Thursday, April 05, 2007

How To Bury A Book & the Ten Greatest Books

Jeanne Laws brought an interesting article by Stephen King to my attention today. It's in the April 6th issue of Entertainment Weekly.

The article was a combination book review, commentary and rant. I'm going to summarize all three for you here:

BOOK REVIEW: King describes a new novel titled Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski and published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In his own words, "Under the drab title and the drab cover, there's a story that cooks like a mother." He also says: "It has an exotic locale, mystery, and a narrative voice full of humor and sadness . . . It's a Russian doll of a read, filled with stories within stories."

COMMENTARY: King's chief problem is the current "elitist twaddle" that insists "there's a difference between 'literature' and 'popular fiction'." He believes that publishing houses are shooting themselves in the foot by giving great books lousy titles and even lousier covers. "Fieldwork's cover is a green smear (probably jungle) and a gray smear (probably sky). It communicates nothing."

RANT: King asks why publishing houses don't SELL their books. He suspects it may be because the publishers believe readers "are too dumb to enjoy a killer novel like Fieldwork. If so, shame on them for their elitism." He suggests that Fieldwork should have been given a cover that showed the heroine "embracing her lover or dancing" with a native tribe.

I grinned as I read King's article. One of my pet peeves are people with a superior attitude who say, "I never read genre fiction." These are usually the same folk who say, "I never watch television." Oh, give me a break.

I read the way I approach life: I like lots of variety in both. I read for information, for entertainment, for inspiration, for education, and for the sheer love of it. I read horror, sci-fi, paranormal, romance, mystery, the classics and the newer literary fiction with equal gusto.

Why do we have to be intellectual snobs? I was amused early last month when The Guardian Unlimited printed a book review on a new paperback titled The Top Ten. The book lists the top ten greatest works of fiction as compiled by J. Peder Zane, the book review editor of the Raleigh News and Observer. Zane contacted "125 leading writers" to ask what they thought were the ten greatest works of literature of all time.

You can almost hear the writer of The Guardian sniff as he says: "This is an American paperback with (mainly) American correspondents whose personal libraries have a natural North American bias, plus a distinct affection for the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro."

Here's the list, obviously top-heavy with North American writers:

Top 10 of all time according to Zane

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

9. The Stories of Anton Chekhov

10. Middlemarch by George Eliot

To be fair, I'm sure the Zane's book includes all the choices of the 125 writers so the penchant for "North American" novels is probably more pronounced in their other picks.

All the same, I think King is right. A good story is a good story, no matter the genre (or even the nationality of the writer). Readers who love romance will like Gatsby. Readers who love adventures can appreciate Huck Finn. If publishers sell readers short, they're hurting themselves (and their authors).

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