It’s a Small World After All


TIME – Spectator Column – May 17, 1993

It’s a Small World After All

WALT DISNEY, ACCORDING TO A FORTHCOMING BIOGRAphy, was a secret FBI informer, ; and even slipped the bureau screenplays to vet for un-Americanisms. One of the scripts J. Edgar Hoover found objectionable was the 1965 Dean Jones comedy That Darn Cat. What a difference a few decades make. No sooner are we urged to accept retroactively the implausible vision of Hoover in bra and panties than the Walt Disney Co. buys Miramax, the little art-movie studio responsible for today’s most un-American films, including Bob Roberts and, of course, The Crying Game.

Disney is no longer run by an anti-Semitic right-wing snitch (indeed, it is run, like almost every important Hollywood entity, by thoughtful Jewish liberals), but its revenues still derive from a shiny, profoundly Middle American sort of mass appeal; Beauty and the Beast and Disney World require that tens of millions of people buy the product. The assimilation by Disney of Miramax is interesting not just because it turns Jiminy Cricket and a black transvestite into corporate siblings, but also because their movies’ potential audiences are so vastly different in scale. The Crying Game barely qualifies as mass-market — about 10 million Americans have seen the film — even though it is the most successful art movie of all time.

Apart from flukes, how big is the American audience for high-end cultural artifacts, for unsettling movies and respectable fiction, for poetry, for painting — hell, for Karen Finley? Has it, as Philip Roth whined to a New York Times interviewer, shriveled past the point of redemption? “There’s been a drastic decline, even a disappearance, of a serious readership,” said Roth, whose new novel, Operation Shylock, is selling poorly. “We are down to a gulag archipelago of readers.”

Let’s count them. The broadest enumeration is the easiest and most definitive. What single cultural act unequivocally defined an American as a member of the upper middle class? Watching The Civil War on PBS. So we start with that big tent and those 14 million people. Some read TIME, some Vanity Fair; some idolize Calvin Trillin, some Bill Buckley; all 14 million consider themselves pretty darned intelligent.

Distilling that group to its culturally ambitious core requires that we drop down a whole order of magnitude; that is, only a tenth as many people go to a boffo art film as watch a big TV show. The dependable subtitled-movie audience is around 2 million or 3 million, of whom maybe half go to any one ordinary hit.

The market for the next most popular unpopular art form, literary fiction, & is smaller once again by an order of magnitude. Around 2.5 million Americans saw Cinema Paradiso in movie theaters; 250,000 Americans bought Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera in hardcover. Every thoughtful reader in America did not, despite Knopf’s best efforts, buy the Garcia Marquez novel, meaning that the potential audience for any given book is larger. “It might even be a million,” says Knopf’s Ann Close, who edits Alice Munro and Norman Rush, among others. On the other hand, all the actual buyers of any typical serious novel would fit in Fenway Park, or even a Vegas showroom.

Readers of poetry? Drop down another order of magnitude. The total American readership for verse, a mainstream publisher of poetry says, is 100,000, give or take. Less than half that many people attend performances by artists of the smear-themselves-with-mustard-and- recite-imitation-Kerouac-over-a-sound- track-of-drill-presses variety.

Where significant connoisseurship is also a function of significant money — what might be called the socialite arts — American micro-audiences become exquisitely tiny. No more than a few hundred people have the desire and wherewithal to buy important contemporary paintings. The most rarefied realm of the cultural elite, however, is occupied by people seriously (pathologically?) committed to couture fashion. How many Americans regularly buy couture originals at $15,000 a pop? “I can guess,” says Richard Martin, the curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and then he does, astoundingly: “Fifty.”

It seems right that there were more Branch Davidians than there are haute- fashionable women in America. Nor should we worry too much that only a dozen or so U.S. poets earn as much as $2,000 a year from selling their poems. After all, Dr. Johnson’s Rambler, in which he published some of his most enduring work, had a circulation of less than 500 in the 1750s. And the Age of Enlightenment proceeded despite the low sales.