For thousands of years, we have had the belief that god, whatever god it happens to be, rewards the just and punishes the wicked. If something bad happens to you, you must have displeased god and are being punished. If something good happens to you, you are being rewarded, which shows that god favors you. Even more, if you are rich, through whatever means, god really, really likes you, so you must be one righteous dude and, therefore, you are justified in whatever behaviors you've been doing to get ahead even if they're wrong. God wouldn't be rewarding you unless you were doing what he wanted you to do, right?
There's something primal in that belief, no matter how ill-founded. It goes right along with that whole "beautiful angel"/"ugly demon" thing. We tend to forget that Lucifer, the head (and arguably worst) demon is also described as the most beautiful being in creation. [And we forget that whenever anyone in the Bible ever saw an Angel, the first response was always the wetting of the pants. Or loincloth. Or whatever. That was followed by the Angel saying, "Do not be afraid."] So it's very attractive to believe that rich people are somehow better than everyone else. If, that is, you are rich. European culture survived off of that belief for centuries. And, if you're not rich, you want to be rich so that you can finally be proven correct in your internal belief that you are, in fact, just as better than everyone else as the people that are already rich.
The prosperity doctrine started getting popular in the United States in the '50s, but it really took off with the charismatic movement and televangelists in the 1980s. The basic idea is that God wants you to have health, wealth, and happiness. The only problem is that, well, you have to pay for it. Now, there's all kinds of theological background and stuff I could go into here, but that would be a whole series of posts all by itself. So let's just put it like this: Just like with the whole Pentecostal thing of having to speak in tongues to get to go to heaven, the prosperity doctrine cherry picks just a few passages upon which to base the entire philosophy. [The central passage that's used is an Old Testament passage that they pull completely out of context.] What it boils down to is that people who are wealthy are "good" and everyone else is not. Which, of course, pushes the "nots" to try harder and give more, making the wealthy richer and "gooder" and everyone else "notter."
I'm pretty sure most of you out there would not say that having lots of money (success) makes a person somehow better than those that don't have lots of money, but that's not how we act. And, more importantly, that's not how they act. Rich people tend to act as if they are inherently better than other people. More valuable. More deserving. The money they have doesn't make them better; they have money because they are better. The cream, as they say, has risen to the top.
And we believe that in publishing, too, even when it's glaringly obvious that the cream does indeed not rise to the top. Unless we are now claiming that Twilight and its ugly step-sister Fifty Shades of Grey are the cream. If that's the case, well... actually, I'm not sure. If that's the cream, then there's no real hope for humanity.
The truth is, in most cases, the best books go completely unnoticed. There can be many reasons for this, none of which are important (and would take too long to list); the main thing is realizing that the statement, "the cream will always rise to the top" is a falsehood. Or, maybe, it's not, but, then, books aren't cream. The point is that the "best" things most often do not enjoy the most success.
Most of the people in the world that are the most "successful" are not people we would say are the best people. Sure, there are a few good ones, but most of them got there by taking advantage of other people or stepping on other people or cheating or lying or maybe even just dumb luck. And, no matter what people say, cheaters do not always lose. The most successful hamburger in the world is not one that I think anyone other than, maybe, Briane Pagel would say is the best. And it got there by just being the same anywhere you buy it. Which is no small feat, but it's hard to not find a "better" burger (although some might argue that its sameness does make it the best). And the best books... Well, the best books get run over by the ones that appeal to the masses. Like those hamburgers. They succeed not by being good but by being the same. Simple language. Simple, straight forward story. Plain.
Which is not to say that exceptions don't come along. Things like Harry Potter and Middle Earth succeed despite their "goodness" by being something new and different. Novel. (heh pun intended) But Rowling has proved to us that "good" does not equal success with her experiment in publishing under a pseudonym. The cream does not always rise to the top.
All of that to say that a lack of sales does not mean that your book is not good. And massive sales does not mean that it is. Books sell well for one of two reasons: 1. The author has put a lot of work into writing books and become known through being a steady and dependable writer. 2. Luck. The book just happened to be at the right place at the right time. So to speak.
But, still, we like to worship success here in the United States, so I'm sure we will continue to use such statements as "the cream will always rise to the top" and, even worse, continue to believe those statements.
What I want to say about it is that you shouldn't rate your "creaminess" on whether you're on top or not.
Today's post has been brought to you in part by Alex Cavanaugh and the IWSG. The rest was all me.