“the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation” – my thoughts on “record store books”, March 17th 2005 SAU Blog

On St Patrick’s Day 2005 this piece appeared on the SAU Blog. It is somewhat in the spirit of my grumpy thoughts on book clubs from 2006 in the same online publication. Re-reading it, I didn’t lake for definitive pontification – see my dismissal of Catch-22 below.

Have things changed? Alas, conformist anti-conformity is even more prevalent now. Of course, the record store is now an endangered species. James Hamilton’s comment, the first on the site, is on one level of its time, on another as relevant as ever in our age of bourgeous-bohemian virtue signalling:

I too have wondered why record shops should stock those books in particular. I can only come up with one, rather weak, explanation. The supersized record shops of today sell what approximates to every CD, in every genre. Thus, everyone shops there at one point or another. How to stay “edgy” and countercultural, therefore? The books serve as a sign to the customers that the (huge, corporate) store they are in is, in spite of appearances, against “the man”; it’s as young and fancy-free as they are.
I’ve never actually seen anyone buy a book in one of these places, which lends some substance, if not much, to that view of things.

Anyway, here is the review:

“Airport novel” is a derogatory term conjuring up images of the latest Danielle Steel or Tom Clancy schlockbuster piled up high in Terminal B. It is shorthand for a weighty pot-boiler with just enough sex and violence scattered throughout to make Heathrow to JFK bearable. Mass travel has brought about changes in reading habits – the French had their romans du gare. My own reading is perhaps too much influenced by commuting on the bus. If there was such a thing as the “bus novel”, it would be a bitty work, divided into handy chunks that one can read between stops, with a typeface large enough that one doesn’t lose one’s place when jostled.

“Airport novel” seems an obsolete term now, although the masters of the genre continue to churn them out; anyone who has been in an airport recently will know that the bookshops now resemble the average high street emporium. Surprising, serendipitous titles may not lurk on every overlit shelf, but neither do airport book stores stock only the soon-to-be-a-major-movie books. There are a lot of self help books of varying quality, from the sensible to the silly, and how-to-make-a-million-by-next-week type books – but after all every bookshops’ Mind, Body, Spirit section (what a curious formulation!) is equally groaning with stock.

Record stores, increasingly, don’t just sell musical recordings. Video games, DVDs and assorted hi-fi paraphrenalia are also available; indeed, Our Price dropped “Records” from the end of their name some years back to emphasise the fact that they sold far more than records. “Record store” is, therefore, perhaps something of a misnomer nowadays. Nevertheless, the record store gives a good idea of what media is aimed squarely at the all-important yoof demographic.

Most largeish record shops now sell books. And far more than “airport books”, record store books share a grim homogeneity and sameness that depresses, especially when one considers that this, one supposes, is in someway characteristic of “my generation” (I’m 26).

There is a surface diversity to the subject matter of record shop books. Naturally, there are a lot of books about popular music. The vast majority are either bland pap or wildly pretentious pap, although there are some gems (such as Peter Guralnick’s rise and fall of Elvis diptych – Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presleyand Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley) amongst the dross. It is always an interesting exercise to pick up any magazine devoted to popular music – especially the more ostentatiously “intellectual” of them – and read the reviews therein. Adjectives pile up, awkward metaphors and similes congeal together – lacking the common language that enable writers on classical music to at least communicate something, however imperfectly, about the music they described. As Truman Capote said of Kerouac, it’s not writing, it’s typing.

But just as music is less and less important to the activities of the record store, books about music are less represented in bookstores than one would assume. Increasingly dominant are books about gangsters, drugs and football hooligans. Some, such as Howard Marks’ hugely popular Mr Nice, combine one or more of these categories. Someone once told Alan Coren that the most popular categories in publishing were golf, cats and Nazism; thus his next work was entitled Golfing For Cats and featured a putter-wielding moggy wearing a Nazi uniform on the cover. I presume a book on a drug-dealing gangland boss-cum-football hooligan has been done – if not, a fortune looms for the reader who wishes to steal the idea.

Novels sold in record stores are either written by stand-up comedians or are “cult” novels. “Cult”, of course, has become a completely meaningless term. In Your Face Here, their rather repetitive account of various “cult” British films (repetitive because it follows a predictable pattern – underappreciated British genius makes transcendent film underappreciated at the time only to gain later “culthood”), Ali Catterall and Simon Wells describe how the makers of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels deliberately set out to make a cult movie. “Cult” novels include some awful stinkers, such as the wildly overrated Catch-22 (the same not terribly funny joke told again and again and again. And again.) and such ludicrous “counter cultural” tosh as The Dice Man.

Then we come to the what could be called the anti-Bush, anti-capitalist shelves. Michael Moore is one of the great capitalists of our age, for he has made a wildly successful career through giving the people what they want. The shelves of all bookshops groan with his many imitators, all hoping to get in on the immensely lucrative isn’t-America-terrible-bandwagon. A few years ago, most of these books would have had slickly-designed covers and been written by photogenic young women (cf. Naomi Klein), and decried the West’s suicidal obsession with slicky-designed, photogenic branding and such evils. Now, would-be zany cover montages and clumsily wacky titles abound. The anti-American bestseller now is a cousin of the McCarthy’s Bar type book, a constant and ingratiating barrage of jocularity that ultimately exhausts.

There are some other categories of book one comes across in a record store. Tower Records have shelves groaning with occult manuals of various kinds, and books about tattoos. They also have a section of erotica, which looks to be anything but erotic in any meaningful sense.

Why is all this so saddening? For all the surface variety of theme and tone, record shop books are truly homogenous. Like anything ostentatiously “alternative”, there is much more conformism here then anywhere else. These books are conformist aesthetically, socially, and politically. The books sold in record stores reflect the fact that self-conscious transgressive tastes are the most truly conservative of all.

There’s a real sense of ahistoricality about the shelves. Aside from a few novels of sufficient culthood (The Catcher in The RyePortrait of An Artist), nothing written before 1960 seems to feature. Unless they were lucky enough to enhance the gaiety of nations by using hallucinogenic drugs, ancient civilisations may as well not have existed. Religion exists to be debunked, or denigrated in the name of “spirituality”.

Contemplating the books available in a record store is a bit like contemplating what used to be called men’s magazines but now can only really be called lad’s magazines. Even the ones that used to be somewhat “quality” – GQEsquire – now plough the same thematic furrow. Men of around my age, it would seem, are only interested in clothes, pornography, gadgets, criminality, the acquisition of “rock hard abs” and more clothes. It’s not a comforting thought. Neither is it comforting to contemplate the conformist anti-conformity of the books marketed at my generation.

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