Friday, November 21, 2008

"Aah but the literary world was not always so whorish, swinish and unrepentant." - Erica Heller

Joe the Plumber got a book deal.

I hadn't heard of him either, until the final few weeks of the recent US election. Apparently, Joe was supposed to represent the American 'everyman', and was referenced far too frequently in the final presidential debate. And this man's 'autobiography' will be glued together by an anonymous ghostwriter who will pull his hair out trying to make Joe's story seem exceptional. Readable. Sellable.

Sarah Palin got a $7m advance for a literary glimpse into her mind. I was aghast when I read this in a trade email on Monday, but it's not surprising in a world where soccer players, topless models and three Spice Girls have book deals for their 'fiction', and don't get me started on the 'memoirs' by 25-year-olds. Erica Heller, daughter of Joseph of Catch-22 fame, wrote in yesterday's Huffington Post: And now, onto that illustrious stage of authors, along with Kurt Vonnegut, James Jones and the rest of the best of the best, strut authoress and author, Palin and Mr. Plumber, with their books certain to be ghosted by some unsung schnooks, manuscripts that will be comprised of little more than bragging, lying and recycling some very stale air... Not all of us are plucked from obscurity and wrapped in Valentino or held up as a poster-child for the working man. Some people have to actually work at it and at times, there is even talent, skill, and a magical, indefinable creative spark magnificently ignited in the process.

My initial reaction: Go, girl! Stick it to the publishing industry! Stand up for all the little guys slogging it out each day, waiting for that magic 'yes' to come. Then I came across a piece by Jean Hannah Edelstein that gave an interesting counterargument. She claims that by 'writing' books, both Palin and the Plumber are endorsing the two things that liberals cherish the most: freedom of expression and reading. By writing these books, Palin and Wurzelbacher are living the American dream: in America, you can write whatever you want. Even if it is rubbish!

She goes on to say that 25% of Americans didn't read a book in 2006, and makes the connection that most illiterate American cities are located in 'red states'; perhaps they're not reading because most of the books are written by and marketed to left-leaning liberals. I don't necessarily agree with this deduction, but the idea has merit. Forgive the Carrie Bradshaw-ness of this post, but is reading an elitist, leftist institution? As Edelstein writes, do we incorrectly place the publishing industry as gatekeepers of high culture?

Is reading anything fine, or must we always read books which better us as people and thinkers? Do we judge others by what's on their bookshelf? Can we afford this pretention when publishing companies depend on the sales of Jordan's latest book to keep them afloat?

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