I decided to talk about American Literature, but let’s talk about beer first. Beer and books share more than just a first letter. And from beer we learn much about literature.
Miller High Life, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser the King of Beers, Coors Golden – all great American beers we know. Think so? Miller is owned by SAB, a South African company; Anheuser Busch (Budweiser) owned by InBev, a Belgian/Brazilian conglomerate; Coors is owned by Molsen in Canada, and Pabst, which is still American owned, brews all 36 of its beers in South Africa.
So what? Why should beer be any different than the other countless products made in China or Vietnam?
Americans have benefitted greatly from the loss of big American breweries. There are now 32 relatively new breweries in just the state of Minnesota alone and brewing better beer than anything ever produced by the big brewers who’ve sold out to foreign interests. Everything from Summit in St. Paul to Brau Brothers in tiny Lucan, MN, pop.220. Beer is back in America the way it was before prohibition, and if you love beer the way I love books, things have certainly changed for the better. The largest American beer producer today – owned and brewed in the USA – is the Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams.
Where does that leave American Literature?
In the same place as beer. But not quite as far along in making the transition from mass-produced swill to hand-crafted amber delight. Several large corporations control most book publishing in the USA – Random House is the largest (owned by Bertelsmann of Germany); then there’s Henry Holt and St. Martin’s (owned by Hotzbrinck of Germany); and the great Penguin Group with famous literary imprints like Viking and Putnam; (all owned by the British). And the list goes on.
Like many Americans, I enjoy a good beer. But I enjoy a good book much more. For many years, during the time that brewing beer went from small family businesses to large multi-billion dollar corporations, it was hard to find a good beer in America. We now experience the same thing when shopping for a good book to read. We have mysteries written by what amounts to a corporate production line. We have so many poorly-written, mass produced books, we’re dumbing-down our literature in exactly the same manner big brewers fed us swill instead of an honest hand-crafted beverage.
Foreign ownership is only part of the problem. Barnes & Noble and other chain stores are bought and paid for by these foreign publishers. The display space in these retail stores is sold to the highest bidder, so when you walk in the door of a chain store in Seattle or Miami, St. Cloud or Fargo, all the books are displayed in the same places, and most of the good reading you came in search of, is not in stock. These chains, like the mega-brewers, want us to believe that if they don’t have it, it doesn’t exist.
But that’s the lesson of beer and books. Americans are thirsty for quality in both, and thanks to our capitalistic system of free enterprise, there is always someone ready to provide what the big corporations fail to do. In publishing, as in brewing, things are beginning to change. Small presses are replacing foreign-owned conglomerates, and regional non-profit presses are jumping in to preserve our literary heritage. These changes may never be seen in the Walmarts and Barnes & Nobles, but they’re already evident in knowledgeable independent retailers, on Internet sites like Amazon, and directly from small publishers. We aren’t there yet, but it won’t be long.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a good book – fiction or non-fiction – you might have to look a little harder, or even closer to home. Is it worth the effort? I think so. If we become accustomed to any low quality product, our tastes, our expectations, are dulled. We are less discriminating, more accepting of inferiority. And that’s a bad habit to get into.
Jimmy Olsen is the author of two mysteries: Things In Ditches & Poison Makers, and two short story collections, The Hero of Blind Pig Island and At Sea, and two adventure novels, Scuba and (Red Sky at Morning) coming soon. He lives with his wife in Minnesota.