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Signs of Civilization in the Wilderness

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How and where those audiences appreciate literary fiction has changed profoundly, but so has the literary fiction written for those passionate readers who watch television book clubs, cruise Amazon, or take their literature in cinematic form at the local multiplex or via Netflix. The refunctioning of literary experiences is a matter of how you read them, but it’s also a matter of how you write them. The use value of reading quality fiction—what we read it for—has become a central issue in novels that insist on their ability to perform a vitally important function in the lives of those reading-addicted television viewers, whether it be the delivery of essential information about acquiring significant others and material goods, or the delivery of a “pure” aesthetic experience that is intended to transcend the realm of mere consumerism (and is aggressively marketed as such). In either case, we find literary fiction insisting on its therapeutic value in everything from Melissa Bank’s The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing to Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down to Zadie Smith’s On Beauty to Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.


Refined taste, or the information needed to enjoy sophisticated cultural pleasures, is now easily accessible outside a formal education. It’s just a matter of knowing where to access it, and whom to trust.

Hilma Wolitzer’s novel Summer Reading (2008) exemplifies just how explicit this refunctioning project has become. One of the three main characters is Angela, a retired English professor who leads a local reading group in discussions of Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. The discussion begins ambitiously: “What is the function of literature? Angela had posed the question at the beginning of the meeting, before they’d even mentioned Trollope” (27). That a novel written by a respected literary author who has taught creative writing at places like the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Columbia University would pose the question that literary critics have been mulling over for centuries isn’t really that surprising, but the critical blurb on the cover of the paperback suggests a radical relocation for that discussion: “A Hamptons vacation, trophy wives and characters who dig books… Bring on the beach chair—People.”


Trollope and Flaubert at the beach? Twenty years ago the very idea would have sounded like a Woody Allen parody in The New Yorker. Trollope on Masterpiece Theatre, of course, but never at the beach, the most notoriously nonintellectual location within American culture, where one is supposed to read only for pleasure. When the most popular lifestyle magazine in North America recommends a novel as ideal summer reading because it brings together the Hamptons (the favorite playground of the celebrity news industry) and people who talk avidly about books by Trollope, Flaubert, and Brontë, and then suggests that the function of literature should be pondered from the vantage point of beach chairs filled with readers of People magazine who evidently also really dig books, then literary reading is no longer what, or where, it used to be.


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“Hit the Beach” advertisement in New York Times Book Review,
June 2004


Accessing Madame Bovary at the beach involves two interdependent developments that are equally profound in terms of how literary reading has been transformed in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century. I can have a copy delivered to my beach chair “in under a minute” via Amazon on a Kindle digital reader, and if I have any qualms about buying a Kindle that will hook me up with Flaubert almost instantaneously, I can watch video testimonials at Amazon featuring not only CEO Jeff Bezos but also the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Toni Morrison telling me what a wonderful device it is for really avid readers—and she too will tell me that it’s great if you want to read “in the yard, at the beach, on a plane.” Yet taking Flaubert to the beach involves another kind of empowerment in addition to new forms of digital downloadability; it depends every bit as much on amateur readers feeling perfectly comfortable taking on books that were formerly thought to be fully accessible only to professionalized readers. The beach in this case signifies a geographic space, but also a figurative space where there used to be no confusion about the differences between pleasure reading and literary reading. In other words, of course, you can get an order of Flaubert more easily from your beach chair than an order of fried clams, but why would readers of People magazine think of Madame Bovary as a good read, intended for people just like them? Because their English teacher recommended it once upon a time? Or because it was the novel that the book club read in Tom Perrotta’s novel Little Children (also available in under a minute)? Or because it was the novel Kate Winslet’s character identified with so fiercely in the film version of Little Children? Or because books about readers reading passionately have themselves become bestsellers and are supposed to be taken to the beach, at least according to an advertisement from the Random House Publishing Group that appeared in the New York Times.


The first of the books featured in this advertisement, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, details the book club she formed with a handful of students and how their discussions become vital transformative experiences when they make the novels that they read into narratives about their own lives (Lolita also available in under a minute, if I feel more like Nabokov than Flaubert that particular afternoon). The promotion of this book alongside Lorna Landvik’s Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons (2004) and Matthew Pearl’s novel The Dante Club (2004) reveals a great deal about the imagined readership, especially since Pearl’s novel features America’s first Dante scholars (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, J. T. Fields, and Oliver Wendell Holmes) solving heinous murders in post–Civil War Boston. Why have the adventures in interpretive reading undertaken by erudite, scholarly readers like Nafisi, Lowell, and company suddenly become bestselling entertainment for those readers in beach chairs?


How do we begin to get a handle on this robust popular literary culture fueled by such a complicated mix of technology and taste, of culture and commerce? Some of its infrastructural features are directly attributable to the conglomeration of the publishing industry—the ever-expanding number of titles, the ubiquity and velocity of delivery systems in the form of superstores and online book sales; the increasing synergy among publishing, film, television, and Internet industries; and the exponential increase in targeting quality consumers. But a number of other factors are the result of changes in taste hierarchies—the radical devaluation of the academy and New York literary scene as taste brokers who maintained the gold standard of literary currency, the collapse of the traditional dichotomies that made book reading somehow naturally antagonistic to film going or television watching, and the transformation of taste acquisition into an industry with taste arbiters becoming media celebrities. And perhaps the most fundamental change of all: the notion that refined taste, or the information needed to enjoy sophisticated cultural pleasures, is now easily accessible outside a formal education. It’s just a matter of knowing where to access it, and whom to trust.


I have no interest in judging the ultimate effects of that interplay in a unilateral way. This is not a bumper sticker book, e.g., Honk If You Think Culture Is Going to Hell in a Handbasket or My Literary Values Aren’t Dead, Sorry about Yours. My goal in this book is to trace the contours of a particular “media ecology” shaped by the increasing convergence of literary, visual, and material cultures. The phenomena that I examine in detail—Barnes & Noble superstores, Amazon, book clubs (actual, virtual, and fictionalized), adaptation films, and literary bestsellers—all merit book-length studies individually, but I think they are best understood as interdependent components of a popular literary culture that has its own ways of identifying a literary experience as such, with its own way of “talking the talk” of passionate reading, its own modes of circulation and access, and its own authorities to sanction what sort of pleasures are to be enjoyed there. This is not to suggest that I intend to merely describe that interplay as a detached observer, complete with digital pith helmet and clipboard. This is a highly opinionated account, but not a blanket condemnation or celebration. I teach courses in postmodern literature but also contemporary Hollywood, as a member of both an English department and a film department. This experience has given me a keen understanding of the intricacies of style as well as the complexities of the entertainment industry. I think it has also given me a healthy ambivalence about both, repulsed equally by rapacious greed and insufferable sanctimony. So, if you hope this will be an exposé of the Evils of the Culture Industry, or a snappy remix of “I Sing the Culture Electric,” go no further, because this book just isn’t for you. Think of these first few pages as the thirty-second sample of a song you get to hear at iTunes—if you don’t like it so far, you’re going to hate the rest of it. If, on the other hand, you want something that does more than simply reaffirm all of the old prejudices as it tries to identify the moving parts and interconnections of the popular literary culture you’re surrounded by, you might want to continue.


Jim Collins is Professor of Film and Television, and English at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism; the editor of High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment; and a co-editor of Film Theory Goes to the Movies.



© Jim Collins

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