f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 3 of <em>DaVinci Code</em> in Which I Don't Mention the Book at All!

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Day 3 of DaVinci Code in Which I Don't Mention the Book at All!

Waaaay back in 2001, a LA book critic named B. R. Myers got himself noticed by publishing an excerpt of A Reader's Manifesto, his diatribe against the state of contemporary literature, in the Atlantic.

Basically, Myers' briefs were in a bunch because all the awards and notoriety in literature were going to what he thought of mindlessly pretentious "artistes" who crafted sentences rather than books. Among his targets: Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx. As Myers writes:

"They urge us to move beyond our old-fashioned preoccupation with content and plot, to focus on form instead—and then they subject us to the least-expressive form, the least-expressive sentences, in the history of the American novel."
He then chooses some sentences from their works that he finds particularly offensive and tears them apart.

I didn't buy everything that Myers was selling in his rant, but I don't think you can ignore the import of his point—namely that literary fiction had established itself as a strong enough force that writers were able to write incredibly dense, sometimes obscure, and otherwise theme and form driven books and sell them to a broad market. To paint in broad strokes, the publishing world was divided in half with Team Mindless Popular Fiction, captained by John Grisham and Jackie Collins, on one side and Team Snooty Literary Fiction, captained by DeLillo and his ilk, on the other.

What emerged was a calculated move by publishers to exploit the ramifications of this split. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, with Penguin and Vintage leading the way, the trade paperback binding came into its glory. Bigger than a mass market and featuring gorgeous covers, these books became a status symbol—not of wealth, but of intelligence. (Although the books cost more than mass markets, too, so there's some class elitism thrown in as well.) We have a tendency to wear our pretensions on our sleeves, and this simple format change was an easy way of saying, "Look at me. I'm smart. I'm reading this book that the unwashed masses wouldn't understand. I also drink port and have been to Aruba. Hah!"

The problem is, as Myers sort of points out, such generalizations as mass market format or trade paperback format are meaningless for talking about whether or not a book is actually a good that you and I will enjoy. Complicating matters further, academics, perhaps inspired by the cases of genre writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and James Cain who were only now getting their due as true geniuses of the craft, decided not to make the same mistake with current writers. Hence, authors like Elmore Leonard, Scott Turow, and Stephen King began to gain notice from some pretty impressive literary forces. Add in Oprah and her monthly selections of hard-hitting emotional novels which sparked the skyrocketing renaissance of book clubs and all of a sudden you have a world in which reading novels is as culturally relevant as its been, perhaps since the advent of television fifty-five years ago.

Then came a watershed mark in the discussion of the merits of popular lit vs. literary literature last November. Here the National Book Foundation, which hands out its National Book Award, honored Stephen King with its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. Reaction was swift.

Harold Bloom, a Yale professor and author of The Western Canon (which is basically his list of books worth reading) said of the awarding group, "That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

Tell us how you really feel, Harold.

Still, the ceremony went forward and with not even a drop of pig's blood falling on his head, Stephen King joined many famous authors as the recipient of his major award. Consider all lines and demarcations dividing popular (i.e. "trash") fiction from literary (i.e. "boring but worthwhile") fiction to be completely erased. Sort of.

You know what? That's enough for today. I'll stretch this out into a two day discussion. Tomorrow we'll come back to the book at hand and try to sort out its place in all this mess and talk about why it stuck to old paradigms.