“The social quality of literature is still visible in the popularity of bestsellers. Publishers get away with making boring, baloney-mill novels into bestsellers via mere PR because people need bestsellers. It is not a literary need. It is a social need. We want books everybody is reading (and nobody finishes) so we can talk about them.”
—Ursula K. LeGuin, “Staying Awake,” in the January Harpers
What’s comforting to me about this observation is that it really serves to liken the book industry to the film industry.
You might have noticed that there are an awful lot of crappy films in the world. I was recently stuck at my car dealer for two and a half hours with 1 television showing ESPN, which featured—on every break—a commercial for the film Dragon Wars, which tells the heartwrenching story of men trapped in the midst of a battle between warring dragon factions…oh, god, I’ll just stop now.
People don’t want to just talk about the books and movies they’ve seen. They want to compare themselves to other people. I liked ____ film, did you? It tells us a lot about the people around us. It reveals information about our age, class, religion, sexuality, with probing too deeply. It develops community and subcommunities within larger groups. It creates generational memory.
On Friday night, a friend of mine quoted a film, sort of out of nowhere, by saying, “And now for the sordid topic of coin.” I laughed, knowing instantly what film it was. “I can’t believe you got that,” he said, not realizing I’d seen the film about 300 times myself. But now it’s something we can share together. It brings us closer together in ways that ordinary conversation doesn’t.
I think LeGuin’s on the right track here.