Embracing Mediocrity

by Rob the Slob

WARNING.  RANT AHEAD.

What is it about mediocrity that is so attractive to people?

I just finished watching the second (?) episode of Hawaii Five-0 and I have to say that while it’s not a terrible show, it’s no Dexter.  It’s no Justified.  It’s not even Law & Order.

There were enough holes in the episode I watched to have me raging out loud to my long-suffering wife.  “If they wanted to kidnap the guy, why smash into his limo and turn it on its head, then use the jaws of life to pry him out?  Wouldn’t it be better to maybe, you know, take him in a way that couldn’t potentially kill him?”

Just the presence of the jaws of life alone was proof that nearly killing him must have been part of their ridiculous plan. 

In fact, wouldn’t it be better all around to do the kidnapping as quietly as possible?  Why draw attention to yourselves and get the police involved? 

Ohhh.  But wait.  That was why it was staged that way.  Because otherwise Five-0 wouldn’t have gotten involved and you wouldn’t have a story.

And that was only one of the flaws. 

I work very hard to make the logic in my stories sound.  Now, granted, this may not always happen.  I may sometimes miss something or come up with a situation that makes people go, “give me a break,” but I try my very best not to.

This show, however, didn’t even seem to try.  All the plot points were used for effect and nothing else, and the story moved along in a way that was convenient, not plausible.

In other words, we’re talking mediocre.  At best.

Yet, according to the ads, it’s America’s #1 new show.

Go figure.

Or let’s talk music.  

I confess I don’t pay much attention to mainstream music anymore.  I know the names of maybe three current hot artists because, frankly, what I hear on the radio sounds like complete shit.  As the top 40 always has.  

On American Idol it seems that the “safest” or most mainstream artist wins every year.

Every decade we have a number of great artists writing/performing great songs, but for every great artist we have a hundred cookie-cutter overproduced banal autotuned idiots who render the radio impossible to listen to.

Check this out and I swear you will really wonder what’s wrong with people who love this particular singer (assuming anyone still does):

 

 

Even when she’s in tune, she’s tough to stomach.

Yet this same crap makes record companies millions of dollars.  Millions. So obviously somebody’s buying this stuff.

Then there are books.  

Obviously, because I work in the business I’m not going to name names, but we all know there are people writing out there who truly define mediocrity, yet they sell like hotcakes.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a party or the dentist’s office or wherever and heard:  “Oooh, are your books like FILL IN THE BLANK?  (S)He’s my favorite author.”

Unfortunately, more often than not, FILL IN THE BLANK is a truly mediocre writer whose version of fiction makes me cringe in horror every time I try to read it.

Yet millions love it.

And don’t even get me started with movies.  

I went and saw EASY A this past weekend because it was set in and filmed entirely in my town, and the only thing the movie had going for it was an engaging lead actor.  The story was ridiculous—the kind of story that relies on the main character’s inability to simply say, “enough” before things get out of hand.  

If she were George Costanza, that might work.  But she’s an intelligent girl and the story set-up is so strained it’s ridiculous.  If she’d had a halfway decent justification for doing what she did, I might have bought it.  But no.

It was the perfect case of the plot dictating character rather than the other way around.  She had to react and do what she did because otherwise the plot would not have worked.

Now, I understand that we all have differing tastes.  One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure and all that. But I’m not really talking about garbage here.  I’m talking about middle-of-the-road boring bullshit.

Why does America love it so much?

I have yet to figure it out.

So my question to you this week is not why, but who?  

What popular singer, artist, television show, movie do you think is waaaaay overrated, and who do you think deserves to be more popular than the usual middle-of-the-road suspects?

And if you do have an answer to the embracing mediocrity question, feel free to chime in.

68 thoughts on “Embracing Mediocrity

  1. PK the Bookeemonster

    It IS a matter of taste and experience. Those who haven't been exposed to anything better, don't know any better and that is their measuring stick. They're not "taught" anymore, the difference. And the point isn't quality — to anyone in any industry in any level — it is to be famous. Period. Even rich doesn't play into it anymore. Just gotta be famous.
    I don't watch scripted tv anymore because it is mostly drek. Movies, I've gotten very picky because it is aimed at the lowest common denominator. Music, personal tastes. Books, again are personal taste but people look down on us because of the whole genre thing — it's not "award" books which I think are a waste of time and ink. So again, it comes around to taste and experience and personal point of view. Overall, however, as a society we've been dumbed down and don't care enough to do anything about it. But hey, happy Wednesday!

  2. Dave Ebright

    Hate to say it – Mediocrity seems the new standard. I don't watch much TV, never go to the movies & abandoned many of the "BIG" authors, especially the ones that now have "assistant authors", something I'll never understand. Unfortunately, the same holds for business. It's a struggle to get people past the "good enough" attitude. (I have a meeting scheduled this morning to address that very problem with a group that has me very pissed off. Not good. You would think with the way the job market is, everyone would want to stand out as "a keeper".)

  3. Debbie

    Rob, I don't know if Spears has any talent but I'm not convinced that this singing performance was meant for an audience (her mike was clearly not meant for the public to hear(. Isn't this akin to reading a first draft? Okay, some plotters may have it just about ready at that stage but really?
    Want intellegence? Try British TV and my vote goes to Aaron Sorkin; anyone involved in making Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer; Emma Thompson. Oh, and of course, Robert Gregory Brown!!! 😀

  4. --Deb

    This is a question I've been asking myself since I saw "Amadeus" the first time, back when I was in high school. I think part of it is the "gold star" phenomenon, where we're so busy encouraging ALL of our children and being supportive that everyone wins prizes, no matter the quality of their effort. Part of it, I agree, is the lack of education–if you don't know better writing/music/acting/stories are out there, you're not going to miss them. But also, in this Tough Economic Time, I think part of it is that nobody wants to poke their heads up far enough, to reach high enough to be whack-a-mole'd down. Like the TV show "Lone Star" which was the best of a mediocre bunch of premieres this season and was cancelled after two episodes. If being different, innovative, creative, and GOOD is going to put you in the line of fire, maybe it's just safer to try to blend in?

    Sigh.

  5. Alafair Burke

    I confess that although my current favorite shows are Dexter and Breaking Bad, I don't mind watching American Idol, and I sort of dug the first episode of Hawaii 5-0 (the only ep I've seen). I just don't think of my guilty pleasures as the same sort of thing as the "good" stuff. It's escapist, brain-numbing fare, one step above a nap on the scale of intellectual activities. A bad song is a negligible use of my time. Even a TV show is at most 40 minutes once I fast forward through the ads. A bad book, however? Nope, can't do that.

  6. Grace

    Re the mediocrity. I think the majority of people land somewhere in that zone – myself at times I'm sorry to say. Life can be tough for the ones whose talent, or lack of, doesn't elevate them above the mundane — bright lights are few. So, any kind of entertainment that relieves the monotony, boredom, pain etc. etc. of daily lives serves as a mindless distraction. My opinion only of course.

  7. Cornelia Read

    I'm astonished at most of the sitcoms/network shows are as bad as they are. Two and a Half Men? Everybody Loves Raymond? But I'm even more astonished when something in the primetime non-HBO/ lineup is actually good, like 30 Rock or anything Aaron Sorkin.

    As for popular music, well… thank GOD I can now port my own tunes with my iPhone, instead of having to rely on the radio. Especially on longish road trips. I remember one VERY long cross-country drive in the mid-Seventies in a '67 Ford station wagon with nothing but an AM radio. I still cringe every time I hear "Brand, you're a fine girl" or "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." And that fucking "Sundown" song… even Britney might be preferable, when it's 110 degrees out and you're driving through the cornflats of Iowa.

  8. Dao

    This season, in term of TV shows, I had a hissy fit. Perfectly good shows like "Ghost Whisperer" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine" got cancelled while new shows that are not up to par get heavy promotions. I turned on my TV, watched the first 5 minutes of "Hawaii 5-0" and flipped over to ABC to watch "Castle." I know the plot of "Castle" is fictional to the best (crime writer being a consultant for NYPD? Come on!) but it is entertaining.

    Book-wise, there is this certain author who won a major award whose first book I love so much but second book I can't stand. I even found myself picking up a pencil to correct punctuation and believe me, I am not a grammar and punctuation snob. The book was just that bad. Later, I found out said author does not allow editors to correct his works anymore. And so far, he wrote 2 books. I can't wait to see how his third book is going to be.

    I don't tolerate mediocrity anymore. Life is too short to endure it.

  9. Robert Gregory Browne

    WARNING. RANT PART 2.

    Debbie, I'm fairly CERTAIN that the mic we hear in the Spears video was not meant to be heard by the audience, especially since you can hear some cross chatter in there. But I mean, COME ON.

    I know it's tough to hear with music blasting and that would make anyone go off key. But seriously? The only way they can make her sound even close to presentable is to a)autotune her; or b) have a prerecorded track that she sings along to?

    Either way, it's deceptive, misleading, calculating, cynical, mediocre drek designed only to part unsuspecting people from their money.

    I went to concerts as a kid — back before autotune — and for the most part, people could actually sing in tune. They could actually play instruments. And even the manufactured bands (the Monkees) at least had enough talent to put on a show without resorting to trickery.

    We hate it when we see photoshopped pictures in the newspaper. Heads roll when it happens.

    Even Mili Vanilli got blasted for being fakes.

    Nowawdays, all bets are off.

    END OF RANT, PART 2

  10. Debbie

    'monotony, boredom, pain…'-Grace you nailed it right there. We engage in forty minutes here and they're looking for something. Imagine if that time was spent helping a cause we truely believed in, were passionate for. No more boredom, monotony, pain put into perspective and, television would suddenly be about social causes, philanthropy. It reflects whatever society is willing to invest in. As long as we watch it, listen to it, read it, talk about it, we feed the system. They only sell us what we'll buy, give us what we want. So change has to start with us!

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Oh, God, Rob, that Brittany Spears crap is going to ring in my head all day now.
    There's too much overrated stuff out there to even list. I've made a conscious effort not to even think about it…too much negativity…it'll drive me crazy. Generally the things that constitute pop culture crap don't last very long, and they don't hold up through the years. But the things that are good gradually find their audience. Sure, the artists might not get their due until fifty years after they've died, but, hey, we can't get everything we want in life, right?

  12. Becky LeJeune

    Ugh, and it's such a catch 22. Even if you know, suspect, and are highly suspicious that a show, a movie, or a book will fall into that mediocre category, you have to try it and see. Which ultimately means that your test run makes it look like the show, movie, or book is doing well. Because each time we buy into the mediocrity, someone gets the benefit of proof that this is what the market wants. It really sucks! And you can almost always tell with TV, which shows are not going to make it. It's the shows that stand out, or are a little too smart for their own good that get canned first.

    And I shouldn't even start on music. It all sounds the same these days. Something new and interesting comes out and then they'll sign forty more bands that sound exactly the same.

    With books, at least there's a bevy of choices out there and even though I don't personally like some of it, someone does and there's still plenty of good stuff for me to read in the meantime. The mediocre is definitely dragging it down, but my hope is that as long as we all support the folks we think are great, maybe we can stave it off a little longer.

  13. Debbie

    Rob, I understand your point but I'm curious, was this singing being auto-tuned or was she just singing along to lip sync and keep tempo? People have already commented here that they aren't looking for talent but escape and despite poor craftsmanship, they are willing to come back for more. Btw Dao, I could really use your help with my MS. I haven't a sweet clue about punctuation! 🙂 (Speaking of mediocrity!)

  14. Robert Gregory Browne

    Debbie, I'm pretty sure that she was lip syncing. By actually singing along, it looks more realistic to the unsuspecting audience. But I think it's fairly obvious by her complete inability to sing along with a pre-recorded track with something that even approximates tonal accuracy that the pre-recorded track has been autotuned up the wazoo.

    Yes, I understand that people are simply looking for escape, but wouldn't it be nice if that escape involved real talent and not electronic trickery?

    I have the same complaint about movies that are all CGI and no story. There's a part of me that admires the technology — the real talent is sitting on his or her ass behind a computer — but why not simply put some really great actors and writers together and produce something magical rather than cynical. It happens every so often, but not often enough. Probably because it's REALLY hard to do and the money machine keeps rolling along, demanding to be fed.

    I can guarantee that Spears has backup singers who have more talent in their pinkies than she does in her entire body, yet they're relegated to the background because some producer back in the day said, hey, I can dress this fifteen year old up in a Catholic schoolgirl outfit, process the shit out of her voice and get some attention.

    Again we can go back to American Idol. How many times have we seen someone with REAL talent voted off the show instead of someone cuter or less threatening to the teeny-boppers and their moms?

  15. Jeanne in MN

    I really enjoy Breaking Bad – well acted, interesting storylines. But it is based on a premise that takes a lot to swallow…that a public school teacher does not have good enough health insurance to treat lung cancer or good enough life insurance to provide for his family. That is what turns him to his life of crime. Maybe in New Mexico teachers have inadequate insurance, but that is sure not true in Minnesota.

  16. L. Charnes

    Rob — every generation thinks it's the last civilized generation. The last folks who were right were the Romans.

    People have always complained about the crap produced by popular culture. What you said about today's popular music? Your grandmother was saying that about Elvis, Creedence, the Stones, and Joplin. Her grandmother was saying that about the Dorsey brothers and Glenn Miller. And everyone except eight hipsters in the Village said that about Miles Davis. Yet now they're classics.

    Movies? They've always been about the broadest common denominator. (I hate to say "lowest," because that's what snobby English Lit professors say about mystery novels.) We now think of the 1930s and 1940s as a golden age of Hollywood cinema, but most of the programmers slapped together back then to fill the theaters are completely unwatchable now. Even some of the award-winning films are a hard slog.

    When was the last time you tried to watch a 1970s or 1980s TV show? Go to Hulu; they have a number of the big shows from back then. Try it. They look like something put together by high-school students for a class project. Even the shows considered "smart" at the time are stagy, talky and dull, or just silly. For all the Trekkers out there: Star Trek was considered by critics to be the worst, childish drivel, and was chased off the air after three seasons of steadily-declining ratings. Now it's a classic.

    Does crap exist because people "don't know what's good"? Or does it satisfy a need or desire on their part? Think of all the literati who look down on people — like us — who write mysteries and thrillers, instead of tortured 800-page psychological ruminations on the fate of the world, which is (according to them) the only *quality* literature. If only everybody read Umberto Eco! If only we all watched Mad Men! If only we all saw films in their original Peshto! If only we listened to Philip Glass!

    But sometimes we don't want to invest that much time, or be that depressed, or work that hard. Sometimes we want eye candy. Sometimes we want a story where *something happens* (unlike most lit fic). We want to see the good guy win and the bad guy bite it. We want to listen to music that has a recognizable melody, maybe some fun lyrics (life's too short for atonality). All of which is generally defined as "crap" by people who Know What's Good.

    Is there good crap? Sure. We'd all like to think that's what we write, but we probably don't always succeed. What is it? We can't tell now — ask again in twenty years. Will the Murderati be considered the heirs to Chandler and Hammett by 2030, or just purveyors of forgettable crap? We'll see. Will Mad Men be considered a masterful evocation of an age, or a slow, stuffy soap opera that makes you want to open a vein? We'll see. People now look back fondly on Jack Lord's Hawaii 5-0; in 2030, they may look back on Alex O'Loughlin the same way. We'll see. Just keep in mind that '60s rock, John D. MacDonald, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Twilight Zone were, according to those who Knew What Was Good, all crap in their day. We'll see.

  17. Nancy

    Years ago (about 8, maybe) I forced my husband to take our two then Brittney Spears fan daughters to see her in concert (which I realize made me a candidate for worst mother of the year). I figured it would be a bonding experience for them, and he could at least enjoy her half-clothed exibition. My husband is the type who gives a pass to most anyone in entertainment because, gosh golly at least they're up there in front of everybody trying. Something he could never do. Whatever.

    Given that, his synopsis of the show was: "Well…she changed costumes a lot, danced and hopped all around the stage. She's actually a pretty good enertainer….but she really shouldn't try to sing."
    I think we just got confirmation.

  18. Debbie

    Anyone want to weigh in on Maslow and entertainment? Not aesthetics or knowledge but pure unadulterated entertainment? You know the ones…the guilty pleasures!

  19. Karen in Ohio

    Rob, I think you miss the point about Britney Spears (and this looks to me like a rehearsal, perhaps). She isn't meant to be a good singer; she's meant to be a nubile and titillating performer. When she went to pot for awhile no one was interested in her, singing ability or not. Once she lost weight again, BAM, back she comes to the stage.

    There are good voices out there. On the recent season of America's Got Talent (that "got" makes me cringe every time), 10-year old Jackie Evancho proved there are still some phenomenally talented young people around. And she chose to sing legitimate numbers, as opposed to silly, inconsequential pop songs that don't require much voice range. If you have not heard this amazing child sing, check it out:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nabo1iTcA5w

    The problem with, as Alafair put it, escapist, brain-numbing fare, is that it's addictive. And it's too easy to just expose oneself to that level of intelligence and never stretch one's mind further. Compare it to the national obsession with fast/junk food. Same thing, only for the mind. Reality shows–which have zero to do with reality–are even worse for us. Is it any wonder the US is falling so far behind in education, innovation, and prosperity? The future posed in 1984 has come to pass, I'm afraid.

  20. Tom

    <rant>The Science of Marketing is the true Frankenstein's Monster of our lifetimes. If something is bland enough to be easy to market, a fortune is to be made (as with so many of Rob's examples, above). Something unique is hard to market, because you can't say, "It's just like xxxxx!" The cart now defines the horse, for greater profitability.

    We don't educate people to be knowledgeable audiences. Someone decided to educate people to be consumers, at a level of manageable mediocrity. Followers, not leaders, not independent, ignorant of the wider world.

    Sheeple are very risk-averse, from lunch selections or entertainment choices, and that's a topic of its own.</rant>

  21. Judy Wirzberger

    And just what is your blood pressure? I think commercial TV mostly sucks so I don't watch it. Nice to have a choice. I can always pick up a book, meet a friend, or take a walk. I've given up trying to expect more than mediocrity, after all, we are sending kids to college who need remedial reading. these things are not worth my energy. After all, I have a book to write.

  22. Marie-Reine

    Maslow? Excitement and fantasy as human need forming the basis of human compulsion? The Maslow who argues that those pleasures aren't the by-products of being entertained but are the product? That Maslow? The Maslow who suggested that basic human needs may be a functional variable in radio listening? That Maslow? Geez, Debbie, I dunno, 'cause if he was right, I am like really fucked.

  23. Robert Gregory Browne

    I know in some ways I'm coming across as dad who doesn't understand today's music. But that's not it at all. I actually love a lot of today's music — just not the mainstream stuff. My tastes run toward artists like Incubus (although they're pretty damn popular) and Chris Cornell and Imogene Heap. People who are bursting with creativity and make their more popular brethren look like wannabes. (And yes, I realize that Incubus and Cornell are probably more early 21st century than hot now.)

    This is, of course, my opinion only. But I think we can all agree that there are certain artists out there, certain writers, certain TV shows, etc., that are just bland.

    I don't think this is the same as literary fiction snobs calling mysteries crap. The truth is, a lot of mysteries ARE crap. But so is a lot of literary fiction. Every genre has great writers and not so great writers. And a lot of it boils down to personal taste.

    But I think we can all recognize mediocrity when we see it. Something that's "good enough" but not particularly great.

  24. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm with Dusty – Brandy IS a fine song.

    And Britney's a dancer, not a singer. There are different ways to put over a song.

    And dear, sweet Rob – I understand it's Hawaii and all, but what in God's name were you expecting of a network remake?

    Becky is so right – if we want to fight mediocrity we have to support the good stuff. Go to the smart independent movie on opening weekend, and take your friends. Write in to HBO about the show you love. Boycott that author who uses "assistants".

    I have just watched "Sense and Sensibility" for the third time this week. Ang Lee directing an Emma Thompson script of Jane Austen? That cast? Heaven. Good stuff is out there.

  25. Allison Brennan

    But Rob, you don't like STAR WARS.

    Here's the thing: we don't all have the same taste or like the same books or movies because we have different lives/values/experiences that all come together as we read a book or watch a movie.

    I enjoyed EASY A. Why? Because it proved my belief (as you turned me onto him in the first place–Robert McKee) that STORY IS CHARACTER. Emma Stone MADE the movie. I could overlook plot problems because she was by far one of the most engaging narrators I've seen in a long time. I also liked Ferris Bueller which was also a ludicrous plot in many ways but the characters were so terrific and Broderick had a great narrative style that took the movie from okay summer fare to classic.

    I really enjoy reading Nora Roberts. Other people would say she's mediocre. We both know it. I don't think so. That doesn't make me "settling" it makes me smart for only spending my time reading books that entertain me. I also loved Keith Ablow's six thrillers with forensic psychiatrist Frank Clevenger. He never hit the NYT list until he wrote a NF book about Scott Peterson, which was interesting, but repetitive and simple–talking down maybe? I don't know. His six fiction books were brilliant, but few people have read them. You can't compare the two authors because they write wholly different books, one is a mega-seller one isn't, but neither is mediocre–though I'm sure I can find people who think they are.

  26. Marie-Reine

    Rob, I like your blog post. I miss some good shows now and then, because I hate wading through the drivel. I feel a lot like Cornelia in that it's a shock when I find something non-HBO that I want to watch.

    I remember my 7th grade English teacher, Mr. Grassia, who said, "You are in luck this year. Television is geared to the 12-year-old mind." Of course that was before HBO, or BBC America, or PBS even. We had WBZ in Boston but not much there for 12-year-olds back then.

    It's all about squeezing the most dollars out of airtime. HBO and other paid-for networks fill other needs, so they get their niche, which is where I'm sitting for now.

  27. pari noskin taichert

    Jeanne,
    In New Mexico, everyone has inadequate everything. That's part of our charm . . .

    Mediocrity? I think it's about convenience. The faster we get as a society, the quicker and easier we want our thrills and emotional high points . . .

    Thinking takes time, Rob. It can be confusing.

    But as Alex and other have pointed out, there is a lot of good stuff coming out in all of the arts now too . . . I'm not discouraged. Sometimes I want to have just silly fun and something like She Wore An Itsy Bitsy . . . makes me laugh. At other times I want to listen to Janos Starker playing Kodaly's sonata for unaccompanied cello
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCB9X9a77uU

  28. Robert Gregory Browne

    Allison, congrats on turning the book in. I just finished a polish and turned it in this past week — my editor loves it — so I know the feeling well. Which is probably why I'M a little snippy.

    As for Nora Roberts, I think she's an excellent writer. Yes, she puts them out fast, but she is consistently good and I think her popularity is deserved. She's an exception.

    As for Easy A, I think the only good thing about it was Emma Stone. Period. I enjoyed her performance. But I have to disagree about story being character in this case. This was a case of taking a story and shoehorning the character, having the story itself dictate her reactions rather than the other way around. That's my take on it anyway.

    As I said, had she been George Costanza, I could see her building lie upon lie until it all blew up in her face. But they failed to establish her as anything other than a slightly less popular nice girl who, in the real world, would have simply called a halt to all the nonsense the first time somebody "solicited" her. What she did, in my opinion, went against the character they had established.

    But again, only my opinion. And I certainly agree about Emma Stone. She's different. She's cute. Has that amazing husky voice and carried the movie quite well. I expect to see great things from her in the future.

  29. Robert Gregory Browne

    Debbie, as for Star Wars, I think THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is a work of genius. A truly great movie.

    The first and third movies (or fourth and sixth if you're going by the SW timeline) were pleasant but only good because, for their time, they were innovative and new. I saw the first Star Wars movie in the seventies the day it opened at Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood and was disappointed after that amazing trailer. It just fell short for me. And the Return of the Jedi was a muppet show.

    The newer trilogy is, in my opinion, garbage. Lucas completely lost his way.

  30. KarinNH

    I suspect stuff from the past looks better because we only keep or remember what is decent and the dreck falls by the wayside. For a class, I pulled clips of 70s television shows off of Youtube (we were reading an excerpt from Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You) and holy hell were those shows awful! My students laughed themselves silly, gasping "People used to watch that?"

    And in matters of taste, who gets to be the arbitrator? My clothes are definitely not anyone's definition of high fashion, my taste in food is not particularly spectacular, I drive a Volvo not a automotive marvel. All of those things could be appalling to some people. (You should hear my younger son rant about those who drive Toyota Camrys!)

    Even if I only listened to classical music, someone would object because I preferred a "commercial" recording (have actually heard that criticism.) I once heard a teacher say she refused to use Marc Brown's Arthur books in class because he had sold out, and they'd become popular. Really? Sold out to PBS? What the heck?

    I work in a literature department, and there we are divided into two groups–those who will deign to read genre fiction and those who will not. Many of the things we call classics now were considered junk at the time they were written. I've learned to take the whole argument with the proverbial grain of salt and unabashedly celebrate my lousy taste!

  31. PK the Bookeemonster

    People/kids who read the Harry Potter as their first exposure to fantasy were wowed and had an amazing reading experience. Someone who had read previous fantasy novels (such as myself) enjoyed it for what it was but did not have the same mind blowing experience and may even say it was mediocre.
    The problem with mediocrity is that the bar that measures it is movable. And no one has the right to set it in stone for anyone else. The sadness is when we are the audience to someone else's high achievement and find it lacking.

  32. Dudley Forster

    Hey, I liked “Brandy” when I was in Jr. High. Remember Rob, there is always “Muskrat Love”

    I’m surprised no one has brought up professional wrestling, so neither will I. As for Hawaii 5-0, if it has staying power then of all the high school marching bands can return to playing the theme. Book’m Rob’o

    Allison – Grats and Happy Birthday ! I hope the speech went well.

  33. michael

    Thank you Rob, it is nice to read I am not the only one with an screaming inner critic. My family and friends hate watching TV and movies with me.

  34. Marie-Reine

    Yes, I guess it is judgmental to make decisions regarding any art or diversion for other people. Sometimes I do get something valuable from what others, or even I, might call junk or mediocre entertainment. Books though – any of them – can touch me in important ways. I'm not really fond of books that might be typed intellectual, but I do love books that approach social issues and community in engaging ways. I read nothing academic anymore (gave up in disgust on my last doctoral program in psychology– my 4th attempt to reconcile with the academy) and rely on writers like you to engage my mind through your stories. I don't know what I would do without genre fiction.

  35. L. Charnes

    Karen — You think we're the only ones who have popular crap? You think this is the first generation to have a popular culture that doesn't embrace Kant and Johann Froberger?

    Next time you travel out of the country, watch the local TV. French, Italian and Japanese game shows are entirely bizarre, but in entirely different ways. Kommissar Rex (in Italy, Commissario Rex), Murder City and Rush are all the local answers to Hawaii 5-0 (or Castle, or any other cop show considered "crap" by those who Know What's Good). Reality shows are everywhere; we've adapted some foreign versiona for our own. Ditto sitcoms. We only see the best of BBC; even the Beeb puts out shows that qualify as crap.

    What films do well overseas? The ones that are dismissed as "crap" by the culture police. Those smart, honest films in Albanian about three people in a room complaining about their lives? They don't do any better over there than they do over here. What music do they listen to? Europop and Japan-pop have just as many empty calories as Ameri-pop. So no, we're not falling behind other countries because their popular culture is so much smarter than ours.

    Is our popular culture dumber than the one we oldsters had thirty or fifty years ago? Absolutely not. I grew up on Rat Patrol and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and 1950s harmony groups (my folks were a bit behind the curve with music, because '60s rock was crap to them), but I can still read adequately. Remember that what we now call the "Greatest Generation" was, at the time, considered unlikely to amount to anything because it grew up on a steady diet of gangster and monster movies and jazz. Kids at the turn of the last century were supposed to be fatally weakened by dime novels, the penny press and ragtime. I'm sure Roman parents blamed something in their popular culture for the unruliness and vapidity of their children.

    There are reasons we're falling behind other nations educationally — chief among them our general refusal to pay for services we demand — but Britney and Dan Brown aren't among them.

    KarinNH has it right. We think things were better "back then" because we blank from our minds the stuff we really watched/read/listened to; some people will complain about "serious culture" that isn't serious enough, employing the same terms used here to denounce Britney; and the mere fact that something is popular will cause those who Know What's Good to dismiss it as worthless crap.

  36. Robert Gregory Browne

    I'm not talking about back then. Back then there as a lot of crap. Anybody remember what the number one show was in the 70's? Charlie's Angels. That was even worse than mediocre.

    I don't think this love of mediocrity is anything new. It's a constant one. And I still don't get it.

    Although I will say this. There were consistently better movies being made in the 70's than there are now. Movies about real people in real situations. Not comic books.

    That said, I like a really well done comic book movie, too.

  37. Debbie

    1970's TV-M*A*S*H and All In The Family, so it couldn't be all that bad could it? Rob, I'm looking forward to more Rants perhaps to music and accompanied by you on the Les Paul.
    Allison, Happy B-day!

  38. PK the Bookeemonster

    My turn to rant: do you want to know why there's mediocrity? I just got off the phone with a 21-yeard old guy who didn't know what the word "wages" meant. end rant

  39. KarinNH

    I think the thing is that living a totally non-mediocre life is next to impossible (although maybe that is just me), There are so many aspects to our lives, we can't always do everything well or to the highest standard. (And if someone could, wouldn't he or she be annoying!)

    So, we each choose to search for the outstanding in some areas and let others slide. And we do different things for different purposes. If I am watching a movie to be edified, I am going to look for something very different than if I am watching to relax and be entertained. And I think the argument about whether one purpose is inherently better than the other is difficult to sustain because the starting criteria is very different.

    Is Britney Spears a great musician? I'm not defending that one! But was she good at what she did? Well, her target market was not middle-aged adults, and music often serves a very different purpose to tween/teens. In part, it is about identifying with others your own age, representative of the times, and about all the silly and angsty things that go along with being that age. Context and purpose are sometimes integral parts of the equation.

    In my house, we often joke that the most useful thing my oldest learned in high school–for all of us–was a saying from Latin class: De gustibus non est disputandum. Loosely translated, it means matters of taste must not be disputed.

    (Can't tell you how many arguments with teens that one saved me! Clothes? Taste. Hair? Taste. Music? Taste. Breakfast food? Taste. And on and on…)

  40. Karen in Ohio

    @L. Charnes: No, of course not. I've traveled on four continents, and I've seen other country's drivel. (Most of it, frankly, comes from the US.) And of course we had lowbrow entertainment when we were younger; it's always been a staple of life. Think of Punch & Judy shows in medieval England; same thing.

    However, today we are totally inundated and bombarded with so-called entertainment from exhaustive numbers of sources. You can't walk into any building without hearing Muzak, and sometimes it's piped outside, as well. There are hundreds of TV channels, YouTubes, video games, and phone apps. They are ubiquitous these days, especially in the US. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and on and on and on–it's all just noise.

    And that's my point: that instead of sitting down and reading a classic, which is what I would have done as a kid–interspersed with other reading, of course–young people today have SO many choices that the course of least resistance is way, way too attractive, and all too many of them take it, rather than exercise their minds.

  41. Gar Haywood

    Rob, you are SO preaching to the choir here. I have blogged and ranted about this subject until I'm blue in the face, and for what? People like what they like, and they can't hear you when you try to tell them why what they like is CRAP.

    Where fiction is concerned, what I've figured out is that every reader has what I call a "sweet spot" — that single thing a book can do well that makes them happy — and if an author hits it, NOTHING ELSE MATTERS. Plot holes, ridiculous dialogue, characters as dumb as a stick — they'll look right past it if the book hits some other sweet spot, and they'll buy the book's author until the cows come home.

    My advice? Learn to live with it. And don't for a second consider putting less effort into making your own stuff rational, and logical, and smart, and…

  42. Mike Dennis

    My votes for Most Overrated:

    "Star Wars"
    "Star Trek"
    Chevy Chase
    Cher
    Bob Dylan (whose real voice is actually WORSE than Britney's)
    Will Farrell
    "There's Something About Mary"
    "Avatar"

  43. L. Charnes

    Karen in Ohio: Japanese and Korean kids are the most wired in the world. As many websites, videos and cell phones as you think our kids have, they have more, and more elaborate. They live in their phones. Their popular culture is bewilderingly schlocky — Hello, Kitty is just the start of a long, strange trip that celebrates the infantile and fiber-free. They don't import many TV shows from us, but they don't need to; they generate amazingly crappy (by the working definition here) shows all by themselves.

    And their kids still far outpace ours in academic achievement.

    No child really, truly voluntarily reaches for a classic book on his/her own power (except perhaps for the ones who are chronically beaten up in school). Never did. Never will. Blame the parents? Maybe; but more children have been turned away from classic literature by being forced to read it than have been made Mark Twain or RLS or Dickens fans through coercion.

    I didn't read Twain until I was in college (and wanted to see what all the fuss was about) or Treasure Island until I was 30. I wouldn't have appreciated them as a child; I doubt most children would, no matter how elevated their home life. I graduated from Encyclopedia Brown and Tintin directly to (in my teens) Alastair MacLean, Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur Conan Doyle — all of which was considered popular crap when it first came out (at least by the guardians of "proper" culture). It's a wonder I can read at all now! Yet I can — Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Chabon, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Cervantes, as well as the kinds of books written by the Murderati. Had someone handed me Melville or Conrad when I was 14, I might never have touched another book.

    On the other hand, I was forced to watch Wild Strawberries and The 400 Blows in high school, and it took me almost twenty years to bring myself to see another foreign-language film. I wonder: what would the outcome have been had we seen a French war movie or a popular ("crappy") German mystery instead?

    I learned about classical music not by being thrown headlong into Mahler or Stravinsky, but through Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. How did he do it? He played popular American songs ("lowest-common-denominator" stuff — I still remember his medley of 1950s TV Western themes) and slipped in something written by a dead white European man from time to time. "Serious" music aficianados considered Fiedler and the Pops to be schlock. But how many now-middle-aged people listen to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky because they first heard them in a summer concert with Arthur? And would they have paid attention had Arthur not also played "Pop Goes the Weasel"?

    Crap can be a gateway drug that leads to quality (whatever that is). Reading The Eagle Has Landed took me almost instantly to Pillars of the Earth. Kismet took me to Rimsky-Korsakov and the Russian romantic classical composers. Watching Castle (which is just as silly as Hawaii 5-0, but I get a kick out of it) can eventually lead someone to The Wire or Prime Suspect. Bollywood or the Stieg Larsson movies could trick someone into seeing The White Ribbon (God help them). I don't know how old you are, Karen, but I'll bet you listened to Ray Stevens or the Partridge Family and read Jonathan Livingston Seagull when you were young…and you turned out all right (I presume, since you're reading this blog). So will Britney's fans, and the kids watching YouTube.

  44. Allison Brennan

    I probably wasn't fair in reminding the Murderati gang that Rob doesn't like STAR WARS, since I love, love, love that movie 🙂

    And Rob, you make several good points, and there are a lot of crappy movies and books and the like out there. But everyone on this blog has gotten a 1 star review by someone who thinks we're mediocre, and none of us are.

    Yes, it's my birthday. I'm 41. My seven year old just told me I still look 40. :/ Thank you for the well-wishes. It's 6 pm here in California and I've been relegated to my office so the kids can decorate. It's not really a punishment . . . 🙂

    I am starting revisions tomorrow . . . I turned the book in last week, but the ending last night because I had a logic problem I had to fix . . . such is my life. But I'm excited about revisions because I can finally see the whole story, plus I have my editor's insight, and blissfully leave for Atlanta tomorrow so two cross-country plane rides to write! Yeah!

    Dudley, my speech is Saturday! I'm preparing tonight, after the kids go to bed. I have notes. That's probably the best I'll do 🙂 Thanks for asking!

  45. Karen in Ohio

    Maybe you didn't read classics voluntarily, but there are still kids who do. I did, and two of my daughters did. One of them read Les Miserables when she was in fourth grade; the younger one read The Odyssey when she was in the third grade, and not an abridged version, either (they were both reading when they were four and three, respectively). And actually, my family didn't have a TV, and we don't have cable, and never have, so there are a lot of cultural references I don't fully get. But that's okay with me.

    Australian TV, British TV, both have tons of American programming, as do many South American countries.

    My point was that there are SO many choices, and most of them banal to the point of near-idiocy. You can argue all you want with anecdotal evidence, but nothing changes that fact.

  46. Debbie

    Karen, Les Mis…no shit? Your kids are amazing. My oldest read at three but sort of fits into the get beat up category-no cable etc. here either so she's pretty out of touch with pop culture and her peer group. And Rob, Star Wars or not, we still love you!
    Having kids drove me to classical music…it was either that or the loony bin. Speaking of Looney, how much of our classical musical influences came from good ole Bugs Bunny?
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=55G7T8VdWEs&feature=related

  47. KarinNH

    One thing–both interesting and, I think, related–is that over the last century, IQ scores (for whatever those are worth and there certainly are significant and distressing issues with that type of testing) have risen dramatically. Between 1947 and 2001, the average IQ score has risen 17 points. (The test manufacturer re-norms the test periodically, so that the average result is always around 100.) This is called the Flynn Effect, named after the scientist who identified it.

    There are many theories as to why this might be–better nutrition, better schooling, more familiarity with standardized testing, etc.–but as these things have been studied, one thing that often comes to the forefront is that an enriched environment, particularly in visual formats– television, computers, video games, etc.–might be responsible for this increase. For example, the younger generation didn't just listen to their music; they listened and watched–much more sensory input. And some studies have shown that the section of the brain that processes visual stimuli has grown in size, hence things like the Wired Magazine article that says those video games just might be making kids smarter.

    Andrea Lunsford has done some interesting research looking at students' writing. Astonishingly enough, she found that students today write about three times as much as students in the mid-80s, and they write with very different results and purposes, moving between different formats with relative ease with much more awareness of audience.

    (I always tell my students that when they go home on break and older family members start with the "kids these days" routine, they can tell them that their generation is smarter and the research shows it.)

    So how does this all fit together? The general conclusion among many researchers is that today's mediocre, banal pop culture stuff is worlds more sophisticated and demanding of consumers than yesterday's. Although I quibble (sometimes vehemently) with some of Steven Johnson's points in his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, I do think the points he makes about the value of pop culture are worth thinking about.

    And now I am going to take my long-winded self off to finish that stack of papers. Interesting, thought-provoking discussion today, Rob.

  48. Karen in Ohio

    Debbie, no shit. They also chose to play classical piano, most of the time.

    We have a friend who played in a famous symphony for 30 years, and is a composer. He often talks about how we as children were exposed to classical music in our cartoons. They were silly, but there are so many familiar melodies I can remember from the 50's and 60's. Today's kids don't get that at all. Maybe a Fur Elise ringtone, if anything.

  49. Debbie

    Karen, I just spent an hour editing and told myself, 'Go to bed. Don't post another comment no matter what you read. Nobody wants to see your name here again today.' And then you mentioned your kids and classical music. My daughter has had a fav. piece by Bach since she was just over a year old. Her tastes have expanded with exposure but the first time my friend took her out she asked me what ring tone to put on her phone while hanging out with my girl. My daughter chose Bach's Minuet in G. Btw, this friend normally has her ring tone set to a Chipmonk's version of a Jackson tune. Your serve Rob!

  50. Robert Gregory Browne

    Allison, I have no problem admitting my lack of enthusiasm for STAR WARS. My initial response to it was disappointment, but I was also in my early twenties when I saw it, and I'd imagine you were pretty young. So your reaction to it would be much different than mine.

    Over the years, STAR WARS has grown in my heart, but probably only because there was so much imitative dreck that followed, it looks like a masterpiece in comparison. And Lucas succeeded in creating compelling characters, even if he did rip a lot of it off from the Japanese (The Hidden Fortress).

    I've always been of the opinion, also, that George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg together destroyed the movies. While I loved JAWS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, I think these two men ushered in the area of the blockbuster, the big tent plot driven movies that wiped away most of the great character movies that Hollywood did so well in the early seventies.

    Suddenly everything was about weekend grosses and corporate bottom lines than filmmakers making great movies with human stories. This is one of those times that I DO look to the past and say it was so much better then. As much as I might love something like IRON MAN, I can't help but yearn for TAXI DRIVER and FIVE EASY PIECES and ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE and CHINATOWN and SORCERER.

    Most, if not all, of those movies would not get made today by the big studios — unless, of course, they were retooled to amp up the scares and had big overblown finales.

    I honestly think STAR WARS is to blame for that. A slightly above-average comic book movie with no real substance that made a fortune. The movie industry has never been the same since.

    All that said, things change and not always for the better. It's just the way of the world. And I'm not really one to talk, because the types of books I write are very much POPULAR fiction. Which I love to write.

    Anyway, HAPPY BIRTHDAY kiddo. And I love you, too! 😉

  51. Robert Gregory Browne

    By the way, five minutes before I wrote this post, I had no idea what I was going to write about. I had just come away from watching the aforementioned episode of HAWAII FIVE-BLOWS and just felt the urge to rant.

    I certainly didn't expect this type of response….

    Thanks to all of you for chiming in!

  52. KDJames

    It's late. I'm tired. And feeling surly for reasons that have nothing to do with this blog. Tact is a distant memory at this point.

    But I have to say, if I hear one more person make a reference to "kids these days" and how awful and shallow and under-educated they are, incapable of appreciating anything other than drivel–

    Bullshit.

    I strongly suspect those of you making these generalizations don't actually know any young people. You certainly don't know my kids — who are amazing people in spite of my mediocre influence — or their many talented and diverse friends. Cease and desist before someone comes over here and rips your effing heads off.

    I'm going to stop now because I feel an unwise rant foaming up into my brain. It's a short slippery path from there to my fingers.

    Rob, there has always been mediocrity in entertainment. Always. We just have better and more frequent access to it now. Although it got much worse, IMO, after Hollywood learned how to blow stuff up on screen and substituted that for dialog. But you know, sometimes I need to inhale a good hit of mediocrity so I can better appreciate the good stuff.

    Bedtime.

    Apologies to any who I have offended.

    Hell. Okay, not really. You all earned it.

  53. Allison Brennan

    KD, I agree with you–my 14 year old is an amazing writer and artist and very discerning (and HUGELY critical) of books. She reads extensively. She's blogged for me before, and I have to edit anything overtly negative about a specific book because we don't criticize other writers on my blog. But her reasons are well thought out and shows that she's a smart cookie 🙂

    I have five kids, some more into popular culture than others, but all pretty smart!

  54. kit

    ok…I have to post this somwhere….I rarely watch tv….bu the other night I was and caught a commercial for a brand new show…GARBAGE…..I mean come on, I din't know whether to laugh or cry in dispair.kit

  55. Kagey

    Okay, I'm really late posting to the party but here goes:
    the totally entertaining can be thought provoking as well. I thought Buffy the Vampire Slayer did this on several levels.
    Yes, kids get stimulation and probably do write more than when I was a kid in the 1980s, but are they able to discuss anything in depth? I teach Comp I at a local community college, and my students can't hold a discussion without me stopping to point out all the gaps they are leaving in their logic.
    Micro-marketing, to avoid the bland must-well-to-everyone thing, via the Internet is supposed to get us away from all the mediocrity, right? When is that supposed to start working? Or is it already with all the cable networks getting into original shows?
    And finally – pop music always seems schlocky to me in hindsight, but that first love song, that said exactly what I felt when I hit my first crush!?! That will always be a great song!

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