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Midlist, Schmidlist

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I know it’s hard to believe, but there are plenty of people out there who think that contemporary literary fiction has a lot to say.

My numbers are, if anything, more flattering to genre novels than they should have been.  Go into any Barnes and Noble or Borders, and you’ll find lots of those contemporary literary novels all through the main fiction section–and the chains don’t stock what they can’t sell.

The typical bottom-of-the-midlist mystery novel sells around 4000 copies of its initial hardcover print run.  The typical bottom of the midlist literary novel sells the same, and those are not the books that serve as course adoption titles. 

For one thing, there are a lot fewer CATs (course adoption titles) than you’d think–freshman English almost never requires the reading of actual books any more, even in its literature-and-comp version, and most places don’t bother to require literature-and-comp.  None of the libraries in the Connecticut system close enough to me to check carries any kind of fiction at all, except UConn, and most of what they carry are classics.

What’s more, some contemporary literary novels do very well.  Sue Miller’s first, The Good Mother, made every best seller list in the country and was turned into a movie with Diane Keaton, Liam Neason and Jason Robards.  Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic became first a movie of the same name (with Stockard Channing, Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock), and then the basis for a television movie called Sudbury.

Then there’s almost anything by Anne Tyler, or, for that matter, Barbara Kingsolver.

The fact that some kind of fiction does not have anything to say to us doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something to say to other people.  And although the lives of the people depicted in, say, The Accidental Tourist may be alien to you, it’s not necessarily alien to me.

I picked those three writers in particular for a reason–every single one of them sells more books in bookstores than I do, a lot more.  And every one of them has written at least one book that said a lot to me.

But let’s get one thing out of the way–I didn’t include the “heavy hitters” in either category for a reason.

Heavy hitters in publishing are largely flukes.  If publishers could actually figure out how to spot them before they published them, this would be a very different business.  Every time we have this discussion, somebody chimes in to say that “of course those are the people who write the best stories” and somebody else chimes in to say that it’s the people who write the best characters or most appeal to people’s fondest fantasies–but the simple fact is that, if y0u analyze the actual work, you can’t come to any conclusions.  

America presents a huge and fragmented reading audience, and nobody gets to be a heavy hitter here unless he or she can sell to people who buy books maybe once or twice every five years.  The midlist audience is a steady audience.  It comes back to favorite writers.  

And there is a solid midlist audience for contemporary literary novels.

But back to those three writers–those three writers have each written at least one book that had a lot to say to me, so let me get to that:

First, Sue Miller wrote a novel called For Love, which has the distinction of being the only contemporary novel I wish I’d written myself.  It’s what finally got me off my butt to not only write but actually finish Somebody Else’s Music, something I’d tried and failed to do on and off for nearly twenty years.  Yes, it’s about the disconnect between what we are as children and what we become as adults, and also majorly about class–class, not money.  

Then there’s Alice Hoffman’s Seventh Heaven, which has nothing to do with the television show of the same title, and came first.  It is about a neighborhood, one small street, in what is obviously the newly built Levittown, and the people who live there, and what happens to them over a period of a few years. 

Alice Hoffman is also the writer of Blue Diary, which I mentioned here before, because it’s in a way a crime novel–the story of one of those guys who has committed a terrible crime in his past and disappeared to take another identity.  For more than twenty years, he’s been the perfect husband, father, and neighbor, and now they want to haul him back for this murder.  And it doesn’t develop, or end, in any way that you think it will.

With Anne Tyler, I just often like what she does, but my two favorites are Celestial Navigation and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.  Especially the second one.

My problem with most contemporary literary fiction is not that it has nothing to say–I could say the same of most cozies–but that it too often says the same thing, and it too often is written by people who do not realize that anybody else is out there.  Of the three writers above, I’d say only Sue Miller shares those failings, and she doesn’t in the one book of hers I truly love. 

Of course, now that I’ve said that, I’d have to point out that The Good Mother was an enormous best seller at least in part because it dealt with a subject (accusations of child sexual abuse in custody battles) that touched a lot of people who do not share Miller’s academic or social background.

I’m sorry if I seem to be belaboring this whole thing, but the demand that I prove that people actually read this stuff sounded to me a lot like the kind of thing I heard as a child–you don’t really like that stuff, you’re just saying you do to be a snot!

People really do like this stuff, and they even like the stuff I find mind-numbingly boring (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, or anything by Ann Beattie).  There are actually many people out there, thousands of them, who live in the world these writers write about, and who are interested in novels about that world because those novels tell them something about themselves and the world.

And now I’ll shut up and go off and get some work done. 

I’ll just put in one more thing–

I’m not necessarily opposed to “elitism,” which, to me, has nothing to do with forcing things on you that you don’t want and everything to do with accepting that some things are Michaelangelo and some are not.

Written by janeh

February 12th, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Midlist, Schmidlist'

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  1. The blog doesn’t like it when I access old comments, but I believe my reference was not to literary writers, but specifically to “hothouse plants”–the tame writers maintained by universities so they’ll never have to hear a contrary opinion, and certainly would be well advised not to express one. YOU were concerned that THEY weren’t learning to communicate.

    But I believe Hoffman, Tyler and Kingsolver are all freelances, which means they have to communicate quite well. (Miller, I understand, teaches creative writing, and so need not actually sell books to readers, though I know she does–just not to me.)

    Cold as literary fiction leaves me, I do not doubt it touches someone. Books by successful authors do, and to denounce literary fiction root and branch by asociating it with its worst cliches would be as unfair as–well, say, a certain mystery writer’s savaging of science fiction and fantasy. Except that I wouldn’t have the chutzpah to then describe, say, PRACTICAL MAGIC and announce that it couldn’t be literary fiction since it didn’t correspond to my own cliches.

    Books touch people. That’s what good fiction does. As well the books other people like as the books one likes oneself.

    And by your definition of “elitism” who would be opposed? However, my trusty WEBSTER’S NEW COLLEGIATE defines “elitism” as “i. leadership or rule by an elite: belief in or advocacy of such elitism 2. consciousness of being or belonging to an elite.” To steal from Moynihan, we are allowed our choice of words, but not personal definitions.


    12 Feb 10 at 8:06 pm

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