Willkommen, Toni Morrison
This month, the Los Angeles Dodgers began another season playing America's game. Their paychecks will come from Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who no doubt defines a "squeeze play" as a deft move at the negotiating table. Though born in the USA, pop music stars Bruce Springsteen and Mariah Carey generate profits for Japan's Sony. Now, African-American writer Toni Morrison, whose prose throws light into the country's dark corners, will submit her luminescent manuscripts to a corporate giant headquartered in Gueters-loh, Germany.Skip to next paragraph
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The recent acquisition of Random House by German media conglomerate Bertelsmann A.G. has prompted a familiar cry - another independent standard-bearer of American letters is "lost" to a foreign multinational. Four of the top seven US publishing houses are now controlled from overseas boardrooms. An ugly clash of cultures can't be far behind, right?
Does American culture belong to Americans anymore?
Of course it does. What's more, it belongs to everyone else, too. American culture is global culture. At a Japanese multiplex cinema, 4 out of 5 movies come from Hollywood. Germany's bestseller lists are dominated not only by American hotshots like John Grisham and Tom Clancy, but also writers like Boston's Noah Gordon [no relation to the author of this article], a little-known novelist here who's sold 10 million books east of the Rhine since 1987. Michael Jackson has a better chance of filling a stadium in India than in his home state of Indiana. The Germans, Japanese, or Australians may peddle the wares, but the product the world wants is all-American.
Thanks to advances in transportation and information technology, the world's economies are more closely linked than ever. Big multinationals hardly acknowledge national boundaries anymore. With almost unanimous support from the world's governments, international free trade has become the rule in the last decade and no longer the pipedream of laissez-faire globalists. Culture, at least the kind that makes money, is part of that trend. Books - highbrow and lowbrow alike - are big business, a fact that every author wishes, with a gambler's blind hope, to benefit from.
Many do, and handsomely. Horrormeister Stephen King commanded advances of $16 million from Viking (British owned) before bolting to Scribners last year - for more money. Actress-comedienne Whoopi Goldberg got paid $6 million up front from William Morrow & Co. for her book titled "Book." Humorous, no? Of course, Morrow executives weren't laughing when "Book" nosedived after just four bestselling weeks. Bestsellers used to be counted in tens of thousands of volumes sold; now the measure is in millions. That market pressure has forced US publishers to roam the earth in search of readers - and has brought foreign firms to New York dangling fresh capital and a global know-how.
That's not to say US publishing has completely lost its local flavor. In the same way that independent filmmaking has refreshingly defied the once-monopolistic Hollywood studio system, so too small, independent publishing houses are flourishing. Carroll & Graf, Beacon Press, Graywolf, and others are delivering top-quality works that may not sell quantities that rate a Barnes & Noble discount price but are finding a rising readership. "Serious" writers may not make the money popular hacks do, but they still have an audience. And despite technophobic jeremiads about the dangers of the Internet, book lovers have more access than ever to a delicious variety of titles.
Might there occasionally be conflicts of interest when a foreign company controls a US publishing house? Critics of the Bertelsmann deal were quick to cite the recent case in which HarperCollins owner Murdoch spiked a book by former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten, a critic of Beijing, while lobbying to expand his STAR-TV satellite network in China. Would a Random House author face similar censorship if the firm's German parent didn't like a manuscript? Perhaps. But perhaps an American network vying for a Havana bureau would soften coverage of Fidel Castro. Perhaps US magazines holding rich advertising contracts with Swiss watchmakers and banks would think twice before exposing Switzerland's financial collusion with Nazi Germany.
In the global media world, idealism genuflects to bookkeeping. It's worth remembering, however, that Bertelsmann did not shrink from publishing the German edition of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners," a bareknuckled account of the role ordinary Germans played in the Holocaust. Would Time Warner or Disney, the only media conglomerates bigger than Bertelsmann, publish a bruising indictment by a German author of, say, the American slave trade? Sure. As long as the bottom line - that siren of globo-bosses and Main Street merchants alike - looked attractive enough.
To suggest that a foreign company might more easily betray American cultural or political values for profit is as dubious as it is naive. In the words of Sony bard Bob Dylan: "Capitalism is above the law/ It says, 'It don't count unless it sells.' " That's at least as true in New York as it is in Guetersloh.
* David T. Gordon, a Boston-based writer, is a former Newsweek reporter who has worked in Germany covering business and culture.