Odd timing that the writers have come to Seattle. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs is holding its annual conference here Feb. 26-March 1, just days after The New Yorker carried a crystalizing essay about the impact of Jeff Bezos' whiz-bang/online bookstore-turned-Walmart-on-the-Web.
The essay "Cheap Words" by George Packer in the February 17 issue of The New Yorker did nothing less than lay plain the essential and dare we say disturbing conundrum that Bezos/Amazon has invented for us moderns:
Do we want algorithms deciding what makes a "good" book?
Or do we want editors and other emphatic readers who, amidst the vast slipstream of shit and quasi-shit, have the experience, scope and insight to discern quality works?
We live in a Web-based world bent on the democratization of all things that used to garner much merit and meaning from certain hierarchical categorizations and canons. The impact of Amazon and its evil offspring, the Kindle, has been a digitized carpet-bombing of "culture" where editorial judgment has been rendered mostly obsolete, or at least, subverted in a hive-minded zeitgeist that zips along at the speed of Broadband. Amazon has led to a flattened literary landscape where every "salable item" (i.e. book) is equal to any other in that they are are all just equally salable commodities.
Think of "Fifty Shades of Gray" on a homepage next to "War and Peace."
Or Mitch Albom vs. Flaubert.
What IS our literary culture these days?
It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else.
It is into this Seattle that the 11,000 expected attendees to the 2014 AWP Conference attendees flock this weekend, where writers like Sherman Alexie, Robert Hass, Annie Proulx, Tim Egan, Ursula K LeGuin, Gish Jen, Gary Snider and Tobias Wolff will read or lecture. The conference takes place in a Seattle that bears a twin legacy: The literate city in which the business of book publishing and selling has been radically altered.
These days, in addition to Amazon and Microsoft, the city is populated with itinerant workers who flock here for the 2014 rendition of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times." In this real-world remake, the twenty-somethings shuffle off to work at startups and tech giants all wearing skinny jeans, white earbuds stuffed into their lobes, iPhones and Samsung Galaxies blowing up with texts and tweets, searching for food trucks or beer gardens, rooting for the Seahawks or Sounders (football and football) and otherwise making little contribution to civic life outside of opting for public transportation or bikes instead of that second Prius.
Microsmurfs have morphed into assembly line widget-makers, although I'm sure these youthful Seattleites consider themselves hipsters, happily toiling away for good pay and the chance to work 70 hours for the likes of Jeff Bezos. Amazon notoriously sucks the life out of its employees, leaving them with addled eyeballs unfit for cracking open a book, or Kindle, should these people ever to find a stitch of free time.
That is why Packer's New Yorker article so startlingly captured Bezos' impact on the world of books. After just a few years of using book buyers to build a database, Amazon has so leveled the landscape such that no one can see any trees, let alone the forest. It's all about delivery and price and instant gratification.
Bezos is right: gatekeepers are inherently élitist, and some of them have been weakened, in no small part, because of their complacency and short-term thinking. But gatekeepers are also barriers against the complete commercialization of ideas, allowing new talent the time to develop and learn to tell difficult truths. When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?
For a groovy, world-class city that continues to swell with newcomers and New World enterprises, it's powerful to feel like you're at the epicenter of innovation and commerce, especially given the rust-belt decay taking place in so much of America.
Then again, not everything new and invented "for the greater good" turns out to be good.
Once upon a time, thinking reading and books were being made more accessible, more magnificent, I bought everyone in my family a Kindle.
But now, having grown cold to the entire enterprise of digital books, the Kindles in this Seattle house have been set up for a different purpose: To collect dust.
I'm glad New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter announced his retirement the same week that University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced he is gay. Two announcements, similar intention: To own one's own story.
Of course, these announcements by a future Hall of Fame baseball player (The Retirement Story) and a now-famous college football player (The Coming Out Story) are not going to be seen as a bookend pair. The monolithic world of professional sports -- particularly one as militarized as the $9 billion-a-year industry as the National Football League -- must first do backflips and other contortions in order to come to grips with Sam's "Coming Out Story." By defining himself, he has forced every NFL executive, player and sports fan to accept the definition, even when many will insist they would have preferred a blank page.
A self-proclaimed gay man in the NFL is deemed far more significant and disruptive than the fact that gay men do and have played in the NFL, which only adds more potential bullshit criticism to be layered onto Sam's situation because now he'll be bashed for not just being gay, but having the temerity to make a federal case out of it. Add in the fact that he's black and I can only imagine the underbelly of Obama-haters in this country now turning the vitriol to another uppity ACHIEVER.
However, in the realm of personal narrative, the "Coming Out Story" serves generally the same purpose as "The Retirement Announcement," and yet because it is a "Coming Out Story," it is fraught with the kind of timpani-tight sexual nervousness that has always underscored the inherent tension in anyone's "Coming Out Story."
The idea here is not to look at all the fallout or reaction or "MEANING" associated with Sam's announcement that he is gay, but to place his announcement in the longstanding pantheon of Coming Out Stories within the realm of narrative.
Sam employed a well-used narrative device to bring order to his world; to create a form around which something that could be chaotic and disruptive to him is, instead, pushed out onto the larger audience as a whole, contained, readable. By creating this story, and telling it, Sam is making everyone else read his biography the way he wants it read, and, if he's lucky, understood.
Just as significant is the not just the clarity this gives to Sam himself, or the "truth" Sam delivered to the dominant heterosexual world, but the connection, acknowledgement and validation Sam has given to the gay "community." While that community is hardly any more "homogeneous" as the straight community, it is -- as a minority population -- still eagerly seeking to not only count its members, but to have them stand up. To have NFL execs, or former head coaches, or anyone, dismiss this motive is to fail to appreciate the "other" and "outside" status most of us would like to erase.
In the past, coming out stories became the currency of gay people talking to other gay people about that painful -- and often very quick and poorly executed announcements made to family and friends. Still, as a narrative form, coming out stories are part of a vast and rich area of academic and linguistic inquiry, especially since language and stories are the currency of creating identity and relating that to a wider audience.
As narrative researchers like Michael Bamberg and Allyssa McCabe wrote in their book "Narrative Identity," Sam's decision to "own his truth" is no different in practice than Jeter's decision to own his truth via the long Facebook page post Jeter penned today in order to say 2014 will be his final year.
With narrative, people strive to configure space and time, deploy
Jeter's announcement's most effective touch was that he set forth the parameters of the kind of discussion the baseball world will have about his anticipated departure from baseball. He created the framework instead of allowing the chaos of spring training, a new season, his ankle injury and his age (39) to unleash the inevitable maelstrom of questions and speculation.
Ditto Sam. And then some.
The college star took notice of the way NFL scouts had been asking around if he had a girlfriend and decided that he did not care to sit through the bullshit charade of silence, let alone attempt what other pro athletes have tried to do by pretending to have straight relationships. Like Jeter wanting to get ahead of the ceaseless questions and speculation, Sam took possession of the story.
If this is earth-shattering news that a gay man is going to play professional sports, it's only because it's about 10 years overdue, at least. Or at least it feels that way to anyone out there who has already told their coming out story. It's the narrative piece that places the teller at the thrilling, frightening intersection between what is, or what had been, chaos and what is clear.
Jeter may be getting some extra love today from the retirees who gather at McDonald's for morning coffee, but his future status as a non-baseball player wasn't a signal that he might one day be joining them. As for Mike Sam: Something tells me that no matter when he's drafted by an NFL team, or if he doesn't get drafted, he's just insured himself a big group of fans and supporters among the millions of others whose own coming out stories helped make his so welcome and familiar.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.