After my weekend ride I spent most of Sunday catching up on non-writing news. Try as I might, however, I couldn’t stopping thinking about professionalism and amateurism, and whether there was any useful distinction between the two. As noted in previous posts, the corporate book business insists that amateurs cannot produce works of commercial quality or literary merit because amateurs are inherently unqualified to do so. But is that right? Is professionalism — whatever that word means — an inherent arbiter of quality?
I found myself thinking about that question while I read a New York Times piece on Toyota’s implosion as a brand synonymous with quality. While I already knew about the problems with the Pruis and runaway acceleration, I wasn’t surprised to run across this as well:
It also said it had avoided an investigation into the Tacoma, a pickup whose undercarriage could be affected by rust. Toyota offered to repair or, in some cases, replace damaged Tacomas built from 1995 to 2004. Toyota also said it had saved millions of dollars by delaying federal safety rules affecting other models.
Years ago I made enough money on a screenplay gig to buy myself the first new vehicle I’d ever owned. I took a long time picking it out, paying particular attention to ratings for quality as well as my all-season needs in the (then) upper-Midwest. The vehicle I settled on was a Nissan Pathfinder, which served me faithfully for close to a decade.
At which point the frame disintegrated:
That’s what happened on the left-rear side. This is what happened on the right-rear side:
As you can see, the failure was bilateral. Both sides of the frame rusted out in the same place at the same rate over a decade, until parts of the suspension that used to be welded to the frame came free. I was fortunate the suspension did not come apart while I was driving at highway speeds, or as a result of taking evasive action. Anything from a tire-swallowing pothole to sudden weight transfer might have broken the suspension loose rather than allowing it to simply decay, and that might have put me and others at risk.
Nissan’s response to my problem was simple: the vehicle was out of warranty. I did have the option of paying to have the frame welded myself (that’s what the junkyard did when I junked it) but I didn’t want to put anyone at risk of a bad repair because frame geometry is not simple. Get it wrong, even by a hair, and you’ll wear out tires by the week, cripple your stopping power, and jounce and wriggle over every mile.
The irony in all this is that when I bought the Pathfinder my mother and grandmother railed against the quality of imports. They had grown up with Detroit’s Big Iron, and anything that didn’t look and handle like a battleship was suspect. Oh, how I used to laugh at their naive views.
So why did my Nissan fall apart? Well, take a look at this close-up from the right side.
Inside that factory-original frame hole you’ll see two things. One is what looks like a light-colored, pea-sized stone. The other is a similarly-colored layer of debris that the pea-sized stone is sitting on.
Unbeknown to me, over ten years of driving, the factory-drilled holes in my Nissan frame collected a layer of dust and sand. During the winter they also collected road salts. Because there were no holes in the bottom of the frame, the moisture that found its way into the frame along with the dust and sand had no place to go. So it sat inside the frame, leeching salts, and ate away the metal.
Now, I see no vindication in any of this for American automobile manufacturers. Detroit died a decade or more ago, at its own hand, even if it was stitched together and reanimated last year by the federal government. For far too long American automobile reliability was abysmal, designs were abysmal, mileage was abysmal, build quality was abysmal, and management was abysmal. But…I don’t ever remember the frame on an American car rusting out.
While many of the features and comforts in modern vehicles are complex, frames can hardly be classified as rocket science. You take some heavy plates of metal and weld them together, and if you do it right the resulting ladder or clip will outlast anything you bolt to it. On the other hand, if you cut frame weight by using lighter metal or drilling holes in the metal (or both) you’ll improve mileage and lower costs (which you may or may not pass on to the unsuspecting consumer), but you’ll also shorten the useful life of the vehicle in the same way that osteoporosis shortens the useful life of a human being.
Had I lived in the south, where it’s warmer and less salt is thrown on the roads in winter, I might have gotten another five years out of that Pathfinder. Because more people live in the south than the north, I can even see why Nissan didn’t want to build a frame that would hold up under normal winter driving conditions in the northern states. As long as the frame outlasted the warranty — and mine did — Nissan’s professionals were fulfilling the promises they made to me.
In fact, the only downside to Nissan that I can think of is that I won’t ever buy a Nissan again. (Speaking of which, if you’re in the market for a new vehicle, I would caution you against buying a Nissan. And Toyota’s trucks.)
Now, if this was another age we could have a long discussion about whether Nissan knew their frames were junk or not, but fortunately we don’t have to do that. From previous criminal and civil cases the track record is clear: automobile manufacturers are the first to know about defects in their vehicles, and consumers are the last. Whether the makers do anything about those defects, or whether they have their bean counters simply pay off people who are disadvantaged, maimed, or who have had their loved ones burned to death, is a business decision. A professional business decision.
This ugly truth even informs the motivations of deranged lead character in Fight Club, but it’s a truth nonetheless. The professionals who make the cars you drive and the planes you fly and the trains you ride and the pills you pop and the appliances you plug into your local electric grid almost always know what’s wrong with their products before those products hurt you. When quality falters, however, the professional’s goal is not necessarily to improve quality, even if people are getting killed in the process, but rather to protect the assets of the company that writes their check.
The government not only understands this ugliness, it facilitates it. In fact, here’s the lede of the NYT piece on Toyota:
Toyota estimated that it saved $100 million by negotiating with regulators for a limited recall of 2007 Toyota Camry and Lexus ES models for sudden acceleration, the same problem that has since prompted it to recall millions of cars, documents turned over to a Congressional committee showed Sunday.
The estimate was in a confidential presentation from July 2009 listing legislative and regulatory “wins” for the company.
How many Toyota professionals and government professionals sat down at a professional table and hashed out a professional deal that allowed Toyota to keep making and selling vehicles of poor quality? I don’t know, but the very fact that they did so makes me think there’s no inherent relationship between professionalism and quality.
Because large, faceless corporations and the professionals who work for them are so often willing to ignore quality and safety issues in pursuit of a buck, it’s tempting to leap to the conclusion that quality simply does not scale. In this view the hand-made product is always superior to the mass-market product. Unfortunately, as much as the idea appeals to me, I don’t think that’s the case.
If I set out to build a hand-made passenger vehicle I would face almost insurmountable obstacles in trying make every single part by hand. From the machining of the engine block to the manufacture of wires, gauges, solenoids and body panels it would be impossible to produce hand-made parts at a level of quality superior to those being used on the average-quality automotive assembly line anywhere in the world. If anything, it seems to me that as the complexity of a machine increases, the ability of an individual to make a hand-made version of equal or better quality actually decreases.
By the same token, however, as the complexity of a product decreases, the likelihood that individuals can compete on quality with corporate professionals actually seems to increase. (It may be much more difficult to compete on price if materials are hard to acquire or work with, or the business margins are slim, but on the sole criterion of quality a simpler product seems to level the playing field.)
Which brings us back to writing, books and publishing. The mechanics of making an actual book are beyond me. I don’t know how to put a book together in any meaningful way, and if I had to do so the end product would be terrible. The content of a book, however, is something I think I can produce — if not at the highest level (whatever that is) then at least at a level of quality that puts me solidly in the middle of the pack of works produced by the corporate publishing world. Assuming I want to make physical books available to readers who want them (I do), and that I can find someone to handle that part of the process (I can), then I am not prevented from competing on quality in the marketplace simply because I am an individual.
Note, however, that this opportunity also confers considerable responsibility on the amateur or independent author. If you are trying to compete in the marketplace then you have to be good. Not world-class good, and maybe not even award-winning good, but memorably good. Good in a way that makes the reader say, “That book was good.”
— Mark Barrett