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January 08, 2007

The NYTBR Section and Fiction 2

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Lots of interesting back-and-forths in the comments on my recent posting about the NYT Book Review Section and its attitudes towards fiction. At the risk of morphing into a monomaniac, I'm going to venture a few responses. I'll spread them out over a handful of postings both for my own convenience as well as to focus discussion (if any) a bit. Up first:

* A definition-thing: the term "popular literature." Perhaps I should have been more clear about this. "Popular literature" is a potentially confusing term that civilians often haven't had the chance to give much thought to. So here goes: The term "popular literature" doesn't mean that these books are popular, let alone that their authors are getting rich.

There's a bit of a tendency for people, especially those who are interested in books, to picture the book-fiction world this way: "Literary fiction" is automatically worthy yet unfairly overlooked and otherwise abused by a crass and unfeeling populace, while "popular fiction" needs no support or interest, because it's created by a bunch of crude showpeople who rake in buckets of dough yet who want highbrow acclaim too.

Um, no. Simple terminology problem. Let's straighten it out. The "popular" in "popular literature" is like the "popular" in "popular music." It doesn't mean "wildly successful." It doesn't mean successful or profitable, or even much-read, at all.

All "popular" means here is "of the people" -- ie., "not-highbrow." It's quite possible to be a talented, industrious author of "popular novels" yet to sell fewer copies and make less money than a talented, industrious author of "literary novels" does. "Popular" doesn't automatically mean "rich," and "literary" doesn't automatically mean "overlooked." As far as money and audience-sizes go, these comparisons have to go book-by-book and author-by-author. "Popular music" isn't a bad comparison. We all know that for every Celine Dion there are thousands of gifted, hard-working entertainers who are making very little money. Similarly, for every Anne Rice who is awash in millions and stalked by rabid fans there are crowds of hard-working, gifted writers of popular fiction who you (unless you've done some serious poking-around in the field) have never heard of.

The "popular music" vs. "highbrow music" comparison isn't a bad one either. We all know that most creators of "popular music" are people the rest of us are unaware of. We also know that some highbrow musicians are well-set-up in life. (And we also know that both fields are competitive, flukey, and tough ...) In other words, a singer fronting a locally-successful dance band might be doing less well for herself than a composer of atonal music who is married to a stockbroker and has landed a tenured teaching job at a university. In this not-unusual example, the "popular entertainer" is less well-off than the highbrow-art person is.

What doing popular entertainment, no matter what the field, basically means is making work that the common audience finds approachable; using a language (in the large sense) that's within the grasp of most people; drawing from a well of common concerns and common archetypes; and using forms that most people are familiar with, whether they know the technical terms for them or not. Creating popular entertainment is to creating high art what using conversational English is to delivering a high-flown public speech. "Popular" here merely means casual and informal -- colloquial, direct, familiar.

Slightly, but not completely, off-topic ... I was watching Robert Altman's "Gosford Park" the other evening while listening to the Julian Fellowes commentary track on it. (Fellowes is the upper-crust Brit who wrote the movie's script.) People who saw the movie might remember the character Bob Balaban played -- a Hollywood producer, a nerdy, Jewish outsider who is barely given the time of day by the Brit aristos whose manor he's visiting. (Here's a really interesting interview with Balaban, who is himself a very talented stage and movie director.) At one point Balaban is asked to describe the Charlie Chan movie he's working on. He declines politely, explaining that he doesn't want to ruin the plot for anyone. In one of "Gosford Park"'s funniest lines, an uber-aristo played by Maggie Smith says something like, "Oh, not to worry, we wouldn't go see it anyway." That's a nice little moment illustrating the difference between (as well as the tensions between) popular entertainment and "art."

On his commentary track Fellowes expands on the observation. People of the English upper crust, he says, for the longest time had no interest in entertainment, which they considered vulgar. (The word "vulgar" once had no pejorative overtones, btw. Once upon a time, it simply meant "of the people.") In the eyes of aristos and arrivistes, entertainment was considered lower-class, and certainly not for the likes of them. Fellowes went on: Although the aristos had somehow convinced themselves that occasional evenings at the theater and the opera were permissable, it took them many decades to get around to admitting that movies might have a little something to be said in their favor too.

Anyway ... As a practical matter, in the U.S. books-and-publishing world what "popular fiction" tends to mean is fiction that doesn't concern itself primarily with fancy language and/or "vision" and/or intellectual gamesmanship. A book of popular fiction might well be evocatively written; it might well express a vision; and there's no reason it shouldn't be up to some sly tricks. But a popular novel isn't primarily about these things. They aren't the values it's selling first and foremost.

Instead, popular literature tends to foreground less refined values. Which is to say that it's in popular fiction where you'll find the fiction-matter that is (and always has been) of more concern to a broader audience -- the real meat-and-potatoes of fiction: hooks ("What a great idea for a novel!"); characters who seem to have lives of their own ("I know that woman!"); subject matter that has provocative appeal; situations that have some tang; storylines that aren't mere excuses for a lot of fancy writin' but are of interest in their own right; action, romance, information, and suspense.

Does this mean that the effects popular literature is capable of are limited to the banal? Well, now we're back to arguing about opinions and personal experiences. And for the moment what I'm trying to stick to is the facts.

Brian Boyd's essay for the American Scholar helps explain how the official literary class lost its grasp on story. (Link thanks to ALD.) The Albany Times-Union's Michael Janairo confesses that he couldn't make it through Thomas Pynchon's new novel.

Up next, perhaps inevitably: literary fiction and class.



posted by Michael at January 8, 2007


Slightly off topic: there's a great article by Terry Teachout, Why Hollywood Cannot Make Art, in the January issue of Commentary, that can easily be accessed at
I mention it because of the run in, related in this post, between literary aristos and a Hollywood producer.
Teachout's writing is always a joy. So, if you have the time....

Posted by: ricpic on January 8, 2007 7:30 PM

I think a good distinction between literary fiction and popular fiction is this: popular fiction is written for public transport commuters and literary fiction is written for the editors of literary magazines; both are usually formulaic and unreadable. Why bother reading mediocre modern fiction when there's so much really great old fiction out there?

Posted by: stephenesque on January 8, 2007 9:25 PM

Clive James is very big on this split between popular and literary fiction. He has some time for the former, but seems to draw a very clear distinction between it and Literature.

I think one distinction, in my mind, is that the "higher" stuff is capable (when done correctly) of effects that popular fiction generally can't attain. Not many mystery novels are going to work in subtle POV changes, shifts in tone, veiled allusions to the classics, and the like.

To be fair, most literary novels (even when they try to do such things) aren't very good at it. And I agree that entertainment is a key value, so they fail the test big-time. But a really good literary novel (let me see. . ."Pale Fire"?) is terrifically entertaining and worth reading again and again. (But then, I put "Lucky Jim" and "Decline and Fall" in that category, too, which aren't the first things people think of when they think of Literary Classics. . .)

Another way of putting it: a random popular novel, concentrating as it does more directly on being entertaining, has a better chance of delivering (at least some entertainment) than a random literary novel. But the latter is capable of delivering a lot more - just a lot more infrequently, because it's so hard to do. Writing a really good "popular" novel is no mean feat, either, of course - maybe that's where I should put "Lucky Jim".

Ranked by the enjoyment they give, then, it'd be: good literary novel - good popular novel - average popular novel - average literary novel.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 8, 2007 10:21 PM

How I love Gosford Park! And isn't it a pretty good example of something that ordinary people can enjoy but also that the initiated can get some insights from?

In preparation for writing my review of "Don't Look Now," I read just about every review on Not one made reference to Saul Bellow's "Dangling Man," which is the key to much of the movie, yet all were enthusiastic about how scary and atmospheric it was.

Isn't one of the signs of greatness the ability to appeal to both "high" and "low" cultures at once?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 8, 2007 11:50 PM

I'm not entirely convinced by your outline of the popular/literary binary. For me, popular fiction is almost always genre fiction, and what that essentially means is that it hews far closer to a set of well-understood (by the reader) narrative and stylistic conventions. Literary fiction has a more complicated and baggy relationship to those conventions. (Exactly the same could be said about popular and 'contemproary classical' music.)

But just because popular fiction is more coventional doesn't mean it is any less interested in vision, style, or even intellectual content. There's an awful lot that could be said about the intellectual underpinnings of noir fiction from the 40s or 50s, for example. As with literary fiction, there is both good and bad popular fiction, but the stuff we term "good" certainly does concern itself with a vision, whether it be moral, social, psychological, philosophical, etc. Patricia Highsmith, for example, was a writer of suspense novels, but they are very much imbued with the existentialism that was in the air at the time. She read Kierkegaard, her characters come over as some mid 20thC mix of Nietzche and Freud, her most famous novel takes its premise from Henry James... James M. Cain, John Franklin Bardin or Dorothy Hughes are all writers whose work poses interesting intellectual, psychological and moral questions. And of course there are many more. So I don't see intellect/vision as the definining difference, but form. Good popular fiction finds interesting things to do and say within well-established conventions, whereas literary fiction is less rule-bound, and has a more experimental attitude to conventions.

Posted by: Hugo on January 9, 2007 7:17 AM

Ricpic -- Thanks for the alert, I enjoyed the piece. Beautifully done. I don't agree with it, though, do you? I differ with Terry mostly on the whole "a work of art has to have been guided by a single strong creator" thing. Whoops, there go New England towns, the British countryside, and many Romanesque, Gothic, and Hindu cathedrals and temples. There goes magazines, and the 19th century theater too.I often like work by single strong creators, but a lot of what we think of as culture hasn't been made that way, including many Hollywood movies. Why deny ourselves the pleasure of 'em?

Stephenesque -- Always a good question! Plus there are those heaps of tempting DVDs lying around ...

Derek -- I follow the reasoning, which is admirably clear and logical. But does life play along with the theory often enough? A couple of examples: "Huckleberry Finn" and "Moby Dick." Both are, by most accounts, among the greatest American novels. But "Huckleberry Finn" is a kid's novel, what we think of today as a YA novel, and "Moby Dick" is a kind of overgrown, ambitious adventure novel. It's not that different than "Typee" which even at the time was considered just a rip-roaring, good seafaring adventure. So two of what everyone thinks of as America's greatest are, basically, genre novels. Poe wrote mystery and horror -- his work is still read. The hardboiled and noir novels I sometimes discuss are turning out to have longer lives (and to be more influential) than many of the overtly literary works from the same eras. So I'm not sure how useful the theory actually is...

P. Mary -- You wrote about "Don't Look Now"? Whoops, I gotta go catch up with that!

Hugo -- Good to see you! (Everyone: Hugo wrote a terrific novel, "The Execution," which I recommended here. Psychological suspense/horror was the genre Hugo was working in ...) That's beautifully and crisply put, tks. I don't see where we differ though. I'd join your team with no reservations at all. (Amusingly, I've blogged appreciatively about Highsmith and Cain, as well a many other genre novelists.) To my mind, the genre fiction/lit-fict distinction is like the distinction between poetry written in traditional forms and modernist poetry. I also tend to suspect that writing good genre fiction is actually in practical fact much harder than writing literary fiction ... Anyway, have you finished novel #2 yet?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2007 8:44 AM


While I grasp your distinction in theory, I have difficulty seeing how it applies to the real world of publishing and reading. What are some examples of middlebrow, popular works you believe are being neglected by the likes the NYTBR?

My impression is that most "lit types" are fairly inclusive in their tastes these days, and are willing to take seriously everything above the level of, say, the latest Dan Brown thriller. The display shelves in most independent book stores look a lot like the display shelves in a suburban Barnes and Noble; I just don't things are as stratified as you're making them out to be.

While there are certainly examples you can point to at the far ends of the spectrum (Pynchon's latest door stop and a straight-to-airport-bookstore paperback romance novel), there's still a vast and healthy middle. Oddly enough, as the number of people who read for please diminishes, I can only see that middle expanding and becoming even more inclusive, as reading itself becomes a bit of a niche hobby for relatively well-educated people with ample leisure time.

Posted by: Alex on January 9, 2007 9:06 AM

Michael, those are good examples to remember. I feel sure that Twain was trying to please his readers, and Melville, too - although it sure would be interesting to know what mental picture he had of them by the time "Moby Dick" was ready to publish.

Perhaps that's one way to look at it. Too many current literary novels (of the sort that make the NY Times) don't seem to have been written to provide anyone any pleasure. Some seem to have been written as therapy, some because that's the sort of stuff you're supposed to write, others because it's hard to imagine the authors enjoying much of anything. In "Pale Fire", on the other hand, you can practically feel Nabokov grinning and rubbing his hands.

Genre/popular novels are written with their value as entertainment always in mind, of course, which gives them a real advantage and helps to compensate for some of the other things they might lack.

I'll bring in a quote from Kingsley Amis, when he was teaching at Princeton. He asked one of his students what he thought the reader might make of the student's latest effort, and was told "Sir, I don't pay much attention to the reader". "After that, I ceased to pay much attention to him", Amis reported.

And of course, Amis wrote a good alternate-history novel ("The Alteration") and an excellent ghost story ("The Green Man"). That last one is a good example, I'd say, of a very enjoyable genre book that's also written at a high level. Note, for example, the wonderful time-stopped conversation with God in the middle of it, which isn't something that a lesser author would have thought or (or tried to carry off).

Posted by: Derek Lowe on January 9, 2007 9:20 AM

Thanks for the words of praise! Yes, novel #2 is finished, will be out in July. There's some blurb here:

Yeah, rereading your piece, our views chime more often than not, but I guess I think "vision" is more important to popular fiction (or at least good popular fiction) than you make out. It doesn't always look that way, because the vision is often more seamlessly merged with the narrative.

I've read your other pieces on popular fiction here, and even got myself a copy of A Kiss Before Dying after reading your piece on it, so thanks for the recommendation.

Out of interest, have you read the John Franklin Bardin trilogy of The Deadly Percheron / The Last of Philip Banter / Devil Take The Blue-Tail Fly? I have a feeling you'd like them. Weird Hitchockian stuff from the 40s.

Posted by: Hugo on January 9, 2007 9:54 AM

Alex -- All good points, although you seem to run with a more open-minded crowd of literary types than I run into. In these postings, though, I'm limiting myself to the specific question: "why doesn't the NYTBR Section pay more attention to popular literature?" Whether it's worth the kind of verbiage I'm spending on it ... Well, I'll (unsurprisingly) make the case that it is . I see it as analogous to architecture. It's really absurd (IMHO) that the official "architecture" crowd confines their discussions to the tiny percentage of works that they do. Like the lit class (or the lit class that I run into, and that runs the show at the Times), they tend to be convinced that this is architecture (Gehrey, Hadid, etc) and that (everything else) isn't. I also think it's unhealthy. Puts 'way too much emphasis on showy "genius" extravaganzas considered in isolation from everything else, and completely neglects context and more modest works, let alone how life is lived by 99% of people. Wouldn't it be good for the architecture class to acknowledge that it's all architecture, and that how 99% of the world lives and spends its time is worthy of attention and consideration? And wouldn't it be good for the rest of us to realize that what we're interacting with through much of the day (buildings, parks, alleys, condos, roads) is all architecture, and worthy of care, attention, and discussion? Same with books and publishing and reading-and-writing. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

Derek -- That's a great Amis quote. There's another element in all this, which I'm hoping to get around to as part of this little series, which is America (and U.S. art and lit) as a special case. Nabokov and Amis were both writing in the Euro/Brit/Russian tradition, where categories and understandings are quite different (and much clearer) than they are in the States. As Henry James used to argue (and Gore Vidal argues still), the U.S. has never really had a tradition of "literature" in the same way that many of the Old World countries do. Nabokov and Amis could write the way they did partly because they had secure hierarchies of culture to work within, or at least to bounce off of. To the extent that we've patched together a kind of literary canon or tradition at all, it's been catch-as-catch-can. Henry Miller, for instance, wasn't really writing "novels," at least not in the Euro sense. He was ... I dunno, doing semi-autobiographical crackpot porno semi-fantasy performance pieces using a lot of funky/highflown language. (I like Miller, btw.) Yet they're remarkable, or have been found remarkable and fun by a lot of people, and they've certainly been influential ... So eventually our profs and critics persuade themselves that "Tropic of Cancer" is a "novel," and pretend that it fits into our pretend literary tradition in some pretend linear/coherent way. As far as I'm concerned, that's a complete crock, kind of like profs and critics pretending that "Huckleberry Finn" is a "great novel" in a semi-Euro sense instead of acknowledging it for the crazy YA yarn that it is. Anyway, more on this later.

Hugo -- Great to hear it, looking forward to it! You write, "I guess I think 'vision' is more important to popular fiction (or at least good popular fiction) than you make out." I agree -- but I wasn't talking about good or bad, just what it is that characterizes popular fiction. You write, "It doesn't always look that way, because the vision is often more seamlessly merged with the narrative." Yeah! And it ain't great when that happens! Now that's artistry!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 9, 2007 11:09 AM

One interesting point is that this popular/highbrow divide is much less marked in the movie world. Many of the canonical film-makers - Hitchcock, Ford, Huston etc. - in fact made genre movies. Even the artier canonical film-makers, Kubrick for instance, tend to play off genre. You have a situation in which a movie like The Shining is considered a bona fide classic, and yet the King novel it was adapted from remains firmly genre. Sure, there are art movies, but in a way they are merely another genre - they don't float loftily above other sorts of movies and they don't have newspaper supplements and Booker Prizes devoted solely to them.

Posted by: Hugo on January 9, 2007 11:33 AM

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