Another chapter I wrote for Hit Lit was deemed too confrontational. I admit this chapter which juxtaposes passages from contemporaneous reviews of the bestsellers I was analyzing with reviews of the big literary novel of the day, may strike some as pugnacious. That's true. I feel pretty strongly about this stuff and am willing to fight for my position. I think that's one of the things which makes books like Hit Lit worth reading. They provoke thought. They take a position. They spoil for a fight.
I regret that this chapter didn't make it into the finished book.
“In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo.”
T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Popular novels are “embarrassing to pick up and impossible to put down.” They are schmaltzy, full of cliches, down-to-earth, simple-minded, written in accessible prose, all the things that readers love and book reviewers despise.
Book reviewers are on the front lines of the literary culture wars. Empowered by their positions at big city newspapers and national magazines, these under-appreciated warriors bravely endure the bombardment of crappy books that rain down on their lonely outposts every day.
The job of these professional critics is to praise the worthy and condemn the undeserving, to advance the literary principles they hold dear.
It is in the words of these reliable defenders of high culture values that I open our investigation of bestsellers. By understanding specifically what the stakes and standards are, we can begin to map out the territory we will explore in the pages to come.
Rhapsodies of Beauty
1936 Gone With The Wind vs. The Big Money
In 1936 Margaret Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for Gone With The Wind. Did that mean recognition and literary acceptance from the elites? Not exactly.
It was an honor that many literati regarded as cheap pandering to the rabble, an act of aesthetic gutlessness by the selection committee meant to avoid controversy. As if to prove it, the American Writer’s Congress which awarded the other major literary prize of that era, was not cowed by popular opinion when they bitch-slapped Scarlett lovers everywhere by awarding the best book of the year prize to John Dos Passos for his modernist treatise, The Big Money. The final vote of the awards committee? Mitchell: 1. Dos Passos, 350.
That year John Dos Passos was the darling of the high culture critics. Like other reviewers, Edward T. Wheeler, writing in Commonweal hailed “Dos Passos' sense of form and artistic sureness which tips its hat to Joyce, Pound, and Eliot, and gives much satisfaction.”
(Bold emphasis is mine here and throughout this chapter.)
Comparing an author to Joyce, Pound and Eliot, that triumvirate of Modernists, is a way of saluting a writer for employing, among other things, disjointed stream-of-consciousness narratives and long, elaborate sentences. (Absalom, Absalom! which was also published in 1936, and is generally regarded as William Faulkner’s masterpiece, had the distinction of winning a Guiness World Record for containing literature’s longest sentence of 1300 words.)
“The Modernists introduced us to the idea that reading could be work, and not common labor but the work of an intellectual elite, a highly trained coterie of professional aesthetic interpreters,” says Lev Grossman, writing in the Wall Street Journal. He goes on to quote one of the modernist mottoes of an early publisher of Joyce: "Make no compromise with the public taste." A kind of ‘let them eat cake’ slogan of snobbish contempt.
Any reference to James Joyce in a book review should be a warning flag for the attentive reader: Alert, Alert, Serious Literature Ahead. For it is Joyce, more than any other novelist, who clarified the differences between the literary high road and the mass culture low. About Ulysses, Edmund Wilson famously wrote in the New Republic: "In the last pages of the book, Joyce soars to such rhapsodies of beauty as have probably never been equaled in English prose fiction." Those rhapsodies have served as a yardstick for novels ever since.
So when Dos Passos was praised for his Modernist daring, the reviewer was commending his willingness to ditch ordinary storytelling and character-making, all that malarkey that would appeal to a casual reader-for-pleasure.
It worked just fine for Dos Passos, although some social critics have argued that Modernism had a nefarious agenda which was to purposefully exclude the masses.
"The intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy. But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand—and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligentsia, to exclude the masses from culture. In England this movement has become known as Modernism. --John Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses
Favoring technical virtuosity over story and character is business as usual when it comes to dismissing popular novels, as these snippets from reviews of Gone With The Wind make brutally clear. Each of these critics takes pains to declare that GWTW isn’t a “great novel” just a good one, before giving the only praise they can muster.
"I would never, never say that she has written a great novel, but in the midst of triteness and sentimentality her book has a simple-minded courage…” New Republic - Malcolm Cowley
"Gone With The Wind is by no means a great novel. But it is a long while since the American reading public has been offered such a bounteous feast of excellent storytelling...." New York Times Book Review
All right. So great novels require hard work. They are stories which use difficult-to-follow narrative devices and elaborate sentences, and rhapsodies of beauty (that is, they’re sort of poetic). And books that are not so great are simple and full of emotion and include lots of familiar characters and other familiar stuff. In other words, they’re too fun and easy to be any good.
Okay, so, let’s leave Scarlett and Dos Passos to battle it out for their piece of posterity, and skip ahead twenty years to mid-twentieth century.
1956, Peyton Place vs. The Recognitions
In 1956, the year Peyton Place titillated America, William Gaddis published his first novel, The Recognitions to bountiful praise. Time magazine’s reviewer raved, at one point invoking that embodiment of high culture values when he described the book as “aswim in erudition, semi-Joycean in language…”
There’s our boy, James, again.
By contrast, Peyton Place was hammered by reviewers, most of whom were shocked, shocked I tell you, by its immorality and obscenity. Unsurprisingly, Catholic World was beside itself with contempt for this lurid book.
“This novel is one of the cheapest, most blatant attempts in years to present the most noxiously commonplace in ideas and behavior in the
loose and ill-worn guise of realistic art.”
‘Noxiously commonplace’ might be decoded to mean that the novel is not about the uplifting and the spiritual, or those values that Ms. Katukani found so worthy in the Gaddis novel. The low road is common, while the high road, well, it’s for those traveling in the big leather seats up-front.
The New York Herald Tribune chimed in with a harsh assessment of Peyton Place that probably was intended to be a crushing blow, but which undoubtedly sent tantalized readers running to the stores:
“…sex is the dominant accent of the book and Mrs. Metalious, in her
effort to be realistic, spares neither detail or language in high-lighting her scenes in bed, car or on the beach. Invariable, even in moments which should be tender and understanding, she injects an offensively crude note. In fact the book reads like a tabloid version of life in a small town.”
Okay, so Peyton Place wasn’t “aswim in erudition.” Agreed. Grace Metalious had attempted no literary cartwheels to please the swanky folks. She apparently had more mundane goals in mind. Julian Messner is one of the few critics who got it. In his Time magazine review he writes that Metalious “captures a real sense of the tempo, texture and tensions in the social anatomy of a small town. Her ear for local speech is unflinching down to the last four-letter word, and her characters have a sort of rawboned vitality that may produce low animal moans in many a critic's throat.”
In other words, it was just the sort of writing that had been appealing to novel readers for a couple of centuries. Hardcore reality, not erudition. Close to the earth, not up in the clouds.
Impossibly Rich, Monstrously Long
1960 To Kill a Mockingbird vs. The Sot Weed Factor, John Barth
In 1960 Time Magazine picked John Barth’s novels as one of its All Time 100 Best Novels, largely for its technical virtuosity—a novel about novel writing:
“A feast. Dense, funny, endlessly inventive (and, OK, yes, long-winded) this satire of the 18th-century picaresque novel—think Fielding's Tom Jones or Sterne's Tristram Shandy —is also an earnest picture of the pitfalls awaiting innocence as it makes its unsteady way in the world… Barth's language is impossibly rich, a wickedly funny take on old English rhetoric and American self-appraisals.”
The New York Times agreed that like any good literary novel, this was definitely not some lightweight page-turner:
“John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor is a brilliantly specialized performance, so monstrously long that reading it seemed nearly as laborious as writing it…”
For reasons that elude me, book critics have often showered praise on books for the amazing triumph of being lengthy. Saul Bellow’s celebrated novel, The Adventures of Augie March, was praised by a New York Times reviewer in this head-scratching manner:
“Individual episodes are superb. Peculiar conversations are delightful. They justify, it seems to me, the effort required to read the more than a quarter of a million words of this inchoate novel…
“…so loose and formless is Mr. Bellow’s book that it would make no noticeable difference if 100,000 words were cut from it or if 100,000 words were added to it.”[RHI1]
Also appearing in 1960, the lean, pruned down story of Scout and Atticus and Jem got a slightly different treatment. Garnering modestly positive reviews, To Kill A Mockingbird didn’t sit well with some of the high priests of its day. A few critics rebuked Harper Lee for her un-Joycean style, and the even more vile sin of being influenced by Hollywood.
“The praise that Miss Lee deserves must be qualified somewhat by noting that oftentimes the narrator's expository style has a processed, homogenized, impersonal flatness quite out of keeping with the narrator's gay, impulsive approach to life in youth. Also, some of the scenes suggest that Miss Lee is cocking at least one eye toward Hollywood...” Frank H. Lyell, The New York Times Book Review
The National Book Award that year went to Conrad Richter for The Waters of Kronos, a novel which garnered kudos for its “portentous prose and insistent symbolism.”
So, mark that down. According to high culture mavens, a convoluted plot, a self-conscious narrator, and an intricate style are virtues, while a clean and simple style is of questionable merit. And any indication that a novelist might be operating under the influence of Hollywood is cause for censure.
1966 Valley of the Dolls vs. The Crying of Lot 49
In 1966, the same year Jacqueline Sussan published Valley of the Dolls, Thomas Pynchon released his shortest and most accessible novel, The Crying of Lot 49. His previous novel, V, had seen him welcomed into the high culture fold with this now familiar nod to our friend James Joyce.
“The masterpiece of the new manner, a book called simply V. is an epic of planned irrelevance that Joyce would surely have respected.” (Time, March 15, 1963)
The Crying of Lot 49 was met with similar delight, and was again awarded the keys to the literary kingdom. A Time magazine reviewer admired it greatly. “With its slapstick paranoia and its heartbreaking metaphysical soliloquies, Lot 49 takes place in the tragicomic universe that is instantly recognizable as Pynchon-land.”
Meanwhile Valley of the Dolls, was treated to a series of hatchet jobs. Gloria Steinem, writing in Book Week, made a standard put-down, associating the book with Hollywood. In this case, Ms. Steinem connects Valley of the Dolls with the lowest circle of that hellish town.
"For the reader who has put away comic books but isn't ready for editorials in The Daily News, "Valley of the Dolls" may bridge an awkward gap… Most of the dialog is less classic-bad than television-bad, and Sussan, a former TV actress, churns it out like a pro.”
What was true in the mid-sixties is still true today. Plucked from various twenty-first century reviews of books that the New York Times considered the most notable novels of the year are phrases that closely echo the code words of praise for Pynchon’s early novels.
Without naming titles, here are some key descriptors of a couple of heralded books of 2005: “This graceful and dreamily cerebral novel…” Another novel won this rave: “her ruminations on beauty and cruelty have clarity and an uncanny bite.”
That the highbrow critic gives such laudatory treatment to works that contain dreamy, graceful, cerebral ruminations, suggests a favoritism toward fiction strong on narcissistic intellectualism and not too interested in a hard-driving plot or a passionate emotional sensibility. A well-structured, exciting narrative that contains realistic characters who inspire strong emotional responses is red-tagged as lowbrow. As if somehow these feats of writing are so easily accomplished they are beneath the lofty abilities of the dreamy cerebralists.
Though I must say, in the forty years I taught fiction writing to hundreds of talented writers, it became abundantly clear that tapping out metaphysical soliloquies and dreamy cerebral ruminations is the easiest and least demanding skill to master, while crafting a tight, forward-moving plot full of engaging characters proves considerably more of a challenge.
1969, The Godfather vs. Steps
In 1969 Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award for his short, intense novel, Steps, a book composed of brief fragmentary scenes loosely connected into a series of mini-chapters.
Years later, David Foster Wallace, a twenty-first century novelist with impeccable literary credentials, wrote that Steps was a "collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that's like nothing else anywhere ever…"
In a 1974 article admiring Kosinski’s novel, Samuel Coale described the narrator of Steps as “a disembodied voice howling in some surrealistic wilderness." And Harpers Magazine praised Kosinski’s writing as having “the linguistic bravado of Conrad and Nabokov…a master of pungent and disciplined English prose.”
This emphasis on uniqueness of style, and on the inventive use of voice are more arrows in the quiver of high culture warriors. A novel that relies on prose that is merely transparently simple or even primitive in its construction can never fully partake in the feasting that goes on at the literary head table.
Such primitivism is the hallmark of Mario Puzo’s prose, and to many readers this seems entirely suitable for a book about such primitive folks as the Corleones. But in 1969, the critics were not giving any blue ribbons to Puzo as a stylist. Critic Wilfrid Sheed was typical of the prevailing view when he described the prose of The Godfather as "speed writing clichés."
In fact, even in reviews meant to praise The Godfather critics often used patronizing language of the most obvious sort.
Dick Schaap’s New York Times review was particularly condescending. Though thankfully he doesn’t mention James Joyce, Schaap does raise the issue of Hollywood when he instructs potential readers how to prepare themselves for confronting The Godfather.
“Allow for a touch of corniness here. Allow for a bit of over-dramatization there. Allow for an almost total absence of humor. Still Puzo has written a solid story that you can read without discomfort at one long sitting. Pick a night with nothing good on television, and you'll come out far ahead.”
Puzo was under no illusions about his capabilities as a stylist. He was aware he was not capable of “linguist bravado” or a “terse elegant voice.” Though he was prideful enough to believe he could have improved the writing, given a second chance. "If I'd known so many people were going to read it," Puzo told Larry King, "I'd have written it better."
To millions of readers, however, Puzo’s style is just right. As primitive as a cave painting and just as powerful.
1971, The Exorcist vs. Mr. Sammler’s Planet
Gorgeous sentences and stylistic grace are also central in the praise for Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Saul Bellow’s 1971 National Book Award winning novel.
Irvin Stock in Commentary Magazine, equates the musicality of the sentences with the very thought processes of the main character, a technique that sounds a whole lot like Joycean stream-of-consciousness.
“Bellow has a gift, reminiscent of Wordsworth, for evoking in his very sentence rhythms, as well as in his words, the experience of thought, the drama of its emergence out of the life of the whole man.”
Also lauding the novel, Joyce Carol Oates uses the imagery of someone who’s trapped in a revolving door and decides she likes it. For her, the ending was “so powerful that it forces us to immediately reread the entire novel, because we have been altered in the process of reading it and are now, at its conclusion, ready to begin reading it.” And when she’s finished the second reading? It makes me dizzy just thinking about it.
Anatole Broyard doesn’t actually use the words, dreamy, cerebral ruminations in his New York Times review, but he comes darn close.
“Arthur Sammler is old enough to be metaphysical. Beyond desire, beyond competition, with nothing further to gain or prove, he lives in that twilight zone of the human condition where philosophy, poetry and parody shade into each other.”
Also inhabiting a twilight zone is Reagan MacNeil, the girl child at the center of The Exorcist, though her twilight is anything but dreamy. This novel of demonic possession didn’t impress most reviewers with its stylistic virtues:
“Faulkner, Blatty is not…I consumed The Exorcist as if it were a bottomless bag of popcorn. It’s a page-turner par excellence. I variously believed, discredited and respected The Exorcist.” --Webster Schott, Life
It’s funny to watch certified high culture reviewers like Mr. Schott squirming when torn between admiration and disdain. Poor guy can’t believe he liked this book.
A reviewer for the Los Angeles Times who found the novel “immensely satisfying” also called it “worthy of Poe.”
While I’m sure some might view this as validation of The Exorcist, the fact is, dropping Edgar Allan Poe’s name is a far cry from invoking James Joyce’s. As the first American master of the ghastly, ghostly and gory, Poe has long been treated as an embarrassing sideshow in the American literary canon, a kind of crazy uncle who is tolerated but goes largely ignored. Despite his literary merits and historical significance, Poe, the horror meister, is usually quarantined well away from the respectable districts, lest his telltale creepiness contaminate the faint-hearted sophisticates.
Mentioning his name in a book review is at best a back-handed compliment and at worst an overt signal to the literarily-minded that the work being judged is for the adolescent down-market audience.
R.Z. Sheppard, the Time magazine reviewer, wasn’t at all coy in his disemboweling of The Exorcist.
“The Exorcist… has nothing to do with literature. It is a pretentious, tasteless, abominably written, redundant pastiche of superficial theology, comic-book psychology, Grade C movie dialogue and Grade Z scatology. In short, The Exorcist will be a bestseller and almost certainly a drive-in movie.”
Well, he got two things right.
1984, The Hunt for Red October vs. Machine Dreams
In 1984 we have the reviews of two first novels to compare, one considered thrillingly complex, the other a simple-minded thriller. Both feature nightmare scenarios, though the nightmares in Machine Dreams are psychological not thermonuclear.
Michiko Kukatani focuses on Jayne Anne Phillips’ “keen love of language, and (her) rare talent for illuminating the secret core of ordinary lives.”
Sensitized by now to reviewer-speak, it’s easy to see this star-on-the-forehead approach to matters of stylistic gracefulness. Ms. Kukatani goes on to admire other technical virtuosities of the narrative structure, using phrases that remind me of those uppity fashion designers on the TV series “Project Runway” who laud the needlework on some otherwise daffy ensemble.
“Though sections of ''Machine Dreams'' easily lift out and function as short stories, they have been stitched together seamlessly into a beautifully patterned novel that possesses the density of a highly ambitious work of art…”
Art wasn’t on President Ronald Reagan’s mind when he read Tom Clancy’s first novel. Or so he said at a televised news conference when he announced that he enjoyed the book, calling it "unputdownable" and a "perfect yarn."
Without that endorsement, this fledgling novelist published by a press that had never ventured into fictional waters before might have languished in obscurity. But his publisher, Naval Institute Press of Annapolis, which made its name printing works like Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations, was no doubt overjoyed by Ronald Reagan’s promo on its behalf, though surely unprepared for the tidal wave of orders that ensued.
Hardly any reviews of The Hunt for Red October appeared prior to the president’s rave. But eventually the critics came around, if only to have a chance to fire off zingers.
Could reviewers actually be so shameless as to be motivated by a desire to skewer? You betcha, said David Shaw, writing in the Los Angeles Times in the mid-eighties.
“…book review editors… tend to be intellectuals--or, if not intellectuals, at least far more interested in Serious Literature, both fiction and nonfiction, than in the kinds of books that usually dominate the best-seller lists.”
In a three part investigative article, Mr. Shaw exposed the inner workings of the book review business of that era. (Though I suspect most of it is still true.) Some of his disclosures are remarkable confessions of the lip-smacking snobbery at work in the journalistic wing of the book business.
“Most book review editors don't even bother to publish reviews of popular genre books--romances, Westerns, science fiction--and, except for the most highly touted titles, most publish only periodic roundups of mysteries and other genre fiction.
“These books tend to be formulaic, book review editors say, and there is little for a reviewer to write that would differentiate one from another. The same is true, they say, of much popular fiction; that's why some papers give these books only the briefest of reviews.
“Even when one of these books is reviewed in full, there is a tendency for both the review editor and the reviewer to use the review as an opportunity to compose snide, clever put-downs that make incontrovertibly clear the intellectual and moral superiority of the reviewer (and the publication) to the author (and his book).”
1991, The Firm vs Mating
The year John Grisham’s second novel appeared, the National Book Award committee passed him by and instead anointed Norman Rush for his first novel Mating. The reviews for Mating were overwhelmingly positive, and overwhelmingly similar in emphasizing the intellectuality of the novel.
“A complex and moving love story... breathtaking in its cunningly intertwined intellectual sweep and brio.” Chicago Tribune
Or this from the New York Times:
“…one of the wisest and wittiest fictional meditations ever written on the subject of mating… presented in an allusive, freewheeling first-person narrative of impressive intelligence. The reader's education is tested and expanded by the fast and self-conscious company of the narrator and her beloved, people whose mordant wordplay is sly and pleasantly unobtrusive.”
Perhaps the reader of literary fiction finds “fictional meditations” or novels of “intellectual sweep” to be compelling. But compelling doesn’t seem to be a code word that book reviewers commonly associate with literary novels. Nor is page-turner or unputdownable. Presumably this is because the style and poetic language of literary novels requires a more leisurely and disciplined pace, more focus, more care. The New York Times said as much when praising an Editor’s Choice selection:
“One should read this first novel as slowly as poetry, and for the same reason: The language is so precise, so distilled and so beautiful one does not want to miss any pleasure it might yield up to patience.”
Mark Twain once addressed the compellingness issue when he quipped about the dreadfully serious novels of Henry James:
“Once you've put one of his books down, you simply can't pick it up again.”
That’s funny, yes, but this page-turner issue is more complicated than it might first appear, for clearly there are those for whom Henry James is unputdownable. That’s why they read—to go slow, to savor every subtle pleasure. To smooth out the brain waves.
My classes in bestsellers often mingled literature Ph.D. students with candidates for an MFA in creative writing—sometimes a contentious mix. The literature students, who were likely to revere the novels of James Joyce and Henry James and others in the literary canon, often found themselves at odds with their more commercially-minded classmates over aesthetic matters. To them a novel that was a “fast read” was somehow suspicious. Though before the semester was over, even the most hardcore of the literary purists had usually found one or two bestsellers on the list that blindsided them, swept them away and shook their faith in their literary presumptions, leaving them with a new ambivalence.
Their ambivalence was similar to the mixed feelings I experienced when I first started reading bestsellers for my original course. I was expecting to experience the tedium of wretched prose and trite and hackneyed melodrama, but found myself ignoring all those issues as the stories gripped me and sent me on a breathless thrill ride through their pages.
Claudia Rossett, a book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, once admitted to a similar experience in a review of a Jackie Collins potboiler. She’d started the book fully armed to do a little trash-bashing but found herself instead describing the book as “embarrassing to pick up and impossible to put down.”
Ambivalence didn’t confuse Marilyn Stasio, the mystery reviewer for the New York Times, when she was evaluating John Grisham’s The Firm. And compelling wasn’t on her list of adjectives, though putdowns were flying.
“Mr. Grisham, a criminal defense attorney, writes with such relish about the firm's devious legal practices that his novel might be taken as a how-to manual for ambitious tax-law students. Of more concern, though, are the pernicious values that motivate Mitch's preposterous heroics in eluding both the mob and the Feds. If this money-grubbing worm is what passes for a hero in today's legal profession, we'll stick with Portia.”
(Personal aside: Coincidentally, in that same multi-book review in which Marilyn Stasio dings Grisham, she had nice things to say about my third novel, including this: “…his prose runs as clean and fast as Gulf Stream waters…” Which I offer as a testament to the fact that there’s no automatic connection between positive reviews and becoming a household name.)
Peter Prescott in Newsweek was greatly impressed with The Firm’s unputdownability:
“It also offers an irresistible plot. A plot that seizes a reader on the opening page and propels him through 400 more is much rarer in commercial fiction than is generally supposed.”
While the fastness or slowness of a book may be more of a reflection of a reader’s subjective experience than an actual count of the minutes and hours required to finish the book, speed is clearly a term of endearment for readers of popular novels while it has dubious merit to those on the other side of the aisle.
1992, Bridges of Madison County vs. A Thousand Acres
These two novels, both set along the back roads and cornfields of Iowa, received markedly different treatment by reviewers.
A Thousand Acres scored gold medals all round. "Brilliant…A thrilling work of art” they sang out in Chicago, and New York pronounced it “powerful and poignant” while Boston thought it was a “full commanding novel” and Washington considered it “written beautifully.”
By far the most consistent form of praise the book received was for Jane Smiley’s artful reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear, her use of the play as structural underpinning for her plot and the source of her cast of characters.
Overtly inviting comparisons to Shakespeare might seem a risky strategy, but most reviewers believed this audacious experiment was successful.
Ron Carlson, reviewing the book for the New York Times, nimbly side-steps the question of whether the novel relied too much on Lear.
“I was reluctant, in writing about the novel, to invoke "King Lear" (and it will be invoked, believe me) because I didn't want this story to sound like an exercise, like some clever, layered construct. What A Thousand Acres does is to remind us again of why "King Lear" has lasted.”
Is that praise or its opposite? I’m not quite sure.
And it really doesn’t matter, does it? The effect is the same. The “hook” as they say in Hollywood has been set. Once the book was tagged as “Lear in the cornfields” this talking point was firmly established thereafter.
The reviewer for the Chicago Tribune went so far as to say that reading Smiley’s novel might enhance one’s experience with Shakespeare.
“You will never again read "King Lear" in the same way after finishing Jane Smiley's stark and scarifying new novel, which retells Lear's story from his daughters' point of view. It turns each premise of the play inside out, yet it too examines, with near-Shakespearean depth, the existential horrors that crawl out into the light when the rock of family solidarity is shattered.”
As the reviewer points out, it wasn’t necessary to know a thing about Lear in order to be gripped by this tale, but still, the not-so-secret-code at work here is that a reader who picks up this novel will be encountering to some degree or another one of the great masters of English literature.
It’s hard to top that. Not even a tip of the hat to James Joyce or Moby Dick can quite compare.
No book reviewer in the land was about to suggest that Robert James Waller’s tearjerker was connected in any way to William Shakespeare. Corniness in the cornfield, maybe. Some serious leering, but no Lear.
Pauli Carnes in the LA Times thought the novel was “yuppie women's porno” and ends her piece with this badda-bing: "The Bridges of Madison County is not beautiful and touching. It is the story of life wasted.”
And here are a few even harsher comeuppances:
1. “…a Hallmark card for all those who have loved and lost: a mushy memorial to a brief encounter in the Midwest.”
2. “…a fantasy that only a man could have written. Like its hero, it presents itself as God's gift to women even as it furthers their subjugation.”
3. "…like a Coke that's been opened a while ago: sweet but flat."
4. “an insipid, fatuous, mealy-mouthed third-rate soap opera with a semi-fascist point of view.”
5. “The erotic and spiritual charge that they generate is equivalent to 10,000 volts, and the time given to express it is four days and three nights. Divide them by fate, and add the torches they carry ever after. How many gallons of schmaltz do you end up with?”
What is it about schmaltz that pisses off so many highbrow people, and activates the tear ducts of so many others? The word schmaltz derives from Yiddish roots, meaning rendered or melted chicken fat. Anyone familiar with the wonders of high density fat can appreciate the Yiddish idiom of “falling into the schmaltz pot” which translates roughly to having something awesome happen to you. Like winning the Lotto or being born with a thick, beautiful head of hair.
In the Thirties the word turned derogatory, and began its new life as a descriptor for things which were sentimental, maudlin or florid. We have Vanity Fair to thank for that, because the first recorded use of schmaltz as a disparaging adjective was in that magazine in 1935, when a writer described a certain kind of jazz music as “schmaltzy.” In other words, the gooey, oh so rich and tasty, oh so artery-clogging thing which is so bad for you.
And there you have it.
One major fault line between low culture and high is schmaltz. The lovers of comfort food versus fussy eaters. Those who like a good wallow in the schmaltz pot versus the purists who prefer the leafiest greens and leanest cuts. The gluttonous gulpers of the heavy-on-the-fat buffet vs. the connoisseurs of haute cuisine.
2003, The Da Vinci Code vs Middlesex
Finally let’s take a look at two books that share one major thematic concern: gender. One nabbed the Pulitzer Prize and the Oprah’s Book Club stamp of approval, the other walked away with bags of cash.
Unlike the sex of his protagonist, most of the reviews for Jeffrey Eugenidies’ gender-bending family saga and coming of age novel were unmixed.
Lisa Zeidner in the Washington Post believed Middlesex provided "… not only incest à la Ada and a Lolita-style road trip, but enough dense detail to keep fans of close reading manically busy.”
Warning for schmaltz-lovers: This cuisine is very haute and must be vigilantly chewed.
More praise came from Daniel Mendelsohn of The New York Times who liked the book for its "dense narrative, interwoven with sardonic, fashionably postmodern commentary."
Need I decode this? Haven’t we seen these cryptograms before? Of course. Prepare to go slow, savor the language. And watch out, gentle reader, because this is second generation modernism. So if you didn’t grasp the aesthetics on the first go-round you might want to do a little catching up before you take this on.
Marta Salij of the Detroit Free Press liked the book's portrayal of Detroit so much she alluded to one of our favorite benchmark writers.
Finally “Detroit has its great novel. What Dublin got from James Joyce—a sprawling, ambitious, loving, exasperated and playful chronicle of all its good and bad parts—Detroit has from native son Eugenides in these 500 pages."
Dan Brown’s reviews ranged from scathing to extremely scathing.
New Yorker writer Anthony Lane, whose article on bestsellers I quoted from earlier, blows away the novel in this giddy one-liner:
“…if a person of sound mind begins reading the book at ten o’clock in the morning, at what time will he or she come to the realization that it is unmitigated junk? The answer, in my case, was 10:00.03, shortly after I read the opening sentence…”
Laura Miller, writing for Salon, invoked another food image, a dairy product that’s notoriously high in saturated fat.
"The Da Vinci Code" is indeed a cheesy thriller, with all the familiar qualities of the genre at its worst: characters so thin they're practically transparent, ludicrous dialogue, and prose that's 100 percent cliché… the plot is simply one long chase sequence...”
Cheesy junk food, fit for the unfit, the slobs, the couch potatoes.
Though no reviewer invoked the name of James Joyce, there was one notable exception to the Brown-bashing. Janet Maslin, reviewer of pop culture texts for the New York Times, found Mr. Brown to be on the side of the angels, and his work to be a “gleefully erudite suspense novel…”
There again is one of our code words, a term usually reserved for the high culture brand. Surely this use of “erudite” confused the issue for some, suggesting this novel was haute cuisine-ish when it was, in truth, closer to gourmet popcorn.
It’s possible that some of the multitudes who bought the novel, did find the book to be “aswim in erudition.” However, based on the sampling I pulled from the Amazon.com ‘customer reviews’ it appears that many felt they got less bang for their buck than they were promised. Customer reviewers were almost evenly split between fans and haters. Of the 4,000 readers who took the time to write reviews and award stars (from one to five), the five star reviews were less than half the total. While those who could not find it in their heart to give The Da Vinci Code more than one or two stars was almost an equal number. For almost every reader who found the book “incredibly exciting” there was another who considered it “a swindle” or “abysmal.”
Okay, okay. Enough of deciphering the not so hidden biases of reviews.
You’ll have to take my word that I have not cherry-picked the comparison books or the quoted material in this section. To test my arguments, I invite skeptical readers to scan this week’s book review in almost any city newspaper or national magazine and see if you don’t find many of the same code words of praise embedded in the analyses of books considered literary. And the same dismissive critiques of any book whose story moves too quickly and whose characters are too hot and juicy and too perfect for the silver screen.
The fact that reviewers consistently take a dim view of some of the very books that attract millions of readers is proof of the ongoing culture wars that have long been waged in the arts. That the masses want to read a book that grabs them by the lapels and doesn’t let go, even if it might be populated by stereotypes and written in prose that is clichéd and trite, gives us a good starting place for a study of what makes the biggest bestsellers of all time succeed on a grand scale.
Schmaltzy, clichéd, trite, melodramatic, one-dimensional, transparent, cheesy, sentimental. Yes, yes, all twelve of these books are to some degree guilty as charged.
But there are other fascinating factors these twelve novels share, features that are not so obvious on first glance, and which in the long run helped the books transcend their ‘faults.’ Those are the issues I’ll be addressing in the following eleven chapters, starting with a look at a few techniques used by each of our twelve bestsellers, devices that had much to do with making these particular novels fly off the shelves and the pages fly by and helped send each of these novels flying higher into the stratosphere of sales than all others.