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:
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.