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The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling GiantsDavid and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

My Rating★★☆☆☆

The Art of Avoiding Bestsellers: A Field Guide for Authors

 

How do books succeed?

By getting into the Bestseller lists? By making a few millions? By winning the most prestigious awards of the day?

Wrong.

These are very narrow views on what constitutes success for a work of art, especially literature or serious non-fiction. If we redefine success, we might find that these very things that confers ‘success’ in the short term might be hurting the artist/author the most in the long term. This applies to prestigious prizes such as Bookers as well, as we will see. We might even get an idea of why so few of the Booker winning books seem to be good enough a few years after their moment of glory. (Spoiler: (view spoiler))

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Let us illustrate this by taking an example from this very book. This reviewer has to warn the reader that the example is originally invoked in the book for another purpose though it has been adopted more or less verbatim here, but we need to get into that now. (By the way, the careful reader should also be able to divine why this small essay is can also serve as a review for this book in particular and to all of Mr. Gladwell’s books in general.)

Let us go back to 19th century France. Art was a big deal in the cultural life of France back then. Painting was regulated by the government and was considered a profession in the same way that medicine or the law is a profession today. The Professionals who did well would win awards and prestigious fellowships. And at the pinnacle of the profession was The Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe.

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Every year each of the painters of France submitted two or three of his finest canvases to a jury of experts, bringing their work to the
Palais de l’Industrie
, an exhibition hall built for the Paris World Fair between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine. Throughout the next few weeks, the jury would vote on each painting in turn. Those deemed unacceptable would be stamped with the red letter “R” for rejected. Those accepted would be hung on the walls of the Palais, and over the course of six weeks beginning in early May, as many as a million people would throng the exhibition. The best paintings were given medals. The winners were celebrated and saw the value of their paintings soar – became ‘bestsellers’. The losers limped home and went back to work.

There are in Paris scarcely fifteen art-lovers capable of liking a painting without Salon approval,” Renoir once said. “There are 80,000 who won’t buy so much as a nose from a painter who is not hung at the Salon.

The Salon was the most important art show in the world. In short, for a painter in nineteenth-century France, the Salon was everything – the Booker Committee and the Bestseller List rolled into one.

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And now, the twist:

In spite of the all the benefits, the acceptance by the Salon also came with a large cost: for the truly creative and path breaking (let us take for example the Impressionists such as Monet, which is the case study taken up by the book):

1. It required creating the kind of art that they did not find meaningful,

2. & They risked being lost in the clutter of other artists’ work. 

Was it worth it?

The Salon was the place where reputations were made. And what made it special was how selective it was. There were roughly three thousand painters of “national reputation” in France in the 1860s, and each submitted two or three of his best works to the Salon, which meant the jury was picking from a small mountain of canvases. Rejection was the norm. Getting in was a feat. “The Salon is the real field of battle,” Manet said. “It’s there that one must take one’s measure.”  It was the place where “you could succeed in making a noise, in defying and attracting criticism, coming face-to-face with the big public.

But the very things that made the Salon so attractive—how selective and prestigious it was—also made it problematic.

No painter could submit more than three works. The crowds were often overwhelming. The Salon was the Big Pond. But it was very hard to be anything at the Salon but a Little Fish.

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Night after night, the rebels (the Impressionists) argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves. Did they want to be a Little Fish in the Big Pond of the Salon or a Big Fish in a Little Pond of their own choosing?

The problem for the rebels such as the Impressionists was The Salon’s attitude: it was cautious, traditional. It had a reputation to uphold for being the voice of approval. It could not afford to make mistakes.

“Works were expected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’ and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the familiar artistic conventions,” the art historian Sue Roe writes. “Light denoted high drama, darkness suggested gravitas. In narrative painting, the scene should not only be ‘accurate,’ but should also set a morally acceptable tone. An afternoon at the Salon was like a night at the Paris Opéra: audiences expected to be uplifted and entertained. For the most part, they knew what they liked, and expected to see what they knew.

The kinds of paintings that won medals, Roe says, were huge, meticulously painted canvases showing scenes from French history or mythology, with horses and armies or beautiful women, with titles like Soldier’s Departure, Young Woman Weeping over a Letter, and Abandoned Innocence.

The Impressionists, on the other hand, had an entirely different idea about what constituted art.

They painted everyday life. Their brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct. To the Salon jury and the crowds thronging the Palais, their work looked amateurish, even shocking, and was repeatedly turned down. They had no hope of making waves in the Big Pond of The Salon.

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The Big Fish–Little Pond Gambit

Pissarro and Monet were smarter. They conjured up an alternative to the shackles of the Salon.

They thought it made more sense to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond. If they were off by themselves and held their own show, they said, they wouldn’t be bound by the restrictive rules of the Salon, where the medals were won by paintings of soldiers and weeping women. They could paint whatever they wanted. And they wouldn’t get lost in the crowd, because there wouldn’t be a crowd.

In 1873, Pissarro and Monet proposed that the Impressionists set up a collective called the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. There would be no competition, no juries, and no medals. Every artist would be treated as an equal.

The Impressionists’ exhibition opened on April 15, 1874, and lasted one month. The entrance fee was one franc. There were 165 works of art on display, including three Cézannes, ten paintings by Degas, nine Monets, five Pissarros, six Renoirs, and five by Alfred Sisley—a tiny fraction of what was on the walls of the Salon across town. In their show, the Impressionists could exhibit as many canvases as they wished and hang them in a way that allowed people to actually see them.

This was the first exhibition of “Impressionism”. It was here that Critic Louis Leroy took the title of a work by Monet, ‘Impression, Sunrise’ to deride exposure and then went on to qualify these artists, quite skeptically, as “Impressionists.”

The name stuck.

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This historic show brought the artists some critical attention. Not all of that attention was positive: one joke (in addition to the name ‘impressionism’ itself!) told was that what the Impressionists were doing was loading a pistol with paint and firing at the canvas.

But that was the second part of the Big Fish–Little Pond bargain. The Big Fish–Little Pond option might be scorned by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship—and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.

We are beginning to make ourselves a niche,” a hopeful Pissarro wrote to a friend. “We have succeeded as intruders in setting up our little banner in the midst of the crowd.” Their challenge was “to advance without worrying about opinion.” He was right. Off by themselves, the Impressionists found a new identity. They felt a new creative freedom, and before long, the outside world began to sit up and take notice.

In the history of modern art, there has never been a more important or more famous exhibition. If you tried to buy the paintings in that warren of top-floor rooms today, it would cost you more than a billion dollars.

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In the end, the Impressionists were lucky to make the right choice, which is one of the reasons that their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world. But this same dilemma comes up again and again, and often the choice made is not as wise.

Their story should remind today’s top artists and authors that there is a point at which money and mainstream recognition stop making them and start breaking them. The story of the Impressionists suggests that when the artists/authors strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the Bestseller lists and Booker Lists, rarely do they stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether this is always in their best interest:

1. One of the important lessons the Impressionists could teach the modern artists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all.

2. Another important lesson is that what counts in the end is if you let the Big Pond define you, or if you were brave enough to invent an alternative. The answer might not always be a Little Pond, but it sure can’t be meek acceptance of the current status quo path either.

Think of all the great artists of the modern age who could hardly be defined as mainstream during their own lifetimes, who would never dream of writing for the approval of a committee, who were as far away from honors and awards and money as only exiles could be.

Think of all the books with prestigious honors and the #1 bestseller mark that seem like jokes now.

Think about how so many of our best authors seem to end up producing the same sort of exceptional trash – very well written, but hardly the real deal that would last a century.

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What then can be an alternative for the ones who want to break free? We can talk about one option that our case study suggests – it might not be the only option, and the creative ones can always come up with better option, but the exhortation of this reviewer is a simple one: that the really ambitions artists and authors need to start thinking hard about the best use of their own abilities and efforts.

(Added here from the comments section, for clarity):

To restate, in our day the artists have three options –

1. Satisfy the Bank
2. Satisfy the critics (or impress)
3. Or satisfy their own genius (or impress)

The last being the most risky and perhaps most important one.

So what is the winning option again? For one thing, examples abound of niche novelists’ groups pushing the boundaries of literature, slowly attaining cult status and eventually becoming part of the canon itself. Just as Pissarro, Monet, Renoir, and Cézanne weighed prestige against visibility, selectivity against freedom, and decided the costs of the Big Pond were too great, it is time for the really serious to make the same call, of rejecting the conventional trappings of ‘success’ that only serves to limit their possibilities.

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Posted by on February 25, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The MAD & The BAD: Today’s Dose of Entertainment

After yesterday’s Post, one thing must be clear and that is that Monday’s genre of picks is decided. Crime movies for The MAD & Speculative Fiction (ok, Science Fiction) for The BAD. All picks will be updated at the dedicated page. Let us go ahead with today’s picks, shall we?

Today’s MAD Recommendation

MOVIE: BIG FISH

IMDb link: Big FIsh (2003) – IMDb

IMDb General Rating: 8.1/10

My IMDb Rating: 10/10

Genre: Fantasy, Comedy

Big Fish: A Movie as Big as Life Itself!

Plot:

Big Fish tells the story of Edward Bloom (Albert Finney). Edward is the epitome of the charismatic southern gentleman. He is charming, friendly, and the best teller of tall tales on the planet. In fact, it is through these tall tales that the story of Edward’s life unfolds. As he lies in bed, dying of cancer, he takes his son, and us, on a journey through the many experiences in his life. Whether they are real or imagined is up to you to decide.

Edward’s son William (Billy Crudup) grew up loving his father’s stories, but has grown to feel like Edward has never really given him the truth. The fanciful tales have become nothing more than lies, and as Edward nears the end of his life, William just wants to know his father for who he is and without all of the whimsical underpinnings. And as he sets off to discover his father’s true story, what will he find out…


Reviews:


Big Fish turns into a wide-eyed Southern Gothic picaresque in which each lunatic twist of a development is more enchanting than the last,”  — Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly

“It’s like Forrest Gump without the bogus theme-park politics.”

Big Fish is a clever, smart fantasy that targets the child inside every adult,” Berardinelli said, “without insulting the intelligence of either.” — James Berardinelli

“As you’ve seen as you scrolled down to read this review, I have given Tim Burton’s new film the highest rating of any film I have reviewed on this site to date. And, there’s only one reason for that…

…I’m in love.

I am absolutely in love with Tim Burton’s Big Fish. I love the restrained, but vintage “Tim Burton look” of the film. I love the way Steve Buscemi just seems to own any part he plays. I love Albert Finney. And to top it all off, I love, love, love Ewan McGregor in this film. He emits charisma like no other young actor working today, and by the time it’s over you’ll feel like you want to know him forever. He becomes the kind of character you want to have over for dinner and just listen to for hours and hours.” — Richard Dennis


Why You should Watch it:

  1. It is funny, it is touching, it is absurd, it is serious,  it is philosophical, it explores the question of “absolute truth” – It delivers on enough levels for you to enjoy no matter what mood you are in.
  2. Big Fish is the kind of film that will mean different things to different people, but will be appreciated by almost all.
  3. “Big Fish” is a big movie. It will keep you talking and thinking about it long after you leave the theater!

Why I loved it:

  1. For the sheer comic genius of it.
  2. For the beautiful Big Fish soundtrack that converted me into an eternal fan of Buddy Holly.
  3. For being one of the few movies that keeps its promise of being awesome right till the very last scene.
  4. For showing me Ewan McGregor can act and is not just a light saber wielding dummy.
  5. IF I could give more than 10 on 10, this is one of the movies that would get it. LOVED IT!

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Today’s BAD Recommendation

BOOK: CLOUD ATLAS by DAVID MITCHELL

GoodReads link: Cloud Atlas

GoodReads General Rating: 4.20/5

My GoodReads Rating: 5/5

Genre: Multi-genre, Novel

 

Cloud Atlas – Another “Big” pick for you!

Plot:

Cloud Atlas is made up of half-a-dozen disparate but artfully interwoven narratives that propel the reader forwards through time and genre, from the distant nineteenth to the not-so-far-off twenty-second century, from giddy picaresque to cool thriller to chilling sci-fi.

Cloud Atlas tells six different narratives, told in parts and out of order at times, constructing a novel with their intersections and coincidences. Each story is at first partially told. It begins with an American notary’s journals during a South Seas voyage, This follows with a story in 1931 of an English cad working as an amanuensis for a blind, syphilitic composer. It jumps to reporter in the 1970s investigating a cover up at a nuclear reactor, then a futuristic fast food robot struggling to achieve sentience, and finally a Hawaiian ruminating on a post-apocalyptic life. Then the unfinished stories are completed in backwards order. David Mitchell’s novel explores the intersection of history and humanity as they echo through time.

David Mitchell’s new novel, “Cloud Atlas,” is a remarkable achievement, a frightening, beautiful, funny, wildly inventive, elaborately conceived tour de force. It places us not in one intensely imagined world but six: six different time periods, milieus, vocabularies and literary styles. Each of these tales more than earns its keep. Collectively, they constitute a work of art. There’s a motorcycle stuntman quality to Mitchell.


Reviews:


“It is a devious writer indeed who writes in such a way that the critic who finds himself unresponsive to the writer’s vision feels like a philistine. So let it be said that Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”  — New York Times


“To write a novel that resembles no other is a task that few writers ever feel prepared to essay. David Mitchell has written such a novel — or almost has. It its need to render every kind of human experience, ”Cloud Atlas” finds itself staring into the reflective waters of Joyce’s ”Ulysses.””– Tom Bissel


“David Mitchell’s new novel, “Cloud Atlas,” is a remarkable achievement, a frightening, beautiful, funny, wildly inventive, elaborately conceived tour de force. It places us not in one intensely imagined world but six: six different time periods, milieus, vocabularies and literary styles. Each of these tales more than earns its keep. Collectively, they constitute a work of art. There’s a motorcycle stuntman quality to Mitchell.” — SFGate.com

Was shortlisted for Booker Prize, Hugo and Nebula Awards


Why You should Read it:

  1. The six stories. Each of them are worthy of standing by themselves and are written in different style, theme, encompasses a different genre and is an experiment in literature. But they are brilliant little gems nevertheless.
  2. Reading Cloud Atlas is like doing a jigsaw puzzle: bits and pieces, fragments, clues coming together to create a surprising whole when completed. The trick is to scrutinize each puzzle piece and yet not lose track of the big picture.

Why I loved it:

  1. The intriguing Matryoshka doll structure of the book and the fact that it tells an honest straight story and doesn’t get lost in being too clever
  2. The hidden homages to Melville, Huxley etc that made me feel very clever and literary whenever I detected them.
  3. Robert Frobisher reminded me too much of myself, not sure if that is good or bad…
  4. One good story in a novel is very difficult to achieve… Six really good stories? That is something.
  5. I just love clever stuff like this. Forgive me.

Should you read Cloud Atlas? If you appreciate literary fiction, then this is a novel you should read at least once. Maybe more. It will challenge you, intimidate you, frustrate you, and dare you to think about the important questions it raises. It may not, however, grab you and pull you along with its storylines. That doesn’t necessarily detract from its importance or its brilliance. David Mitchell may be more intelligent than the rest of us, and he has some interesting and important ideas he wants to explore with his readers. Read Cloud Atlas.


That is it for today folks! See you tomorrow! Hope you enjoy the picks!


PS. For readers from inside campus, a small bonus package is provided! The movie and the book can be lent from me personally from my username at DC++, please understand that I am only lending you the copy and you are advised to delete the copy of the movie/book after usage. The details will be updated along with the posts.

Disclaimer: This blog does not support the propagation of pirated material in any way and the books and movies are to be lent on a personal basis only. [ Just in case 🙂 ]

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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Books, Movie Discussions, Movies

 

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