How is good news actually transmitted?
When people say something to their friends about a book, a film, a restaurant or even a political idea, there are several forces that determine how far their words will go
One morning in January, Amish Tripathi gave me a lift. The writer whose fiction has sold a few million copies told me, “There are three kinds of readers." I am usually never with people who say, “There are three kinds of readers," so I grew very alert. “The first kind are those who read over 50 books a year." He meant “50" in a metaphorical way; he meant readers who read a lot of books. “They form a minuscule proportion of readers," he said. “The people who read your novels are probably among them." The second kind of readers, he said, “read one, or maybe five books a year. My readers are among them." And the third category, he said, “read one book in their lifetime". Honour, according to him, is to write that only book hundreds of thousands of Indians will ever read in their lives. I was struck by a thought at that instant. He had, inadvertently, explained the mystery of word-of-mouth. When people say something to their friends about a book, a film, a restaurant or even a political idea, what decides how far their words will go? How is good news transmitted?
In our analysis of word-of-mouth, we usually consider who is talking, and how many of them, and even where they are talking from. We imagine a hierarchy of influencers with highly sophisticated or powerful people in urban centres on top, their words flowing down the social order. Is this the only way positive news can be transmitted? There is an aspect we usually do not consider that might be important. In word-of-mouth, what is the tone of the word? Is there a hierarchy of tones, too, in the order of influence, and who is capable of the most influential tone?
People who read “more than 50 books" do talk a lot about books—but also about a lot of books. It is rare for them to speak ecstatically about a single book, especially a new release or an Indian novel, even if they loved it. People who read “one book a year", or less than five a year, speak with more passion about books. They may say that they do not read as many books as they wish to because they do not have the time but we know that is nonsense—we always have time for what we want, and to those who love reading, the act is so fundamental that they find the time. So the fact is this category is not addicted to reading, or has not been converted to the powerful overstated notion (promoted by writers, of course, among others) that reading is some great virtuous human activity, or they do not have the power of concentration, and, as a result, find it hard to read. So when they do finish a book, it is because there is something in it that has made them transcend their resistance to reading, and they are, as a result, blown away by the book or by their own effort. They speak for weeks about the astonishing book, the way people speak of a discovery, and they speak very simply and very well to others like them, who constitute a majority of the literate population. They are more useful to the books they love than most widely read people.
Now, imagine the person who has read only one book in his life. He will be nothing short of evangelical when he speaks of that only book he could complete.
Word-of-mouth, very simply, is the great favour done by the naïve, by which I mean the fresh, the young, the good-natured optimists, the inexperienced, the new, the amateur.
You will never hear much about long-distance running from an African runner who finishes the marathon in under 130 minutes. As this column had once argued, it’s the plodding amateurs in the infancy of old age who go on and on about it. And it is not a coincidence that most people who speak about spirituality and meditation are agonized souls that have never known quiet. And it should not surprise us that the amount most women talk and read about sex is disproportionate to their actual sexual appetite in relation to men.
The initial success of the Anna Hazare movement was a direct consequence of a politically naïve Indian urban middle class overestimating what was just another street demonstration. Note that Hazare did not move the middle classes of Kerala and West Bengal, places where that class was very familiar with political engagement.
There are, of course, several forces that push an idea out into the world. There is the establishment using its many channels to transmit works that conform to its idea of excellence. There is the chaos of unpredictable events, there is the bias of the audience, there is dumb luck. But among the most important and underrated is the collective chatter of the naïve in the enigma of new discoveries. It appears that in some situations we transmit farthest when we are not the core target group of that which is being transmitted.
The first time I read a work of non-fiction, I was about 14, and the book was the autobiography of Pelé. I confused book for genre and celebrated the book for inventing autobiography. What I was struck by was not just a book, but a whole product line. I talked about it for days. Later, when I read Cosmos by Carl Sagan, I went around town explaining the universe to many people. I was about 17 when I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. It was the first time I was reading a book which informed me that reading a story can be hard work, and it was the first time I was encountering magic in a serious story that had long words, like “tintinnabulations", and it was the first time I was reading a writer who was a famous political victim. It was the first time I felt important while reading a book, and I was its greatest ambassador in Chennai for years to come. Recently, when I re-read the novel, I could not recognize the book I so loved.
I spoke best about books when I was young and naïve. Now, when I talk of books, I make most of them sound unremarkable, which they may not be.
The struggles of art, or what is considered art, like the “literary novel" and “arthouse movie", and its existence at the mercy of the establishment is not because the world is dumb, as artists wish to claim. Art often fails to reach out to the most efficient transmitters of good news—the naïve.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous. He tweets at @manujosephsan