By Grant Henry
For a nation so proud of its literary canon, the most popular books in America tend to be nothing to write home about.
William Faulkner and Mark Twain are among the many skilled authors that have defined the standards for the novels and nonfiction writing of the nation. But when checking The New York Times bestseller list, you will never find books of the caliber of American Classics listed.
The erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey succeeded in selling a million physical copies in only 11 weeks, and that is not considering the millions of sales on digital e-readers like the Kindle. Meanwhile, there likely are hundreds of potential instant classics that get ignored every year.
Back in the 1990s, according to the Lakeland Ledger newspaper, the Delray Beach Public Library in Florida had little space in the library and used the frequency a book was loaned out to decide which stayed on shelves and which were archived in a back room.
To the discomfort of many, the number of times novels by Tom Clancy or Stephen King got checked out was high enough for those books to stay openly available while works by Hemingway and other classic authors had to be stored away, only obtainable by asking a librarian for access.
Stories like these are not rare. The reading habits of the average American seems to contradict what they learn in their high school English courses. Those who are angry about this are incredibly vocal about their thoughts on the matter.
What audacity writer James Patterson must have, to write cheap thrillers meant to mildly entertain people on airports! He should put his talent – and team of ghost writers – on the task of creating something meaningful that will last against the changing tides of cultural fads! It is the saddest thing to learn that those books get read more than critical darlings and classics, many fans of literature and struggling novelists might say.
Folks on the side of high-brow literature fight a mean fight when given the chance. They cannot fathom the stark contrast between the opinions of critics and the reading habits of consumers.
What needs to be considered when addressing the topic of high and low art is the criteria and amount of time required for something to be regarded as “important,” and how public perception and awareness of a work of art can change drastically over extended periods of time.
Let’s look at Mark Twain’s novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Though it paved the way for the modernist movement, the novel’s controversy existed right from publication.
The language, for example, was criticized. In Huck Finn, Twain portrayed the common language of Missouri rather than the idealized Oxford way of speaking commonly seen in literature. Today, English majors and writers alike see this as a milestone in literature, but at the time of release, people saw the phonetically spelled words an inconvenience that got in the way of telling the story.
Critics hated the handling of race as well. To some, the runaway slave Jim comes off as a caricature and the heavy use of the word “nigger” is still a tough issue today.
Stephen King at The Mark Twain House in July 2013
But over time and many readings, the consensus grew to see the novel as incredibly anti-racist, vilifying the communities that owned slaves and raised children to morally accept it.
The world could easily have shrugged Huck Finn aside after its publication, and the book wouldn’t be seen as the achievement it is today. But the test of time proved it a classic and a high contender for the Great American Novel. It’s unfair to compare classics like Huck Finn to most modern novels because contemporary fiction doesn’t have the volumes of in-depth analysis Huck has.
It took decades for The Great Gatsby to gain the legendary status it has today, and A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously long after John Kennedy Toole’s suicide. We will not know what novels will define our generation, just as people didn’t know how Huck Finn would be remembered a century ago.
But even so, is it worth throwing a fit over people reading paperback romance novels rather than complex contemporary fiction? Should we care when Twilight sells more than a Murakami novel?
Many people believe that people shouldn’t sweat over books that don’t strive for greatness. The popular novelist Stephen King calls himself “the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”
During a recent appearance at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, King explained that he dislikes people who willingly avoid the kind of pop-literature that often includes his own work. He compared those people with children who try to keep different types of food on their plate from touching.
Sculptor Joe Keo brought insight, pointing out that art is a business just like anything else. An artist, Keo said, is more than a pretentious person wearing a beret.
An artist is anyone, and the few artists that become household names are incredibly uncommon.
An actor isn’t only those seen on the Hollywood screen or Broadway stage, either. There are thousands of actors trying to make a living doing what they love.
To bash books that become financial successes despite sub-par quality is to put up an imaginary distinction that does not exist.
Joe Bun Keo
One of Mark Twain’s primary focuses when writing was to make money.
In an 1887 letter to William Dean Howells, Twain wrote, “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.”
Had it been impossible to make money from book sales, we wouldn’t have James Patterson OR Mark Twain.
Time sorts out the imbalances we observe in present-day art. You likely don’t know the name of the novel that will be known as this generation’s greatest literary achievement. That book will be analyzed and read extensively in literary journals and English classes everywhere.
50 Shades broke sales records, but that won’t go on forever. As long as you wait it out, you will find the early 21st century’s Great American Novel, but for now, don’t sweat about it.