Barack Obama and the Shift in Culture

Today can’t go by without mentioning the inauguration of Barack Obama.  I can think of no better metaphor for what’s happening than the landing of the plane in the Hudson last week.  George Bush’s presidency was marked by the nightmare of 9-11.  Last week, a plane landed safely in Manhattan – bookending Bush’s presidency.  Hopefully Obama can take the mess Bush has left to a safe landing.

I don’t think it’s any accident that the publishing industry became so money-centered during the last decade.  Really, the thing that affected the housing industry and the bank collapses was the result of a widespread problem – looking for short-term profits without considering long-term sustainability.  The collapse of the subprime mortgage industry was predictable, but a lot of people made a lot of money in the short term, damn the implications.

This lack of foresight affected every corner of industry, including publishing.  In the old model of publishing, they published mainstream pulp in order to finance smaller, riskier projects.  In the past decade, the sole motive was profit – and now the publishing industry is suffering because it has nurtured fewer careers.

One wonders what would happen to a writer like Saul Bellow if he were writing today.  His early novels – The Victim and Dangling Man – are far from his best work.  But he was nurtured by an industry that looked to nurture new writers.  Editors saw promise in writers – not the immediate salability of a book, but the prospect of an entire career.  In this climate, Saul Bellow’s early works might not have found takers.  And so he wouldn’t have had the ability to write his more expansive work.

The argument can be made that there are more writers working these days, as well as fewer readers, so it’s more difficult to give every writer a shot.  It’s not as though no experimental or risk-taking fiction is being published by major houses.  And because fewer are people are reading and buying books, publishers need to get more profits out of less.  Valid points – but there’s also a feeling that sustainability is not something that is the driving force behind business.

I’d make the argument that this started with the head of the country.  Bush’s language and his policies did not inspire a sense of responsibility. Is it possible that the inauguration of Barack Obama will affect the culture – will publishers start taking risks on new writers, will they not be as driven by profit?  Unfortunately, the economy is in such as state that mainstream publishing cannot afford to take big risks.  That’s why this is a crisis – even if the culture of responsibility changes, businesses still have to look at the bottom line, necessarily, or risk falling apart entirely.

But Barack Obama’s an intellectual.  He’s a writer.  He’s stressing science and education and responsibility.  All things stressed by any president, but from Obama it actually feels like a cultural shift.  It may take some time for the economy to right itself and with it the publishing industry’s M.O., but I would venture to guess that Obama’s presidency will have a widespread, long-term effect on the culture.