Normally I don’t write about books, but I had a very bad night of insomnia and when I took a bunch of sleeping pills this morning and lay back down again at 7:30 am, they started doing drilling outside my window. So, I have had hours to think about books and I’m cranky.
My conclusion is that a) I LIKE people who read books and b) Most books which are popular are not great books. You see, for many, many years I believed that somehow, through some sort of collective readers understanding that the best books were the ones which ended up being taught or talked about. The quick disillusionment of this idea started when I was working in a bookstore in the late 80’s and Random House was buying every publisher in sight and slashing the mid-list. See, “back in the day” every publisher would carry writers that were good writers, had a following but weren’t instant successes. These authors would start off selling a few thousand, then as they continued their audience would grow so the investment the publisher put into them would be rewarded. But in the harsh world of this new competitive publishing it was decided to go instead for just bestsellers. The problem is that of virtually every book that ends up on the bestseller list, and every book which is a “cult” phenomenon they are, at best, a moderately written but not particularly significant work of fiction. I can see you recoil in irritation. Okay, raise your hand if you have read Advise and Consent by Allen Durey. No, don’t give me those baffled looks, this is a book which was on the #1 spot for fiction bestseller for over a year (unheard of) and won a Pulitzer prize. Such a significant book, you must have read it in University? No? That’s okay, because what you read in University was largely decided by two people who drew up a list in the 1920’s – a man called Leavis and his wife (who felt that things like “bestsellers” should be burnt for the public good).
Anyway, Advise and Consent was the book for 1960, you just couldn’t live without it. Much as a man who wrote about submarines dominated western world views in the 1980’s and 90’s (remember Clancy?). See, a study over the last 50 years has found that the number one bestseller in fiction is a quickly fleeting thing; that in the sixties, a number one book stayed there for 21 weeks, in the eighties it stayed for 7.2 weeks and this year, less than three weeks. But as you worryingly clutch your Harry Potter or recent best seller, I ask, how many of the following fiction books, all bestsellers, in some cases for decades, have you ever read or even heard of: When it was Dark by Guy Thorne (listed by Montgomery, leader of the WWII British forces as the most influential book in his life), The Garden of Allah by Hichens, The Long Trick by Bartimeus, If Winter Comes by Hutchinson, The Shiek by Hull or The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy.
You see, as eagerly as the next J. K. Rowling book is anticipated today, so were the names Kent Carr, Westerman and G. A. Henty many decades ago (indeed, if you want to read some more Harry Potter books, I recommend Kent Carr, since the plots and characters are almost identical - why not try the interestingly titled "Dixie of Cock House"). Or how about the first book to create all the basic principals of a bestseller, Haggard’s She, which used what we would now call guerrilla marketing with signs and graffiti everywhere in London reading “Who is She?” weeks before the book came out. That was 120 years ago. Ever read it? Not really life changing stuff is it?
The problem, simply put is that there are four different groups: publishers, academics and critics, readers and writers. The first two groups are determined to convince the last two groups that THEY are the ones which know what is and is not a great work. Unfortunately, both those groups have a strong self interest: publishers to make money and academics and critics to perpetuate a certain type of book as “literature” (which is ironic because the man who first used that term to refer to fiction, Arnold Bennett, isn’t really remembered or read by anyone anymore). For instance, the Booker Prize is supposed to a short list of the best of all books published in a year, from self published to small press to big press. Yet not once has a single science fiction or fantasy book been included on the short list. Indeed, what is known as “genre fiction” never makes it into the big prizes. And if you follow the Booker Prize, you, like me, can probably name at least four the authors whose books will be included in it this year, next year, last year, whichever year.
The problem is that historically, what people love to read and treasure do not often match the books which are held up as “literature”, nor ones which a generation cannot live without (bye, bye Dan Brown!). Indeed, there is one book, which every time Waterstones surveys readers (every three years) to find out which books they treasure most always ends up at number one; yet it won no awards, and if it is taught at universities it is taught as a “fringe” or “out there” course. The book is The Lord of the Rings. Number one book for decades by the choice of readers. And it took them over 50 years to make a film of it.
You see the real problem is....I’m bored. The last time I read a decent book, and I mean a book which actually excited me, grabbed and changed my world view was months ago when I asked blog readers for suggestions. Which I find is pretty much the only way to truly find amazing books...ask another reader. I also tend to dig through a lot of genre fiction. Why? Because if you are a starting writer and you are tortured or out there you usually end up finding that either the only people who will publish you are genre fiction publishers or you end up there anyway (like the way a book about people doing heroin in a high rise is science fiction/fantasty – no, not bitter!). Or kids books; as there are some amazing kids books out there, from Jan Mark’s Ennead to Napoli’s Daughter of Venice to Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock. See, sadly, the closer you look, the more you find that publishing only promotes really good books....by accident. Like To Kill a Mocking Bird, which I thought was universally accepted as a great book because…it was a great book. No, not exactly, because the book would likely have never been printed by Harper Collins or touted in Harpers’, Atlantic Monthly or the New York Reviews had Lee not been so closely associated with super literary famous Truman Capote. If To Kill a Mockingbird had been published by Punstwood Books of Illinois would it have won the Pulitzer Prize the following year – not a chance. Even the great “American Classic” Moby Dick was only noticed 60+ years later, after Melville’s death, because someone dug it out and made a movie out of it called “The Sea Beast.”
Okay, I am admittedly more than a little tired, but I am also literarily lonely. I have no interest the books of pretty words and empty souls. You have to understand, after the first 10,000 books, Lovely Bones reads just as relevantly as Ed McBain. I did however like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which most of my students did not. But then, they also disliked The Little Prince, which to me displays some deep deficiency which indicates the person should probably either work for the IRS, an accountant in a bank or an acceptance editor for a major publishing house. I like Sleepwalking by Meg Wolizer, Bringing out the Dead by Joe Connelly and the early works of Van de Wetering. I do not hate Henry James, I loathe him so much I would dig him up to slap him about if that were possible (he actually reedited all his earlier books to match the “tone” of his later works – AHHHHHH!). Alastair Niven, head of the British Council of Literature says the works which will be literature in 100 years.....Sons and Lovers by Lawrence and everything by Dickens (I am clawing at my neck trying to open a vein in despair at this future vision.) And guess what Martyn Goff, the administrator of the Booker Prize says is a book that SHOULDN’T have ever been called a classic: The Catcher in the Rye (message to Martyn, remove head from ass as soon as possible).
Oh someone save me, please, send me the name of a book I must read, a book which changed how you look at everything, a book which gave you a “Zing!” a feeling that you and the universe has somehow just transcended each other (No, I am not asking for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). You know that rare and occasionally amazed feeling you get at the end of a book when you realize you may never have this many feelings and synapses firing all at the same time the rest of your life. You know THAT book (or books as the case may be). I remember the first time I read The Face on the Cutting Room Floor or Dodges' Stone Junction, or the lesbian mystery writer J.M. Redmann. Zowie! How did they do that? Okay, tag, you’re it.
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