PUBLISHING IS A BLOOD SPORT
Publishing is a blood sport. It exists between the human creation of print (exclusively at first) and the equally human drive to cheat, rob, steal, invade and fuck over people who write if they can produce copy that sells and you can get hold of entitlement to. This is not fantasy. It’s easily documented and recorded in lawsuits by those who had the ability to use that system. I’m talking about publishing as an intersection between people who are vulnerable (weak, criminal, in pain, struggling with disease, poor, isolated, narcissistic, abused, female, brown or black, etc.) and people who make their money by controlling those people, romanticising them, revealing them, and making a lot of money.
I’m not talking about Sherman Alexie directly but about the nested and intersecting forces that control him, including his writing — as long as it sells. The most basic level is simple human greed and willingness to break the rules in order to survive. The level up is capitalism, a way of exploiting any difference in value or source that encourages the raiding of the vulnerable, especially if there is enough confusion or contradiction to cover up attempts to keep order and maintain morality.
One of these situations is enticingly romantic myths about Indians, seasoned with dangers that are no less than mortal. Two examples from my Sixties years on the Blackfeet rez were Richard Lancaster and Ruth Beebe Hill. Both of them used Scriver Studio as a base of operations and succeeded because Scriver himself was hungry for success and thought they might get him there. Hill’s husband did save Scriver’s eye from destruction, so . . . that was a real vulnerability. Lancaster stole his best friend’s wife, exploiting another vulnerability. The same strategy produced Hill’s “Hanta Yo” and Lancaster’s “Piegan”.
The next level is that white people have no idea how to judge lives in sub-middle-class economic or environmental situations. They have never seen the kind of self-contempt that made Alexie boycott his own tribe by attending the nearest white town. Valier, where I am, IS the white town where tribal people live in order to escape chaos and mess. At first the town hardly let them live here, but now they are one-third of the population. They keep their heads down.
Another layer is the perpetuation of teenager standards that accept sex and violence as freely exchangeable and temporary, without consequences. But female teenager standards have long been corrupted by the script of “Pretty Woman” in which a whore’s customer is the saving prince. I’ve tried to argue girls out of this fantasy, but it never works. I might call a novel about it “The Glass Cunt” in which the prince tries on one after another. In fact, it is rooted in frontier conditions when all-male environments meant that the past of anyone capable of bearing children was better than no family at all. It was a major source of violence and the devaluing of chastity. There is more, but I want to talk about books.
Books came to Indians two ways: religion and anthropology. Both are based on heuristic systems, that is, systems that range people from top authorities to servants to unworthy victims. Christianity originally was meant to support the vulnerable and that’s how it’s presented on the rez, as missions, but instead it perpetuates the Roman Empire that is at the heart of all empires. Not walk with Jesus but bow to the Golden God.
Anthropology is soft science that was barely more than travelogue in the beginning and remains a source of tourism today. To many people it justifies free sex and rule-breaking, which is where Alexie’s contempt for female self-determination comes from.
But he’s equally free of ethics in the business of publishing. Beginning as a stand-up comedian, he knows what pleases the masses, what mockeries and hypocrisies will seem real and everywhere, so he builds on that. Comedy is built on absurdity and the very idea of “Indians” is at heart absurd. They are not all alike, they are not all unassimilated, they are not all deserving, none are from India. It’s so easy to whip up outrage, but the outrage of the indigenous people is not the same as the outrage of sentimental whites. Both are good for laughs. But that’s content.
As soon as books were solid objects expensive to make — paper, printing presses, binding, transportation, distribution, promotion — rackets and shortcuts and blackmailing took hold. Just copyrights, confidentiality, libel, expanded into a whole subcategory of law practice. Because many cases are closed with contracts that include non-disclosure (not telling the facts) the general public knows nothing about it. I once read an article about the NYTimes best seller list that was a scandal of manipulation. The NYTimes is known to deliberately start literary wars by asking enemies to review each other’s books. Great way to settle scores, but publicity is publicity and scandal is as effective as praise.
The stories about writers just beginning their careers are always happy and based on merit, but this is not reality. What sells is not what’s highest quality. What seems like revelations accusing abuse turn out quite differently. How much the book sells depends on whether and who reads them. Much fewer these days. More likely to be white suburban women than powerful men, even if they are editors or agents.
One of the rewards of powerful men has always been access to willing women. Pretty soon they like unwilling women even better because it proves power that adds violence. Literary settings are great hunting grounds for women with their heads full of illusions.
I was once contacted by a young woman late at night who was lost on the rez backroads and wanted me to rescue her. She was white, just dismissed from a tribal fire-fighting team for having sex with all the men. She defended her right to do this, citing the new morality among the young. It was none of her concern that the emotions she stirred up raised Cain with group dynamics in a dangerous situation. She thought it was simply about her desirability and therefore her value. She would write a book about it and it would sell like hotcakes — like Sherman Alexie’s books. But she wouldn’t mention that she was white. Maybe she’d wait until she got rich.