Monday, January 3, 2011

Big Babies

Now that's a big baby, no? That would be me. The photo's undated, but I'd have to say it was taken, roughly, in the first Johnson administration. Add a beard and spectacles, replace the ball with a book, and I look pretty much the same today. Same chin anyway, I'd bet ya, somewhere under the chin-whiskers. Now keep in mind, different time, different standard of what constituted the "healthy" baby. Back then? I was the bomb. I'd like to think that I've made some progress; intellectually, ethically, aesthetically, -- if not as a physical specimen -- since such a grin could be had from me by handing me a rubber ball. (Probably the last time that worked, frankly.) Times change. Everybody says so. Evidently, I don't, much. Not so much as I would like to think, anyway, but they say the times do. Not The Times, though, not much, not really.

The New York Times has been publishing its best-seller lists since 1935. (The Times has doggedly kept the hyphen all these years, why I don't know, but I'll honor the tradition tonight.) Looking back at almost any of these lists previous to the present decade, what's most striking is how few titles or authors will now be either familiar to readers, or even in print. Take, just by way of example, this fiction list from the week of my birth, July 14, 1963:

3 THE GLASS BLOWERS, by Daphne du Maurier
5 SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.
7 CITY OF NIGHT, by John Rechy.
8 THE SAND PEBBLES, by Richard McKenna.
9 THE BEDFORD INCIDENT, by Mark Rascovich.
10 STACY TOWER, by Robert H.K. Walter.

There, of course, is J. D. Salinger. There also is John Rechy's City of Night; an early and important work of realistic homosexual fiction, and the foundation myth of the gay hustler as Existentialist in tight jeans. Still in print, is Rechy's book. (There are also, by my count, at least three popular movies made from this list: one good, one pretty good, and one epic if ridiculous potboiler, though that last is still enjoyable today, if only for Anthony Quinn's performance, in a part played less convincingly thirteen years later by one Karol Wojtyła.) This list, I can assure you, is pretty typical, even as to Salinger & Rechy bobbing up amidst the usual flotsam and jetsam of otherwise forgotten fiction. Trust me, when it comes to what makes a best-seller, nothing much has changed.

Here's the most recent top ten NYT List for hardcover fiction:

1 DEAD OR ALIVE, by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood.
2 THE CONFESSION, by John Grisham.
3 CROSS FIRE, by James Patterson.
5 FULL DARK, NO STARS, by Stephen King.
6 FREEDOM, by Jonathan Franzen.
7 PORT MORTUARY, by Patricia Cornwell.
8 THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett.
10 FALL OF GIANTS, by Ken Follett.

See what I mean? There's Franzen, of course. Nothing like Salinger, which is neither a good nor a bad thing to me, but Franzen may well last a good long time yet. In fact, by 2063, I'd bet he'll be something very like the late John Updike, as that would seem to be the model in mind, though I'd say the name John O'Hara, from the actual July 14th, 1963 list, may prove nearer the mark. (All three of those much reviewed novelists seem to me to be, and to be read and reviewed by, much the same white guy. There's kind of a gap in there, between Updike and Franzen, so maybe it skipped a generation, but that would seem to be something like the point of putting Franzen on the cover of Time magazine, among the man's other recent achievements. Remember Time magazine? We still carry it at the bookstore where I work, right next to the New Yorker.) Now, does anyone really think anyone, roughly fifty years from now will be reading anything on this list, other than, if I had to guess, maybe the minor Sedaris and the major Franzen? (Someone, I just know, will want me to say a kind word for that dear man, Stephen King, and he is quite a nice fellow, but, no.) Anyway, I'll be long dead by 2063 most likely, so it won't matter a snap to me who's reading what.

Spend most of my working life, you know, buying books to resale as used (in case anyone reading this has missed the name on top or wondered what it meant.) I can tell you categorically that I would not buy any of the books on that first list, hardcover or paperback, save numbers six and seven. Perhaps more surprisingly, once any of the titles on the second list cease to be listed, I won't be buying many of those either. And a year from now? Even the hardcovers of Franzen will be on a discount table.

Please note also, that the division by gender, both on the old list and the new, is heavily weighted to the boys. This tells me that men write, and read, at least as much or more shitty fiction as women do or have ever done. I mention this to avoid, in what comes after, being accused of pickin' on girls. For now, I'll save any speculations I might make as to the inexplicable popularity of Tom Clancy for another occasion.

I make this all too familiar point about the unchanging nature of the New York Times Best-Seller List again tonight because of a couple of recent and related items in the news that I happened to read, both reported in the New York Times, not so coincidentally, now I come to notice. The first, much ballyhooed item back in November, as I remember it, was the announcement that, starting this year, the NYT Best-Seller Lists would be including a list of the best-selling ebooks. Well, why not? Just the Times keeping up with the times. Gotta give them credit -- no frost on the pumpkins over at the NYT. The other story, from December 8, last year, was titled, "Lusty Tales and Hot Sales: Romance E-Books Thrive." That was the headline that really caught my eye-- so pantomime-dame-dirty and so utterly unsurprising.

Back in 1891, in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde claimed, "There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written." (This would come up again, for poor Oscar, about four years later, when he was tried and convicted on a charge of immorality, or "sodomy and gross indecency," to give the specifics.) I quote this famous maxim because in the "Lusty" NYT piece, an explanation of the burgeoning popularity of Romance on ebook devices, was given by one Sarah Wendell, Romance blogger and co-author of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, who was quoted to the effect that because of “the mullets and the man chests,” on traditional Romance cover art, the consumers of this kind of fiction are not always "comfortable" being seen reading these books in public. As the article's author puts it, Romance readers, in ever increasing numbers, would seem to prefer "the discretion of digital books." Huh. That might be true of most of what appears on the NYT Best-Sellers List of Hardcover Fiction too, in a way, come to think of it, and explain why we don't sell much of that stuff nowadays either. Just a theory.

I may have heard this somewhere before, this blushing about the covers of Romance novels. In fact, I've been hearing exactly this as long as I've been selling books. I'm not really buying it anymore. The only source of the Romance readers' embarrassment is still poor old Fabio, -- or Son of Fabio, I should think, by now -- lookin' all sweaty tan and man-whorish on the cover? So it's just the vulgarity of those big bosomed, bare-chested book-covers, not the content, that still brings a blush of shame to the Romance fans? It's the sex? Honestly? As a bookseller, let me assure you, at least for the bestselling authors in this genre, those covers are no longer required, or even the norm nowadays. Oh, they're still in use, but by my observation, there is more garish flesh displayed on the average sword & wizard epic, or superhero graphic novel, hell, on many a wholesome YA novel of teen angst, than on the covers of three quarters of what we sell in Romance.

So why all this embarrassment about reading Romance in public, still?

For any who may never have actually read a Romance novel, or only read something in the more genteel Regency line, let me just say, I've actually read more than one. I did. I asked a wonderful woman I worked with years ago, the woman who ran the incredibly profitable Romance section at a Crown Bookstore where Romance was Queen, what I should read if I was only going to read the best contemporary Romance writers. I read all three she gave me. I did. This was the top o' the line. Every title was a best-seller and all three novelists were considered then to be at the top of their game. Here's what I remember:

The plots, while more than predictable in the main, did offer some interest. Only one of the three I read was billed as a "romantic thriller," but all of them had suspenseful elements, and these were competently handled; carefully paced, logically arranged and satisfactorily resolved. If anything, I would say that the best Romance writers could give a lesson or two in simple craftsmanship and planning to a number of better known writers in more regularly reviewed and critically better respected genres, from espionage thrillers to detective fiction, to say nothing of that nest of lazy fabulists hiding in the dark corner of fiction indulgently called Fantasy.

The heroines and heros, at least in the books I read, were likewise surprisingly realistic characters, with real jobs, believable circumstances, even convincingly complicated emotions. The real tell, of course, was how good looking they invariably were, but this is an acceptable, even time honored convention in fiction, dating back to Gilgamesh, so if the appearance of a devastatingly handsome rake seemed sadly inevitable once the reader had been introduced to the ravishingly beautiful female lead, that proved less a problem than one might anticipate. Everybody likes a pretty girl and a guy with a great smile. The supporting players, including the inevitable wrong guy, didn't offer much interest, but none were handled any less professionally than they might be in the average police procedural or historical novel of the past fifty years.

What about the sex? Well, nobody does that very well in fiction. To their credit, all three of the Romance writers I read treated the act of heterosexual coupling, and the language used to describe it, with a becoming restraint; bosoms didn't heave, nothing undulated or throbbed, and, while there was a lot of moistened lips, damp lashes, glistening flesh and wet regions, in fact, more moisture than would seem altogether usual in this sort of thing, I will be the first to admit the limitations of my own experience in the field, and just defer to the expertise of the authors. I was pleasantly surprised to find how much actual consummation was on offer in all three books, as I'd been led to expect more tease than tussle and more longing than laying in this kind of book. What's more, the heroines were uniformly sexually aware, and experienced, with not a trembling virgin in the batch. I don't mean to suggest so much as a hint of feminism in any of the three Romance novels I read, but the practical and cultural effects of the women's movement -- remember that? -- were evident throughout. When these women succumbed, as they all did, it was very much a matter of choice, not force, fate, or uninvited friction.

The morality in the books I read struck me as being sound, if far from thoughtful, and certainly in keeping with the contemporary moral and cultural climate. There were none of the expected anachronisms of feminine inferiority or inherent weakness, or dependence on men. If the men in all three books could still easily be slotted into the either upright or low down, at least the good guys weren't saints and the bad guys weren't complete cads. That's progress, isn't it?

So why this unconquerable, blushing embarrassment among the constant Romance readers, still, if the books they read the most aren't anymore quite the books they still describe to reporters and the rest of the us? Well, to refer once more to Wilde's rule, the one thing all the Romance novels I read had in common, beyond the points already mentioned, wasn't their immorality, it was that they were all badly written books. That, I think, is what their devoted readers would rather the rest of us not notice about their Romances.

The Romance novels I read, and the Romance novels I've looked into since, are without any of the qualities that elevate fiction to literature. Romance has little or nothing to say, and says it not only over and over and over again, but says it thoughtlessly, just passing the time, with no more originality, style or wit than one might overhear in a polite conversation between strangers about the weather. I would be hard pressed to find duller prose among the computer manuals, or less interesting or imaginative ideas bandied about at a card party in an Episcopal rectory. It isn't, I now think, the sex then that embarrasses these women, it is the knowledge of, and their continued, cowardly, childish pleasure in, childish things. A dull girl of thirteen could be forgiven for thinking Twilight a good book. What might she know? Her mother insisting that Teresa Medeiros, or Nora Roberts is suitable reading for a grown woman of even average intelligence? Might as well admit one has never opened a magazine more challenging that Us Weekly, liked a song without a catchy hook, watched anything on television after nine PM, seen a movie that didn't star Jennifer Aniston, or had a conversation, with anyone over the age of thirteen, not met at either a parent-teacher-conference or in the beauty shop. Get caught, in public, reading a book by Loretta Chase and you've nobody to blame if the rest is assumed. It isn't fair, and it's not right, but there it is. May not be true, probably isn't, but there's no one but yourself to blame if reading stupid books makes people think you're stupid. It is that, the evidence of their own arrested intellectual curiosity, at least in reading fiction, that, quite rightly, shames the Romance reader of whom we have every right to assume more when she is caught by her peers reading Romance novels.

Nobody who isn't likes it when people assume they're stupid.

I believe many, if not most of 'em, know better. (Maybe they don't, but as a bookseller, I'd have to say most of them had to walk past an awful lot of good books, in most independent bookstores, to find the bad ones.) What reading Romance novels suggests to me is neither a dirty mind nor a dumb person. What a regular or exclusive reader of Romance looks like to me is someone who has made a choice to avoid reading literature for the very things that make it superior to just fiction. I am not wholly unsympathetic. (Not that any reader of popular fiction has need of, will or should care to have my sympathy on this subject.) There can be a perfectly understandable exhaustion for the contemporary reader of literary fiction; it can all seem so mannered and maudlin and grimly pessimistic. And the classic novel, at least as remembered from high school or college? The language alone can defeat the best intentions of the most sincere reader. That said, it really does take a conscious effort to avoid good books. Unless one lives in a cave, the access of readers to good books has never been easier. Informed opinion is everywhere. Librarians, booksellers, reviewers, bloggers and book groups have never been so loudly, widely and readily available to offer suggestions, possibilities, and alternatives to whatever it is you might already have read. Despite all the media noise about the death of the book, the fact is that there has never, in all of human history, been an easier time for people in the developed world to read good things, find good books, try something new.

The most common defense of reading Romance novels is that everyone, even the gourmet, may still have a craving for junk food. This is inapt. What makes a Snickers bar superior to nearly anything I could think of to eat just at this moment is not just the knowledge that I can walk upstairs and fetch a Snickers from the pantry in less than a minute, (excuse me, be right back,) or that it will be sweet, it is also, and this is my firmly held conviction, that for what it is, a Snickers candy bar is about as good as such a thing can be made to be for less than a dollar, retail. A Romance novel is not then a Snickers bar, it is not even a plain Hershey's Kiss. As an inexpensive, accessible and easily consumable treat, the Romance novel does not rise above the level of the candy-necklace, Pixy Stix or candy cigarettes (ask your parents.) Romance novels are not empty calories, just empty, badly written books.

The friend of a friend recently chided my friend and me for just this kind of snooty talk on a social media site by suggesting that great and good literature is full of romances. This is true, but please notice the case. From Walter Scott to A. S. Byatt, great and good novelists have titled their books this way. But a romance in this sense is a tale, told well or badly, of virtue's triumph over adversity, as I understand it, and in the modern sense, is more a Bildungsroman, or novel of education, with a specifically female protagonist. Don't confuse cases. When the term "romance" is not now used either ironically, or in actually parody of those earlier forms, it just means a love story. A Romance novel is to an old style romance, or even a good love story, what a so-called debate on the floor of the newly installed U. S. House of Representatives is likely to be to the oratory of Demosthenes: something like, but not much, and embarrassing when compared.

Jane Austen and the Brontes are also frequently invoked in defense of the genre of Romance, but again, even in the sub-genre of the Historical or Regency Romance, there is less evidence of actual inspiration, or even imitation in this, than of either a jaundiced, grubbing mimicry or flat misunderstanding or ignorance of the work of Austen or even the least of the Bronte sisters, none of whom produced the kind of insipid, repetitious, recycled pap that is sold from the Romance shelf. Not every novelist can aspire to be Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, but I can't see where the contemporary writer of Romance fiction aspires to be much of anything at all, other than rich. Mrs. Humphrey Ward, at her most desperate and worst, would not have presumed to suggest that her late potboilers were written or ever meant to be read as worthy successors to Pride & Prejudice, and the very late Mrs Humphrey Ward, at her worst, wrote better fiction than the recently late Kathleen Woodiwiss at her best.

The nearest thing the Regency Romance can claim to a classic, would be the books of the Georgette Heyer, the founder of the category, and pleasant as some find these, they are but the best dresses most carefully made to old patterns.

So why the persistent popularity of some of the worst writing by women currently being produced, and consumed in unprecedented volume, both as books, and now on electronic devices? And why have I let myself get so exercised on the subject? After all, if anyone still wants to buy a Romance novel from me, or any other damned thing from an independent bookstore, I for one am only too happy to sell it. And if the readers of Romance now prefer to read their stuff on discreet, gray little calculators, really, that is the only ground on which I can honestly object. Nevertheless, I will offer at last only one, entirely anecdotal, otherwise unsupported theory, and then I will just shut up about the whole business for now. Most of us do certain things in private of which we would not be proud to have notice taken in public. For example, I blog -- a hideous verb I try never to use in reference to myself, even among friends. Well, if I'm going to do such a thing in public, and if anybody is still reading this, then, yes, that's what I've just been sitting here doing again, all evening, instead of reading Balzac, and like Romance readers, I should hope I have the sense to be at least a little ashamed of myself.

(Oh, stop be so damn cranky, you Big Baby, and just go to bed.)

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