Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Wheeler’s Jackpot

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Western novelist Richard Wheeler, who was my favorite contributor at the old Ed Gorman & Friends blog, now has his own blog, and he’s running up the flag and trumpeting his favorite themes:

Jonathan Yardley, the Washington Post’s esteemed Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic, began his December 4th roundup of the best books of 2005 this way:

Readers of Book World who browse elsewhere in this massive newspaper are perhaps aware that I write an irregular column for the Style section called Second Reading, in which I reconsider “notable and/or neglected books from the past.” To date, something on the order of 90 percent of the books discussed there have been works of fiction, and almost all of those are books that I admire or even love. By contrast the “literary” fiction being written in this country nowadays strikes me as so jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless that I am just about unable to read it, much less pass fair judgment on it. Instead, I find myself turning more and more to what is commonly dismissed by the literati as “popular” or “genre” fiction…

I wonder how many other people have realized just how radical Mr. Yardley’s comment is. It is quite as radical as the Declaration of Independence was in its day. I know from having read his reviews that he is not innately a radical, but here it is, a shot across the bow of the literary factories of New York, notably Viking, Farrar, Straus, and HarperCollins. It is also a dissent from the settled opinion of a vast cultural establishment of publishers, critics, and academics devoted to celebrating the sort of literature that Mr. Yardley finds jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless.

Those adjectives are perfect. I have come to the same conclusion, and now avoid “literary” fiction as much as possible, preferring to read the better popular and genre fiction, which is filled with life and grace and power. I suppose every sort of fiction is published because there is a readership for it, and certainly there is a huge market for the literary species of fiction. In fact there is a symbiotic relationship. Jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless novels are read by jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless readers.

Something seems terribly wrong with literary fiction, and I believe it has been declining in quality and importance and value for decades. It seems to have begun its descent about the time of the cultural upheavals of the 1970s, and now one is hard put to find anything of substance emerging from those venues. It surely has been a generation since we have seen the emergence of a truly great novelist. I do not know the reasons for the decline, but I suspect the triumph of the academic writers workshops in the last thirty or forty years, and their disproportionate impact on American letters, is at the root of it. They are responsible for the anemia of American fiction.

So I prefer popular fiction, which contrary to the ideology of the literati, consistently examines the human condition with more insight than literary fiction. These popular novels do indeed entertain, which is a value scorned by the literati, and that is surely one reason I continue to read and enjoy them

Heck, that’s one of the first things I said back when I started blogging in aught-three.

He also has a keen insight into success and failure in the publishing world:

But there is a paradox at work here. The more that publishing companies turn over a line of books to their sales people and packagers and accountants, the less likely it is that the line will succeed over the long term. The fastest way to doom a line of books is to surrender editorial control of it and give it to the “business” people. For years, westerns were edited by the juniormost editors in NY, and these young people had to follow strict guidelines that came to them not from senior editors, people of literary bent, but from the marketing and packaging staffs. It reached the point where these western stories were not even edited; merely corrected and published. And that gradual sloughing off of literary control resulted in the destruction of virtually all the western lines. One by one the mass-market companies quit publishing them.

I’m one of those people who largely can’t stand sales and marketing people. There are a few good ones, of course, but too many see their role as primary, and that of the creator (be he writer or engineer) as tertiary at best, otherwise superfluous. Wheeler’s documentation of the death of the Western genre of fiction bears this out, and I don’t find it paradoxical at all — putting people who can’t think, or do so only through floating abstractions, in charge ahead of people who actually know their market can only lead to disaster. And has.


Written by [IMH]

15 December 2005 at 11:10 am

Posted in Literature

One Response

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  1. I’ve Always Thought So

    Ian links to a blog post which quotes a professional book reviewer who says he finds so-called literary fiction to be “so jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless that I am just about unable to read it, much less pass fair judgment on it.” Instead, he sa…

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