There is a very strange thing that happens whenever a popular idea runs wild through the publishing industry. And for all it’s slowness of pace, the publishing industry does experience these heady rushes and crazes from time-to-time. By this, I don’t mean a hyped up genre, author or title. Instead I’m thinking of the sort of book-as-something-more-than-a-book craze. Think back on the rush of magic eye books in the late nineties, or sudoku books, or the current mass of colouring books for adults… a novel and (usually) interactive idea comes along, there is a rush and fury of enthusiasm, and in time, eventually the novelty fades and the idea drifts away. Though in the meantime some odd reactions seep out of the woodwork.
I think the thing that bears discussion here is not the craze itself, rather it is the reaction these crazes seem to garner from the literary consumer bloc. A strange, predictable sort of anger wells up and is vented through diatribes and rolled eyes and sardonic asides. Colouring books for adults? Humbug. Why not fingerpainting for adults? Bah!
I’ve never been entirely sure what prompts this reaction, though I suppose I’ve a few notions, and I think I can take a stab at teasing it apart.
To start, there does seem to be some beholden kowtowing here to the idea that art should be worthy. I am suspect of people who think art should be worthy. Too often ‘worthy’ is really ‘what I think is subjectively pleasing to my morals’, and sweeping purges of unworthy art can result. This plays into the idea that art is, at its heart, an improving pastime, in the sense of something that improves the human condition. Now, many things can be improving and mind-expanding, but this does not mean these things are useful only in their improving incarnation. Philosophy can be improving, though this does not diminish the importance of the philosophy of logic, for example, which I am not sure adds much to the flourishing life for anyone other than logicians. An understanding of science can be improving: books like The Brain that Changes Itself or The Naked Ape being examples where science sets out to improve the self and expand the mind quite overtly. And of course, art, can be improving too. But it can also be distracting, entertaining and, horror or horrors, it can even be fun.
The idea that art of a merely fun sort somehow takes away from art that is worthy of critical and more refined acclaim seems to be a bugbear for some people. There seems to even be a strange, confused idea prevalent that if money were not being spent on low art, it could be spent on high art instead. This confuses the fact that most publishers use the money from popularist titles to help fund riskier, and what we might call ‘worthier’ titles… but it also confuses the nature and flow of money too. The argument somehow assumes that if money were not spent on trivial or popularist things it would flow to profound things, rather than to say, other trivial and popularist things of a different bent. It is similar to the very strange idea that circulates in art circles that if we spent less money on galleries and operas, more money would flow to fringe shows. No. It doesn’t work that way. The money would flow out of the arts entirely, or at best, it would flow to other equally popular art ventures. It’s not that the big gallery is stealing all your fringe funding… it’s that only a small percentage of people want to see your show. Hence, the low priority for funding.
I am at risk of side-tracking myself. I should come back onto topic here. To that end, I am writing a hurray for the adult colouring book. You see, although I admit with embarrassment I haven’t made use of them myself, I work in a university and I’ve seen students using adult colouring books to destress during the lead-up to exams. These meditative art books do seem to do some good for people. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. Adult colouring books come out of a tradition of art therapy books more extant in France than in the Anglosphere, and to that end, the current craze does have some real therapy practises behind it (although solid research on beneficial effects seems to be as yet lacking). But, more important than that, if past trends and crazes are anything to go by, some people will no doubt find a lifelong joy here.
As a result the sweep and cycle of publishing crazes there are always a few people at least who do find a thing they deeply love. There are people who will still be doing sudokus when they are in their twilight years. And I have no doubt that some people will continue using colouring books for adults well past the initial flourish of enthusiasm because they find it meditative and stress-reliving in a way that nothing else quite matches. Attacking low art because it is not sufficiently sophisticated, or because it is not the right sort of ‘moral’ art, ignores the fact that low art helps many people lead a more flourishing life. Ironically, one might even categorise that as a form of art that improves the human condition. One might even categorise it as worthy.