Thursday, June 01, 2006

Book One: Madame Bloggery, c'est moi!

Flaubert's father, Dr Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, was no Charles Bovary. Bovary was an indifferently educated, passably competent rural sawbones. Achille-Cleophas was a highly-skilled medical man, admired by his colleagues and former teachers, an excellent teacher himself, and a first-rate admininistrator of the hospital he ran in Rouen. He was, according to Frederick Brown in his new biography of the doctor's son, the writer, one of the first of a new wave of physicians and surgeons that we in the 21st century would have recognized as doctors in the way they went about practicing medicine.

Achille-Cleophas began his medical studies at the very beginning of the 19th Century, which also happened to be at the end of a long period of transition in the teaching of medicine.

Amid the rubble left by revolutionaries bent on smashing institutional structures that safeguarded privilege and consecrated tradtional authority, adventurous minds found room to maneuver. The empirical method flourished...and in the movement toward hospital medicine, surgeons held the torch for physicians. They who once trailed behind academic luminaries contemptuous of their intimacy with the human body now constituted a brilliant, scientific vanguard.

For most to the 18th Century, Paris medical schools taught an almost purely theoretical and academic approach to training young doctors. "Physicians" learned their trade by attending lectures, in Latin, on Galen and other classical authorities. Medicine was the art of diagnosis in which actual patients were considered if not quite an irrelevence then definitely something of a nuisance.

When in 1791 the new Revolutionary goverment proposed to tax doctors along with with other businessmen, Brown writes that the faculty of the chief medical school in Paris objected that they were nothing so lowly as men of business:

"Nothing can legally verify the practice of a profession which is purely intellectual, and which is performed exclusively by verbal means, without the intermediary of any material objects."

Surgery was disdained as manual labor and surgeons dismissed as a higher form of mechanic who had nothing to teach physicians despite their experience with actual human bodies.

Over the course of the 18th Century the academic and theoretical slowly, grudgingly gave way to the empirical, scientific, and practical.

But even as the change neared its completion the academicians still ran the show. They set the rules and they had the ears of the government. And they did what they could to make sure that they remained at the top of the ladder. Most of what they did looks like self-enabling now, as if they were searching for ways to encourage and support denial. They couldn't stop the changes, so they set about making sure they could pretend that the changes weren't happening.

For instance, says Brown:

Among academic physicians, the clearest expression of their disdain for knowledge gathered by the senses, and particularly by visual observation, lay in medical nomenclature. Whereas physicians practiced internal medicine, surgery was deemed "external," meaning that only men versed in theoretical systems of pahtology could locate the true seat of disease and comprehend the fundamental workings of human life. He who concerned himself with first causes sought them not in open bodies but in humoral imbalances or the derangement of vital forces. Examining guts did not reveal the secret of anything. Dissection yielded only semblances, pictures, and making pictures was bound up with, once again, the idea of the surgeon as illiterate.

For some reason, I thought of these old academics when I read Jennifer Nix's report from BookExpo at Firedoglake. Nix is an independent publisher and editor who has brought into print George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant and Gleen Greenwald's How Would A Patriot Act?

From the point of view of liberal and progressive bloggers then, she's a heroine. From the point of view of some of the book critics and editors from the big media publications like the Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly, she's a nobody.

She doesn't work for any of the major publishing houses, you see, and she works with...bloggers.

At one point Nix tried to persuade some of the book critics that they should look online for the next new thing. Their reaction, as she describes it, was a lofty and amused contempt:

I felt my face getting red. This is how the public learns that books exist, by being anointed by one of these print gatekeepers, who, in all fairness, are overworked and besieged, and given smaller and smaller space in which to mention books. But books are still the vehicles that best carry the ideas that can build our society, correct wrongs, explain us to ourselves and others, connect us, bring us joy—and when necessary, piss us off enough to change the status quo. But first, they have to get by one of these big media types who probably long ago stopped feeling any sense of mission or urgency, or the true power of where ideas can take us. To them, books and the publishers behind them, are more like swarms of locusts descending upon them day after day, no end in sight. With this diseased corporate system for disseminating ideas, it’s no wonder our society is slipping into the shitter.

I raised my hand.

“I’m just wondering how much attention you pay to what’s going on online,” I asked. “Say, when a book rises up to number one on Amazon, or when the blogs are buzzing about certain books.”

“We don’t trust Amazon. Anything can rise to the top of that list,” said USA Today man. The other editors’ faces were steeled against giving too much attention to someone they didn’t recognize, even though I am blond these days. I persisted, and not only because rising to the top of Amazon represents ACTUAL SALES rather than the taste of elitist editors.

“Yes, but you complain about how little room you have, yet there’s unlimited room online to talk about books—and people do. Just seems like those discussions should also factor into your decisions about what to cover in print.” Their faces remained smug and closed, eyes already searching out other, perhaps more respectful, raised hands.

“We don’t read blogs, other than maybe for amusement,” WaPo fella said. (Not surprising to FDL readers, I’m sure.) I persisted yet again.

“But, I publish instant political books, and I don’t have the kind of lead time you demand. For instance I found the George Lakoff bestseller, Don't Think of an Elephant, and ushered it into the world in six weeks while at Chelsea Green, because I met him in late July of 2004 and we were committed to getting that book out before the election.”

The editors’ faces lit up with recognition. This book they knew. I must be “Somebody.” Atlantic guy interrupted and said that was a book he covered because people were talking about it. Yes, sir, but people were talking about it because it sold on Amazon after progressive membership groups and DailyKos talked about it online and drove sales, one by freaking one, until it caught the attention of big media and stores around the country. That book became a bestseller and introduced Lakoff’s ideas into the national debate after being launched online because I had no other choice with an instant book, and no marketing budget. I had to get creative.

After the panel, I followed up with each of these men, telling them how we are witnessing a sea change—an actual trend!—in book publishing, on both the editorial and marketing/distribution sides of the biz. We can identify new voices and talent emerging in the blogosphere—and these folks come with built-in communities to help spread the word about ideas that get them fired up. I told them about the rise of Glenn Greenwald’s How Would A Patriot Act? to number one on Amazon, purely as a result of bloggers mentioning it and urging their readers to support the ideas therein. I said books don’t have to take a year to publish, and they can help drive the national debate as another part of the media landscape, to shed more light on important national stories that mainstream media leave in too much darkness.

“We really don’t cover very many political books,” said USA Today man.

(Thanks to Maud Newton for the link.)

There are all kinds of frustrating things to be teased out of that passage, but what jumped out at me, probably because I had just finished that chapter in Brown's Flaubert, was the image of a group of people very much like those old French doctors.

They are aware that their profession is changing in ways they don't like. The corporate pressure to make more and more bucks and the marketeer's habit of chasing after new pigeons while ignoring old customers who already have their wallets out have combined to cause the shrinking and dumbing down of the book sections in many a formerly high-quality magazine and newspaper. Heck, to cause the shrinking and dumbing down of the whole magazine and newspaper. The corporate beancounters say, "Make more money!" and the marketeers respond by deciding that the real money is to be made in magazines and newspapers by attracting people who don't like to read.

Book section editors like Nix's WaPo fella and Atlantic guy know what's happening and don't really like it, but they are at the top of their profession and they are comfortable there and consequently they are really uneasy about contemplating the possibility that their jobs and positions won't last, or at least won't continue in the same way as before.

So they have found ways to talk about the changes that make them less scary, even good. They've adapted by not adapting. They've decided not to notice and they help themselves not notice by talking as if all is fine and they have it all under control. They know what they're doing.

Along comes Nix to tell them that they can actually adapt, that there is something new and wonderful going on and they don't want to listen.

End of Part One.


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