Examining the evil that salesmen do

January 15, 1995|By Neal Lipschutz

Earl Shorris has led an unusual double life -- writer and salesman. A writer of books and contributing editor to Harper's magazine, he also spent a career as an advertising man and consultant to large corporations. In this pessimistic look at a world where he thinks selling in all its forms has run amok, Mr. Shorris clearly has turned against his business side.

The author argues that the act of selling, morally neutral and crucial to the functioning of economic and cultural systems throughout history, has wildly overstepped its bounds to become the dominant force in America's business and social life. The result, he says, is a transactional society where notions of worth and quality are dismissed and even language is debased.

The book is essentially a philosophical treatise, as opposed to the result of reporting beyond the author's own experiences and readings. While Mr. Shorris is clearly erudite and his references to classical philosophy are illuminating, he too often fails to convincingly show why our times are more debased than other periods in capitalist societies. He also is wont to see fully causal relationships between events that may be only partly related.

For instance, he's awfully hard on television. He writes: "There was no essential difference between the sales messages and the news and entertainment programs on television: All were mediated. The customer now lived in a limited world or, more accurately, a world of limited information." I'm no big fan of television, and, sure, it's been a huge tool in provoking consumer desires, but why is information more limited after television? Surely there is someknowledge to be gained from it. Later, Mr. Shorris writes: "It was a long journey from the 'Texaco Star Theater' . . . to a boy in California killing another over a pair of sneakers, but the direction was set with the introduction of the technology." Is television the only reason for increased violence, the breakdown of families and the lack of values taught to young people? I don't think so.

Mr. Shorris starts his sales story at the beginning. The serpent in the Garden of Eden was the first salesman and established the salesman as the representative of the secular world, with the possibilities of human knowledge and desires. Relying on the writings of Plato, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, among other philosophers, Mr. Shorris quickly takes us through the Middle Ages, when salesmen flourished despite religious prohibitions, all the way to today. Much of the book dwells in the here and now, and the author doesn't like what he sees.

What happened? The economy is more global and thus more competitive; everything in business and selling seems to have gotten meaner. Our whole way of life, Mr. Shorris says, is dependent on people selling other people things they don't need. There's no doubt that buying keeps market economies going and growing (two-thirds of the gross domestic product is consumer spending).

There's also no doubt that many things that stood apart from the private sector (education, art) are now influenced or controlled by market factors (see Mickey Kaus' excellent 1992 book "The End of Equality" for a discussion of this). But even with all that said, Mr. Shorris' gloom-and-doom view doesn't give enough credit to the nonmaterial influences that still exist: the values of caring still taught in most, if not all, homes, the still-breathing appreciation of art and literature, the good works that are done every day.

Mr. Shorris makes perhaps his most telling arguments in latter sections of the book, where he deals with the "oversold" state of the economy, a result of too many people spending beyond their means for too long for things they don't need. The exhaustion and caution that seem to have set in among many is a worry for any economy based in large part on expections of growing consumption. He's also strong on how salespeople have been left to determine their own level of morality.

Mr. Shorris is a gifted writer, one who can use effectively the unusual technique of starting each chapter with a short piece of fiction touching on some aspect of selling. These vignettes don't always work, but one involving an ad man desperately trying to improve a Christmas sales catalog even though he's been fired approaches in its emotional power, despite its brevity, such classic works as "Death of a Salesman."

This is a thought-provoking book, if one that gives too little credit to the human search for meaning outside the economy. Earlier this year, David Dorsey published "The Force," a close-up look at a year in the lives of some Xerox Corp. salespeople. With that book providing a look at salespeople today, and Mr. Shorris' work offering a historical and philosophical overview, a reader can get a full picture of the world of sales and our always mixed feelings about it.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer who lives in New York.

Title: "A Nation of Salesmen"

Author: Earl Shorris

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Co.

Length, price: 352 pages, $23

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