John Edgar Wideman's comment Sunday that "conformity buttresses capitalism" had a dual message for those in the business of books who have gathered here for their annual trade show.
Wideman was discussing literature's role in everyday life, but he could have been lecturing on the bookstore business.Conformity, in the form of super-size chain bookstores, is hurting the thousands of independent store owners who are members of the American Booksellers Association. For several years, the ABA delegates have wrung their hands and hired lawyers to challenge the new giants.
This year, they seem to have accepted the inevitable and are heading back to basics to survive. At this convention, there are less hype and glitter, more talk about "community"; there are fewer celebrities, more seminars on issues; fewer worries about books on CD-ROM and more attention to "personal selling."
At last year's ABA, Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Colin Powell distracted booksellers and buyers from their business; this year, the fewer big names made less of a splash. The Duchess of York did drop in but only for a day to meet with a small group of buyers; she made no public appearances.
The only big political name in this presidential election year was Ross Perot. He drew a modest crowd to a meeting room, where he and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., hawked their co-authored new book, "The Dollar Crisis."
Perot's slide show of charts and graphs caused many to drift away before he finished.
Also missing from the show were major publishers, Random House and Viking. They have been named in ABA lawsuits as conspiring with the chain bookstores over pricing and author tours and stayed home in protest.
Certainly, their presence was missed, especially on the party circuit, but helping to fill the void were new, small presses such as Greywolf and Serabande. More specialty presses seemed to be represented, along with a strong selection of international publishers.
Extravagant parties were down this year, seemingly to highlight the new, pared-down mood. The value of personal or "hand-selling" got a big boost from no less than that monster best seller, John Grisham, whose name is currently on 60 million copies of his seven novels.
Dressed as a slightly hipper version of the lawyer he once was, the soft-spoken Southerner told an audience of booksellers Sunday that he was forced to sell copies of his first novel, "A Time to Kill," out of the trunk of his car or at book parties his family had arranged around Oxford, Miss., his home-town.
"I paid my dues as a bookseller, too, and I won't forget you," he said.
Grisham was the biggest name writer to appear at an ABA event; the biggest personality speaking Sunday was Mia Farrow, whose "Autobiography" was billed as the true story of her unhappy relationship with Woody Allen.
She saved the details for the book, due around Christmas, and presented a lackluster summary of her life from teen actress to mother of 14.
The ABA, through its Foundation for Free Expression, did provide some fireworks when 10 panelists gathered to analyze the presidential campaign. It represented a modest range of political philosophies.
All agreed that issues, not character, should be emphasized in American politics, but then all accepted political strategist Phil Rollins' gloomy prediction that the upcoming campaign will be "the nastiest in history."
Away from the political battles were Wideman and poet Donald Hall, who both have new books this year from Houghton Mifflin. They faced the issue of literature and life at a luncheon symposium and attacked mainstream culture for its mediocrity and conformity.
Wideman's first novel in six years, to be published in October, is "The Cattle Killing," which explores the self-destructive behavior of black Americans.
The ABA convention ran from Saturday to Monday. Attendance figures for Saturday and Sunday were estimated at nearly 80,000. There were 2,500 exhibitors.