SOME time ago, I was asked to write an essay about the phenomenon of books such as Spotless and The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet . Both have sold in their hundreds of thousands and spawned best- selling sequels.
I couldn’t think of anything to say except good luck to their writers. As a first- time author myself, I find it hard not to gawp in admiration and envy at such sales success. And don’t listen to people who say Spotless is an advertisement for bicarbonate of soda, vinegar and elbow grease or that The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet says nothing a good nutritionist and a few grams of common sense couldn’t tell you yourself.
These books provide easily assimilated solutions that work, no mean feat when a slim paperback on people management called Fish! can sell more than three million copies by telling readers to ‘‘ Choose your attitude!’’ and ‘‘ Make their day!’’ And Who Moved My Cheese? , a tale of mice, men and missing cheese, rates as Amazon’s all- time bestseller for the website’s first 10 years. That’s for sugar- coating a basic truth about survival in our ruthless, fastchanging times: like, get used to it.
The advice industry has so flourished in the past 20 years that readers can feel lost or oddly cheated if solutions aren’t offered. Spotless and The CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet are the benign face of a growing belief that while life has its problems, there are none that can’t be solved with enough dot- point summaries.
This focus is slowly affecting our taste in books and what we expect from them, and from films, documentaries and poetry, too. It’s certainly having an effect on what makes a publisher or marketing manager’s heart race. Books of advice can occupy up to six places on the weekly nonfiction top 10 lists from Nielsen BookScan.
It may even explain why literary fiction has gone from Cinderella to cinders. Such fiction usually concludes by leaving us to ruminate on the sad, mad and bad ways of mankind, the strangeness of fate or the huge void that hangs behind all our lives, like a sheet flapping in the wind. The author’s achievement is to make us think harder. It’s only thrillers and romances that wrap up plots neatly and happily, only selfhelp guides and management texts that promise neat and happy solutions.
There used to be an unspoken acceptance about just how much a book could do. In his concluding chapter to The Good Society, which argued that it is possible for a nation to be economically successful and compassionate, American economist J. K. Galbraith wrote: ‘‘ Books of this mood and genre almost always end on the same note. Having defined what is good and achievable, they assume that the necessary political response will follow, if not soon, then in time. People have an instinct, immediate or eventual, for what is right. Having specified this, the writer’s work is done. It is this optimism that sustains the toil of thought and authorship; thus is demonstrated the ultimate power of the ideas.’’ But even by then ( 1996) Galbraith himself had recognised such optimism was fragile. A quarter of a century earlier, David Halberstam, the American journalist and author killed in a car accident in April, finished The Best and the Brightest, his analysis of 1960s America, power and Vietnam, with this sentence: ‘‘ There was, Americans were finding, no light at the end of the tunnel, only greater darkness.’’
Constant readers know the thoughtful glassyeyed state that goes with finishing an impressive book, fiction or nonfiction. For several minutes, and longer, you exist in a space between the world of the book you have just left and the everyday world you are about to re- enter.
A fine concluding sentence, paragraph or set of paragraphs has a harmony and rightness to it, leaving us feeling we’ve reached ‘‘ the end’’ even though there is still much to ponder.
Recent neuroscientific discoveries may even explain why. In music, human beings are naturally tuned to expect certain endings to certain melodies. Even non- musicians can recognise good and bad endings because our brains anticipate the chords that fit the preceding harmonies. Neuroscientists call this musical syntax and it has been discovered that some of that is processed in the same part of the brain, Broca’s area, once thought to process only language. In April 2001, Science magazine wrote: ‘‘ The essayist Thomas Carlyle called music ‘ the speech of angels’. And indeed, music and language are being found to have quite a lot in common.’’ To me, Broca’s area made sense of the fact that good writing feels rhythmical and bad writing struggles — worse, makes the reader struggle — because there is no underlying rhythm to draw the reader on like a ballet dancer responding to the beat. When writers sweat over the perfect conclusion, again it’s like composing music. But this goes for nothing if the reader’s ear is now more attuned to the kind of finish that goes: dum didi dum dum, DUM DUM!
A friend notes that when people come out of a film with an ambivalent ending or even a nonhappy- ever- after ending, many are invariably complaining, ‘‘ So what was that all about?’’ In The Emperor’s New Clothes , Hans Christian Andersen did not finish neatly when the cleareyed little boy cries out: ‘‘ But he’s not wearing any clothes!’’ Instead the emperor hears the little boy and believes him, but what is he to do? He has an empire to run. And so he struts on. His courtiers continue to hold up his nonexistent train. Chicanery, as Andersen shows, is not easily thwarted, although he surely hoped that his tale would inspire readers to speak out against bulldust. That was the solution.
Nowadays, he would be persuaded by marketing to do it differently. The citizenry would crowd around the little boy, who would deliver a snappy PowerPoint presentation on what to do next. There would be a general invitation to blog further on the subject. The little boy would start a management training website and write several sequels. And if someone followed the advice and it backfired, the little boy would be sued. Shelley Gare is the author of The Triumph of the Airheads and the Retreat from Commonsense. Extreme Cuisine by Shelley Gare — The Weekend Australian Magazine