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Bestsellers and Blockbusters

[This essay is out of date; nowadays, of course, critics are slavish in their praise of blockbusters. But it remains of interest, if only as history. – 2019]

I think bestsellers and blockbusters should be respected, if only for being timely and workmanlike. Timely and workmanlike, as nebulous qualities go, are harder to achieve than the luminosity, importance, rawness and insight whose indices adorn blurbs and websites. To yield to the pretensions of the third derivative of an empty movement while damning the formulaic pacing of stock characters through a snap-fit plot seems to me an imbalance of mind.

The one reasonable justification for critical snobbery – fear of the institutional power behind bestsellers and blockbusters, and love of the spirit of independence – 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. That is not to say that the hack should be loved for being independent; only that independence is a bad criterion.

How, then, to explain the persistence of critical snobbery?

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 general acclaim. 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 absurdly concede their responsibilities (say, fawning over a TV show, and just as it starts to decline).

This distinct skill, which I will call corroboration – distinct from conversation – is a useful one. Criticism is not the only context where this empty middle leaves only the poles of hostility or servility. Corroboration makes a pair with conversation, and is more than its match. Conversation has many prerequisites; corroboration is possible wherever communication is possible. 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 coming to despise the human race in growing to serve it.

True, corroboration approaches 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 – that 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 of a mistake than to be young; the mistake is to open your mouth.

Our 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 commenters.

Corroboration, and not conversation, is the mode of discussion in our web; almost as if the possibilities of conversation had been exhausted in the mile-deep threads of the last web, flammable and wild 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 call corroboration and conversation as modes of discussion might be called discussion and argument as modes of conversation or contradiction and development as modes of argument. All these terms are too basic to be used without equivocation. But the two must be distinguished somehow, because confusing them is deadly. To want one and get the other is as bad (among other basic equivocations) 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. In life you may be a friend to two enemies; in writing you cannot be. If you converse when you should corroborate or be silent, you betray yourself. You cannot, particularly, attack the 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.