Although I was a car-crazed little kid, I was mystified as to why the Ford Motor Company sold the same car under three different nameplates—Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln. Or why General Motors had Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac. Or why Chrysler had both Dodge and Plymouth. Even when I was ten, I knew that the Skylark and the Chevelle were the same car.
But brand loyalty is a big thing. If we’ve had a good experience, we’re likely to seek out that same provider and at least give them a first shot at providing us that experience again. A defining feature of rural life is the ritual stomping and pawing at the ground by Chevy or Ford or Ram truck owners, even though those manufacturers have copied one another’s good ideas for sixty years, their products by now far more similar than different.
That impulse toward the brand leads us to buy greatest hits albums, to collect out-takes and B-sides. To see yet another Marvel Universe or Star Wars franchise movie. It leads us to declare lifetime allegiances to sports franchises, and to use the word “we” when talking about a team’s fates. It leads us to prefer Lays or Jays, to prefer Sprite or 7-Up, to pledge allegiance to Bud Light or Coors Light. It leads us to believe, as Emo Phillips once had it, that the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 was the one true faith, and that the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912 was a heretical cult.
I’m subject to that impulse myself, of course. I’m buying a new laptop next week, another MacBook to replace the seven-year old MacBook I have now. I can say that I’m buying an Apple product because I like the operating system (which I do), but the larger reasons are that I don’t have to do as much product research, and because I’m “an Apple guy,” which is a stupid, but real, self-definition. And I bought a set of Nokian snow tires this morning, because I liked the Nokians we had before, and because I don’t want to investigate twenty other brands, and because I like the idea of having Finnish tires on the car. Don’t ask. I already said it was stupid. But that doesn’t make it any less real.
That’s one of the things that “the brand” does: to keep us from having to evaluate the individual merits of each of its iterations. Standing in a bookstore is exhausting—so many possibilities, so many ways to fail. I’ll just pick up another Knausgaard, or another DeLillo, or another Groff, because I know more or less what I’ll be in for. There are hundreds of other books in there that I would certainly enjoy more, but thousands that I wouldn’t, so I’ll go back to the well yet again.
I’ve had a few experiences of this recently with regards to writers, with the purchase of the brand being foremost. David Sedaris got twenty-five years of his diary excerpts into the bookstores, and the New Yorker is now publishing a sort of farewell tour of John McPhee. McPhee describes meeting Thorton Wilder, who, late in life, had taken to cataloguing the 431 full-length plays of Lope de Vega.
I am eighty-eight years old at this writing, and I know that those four hundred and thirty-one plays were serving to extend Thornton Wilder’s life. Reading them and cataloguing them was something to do, and do, and do. It beat dying. It was a project meant not to end… I could use one of my own. And why not? With the same ulterior motive, I could undertake to describe in capsule form the many writing projects that I have conceived and seriously planned across the years but have never written.
I don’t begrudge anyone their hobby. But pages in the New Yorker are among our most valuable literary real estate, just as permanent college faculty lines are among our most valuable intellectual real estate. And in both cases, the fact of tenure, of the value of the brand rather than the product, limits entry to a new generation of talented thinkers. When the seats are held in perpetuity, the barriers to newcomers are near total.
About twenty-five years ago, Nora and I held a session at the annual conference of our then-young discipline. We called it “Founders, Stalwarts, and Heirs.” We asked five people who had been present at the discipline’s origins to talk about their understanding of our field; each of them asked one of their early students, now in their own mid-career, to talk about how the field had changed since they started; and each of those mid-life scholars asked one of their current graduate students or recent PhDs to talk about what was next. It was a terrific conversation.
I’d like to imagine that being one of the roles of any senior practitioner in any field: to use their renown and their connections in order to actively groom and promote their replacements, and to generously leave the court when the moment comes. To use their brand power to support the new brands of younger colleagues. To use McPhee not to sell more McPhee, but to tell McPhee customers how much they’ll appreciate Tolentino or Tevis.
GM and Ford and a college all have an interest in perpetuity, in outlasting any individual practitioner. But individuals themselves have finite careers, and one element of that knowable arc ought to be preparing the vacated stage for those who might come next.