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Bestsellers and blockbusters

I say that bestsellers and blockbusters should be respected if only for being timely and workmanlike. These are not easy things to be. Timely and workmanlike, as nebulous qualities go, are harder to achieve than the luminosity, importance, rawness and insight whose indices adorn blurbs and websites.

I so hold to this prejudice that I am willing to avoid people who do not share it—even if they have no other faults. To yield to the pretensions of the third derivative of an empty movement while damning the unpretension of the disciplined pacing of stock characters through a snap-fit plot seems to me an imbalance of mind tantamount to sickness.

The one reasonable excuse for this—fear of the institutional power behind bestsellers and blockbusters, and love of the spirit of independenc—has become irrelevant. Now it is the litterateur and the artiste who are the product of a program, who move through conferences and aspire to places in the system; it is the hack who independently conceives a project, carries it out through difficulty, and is left with the task of promotion, lucky along the way to find a printer or distributor. That is not to say that the hack should be loved for being independent; only that this basis is wrong, and wrong in a silly way.

How, then, to explain it?

There is, of course, the simple perverse pleasure of contrariness and contradiction. But this is the consequence of a lack. Suppose that someone tells you that it is night, when it is in fact day. If that person say so calmly, with some trace of humor, you may suspect that you are being drawn out; and if you proceed you will hear something half-clever like "It's always night somewhere," or "I just got in and as far as my jet lag is concerned it's midnight."

Someone says such things believing that to assent would be to have nothing to say. But this is false. To agree and to have something to say in agreement is a skill of its own; one, alas, which smart people often lack. "Yes, and a hot one." "Yes, but not much of one—it's so cloudy." (With a slight contrariness subordinated for piquancy.)

A critic, or anyone inclined to be critical, meets an unfamiliar problem in treating a bestseller or a blockbuster. Used to having to curate good things—instructing ignorance, beguiling indifference, or disarming hostility—the critic may lack the art, having gotten by without it, of gracefully adding one particular voice to a general acclaim. Through the fault in this lack they may overrate themselves, take up arms as if criticism had a responsibility to those who do not seek it out, and flail against the unfamiliar force of a human tide, awkward as stylites in a subway station. And on the other side of this lack they may sometimes absurdly concede their responsibilities (say, fawning over a TV show, and just as it starts to decline.)

This skill, which I will call corroboration—distinct from conversation—is a useful one. Criticism is not the only context in which the lack of this middle leaves only the polar resorts of hostility or servility. Corroboration makes a pair with conversation, and is more than its match. Conversation has many prerequisites; corroboration is as possible as communication. Though I doubt it can be taught—for it requires just that broadness and attention and readiness to improvise which cannot be privately exercised—it is a skill that should be expected of the educated, for it is the skill that lets you talk to people as such, and saves the mind from having to spurn the human race in growing to serve it.

True, it edges on dishonesty. There is an urge to corroborate that can induce oversimplification and overconfidence; that, when you have something to contribute—when you are aware of something unknown to your interlocutor's project or observation, yet relevant to it, whether bearing or simply confirming, compels you to speak. But common discretion will save you: when you open your mouth and say something stupid, the mistake is not being stupid—to be stupid is no more a mistake than to be young; the mistake is to open your mouth.

The blogosphere is distinct from and better than its Internet predecessors—especially Usenet—in being founded on this urge. Popular bloggers, in this way, can divide the labor of an essayist, beginning in the Addisonian manner with an incident that got them thinking, but leaving the work of supplying likenesses and drawing conclusions from it to their commenting audience.

Corroboration, and not conversation, is the mode of discussion in our Web 2.0; almost as if the possibilities of conversation had been exhausted in the mile-deep threads of the last web, flammable and threatening with their flames and trolls, and we now wish to settle into a calmer process, not letting ideas contend directly, but developing them in their separate camps and letting them compete upon the shelves of a marketplace of ideas.

These names are fluid: what I distinguish by corroboration and conversation as modes of discussion might be distinguished by discussion and argument as modes of conversation or by contradiction and development as modes of argument. All these terms are too basic to be used without equivocality. (Certainly I use them inconsistently between essays.) But the two must be distinguished because confusing them is disastrous. To want one and get the other is as disastrous (among other basic equivocalities) as wanting love and getting comfort, as wanting a friend and getting a lover.

Be capable of both; know the season of each. If you corroborate when you should converse or be silent, you will take a side without meaning to. Your person may be a friend to two enemies; your voice cannot be. If you converse when you should corroborate or be silent, you betray yourself. You cannot, particularly, attack one object of a pleasure without attacking the pleasure itself. Attack the institution of bestsellers and blockbusters and you attack the pleasure that is in stories; and you are not the stronger.