The latest Madness of Crowds column from the New Statesman:
Arnold Bennett – a bestselling novelist in his day – was said to have carried a mint-condition £10 note in his wallet wherever he went. If he chanced to see someone reading one of his books in public, he was going to give this lucky individual (it was a considerable sum in the 1900s) the tenner. Needless to say, the money was still in his possession when he died.
I’m not certain what this apocryphal anecdote says about the nature of bestsellers, time, literacy and so forth, but what I do know is that, were the Swedish thriller writer Stieg Larsson to return from the grave and wander through modern Britain, he’d need a sack of banknotes on his back in order to honour all his readers. To date, the three books of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy have sold three million copies in the UK. Assuming an RPC (readers per copy) of 1.5, it means one in ten of the literate population has read at least one of these books.
I find this deranging – just as I find the mass consumption of assorted John Grisham legal thrillers, Harry Potter junior wizardry and Twilight teen vampirics equally bizarre. No doubt all books that become bestsellers have intrinsic qualities that make them attractive, but it seems to me that, beyond a certain point when the sales become exponential, other more irrational factors come into play.
In part, bestsellers must partake of the general hysteria of any craze, from the Rubik’s Cube to Sudoku and back again. With books, however, the underlying dynamic seems to me much crazier. Books are involving – even the worst of them – and they call upon the reader to project herself imaginatively into other psyches and situations. Books take a long time to read: a Larsson, weighing in at over 500 pages, is a good ten hours plus for the average reader. It’s one thing to engage in a craze for something akin to masturbation – repetitive, staple sensuality – and quite another to give your entire conscious mind over to a lot of tedious Swedes cutting each other to pieces.
To be fair, I’ve only read half of the first Millennium thriller and everyone tells me that they get better. Even so, I was shocked by quite how greyish and pulpy the prose was, with nary an involving metaphor nor even an amusing juxtaposition of two words. Instead, clichéd description is followed by actual cliché, and always there is a devilish amount of detail about clothes, about office routines, about laptops – about Swedish social services ferchrissakes. This could be because of the translation, but I doubt it.
Even so, snob that I am, as I chomped my way through Larsson’s cardboard prose, it began to seem curiously flavoursome. This was probably because of what it lacks. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of literary fiction that lays down egregious simile after precious metaphor like speed bumps on a suburban street. “Slow Down,” it proclaims, “and Admire My Style!” Bestseller prose has the virtue of being solid paper engineering – not this fancy découpage.
But more importantly, I was aware of a commonality of felt experience. I was a Larsson reader in a way that I could never be a Jamesian or a Conradian; moreover, as the plot ratcheted me forward with the inexorability of a funicular grinding up a Stockholm hillside, it occurred to me that the readability of bestsellers may have an occult origin; by which I mean not some hocus-pocus, but a mysterious attribute of the collective human mind. A decade or so ago, quite serious research was published on the concept of “morphic resonance”, which appeared to demonstrate that texts are more easily absorbed if they have been learned by other people; that if 2,000 Japanese schoolchildren memorise The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, then 2,000 Hungarian kids will commit this poem to memory with greater facility than, say, Sweeney Agonistes.
Morphic resonance would certainly account for what it feels like to read bestsellers. When I read The Da Vinci Code (worldwide sales in excess of 80 million), it seemed as if my eyes were being dragged forcibly along the lines of text, such was the speed with which my mind sucked in the – admittedly facile – meaning of Dan Brown’s prose.
In the last analysis, the truth of the matter – and this is something that Bennett understood only too well – is that nothing succeeds like success. How mad is that?