Selling Us Short
How the entertainment industry exploits our lowest expectations
You enter the bookshop, and you feel you have accomplished something of value simply by turning up, regardless of what happens next. It feels like putting on forgotten running gear, prepared at last to have the jog you've been putting off for months. Merely getting here is an achievement. It has required an act of will, to consciously put aside the call from more familiar, more worn into habit by repetition, more attractive places to pass time: the cinema, the pub, the comfort of your own front room with Netflix. The last on this short list makes the first redundant; you need not leave your house and pay for a ticket to sit in the cinema – unloved, untended, full of sniggering teens and the distracting flashes of light from facebook feeds – because you can watch any movie on the (admittedly diminished) screen of your phone. You even read in a Variety article that Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, said his son – a film student and thus an authority – saw Lawrence of Arabia on his phone and loved it. Art now comes to you, nice and easy.
Today, though, you have followed the frisson of doing the sort of thing you believe you ought to do. The sort of thing you think you would enjoy if you tried it, but somehow rarely follow through on. So you are here to buy a book. You ignored the message that dropped into your inbox (another beep from your phone) reminding you that Amazon will deliver, by tomorrow, that book you put in your basket a month ago. You weren’t sure about the novel anyway. An algorithm had predicted you would like it based on a book you once bought (a gift for someone else) and the number of others who bought both books. You considered, as you laced up your shoes, streaming a new movie (Fast & Furious 13: Fasterest, Furierest) on your laptop. Somehow, the desire to drag yourself into town, to buy a book or a DVD, won out.
Inside the bookshop, you pass by a couple of tables piled with pyramids of books. This is a shape that feels, in its staggered heights with unusual angles and juxtapositions of covers, somewhat casual and serendipitous. You remember what you love about second-hand bookstores: strange corners, cosy aisles, wobbling stacks. You tell yourself you can smell that scent of books that you remember loving. But these piles, unlike those in the smaller bookshop, feel too structured. You are aware of the calculating minds behind this arrangement and the careful hands that maintain this display. It is just like the display in the picture on their website. (The prices, however, are different – there is far less discount in-store.)
These displays remind you of the walls of DVDs and Blu-Rays in other stores. They change their selection based on the caprice of The Chart. They promise chance and revealed secrets – a movie you hadn’t heard of last week or new release you didn’t know was out – and yet somehow you are still never truly surprised by the titles you find on those displays. The featured lists on Netflix confuse you further: All of the reviews seemed to hate the last few movies they put out, but here they all are in the “Most Popular” and “Most Watched” categories on the homepage. At this point, you remember that you are in a bookshop and should slow down to pay attention to the books, their titles and covers.
You stop at the sale table, offering 3 for 2, which is next to the Bestsellers table, which is beside the Top Picks display. You stand where you are and look around, trying to make sense of the volume of volumes surrounding you. You want to work out which is the best path through these offerings. You consider going from a well-stacked table near the entrance to the clearly-marked tills and out through the exit. This is the obvious route, and it is also the easiest.
There is a quote attributed to Stanley Unwin, founder of the publishing house Allen & Unwin: “The first duty of any publisher to their authors is to remain solvent.” Whether he said it or not, the point stands; without money, all noble ideals of getting books out to the public and having authors widely read come to very little. This creates a hell of an incentive for publishers to put their time and money into the surest bets.
This is also true of movie studios, as outlined in “Understanding a Box-Office Failure”, a breakdown of Hollywood’s obsession with blockbusters by Film Radar (created by Daniel Netzel). In his video-essay, Netzel compares the revenues of Synecdoche, New York and Hancock, both put out by Sony in 2008. The latter made more than $200 million, while the former, far superior, movie brought in $3 million. Netzel points out that this disparity motivates narrow-scoped producers to churn out more of the same fast-food cinema and to promote it more widely than experimental movies. Netzel goes on to calculate what the revenue for Synecdoche, New York might have looked like if given an equal shot to Hancock in cinemas and with marketing. The numbers suddenly become the kind that would interest those big-studio producers. The problem finally diagnosed is that taking a chance on arthouse cinema is exactly that: a chance, a risk, something studios seem decreasingly willing to take.
With sales as motivation, the impetus for putting out a movie or book, certainly by the bigger players (there are still small presses who champion great literature), comes down to profitability. This may sound crass, but as Martin Amis reminds us, “Money doesn’t mind if we say it’s evil, it goes from strength to strength.” Alberto Manguel, channelling the German philosopher Axel, elegantly phrased the problem as:
“The colonisation of the world of experience by means of one-dimensional generalisations derived from the rules of commercial exchange, granting value and identity not through imaginative stories but merely according to what something is said to cost and how much someone is willing to pay for it.”
Quickly a formula emerges for improving the chance of success based on past successes. X worked for the last six blockbusters/bestsellers, let’s do X again. What changes X is only diminishing returns, which are caused by audience fatigue. This is why we are so excited at the slightest innovation in a well-worn formula, and end up praising Thor: Ragnarok or Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. These are not terrible but nor are they profound; they ride a comfortable line, a product that entertains enough to keep people watching while appearing original or thoughtful enough to congratulate them on their taste and intelligence. They conform to Tim Kreider’s definition, in The New Yorker and quoted here before, of the modern ethos behind consumer culture, to make your product “conspicuously different from everyone else’s” but “not too much”.
This is also a big part of the problem with how chain stores, in partnership with studios and publishers, market books, movies, and music. There are nods at independent thought, token gestures towards allowing employees who “really care” about the products to choose titles for display. Often these titles are not terrible, and the occasional independent movie or avant-garde album or obscure novel will be among them, offering the illusion of free-thought. The status quo is allowed to remain hidden in the guise of dissent.
Here we find the most insidious tactic used in pushing conformity to minimise investor losses: the vast middle-ground of products that aren’t completely terrible (a movie or book too predictable and uninspired and lazy will result in the kind of loss producers and publishers fear will come from intelligent, challenging works) but are just good enough. They are mediocre. The comfortable Goldilocks zone of commercial art is a difficult place from which to motivate consumers into action against it. Comfort breeds apathy, and apathy leads to stasis.
The dirty little secret at the core of this marketing ethos is that the publishing houses and music and movie studios have a corporate interest to tell us we’re too stupid or too lazy to enjoy complicated art. Original, innovative art that takes risks takes some of them at the studio’s expense. It is simply a matter of calculating the odds. And these companies and the shops that stock their products dictate consumer tastes. It is just possible that colossal companies with wealth, power, and increasingly extensive resources might hold more sway over consumers than an individual buying their product has over them. The heart may want what it wants, but how do we know what it wants? We are not only being sold a product – we are being sold the conviction that we wanted it in the first place.
You are still standing at the front of the bookshop. From here, you can see many different kinds of book: The Books You Have Heard Of, and The Books You Think You Have Heard Of, and The Books You Should Have Heard Of (According To The Acclaim Printed On The Cover).
The Books That Tell You Who You Should Be.
The Books That Validate Who You Already Are.
The Books That Will Make You Laugh.
The Books That Will Make You Cry.
The Books That Will Make You Look Smart.
The Books That Will Comfort You.
The Books That Will Enter And Leave You.
All of these books are about you.
Except for those books you begin to notice as you dare to wander away from these tables and the confident browsers at the front of the shop, towards the less populated shelves near the back. Those books back here are known as Those Fucking Books. The ones that you know you are supposed to read because you are a serious person, an intellectual person. The type of person who, diligently and with brow furrowed in studious concentration, perseveres with such books to the end. The books that expect you to become a different reader for each of them, to read them each differently. The books that make it about themselves as much as about you, the reader. The books that make new paths for other books to follow, which means that you don’t yet know the path, the formula, and so you’d better pay attention or you will get lost. Those Fucking Books.
In the end, you go to a bookseller, who seems smart but not intimidatingly so, who might have a degree in English Literature but also looks itchy in his own skin, so he won’t make you feel completely beneath him. You ask for a recommendation and a glorious thing happens: He hands you a book that he promises you will enjoy. A fun, mad romp. A great story. But it is, you notice, an old book. Translated from a foreign language. Its cover is a serious shade of sombre beige.
You look from this book by someone called Italo Calvino to the already-diminishing stacks of highly endorsed blockbusters. What are you to do? How can you possibly decide? You look to the posters on the walls, paid for by the two publishers you have heard of, you know, the big ones. Those books are a safe bet. Maybe you should live a little and choose two at random from the Bestsellers table. You can get both of those for the price of this “literary” book in your hand. You feel like you are in one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books you loved as a kid. They were so much fun.
The publishers, studios, and creators who churn out more of the same in the hopes of securing their income are in service to what came before, so long as what came before was profitable, and they will alter the formula only when the formula begins to give them different results – disappointing, money-losing results. Change is only a way of keeping things the same. But the blame for this “epidemic of passable movies” (as Nerdwriter calls it) cannot be laid solely at their feet. After all, they can only feed us if we will eat.
In Inferno, Dante follows Virgil through the gates of Hell and witnesses a sorry lot of figures “overcome with woe”. Virgil informs him that “this miserable fate” is suffered by “the wretched souls of those who lived / without praise or blame, with that ill band / of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious proved, / nor yet were true to God, but for themselves / were only”. This is the dismal fate of the apathetic, who neither fought for better nor defended the good, who contented themselves with mediocrity. The secular vision of this in today’s culture is a hell of tedious, unexceptional products sold to us as a substitute for art. We certainly reap what we sow when we accept the banal and praise minor variations in the formula. All this gets us is yet more formula.
If profitability is the bottom-line for those putting out second-rate music, low-quality movies, and unimaginative books, it makes sense to reconsider how we fuel that profit. A thing is only profitable if we part with our money for it. Low ticket sales is one significant reason studios rarely take risks with inventive movies, so it stands to reason that the same could cause them to reconsider another reboot or drab sequel.
It would be naive to think that we can change the system on which producers and publishers run their businesses, that we can somehow topple capitalism (as if that, in any simplistic conception, is even desirable). We can, however, disrupt the pattern and introduce some life, intelligence, wit, and – hell, who knows? – even artistry into popular art. And why not demand more?
In the ever-apt words of E M Forster: “There is no power on earth that can prevent your criticizing and despising mediocrity – nothing that can stop you retreating into splendour and beauty – into the thoughts and beliefs that make the real life – the real you.”
Thanks to my patrons:
I am grateful to everyone who has shown their support through Patreon, and an especially huge thank you to Hayley Whitehouse-Jones and to Max Smith for being patrons. Your support keeps Art Of Conversation going.
• Ted Sarandos, quoted in Variety (2018)
• Film Radar video-essay, Understanding A Box Office Failure - What's Wrong With Hollywood (2016)
• Martin Amis, Money (1984)
• Alberto Manguel, “The Screen of Hal” in The City of Words (2007)
• Tim Kreider, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover’ in The New Yorker (2013)
• Nerdwriter video-essay, The Epidemic of Passable Movies (2016)
• Dante Alighieri, Inferno (1320)
• E M Forster, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)