In the five years I spent working on Hit Lit, I had many false starts, and very many drafts. I was fortunate to have an absolutely fabulous editor at Random House who understood the book very well and was extremely enthusiastic.
The idea I had originally was to use the book as an opportunity to make a case against snobbery, and for popular fiction. My tone was somewhat confrontational, definitely provocative, and finally it was determined to be too off-putting to the kinds of readers that Random House wanted for Hit Lit. They thought the book should present a positive portrait of the 12 bestsellers I was focusing on. It should be about the reasons why so many people LOVE these books, not why so many people MOCK THEM OR PUT THEM DOWN.
I thought I could do both things in the same book, and I fought to hold on to that original premise for a long time. However, in the end, I was convinced to cut those sections (a quarter of the book) and to soften my tone elsewhere.
My first version of Hit Lit was far edgier than it turned out to be. Far more likely to have stirred controversy than it did. The final version was softer and more generic than I had originally wanted it to be, but I fully understood the editorial and marketing issues involved in my publisher's point of view.
In any case, now that the book is published, I thought it might be fun to use my blog (from which I have been absent for many months) to use as a repository for some of those sections in Hit Lit which I spent a great deal of time on originally, and then spent a great deal of time defending, then spent a great deal of time cutting out. Cutting, by the way, is not as easy as holding down the delete key.
So, in the next few days (or weeks), I plan to post those deleted sections here. For those who liked the book or thought it was lacking, this exercise might prove illuminating.
“’Best selling’ should not be an accolade so much as a warning.”
Fay Weldon, The Times, 2007
Every decade or so it happens. The editor of some prestigious journal decides it’s time again to hire an erudite hitman to write a few thousand caustic words about our nation’s deplorable reading habits—a little Philistine bashing, using the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List as the target. Wonder if Gore Vidal is busy?
Well, in 1973, Mr. Vidal wasn’t otherwise occupied, though I’m sure the writers of the ten novels unlucky enough to be the most popular works of fiction on that particular week’s New York Times bestseller list probably wished he had been.
When I was researching my first course in bestsellers, looking for my precursors in this strange new field, I came across Mr. Vidal’s juicy essay, and was thrilled to find myself in perfect agreement with everything in it, including his caustic tone. He seemed to nail the stance I wanted to take in my course, a gleeful superiority and brutal snarkiness.
Using the New York Times list of January 7, 1973, Mr. Vidal let loose his vituperative wit with giddy exuberance and proceeded to disembowel all but one of the ten books that were riding high at that moment. “Shit has its own integrity,” his essay began and, after establishing in that very first word his own chief descriptor for the material before him, Mr. Vidal moved to his two major points, the first being that “no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
This crucial conviction of the literary snob has at least three natural corollaries which go like this: If a book is popular, it can’t be any good. And its twin sister: If a book is truly good, it couldn’t possibly be popular. And third: In the unlikely event that a good book does wind up on the bestseller list, it’s an aberration that either indicates some glimmer of “taste” in the untrained reading public, or perhaps more likely, suggests that thousands upon thousands of shoppers bought that specific literary tome mistakenly.
The belief that popularity and literary value are mutually exclusive so solidly underlies the high culture world view that it forms the invisible and unshakeable foundation of a vast set of prejudices and inviolable assumptions. For instance, if literary value and widespread popularity do indeed have an inverse relationship, then the bulk of readers in America must be brain-dead drudges who regularly waste their money and time on vapid trash, while the smart guys must be perched on the sublime peaks of Olympus savoring the really good stuff.
Vidal’s other main point in the 1973 exercise in scorn was to suggest a “corrupt connection” between popular novels and Hollywood films. “The bad movies we made twenty years ago are now regarded in altogether too many circles as important aspects of what the new illiterates want to believe is the only significant art form of the twentieth century. An entire generation has been brought up to admire the product of that era. Like so many dinosaur droppings, the old Hollywood films have petrified into something rich, strange, numinous—golden.” In other words, shit imitates shit.
He goes on to refine this thesis by dismissing thirty years of Hollywood films in one flashy sentence. “I think it is necessary to make these remarks about the movies of the thirties, forties and fifties as a preface to the ten best-selling novels under review since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels appear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film-maker) recall past success and respond accordingly.”
Though Vidal’s assertion that these authors were shaped by movies they viewed in their “formative years” is questionable and impossible to prove, the connection between bestselling novels and Hollywood is indeed fertile territory for discussion. It’s a subject I will return to later. But first, let’s finish with Mr. Vidal’s amusing essay.
It’s all great fun to watch trashy novels getting trashed, and Mr. Vidal was certainly the right man for the job. He is the master of the dismissive one-liner and wields a charming snideness that must have been exactly what the editor at the New York Review of Books had in mind when he put a contract out on those ten bestselling novels.
Some twenty-one years later, in June of 1994, Anthony Lane, the film critic for the New Yorker again tackled the fiction bestseller list in a pithy and rollicking tone. Commenting on Vidal’s earlier essay, Mr. Lane strikes a rakish pose. “Two decades after the Vidal survey, has anything changed? Well, Solzhenitsyn has gone back to Russia, Mary Renault has died, and Frederick Forsyth is no longer in the top ten. He is, in fact, at No. 14, with a novel unwisely named The Fist of God. When he devised the title, it must have sounded crunchy and apocalyptic. Now it sounds like a club down in the West Village that you can’t get into without a dog collar.”
Perhaps softened up by his long exposure to Hollywood films, Mr. Lane is more embracing of popular culture in general than Mr. Vidal. Where Vidal scoffs, Anthony Lane assumes a bemused tone, while still maintaining a finely calibrated distance from his subject matter as though he were turning the pages of these questionable novels with tweezers.
“There are sound reasons for musing on this stuff,” he asserts at the outset, sounding like a gastroenterologist about to discuss human excrement.
His case for studying the bestseller list is, at best, conflicted. On the one hand he asserts the importance of the exercise. “It is easy to brush aside best-seller charts as the products of hype and habit, but they are a real presence in the land of letters, generating as much interest as they reflect. And if they do, to an extent, represent the lowest common denominator of the print culture, this only strengthens our need to pay attention, since where else is that culture common at all?”
On the other hand, he claims cagily that “the ideal diet consists of trash and classics: all that has survived, and all that has no reason to survive—books you can read without thinking, and books you have to read if you want to think at all.”
That one man’s trash might be another man’s classic, or that the trash of today can become the classic of tomorrow (and vice versa), never troubles Mr. Lane’s line of reasoning. “Books you can read without thinking” is his shorthand designation for popular novels, though the fallacies embedded in that definition are boggling. For instance, what role does the non-thinking part of the reading experience play in Mr. Lane’s value system? That is, what about human passion—those noble Aristotelian emotions, pity and fear? Do cerebral matters always trump matters of the heart?
Yet so sure is he of the correctness of the eternal gold standard he’s using to measure the worth of any literary work, without further ado he blithely embarks on his own mission of ridicule and urbane disparagement.
Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Clive Cussler, Mary Higgins Clark and Allan Folsolm all wilt under his scornful inspection, while Caleb Carr manages to win this grudging praise, “No. 7 poses a problem. The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, is a good book A really good book, swift and dense—popular entertainment that brushes important questions with its fingertips.” That a book can be “really good” and “popular entertainment” seems to unsettle Mr. Lane and makes him wonder if perhaps people simply buy their books off the bestseller list and read a book like The Alienist without noticing or appreciating its refined sensibility, or its combination of “the scholarly and the macabre…”
Ah, yes, there’s Gore Vidal position again. If a good book somehow becomes popular, the highbrow critic must explain away that success or else his pejoratives about bestsellers in general are called into question.
Lane saves his best zingers for The Bridges of Madison County whose vocabulary he attacks as being as bland as the songs of Karen Carpenter and its author as an “unyielding sentimentalist.” His parting swipe is truly inspired. “The victorious sales of The Bridges of Madison County make it a more depressing index to the state of America than Beavis, Butt-head, and Snoop Doggy Dogg put together. I got my copy at an airport, behind a guy who was buying Playboy’s Book of Lingerie, and I think he had the better deal. He certainly looked happy with his purchase, whereas I had to ask for a paper bag. This book is worse than embarrassing. It’s a crock of leavings.”
What was shit to Vidal is leavings to Lane. To both of them this has all been an exercise in slumming. Plug your nose and try to keep your IQ from sinking as you slog ahead through the dreary pages of verbal excrement. Do your unstated duty and find one or two books on the list that are not quite as insufferable as the rest, but even those must be damned with the faintest praise.
As I had already discovered early on in my academic career, intellectual condescension can be a heady and addictive sensation. Setting oneself above the culture at large feeds the ego and in turn breeds a very special satisfaction. Certainly that’s the excitement I felt as I started that first course in bestsellers. Even now I can recapture that self-righteous itch as I reread Vidal’s essay and Lane’s. These are two very smart, very funny men capable of world class putdowns.
Though my own smug satisfaction toward bestsellers has mostly evaporated over the last few decades, I remain sympathetic to Mr. Vidal’s and Mr. Lane’s arguments. It’s not my purpose in these pages to deconstruct their positions or mock their mockery. They’re right, of course.
It’s perfectly valid to point out that in American culture a clear demarcation exists between the high road of literary righteousness and the low road of popular success. And, it’s true, it is the cultural critic’s job to draw and redraw that line from time to time in the brightest Magic Marker available. For lovers of books, though, it is also a very normal reaction to root passionately for one side or the other of this great divide.But why?