Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too"

Since “Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too” a poem I wrote about Spiderman, shows up in a lot of anthologies and text books and therefore becomes assignment material for students of many ages, I frequently get emails requesting more information on the poem. So I’ve prepared the following to answer some basic questions about that poem. Feel free to post comments or further questions either at the end of this post, or in the guest book section of this site.

First, you should realize that just because a writer says something about their own work, that doesn't automatically mean their interpretation is better than yours. Some writers have far too much pride in their own view of their work and don't trust alternative views. But the truth is, a good reader can see stuff in my poem that I didn't see. So feel free to take the following with several grains of salt.

One question that gets asked frequently is: “What was I thinking/feeling as I began writing that poem?”

Well, here goes. After six years of college teaching, I'd just gotten tenure at the university where I teach in Miami and I knew, given the difficult job market, that it was going to be very hard to find a different job somewhere else, so more than likely I'd probably be right there teaching the same courses at that same university and having the same routines many years later. So I just better accept where I was and try to make the best of it. (I was right. This is my 36th year of teaching at Florida International University.)

At the time the thought was kind of depressing. I was also struggling with the whole idea of being a writer. It's a tough profession--especially as a poet. A lot of rejection all the time. Maybe fifty poems rejected for every one accepted. That wears on you. Kind of like Spiderman getting caught in a web of his own making.

I can't remember why exactly I chose Spiderman. I guess I was thinking that as a kid I'd always dreamed of being a writer--and that I'd thought that being one would be like being a superhero of some kind. So I started to wonder if maybe even superheroes got bored with their routines, and their personalities just like normal people did. Voila, the poem began to take shape.

When this poem was written, back in 1979 or so, I hadn't read a Spiderman comic in years, so some of what I describe in the poem is factually wrong. I've mixed him up with Batman a little, for one thing. You could describe these "errors" as "poetic license" or you could just say I didn't know what I was talking about. Personally, I don't think that makes a big difference, but there are some readers who disagree.

The speech impediment (which might be considered politically incorrect these days) simply started out as a technique to try to be funny, but it turned into more than that. As I wrote in that Elmer Fudd kind of voice, I found places in the poem where the words actually meant something different in the new speech (my heart beat at a different wate (weight) I was also thinking that even superheroesmust be flawed in some way. They LOOK like they have wonderful lives—just as writers do---but that's all from the outside. But when you get close and really inspect them, and hear how they talk, wow, they're just like the rest of us, pimples, warts and all.

Of course "buining" one's suit is the punchline of the poem. It's a hard thing to do--recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with that in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones. That's why people go to school, to church, to the shrink, and it's one of the reasons why we write. To reinvent ourselves.

But it's a very hard thing to do. Old habits die hard.

So that's it: A quickie analysis. But I'd be willing to entertain alternate views. There's just no right answer to what a particular poem or story "is about." I'm not the expert (as I said above) just because I wrote the poem. A careful reader can often spot things, or come up with theories that are more revealing, or make more sense than what a writer thinks.

It's one of the frustrating and wonderful things about studying and teaching literature. There are no perfectly right answers. There are answers that are righter than others, or answers that are more elegantly argued. But interpreting poems is much like figuring out people. What's on the surface is not always real. And what's below the surface is never easy to be one hundred percent sure of. That's what makes the whole enterprise of reading literature so much fun, and teaching it such a challenge and joy.

Spiderman as just an ordinary guy.

Here's the poem itself:

All my pwoblems
who knows, maybe evwybody's pwoblems
is due to da fact, due to da awful twuth
I know. I know. All da dumb jokes:
No flies on you, ha ha,
and da ones about what do I do wit all
doze extwa legs in bed. Well, dat's funny yeah.
But you twy being
SPIDERMAN for a month or two. Go ahead.

You get doze cwazy calls fwom da
Gubbener askin you to twap some booglar who's
only twying to wip off color T.V. sets.
Now, what do I cawre about T.V. sets?
But I pull on da suit, da stinkin suit,
wit da sucker cups on da fingers,
and get my wopes and wittle bundle of
equipment and den I go flying like cwazy
acwoss da town fwom woof top to woof top.

Till der he is. Some poor dumb color T.V. slob
and I fall on him and we westle a widdle
until I get him all woped. So big deal.

You tink when you SPIDERMAN
der's sometin big going to happen to you.
Well, I tell you what. It don't happen dat way.
Nuttin happens. Gubbener calls, I go.
Bwing him to powice, Gubbener calls again,
like dat over and over.

I tink I twy sometin diffunt. I tink I twy
sometin excitin like wacing cawrs. Sometin to make
my heart beat at a difwent wate.
But den you just can't quit being sometin like
You SPIDERMAN for life. Fowever. I can't even
buin my suit. It won't buin. It's fwame wesistent.
So maybe dat's youwr pwoblem too, who knows.
Maybe dat's da whole pwoblem wif evwytin.
Nobody can buin der suits, dey all fwame wesistent.
Who knows?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Thorn and What's Next

I started writing about Thorn over thirty years ago and I still find him a challenge.  He's ornery and unpredictable, and sometimes that makes it hard for me to embrace him fully.  I'm a little ambivalent about him in general and always have been.

On the one hand he's living close to nature and is very observant of the world around him, the spectacular Keys vistas as well as the collection of characters from the harmless oddballs to the sinister and everyone in between.  Those are features that I admire in him and respect the way he navigates a fairly wild collection of people.  After all he's a hermit and basically anti-social, but the requirements of the thrillers is that I must throw a set of people in his way and see how he reacts or interacts with them.    On the other hand he's a bit negative and gloomy about the world he's observing and that gloom sometimes threatens to overwhelm him.

Given all that, I decided about a year ago that it was time to take a break from Thorn.  Maybe for just a year or two, or maybe for longer.  I'm still undecided.

However, in the meantime I've been working on something new.  A new direction, a new set of characters, a new genre.

The new one, which is tentatively titled The Last Bloom, is an international thriller.  The scope is much broader with settings in Africa and Europe as well as Miami.  The character, a young woman, is more outgoing and more worldly than Thorn.  I'm hoping she's complex enough to sustain a series of novels.  She has unusual skills and a complicated family dynamic and a large knowledge of people and places around the world.  She's a traveller, an artist and a keen observer of people.

The Last Bloom centers around the international trade in cacao beans and the business of chocolate.  More on this later.

Now that the website has been updated and is about to be more thoroughly revised, I wanted to resume blogging.

I've been active on Facebook and Twitter in the last couple of years but I've seriously neglected this platform.  That's about to change.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Thanks to all those who came out during the book tour.  It was good to see each of you.  I know your time is precious, especially at this holiday season.

After two weeks on the road listening to your comments and questions, and talking about Thorn, I'm tired but revitalized.  Knowing there are so many devoted readers out there is such a humbling pleasure.

Below is a promo page my wonderful agent, Ann Rittenberg, put together.  

Publishers Weekly (starred review):
Moral ambiguity seasons the violent action in Edgar-winner Hall's outstanding 13th thriller featuring laconic loner Thorn (after 2011's Dead Last). Thorn, who lives in the undeveloped backwoods of Key Largo and loathes the kind of hyperdevelopment that's ruining Florida, is roused from his isolation to extricate his grown son, Flynn Moss, whose existence he only recently became aware of, from the Earth Liberation Front, a group of ecological terrorists who are planning to shut down a nearby atomic power plant. Thorn actually is sympathetic with ELF's goals--but he doesn't trust them. Meanwhile, FBI agent Frank Sheffield begins uncovering a plot to create a nuclear disaster that could annihilate Miami, while a beautiful female Homeland Security agent and a cocksure psycho who likes to play with electricity are working their own schemes. Hall shifts among the skillfully drawn characters, each uncertain of which ends justify extreme means, as the action races toward a literally explosive climax at the nuclear plant. The result is both thoughtful and white-knuckle tense.

Hall is one of those rare thriller writers who can build character as he ratchets tension, who can do no-holds-barred action scenes with panache and, in the midst of bedlam, never lose sight of nuance. All those skills are on display here, as Hall assembles a full-bodied supporting cast whose stories hold our interest as much as Thorn's attempt to save his son without helping to bring about a South Florida version of Chernobyl. A fine thriller on every level.

Alan Cheuse, NPR:
James W. Hall makes a plot that wrings the most suspense and emotion out of this material, from the effect on Thorn's private life to the danger lurking for all Miami and South Florida.
What else can I say without spoiling the book for you? The novel's finale will have most readers holding on for dear life.

Library Journal:
Like fellow Floridian Carl Hiassen, Hall displays a love of his home state's landscape with criticism of the greed that threatens it, plus a fondness for unpredictable characters. Like an Arthurian knight, his protagonist ventures out of his small world just long enough to put things right in a larger one. Luckily for readers, there will be no shortage of opportunities requiring Thorn's next appearance.
Going Dark has cinematic action all the way through and a couple of fine surprises saved for the final few pages. Nicely done, indeed.

Kirkus Reviews:
With its nicely observed characters and lively dialogue—and terrific sex scenes—it keeps readers turning the pages.

Naples Florida Weekly:
There is no more delightful companion for a habitual reader than a new book by James W. Hall.

Tampa Bay Times:
Going Dark, the 13th in the series, is one of his very best, a breathless thrill ride with a brain — and heart.

Charlotte Observer:
For those who enjoy a good steely-jawed mystery man, here's a new Thorn novel from James W. Hall. If you've ever daydreamed of living off the land in a beachfront shack, Thorn's life might be a nice getaway for you.
If you like your mysteries macho and enjoy some Florida scenery into the bargain, this one's for you.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
In Going Dark, Hall continues his high standards for gripping, action-packed plots that revolve around Florida's intricate ecology and beauty.

Florida Times-Union:
Another first-class page-turner from the master of mystery.

Sacramento Bee:

High adventure in the sun – what's not to like?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

So this is the fourth and final pre-publication review of Going Dark.  A pretty good one like the others have been.  Not starred or boxed, as the Publisher's Weekly one was, but still all in all, one I'm happy with mainly because Kirkus has been so hard on my books in the past.  They have a reputation for being pretty grumpy and often mean-spirited in their reviews.  

Also, they singled out one aspect of writing that I work very hard on.  Love scenes.


In Hall's 13th Thorn novel, the go-it-alone Key Largo PI undergoes a crash course in parenthood when he discovers the grown son he barely knows belongs to an environmental activist group with terrorism on its agenda.
In targeting the Turkey Point nuclear power plant near the Florida Keys, the Earth Liberation Front originally had planned on a nonviolent action. But extremists in the group now have a spectacular demolition in mind, having acquired a superpowerful explosive. Taken prisoner by ELF on the remote island where they're preparing the attack, Thorn is unable to talk his son, Flynn, into escaping with him. But to be around the boy in order to protect him, he convinces ELF that he supports their efforts. It helps that one of the group's leaders is a woman for whom Thorn was a surrogate father when she was a troubled teen. Meanwhile, having been alerted to ELF's presence by the logo they left inside the plant's supposedly impenetrable security system, authorities, including FBI man Frank Sheffield, plan a "force-by-force" exercise in which agents take on the plant's security forces with simulated weaponry. In the end, real shots are fired, Thorn's sidekick, Sugarman, gets more of the action than he bargained for, and betrayals are revealed—the great sex Frank has with a psychologically scarred Homeland Security agent from his past proves to be skin-deep. As ever, Hall is in colorful command of his South Florida setting, occasionally editorializing on the harm developers are doing to it. Compared to other mystery writers, he plays things refreshingly low key, but he's always in control, thriving on the setup as much as the payoff.
The plot of Going Dark doesn't have the zip of some of Hall's other Thorn books, but with its nicely observed characters and lively dialogue—and terrific sex scenes—it keeps readers turning the pages.

So, aside from a totally unnecessary quibble ("doesn't have the zip"), this completes the always fretful pre-publication period in fine style.  

A lot of writers say they don't read reviews of their work, which strikes me as a noble exercise in self-restraint, but also strikes me as a little odd, or perhaps I should say, downright crazy.

I've learned a lot from reading reviews of my books.  As I have also learned a lot from reading reviews on Goodreads and Amazon (which are now merging into the same thing, sort of).  I can get a sense from reading lots of reviews about just how successful or unsuccessful I've been at doing what I set out to do.  This is, after all, a performance art.  We writers are a bit like stage performers and in that sense we can learn from the enthusiasm or lack thereof of the applause.  When are our lines working?  When are they not?  

I used to believe that audience reaction was irrelevant.  Critics be damned.  I thought I was arm-wrestling with the literary gods, and if some poor soul couldn't see the value of what I was writing, then that poor soul was ignorant and not worthy of my attention.  

I used to be a callow fool.  

Naturally, swinging too far in the other direction, being utterly dependent on feedback, is also damaging to a writer.  

I've always liked the metaphor of singing in the shower.  We sing in the shower because the acoustics are good and the roar of the water seems to smooth out the frailties of our voice.  But if a writer is simply singing in the shower, succumbing to self-deception by simply writing what pleases him without concern for what anyone walking by the bathroom might think (who is that screeching in there?), then the whole process of writing is no longer art, but a masturbatory exercise.  You do it to please yourself alone.  The world beyond your bathroom door be damned.

So finding the balance for me is important.  I care about reviews, but I have to be philosophical too.  Good ones are nice and they validate (for a brief moment) the work I've put into the book, and bad ones tug at my sense of self-worth and sometimes invite me to look honestly at what I've done or failed to do.  But when I get back to work, writing the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next exchange of dialog, well, the reviews, good or bad, are a distant memory and have very little if any lasting effect.

Still it was a nice day to see: "terrific sex scenes."


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Another Nice Review

 Booklist is one of those periodicals that librarians (bless their hearts) read and thus, the book reviews often help them select new purchases.  Ordinary book readers usually are unaware of Booklist's importance in the publishing business, but it carries considerable weight among booksellers, editors, publishers, and other book reviewers.  The folks at Booklist have always been fans of my novels (showing more enthusiasm for some books than others).  

What I always value in a review is a smooth and efficient retelling of the storyline (without spoilers) and an appreciation for some of the other intangibles in the prose that I work so hard on creating.

This review has both.

Thorn is a hermetic, fly-tying loner whose attempts to carve a separate peace for himself on Key Largo are only intermittently successful.  Inevitably, he’s drawn into somebody else’s fight, or, in a kind of reverse serendipity, simply walks into a mess that needs fixing.  And when Thorn gets to fixing something, he doesn’t stop until the job’s done.  Ah, but the collateral damage, there’s the rub.  Too often Thorn’s knight-errantry puts those he loves in danger.  This time it’s a little different.  The problem is Thorn’s newly discovered son (Dead Last, 2011), who has joined forces with a band of ecoterrorists who have designs on Florida’s largest nuclear-power plant. (The plan is supposed to be nonviolent, but a cell within the cell has other ideas.)  Thorn’s only hope of extricating his son is to join up with the terrorists, which raises the bar on possible collateral damage to a new high.  Hall is one of those rare thriller writers who can build character as he ratchets tension, who can do no-holds-barred action scenes with panache and, in the midst of bedlam, never loses sight of nuance.  All those skills are on display here, as Hall assembles a full-bodied supporting cast whose stories hold our interest as much as Thorn’s attempt to save his son without helping to bring about a South Florida version of Chernobyl.  A fine thriller on every level.

--Bill Ott, Booklist, November 1, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013


Like it or not, getting reviewed is part of the deal when you're a writer.  A year's worth of work (and sometimes much more) summarized, praised, dismissed, or castigated in a couple of paragraphs.

I remember at the beginning of my career with Under Cover of Daylight I got dozens of great reviews, including a standalone in the New York Times with my photograph, a half a page of space and it was written by Charlie Willeford, and I thought in my naivete that this was normal and expected and no big deal.

Well, it was a big deal, and my publishing career zoomed off the launching pad in a wonderfully lucky trajectory.  Now I see just how lucky those early reviews were.  They gave my publisher confidence to increase the advertising budget and to place full page ads in the New York Times and elsewhere.  As a result that novel sold many times more copies than the average first novel does.

And I got a big dose of undeserved pridefulness.  The years have cut me down to size.  Under Cover was a good book, and one I'm proud of, but there were dozens and dozens of other books as good that were published at the same time but didn't get the reviews I got, and some of those writers suffered as a result, their careers probably affected by the lack of early attention. 

I appreciate all the reviews now, good and bad.  I'm always interested in seeing how someone writes about something I've worked so hard on.  I've gotten some really wonderfully well-written savagely negative reviews and some ho-hum good ones in the 30 years since Under Cover.

I remember complaining once to Elmore Leonard that I'd just gotten a bad review on one of the novels and he used that wise old adage: 'Did they spell your name right?'  Implying of course that any publicity is good publicity.  Later on at that same lunch he mentioned a journalist he was scheduled to do an interview with in a couple of days and he said he wasn't sure he wanted to talk to the guy because he'd once called Dutch "the most over-rated crime writer in America."  He remembered more of the quote, and knew it word for word. 

So yes, any press (or blog post, or Amazon or Goodreads post, etc.) is good press, but even someone of Dutch Leonard's stature was hurt by some reviewer's zinger.

With that in mind, (and much more that I don't have time to recount right now), I offer the following review, the first to appear on Going Dark, the novel that's coming in December.  It's a good one.  And damn, I'm grateful.  And they did spell my name right too.

Publisher's Weekly

Starred Review *

Moral ambiguity seasons the violent action in Edgar-winner Hall’s outstanding 13th thriller featuring laconic loner Thorn (after 2011’s Dead Last). Thorn, who lives in the undeveloped backwoods of Key Largo and loathes the kind of hyperdevelopment that’s ruining Florida, is roused from his isolation to extricate his grown son, Flynn Moss, whose existence he only recently became aware of, from the Earth Liberation Front, a group of ecological terrorists who are planning to shut down a nearby atomic power plant. Thorn actually is sympathetic with ELF’s goals—but he doesn’t trust them. Meanwhile, FBI agent Frank Sheffield begins uncovering a plot to create a nuclear disaster that could annihilate Miami, while a beautiful female Homeland Security agent and a cocksure psycho who likes to play with electricity are working their own schemes. Hall shifts among the skillfully drawn characters, each uncertain of which ends justify extreme means, as the action races toward a literally explosive climax at the nuclear plant. The result is both thoughtful and white-knuckle tense.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


 Watched World War Z a couple of nights ago.  I'm not a zombie aficionado, but the film got me wondering about why there's such a resurgence of interest in zombies.

Here's an excellent article that considers the Meaning of Zombies.

I think there's something in the air these days, maybe as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, plus 9/11 that puts the Apocalypse on our psychic radar more prominently than any time I remember since the Cuban missile crisis.

Back then my father built a bomb shelter in our basement.  I grew up in a small Kentucky town less than twenty miles from Ft. Campbell where the 101st Airborne is based.  So we considered ourselves to be a target, at least within the blast zone of the approaching atomic war.

Duck and Cover

I remember the sense of dread I felt for years about that bomb shelter in our basement.  The dread was not about nuclear winter or the destruction and death of the world as I knew it, but I dreaded sitting in a small room for any great length of time with my mother.  Yikes.

What would we talk about during those long hours as we ate canned peaches and beans?  What about the toilet?

When the Cuban missile crisis ended, the bomb shelter was not dismantled.  My father left it in place, only a few feet away from where I'd created a small space to work on building my customized model cars.  I specialized in building 32 Ford hotrods.

In my model car workshop, I built many versions of this car, using pieces of corduroy fabric to imitate rolled and pleated upholstery, and sanded away all the door joints and added blowers and lake pipes to the engine and after doing many many layers of spray paint to imitate the candy apple reds that struck my hotrod fancy back then, I would take those beautiful plastic model cars way out into the backyard and put a cherry bomb inside them and blow them up.

Someone get that poor kid a shrink.

My writing room where I now work is also in a basement (for the half year I'm in Carolina), and I often think of that old basement in Kentucky where I created stuff with such care then destroyed it.

The fear of the Apocalypse that my generation felt was real.  Nuclear war was very possible.  And my parents had already witnessed the Great Depression and World War II and thus they were primed to believe that another End of the World scenario was a credible threat. 

So when I watch a zombie movie like World War Z, it's easy to get back in touch with all those fears, especially now that they are reawakened by a general sense of dread about climate change, terrorist attacks, financial disaster, cyber attacks, and a host of other dangers that seem all too likely to occur.

These days I try not to blow up the things I've worked so hard to create.  But when I think of that kid who lit the fuses of those cherry bombs, I can't help thinking that one thing he was trying to do back then was to keep those beautiful creations out of the hands of the zombies who were lurking just beyond the horizon.


Saturday, September 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard

I took this photo earlier this month while attending Elmore Leonard's funeral.
This is the tennis court in the backyard of his home.  The net is down.  The court is covered in black mold.  It seems like a fitting image for the way I felt during my couple of days in Detroit.

The funeral itself took place at the Holy Name Catholic church that Elmore attended most of his life.  A beautiful and moving ceremony.  Here's the front and back of the program.  And two photos which I think capture wonderfully two of the sides of Elmore.  Serious, thoughtful, wise.  And twinkling with humor.

I was staying in a Holiday Inn not far from the funeral home in Troy, Michigan, about 15 miles from Detroit itself.  My trusty GPS had steered me from the beautiful new airport (this city is bankrupt?) to my hotel and then it had successfully located the funeral home the afternoon I arrived.

At the funeral home visitation, I spoke with Dutch's family and with Greg Sutter, a wonderful man, a friend, and Dutch's researcher for many years.  The casket was open, a fact I had not fully prepared myself for.  But the guy looked good, even dead, a little more serious than in the photo just above (taken by his good friend Mike Lupica, a terrific guy).  He didn't have his usual twinkle, but who would under those circumstances.

The next day was the funeral service.  I punched in the address and left the motel very early just in case. 630 Harmon Street.  I drove south on the interstate for about twenty minutes, back into the city of Detroit and exited, as instructed by my British speaking GPS lady, on Caniff Street.  Well, the potholes got deeper every block I went and the neighborhood got grimmer.

I told myself, well, Dutch just hung in there with his childhood church long after the neighborhood went bad.  Just like him not to be distressed by such a scary area.  Then the street seemed to narrow, guys in baggy clothes started staring at me, started drifting toward my car, started blocking the way, and I said, well, maybe not.

And U-turned and headed back to the interstate.  Well, the church was on 630 Harmon Street after all, but that Harmon Street was in Birmingham not Detroit, as I had wrongly told my GPS.

Birmingham is to Detroit as Coral Gables is to Overtown.  A beautiful, graceful town well north of the potholes and crack houses.

It felt like a moment from one of Dutch's novels.  In fact, Caniff Street figured prominently in City Primeval, a novel I just finished re-reading.  Two people were gunned down there.


The service was wonderful.  His sons, Peter and Bill spoke humorously and touchingly about their dad.  The man was a great dad, just as I would've imagined.  The granddaughters sang.  A violinist played a beautiful rendition of "A Little Help From My Friends."  But several of us commented afterwards that the most surprising and most emotional moment came at the end of the service when an officer from the United States Navy led two of his associates through the Military Honors drill.  Taps was played, the flag was folded, Dutch's military service was described.  Another from the greatest generation fades from view.

Dutch was incredibly generous to me.  He entered my life before my first novel was published and he figured prominently throughout my literary career, assisting me in ways that were above and beyond the call.  His novels, of course, were also deeply influential on shaping my own style, perhaps too much so at the beginning of my career, a fact he noted once with a wry wink.  

I've had a couple of literary fathers.  Dutch was one.  

I hope someone cleans the black mold off that tennis court soon and strings up the net.

Been Seriously Slacking

Okay, okay.  It's been months, seems like even longer, since I was here last, but I've decided to get back to work and use my blog again.  See how it works out. 

 I'm going to be focusing on things that relate to my writing life, publication, reviews, book tour.  The creative process.  

For the more personal stuff, I still spend a bit of time on  Facebook, which you can find here.

Or you can follow me on Twitter.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Literachoor and the Culture Wars

Literachoor and the Culture Wars
“It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.” 
                                                               David Hume, 1757

         The assaying of value in literary matters which used to be left exclusively to academics, influential critics, reviewers and well known writers of Mr. Lane’s and Mr. Vidal’s stature, these days occurs in forums of every sort.  From monthly book groups meeting in living rooms around the country, to Amazon.com and book blogs, it’s a rough and tumble world of critical evaluation and argument. 
Everyone is now entitled to their own electronic opinion and may post their thoughts on innumerable websites frequented by fervent readers of every stripe.  At no time during the forty years I’ve been immersed in the literary world have I seen so much democracy at work, so much earnest public debate over aesthetic matters. While academic literary criticism continues to circle off into ever more lofty and airless regions, actual readers are enthusiastically climbing aboard their soapboxes to tout their favorite novel, or express their disappointment in a writer’s latest effort.  And on many occasions these discussions and reader reviews show as much insight and passion for a writers’ body of work as many professional reviewers demonstrate.  Good for them.  Good for all of us.
         Although value-driven arguments can be exhilarating and enlightening, ultimately, like it or not, a book succeeds or fails in the marketplace for many reasons other than merit.   To try to claim a relationship, inverse or direct, between a book’s success and its worthiness is ultimately futile.  One reason, of course, is that the very idea of worthiness is itself so subjective as to disintegrate into fine powder if we stare at it too hard. 
Try as critics might to assign some defining empiricism to their judgments, all discussions of artistic value are fatally slippery.  Is thinking more worthy than feeling, as Mr. Lane suggests?  Is impenetrable complexity more worthy than accessible simplicity?  Brooding tragedy more worthy than light-hearted comedy?  Is lush, elegant prose more admirable than its plain transparent cousin?  Is a convoluted plot better than a simple one?  What about characters?  Are stock characters really inferior to those so complex that it takes a thousand densely packed pages to plumb their depths?  Are Lamborghinis better than Fords?  We can have our preferences but there simply is no universal truth in matters such as these.  
So how does the critic who slams the bestseller list as demonstrative of the lowest rank of cultural taste explain the presence on past year-end lists of such card-carrying luminaries as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Mary McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, William Styron, Philip Roth, John Fowles, Pat Conroy, E.L. Doctorow, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver,  John Irving, Amy Tan, and John Updike? 
For me the answer to that question seems simple enough.  American readers have stubbornly democratic tastes.  We are looking for entertaining stories and characters who arouse their passions, and to satisfy these desires, we are willing to embrace a broad range of novels, from high culture to low.  As James Surowiecki puts it in The Wisdom of Crowds, “ …chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that.  We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which, of course, includes the geniuses as well as everyone else) instead.  Chances are, it knows.” 

Dollars vs. Respectability
Leslie Fiedler, one of America’s celebrated literary critics, noted a classic remark by Melville on this point.  “Dollars damn me…all my books are botches.”  Fiedler goes on to say that “implicit in (Melville’s) melancholy cry from the heart is a belief, as strong and pertinacious as any myth by which we live, that the authentic writer is neither drawn to nor confirmed in his vocation by the hope of marketplace success, the dream of becoming rich and famous, but can only be seduced by lucre, led to betray or prostitute his talent.”
A little later in the same essay, Fiedler neatly summarizes the playing field of modern literary warfare.  “For a century and a half, those writers who aspired to critical acclaim and an eternal place in libraries have therefore felt compelled to struggle not just for their livelihood but for their very existence against the authors of ‘bestsellers’ who they secretly envy and publicly despise.”
 Speaking of envy, a few years back when Stephen King was honored with the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award for fiction, more than one defender of the literary canon roared in protest.  No less than that high-culture lion Harold Bloom called King’s award “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.”  Book editors around the country weighed in, almost all on the side of the high culture values it is their sworn duty to uphold.  In the Washington Post, Linton Weeks posed the argument this way: “The issue: what to make of the gap in our culture between bestselling and well-written literature.  The popular and the proper.  The slew and the few.”  
King tossed gasoline onto this bonfire in his remarks at the award ceremony.  “For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding.  This is the way it has always been.  But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future, things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been.  Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction.”
Well, I hope this book will serve as some small attempt at the construction of that bridge, but I predict that passing freely back and forth between the land of good taste and the province of low brow will always expose one to such cultural snipers as Vidal, Lane and Bloom and literature professors like my own younger self. 
It’s clear enough that Stephen King is not alone among popular writers in yearning for a literary prize or two to set atop their mountains of cash, or at the very least a front page NY Times Book Review as some validation of their worth.  And while their highbrow cousins might never admit it publicly, I suspect their hankering is just as strong, only the prize they dream of is something closer to a hefty movie deal.
The math of publishing, like that of the music and film businesses, gives us an insight into the dependence of the American entertainment industry on the blockbuster.  Roughly ten percent of the books on any publisher’s list pay for the other ninety percent which either break even or lose money.  Given this calculus, Stephen King and his trash-writing colleagues deserve more than a few silver chalices.  It’s books like theirs that keep the industry afloat.  Stephen King and his kind are the lifeblood of publishing.  Simple as that. 
Much of what we take as the given state of affairs in the book world, including the very existence of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and the well-stocked superstores and Amazon.com and the lofty jobs of book reviewers and publishing giants would be shockingly altered, if they managed to survive at all, without those ten percent of the books which flood the marketplace with tidal waves of cash.  
It’s more than a little odd for an industry that depends so much on its most popular producers, to treat them with such disdain.  In Linton Weeks’ Washington Post piece on the Stephen King affair, he claims that great novels “…change lives.  They challenge our notions and afflict our comfort at the time they were written and for untellable time to come.  They cut through time and space, to the hearts and souls of readers.”  In other words great books challenge us and are immortal. 
To declare that anyone could possibly know a book to be immortal rather than simply of faddish interest is to claim a prescience no mortal can possess.  Yes, as Robert Frost observed, on a strictly personal level we can often sense when we read a work of literature that we’ve taken “a mortal wound” and that book or poem will linger with us as long as we live. 
But who can say that Peyton Place, or Gone with the Wind don’t meet both those criteria for a great many people?  Did Grace Metalious’s shocking expose of the sexual underbelly and hypocrisy of a small New England town not challenge its readers?  You bet it did.  And it damn well placed itself squarely at center stage for at least a good long time in our cultural history.  As did Gone with the Wind and a host of other popular books.  Though it might fly in the faces of the high priests of literary culture, my money is on Gone With the Wind over Humboldt’s Gift in the race to last another century or two, because of its hold on so many readers’ imaginations.

Raunch Lovers
When Stephen King says “this is the way it has always been,” he’s exactly right.  The tension between popular literature and the high culture has existed since the very birth of the English novel in the eighteenth century. 
Though Daniel Defoe (Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe) is now regarded as one of the major progenitors of the novel form, in his age he was scorned by the guardians of good taste.  Jonathon Swift was one of many who regarded him with contempt:  One of those Authors (the Fellow that was pilloryed, I have forgot his Name) is indeed so grave, sententious, dogmatical a Rogue, that there is no enduring him.” 
Planted in the beginnings of the novel form are the seeds of the current contentious rivalry between high culture and low.  Then as now, a large part of what fueled that rivalry was simple class prejudice.  Defoe was not a gentleman born, but he aspired to become a gentleman by other means.  His novels appealed to a class of readers who, like Defoe, were eager to improve themselves through the accumulation of wealth and possessions and insider knowledge, in short to learn the ways and imitate the habits of their so-called betters. 
His eager audience read his roguish tales not just for titillation, but because his stories pointed a hopeful way forward.  Many of those early novels were Horatio Algeresque how-to portrayals of lower class heroes and heroines who prevailed over poverty and the enormous obstacles placed in their path by an elite culture indifferent to their problems and contemptuous of their dreams.
Writing in The Guardian in 1713 about the increase in the reading audience that novels were bringing about, Richard Steele sounds a little like his snobbish descendants three centuries later:  “…this unsettled way of reading…which naturally seduces us into as undetermined a manner of thinking…That assemblage of words which is called a style becomes utterly annihilated… The common defense of these people is, that they have no design in reading but for pleasure, (my emphasis) which I think should rather arise from reflection and remembrance of what one had read, than from the transient satisfaction of what one does, and we should be pleased proportionately as we are profited.”
These new readers had no other purpose but to seek a pleasurable reading experience!  Ye, gads, can the apocalypse be far behind?
From the outset a great many novels were raunchy and rebellious, nose-thumbing tales written and read by nose-thumbing, raunch-loving middlebrow citizens.  Although to compress two centuries of literary history into a single sentence is to invite ridicule, it’s safe to say that the schism between the literary novel and the popular one began at the day of the novel’s birth and has continued to widen as academics and scholars and book critics, eager to assert their own usefulness, inserted themselves into the process. 
These days a harmless tale like Huckleberry Finn that nearly every twelve year old boy or girl in previous generations read with utter fascination and complete understanding, has been hijacked by the academic establishment and rendered into a sanctioned classic that requires professional exegesis.  God save us from the critics who turn simple pleasure into intellectual labor. 
When millions of readers, whether they are formally educated or not, have expressed their separate opinions by buying and delighting in a particular novel, there is some larger wisdom at work.  It seems self-evident that it would behoove a lover of literature to lower his guard, temporarily put away his Harold Bloom, and ask one simple question.  What is it about this or that enormously popular book that inspires such widespread fervor and devotion? 

So You Want to Write a Bestseller
Some might wonder if this book is intended to be a primer for writers who might wishwishing to take a swing at writing a blockbuster themselves.  To that I can only say that this book is more about why we read them than how to write them. However, it’s obvious that reading and studying books in careful detail—books like the one she wishes to write—should be a central feature of any writer’s apprenticeship.  And naturally, if an apprentice in any field wanted to succeed commercially, why wouldn’t they spend at least a little time studying the most commercially successful products of their age? 
Of course there will always be those fussy folk who fret that if they pay even the slightest attention to John Grisham or Stephen King or William Peter Blatty their palates would be sullied, tongues befouled.  Good gracious, their taste buds might never recover.   To those good people I suggest that this book may not be for you.
It is not my purpose to make a case about the “worth” or “artistic value” of the novels under discussion here. Nor is this book an attempt to erase the line between high art and low.  If anything I’d simply like to argue that that line is now and always has been a whole lot hazier than my highbrow friends would like to admit. 
As Louis Menand, critic at large for the New Yorker, put it in a 2009 article on that metafictionist Donald Barthelme:
“What killed the distinction (between high culture and low) wasn’t defining pop art up.  It was defining high art down.  It was the recognition that serious art, too, is produced and consumed in a marketplace.  The point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art.  It was that a work of art is like a soup can:  they are both commodities.”

Robert Kincaid, the sensitive Marlboro Man hero of The Bridges of Madison County agrees whole-heartedly.  He finds it to be the same sad slog in his profession, the photography biz.
“That’s the problem in earning a living through an art form.  You’re always dealing with markets, and markets—mass markets—are designed to suit average tastes.  That’s where the numbers are.  That’s the reality, I guess.  But, as I said, it can become pretty confining.”

It’s amusing to find a card-carrying literary critic in such firm accord with a character from a schlocky novel.  Whether it’s high culture or low, whether it’s in good taste or bad, highly refined or vulgar, like it or not, it’s all for sale.