Tuesday, January 5, 2010

the nature of blockbusters

I've been thinking about art and commerce and why a blockbuster is unlike other books.

A long time ago, the Associate Publisher of Del Rey (hey, Ku) shocked me by saying, "We worry if a review is too good." As soon as he said it, I understood, albeit on a level I couldn't then articulate, that this was weirdly, creepily (and very inconveniently) true. Blockbusters don't get critical strokes. Yet readers suck them up and blow back money.

The thing is, I know a lot of readers--omnivorous, voracious, constant readers--but at the time I didn't know anyone who adores books such as The Bridges of Madison County or Who Moved My Cheese? Who are these buyers, I wondered. Why do they buy such crude constructs and propel them to blockbusterdom?

They buy them because they don't know any better.

No, this is not slam-the-punter day on Ask Nicola. I'm really trying to figure something out. Stay with me.

I have a friend who loves books, particularly poetry, yet has had progessively less time to read. Five years ago, she joined a book group. They were reading Dan Brown. "Oh, migod," she said at dinner one night. "Have you read The Da Vinci Code?" I opened my mouth to pour witty invective on the book*, but then I saw that her eyes were shining. I shut my mouth. "It's fabulous, amazing, intricate, interesting, fascinating..." I listened with half an ear while she rhapsodised and focused on my dinner. "...brilliant, and next we're reading Angles & Demons!" When she'd finished I blinked a few times, managed an "I'm glad you're enjoying it," and stuffed the conversation in my to-be-pondered-later file.

At some point in the last month or two it's bumped up against the long-ago we worry about good reviews comment, and then, yesterday, a post on The Lefsetz Letter (which spends some time comparing apples to oranges but makes a basically sound point: beauty is in the eye of the consumer--thanks to Fran Toolan for pointing that out). Now I get it.

Blockbuster-book buying isn't about books. It's about human behaviour and group dynamics. It's about belonging. The blockbuster consumer hears people talking about the the secret codes underlying national monuments, or vampires vs. werewolves, and they want to join in the conversation. Just as they haven't spent much time thinking about dress design, they've never considered how narrative works. They don't have the critical tools to see that the book is ugly and badly made. All they know is that they're joining in and having a blast. They aren't habitual readers; they have time/inclination for one book a year, so they pick the one that they've heard their coworkers and fellow students and clients raving about. A blockbuster novel is like a Halloween costume: it only has to last one night and provide something to talk about in the morning. It's a way to feel part of the party.

I have nothing against that. I used to. It used to piss me off that a book could be manifestly badly written and get terrible reviews yet absolutely fly off the shelves. Here I was, slaving away (also, admittedly, having a blast) writing my beautiful books, and they go off and buy rubbish instead? "What is wrong with people?" I would cry**.

Finally I understand that there's nothing wrong with them, they're simply not habitual readers--just as most of the people who went to watch 2012 aren't film aficionados, and most of those who eat fish and chips aren't gourmands. They don't have the eye or the palate, and they don't care. Why should they? They don't even have to discount or defy the highbrow critics' opinion because they don't encounter it; they're not habitual readers so they don't read book blogs or newspaper reviews or literary journals. All they know of a book is the opinion of their friends, family, or co-workers who are, mostly likely, as inexperienced as they are. This is buzz. This is word-of-mouth. This is what makes blockbusters, and it's utterly impervious to critical opinion.

I know this: I'm a blockbuster consumer. I'm salivating to see Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. Will it be great art? Don't know. Don't care. I go the theatre perhaps three times a year. As long as someone whacks someone's head off with a sword or shit blows up, I'm happy.

How about you? And, more importantly (at least from a writer's perspective), how do we get readers to buzz about great novels? Oh, wait, that's easy: we persuade them to read more often and get more experience. Which is happening, thanks to the Stephenie Meyers and Dan Browns of the world. Even if only one percent of those occasional readers suddenly falls in love with this notion of reading for pleasure, of reading as an interior experience, then, hey, we're good.

* Yes, I've read it. All the way through--though it was a terrible struggle to finish. I love Catholic conspiracy books, love them, and so despite the reviews I picked this one up. "How bad can it be?" I thought. Ha. About the opening scene alone I could write pages on how to fix it--or why not to bother.

** A cat would no doubt say: not enough legs.

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