Recently a writing friend told me of a plot premise that she'd thought of. It involved a woman going to the store to pick up a chicken, but she picks up the butcher instead. I thought of the sources for chickens these days and realized that a place where I would be most likely to buy one would offer no opportunity for meeting the butcher, let alone picking him up.
When I was growing up, even in New York City, we had a local grocery store. The proprietor's name was Mr. Lovelock. The worn floorboards were covered in sawdust. Every customer had to negotiate around the black and white cat who always occupied the center of the space between the door, the counters, and the shelves. When my mother had chosen what she wanted, we would go home to await a delivery by a lad who must have been about fourteen. There's not much of that sort of customer relationship around these days. I'm eager to see how my writer friend's story will develop, and where it will be set.
To be at the far end of your life tends to make you think backwards perhaps more than is good for the morale. So many changes that have happened in the Twentieth Century have come about at the speed of a 100-yard sprint in the Olympics, and so many are of marvelous consequence for those of us who have lived to see them. On the other hand, that very pace has exacted a price, which for me is the leisure to contemplate details--of personalities, of eccentricities, of individualities, and the most obvious pleasures of the natural world, which is so rapidly becoming a distant backdrop instead of the close surround of everyday life. When using the word "leisure" I imply the mental and emotional time and freedom for appreciation in both senses of that word.
I'm distressed daily by the fact that I miss half the birdsong around us because it's being drowned out by the racket of diesel eighteen-wheelers. I can barely see the mountains day after day because of air pollution, and I have to watch my dog to be sure he isn't getting into some area newly treated with chemicals to discourage weeds. As for buying the chicken, I have to pick one out from twenty others so tightly encased in shrink-wrap I can't tell them apart except for the weight indicated on the labels. Nowadays, if I'm willing to pay over $10 a pound instead of under $3, I can get a "free-range organic" bird, but even then I won't have the feet available for broth that would be like what I imagine Jewish mothers hand out to cold sufferers. REAL chicken soup is really a thing of the past. I mind having to pay extra to get carrots with tops, lemons one-by-one, local tomatoes in August. A can of baked beans isn't even just a can of baked beans; now I have to choose among several different versions for use with different accompaniments. I admit it's nice to be able to get "ethnic" and "gourmet" foods, but where's the cheese wheel from which you could get a slice cut to order and so sharp it made your tongue sting when you tasted the sample offered on the blade of a knife half the size of a machete?
One of my biggest plaints as a senior citizen is directed at the tendency to enlarge everything, especially restaurant portions and publishers. Does anyone among the latter have anything they will admit is a "mid-list" today? They can't afford one any more. An editor no longer can browse the slush pile for something that might be to his or her individual taste and take a flier on it. As for fiction: the formulas for success (read enormous sales) have multiplied. Does the story have a thriller pace? Check. Plenty of sex, preferably explicit and at least somewhat unconventional? Check. Violence? Check. Shocking characters, scenes, plots? Check. Or, perhaps to fit into another category, it may need to be gently bland, without a suggestion of the unpleasant realities of life and certainly no more than a hint of sex, and make every character call regularly and verbally on the Almighty. Even the category romances of my day have become less rather than more convincing.
What has happened to verisimilitude? I can only be grateful for the authors who have managed to get into print who are the exceptions to prove those rules cited above. My feeling, though, is that they are too few, and if one can find their work at all, it doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
Is it time to organize, to shout while waving a banner inscribed with the names of literary artists in all languages, to rebel? Should there be a convention for the preservation of real literature? If only we had Mark Twain or Voltaire to make the campaign speeches, Aristotle or Kant to force us to entertain enough thought to allow some expansion of minds. Even Edward Lear and W. S. Gilbert might be fun to listen to so we could figure out how to enjoy jokes. There isn't enough poetry around in spite of the legions of willing small independent publishers, largely because it's hard to convince a customer that the price of a chapbook is worth it when there's so little time. The trouble is, we don't have the millions of dollars it would take to make us heard. Maybe we should try to start an online fundraising effort dedicated to the proposition that independent publishers of books and periodicals should have the same proportion of public support that goes to Public Radio and Television, both of which have already had to succumb to at least "institutional" advertising. Farewell Harold Ross, and all your ilk. You're missed.