There’s a lot of money in the chit-chat

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is being read because it is being read; and indeed this makes sense.

I’ve seen them on the underground and on the beach, in airport lounges and corporate reception areas. People holding yellow-covered copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix are everywhere. Now not even J. K. Rowling’s greatest admirers would seriously argue that this is the best, or the most original, or the most instructive, or the most entertaining book that will be published this year. Everyone is reading it because everyone is reading it. The Harry Potter novels are not just books, they are subjects of public conversation among complete strangers. Public conversation has always existed. Its exploitation for private profit is relatively new.

We are social animals and we need topics of conversation. These topics are most encompassing when they are rooted in common experience. That is why the weather is the universal currency of small talk. Momentous events are similar. After the weather the most common conversation starter is “Have you heard the news?”.

It is thousands of years since politicians first used their influence on public conversation for social control. Roman emperors offered bread and circuses. Mass entertainment was as important as economic benefits. If people were talking about the exploits of heroic gladiators, they would have less time to air their political grievances. The East German communist regime promoted sporting excellence for similar reasons.

It is better to determine the vocabulary of common debate than to neutralise it. You can draw attention to the real or imaginary deeds of real or imaginary enemies – the dangers of communist infiltration, the threat from asylum seekers, the regulatory burdens imposed by the European Union. George Orwell wrote an appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four to explain how politicians would divert public conversation to their own ends.

The discovery that you could exploit shared experiences for private profit is more recent. Sporting events were once held for the amusement of participants and the entertainment of spectators. But today they are big business. And the business objective is not to identify the fastest runner or reward the most accomplished football team. It is to attract public attention for the benefit of advertisers and sponsors.

The millennium bug was a different commercial approach. Campaigns turned the supposed dangers of Y2K failures into a subject of general conversation. Politicians were recruited to the cause. Billions of dollars were spent. The internet was similarly hyped.

The commercialisation of literature is older. Charles Dickens stimulated popular discussion of his works by serialising them. He could even direct the content of High Table conversation, as I learned when I discovered a betting book in which dons took wagers on the evolution of the story of Our Mutual Friend. Today we have soap operas. The inventions of scriptwriters are now reported in the same newspapers as the activities of real people.

The commercial discovery of true genius is that public conversation need only concern shared events, not necessarily momentous ones. Most people quickly run out of things to say about the euro. They gossip, not about great affairs of state, but about holidays, shopping and sex. Reports on royalty once described their regal duties, but now their private lives. And interest in celebrities focuses not on the activities for which they are famous but on their relationships and their possessions.

The culmination of this logic is reality television. The performers have no special talents, occupy no positions of importance and behave no differently from anyone else. The only distinguishing feature of their lives is that they are lived publicly. Reality TV’s promoters have created a class of people famous only for being famous.

That is the context for Harry Potter. Rowling’s first novels succeeded because they provided well written and well plotted children’s novels, based around memorable characters. But, as pre-publication sales demonstrate, popularity is now unrelated to content. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is being read because it is being read.

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