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Fried Green Writers at the Viacom Cafe : Media mergers: Serious books are the first casualty.

February 25, 1994|JONATHAN FREEDMAN | Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer-winning journalist in San Diego.

Viacom's victory in the merger battle over Paramount is being touted as good news for business because it links entertainment "product" and distribution in a vertical chain--a veritable banquet of publishing, broadcasting, networks, cable, movie theaters, sports franchises, programming and theme parks.

This is a letter from the bottom of the food chain. I am a rare, if not endangered, species of worm: writerus nonfictionist socialissuem. In 1990, I set out to write a book about poverty in America--not a popular subject, granted, but an important one. I found a hook for the book and dangled it in the murky waters of New York publishing. Atheneum nibbled.

Founded in 1959, Atheneum established itself as a quality house with the publication of Theodore H. White's "The Making of the President, 1960," which won a Pulitzer Prize and revolutionized American political reporting. Among the other major writers published by Atheneum: Nobel laureate William Goldman and novelist Isabel Allende.

Over the years, small publishers like Atheneum have had increasing difficulty competing with the big houses. To survive, Atheneum merged with Scribners, whose backlist included Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe. Then Atheneum and Scribners were swallowed by Macmillan, surviving as "imprints." In 1989, Macmillan was bought by the British publishing magnate Robert Maxwell.

While I traveled across America talking with people who'd overcome poverty, Maxwell was siphoning millions from British pension funds to feed his acquisitions. In 1991, his body was found floating near his yacht off the Canary Islands (foul play was rumored but never proved). Soon after my book, "From Cradle to Grave," was published last fall, Macmillan was swallowed by a bigger fish, Simon & Schuster. Not long before, Simon & Schuster itself had been swallowed by a bigger fish from Hollywood, Paramount.

Now Paramount has been swallowed by the killer whale of them all, Viacom.

And the publisher of Atheneum has been told that the spring list would be its last. Progress is not a victimless crime. In 1962, Atheneum published Reynolds Price's first novel, "A Long and Happy Life." Now Atheneum was publishing Price's latest work, "A Whole New Life," an account of his battle with cancer which left him paralyzed.

A publishing house's lifelong loyalty is a rare and precious gift; the commitment enables an author to endure and strive for excellence. When an imprint dies, a creative relationship is severed. The same week that Atheneum was terminated, two other major houses closed their editorial offices in New York. There are fewer publishers than ever, and editors (chronically underpaid and overworked) are looking for jobs that no longer exist.

What does all this tell me?

Great authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald (whose rights, acquired through the Macmillan-Paramount merger, go to Viacom) are now valued less for their ability to move readers than for their stories to be repackaged as product.

The consolidation of book publishing, movie, television and communication industries in the hands of a few mega-corporations supposedly will make American business a more competitive vehicle for the information superhighway.

I cannot help but fear that writers will become road kill. Megamergers impoverish American culture and thwart the search for truth. The billions of dollars invested in acquisition, debt service and technology reduce the money available to introduce new writers and subsidize provocative, if not wildly popular, nonfiction books. The demand for entertainment puts dollars above sense; diversity is sacrificed to the vast bland middle market.

Evolution is inevitable. Americans are changing from people of the book to screen people; I see it in my own children. But from the bottom of the food chain, watching corporations consuming institutions consuming people, I feel a hunger for meaning. Meaning gives shape to suffering and enables people to survive hard times without sacrificing their humanity. It gives voice to values that resist the tyranny of the marketplace.

The challenge facing our culture is not whether Viacom, Time Warner, Sony and the like will cannibalize the creations of the past; that is a fait accompli. The test is whether the communication leviathans will sponsor difficult, creative people to write inspired stories that offer meaning in a world consumed by consumption.

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