Wednesday, May 4, 2022

What Makes For a Nonfiction Bestseller?

Recently I have been looking at bestseller lists again. This time, though, my concern has been with nonfiction bestellers. Most of what makes up the list is three things:

1. Self-help endlessly repackaging the same unhelpful clichès for the sake of picking the pockets of credulous persons hoping to find something useful--with useful, of course, likely to be defined not as information from which they can make their own decisions (even when it is a matter of hashing out the options in a given situation), or even a lesson in how to actually think clearly and rigorously, but rather an authority figure who will sternly tell them "Do this, not that."

2. Autobiography and biography and memoir and true crime--in short, seedy, celebrity-obsessed, scandal-mongering trash.

3. Public affairs stuff consisting primarily of the ravings of talk radio and cable news personalities whose readers are less interested in analysis than in a validation of their prejudices, and delight in watching someone fling insults at people they despise.

Many of the most successful books combine two or more of these approaches--with self-help hawkers telling a good many personal stories, often about celebrities (one sees alleged Christian ministers whose sermons are heavier on the life of Bill Gates and Michael Jordan than on the life of Christ), while a good deal of celebrity autobiography and memoir is presented as if the life of the figure in question were some educative model for others to follow (like, you know, certain people who slap Chris Rock at the Oscars). And of course our public affairs stuff is heavier on gossip than anything else--on politics rather than policy.

In short, the public, when not looking for something it imagines will be immediately useful to itself, demands affirmation of its beliefs and entertainment, along very specific (very conventional) lines, and indeed an exceedingly high ratio of that stuff to anything actually informative.

It all adds up to an image of the reading public as lazy, narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and reactionary, with an endless appetite for the lowest sort of tabloid garbage--the audience that has made billionaires of the Kardashians.

It is not by any means the conclusion I would like to present--as a human being, and certainly as a writer, having written for a very different audience than that--but it is the only one that seems consistent with the facts.

Still, I suppose you can take some solace in the thought that atrocious as the situation is it is not actually new--the situation much the same in 1988, so that we may not actually be quite so much further along the road to Idiocracy as we fear, as I found when taking a look at the performance of Paul Kennedy's The Rise and Fall of Great Powers on the New York Times bestseller list for a recent article.

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