Friday, March 30, 2007

Rant: Pet Food and Publishing

The following "rant" was written a short time ago for the Outsider Writers' "Naked Opinion" section. It also seems to fit here, since I do get cranky at times....

What does wet, chunky dog and cat food have in common with modern mainstream publishing?

Both come out of a can and both are something humans should not consume.

Dog and cat owners went through a huge scare recently when some pets got sick—and a few even died--after eating wet and chunky food products made by Menu Foods. To quote from its website, Menu Foods is the “leading North American private-label/contract manufacturer of wet pet food products sold by supermarket retailers, mass merchandisers, pet specialty retailers, and other retail and wholesale outlets.” It produced, apparently, the same products for dogs and cats, using over 90 separate names—names including everything from Best Choice to Great Choice to President’s Choice.

Of course, there actually was no choice.

The issue is not only with pet food. Throughout our society what appears to be a choice is no choice at all. We’ve heard this before--that all VCRs and DVD players are made by the same four companies. And here it is again, in our pet bowls.

Now think about the largest mainstream publishers, which are often departments themselves of much larger conglomerates. Is a thriller from Random House really any different than one from HarperCollins? Do they not churn out the same “products”.

And think of ReganBooks and other “imprints”. They appear to be from different publishers, but actually, like the wet and chunky pet food, they are simply corporate subdivisions of a larger publisher. Is there any real difference in personality or style? Are not the multitude of “imprints” from each major publisher simply a relabelling of the same “product”? Are not the novels, poetry and non-fiction produced by the “imprints” just like Menu Foods’ creations: all the same, “product” and not art?

How did we get from Chaucer to here?

When you aim for the mass market, when money is your bottom line, is anything else truly possible?

Publishing used to be dominated by independent publishers, each with their own vision. Some were big, some small, but none were a link in a long chain. Now you have large bureaucracies where decisions are made by committees. A book decided upon by committees will--surprise!--look like a book decided upon by committees. It will be the product not of individual editors with individual visions, but a “product” that survives the internal politics of the bureaucracy. The very process reduces the writing to the lowest common denominator--what will sell to the most people--leaving writing which has had any sense of reality shredded from it.

Pollyanna, sunny vision of the mainstream, smiles even when her legs are broken.

Readers deserve more than dog food. They deserve more than wet chunky stuff that will make them sick.

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