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Friday, March 8, 2013

March 8, 2013: Popular Fiction: Paradigm Shift

[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 the telling intellectual test we face when a favorite text or author gets popular.
In May 1994, film critic and journalist Anthony Lane wrote a very funny piece for The New Yorker in which, riffing off a similar Gore Videl essay from 1973, he read and (mostly) made fun of the 10 novels atop the New York Times bestseller list. I can still remember how hard I laughed as Lane dug into The Bridges of Madison County, The Celestine Prophecy, new books by perennial chart-toppers Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, and Mary Higgins Clark, and more. Lane’s a talented humorist, so the laughs were not unearned; but it’s also fair to say that, literary scholar in-the-making that I was, I took pleasure in seeing such generally lowbrow authors taken apart. Let’s face it: The Bridges of Madison County ain’t exactly The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Beyond those specific and not necessarily unjustified critiques, however, I have to admit that both my laughs and Lane’s tone reveal a broader and more troubling kind of literary and cultural snobbery. It has of course long, if not indeed in America always, been the case that the bestseller lists don’t reflect the best work being published in a given moment, at least as we literary historians and scholars would see it; see for example the novels featured in Tuesday’s post: Ben-Hur (1880) and In His Steps (1897). Those were two of the top few bestselling novels of the last quarter of the 19th century, yet are also two books that (to my mind) wouldn’t appear on a top 200 list for the era. Yet the disconnect between the two kinds of lists has also led to what I would call a self-fulfilling prophecy for us American literary scholars: a sense that if a work is a bestseller, it must by nature be somehow less interesting or impressive; and that, concurrently, the truly interesting and impressive works will never find their way onto the bestseller lists.
Because of that, it can be a particularly complex and significant moment when one of the books or authors that we’ve already put on our personal list also ends up on the bestseller list. I’ve recently experienced that with George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire; from the first book, A Game of Thrones (1996), the series has done well, but in the last couple years, thanks in part to the hit HBO show and in part to the release of the long-awaited fifth book in the series, it’s truly taken off and become one of the moment’s most popular works. Obviously I’m happy for Martin and his success, but I’m also experiencing that paradigm shift: this sense that an author and work on my personal list is crossing over to everybody else’s (which is I suppose what the bestseller list really is), and the questions of what that means for my sense of both lists. Martin hasn’t changed, I don’t think; neither has my own list; which must mean that I’m not always right about the bestseller list and what comprises it. Guess it’s time to revisit that Anthony Lane essay and see what else he and I might have gotten wrong…
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Thoughts on any of the week’s topics and questions? Favorite popular fiction works or authors you’d highlight? Other issues you’d raise? Share ‘em please!

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