Monday, March 30, 2009

Would you like fries with your Twilight?

In a recent interview, Newsweek tried to deconstruct what made David Baldacci's books so damned buoyant despite the weight of negative opinions from the likes of the Newsweek and the New York Times.
"The suggestion that reading a thriller is a kind of civic obligation is questionable, to say the least, and there are plenty of people who dispute that reading potboilers encourages an engagement with more-demanding texts. [...] Baldacci offers a break—and people who care about books should care about him. Whether or not thrillers are crucial for democracy, they are certainly crucial for publishers. Where a more literary book might be considered a success if it sells 50,000 in hardcover, a novel by a writer like Baldacci can sell more than a million."
This is an interesting article, not so much because it's about Baldacci but because even though the alleged premise of the article (as expressed in the subtitle) as a sort of populist defense of the thriller as a genre "David Baldacci's 16 books were all bestsellers. Why do people have such a problem with that?"

The interviewer makes a number of statements that make it clear she's not entirely on-board with her (assigned?) premise.

Baldacci isnt alone in ascending the bestseller lists while the literati stand aside in frustrated amaze. Literature maven Harold Bloom's dismay at the popularity of JK Rowling and her boy wizard is nearly legendary. Stephen King himself once infamously likened his books to the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and a large order of fries. Tasty and momentarily satisfying, but not good for you in the long run.

One gets the impression from some authors that they are embarassed at thier status as the MacDonalds of the bookworld. But what really tends to get me is the distancing of the literati from the very thing that is keeping the industry alive. As they stand aside and decry the blockbuster model that is keeping the presses rolling and the bookstores open, they live under the same tent that is held aloft by the Davinci Codes and Prisoner of Azkaban.

The backlash against genre writers lives in a world that has forgotten that Shakespeare was the equivalent of a sitcom writer for his age. A quill-for-hire who transcended his genre to ascend the heights of historical figures whose very existence will be forever debated. So many of the great classics of our time were salvaged from the slushpile of history by a mixture of lucky happenstance and an author who didn't care what the critics of his or her time had to say and kept plugging away at the quill or typewriter or computer keyboard.

Will future generations see Baldacci as the Dostoevsky of our time? Perhaps not. Will Stephanie Meyer be looked upon by our literary heirs as the unheralded Jane Austen of our age? Not bloody likely. Nor will JK Rowling for that matter, though she might be our JM Barrie or EB White.

I'm constantly reminded as I read articles like the one in Newsweek what the always-pithy GK Chesterton said in an essay about detective fiction:
"By a curious confusion, many modern critics have passed from the proposition that a masterpiece may be unpopular to the other proposition that unless it is unpopular it cannot be a masterpiece."
I was working at the bookstore when the two biggest phenomena of recent eras began and ran their course. What is often forgotten is that JK Rowling's bestseller status was built upon word of mouth. Advanced Reading Copies were sent to booksellers and the story captured their imaginations. The strange little kids fantasy novel broke out as the booksellers recommended it over and over again to teacher and parent alike. I should have held onto my ARC of Sorceror's Stone. I still have my reader's copy of Davinci Code -- which is ironic since I enjoyed Rowling's little book and didn't so much care one way or the other about DC. Nevertheless, I was there when it came down the pipe and read it before most people.

My personal feelings about both books aside, it was almost amusing to watch as the esteem of the booksellers and literati who frequented my store waned in the face of growing commercial success. You can't be good and popular at the same time. That's just the way it is!

Both narratives have problems which I will discuss at another time. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series has similar flaws in the execution of the ideas to the point where I would put them on a descending scale with Rowling at the top, Dan Brown in the middle and Meyer at the bottom. Yet all three caught the crest of the wave, defied the dismay of their critics and built empires bolstered by their many imitators.

Are they good? That's not for me to say. There are better out there, for certain. But that doesn't invalidate the opinions of the masses. I'm not about to argue for market-driven literary criticism, but the pooh-poohing that happens every time Baldacci, King, Brown, Rowling and Meyer put a new book in the stores ignores a very germane element of their stories that undercuts the criticism: They're obviously telling stories that resonate -- stories we want to hear. Manifest in their sales data and the adherence of their fans.

As he was lambasting Stephanie Meyer as a hack, even King took a moment to point out that the strength of her books is the resonance of the stories she tells. Davinci Code, Harry Potter, and pick-your-thriller by Baldacci (or anyone else) all have one thing in common... they are all crafted from archetypal stories that resonate from a time when such tales were told to stave off the darkness that edged in from the corners of the wilderness beyond our firelight. Some of them are the tales told by the children at a campfire in the backyard, but those stories are simply smaller echoes of the greater tales being related at the fires of the grownups.

In the Newsweek interview, Baldacci suggested that reading thrillers was a democratic institution, a blow struck for literacy. The Newsweek interviewer sniffed at the very idea, but he was right. He was right because the more we tell stories, the greater our hunger grows for more. Every book put into the hands of someone who might not otherwise be willing to read one is a victory for literacy. I don't care what imprint the book has on the spine or who the author is, when people are reading, literacy wins. And one way or another, a literate nation will take care of the industry that feeds its need.

This doesn't necessarily mean we will always throw the greatest literary heroes up the bookcharts, but the taller and stronger the tentpoles that bolster the industry, the better chance the unheralded geniuses have of getting into the tent at all.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).