June 30, 2008

Mini-review: "RenGen," by Patricia Martin

(CCLaP publishes mini-reviews of both books and movies on a regular basis, none lasting more than a few hundred words. A full list of CCLaP's book-based mini-reviews can be found on its main book page, and movies on the main movie page.)

RenGen, by Patricia Martin
RenGen: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer -- And What It Means to Your Business (book; 2007)
By Patricia Martin
Platinum Press / ISBN: 978-1-59869-134-4

(DISCLOSURE: A number of my personal friends were interviewed and featured in the book under review today, including Brandy Agerbeck, Kurt Heinz and Ben Ortiz. I was unaware of this until halfway through the book myself; it played no part in my decision to review it here, or in what I had to say about it.)

In the times we live in, it's highly tempting I think to view the US as currently in the all-time lowest depths of its cultural nadir; to see the American populace as essentially brain-dead, uneducated, xenophobic mouth-breathers, happily sucking on the sour, milk-dry teat of a corporate entertainment industry awash in greed and corruption, a trillion-dollar monster so devoid now of any originality that all it can offer up anymore is such "Fall of the American Empire" tripe as game shows, hate porn, The DaVinci Code, and an all-consuming obsession with burned-out teenage girls. There's only one problem with this, though, argues business and marketing expert Patricia Martin, which is that it's simply not true: as she sets out to prove in her new book RenGen: The Rise of the Cultural Consumer -- And What It Means to Your Business, the US is in fact on the brink of a far-reaching new cultural renaissance, a re-emphasis on deep thought and inner peace that is fueling so much of the Obamania we're seeing this election season. In the coming years, she says, you're going to see the general populace embrace things like the arts, philosophy, material monasticism and socialistic volunteerism in a way like they never have before, partly as a Bush backlash and partly as a simple reflection of the global, creative times we live in; and if you're the owner of a small business, she further argues, you'd do yourself some good by anticipating and planning for this now, versus continuing to assume that your customer base will always be fascinated by "Girls Gone Wild" and "American Idol."

But this immediately brings us to a fairly large problem with RenGen; not that Martin's logic is faulty, because it's not, but precisely that there are a growing amount of people in public who have already argued this, and sometimes argued it in a better, clearer way. Because make no mistake, Martin's "Renaissance Generation" (where the "RenGen" from the book's title comes from) is not much different from what other people call the "Creative Class," and what yet other people call the "Bohemian Bourgeoisie" (or "BoBo"); highly educated, urban-dwelling, globalist-savvy, environmentally concerned white-collar workers with creative backgrounds, that is, or in other words just about every single person who reads the CCLaP website on a regular basis, not to mention your humble critic writing this review. And indeed, if you're already familiar with the work of such thinkers as Richard Florida, Seth Godin, Kevin Kelly and Carl Shirky, there's going to be almost no reason for you to read RenGen at all, except to see which new buzzwords she's created for terms others have already coined*; like them, Martin argues that creativity and collaboration are becoming more and more a part of all people's everyday lives, that more and more Americans are creating personal "pidgin religions" for themselves, that the marketing watchwords of tomorrow are going to be "global" and "transparent" and "transcendent." And that's...well, it's interesting, for sure, but ultimately is not much more than an introduction to ideas that have already been extensively written about by others for years now.

Now, to be fair, this problem is not exclusive to RenGen but rather is sadly endemic to the entire genre of business publishing, unfortunately brought about by the times we live in; that in order to have the kinds of "ripple-effect" successes a person needs anymore to be considered a "business expert" (appearing on wacky morning TV shows, guest-blogging at the Huffington Post), one needs the actual rock in the center of it all known as that 200-page book, causing and inspiring all those ripples in the first place. And in this case a rock is a particularly appropriate metaphor; because not to put too fine a point on it, but most full-sized business books in existence are based only on a single magazine article's worth of actual interesting original content, padded out to 200 pages by citing endless examples and constantly repeating oneself, along with such other cheats as large type, small book dimensions, extra-wide margins, and the constant use of two or three blank lines whenever one will do.

Sadly, RenGen is guilty of all the things just mentioned, making it merely an okay book but one you certainly don't need to go out of your way to pick up; Martin definitely has some interesting stuff to say, stuff all you small-business owners should be paying attention to, but unfortunately for her you can learn it all simply by standing next to a table in your local Borders on a Saturday afternoon, reading the introduction and appendix while clutching your bicycle helmet and sucking on an iced latte. (In fact, like I said, this is how I recommend reading most business books besides the truly phenomenal ones; if ever a genre of publishing was made for quick scanning at corporate bookstores on Saturday afternoons, it was this.) It's definitely worth your time if a copy happens to fall in your hands, and it's certainly worth checking out Martin's short work whenever you find it online and in magazines; but like most business books, I can't in good conscience recommend actually purchasing it, other than maybe if you're charging it to your soulless company's expense account.

Out of 10: 6.9

*Now, that all said, Martin does use a term here I've never heard anyone use before, which is the concept of a "rubber ceiling" to all these creative-class jobs being created these days; that is, since there is no proscribed way to actually succeed at these jobs, no list of rules to follow that will automatically guarantee you success, the failure rate of creative-class jobs is extraordinarily high, and in many cases has nothing to do with the worker's intelligence or dedication but rather simply dumb luck. Martin only mentions this once, though, in a throwaway sentence she never comes back to; and that's a shame, given that in my opinion an entire other book could be written just on that subject alone. There ya go, a sequel to RenGen called The Rubber Ceiling; don't say I didn't ever give you nothing, world.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:40 AM, June 30, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |