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ENDNOTES:

 

We have stopped reading, we have not the time. Our mind is solicited simultaneously from too many sides: it has to be spoken to quickly as it passes by. But there are things that cannot be said or understood in such haste, and these are the most important things for man. This accelerated movement, which makes coherent thought impossible, may alone be sufficient to weaken, and in the long run utterly to destroy, human reason.

Lamennais (1819)

 

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THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY

 

In the words of the man he replaced [at Viking-Penguin], Lynton understood “brand loyalty,” corporate jargon the precise meaning of which escaped me.

Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1

 

Ambrose Bierce, a cynic and journalist of the last century, disappeared into revolutionary Mexico around 1914. During the previous four or so decades he had compiled and published a list of trite words and euphemisms which he re-defined in caustic epigrams that mocked the usual hypocrisy and conformity of his fellow-citizens. Someone (himself?) called him “the American Swift,” a clever analogy but not precise: he had nowhere near the wit and fury of the Irish Dean. THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY (the 1911 volume of his collected writings, reprinted by Dover in a handy dollar edition), read now, too often sounds bilious, disgruntled, and low.

That doesn’t mean that such a dictionary is not needed. If a new one is to be written, and surely it ought, I propose the first phrase for it: “brand-name.”

Book publishers used to speak a normal language with obvious referents. Publishing houses were privately or publicly owned companies whose purpose was to promote and sell the works of chosen authors to their proper readership and make a profit for their owners. Harper and Bros., Random House, Alfred A. Knopf, Simon and Schuster used to be publishing houses.

Within those houses were associated imprints; independent small presses were (and are) also called imprints. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for instance, owns the imprint Hill & Wang, a list of titles not always noticed in the commercial trade but respected by serious readers. Marion Boyars Publishers can be called an imprint (but also, because Marion Boyars owns it, a house), with 20 titles per year.

But the terms are going away. You really cannot call Random House or Knopf publishing “houses,” anymore, as they are owned, along with a number of associated imprints, such as Vintage, Pantheon, Villard, and so on, by a close-held family corporation headed by S.I. Newhouse. It strains the sense of the word to call Pantheon an imprint, when it is listed internally as part of a financial entity called the Knopf Group. Is the once-respected Viking, which is now a junior partner in the Penguin-Putnam conglomerate, an “imprint”? It is not; no, something has changed. It is being called a “brand-name.”

Really. By book publishers.

Does the reading public know who publishes the particular books they buy? Do they care? Is this matter important?

It is important because, in the ordinary moral universe, words and the things they nominate do have an integral, or a strong, or at least a customary, connection to each other. “House” and “imprint,” “Harpers” and “Simon & Schuster” were terms and names you associated with the publishing of books; they were a part of what composed our literary culture. “Brand-name” is an advertising term used by marketers. What sort of people agree to use marketers’ jargon as the defining word?

Steve Wasserman, the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review, appeared recently with several other guests on “Booknotes” (C-Span 2, Sunday, September 7). The topic turned to estimable and less estimable publishers, the term being used in the ordinary sense. Vintage was cited as an example of the former; HarperCollins, with memory recent of the publisher’s arbitrary cancelling of contracts with a hundred-odd writers, as one of the latter. Speaking deliberately, from behind a basilisk stare, Steve Wasserman said that after the conglomerations of the last decade, most of the publishers “left standing” have “debased the imprints started by their founders.”

Recently, in London, I was given a tour of the Financial Times’ (see below) on-line newsroom. The editor of FT.com is an experienced economics journalist named Paul Maidment. Over lunch, the word “brand-name” came up. I asked what it meant in his part of the world. Well, he said, consider journalism: Time and Newsweek are brand-names. Like the great newspapers, they used to have large bureaus around the world, staffed by dozens of journalists; with electronic competition they have all eliminated bureaus and fired journalists, leaving one or two stars to cover, say, the whole of Southeast Asia. Star journalists are themselves considered brand-names. (How could a person be a brand-name? I thought: it’s like selling yourself.) I suppose, he said, even “FT” is a brand-name.

I thought you would call it a title, or a logotype, I said, or even a trade-mark.

“You know what they used to call brand-names?” he said suddenly, a bit sadly.

“What?”

“‘Our good name.’”

 

 

ECONOMICS FOR POETS

 

I went to visit the Financial Times because I read their on-line edition several times a week and, new to the medium myself, wanted to see how they did it. The on-line and associate print editor, Paul Maidment, generously showed me his operation and then, very politely, asked why I read the FT. I read it on-line, I said, because, where I live, it arrives by air-mail a day late. I admire the writing, the depth and breadth of the coverage, and the British-style journalism, in which reporters function as educated observers speaking from experience; no false objectivity dulls their perspective.

I also read the FT because, during several months in Europe two years ago, I became convinced that in order to understand the workings of global capitalism and its effects on all life around me, I had better learn about central banking, the European Monetary Unit (Emu), and the economic union scheduled for 1999. I had better study Asian politics and the “tiger economies.” I had better read Alan Greenspan’s speeches, or at least try to find out what they meant. And I had better locate all of this in a broader, well-informed context than any paper that followed only the daily fluctuations of the stock market could give me.

It seems to me that, after the terrible waves of mass firings, the so-called downsizings, of recent experience, the atomized American middle-class has surely learned the hard lesson: that in corporate life, not everyone, but truly anyone, is expendible. The French, before their recent election, were so appalled by the ferocity of “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism, as it looked to them, that they elected a leftist, Socialist government. The British, choosing Tony Blair and his New Laborites in astonishing numbers, trounced the despised Tories without undoing (it seems) the effects of Margaret Thatcher. Surely the citizenry of all three nations have paid close attention, each in its national way, to the immense power of global corporations vis--vis their democratic governments. In future issues I hope to publish reflections by informed commentators on these and related issues.

KM

 

 

See Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1
Vol. 1,
No. 2
A Conversation with Marion Boyars
Resources

 

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