Well, okay, it looks as though the Economist has already said everying I was trying to say yesterday, and said it better. (Thanks Denys, in the comments at Cinematical.) Seriously, go read the article. It’s great. It speaks to why the midlist is currently getting screwed. (Yes, Mordicai, I know you think the lot of us midlisters will improve, and I hope you’re right, but at the moment it’s horrible.) Here are two paragraphs to whet your appetite:
“Both the hits and the tail are doing well,” says Jeff Bewkes, the head of Time Warner, an American media giant. Audiences are at once fragmenting into niches and consolidating around blockbusters. Of course, media consumption has not risen much over the years, so something must be losing out. That something is the almost but not quite popular content that occupies the middle ground between blockbusters and niches. The stuff that people used to watch or listen to largely because there was little else on is increasingly being ignored.
Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In “Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour”, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read “The Lost Symbol”, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.
This explains why bestselling books, or blockbuster films, occasionally seem to grow not just more quickly than products which are merely very popular, but also in a wholly different way. As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.
I really want to explore this notion of belonging, fold in what Jennifer D said yesterday in the comments–about belonging interiorly as well as outside the book. But, eh, today is a busy day, so it will have to wait a wee while.
If any of you have insights meanwhile, share!
12 thoughts on “a tide of ill-informed good will: more about blockbusters”
Right now, I think so much of the treatment of the midlist is: “maybe it will be a surprise, runaway hit.” & that is something you can't aim for! There is also the (much more reasonable but still not awesome unless you are “litAratuuure”) “this book might win some awards & move some copies that way.”
I'm at work and can't take the time to read the whole article, but did have some thoughts after your post yesterday.
One, what I find curious about blockbusters–both books and movies–is how poorly they hold up over time. I never see a movie first-run, almost always on DVD. Books I can take years to get around to. So by the time I see or read them, the hype is long gone and I often finish thinking, What was that all about?
Second, isn't a midlist writer just one book away from blockbuster status? The DaVinci Code wasn't Dan Brown's first book. I don't know the business, so I don't know who decides something is worth the marketing effort or how they decide that. I think there are surprises. If Oprah chooses you, bingo!
I wonder if the “wave of ill-informed good will” has always existed, to a greater or lesser extent.
There will always be people who want to read what everyone else is reading – and that's for a number of reasons, none of them very palatable! The tale of the Emperor's Clothing sums up human nature way back when and continues to do so! Where does that lead the so-called mid-market? Naked, and with no-one paying attention?
Damn, if only I could have included a little naked image in this comment, just so that you could ignore it, of course.
Steph Fey x
If I'm anxious, sick, or in a distracting environment such as an airport, I often choose a book that's more predictable and easy, one that won't challenge me. At such times, I want to be entertained — not changed, which is one thing I hope for when truly reading.
I believe some of the changes in reading habits result from larger lifestyle changes, such as the dispersion of the extended family. When my parents were raising us, our grandparents lived in the apartment downstairs. My folks didn't worry about their latchkey kids because we had trusted adults handy. My friends have to piece together equivalent support networks.
For many, our lives are less physically challenging and far more emotionally stressful. In my parent's generation, no one who worked hard feared losing a job. With so many worries impigning on the psyche, I can understand why some people are willing to accept works of lesser art that promise to be safe. Though great art energizes me, it does take energy to be open to it.
Sorry I'm late catching up on this, but I'm afraid it doesn't surprise me. As far as I can see, power laws are a natural feature of human behavior. It doesn't matter whether you are talking about movies or books or simply celebrity – the bigger the market, the more it separates into a big spike for the really successful players and a long, wide tail for everyone else.
Part of this appears to be related to primate grooming behavior. I blogged about another Ecomomist article last year (which is now sadly behind a paywall) that suggested we talk more about successful things/people in order to be associated with that success. Naturally that creates a feedback loop that makes the successful more successful.
I think this plays into the popularity of YA as well. Overall, the stories/books must be accessible for audience who may not have encountered many of the type before. (And is also a reason why some YA gets away with trafficking in such well-trod territory while doing nothing new. But this 'requirement' also yields really fresh and still accessible books too.)
Mordicai, yep, publishing is like advertising: 20% works, but no one can predict which 20%.
Elaine, blockbusters and mega-sellers don't often hold up, no. But a lot of plain old bestsellers do–they become bestsellers because, as Jill says, they serve a particular function. Blockbusters are a different animal.
Stephanie, I'm all in favour of yelling and pointing out the naked people :)
Jill, I understand the easy-read phenomenon–it's why I read John Sandford books. But I admire Sandford because his books are really well written. Easy, entertaining, not particularly deep, but not simplistic, not crudely constructed.
Cheryl, ah, I remember that article. Yes, the whole shine-by-association thing is a huge part of the blockbuster phenomenon.
Gwenda, I'm enjoying YA more and more: they can be simple and well-written and fast-moving (of course they can be pretentious crap, too) but still, on some level, provocative.
This discussion is fascinating, but also awful in that it exists as something real. All to often people seek comfort instead of a challenge, and it shows. But then, I read more than one book a year, so I can sit upon a high horse that passes up Dan Brown at Barnes&Noble because I want a good book, something that will make me think, and stick with me in all sorts of tangential ways that I never could have dreamed of.
I've just been reminded (by a conversation on Twitter) that this also explains why, the more TV channels we have, the fewer programs there are that we want to watch. The bigger the market, the more likely it is that programs will be aimed at the lowest common denominator, or at a very specialist market.
jennifer from p, yes–and no. The funniest, scariest, sexiest books/films are usually the most well-made. A thing can be really, really well made without being intellectually challenging. Frankly, I don't always want to be challenged. I just hate being insulted/talked down to by being handed inferior crap.
Cheryl, yes, the Economist article specifically addresses this–with charts and graphs!
Now apply the analysis of a) don't read much and b) want a sense of belonging to the biggest blockbusters of all — The Bible, and the Qu'ran.
I should have a comma there between “belonging” and “to.” Oh, well.
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