[17 September 2010]
Excerpted from Bring on the Books for Everyone: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture reprinted by arrangement with Duke University Press. Copyright © 2010 by Jim Collins. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Introduction: Digital Books, Beach Chairs, and Popular Literary Culture
This book about the changes that have occurred in literary culture in the United States within the past decade began with cup of coffee and a vacant stare in a strip mall store in Mishawaka, Indiana. The coffee was a Starbucks latte and the store was Barnes & Noble, where I sat with my daughters as they downed their Italian sodas and argued about which Harry Potter movie was really the best. Already all too familiar with this particular debate, I stared off into space, first at the façade of the Outback Steakhouse across the parking lot, and then upward, where I encountered another café scene in the mural that wrapped around us along the ceiling.
The mural presented a tableau of Great Authors—Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and company—all seated at adjacent tables in an imaginary Literary Café Valhalla. I was initially struck by the absurdity of the tableau, since we were, after all, in a chainstore in a suburban development that had been a cornfield only a few years before, and the people at the tables adjacent to mine weren’t talking about the subtleties of literary craft—one woman sat alone reading an issue of Martha Stewart Living, two teenagers talked about how much they hated having to read A Separate Peace and wondered why their English teacher wouldn’t let them talk about something interesting like William Shakespeare’s Romeo +Juliet or Shakespeare in Love, while another couple talked about Oprah’s Book Club. I followed their gaze to the front of the store, where I saw the table that featured the current Oprah Selection. I looked back down at my table, where the course packet for my “Postmodern Narrative” course was sitting next to my latte. I’d brought it along to prep the next class, to give myself something to do while the kids did their Barnes & Noble routines. At that moment, I was overwhelmed by the absurdity not of the store’s décor but of my presuming to teach my students anything about contemporary literature without taking superstores, blockbuster film adaptations, and television book clubs into account, not just as symptoms of the current state of the culture industry but as the sites, delivery systems, and forms of connoisseurship that formed the fabric of a popular literary culture.
The first article in that course packet was John Barth’s essay “The Literature of Replenishment” (1980), in which he laid out a provisional definition for what the postmodern writing of the future should be, arguing quite vehemently that it must somehow expand the audience for literary fiction. He identified what he considered to be the most pertinent differences between modernist and postmodernist writing as he set his agenda for replenishment, namely, a reconnection between the literary novelists and the broad-based audience that had been commonplace in the premodern period. According to Barth, this loss of audience was attributable to the “difficulty of access” that was one of the chief distinguishers of modernist writing, and directly responsible for the unpopularity of modernist fiction outside of intellectual circles and university curricula. His ideal postmodernist author should try to recover that lost audience: “He may not hope to reach and move the devotees of James Michener and Irving Wallace, not to mention the great mass of television addicted non-readers. But he should hope to reach and delight, at least part of the time, beyond the circle of what Mann called the Early Christians: professional devotees of high art” (203).
If we fast-forward twenty-some years, the literary world Barth describes in that essay now seems antique. The ideal postmodern novel he hoped would appear did indeed materialize, in the form of novels such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981), Graham Swift’s Waterland (1983), Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), and Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989); and by now those novels have become canonical and are regularly taught in courses on postmodern fiction. But something else happened in the meantime that redefined the entire notion of accessibility. Writers of literary fiction such as Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy have the brand-name recognition once enjoyed by writers of bestsellers like Michener. Their popularity depends upon a great mass of reading-addicted television watchers and a culture industry ready and eager to bring them together through book clubs, superstore bookstores, and glossy high-concept adaptations that have dominated the Academy Awards for the past decade. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) was a Booker Prize–a winning example of Canadian postmodern fiction, but it also became a hugely successful film by Miramax, winning nine Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year in 1996, at which point it became the subject of an episode of Seinfeld and was later voted “Most Romantic Film of the Decade” by the readers of Romance Times magazine (the bible of the romance genre industry). Popular literary culture, in a variety of new incarnations, now appears to be everywhere you look—at the multiplex, driving down the strip, floating through the mall, or surfing the Net. And over the course of those twenty years, those early Christians—the professors of literature—ran amuck, allegedly refusing to hold up their end of the conversation as they spoke in High Theory and killed off authors on a regular basis before some returned, eager to connect with addicted readers, who congregated enthusiastically online and on television, to share fiercely held opinions about books. Apparently, the love of literature can now be fully experienced only outside the academy and the New York literary scene, out there somewhere in the wilds of popular culture.
Authors Mural, Barnes & Noble store, Mishawaka, Indiana, 2008
The most profound change in literary America after the rise of postmodern fiction wasn’t the next generation of cutting-edge novelists; it was the complete redefinition of what literary reading means within the heart of electronic culture. The really significant next new thing wasn’t a matter of radical innovations in literary craft but massive infrastructural changes in literary culture that introduced a new set of players, locations, rituals, and use values for reading literary fiction. Within the past decade media critics have argued that film viewing has changed so thoroughly that we need to reconsider the power of images since most visual entertainment is no longer enjoyed in the confines of the darkened theater but on screens that come in a seemingly endless variety of formats and locations, from iPods to laptops to theme park sensory extravaganzas. The private dream state that used to be considered the very bedrock of film-viewing pleasure no longer seems quite adequate for describing the multiple-choice gestalts of contemporary visual culture. New technologies of exhibition have reshaped the pleasures and practices that now define what going to a movie might mean. Yet I would argue that the experience of literary reading has been transformed to an even greater extent, since who reads it, how it is read, where it is read, and even what is read under the heading of literary fiction have all changed in fundamental ways.
What used to be a thoroughly private experience in which readers engaged in intimate conversation with an author between the pages of a book has become an exuberantly social activity, whether it be in the form of actual book clubs, television book clubs, Internet chat rooms, or the entire set of rituals involved in “going to Barnes & Noble.” What used to be an exclusively print-based activity—and fiercely proud of it—has become an increasingly image-based activity in which literary reading has been transformed into a variety of possible literary experiences. Of course you like Jane Austen—but how do you take your Austen? In novel form? As a television adaptation with Colin Firth, or as a film adaptation with Kiera Knightly? As a fictionalized account of reading Jane, as in The Jane Austen Book Club? If so, in novel form complete with reader’s guide, or the movie adaptation with Emily Blunt playing the character who reads Persuasion so passionately? Or as any and all of the above, at any given moment, as you surf through the possible Austen experiences?
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.
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.
“Hit the Beach” advertisement in New York Times Book Review,
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