The Way We Read Now

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From The Wall Street Journal:

When the novelist Philip Roth died in May, the obituaries and tributes agreed that he was (to quote a few choice descriptions) “towering,” “pre-eminent” and a “giant of the American novel.” In the opinion of those who create the official narrative of American literature—the critics who write about it, the professors who teach it, the publishers who sell it—there was no one bigger than Roth. The one question few stopped to ask—and maybe an obituary was not the place to ask it—is whether the reading public agreed. Is Philip Roth in fact one of America’s favorite novelists? Can such a thing even be measured?

As it turns out, it can—and he isn’t. We know this thanks to “The Great American Read,” a new initiative from PBS, which set out to produce a list of America’s 100 favorite works of fiction. The alphabetical list (the books aren’t ranked) was released this spring, based on a poll of more than 7,000 American readers. The results of the poll were winnowed down by an advisory panel of “literary industry professionals” using a few rules: The books had to be published (though not necessarily written) in English, with a series like “Harry Potter” counted as one title, and there could be no more than one book per author.

This month, a companion volume called “The Book of Books” will be published, with pithy one-page essays discussing the background and significance of each of the chosen hundred. Starting in September, PBS will broadcast a Great American Read series, hosted by Meredith Vieira and featuring interviews with celebrities, literary and otherwise. All of this will culminate in October with the announcement of America’s favorite novel, as determined by online voting.

. . . .

If Americans don’t love the books that are usually supposed to constitute American literature, then what do we love? One answer the Great American Read list provides is that we love the books we read as children or teenagers. A few venerable children’s classics retain a stubborn foothold in the memory of readers: “ Tom Sawyer, ” “The Call of the Wild.” But these are not the books most of us actually grow up reading today. We are more likely to cut our teeth on children’s fantasy titles, which make a strong showing on the list, especially when they come from Britain: “Harry Potter,” of course, but also the Narnia books, “The Lord of the Rings” and the founder of the genre, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

Alongside these early favorites are the accessible literary works that feature on many a middle school syllabus, often as the first “grown-up” books we read: Harper Lee’s courtroom drama “To Kill a Mockingbird,” John Knowles’s boarding-school story “A Separate Peace,” John Steinbeck’s Depression-era saga “The Grapes of Wrath.” Perhaps there is a similar touch of nostalgia involved in the choice of more challenging classics like “Moby-Dick” and “Heart of Darkness,” which are often read in high school or college and then not opened again.

But other categories stand out that have nothing to do with school. The Great American Read list is heavy on genre writing: science fiction (“Jurassic Park,” “Ready Player One”), mysteries and thrillers (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Gone Girl”), and other best sellers (“Lonesome Dove,” “The Help,” “The Clan of the Cave Bear”). Such books get little respect from critics and are seldom taught in classrooms, but they are the ones that people remember and love. Certainly, they far outweigh contemporary literary fiction on the top 100 list, though a few such titles do make an appearance— Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

. . . .

Beyond statistics, however, there are also literary insights that can be deduced from the Great American Read list. For one thing, it seems clear that American readers don’t care very much about good prose. “The Da Vinci Code” and “Fifty Shades of Grey” are regularly cited as examples of terrible writing, but both were mega-best sellers, and both find a place among the top 100. This is not simply a matter of readers preferring genre writing to literary writing. Rather, it appears that, in any genre, readers prefer strictly functional prose to stylistic elegance or idiosyncrasy. Isaac Asimov is on the top 100 list, but not Philip K. Dick ; James Patterson’s Alex Cross mysteries and Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” but not Elmore Leonard or Raymond Chandler.

. . . .

Perhaps, for many readers, it does not make much difference whether a story is told in print on a page or images on a screen. The narrative itself is what matters. In fact, the Great American Read list confirms that there is a great hunger in our culture for grand, mythic narratives. The adoration of the Harry Potter books, like the nearly scriptural status of the Star Wars movies, involves more than just fandom. These are comprehensive universes, complete with their own laws and histories, heroes and villains, morals and meanings. They serve the purpose that was once served by epic poems like “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey,” or even by biblical stories: They dramatize the spiritual truths and longings that shape our world.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

27 thoughts on “The Way We Read Now”

  1. “Isaac Asimov is on the top 100 list, but not Philip K. Dick… ”

    Clear accessible prose helps focus attention on the story and the ideas. SF being the literature of ideas, anything that highlights the ideas is going to be preferred, anything that obscures them will suffer.

    That said, Hollywood routinely mines Dick for movies and series by stripping away the obscuring prose while Asimov barely has one dreadful adaptation of NIGHTFALL to his credit.

    Go figure.

      • On purpose. 🙂
        NIGHTFALL I paid to see.
        The Will Smith robot stampede I totally ignored. Just the casting for Susan Calvin was enough warning.

        • Oh, come on, Felix. You did not like Bridget Moynahan as Susan Calvin? Given that the writers dumbed down the character, at lest Moynahan gave us a pretty face. It was not Moynahan’s fault that the script was stupid.

          • That is the whole point.
            Susan Calvin is in no way shape or form sexy. A key story revolves on her lack of social connections.

            As quoted in I, Robot: “Susan… was a frosty girl, plain and colorless, who protected herself against a world she disliked by a mask-like expression and a hypertrophy of intellect.”

            Babe-ifying her was an affront to the character.

            Nothing to do with the actress, who is both attractive and skilled.

            • Yeah, I know, but whaddayagonnado? It’s Hollywood. The script was trash so why not repudiate Asimov’s Calvin with a beauty?

      • I, Robot adapted almost nothing but the title from Asimov, and I don’t really count it as an adaptation.

        However, there was The Bicentennial Man, in which a schlock idea was treated with an appropriate degree of schlock by a director who knew how to tell Robin Williams to lay on the thickest possible layer of schlock. It was not a good adaptation, but it was a reasonably faithful one; the two being, in this particular case, mutually exclusive.

        • IIRC, the film “adaptation” of I, Robot had a similar genesis to that of Starship Troopers — that is, the filmmaker had an existing, “original” screenplay involving robots or giant bug aliens and “adapted” the novel by grafting a few bits of it onto the existing, re-title screenplay.

          In the mid-seventies, Harlan Ellison wrote a screenplay for I, Robot that adapted several of the stories framed Citizen Kane style. Unfortunately it was never filmed. Fortunately, the screenplay was published. Happily, a quick search on Amazon shows that it is still available, at prices ranging from $5 to $159 (okay, that one’s signed and numbered).

  2. Hard to believe the flat journalistic prose of Phil Dick, who wrote an amphetamine-fueled novel every month, is now considered “stylistically elegant or idiosyncratic.” Though I never counted his prose among Dick’s many virtues, maybe his posthumous rise into the canon has retroactively made him a stylist. Or at least stylish.

    • Dick’s prose was never stylish, but it was often confusing. To the subliterati who tell Hollywood what books to like, the two qualities are easy to conflate.

      • I love that one.
        Also fond of the one of the same title by Jack Finney.

        My favorite time travel book, though, is THERE WILL BE TIME from Poul Anderson.
        Next favorite is THRICE UPON A TIME by James P. Hogan.

        All four due for rereads.
        (There goes the weekend. Thanks a lot!)

  3. Breaking news! More people read commercial fiction than read literary fiction. Film at eleven!

    • Shhh!
      They might discover the 19th century ended long ago and we’re went into the 21st with something aspirationally called “universal literacy”.
      Don’t want their heads to explode, do we?
      Or do we?

  4. I got my Masters and worked on a Ph.D. in Literature in the early to mid-70s. Not a one of the contemporary or modern authors taught in any class I or a friend took is even known these days. Deservedly so. These books primarily had viewpoint narrators who were whiny academics or whiny big city intellectuals who screwed up a lot.

    Genius writing for these academics consisted of characters sounding and acting like them, or the prose being so impenetrable that the only way to understand it was having an academic explain it to you. Job security in action! From what I’ve heard since I left the field, nothing has improved except that the academics are even more self-referential than they were then.

    A book won’t survive unless it is passed on with love to the next generation who passes it along to their next generation. Or it is a genuinely great book that time, not present day critics, has approved of.

  5. Should be no surprise to anyone really. There are books people actually read and love. And there are the books the pretentious self-appointed literati think we should read and love. And seldom the twain shall meet. I suspect even this list gives too much credit to literary type fiction. There are perhaps parallels with the polls on Brexit and Trump. Too many people giving the answers they think are desired rather than the truth.

    I totally agree on the movies. Few good Science Fiction stories have been made into good movies. Ironically Gattaca, which I think is the best Science Fiction movie made so far, was not an adaptation of a book or as far as I know even inspired by one.

    A good story goes a long way. Asimov was a very plain writer and in many ways not a good one. But he told grand stories competently based on excellent ideas, and thoroughly deserves his status as one of the greats of Science Fiction. I first read Nightfall as a 10 or 11 year old, and was blown away by it. At the time it really made me think. Tiptree’s “The Screwfly Solution” was a similar revelation. But these are both very short stories not easy to adapt to the Big Screen and feature length. The screen adaptation of Nightfall was indeed awful.

    @Felix. Poul Anderson was a fantastic writer.

    • Indeed.
      Anderson left us an amazing body of work that truly shows what the field is capable of producing. He excelled at every facet. Style, world building, idea, character, emotion, story telling…

      TAU ZERO alone puts him with the Masters.

      He’ll be read long after the literary darlings are forgotten footnotes in faded histories.

      • Poul Anderson was one of the best ever. Currently reading his Terran Empire series. Deserved the title Grand Master. I don’t know how many times I’ve read “No Truce with Kings” and enjoyed it. Crap. Now I wanna read it again.

        C M Kornbluth was another great. Love “That Share of Glory.” And “The Little Black Bag.”

  6. gosh a tiny sample of 7000 people in a nation of say 150M Readers. SOMEBODY CALL SOMEONE! this is an amazing result!

  7. Scary stuff. Sometimes I have the number one book in Amazon’s pulp fiction cat. At the same time the same book will find itself on a top 20 list in the literary fiction column. I have selected neither cat myself, not in the seven keywords and not in the two cats. My MFA friends don’t come around anymore and my wife ran off with a journalist. The critics tell me I won’t be forgotten but that I won’t be remembered either. Articles like this one get me all discombobulated.

    • Those books can’t possibly be literary fiction You obviously have a sense of humour which extends to laughing at yourself. And it seems they actually make you some money. How could you expect to be taken seriously at any Writer’s Festival?

      I’m going off to give one of your books a try.

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