I’m going to use a couple of gastronomic examples that I hope will carry over into books, literature, and the process of creating them.
I was astonished to read an article a few years ago about how some millennials were taking the “cult of the avocado” to extremes.
Avocados have officially jumped the shark — and at the hands of their most adoring generation, no less.
. . .
Exhibit A: This bright-green “burger,” which subs out the usual bun for two halves of an avocado. The guys claim it’s one of their most popular menu items, but how do you even eat it?
. . .
A culinary concoction that did make the cut? A peanut-butter-and-jelly-and-avocado sandwich. The Avocaderia guys suggest adding a puree of avocado, lemon juice and agave syrup into one layer of a multitiered PB&J.
“The avocado adds an interesting texture,” Biggi, the restaurant’s CEO tells The Post. “I understand [why someone might be afraid to try it], but I also feel that people who are curious can be rewarded.”
Other such rewards for the brave of heart include avocado and tofu dumplings, pickled avocado and an avocado sponge cake with mint-avocado whipped cream.
There’s more at the link.
You might think that’s bad enough . . . but what came out a couple of months ago puts that in the shade.
Much to the chagrin of broke millennials, there is apparently no ceiling to the rising cost of avocado toast these days.
So far, Tim Bengel, a German contemporary artist, may be the only one to have actually created an avocado dish well worth its weight in gold: a solid gold pumpkin-seeded bagel with arugula, sliced tomato, onion and, the main attraction and raison d’être, avocado.
The sculptural sandwich has been appraised at $3 million, comprised of 27 individual parts that amount to 12 pounds of 18-karat gold. Just one of the auspicious avocado slices upon the shining stack costs an estimated $14,000, according to the artist.
Rightfully, Bengel refers to the stuff as “Green Gold.”
The piece, titled “Who Wants To Live Forever?,” is currently showing at a pro-avocado establishment dubbed the Avocado Club during Berlin Art Week through Sept. 19.
Again, more at the link.
I look at both of those reports, and my reaction is pretty similar. “What’s the point? No sane, normal person would think of an avocado as a replacement for a bun. The two are radically different and can’t substitute for each other in the usual run of things. In the same way, a $3 million gold avocado bagel is nonsensical. It’s using one of the most valuable substances on earth for something that’s dead-nuts ordinary and of no intrinsic value at all. It’s a perversion of the norm . . . so what’s the point?”
On the other hand, there are many who will argue that it’s a form of art. The restaurant is taking a common-or-garden foodstuff and making it into an “art form” by using unusual materials and flavors together. The artist is making an artistic point by using an incredibly valuable material to depict something that is, by comparison, of no real monetary value whatsoever.
I suppose it boils down to what qualifies as art for the viewer. I freely admit I have little or no time for “modern art”, with its nonsensical squiggles, blots and blotches. To me it’s a complete and utter waste of time. On the other hand, there are those who claim to find real merit and artistic pleasure in it, and spend hours wandering through galleries in search of it. Me, I’d rather look at good, realistic landscape paintings, or life studies, or something real. (My modern-art-loving acquaintances will be muttering “Philistine!” under their joint and several breaths right about now…)
So, let’s apply that to books and reading and writing, which are generally accepted as being at least vaguely artistic (as in “the literary arts”). Some people like a particular genre, others don’t. Within that genre, some readers like this or that author, but not another. How am I, as a writer, going to satisfy as many potential readers as possible? If I go off into the weeds, as some do, and write according to my own (sometimes incomprehensible) sense of what works and what doesn’t (as Norman Unmentionable did with his Empress-who-shall-not-be named), I may achieve literary notoriety instead of fame. However, if I want to make a living through my writing, I’d better write to the tastes of a good subset of readers, or I’ll starve.
Let’s take this further. What makes a book a bestseller? What is it that transforms “just another book” into something that grips the imagination (and the wallets) of millions of readers? Can one identify specific qualities, specific “art forms”, in such books, and can analysis teach us what works? Experience would suggest not, because otherwise all of us could apply the formula to our work and retire on the proceeds.
Still, it’s a question worth asking in the field of art as a whole, and extrapolating to books and reading from the wider field. What makes something “a hit” with viewers and/or listeners and/or readers? What is “art”, and what’s merely dreck? How do we distinguish between them for ourselves, not for everybody? How are our own tastes shaped and formed? Are we doomed to like what our parents taught us to like, or will we develop independent tastes? (Pop music tastes in each generation suggests the latter… I still say rap isn’t music at all – it’s noise!)
I guess I’m wandering a little by this point. However, this is a question that’s been on my mind for a while, and I’d like to ask your opinions of it. Have you ever thought about the “literary arts” as arts? How do you see and experience them? Is there a universal norm, a fundamental common reality, something that allows bestsellers to appeal across human boundaries? Are all books to be considered part of the “literary arts”, or are some (for example, comics or pulp novels) merely idle time-passers masquerading as such?
Over to you, readers. Let us know your thoughts in Comments.
One of the books I am currently reading asks “What is beauty?”, and answers that it is something that resonates with your soul. While this seems to apply more directly to the visual arts than the literary arts, I find that I look for something similar in the books I read.
Yes, and no.
Yes, there are things that are essential to a good story, and all stories will have them.
No, in that the ‘taste’ in presentation matters, and enriches the end experience.
Going to the avocado burger– I am not a big fan of avocados. They’re nice in a normal hamburger, basically replacing the sauce but in sliced form. Very much in the take it or leave it group with that one exception that is probably partly emotional attachment, the “California Burger” is what I always ate on west coast car trips from one tip of the CONUS to the other.
My mom adores avocados, though, and as far back as I can remember has done a “sandwich” where she takes bacon, cheese and two slices of avocado, slice of tomato if we have it. The cheese is the ‘bun’ to avoid mess, but the biggest percentage of the sandwich is avocado.
Basically, a practical version of the “uh no no we totally didn’t just get high and go gee does a peeled avocado look like a bun to anybody else?” burger.
A lot of the weird fads seem most accurately predicted by assuming that the people involved have no freaking clue that there might be a fundamentally human way of being, stuff that is really common to greater or lesser extent for people, so they treat all aspects of a popular story like they’re the same level of malleability.
People aren’t “feeding” their story hunger off of only your story, so sometimes they are really hungry for Friendship or Family or the various aspects of love for your other half, or they are starving for the fulfillment of winning, or… you get the idea.
So it can look like the essential “food” of the story is as malleable as the “flavoring” and presentation– like the ‘books are a road trip’ metaphor where the people, the drive and the destination (pick two) just need to be good enough if you do a GOOD job on the third one the reader is hungry for– but if you cut out too much of flour and eggs, just pile on the sugar, people get tired of it really fast.
> Yes, there are things that are essential to a good story, and all stories will have them.
One would assume so. I had always thought that “plot” was one of those things. Yet I’ve read far too much tradpub where stuff happened, stuff happened, stuff happened, stuff stopped happening, and thankfully there were no more pages. Not even a common thread throughout the novel, much less anything I recognized as “plot.”
::points to modifier of good story::
That said, the ‘slice of life’ anime does rather well– because it’s like spending time with people. The “plot” is basically that, “I spend time with someone.” Sometimes you ‘follow’ people you ‘met’ with the first person.
So it’s not completely off the wall, although the way that a lot of TradPub seems to be doing cargo cult was strongly in my mind as I wrote!
Interestingly enough, yesterday I wrote a blog post addressing this question from another angle:
I highly recommend reading the article; it presents a different take on what is important, although one I disagree with. I do not need to identify with the lead character to enjoy a story. I am well past the age where a “coming of age” story is directly relevant, but I can enjoy them nonetheless. Further, I can read and enjoy books with a female hero, although they are not directly relevant either. But the character of the lead(s) in any book do/does matter — I will stop reading books where the characters are too annoying.
But having said all that, I think Misha is on to something. Glitz alone is not enough. There are lots of ways to waste time, but if that is all a book does for me I get quite frustrated. I read instead of, say, watch television for a reason.
It depends on how you use “identify”. I have virtually nothing in common with Mattie Ross, in terms of outward characteristics. Nonetheless, I find her struggles in the face of adversity and her commitment to justice for her father’s murder compelling–and that’s what makes True Grit a classic. One doesn’t have to be a Nineteenth Century teenage girl to experience the events of the story along side her.
In the same way I can identify with characters who are even more alien to my personal circumstances.
Good article, Misha. As you say, we’re approaching a similar conundrum from different angles. I liked the way you did it.
> What makes a book a bestseller?
Essentially, because “they” say so. Books that became “best sellers” before they actually shipped, publishers who claim they have no idea how many copies have been printed or sold, sales numbers which if not wholly imaginary, bear little relation to reality-as-we-know-it.
It depends on your definition of bestseller. Traditional publishing has clearly lost the difference between cause and effect, and by gaming the reporting system they are well advanced in the process of destroying both the value of the reporting systems and the industry itself.
I am distressed by this as a reader, because I am well aware that there are better books out there than I am currently reading. And I struggle to find them. And I can see the value to authors of selling millions of books instead of thousands, so I want the best authors to achieve that status if possible. While the Amazon ratings (or the various alternatives available) can partly replace the dying best seller lists, there is a “network effect” which has not yet been triggered for any of the alternatives. Of course, considering the collapse of our education system, it may not matter anyway, since we seem to be on the edge of losing widespread literacy anyway.
I see a similar issue in “fiber arts,” i.e., spinning, weaving, felting, basketmaking, and so forth. In spinning, there are things that used to be called, “novelty yarns.” They were deliberately made to be rough, or feathery, or have multiple components – thin smooth yarn wrapped in prepared fibers in various colors and bound with a traditional thread in a third color, for example. These could be woven, or knit, or otherwise used to add interest to a project.
A few years ago I started seeing references to “art yarn.” So far as I can see, “art yarns,” use the same techniques as novelty yarns, but are unusable. They are “art for art’s sake,” products.
The desire to Be Taken Seriously as an Artist, #$%!! it, seems to mandate creating useless and sometimes ugly stuff. At least in our era.
Good stories entertain you, and leave you feeling clean. I’ve read a few literary masterpieces (so-called) that left me wanting to take a shower afterwards, and tried a few popular genre fiction works that had a similar effect. Along the way the story might be thought-provoking, or occasionally tear-jerking, but for good reasons (story reasons) and the ending leaves the protagonists better than they were at the start.
Visual and musical arts – are similar. Hip-hop, when I can understand the lyrics, dehumanizes people and seems to reduce life to a winner-take-all-by-whatever-means-work existence. Some modern art at least has colors that combine nicely, or that makes me wonder “what is this supposed to be, and why?” I generally stop at the Impressionists, aside from some Surrealist work, Western art (cowboy art), and some photo-realistic works (Sarah Clemens fantasy stuff comes to mind.)
How did you feel about “In Cold Blood”?
To me that is a history book, not fiction, because . . . ah. I don’t want to go into detail here, other than to say I knew people who knew a LOT about the Clutter murders and everything surrounding it. (Past tense because two of the individuals were not young when I knew them, and that was 20 years ago.)
I’m willing to tolerate a great deal more darkness in history, because it is history. I’ve done a great deal of research into the Thirty Years War, and the early 20th Century in Eastern Europe (1918-1948). There are some magnificently written history books that leave you queasy because of the subject matter. You should know that going into the book, if you have any passing knowledge of the topic. *shrugs* But I’m an academic historian, among other things, so my take is very, very different than the person who reads history for fun.
For some reason I’m thinking about that poor guy who wrote Love Story. For those who don’t know and there may be many on this page because this is probably skewed heavily science fiction…Very popular best seller, became a movie. I actually read it because when I was a kid I read everything in the house. Decades later I read an AAR on the guy who wrote it. The English professor who wrote it loved the money of course but he was only a one hit wonder. He was fine with that, his gig was teaching but he spent the rest of his career coping with two equally embarrassing reactions. Fangirls. And people who assumed that anyone who wrote That Book couldn’t be serious about anything.
One quibble: gold is expensive. That’s not the same as ‘valuable’.
Everything has a cost, a price, and a value. Those three quantities are determined by different criteria. Cost is how much (materials, energy, labor, ingenuity) went into producing it. Price is what somebody will pay for it. Value is what can be done with it.
What is a solid-gold bagel good for? Not much. A really gaudy paperweight?
As one of my characters puts it: “Big diamonds are nothing but a money sink. They tie up capital in something that’s flashy, but useless. What could you do with a perfect fifty-pound diamond, besides lock it in a vault and spend a fortune guarding it?”
A fifty-pound bag of concrete mix has real value — you can build something with it. A roll of 12-2 Romex can be used to wire a house. And so on. My character chose to produce industrial diamonds instead of jewelry diamonds because they have the value of utility.
And, you’re right. ‘Rap’ and ‘music’ are antonyms. They do not belong together.
The original builders had been sufficiently alien that their rubble couldn’t even lie in a heap right.
Now, as an avocado lover, I’ve got to say I’d enjoy taking a knife and fork to that hamburger and avocado salad, but calling it a burger is just silly.
How do you define art? Is it something to delight? To speak to something inside you? Is it something that having seen or experienced leaves you with insight into something? Then yeah, the written word is just as much art as paintings and sculpture. And those idle time-passers can surprise you with a look inside yourself.
How many options are there? How many readers are there??? That’s your answer. One person’s best seller is another’s wall book. OR they hate genre x, but love genre y, and ignore the rest of them. I don’t see that there IS actually a good answer.
One hears that art should be different, so you are different, in order to guarantee art.
I think I basically extend the lens I use for engineering arts to the literary arts.
Bridges that fall down are probably bad, even when you learn from them. All the credentials in the world don’t change that.
Engineering is also an art and a craft. By that, I mean it has a mental process that has certain features and qualities. The art process in engineering, even in the most utilitarian practical design, has steps that are not prescribed by tables and formula. Even if you are just designing a bit by looking up numbers in the field standard reference, you may be picking materials because they are familiar. Familiarity isn’t a numerical function.
Anyway, stories are made by mental work, and the mental work is such that it isn’t easy to check from the outside and find a ‘numerical’ error.
Is the story a bridge that falls down?
Depends on the audience. There were stories I liked when I was young, and in good mental health, that I grew less interested in due to long term depression, or coming to see the world in a different way. I’ve had people disagree with me over the Cold Equations, which said something I wanted to hear when I was younger, and couldn’t see how bad a job it did at saying that something. These days, sometimes I’m too tired or sick to want to read anything. I also have days when very few authors have a good enough track record for me to have any interest in a new story from them. Or when I can read an old favorite, or an obsession, but have zero interest in trying a different unknown.
So, I think a story is better when it speaks to readers, whether the readers are in good circumstances or bad.
Art is supposed to evoke emotion. Some people mistakenly reverse this and think that what inspires emotion must therefore be art. I think this is one way to get horrible or stupid or degrading things to be called art. But since emotions are quite individual it is not simple to inspire a great many people. Maybe a bestseller or at least a best book is one that manages to inspire large numbers of people. And I’m taking for granted that only art that inspires for the good is worthy of consideration.
I wrote a book that made one sister cry. My twelve year old niece loved it. An acquaintance was actually jealous because she said she couldn’t write more than nine pages without repeating herself, whereas I had managed 250. A different sister is sad because she thinks I mashed three books together and I should go back and rewrite the whole thing. The rest of the world really doesn’t care. That’s quite a few emotions and definitionally leaves me saying I didn’t write art. But I did give two people a bit of escape. I want to think that’s worthwhile.
[quote]So, let’s apply that to books and reading and writing, which are generally accepted as being at least vaguely artistic (as in “the literary arts”). Some people like a particular genre, others don’t. Within that genre, some readers like this or that author, but not another. How am I, as a writer, going to satisfy as many potential readers as possible?[/quote]
This question is the path to self-destruction. Bluntly, you aren’t EVER going to satisfy as many potential readers as possible. All you can do if you embark on this quest is piss off your own readers.
“Potential readers possible” is an infinite pool that contains absolutely no standards.
“Readers who like the kind of stuff I write because I love it” is a much smaller pool. But it’s the only one that counts.
At the instant that you look at the vast number of readers out there and think I should try to reach all of them, you’re done. You’ve sold your integrity, and the people who used to love you won’t anymore, and the folks who didn’t love you before won’t love you now, either.
Well, for a philosophical meditation, I’d recommend Josef Pieper’s Only The Lover Sings https://www.amazon.com/Only-Lover-Sings-Art-Contemplation/dp/0898703026 which I saw laying around, and will put it in my re-read pile (it’s been >20 years).
Stories with characters but no arc have can be popular – IIRC, Chesterton said that Dickens’ Pickwick papers are basically all about spending time with the characters (but note that they haven’t aged well).
The best definition I have seen of art is this: art is an act of communication through an Aestheic medium. How successful it is depends on what us being said to whom.
The guy who gave that definition had made an intricate scroll in an obscure style that approximately 4 people actually followed enough to go ‘neat!’ Rather than ‘that’s weird. But one of those 4 was the person he made it for… and she was over the moon giddy about it. That was successful art.