Fifty Million Elvis Fans Strike Back Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-12-12 11:00:00-05:00 No comments

Some great insights into the success of one of the most amazingly awful books to make Amazon's bestseller lists:

Zachary Bonelli - "Tunnel Vision"

... the lens of hyper-consumerism changes attitudes toward literature to such an extant that sane, intelligent individuals end up drawing nonsensical and bizarre conclusions.

... there is no paradox when it comes to Billionaire Dinosaur’s popularity. My natural conclusion: a significant number of individuals in the Western world are so philosophically and intellectually weak (due to poor education and the omniprescence of manipulative market systems) that they blissfully and mindlessly consume harmfully insipid entertainment. Those who have bought into the central tenets of consumerism cannot draw this conclusion. It does not fit with any consumerist system of thought about how the world works. Hence, the quote that began this post; Phronk eventually throws up his hands and declares that, since he can find nothing any of substance or quality in the writing or the publication of Billionaire Dinosaur, its quality must lie in its effect on others, because if it’s popular, then it must generate quality somewhere and somehow

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There's actually a germ of truth to the idea that "if it's popular, it must somehow be good," better known as the Fifty Million Elvis Fans Principle. It's just not the germ of truth that the fellows Bonelli quotes think it is.

Here's how this works. If you take anything that's popular and you scrutinize it enough, you'll find something about it that draws an audience. Note that this something is not always a good thing; sometimes what makes something popular is the fact that it plays to an audience's worst instincts, or its need to have its prejudices confirmed. Billionaire Dinosaur (there's more to that title but I won't print it here, trust me) seems to getting the attention it does mostly for the same reason people slow down to stare at a road accident. it's not the work itself that people are interested in, but the buzz around the work.

From what I can tell, a fair majority of the interest in creative work offered in a mass-market context operates along the same lines. The work itself — the story, the experience we have with it on a personal leve — becomes less important than the conversation around the work, which is something that takes place in public between people. It's easier to talk about something that happened between you and your friends than it is to talk about something that happened deep inside you, in big part because we practice doing the former a whole hell of a lot more than we do the latter. (Yes, I say this even in the face of a whole subculture of navel-gazing and pseudo-psychologizing; the reasons why are worth a post unto itself.)

Another convenient side effect of this kind of socialization, in my purview, is how shows that present really ugly, vile material (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) can become mainstream hits. It's not that we've become by default inured to such things; it's that the water-cooler conversation around them, even if it doesn't take place at any particular water cooler, makes the material all the easier to stomach. If we're all grossed out together, then we're all by definition that much less grossed out, because we can share the feeling (and because the baseline for what constitutes an outlier for any one of us has been moved).

Does that count as "quality"? I suspect you could fashion an argument that it does; it's quality in the sense that it gives people something lively and stimulating to swap words over. But people can do that about something that has no value apart from the noise generated around it, and every conversation eventually ends. It may be fun to produce or read stuff that has no other significance, and which is in some way designed to be disposable, but one of the weird things about living in the digital age is how nothing ever really goes away completely. Our culture can now preserve anything for which the slightest rationale can be hatched to preserve it. Parallels come to mind of the gyres of plastic now found in our oceans. Not good parallels, as you might imagine.

Tags: audiences creativity creators marketing masscult media media ecology