Short Career

While writing publicity releases at GE, I had a boss named George, George taped to the outside of his office door cartoons he felt had some bearing on the company or the kind of work we did.  One cartoon was of two guys in the office of a buggy whip factory.  A chart on the wall showed their business had dropped to zero.  One guy was saying to the other, “It can’t be our product’s quality.  We make the finest buggy whips in the world.”  George posted that cartoon to celebrate how GE, with its wonderful new products, was making a lot of other companies feel as though they were trying to sell buggy whips.

A broken-down movie actor named Ronald Reagan was working for the company.  He was on the road all the time, lecturing to chambers of commerce and power companies and so on about the evils of socialism.  We never met, so I remain a socialist.

While my future two-term president was burbling out on the rubber-chicken circuit in 1950, I started writing stories at nights and on weekends.  Jane and I had two kids by then.  I needed more money than GE would pay me.  I also wanted, if possible, more self-respect.

There was a crazy seller’s market for short stories in 1950.  There were four weekly magazines that published three or more things in every issue.  Six monthlies did the same.

I got me an agent.  If I sent him a story that didn’t quite work, wouldn’t quite satisfy a reader, he would tell me how to fix it.  Agents and editors back then could tell a writer how to fine-tune a story as though they were pit mechanics and the story were a race car.  With help like that, I sold one, and then two, and then three stories, and banked more money than a year’s salary at GE.

I quit GE and started my first novel,

Player Piano
.  It is a lampoon on GE.  I bit the hand that used to feed me.  The book predicted what has indeed come to pass, a day when machines, because they are so dependable and efficient and tireless, and getting cheaper all the time, are taking the halfway decent jobs from human beings.

I moved our family of four to Cape Cod, first to Provincetown.  I met Norman Mailer there.  He was my age.  He had been a college-educated infantry private like me, and he was already a world figure, because of his great war novel

The Naked and the Dead
.  I admired him then, and do today.  He is majestic.  He is royalty.  So was Jacqueline Onassis.  So was Joe DiMaggio.  So is Muhammed Ali.  So is Arthur Miller.

We moved from Provincetown to Osterville, still on the Cape.

But three years after I left Schenectady, advertisers started withdrawing their money from magazines.  The Buddhist catnaps coming out of my typewriter were becoming as obsolete as buggy whips.

One monthly that had brought several of my stories,

, now survives as a harrowingly explicit sex manual.

That same year, 1953, Ray Bradbury published

Fahrenheit 451
.  The title refers to the kindling point of paper.  That is how hot you have to get a book or a magazine before it bursts into flame.  The leading male character makes his living burning printed matter.  Nobody reads anymore.  Many ordinary, rinky-dink homes like Ray’s and mine have a room with floor-to-ceiling TV screens on all four walls, with one chair in the middle.

[. . .]

In any case, Ray was sure as heck prescient.  Just as people with dysfunctional kidneys are getting perfect ones from hospitals nowadays, Americans with dysfunctional social lives, like the woman in Ray’s book, are getting perfect ones from their TV sets.  And around the clock!

Ray missed the boat about how many screens would be required for a successful people-transplant.  One lousy little Sony can do the job, night and day.  All it takes besides that is actors and actresses, telling the news, selling stuff, in soap opeas or whatever, who treat whoever is watching even if nobody is watching, like family.

[. . .]

You can’t fight progress.  The best you can do is ignore it, until it finally takes your livelihood and self-respect away.  General Electric itself was made to feel like a buggy whip factory for a time, as Bell Labs and others cornered patents on transistors and their uses, while GE was still shunting electrons this way and that with vacuum tubes.

Too big to fail, though, as I was not, GE recovered sufficiently to lay off thousands and poison the Hudson River with PCBs.

Pages 6-7.

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