A NATION OF SALESMEN: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture by Earl Shorris

A NATION OF SALESMEN: The Tyranny of the Market and the Subversion of Culture

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A turgid, self-indulgent treatment of a rich topic: how ""selling has achieved dominion over the world in our time."" Shorris (Latinos, 1992) long combined life as a writer with a top position at the N.W. Ayer advertising agency. ""I needed the job,"" he confesses. Unfortunately, his mea/nostra culpa is only infrequently a memoir; rather, he prefaces each chapter with parablelike fictions featuring unnamed salesfolk -- though some ""have a worldly double"" -- not necessarily linked to the following text. Further contributing to the book's meandering nature is its scope: Shorris aims to begin at the Beginning. So he locates the archetypal salesman in the serpent of the Garden of Eden and its counterparts in other religious epics. He takes us through Plato and Charlemagne, Max Weber and Adam Smith, television and credit. However, he is given to sweeping statements: Salesmen, as mediators, ""cannot find a place for their economic loyalties""; and ""Bill Clinton does not sell in order to govern; he governs in order to sell."" There are nuggets of interest: Shorris dissects the advertising titans' specious argument that their work aids national productivity; former General Motors chairman Roger Smith -- in one of a few interviews sprinkled through the book (two of them with the author's sons) -- recounts his successful courting of Toyota. Shorris's grand conclusion, however, is that the archetypal Western person is homo vendens, the salesman, building a society without dignity, thus susceptible to tyranny. And so: ""The choice in our time is not to die but to think,"" to value knowledge above things. Okay. But others have better tackled this territory, either through close journalistic portraits (David Dorsey's The Force, p. 358) or more focused essays (Barry Schwartz's The Costs of Freedom, p. 538). In one of the many quotes prefacing chapters, Shorris even reproduces part of his proposal for this book. In this case, it seems, he's a better salesman than author.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1994
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Norton