f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of “Why Bother?” – Who Is Reading Anyway?

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

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Day 2 of “Why Bother?” – Who Is Reading Anyway?

Yesterday we concluded that TV and film had rendered the “social” novel impotent while technology and consumerism fine-tuned modern culture’s self-absorption, thereby neutering the novel of manners and mystery. Literary dysfunction and fictional sterility abound.

The main question of the essay becomes relevant. If the above is true, then why bother?

The answer must be that the above is not true in total. There are, after all, still readers out there. Yes, their tastes have identifiably changed. But perhaps not so much as we like to believe. This site of a century of bestsellers is interesting. Zane Grey, for instance popping up multiple times in the 1920s. Or how few books from the first 40 years have lasted the ages. Or Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman appearing on 1905’s list—a book that helped popularize the KKK. “Popular” fiction has always been en vogue.

What’s condemning to most folks is in looking at the progression from the 1950s to the 1990s and how popular fiction simply comes to absolutely dominate the later lists. Gone are the Steinbecks and Hemingways and Updikes. It’s King and Grisham and Sheldon and Steele and Clancy with the occasional Toni Morrison or Charles Frazier in for spice.

But these numbers, while they certainly reflect public consciousness, don’t tell the whole story. It’s the economics of book publishing that have truly shifted. As Franzen writes, “The number-one bestseller in 1955, Marjorie Morningstar, sold 195,000 copies in bookstores.”

Gilead has sold more than that without ever making a bestseller’s list. Middlesex, a book about a hermaphrodite, sold more than 1,000,000 when it went to trade paperback.

The literary novel, the “social” novel—these things aren’t dead. In their own way they are thriving. They’re just not of first-most importance to us anymore as Americans. And we can gnash our teeth as much as we want about that, but it’s unlikely to change. Instead, Franzen points out that it’s time to refocus on the people who matter. Those who are actually still reading and still responding to these books.

Here Franzen leaves the literary world for the world of the social science and the research of a woman named Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistic anthropologist from Stanford who studies readers. Her findings about readers of literary fiction were fairly straightforward.

“For a person to sustain an interest in literature...two things have to be in place. First the habit of reading works of substance must have been ‘heavily modeled…’” (She noted a distinction in the geographical reasons for this. On the East Coast, reading such book linked more with class and entitlement. In the Midwest, literature was linked with strong work ethic and the value of such a book for your mind.)

The second factor that needs to be in place is that “young readers must also find a person with whom they can share their interest.”

So these are your readers. And they continue to thrive.

Franzen immediately noted that he wasn’t one of these. His parents never modeled reading such books.

Which brought Heath to her second kind of reader: the social isolate. And we’ll deal with her tomorrow. Because the social isolate interests us not for what she tells us about readers…but because she’s the one whom books are most likely to turn into a writer.
Continue to Day 2 of our discussion of "Why Bother?"