(not this year's festival)
Visiting the L.A. Times Festival of Books this year, I spent my time between panels checking out exhibitors' displays. Just like at the AWP bookfair, it got me asking questions about heady issues of marketing, attention and connection. But this time I wasn't pondering why certain exhibitors weren't drawing me; I was pondering why certain exhibitors were actively repulsing me.
Unlike AWP, the #LATFOB (as were instructed to tweet) doesn't limit its fair to presses, journals and academic institutions. Booths, or at least tables, seem to go to whoever lays down enough cash, so mixed in with the relatively attractive likes of Taschen, Kinokuniya, Tin House, C-SPAN and Book Soup are the desperate, the creepy and the gut-level undesirable. There are certain booths I notice myself giving a very wide berth year after year:
- Religions of any stripe
- The "9/11" truth movement (resident in a corridor of the UCLA campus I've come to call "Truther Alley")
- Self-publishing firms (especially self-published children's authors who've rented a booth to pimp the character they've invented)
- Conspiracy theorists of any stripe
- Latin American revolución fetishists
- Political causes of any stripe
- The Ayn Rand Institute
I mentioned religions, but are all these entities are in some sense religions, or at least religious in their psychology? By that I mean how they urge you to accept propositions that are apparently untrue, untestable or both — also known as "beliefs." The religion-religions hammered their wedges' thin ends pretty hard: Scientology offered their usual "stress tests," the big Islam tent handed out copies of the Qu'ran pretty aggressively and I accidentally met the gaze of one Falun Gonger. (Pleading, shaky question asked Madelaine by a Falun Gong representative at Santa Barbara's Earth Day fair: "Will you help me?")
Who could argue that Truthers, hand-wringing JFK paranoiacs and dour revoluciónistas lack their own suites of religious-y beliefs? I foresee some blowback from lumping the proselytizing Objectivists in with this motley crew, but they've got their cool-kids-accept-this axioms too, even if they're, like, "A = A." Only the self-publishing segment doesn't quite fit, but many of the self-published are by definition pushing ideas of such weird marginality that they might as well be religious beliefs.
Is it simply that they all try so hard to convince you of something, kooky or not? Maybe the U.S. did conduct a secret war in Guatemala between May 1986 and September 1988. Maybe your self-published book of stories about "LeRoy the Wonder Marmot" does have actual literary value despite its inability to win any kind of imprimatur. Hell, maybe Muhammad was right. But jeez, must you be so freakin' insistent about it? It's the sebaceous desperation of the car salesman secretly terrified that you'll walk off the lot or the dude at the bar who doesn't quite think you believe his story about the two chicks at once.
Is it that, like any sales operation, they want something from you? This at first seems not to hold, since the booths I make a point of visiting surely want something too: specifically, my money. Kinokuniya didn't set up shelves and a cash register for their health. The distinction might be one of attitude, of signaling: there's a world of difference between implicitly wanting someone's cooperation and visibly needing it.
The intersection of overt salesmanship and alien beliefs is a bad place to be, especially if there's an ingroup/outgroup distinction at work: you're out and they want you in. because that'll raise their own status in the ingroup. Paul Graham astutely made a relevant point about identity:
You can have a fruitful discussion about a topic only if it doesn't engage the identities of any of the participants. What makes politics and religion such minefields is that they engage so many people's identities. But you could in principle have a useful conversation about them with some people. And there are other topics that might seem harmless, like the relative merits of Ford and Chevy pickup trucks, that you couldn't safely talk about with others.There's no honesty in identity-poisoned discussions. Hence my advanced equation: implausibility + identity + obvious selling = yuck. You might argue that this it too specific to me. After all, somebody must have gone to all those displays I take pains to weave around. And you'd be right; stress testees weren't in short supply, nor were Qu'ran-grabbers, but then again, a lot of people want somethin' for nothin', even if that somethin' ain't much. (The science fair-style tri-panel posterboards about the Twin Towers' physical composition structural integrity didn't draw many onlookers, though I did at one point see the Reduced Shakespeare Company's Reed Martin squinting at one in bewilderment.)
But these whiffs of implausible identity-hawking wafted so thick and so rank from their pushers that I'm forced to consider the uncomfortable proposition that these exhibitors only convert people to their cause who already, in some sense, believe in it, even if they don't know about it. Only these "seekers," as I believe they're called, wouldn't be repelled like I was. Did they go in pre-inclined to believe that a 22-pound self-published autobiographical erotic thriller could be a success, that Tai Chi for Jesus is the one true path, that Xenu is the root of their problems or that Jews did WTC? Furthermore, did I go in inclined toward receptivity of whatever Taschen, Kinokuniya, C-SPAN, etc. had on offer?