The incomparable and prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum shares his thoughts on the year’s best books, the shaky nature of year-end lists, and solicits numerous authors — including Edwidge Danticat, Robert Stone, Richard Russo, Hari Kunzru, and Stuart Dybek — to name their overlooked books of this year (and many others).
(A version of this post originally appeared at Our Man in Boston. This piece was copyedited — with all book titles and author spellings corrected — before being published on Reluctant Habits.)
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Prolific literary journalist Robert Birnbaum, whose conversations have adorned The Morning News, Identity Theory, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, decided to combat year-end list fatigue by contacting several esteemed authors. He asked them to remark upon books they felt were ignored or overlooked. Some of the authors named titles published in 2013. Others expanded the possibilities to the entire history of published literature. What follows is the result of Birnbaum’s grand experiment, along with some sentiments from Birnbaum himself.]
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Adult onset solipsism can be distinguished from the youth version of self-centeredness by the admission that, as Van Morrison croons in “The Meaning of Loneliness,” “it takes a lifetime just to know yourself.” Thus, one is beset with constant instances of self-doubt and self-interrogation. One coping mechanism or technique I have employed to gain a foothold on serenity and enlightenment is to regulate or gate-keep my intake of information, allowing my intuition to guide me. For example, I am prepared to make decisions on what to investigate further past a snappy headline or synopsis. As in my immediate disinterest for going any further in the text when I encountered this fatuous mandate at Arts and Letters Daily: “‘Undergraduates should be kept away from theory at all costs,’ says _____ __________. ‘They should read Kael, not Derrida…'” Immediately sensing its syllogistic unsoundness, I saw this bit of grandiloquence as the kind of Tourette’s outburst one might encounter at a faculty meeting or a party. Of course, one of the joys of engaging this form of short form journalism (web journalizing) is the opportunity to engage in such orotund pronouncements.
Some Ignored Titles (Photo: Robert Birnbaum)
Okay. For the longest time, I had an aversion to lists, viewing them as a lazy journalistic ploy to contribute to the ongoing dumbing down of everything (uh, I still think I am correct about that). On the other hand, I can see some creative usefulness in lists. Umberto Eco creates some that interesting. And then there is Paul Zimmer’s poem, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven,” where in his recording of it introduces it as a “list” and encourages people to make their own lists:
I sit with Joseph Conrad in Monet’s garden,
We are listening to Yeats chant his poems,
A breeze stirs through Thomas Hardy’s moustache,
John Skelton has gone to the house for beer,
Wanda Landowska lightly fingers a clavichord,
Along the spruce tree walk Roberto Clemente and
Thurman Munson whistle a baseball back and forth.
Mozart chats with Ellington in the roses.
Monet smokes and dabs his canvas in the sun,
Brueghel and Turner set easels behind the wisteria.
the band is warming up in the Big Studio:
Bean, Brute, Bird and Serge on saxes,
Kai, Bill Harris, Lawrence Brown, trombones,
Klook plays drums, Mingus bass, Bud the piano.
Later Madam Schumann-Heink will sing Schubert,
The monks of bendictine Abbey will chant.
There will be more poems from Emily Dickinson,
James Wright, John Clare, Walt Whitman.
Shakespeare rehearses players for King Lear.
At dusk Alice Toklas brings out platters
Of Sweetbreads à la Napolitaine, Salad Livonière,
And a tureen of Gaspacho of Malaga.
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.
So, here’s a list (of sorts) that I created. I considered offering reasons for my choices, but I decided to rely on your good opinion of me and your curiosity:
One overlooked novel I would like to add to the list is The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone. My husband (Mike Curtis) edited that novel and it is a good story.
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David Rieff, author, Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir (Simon & Schuster):
Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution
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Robert Stone, novelist, Death of the Black-Haired Girl (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):
Off the top of my head, I recall only one, and I’ve forgotten the author’s name. There was a novel about a man in Maine published some years ago, called Harbor Lights. It was reviewed “In Brief” at the New York Times Book Review. A short, excellent novel.
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Katherine Powers, literary personage, author, Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life (FSG):
So, I don’t know about “tragically.” By “overlooked,” I would mean that most people haven’t heard of the following titles. They are all A+:
20,000 Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton The Armstrong Trilogy by Roy Heath In Hazard by Richard Hughes The Golovlyov Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin
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Richard Russo, award winning novelist, author of Elsewhere, (Knopf), screenwriter (The Ice Harvest):
But for my bookseller daughter Emily’s recommendation, I doubt I’d have come across A Marker to Measure Drift. You might want to check to see if it did better than I imagine, but my sense is that it slipped into oblivion, and the last scene in the novel is as brutal and breathtaking as anything I’ve read in a long time.
I’d say many of Percival Everett‘s novels including Erasure. Everett is as a brilliant at creating narratives as he is at bending genres. He has one of the least classifiable careers, but one of the most brilliant, in American letters. Everett’s 2001 masterpiece, Erasure — a parody of the African-American urban novel — offers a lyrical critique of a publishing establishment which continues to pigeonhole writers, particular African-American writers. Everett is also a respected poet and painter. His previous honors include: The PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Fiction and the Dos Passos Prize.
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Joseph O’Connor, overlooked Irish novelist, Where Have You Been? (Harvill Secker):
Tragically overlooked novels? Well, all of mine, for a start. But do you mean tragically overlooked novels from 2013 or in general? In my view, Death and Nightingales by Eugene McCabe is one of the great novels of the late 20th Century. It’s a story of thwarted love set in 1883 in rural County Fermanagh, on the border of Ulster and what is now as the Republic of Ireland. The events of a single day in the life of Elizabeth Winters provide the plot, which is so utterly gripping that you can’t stop reading. But McCabe smuggles in all sorts of darkness and depth. This is a truly brilliant book about racism, gender politics, and political rage, but the subtle (and supple) language weaves you into the story with such fierce and clever grace that you never feel you’re attending a lecture. It’s got touches of Coetzee and Faulkner, but it’s a mesmerizing smolder all on its own. If you’ve ever doubted the novel’s power to express realities that politics can’t reach, you need to read this magnificent thing.
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Stuart Dybek, author, Northwestern University mentor, Paper Lantern: Love Stories (FSG, forthcoming):
I don’t know how “overlooked” Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga is, but I saw it on no lists whatsoever when the millennium nonsense was going on and I don’t think there’s been a change since.
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David Thomson, cultural encyclopedia, author Moments That Made the Movies (Thames & Hudson):
Troubles by J.G Farrell. If you don’t think it’s overlooked, then try The Purchase by Linda Spalding.
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Darin Strauss, author, Half a Life: A Memoir (McSweeney’s), NYU mentor:
I don’t know what counts as forgotten anymore. The Fixer, which is tough and beautiful and unsentimental in its treatment of something awful? Perhaps Memento Mori, which I just read and which taught me about the consoling half-thoughts and cruelties, the passing cruelties of stupid people. (In other words, most dumbasses will act dumb and assy and never feel bad about it, will come up with reasons, in fact, to feel good about the immoral way they act.) Or maybe The Statement by Brian Moore, which is a perfect thriller, a smart philosophical treatment of evil and racism, a fun read, and about an afternoon’s read?
All of the above?
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Brian Doyle, novelist, Mink River (University of Oregon Press), editor of Portland:
Hmmm. Maybe The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary. Best novel I ever read, period, but not one that many people have on their shelves. Also made into a terrific movie, which is a rare case of a glorious novel being made into a glorious movie. The few others I know: Little Big Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, A River Runs Through It, Lord of the Rings, The Year of Living Dangerously, maybe The English Patient, maybe Master and Commander.
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Daniel Olivas, novelist, The Book of Want (University of Arizona Press):
The Old Man’s Love Story by Rudolfo Anaya
I interviewed him for the first print. Enjoy the list-making edition of the Los Angeles Review of Books regarding this novel. It’s quite beautiful, but did not receive the kind of coverage it should have.
Way too much gets way too overlooked, but I guess I’d suggest: Where Tigers Are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (which seems to have gotten almost no review — and little reader-attention). Runner-up: Tirza by Arnon Grunberg, which got a bit more attention but nowhere what it deserves (it’s a best-of-year contender) —- perhaps overshadowed by Herman Koch’s somewhat similar (and considerably inferior) The Dinner. Still: that’s just the tip of the overlooked iceberg.
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Ben Fountain, award-winning author, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco):
Several come to mind:
Little Big Man by Thomas Berger. I don’t know if it could be called “tragically overlooked,” given that it was made into a blockbuster movie in the late ’60s, but nobody talks about it much these days. I think it’s one of the Great American Novels. Top ten for sure, maybe top five.
We Agreed to Meet Just Here by Scott Blackwood. A lovely, short novel that came out about seven to eight years ago. It won the AWP award, and Scott subsequently got a Whiting Award on the strength of it. It’s just about perfect. His forthcoming novel from Knopf is even better.
The Gay Place by Billy Lee Brammer. A novel of Texas politics, published 1961 or ’62.
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Robert McCrum, author, Globish: How English Became the World’s Language (W.W. Norton):
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards: This is the single novel by a bureaucrat who spent his life on the Isle of Guernsey. G.B. Edwards imagined a trilogy of such works but he died in a mainland boarding house with this manuscript under his bed. The landlady got it published in 1981. The work is erotic, tumultuous and heroic as a Beethoven symphony. We get the twisted history of incestuous island families. We get the German occupation of the island during World War II. Love stories are offset by men battling the ocean and its creatures. This novel, a rare instance of folk art in narrative, deserves a larger readership, a secure place in our literature.
Indeed, I could fill a volume in that category with many new additions every fucking year. But given that we’re in 2013, I’d say that Steve Yarbrough’s The Realm of Last Chances has been overlooked most tragically. That’s one reason my only lingering resolution -– to quit smoking -– always fails to get any real traction.
I’ll nominate Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell To Earth. Bowie fans have seen the movie, but the book is beautiful and poised. As if Richard Yates wrote speculative fiction.
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Joseph Epstein, short fiction writer, The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff: And Other Stories (HMH):
1. Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard.
2. Sándor Márai’s Embers.
I’m not sure if these are tragically overlooked or merely insufficiently well-known, but both are swell novels.
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Sven Birkerts, Literary Man for All Seasons, editor, Agni, memoirist, writing program administrator (Bennington):
I’m Not Stiller by Max Frisch The German Lesson by Siegfried Lenz The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson
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Tom Piazza, novelist, City of Refuge (Ecco), screenwriter (Treme), musical connoisseur:
I’d have to vote for Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, in the H.T. Lowe-Porter translation. Mann is underread in general these days, but Buddenbrooks was a masterpiece. People tend to think it’s just a 19th century family saga, but it’s really a book that combines 19th century techniques and sonorities with startlingly modern technical strategies that get missed because they work wholly in the service of the narrative. It’s almost like a Mahler symphony — one foot in the 19th century and one stepping off the cliff into the unspooling chaos of the 20th. Very important to get the old Lowe-Porter translation. Random House made the mistake of letting somebody “update” the translation and they ruined it, sort of the way Pevear and Volokhonsky ruin the Russians.
Among contemporary books, Lives of the Monster Dogs should have made Kirsten Bakis a big literary star.
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Susan Bergholz, nonpareil and sage literary agent (Eduardo Galeano, et al):
Here you go. Can’t do just one! Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, simply the best book about marriage ever written in the US by a living treasure. The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage: dead now, extraordinary work. An Imaginary Life by David Malouf: a pitch-perfect novel, except for the Afterword. The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, our most brilliant and amazing male novelist; makes Franzen and company sound as though they are writing soap operas. Prepare for his novel out in January, Orfeo: stunning!
I forgot one very important novel: Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
And another one: In the Palm of Darkness by Mayra Montero
And: Their Dogs Came with Them by Helena Maria Viramontes.
Okay. I’ll stop now!
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Blake Bailey, literary biographer, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (Knopf):
The Lost Weekend, of course. And Anthony Powell’s first novel, Afternoon Men.
(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion!)
The residents of the Mohawk valley will ever feel a deep interest in the career of Colonel John Brown, who in the fall of 1780, under the inspiration of a lofty patriotism, came with his Berkshire Levies to this valley, to protect its fields from pillage, its dwellings from conflagration, and its early settlers from the cruelty of a savage foe. This interest is doubtless enhanced by the consideration that when he first engaged actively in the business pursuits of life, he was a resident of this valley, and that he fell while fighting heroically on one of its battle-fields, near which his ashes now repose.
Now doesn’t that sound a bit like Nik’s Chronicles? This got me thinking about whether Nik’s Chronicles represent a new lofty patriotism, or whether the act of plucking a lily (Paula’s question causing me to plunge further, not unlike Ada’s documentary filmmaking) from the vast swaths of electronic fallow is really what Spiotta is remarking upon. If the Battle of Stone Arabia can’t be remembered, if Colonel John Brown’s heroic actions stand no chance of being committed to memory (and we’re arguably living in a nation where our political figures commit more historical gaffes than ever before), then does Nik stand a chance?
I’m glad that Susan has brought up one overlooked facet of the book: Denise’s tendency to diagnose from the Internet (Spiotta’s own answer to WebMD?). It’s a woefully insufficient and darkly humorous response to the present healthcare crisis. You don’t have the dough for a doc, but maybe you’ll stand a modest chance with unreliable online info. Perhaps there are unseen Battles of Stone Arabia going on around us —- people dying or getting sick or, in Denise’s case, seeing their emotional life break down because this is the new method with which we survive by our bootstraps. “Pain tourist” is indeed a suitable term.
As Porochista says, even in her refreshingly honest takeaway, it’s not just the points about memory that drive this book. It’s about a place associated with a Revolutionary War battle -— maybe not on the level of Bunker Hill or Valcour Bay -— inevitably transforming into a small hamlet with an Amish contingent (the very opposite of war) without anybody truly observing the changes. So perhaps there remain remain plenty of under-the-radar facets of our culture hiding in plain sight! Like Judith, I feel the impulse to go to the library and drag books off the shelf when there is a name or a memory pertaining to another subject. And yet there’s no way that any Chronicles, or any life, will contain it all! I wasn’t kidding when I said that I would “read forever or die trying” when I threw down the gauntlet for the Modern Library Reading Challenge. Maybe this is why, when it comes to life and it comes to literature, perhaps we really do have the obligation to finish it.
Thanks again to everybody for such a great discussion!
I read Stone Arabia (a title I expected nothing from) as the story of a savvy and functioning middle-aged white woman narrating (reliably?) the story of her life, which includes an idiosyncratic and increasingly dysfunctional brother, a mother whose faculties (and thus her ability to live independently) are diminishing and a grown-up daughter who seems the healthiest in this cast of characters (she got out and moved away from the family’s melodrama).
In the context of this story, I find Denise admirable for her support, her concern for her kin and for her sensitivity to the outside world (the mother arrested for taking her infant to a bar, her reaction to Abu Ghraib, the Chechnyan school tragedy, and one other instance I have now forgotten). I wonder if any of us had anything more than a a passing reaction…
On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy for Nik. He may or may not be talented in an accessible way. (And I don’t award him much for his ability to mimic various elements of the creativity business.) I am not certain whether he was easily thwarted by any resistance to his ambitions (on the verge of success, his band was apparently sabotaged by one of those sharpies with which the record business is infested), but his nearly three decades as a barkeep in a Los Angeles dive bar is, at best, evidence of a pathetic lack of self-preservation. His substance abuse, which he refers to as his consolation, provides ample evidence that, whatever the obsession to fantasize a life of creativity means in his life, it does not offer (much) relief for what ails him. Did Nik kill himself? By that point in the story, I had stopped caring.
Denise’s (failed?) relationships don’t strike me as particularly telling, except in the pleasure she derives from escaping into the world of old movies with her useful paramour Jay. Her concerns about her mother’s decline meld into her not unreasonable midlife anxieties of her own mental diminishing. That’s life. She appears to be a caring mother — either I missed it or her bringing up the younger Ada was not part of this narrative.
Apparently, Stone Arabia was sufficiently engaging for this group of dedicated readers to call forth a plenitude of analysis and interpretation as well as some brainy cultural references. I thought the title fell slightly short of being useless in my reading and the cover art may have referenced the quintessential punks, the Sex Pistols. But the cutout newspaper typography was not original to them -— not to mention, did I need to get these references to Nabokov and Byron to reasonably enjoy Ms. Spiotta’s meticulously spun tale? Also, while Nik’s (artful?) mimicry could lend itself to hypertextual adaptations and flourishes, I think such gimmickry is incidental.
Hmmm….did I like this book? Not in particular -— though I respect Dana Spiotta’s rendering, I am not much impressed with what I see as Nik’s parroting of the music business. That his sister is devoted and supportive turns out to be too small a story to really engage me. I certainly do not regret reading this and I am pleased to confirm the variegated subjectivity, which I note this group of readers brought to this Medusa-headed conversation.
Here’s a handful of tossed-off points, because I can’t help myself:
Does Jay actually like Kinkade? Or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
How does Spiotta do with endings in general? This is a question for those familiar with her whole body of work. Again, full disclaimer: it’s been a while since I read Eat the Document, but I kind of remember question marks going off over my head around that book’s ending.
The idea that women should be behind other women writers 100% makes me feel like I need to go read a stack of Tom Clancy novels. I mean, I know, I know. But. (It’s a perpetual point of shame that I’m not reading enough women writers, etc., etc., etc., embarrassed my current stack is male-dominated, etc., etc., etc., to be rectified in the coming weeks/months/years, etc., etc., etc.)
I like Ed’s notion of Stone Arabia representing an unknown place in plain sight. The history we’ve lost is, what, billions of times more in pure quantity than the history we’ve kept? Reading The Chronicles as a form of patriotism seems a little like a reach to me. Nik is free to do what he wants. And if he wants to spend his life writing a fake story about himself that nobody reads, well, people have died so he can. Are there more depths plunge into here?
Speaking of Nik (because he’s the flashy guy who can’t help but steal attention from anyone else in the room) has the term “self-portrait” been used here yet? I ask because, in my current drawing class, we’re working on self-portraits. And I spent four hours last night staring at a three-foot-high developing rendering of my own face, Nik couldn’t help but come to mind. His Chronicles are essentially a self-portrait in words, aren’t they? (What’s to stop me from critiquing my own artwork?)
Speaking of myself -– and by extension, all of us -– on a meta level, I’m totally fascinated by the weird tension between reading the book as a text and reading it as a reflection of ourselves. Not that I have anything interesting to say about that, other than I like it.
And there are so many other things I want to ponder, review, and discuss further. Ed and all, you may have ruined me for books for which I can’t participate in a roundtable like this. Thank you!
Ed: I agree that Stone Arabia is not a random place she picked, nor a random title. Spiotta is far more deliberate than that and she loves hidden meanings.
I thought it was pretty clear that Jay’s love of Kinkade was ironic.
Whether I liked this book or not? I’m happy I read it. I found the second half very engaging. It had some weaknesses, but very few books don’t. Emily Nussbaum wrote that Mary Gaitskill’s first novel “flawed” and disparaged it. I love that novel, love it, and I know it’s flawed. I think Stone Arabia is a very smart book, brimming with the author’s intelligence and compassion. Quite frankly, the flaws are minor in comparison to its strengths. In general, I doubt it’s a book I would have picked up on my own, but I’m very glad I did, thanks to Ed. I should read more things that aren’t my thing (meaning, I need to stop rereading Tolstoy, Greene, Gaitskill, EJ Howard, and so on).
Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
We never get a lot of info on whether or not Jay’s in love with Kinkade. We only know that his “obsession” was “pure.” Jay “wasn’t a very good looking guy.” He wore sweaters that gave him “an off-putting, almost creepy diminutive effect.” Just about the only positive thing Denise has to say, other than his between-the-lines, non-threatening nature, is that his obsession is pure. We get that in the Kinkade and the James Mason movies. Denise goes on to say something about how the world is full of “fake obsessions” and there’s little that’s more terrible to her than faking an obsession. We would hope it’s an ironic obsession, but aren’t “irony” and “purity” antonymic?
This is both on-track and off-track, but it’s interesting to juxtapose Porochista’s question (“but did you like the book?”) with Darby’s observation about Stone Arabia taking place in 2004, the year of Facebook’s birth, with all the talk of memory and fakery and the sheer number of intense personal narratives we’re sharing (and how I feel tremendously honored to be one of the share-ees, so to speak). Because even though I didn’t think that it was Spiotta’s intention, the mere fact that I’m connecting these disparate strands demonstrates why Stone Arabia is so damn relevant and necessary: it’s a book to admire, that inspires both deep emotional responses, but also this wealth of analysis that travels as far back in the past as 1780 and as far forward as, well, 2011. When we’re all thinking about what it is to be “authentic” and “true” and whether the word “like” has been corrupted by Facebook (and also the word “friend”) when “follower” is now a social media buzzword more than a description of someone leading disciples (which, in this case, means Nik is the cult leader and Denise is his ardent acolyte; I will refrain from stretching this metaphor to needlessly thin Jesus/Paul comparisons, however).
Truth in art has been on my mind — in particular, with respect to documentary films. The last few I’ve seen have really cemented my belief that the form is suspect, that it is impossible to have a reliable narrator, and that facts are wilfully misrepresented and contradicted with a Google search or two. Which, of course, makes fiction “truer” — at least to me. So when Spiotta explores memory, its boundaries, and its limitations, her quest becomes that much more meaningful. Sure, there’s artifice. But there’s also tacit acknowledgment of this artifice. We can’t trust “facts” and “truth.” So why not do something greater, whatever that entails?
Does Jay actually like Kinkade, or was that more of an ironic thing, a quirky little thing that happens between a couple? I’ll be able to actually review passages over the weekend, but I’m suspect I either read this point wrong the first time through or I read it way differently than everyone else did.
I didn’t get the sense that Kinkade was an ironic thing that develops between this couple. Because Denise and Jay weren’t that kind of couple. They were all business. So they couldn’t even have the kind of interaction that would make this strain of charming irony and history possible. The way Jay was written makes irony, on his part, rather implausible. Or maybe I just really hate the character and Kinkade so much that I’m hoping there’s no irony in the obsession.
Roxane: I’m very curious (and I did try reading all of the comment threads; so maybe you’ve already explained this) as to why you dislike the Jay character.
I think that irony — or kitsch — is implicit in the Kinkade collecting. It serves as a counterpoint to the writing of music that includes “Soundings.” It is the opposite of that sort of “art.” I honestly believe that Kinkade himself made his work with a strong sense of kitsch, knowing that he was mocking “real” art. As little as I know of LA — and I appreciate all the people who have commented on the LAness of this book — people in LA are much more likely to gravitate to this type of art and the collection of items that may seem lowbrow, than the classical musicians I know in Vienna.
I’m going to throw out some ideas that I don’t completely believe. Delillo. Spiotta loves him. I’ve never managed to get through one of his books. My bad, for sure. But let’s say I see this book as a woman’s book wrapped in a man’s book. There could be many reasons to do this. Women’s books are not taken as seriously because they deal with the domestic. Men’s books deal with world issues, with structure and language, and with abstract notions. Hey, men are better at math. So Spiotta utilizes this slightly weird framework, chews on ideas (as opposed to the inner lives of humans). She contemplates ideas of art, the meaning behind these ideas, and history (thanks Ed, for elaborating on the title). She’s mocking, she’s ironic, and so on. But to me, the meat of the book is the story of a damaged family. A woman wrapped in a man. Yet it’s a woman’s voice, wrapping herself around a man’s self indulgent life. There is so much “bothness” in this book — a favorite term of mine, coined by David Foster Wallace.
I read as many male writers as I do female writers. I often feel that male writers — and maybe “often” is unfair, maybe “sometimes” is a better word here — use technique and literary pyrotechnics to avoid getting at the emotions that rule our daily lives.
All of the above is offered to continue the discussion. I’m truly on the fence about it. But I felt the need to throw this out there.
I’m not sure I agree on the gender divide stuff at all ( for one thing no male writer I know has touched Gertrude Stein in levels of experiment). Interestingly enough, I would have killed for more literary pyrotechnics here! The opportunity was there and it was not taken — at least not all the way. She made a gesture in that direction but backed away from really going there…which, yes, my beloved (maybe favorite writer) DFW would not have done. But since I don’t trust today’s big publishing climate, I have to consider, to be fair, that maybe Spiotta wanted things to be more experimental and she was pushed out of it. Who knows? From reading her other book, I’m inclined to think she shied away from it. Even Egan I wanted to be more experimental! We need female experimental writers to be recognized because lord knows they are out there. The industry allows white males to be more wild and intellectual and experimental; the industry recognizes and nurtures the desire in them. So I think we all have to write about things greater than just ourselves and our own personal experience. (I mean, without fail, nine out of ten editors want me to dish on minority female experience, are interested in reading me for anthropological insights on the Iranian-American experience, want to hear me go on about men and dating and relationships because I am still “youngish,” etc.)
And finally, I want to confirm that it’s true that LA people have a high tolerance for cruddy, campy, and kitschy shit. Maybe even Kinkade garbage. But Kinkade, while he must have realized he may profit from the joke, was not originally in on it, I believe. At least that’s what the 60 Minutes segment on him once made me believe.
Apologies about entering this (really, really insightful and wonderful) thread so late! I’ve been on vacation this week, and have a sinus infection that’s left me feverish and incoherent. Hope I don’t derail anything.
I want to talk about cliche, kitsch, and rock music. From the very first sentence, Nik’s story is explicitly linked to the dominant narratives of the “golden age” of rock ‘n’ roll, the 1960s — “he changed in one identifiable moment.” A Hard Day’s Night is cited by a number of groups (esp. the seminal LA band, The Byrds) as a formative moment in their evolution; similarly, John Lennon and Paul McCartney have linked their decision to begin playing music to a moment just after seeing Jailhouse Rock (“now that’s a good job,” John Lennon would say later about Elvis). The sudden appearance of a guitar, and it’s immediate transformation into an object of obsession, is also inked onto the pages of rock lore. Over the course of Stone Arabia, Spiotta links Nik’s experience — his actual experience (the manipulative managers, the strange left turns, the substance abuse) and his Chronicled experience (the motorcycle crash, “every person who did see them live seemed to have formed a band of their own,” the substance abuse) to dominant (and very cliched) narratives that characterize so many biopics and biographies about rock music, both popular and underground. Interestingly, these narratives, manipulative and often tacked on as they are, are what define the “authenticity” of ’60s and ’70s rock music. It’s why The Killers grew mustaches and went out into the wilderness to record their second album, why The Kings of Leon will always remind you of the fact that they’re all related, and how they grew up traveling the Bible Belt with their preacher father. At this point in time they’re kitsch narratives — harkening back to a time that never really existed, imitating a narrative that was already mostly a lie.
There are Easter eggs — connections to archetypal rock lore — on almost every page of this book, and the relationship between the narratives that run through The Chronicles (perhaps also a nod to that perfect rock “memoir” of (probably) mostly fiction, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles) and the narratives offered by musicians and journalists to explain rock music is crucial to my reading of the novel. What happens when you have a series of fake narratives that echo real ones that both signal authenticity and are, frankly, composed of bullshit? These are narratives that either heighten or diminish reality, that often make reality seem more dangerous and comforting at the same time. This, in my mind, is the connection between Nik Worth, Denise’s anxiety about her memory, Thomas Kinkade, and the “Breaking Event” chapters. Each provides a narrative that converts “real experience” into something that both signals a kind of authenticity and that is kitschy. They all are meant to “identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience,” to borrow a description of Kinkade’s work. The Aladdin Sane birthday cake also illustrates this connection nicely.
Of course, Worth is positively subterranean, and the conflict between life underground and the rock ‘n’ roll dream narratives within The Chronicles is what I find most interesting about Stone Arabia. Nik is as authentically underground as it gets, but both his “real” life and his second life in The Chronicles all mirror cliches. He’s authentically underground, while also exemplifying the inherently inauthentic narratives that determine one’s status as authentically anything. In his interview with Ada, he says “Imagine doing whatever you want with everything that went before you. Imagine never having to give up Artaud or Chuck Berry or Alistair Crowley or the Beats or the I Ching or Lewis Carroll? Imagine total freedom.” Of course, all of those things show up as formative cliches for the Beatles, Dylan, and Morrison (among many others). Perhaps Nik’s project is a way of trying to free himself from anxieties about authenticity itself, an attempt to both hold on to talismans and rid himself of their power? And what is authentic experience anyway? That’s the dominant question of the Breaking Events chapters, and a crucial one within the novel itself.
My fever is back, though. So I’m going to cut off here. A few quick notes before I go:
When thinking about Nik’s life and music, I kept thinking of people like Brian Wilson, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett, and Daniel Johnston. Interestingly, all of these artists are mentally ill. I’m not suggesting Nik is mentally ill. I’m just somewhat surprised that I kept instinctively making the link. Did anybody else have that experience? I suppose it may just be that these people all spent significant time “underground.” Arthur Lee, the Godfather of L.A. underground, was also on my mind.
I have no idea what Nik Worth’s music sounds like. While I had my problems with the Richard Katz sections of Freedom, I ended up getting an idea of what The Demonics and Walnut Surprise (easily the worst fake band name ever) sounded like. His list of influences was diverse (and aweseome! Can, the Incredible String Band, and The Residents? Sweet. He does lose points for hating on Wings, though.). Denise and The Chronicles tend to use genre (or cliche!) as a substitute for description: “power pop,” “progressive” “unique sound to counter to both commercial progressive rock and punk rock,” “dark lyrics and art rock dissonance,” “fatal hooks and crafted melodies,” “unique, intense,” “proto-glam,” “crystalline gorgeous harmonies got them compared to the Beatles,” “perfectly rendered songs of herartache and youth,” “unprecedented path of experiment and innovation,” “full of cryptic and hermetic references,” “Who would have guessed what we were all waiting for was a collection of atonal, arrhythmic assualt compositions mixed with concept sound poems?” “A Futurist sound experiment, a dada poemlet.” That’s just what I found in the first 94 pages. None of it helps me hear Nik’s music, though I do think some of it is relevant to what I talked about earlier.
There are three songs that were on my mind when I was writing this post:
Wilco – “The Late Greats” (The best band will never get signed / K-Settes starring Butcher’s Blind / Are so good, you won’t ever know / They never even played a show / You can’t hear ’em on the radio)
Bad Company – “Shooting Star” (The ultimate rock success cliche song!)
And a parody of the Bad Company song (and others like it) by America’s Beatles, Barry Dworkin & the Gas Station Dogs (as performed by Ted Leo)
Thank you to Ed for doing this roundtable. I am so grateful for all the time everyone put into the discussion. I knew this was a book that would elicit complicated reactions, but I was so pleased to see people found so much to discuss. What thoughtful and interesting responses. How generous you all are to read the book so carefully. With so many books in the world, and so many other things demanding attention, a novelist is extremely lucky to get serious readers.
I can’t help imagining Nik getting the roundtable treatment for his life’s work. He would love it. It is glorious to have deep and long attention to your work. But then he would hate it — because you can’t control responses. People bring their whole long lives to it; it is as subjective and complicated as any creative act. That is one of the book’s concerns: artistic creation and response. Nik would have fun making up his own roundtable, and part of the fun I had in writing the book was taking an artist’s desire for control to an extreme. Maybe there’s no one who is more of an obsessive control freak than a novelist. You sit in your room and play god for years. Then you emerge with this crazy thing — not unlike Nik’s Chronicles, which is a kind of long autobiographical novel. You live in this made-up world as you are creating it. Everything you do and are interested in relates to your secret world. At least that is how it works for me. It takes over my dreams and my rhythms and my speech. Its defects become my defects, which can be a little traumatizing. For me, writing novels is a strange and antisocial thing to do. But I feel more attentive and closer to people when I am writing. So it is complicated. In this book I was interested in the world within the world, and the cost of being close to a person who does that kind of work. So the first big question you all asked — is Nik a “real” artist? Of course he is. Who can say he isn’t? Which doesn’t mean he isn’t a narcissistic freak. I was quite deliberate about leaving the quality of his work ambiguous. I was mostly interested in his devotion. The challenge was suggesting this lifelong, hyper-elaborated art piece. (It meant writing as Nik pretending to be someone else, a sort of double fake that still had to be convincing. It couldn’t be boring or badly done. So Nik is as self-reflexive as I am, he likes contradictions and inside jokes. For example, the irony of his wanting to escape criticism but then needing to create a kind of mean snarky critic within so it feels real to him.) I showed various clips from his Chronicles, but I needed to leave a lot out because I wanted, as I describe below, to focus on Denise’s perceptions of it. I wanted to show just enough, but I didn’t want the novel to be the Chronicles. I didn’t want an iPad app with his music and album covers. That is one possible way to go, but I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want this to be a novel of tricks and games. I really didn’t want it to be cheeky and cute and merely clever. I wanted it to be about being human, about how humans cope with the given terms of this cultural moment, and I wanted it to be about family: the hermetic, complicated, intimate, and relentless idea of family. Even the novel’s very deep concerns about memory and identity are rooted in the strange romance of family.
I am only interested in writing about things I haven’t figured out. In other words, I usually start with a question. And rather than discovering an answer as I write, I try to make the question as deep and complicated and honest as I can. The momentum, if it exists, is in that increasing complication. I think some people perceive this as ambivalence — I tend to undercut everything with its opposite — but I don’t see how anyone meditating on anything deeply can feel only one way about it. People in my novels have strong desires, but they don’t only go in one direction. So I think I begin with ideas, and then it changes as I get into it. In Stone Arabia the inaugural idea was of an artist who doesn’t achieve success in the world, but then he keeps going. And like many isolated artists, he has one person who believes in him and acts as his audience, in this case a sibling. So I wanted to see what that was like twenty-five years in. And I wanted him to be the real deal, but I also wanted him to be a “loser.” I wanted it to be as complex as family is: a long elaborated relationship from which there is no end (or beginning, for that matter).
I started with that. Then, as I was working, I realized that the sister — the audience — would narrate it, had to narrate it. And the thing became a novel of consciousness. As a writer I am really interested in the depiction of consciousness in fiction. I think the novel describes — enacts — the experience of a mind better than any other medium. I also like how a novel is relentless and inescapable the way a mind is. (I really like that you can’t click through to something else. Of course you can always throw the book across the room.) I wanted the book to be claustrophobic and distorted by emotion and doubt and subjectivity. As I worked I wanted the story to be emotional — practically deranged with emotion — but I also wanted it to be unsentimental and uneasy.
All of the structural decisions came out of these concerns. I wasn’t trying to be experimental or conventional. I wasn’t concerned with realism or metafiction or postmodernism. I think of those things as a reader sometimes, but as a writer I try to be more intuitive. I try to “go to the jeopardy” as Gordon Lish used to say (or that’s how I misread him to suit my purposes). I try to be brave about proceeding despite my own shortcomings and limits. All I can do is make myself relentless. My deformations are my own — just go there and go deep. So the form came out of necessity. The form came out of my interest in the interplay of Denise’s consciousness and the idea of a long elaborated fantasy life. Of course the shape also came out of the difficulties, failures, and deceptions of using language as an organizing force. How to tell a story necessarily becomes part of the novel’s deep concerns. Since the novel largely consists of a first person “written” narrative created by a mostly self-taught and self-conscious woman on the edge of emotional collapse, I really needed those third-person narrative breathers (primarily at the end and the beginning) to frame it, even if they never move all that far from Denise’s consciousness. Denise, Nik, and Ada all have specific language strategies. The challenge was in distinguishing all these documents and pieces without losing the connective thread of the human emotion. I don’t know how close I came to achieving my ambitions for this book. But that is what I was going for. I like having everything at stake, and then if I fall short (and I always will), I still end up somewhere interesting.
By the way, I did not see Nik as mentally ill at all. Maybe that shows how crazy I am. He is fully aware of what is real and what isn’t. He is certainly an alcoholic (by an decent standard), but he is unapologetic and I see him as a resister. He has found a way to be the person he wants to be. He seems immune to the judgment of others. He is deeply unconventional and eccentric, albeit very self-obsessed. I admire Nik’s ability to create his own artistic world. He was supposed to quit and get a real job, or he should have gone out and promoted himself. But he isn’t interested in that, and he pays the price. He isn’t bitter — he has been content in his odd way. I personally hate the way novelists are expected to self-promote. How everyone is expected to self-promote. I hate feeling helpless about how to sell books to people. Wah wah wahhh, right? That is another thing Nik has going for him. He isn’t full of self-pity and complaint.
Of course your life is never just your own, and your choices have consequences. I am obsessed with consequences, and what moral — yes — obligations we have to each other. So Nik makes a decision in his life to be intransigent and live at the margins. By the time he is fifty, he is falling apart. I was very aware that these characters lived in America of 2004. A specific time and place. There is no room in the US of recent years for people to live eccentric lives, especially as you age, because of money. Money was one of the big complicating factors. I wanted this to be a book where money weighed on everyone. (I thought of Joyce and how he wanted no one in his books to be worth more than 1000 pounds. He wanted to have Bloom and Stephen counting every penny. He wanted the ultra-realism of money and bathrooms. So far I have left out the bathrooms, but I too have no interest in the lives of the rich.) Health insurance, second mortgages, food stamps, WIC, medi-cal assisted living. I wanted the details of money to play a big role. Because one reason being an artist is so difficult is because of money. And especially without national health insurance, trying to live at the margins becomes nearly an act of suicide as you age. Denise and Nik didn’t get the education they should have had, given their potential. Their mother always had to work, their father left, so they are under parented. They are almost feral children, self-taught and self-raised. Money was clearly a big force against them. I do think being an artist — especially if you are not a mainstream artist, or a born promoter — is harder than ever. I chose Topanga for Nik’s garage because it is one of those American places with a history of off-the-grid artists, a place that encourages eccentricity. Good luck finding a cheap place there now, and good luck trying to live like a bohemian anywhere.
I don’t see Nik as a bad guy. He is just an eccentric human being. Denise gets a lot out of being his sister. She made different choices. She had a kid — which I think made her more responsible as well as more ordinary. But it also gave her so much comfort, and it gave her a concern for the future and the world beyond her own life. Partly the book became about how we manage to comfort ourselves in the face of mortality. As we start to fail, how do we cope? Denise is trying to cope. I think her anxiety gets located in the barrage of information and media she subjects herself to. Another thing that came up in writing the book is the difference between information and art. Nik’s work — whatever its worth — is satisfying and something she understands. She gets all the inside references and it is meaningful to her. She is moved by it. But the flow of intense and relentless information, the bombardment of the external, is really annihilating for her. It is not all that far from Nik’s substance issues. She should resist it, but she can’t. It is destructive. It is chaotic in an infertile way. She becomes stronger when she writes her Counter Chronicles, when she answers back, when she addresses/organizes things with the force of her consciousness. (This is also like novel writing for me, a way to answer back.) Another question the book is interested in is How do we resist the parts of the culture that will annihilate us? How do we stay human? And I think Nik has one way — a kind of retreat — and Denise’s is another. She tries to look at the world and figure it out. She even tries to dive in. The end of the book — the Stone Arabia scene — came up organically. She is, in fact, approaching a different place mentally, and she is also reacting — as Paula said — to her profound grief about losing Nik (and her mother). She leaves her home and reaches — bodily — out in the world. The novel is interested in consciousness, but also how the body relates to memory and mind. Her watching a body fail (Nik) and a mind fail (her mother) puts these connections in high relief. Denise is losing it, and she makes a kind of desperate leap. I wrote that scene slowly and carefully. I knew it was a risk, but it had to happen. Denise tries to reach out beyond herself. And I knew, as it happened, that her desire for connection would fail — of course it would — but I knew she would try. And Stone Arabia was the place where people disappear (her connections are associative), so it tied into Nik, and it was far away and so different from her life. People are like that, we are — we think geography will change our lives. That physical distance will give us spiritual distance. So she fails, but it is touching to me nonetheless. I chose that town because I discovered it driving one day. It felt magical to me. (I suppose I have that magical belief in place as well. If I lived here, I would be different. It is true and it isn’t. Just as Mina runs away in Lightning Field only to return. She has changed and she hasn’t at all.) I was resisting this idea of an epiphany, a revelation. But I also didn’t want it to be simply an anti-epiphany. I wanted her to go, she had to. I wanted it to be a raw gesture. I wanted it to be about our desire for something to change, which we have, and how the idea can almost be enough, failed or not. Stone Arabia itself is an austere, beautiful place with a long, mysterious history. It has this evocative name — both solid and exotic. I love that name, Stone Arabia, and the sound of it, the feel in the mouth as I say it, it draws me in. It is beautiful, which is reason enough. After, Denise goes back to what is left. She steps out so she can step back in. Maybe she can even be somewhat content with what is left. Not the Chronicles — which are almost a burden — but her daughter, her own life, her endurance, her mind.
So the first part of the end is about adult longing, and the last part of the end is about childhood longing.
The very end was intended as a memory/reverie. I wanted to end on the art, the glimpse of transcendence you can get from art. But it is fraught and melancholy, because it is in the deep past. The very end contains a mini version of the whole book — Nik leaves her (or she leaves him). She is alone with her thoughts. I didn’t plan it that way, it just came out and then I noticed it when I read it all together. Young Denise puts on some music she has never heard before from a band she doesn’t know. She goes from her desire for another to her own desire for herself to just pure desire. It is response to art as a kind of salvation, but it is located in longing and a glimpse of possibility. I wanted it to be innocent. I wanted the last note to be the (remembered) innocent longing of a young person.
The book had to end with a memory, as the novel is also a novel of memory (as any novel of consciousness is). She has the physical experience of being in her old house — memory for her is located in the body as well as the mind. Then she has this vivid dream of the past. The irony, of course, is that Denise has an excellent memory. Her fears are not rational. She does remember.
Thank you for reading the book. And thank you if you got through my rambling response to your responses. Writers are the worst readers of their own work, right?
PS I agree with Alex that Nik shouldn’t have been hating on Wings. But that was very young Nik. Adult Nik loves Wild Life. (And you are dead-on about Nik’s use of rock-and-roll tropes and clichés. They are deliberately planted all through his Chronicles. I wasn’t sure if many people would get all the references, but it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t. It made it feel right to me as I wrote it. Nik would have all these tropes in his head and play with them.)
PPS Sorry, I forgot a few things. I meant to say that all the interpretations are interesting, and I wouldn’t want to shut down any possibilities. Novels are meant to mean different things to different people. Explaining a novel also feels like a really bad idea for the novelist. (One last parenthetical: as far as what is given in the book, Nik doesn’t commit suicide. He does kill himself in the Chronicles, but in his real life he just leaves, which is very different from killing yourself. I was toying with this Ray Johnson idea of enacting your own death as an [insane] assertion of art over life. But then I realized Nik can, and would, have it both ways. He would author his own death in the Chronicles [because the Chronicles are high romantic drama], but he would just disappear in his actual life. How could he resist writing his own obituary? It is what he has been working toward his whole life.)
Our second installment features a footnote-charged cover dissection from Darby Dixon, thoughts on reader obligation from Robert Birnbaum, insights into concession from Insulted by Authors’s Bill Ryan, and connections to hoarding from Roxane Gay.
(This is the second of a five-part roundtable discussion of Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia. Additionally, Spiotta will be in conversation with Edward Champion on July 20, 2011 at McNally Jackson, located at 52 Prince Street, New York, NY, to discuss the book further. If you’ve enjoyed The Bat Segundo Show in the past and the book intrigues you, you won’t want to miss this live discussion.)
A lot of interesting stuff so far. I’ll start off with my own opening thoughts — which pick up a few points from this discussion, I think — though there’s plenty more here for me to consider in more detail.
I’d like to start by looking at the book’s cover. Which — if this is in any way a novel about music or any sort of glory days in which the cover as a physical artifact actually means something — is hardly a bad place to start. But I find the cover of this book troubling for two particular reasons. Is the cover poorly executed? Or, more hopefully (and perhaps more likely), do these issues point to aspects or views of the book that I missed on my first reading?
Consider the treatment of the title and the author type on the front cover. I’m not referring to the copyright mark placed after Spiotta’s name, a witty winking question mark that pays off with a dot-dot-dot-exclamation-point within the novel itself.* Rather I’m looking at the supposed handmade quality of the cover. If it is meant to allude to Nik’s self-made album art, why does it have to look so Photoshoppy? This cover never stank of real glue or caused any paper cuts. Why not?
What also bugs me — and you’ll have to see it by taking the dust jacket off your hardback copy and stretching it flat on the table in front of you — is that the background is mirrored from the front to the back. The distress along the top inside flaps is the tell. I can’t think of a good reason why it had to be this way.
Why then this postmodern take on the handmade? I ask because I did not read this book as a postmodern novel, although I guess there’s postmodernish stuff inside it. There’s some framing going on and a little bit of self-reference. But it felt well-contained to me; the effects are just means to an end. This is essentially representational work; neither Nik nor Denise feel like ciphers or “texts” to me, but, rather, realist characters with real issues drawn in a real manner: each drawing himself or herself into being. Maybe the mirrored back cover is a superfan-level Easter egg, a nod to whatever mirroring is happening between Nik and Denise. They are two creators, two storytellers: one far more gung-ho and self-assured than the other. But as I type that thought, my internal editor is all like, “Uh, really?” So.
So. Am I missing layers of irony and self-reference and other postmodern gobbledygook? Or do I have a legitimate desire for a cover that gets more real, more DIY? Is this a bit more of a scorched mess?**
Full disclosure: I came to this book (and this book discussion) a skeptic. I read Eat the Document because it sounded like the kind of book I was supposed to read. And, while I don’t remember hating it, I don’t remember loving it either. Stone Arabia mostly won me over though for various reasons. In time, I’ll get back around to Document and give it another shot (and pick up Lightning Field along the way). It didn’t hurt Arabia‘s case that my current reading project involves a stack of 1,000 page+ books. Being able to sit down and read Arabia over the course of a single weekend? Well, it read like an absolutely blissfully quick short story; so much so that, due to miscalculation on my part, I didn’t realize the ending was the ending until I turned the page and found no more story following it. (That ending. I’d like to swing back around to it in more depth later in this discussion, with anyone who is game.)
This book worked for me less as a novel about art and rock and success, and more for me as a novel about memory and time and how we use both to tell ourselves the stories of our own lives.*** Levi has offered quite a bit to chew on in this regard, and I’m still chewing on it myself. For me, what I think bumps the memory issue up on the queue is the fact that everything in the novel is filtered through Denise’s consciousness: either directly through her writing or indirectly through her point of view. She sees the kind of failing memory in her mother that might await her in later years, and it’s scared the wits out of her.**** She’s anticipating the downfall that awaits her and she’s struggling to arrest it before it can arrest her. In some way, she’s highly jealous of Nik’s apparent freedom from that; his ability to make his own story up has to be a severe kick in the sibling rivalry gut. But what can there be of it now? It’s funny how little left there is of their mom to approve or disapprove of the actions of either sibling. It’s a bit of a tragedy of impending morality. Denise and Ada also act a bit like Horatio to Nik’s Hamlet. If the journals and the albums are Nik’s heroic acts, the documentary and the Counterchronicles are their stories, at least the stories that people might actually get to hear.
This is where all the Nik stuff comes into play for me. Where it really works is in its service to a story about memory, about making memory, and about making a story out of the life one is living. Is Nik a success? Neither commercial nor popular. Okay, is Nik a success as a brother? As a son? He seems too self-involved for that.***** No doubt this is a book as much about time as it is about memory, if indirectly. To pull off the projects that Nik pulls off; well, it requires massive amounts of time and effort and dedication. (A twenty album cycle! Not five, not ten. Twenty! You can’t do that while holding down a productive day job and taking care of your sick relative.) In this regard, he’s a success in a completely logical way. He did the things he set out to do. He succeeded, at whatever cost. He only needed a small handful of people to witness it, to make it real, and, even then, he never seemed especially interested in their actual reactions.****** In a day and age when fame and fortune appear right around the corner for everybody willing to fart out a lolcat-style meme, there’s something admirable about that. Is this a withdrawal from reality or a redefinition of reality? A determined, self-defined vision of reality? Could this book have been set in 2011 rather than 2004? Perhaps today, Nik’s “success” might feel all the more anachronistic. How much of this is happening right now that we don’t know about and aren’t supposed to know about?
In going on about Nik like that, I realize I’ve detracted a bit from my belief that Denise really is the emotional core of the book. She is, though, in some strange way, the character I felt myself most identifying with; or at least she’s the one I sorta rooted for. It’s something I’m trying to unpack for myself still; and for some reason I keep coming back to that crushing pile of debt she has been accumulating while taking care of her ailing brother******* and her ailing mother. You can’t buy memory, but having money on hand to try doesn’t hurt. More on this later in the discussion, I hope.
* — The whole author/artist-as-brand conversation is probably worth a couple thick discussion threads alone. I’ll admit that, as a current student in real art classes trying to make real art, I found the Thomas Kinkade stuff funny. Painter of Light, indeed. Paint this, Mr. Success Pants.
** — Is there a rock album cover that inspired this treatment that I’m not aware of? I’ll admit to missing vinyl the first time around due to youth, and, due to finances, neglecting the recent indie-hipster resurgence this time around. So my personal cover art experience is largely based on a 90’s and early 00’s CD collection. I know, I know. The big beautiful vinyl cover square is superior as a means of conveying the visual side of an album. But I think the folded up CD liner sheet gets (or got) a bit of a short shrift; how much earlier would I have hit the hay in high school if I’d been strictly focused on homework instead of occasionally pulling out one of those squares, unfolding it panel by panel to find the secrets contained within? How much has music’s impact on me been minimized by the lack of something, anything, physical to go with it? I, for one, miss accidentally cracking jewel cases. But I just can’t see finding time and cash enough to put a record player in anytime soon.
*** — Reading Nik as simply musician-creating-for-no-audience felt a bit “meh” to be, taken at face value. I mean, I’ve done the same thing, on a smaller scale; made stuff nobody’s listened to, I mean. It’s not that interesting a thing to me. Music is for ears! Music-as-music is better when other people hear it and like it. Or am I being overly simplistic (or obtuse?)
**** — Having seen some of those issues in the last decade in my own family has been similarly both terrifying and sobering. My dreams of my writing career eventually actually starting and lasting me well into late in a long, healthy, productive, and active mental life? I dunno. What will I think of this discussion fifty years from now? How shamed will I be in my distraction from blogging about the books I’ve been reading, from more actively keeping journals, from taking more pictures? What bundles will I leave behind that tell some small portion of my story, to whomever might be around to hear it?
***** — I’m not passing judgment there. I’d only be passing judgment on myself. I’ve got a lot of guilt bound up in my relationship to art, in the hours devoted to potentially fruitless pursuits that may have been better spent with loved ones or what others might call “doing good”: doing charity work or hopping a plane to a distant city to help someone other than myself. What good is that unpublished novel, or that self-portrait tucked away in a closet for the rest of my life? I can’t pass judgment on Nik because in some ways I wish I was him, the jerk.
…and of course I realize immediately after I hit “send” at least one thing that I meant to (and forgot) to clarify: if I’m critical of that cover, I’m also so, so, so, so, so glad to see it was conceptually relevant to the contents of the book! This could have easily been yet another one of those blurry photos of a woman with her face turned away from the camera or cropped out of the frame. And maybe some flowers or something like that. Yawn. I praise the concept (and that red really is the right red, somehow, isn’t it? the kind of red you just want to curl up with in your hands while listening to it on a gigantic pair of headphones, no?) while raising an eyebrow at aspects of the execution. (I’ve had similar love/hate issues with the covers for Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I badly need to reread, because, yeah, duh, there’s things to compare and contrast between these books; sadly I think the deck is stacked against me this next week. But, suffice it to say, I’m an self-acknowledged Egan fanboy, yes, and Spiotta, I think, is up to something else with her book. So it’s probably unfair of me to try to pick a book I prefer to another. If this was a Tournament of Books thing, I would politely and ethically rescind my position on the brackets. But! I’d very much like to see the two books sit down at the bar, grab some drinks, and talk shop. Is that what I’m saying? There’s enough bourbon here for both.)
I am struck by the realization that the more vocal of the aggregation who read on this planet expend a lot of verbiage and hand wringing about the prospects of books, literature, reading and what not. So it should not go unsaid that this opportunity for a diverse, spirited group of readers to commune is a joyful affirmation. So thanks for that, Ed Champion.
I am lucky to have, for the most part, the freedom to choose the books I want to read. While this is not a totally unblemished blessing, it is an immeasurably wonderful one. So the books that I pick up tend to reach my hands and eyes in almost infinitely (a large number) manifold ways. Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia came to me via Eddy’s latest literary initiative. But there is a context for reading this book — since, for me, reading takes place within my life and not as stepping out of it. If you know what I mean.
In the short period before picking up Spiotta’s tome, I had read two books — which pulled me in different, if not opposing directions. I picked up the ARC of Lydia Millet’s new opus, Ghost Lights, and delved in, propelled by the nimble and ironic prose. I found myself about two thirds of the way into this tale of a disenchanted IRS employee who embarks on a mission to Central America for his equally disenchanted wife. I was losing interest. But being close to the end, I finished the book. Besides a mildly surprising ending, I was not impressed or engaged.
In the meantime (or the same time), I had one of my periodic conversations with Jim Shepard, The Wizard of Williamstown). Part of our talk hit home immediately:
RB: I no longer feel compelled or obliged to finish books.
JS: Yeah, that’s really characteristic of a life spent reading. I am struck, when I talk to students or younger writers how much —- I guess I remember that feeling too —- how much they feel like, “No. If I got this far, in I want to say I did it [finished]?”
RB: There is always the occasional book that it takes longer to figure out.
JS: That’s the danger. If you bail too soon. I try to give books every possible reason to keep reading. But I don’t any longer feel bad about bailing. It’s not anger or contempt -— it’s “I think I get the idea here.”
In that same chat, Jim mentioned that he was reading and impressed by Bonnie Jo Campbell’s story collection, American Salvage. Which prompted me to pick up the copy of Campbell’s novel, the one that had been previously dispatched to some pile of miscellany.
Wow, this is a book that grabbed me from the first page. And though its resolution was profoundly satisfying, I was a little bereft to leave the lush and variegated world of riverfront Michigan.
So the next book I picked up was The Secret History of Costaguana by Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez — mostly because I had tried to read his American debut, The Informers, with little pleasure. Another chance for Vasquez, and a trip to beleaguered Colombia with Joseph Conrad as a character, seemed enticing. And I was digging my way in when I received Stone Arabia and remembered my intention of participating in another Ed Champion extravaganza.
So with no background (except some dust jacket info), I began to read. I reached Page 92, impressed by Spiotta’s precise and nimble prose but not engaged by the characters. Not unhappily, I had to put down the book to read Josh Ritter’s Bright’s Passage in preparation (such as it was) for my chat with Ritter (sweet and charming kid, by the way).
And then came Eddy’s first invitation (incitement?), which I may or may not have responded to with the clarity that I hope to exhibit in these later offerings. At that point, having read about half the book, I was clear that, had I not committed to joining a discussion, I would not have gone on reading Stone Arabia.
I don’t by any means see this as a negative assessment of the book. It wasn’t my kind of story. Plus, I already have to deal with the deaths of close friends, aging parents, and worries about losing my memory (and, ultimately, my mind) in real life. Plus the call of the unread always haunts me.
But then did I read the book in its entirety without other narratives impinging? As you can see, my thoughts so far about this book are so far mostly about my thoughts.
I see Part Two of this mission, where I now read what others have said and where I may arrive at something more objective (or less subjective) about Dana Spiotta’s book. That’s narcissism, isn’t it?
I suppose, since everyone is pretty much throwing their own interpretive bowling balls in this opening frame, I’ll do the same. I’m going to fire off a half-cocked argument in which I can this very moment poke holes. And what fun is a discussion if someone can’t be completely wrong?
I’ll start off (with apologies) by disagreeing with Diane — I think Jay is slightly more than a fill-in. He’s the fuckable opposite of Nik. Denise and Jay deliberately ignore each other’s memories, and actively avoid discussing their histories. They prefer to live (cringe for cliche) “in the moment,” and seem to survive as a couple so long as they both agree to do as much. With Nik, there’s nothing but history, “shared knowing.” Jay teaches the next generation about art, Nik makes it for an audience of two or three. Jay brings her Kinkade’s schlock (seriously, take a look at Bambi’s First Year for a lurid example of Kinkade’s art) that “piles up in her garage.” Nik brings art that she treasures: a mere taste of the art that’s piling up in Nik’s garage. She fucks Jay (albeit lukewarmly), finances and forgives Nik, and ultimately carries his torch. We get no news of poor balding Jay and his “off-putting, almost creepy” sweaters.
I think here we get Denise’s answer to Sarah’s question about the value of art, purity, etc.: Thomas Kinkade’s “art” vs. Nik Worth’s music and Chronicles.
The only thing that Denise really appreciates is Nik’s art, and seeing him carry that art to its conclusion was Denise’s self-imposed destiny. Nik “is” his art, for better or worse. Denise is his art’s audience. Just as it’d be unthinkable for me to tell Richard Serra what shape his next giant metal sculpture should take, Denise ultimately can’t stop Nik from following through with his art.
Denise admits that she’s complicit in Nik’s downfall. She is, if not pushing, then enabling Nik towards whatever end he comes to at the end of the book. Her need to write her own history of the events preceding “the crisis” meant to read as a pardon for her part in Nik’s death. Like Sarah mentioned, she’s rewriting family history in the Counterchronicles to fit the history she needs to forgive herself for Nik’s apparent suicide. An alibi.
That might also explain her need to get it all down, beyond just her failing memory. Even when she should “call someone” when she’s almost certain her brother’s killed himself. She has to write, she has to formulate a reality in which she isn’t a complete failure. Her brother’s sarcastic note about her being a “writer, now” could also be read as a grim prediction and condemnation of her rewriting history.
Throwing on my pop psychology hat now, Denise can’t stop him because she’s afraid to upset whatever mixture of drugs, alcohol, and psyche come together to create the art she alone can appreciate so well. Nik’s “concessions,” his need to “get off his face, out of his head, expand, shut down, alter, spin, fly, sleep, wake up, float” was there as long as Denise could remember.
Denise has her own “concession.” Nik, his music, his art, his life, is her life’s concession. If everyone lives with these consolations, and if the non-stop dissociative drugging was Nik’s consolation, Denise was willing to accept those terms so long as she could feel the “consolation of recognition” that she felt in Nik’s art. Because Denise is ultimately empty. She fills herself with whatever she can — she regularly “possesses” these “permeable moments” that wrack her with guilt and empathy. Again, I read these moments as further attempts to convince her audience (us? herself? Ada?) that we should forgive her, the patron saint of lost musicians. She’s so useless that she ends up crying on the doorstep of the woman she’d flown cross-country and driven hundreds of miles to “help.” How could she help Nik?
Finally, when Nik’s gone, Denise becomes the de facto arbiter of Nik and his art. Now, rather than just his audience, she’s his curator. “It’s hard to believe [Nik and his art] is really gone,” Denise says. “But there is this.”
“What remains,” says Ada.
“And what I remember, of course.”
I’d be hard pressed to think of a more dismal life than correcting YouTube commentators, but this is what Denise is finally left with. Maybe it’s enough, negotiating the Chronicles and Counterchronicles. It sounds like a sad fate to me.
I’ve enjoyed the conversation thus far. I’ll just ramble through some thoughts on this book
I’m not familiar with Spiotta. So I did not know what to expect from this book. But I found it very timely. I read Nik as a blogger before there was blogging. The Internet makes it very easy for artists and writers and musicians, and even people who are none of these things, to chronicle their careers or lives obsessively — whether those careers or lives are real or imagined, interesting or quotidian. It was interesting that Ada actually was a blogger and Denise stayed apprised of her daughter’s interior life via blog, while staying apprised of her brother’s interior life through the Chronicles, or his retro blog. Nik and his imaginary life, the Chronicles, blogging, social networking, sharing what we’re watching on Twitter — all these things speak to Sontag’s thoughts on living as having one’s life recorded. And this, along with the idea that we are not truly alive and can’t be remembered if we do not leave artifacts behind documenting that we were, indeed, here. Documenting our lives also connects to memory which was such a dominant theme in this book. Denise became the documentarian of many lives — her own, her mother and brother’s lives, sometimes her daughter’s life, sometimes the lives of strangers in how she followed the news. At times, I felt like she saw her responsibility as bearing witness.
I don’t know if Nik is an artist, but he certainly performs the part of the artist very well. I was fascinated by the sheer extent of how he chronicled his imaginary career and the obsessive attention to detail, and how Spiotta was able to convey the obsession so convincingly. I would not say Nik is an impostor as much as he is a coward. He believes in his art enough to make it, but he doesn’t believe in his art enough to push it beyond the claustrophobic community he has created himself — people who, for the most part, have a certain obligation to love and appreciate his art. I thought of Hoarders, which airs on A&E, as I read this book. The show follows people who hoard trash, dolls, beer cans, and other strange ephemera that holds some deep emotional significance, even as it threatens to drive these people from their very homes. I read Nik as hoarding this chronicle of his imaginary life, slavishly devoted to the upkeep of that imaginary life even in the face of what would be deemed, by many, as abject failure.
Edward asks what our judgments are worth when so many people are providing their own commentary and it is a good question: one that people in many fields are asking. Social media, the Internet, and what have you have made it possible for everyone to be a critic. So we have to ponder the value of criticism when it has been diluted the way it has in recent years. Nik himself proves that everyone’s a critic when he solipsistically reviews his own albums. He certainly takes that solipsism to a new level by sometimes critiquing himself negatively, but I find his project to be the ultimate expression of this notion of anarchic, overly democratic criticism — both creating art and then providing commentary on that very same art. Who does that? If a self-published writer (who is already pretty marginalized in the publishing world) were to then review her own work, the response would be swift and merciless. There’s a real tenderness, though, in how the people in Nik’s life view his Chronicles and self-criticism. It would be easy to think of Nik as a deluded, obsessive genius or impostor or coward but there’s also more to him. He demonstrates a real awareness, for example, when he articulates that he knows precisely the slant Ada will take in her documentary. He knows how he appears but remains undeterred. There’s something to that.
I would have loved to see more done with the design of this book. I kept wanting to see more evidence of the Chronicles other than the brief glimpses we were given. There was a real opportunity here to do something conceptually interesting and that opportunity was missed.
When Zadie Smith reworked E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End* into her excellent novel, On Beauty, few reviewers expressed dismay at her creative methodology. Frank Rich, who raved about Smith’s novel in The New York Times, noted “the blunt declaration of Smith’s intention to pay homage” in Smith’s first sentence. The Washington Post‘s Michael Dirda, who was even more effusive than Rich, called Smith’s novel “subtly laced with learned allusions” — which was something of an understatement. Similarly, Jonathan Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence” was also celebrated for appropriating numerous texts — even included in the 2008 edition of The Best American Essays.
In an age where Girl Talk and Creative Commons are as mainstream as Johnny Mathis, remixing and repurposing is clearly the usual, something to be celebrated among our greatest literary practitioners. Yet it is rather extraordinary that a few reviewers — all conspicuously out-of-touch with this present temperament — have seen fit to punish an author, one who has pretty much earned the right to do anything she wants, for reworking a novel considered to be a classic. What is most interesting about these feeble hatchet men is how little they comprehend the text they wish to feed to the dogs.
Upchurch’s indolent 300 word review — indistinguishable from a cranky Goodreads capsule banged out by a drunk in a matter of minutes — can be easily dispensed with. All Upchurch manages is a chickenheaded concatenation of pusillanimous modifiers (“crude,” “thin,” “choppy,” “baffling,” and so forth) for Ozick’s latest. He guzzles down his precious column inches praising James, as if desiring some librarian to pin a gold star to his lapel for dutiful reading, and he writes that Ozick “introduces [a] bracing, brutal twist without really developing it” without bothering to explain why. (This is not dissimilar Ulin’s sloppy pronouncement that Foreign Bodies “remains curiously unsatisfying.” More on Ulin in a mite.)
She is really a wonderful writer with a unique presentation and style. However I did not rate this higher as I liked none of the characters, not at all or even a little bit. They all had significant flaws and I found the reading experience unpleasant as they were just all so annoying. I did not care really what happened to any of them although I was curious enough to finish the rather short book and had hopes that they would change a little or something other than what they were throughout.
That comes from a Goodreads user named Allyson. Writing in her spare time, Allyson offers a more valuable negative review than Upchurch. She articulates — in fewer words than Upchurch — that she didn’t care for any of the characters, but notes that she was attracted to the style. And she also seems genuinely taken aback — certainly more than the newspaper naysayers. By contrast, Upchurch writes, “We also get prose that too often flails hyperbolically as it paints its grotesques.” Like Allyson, Upchurch doesn’t really expand on his observation. But Allyson is not so quick to condemn. The outside observer, curious about the balance between style and characters, is more interested in Allyson’s review. Therefore, why would any news outlet pay Upchurch money when we can get the same material for free? I understand that Upchurch has had his space cut. But Upchurch, in sticking with the superficial in his review, offers us no reasonable justification for his professional existence. He is as joyful as a starving urchin in Calcutta. One desperately wishes to feed him.
Of Foreign Bodies, David Ulin claims “there are no overt references to the novel, other than a few puns and one-liners.” Yet even in Ozick’s second chapter (the first after a letter), one encounters quite a number of Jamesian references.
In The Ambassadors, James’s Paris is often quite cold. Chad’s house, formed from “the complexion of the stone, a cold fair grey, warmed and polished a little by life,” takes “all the March sun.” Strether is led into “the rather cold and blank little studio.” Madame de Vionnet leads Strether into an antechamber that’s “a little cold and slippery even in summer.” By contrast, Ozick’s postwar Paris is piping hot, the victim of “a ferocious heat wave assault[ing] Europe.” Bea walks “through the roasting miasma of late afternoon” and in search of nonexistent air-conditioners. A superficial reader may view such an inversion to be merely the “mirror image” that Ulin claims it to be. But if Foreign Bodies is simply swapping the twin taps, why then would Bea also encounter a “visionary living robot” at a department store, which also has the “familiar” consolation of “cold air?” Ozick isn’t simply reversing The Ambassadors. She’s studying how French-American cultural relationships have developed over the fifty years since The Ambassadors. Ozick’s ravaged version of postwar Paris is quite different than the cultural mecca that enticed Strether, yet she daringly suggests that the new Paris appeals to Americans who are “vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink” — “literary tourists” who are hoping to “summon the past.” From The Ambassadors:
Nothing could have been odder than Strether’s sense of himself as at that moment launched in something of which the sense would be quite disconnected from the sense of his past and which was literally beginning there and then.
Ulin declares Ozick’s novel as merely “a counterpart” and “a mirror image, James’s story turned around.” But this lazy thesis fails to account for the Suite Eyre spa in California, featured near the end of Ozick’s novel, which serves almost as an wry answer to Thomas Mann’s European spas. Where The National Post‘s Philip Marchand rightfully observes that “not every character in Ozick’s novel is based on Henry James,” for Ulin, Foreign Bodies “seems more schematic than engaged.” By contrast, The Barnes and Noble Review‘s Tom LeClair is more daring (and interesting) in his suggestion that Ozick is responding in a way to a particularly callow interviewer who began his conversation by telling Ozick that her work was cut off from contemporary culture (and who then got his ass handed to him). Evidence for LeClair’s theory can be found within the novel, which concerns itself with sexual candor, abortion, and several other subjects that occupy our present time. But LeClair, in attempting to pursue “the physical revulsion and spleen that circulate through the novel,” offers a more curious and less turgid investigation than Ulin. Ulin’s inability to see Lili as little more than a refugee who marries Julian suggests very highly that Ulin skimmed (if that) the book’s last 100 pages, which offer quite a bit more with a figure named Kleinman.
Ulin’s miserly efforts to corral Ozick’s novel against another are matched by Mike Fischer’s impoverished interpretation. Fischer lauds one Ozick passage that “James could have written” and notes that Foreign Bodies “is filled with similarly uncanny echoes of the Master’s voice.” But he is too much of an incurious James fanboy to consider Ozick’s book on its own terms. He is blindsided by how closely Foreign Bodies aligns with The Ambassadors. And like Ulin, he too seems to have skimmed the final 100 pages. Fischer observes “the washed-out watercolors of Marvin’s two maddeningly inconsistent children,” which isn’t so much a cogent observation but an inept attempt at wit. Fischer likewise doesn’t have the acumen to consider Margaret’s vital presence as anything more than a sketch representing “narrative neglect.” (Never mind that Ozick, imbuing Margaret with a pebble in her heel, is exploring the symbolic possibilities of spousal neglect cast against an American backdrop.) Fischer makes no mention of the book’s careful concerns with the corporeal. And there’s one vital clue for Fischer’s doddering take in this “narrative neglect.” Near the end of Fischer’s review, Fischer claims that Ozick’s readers “stumble in the dark,” because “we’re not given an object lesson on the moral ambiguity that is central to understanding James.” This is no doubt a reference to James’s “The Art of Fiction,” in which the Master threw a famous fit over Walter Besant’s “conscious moral purpose.” But “conscious moral purpose” (or even James’s “air of reality”) isn’t the sole reason to read a novel. (Indeed, this is precisely what James was arguing.) Only a precocious child would ascribe such a singular criteria when assessing a book. But Fischer — “a Milwaukee lawyer and writer” and, quite possibly, a moribund Grisham aspirant — wishes to fish with a puny pole that will never hit the sediment.
It’s bad enough that Upchurch, Ulin, and Fischer’s conservative-minded deference for the original text prevents this bubble gum chewing trio from appreciating what Ozick is trying to do. Updike’s first Rule for Reviewing — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt” — has clearly been tossed out the window. But what makes these three reviews especially troubling is the instant drift to the superficial. This is especially dishonorable with a novel embedded with all manner of treasures. Not one of these three men proved capable of observing the canny way that Ozick closes the book at the turn of the year. Not one of these three men proved capable of understanding composer Leo Coopersmith’s role in the narrative, much less paying close attention to the way Ozick describes voices and musical instruments. (An opportunity to explore what Ozick’s novel in music might have been welcomed in a newspaper. But why attempt serious criticism when you’re firing blank bons mot?)
Robert Birnbaum, writing about Ozick in The San Francisco Chronicle, is quite right in suggesting that “the enterprise of book reviewing has become degraded.” When critical pygmies wish to denigrate an author that they lack the time or the curiosity to comprehend, one wonders why such infants aren’t devoting their pens to matters more suited to their collective ken: perhaps snarky synopses of television episodes or vapid profiles of Hollywood celebrities. If these are the hollow considerations we’re getting, then the death of newspapers couldn’t arrive any faster.
* — One fun fact: Forster, rather famously, didn’t care much for Henry James. Of The Ambassadors, Forster wrote:
The James novels are a unique possession and the reader who cannot accept his premises misses some valuable and exquisite sensations. But I do not want more of his novels, especially when they are written by some one else, just as I do not want the art of Akhenathon to extend into the reign of Tutankhamen.
(This is the fifth of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four.)
(A podcast interview with author Ellen Ruppel Shell will follow this afternoon. Thanks to all the roundtable participants for their input, Penguin Press for providing us with the books, and for Ms. Ruppel Shell for her time and generosity.)
I thought one of the most stunning aspects of our conversation was how emotional many of us became over a fairly straightforward work of nonfiction. It just goes to prove what I’ve always believed: money is a character in each of our lives. It has a point of view. It reacts to how you treat it. Just like pets and their owners so often look alike, a person’s money is imbued with their persona. When anyone starts talking about how we spend it or how we should spend it, we take it personally.
Now for a few musings:
The tighter you hold your money, the more you poison it.
To a man waist deep in quarters, fifty cents means nothing. To a thirsty man standing in front of a vending machine, it means everything.
Each one of us participated in this exercise freely and without compensation. We didn’t even have to shell out $25.95 for the book, which Penguin sent to us for free.
Think of a dollar bill. In your pocket. Slipped under a coffee cup on a diner counter. Floating in a filthy puddle. What does it mean to a Chinese laborer working to produce little plastic pink flamingo key chains or a shrimp farmer in Vietnam?
Now imagine that bill was a one hundred dollar bill. In God We Trust.
If there were a followup work of fiction for all this, my recommendation would be Frank Norris’s McTeague.
To close, I offer an image. Behold the looooong underwear rack at the Unique Thrift Store on Lorain Avenue in Cleveland. Although I did not purchase any of the used underwear, I dare say I felt at once obliged and uncomfortable taking a picture of it. For more on this subject, see the following blog post.
I believe that at the heart of this back ‘n forth is a shadowy sense of economic justice and environmental rationality. We have heard much about or are quite aware of the beast we are up against. Remember even in the mid-19th century, while he was way off about communism, Marx’s analysis of capitalism was pretty acute.
The recent spate of microeconomic analysis books promulgate strategies and tactics employed to advance the moneyed class’s interest(s) — which is the increase/accumulation of capital. So if most of us are exploited and alienated along the way, well, we have, uh, freedom. I’d place more value on these books if I could tease out a viable call to action — which I haven’t to date.
It occurred to me, since there was some discussion of bookshelves — meaning most of, if not all of us, are book “consumers” — that there was no mention of one of the most valuable community resources found in most Western communities — the library. Why do we saddle our selves with these bulky weighty objects that have little monetary value? Particularly in a mobile society. Books are a burden when we exercise that mobility.
It occurs to me that we have the material here to create a great mind-map from all the points brought up in this discussion, from the abstract overall theories that contextualize the analyses to great practical suggestions for how to actually do it (live cheap(ly), that is) at the ground level. Mind-maps, while not the solution to everything, can be a great tool for thinking about and remembering wide-ranging discussions.
This whole discussion got me pretty wound up thinking about crappy bookshelves, the price of eBooks, well-crafted objects, and the future of publishing. How do you make books worth the price (keeping writers fed) while still accepting the inevitable, that books are now completely free to copy and distribute?
I may be way too late to get in on the conversation, but I have finally finished the book, and in the process learned just how much longer it takes me to read non-fiction!
For me personally, the book was quite eye opening. While I could certainly recognize some ridiculous consumer behavior in my life, and there have been times when I’ve had to talk myself out of poor choices because they seem like a good deal when they really aren’t, I’m not sure I ever put it all together as a national sickness with such a long history!
So all of the psychological elements about fairness and getting a good deal and the detailed history of discount stores was helpful in giving me an overall picture of the situation. I think there are probably a lot of people like me, who have some vague ideas that all of this isn’t good, but don’t nkow the complete story or rather, enough of the story to begin to understand why it isn’t good and how it’s affecting our nation and our personal lives.
In regards to what can be done, this is perhaps the most difficult aspect. So now I’ve read this book, and I can understand how the products I buy aren’t necessarily good quality or a good deal and the food I eat has serious issues. But what can I do? Maybe for a while, I’ll be hyper-aware of everything. But can I really pull out of this seeming addiction? After all, a good portion of the book seems devoted to explaining just how it is an addiction. I think it would require a series of ongoing hard choices and the surrender of choice in fact.
Finally, about books, I have often considered how Amazon (the devil to many of you!) made book ownership possible. I never bought brand new books before I bought them on Amazon. Feeling like I wasn’t paying full price certainly led me to buy more. So it always confused me when people railed against Amazon on behalf of independent bookstores. Amazon didn’t steal my business. They just created some for itself. And yet truthfully, here I sit with so many books surrounding me, many of them unread, and realize that owning books, especially the number that I do, isn’t something that I need. Maybe this is something that is actually bad…for the environment, for the economy, and for publishing. Giving up book ownership is not something I want to do. It would be a “hard choice” and it’s honestly not one I’m willing to make at the moment.
I do think it’s interesting in relation to digital books, how high the demand for “cheap” and “now” is! Especially considering the response to Sourcebooks’s decision to delay the eBook edition of a popular forthcoming title due to the low price of Amazon’s eBooks. There definitely seemed to be a mentality: “We deserve this the way we want it and at the price we want it when we want it.” After reading Cheap, I do have to wonder what the real future of books will be.
And hey, thanks for letting me share a few thoughts so late in the game.
I am humbled and honored to have such a thoughtful panel with which to discuss Cheap‘s vagaries. Thanks to Ed for inviting me. I’ll do my best to keep up with you all.
Allow me to open by clarifying a few points, beginning with Ed’s Boar’s Head meat sandwich example. Ed lives in a sort of village, where he regularly patronizes merchants whose merchandize he knows and values. So when the new deli in town undercuts competitors by a quarter, Ed can make an honest decision—and all things being equal, he is perfectly within his rights to decide on the less expensive lunch. However, were Ed to find out that one merchant was using not Boar’s Head but advertising Boar’s Head and using some inferior no-name brand, or that said merchant was abusing his employees or pouring toxic chemicals into the street each morning, there’s a good chance Ed would be willing to pay—would indeed want to pay—the extra 25 cents to avoid patronizing that merchant. My point of course is that in the era of Cheap, we are not really in our home neighborhood. Rather, we are tourists in a strange land—often we don’t know where our purchases are made or who made them or with what. So price becomes the one “objective” determinant of value—and low price trumps almost every time. But as I hope that I make clear, price is not objective. It is highly subjective, and prompts a strong emotional response. (Speaking of Amazon, which many of you do speak of, recall how pissed off customers became when they learned that Amazon was charging some of us more than others for the same book! Huge emotions were raised by this—mostly anger– yet far less anger is evoked when we pay a discount price for very bad books.)
Another point — I went to great lengths to avoid the inevitable charge of elitism. It is for this reason that I went to IKEA (which, by the way, took me a full year to get into-it is a very private company.) As you all note, I also take on Whole Foods. I hope I’ve built to an argument that the 100+ year old concept of Frugalism is a reasonable antidote to Cheap — when I quote near the end from the 1907 work of Simon Nelson Pattern of the Wharton School of Business:
The typical capitalists are lovers of power rather than sensual indulgence, but they have the same tendency to crush and to take tribute that the cruder types of sensualism possess. The discipline of the capitalist is the same as that of the frugalist. He differs from the latter in that he has no regard for the objects through which productive power is acquired. HE does not hesitate to exploit natural resources, lands, dumb animals and even his fellowman. Capital to such a man is an abstract fund, made up of perishable elements which are quickly replaced… The frugalist…stands in marked contrast to the attitude of the capitalist. The frugalist takes a vital interest in his tools, in his land, and in the goods he produces. He has a definite attachment to each. He dislikes to see an old coat wear out, an old wagon break down, or an old horse go lame. He always thinks of concrete things, wants them and nothing else. He desires not land, but a given farm, not horses or cattle and machines, but particular breeds and implements; not shelter, but a home…. He rejects as unworthy what is below standard and despises as luxurious what is above or outside of it. Dominated by activities, he thinks of capital as a means to an end.
This is very far from elitist. I’m trying to show through gradual, level headed, heavily researched and cited evidence that “cheap” undermines us by lulling us into believing that our world and our lives are better thanks to cheap goods—when reality shows that the spiraling down of prices has led to a new norm in which the “China Price” becomes the price to beat. We cannot beat the China price, we cannot even approach it and survive as a democratic nation with a functional middle class. I support this view with evidence from history, psychology, economics — and lighten it a bit with personal experience that led me to ask and seek answers for questions raised by my own self defeating behavior as a bargain maven.
As for Janet Maslin’s review — it is everything that my book is not. Maslin begins by suggesting that I am not to be trusted because I describe the same experiment differently than did another author, Chris Anderson. But had Maslin done her homework — or had she truly read my book — she would have known that the experiment I describe is not the one described by Anderson. These are two completely different experiments. (You, dear readers, should have been tipped off by her Dan/Daniel beef — are you friggin’ kidding me?) Also, I’m afraid that at least one of you seemed to have read Maslin’s review more carefully than you read my book. I have never in my life stepped foot in a Red Lobster. The scene that Maslin scares up and bungles was a birthday dinner I enjoyed with friends at a funky little place that I do not name. During that dinner, I asked the wait person where the restaurant sourced their shrimp, and she smirked — telling me that, like most restaurants, the shrimp there was imported from Thailand. I had just learned where and how Thai shrimp is “farmed” — and could not stomach the idea of eating it. But as I say, my friends ordered it — and loved it — and I’m trying to show how difficult it is to know — to truly know — what goes into what we buy. I was attempting a bit of irony here…but perhaps it fell flat?
Finally, I’m sorry, but the charges of “We already know this” ring hollow to me. Yes, you may have had some strong ideas that cheap goods were problematic — but did you know how the invention of the shipping container, the bar code, and the price tag made “cheap” possible? Did you know the history of the shopping cart? Or how and why it snuck into discount stores? Or that its very presence makes us buy on average, one more thing per trip to Target? Did you know how very little we spend on consumer goods, and how the percentage of income we spend on fixed costs has skyrocketed in recent years — making said cheap goods all the more seductive? Did you know that low price per se had become a lens through which so many of us make our buying decisions? Or understand the high/low problem of cheap goods making quality goods so much more expensive? Did you know Gresham’s Law of bad money pushing out good — of Americans no longer being able to determine the quality of what we buy — and therefore spending too much on low cost goods, thinking we’re getting a “good deal?” Did you know that we spend 80 percent more in outlet malls than in regional malls, that IKEA designs to price and does whatever it takes to get to that price, and that the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai lobbied against workers rights in China? Did you really know how low price works to trigger the hedonic response in the brain? Did you know, for example, what agricultural economist Michael Morris said in the book — that no matter how the “slow food” movement romanticizes the abstract notion of “the good peasant,” the planet cannot survive without agribusiness? Yet at the same time, we need more small farms. We need both small farms and huge farms to survive. On a planet that is on its way to 9 billion souls, the idea that we can all sing campfire songs and survive on locally farmed food is a pipe dream. On page 171, I make a very clear argument about how low food prices in the West led to the food crises of 2007 and 2008 that starved millions around the world. Can you honestly say you all knew that?
Come on, we all knew that fast food wasn’t good for us, and we’d read of the horrors of the slaughter houses before. But Fast Food Nation galvanized millions around the world — especially the young. We know that local food is better food, and we have heard for decades about the dangers of agribusiness (see Mark Kramer’s excellent Three Farms, for example, published many years ago). But Michael Pollan’s message nonetheless resonates — and is no less important than it would have been had it been entirely new. The goal of this type of book is to illuminate what’s right in front of our face — to get into the guts of the thing, to analyze it and explicate it.
Like most journalists worth their nickel (and I do mean nickel), I believe that knowledge is power. If it weren’t power, vested interests wouldn’t work so hard to keep it from us and wouldn’t strive to hide the provenance of their products, for example, or work so hard to make it difficult for us to determine how they arrive at their prices. I wrote Cheap to empower consumers — which is to say everyone — with deep understanding of the history, politics, economics and psychology of low price — and what it means to us as individuals and to society at large. I offer an alternative strategy — the frugalist concept backed up with a few examples — and stand by it. I urge readers to vote both in the voting booth, and with their pocketbooks — and give some idea how these ideas have changed my life for the better.
I’m going to attempt to address as many of these interesting points as I can, even as we await Levi’s answer with book before him and take up Miracle Jones’s sensible advice on how to live cheap.
Early into the discussion, Peggy mentioned that she thought Ruppel Shell hadn’t entirely considered the idea of community-based commerce. I’d like to go further and suggest that the fault doesn’t entirely lie with Ruppel Shell, but with Nicholas Kristof’s blunt sentiment (quoted in the book) that “anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops.” For anyone who’s curious, and to partially answer Whet’s question, Kristof’s entire piece can be read here.
In her endnote, Ruppel Shell points out that Kristof’s been pro-sweatshops since the late 1990s, co-authoring articles titled “Two Cheers for Sweatshops: They’re dirty and dangerous. They’re also a major reason Asia is back on track.” (Rather interesting, this attention-seeking and extremely callous subhead appears to have been expunged from the New York Times’s archive. But it’s also worth observing that Ruppel Shell is careful to call Kristof “a generally insightful and sensitive reporter.”)
The workers who toil for long and dangerous hours in such hidden economies are very much on my mind, for I am presently doing my best to work my way through William T. Vollmann’s massive Imperial. It isn’t just a matter of time always being reframed as a monetary value. It’s the way in which we defend our lifestyles, whether it’s assuming that a book attempting to plunge deeper into an important issue is “telling us what we already know.” And it’s evident in the way Kristof writes such pat summations as:
This is not to praise sweatshops. Some managers are brutal in the way they house workers in firetraps, expose children to dangerous chemicals, deny bathroom breaks, demand sexual favors, force people to work double shifts or dismiss anyone who tries to organize a union. Agitation for improved safety conditions can be helpful, just as it was in 19th-century Europe. But Asian workers would be aghast at the idea of American consumers boycotting certain toys or clothing in protest. The simplest way to help the poorest Asians would be to buy more from sweatshops, not less.
Our enviable lifestyles would appear to trump any and all inquiry into those who toil to sustain it. We think that, if we mention a sweatshop, we can purport to comprehend what it is like to toil and suffer in that sweatshop. But how are we any better than Kristof in our assumptions? To what degree does contributing to the labyrinthine network of cheap cut-rate goods produced in exploitative situations actually help the Third World? Should we be concerned with our Faustian bargain? And did Ruppel Shell, as Peggy has suggested, not adequately represent these many labor categories by degree? No, the Walmart worker can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods. But then the sweatshop worker can’t afford to shop at Walmart. Does consumer confidence help the worker who is below us? Or is this all part of the same Shell game?
Which brings us to the issue of necessity, both real and fabricated, initially raised by Colleen and expanded upon by several others. Like Miracle Jones, I too admire Ruppel Shell’s personal honesty. And I think that understanding and vocalizing the ways in which we spend money are just as important in understanding the bigger economic picture. If such an approach amounts to “telling us what we already know,” then I would say this: If I asked each of you to publicly report the annual income that you entered into your 1040, then chances are you wouldn’t do it. That would be an invasion of your privacy. If I asked each of you to tell me precisely how you spent your money over the last week, complete with an itemization of costs and expenses for each day, chances are that you probably haven’t kept track. And yet, thanks to those dependable Gruen transfers, we’re happy to cling to a remarkably shifting sense of the deep discount deals we’re getting. To the point where Amazon consumers have been tagging eBooks with $9.99 tags because that’s the price they now want to pay. Never mind that, as Publishers Weekly reported back in May, Amazon actually loses money at that price point. Does Amazon get a fair pass, as Miracle Jones suggests? Yes and no, I think. One could make a similar case for Starbucks. On one hand, I wish that Ruppel Shell had delved into Amazon’s parasitic stranglehold on the industry. But at the possible risk of comparative oversimplification, I think it could be argued that IKEA’s ubiquity falls into more or less the same rub. As documented by Ruppel Shell, like Amazon, IKEA spends a tremendous amount of time framing the message, whether in the form of a twee Spike Jonze commercial or a slick and colorful catalog. More questions to the group: Should we look at discount culture on a case-by-case basis? Or is this all monolithic? (Yes, Amazon is online and caters to convenience. IKEA, on the other hand, is a big box store. Should it matter whether we physically or virtually participate in these Gruen transfers? The labor is still unseen, whether it’s Amazon workers being exploited, as the London Times reported back in December, or IKEA’s illegal cutting.)
To address Erin’s track suit dilemma, after thinking about this a bit, I’m inclined to agree — particularly in light of Our Man in Boston’s provocative remarks about elites and elitism. But I’m wondering if Ruppel Shell’s stereotypical descriptions are somewhat defensible, because outlet stores, discount stores, and shopping malls are, by way of their respective designs, spaces that prey upon our cognitive abilities to process numerous aesthetics. I don’t want to let Ruppel Shell off the hook on this point — and certainly Janet Maslin didn’t by suggesting that Ruppel Shell needed to “bring a professor of marketing to a Nevada outlet mall to tell her that bargains are phony,” although I think this anti-intellectual assessment isn’t entirely fair to what Ruppel Shell dug up. Much as casinos are specifically designed to keep us gambling (no clocks, no windows, lots of lights, free drinks), I’m wondering if outlet stores might be working in a similar way. Consider this 1998 article from Retail Traffic, which outlines very specific design decisions to convince the customer that she’s getting a good deal. It’s quite possible that this may be just as vital, if not more so, as brand name manipulation. And so I ask some of the pessimists in the peanut gallery this: If the book “tells us what we already know,” then just how aware are you of a store’s aesthetics when you go shopping? Bargain hunting may very well be a harmless American pastime for some, but if we’re more concerned with price and acquisition (instead of say the human souls who work at the store or the way the store is designed), then it would seem to suggest that we don’t know as much as we think.
Good Christ, I’ve been a wordy bastard. And I’ve only just begun to address all the interesting thoughts on the table. So I think I’ll stop for now, see what others have to say about all this, and return later, possibly after Levi has offered his informed answer to Colleen’s question (which I certainly look forward to hearing!).
I did want to point out one thing about bargain hunting. A lot of people bargain hunt at garage sales and thrift stores (I have seen some amazing things scored this way), which is another deal altogether and not at all related to bargain hunting at IKEA or Walmart. There can, in fact, be different types of bargain hunters and I don’t think they should all be grouped together in one large mass.
There’s one other interesting idea to think about as we consider poor in this country: how you live poor depends on where you live. Miracle’s rules would certainly not work in Alaska where poor folks eat King Crab and catch wild salmon, shrimp etc. — food that would be considered beyond the reach of the poor and/or middle class in the Lower 48.
And many middle class and rich folks love their pit bulls too. I’m just saying.
The relentless (some might use the banal modifier “24/7”) chimes of commerce create such a shitstream of noise that whatever we think we know is disabled in the face of the symphonic chord (think Mahler’s 10th): BUY THIS, BUY NOW.
Some of you all sound like you think you are immune. Good for you. I’m not. Not that I am siting on a pile of junk. But I am sitting on a pile. Did I mention the hoodies, the socks, and the caps?
The only antidote I have found effective is exhibited here:
Also, for those of you unaware of John Crowley, his new opus Four Freedoms should, if there is a modicum of reward for good works in this disinterested universe, gain him a proper audience.
(1) “Sex, conversation, art, and games are what actually make people happy.”
“Become cheap. Don’t fight it. Go so deep into cheap that you become competition for these eeeeeevil discounters. Become so cheap that you are affordable to everybody in all your favorite activities (sex, conversation, games, art), both rich and poor alike. You will have a good life.”
Miracle, I see that you are a genius like me. Remind me to send you my zucchini soup recipe. And as a side note: DO NOT purchase inexpensive marital aids. Just trust me on this one. Contact me off-list for more specific information.
A related Erinism: Buy your plates for $0.50 a piece at a garage sale. You’ll never have a matching set, but, once in a while, you may be able to afford to plop lobsters on them.
(2) Ed, regarding casinos, the poker chips are a trick as well. Your money has been subtly taken from you from the get go and you’re left with piles of inane plastic disks that go up and down with each spin of the wheel. To me, credit cards are a not-too-distant relative: a thin piece of plastic that magically gets you stuff, stuff stuff!
(3) Her Amazon comments aside, Ruppell Shell didn’t poke very hard at the implication of the Internet price comparison and the way it’s changed price shopping forever.
(4) On bookshelves:
So I’m on one of my endless walks and I pass some guy’s garbage pile. There’s two bookshelves in it.
“Shit,” I say, because they’re pretty good books shelves.
I keep walking, hoping that the bookshelves will be there after I’ve walked the 2.5 miles back home and returned with my Mini Cooper in order to heist the cast-off loot. As luck would have it, a buddy of mine is drives by and pulls up next to me to say hello. He’s in his pickup.
So, yeah, I have cheap bookshelves.
IKEA? I’ve never been to IKEA. Why would I drive all the way to Pittsburgh to go to someplace called IKEA?
I’ve now carefully reread the IKEA chapter, and I’m ready to respond to Colleen’s question from last week.
First, I think Janet Maslin scooped my answer when she wrote this in her mostly negative review of Cheap:
At the end of a chapter largely devoted to the horrors of Asian shrimp farming, she describes being in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends and being enlightened enough to eschew cheap shrimp in favor of chicken. Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.
I consider myself a very socially aware person. And I definitely think it’s important for me to make personal choices that are not harmful to others, or to the planet’s ecosystems. Of course, this is easier said than done. We each have our own ways of dealing with this uncomfortable truth. My own brand of social awareness places heavy emphasis on issues of global politics, war, and genocide. These are probably my own “pet topics,” and I think it’s interesting that the last time Colleen and I disagreed about a book, we were discussing Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke. I felt Baker’s book presented a very powerful argument that the Roosevelt-Churchill strategy in World War II led to far greater death, destruction, and genocide than was required to defeat Hitler, while Colleen (I hope that I am remembering correctly) did not feel the book presented a solid argument.
I also vividly remember one of the biggest disagreements I’ve ever had with Ed Champion. I thought Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine presented a solid and important argument about the insidious underlying purpose of the American misadventure in Iraq, whereas Ed had nothing but criticism for Klein’s work. So it’s funny that now Ed and Colleen seem to be bowled over by the arguments in Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap, while I stand here saying, “What?”.
I don’t think Cheap is a bad book, and I like Ruppel Shell’s basic mission in making us aware of the choices we make when we shop. But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped. She writes of declining forests and environmental sustainability problems, but this is a problem for all woodworking industries. She ends the chapter by swooning over a heavy (non-IKEA) oak bookshelf, but this bookshelf was also made by cutting down a tree. And even though it will last longer, Ruppel Shell knows there are not enough antique bookshelves around to furnish the world. Sure, if IKEA is committing environmental offenses, then these ought to be addressed and stopped. But Ruppel Shell only hints (and never establishes) that these offenses take place more at IKEA than at any smaller furniture provider. She also shows us that IKEA does try to be environmentally conscious, that they “use every part of the tree”, monitor their suppliers, etc. I see innuendo weaved into these sentences. But I find no clear case, no smoking gun. And Cheap is not a book about the environment or about the problems of an overpopulated world. So the environmental points especially come off as half-baked and incomplete to me.
What I was trying to point out in my earlier post here is that IKEA has an appeal beyond dumb cheapness. It is a positive lifestyle choice for people like me — mobile adults who like to travel light. If IKEA has problems — environmental problems, labor problems, quality problems — than these problems should be addressed and solved. But nothing I read here seems to add up to a call for a wholesale rejection of everything IKEA represents. I could take Robert Birnbaum’s suggestion and build bookshelves out of spare planks and bricks — but, Robert, have you ever seen photographs from the Chinese and South Indian infernos where bricks are produced? It’s not a pretty picture.
Finally, I have to complain about some shoddy work on Ruppel Shell’s part in this IKEA chapter. On pages 126 and 127 she goes on at some length about the Spike Jonze commercial that reminds consumers that furniture has no feelings, and then points to the irony that IKEA tries to create an emotional attraction to furniture by giving its pieces pet names. Then, on page 140, she repeats the exact same point, as if we’d never heard it before. “Doesn’t a name connote intimacy? Of course it does, and IKEA knows well the power of intimacy to move us.” It’s hardly such a powerful point that she needs to fully develop it twice in two separate parts of the book.
Often, when I read Cheap I felt as if I was being filibustered. Going on about the trivial issue of IKEA giving cute names to its objects, Ruppel Shell specifically mocks the store for “naming a wok after a girl”. But, reading the notes for the chapter, I discover that the wok in question is called “Pyra”. Clearly, this wok is named after the Greek term for fire, as every consumer who sees a wok named “Pyra” will understand. Ruppel Shell couldn’t find a better example than this? I don’t understand why she didn’t at least pick a better example (say, a bookshelf named “Billy”). It’s ironic that a polemic against “cheap” should have such problems with quality control.
I also feel personally put off after reading and rereading Ruppel Shell’s lush paean to the sturdy oak bookshelf “groaning with books” that her friend bought after rejecting the IKEA lifestyle. My cheap bookshelves “groan with books” too. Ruppel Shell’s poor friend will spend the rest of her life lugging that heavy piece of furniture around. This book absolutely fails to inspire me to want to follow her example.
In response to Robert’s point about immunity to the chimes of commerce. It’s impossible to be immune; even if you’re a conscious shopper, sensitive, responsible, the siren song (or “shitstream of noise”) penetrates.
A quick example (and I’m on the side of folks who appreciated Ruppel Shell’s personal anecdotes): There was a Whole Foods located less than a 10 minute walk from my house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I passed by the store on my walk home from work. It was where I bought my food. I knew it was more expensive, but it was a matter of convenience. Time and money. It was worth it to me to spend the extra bucks to save myself some out-of-the-way trip to a cheaper spot. About three months ago, I moved to Somerville, and the closest supermarket is an expansive, always-crowded Market Basket. It’s got all the same brands as Whole Foods. My first time inside the store, buying the same combo of foods, and more or less the same brands that I would at Whole Foods, I was staggered at how much less it cost. What would’ve been $18 at Whole Foods was a little over $7 at Market Basket. Unbelievable. There is definitely a delight in that. And yet, somewhere in the back of my head, there’s been a gnawing sense that the veggies are saturated with pesticides, that the yogurt is rife with hormones, and that it’s cheaper at Market Basket because the food is poisoned (obviously a little overstated, but you get the idea). And I’ve been sort of wowed about this, in the sense that, holy shit, Whole Foods has done a pretty powerful job marketing themselves. It also speaks to the the complications of price and worth and quality and value that Ruppel Snell explores. Would I rather pay $3.49 for a pint of cherry tomatoes at Whole Foods? Or $2.10 for the same pint at Market Basket? I’d rather pay less, but it does put a doubt — a completely irrational doubt — in my head. Am I getting something that isn’t as good (or, in the case of food, something that isn’t as safe)? Is this doubt borne from the power of Whole Foods’ marketing (and my action buying into it) or the mysteries of price and quality? Or a combo that is hard to know? Whatever it is, it’s certainly interesting to consider.
(1) Maslin actually got that detail wrong. She was never in a Red Lobster restaurant with friends. I’m surprised that not a single fact checker at the supposed Paper of Record got off his ass to grab the book, flip to the “Red Lobster” entry in the index, and confirm that Maslin was indeed quite wrong. (Damn those bloggers sitting in basements in Terre Haute!)
(2) My problems with Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine had more to do with her assumptive approach to the subject — specifically, tying nearly every one of her investigations to the “shock doctrine” brand name after the fact. As Richard Flanagan suggested in his novel, The Unknown Terrorist, journalism is not a sudoku puzzle. It was not unlike Gladwell’s “tipping point” or Anderson’s “long tail.” Ruppel Shell’s book, on the other hand, demonstrates substantive journalism, as can be gleaned from the solid and often detailed endnotes. (I mentioned, for example, the fairness she gave to Kristof.) I do have problems, as others have pointed out, with some of Ruppel Shell’s quasi-elitist descriptions. But if we look to the facts, the findings, the quotes, and the data, I believe that there’s much here in this book to consider, whether you think you know where you stand or not. And as Birnbaum said a few messages back, some of you think you are immune. (I’m sure as hell not.)
(3) The many problems with IKEA, and it is all thoroughly documented in the “Death of a Craftsman” chapter (and I would suggest consulting the endnotes), is that it represents one of greatest manifestations of discount culture. IKEA’s founder is Ingvar Kamprad. He is the seventh richest man in the world, but he still haggles with vegetable vendors and he still flies coach. IKEA has single-handedly altered Western ideas of interior design, perhaps to the same degree of Postrelian plaudits rightly derided by Jackson. Let me tell you a story. When I moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn, I had to leave behind all of my bookcases. These bookcases were hand-built by a team of craftsmen in the Castro. A place I highly recommend, if you’re ever in the market for bookcases in San Francisco, called Books and Bookshelves. The guy would custom-design them for you. And these shelves were built like houses. They wouldn’t wobble or fall apart like the IKEA bookcases. I was able to store a considerable amount of books, while ensuring that I had some wall space in my apartment that wasn’tt occupied by books. When I moved cross-country, I was forced to get rid of these shelves. I initially put up a Craig’s List ad for $50 a pop, which was a little less than one-third of the price that I paid for them. Very few people wanted them. And some people emailed me thinking they were IKEA bookcases. They literally hadn’t experienced bookcases built out of real durable wood. When I couldn’t get any buyers for the last few, I gave them away on the street. And again, people came up to me — in a seemingly civilized city like San Francisco, no less — asking where I had obtained these bookcases. They pounded the sturdy wooden sides. And I told people that they could store their DVDs in there if they wanted to.
The upshot is this. These people were mystified by real oak bookcases. Yes, the bookcase was made by cutting down a tree. But the difference is this. These bookcases last decades. An IKEA bookcase, by contrast, falls apart within a few years (at best) and the amount of wood is wasted. Furthermore, the discount culture keeps IKEA running around the world and engaging in illegal and decidedly non-eco friendly cutting practices. You tell me how that’s a positive lifestyle. Would you rather spend $200 on a sturdy bookcase that will hold thick Vollmann books and last a lifetime? Or $90 on a Billy bookcase that will fall apart because its not made to hold anything other than thin mass-market paperbacks (at best)? If your main complaint, Levi, is that Ruppel Shell’s poor friend is going to be lugging around a heavy piece of furniture every couple of years, well, that’s a specious position to take, given all the interim years of sturdy quality. But if you’re happy with your paper-thin particle boards, Levi, by all means, sing a song to IKEA. At the end of the day, we’re all singing hymns to the corporate empire.
A quick question: Are the IKEA shelves actually made of wood or particle board?
By the way, in between Eddie’s elitist custom book shelves (suitable also for CDs) and the IKEA items, are the inexpensive unfinished pine shelves that I’m sure are available in every city in the mainland USA. You can even paint them colorfully so as to distinguish your self as artsy. Or is it craftsy?
“But her case against IKEA, like many of the cases presented here, feels underdeveloped.”
And when you consider that some event references in Cheap happened just a few months ago, it’s obvious that book was turned around at lighting speed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I read it, but Cheap felt dense and rushed at the same time, perhaps because Ruppel Shell is very smart and Penguin wanted her to write very fast. I suspect Penguin didn’t want to wait around too long only to see the recession cool its heels, along with the sales of this book.
I will have to strongly disagree with the voices who argue that books like this are hypocritical luxury items, preaching to the converted readers who have enough disposable income that they can indulge themselves in a little passive system-bashing before bed. I disagree. The work of demystification is lengthy, heterogeneous, and necessary. And it has taken, and will take, many books, many websites, and a significant amount of talking so that we can see clearly what we are dealing with. This work does not take the place of social/economic activism, but doesn’t delay it or prevent it. Demystification runs parallel to activism, and is just as necessary. Empowering people without a clear analysis of exactly where they are in the system only paves the way for greater misery, and perhaps does more harm than good as people become discouraged, decides that the culprit is greater awareness itself.
I have been trying to stay abreast of the economy and our respective places in it, ever since I was a labor activist in the late ’80s. But there are still things I do not know — for example, the historical trajectory of retail commerce, its philosophy, and its pervasiveness — that I learn from books like this one. Cheap doesn’t go as far as some other books, either in reportage (like Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed) or in systemic analysis (like Rushkoff’s Life, Inc.), but it does occupy its role well. My only qualm was the book jacket. That fast-food yellow is repellent. I know it’s about cheap, but does having it look cheap further its aims?
In terms of Kristof’s pro-sweatshop arguments, we heard a lot of those arguments in my union days too. “Well, they’re better off than they were.” Or words to that effect. This was not made to justify a $12 hoodie purchase, but as part of a global labor discussion. Should we be reaching across national borders to organize? (Yes.) And did we? (No.) (I was with the UAW organizing clericals during that time.)
I think that this is a difficult argument to combat within the framework of a growth economy. Companies need to get bigger. Companies need not only profit, but profit that’s greater than the last quarter, and a profit rate that’s continually increasing. Buy more, spend more, acquire more, consolidate more, grow more, more, more. This philosophy of “More” (maybe that’s the next catchy title in this series!) does not align itself well, if at all, with other values — like preserving and maintaining limited resources on the planet — and accommodating, perhaps even promoting, other types of values, such as community, creativity, being loved, and playfulness (with kids or just generally).
I credit the environmental movement with giving this analysis greater scope by demystifying systems on Planet Earth, including global and regional and micro, and showing not only the interconnectedness of natural systems, but the interconnectedness of natural, economic and cultural systems. Without a general framework of sustainability (instead of “More”), I think the way out is not possible. But within sustainability, I think discussions like this can be actively fruitful. Levi, you are right in pointing out that, despite following the IKEA supply chain back to China and Romania, Ruppel Shell does not fully explore or incorporate the environmental angle here, and that she needs to. I think that’s part of her not addressing the larger overarching points, as I’ve mentioned before. Even smaller, more spotlight-style books like Cheap need to set themselves up correctly in relation to the larger themes, indicating where they fall within a larger spectrum of analysis and action.
(Re: my personal experiences with IKEA. I too move around a lot and don’t want some giant antique monster as a bookshelf. But I also dont’ want to support clear-cutting even in places I can’t see. I’m going to have to do some investigating of my own when it comes time to get my stuff out of storage again.)
Ed, you’re correct that Janet Maslin slipped up in describing Ruppel Shell in a Red Lobster when she decided to solve the problems of the world by ordering chicken instead of shrimp. It was a seafood restaurant, not a Red Lobster. BUT … the spirit of Janet Maslin’s point remains completely valid. The only reason Rupell Shell was able to feel comfortable ordering chicken instead of shrimp is because she had been studying the problems with shrimp instead of studying the problems with chicken.
And, Ed, that’s nice that you like heavy furniture so much. I also know that you like heavy hardcover books, and that you don’t mind lugging around heavy video equipment book conferences. Milan Kundera wrote eloquently of the choices we make between “heavy” and “light” lifestyles. I am decidedly a “light” person, and I will indeed continue to sing songs of love to IKEA. We haven’t even talked about the great Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam yet.
Well, apologies for my strident tone. Ed has a way of managing to time these roundtables to my mood and frame of mind rather ruthlessly. Last time, with the Human Smoke roundtable, I was literally in the process of losing my last family link to the era described in the book with the death of my grandmother. This time, I’m essentially living with my parents off in the hinterlands after finally drowning under the cost of living in San Francisco and figuring I needed to get out of the pool long enough to let some invoiced checks arrive for a breath of fresh financial air. (Good news. It seems I’ll be selling microwaves for General Electric soon, if a tad indirectly. But I digress.)
I think what I was trying to get across is that in a book like this, which attempts to elucidate a history to explain contemporary reality, a teleology is implied. In this case, the implied argument is this: In a society where everything is easily commodified and competition becomes one of quantity over quality, invariably there will be a race to the bottom in terms of both pricing and marginal profits. Environmental and social degradation hijinks ensue.
This is, in Ruppel Shell’s estimation (and many of our estimations), a bad thing. Of course, there was a guy way back in the industrial revolution, a student of capitalism if you will, who also noted the trend. What was his name again? Something German. Got a lot of people worked up. Led to some bloodshed (though, of course, not nearly as efficiently as that wrought by capitalism). Now he’s pretty much persona non grata in the wake of a bunch of nationalist revolutions that ended in autocracy, but cloaked their intent in his ideology.
Hence, like the Kristof example above, there are those who would defend the depredations of a sweatshop because they believe, “Hey, at least it ain’t feudalism!” (And of course, they’re not the ones sweating.) This is a sentiment which, oddly enough, the likes of Lenin, Friedman, Trotsky, and Rand would agree. It’s like the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers getting together on the issue of gun control. Counterintuitive, but true.
The problem is, when an industrial capitalist society bent on growth at all costs essentially runs out of room to grow — as it has now that it is truly global — then what’s next? Well, for starters, it seems that wages stagnate even as productivity grows. Because “sweatshops for all!” really means just that — an equilibrium in which which the working class works for crappy wages to produce cheap shit to sell to the rest of the working class, with the difference accruing to the owners of the means of production.
But in America we still have the luxury of sitting on the fat side of the trade balance, meaning our working class can maintain the delusion that they’re actually middle class because just look at this sweet bedroom set I just bought on my credit card even though I’m underemployed and lack health insurance. A delusion that we’re only too happy to perpetuate, to misquote Dick Cheney as Malcolm X, by any means necessary. Again, Ruppel Shell lays this all out (and succinctly so). I’m just paraphrasing.
In all this aspirational class alienation, however, a petit bourgeois strain of thought persists. And I felt that this impulse formed the crux of Ruppel Shell’s concluding arguments. Namely, that if we return to the somewhat sentimental capitalism of our forefathers (and they were all fathers), we can turn back to a Jeffersonian ideal of libertarian utopia. The argument goes something like this: “Capitalism isn’t bad, per se. Just industrial capitalism. And if it weren’t for the state colluding with certain corporations to corrupt the market, we wouldn’t be in this unsustainable clusterfuck that we’ve now found ourselves in.” Also: Sex slaves.
The funny thing is that my homelessness brought me to the family cabin as very much the prodigal son. I’ve actually found myself in what I imagine to be something near the image of postindustrial capitalist utopia that Ruppel Shell and her peers seem to be pining for — a small scale organic paradise with broadband Internet. A sort of info-agrarian mash-up of self reliance, sustainability, and all the free porn you can stand. For those who’d like to stay in the cities, well, you’ll be making the porn (natch) and selling the advertising in order to pay for the delicious goats and tomatoes that rural types bring to market.
To go back one last time to my original entry, the question that’s bedeviling me (and, to Ruppel Shell’s credit, it would probably not be so damn devilish if I hadn’t read her book and instead was rubbing myself sore with the porn and such) is whether there are enough cabins to go around, or whether this enlightened and entrepreneurial information age that our best and brightest are so eagerly striving for will simply be crushed under the weight of peak oil and slums and drought and war and all the sins of the industrial age which we (and I mean we, us here, and presumably Ruppel Shell’s intended audience) love to hate.
But I think trying to answer that is my book to write, in which case I may milk the middle class for my piece of the pie and buy a garden of my own to tend. And maybe a shotgun to keep the hungry hordes off my garden. The freeloading Commie bastards.
I am not quite finished reading Cheap, but I have to admit that I’m finding it more interesting than I expected, seeing that I generally don’t read non-fiction and can’t stand shopping — especially for bargains.
I enjoyed the quick history of American department stores and such trivia as the invention of the price tag. But it’s hard to imagine this book will capture the popular imagination in the way that other quasi-academic books have (Malcolm Gladwell, et al). The sum of all these anecdotes and quasi-scientific studies seems like a great big “Well, duh. Cheap? You get what you pay for.”
Miracle Jones hit the nail on the head with his preliminary preoccupations: First, that there is some downright weird stuff in Cheap that weakens Ruppel Shell’s argument, like the masturbation studies and the flying excrement neighborhoods. And second, as Miracle so aptly put it, I suspect most of America lives in a perpetual “Gruen transfer,” mindlessly wandering in search of the next siren call. I live in a cheap shopping district in Manhattan and I’m seeing shoppers walk by my window right now.
So I am stuck with a feeling that I know all this already. Ruppel Shell portrays our culture with a certain perspective that most of us may not have appreciated before, but it’s still the same old picture. A culture of mass consumerism in which intelligence, wisdom, quality, and beauty are devalued and degraded.
The depressing fact is that Ruppel Shell is preaching to the choir. We readers, the shrinking “elite” who take the time to actually read, know what she’s talking about. But can we possibly have any effect on the global corporations who are ramming the culture of cheapness down our throat? I doubt it very much. Global capitalism is brutal, ruthless, and backed by overwhelming military might. Ruppel Shell may be right in her assessment, but Cheap probably won’t make an impact. (Of course, the pertinent question here is: Will it sell?)
Levi: I’m curious. Does reading Ruppel Shell’s sustainability argument about IKEA change the way you perceive your shelving units? Since you are someone who is aware that you are getting a “cheap” product and you’re fine with it because it works best for your purposes, did her discussion of its larger cost come as any surprise? And does it affect how you feel about the product or company?
I’ll have a lot more to say in response to the many interesting points offered so far. But I wanted to reply very briefly to Levi’s remark on not seeing the problem or the ethical violation of fixing prices. I’m wondering what he (and others) think of the following episode from Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide. The book is a tad too popular science for my tastes, but it does feature a very interesting profile of Herman Palmer, a Bronx financial counselor who helps working-class people manage their debts for a nonprofit organization. One of Palmer’s chief strategies is to cut up a debtor’s credit card and place the plastic remnants in a large jar containing other shards. Here’s the excerpt outlining the pernicious pitfall:
When Herman talks about the people who have been helped by his financial advice, his face takes on the glow of a proud parent. There’s the plumber from Co-op City who lost his job and started paying rent with his credit card. After a few months, his interest rate was above 30 percent. Herman helped him consolidate his debt and get his expenses under control. There’s that single mother who couldn’t afford daycare. “We helped her find other ways to save money,” he says. “We cut her expenses by enough so that she didn’t have to charge everything. The trick is to notice whenever you’re spending money. All that little stuff? Guess what: it adds up.” There’s the schoolteacher who racked up debt on ten different cards and paid hundreds of dollars every month in late fees alone. It took five years of careful discipline, but now the teacher is debt free. “I know the client is going to be okay when they start telling me about the sweater or CD they really wanted but they didn’t buy,” Herman says. “That’s when I know they are starting to make better decisions.”
Most of the people who come to see Herman tell the same basic story. One day, a person gets a credit card offer in the mail. (Credit card companies sent out 5.3 billion solicitations in 2007, which means the average American adult got fifteen offers.) The card seems like such a good deal. In big bold print it advertises a low introductory rate along with something about getting cash back or frequent-flier miles or free movie tickets. And so the person signs up. He fills out the one-page form and then, a few weeks later, gets a new credit card in the mail. At first, he doesn’t use it much. Then one day he forgets to get cash, and so he uses the new credit card to pay for food at the supermarket. Or maybe the refrigerator breaks, and he needs a little help buying a new one. For the first few months, he always manages to pay off the full bill. “Almost nobody gets a credit card and says, ‘I’m going to use this to buy the things I can’t afford,'” Herman says. “But it rarely stays like that for long.”
According to Herman, the big problem with credit cards — the reason he enjoys cutting them up so much — is that they cause people to make stupid financial choices. They make it harder to resist temptation, so people spend money they don’t have. “I’ve seen it happen to the most intelligent people,” Herman says. “I’ll look at their credit card bill and I’ll see a charge for fifty dollars at a department store. I’ll ask them what they bough. They’ll say, ‘It was a pair of shoes, Herman, but it was on sale.’ Or they’ll tell me that they bought another pair of jeans but the jeans were fifty percent off. It was such a good deal that it would have been dumb NOT to buy it. I always laugh when I hear that one. I then have them add up all the interest they are going to pay on those jeans or that pair of shoes. For a lot of people, it will be around twenty-five percent a month. And you know what? Then it’s not such a good deal anymore.”
These people aren’t in denial. They know that they have serious debt problems and that they’re paying a lot of interest on their debts. That’s why they’re visiting a financial adviser. And yet, they STILL bought the jeans and the pair of shoes on sale. Herman is all too familiar with the problem: “I always ask people, ‘Would you have bought the item if you had to pay cash? If you had to go to an ATM and feel the money in your hands and then hand it over?’ Most of the time, they think about it for a minute and then they say no.”
I only go to Walmart when I need to buy Suave shampoo, Saran wrap, Q-tips (I buy the generic ones) and two or three dozen other really irritating things. I usually put said purchases on my credit card, which I pay off monthly in order to earn the one percent rebates.
There used to be another Walmart about 8 miles away. It was built on a landfill. The landfill started leaking noxious gasses that were finding their way into the land of Low Prices. They had to close that Walmart.
In each of the older toilet tanks in our home, you’ll find plastic bottles filled with water and sand that displace some of water therein and lessen the volume of every flush. We put these bottles in right after we moved into this house almost 17 years ago. We conserve everything where we can, but neither my husband nor I would ever leave less than a 20 percent tip. Since we do not want our kid to have to take out a college loan, there is no AC in our house. Vacations are long weekends to places like Mammoth Cave. And if you think my beer is shitty, you should try a cup of my coffee. I drink it with a smile.
Ed, I’m glad you brought the credit card angle up, which is totally insidious. Ruppel Shell doesn’t get into it much, perhaps because she’s so focused on discount retail. If anyone has time, I highly recommend the documentary Maxed Out. (You can watch it online via Amazon and also on Instant Play on Netflix.) [EDITOR’S NOTE: With great respect to the lovely Ms. Nelson, I’m afraid I must note the discount culture irony. The film is also available on DVD, but at a higher price. Do the filmmakers get more of a cut through the DVD or the cheaper on-demand option?]
Credit card companies target the poorest, and least credit-savvy, segments of the population to make their money. They do not make money on you if you use the card responsibly and pay in full every month, or if you hold it in reserve only as an emergency fund. They do make money off you if you run it up to the limit and then only pay the minimum, or, better yet, miss payments and run up fees and penalties.
Providian anyone? Capital One? MBNA, who is one of the top contributors to the Republican Party? These predatory lenders have a business model that’s just like the check cashing places out by the strip mall. Once you’re in their system, you will pay and pay and pay. Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard bankruptcy lawyer interviewed in Ruppel Shell’s book, plays a large role in Maxed Out too, explaining how this works. It is counterintuitive. How can they make money off the little people who have almost none? And yet, they do. Lots of it.
This all plays into something in us that is very difficult to resist. And I’ve been there, as have some of you. Hey, a little extra for free! Just for now. This will so help me out, get me over the hump, and I need some stuff. Yeah, I have to pay it back, but only eventually. And I can do so in little bits. Meanwhile, the total climbs higher and higher. Until things are worse than at the beginning. And now you don’t need a little help. You need a lot. And they’ve started calling your family. And your boss.
There is one more insidious thing about credit cards (well probably more than one) — you need one for your social reputation. I don’t mean that as some abstract thing. You need one to rent a car, to buy an airline ticket, to stay in a motel, to rent an apartment (in some places), and, in some places, even to get a job. You need one as a second ID, the “real” ID, that validates your active membership in society. Without a credit card, you have no reputation (or worse, a bad one). You cannot do things. You are suspect.
Erin, so maybe you’re not elite — it’s my problem. The truth is, I’m so elitist that I don’t even like fireworks. Even as a child, they impressed me as bombs bursting in air–more martial than anything else. We’re free to accept or reject superficial labels like “down to earth” vs. “elitist.” I certainly didn’t mean to insult anyone.
I did think, however, that this book — which so carefully describes the lengths that shoppers will go (the outlet malls, for one) to score a designer label or a brand name — was referring to the “elitist” that runs rampant in so many psyches. Or maybe not. I don’t shop at outlet malls. It’s not worth the time and trouble. And here again, I can be called an elitist for not joining the outlet crowd.
To me, elitism is not a soul-sickness. It’s not a vice. It’s more a matter of not being able to get with the big group. Not belonging; not joining. I know there’s the connotation that real elitists think they’re better. I do not think I’m better. I do think I’m different. And admitting that sets me up for criticism, as if by different I mean special. I don’t necessarily mean special. Just different.
Kudos to Peggy’s “great unasked question” and the subsequent points she raises. Life Inc. sounds like a book I need to visit. But I need to bellyache about the government for a bit anyway. As Ruppel Shell copiously notes in her book, many of us are hard-wired to find a good value or a good price. To that end, I shop at a discount grocer and Walmart. But I also ride pretty far left of center for a reason. I just don’t think that enough people will shop responsibly or self-regulate to make a difference. I try to be conscientious and I try to conserve. Many others do. But it is simply not enough. This is why we need government. I want legislation that supports fair minimum wage. If the best price around is a few cents more in order to pay that wage, I have no problem shelling out $1.25 for my Suave shampoo instead of $0.99. Furthermore, I’m happy to pay taxes that support Medicaid and food assistance. I’d love to see Medicare gradually expanded to relieve the private sector of the choking health care/health insurance behemoth. I’m all for college becoming part of the public school system. I’m for a government that supports effective regulation and inspection of imported food and goods. The list goes on and on. Yes, I know all this means more taxes. I’m okay with that. I am happy to have a little less in order to live in a society that respects and values human dignity. Sorry about the flag-waving, but somewhere along the way, taxation became a dirty word and unfettered capitalism/consumerism became the new golden idol. Call it the bastard child of Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics coupling with eight years of Bush’s crazed deregulation.
I am not naive. I know the lobbyists, the big corporations, and the big money are all staggering entities. There’s also plenty of regular red-blooded Americans who would decry every assertion in my previous paragraph. They usually vote Republican. All I can hope for is that the blue push which we saw in the last two elections starts the juggernaut moving slowly but surely leftward.
A few more notes:
I thought Ruppel Shell’s recounting of discount retailing history was interesting, but that she devoted too much space to it.
Sarah: Point well taken about publishers wanting books such as Cheap to be personalized. Unfortunately for me, Ruppel Shell’s brand of personalization did not necessarily warm this subject matter. For instance, when she references people “wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans” on page 97, the tone felt condescending. That’s purely subjective on my part, but there it is.
Regarding the notes, I did find them valuable, but also distracting. I always knew they were lurking back there. Whenever I came upon something that intrigued me (the liquified manure for instance), I had to decide whether or not to interrupt my read and see if there was more to be had in the back of the book. When there was worthy content, I had to wonder why Ruppel Shell didn’t just incorporate it in the general text. The notes also struck me as just one more reason that we should be reading ebooks. We all seem to be able to handle embedded links online. Books like Cheap beg for the convenience of a click and a shift of the eyes instead of the intrusive page fumbling begged by the elaborate notes. But all that said, 232 pages of text followed by 63 pages of acknowledgments, notes and bibliography was stunning to me. Of course, had this been an eBook, I wouldn’t have been comparing the thickness of pages devoted to text to the thickness of pages devoted to explaining said text, now would I?
Honestly, while we could pick out certain points we wish were expanded upon or not, I think the purpose of the book was to make the general reader think before they buy. We haven’t talked much about the social history Ruppel Shell presents here on department stores and malls. This was all very interesting — especially how outlet malls in particular are designed to keep people moving and to a certain degree uncomfortable (no covered walkways, etc.). I also thought that her passages on pricing and the example of the mattresses was very well done — we don’t want an inexpensive mattress; we want an expensive mattress that is priced inexpensively (even though the prices are all, to some degree, made up).
One thing I was worried about was that this would be a big Walmart bashing book. But it’s not. I appreciated that Ruppel Shell even framed Whole Foods in a less than flattering light. It’s not as if people need to aspire to go there for the good stuff. Ruppel Shell makes a point that the expensive stores are just as culpable as the dollar stores in manipulating the public.
To me, that was rather key in the book. It also addresses this “elitism” issue. (That is a word that I think will be a lightning rod for some time due to the election.) Ruppel Shell’s point seems to be that the bargain idea crosses socioeconomic lines. While a bargain for some folks might seem crazy expensive to some (the Whole Foods example), it is still another person’s bargain. But then, as she explains in various ways, the bargains are revealed not to be bargains at all — either in their value to you (they won’t last long or flat out aren’t worth it) or in the true cost to others (or the environment, etc.). Levi is right that, for some items and some people, a cheap price for a short-term purchase may be worthwhile. But as Ruppel Shell shows, there is still the fact that the true price isn’t being exposed to the American consumer. It’s like how some of us are enjoying cheap energy while West Virginia and Kentucky pay with environmental destruction, health problems, etc.
I think Ruppel Shell did a very good job of writing a thinking person’s book that will appeal to anyone who shops — in essence, to pretty much anyone. You could argue that folks who have to buy cheap because they don’t have much money wouldn’t bother reading this book. But I don’t think that’s true. As I stated earlier, that’s the life I was brought up in. And I know that both my parents would be very interested in this book. No one likes to be manipulated. And at its heart, this is what Ruppel Shell is exposing.
I thought the endnotes were excellent also. But as a historian, that’s something I look for in a book like this one.
Here’s the OED (that’s the Oxford English Dictionary for you non elitists)
elite noun & adjective. Also élite. L18.
[ORIGIN French élite, use as noun of fem. of obsolete pa. pple of élire, †eslire from Proto-Romance var. of Latin eligere elect verb.]
► A noun.
1 The choice part, the best, (of society, a group of people, etc.); a select group or class. L18.
K. M. E. Murray Oxford still catered…for the social elite, who could afford to go to the University as a…luxury. R. Rendell She…spoke of her family and its immediate circle as of an élite.
social elite: see social adjective.
► B attrib. adjective. Of or belonging to an elite; exclusive. M19.
elitism noun advocacy of or reliance on the leadership or dominance of a select group elitist adjective & noun (a person) practising elitism
Here’s American Heritage:
e·lite or é·lite
n. pl. elite or e·lites
A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” (Times Literary Supplement).
The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.
e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism
The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class
I am pretty certain that I am an elitist — and people, I think that all of you are too.
This pow wow, as such things are inevitably driven to, has devolved into a cross-hatching of confusions and personal defenses. That’s all understandable, as examining human behavior reveals all manner of anomalies, illogics, and base behavior; none of which we are comfortable admitting are parts of our own persona (in the spirit of [sort-of- ]full disclosure, I own more socks, baseball caps and hoodies than anyone should).
Bad boy Eddie introduced the subject of our behavior around credit (cards). That’s a whole other ball of wax— and whatever irrationalities are manifest you can bet that the shylocks and the money changers have worked out an elaborate rigging of the system so that we (you and me) can’t win. Remember: The House never loses.
Levi talked about the practicality of IKEA. Which makes sense. Except you can, for example, do bookshelves for less (cement blocks and lumber and unfinished pine shelves). May be that’s too much work. Personally I think IKEA and such outlets contribute to a stultifyingly dull sense of habitat.
To me, the big unaddressed issue is how we perceive value. Price is not about value. And I don’t think it ever really has been. What determines the price of a Hermes scarf, a Brioni suit, and Jimmy Choo shoes? Workmanship? Quality materials? Or the campaign that convinces some people that $5,000 or $6,000 is okay? Or that $25 or more is the price of a good cigar? (By the way, with workers, farmers at the bottom of the pyramid of production of luxury goods don’t fare better than the those making whatever products end up in Walmart, which, by the way, is no great bargain past a select number of items that are promoted.) And apropos of nothing, Whole Foods is vastly overpriced and oddly managed. (Did you read about the Whole Foods worker who was fired for planning to eat a tuna fish sandwich? Then Whole Foods tried to impede his collection of unemployment comp.) But Whole Foods is apparently well branded. I work part time at a Trader Joe’s and I can declaim on this subject at length if prodded.
Anyway, there will not be a revolution — certainly not by consumers. (By the way, Cheap is part of a long line of books about (us) dumb and benighted consumers going back to Vance Packard’s Nation of Sheep in the early ’60s.) Nope, the correction that will dismantle the mass market will be the slippery downward slope of peak oil and the reconstitution of society circumstantially deprived of energy to sustain the oil-based industries and products. Which is to say that James Howard Kuntsler (The Long Emergency) has me convinced.
For those of you who believe that reading these types of book make us smarter consumers, well, good luck.
P.S. One thing that continues to bother me is the rapid decline in the price of books (clearly an example of the disparity of price and value). Go to Amazon and see what some recently published books are being offered at. And remainders! There’s a surefire way for the book publishers to commit suicide.
Janet Maslin has some dismissive things to say about Cheap in the New York Times, where she pairs it with Chris Anderson’s Free: The Future of a Radical Price. “Neither author is entirely to be trusted,” Maslin writes. “And neither author has written a book that is as sharp as its one-word catchy title.”
I wonder about Robert’s most recent point about whether these sorts of books can actually be effective tools of change, and whether these books can serve in making us “smarter consumers.” I think I may tilt more towards Robert’s pessimistic take. Being more aware is one thing. We know now that we should care whether our apples were flown all the way from Argentina, and we know that it’s not a good thing to pay $4 for a T-shirt if it means that 11 year-old kids were involved in making it. But being able to care about the backstory of a product — the circumstances it was made, how far it had to travel to arrive on the shop’s shelf, &c — and being able to make choices based on those facts are two completely different things.
But this feels like a pretty obvious point, and so did many of Ruppel Shell’s examples. Some of her examples were mildly illuminating (the shrimp discussion, for example, if only for its gross-out factor). But as Janet Maslin points out in her response to the book, Ruppel Shell boasts that she decides to opt for chicken over shrimp at a Red Lobster dinner. As Maslin writes, “Yet cheap chicken-farming isn’t any less ghastly. It just doesn’t happen to be addressed by this book.” It’s all about picking your battles, I guess.
I have been thinking a lot about what Levi has said about IKEA and disposable shelves. It makes some sense, and, not to overstate the case, perhaps it helps in making us less attached to actual things (even if they do have cute Swedish monikers). For me, though, as someone who loathes shopping to an extreme, I think I’d rather pay a little more for the shelves, if only to avoid having to go back to IKEA to buy replacements.
I’ve finished reading the book, and I enjoyed reading the history of buying and selling stuff in this country and just how we got to the grotesque place we are today. Many of Ruppel Shell’s investigations into cognitive psychology either confirmed my intuitions or struck me as obvious. For example, I am already acutely aware that the “Winner Takes Nothing.” I know about deforestation, the pitiful working conditions, and these policies the world over. I’ve tasted that muddy, medicine-tinged shrimp. And while I may have been naive about that one word, I know full well that nobody around here is a “worker.” They’re associates and representatives with whom I’ve shared three-hour there and three-hour back bus rides. Except they get off the bus at the Woodbury Mall while I continue to the next stop to visit a friend who rents a bungalow outside Monroe, NY during the summer.
In the evening, the same passengers join me on the bus returning to the city. They’re now weighed down with glossy Dolce and Gabba shopping bags, along with (and there’s no real way not to notice) Coach, Tommy Hilfiger, and Versace shopping bags. And aside from whatever name brand clothing and leather goods these people may have bought, they’ll carry those high-end, name brand shopping bags around on the subway until it’s time for their next day trip to the designer outlet mall.
Overall, this book made me as anxious and as unhappy as shopping does. Count me an extreme case of HNFC: If I happen to hit upon a “bargain,” I do not enjoy it. I do not feel richer and frankly it would amaze me if the pleasure paths in my brain lit up. For I am all too aware that my personal bargain means another person’s loss. Yet I’m no happier knowing I’ve lost money in an institutionalized swindle.
When I’m feeling tougher, I don’t have time to figure gains and losses in percentages of pennies. As I’m more apt to see it, I indulge myself in that luxury — without counting pennies. For if I were truly poverty-stricken, I would need to empty trash bins, as people are doing right now outside the Dunkin Donuts across the street. My shopping cart would be the one I’d somehow procured in order to spend my days and nights accumulating recyclable waste and other junk. Scrounging for “bargains” feels like the high-end version of that activity. And as Ruppel Shell says, it’s work.
The extinction of craft and creativity for the sake of “smarts, drive, ambition, and speed” depresses me. A world without appreciation for craft, skill, and patience is not a happy one for me. Give me fiction and I’ll get out of here.
P.S. Nina’s remark about “cheap chicken” awoke a horrifying description I once read about how corporations breed poultry so that their beaks are barely existent. The birds’ throats are then wired open and liquefied feed, antibiotics, and hormones are poured into them, propelling the already genetically engineered birds to grow up faster and fatter in dirtier quarters.
(This is the first of a five-part roundtable discussion of Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. Other installments: Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five.)
Since present economic developments have caused nearly all of us to reconsider just how we spend our money, I selected Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap for our latest roundtable discussion. For those readers who aren’t familiar with the roundtable discussions, this website will be devoting the entire week to discussing Ruppel Shell’s book, and we’ll be serializing the conversation in five chunky installments from Monday through Friday. The discussion, as you’ll soon see, got quite spirited at times. But the hidden costs of “cheap,” as it turned out, proved to be quite complicated. Be on the lookout for cameo appearances, some unexpected revelations, and a lengthy podcast interview with the author. And feel free to leave any additional thoughts or personal experiences in the comments. Your communications will help many of us to understand and rethink a very important topic.
“Remember, time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad or sits idle one half of that day, though he spends but six pence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.” — Benjamin Franklin
There’s a bodega that opened up in my neighborhood with a bright and muti-hued awning reading GOURMET DELI. But I’ve examined the goods. The owners are using the same Boar’s Head meat found at nearly every place packing hero sandwiches in the five boroughs. But what this deli has done is undercut the competition. Another deli, situated just one block south, sells a turkey hero for $4.50. About three months ago, this deli had raised its price by a quarter. The regulars still grumble. After all, everything’s going up. Metrocards, milk, beer. But they slide over their four paper George Washingtons and their two copper-nickel George Washingtons. The hero remains a “good deal.”
But the new “gourmet deli” now offers the same sandwich for $4.25. The old price. The cheaper price.
And after reading Ellen Ruppel Shell’s fascinating book, I now find myself acutely curious about whether this “gourmet deli” is making the proprietors any money. I find myself morally compromised when purchasing a hero sandwich. And I’m wondering how many of you have experienced similar feelings. I want to know if every ingredient has been obtained through equitable labor. But unless I spend a good deal of my time asking about wholesalers and suppliers in the neighborhood, I’m probably not going to get even half of the answer.
The great irony with the Ben Franklin quote (which is dredged up in the book when Ruppel Shell mentions Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day, which I’ll get to in a minute) is that we’ve become so dependent upon getting the best bang for our buck that all other time-based considerations fall by the wayside. Ruppel Shell brings up the telltale consumer who is willing to drive 75 miles out of their way to an outlet store to buy inferior goods for a cheaper price. She even describes a personal example: a man who drove up 75 miles to check out her car (on sale), noticed a few scratches, and then drove right back home. This is a curious trade-off, running contrary to Franklin’s wisdom. (Then again, we also live in a nation in which our thrifty founding father appears on one of our most expensive dollar bills.)
While Ruppel Shell presents a number of convincing developments that partially explicate this mentality (to name just three, the fixed price introduced with John Wanamaker’s price tags, Victor Gruen’s use of social space to develop the “shopping towns” that are now ubiquitous and that keep shoppers hanging around, and the “affordable luxury” seen with Coach discount leather), I’m wondering if you folks feel that Ruppell Shell is being too hard on the consumer. I mean, we can’t all be mindless sheep, can we? Is it not possible that our trips to outlet malls or our determination to spend endless amounts of time searching for the best deal may not be entirely tied into discount culture? There is such a thing as window shopping. And maybe we want to waste our time finding odd or unusual things. (I will confess that one reason I like to check out some of these dollar stores is to marvel at the shoddy merchandise. I mean, how often do you see bubble gum from 1972 that’s still on the market? Very rarely do I buy anything.)
Before we plunge into Ruppel Shell’s IKEA Billy Bookcase example, which to my mind (and sadly my personal experience), truly reflects a pernicious reliance upon discount culture over quality, I want to first establish whether Ruppel Shell may be inadvertently suggesting that “bargain hunting” might be the new way of wasting time. Does discount culture and consumerism maintain such a hold on American culture that this is now how we spend most of our leisure hours? Should we pin the blame on corporations such as Wal-Mart for injecting capital into small towns and suburbs and establishing a town center? Preexisting local economies may not have been able to do this. Then again, how much of this is illusory? (Ruppel Shell cites a fascinating study from Emek Basker. Basker investigates the so-called “Wal-Mart effect” of prices lowering throughout community stores whenever a Wal-Mart moves into a community. His findings suggest that not all prices fall. Are there other “effects” beyond pricing that create such conditions? And should we blame Wal-Mart or the people who want a Wal-Mart?)
Citing Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage is always a good idea to explore in a book of this type – seeing as how free market advocates often dust off this 200-year-old idea and cling to its possibilities like an AIG executive braying for another government bailout. But I’m wondering if comparative advantage is a viable application when we’re talking about consumers who want more than what a local economy might be able to give to them.
I’m also wondering if it’s fair to chide customers for standing in line for Ben & Jerry’s Free Ice Cream Day. Sure, the flavor options are limited. But it’s not as if you’re lining up for melted vanilla ice milk. And, yes, you can always go to another Ben & Jerry’s, slap down three bucks, and get an ice cream immediately. But are people lining up because bargain hunting and consumerism have replaced less conspicuous ways of frittering away our time? Is it the consumer or the corporation who is guilty of letting discount culture and bargain hunting dominate our culture like this? Have we lost the ability to let time simply be time? Why most every action have a monetary value? (That last question may involve bringing up Chris Anderson’s book, which I’ll let the others bring up, for obvious reasons.)
That may be a lot to throw into the fray, but I think I’ll close this opening sally by returning back to my neighborhood. In the past nine months, my neighborhood has seen numerous mom-and-pop stores close their doors due to the economic downturn and the unsustainable rents. In fact, last summer, a bodega was forced to close its doors. It seemed highly successful. It was the place where everybody went, largely because it had more space than the other bodegas and the prices were cheaper. But as it turned out, the owner couldn’t pay the rent on the place for three months and was forcibly evicted. What does it say about our reliance on discount culture when a man will enter into default because the customer is always right, even when he insists on an unsustainable price in an unsustainable economy?
The recent spate of social science books doting on and then purporting to explain our irrationality in all manner of behaviors (especially consuming) is somewhat interesting and amusing (Gladwell excepted). The examples and case studies range from compelling anecdotes to something less. But if the intention was to blind us with science — well, no dice.
This will no doubt be viewed as simplistic. But given the preexisting gap between various regions of our cognitive faculties, the incessant message droning in the back and foregrounds of our lives to consume, to acquire, to converse about our acquisitions, write about them, devote publications and books to them and, to top it off, to be told in the midst of a national crisis that it was patriotic to shop, this very much guarantees senseless consumption behavior.
As far as I have read, I suppose the history of retailing does provides revelations but the conclusion I am heading toward is that, when retailing moved to large and then gigantic organizations, shopping became an adversarial contest in which consumers were bound to lose.
Some initial thoughts, building on what Ed and Robert have begun.
I think Ruppel Shell is trying to get at more than wasting time. I think she’s posing the stronger argument that bargain hunting blinds us to the hidden costs of bargains because of the psychological thrill (at the individual level) of getting more than what you paid for — in some sense. She’s making a two-pronged attack on the structure of discount economy and culture — that the consumers have their part of the bargain to uphold (or dismantle) as much as the corporations and the government have their part to be forced into acknowledging and changing — at the behest of the consumers, qua citizens.
I just finished Douglas Rushkoff’s Life Inc., which speaks to many of these points as well. “Big” has a market advantage in our economy; it’s not a level playing field. Big corporations have easier access to money. The corporations can get bigger loans, at lower rates, than the little guys. They can also afford big-time lobbyists, and there are any number of instances where lobbyists go back and forth between their lobbying jobs and the industries they were lobbying for. Government is, in many crucial ways, out of our hands at this point. But what remains very much in our hands is our own buying habits.
I am normally not a fan of the “pick up your own litter” school of thought. It’s not that I think that picking up your own litter is bad. I think it deflects attention and analysis from the larger and more systemic causes of trash. But in this case, I think Ruppel Shell does a good job tallying the problems on both sides of this tricky equation. There is something that the individual needs to do here.
I know that, if you make very little money as a cashier at Wal-Mart, you’re not going to be able to shop at Whole Foods. But that’s exactly part of the problem too and part of the hidden costs Ruppel Shell brings to light: discount pay scales, on both the supplier and the retail ends, are a huge cost that is not reflected in the item’s price. It’s all connected. Decent-paying, somewhat-meaningful labor, with local, community-based commerce, is more affordable than the behemoth we have now.
I think Ruppel Shell’s a little weak on this final point. She does mention it, but I think it needed a little more ink. My main qualm with this book was its overreliance on very similar studies by all these B school profs. They are not the B-all and end-all! Had she not felt the need to underline every claim with a study as a sort of preemptive strike, Ruppel Shell would have had more pages to draw out the final links in the chain a little more strongly.
Also, Ed, I think you’re making a really important point about time, and how it need not/should not always be reduced to money. There is a tendency to focus on homo economics when talking about the economy, that comes from both the right and left, that we need to guard against. You’re right to point out that we’re more than just consumers, that our habits, even in the marketplace, are about more than the bottom line. We’re more than the money!
The one thing I thought Ruppel Shell conveyed quite effectively is that “bargain” no longer equates to quality in our culture. She used the IKEA example well here when she noted that we buy the cheap shelves, knowing that these shelves won’t last more than a few years. But because these shelves are cheap, we think that’s fine. So it’s as if we’ve forgotten (in a cultural sense) what the word “bargain” truly means. It’s not just about the price; it’s about getting a good deal, if you spend money on something that won’t do the job for long. But are you really getting a good deal?
Personally, I grew up on cheap culture out of necessity. My parents just didn’t have much money and we lived paycheck to paycheck. We couldn’t see the big picture because we couldn’t afford it. Period. But what’s interesting is that, as my parents grew older and could afford to invest in things that would last, neither was able to change their thinking. My mother still struggles to spend more than $15 on a shirt even when she knows that it will likely stretch, fade, etc. She just has certain price points in her head and she just can’t let them go.
Overall, I thought Cheap was fascinating. The book provides readers with much food for thought.
Here are some preliminary preoccupations I had while reading this book:
1. The startling and unironic revelation that Ruppel Shell would rather eat horses than go without meat (taken from the “Note to Readers”). I admire her honesty, and it’s a brave assertion to make, considering the potential market for this book.
2. The startling free pass that Amazon receives from Ruppel Shell, despite Amazon being a corporation currently profiting from the economic collapse like no other and raking in ludicrous profits that look a good deal like blood to me. She mentions Amazon once when she talks about unfair pricing models, and, once again later, when she refers back to that passage. Evidently, Amazon got caught charging the old customers more than the new ones. Jjust like a drug dealer. Why wasn’t there any further analysis of this pricing impact? Ruppel Shell knows for a fact that her audience consumes the commodity of books. Doesn’t Penguin have some “most favored nation” status with Amazon? Questions abound.
3. “A similar scenario is played out by urban street vendors today who claim that the Rolex and Cartier watches lining their jackets are not counterfeits but somehow ‘fell off a truck’ on their way to Neiman Marcus.” I have not seen this “scenario” since cartoons from the 1950s. Lining their jackets? Are they also wearing Hamburglar masks?
4. I wanted to read an entire chapter about what Daniel Ariely discovered when he had male college kids masturbate and then asked them sexually charged questions to determine the exact point when their “reason” disappeared and they could no longer be convinced to wear a condom. What questions did he ask? Were the college students paid after they came? Can I do this experiment? Or do I need a degree?
5. “A psychological state known as the ‘Gruen transfer’ has come to signify when a ‘destination buyer’ shopping for a specific purchase loses focus and starts wandering in a sort of daze, aimless and vulnerable to the siren call of come-ons of every sort.” I suspect that most of America lives in a perpetual “Gruen transfer.”
6. “Two feedlots outside Greeley, Colorado, together produce more excrement than the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Denver, and St. Louis combined. Trucking the stuff off is impractical. One alternative popular among big companies is to spray liquefied manure into the air and let it fall where it may, coating trees and anything else that happens to be in its path.” What?!?
I agree with much of what Miracle said. There are no less than 21 pages in my copy of Cheap that I’ve flagged.
If anything, I thought Ruppel Shell was too soft on the consumer. The book is a dense brew of numbers and statistics, but it mostly served to prove what I already knew: that the American dream has rotted to its core. I suppose this could be globally extrapolated, but I’ll keep my comments in my own backyard.
The idea that parents worked hard because they wanted better for their children maxed out years ago, perhaps in the ’70s. Somewhere along the way, the definition of high quality life became “More More More.” We have so much stuff that our stuff has stuff. We can’t get to the stuff we need because the stuff we don’t need is in the way. We rack our brains trying to think of gifts for our loved ones because they already have everything they want or need.
People who amass the most junk are the ones filling emotional and intellectual voids. That’s always been the case. The happier and more balanced people are, the less likely they are to rely on mountains of things. And if the American Dream is reduced to “More More More” stuff, the less money you have, the harder you’ll try to get as much of the stuff as you can for it (read: The Dollar Store). And as far as the junkiness of the junk is concerned, the cliché “you get what you pay for” got old and tired for a reason.
Sure, everybody wants to do right by their dollars. But how do you really tell if someone’s cheap? Watch how they tip the waiter.
I wanted more on cheap culture’s implications from this book, more on how a two-by-four has shrunken over the years and how drywall has become thinner and thinner. Not surprisingly, the most successful parts of Cheap for me were the ones that detailed the true cost of “cheap,” wherein we visit the shrimp farms and consider the implications of China’s labor practices.
This book represents a stunning amount of work, but I must say that I thought the “slot jockeys in track suits and sneakers” on page 88 was just plain mean. Why does Ruppel Shell include this description? This sort of commentary is particularly off-putting when just a few pages later, Ruppel Shell fawns over Prof. Naylor in her “Diane Van Furstenberg-style wrap dress accented with a stunning Plino Visona handbag.” That was the sort of thing that elicited flags from me. Unfortunately, it also eroded the book’s credibility.
The other day, I saw a woman with four small children foraging through a Goodwill drop box. She was pulling out clothes and putting them on the kids, who soon all had on multiple shirts and sweaters in the summer heat. Welcome to the cheapest shopping spree of them all. But I got the distinct feeling that this woman was no bargain hunter. This was a woman doing what she had to do. Although I understand and appreciate all the studies and arguments in Cheap, I wonder how much that woman would care about any of them. Who would tell her not to shop at The Dollar Store in order to delight those kids with a silly little toy?
There are lots and lots of people on this earth. Whether they’re clothed in “track suits,” Goodwill cast-offs, or they’re toting Plino Visona handbags, they all want food and shelter, which presents us with immense and complex problems. We won’t find the answers within the inviting aisles of a Wegmans.
“She even describes a personal example: a man who drove up 75 miles to check out her car (on sale), noticed a few scratches, and then drove right back home.”
That was from one of Ed’s comments.
I found Ruppel Shell’s anecdotes weak, such as that story about selling her used car. How extensively did she interview this fellow? Is there any guarantee that he didn’t have additional business in that area? A man comes and looks at her used car. Maybe he was lying about why he declined to purchase it. None of it really matters. But when I see a writer putting forth a serious nonfiction effort, and including this type of chatty personal anecdote, it’s dodgy to say the least. At worst, it can make a reader feel manipulated. All that story told us was what one guy had to say about one used Honda. To extrapolate it as commentary on how and why people spend their money is a fool’s game.
Here is another detail I flagged: On page 133, Ruppel Shell describes an IKEA table. “It looked just the right size to host a child’s tea party.” Why didn’t she go online and find the exact dimensions and let me judge the size of the table for myself? I’m a big girl. I can decide if a piece of furniture is appropriately sized or not. I realize this is a tiny quibble, but the text is inundated with these types of brush strokes. Every one risks making me feel manipulated, which in turn dulls the sharper points in the book.
As far as your hero sandwich is concerned, Ed, I did feel morally dirty about the frozen shrimp in my freezer after reading Ruppel Shell’s description of the shrimp farms, which is why I found that section so successful. But even here, Ruppel Shell recalls a time when shrimp was a wild and expensive delicacy. There’ a bit of wistful nostalgia in her description. But as she says herself, the good old days weren’t always so good and now wild fish populations are in grave danger al over the globe. Here’s one story to that end by Johann Hari for the Independent:
The harder society cracks down on irresponsible farming, the greater the pressure on wild oceanic populations. Once again, there’s no easy answer.
Throughout all of this, I feel privileged to discuss and read about these issues. People who are cold and hungry couldn’t care less about whether or not a warm plate of food was ethically produced. If all you have is one dollar and a loaf of bread is $1.73 at the discount grocer, it ceases to be cheap. That’s the most mandatory and difficult part of this entire topic, the subjectivity of it.
I have much to say on Cheap and will do so soon. But I wanted to counter Erin’s point about the potential for manipulation when personal anecdotes are included in serious nonfiction. Part of that is publisher-driven; they want the serious medicine washed down with some degree of contextual personalization, if not entertainment. It’s not enough to be treated to the facts, backed up scrupulously (and Ruppel Shell impressed the hell out of me with her endnotes, in large part because this type of research is too often left on the cutting room floor — I’m thinking of the unclear endnotes in David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts, which was a very good biography that could have been stellar with clear and comprehensible references!); the serious nonfiction writer has to have a great voice and answer the pivotal question of “Why should the reader be reading your book?” Too much of the author is a problem, but just a little bit seasons it just right.
Which is to say, I didn’t have a problem with that personal example. It passed my believability test and brought home the point that people will add needless costs in order to find the lowest price, thus negating the price reduction in the first place.
I’d like to look at the book’s great unasked question, which is the reason she was compelled to write it (and to have us read it): What to do about hidden costs? Ruppel Shell spends significant time tracing and exposing the hidden costs of “cheap”: personal, social, environmental, systemic. What if these hidden costs were incorporated into the price? “Cheap” would suddenly become prohibitively expensive.
But then what? Okay, so this plastic toothbrush from China is $47.50. Or maybe even $899.99! Well, I’m not buying it, and neither is my neighbor who doesn’t have the financial luxury of buying a nice local sustainable wooden one at Whole Foods for $26.95. But suppose there are no local small manufacturers around, no weekly farmer’s market that could serve the entire community, and no place that doesn’t depend on the vast oil-based chains of import/export.
How do we get from our current system, in which the hidden costs are catching up and twisting us into a vicious downward spiral in all areas, to a more equitable system, in which price reflects real cost, and local/sustainable is the more economical option? In other words, how do we get to Utopia? What are the practical or general steps? Do we need The Revolution? Because we all know how well that’s worked out each time.
I find myself less excited by this book than the others so far, and less convinced about its arguments. I do admire Ruppel Shell’s mission. I like the type of psychological investigative journalism this book represents. I have a feeling I’d relate to her first book (about modern eating habits) more than I did to this one.
I can’t relate to Cheap because, while Ruppel Shell writes as if every single modern American is caught up in the Kmart Syndrome, I think I’m immune to it in the first place. I don’t feel any emotional attraction to consumer goods and I wouldn’t cross a street to get a bargain. I do like stores like Kmart and Target for their practical simplicity, and I don’t think I ought to be considered part of a brainwashed bargain-hunting horde because of this.
Ruppel Shell is especially on thin ice with me when it comes to IKEA. I have tended to move every few years in my life, and IKEA furniture is exactly what I need. Long term value? Who cares! I don’t need to carry around a cherished antique. I want to pay $70 for a bunch of pressed wood with screws and pre-drilled holes and a funny Swedish name that I can put up in an hour and throw away when it comes time to move again. Maybe I’m crazy, but I always considered IKEA furniture to be an example of Zen perfection in home furnishing. Ellen Ruppel Shell’s book does not make me want to change my ways.
I’ve written in the past about why I think it’s essential for the publishing industry to give up its sick addiction to expensive hardcover publishing and begin releasing new titles in affordable paperback. Here again, my philosophy seems to head-butt directly against Ruppel Shell’s, though really it’s not the hardcover prices that I despise so much as the size. Even as I read some of Ruppel Shell’s better and more intriguing passages in this book — and there are many of these — I wonder how to reconcile Ruppel Shell’s arguments against “cheap” with my own impassioned past arguments against “expensive.” I’m simply at a loss.
What I like best about this book is its psychological contradictions — the fact that people will spend money to get a bargain and then consider that they “won”, the fact that a homeowner will cherish the memory of a couch bought on a “good deal” decades earlier, as if this really mattered at all. This is pointed stuff and I enjoyed reading it.
But it occurs to me that this kind of bargain-hunting, for those who engage in it, must be simply a sport, a hobby. Would Ruppel Shell deny people a hobby they enjoy? Sure, people can spend a ridiculous amount of time hunting pointlessly for bargains. But they can also spend a ridiculous amount of time collecting stamps, or studying baseball statistics, or posting to blogs. Maybe it’s just fun.
I remember once having an argument with a friend at an outdoor rock concert on a summer day. I was about to pay $8 for a bottle of Poland Spring water from an amateur price-gouger, and my friend said I was crazy and the price-gouger was unethical. I didn’t see the problem or the ethical violation. The price-gouger had done the work to truck a Styrofoam container of ice and water bottles into our stadium, and that effort certainly seemed to me to be worth an $8 reward.
The fact that I didn’t mind paying $8 for this water bottle probably means I’m not the target audience for this book. Or should I say the “Target audience”, if you’ll pardon the pun …