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.
15 thoughts on “the nature of blockbusters”
Are the two mutually exclusive? Can't you have a well-written book that's also extremely popular? (My mind is still boggled that Transformers 2 is the second highest grossing movie of 2009. Number one, Avatar, while not being particularly well written, was at least beautifully filmed.)
I still think there is a difference between a good blockbuster & a bad blockbuster. See– I LIKE the first Twilight film. I think Hardewicke was both tongue in cheek enough (realizing the source material was…somewhat flawed…) & loyal enough (realizing that the fans loved it anyhow). Her solution was just upping the ante– deadpan over the top. I found it charming. Same thing goes for the first Transformers movie. I want to see helicopters turn into robots & fight semitrucks who turn into robots. I want there to be explosions & inexplicable sword fights. I want enough winks at the fans– I want Optimus Prime to drop some classic lines. & they nailed it.
There are plenty of blockbusters that MISS.
I am talking about film because, well– I think you are right on. I consume a lot of printed media, especially books. Heck, I think 2666 is too popular to dig into! Same with television: I can tell you what shows I think are terrible, boring, good, great, & amazing. Movies– I only see a few a year. So yeah– I saw Avatar. Very pretty, pretty insulting too.
You know, all of a sudden I'm sad again that Cloverfield wasn't an HP Lovecraft movie.
I think you might have crystallized my answer to Kelley's prompt over on Sterling Editing. I'd read the examples and was unimpressed. I don't care about being famous or being Stephen King. (OK, I would like to win prizes!) I didn't know what I want from my writing. I've been too absorbed in writing and learning. For now. When I'm done, though, I think I want said about me, “She wrote for readers.” I don't know why that's important to me. I'm sure I'd be thrilled to have a blockbuster. But I know I can write crap. I know I can write crap that will sell. (I probably will.) But I want each piece I write to be better than the last. I would be thrilled to give readers the experience I have when I read something really good, when I read a paragraph or a sentence over and over, just to feel those words fall together. To sigh when I finish and think, Wow. I will write stories or books that make people go, Wow. (Some day.)
Elaine — I just want to write something that people WANT to read (prose or poetry), or watch (script), or listen to (song). As opposed to having to pay them to read it.
I'm the only writer I know who enjoyed DAVINCI CODE. Reason? It made me suspend my author-judgment and just read. I read it in one night. I turned pages. I got up and looked at it backwards in the mirror and googled the painting. Yes, some (much) bothered me. But I could instantly see why it was a hit. I learned from that book.
I too am excited about Robin Hood! I love violent films, like Boondock Saints, especially the most recent one, and Gladiator, Troy, and Kingdom of Heaven, though I know they have their problems.
Film aficionados bore me to tears. They've often ruined films for me by making me doubt my own lowbrow tastes. So, there are certain people I will not watch movies with. I've written produced short films, but I avoid the set and production because I don't want to learn. I'm happy in my ignorance. I spend so much time judging art and story that film is my last bastion of getting to just enjoy it. So what if it only takes a few bare-chested men (or women!) and swinging swords to please us? We like what we like.
Also, someone mentioned the first Transformers movie, which I enjoyed immensely. Ditto Star Trek.
DianneorDi, I think there are more well-made movie blockbusters than well-made book blockbusters. (Though I thought the first 3 Harry Potter books were actually fun to read, and Stephen King, though erratic these days, can be fun to read. There again, Rowling didn't become a certified Blockbuster until halfway through the series–when, IMO, the writing devolved. And King is merely a big bestseller.)
Mordicai, yes, you're probably right. I saw the first transformers–but didn't bother with the second, even on DVD. I loved Independence Day but thought The Day After Tomorrow was crap and haven't yet seen 2012–though I will watch it on DVD.
Elaine, yes, I strive to write beautiful books. But the middle ground, the midlist, is losing market share. (That's another blog post, I think.) So life for us is getting commercially precarious.
I think the loss of mid-list is going to flip: I think greater distribution solutions will reinvigorate small- & mid- list books.
ssas, yes, sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Having said that, I can tell a good film from a bad one–I thought Star Trek was pretty good (the science sucked, of course, but I didn't care), and Gladiator, but I thought the most recent Harry Potter was lame–the pacing was really crap. And, yeah, I think you might be the only reader/writer I know who enjoyed TVC :)
mordicai, I hope this is true, I hope I hope I hope.
I agree about Harry Potter, but the book sucked too so I didn't expect much.
Interesting thesis (that people consume blockbusters because they don't know any better), but in my experience dead wrong. My sister is part of a book group of about 10 women who meet monthly to share and talk about books and socialize. These are definitely not “one book a year” people. They read a lot! And all of them loved The Da Vinci Code.
I think your idea that people consume blockbusters to be a part of the conversation is more on target. I would amplify on that and say that a lot of people are very group oriented and not so inclined to think critically about what they read or watch. As long as they can join in the fun with their friends, they are happy. Quality doesn't matter so much to them, and reading more books and watching more movies isn't necessarily going to change that.
I mostly don't consume blockbusters. Not in any media. But occasionally I do. Yes, I liked “The Bridges of Madison County”. I enjoyed TDC (the book – the movie was so tedious I didn't watch the whole thing). And I even liked “Who Moved My Cheese?” a little. I did not purchase any of those books – they were all given to me. I usually avoid bestsellers. Turns out I miss some good stuff that way, so I've been a little more open minded about it the last few years.
I didn't like those books because I thought it was great writing. I've never been in a book club, and I have never discussed what I read much with other people.
And I consider myself to be a relatively bright, well educated person. I know bad writing when I see it.
I think the reason for that is not always the same. But clearly, I get something from the story. It's just between my insides and the book's insides.
Granted, I'm not the typical consumer of blockbusters, but I think that part of the reason people do consume them is yes, to be connected. But not necessarily to their peers. Maybe there is something in those stories that speaks to us despite how poorly it is worded. Somehow the point – the feeling still comes across.
I do think that a lot of people read crap because sadly, that's all they are capable of digesting. But I think that there has to be something they are getting from the story itself – some emotional connection that keeps them interested. Some deep emotional need is touched.
I can read a very well written book and find it somewhat interesting, but if it doesn’t connect with me on an emotional level in some way, I might lose interest. I might not even finish it.
On the other hand, sometimes I just read crap because I’m too worn out to read anything else. Case in point: I am almost finished with the sixth novel in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series. And you Nicola, are the one who got me started on this (dammit). The first one was, as you said pretty good, but after that, she mostly just repeats herself. Some of them are worse than others – the 6th one is maybe as good as the first one, I think. At least the writing is better than some of the previous ones. And every so often she has a really great paragraph, and I go wow, she can write. I’ve tried to stop reading them. But I seem to have so much on my mind lately that I can’t concentrate on anything much deeper than her stuff. And I do like the characters.
Anyway, long comment. I must be procrastinating.
But I do think most people will miss the subtle stuff. It’s like advertising, the message has to be exaggerated so much they can’t miss it.
And one other thing. My reading of the Sterling Editing Blog has seriously impinged upon my enjoyment of crappy writing. Now I not only notice it’s bad writing, I have some vague notion of how they should fix it. I keep thinking, didn’t this woman have an editor?!?
Holy cow that is long….
I think you're right about access/awareness — even people who read, let's say, four or five books a year may not be aware of anything that's not on the bestseller list or featured in Entertainment Weekly.
On the other hand, I think there's an important point to consider about how people consume entertainment. Entertainment (whether novels, movies, songs, or what have you) is primarily an emotional experience. You go into it looking for a specific mood or emotional response — to be scared, to laugh, to be turned on, whatever. Much of one's reaction to a given piece of entertainment depends on how well it delivers that desired emotional effect. Conversely, a lot of what we think of as qualitative literary (or cinematic) merit is intellectual, not emotional. It's possible for something to be emotionally satisfying but intellectually bankrupt; a horror movie can be terrifying even if it makes no logical sense, a comedy can be funny even if it's stupid and poorly acted, etc. It's also entirely possible for something to be intellectually sound and still be emotionally unengaging (which is my reaction to a lot of arrid art films).
The punters and the intelligensia both have similar emotional responses, it's just that the punters are not conditioned to feel they should prioritize intellectual sophistication over emotional satisfaction. Thus, if a horror movie is scary or a romance is sexy, they don't care that much that the acting is bad or the plot is full of holes. (That isn't a dig, incidentally; it's a valid enough response, and one that a lot of intellectually minded creators tend to overlook.)
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