(This article was first published on zacharybonelli.com on December 11, 2014. It has been revised with only minor editorial changes.)
“There is an underlying meaning to it all, but it lies in the reactions to the book rather than the book itself. Just look at the reviews, which are more enjoyable to read than the story, but could not have existed without the story having been written. The mere fact that it is successful has meaning and appeal. It’s the Kardashian of crappy erotica.”
I have written previously about the effects of our hyper-consumerist culture on art and literature, specifically from the perspective of a mission-driven independent publisher trying to make it in a profit-driven world. Today, I’d like to take on this same issue from a different angle: how the lens of hyper-consumerism changes attitudes toward literature to such an extent that sane, intelligent individuals end up drawing nonsensical and bizarre conclusions.
The quote above comes from a guest post by Phronk on the blog of Damien G Walter, a science fiction columnist for The Guardian. It concerns the popular title A Billionaire Dinosaur Forced Me Gay (I refuse to hyperlink it). At the time of this writing, it sits at the Amazon ranking of 25, though Phronk tells us that it once achieved at least 15. If you are unaware of how Amazon sales rankings work, these numbers indicate very high popularity and visibility. Few books will ever break the top one hundred, let alone the top twenty. The vast majority of books have rankings in the thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions.
In light of Dinosaur Billionaire’s success, many have posed the question of how something so ludicrously and obviously vile, something for which the term “pedestrian” is an insult to persons of average intelligence, has become so popular. Perhaps I am a relatively young person looking back on the adult world around the time of my birth and before with rosy goggles, but I feel as though in the past, the answer would have been simple: the popularity of the item in question would indicate a dysfunction or lack of critical reasoning in a disturbingly large number of people in our society, and some effort (however nominal) might have been made to improve literature education, reign in the market, etc. etc.
However, in our modern hyper-consumerist culture, rather than the onus being on society to check and monitor itself, the onus is on society’s individuals and institutions to validate, comfort, and reinforce the happiness of every other individual. Brave New World comes to mind, wherein John the Savage tells Lenina regarding a feelie movie, “It was base. It was ignoble.” I wonder what descriptors Huxley might conjure up, were he alive today, for Billionaire Dinosaur. I imagine he would find stronger words than “base” and “ignoble.”
It’s not that the proponents of consumer culture lack the intelligence to resist the draw of such insipid drivel, it’s that their reason has been hijacked by their ideology, a condition all humans are susceptible to. Each person’s existing beliefs (and everyone has beliefs, whether or not they admit as much) circumscribe the area for further potential mental exploration. To put it another way, you can only consider as a possibility those conclusions which naturally derive from the other conclusions you’ve already drawn. Individuals who are critical of their own beliefs can draw bigger circles, but every human being suffers from this same intellectual “tunnel vision.”
Occasionally, something like Billionaire Dinosaur will happen and it will be hilarious to watch people struggle to justify its popularity and the scope of its reach. Phronk and Damien Walter seem like reasonably intelligent individuals, but both have bought heavily into consumer culture. And if you believe in consumer culture, you must believe that people getting what they want is inherently good for them. All the time. No exceptions.
To my mind, there is no paradox when it comes to Billionaire Dinosaur’s popularity. My natural conclusion: a significant number of individuals in the Western world are so philosophically and intellectually weak (due to poor education and the omnipresence of manipulative market systems) that they blissfully and mindlessly consume harmfully insipid entertainment. Those who have bought into the central tenets of consumerism cannot draw this conclusion. It does not fit with any consumerist system of thought about how the world works. Hence, the quote that began this post; Phronk eventually throws up his hands and declares that, since he can find nothing of substance or quality in the writing or the publication of Billionaire Dinosaur, its quality must lie in its effect on others, because if it’s popular, then it must generate quality somewhere and somehow. I find this conclusion not so much laughable as lamentable, akin to a person watching people die of a plague, but being so ideologically certain that viruses are good and wonderful things, that he mutters to others privileged with immunity, “Well, at least the world’s not as overpopulated anymore.”
Let’s stop glorifying and making excuses for exploitative writing, and let’s stop pretending that quality is a function of popularity. Yes, it means we have to reevaluate both consumerism and capitalism, but so be it. Those socioeconomic systems are far from perfect, and there remains much room for improvement if only our culture would explore the available options for growth and change.
Damien Walter writes in the comments of his blog, “At a certain point you have to give in to the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, who ultimately decide what gets reviewed.” I humbly suggest that the “wisdom” he purports is, in fact, the exact opposite quality.