Dispatches | April 28, 2005

[By Faith Kurtyka]

When I heard that Pamela Anderson was going to star in a sitcom entitled “Stacked,” chronicling her misadventures working in a bookstore, I thought I might write this web editorial (“Webitorial”) about the similarities and differences in our bookselling experiences. As it turns out, though, Pam and I actually have very little in common (for example, she’s taller than I am). But what I did find was that “Stacked” is the perfect representation of why I sucked at selling books.

In his collection of pop culture essays entitled Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman argues that, because she embodies our modern culture’s idealization of celebrities and Barbie Dolls (or, celebrities that look like Barbie dolls), Pamela Anderson is the next Marilyn Monroe. If Klosterman is correct—if Pam is “the hyperaccelerated manifestation of contemporary sexuality”—what does it mean that her latest offering to the gods of pop culture is a TV sitcom that places her in that holiest of holies for readers and writers, the neighborhood bookstore? More specifically, what does it mean that our country’s foremost sex symbol is selling that which we hold as transcendent?

By combining a woman who embodies the objectification of female sexuality with a place that objectifies books, “Stacked” illustrates that the selling books isn’t about spreading culture or knowledge any more than Pam is about personality or talent. Rather, to be a successful bookseller, you must view books the same way many people look at Pamela Anderson: as an object to be bought or sold (or downloaded). And for me, a girl who was once a mostly friendless teenager with awkward hair (just like Pam, I’m sure), books transcend commodity-status. Books are people, friends even. And would you sell your friends for $14.95 in quality paperback? I don’t think so. So when managers would send us memos that discussed sales volume or quotas or “business,” my brain would fog over with postmodern dilemmas. “Why are we concerned about the price of enlightenment?” I thought. “Are we selling ideas or things? Are they like this at Barnes and Noble too?”

As I also discovered that the book world is being taken over by the same sort of celebrity frenzy that sells other forms of pop culture, it’s perfect too that Pam is a sort of meta-celebrity: she’s famous for being famous. I remember many a customer wandering up to the information desk, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections in hand: “Do you have this without the Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it?” “No,” I would say, shaking my head sadly. Separating books from their adjoining celebrities (see Dr. Phil, or the recent rash of celebrities writing children’s books) is about as easy as convincing people they shouldn’t buy them just for the celebrity tie-in.

Pam’s character, Skyler, takes the bookstore job in order to put an end to her hard-partying ways, and escape her rock-star boyfriend (that’s one thing we have in common), so at least the show seems to get that being among books is a move towards being a better person. It is my hope then, that whatever the fate of literature in a capitalistic society, there will always be serenity and acceptance in the company of our friends, the books.