The Van Gogh Effect

I was cleaning the shower screen the other day, and got to thinking about Vincent Van Gogh, and in particular the lack of critical and financial success he enjoyed in his lifetime. And yes, I am aware of how much of a tool that makes me sound. (“But, Henry, doesn’t everybody contemplate the life and times of post-Impressionist Dutch painters while doing the housework?” “Well, quite, Cyril, but what’s got me stumped is why the Dickens you were doing the housework in the first place, when you should have got one of the little people to do it?”)

A bit of back story might help here. The week before, I’d been conned into purchasing a bottle of quite expensive, high performance, racing-car-quality waterless car cleaner. I say “conned”, because I was leaving the local shopping centre when a friendly young man wielding a clipboard and a microfibre cloth leapt across my path from beneath a foldaway gazebo and proceeded to accompany me back to my car to give me a demonstration of this fabulous product which all the Formula 1 pit crews are using, wouldn’t you know. In a previous life, I would have smiled vaguely at the air just above his head and announced that I wasn’t interested, before dropping to all fours and zigzagging wildly between parked and moving vehicles in order to lose him. But, heavily pregnant and pushing a toddler in a stroller, I have become an easy target for the hard seller. And perhaps our young friend could read it across my face, but the truth is I now find it easier and less exhausting to throw money at the problem and hope it goes away, so I bought a bottle just to get rid of him. It cost me $40, and as I was beating a dismal retreat he threw in a free pack of microfibre cloths. I think he felt sorry for me.

One part of the salesman’s spiel I did recall was him saying that this product made an excellent shower screen cleaner. And so the next time I cleaned the bathroom at home, I put it to the test (because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to be cleaning the car any time soon, was I?) Well, the stuff works. Really really well. For the first time in years, our shower screen is not covered in those little grey water dots and we no longer have the hazy scum at the bottom of the glass where all the water dots get together and have a party. And that got me wondering why this product – clearly a good thing – wasn’t being stocked in all motoring shops. Not to mention the bathroom cleaning product section of supermarkets. Why did it take a bunch of Uni students working on a commission-only basis to push this stuff onto stressed-out housewives, when it is actually very good? Why are some products destined to spend their lives being flogged to death on the shopping channels and in those catalogues that feature tartan, velcro-fastening slippers, while others have people queuing for days outside an Apple store to buy one? Because, in all seriousness, if you were stuck on a desert island, would you rather have a pair of fully lined, rubber-soled slippers that hark back to the clan days of Scotland, or a smartphone with 4G capability and an in-built GPS? Okay, maybe that’s not the best example.

And that is how I got to our mate Vincent. You see, Van Gogh (as you are probably already aware) was not highly successful in his lifetime. In fact, he spent most of his life living in poverty, and then went mad, sliced his ear off, and quite possibly shot himself. These days, of course, his works sell for hundreds of millions of dollars and he is recognised as a bit of a genius. But back in 1885, he’d be the guy following you to your car with a clipboard and an over-earnest smile, spewing his memorised patter and blinking into the exhaust fumes as you hit the accelerator and sped away.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890, most recently sold for US$82.5 million in 1990.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Vincent Van Gogh, June 1890, most recently sold for US$82.5 million in 1990.

Much the same can be said for a lot of writers. There are (often very prolific) writers who produce works which are – let’s face it – rubbish, and yet enjoy global book sales in the millions and seven figure film rights sales. I’m sure we’ve all read a crap book that was a mega-super-bestseller. There are plenty about. Some even weren’t written by E. L. James. And then there are those writers who spend their lives perfecting their craft, creating perfectly decent novels, but who – even if they do get published – enjoy only mediocre success before sinking without a trace. Why are some very average writers so successful, when others – who write just as good, if not better books – can’t seem to get a look-in? Why do we keep buying and reading books that are the literary equivalent of a painting of kittens in a basket?

Artwork of unknown origin

Artwork of unknown origin.

I think I have the answer, and it is this. The problem, in my mind, is that most people have no taste in books. Now, please hear me out. I don’t mean that most people have poor taste, and that they willingly choose to read bad books (Twilight fans might be the exception to the rule here). I mean that most readers – those who read maybe a handful of books a year, either received as gifts or purchased in a mad dash through the airport duty free shop – don’t actually have a taste in literature. They don’t know what distinguishes a good book from an average one, a beautifully constructed sentence or a piercing characterisation over a hackneyed phrase or a stereotype. They just know that such-and-such a book has been read by lots of other people, so it must be good. And hey, the cover’s got big shiny embossed print all over it, so that’s a good sign, too, right? Right?

So, how do we redress the balance and start reading better books? Well, expanding the range of books that we select to read in the first place is a place to start. Most of us stick to one or two genres of fiction, rarely if ever stepping out of our literary comfort zones. You don’t have to pick something wildly different. If you usually read thrillers, why not pick up a horror novel instead, or if you lean towards romance fiction, try a Young Adult novel. And once you have found a cracking read, use word of mouth – or word of mouse – to pass on the message. If you bought a book from an online retailer, why not spend thirty seconds submitting a short review? Or tweet about it with the hashtag #amreading. There are lots of undervalued authors out there whose books deserve to be read.

This is another reason I’m so glad I signed on to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’m not aware of the exact number of books by Australian female authors I have read in my lifetime, but I bet it’s not nearly enough, and I look forward to reading at least the half dozen I have pledged to over the coming year. And for “Australian female authors” I could quite easily substitute “Romanian deaf-mute authors” or “Cuban closet transvestite authors”. The point is not that I want to read more books by secret fetishists or the aurally impaired, specifically, but that I – and most readers out there – should read books by a greater variety of authors. Even (especially) authors we might not have heard of before. Because, let’s face it, once you’ve read one Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins novel, you’ve pretty much covered the bases of all of them.

Although he produced well over 2,000 artworks in his lifetime, Van Gogh is rumoured to have only ever sold one painting, a fact which I’m sure didn’t help with his manic depression. I don’t know how many bottles of waterless car cleaner my friend with the clipboard managed to offload during his stint in my local shopping centre car park, but I hope it was enough for him to achieve his commission. And as for me, well, I am still far too busy to get around to washing the car, but on the plus side my bathroom now smells like a Ferrari’s glovebox, so that’s something.

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