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View Full Version : "The poor man's gold" thought experiment



Exir
01-07-2009, 12:18 PM
I've always wondered why sometimes books that aren't very good become bestsellers. Why do they gather so many fans, and why do everybody seem to love them, when they aren't very good at all? It's a topic that has been discussed a lot here. Some say it is because writing is subjective, and those books really ARE good -- it is just that we writers can't put down our prejudices. Others say that it is because it has a concept that sells. Still others say that it is "the lowest denominator" at work, that most people are naturally attracted to crap.

I have my own theory, however. One thing that I experienced is that when I was younger, there were a lot of books that I absolutely LOVED, but now when I look back I am not that impressed. Some of them I just downright hate, and I wondered why on earth did I ever think it was good.

So lets do a thought experiment: The Poor Man's Gold

Suppose a poor man is walking down a path. Along the path, there are three treasures: a single gold bar, a bucket of gold, and a mountain of gold. They are a far distance apart.

As the poor man walks down the path, he stumbles across the single gold bar. It is a fortune that he has never, ever seen in his whole life. There is a bucket of gold and a mountain of gold ahead, but he can't see them. (Nor has he ever seen them.) What do you think he'll do: pick it up, and say, "hey, this is not enough, I'll go and find some more gold?" Or will he run all the way home for joy, thinking that what he got was totally awesome, and that there is nothing better than it in the whole world?

I think that is what many people are experiencing, when they are attracted to what we think are "crap". Think about Twilight. Its audience are teenagers, a lot of which rarely read books, if at all. (I'm not saying this is true for every teenager. I'm a teenager and I like to read.) In the sense of reading good stories, they are poor (wo)men. So when they first stumble across their "gold bar", having never seen a "mountain of gold" before, they naturally think that their gold bar is the best thing in the whole world. For those who read a lot, of course, they have seen the whole world, and seen mountains and mountains of gold, so naturally they look at the bar of gold in disdain. "So little?"

Who knows? Perhaps all those fans of those less-than-stellar-books, having gone on to become avid readers, would look back and think, "How did I like that?"

PS. An interesting fact: the Chinese word for "shallow" (浅近, a word reserved for describing thoughts or works of art)is a combination of two characters -- 浅, shallow, and 近, near. Shallow and near. A coincidence?

Nakhlasmoke
01-07-2009, 12:25 PM
hmmm...Dunno if I agree.

In fact I know I don't.

Some people are just looking for different things with their reading experiences.

Some want a quick beach read with straight-forward language and a happy ending

Some want a fast-paced thriller that will keep them turning the pages.

Others want to fall into love stories, erotica, long journeys with lots of adventure and sword-fights and anachronistic witticisms.

Some want to be beguiled by language, and find themselves stunned by the time they reach the end.

Your vision of what makes a superior book isn't necessarily mine, or anyone else's.

So I'm quite happy that we have a range of books, and not just those other writers deemed "good enough"

Sean D. Schaffer
01-07-2009, 01:24 PM
I've always wondered why sometimes books that aren't very good become bestsellers. Why do they gather so many fans, and why do everybody seem to love them, when they aren't very good at all? It's a topic that has been discussed a lot here. Some say it is because writing is subjective, and those books really ARE good -- it is just that we writers can't put down our prejudices. Others say that it is because it has a concept that sells. Still others say that it is "the lowest denominator" at work, that most people are naturally attracted to crap.

I have my own theory, however. One thing that I experienced is that when I was younger, there were a lot of books that I absolutely LOVED, but now when I look back I am not that impressed. Some of them I just downright hate, and I wondered why on earth did I ever think it was good.

...Snipped.


hmmm...Dunno if I agree.

In fact I know I don't.

...Snipped.


I tend to agree with Nakhlasmoke. I really cannot agree with your theory, Exir, for much the same reason as Nakhlasmoke disagreed with it. Each reader is different, and each reader has different tastes. You might not think Twilight is well-written compared to works by other authors, but that does not mean everyone thinks that way.

You need to remember, (as a lot of people need to, frankly) that the quality of an individual book is subjective, depending upon the individual reading it. For example, I hear a lot of people on these forums saying that Christopher Paolini's book Eragon was complete garbage. I'm in the process of reading that book, and I rather enjoy it. Even my dreaded Internal Editor has very little to say about how to improve on Mr. Paolini's work.

The point: each person has a different opinion on what is and is not 'good writing.' I've started reading books by seasoned writers that I myself highly respect, and was not able to finish them. OTOH, I've picked up novels by total newbies, and have not been able to put them down.

So I really don't think the theory of 'Poor Man's Gold' is accurate. The real issue is not whether a person has poor taste or lacks the sense about himself to realize there's better stuff out there. The real issue is what does the individual reader find entertaining, fun to read, or enjoyable to sit in their easy chair, lie in their bed, or sit on their couch, and spend the night just getting away from the humdrum of their mundane existence with?


It's a matter of taste, Exir; there's no absolute rule as to what is good and what is better, at least not in literature.

:)

Mad Queen
01-07-2009, 01:28 PM
I think you're right, but in addition to that, often the path to the mountain of gold is long and steep and many people won't or can't make the trip.

Virector
01-07-2009, 01:48 PM
Hmmm... you have a very interesting way of looking at things, but I too concur with Nakhlasmoke and Sean D. Schaffer. In some ways, I think books are like music-- there are so many different genres and styles of music, and different crowds will like different types of music. A fan of hardcore rock music's idea of a 'masterpiece' album will be entirely different from, say, a jazz music fan's idea of a masterpiece. The jazz music fan would be quite wrong to refer to a hardcore rock album as a 'bar of gold', while declaring his own favourite music is 'a mountain of gold.'

Perhaps certain books might not be written well enough for you, or you don't think they tell a good story, but it doesn't necessarily make them lesser works to everyone. Perhaps the books you consider to be 'incredible' might be quite unappealing to someone else, perhaps because someone with different tastes to your own might find the book slow moving, or boring, or even confusing, and that might put them off. It doesn't mean they have 'shallow' taste.

I personally don't like the Twilight books you mentioned either, but I wouldn't go so far as to declare them inferior books, simply because they don't appeal to my taste. I just say hey, they're written for a different crowd, in the same way a rapper wouldn't be releasing an album to please someone who likes folk music, or jazz. That's just how it is. :)

Exir
01-07-2009, 01:57 PM
Thanks for your responses! I agree that writing is quite subjective. I was just thinking if the "Poor Man's Gold" could be one of the reasons a book is popular. Some books are popular because they genuinely appeal to a person tastes. But how do we know if, perhaps if the reader had read other types of books, will they still like them?

Just throwin' a different opinion.

Virector
01-07-2009, 02:10 PM
Thanks for your responses! I agree that writing is quite subjective. I was just thinking if the "Poor Man's Gold" could be one of the reasons a book is popular. Some books are popular because they genuinely appeal to a person tastes. But how do we know if, perhaps if the reader had read other types of books, will they still like them?

Just throwin' a different opinion.

Indeed, the "Poor Man's Gold" theory becomes very relevant in the context of people who read nothing BUT bestsellers and, unfortunately, too many people fall into that category.

Sophia
01-07-2009, 02:17 PM
I was just thinking if the "Poor Man's Gold" could be one of the reasons a book is popular. Some books are popular because they genuinely appeal to a person tastes. But how do we know if, perhaps if the reader had read other types of books, will they still like them?

I think the Poor Man's Gold idea might be true if everyone agreed on what the mountain, the bucket and the bar amounts were. Someone might read a Booker Prize winner and not like it at all, and consider that a bucket or a single bar (I've done this, for example). There is a thread here on the boards about what classics people just don't like, with many polarized opinions about the same books. I think it's things like that that suggest that although reading more widely will broaden the range of knowledge readers have to base their opinions on, it won't necessarily mean that they will then agree with what another person defines as a mountain.

C.M.C.
01-07-2009, 07:27 PM
I believe that a more apt analogy would involve a bar, bucket, and mountain of something more taste-oriented than gold. Perhaps if you were using licorice as an example, it would be more in tune with the realities of readers and opinions. The mountain of licorice may be a boon to some, and a hell for others. Such is the same with any book.

James81
01-07-2009, 08:09 PM
I have a different theory.

I believe that if I were to plant empty Cool Whip containers, that it will eventually grow into a marvelous tupperware tree, yielding all sorts of bowls and dishes.

So if I were to tip-toe through the tupperware patch, I might be able to sneak out with a bowl or something. But if I go tromping through it, who know? Perhaps the gardener will come out and shoot at me. *shrug*

The point is, you don't know that a cool whip container will grow into a tupperware patch until you plant it in the soil and see for yourself.

The same goes with books. If you never read it, you may miss the tupperware tree for the cool whip container you see on the cover.

Sassee
01-08-2009, 12:27 AM
For some it's the gold theory, for others it's the licorice thing, for yet others it's the "I just need something to read oh look this is sparkly" thing. It might even be a bandwagon thing in some cases. There really is no rhyme or reason to it, and different people will forgive different things about a book or author if they feel some other perceived good quality makes up for perceived suckiness somewhere else. Hell, sometimes it just comes down to the mood the reader was in when they picked up the book.

Nice theories tho, and I actually agree with all of them.

MaryMumsy
01-08-2009, 02:33 AM
Some want a quick beach read with straight-forward language and a happy ending

A little over 18 months ago I read an ms by a friend. I beta for her. First I read it on the screen, then printed it out to mark up. I had finished marking it and we were talking about it on our way to a meeting. I told her I had a hard time reading it again for the mark up, and that I had figured out why. I said "it's a beach book". A beach book to me is one you read once and leave behind for someone else because you don't intend to ever read it again. I was afraid of insulting her. Her response was "from your lips to God's ears". That particular ms got her an agent and sold in a two book deal.

My point is, people want different books for different reasons at different times. Sometimes you want a beach book even if your usual fare is literary. Sometimes you want McDonald's even if you usually eat healthy.

MM

BarbaraKE
01-08-2009, 03:43 AM
I think Exir has a good point but I would limit it. I don't argue that different people like different things. But I think his analogue might be valid if applied to individuals instead of 'people' in general.

When I was younger, I read everything. Good, bad - didn't matter because I didn't really know the difference. I picked up the gold bar.

But the more I read, the more I learned to appreciate good writing. (It doesn't matter how you define 'good'.) In other words, I kept going a little further down that path and finally turned the corner and saw the bucket of gold.

A-ha! Now I know that buckets of gold exist. Will I be satisfied with the gold bars in the future? No. I'll walk right by them because I know there's a bucket of gold just a little further.

Now I don't bother finishing books I don't think are good (gold bar) because I know there are better books out there (buckets and mountains of gold).

But if I hadn't been exposed to the buckets, I'd have been perfectly satisfied with the bars.

Most people do not read a lot. So (unless they deliberately study it), they don't even know better writing (buckets) exist.

josephwise
01-08-2009, 08:39 PM
How do you explain the people who know about the mountain, but are more excited about the bar of gold?

Phaeal
01-08-2009, 10:36 PM
Even if I had a mountain of gold, I'd still pick up the gold bar. And, where books are concerned, I do. Gold is gold. Good is good, in whatever quantity.

To express a difference in intrinsic value (rather than quantity), you might change the metaphor, starting with a copper coin, moving on to a silver one, then on to a gold one.

I do think the theory has value but is only one of many factors controlling the popularity of a given book. Some people are truly unconscious of style and notice only story. Those aware of style, of language as language, vary widely in their tolerance of awkward prose, given interest in the story. People new to a genre or type of story will find an inferior or derivative specimen brilliant and innovative, while people well-read in the genre will shrug at it. Some people actually seek the derivative, finding comfort in the well-worn plot and style of presenting it.

Age is a factor in how enthusiastically one accepts a gold bar, but it's not a sure-fire predictor of reaction. Some young people are very discerning. Some old people are totally undiscerning. Number of books read and breadth of reading are better predictors, but again, not sure-fire.

That beauty lies in the eye of the beholder is undeniably a facet of human nature. However, it doesn't negate the existence of excellence nor excuse us from pursuing it and defining its standards.

Kate Thornton
01-09-2009, 06:30 AM
I don't like the "poor man's gold" idea because I don't think it works.

I do think people who have read little will not have a breadth of experience when it comes to choosing something to read - that's where education, friends, reading lists and popular recommendation can play a big part in taste formation.

Readers who devour are more likely, IMHO, to know the good & bad from the ugly, but still read whatever they like.

Truly discerning readers may set stringent standards for themselves, but again, it may only be that ambiguous factor - taste - at work, determining if it is a classic literary work, a popular thriller or some borderline self-help drivel going into the book shopping bag.

And no matter how bad you might think a particular book is, if you have seen it on a shelf, a bunch of people thought enough of it to write it, publish it, buy it and read it.

There are books out there for every taste - they're just not all to my taste.

BarbaraKE
01-10-2009, 12:00 AM
Even if I had a mountain of gold, I'd still pick up the gold bar. And, where books are concerned, I do. Gold is gold. Good is good, in whatever quantity.

This analogue doesn't work because 'gold' is not 'books'. I don't have time to read all the books that exist. So 'quantity' is only valid up to a certain point.



I do think the theory has value but is only one of many factors controlling the popularity of a given book. Some people are truly unconscious of style and notice only story. Those aware of style, of language as language, vary widely in their tolerance of awkward prose, given interest in the story. People new to a genre or type of story will find an inferior or derivative specimen brilliant and innovative, while people well-read in the genre will shrug at it. Some people actually seek the derivative, finding comfort in the well-worn plot and style of presenting it.

Age is a factor in how enthusiastically one accepts a gold bar, but it's not a sure-fire predictor of reaction. Some young people are very discerning. Some old people are totally undiscerning. Number of books read and breadth of reading are better predictors, but again, not sure-fire.

That beauty lies in the eye of the beholder is undeniably a facet of human nature. However, it doesn't negate the existence of excellence nor excuse us from pursuing it and defining its standards.

I agree with you 100%.

TsukiRyoko
01-10-2009, 12:13 AM
I do believe that, like you said, sometimes best sellers and popular reading can come down to a simple matter of an inexperienced reading audience, but I don't think this is as common as one would like to think. In the reader's and writer's world, just like in the fashion world, there are trends. This plays into what's popular very much. Also, publicity is key. You could write a masterpiece and if you tell no one, then no one but you will know. If you write a piece of crap and tell a million people, then a million people will know about that piece of crap. A fraction of this million will read it, and based on the elements of that book, may even like it pretty well. Also, education. When writers read a book, I can guarantee that they'll be much pickier about a novel than someone who's never written more than their name and the date will. Thus, the latter will enjoy a book that the former would not.

There's a lot of elements and determining factors in the literary world, from the writing itself to the audience it goes out to.

MissKris
01-10-2009, 12:22 AM
How do you explain the people who know about the mountain, but are more excited about the bar of gold?

They're tired. It's possible they're lazy. Or they just know what they want - and something that shocks them or teaches them or makes them feel deeply just isn't it.

Honestly, I know about the mountain, but there are times when my brain has been working very hard and I'm just looking for a nice, fluffy, entertaining book to take my mind off of, say, Israel and Gaza. At other times I'm rip-roarin' ready to take on any dreaded classic you could throw at me. I generally find that one fluffy is enough to tide me over for 10 great books.