Monday, 7 May 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Mike Barnes' 'The Reasonable Ogre' + Anne Fleming's 'Gay Dwarves of America' + Heather Birrell's 'Mad Hope'

   Reading these short story collections—and writing a review about them on the weekend that The Avengers raked in $207.4 million at the domestic box office—was demoralizing.
   This dejected state of mind didn't come about because the stories were lousy (they're not in the least). Nor as a result of the stories being supreme downers (of course some of them focus on heartache, misunderstandings, and mortality, but consideration of serious themes is one of the reasons I pick up short fiction).
   No, I felt a bit demoralized because these books will likely find the smallest of audiences.
   That situation is a result of how, generally, books are mediated. For instance, months in advance of the publication of her first novel (marketed to adults, that is) on September 27, 2012, the entire planet has some awareness that J.K. Rowling has a book coming out. More locally, the week before Vincent Lam's first novel was published (by Doubleday, a Bertelsmann subsidiary), national newspapers ran fawning profiles (as noted by the Winnipeg Review); the following weekend, all the major dailies ran reviews. As for Anne Fleming or Mike Barnes? Not a peep. There's no TV spokesmodel claiming how speedily these latter authors are trending worldwide.
   The problems with this situation of disparity are numerous, as anyone can see.
   The ones that I can't help but see are (1) by virtue of having no coverage, the small press authors and their books virtually disappear from sight: there's no public recognition if they cannot be seen. And (2), worse is the assumption by the trusting public of a meritocracy: that one author is subject to media attention because they and their work deserves the recognition (and, implicitly, another receives no profile or review because they and their work doesn't warrant acknowledgment).

   I know, I know. It's naive to rage about about the ways of the world (the ways of capitalism, that money rules, that might is right, etc) and to complain about (or even write about) this David and Goliath scenario in which David does not have the helping hand of God to even out the odds.
   But still. In a weirdly unbalanced industry, there's a 'Canadian' publisher like Random House (which is owned by Bertelsmann, a multimedia transnational conglomerate which employs over 100,000 and has billions in revenue), and then there's the publisher of Gay Dwarves of America, Pedlar Press, which has exactly one employee (that's a fact: while writing the review of these books I contacted each of the publishers for confirmation of the number of their full-time staff; and, of the three, none has more than five employees.) Guess which publisher's books have greater public visibility?
   Curious, I walked over to the local Chapters (typical, Vancouver's independent booksellers are few and far between). There, the crucial entryway book displays featuring New and Recommended and Hot and Bestseller titles were largely filled with publications from Random House-sized conglomerate publishers. There was no 'Think Globally, Buy Locally' display for independent presses. For the casual browser and impulse buyer, Mad Hope, The Reasonable Ogre, and Gay Dwarves of America were nowhere in view. Searching the online catalogue, I discovered that while there were two copies in total in stock (somewhere in the upstairs labyrinth), the third title needed to be ordered. Throughout the Vancouver area the inventory numbers were more or less the same.
   The upshot? Locating a copy of ___ [brand name author with brand name publishing house], took about fifteen steps. Meanwhile, finding The Reasonable Ogre required a catalogue search and then ordering and waiting for the book. Presented with these two options, it's obvious which one the vast majority of book buyers would choose.
   I'm guessing that practically everyone accepts that situation as unchangeable, a given. It's the same for music and movies (go Ke$ha! go Transformers!), so why should the book industry be any different? The meritocracy delusion hangs around persistently, too: if you're good enough, a big league publisher will notice you and with your next book they'll using their well-developed PR muscles to assure you of central placement in book review pages and high visibility shelves in a big box book retailer.

[The omnibus review of all three titles appeared in the Vancouver Sun.]

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