Friday, May 24, 2019

The Effects of Bestsellers

There were no takers for today’s Diversity Friday slot, so I’ll fill it myself. If you’re reading this—and I sure hope you are or I’ll feel like a real dumbass asking you to do something—and are a woman, writer of color, LGBTQ, or basically anything other than a cisgender white male, please drop me a line at danakingcrime (at) gmail (dot) com and we’ll find an open spot for you. If you know a writer who fits any of the above descriptions and who might like an opportunity, please invite them to contact me. My goal is to feel guilty because I can’t accommodate everyone in as timely a manner as I would like. Work with me here.

Now to our regularly scheduled program.

Last Saturday was the tenth annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, a gem of an event that takes over downtown Gaithersburg MD and invites authors from all over the world. It’s become a must-go-to event for The Beloved Spouse™ and me the past few years and I recommend it without reservation for any readers.

Friend of the blog Ed Aymar was part of a thought-provoking panel that included John Copenhaver, Julie Maloney, and moderator Hannah Oliver Depp. Each author has a book out that handles some dark element of life we all wish didn’t exist, but does. As thought-provoking panels are wont to do, this one got me to thinking, though not necessarily in the way the panelists might have expected.

What makes a best-seller, and what do bestsellers say about us? Even more, how do the books affect us?

Bestsellers are, by and large, about events bigger than life. Donald Maas may not have invented the phrase “raising the stakes” in his Writing the Breakout Novel, but if he didn’t, he cemented it in the public consciousness. Maas is still the gold standard—he’s presenting his Breakout Novel spiel at a pre-Bouchercon event in Dallas—and books still break out because the situations become more dire; now things even start there and manage to get worse.

Human trafficking. Kidnapping. Remorseless and amoral drug cartels. Sociopathic spouses. Serial killers. These are the grist for the mill of mystery and thriller sales. When asked why these topics are so popular, the standard answer is that they provide safe havens for readers to explore the worst the world has to offer, but from a distance (our homes, where we feel safest), and with the knowledge that things will turn out at least relatively well.

What no one talks about is what effect such reading has on the life the art claims to imitate. I will not dispute the horror of human trafficking or drug abuse or serial killers or learning how vile the person is who sleeps next to you. All of these happen. What people seem to have lost is the perspective to remind themselves they don’t happen very often. With a modicum of care, one is more likely to be killed by a cow than kidnapped or tortured to death. (Don’t feel too safe. Cows kill more people than do sharks. That’s why I still eat steak, before the brutal bovine bastards decide it’s my turn.) It’s just that the kidnappings and torture killings are what makes the news and the bestseller lists, creating the impression the world is a far more dangerous place than it is.

Do I exaggerate? The “CSI Effect” is well documented, where juries demand DNA and trace evidence and hair samples and shoeprint matches because they see all that on the modern crime shows and think things really work that way. We have a surgical image of war in part because of what I call the Tom Clancy Effect, where all this marvelous hardware works exactly as it’s intended, every time. I saw a knowledgeable speaker asked once if our weapons actually worked that well. “In theory,” he said. “In practice something always goes wrong.” A complex military endeavor is as likely to turn into the abortive rescue of the Iran hostages in 1980 as the operation that killed Osama bin Laden.

It’s fun to watch movies or read books where intricate conspiracies spin out. Just don’t start thinking things work that well in the real world. The writers always have the godlike power for the conspirators to catch a convenient break, or for something to go wrong enough to raise the stakes. The child kidnapped for sale as a sex slave just happens to have a father with a unique and relevant set of skills and a stepfather rich enough to place Dad wherever he needs to be in a matter of minutes.

This is all well and good so long as everyone remembers that life isn’t like that. Do all these things happen? Sure they do. Are they horrible? Goddamn right. The question folks seem more likely to forget to ask anymore is “How likely is it?” what are the odds your child will be whisked away by a stranger in the United States? About 1 in 300,000.

Too many of us live fear-based lives; it’s more apparent in political campaigns all the time. The Beloved Spouse™ knows an intelligent man who comes heavy to the movies because he’s afraid to be caught there unarmed when the shooting starts. How many people are killed by gunman in theaters each year? One is too many, so too many. What are the odds one of them will be you? Infinitesimal. Be safe. Be vigilant. Do not be paranoid.

Nothing is guaranteed in life. A security system will not prevent someone from stealing your car or breaking into your house if they want to badly enough. The best we can hope for is to dissuade those who aren’t dead solid serious about it. The best we can do is not to let the fears we allow to be induced in ourselves, whatever their origin, to get the better of us.

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