|In 1986, I sold a million hardcover copies of a novel called It, and found myself on the cover of Time, the J.K. Rowling of my day. For roughly 10 years thereafter, my sales remained at that giddy height. Then the numbers started to decline. My publishers estimate we may sell 600,000 copies of Wolves of the Calla. That ain’t chopped liver, especially for a lavishly illustrated $35 book, but it’s still a 40 percent drop from It.I’m not alone, either. Tom Clancy’s sales are down. So are John Grisham’s and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Michael Crichton’s. And books aren’t the only entertainment stock showing a decline; the drop in pop sales and the resulting angst of the music biz has been well reported (often in this very magazine). So what the hell’s going on around here?
I think I know, because in many ways I’m typical of my generation, the so-called baby boomers. I’ve had a love affair with books my whole life, but never bought a hardcover until I was 20 (the first was a Christmas gift for my mom). Like many in my generation, thrift in such discretionary purchases as books, music, and movie tickets was drummed into me by a parent who’d been through the Great Depression and saw such thrift not as an option but as a necessity. And like many in my generation, after college I put away my sweet hippie dreams, landed a job—mine more lucrative than most, I’ll grant you—and discovered I no longer had to wait for the paperback. Many other boomers were discovering the same thing. The resulting surge in hardcover sales made deep discounting possible, and that, in turn, made buying hardcovers even easier.
So what happened in the ‘90s? I think we’re seeing an entire generation—my generation, the baby-boom generation—turning off the lights upstairs and putting a sign on the door: sorry, but i’m taking a nap. mind closed until further notice. Pretty much the same deal is going on with music sales. Piracy and illegal downloads, although covered to a fare-thee-well in the press, account for only a fraction of the drop in $$. I think what’s happening is all too clear: We baby boomers are just too pooped to party. Oh, we do buy some records—you may have heard that we love the Beatles, Rod Stewart, and those funksters the Rolling Stones. Just don’t try to get us to listen to anyone who isn’t registered with AARP! Bob Seger was probably correct when he told us rock & roll never forgets, but it sure gets tired.
Movie-ticket sales have remained strong, but only because the studios are selling a product aimed almost solely at Gen-X and Gen-Y. Most R-rated movies go in the tank. PG-13 rules. A film like The Fast and the Furious strikes box office gold, while Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River muddles along at the box office. I’d argue that 20 years ago, Mystic River would have done Chinatown box office numbers. Now the baby boomers look at the previews on TV and think, Nah, that looks too serious. Too hard. Guess I’ll stay home and watch Jeopardy! And the Jeopardy! answer is “Just about the saddest thing Steve King can think of.” The question is “What do you call a whole generation going to sleep?”
At a time when we should be approaching our mental peak, the baby boomers are settling for laugh tracks instead of literature, and supermarket muzak instead of something by the Strokes or the Hives. The boomers no longer need a babysitter if they want to go out stepping, but they still don’t go out. It’s so much easier to sit home in front of the TV with the remote in one hand and a can of Bud in the other. We baby boomers may be the richest and most powerful generation in American history, but we are, by and large, too lazy to use our clout. Our waistlines get bigger, our capacity for mental adventurousness gets smaller, and our idea of high tragedy is Jerry Garcia dying of a heart attack while in rehab.
I can reach millions of people with this column, but I can’t convince them that this is a very bad time to go to sleep. Outside, the world is changing rapidly. Inside, too many of us are sitting at home on our ever-expanding asses, watching Gilligan on TV Land. At the time we baby boomers were buying our first hardcover books, we were apt to question authority (and very likely flout it). Now, however…maybe Bob Dylan said it best (he often does): “I used to care, but things have changed.”
If you’ve read this far, you’ve reached the end of the column, and the end of this week’s EW. Why not put it aside, therefore, and visit the nearest bookstore? Buy a novel with interesting stuff on the dust jacket. Then hit the record store across the street—I recommend Kid Rock or Drive-By Truckers, maybe Marty Stuart’s really excellent CD “The Pilgrim.” The brain is the most obedient organ in the body; if you tell it to shut up awready and stop bothering you, it will. I hope you don’t do it. Fifty-five, even 60 isn’t too old to rock & roll; you’re still young enough to boogie. Just don’t go to sleep, okay? Please don’t go to sleep.