Tuesday, August 31, 2010
I read Corrections when it came out and it irritated me, bowled me over, kept me fascinated, bored the hell out of me, made me itch and twitch and bitch for weeks. I suspect Freedom will do the same. Haven't yet decided if I want to read it. I'm just getting over a serious itch as it is.
There are lots of people just as irritated about Franzen's special treatment by (especially) the New York Times. But somehow it seems a little disingenuous to bitch (can I use that word in this context? aw, what the hell) about the hot literary novel of the season for being given special treatment because the novelist is a white male when the one(s) doing the complaining are white female bestselling writers. They want the cash AND the prizes, AND the cover of TIME, AND multiple profiles in the Times?? Oh, come on.
Lots of folks are adding their 2 cents. And 2 cents. And 2 cents.
I've written about this phenomenon in my book about bestsellers which will be out next summer from Random House.(an excerpt below) It's pretty much always been this way. The high road literary establishment versus the low road scribblers who make a pretty damn good living. Each wanting what the other one has.
Kind of silly really. And borderline unseemly. Tranquilo hombres y mujeres.
Let the guy have his moment in the literary sun. It'll be brief, then the rest of us can get back to our book a year schedule, while this guy goes back to work for another seven years.
An excerpt from Cracking the Code, my book on a dozen major bestsellers of the 20th century:
Dollars vs. Respectability
Leslie Fiedler, one of America’s celebrated literary critics, noted a classic remark by Melville on this point. “Dollars damn me…all my books are botches.” Fiedler goes on to say that “implicit in (Melville’s) melancholy cry from the heart is a belief, as strong and pertinacious as any myth by which we live, that the authentic writer is neither drawn to nor confirmed in his vocation by the hope of marketplace success, the dream of becoming rich and famous, but can only be seduced by lucre, led to betray or prostitute his talent.”
A little later in the same essay, Fiedler neatly summarizes the playing field of modern literary warfare. “For a century and a half, those writers who aspired to critical acclaim and an eternal place in libraries have therefore felt compelled to struggle not just for their livelihood but for their very existence against the authors of ‘bestsellers’ who they secretly envy and publicly despise.”
Speaking of envy, a few years back when Stephen King was honored with the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award for fiction, more than one defender of the literary canon roared in protest. No less than that high-culture lion Harold Bloom called King’s award “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” Book editors around the country weighed in, almost all on the side of the high culture values it is their sworn duty to uphold. In the Washington Post, Linton Weeks posed the argument this way: “The issue: what to make of the gap in our culture between bestselling and well-written literature. The popular and the proper. The slew and the few.”
King tossed gasoline onto this bonfire in his remarks at the award ceremony. “For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future, things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction.”
Well, I hope this book will serve as some small attempt at the construction of that bridge, but I predict that passing freely back and forth between the land of good taste and the province of low brow will always expose one to such cultural snipers as Vidal, Lane and Bloom and literature professors like my own younger self.
It’s clear enough that Stephen King is not alone among popular writers in yearning for a literary prize or two to set atop their mountains of cash, or at the very least a front page NY Times Book Review as some validation of their worth. And while their highbrow cousins might never admit it publicly, I suspect their hankering is just as strong, only the prize they dream of is something closer to a hefty movie deal.
The math of publishing, like that of the music and film businesses, gives us an insight into the dependence of the American entertainment industry on the blockbuster. Roughly ten percent of the books on any publisher’s list pay for the other ninety percent which either break even or lose money. Given this calculus, Stephen King and his trash-writing colleagues deserve more than a few silver chalices. It’s books like theirs that keep the industry afloat. Stephen King and his kind are the lifeblood of publishing. Simple as that.
Much of what we take as the given state of affairs in the book world, including the very existence of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and the well-stocked superstores and Amazon.com and the lofty jobs of book reviewers and publishing giants would be shockingly altered, if they managed to survive at all, without those ten percent of the books which flood the marketplace with tidal waves of cash.
It’s more than a little odd for an industry that depends so much on its most popular producers, to treat them with such disdain. In Linton Weeks’ Washington Post piece on the Stephen King affair, he claims that great novels “…change lives. They challenge our notions and afflict our comfort at the time they were written and for untellable time to come. They cut through time and space, to the hearts and souls of readers.” In other words great books challenge us and are immortal.
To declare that anyone could possibly know a book to be immortal rather than simply of faddish interest is to claim a prescience no mortal can possess. Yes, as Robert Frost observed, on a strictly personal level we can often sense when we read a work of literature that we’ve taken “a mortal wound” and that book or poem will linger with us as long as we live.
But who can say that Peyton Place, or Gone with the Wind don’t meet both those criteria for a great many people? Did Grace Metalious’s shocking expose of the sexual underbelly and hypocrisy of a small New England town not challenge its readers? You bet it did. And it damn well placed itself squarely at center stage for at least a good long time in our cultural history. As did Gone with the Wind and a host of other popular books. Though it might fly in the faces of the high priests of literary culture, my money is on Gone With the Wind over Humboldt’s Gift in the race to last another century or two, because of its hold on so many readers’ imaginations.