Monday, September 7, 2009

The Bestseller, the Middlebrow, and the Forgotten Book

Via Matthew Cheney, I ran across this very interesting essay about squaring the pointlessly internecine debates about what (one and only one) kind of fiction America needs with some actual data about what it has actually read. Many if not all of the arguments about the State of Contemporary American Fiction rely on grand narratives about either the decline of American reading from a half-remembered Golden Age or the persistent dreadfulness of American bestsellers from time immemorial, but very few of them bother to found their stories in anything like an examination of the data we do have about how—or whether—U. S. tastes have changed over time. "Sales," or the more nebulous "popularity," is invoked usually as an idea, not as a verifiable data set, to either bludgeon "populist" fiction or to demonstrate its perfect coexistence with complexity and intelligence. Writers like Jonathan Franzen, Ben Marcus, Michael Chabon, and now Lev Grossman blather about the reading public as if they alone can sound the collective psychological depths of that abstraction, and, with that unique access, can tell us what we really want or don't want, need or don't need.

Nina Siegal finds this debate quite strange:
All three groups [Franzen's defenders of realism, Marcus's defenders of experimental fiction, and Chabon's defenders of the “the well-told tale”], I should point out, cast themselves as marginal figures, defending a lost art against all who would encroach on their literary ideals. But none of them have a right to claim this status. Not a single one – Franzen, Marcus or Chabon — would be denied a spot at Yaddo or MacDowell. None of them need worry that their books will be published, that their articles will appear in print, or that they will ever be barred from writing for The New York Times Book Review. So, why are they so worried that their type of fiction is so embattled? I thought I might find the answer to this question by doing a little cultural analysis of my own. It seemed to me that each group had two things in common. First, they were arguing that their form of literature was under-appreciated by the masses of readers. Second, they were arguing that their type of writing had a place in the cultural canon – that is, that ultimately they would hope that future generations would validate the form of writing they’re arguing for, by awarding it with praise, and by studying it in academic circles.

Siegal has done some layman's work in putting some data behind these narratives by checking a list of bestselling fiction (which she misattributes to the NYT; in fact it is the Publishers Weekly list) accessible at Wikipedia against an admittedly subjective list of "works that we might today deem 'great literature' of the sort that, for instance, the English Department at the University of Iowa would approve for the undergraduate General Education in Literature course I teach, the Interpretation of Literature." Her conclusions are intriguing, and I'll let you read the rest of the piece to find them out.

One thing that I'd like to point out immediately, though, is that the Wikipedia page which contains the Publishers Weekly lists notes that "The standards set for inclusion in the lists - which, for example, lead to the exclusion of the novels in the Harry Potter series from the lists for the 1990s and 2000s - are currently unknown."

This is obviously a problem, because another thing that happens a lot with narratives like those used by Franzen or Marcus or Grossman is that "bestseller" is understood as a kind of natural or transcendental category, as if changing publishing practices didn't affect what has showed up on the lists over the years, much less the (very likely) possibility that the lists haven't always used the same criteria or standards for what kind of books are to be ranked and the very obvious probability that the sources from which they have drawn their figures have changed quite a bit over the years. Which bookstores did they call, and where were they located; how, and when, did subscription sales, like book clubs, get factored in—these are questions that are never included in the 30,000 feet view of The American Novel and Its Readers.

There are sources which answer, to a limited extent, some of these questions, and I'm reading one of them now. Michael Korda, an author and publisher, wrote Making the List in 2001 (which I excerpted a little from yesterday), and it has some nice, very double-spaced commentaries on each decade of bestseller lists, starting from 1900-1909. Mostly, he just points to a few titles from each year which left a slightly less delible mark on the American cultural scene. But he also offers a few notable developments in the history of publishing, such as the marketing of the first crossword puzzle book, which was the first "non-book," or book not meant to be read, to be sold in actual bookstores. These kind of moments I'll try to summarize in a later post, as well as a few broader-scope meditations (like the excerpt posted yesterday) which Korda offers on historical trends or consistencies he has seen over the years. Korda also mentions a couple of other titles of similar subject, and I'll try to track those down and summarize them as well.

This is going to be part of a larger project about books and memory. Another book I've started reading is Gordon Hutner's What America Read: Taste, Class, and the Novel 1920-1960, which Mark Athitakis wrote about here, first drawing my attention to the book. Hutner's book takes on the question of the potential value of studying what has usually been dismissed as middlebrow literature (or, as he says, "middle-class experience from a middle-class point of view") and the thornier question of why this body of literature has been so vigorously shunned by academics even while other reclamation projects (of ethnic writers, of proletarian or working-class literature) have been of obvious and lasting value to our understanding of the United States, its literature, and its history.

I want to talk about the concept of the middlebrow, and particularly of their relationship to the idea of "big, ambitious novels" which I've written about before. This relationship, I want to argue, is immensely complicated by memory, as works that we now think of as mawkishly middlebrow were often not seen as terribly dissimilar from other novels published at the same time which we tend to regard today as residing somewhere in the highbrow. That's not a terribly insightful or controversial point, but one that I think would benefit greatly from some fleshing out. 

I also want to think about why we have this idea of the "forgotten book" or the "neglected book," and what that concept really means to those who think about it or use it. There are some underlying assumptions about what we owe to the past, to literature, and to ourselves as readers that I'd like to explore, and I think a book like Hutner's, and the type of conclusions we can draw from books like Korda's, can help me do that exploration.  And finally, what do we do about these books: what do we owe to a book that has sat on a shelf for forty years untouched?

These, at any rate, are the outlines of some of what is hopefully to come on this blog over the next few months.

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