Saturday, October 02, 2010

A book for the literary curmudgeon

I have never been able to understand the appeal of books of popular fiction. Having spent my formative reading years diving right into the great classics of western literature, I find the sort of books that dominate sales lists to be unpalatable. These books seem to me so bland, flat, derivative, formulaic and intellectually tasteless that I wonder how anyone that reads them can find any enjoyment it it. These books are to literature what frozen fishsticks are to food.

Back when Dan Brown was at the peak of his popularity I read both Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code after friends raved about how fantastic they were. I was in disbelief that my friends could have been serious. Dan Brown's books are horrible.

Which is why I was pleased to come across S.T. Joshi's Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers, a book that examines the phenomenon of the bestseller:

Bestsellers have been with us for more than a century, ever since the first bestseller list appeared in 1895. But they have received surprisingly little attention from critics. What kind of books become bestsellers? Why do people read them? Do they have literary value or are they merely the literary equivalent of crossword puzzles?

S. T. Joshi, a leading critic of horror, fantasy, and mystery fiction, devotes his attention to these and other issues, showing that bestsellers emerged only with the advent of near-universal literacy and the increased leisure time among the masses. Joshi is also aware that most bestsellers fall into the categories of genre fiction: romance (Danielle Steel, Barbara Taylor Bradford, Nora Roberts); mystery (Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Patricia Cornwell); suspense (James Patterson, Nelson DeMille); espionage (Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler); horror (Stephen King, Dean Koontz); and so forth.

Joshi provides detailed examinations of books by these authors, as well as of such recent bestsellers as Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and such bygone titles as Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, in a wide-ranging discussion of both the virtues and the failings of popular literature. Joshi’s study, written in a witty, accessible style, is must-reading for anyone interested in the literary and cultural phenomenon of the bestseller.
I have just begun reading this and Joshi has pretty much the same impression of these authors that I have.


The Wine Mule said...

So refreshing to find someone pointing out that "The Da Vinci Code" is a really badly written book. I read it all the way through because I was astonished that so many people were taking pleasure in something so poorly done. I felt the same way reading "The Firm."

Hume's Ghost said...

You'll be happy to hear that Grisham does not escape Joshi's critical eye, either.