Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The sad demise of Spinifex Press – and how once again GenX gets the doors of generational handover slammed in its face

Commentator Bernard Salt has suggested that GenX can expect to take the reins of power en masse in about three years’ time:

“There will be, there must be, a profound shift in Australian culture at the end of this decade. That shift will be defined by the easing and creaking and squelching of the baby boomer juggernaut as it slips into retirement . . . The end is particularly unpleasant as a swarm of embittered Xers swoop to claim their spoils: the prized and succulent levers of consumer and business power.

But as ruthless as this power transition will be, so it also was when the boomers assumed control in the early 1990s.”

As I remarked re a slightly earlier version of Salt’s views – which gave the same TO-boomers handover date (the early 90s), but lacked a FROM-boomers-to-Xers date – the early 90s date is objectively ludicrous. Take Condoleezza Rice, for example, born in the mid-boomer year of 1954, who was already in senior roles in her 20s, in the 1970s. Such precocity (a boomer hallmark) may well have been a generational “once-off”, but this still doesn’t account for the very different life Rice would most likely have had had she be born ten or twenty years later.

Such what-if/“Sliding Doors” scenarios aside, machinations of the clear and present day confirm that, whatever the date or circumstances of the boomer ascendancy, there simply ain’t gonna be a boomer descendancy, aka inter-generational handover. Not in 2009, not ever.

Confirming this is the Russian army-style retreat – burning everything as they fall-back into retirement – of Spinifex Press publishers/founders (and boomers, I’m, assuming) Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne.

Now I should say that I fully concur that the business of producing books is not remotely akin to to the business of producing widgets, and so when a business of the former type goes under – or in Spinifex’s case, stops new publishing and becomes an royalty-collecting shell – I think that public grief by founder-owners, even including some high-pitched blame-throwing, is a quite natural and appropriate response.

But Klein and Hawthorne’s grief at the loss of their “baby” is something else altogether: both sickeningly maudlin and gratuitously nasty, in a kick-her-when-she’s-down way.

The pair’s blame-casting has some inoffensive enough aspects – globalisation, which has negatively affected the entire small-press/independent publishing industry, right down to /independent bookstores having to close up. Generally true, of course, but they throw in a couple of strange porkies:

Independent booksellers have narrow margins and the American superstores saw a chance. Their big new stores opened close to the best independent booksellers in town, many of them feminist bookshops with a loyal clientele. The superstores had everything the independents had on their shelves at a dollar or two cheaper, plus a coffee shop to boot. The independents struggled to survive. When they needed a capital injection to get their stock computerised, the competition was leeching their customer base. Soon many of the bookstores folded and feminist publishers lost their guaranteed readership. (same URL)

AFAICT, independent bookstores deal with publishers on exactly the same terms as large-chain bookstores: generally, this means that their stock is on consignment only (i.e. they have the right to return it gratis), and mark-ups are 50 – 60% (i.e. on a $22+GST book that is actually sold, the store pays the publisher about $10). “Narrow margins”? Fuck off. And as for “many” bookstores folding, I am not aware of a single independent bookstore that has closed down in the last decade in my home patch (inner Melbourne).

Then there’s this:

The superstores often over-ordered from feminist publishers, leaving the publishers with an excess of returns, the nightmare of the publishing industry. (same URL)

Huh? Correct me if I’m missing something here, but “an excess of returns” (assuming that the books weren’t in acute demand elsewhere) is surely a (mildly) beneficial thing for a publisher. That is, the bookstore has borne some storage cost (the underlying financial risk of the book not selling, of course does not move from the publisher (and author), irregardless of who is holding/storing the book).

What Klein and Hawthorne are actually angry about then, is that “their” books simply didn’t sell because of a lack of readership appeal. And in fact they do admit as much – only this time, with no American chain bogeymen that could possibly be blamed, it’s GenX who gets to be the can that’s kicked around.

Okay, the pair aren’t actually generationally explicit here (in contrast to Robert Drewe), but what is one supposed to make of this:

Many factors contributed to the demise of feminist publishing. The first was postmodern prevarication, a confusion of positionality that meant the word feminist fell into disrepute and gender was in ascent. What political opposition could not do, postmodernism did. It created a generation of students who read books by people who were not keen on communication or on social change. Many of the ideas espoused by postmodernists had been first aired by feminists in the preceding 50 years. Confusion reigned.

. . .

The final factor is the role of universities and other educational institutions in keeping books turning over. The feminist landscape has changed and where once there were thriving, radical women's studies programs whose reading lists would include the latest feminist critiques, these have moved to the amorphous gender studies area.”
(penultimate URL)

Anyone else notice a certain similarity between the alpah and omega factors behind Spinfex’s demise? Yep, it’s universities and pomo – aka the stuff that any arts student, who so culpably mis-timed their own birth as to start university *after* the early-80s, has necessarily been schooled in. I’m not in any way defending pomo here; it’s just that trashing the intellectual paradigm that is held by almost all our 25-42 y.o. intelligentsia is a bit scary – even a little violent, dare I say.

The boomer Right has long got away with this sort of thing – postmodernism/“Theory” being a turd with Xers’ name uniquely on it, and boomers somehow being helpless to stop in of it happening, despite being on notice since the mid-80s. Now Klein and Hawthorne are taking the chance to gets in a few kicks of their own on the cowering, prone figure. Well, fuck them both.

Had they not ended up in such a toxic, blame-shifting cul-de-sac, the pair might have sat down and realised that in 2006 the Spinifexes of this world are more necessary than ever – but that equally, Spinifex's having a future depends on its having nothing to do with boomers. Yes, I’m referring to something called inter-generational handover.

But there’s nada for Xers here. So happy retirement, Renate Klein and Susan Hawthorne – you must feel so proud of leaving an intellectual scorched-earth behind you, as you plan on sitting poolside drinking up the royalties from your press’s ground-breaking Cat Tales (2003).

Isn't it an irony that most of the biggest proponents of postmodernism were/are either Boomers, or very early Xers?

I also find that the enthusiasm of 'Xers' for postmodernism (even those who did Arts degrees) is vastly overstated by those who attack it in op/ed pages. It was my experience that those who rigidly clung to it (another irony) were usually derided as wankers by people from all over the political compass.
Hey Deej,

Good to hear from you again.

(Note to general audience: this guy is this blog's Alpha Commenter, like he was there in '02/early '03).

I've gotta admit that I swallowed pomo pretty much whole while at uni, and for a bit thereafter.

These days though, I think of it as a Cultural Revolution Lite. That is, instead of sending GenX's young intelligentsia to "Siberia" (= Woomera?), they/we were fed a sugar placebo at uni.

Meanwhile in the real world, full employment was being abandoned in the 80s by Left and Right as a policy/lip-service-thingy (respectively). The game of musical chairs (aka don’t be caught renting and on the dole at 40) was thus *on* – and our boomer academic fucktards didn’t bother to inform us that the sooner we dropped out of uni and bought some real estate (and every extra day at uni is a day wasted, in this game), the more we’d thank them for it in later life.
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