Re: Build Your Own Best-Seller [was work (markets)]

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Wed, 2 Oct 1996 08:20:24 +0900


> What I'd rather talk about is how to write a quality best-seller. I mean
>from a nuts-and-bolts standpoint. This is not a sterile exercise. I'm
>looking for, and I hope others are looking for, ideas that we can use.
>One of the things I thought we might do is think about what it is that grabs
>us in the opening pages of a good piece of anthropology, or a good piece of
>fiction, for that matter. For me, it is in fact John McCreery's portraits.
> I like looking at the world from inside a character when I start a book.
> Characters are, for me, the hook. I can think of a couple of great
>community studies in anthropology -- fascinating accounts with real market
>potential -- that missed the boat because they used the old anthropological
>formula of introducing the locale first. Even the best descriptions of
>places tend to be rather dry. Openings, I think, need to strike a chord.
>But that's just my preference. Maybe someone else feels differently. If so,
>I'd like to hear about it. Could it be that there are as many best-selling
>openings as there are kinds of situations? And are situations more a
>function of one's particular ethnographic experience, so that in some sense
>the nature of the field work will call forth the opening?
>Here's another one: once into the book, how do you weave the threads of
>person, place, and the sense of an *evolving knowledge* of a culture (this,
>also, is a hook for me) in such a way as to sustain the momentum? How about
>the relationship between narrative and descriptive elements, on the one hand,
>and things like statistical, archival, and other analytic data on the other?
> How do you organize the more technical elements in such a way as to make
>them enticing, but not too intrusive to a general reader who may not want to
>go that deeply into the scholarly foundations of the book?
>These are just a couple of the questions that come to mind. Any suggestions?
> Any examples of great anthropological writing (and why it's great)? I have
>a couple, but I'd like to hear from others.
>John, what do you think? Your two main points -- address the big questions
>and show us the person we know, or might know, inside the stranger -- are
>right on the money. My little characters were invented merely to point up
>how hard it is for me to add substance to your keen observations.
>Mike Cahill


I think we've got the start of what could be a wonderful, and sustainable,
project; not just a thread, a whole fabric of possibilities. I'm in. Let's
work on this one.

What makes a best-seller? Is there a better, more easily accessible,
exemplary set of cultural artifacts than the books on bestseller shelves?
It's hard to imagine. If our theories about myth, ritual, the power of
symbols, discourse, interpretation, the political economy and sociology of
knowledge (aw hell, the whole shebang) have anything valid to say about
contemporary culture,here is a wonderful test case.

What can we take from the lit-crit, cultural studies crowd? And what can
we, as anthropologists, bring to the party?

What can we learn that will make anthropological writing more compelling,
more saleable, more effective in inducing social or political change?

A possible point of entry: I recommend, without reservation, Stephen Owen's
_Omen of the World:Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics_. It's a
wonderful, readable book guided by Owen's observation that what he calls
"the art of readership" varies in different times and places. He himself
contrasts the 19th century English romantics, exemplified by Wordsworth,
with the T'ang lyric, exemplified by Du Fu. He notes that in reading
Wordsworth, we assume, in line with our own art of readership, that we are
reading *through* the poem to a *deeper* meaning behind it. The meaning may
be personal or transcendant; the act of looking for something deeper
devalues the specific circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem. It
is, Owen argues, precisely the fact that T'ang readers were not looking
through the poem, but seeing it instead as a highly focused report on a
particular, highly circumstantial, experience--and assuming that anyone who
read the poem would, thanks to a classical Chinese education, be aware of
the specific circumstances--that makes T'ang poetry so difficult for modern

What, then, you may ask, is the connection between Owen on T'ang lyric and
our study of bestsellers? To me it's that "art of readership." What does
the best-seller assume about its readers, their interests, their values,
their background knowledge, their response to specific literary
conventions? What are the folk models of readers who are looking for "a
good story," "something exciting," "a thriller," "SF," "a mystery," "a
Harlequin romance"? Do they share some elements characteristic of all best
sellers? How do reader characteristics relate to the genres they read? (I,
for example, read all of the above except Harlequin romances. What does
that say about me?)

I'll stop here for now. What I'm looking for are some people who'd be
interested in looking into this seriously. Brainstorming? Yes. But also
planning and executing some systematic research. I'm thinking years, not
weeks or months. I'm in. Are you?

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo