Thursday, March 7, 2013
March 7, 2013: Popular Fiction: Guilty Pleasures
[In this week’s series, I’ll be considering some authors, texts, and contexts related to a much-maligned (in certain circles at least) but vital part of American literature: popular fiction. Your responses, favorites, critiques, and other takes will be welcome for what’s sure to be a popular crowd-sourced weekend post.]
On learning from the popular fictions that (eventually) make us cringe.
He wasn’t the first author I truly loved—that honor would go, if I have to settle on one, to Edward Ormondroyd. Nor was he the first in whose library I read multiple works—Tolkien takes that crown, as I ploughed through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in the summer before 6th grade. But Tolkien’s books are all connected, and in fact he even considered Lord of the Rings one long novel (it was his publisher who insisted that it be divided into a trilogy). And so I would have to admit that the first author for whom I read multiple unconnected books—who, that is, inspired me to check out different offerings not because a series compelled me, but just because I needed more—was none other than the dean of American military and espionage porn, Tom Clancy.
It’s easy, and not entirely inaccurate, to claim that the Clancy beloved to 11 year old AmericanStudier was substantially different than the author has become in the decades since. I would certainly argue that around the time of Debt of Honor and Executive Orders Clancy decided to make his right-wing politics much more central to his books, and it’s no coincidence that this decidedly not right-wing reader found those novels much less appealing; I made it through Rainbox Six and then said “No mas.” But honesty compels me to admit that in looking back at the Clancy books I loved, a list headed by The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising, I find them full of similarly objectionable adulation for the military, contempt for the “bureaucrats” who try to limit it, xenophobia (other than toward foreigners who are also true soldiers, who are wonderful in every culture), and more. They may have been better novels than the later books, that is, but I still feel pretty guilty about how much pleasure I got out of them.
Yet if I move beyond that guilt, I think it’s fair to say that I can learn a good deal from my youthful infatuation with the Clancy. Partly, of course, I can learn about how talented, best-selling authors find their niche audiences and deliver the goods—for Clancy, it’s fair to say that middle school boys (or men who haven’t quite outgrown that phase) are a core such audience, and he gave us all the submarine battles, tank warfare, and macho heroics we could handle. (In Red Storm, a meek weatherman finds his inner macho warrior and wins a blonde Icelandic beauty.) But Clancy’s appeal isn’t that simple—I’m sure there are lots of authors who write about similar subjects and themes and would not have done it for me nearly as fully. He also constructs perfect thriller plots, whether on a small scale (as in October) or the broadest (as in Storm); and the truth, even if we lit snobs don’t like to admit it, is that the same can be said for many of the great novels. Scarlet Letter? Absalom? Beloved? All thrillers in their own way, perfectly plotted to lead us to their climactic revelations. I’m not saying Clancy is on par with those folks—but they’re all writers, all novels, and all worth our analytical time.
Last popular fiction post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on Clancy or similar authors? Suggestions, favorites, or other responses?