Bring on the Books for Everyone: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture

by Jim Collins

16 Sep 2010

'Batman Reading' image not from Bring on the Books 

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.

cover art

Bring on the Books for Everybody : How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture

Jim Collins

(Duke University Press)
US: Jun 2010

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

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?

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