Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

At least since the New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, became a bestseller ten years ago, publishers have churned out popular social science books, several but not all of them by New Yorker staffers (including a couple more from Gladwell), with short, catchy titles and long, friendly subtitles, and if one or other of them appears paradoxical, so much the better. Here is a very small sample: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything; Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions; Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking; The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations; Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us; Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness; Flip: How to Succeed by Turning Everything You Know on Its Head; Short Cuts: Why the Shortest Distance between Two Points Isn’t Always a Straight Line. All right, I made the last one up. But you get the idea. The comedians behind malcolmgladwellbookgenerator.com have come up with such titles as Nothing: What Sandcastles Can Teach Us about North Korean Economic Policy and Blank: 300 Empty Pages to Fill with Your Own Fucking Theories.

James Harkin’s Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream (Little, Brown, £13.99) puts forward the hypothesis that between the 1930s and the end of the 20th century in ‘retail, media and politics’ in North America and Western Europe there was something called the ‘mainstream’, which is now in terminal decline, ceding ground to a much wider range of narrower, more intense, ‘niche’ interests. It sounds like a plausible hunch, though Harkin has only anecdotal evidence to back it up, and never says quite what he means by ‘mainstream’. It isn’t the same as ‘popular’: ‘lowest common denominator’ stuff like Britain’s Got Talent or American Idol isn’t mainstream, apparently. Mainstream implies middlebrow – Harkin uses the terms more or less interchangeably – and is exemplified by Gone with the Wind (the book and the movie), Woolworths, Gap, General Motors, Reader’s Digest, Penguin paperbacks, Maxwell House coffee and two-party politics. You might think that even on Harkin’s terms, there seems to be plenty of mainstream/middlebrow/middle-of-the-road culture still around, and doing dismayingly well: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, for example, or Facebook, or The King’s Speech, or Coldplay. They could be the exceptions that prove the rule: without any hard data, and Harkin doesn’t provide any, it’s impossible to say for sure.

So much for the mainstream. What about the niche? In ecological terms, a niche is a position in an ecosystem occupied by a kind of organism: ecological niches aren’t necessarily small. In the ecological sense, everything has a niche: even the mainstream. The niches once occupied by General Motors and Maxwell House were colonised by Toyota and Starbucks. Harkin doesn’t explain why this should count as a qualitative change: he just asserts that it is. You begin to get a sneaking suspicion that ‘mainstream’ means anything and everything that dominated the market in the second half of the 20th century, but doesn’t any more, while ‘niche’ means anything and everything that’s taken its place. So Newsweek is mainstream because its sales over the last decade have dropped from 3.14 million to 1.97 million, and the Economist is niche because its circulation over the same period rose from just over 700,000 to 1.4 million. Perhaps someone should write a book called Begging the Question: What Happens When You Don’t Define Your Terms.

One of Harkin’s problems is that to pit ‘niche’ against ‘mainstream’ is immediately to get caught up in a mixed metaphor, and the more he struggles to clear the undergrowth, the more entangled he becomes. Writing about his local Tesco he urges his readers to ‘think of it as an ecosystem: it works by creating an environment in which shoppers are free to range around and find anything that they want at the price that they want it.’ That doesn’t sound much like an ecosystem to me (and can ecosystems be said to create environments?), though it does sound a bit like a supermarket. ‘Survival in this new terrain,’ Harkin says, ‘is not of the fittest but of those with the best fit with their environment,’ as if that wasn’t what Darwin meant all along. And you can’t turn a page of Niche without encountering a stampede of ‘big beasts’, Harkin’s droll handle for the floundering purveyors of mainstream commerce and culture (yet another pair of alliterative words that he seems to think mean more or less the same thing). Never mind that most of his examples of successful ‘niche’ products are sold in large quantities by huge multinational corporations: the cable channel HBO, for example, is owned by Time Warner, which would therefore seem to have the whole niche business rather nicely sewn up.

When Harkin forgets about the nicheless big beasts roaming the ecosystem in search of a mainstream, he makes some nice observations. On the rise of internet advertising: ‘We already think nothing of trading our attention in return for cheap access to newspapers and television programmes. As that attention becomes more difficult to trap, it is likely that we will end up trading our data instead.’ And on the success of such TV shows as The Sopranos and The Wire: ‘HBO did not seem to care where its audience came from or what it looked like … Rather than seeking to differentiate its audience it made its product different, and an avidly enthusiastic audience gathered around it.’ Production companies, record labels and publishers chasing the next incarnation of the last big thing, take note.

Finally, Harkin’s book itself presents a conundrum: where is the niche that Niche hopes to occupy? Who are the select members of the avidly enthusiastic audience that will gather around it? Its assertion that the days of ‘one size fits all’ are over is at odds with its own one-size-fits-all approach. It assumes no specialist knowledge, expertise or interest in its readers, and makes no particular intellectual demands. It’s a resolutely middlebrow book, squarely aimed at the most general of general readers. Harkin and his publishers appear not to have enough faith in his hypothesis to test it themselves, but instead have hopefully flung their half-baked product out into the mainstream – where, if he’s even half right, it should sink without trace.