Monday, November 20, 2006

Penny Press! Chain stores and the Apocalypse!

Every issue of the Atlantic Monthly is a little like Christmas morning. You see the bounty spread before you in the table of contents, or blazoned on the cover, and the heart races. And like Christmas morning, what you end up unwrapping is almost always a mixed bag.

(ah, the glowing memory of the one and only Christmas where the bag WASN'T mixed ... that one and only time when everybody actually LISTENED to me and gave only gift certificates! Hardly any space under the tree, and I was in Heaven for months!)

Virginia Postrel turned in a very good piece "In Praise of Chain Stores," which of course had us here at Stevereads nodding in approval.

One of the experts Postrel quotes hits the nail on the head:

"[local anti-chain activists] want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell - the same price the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even. You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, and they'll love the store."

In other words, anti-chain store prejudice is born and kept alive by snobby Cantabrigians.

Chain stores plant themselves sometimes in the middle of feckin nowhere, offering a clean well-lighted space, shevles that are always well-stocked with a mind-staggering variety of items. They almost always attract to their staffs people who care about their particular specialization. Their size often allows them to offer discounts.

Listen carefully, boys and girls: ONLY in America could ANYBODY consider this a bad thing.

Don't get me wrong: we here at Stevereads are big fans of strong, knowing, well-stocked, idiosyncratic local shops. We're also big fans of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

OK, they're not quite urban legends. Everyplace has at least some places that 'you gotta see' - places that owe a large part of their 'gotta' status to the fact that you won't see them anywhere else.

That is a true fact. Here'a another: in the last twenty years, America has undergone a gigantic REAL ESTATE BOOM. This boom, ENTIRELY separate from what chain stores do or don't do, what they are or aren't, has driven property rates through the ceiling. Independent of ANYTHING chain stores do or don't do, these property rates have driven many small, idiosyncratic shops out of business. The ONLY thing chain stores did was take advantage of their more stable financial footing to PAY those hugely swollen rents. That's it. That's all. The only thing they did 'wrong' was exactly what all those little 'independent' shops would have done if they could have. The hypocrisy leaves salt-clogs in the mouth.

Alas, those clogs stay firmly in place during Mona Simpson's fawning piece about Alice Munro's recent elevation to the celestial ranks of Everyman's Library.

As some of you may know, Munro is one of our bete noires here at Stevereads. Not only is she completely talentless in exactly the same way a tape recorder is completely talentless, but she's never written a 30 page short story that didn't dress out about about 170 pages of turgid, mind-numbing blandness.

The subtitle of Simpson's puff-piece is 'the living writer most likely to be read in a hundred years,' and I realize Simpson might not have had a hand in that line, but still: what a bleak future it hints at, if they're still reading Alice Munro in a hundred years! (the story she wrote last February, about two Canadian sisters, Esther and Florence, arguing about the level of their shared car's brake fluid, is, as far as I know, still ongoing)

A hundred years from now? Surely no eco-apocalypse scenario floated by the most radical environmental fringe-group is worse than that? Surely your children's children deserve better than that? Munro has built her entire 110-year career on banking that the general reading public doesn't understand - or more properly doesn't care - that there's a world of difference between simple fluency in English and actual TALENT in writing. Can it be that the progeny of a hundred years hence won't be able to tell the difference? We here at Stevereads certainly hope not! We have young writer-friends who are counting on earning royalities round about then.

Fortunately, there's always Cristina Nehring, who can be relied upon to turn in a quick, smart, snarky review no matter what.

Here she reviews a book called 'Mating in Captivity - Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic' by Esther Perel ... and she clearly revels in her intended prey:

"Perel practices couples therapy in New York, and her book's organizing principle emerge in a series of clinical vignette. A typical one might go like this: On spunky young couple has it all. The adore each other. They have wonderful times, wonderful families, spectacular careers. But they are 'in despair over what's happening to them.' "We are terrified," they confess. Why? Because their sex together is good, dear reader, but it it is not GREAT.
'Incalculable woe. Part of us wonders if Perel might best advise such couples to GET A LIFE - i.e., CARE ABOUT SOMETHING MORE IMPORTANT. Go help the homeless or the victims of war, and let your libido rebound on its own time. But the advice Perel profers her 'distressed' clients is not to help others; it is to destroy themselves. Do you, she asks them, express physical affection? 'Do you cuddle? .... Do you touch each other?' Yes, they say, in unison. Well, annouces the doctor, 'it's got to stop.' She gives them an assignment: Stop being nice to each other. Stop kissing. Stop hugging. It is sapping your sexual energy. Treat each other like trash, and you might notice a discrete rise in sexual tension.' Or just tension in general, one is tempted to add. 'About a month into it,' he says, 'I wanted nothing more to do with her.' Dr. Perel considers this plan a success. 'I knew I was onto something,' she intones."

This is odious stuff, and just when I thought I'd have to be the one to point this out, Nehring did it for me, in terms so clear and beautiful that I couldn't improve on them in any way. In fact, her words might stand as an motto for this entire blessed site. Just listen:

"It's easy to make fun of this sort of thing - and it's important to do so."

Let's hear that again, for the benefit of those out there who might be laboring under the impression that we here at Stevereads have always been ISOLATED gadflies:

"It's easy to make fun of this sort of thing - and it's important to do so."

Alas, there's plenty to make fun of in this issue, and nothing moreso than the centerpiece of the thing, the 100 most influential Americans 'They Made America' feature.

The thing was ripped from the pages of Cosmo - finding it in the Atlantic was both jarring and infuriating.

The one-sentence summaries of our worthies (an irritating number of whom aren't in fact American - allusions to the melting pot are all well and good, but what? There weren't one hundred people BORN here worthy of the list?) are puerile:

"Lewis and Clark - they went west to explore, and millions followed in their wake"

"Sam Walton - He promised us 'ever day low prices,' and we took him up on the offer"

"Elvis Presley - The king of rock and roll. Enough said."


In the Atlantic, of all places .... ugh.

Difficult to know what the purpose of this is, given how dumbed down it all is - the accompanying article about what exactly 'influential' is could go under a card-catalogue definition of useless, and the promo-blurb mini-summaries are better suited to Teen Beat than the country's best periodical ('Eli Whitney - his cotton gin harvested OUR HEARTS!!! OMG!!!)

As it is, the piece is two-parts hagiography and one-part misleading (you rock 'n' roll fans among my loyal followers, take a deep breath and ask yourself this: what INFLUENCE, in any way, has Elvis Presley had on ANYTHING, from the last twenty years of his career until now?), best forgotten entirely.

Unfortunately, this piece isn't the only deplorable thing in this issue, and one of those such things is very, very hard to swallow. As some of you know, we here at Stevereads consider the Atlantic's book critic Ben Schwartz to be the finest book critic currently working in English. So you can imagine how it pains us to point out that his 'Books of the Year' feature in this issue was hip-deep in sheep-dip.

He recommends these things:

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

The Secret River by Kate Grenville

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward Jones

After This by Alice McDermott

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Framing the Early Middle Ages by Chris Wickham

We don't know exactly WHERE this crazy list comes from, but we feel certain it DIDN'T come from pure, clean thought. Perhaps payola was involved: we've all fallen behind on those lawnmower payments. Whatever the reasons, this list most certainly does NOT represent the best books of 2006. We here at Stevereads have read them all, and only the history, the last of them, is anything approaching GOOD, let alone great.

The rest are grasping, psuedo-intellectual hackwork, the type of prose most of my young friends currently writing would be embarrassed to see under their name even after a typical night's informal free-for-all. We can only hope Schwarz will give us all a longer, more discriminating list in the one issue he has left to do so before the year ends.

Our survey of the issue ends on a high note, however, albeit a grim one. Once again, William Langewiesche (Bill Lang) has turned in a piece of prose so well-written it's as thrilling as it is compelling.

The downside is that the piece is about how relatively easy it is to buy all the componants of a nuclear bomb in this topsy-turvy world. Wonderful prose or not, if you're not hiding under your desk by the time you finish reading this essay, you've got some kind of nuclear death-wish.

The ONLY conclusion anybody could possibly draw from all Lang's reportage is that it's a feckin MIRACLE some nutjob or 'rogue state' hasn't set off a nuclear bomb on American soil. The article is titled 'How to Get a Nuclear Bomb,' but it might just as well have been titled 'When, Not If.'

Which is depressing mainly because in a mutant-ravaged post-apocalyptic wasteland, there would be no Stevereads. Surely that's incentive enough to bring the wayward world to its senses?


Kevin Caron said...

Come on - Stevereads would (will?) certainly live on in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of an America - it would merely switch to an oral tradition, painstakingly memorized and spread from one camp of mutants to the next by a league of 'human blogs' (hulogs?).

The only thing worse than those terrible "100 Greatest" lists is the fact that I catch myself reading them, out of the worst kind of curiosity - then I feel all dirty inside and vow not to open another magazine for a month.

I like your stab at the anti-chain-store rabble (we certainly have our share here in sunny Boulder, CO). I've worked for a couple of locally owned non-chain stores that have stayed competitive, and it makes me care for the whining even less - if you want to compete with the chain store, it can (in some instances) be done - but you'll have to actually work hard and be smart about it. It's much easier just to vilify the big guy, isn't it?

Jeff E. said...

I was trying to think of influential Americans who might belong in the top 100, but would never make it to a published list even if it was the top 1,000. Father Coughlin was the frontrunner, and then maybe Al Capone (Teen Beat says: inventor of modern warehousing - say thank you FedEx!).

Beepy said...

Is Stevereads going to provide us with a list of the top books of 2006? Oh, I do hope so.

steve said...

Never fear - I shall provide

Anonymous said...

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