The Dumbing Down of American Fiction

The Dumbing Down of American Fiction

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The Dumbing Down of American Fiction

The 1976 film "Network" is an acerbic satire of television's single-minded obsession with mass ratings.One of the film's main characters, Howard Beale, is called the "Mad Prophet of the Airways," and his weekly harangues produce a "ratings motherlode"--yet he constantly admonishes his viewers to "Turn the damn tube off!"During one such rant Beale berates his audience as functional illiterates: "Less than three percent of you even read books!" he shouts messianically--and then promptly collapses from a sort of apoplexic overload.

Almost twenty years later, contemplating the contemporary American publishing scene, I feel a Bealean rage coming on (and with it a vague longing for one of his fits).While three percent of the American population in 1976 would have been a little over six million readers, recent surveys suggest that the consistent buyers of books in this country now total no more than half that number, and may even be as few as one million.[1]

That's total readership: your avid bodice ripper fans who buy romance in six-packs lumped in willy nilly with high brow mystery addicts who idolize PBS-bred Brits ... To say nothing of your popular science market, your science fiction market, your fitness market, your self-help market, your gourmet cooking market, your home carpentry market, your computer hacker market, your quilting and preserving and canning and gardening and hiking and hang gliding and bungee jumping market ... that is, all of these markets taken together may have around a million fans.

Imagine all possible readers of anything made of words crammed into a bookstore roughly the size of 10 football stadiums.Large for a bookstore?Remember, with only one million readers to accommodate, it's the only bookstore.Just this one, and most days even it is cavernously empty; a single big, echoing bookstore in a nation of 250 million people, at least 200 million of whom can, if they so choose, read.Our potential customers total then not even one percent of the reading-capable population, but only half of one percent.If there are 100 million computers in this country, then there may be 100 times as many computers as there are consistent readers of books.

Well, it's a post-book world, you respond.Books are, like the horse and buggy, obsolete.Like the typewriter.Like the barbershop quartet.Like the Cold War.

And yet we holdouts, we inveterate readers, we who love our books so well for reasons so

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perverse and obsolete that they cannot be expressed in even the most sophisticated marketing formulae, we Neanderthals of the written word (a very ironic evolutionary slot, it's true) continue to insist that there is a place in this world beyond words for books (books, that is, which look like books, and not those electronic "equivalents" made up of magnetic blips which are spread out across a fiber optic network as huge and diverse as some Valhallan cyberweb).We want our books to have weight and substance, to have a smell (leather is nice, but so is moldy paper), to take up space on a shelf, to be a thing which gathers dust, to occupy a space we can point to when we are struggling to recall Macbeth's deepest fear (which was, appropriately, 'tomorrow' multiplied until it lost all allure and became merely the next day), to be an object which ages along with us, though its wisdom and value never grows old.We believe, that is to say, in books of four dimensions, and not those of none.

And yet, even as there are fewer of us to read books, there seem to be more of them demanding to be read.Never before have there been so many books published each year.How odd that in this supposedly post-print culture, books breed like clothes hangers while readers dwindle like humpback whales.

So perhaps it will seem perverse if I complain about this overabundance of books.After all, many well-intentioned people are writing well-intentioned essays about training more writers to write more books, all in order to fuel a Renaissance of American literacy.And yet that is precisely what I am going to argue against.In other words, I believe that what we need is fewer writers writing fewer but better books, if we are ever to achieve a revitalized American readership.

It does not take a government-funded study to know that bookstores these days are crammed full to the scruppers with books.One need only walk in the door to be assaulted by high-gloss color and embossed titles, holographic come-ons and sales displays with the same book repeated, like Warhol's Mao, to the point of vertigo.Which is exactly the sort of response a character in DeLillo's most recent novel, Mao II, experiences when he enters a bookstore in New York:

He looked at the gleaming best-sellers.People drifted through the store, appearing caught in some unhappy dazzlement.There were books on step terraces and Lucite wall-shelves, books in pyramids and theme displays.He went downstairs to the paperbacks, where he stared at the covers of mass-market books, running his fingertips erotically over the raised lettering.Covers were lacquered and gilded.Books lay cradled in nine-unit counterpacks like experimental babies.He could hear them shrieking *Buy me*.

How is one to choose?How is the smart shopper to get the best buy for their literary dollar?How often have you been in a bookstore prior to an airline flight or a day at the beach and, feeling "unhappily dazzled," grabbed at the first name you recognized from a review (a review you didn't necessarily actually read), and then run outside with your purchase gasping for breath, the shrieks of "Buy Me!" nipping at your heels?Perhaps readership is declining due not to the incipent TV-induced brain death Howard Beale warned us of, but rather because fewer and fewer of us can work up the courage to walk into a bookstore and actuallybrowse.Where do all these books come from?How do they get there?Who decides they ought to be there?

Well, books usually get there because some editor has decided they deserve to be there; that that book (and its squalling octuplet siblings beside it) deserve your attention, your time and--most importantly--your money.

Actually, that's not quite true.The editor has probably wondered not a moment about whether or not the book deserves your money.What the editor has decided is that the book will probably get your money.The editor has decided that the book is "marketable" fiction; not good fiction or interesting fiction, or even rare fiction--only that it is sellable fiction.

This criteria I have seen and heard applied to manuscripts with mine very own eyes and ears too many times to believe that it was an isolated anomaly, a freak intersection of greed and circumstance.[2]What has in fact become the sound, the practical, the businesslike, the only question to ask of fiction being considered for publication is, How well will it sell?Is it "commercially viable"?Will it "read"?Does it possess "legs"?And, most importantly, will it "list"--that is,will it make the Best Seller lists in the New York Times or Publisher's Weekly?(Which raises another question: why is there a best seller list in the New York Times?What on earth does volume tell us about value?We instinctively distrust the "warehouse" deal when it comes to our toasters and generic medicines, but not our literature?)

What has become distressingly apparent in publishing these last few years is that the bottom line for judging which manuscripts will appear nestled in those flashy Lucite cradles is now definitely, and simply, How far above the bottom line will it rise?And in order for a book to so rise its marketability must possess, ironically, mass.

There are dozens of recent examples of this new mediocre-mass-marketed fiction; for instance, The Bridges of Madison County (which Gary Trudeau has recently and brilliantly savaged in "Doonesbury"); a book whose lavish expenditure of cliché, hackneyed phrase, pompous dialogue and shallow characterization would make it almost ironic if it weren't so clearly sincere, and thus a book which seems little more than soap opera transcribed.However, Bridges fulfills only half of our criteria for the new mass-market fiction because, while it has sold like the proverbial hotcakes for some time now, the original promotion for the book was in fact rather spartan.[3]Bridges is a bad book that had to earn its best seller status.Rather, the sorts of books I am indicting as the new mass-market mediocre fiction are books which are promoted as best sellers before a single copy is even sold; and in some cases, before a single copy is ever printed.

An excellent example of this trend in all its mercenary and mindless efficiency is a collection of short stories titled Cowboys are My Weakness.(I'm uncertain whether or not to capitalize that comatose verb--Titles are My Weakness?Verbs are My Weakness?The list is endless.)The book, released in 1992 by Norton, surpassed sales expectations for a typical short story collection, and was brought out in paperback in January of 1993.Currently in something like its fifth printing, it certainly would appear to meet the first criteria of what we mean by "mass marketable" fiction, in that it has garnered massive sales.Perhaps the less cynical among us might conclude these that massive sales reflect the book's ultimate status as fiction; that there is, finally, some truth to the old chestnut about "worth its weight in gold."On the other hand, the more cynical among us might counter that myth with examples like Harold Robbins and Judith Krantz, Jacqueline Suzzane and Stephen King, and so on, ad illiteratum.

But that is not the tack I will take.It must be admitted that sales indicate something, even if we all would agree that sales have absolutely nothing to do with a book's literary merit--for if we can't agree to that, then we are indeed doomed as a literate culture, and might as well begin teaching Robert Waller and Tom Clancy in our "Literary Greats" courses.On the other hand, while such massive sales cannot simply be ignored, it is not a sufficient response to sigh and lament the declining tastes of "the public."The public in this case is you and me, is the people who still read, who still read anything.On yet the third hand, neither am I going to suggest that vox populi rules and anyone who says otherwise is an anti-democratic snob.Instead, I'm going to bring a salesman'sanswer to this dilemma of sales and counter the evidence of demand with a rule of supply.

As any good salesman will tell you, the public buys only what it is sold--and mass marketed fiction is fiction which, above and beyond all else, is sold en masse.For instance, Cowboys are My Ticket (or whatever) has been sold, and sold hard.

Norton decided early on this was a "mass marketable" commodity, and guided its novice author, Pam Houston, through two years of reconstructive work on the stories, until they were sufficiently in line with the book's already-planned publicity campaign--which included arrangements for an eighteen-city reading tour, interviews on local morning TV and radio shows, the dissemination far and wide of the author's photograph ... all before a single copy of the book had even been printed, let alone sold.When the book was finally released, the author was sent on the whirlwind (or perhaps blitzkrieg is a better word) reading tour, with interviews arranged and ads strategically placed in every area "market," all coordinated with the solicitation of reviews and mention of the book in all Norton publicity releases.All market "targets" were attacked and conquered with the detail and resources of a lavish military campaign.

As you might well guess, waging this sort of all-out sales warfare does not come cheap.It is probably a conservative estimate to say that the money spent merely advertising this book surpassed what most short story collections can be expected to make in their entire lifetimes.Certainly fifty thousand dollars, at the very least.Such an expenditure might be understandable if the book represented the debut of an exceptional new literary talent.However, should a reader actually look at the prose in these stories they would find nothing new or even particularly interesting.The writing here is the same derivative minimalist gruel that has become the standard in contemporary mass marketable fiction for the last decade.No complicated words or thoughts get in the path of these, as one reviewer put it, "wonderful stories of real women in wild relationships"--i.e., this is still soap opera, but now somehow better for taking place out under the Big Sky.Worse still, one quickly gets the sense that the act of composition here has more to do with taking dictation than creating narratives, as the prose suffers from a merciless and constrictive underwriting (and I use the term in the same sense as the insurance industry, i.e., something to guard against acts of God--or in this case, of imagination).And finally there is the minimalist's requisite use of that much abused person, the second--the one that can't really defend itself. "You," the reader, is addressed--as though through a bullhorn--to "do" this and to "think" that; but whereas someone like Denis Johnson can turn the word "you" into a conspiratorial whisper which makes the reader complicit in the story's darkest moments, Houston's half-nelson grasp of the term seems more like a finger poked into the reader's chest--say by a pushy mass marketer at a sales convention.[4]By any and all sane literary measures, these stories are stylistically and creatively impoverished, and are in no way exceptional other than as packaging for the name of the author; that is, stories and author taken together are essentially a product--a product which achieved the sort of "name recognition" level usually reserved for rock stars and senators under indictment.

Still, while publicity campaigns can make a book known, usually only reviews can get a book bought, at least in the mass quantities required by "best seller" standards.Unfortunately, while we are used to thinking of reviews as a sort of filtering device, something which we readers can use to guide us through the blizzard of new titles, in fact the whole act of reviewing has become just another arm of the publishing "biz."[5]For instance, even more significant than the publicity push for Houston's book was the careful arrangement of reviews in everything from the New York Times to local weeklies.And blurbs from these numerous reviews were then used to promote the paperback release--as though the sheer quantity of reviews somehow indicated the book was worth spending money on.

In fact, given the selections from some of the reviews, the publishers must have assumed no one would actually read them--not and then buy the book.For nearly all the reviews either avoid saying anything about the writing at all and concentrate instead on the author's "true life" adventures (Norton even anticipated this "hook," baiting it with a jacket blurb which proclaimed the author to be a "licensed river guide"; which was meant, I suppose, to reassure readers who have worried about the appalling dearth of licensed river guides among the ranks of America's writers), or else the reviews damn the writing with very faint praise.A sample from the blizzard yields phrases like "at its best," "when they're good" and "clops along with a happy canter."Worse, some of the reviews seem written by men who went to sleep sometime before the 19th Amendment was passed and woke up only recently.One suggests reading these stories is like running the rapids with "a real sexy gal at the oars"; another sees the author as someone who might have "followed Hemingway around"--jotting down, we presume, the witty things he said and the interesting things he did.

No one could actually read such reviews and think "This must be great fiction."Thus, we can only conclude that the fact that a book is reviewed at all is taken as a sign of its worthiness, regardless of what the review actually says.

Cowboys Are My Weakness is perhaps the best example of a new sort of mass-marketed fiction, the manufactured best seller--a book whose status as best seller is planned long before the book is printed--or, in this case, even finished.(Perhaps we are only a few years away from the time the National Book Award will be granted to an as-yet unfinished novel, in "anticipation" of its mass appeal--a move that will no doubt be touted as "an advance in arts awards technology.")But the truly horrifying thing about the "success" of this book is that it heralds the apparent triumph of literature as an Industry--one based almost entirely on hype, much like the TV or film industry.Even if "at its best" this particular book isn't terribly bad, it isn't ever terribly good--and for this much hoopla, it should be.Finally, the standard it sets for a national fiction has everything to do with sales, and nothing to do with art.And that ought to worry us.It ought to worry us a lot.

But if this fiction and other mass marketed fiction like it is so bad (I hear you protest), then why on earth does it sell so well?

Quite simply because it is sold, as most serious fiction these days is not.Fifty thousand dollars (or more) is over twenty times the amount spent on publicity for most first-time authors; more, in fact, than is often spent on publicizing well known authors.In the case of Imagination is My Weakness, fifty thousand dollars bought an extraordinary amount of "name recognition" (even unto that revered catalogue of literary luminescence, People magazine--where the author's credentials were curiously downgraded to "part-time nature guide.")The name, becoming recognized, is eventually assumed to be worth recognizing.If the fifty thousand-plus dollars that was squandered on these minimal fictions had been spent on nearly any work, that work, too, would seem, by its very "mass" to be fiction worthy of national attention, of a mass audience.

However, I am not saying that our diminishing band of one million committed American readers are poor ignorant dupes, or are somehow atypical of the American public.In fact, in their lack of time to choose from among thousands of competing packages and their trust in numbers and advertising as guides in making those choices, they are perfectly representative.What else is fame these days but the state of being well known?Or think of it this way: What if Joyce's Ulysses had had fifty thousand dollars behind it instead of a restraining order?Or what if fifty thousand dollars had been spent on some number of truly gifted first time writers?How many of them would have produced something extraordinary, something which not only garnered "massive" sales but also actually possessed lasting literary substance?Just onesuch author would have been enough to make the expense worthwhile.Yet how many of those authors would be instantly handicapped by the fact that they lacked such easily blurbable lifestyles as "licensed river guide"?(For that matter, how many of us must struggle along with not lifestyles, but mere lives?)

Such mass marketed fiction not only consumes what little advertising dollars exist in publishing today, but, like a toxic spill, its contamination spreads.Most of the young writers I teach in workshops are up to date on the latest Stephen King or Scott Thurow or Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy; yet the vast majority have read little or nothing of The Greats, and very often they are completely unfamiliar with the extraordinary writers of their own time, writers like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, or even "mainstreamers" like John Updike and Margaret Drabble.And these students want to be writers!For example: the author of Cowboys are My Victims herself recently confided to a radio interviewer the astounding literary wisdom that Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver were the writers most responsible in this century for "reforming" the way we think about prose.[6]

Forget, for the moment, that during his lifetime Hemingway himself never saw his work as all that experimental.[7]Forget that however skilled a writer Carver was, his "experimental" work may be largely remembered as writing that spawned a plague of mindless minimalist imitators of which we may never be rid.Forget--as certainly Ms Houston seems to have forgotten--Nora Hurston and Jean Toomer, Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner ....Forget, too, the brace of American modernists from Bolton to Dos Passos, whose work "reformed" not only our thoughts about the written word but also our thoughts about stories, about the delicate author-ity of the narrator, about the hollow tyranny of linear narrative, about the surreality of any narrative no matter how superficially "realistic" ... Forget all of these writers and countless more like them whose contributions to the reformation of prose in this century dwarf to insignificance the intentionally dwarfish prose of Hemingway and Carver--and then remember that we haven't even forgotten past the 1930s!Nabokov, Ellison, Barth, Burroughs, Salinger, Miller, Paley, Wright, Kerouac, Gaddis, Southern, Singer, Heller, Le Guin, Katz, Barthleme, Sukenik, Kesey, Doctorow, Elkin, Kosinski, Gass, Coover, Reed ... We have decades yet to forget, dozens of writers to slight, hundreds of books to ignore.

Can such deluded amnesia be the product of the period that has seen more books published than ever before?A period where quite literally hundreds of writers are released, like carefully nurtured hatchlings, into the American culture every year by earnest MFA programs all over the country?Is there, we might ask, some causal relationship between such arrogant ignorance and all those undertaught MFAs and overstuffed bookstores?Are we raising a generation of writers--and readers--for whom the very concept of an exemplary national literature is as obsolete as books themselves?

Perhaps what this abundance of mass-marketed mediocre fiction teaches writing students is that fiction comes cheap.Like some bumper crop that bursts silos and thus subverts its own value, mass marketed fiction--slick and superficial in style, easily processed and forgotten, bereft of complicated ideas or ethical dilemmas, and therefore something that is art only in some "minimal" way--has become the standard, much like the situation comedy on TV.And, like each new season's sad crop of sit coms, this mass marketable fiction is built largely on clichés and cultural tropes easily recognizable--and thus decipherable--by the average American; clichés and tropes that assume, with a certain smirking and self-assured ignorance, that we all have the same feelings about relationships, childhood, death, and our own identity.And thus these minimal mass fictions challenge nothing old, teach nothing new, and do their best to turn our anxieties about real differences between people and cultures into pop neuroses that can be dispelled with the well-timed one-liner.Finally, these are fictions meant only to be consumed, not analyzed.This is fast-food fiction, and ought not to be mistaken for actual literature.

But what of actual literature?Wouldn't publishing less fiction stunt the development of the next generation of serious writers?

Let me ask a different question.What if the editors at Norton had evaluated Metaphors are My Weakness not as a commodity, not in terms of its "mass marketability," but rather as a work of art?What if it had been held not to the anemic standard of this ubiquitous rural-Gothic-haiku, but to the rich and complex standard of the literature that we actually teach as literature?What if they'd asked themselves not how much money the book would make, but how many years it would last?

Imagine now that I am issuing a challenge.Imagine that challenge consists of the following terms: For one year I call upon all the editors of all the publishing houses in America to ask themselves, with each new manuscript, is this art?Not, is this sellable, or is this popular now, or will this be popular in a year, or is there some way to capitalize on the fact that the author slept one hundred nights under an open sky or is serving time in prison or survived a personal crisis of substance abuse or spent three years in a snow cave in the Himalayas, or anything else that pertains more to the writer's circumstances than their talent.(Let us remember that there is a shelf for such work and that it is labeled Autobiography, not Fiction.)Rather, let these editors imagine themselves suddenly transported to a university classroom a hundred years from now: what they would say about this book that might conceivably be also said about The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick or The Red Badge of Courage?

An unfair test, you say?How can we expect every book to come up to such standards?Isn't there room for fiction that is, like the cheaper bottle of wine, good but not great?

My answer is that we are already awash in fiction that is not only not great but which is fundamentally not any good at all--much of it sold not on the strength of its prose but on the voyeuristic appeal of its author's "lifestyle"--and there is no chance that that flood will soon subside.So why not reject--for just one year--the merely marketable, and hold out instead for the possibly great?Why not sell the fiction you believe ought to be read, instead of that which you believe will be purchased?My guess is that people do buy what they are sold, that the literary tastes of that minuscule reading public of one million are not dead but merely starved, and that they are much more eager for great fiction than our massmarket-smart cynicism leads us to believe.

And if I am wrong, what matter?Now that a computer has written a potboiler indistinguishable from real Jacqueline Suzzane (whatever that means), soon there will be VAXs and Crays who are the stylistic equal to any of the neo-minimalist brood; "virtual" authors whose prose will be more (and thus less) real than anything penned by the human hand.Just as entertainment conglomerates like MCA have dispensed with those meddling middlemen once called "publishers," soon every editor's dream will be realized and they will no longer have to tolerate those pesky and unpredictable nuisances called "writers."They can merely input the latest marketing survey to "MacAuthor" or "Writer for Windows," and a guaranteed bestseller will begin chattering out of the printer within minutes.(Some fundamental questions remain: exactly who is a computer's agent?Its programmer?And will there be 24 hour technical assistance available, something like 1-800-RTRSBLK?)

As that day is all-too fast approaching, perhaps the editors of America out there ought to give serious consideration to my challenge, and, for one year, ignore best seller lists, and instead insist on the primacy of eminence over earnings and art over artifice; to ask themselves not what they're contributing to the corporate account, but to the national literature; to believe that, with sufficient financial support and serious commitment, great literature and successful literature can in fact be synonymous.


[1] For recent discussions of readership issues and estimates, see "The Sweet Smell of Survival," Publisher's Weekly 240:3-5, October 25, 1993; "Are Americans Reading Less or More," J. Fowles, Phi Delta Kappan, v.74, May 1993; and "Counting Readers and Readers Who Count: Where Do These Numbers Come From?", Mark Schmitt, Public Opinion 11:19-20, March/April, 1989.

[2] In "What Sells First Fiction," (Publisher's Weekly 239:36, Nov. 16th,1992), we are informed by a ficiton buyer for Waldenbooks that "for first fiction to succeed, a lot of variables have to come together ..."In her list of these variables--publisher, commitment, advertising, promotion, and packaging--there is no mention whatsoever of the quality of the writing itself.As an afterthought, she does add that "pricing can be a problem."

[3] See "How a Little Novel from Nowhere Hit the Big Time," Business Week, March 1, 1993.

[4] The narrators of these stories don't simply insist that "you" identify with them, they never even consider the possibility that "you" don't.This "you" is neither audience to be persuaded nor accomplice to be wooed, but seems merely and completely the projection of the author's own ego in a rhetorical mirror.On the other hand, for a good discussion of Denis Johnson's technique, see Daniel McGuiness's review of Johnson's latest book of short stories, Jesus' Son, in Studies in Short Fiction, 30:405-6, Summer, 1993.

[5] The author of one review which appeared in a major metropolitan newspaper was asked to revise their first version, which the paper found too "narrowly critical."Too critical, that is, for a major advertising client like Norton.

[6] Interview on KUER during the "Writers at Work" conference in Park City, Utah, June, 1993.

[7] For two interesting discussions of Hemingway's own view of his work, see James R. Mellow's Hemingway:A Life Without Consequences (Houghton Mifflin, 1992); and Jeffrey Meyers's Hemingway:a Biography (Harper & Row,1986).
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