Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bring on the Bestsellers

Several years ago a novel entitled The Bridges of Madison County burst upon the literary scene and clung to its position atop the Bestseller list with a tenacity that was the envy of barnacles everywhere. Eventually a movie adaptation was made that also became a big hit. A commonly expressed sentiment at the time was that the movie was better than the book. Considering that the film starred Meryl Streep and was directed by Clint Eastwood, this was not necessarily an insult. But in many cases it was intended as one because a great deal of people felt that the book was not very good. If you were at all pretentious about the quality of literary fiction, chances are you were on the bandwagon that jeered at the overwhelming success of Robert J. Waller's novel. I myself didn't weigh in because to date I've yet to read the book. I did watch and enjoy the film it inspired. But it was nonetheless fascinating to observe such love-it or hate-it attitudes towards a popular novel. No title becomes a Bestseller for such an extended period of time without a considerable amount of positive word of mouth. Yet in certain circles the word of mouth regarding The Bridges of Madison County was absolutely poisonous. A co-worker of mine at the time told me that she went so far as to tear the pages out one at a time and feed them to the flames in her fireplace. Yikes!

Any book that lures millions of people to purchase and read and recommend it must have its merits, and talent accompanies luck behind the creation of the lucrative beast. This doesn't mean it's a great work of art. Masterpieces usually sell respectably at best, though they continue to sell for decades or longer after first going into print. The titles that grace the top of bestseller lists each year tend not to be critic's darlings, but rather, books that for some reason or another demonstrate mass appeal. It turns out that the masses, even with the efforts of Oprah to broaden the range of bookclub selections across the land, are not in search of the Great American Novel that may prompt them to re-evaluate their lives and help broaden their minds. Many people simply long to be entertained, to be taken as far away from the drudgery of their ordinary lives as a fantastical tale can accomplish. Therefore the greatest successes in publishing fiction over the past several years have been books featuring wizards, vampires, and conspiracy theories on a monumental scale. We don't encounter characters and situations like these in our day to day experiences, so when the right story comes along at the right time and transports us, the public is anxious to devour it.

My guess is that those who once derided the success of The Bridges of Madison County would gladly welcome it back if its return meant the banishment of more recent blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series, the Stephenie Meyers Twilight books, and Dan Brown's Vatican capers. None of them are masquerading as high art, and they don't even promise to make you lose weight, yet they sold like discount Crocs and iPods. Middle schoolers appear to be the targeted demographic for these books, particularly the writing of Rowling and Meyers, and they not only managed to hit adolescent bulls eye but also pulled a great deal of adult readers along for the ride. Are we witnessing signs of the downfall of civilization? Isn't one of the main benefits of reading to become more cultured and sophisticated via the experience? Does so called serious literature have a chance to flourish in this massive wave of lit-lite? Or is it ultimately a good thing that reading novels, even if only certain titles by a small select group of obscenely fortunate authors, has become a popular trend alongside reality television and Twitter? Since the teenage years are largely about following trends, surely reading each of the Harry Potter books is a preferable habit to smoking or drug use or promiscuity. A nation of vampire obsessed teens with books in hand will presumably lead to a brighter future than will a generation rendered illiterate by hand held electronic game systems. It took a lot longer for reading books by portable electronic device to become a reality than for portable electronic video games to become commonplace, but the time did eventually come and Harry Potter no doubt played a significant role in this development.
So I say bring on the International Bestsellers, even if they tend to be books I probably won't read (for the record I did read the first Harry Potter book and each of Dan Brown's books prior to his latest, but have not read anything by Stephenie Meyers yet), even if they are rarely books that will go on to be taught in English class as examples of literature that stands the test of time. One of the unavoidable realities of the publishing industry is that the hits are largely responsible for financing the more critically acclaimed endeavors that make much smaller but perhaps farther reaching splashes. Flashy but ultimately forgettable books will continue to dominate mainstream attention spans for short runs, but so long as great novels on significant themes are still being written and published and eventually gaining recognition as classics, the greater good will be served. If not, if by the time my three year old daughter reaches high school age they are teaching Harry Potter and Twilight in English class rather than 1984, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, and contemporary entries to the canon, then I'll know beyond the shadow of all doubt that it's time to home school.

- Roy Pickering (author of Patches of Grey)
p.s. - After writing this editorial I learned about the publication of Sarah Gray's WUTHERING BITES, a retelling of Wuthering Heights in which Heathcliff is a vampire. Perhaps the downfall of civilization has been kick started after all.


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