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?
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))
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.