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Igor, the Formula!

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If you’re like me, and you occasionally spend an unhealthy amount of time in the Politics section at Borders (defined as longer than it reasonably takes to negotiate the area en route to the restroom), you can’t have helped but notice a curious phenomenon in the sub-genre of popular politics: by which I mean those books which are aimed at the general audience, are not written by Churchill (Ward or Winston), and do not employ such distressing phrases as “incrementalist decision making” with wild abandon. To show you what I mean, let me run down some of the titles I discovered during a brief trawl of Amazon:

  • Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics and the UN Are Subverting America

  • Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches

  • Crazies to the Left of Me, Wimps to the Right: How One Side Lost Its Mind and the Other Lost Its Nerve

  • Outrage: How Illegal Immigration, the United Nations, Congressional Ripoffs, Student Loan Overcharges, Tobacco Companies, Trade Protection, and Drug Companies Are Ripping Us Off… and What to Do About It [phew!]

  • The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster

You should (apart from those of you at the back who weren’t paying attention) be noticing a pattern by now. I’m not sure whether it’s a writer thing or a publisher thing, but there’s a formulaic appearance to the American political book title nowadays. We can even express the formula algebraically, thus:

 
x = a(b + c)

where x is your eye-catching title, b is your political enemy, c is their harebrained philosophy and a is the doom that is about to befall America because of it.

Now there’s undoubtedly a place in publishing for formulas. Romance writing, for instance, has a set of rules so rigid that the same story effectively gets published several thousand times a year. There are guidelines on everything from the ages of the protagonists (on no account must the heroine be older than the hero), to the hero’s ethnic background (almost always Caucasian: the occasional Arab sheik or Native American is OK, but only if they have an Anglo mother), to the timing of the first sex scene (page 113).

But that’s fiction. Do formulas really have a place in the rambunctious world of political pontificating? How much more room is there for tomes with titles like The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, or What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Even Bill Clinton is getting in on the act, with his latest masterpiece Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. Bill’s at least has the redeeming quality of an upbeat title, but that might be because his book isn’t really about politics. It does, however, show that the trend is spilling over outside the genre, with books such as Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster and The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works – and How It’s Transforming the American Economy [a twofer!].

You may protest that all this is nothing new. You may, perhaps, point all the way back to the Swinging Sixties and Dr Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. And I would say to you that first of all, that was a movie, not a book, and secondly, note that little “or.” That’s an alternate title, not a subtitle. And meanwhile, back in contemporary publishing, things look black. One recent BC article on the mortgage industry prompted Amazon to get completely carried away, linking to Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption Are Undermining America, The Greed Merchants: How the Investment Banks Played the Free Market Game, Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education and Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets. It seems that we really are all doomed – and how.

There may yet be hope. A bibliographical check of Al Franken and Ann Coulter, the light and dark angels (in no particular order) of American political punditry, reveals that neither of them has, to date, published a book with this titular formula. Nor, perhaps surprisingly, has Michael Moore. Michelle Malkin, however, has, when she inflicted Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores upon us.

Apart from the enjoyment of annoying millions of book buyers, it’s hard to see what these authors hope to achieve by using and reusing the same dust jacket template. A book’s title is supposed to hook you while not giving away too much, pique your curiosity just enough to make you want to fork out an unreasonable amount of cash for a copy. But with these guys, you only have to read the title and you’ve pretty much got the whole gist.

So why go to the trouble of actually reading it when the author’s already splashed everything he or she has to say all over the cover? You either agree with the sentiments or you don’t. “Quite right!” you say to yourself, sliding the book back onto its shelf with the other unsold copies. “That Ann O’Hannivage sure has those loony liberals pegged!” Or alternatively, “Pah! That pinko commie Noam Olberfranken wouldn’t know a neocon from neoprene!”

It just doesn’t seem like a terribly effective way to sell books. Unless I’m missing the point. I’ll be intrigued to see which of the examples I’ve flung at you (possibly all of them) appear as links after this piece gets published. And perhaps I’m just encouraging them. I fear that Laura Ingraham may already be beavering away on Talking Trash: How One Blogger Pushed Political Pundits into Perpetuating Pap.

Very nice, Laura. But don’t forget to add the sub-subtitle: …and Why It’s Ruining America.

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About Dr Dreadful

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Deano

    The one good thing is titles like those do provide you with an instantaneous clue to avoid those books! You don’t even need to pick them up and turn them over, much less crack the spine, it’s a great time-saver!

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    It’s truth in advertising, Deano.

    Dave

  • troll

    minor point Dreadful – doesn’t Coulter’s “Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism” meet the criteria – ?

  • Dr Dreadful

    No! Now if the title was “Treason: How Liberals Have Committed Treachery…”, then it would.

    But you’re right. She’s no better just because she doesn’t stick to the formula.

  • troll

    ahhh yes – I see

  • Clavos

    A couple of minor syntactical points (must maintain my rep!!):

    I believe the word is gist, not “jist.”

    “I fear that Laura Ingraham may already be beavering away”

    Good taste prevents me from explicating the obvious pun here.

    Also, I’m wondering if this passage:

    “So why go to the trouble of actually reading it when the author’s already splashed everything he or she has to say all over the cover? You either agree with the sentiments or you don’t. “Quite right!” you say to yourself, sliding the book back onto its shelf with the other unsold copies. “That Ann O’Hannivage sure has those loony liberals pegged!” Or alternatively, “Pah! That pinko commie Noam Olberfranken wouldn’t know a neocon from neoprene!””

    …might just reveal a tiny bit of je ne sais quoi, in that your imaginary browser seems to be decidedly on the right side of the political spectrum?

    As always, Doc, your article qualifies for both the the “wit” and “cogency” finals, and gets my vote in both categories.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Clavos, you are right about the spelling of gist. This distresses me greatly, because the last time I made such an error was at the age of 13, when I misspelled the word separate in a school spelling bee, a traumatic experience which haunts me to this day.

    In my defense, however, I would point out that the word comes from the old French gésir (to lie), which in turn comes from the Latin jacet, which, you’ll notice, is spelled with a J. So there.

    As for the apparent bias, well, if you examine that paragraph you’ll see it’s constructed in such a way as to make it next to impossible not to be biased. I wanted to play with pundits’ names, and decided that it would be more fun if I took names from opposing sides of the aisle. This meant envisaging a reader agreeing with the sentiments of one book and disagreeing with another.

    And, since he calls the liberal pundit a “pinko commie”, might he in fact be RJ?

    ;-)

  • Alessandro

    Great observation. Noticed this in music and film too.

  • http://rapturenutballs.blogspot.com Baritone

    There is something about the way books come about these days that should be considered. I suppose it has to do with the available technology.

    It seems that when something newsworthy happens – something concerning whatever war or wars are being fought, national politics, sports or the entertainment industry in particular – that a whole slew of books on whatever the event might be hit the shelves seemingly before the ink dries on the newsprint carrying the original stories.

    On the one hand, it can be said that such books are certainly topical, and they may offer within them more accurate information owing to the brief time between the event and the book’s publishing date. One might, though be circumspect concerning the perspective of such works. Might they not be too close to the event? Might the rush to print result in a specious or incomplete argument?

    This concern is somewhat similar to those who find the reports from “embedded” journalists in Iraq or Afghanistan as being too close to the Subject. It is difficult, even for the most objective of reporters to be able to step back from a story and find a proper balance. When they are living day to day – eating, sleeping, hanging out, and going on patrol with the troops, a reporter’s objectivity is likely to be skewed, their view of the bigger picture too narrow.

    In the days before desktop publishing, when it took at least months, perhaps a year or more just to write a book, and months more to go through the process of getting published and finally finding its way onto the shelves at Brentanos, there was a great deal more time to gather and digest more information from more sources, and perhaps present a more objective, complete and balanced report.

    I fully agree with Doc. The formula used and the proclivities of the author of these works are so transparent that one hardly needs to open the cover. And regardless of the subject matter, it seems that most any pundit could take almost anything and present some kind of argument for its deleterious effect on the nation:

    The Separation of White from Yolk: The Rise of Meringue, the Scourge of the Egg White Omelet,the Attack on Bavarian Cream, and How It’s Destroying the American Will. by H. Dumpty. (A “cracking” good tale.)

    With all the evil influences at work it’s a wonder the U.S. or, hell, the whole damn continent hasn’t sunk back into the abyss taking Canada, and parts of Mexico right along with it.

    Baritone

  • STM

    Doc, I think you’ve missed the Why factor here … for instance: Totally Mad Pom Expats Having Fun in America: or Why Doc Dread should write more stories for BC, and how near pissing meself laughing almost stopped the paper coming out.

  • Zedd

    Good read.

    I suspect that what you have observed is an extension of “talk radio” culture. It’s the same theatrics which got Bush into office and lead us to Iraq. It would seem that we like “it” simple, and aweful.

  • Catey

    Brilliant!

    And the two books I have looked at from amazon in just the last minute or so, here on BC, have the formula :)

  • Dr Dreadful

    Doc, I think you’ve missed the Why factor here …

    Stan, the ones with “Why” in the subtitle are a whole nother article, but I think if I tried to publish it Dave’s head would explode.

  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    DD,

    Good read. I’m forwarding this to a friend of mine who is writing a book. He sent me a first draft to review, and appended to my comments will this article be attached.

    The talk show/talk radio philosophy – simple, awful, and simply awful…

  • http://www.my-virtual-income.com Christopher Rose

    Also published on my birthday. Shame you were too drunk to remember anything!

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Nice Blogger site, Christopher. Chock full of incisive writing and factual information.

    Was it also created on your birthday?

    ;-)