Monday, July 14, 2008

AM Homes, N+1, vampire teens

by Sarah Marine

Music for Torching by AM Homes is nothing to mess of course I am. The novel is a bizarre story about a married couple's slow descent into creepy mania, set off by them setting their suburban home on fire. Disappointed by the lack of damage it actually caused, they are left to deal with a damaged house, failing marriage and having to sleep at a neighbor's house, which of course leads to more bizarre behavior. The setting mirrors every subdivision I've set foot in but laced with a twilight zone atmosphere in which housewives turn nocturnal, husbands shave their entire bodies and sleep in nightgowns and monogamy is nonexistent. I bought it a few months ago at the Strand, the one that is closing, which brings me to the next thing concerning me this fine Milwaukee morning.

Yesterday, when I was working at my fabulous job, I opened up the new issue of n+1. I flipped through, returned to the table of contents, and spied this: Who Killed the People's Bookstore? by Alexandra Heifetz. I read it, or tried to read it- needed some major editing- and was still a little confused about what the author was trying to get across. She establishes that she has worked in independent bookstores and that the people who work in them are really very smart and awesome and then goes on and on about Cody's closing(which is terrible and sad), but blames it all on capitalism? Is this the gist? There was also something about all indies being "reluctant capitalists"(?)- which puzzles me, considering they're selling books, for profit. This was followed by a summarization of Book Sense, ABA, etc. All in all, the purpose of this article was lost on me. If anyone else has read this, discussion is welcome.

Furthermore, this article in the NYTimes. The commentary about what teenagers are becoming is really scary.


Jay Johnson said...

Clearly you have yet to set foot into my subdivision... It's all post-Capitalist Twilight Zone, but only during the night time.

I'll have to look at that n+1 article; as a E-i-C for a lit journal, I'm always intrigues by a) what nonfiction is being published and b) poorly-edited texts.

sarah marine said...

I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

Josh said...


I'm an intern at n+1. I've read Heifetz's piece in issue 6, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on her argument.

Heifetz's primary lament is for a bookstore "which sold particular kinds of books, to particular kinds of people". Cody's was once a "particular" bookstore. Heifetz begins her argument by showing that Cody's--and many of the independent bookstores that it stands for--reconfigured itself according to the the times, so that by its closing Cody's resembled many of the chain bookstores it was supposed to be opposing: "It had an expensive Moleskin collection and tables full of exactly the same new releases that were displayed at the Border's in San Francisco's Union Square". The fundamental problem is a cultural one. For Heifetz, independent bookstores ideally embody a healthy cultural elitism, wherein booksellers are also book critics, and thus sell the books they believe to be worth buying--Kant's Critique, for example, though certainly a good bookseller would recommend 21st century philosophers, too.

To understand how a Cody's came to resemble its Goliaths, Heifetz suggests that we look at the "radicalization" of independent bookstore--a movement which made the driving preoccupation of the independent bookstore not culture, or literature, but politics and economics. The politicization of independent bookstores was a purely reactionary movement. It was both personal--existences were at stake-- and politically principled; for the independent bookstore owner and worker, life and love were, one assumes, inseparable from work, and so the economic extinction threatened by a Barnes & Noble, which targeted individuals by targeting indy bookstores, became the primary concern. While chain bookstores were homogenizing culture, pushing interesting literature further underground, and encouraging the mass production of books no one needed but that they would buy nonetheless; while this was going on, the many economic and political livelihoods of independent bookstores were also being threatened, and this, understandably, came to be more important than the vaguer, larger threat to American culture.

This is why Heifetz is critical of Laura Miller's notion that "every consumer is a moral agent, making a morally correct choice simply by stepping to the cash register". The political gesture is good-in-itself, regardless of its content, or meaning. Heifetz writes that the duty of the bookseller, in Miller's version, was "not to dictate to the community the books it ought to read, but to steer tastes shaped by other sources towards a moral choice to 'buy local'". The fight had clearly moved out of the realm of culture and into the realm of economics; you might say that people were encouraged to read how they shop, and shop how they vote. In the eyes of both independent bookstores and chains, you were a consumer before a reader. Heifetz writes: "The morally relevant question is not which book you buy (and what you make of it), but where you buy it." How morality is made--by cultural or political choices--is not something I can answer, but it's a question this essay raises.

The spirit of "economic localism" ends up "creating a homogeneity of taste, just the way big corporations try to." Cody's did not just look like Barnes & Noble on the inside, it was, in terms of its content, very much Barnes & Noble on the inside, at least to judge by the books it was selling and promoting. Further, with economic localism there may be pressure, if symbolic, put on chain bookstores, but there is not pressure being put on publishers--on whom, I believe, Heifetz would like us to focus our activist energies. This is how content, the actual books and culture, was popularized, limited, and made bland even while the fight between chain and indy raged on: economic localism, in its appeal to people to shop here, not there, gave people the same books that Barnes & Noble was, on the whole, giving them. Writes Heifetz: "The most successful bookstores in Miller's book are those that listen most carefully to a very complicated authority: the taste of their patrons." In order to fight for the loyalty of readers, independent bookstores made the fateful, seemingly irreversible decision to relinquish their own roles as cultural authorities--which was, really, all that set them apart--to whomever would financially sustain them. It is not a destructive elitism that Heifetz laments: for her, the moral bookseller "listened to the people in his community in order to understand how to best guide them". It appeals to something deep in me, at least: the unofficially elected person of wisdom. The immoral bookseller, in an understandable effort of self-preservation, ceases to guide his readers.

It's clear to me just how much Heifetz sympathizes with the political causes represented by independent bookstores; this is uniquely emphasized in the conclusion of her essay, and it is important because it indicates an understanding for the psychology driving the choices made by independent bookstores. Her complaint is nothing so absurd as the fact that bookstores seek to make money; her sad conclusion is that independent bookstores would have, and would, do better to serve readers by being cultural authorities--and the strong implication is that this, being truly independent, would in fact serve the bookstores better, too. An indy cannot economically survive by playing Barnes and Noble's at its own game. This is entirely my own conjecture, but I think Heifetz's essay is most controversial because her first concerns are "particular kinds of books" and "particular kinds of people", not the bookstores that house and serve them.

I think this a long blog comment. I hope at least some of these thoughts were useful. It's meant to be my interpretation of the essay, not a strict summary of Heifetz's argument, and certainly not the final word. I don't know if Heifetz would sign her name to this. If anyone wants to email me:



Brian said...

I'm glad you linked to the NYT "Twilight" article, because until I read that Op-Ed I was confused as to why vampires were making a comeback. I was pretty certain that something was going to de-throne zombies as the monster-of-the-moment, but vampires was not what I'd expected, as they are about Queen Victoria and Repression and Tom Cruise, none of which seem to be au currant. (I'd guessed the next fad trope would be hoboes, but failed to realize that hoboes were a romantic/comedic device and not actually monsters.)

Anyway, these books seem to position vampires as the source of eternal and sexless worship of teen girls, which seems to match what girls are trained to desire. The threat of a punctured neck (intercourse) is tamed or defanged, and attaches to the "Beauty and the Beast" idea of the purity and goodness of the woman domesticizing the otherwise wild and dangerous animal that is the hunky, shirtless teen idol.

So that's the new monster: blood-sucking puppies!

sarah marine said...


Heifetz' "review", which I would define as more op-ed than anything, bothered me in the same way that elitist fashion activists do with their incessant desire to place the blame on anonymous corporate giants, without offering any palpable, "local" solution to what they complain about. As for her gauging the "morality" of booksellers, I take serious offense. Milwaukee may be no maelstrom of literary activity but we at Schwartz take very seriously the words of David Schwartz:

"Bookselling was and is for me a cultural and political expression, an expression of progressive change, of challenge to oppressive authority, of a search for a community of values which can act as an underpinning of a better world. The true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the bookshop on the community."

If n+1 thinks this is lost in bookselling, obsolete in bookshops across the country, then I fear for the future of your magazine.

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