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by S.T. Joshi
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: Bestsellers have been with us for more than a century, ever since the first bestseller list appeared in 1895. But they have received surprisingly little attention from critics. What kind of books become bestsellers? Why do people read them? Do they have literary value or are they merely the literary equivalent of crossword puzzles? S. T. Joshi, a leading critic of horror, fantasy, and mystery fiction, devotes his attention to these and other issues, showing that bestsellers emerged only with the advent of near-universal literacy and the increased leisure time among the masses. Joshi is also aware that most bestsellers fall into the categories of genre fiction: romance (Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Nora Roberts); mystery (Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell); suspense (James Patterson, Nelson DeMille); espionage (Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler); horror (Stephen King, Dean Koontz); and so forth. Joshi provides detailed examinations of books by these authors, as well as of such recent bestsellers as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and such bygone titles as Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls, in a wide-ranging discussion of both the virtues and the failings of popular literature. Joshi's study, written in a witty, accessible style, is must-reading for anyone interested in the literary and cultural phenomenon of the bestseller.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: September 2009
3 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [585 KB]
Reading time: 362-506 min.
Here the lack of canonical status becomes painfully evident. Aside from To Kill a Mockingbird and the two Orwell novels (conveniently sold in paperback to generations of high school and college students), not a single work is anything but a potboiler. Blatty's The Exorcist is a far from contemptible work of horror fiction, but it cannot be said to rank with the loftiest examples of this literary mode. The number of the above titles that were made into blockbuster films is also noteworthy; indeed, many works only attained super-bestseller status upon the emergence of the film version.
Is the relegation of these authors and works to literary oblivion the result of some evil conspiracy on the part of highbrow critics and university professors--those self-appointed guardians of literary canonicity--to foil the implied consensus of the mass reading public? I suppose there may be some--even some literary critics, sociologists, and other advocates of the common people--who think so; but I suspect the majority of reputable critics would conclude that these bestsellers have disappeared--and, more significantly, disappeared even from popular interest, superseded by more contemporary fare that in its turn is also probably destined to vanish--because they do not have the staying power that could lead to canonicity. They are, in effect, inferior works embodying certain recognised flaws that doom them to insignificance, and their popularity during their heyday was based largely upon their hitting a popular nerve and--one might as well come out and say it--their appeal to a broad mass of ill-educated and uncultivated readers.
We are getting to the heart of the matter. What makes a good book? What makes a bad one? On what basis can we make such judgments? Can such judgments ever be valid, and do they reveal anything other than the opinions--or, worse, the prejudices--of the person making them? We return to the elitism issue. In our democratic society the very quest for excellence--a quest that may be beyond the reach (as it is certainly beyond the interest) of the common person--is inherently suspicious. The only type of excellence that the average person can endure is celebrity, which is the excellence of numbers, and hence acceptable to democracy. When democracy is conjoined with capitalism, numbers rule inexorably. A "good" book must be the one that sells the greatest number of copies. The old Latin dictum pulchrum est paucorum hominum ("Beauty is for the few") is both paradoxical and subtly evil to the democrat.
And yet, even the democrat will be forced to pause when certain awkward facts are brought to his attention. Why is it that A. S. M. Hutchinson's If Winter Comes (1922) has faded from both popular and critical esteem, while another work of 1922, James Joyce's Ulysses, has not? Is it possible that Ulysses offers certain intellectual and aesthetic nourishment that If Winter Comes does not? If so, what kind of nourishment might that be?
If there are two elements that would seem to have universal validity as markers of genuine as opposed to bogus literature, they are realism and sincerity. Both elements must be treated carefully. Realism does not necessarily refer to realism of incident; for in that case, the entire literature of fantasy and the supernatural would be relegated to non-literary status. The realism that good literature strives for is realism as pertains to human emotions, and to the human being's relation to society and to the universe. The works studied in this book contain all manner of scenarios where characters act in ways that no human being in that situation would ever act, and to that degree they are false and meretricious. In the great majority of popular writing of whatever genre, both incidents and characters are stylised--the product of the author's adherence to certain standardised conventions that become over time increasingly separated from reality. In other words, they become stereotypes. These stereotypes become comforting markers for readers to fall back on, thereby situating the work in a given genre or mode and offering very largely the same kind of unadventurous regularity found in television sitcoms, sporting events, or even fast food.
Sincerity has come under much suspicion among literary critics because it appears to raise the spectre of "authorial intention," something that many critics believe should be banished from criticism because, in their judgment, it is impossible to ascertain what an author had in mind when writing a given literary work. But literary criticism is not an exact science, and in the great majority of cases an approximate sense of an author's sincerity in the portrayal of characters and events can be deduced by the application of critical judgment--the one element that distinguishes literary criticism from all other kinds of intellectual activity. A work whose characters are hackneyed and stereotyped, whose incidents are derived not from life but from other books or films, whose overall scenario is designed not to probe serious issues relating to human life but to provide transient amusement--this work (regardless of what the author had in mind) can be deemed insincere and therefore false and meretricious.
Various other failings of popular writing can be identified. The question of prose style is perhaps a bit tricky. Under the influence of Modernism, many critics for a substantial portion of the twentieth century maintained that only the spare, barebones prose of a Hemingway or a James T. Farrell constituted a legitimate vehicle for serious prose expression, and that anything approaching flamboyance in prose writing was in itself a sign of a lack of seriousness and maturity. This view persisted in the face of numerous counter-examples--most notably the dense and rich prose of Faulkner, whose superiority to Hemingway and Farrell was widely acknowledged. In recent decades, with the return of Asianic prose in the work of writers as diverse as Thomas Pynchon and Gore Vidal, a broader view of the parameters of acceptable prose style has emerged, and has helped to resurrect the reputations of a number of older writers, from Poe to H. P. Lovecraft, whose utilization of florid prose was central to their aesthetic practice.
The prose of most popular writers tends to be flat, bland, and elementary--a kind of dumbed-down Hemingway, entirely lacking the careful word-choice and keen attention to telling symbol and metaphor found in the work of even the most spare of prose minimalists. It is death to a popular writer to be perceived as anything other than "easy reading": since one of the prime goals of the popular writer is the ability to keep the reader turning the pages, any style that smacks of complexity or difficulty is anathema.
In a broader sense, popular writers as a whole also tend to avoid genuine emotional engagement, especially any plot whose dénouement could be termed sad, depressing, or tragic. In spite of the fact that a substantial majority of the world's great literature is tragic, the evocation of tragedy--even if it were within the capacities of popular writers--would be strenuously avoided, because no popular writer wishes to be perceived as a "downer." Tragedy must be clearly distinguished from the melodrama utilised, generally in a pretty calculating manner, by romance and sentimental writers who wish to offer their (largely female) readers a "good cry." Even these writers generally insist on some kind of happy ending to counteract the superficial elements of sadness and disappointment that have peppered their novels prior to that point.
As it is, most popular writers rely upon plot--and in particular the construction of an involved and cleverly executed plot, with numerous complications and surprises along the way--to carry the reader along. But this facility in plot-weaving is a relatively low-order literary skill; it is, in effect, the work of literary mechanics. Readers of popular writing tend to castigate serious literature as "slow moving," or as work where "nothing happens." On this point Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a criticism of Robert Louis Stevenson (then and now regarded as, at best, occupying the second rank of literary greatness) that remains pertinent today:
"His doctrine, if I apprehend him, is something like this. The essence of Romance is incident and that only, the type of pure Romance the Arabian Nights: those stories have no moral, no character-drawing, they run altogether on interesting incident. The incidents must of course have a connection, but it need be nothing more than that they happen to the same person, are aggravations and so on. As history consists essentially of events likely or unlikely, consequences of causes chronicled before or what may be called chance, just retributions or nothing of the sort, so Romance, which is fictitious history, consists of event, of incident. His own stories are written on this principle; they are very good and he has all the gifts a writer of fiction should have, and at first you notice no more than an ordinary well told story, but on looking back in the light of this doctrine you see that the persons illustrate the incident or strains of incident, the plot, the story, not the story and incidents the persons." 5
This is, indeed, a very charitable opinion even of Stevenson, let alone any other popular writer; but the fundamental thrust of Hopkins's criticism--that "incident" in a popular work deflects the reader's attention from the plain fact that the characters in the work are stereotyped and uninteresting, or at any rate that there is no meaningful probing of the characters' thoughts and feelings and therefore no attempt to hold these figures up as representative or symbolic of any segment of human society--remains valid. The inveterate tendency of popular writers to tie up all loose plot threads neatly at the end is a telltale sign that they wish to provide their readers an artificial resolution that has no relation to real life, where few issues are tied up neatly.
Popular writers owe their appeal heavily to the inveterate human curiosity to find out what happens. No matter how poorly written a book is (and books by, say, Danielle Steel or James Patterson are very poorly written indeed, by any conceivable aesthetic yardstick), no matter how hackneyed or unrealistic the characters are, readers of a certain mentality (who in general have little perception of the niceties of prose expression and who are willing to swallow the most outrageous departures from reality in character portrayal and in incident) will keep turning the pages because they want to know how the plot resolves. This is especially true in the case of the mystery/suspense genre, whose entire raison d'être is the concluding revelation of the murderer or criminal; but it applies nearly as strongly to other genres as well.
The response of most popular writers to criticisms like the above is that they are not intending to write weighty works that "probe serious issues relating to human life," but are instead merely striving to "entertain." But this seemingly straightforward statement is itself highly problematical and complex. In what sense does a lightweight literary work "entertain"? Whom does it entertain? And how? I daresay that pornography entertains those who choose to partake of it, but I don't imagine that most people would think this confers any value to it. If a popular work only "entertains" a popular audience in the manner of a crossword puzzle or a football game, what aesthetic status does it occupy? Presumably these works do not entertain readers of a higher aesthetic level. Certainly, I derived little "entertainment" from the great majority of works I discuss in this book, and I would not have finished--or even begun--them had I not decided to undertake a study of them. My greatest source of pleasure in each of these books was coming to the last page.