Not too long ago, I attended the annual food festival that my town puts on. Restaurants from all across the city set up stalls, giving everyone a chance to sample their fare. The choices on offer encompassed a culinary trip around the world. Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Thai - whatever your preferred tastes, you could probably find it. Add to this the stalls from the many local farms and producers, each keen to impress with their own unique brands and flavours. It was a food lover's paradise.
As my wife and I let our noses guide us to a worthy lunch, we were stopped by a woman in the crowd. She had children with her and I could not help but think how lucky they were to be given this opportunity to be introduced to so many different cuisines at such a young age. When I was their age I had always been a fussy eater, which I believe could have been remedied had I only been given an opportunity like these youngsters now had, to learn about so many different foods (and cultures) in one place.
'Excuse me,' the woman said, gaining my attention.
I assumed she wanted to pick my brain for suggestions - to offer her a little insight into navigating this metropolis of nutritional delight.
It turned out that she didn't.
What she actually wanted was to know where she could find the nearest branch of a very well known fast food restaurant. I could have pointed out the relative insanity of this request, but instead I simply told her to try the town centre, which was located about a mile away. I imagine her next port of call was a bus stop (the quickest way into town was along the seafront and who would want to take that walk on such a bright and beautiful summer's day?).
The reason this encounter left such an impression on me was not because of the ominous implications it casts for the health of the nation (I see her attitude representative of people who may have stumbled upon the festival unawares. Those taking advantage of the extensive choices on offer would likely have deliberately planned on attending), but because of the parallels it shares with other aspects of society.
One could easily switch the term 'food festival' with that of 'book store' and the trend would be the same. Again, there is so much choice, so much diversity, yet the majority will go for the literary equivalent of junk food. As the nation is on the verge of a health crisis, it is not hard to see where the problem lies - the unhealthy trash produced by monolithic corporations who are savvy to the fact that sales come from shrewd marketing rather than quality products. And so it is with publishing. Authors now have become brands and once a brand is wide enough known, content is rendered irrelevant. People will crave and consume it even if it offers the least desirable choice in terms of quality.
Commerce operates on one very simple premise. Income minus expenditure equals profit. Therefore, the greatest profit comes from charging the highest price for the lowest quality products. Put simply, the current free market model western society uses drives all areas of commerce towards producing overpriced crap. Of course, there are two sides to commerce you will say. You cannot leave customers out of the equation - after all, isn't the market driven by the law of supply and demand? Well, this is the real problem, because we now live in a world where the biggest demand is for overpriced crap. Content used to be king, but now it is the advertiser who rules. The system no longer gives people what they want, it TELLS them what they want.
That is why, as a writer, every time I walk past a fast food joint packed to the rafters with ravenous customers, I wonder if there will always be a place for art in an ever growing corporate and commercial world.