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,
THE DEVILS 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 DEVILS 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 doesnt 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
publishers 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: its 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.
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
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 Greenspans 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
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-à-vis their
democratic governments. In future issues I hope to publish reflections by informed
commentators on these and related issues.
See Endnotes, Vol. 1, No. 1
Vol. 1, No. 2
A Conversation with Marion Boyars