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August 23, 2007

Narrative Book-Fiction for Grownups: "What the Dead Men Say" and "Gates of Fire"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

It seems to me that an assumption many sophisticated American fiction readers make is that narrative fiction -- ie., fiction whose energies are mostly invested in the creation and "selling" of characters, situations, and storylines -- is, when you come right down to it, for kids.

Stories are felt to be like Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes -- supereasy, overbright, fizzy-poppy. Adults are supposed to have graduated to something more complex and substantial -- with complexity and substance understood to imply "literary fiction," ie., fiction whose energies are mainly invested in fashionable themes; fancy language; and writerly, linguistic, conceptual, and structural games.

Oh, realistically speaking, we all know that many educated adults enjoy spending occasional time with a thriller or a mystery novel -- but we agree to call that mere recreational reading. "Real reading," as we all know, is a more challenging, if not an actual slogging, kind of pursuit.

I think I know where this assumption comes from: from our English-lit educations. And I think I know how it's reinforced: through colleges, foundations, and virtually all the respectable bookchat outlets. Needless to say, I think this assumption is wrong, wrong, 100% wrong. I also think that it does a disservice to readers, to writers, to literature, and to pleasure more generally. I lay out most of my reasons and my evidence for this position in a series of postings about the New York Times Book Review Section and the way it shuns popular fiction: here, here, here, here, and here.

Lit-fict people who are curious about popular fiction will sometimes give it a try -- and good for them, of course. Typically, though, they don't make it very far. Flying without a map, they tend to sample titles from the bestseller lists. And, unsurprisingly, they often find that these books are every bit as bad as the enforcers of Lit-Fict Correctness say they are. Disappointed, our adventurers return to the lit-fict fold, resigned to the apparent fact that contemporary narrative fiction is written only for in-transit businesspeople.

It's really remarkable how many lit-fict people, even the open-minded among them, are convinced that contempo book-fiction divides up into only two camps: lit-fict, and top-ten bestsellers (and wannabes). If that were the case, I'd probably be a lit-fict addict myself. Happily, it's anything but the case. As with movies and music, there are plenty of gifted people out there creating first-class work in popular and accessible forms. You just have to know where and how to find it.

Hey, in the last couple of weeks I've turned up a couple of narrative book-fiction gems myself.

  • Ed Gorman's "What The Dead Men Say." I've long relished Ed Gorman's work as a short story writer and an anthologist; the man has done more for the cause of short fiction and miscellanies (two forms I adore) than anyone else I know of. More recently I've been a fan of his blog. But -- to my shame -- this 1990 western was the first novel of his that I've read. I'm pleased to report that I found it a knockout. From one point of view, it's merely a lean and trim genre piece. From another, it's remarkable: tough and direct, yet complex and shocking too.

    Gorman doesn't violate the Western genre; he doesn't attempt to "do something with it" in the lit-fict sense either. Instead, he applies his brains and gifts to bringing the classic form and the classic elements of the form to bristling life. In other words, the novel is a morality-tale / chessgame involving archetypal characters and situations: the tenderfoot, the sherrif, the showdown, the hooker. His themes are classic too: the relationships between revenge and justice, the unpredictable yet inevitable unspooling of fate, manliness and authority.

    As sonnet form seems like anything but a hindrance when it's in the hands of a fluent sonnet-writer, the Western in Gorman's hands seems like an amazingly expressive vehicle. As a piece of construction and writing, the book is terse yet canny, punctuated by rare but effective -- ie., shrewdly-judged -- verbal bursts. Gorman moves the point of view around in unshowy ways that always deepen and heighten, and he keeps injecting little psychological surprises that bump the story's tension level up a notch. The characters may be archetypes, but that doesn't keep them from bursting with persuasive and engaging life.

    Gorman also provides enough earthy atmosphere, tang, and wonder for three books. Though its boots may be firmly planted in the muck, this novel makes a few quick visits to the stars. If you were ever curious about what a frontier town smelled like, you'll know by the end of "What The Dead Men Say." Though his characters are anything but thinkers, Gorman's empathy and imagination jogged my brain into contemplation of a surprising number of Larger Questions.

    This blunt and methodical book about innocence, justice, and what it means to become a man delivers a real kick, as well as a generous helping of moral complexity and warm-blooded humanity. In its directness, and in its bleak yet charged impact, it reminded me of the renowned literary short stories of Raymond Carver. Me, I like Gorman's work better than Carver's. How great it is to be able to enjoy all that truth and observational juice plus a real story too.

    Here's Ed Gorman's excellent blog. Here's an interview with Ed. Here's another.

  • Steven Pressfield's "Gates of Fire." The unavoidable (but perfectly good) description of this book is "'300' for adults" -- it's a novel about the Spartans' stand against the Persians at Thermopylae. The reason I picked it up was simple: I'd heard that it's a good example of contempo historical fiction, and that's a genre I haven't read much of and would like to explore. (Alias Clio praises the well-known historical novelist Mary Renault here. Sorry me: I've never read any Mary Renault.)

    So I had some reason to hope for good things. Still, I was taken completely aback by just how good Pressfield's novel is. This is one rich and turbulent-yet-always-in-control piece of work. If the Ed Gorman novel is a beautiful and intense demonstration of prowess by a quiet if funky sharpshooter, the Pressfield is a guts-and-glory display by the whole battalion.

    Pressfield -- who has a background in the military and who has also spent many years working as a screenwriter -- seems trustworthy on the research, at least judging by my pitiful knowledge of the era; history buffs should love the book, and judging by the reader reviews at Amazon they mostly do. But he has also delivered a stupendous piece of suspense engineering. That's quite an achievement at any time, of course. It's perhaps doubly impressive given that most readers will come to the book already familiar with its story's outcome. You know how the book is going to end -- spoiler alert: Persians win, Spartans die. Yet your heart pounds anyway.

    Unlike Gorman -- whose strategy with language is to pare it back, then enhance the spareness with rare blasts of writin' -- Pressfield really lets fly with his words, maintaining a consistent level of almost oratorical eloquence. What with the story's sweep, the action's scale, and the high emotional stakes, the scenes of battle and carnage attain an impressive level of intensity. They're exultant, nauseating, and horrifying.

    I have my doubts about Pressfield's portrayal of the Spartans. In his presentation, they're almost-modern characters fully able to reflect about the issues they embody: the nature of courage, and the connections between fear and heroism, mainly. (My hunch is that the Spartans would seem as foreign to us if we should encounter them today as an Amazonian rainforest tribe would.) But Pressfield's approach is undeniably satisfying in dramatic terms.

    And boy, does this book have a dramatic kick. I haven't been so stirred by a novel in years. Curious about how Pressfield was able to construct such a satisfying piece of suspense -- I'm tempted to call the book a masterpiece of pacing -- I Googled him and learned that he's a fan of both the Indian war-philosophy epic the "Bhagavad Gita" and the screenwriting / storytelling guru Robert McKee. Makes sense to me.

    Here's an interview with Pressfield about "Gates of Fire."

Rounded characters; fascinating and irresistable situations; non-chic, even timeless themes; mature and deep craft; surprising-yet-convincing arcs and developments ... What's un-adult about any of this?

MBlowhard lesson for the day: The choice for today's reader isn't merely between high-end but annoying lit-fict and childish bestsellers. Satisfying narrative fiction is being written and published as we speak, you just have to know where to look for it.

MBlowhard question for the day: So why don't the usual bookchat outlets do a better job of sorting out the worthwhile from the skippable new books of narrative fiction for us?

Related: I reviewed "300" here. I wrote at length about narrative fiction here, including much praise for the controversial Robert McKee; as arrogant as he is, I consider him a national treasure. I reviewed Richard S. Wheeler's moving and dignified novel "Flint's Gift" here. I unveiled the glories of Gold Medal Books here; praised the suspense master Charles Williams here; raved about the hypergifted Ira ("Rosemary's Baby") Levin here; and genuflected before the achievement of James M. Cain here.

I wrote about "3:10 to Yuma," a brilliant Delmar Daves film based on an Elmore Leonard story, here. I notice that a new movie version of the story is about to be released.



posted by Michael at August 23, 2007


I loved, loved, loved "Gates of Fire," though I haven't been able to get into any of Pressfield's other works.

Posted by: Rachel on August 23, 2007 3:40 PM

That's great to hear. What a book, eh? Sorry to hear, though, that his other books haven't done anything for you. I was wondering about them ... They sure sound tempting, but the reader-reviews are 'way less enthusiastic than they are for "Gates of Fire."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2007 4:36 PM

I ask, in an honest, non-sarcastic way, is it really true that "literary fiction" isn't invested in characters and stories?

Though I'm young, I basically have the reading tastes of an old man, so I honestly don't know. But the handful of books in the lit-fic genre I have been persuaded to read definitely had characters and plots, and were actually pretty easy reads, if often unsatisfying. I wonder if this narrative/non-narrative distinction is useful.

Posted by: BP on August 23, 2007 4:43 PM

I had much the same reaction about Gates of Fire. It's one of the best contemporary novels that I've run across in quite some time.

It hadn't occurred to me, but you're probably right that the Spartans are depicted as more modern in their thinking in the novel than they would actually have been.

But as the Spartans are not renowned for their literary output — if they wrote any plays or books, they are no longer available to us — it's probably impossible to know how they actually perceived, thought, and spoke. Maybe they would have been less interesting than Pressfield makes them.

But he does a great job of imaginatively creating that world, regardless of how historically "true" it is.

By the way, have you ever checked out any novels by the once-popular Mika Waltari? He, too, was adept at characterization and storytelling while painting vivid scenes of times past.

Posted by: Rick Darby on August 23, 2007 5:49 PM

BP -- I wouldn't say lit-fict is non-narrative, or that it doesn't have characters. Almost any creative-writing-esque thing longer than about a half a page winds up with some kind of set of characters or voices and some kind of story or sense of movement. To me the key thing is what the main creative energies of a book are invested in. Roughly speaking, lit-fict downplays trad story and trad character; nearly always, popular fiction up-plays them. People doing lit-fict and people doing popular fict are playing two different games, basically. One's for a college-educated, middle-upper-brow audience, once for a popular audience. And whether or not a story is a prominent part of what's being sold by a given work is pretty much what makes a work lit-fict or popular. For the life of me, for instance, I can't recall the "story" of the Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison novels I've read -- they're mostly writerly production numbers. Meanwhile, a Donald Westlake or Jackie Collins is putting characters whose "reality" you're being asked to believe in, in specific and (one hopes) interesting situations that build and surprise and then build again. (I've found, for what it's worth, that many in the lit-fict side of things are both contemptuous of storytelling, which they seem to consider lowbrow, or maybe suited only for TV, and quite unknowledgeable about it.) So, yeah, I find it a helpful either-this-or-that kind of thing. But if others don't I don't mind ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 23, 2007 5:54 PM

I can't help wondering if storytelling is a completely different skill than literary craft, by which I mean things like verbal felicity, psychological insight, etc. The reason so much lit-fic is unreadable and so much pop fic is junk is that they require skill sets (and perhaps mentalities) that are orthogonal to one another. The Pressmans of the world may just be like the guy who can walk and chew gum at the same time, and do both really, really well. A rare bird.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 23, 2007 6:41 PM

Here's the review I wrote for Amazon over seven years ago...

"Although I have read much involving ancient Greek history, I have never come across a work of historical fiction that did this subject justice. Until now. Pressfield takes you into the training camps and barracks of the Spartans, the greatest warriors who have ever lived. You feel what it must have been like to maintain yourself in absolutely peak fighting condition. The book explains how these men were taught to endure pain and keep fear under control. And Pressfield describes the battles the Spartans fought in a manner that brings home the horror and destruction that ensued when heavily armed phalanxes glittering with the sheen of burnished steel crashed together in mortal combat. His description of Spartan valor and discipline will send shivers of admiration up your spine. This is a man's book, and one you won't soon forget."

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on August 23, 2007 6:42 PM


I own a laserdisc of 3:10 to Yuma, and I think it's a good, solid film, right up to the last few minutes, when Glenn Ford pulls Van Heflin onto the train, effectively reversing Ford's character that's been established during the entire film. It's simply unbelievable. I too enjoyed Ford and Heflin's performances. Heflin was an excellent actor whose performances look very natural, which is interesting, because Tab Hunter, in his recent autobiography, says that Heflin was a devotee of some obscure, elaborate system of acting that required considerable preperation.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on August 23, 2007 7:37 PM

Regarding the modern depiction of the Spartans in "Gates of Fire," my guess is that all writers of historical fiction are guilty of this. You can't erase the knowledge of 2,000 years that has accumulated since the action took place.

When I read "Imperium" by Robert Harris, I kept thinking how very much like American politics Roman politics was. It probably wasn't--much. But it made me feel at home. BTW, I highly recommend "Imperium," no warfare, but still good.

Posted by: Rachel on August 23, 2007 8:37 PM

Needless to say. I love the pro-populist tenor of Michael's post. But I just wanted to say something about, well, Persians, actually.

Now I really get off on the whole 300/Thermopylae thing and I'm one of the conservatives rock-apes that quite likes the idea of a hot war on Islamo-whatevers: Iranian Mullahs, Tikriti thugs, Syrian Baathists...did I leave anyone out? (No, I won't go fight myself, as I'm this total chickenhawk.) I'd even quite like Bush if he wasn't such a multi-culti enviro-nut - that ranch of his saves more carbon than an LA Prius dealership!

I just wanted to say that it may be time to reconsider our attitudes to the Achemenid Persians. When Cyrus the Great, who really was kind of a good guy as far as conquerors go, took over what was left of the Median empire and did some consolidating and expanding, he thought that limited government, decentralisation, free trade, religious toleration, low taxation might be the best ways to proceed. (Sound familiar to any American readers?) Incidentally, Cyrus was a purer Aryan than Adolf could ever hope to be, if you're kinky about that sort of thing. Without glamorising his descendants, or second-guessing the value of a successful Persian invasion of Greece, the stabilising and liberalising influence to the east promoted and enabled much that was good in Hellenic life. Can we say the same of the cold-shower boarding-school bullies of Sparta? And as for Epaminondas, Philip and his boozy son...thanks a lot guys!

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 23, 2007 9:07 PM

What strikes me about your post and your examples (both of which are historical fiction) is how rapidly prose fiction styles evolve. I am reading Paul Johnson's "The Birth of the Modern" and noticed that the historical novel which aims at a high degree of authenticity about the period portrayed began less than two centuries ago with the novels of Walter Scott. As Johnson points out, Scotts' novels were

...important in all sorts of ways, not least because they gave further impetus to the growth of historical consciousness that was a striking feature of the age and an important sign of modernity. Scott was the first prominent author to go to considerable lengths to get details of a period correct, and thus to give to his fiction what appeared, to contemporaries, to be an astonishing air of realism. In this regard, all his successors, such as Alessandro Manzoni, Victor Hugo, Prosper Merimee, Alfred de Vigny, and James Fenimore Cooper, were indebted to him...But perhaps Scott's chief importance lay in the way his popularity permanently expanded the market available for serious poetry and prose fiction, not only in Britain but throughout the civilized world. His works were as eagerly read in Europe and North America as at home...Scott's success opened the way for many more serious novelists, including Jane Austen, and it is appropriate that Scott, always generous to fellow writers, was the first major figure to hail her genius...

And Scott's first prose narratives date from 1814! There's something very weird in the fact that less than 200 years later the historical novel, the root from which most "serious" fiction ultimately descends, is now rather declasse! It's almost as if the historical consciousness that Scott gifted the world with has, ahem, departed. Another great accomplishment of lousy university educations!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 23, 2007 9:27 PM

Was Lit- Fic always so lame? Leaving aside such writers as Hemingway-- which maybe we shouldn't-- I recently read a bio of the forgotten southern novelist William Humphrey, because I knew him a bit. His early- 50's "Home from the Hill" was critically considered a brilliant lit- fic book, but had a plot like a rural noir novel and was made into a (not brilliant) film starring James Mitchum.

What happened??

Posted by: Steve Bodio on August 23, 2007 9:48 PM

i recently saw "3:10 to yuma" on either tcm or the western channel (don't remember which) coicidently after reading your piece about it, michael. i loved it. it was an excellant print. i'd never seen a glenn ford film before to my knowledge but i was very impressed with his performance and the cinematography was excellant as was the dialogue. the remake doesn't piss me off as much as the prospects of some other remakes do so i'll see it. i don't think it'll be better then the original but i also don't think they're trying to make it like the original which is probably smart. the preview reminds me more of recent westerns like "open range" and "the proposition". i had little interest in seeing mangold's last film "walk the line" cause i hate biopics like that ilk and i can take or leave russell crowe but i like christian bale so i'll probably end up seeing it in theatres. big props to them casting peter fonda in a supporting role too. the fonda name brings happy memories of good old westerns to my mind. henry in "warlock", "my darling clementine" and "once upon a time in the west", jane in "cat ballou", "comes a horseman" and peter's excellant "hired hand".

Posted by: t. j. on August 23, 2007 10:59 PM

To me, the foundation of narrative is point of view. From whose perspective is the story being told...or who is the narrator and how reliable is that narrator?

We entrust the plotline, how it's developed (linear or non-linear), and the development of the characters to the narrator or narrators. The narrator(s) is/are almost always the story's most important character.

Is this what bothers you, Michael? The imaginative energy and experimentation the writers of novels found in, say, a Survey of American Fiction course, invest in highly limited and subjective points of view...whether stream of consciousness, strongly limited third person points of view, or from shifting points of view if the story is told from multiple perspectives? Or, to add one more, from the meta-narrator who examines himself and act of creating a story even as he tells it?

Posted by: raymond pert on August 23, 2007 11:30 PM

I was similarly blown away by Gates of Fire, which I read earlier this year. I think Charlton's identified a highly salient point that may explain much about why this kind of book doesn't get much love from the 'real' critics: it's a man's book, and we guys aren't supposed to love manly books anymore. We're supposed to learn to eschew action and bravery and battle; we're supposed to care about and empathize with our enemies, not put them to the sword in the joy of battle.

Can you imagine Pressfield in a typical 'Creative Writing' MA workshop, listening to his safely domesticated classmates sniping away at his 'demonization of The Other', and 'taking on board' suggestions about how he might spend more time expanding the insights into Leonidas' interior life, maybe, you know, giving him an epiphany about how violence is never the answer and all?

Posted by: mr tall on August 23, 2007 11:47 PM

t.j. The original '3:10' was a cracker of a movie. Have you caught 'The Last Wagon'? Another Delmer Daves special, it's a relaxing, cult-free cliche-western lifted sky-high by the incomparable Richard Widmark.

Posted by: Robert Townshend on August 24, 2007 1:19 AM

no but i'll have to check it out. i love richard widmark.

Posted by: t. j. on August 24, 2007 2:04 AM

I don't disagree here, but I wanted to point out that contemporary writers have no choice but to adapt their story to contemporary audiences--which are as a rule impatient with excessive experimentation and length.

Within genres there are great works, but the big houses (which practically own the bestsellers lists) mainly buy notable authors and then publish works after they have established their reputation. Stephen King is/was a great writer, but who has the time to weed out the excellent from the merely good from the execrable?

I know it may be unpopular to say this, but I am generally satisfied with the quality of mainstream fiction published these days (even POD and ebooks too). I can open a random book and be generally confident that the story will be accessible and interesting. The only exceptions are the bestselling authors who churn out things on a regular basis. The problem is not so much snobbism but authors who have hit upon a formula and just repeated it over and over.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 24, 2007 8:22 AM

(re previous posts)

Is it possible that you are setting up academic tastes as a straw man? Academics are drawn to texts for reasons other than assessment of quality. That is why for example Toni Morrison seems to be more highly esteemed than Joyce Carol Oates (although I would argue that Oates will be the one more likely to endure). Book clubs and literary festivals are better ways to get a sense of how much people enjoy certain works (with Oprah's bookclubs being the notable exception--it's not a bookclub; it's a mass media campaign to encourage more middlebrow reading).

Just to take an example. Not many academics would take Beryl Markham's West with the Night seriously (how could you fit it in a literature class?), but it's always been a hit on the bookclub circuit.

Random remark about bookclubs: much as I love the concept of them, I so rarely have the time to attend one.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on August 24, 2007 8:37 AM

I'm pretty much a literary snob, but last month, out of curiosity, I read Dan Simmons's novel *The Terror.* I actually enjoyed it quite a bit, less, I think, based on plot and characterization than on the setting -- the Arctic (something weirdly attractive about the dismal loneliness of vast frozen land and sea scapes). Of course, it was quite a trudge getting started. For some reason, Simmons wrote the first half or two-thirds of the book in an annoying present verb tense, as if he were following some agent's proscription against any trace of syntactical passivity. It struck me as formulaic and artificial -- very distracting.

Posted by: Tim B. on August 24, 2007 9:08 AM

I agree with MB and others above that "Gates of Fire" is superior. I've been urging others to read it - actually I think I recommended it to Steve Bodio last week. I've read two of Pressfield's other novels and they just don't measure up. He caught lightning in a bottle with that one.

Another superior historical novel set in classical times is "Pompeii" by Robert Harris. It deals with Ancient Roman political corruption in a mystery/thriller set against the eruption of Vesuvius. One of the major "characters" is a fascinating description of the aqueducts and other waterworks that fed Pompeii.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on August 24, 2007 9:38 AM

"Of course, it was quite a trudge getting started. For some reason, Simmons wrote the first half or two-thirds of the book in an annoying present verb tense, as if he were following some agent's proscription against any trace of syntactical passivity."

Has Simmons attended a writer's workshop? I blame them for this particular trend.

(I think Simmons lives in my town. Maybe I should stop by and ask him.)

Posted by: CyndiF on August 24, 2007 10:09 AM

The problem I have with, for lack of a better word, popular fiction, is that the writing itself is generally unimaginative. And I guess if one is more interested in plot, that doesn't really matter. Which is fine. It's a matter of preference. For me, I have to enjoy the writing itself, the way the writer crafts his/her words, and also the psychological insights or observations. Again, that is my PREFERENCE. I have enjoyed some pop fiction stuff, I even liked The Da Vinci Code alright (and the writing was REALLY awful in that one).

What continues to baffle me here is the adversarial stance you guys take when stating an artistic preference. "The stuff I like is GOOD, the stuff I don't is BAD." Or even further, "the stuff I don't like is actually HARMFUL." Or the even more annoying, "the people who like the stuff I don't like are just being duped." I can assure you I'm not being duped, nor do I dislike most pop fiction out of some socio-economic warfare. I just DON'T LIKE IT. Or rather, I tend to like more of the "lit-fic" stuff and since I have such little time to read, I'll stick with what has been a safer bet for me.

Posted by: the patriarch on August 24, 2007 10:31 AM

"Has Simmons attended a writer's workshop? I blame them for this particular trend."

I haven't researched his writerly training but suspect you might be on to something. What's odd -- if I'm remembering things accurately -- is that the last third of the novel reverted to a more natural useage: the past tense for a smoother narrative flow (an unconscious acquiescence to story-telling normality?).

Posted by: Tim B. on August 24, 2007 11:03 AM


You're a bit hard on the lit-fic crowd, aren't you? (Your punishment: Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land.")

Literary modernists were the first to pick up on this: the movies do narration better than the novel. The movies are all story all the time.

At the same time the modernists said, well, fiction is made of language, let's see what language can do unchained from requirements of traditional narration (and other novelistic techniques).

It is easy now to poo-poo the lit-fic descendants of literary modernism as boring, hackneyed, minimalist, ponderous, static, writers workshopish, etc, but you can't deny that the modernist founders did indeed break new literary ground.

All the genre writers you admire have been influenced by the technical experiments of the modernists.

Lit fic and genre are trying to do different things - Yes? No?

Your search for good writing wherever it may be found is good - and I agree with you: shame on the NYTBR for not embarking on the same search.

Posted by: Doug on August 24, 2007 11:13 AM

PatrickH -- That's a really provocative hunch.

Charlton -- Excellent review, as eloquent as the book itself.

Peter L.W. -- Heflin *was* awfully good, wasn't he? I didn't know that about him being devoted to some obscure acting-school. The whole acting-school, acting-guru topic is such a great one, or at least it interests me a lot ... I wasn't dismayed by the movie's ending, but you could certainly be right. My memory is going and I should really see the movie again before trying to make any kind of case ...

Rachel -- Tks for the recommendation, I haven't tried Harris but he's always sounded interesting. I think your generalization's a good one too. I do remember years ago reading a historical novel (can't remember which one) whose whole point was to try to recreate the mindset of the people who were its subject -- the whole way of experiencing, feeling, thinking, proceeding, etc. The idea being that it must have been very different than ours. I was impressed, but of course I was also about 15 at the time. But it was probably the only historical novel I've ever read that made that much of that kind of effort. And who knows how right or wrong the author got it? Hey, didn't "Clan of the Cave Bear" make some effort in that direction, in its poppy way? I think I read the book but I can't remember any longer ... Or did I just search out the paleolithic sex scenes? Hmmmm ...

Robert T. -- I like the Persians too. Not that I know much, but everything I've read suggests that they were a pretty benevolent, loose empire -- if you had to live under someone's empire, you could have done a lot worse. I watched "300" thinking about the movie's cast of characters as "the kids on a college campus," and wound up deciding that I'd definitely have chosen to hang with the Persian freaks than with the Spartan jocks. Actually that *is* pretty much the crowd I hung with in college ...

FvB -- I've really got to get around to reading "The Birth of the Modern," and thanks for that enlightening quote. I should really read some Walter Scott too, clearly ...

Steve -- Hey, I'm looking to you for enlightenment. Even in the '60s the chic-er, more respectable fiction often had an ass-kicking quality. So was it in the '70s that wimpiness descended? A good study of this obviously needs to be done ...

T.J. -- Glenn Ford was amazing - who knew he had that in him? I didn't know Peter Fonda would be appearing in the new version, tks. I'm semi-looking forward to it myself. Don't have any trouble with it being a remake, etc. Plus I'm always curious to see how modern Hollywood approaches making something as classic as a Western. An odd time, no? What with Westerns being rare rather than standard things ...

Raymond P. -- Point of view is always fun to pay attention to and think about, isn't it? I think the lit class can get a little over-fascinated by and over-intellectual about it though, to the point where it's a little like getting transfixed by the dust on the camera lens more than what's being seen through the lens. Besides, who's more interesting where p-o-v goes than Hitchcock? Suspense and mystery stories seem to me like the ultimate challenges for point-of-view -- it's all gotta be calculated and deliberately chosen. Anyway, the only thing I'm really bugged by is the lit class's ignorance of and contempt towards popular narrative fiction. They 1) don't know what they're talking about; 2) are doing a disservice to many readers and writers; 3) offer us a highly distorted view of the book-fiction world. Other than that, writers will write what they will, readers will read what they will, we'll sometimes compare notes, judgments will be made and then changed, etc. It's the idea that one class of book-fiction is automatically more worthy than all others just because that, y'know, pisses me off.

Mr. Tall -- The idea of Pressfield getting coaching and fielding feedback from a creative-writing class is hilarious.

Robert T., T.J. -- I've ordered the movie, tks. Eager to see it.

Robert N. -- Book clubs are such a great-sounding idea, aren't they? But in reality I'd dread most such, unless of course I got to choose all the participants. The Wife and I for a couple of years had a solution to the problem. We formed our own book club, just the two of us. We'd read the same book, on a once-a-month schedule, and then treat ourselves to a nice evening at an interesting restaurant, order martinis, and gab about the book (and whatever else spun off of it that interested us) for a few hours. Couldn't have been nicer or more fun, plus I learned a lot. Come to think of it we should really get back to doing that. It was romantic, stimulating, and had both of us reading more substantial stuff than we're prone to read these days. Have you tried any book clubs? How'd it go?

Tim B. -- That's fun to hear, I read a hardboiled Dan Simmons crime novel and liked it a lot -- wrote about it here. Doesn't he also do sci-fi? I should really explore his work some more, I was very impressed ...

Reid -- Another Robert Harris recommendation! I definitely have to catch up with the guy's work.

CyndiF -- I think I've attended that writer's workshop you're describing ... What a weird set of tastes and prescriptions they lay on people, no?

Patriarch -- The only case you'll find me making is against the way the lit-fict crowd imposes its vision and its values on the rest of us. I like some lit-fict myself. But *they're* the ones setting up the good guys/ bad guys dichotomy, and saying "this is automatically good, and that's automatically bad," not me. Granted that it's a bit of a puzzle how to kick that vision -- really the exclusivity of that vision -- around without falling into the trap of calling it "bad" ...

Doug -- Yeah, that's basically the history of it: movies seemed to usurp storytelling, and the book-fiction crowd responded by turning to other games instead. Hard not to be sympathetic, and I like a lot of early modernism (though these days I'm prone to seeing it as a bit of a dead end, not that there's anything wrong with dead ends). I also like some contempo flat-out experimental writing (which the NYTBR Section shuns as completely as it shuns popular storytelling). You write: "Lit fic and genre are trying to do different things - Yes? No?" Agree totally. Where I differ from the lit-fic/media/bookchat crowd is in ranking the two games. As far as the bookchat/lit crowd is concerned, lit-fict is both more real and more significant than popular narrative fiction, and the people involved in the litfict game are assumed to be more serious, smarter, and more talented than those playing the popular narrative fiction game. I don't rank lit-fict above popular narrative storytelling, and I see no evidence that the lit-fict crowd is smarter, more significant, or more talented than the popular-fiction crowd. More full of themselves, perhaps ... Actually, if I were to play the dumb game of being prescriptive and predicting the future, I'd venture that most modernist and modernist-derived lit-fict is so specialized in tterms of the reading skills and tastes that it demands that it'll be incomprehensible to 99.99% of people within 50 years. So far as the question of "what is book-fiction selling that people can't get better from TV and movies" goes, well, it's a good one, god knows. I'd urge writers to consider the possibility of coming up with non-language-obsessed responses. The taste for story and character seems so basic that it seems to make more sense to work with it rather than against it. Even within the realm of narrative fiction, a book-fiction writer can do something different (or at least appealing in its own right) than TV and movies: something that's more personal, or more extreme, or funnier, or or just more solid than what movies and TV generally do. But responding by playing a game that's for a class of specialists only (and a dying class of specialists at that) seems ... I don't know. Cutting off your nose to spite your face, or something. It doesn't appeal to me, anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 24, 2007 11:55 AM

Another historical novelist who writes enjoyably literate action novels is the Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte. He has a series of novels set in 1620s Habsburg Spain. The two that have been translated and issued in paper in this country are "Captain Alatriste" (named after the protagonist in the books) and "Purity of Blood."

The characters are complex and well-developed, the plots and action keep your interest, and the historical background is accurate and interesting. Most of us with Anglo-centric educations don't have much familiarity with that place and time and I find these novels give me new historical perspectives in addition to entertaining me.

The novels are presented as memoirs written in the late 17th century by one of the characters who is a young boy with the action takes place. They have a wistful tone, as the Hapsburgs extract vast wealth from their New World empire, they piss it all away in military expenditures in wars in the Low Countries and intrigues against the Protestant powers in Europe. What might have been had the money been invested in education and infrastructure in Spain? What might have been had the Spanish upper classes applied themselves to work and statecraft rather than idle amusements and court intrigues?

Though it is a period where Spain is beginning a downhill slide, it is full of the cultural richness of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Velasquez - all of which is also covered in the novels.

Posted by: Reid Farmer on August 24, 2007 11:56 AM

Sorry to be more interested in the sociological history than in the actual books in question, but...

The rise of the traditional novel seems to me to be a phenomenon of the "old middle class", that is, commercially-minded small business/farm owning people, who were the rising class of the 18th and 19th centuries. They saw drama in life as occuring because of the drive of highly motivated individuals, and the central situation portrayed was how individuals rose, sank or kept afloat in an dynamic but unstable economy and collapsing class system. The dominant aesthetic was a realism about the motives of strongly drawn individuals and about their fluid social environment.

However, by the late 19th century, the newly rising class were professionals (doctors, lawyers, accountants, schoolteachers, architects, engineers, psychologists, professors) and managers (government and large business bureaucrats). They didn't personify the world to the same extent; their world wasn't a stage, with all the people merely players; they specialized in rather more abstract trends, either larger or smaller than the unitary individual. Their dominant aesthetic is conceptual and neurotic (in the sense that their psychological interest has shifted to bits and pieces of psyches, with individuals no longer seen as unitary actors).

Of course, this new professional-managerial class took some time to get the upper hand, and therefore the first 70 (?) years of the 20th century saw a rather interesting mixed bag of conceptual, psychological and social class-oriented writing.

However, since around 1970 when the professional-managerial aesthetic has controlled the aesthetic high ground (universities, magazines, foundations, government grant programs, etc.)we've seen conceptualism strongly privileged, while all other trends relegated to mere "commercialism", not "art." All this really means, is that all other trends are the kinds of things that "they" (the lowly) like, not what "we" (the elite) like.

Going forward I see two possibilities. One, the new class will eventually pulverize old artistic forms (narrative-driven pyschological realism, etc.) in the same manner that aristocratic forms like epic poetry were over time discarded in the past. Two, that something new is afoot, and discussions like this one are the harbringer of some new trend. Perhaps the dominance of the professional-managerial elite is shakier than it looks.

Who will overthrow Zeus?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 24, 2007 12:49 PM

As a member of an academic faculty, albeit it at a community college, I find that my colleagues are indiscriminate in their reading habits and relish all kinds of fiction. Mysteries and detective stories are particularly popular with many of my colleagues.

The same was true when I was a student at and taught at both the University of Oregon and Whitworth University (then Whitworth College).

I know my experience is limited. Nonetheless, it's my experience with other academics that they/we love Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce as well as Walter Mosley, Tony Hillerman, and James Crumley.

I understand your argument and it makes for a lively polemic, but in my neck of the woods, Spokane, Eugene, Portland, I don't experience much of the snobbery you describe.

Maybe I'm just lucky!

BTW, I don't think a strong focus on pov is like looking at the dust on the camera. It's coming to understand that observers and story tellers are very limited in what they experience and that there is more to the story than what we are told.

Shakespeare was the best at this. Focusing on the difference between what the story of "The Merchant of Venice" looks like from Shylock's point of view as opposed to Antonio's is not looking at dust on the camera lens. It's getting to the heart of the play.

Posted by: raymond pert on August 24, 2007 12:51 PM

Reid -- Another tempting-sounding recommendation, tks. I've heard good things about Perez-Reverte from a few other people too. Yikes: another book to add to my stack.

FvB -- That's a great account of literary history you've got going there. "Fiction and the New Class" ... Could make your name as a scholar.

Raymond -- Yeah, many people outside the media center are often refreshingly open, both as people and in their media-consumption lives. God bless 'em. Too bad many of the people in the media hub are so antagonistic toward them, either in an flat-out snobbish way, or in a "what a great chance to exploit the rubes" kind of way. As for p-o-v, I don't mean that p-o-v isn't an interesting topic, just that I think academics often go overboard in their focus on it. There's much else that's interesting about fiction, not least of which is, for example, suspense. How is it created? I imagine that some students would love to learn a thing or two about it. Besides, wasn't the "the person doing the telling affects the tale being told" discovery made an awfully long time ago? Seems to me the conversation is beyond-ready to move on from that one.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 24, 2007 1:44 PM

Reading Doug and Michael's posts, I can't help but think that, as with architecture, Michael gives more power and weight to the academics and theorists than most people do. Certainly in a summer that saw J.K. Rowling publish her seventh Harry Potter book, and staying up till 1:30 am with my entire family and a dozen friends to buy the book in a party atmosphere along with 1,000 other people at my local Barnes and Noble, it's hard to credit the idea that the lit-crit crowd really has a lot of power in terms of what gets written and what gets bought and sold and enjoyed.

They certainly have a lot of power over what gets discussed in the publications that they themselves control -- but that's about it.

In terms of the general public, surely Rowling and the other writers Michael has talked about are doing "something different (or at least appealing in its own right) than TV and movies: something that's more personal, or more extreme, or funnier, or or just more solid than what movies and TV generally do"?

And just as surely, there's a huge audience out there responding to it. It seems to me that the book chat/lit-crit crowd is more marginalized and ignorable than ever.

Posted by: Steve on August 24, 2007 2:13 PM

I think FvB's account needs a little refining: the oldest "old middle class" in Europe was composed of merchants (above a certain level of income), clergy, military people, doctors, and lawyers, up until towards the end of the eighteenth century.

The rise of small manufacturer-merchants and the commercial trades in general in the 18th-19th century greatly increased the numbers of middle-class people, but the older middle class was wont to look down on its newer members.

In Jane Austen's fictional world, for example, barristers are contemptuous of solicitors. And any kind of connection with trade is frowned upon.

It may well be true, however, that the new middle class of the mid-19th century had different reading tastes than the newer middle class of public servants and administrators (plus the greatly expanded professional class from the old professions), of the early 20th century.

Posted by: alias clio on August 24, 2007 2:18 PM

Steve -- I'm *considerably* more preoccupied with the doings of the semi-official litchat class than most civilians are. Living in the midst of it, etc. And god bless the rest of the country for going its merry way.

I'm not entirely sure that the doings of the litchat class are harmless or insignficant, though. For one thing, they're really good at projecting their attitudes: think the foundations, the schools, English classes, attitudes at indie bookstores, etc. For another, the fact that the snobs focus almost entirely on lit-fict means that popular fiction doesn't get much in the way of 1) recognition, which is annoying, and 2) informed and interesting attention, which is really too bad.

It's a little like the situation in architecture in that way. It's nice that people go their own way, ignoring what the snobs have to say about Rem Koolhaas. But the people going their own way often do so cluelessly, and cluelessly in many senses. They're uninformed, their tastes wander all over the place, and they feel excessively meek and/or excessively defiant. They settle for sentimental versions of trad building, and partly because they have no self-confidence in their taste let themselves be steamrollered by giant corporate interests.

Wouldn't it be nice if the more informed pros -- who can bring some brains, some "appreciation," and some knowledge to the table -- were to apply themselves to respectfully discusssing the work that most people prefer to read, and to live in and around? We might wind up with something unlike what we have now, which is split between an over-critiqued specialist literature (and architecture), and a too-often clueless, marshmallowy, and bumpkin-ish traditionalism-lovin' mainstream.

Incidentally, this isn't exactly pie-in-the-sky or idealistic. It's pretty much the situation that pertained prior to modernism. It's pretty much what's normal. Writers, critics, and intellectuals yakked about what people actually read. Architects and architecture critics discussed not "theory" but gardens, benches, decor, parks, and house styles.

The thing we see so much of today (intellectuals and critics and such confining themselves to yakking about a hyper-specialist sub-sub-subset of activity as though it's all that counts) is a really bizarre state of affairs.

Compare it to the food world: It's as though our food press, our food prizes, and our food educations focused only on the .01% of restaurants that specialized in frothy avant-garde cooking of a sort that the rest of the population finds unappealing if not indigestible. I think many people would look at such a state of affairs and think, "Weird! Why aren't they recognizing -- and dealing with, and contributing their skills to -- the kind of food and restaurants that most real people prefer? Nothing wrong with fancy avant-garde cookin', but why does the entire food establishment confine its attentions to it?"

So: Why shouldn't at least some in the literary press and academics be studying and critiquing lawyer-thrillers, for instance, and helping us out by pointing out the better ones? Why shouldn't most creative-writing classes focus on techniques and methods that'll help aspiring writers create the kinds of work that there's an actual audience for? Why shouldn't your local architecture critic be discussing the latest mall or suburban pod, or what's happening in that half-formed beach community? Why do only 2 of our architecture schools train kids in the kind of architecture (trad) that most Americans prefer?

Hey, a less arrogant, less close-minded, and more service-oriented specialist class, and a better-informed, better-served, more self-confident civilian class. Sounds win-win to me.

It's a very strange state of affairs, and even stranger that some people consider it normal ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 24, 2007 4:17 PM

I think that if you're looking for an explanation for the high (if fatuous) seriousness of Serious Literary Criticism, it's really all here in the two paragraphs below, from a NYRB article dated Nov. 1999:

Literature in English has been a respectable university subject for barely a century. The scholar of Scottish and English ballads Francis James Child was appointed to the first chair in English at Harvard in 1876; the English honors degree was not established at Oxford until 1894. Almost from the start there have been periodic announcements from a distinguished roster of Jeremiahs that liberal education, with literary studies at its core, is decadent or dying. In 1925, John Jay Chapman looked at American higher education and, finding Greek and Latin classics on the wane, proclaimed "the disappearance of the educated man." Some fifty years later, not long before he died, Lionel Trilling gave a paper on "The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal"—a title that understated the pessimism of the paper itself.[6]

Yet during this half-century of putative decline, the study of literature—measured by the attraction it held for students and young faculty—was booming. During the unprecedented expansion of American higher education in the 1960s, in my own department at Columbia, scores of candidates registered each year for the MA degree, and many went on for the Ph.D. Today, all this has changed. The number of Ph.D.s in English awarded annually in the United States peaked in the mid-1970s at nearly 1,400.

Posted by: alias clio on August 24, 2007 8:17 PM

Still tilting at the lit-fic-crit crowd, I see.

I bet you $50 that if you searched the blogs, you'd find plenty of rankings of lawyer-novels, police procedurals, hist-fic and the like.

So why don't the usual bookchat outlets do a better job of sorting out the worthwhile from the skippable new books of narrative fiction for us?

Easy question -- loss of status. See, I bet you $50 you won't quit writing about the NYTROB and other such lit-fic-crit blather, either. Seriously, just quit reading the stupid things. Start your own ROB...I'd read it, anyway. Oh, yeah -- I already do.

(Gates of Fire was as good as it got with Pressfield. It was kind of like Schirra's Killer Angels, in that respect.)

Posted by: Scott on August 24, 2007 10:06 PM

FvB's comment is rich enough in material for thought to make a seperate post.

Could it be that the traditional bourgeoise novel is making an end run around the conceptual/New Class novel not in book form but in the form of TV series: the premiere example, The Sopranos? After all, the traditional novel of the adventures of highly realized individuals making their way in a fluid world of danger and opportunity began its life in the form of penny paper serials: almost all of Dickens' work took that form. And isn't the Sopranos essentially about the bourgeoisie and their social anxieties, only the criminal bourgeoisie in this case?

A contemporary novelist who seems to have worked his way back to the traditional novel, having made his name as, for the mostpart, a conceptualist: Phillip Roth. Although Roth was very much a conforming member of the New Class in both his social attitudes (establishment left of center) and self obsessions (e.g. sexual navel gazing in Portnoy's Complaint) he has taken on a much larger canvas in his later novels. American Pastorale is an attempt to come to grips with no less a theme than the great change in America: how did the confident optimistic world of the '50s turn into the nerve wracked world of the late '60s and beyond: what happened? His main protagonist is nominally Jewish, but is really the All American good guy who does all the right things and is destroyed anyway, from within, by his own daughter. Anyhow it is much more a traditional than a conceptual novel. I highly recommend it, even to those whose initial reaction to Roth is: phooey!

Posted by: ricpic on August 25, 2007 7:22 PM

Could it be that the traditional bourgeoise novel is making an end run around the conceptual/New Class novel not in book form but in the form of TV series

Oh, let's hope not. I recently unexpectedly spent over 12 hours in an airport. Two potboilers @ >$20 was all it took to get me through it. They didn't need batteries, a screen, or earphones.

Having said that, I think a Sopranos serial would have been a best-seller in the right hands. In that sense, you're probably 100% correct.

Posted by: Scott on August 25, 2007 10:42 PM

Jeez, some English Lit professor in your past has a lot to answer for; you seem to have internalized him or her quite thoroughly. "The way the lit-fict crowd imposes its vision and its values on the rest of us" ... did they waterboard you while reading aloud from Celine and Julian Green? Or was it rubber hoses accompanied by letters to the TLS?

Robert Nagle got it in one with "setting up academic tastes as a straw man." Look: after graduation, nobody is tested to ensure that they bow to the Modernist Canon. Nobody is forced to read the Mighty Dictatorial Journals of the 'Lit-Fic' Establishment. In fact (are you sitting down?) most people -- even most readers -- don't.

You're perfectly correct in saying that the writing (and discussion and formal analysis) of ambitious literary fiction are "a hyper-specialist sub-sub-subset of activity." So are the experimental edges of all other intellectual and artistic activities. So? Why do you feel compelled to elevate the tempests in those teapots to Cat 5 hurricane status? Pity and pass on. Or just pass on.

Practice turning from Leonard and Pressfield to McElroy and Calisher, and back -- and enjoying both -- without taking sides in some Battle of the Books. Easy, really, once you stop listening to that mean old professor in your head.

Posted by: Monte Davis on August 26, 2007 12:03 PM

You never heard of Mary Renault? She is a big name in Classical Greek novels.

Next think you'll tell me that you never heard of
Marguerite Yourcenar either...

Posted by: Adriana on August 26, 2007 10:55 PM

Clio -- Great passage, tks. You might enjoy this terrific Paul Graham essay -- it seems semi-related.

Scott -- I think the litblogs cover pretty much what the conventional lit press does. Most litbloggers are lit-world wannabes, after all. It's more the crime-book and genre-book blogs that yak about the crime and other genre books. Shhh: don't tell anyone but I haven't followed the NYTBR section (except to check facts for my blogging) in years. You're right: Good for mental hygiene.

Ricpic -- I think you're onto something.

Monte -- That's a wee bit like saying to a Democrat, "Oh, come on, why get so worked up? The neoconservatives are just another point of view, after all. Why be bugged by them?" You're overlooking that little thing about them being in (and, to my mind, misusing) positions of actual power.

Adriana -- Of course I've heard of Mary Renault. What do you take me for, some wise-assing know-nothing blogger who uses a pseudonym? Sheesh.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 27, 2007 2:03 AM

"Positions of actual power" -- over what? Over whom? Did postmodernism invade Iraq while I wasn't looking? Is the MLA setting tax rates?

Are you really unaware that a short review in People, or a 5-minute author slot on a TV talk show, is seen by ten to a hundred times as many people as the mighty NYTBR? Can you say "Oprah"..?

The shorter MB on the Lit-Fict Mafia:

"Having given up the NYTBR for some years because it didn't serve my interests, I picked it up and was shocked -- shocked! -- to find that it didn't serve my interests."

"Jospeh Wambaugh 'has sold millions of copies of his books and made millions of dollars' -- so clearly an elitist conspiracy is ignoring and belittling him."

"'I do get that arguing over what's gonna last and what's not gonna last can be a harmless game... Let's not take any of this too seriously.' Now, here's my sixth aggrieved screed about it."

Posted by: Monte Davis on August 27, 2007 8:07 AM

Mr Davis, I do think Michael2B perhaps presses his point a little too hard. No one is forcing anyone to read anything. My own complaint against the Lit-Fic establishment is twofold: they teach people to read books in a way that is likely to destroy interest in them (all that politically-oriented deconstruction); and in so doing, they teach the bright young people to write books that are all too frequently dull and tendentious. Perhaps that would happen anyway without the contributions of the academy and the upper echelon of the critics; there are other trends in modern life (and in education) that make it difficult for the young to learn enough about the world to write well about it. I have my own complaints about the History Establishment and what it does to historical writing. All the same, it does seem to me that the two groups promote a way of reading and writing that is not healthy for the literary arts.

Posted by: alias clio on August 27, 2007 11:13 AM

Monte - It's a devastatingly good point that the LitFict mafia didn't invade Iraq. But does it really do much to help your argument? Are you really claiming that within the fiction-book-reading-and-writing and litchat worlds the editor of the New York Times Book Review Section, the foundation heads, the people who run the English Depts at Harvard, Skidmore, and Yale, and the arts editors at the respectable press outlets have no power or influence? You really feel you could make this claim at a table full of publishing people and writers without getting laughed at?

Clio -- I don't imagine too many people come to a blog calling itself 2Blowhards dreaming that they're going to encounter anything fair or balanced! At least, let's hope not. But, more seriously, it seems to me that it's the litchat class that overdoes it. For decades they've been ingrown, they've neglected (as in "have shunned or condescended to") 90% of what gets written and read, including much talented and rewarding work, and they've promoted attitudes that may well be misleading and destructive. Meanwhile, I write maybe 30 blogpostings in 6 years (that's less than one every couple of months) ... And I'm the one who's overdoing it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 27, 2007 3:01 PM

The thing is, M2B, that I have many beefs against the Literary Establishment (that chilling phrase), but mine aren't quite the same as yours. And I think yours point in the wrong direction too! Of course, this is your blog, and you can blow hard at whatever you like. I think, though, that the LE's problem is a little deeper than its refusal to take popular fiction seriously. There are, after all, many ways that the rest of us can find out about popular fiction; it isn't in danger of being neglected by people who like it. It's a pity that the lit-crit people ignore it, in a way, but it won't suffer by their neglect. It's their loss, not ours.

On the other hand, I DO hold lit-crit types responsible for their praise for impenetrable and often not very good literary fiction. Perhaps that's all that's being published in that realm? I don't know. But if they didn't insist on anointing so much dull and pretentious writing, it might improve.

A small point: did you know that many Newfoundlanders hated The Shipping News? According to one Newfoundlander I know, they thought that its account of NFLD idiom and customs was years out of date, and condescending to boot. Perhaps that doesn't sound very significant to you, but to me it illustrates the way that New York and London critics will anoint any writer who sets a story in an exotic (to them) locale with peculiar linguistic quirks.

Posted by: alias clio on August 27, 2007 3:47 PM

Michael, it was you who drew the (rather silly) analogy to the neocons and to political affairs. I was simply highlighting a difference in the kinds of "actual power" being talked about.

As for your "table full of publishing people and writers" -- golly gee whiz! If you reduce the universe of discourse to people whose livelihood is book publicity and book sales -- then yes, of course, the NYTBR is influential. Surprise: inside a fishbowl it's wet, wet, wet!

But again and again you argue -- implicitly more than explicitly -- that this "establishment" greatly influences the judgments and choices of readers, denying them knowledge of wotrhwhile books -- and there I don't see that you've made the case. Doesn't your own example of Wambaugh's success suggest that somehow, millions of purchasers managed to escape the malign, mind-clouding powers of the foundation heads?

Yep -- just the other day, while waiting at the Jiffy Lube in north Philly, I heard a couple talking about how they'd like to read some Anita Shreve and John Le Carre, but were deathly afraid that the Skidmore English department and the Yaddo board would sneer at them for it.

Posted by: Monte Davis on August 27, 2007 5:47 PM

As always, a fascinating discussion. I've gone round and round with MB about this before, but his point, as I see it, is 100% correct. There is no national or nationally-read clearinghouse of lawyer-novels, spy-novels, police-procedurals, blah blah blah. Joe Sixpack (me) has to buy the damn thing off the shelves and find out that it's completely, horridly unreadable to an adult.

His unspoken point, as I see it, is that all of the national and nationally-read clearinghouses suck the oxygen out of the room for anything less than the anointed. Oprah may command millions of readers, but I can assure that there are double-digits of her recommendations moldering in the bottom of my wife's closet. Great for the Oprah-anointed, sure, but it's unreadable tripe for the adult.

I think the answer is just that we have got to all start talking about the good non-lit-fics that we read and generate our own buzz. Unlike oxygen and Oprah, this ain't a zero-sum game, and we shouldn't treat it as such. I'll even start -- stay far, far away from anything by Brad Meltzer, and read (or re-read) a Micheal Connelly Harry Bosch procedural. Dan Brown is a hack, and we all know that, but Lee Child's Reacher series is extremely servicable hard-boiled minimalism.

Posted by: Scott on August 27, 2007 11:09 PM

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