readers who will like it and look for another from the same author, and by lots and lots of readers who will complain about it in public forums and thereby make this writer’s future work even less saleable.

To my mind, at least, absolutely everybody loses.

And yet, I can’t say the practice isn’t common in all publishing these days, not just in the publishing of ideologically oriented books of either side of the debate.

Books are promoted as whatever the hot seller is at the moment–as action adventure, as cozy, as sexy, as whatever–whether or not they fit the category, and the result is almost always what the result will be for this one.

And I don’t get it.

Even in the brain of the most obtuse of the suits, there must be some glimmer of the fact that this sort of marketing is enormously counterproductive.   To the extent that it “sells books” at all, it sells them to the wrong people for the wrong reasons, and in the long run it actually reduces the money everybody makes.

There must be some explanation for this sort of thing, I just don’t know what it is. 

I start to wonder, after a while, if there are publishers who are out to sell as few books as possible, or maybe to discourage people from ever reading anything ever again.

Given the sort of mess this kind of thing creates, it’s as good an explanation as any.

Written by janeh

April 24th, 2011 at 8:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Tea and Fog'

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  1. I think the critical phrase is “in the long term.” The person in the publisher’s office–let’s call him Harcourt–knows, or ought to know, that misleading titles, deceptive dust-jackets or paperback covers and just flat fraudulent descriptions of books are bad for the industry. Maybe over a five-year span you can see the harm. But Harcourt’s performance review is due in six months, and will key heavily on immediate sales. If the performance review is not favorable, the state of the industry in five years won’t matter to Harcourt.

    It’s short-term thinking. But it’s very common short-term thinking, and it’s EXACTLY what the Harvard MBA’s who invented the annual performance review ought to have expected.

    Fortunately, in the world of books, there is a solution. Slowly the business of books is returning to the hands of people who care about the book. And if you care about the book, you want to get it into the hands of the people who will appreciate it. Misleading titles and covers would be counter-productive. If the firm is intimate enough, people know whether Harcourt did a good or bad job of promoting a book without checking the “bullet points” on a form. And if a firm is has and values a reputation, it won’t slap hard covers on a mass-market paperback and call it “library binding” either.

    As for the conglomerates which think deception is good business practice–“think of it as evolution in action.”


    24 Apr 11 at 10:45 am

  2. I suspect Robert is right, but it’s also not understanding books and readers. After all, if you misrepresent the widgets you sell, the buyer will eventually come back for more, maybe sooner rather than later, and might even buy something from another of your lines, not realizing they all belong to the same corporations. But books aren’t more or less interchangeable like widgets, which might be sturdy or flimsy, or blue or red, or made of metal or plastic, but which all basically serve exactly the same purpose.

    On another point, although I have never seen ‘America’s Top Models’, I have sat through several episode of that show where the bride and an astonishing range of people choose wedding dresses.

    There’s something weirdly fascinating about it. I mean, I know these things are scripted so that the brides can be classified as various kind of princesses (spoiled, pageant etc), but I am mostly astonished at the very idea of spending thousands on a one-time only dress, quite often a combination of a strapless top that seems to be glued on (or not, in some cases) and lots of poofy skirts.

    Weird. But there’s some fascination in which dress which participant will eventually end up with.

    I did wonder why the second-time bride was having her dress paid for by her mother – and quarreling bitterly over her because she wouldn’t fork out enough. I’d have told her to pay for her own dress, if I’d been her mother.


    24 Apr 11 at 5:11 pm

  3. I can’t comment on book publishing or TV shows. We do have Australia’s next top model but I’ve never watched it.

    Jane wrote the “ones on the right are more obviously written for people who do not read as much and who think that most of what they’ve been told is “science” is crap.”

    All I can say is that when I was in high school in the 50s, what passed for science courses were crap! And so were the university science 101 courses.

    I’ve been reading a book about the history of cancer treatments (The Emperor of All Maladies) and most of the treatments before about 1990 were crap. That was when they started to learn the genetics of cancer.


    24 Apr 11 at 9:45 pm

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