Moby-Dick received a chilly reception during Herman Melville’s lifetime that lasted for decades after his death. Why did Americans warm up to the novel slowly? They didn’t know how to read it, the author Clifton Fadiman argues in his introduction to the 1977 Easton Press edition shown, left.
“We must read it not as if it were a novel but as if it were a myth. A novel is a tale. A myth is a disguised method of expressing mankind’s deepest terrors and longings. The myth uses the narrative form and is often mistaken for true narrative. Tom Jones is a true narrative; Moby Dick is a false narrative, a myth disguised as a story. Once we feel the truth of this distinction, the greatness of Moby Dick becomes manifest: we have learned how to read it.”
“I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction’ …” John Updike
By Janice Harayda
There’s a lot of competition for the title of the Worst Publishing Trend of the 21st century. Best sellers written at a third-grade level. Ebooks with no proofreading and bad formatting. Pink covers on novels by women when books of comparable quality by men don’t get bound in baby blue.
Then there’s a trend that, if less obvious, may be the worst of all — the increasing practice of labeling novels either “literary” or “commercial,” or high or low culture. The trend gained force about two decades ago as the largest bookstore chains were becoming more important. And it may exist in part because when you have thousands of feet of floor space to fill, you need an easy way to classify books.
But if the “literary” and “commercial” labels help big-box stores, they hurt others. The artificial divisions set up misleading expectations. All novels don’t fall neatly into one of two categories. The terms “literary” and “commercial” – if they are valid at all – aren’t absolutes. They are points on a continuum. Some “literary” novels sell millions of copies, and some “commercial” never find a following. And the terms often have little to do with the quality of a book.
Complaints about this taxonomy typically come from authors who rightly or wrongly see themselves as misclassified as “commercial” when they deserve better. So it’s refreshing that the late John Updike – as “literary” as they come – takes stand on the issue in his posthumous essay collection, Higher Gossip. Updike writes: “I am dismayed by the recent rise of the term ‘literary fiction,’ denoting a genre almost as rarefied and special and ‘curious’ in appeal, to contemporary Americans, as poetry.” His words a welcome reminder that no authors – even members of the publishing elite – benefit from capricious labeling.
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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
Some of America’s best writers drank so heavily that their books bear witness to an “epidemic of alcoholism,” Donald W. Goodwin says in Alcohol and the Writer. That was especially true in the first half of the 20th century. Writers of the era who might meet today’s definition an alcoholic included William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, and Eugene O’Neill. And even during Prohibition (1919–1933), the drinks kept flowing in fiction. In his recent One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, Barron Lerner writes of the 1920s and 1930s:
“As the pendulum swung away from a dry mindset, literature and the cinema increasingly celebrated alcohol and inebriation. Alcohol played a central role in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby, and eased the ennui and alienation of characters in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929). Thorne Smith’s 1926 novel Topper, which became a 1937 movie starring Cary Grant, romanticized the heavy-drinking couple George and Marion Kerby, who were killed when an inebriated George drives into a tree. Friends and acquaintances are none too distraught over the demise of the Kerbys, who wind up coming back as good-natured – and still drunk – ghosts. ‘A gay life and quick death,’ remarked one character. ‘They liked it that way and they got what they wanted,’ mused another. Nick and Nora Charles, heroine and heroine of The Thin Man films of the 1930s [based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man], liked to compete with one another to see how many martins they could down at one sitting.”
I’ve been celebrating Easter all my life, but I paid little attention to the difference between “celebrate” and “observe” until I read S.I. Wisenberg’s breast-cancer memoir, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 2009). It includes this quote from the comedian Lenny Bruce:
“Lenny Bruce said Jews observe; goyim celebrate.”
You can define poetry in many ways. You can focus its form, its content, its language, its purposes or its differences from prose. Or you can define it as John Updike — the poet, novelist and critic — did in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. He said that poetry is “the exercise of language at its highest pitch.”
Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:
“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …
“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”
Why do we need brick-and-mortar bookstores? Scott Turow, the novelist and president of the Authors Guild, gives an often neglected reason in this quote:
“Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered.”
Critics have an armada of fuzzy words that they deploy when they want to avoid taking a stand on books. Editors, agents and others translated some of the reviewers’ evasions in my posts 40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded, More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded and 23 British Publishing Euphemisms Decoded. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn mentioned another while introducing lifetime-achievement award winner Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony. Mendelsohn said that Silvers asked when a critic described a book as “compelling”:
“Compelling? Compelled to do what?”
You watch Mendelsohn’s introduction to Silvers in a video of the NBCC ceremony.
“I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever.”
Emma Darwin to her husband, Charles, c. February 1839, as quoted in Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 2009), a National Book Award finalist