Bull walks, but it also sells, a Princeton University professor has learned.
Philosophy professor emeritus Harry G. Frankfurt’s short book on the use of bombast, poppycock, hooey and balderdash in American culture has spent several weeks on national best seller lists, despite (or maybe because of) the use of a profanity in its title: “On Bull----.”
Impolite as it is, though, the title has been both a marketing hurdle, and a stroke of sales genius.
The book — an academic and contemplative look at what constitutes bull and how we react to it — hit No. 1 on The New York Times best seller list for nonfiction hardcovers on June 5 and remained last week in the top five. Its success has surprised both Frankfurt, 76, and the book’s publisher, Princeton University Press.
The initial print run was 5,000 copies, but interest swelled after the irreverent Comedy Central talk show host Jon Stewart had Frankfurt as a guest. There are now 300,000 copies in print.
Frankfurt acknowledges that his choice of title undoubtedly fueled sales.
“It is transgressive,” he said. But it has also hit a nerve, he added. “I think people are starved for the truth in this country. They are just tired of being fed a lot of” nonsense.
'Dismayed by deformities of truth'The book, Frankfurt noted, is not intended to be a reaction to current events or a comment on the country’s leadership. Most of the essay actually dates to 1986, when Frankfurt, then teaching at Yale University, drafted it for a group of colleagues. He doesn’t remember exactly what inspired him.
“I’ve always been interested in truth and been dismayed by deformities of truth and neglect of the truth,” he said. “I realized that I had become accustomed to dismissing things as bull----, without really understanding what bull---- was.”
What it is, he decided, is a process of purposely ignoring or skirting truth to further self-interest. It doesn’t have to be a lie, he said — a bad excuse will do, or an evasive answer to a question. Politicians, for example, are adept at spinning rhetoric in a way that will mislead, without ever actually telling a lie.
And, unlike a lie, people generally recognize bull as bull, and don’t get upset by it. He has concluded that it’s “so prevalent and so accepted that it must serve some sort of useful function.”
Frankfurt submitted the essay to friends and received a favorable response. Months later it was published in Raritan, a literary review, and over the years it developed something of a cult following. Princeton University Press didn’t publish it as a book until this year.
Publicist Debra Liese said the company never considered changing the title.
“I think the term itself is what resonates with people,” she said.
Papers, stores shy awayIt has, however, made for some difficulties. Newspapers have declined to run advertising with the book’s full title.
Wal-Mart, the nation’s biggest retailer, decided not to sell the book in its stores, although it does offer it for sale through its Web site.
“We felt that the title might be a little offensive to some of our customers,” said company spokeswoman Karen Burk.
The producers of “Philosophy Talk,” a radio program that originates from the studios of KALW-FM in San Francisco, canceled an interview with Frankfurt out of concern that his appearance might cause problems with the Federal Communications Commission.
Senior producer Ben Manilla said the station is currently involved in an unrelated license challenge with the FCC, and couldn’t risk added attention. “Which is unfortunate,” Manilla said.
Frankfurt’s other books include “The Reasons of Love,” “Necessity, Volition, and Love” and “The Importance of What We Care About.”