Understanding American Bestsellers … and More

BookDaddy doesn’t think so (these points “seem to be pretty much standard-fare intellectual analysis/dismissal of mass-market books”), but for me (not having read the prior Korda book he refers to), this explains a lot. Like why it seems almost impossible to find a bookgroup book that’s not simplistic, moralistic swill (imo, of course!), and why much of what passes for spirituality seems so shallow and progress-oriented. Perhaps I’m just exemplifying item #3 … their comments validate views I already hold.

“1. American readers like happy endings.

2. We like simplistic answers.

3. For all of our search for answers, we’re happiest with books that validate the values we already hold. We don’t want to pursue any troubling inquiry into our own thinking.

5. Americans confuse spirituality with self-improvement and with financial success. It’s a mix going all the way back to the Puritans, and it’s still selling self-help books like mad.

8. Americans read for plot and character and don’t care a fig about literary style.”

(The above list is a sampling of the observations of Lisa Adams and John Heath, who read 200 books that are bestsellers in America and wrote Why We Read What We Read based on that experience. They’re now blogging their response to books read since then.)

I don’t think one has to dismiss mass market books, though. I feast on Peter Robinson’s and Reginald Hill’s crime series (one author Canadian, one British), because while they speak to issues of justice, revenge, forgiveness, redemption, punishment, grace, etc., they aren’t tidy morality plays where everything turns out well for the good and badly for the evil. In fact, the characters, for the most part, aren’t drawn as wholly good or wholly evil, but as human.

I can’t say the same for so many bookgroup books we’ve read over the last few years, including the recent bestseller,  Water for Elephants. One book we recently read — Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, historical fiction based on the life of John Tradescant in the early 1600s in Britain — while it’s not my genre or writing style of choice, seemed to me to express the complexities of human experience, but I was only one of two people in my bookgroup who liked it; the others seemed to find the messy interpersonal relationships distasteful and disturbing, while they found value in the history and gardening aspects of the book (I liked the history, too). Our book for this month is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, and after reading reviews of it (most positive), I decided to give it a miss. This review in particular rang the death knell for the book for me:

“The book’s greatest weakness is that it is so clear that we must believe that the decision to give up Phoebe was wrong. Even if we agree with that — and I do —  the force with which that point is driven makes it seems as if David’s unhappiness is not just a result of his actions, but a kind of punishment. Perhaps we are supposed to see it that way, because that’s how he himself sees it, but sometimes it feels a bit like the author is meting out judgment and punishment on this character. It created a distance between me, as a reader, and him, and that distance kept me from ever falling completely into the world of the book. It felt too much like a moral lesson rather than a human story in those moments.”

I do read for pleasure and escape, but reading fiction that seems so at odds with the reality of human nature and experience (in my view) isn’t pleasurable, especially with so much of it badly written, and it paradoxically doesn’t offer escape, either, as what feel to me the falseness of the characterisation, relationships, and plot have me checking in continually with my own experience, comparing the fundamental assumptions of the novel (novelist) with what I see and feel, and feeling deceived and misled by what I’m reading when I do so.

When I read for escape, I read the two series named above, or a forensic crime novel, or even an Agatha Christie. Her cozies feature two primary detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who both believe ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to be real entities operating in the world, and whose work is to vindicate the innocent (often falsely accused) by determining and proving the guilt of someone else. Sounds simplistic, but if you read them, you’ll find that the people who are guilty of many of the crimes are depicted as otherwise quite nice, even morally upstanding, people, sometimes overcome by circumstances, sometimes (often) people who seem pleasant but who are seething with resentment that finally is expressed with fatal consequences. What makes reading Christie pleasurable for me is her handle on the subtleties of resentment and rivalry and how it plays out in relationships over time.

Item #5,  “Americans confuse spirituality with self-improvement and with financial success,” seems patently obvious and yet so subtle in so many situations, so thoroughly cloaked in tasty goodness and mysticism. In Buddhist classes, the teaching (I think) is that meditation is for its own sake, not to accomplish something else, and yet in discussion, almost invariably, someone points to the progress they’ve made in some area thanks to meditation, or someone comments that with more practice, we will be able to make progress in some area. It seems very likely to me that a regular meditaton practice – indeed, any regular practice (‘practice’ at its root means simply ‘to do’) — will change something, but that’s not the point! The point of meditation is being aware, right now. It’s so hard to let go of the idea of improving, and of course, Buddhists are hardly alone. Christians, humanists, and others also want to get better, do better, be better. I’d like to do and be some things better, too. Most of the time, I know that that’s something separate from faith, from being in the flow of reality or truth or love, but sometimes I confuse the two. I don’t need more novels whose storylines and assumptions make it even easier to be deluded and blinded.

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