Monday, April 25, 2011

The American Way: Bigger is Better

            There has been a trend in America for quite some time and, by association, it nearly defines us as a nation of people.  It’s that whole “bigger is better” attitude.  And it really is the American Way, or more accurately, the American Dream itself.  We, in America, firmly believe that anything worth having will be even better if it’s bigger.  I see this in so many ways, the most obvious being in our consumption of food. 
The portion sizes of the foods we most love to eat have increased astronomically.  Twenty years ago, an average serving of pizza was 500 calories.  Today it is 850.  A serving of coffee used to be 8 ounces and 45 calories.  Today, it’s 16 ounces and 330 calories.  A 3-inch bagel, 140 calories vs. 5-6-inch at 350 calories.  And the staple of the American diet, a hamburger:  330 calories then vs. 590 calories now.  Of course, all this has resulted in much larger waistbands, as well.  The rate of obesity is twice as high as it was twenty years ago. 
            This “bigger is better” trend shows up in many other ways across our country.  The average home has increased in size by nearly sixty percent since 1970.  The small, local stores we used to patronize have given way to big-box super-sized stores such as Wal-Mart and Target.  And when it wasn’t enough for them to just sell household goods, they started offering their patrons a full line of groceries, too.  In 2005, the average CEO's compensation compared to the pay of manufacturing production workers was 39:1.  And in 2007, CEOs in the S&P 500 averaged $10.5 million annually, 344 times the pay of typical American workers. 
One area that is laughable in its increase in scale and grandiosity of theatrics is the music video industry.  Just look at Lady Gaga and Katy Perry as examples.  They are both often compared to Madonna and Britney Spears, but when you contrast the content of even the most controversial of Madonna’s or Britney’s videos with that of either of today’s popular artists, you will be amazed at the higher levels of both vulgarity and profanity, not to mention the scope and scale of visual spectacle.  American audiences are requiring more and larger spectacle just to remain merely interested in what’s playing on the video display before them.  We are becoming so desensitized that only the most audacious performances entertain us.
And what about the movie industry?  It seems only those films with the biggest budgets, the most popular stars, the most nudity and sexual promiscuity, or the biggest explosions and car chases reach large audiences or make any profit.  When a small film makes it, we are all shocked and amazed.  Many films today are adapted from popular books, but even the books are too big for one movie.  Producers have taken to splitting up some of the most popular books into two films to get the most mileage out of the content.  Look at the final installments of both the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises.  They could not find a way to condense either novel—each of which comes in at nearly 760 pages—into one all encompassing film, at least not without running over two and a half hours, the extent, it seems, of the American attention span.  And the special effects of these films will have to be spot on perfect, not to mention huge, because the American audience is way too sophisticated for anything less. 
Even natural disasters seem to have become bigger and more dangerous, not to mention more deadly.  If you look at the data here and here, you’ll see that the incidences of natural disasters has increased, again astronomically, with the exception of the number of earthquakes though the number of people affected by earthquakes has increased exponentially.  Now, you’re all probably wondering what the hell my point is and how this relates to writing or publishing since those are the things I blog about.  Well, I’ve been thinking about this trend a great deal since my last “conversation” with the great Anne Mini, author, editor and blogger extraordinaire. 
She blogged here and here about the importance of conflict on page one of a manuscript submitted to a literary agent, citing that the agent’s assistant—whom Anne refers to as Millicent—needed such content in order for her to forward those pages to her boss for consideration.  I objected slightly, stating that it felt like pandering to simply construct our first pages primarily for Millicent’s eyes.  Of course, Anne gave me many reasons why this is so, most predominantly, it seemed, because poor Millicent has to read so many submitted first pages that she only has patience for the most boldly written.  And while I understand that poor Millie is over-worked and constantly behind in filtering queries for her boss, it still strikes me as…well…wrong to construct our novel in this way and for this singular purpose. 
I suppose Millie and her boss are only reacting to the current market, that is to say that she knows that American readers, much like their counterparts in the movie and music industries, are so over-exposed to big blockbusters that they have become desensitized to everything else.  Simply stated, they need the explosion in the first scene to get and hold their attention.  We are a nation of ADHD consumers whose need for something bigger has overwhelmed our sense of quality in such a way that bigger has become better in our eyes.  No matter my distaste for this trend, I cannot ignore it, so I added content to the first pages of my manuscript.  Instead of starting at the aftermath of the conflict, which I believed would intrigue the reader, I had to go back and start with the conflict itself.  And while I do like the two new pages of added content, it still smacks of pandering to me, that I should have to do so in order for anyone to even consider reading my novel.
            It certainly hasn’t always been so, that the reader needed all that spectacle on page one.  Several agents have blogged about the fact that many of yesterday’s classics would never be able to successfully run the gauntlet that is today’s process to publication and that writers today cannot base the likelihood of their own success on that of the authors of books written in their own genre as little as five years ago.  And they’ve also said that it’s primarily only debut authors that have to grab the reader’s attention at line one page one, that established authors do not need to submit to such tactics, even in today’s wildly competitive market. 
            I sort of take this to mean that it’s not the quality of the immediate writing or jacket blurb style query that will garner attention of first time authors, but the ability to submit to trends.  I wonder why books published today cannot be more like classical music that starts off interesting, yet often quiet, building to wave after wave of crescendo until the story crashes over you like a tidal wave before it gently rolls to a stop along a sandy beach, retreating back into the ocean.  I’d like to think that people who read are somewhat more sophisticated than the average couch potato watching music videos or the latest film release.  Reading takes much more attention to detail and dedication to a story than either of the others.  So why do we have to be whacked over the head with a story?  Why can’t the writer take their time—with the economy of words, of course—to lay out the bones and the meat to their story? 
            I get that there is a formula and in order for a writer to be considered, they must show they have done their homework and are following said formula, but it seems the current market—the publishers desperately striving to survive a volatile industry gasping its last breath, and the agents who serve them—is shortchanging both the writer and the reader by bowing and therefore humbling themselves to current trends.  By definition, it’s transitory and will never last.  And by constantly rewriting the rules, the market may eventually erase what once made outstanding and interesting novels.    


Lisa R said...

Amen, amen, amen and amen! What a great post! I just have to say that in the late 90s I spent almost a month in Germany and I couldn't believe how small everything was--I could really see the difference between life in Germany and life in America. Houses, appliances, serving sizes--you name it, it was all far more compact but it worked! All this grandiosity over here seems so unnecessary to me sometimes. I agree with you about books too. What is really irritating to me is that I read almost primarily thrillers/mysteries and I can count on one finger the number of books I've read in the last year that started out with a big bang, a crazy hook. These are PUBLISHED works and yet they don't have to have such gripping opening pages. It doesn't make sense to me. There is a large disparity there. I wonder if between Millicent and the editor at the publishing house someone says hey, you don't need to do all this crap in the first page and asks the writer to change it back. Also as a reader I really don't want the writer giving away the farm in the first paragraph. What's the point of reading the rest of the book then? I like a good story, well told, where the author takes his or her time. Something rich and well worth the read. I want to be sucked in but it really doesn't have to be the writerly equivalent of CGI. And also, I hate movies that overdo it with special effects. It's too much. Whatever happened to a good story? Sometimes less is more.

Laila Knight said...

I have to agree with you. Although I do enjoy the special effects in movies, if someone starts off a book with a big bang, I feel like I should be backing up. Wait, who the heck are these people? I have to say that in all the books I have read in the last two years, thrillers included, not one has started with a whole lot of action. So where does this idea come from? Isn't it more fun just to let the story evolve, to take that journey all the way to the end?

Bryce Daniels said...

I'm probably opening myself up for some man-bashing here, but oh well.

I agree with your take on the sorry state of affairs in today's society. I can tell you did your research. Nice job.

As for the opening in a novel? Well, okay, it need not be a "big bang" of sorts. But it MUST present conflict. You have to remember how the agent thinks. He or she needs to sell our work to publishers who are, when all is said and done, business folks. It's all about selling books. And the readers are our end-users. Not the reviewers, not the agents, not the publishers.

I think it was Sol Stein who pointed out a study that was conducted some time ago. Potential readers give a book only a few moments of scrutiny before their decision is made as to "buy" or "return to the shelf."

It's different in movies. The viewer has already paid for the ticket. They are going to sit longer before walking out. We have, as novelists, the jacket and, at most, the first couple of pages to lure the reader into our worlds.

This is nothing new. It goes back to when we were all living in caves. (If that is your take on evolution.) When one tribal member returned for the day, the others didn't want to hear about the berry-picking; they wanted to hear about the bear-chasing.

It's not really "formulatic" nor a "current trend." It's mandatory. We either show conflict, or promise it in our first pages.

P.S. I saw your question about prologues in another post, Nancy. I think this is why prologues are so frowned upon. They aren't really story. They are more backstory. I would encourage you to purge your temptation to use one, and instead find the right moment to open your work with.