Saturday, November 9, 2013

Effort and Waste: Why is the market the way it is?

University is a strange place – in the space of one morning reading session you can ricochet between four or five disciplines, following a single thread of thought which you found interesting. This morning, when I sat down to get through my allotted articles for a subject, I ended up on the subject of consumption as means of asserting your own sense of self. Or, rather, consumption in order to create a self, or to compensate for a perceived lack of self.

“If I buy this coat/car/chocolate, I will experience this, therefore I am this person.”

Now, anyone who has gorged on chocolate during a particularly painful moment of their life can probably attest to the fact that this doesn’t work. In  fact, if you’re a woman, you’ve very likely to have felt even worse because after eating the chocolate, this perceived sinful food, you will immediately beat yourself up over your perceived lack of control or ugliness of character, or both. (Perceived, perceived, perceived, perceived, perceived…. Saying that out loud is a nasty mouthful, so please appreciate my multiple usage of it.)

Interesting stuff, but what I find relevant to this blog is this citation by Csikszentmihalyi (2000) in regards to marketers’ insistence on perpetuating the idea that happiness can be found through consumption. The findings are as follows:

“…that material possessions alone do not improve the quality of life… that excessive concern for material goods is a sign for dissatisfaction with life… that trying to avoid the mental chaos of everyday life by resorting to acquisitions and passive entertainment does not work very well… Yet we insist in the vain hope that we can achieve happiness through consumption.”
Csikszentmihalyi (2000: 271-2)

Put differently, despite being conscious and informed of the fact that this mode of thinking is incorrect, and often harmful, people continue to perpetuate it, not out of malice, but because they want to make it true. 

“If I keep doing this,” the reasoning goes, “eventually it will be true because I put the necessary effort into it, and everyone knows effort cannot go to waste.” Or, if we want to be more cynical: “If I keep doing this, and everyone else keeps doing this, it will be true because there is no existing opposition.”

I guess now we know why the YA market looks the way it does.

We at the Book Lantern (and this writer in particular) have often wondered why, despite all evidence of the contrary, the most common books your find on the market (or the ones getting the most limelight) are so alike – formulistic characters and narratives that barely engage with readers on a deeper level, or take advantage of their platform to discuss and challenge people’s perceptions. Why does the bad boy need to fight, drink, and have promiscuous sex, in order to be considered manly and serious? Why does the heroine need to save him, every time? Why do vampires sparkle and werewolves leave their teeth behind? Again and again, people have pointed out the problems with these tropes and the danger that comes from blindly perpetuating them, and yet the books that get the best marketing, and indeed, the ones that most often get published, are the ones that adhere to cultural norms.

My mistake (and a very common one it is,) was to forget that we are not always rational consumers.

Consider “Divergent”, a novel I discussed yesterday. “Divergent” is very much THE novel when it comes to cognitive dissonance between one’s perceptions and the reality of things. Tris goes to Dauntless, hoping to find self-fulfilment, but discovers that her new faction is just as problematic as the old one. She then spends the rest of the book trying to reconcile what she’s been taught her whole life with what she sees and feels.

The surface message of “Divergent” is that difference of opinion is vital for people’s personal development and that imposed guidelines are painful and complicated…. However, the “good guys” are the ones using brute force and fire power, while the “bad ones” are the cunning and the subversive, the ones acting behind the scenes and trying to take over with wit rather than with bloodshed. And yes, you can make the argument that it’s fairer when both sides go all out, face to face, duking things out in a one-on-one… but I don’t think it’s a very fair fight if one side is physically stronger than the other (and also has a gun.)

“Divergent” was hugely popular when it came out, and its sequels got tremendous amounts of marketing and hype (generated as well as spontaneous.) And yes, some of it was largely due to the “Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” comparisons, but the fact that the novel remained one of the biggest and best-known during the dystopian wave of 2011 (does anyone know if “Eve” is going to be made into a movie? Do you remember the marketing campaign for “Crossed”? I sure don’t,) suggests there is something else going on under the surface.

And I think it’s the way the subtext is presented.

“Divergent” holds a positive surface message, and the subtext presented supports overall societal narratives: Difference is good! Difference is great! We must all strive to be different things, but in moderate quantities, (because extremism is bad!) And if some snake bastards try to take advantage of our trust and make fools of us, well then, it’s perfectly reasonable and proportionate that we settle the matter with brute force (and guns.)

And though “Eve” and “Matched” also fit that bill to an extent, neither of these novels has much in the way of graphic violence, or any kind of violent pushback against the subversive, so I guess they didn’t make as much impact.

Bottom line is, I get why things are the way they are. Really. People don’t like wasted effort. We don’t like being told that we’re wrong, that our parents are human, that our values can be perverted, that we are not MASTERS OF OUR UNIVERSE (see what I did there?) because that breeds uncertainty, which means that anything can happen at any time, and there is no clear protocol or guidelines to dealing with the unknown.

It’s scary as all!

But vested effort and emotion are not enough. And sometimes there is waste, and disappointment.

The trick, as researchers suggest, is not letting it get the better of us.

We must keep on pushing.

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