Popular Fiction is Evil or, My Beef with Bestsellers

Posted by Irresponsibility

Between the unabashedly tarty blare of “beach reads” and the sotto voce sophistication of “literary fiction” lies the satin-finished soft cover world of “popular” fiction. Here be monsters.

Intermittently I am driven by a brew of desperation, optimism and misplaced faith in the New York Times Book Review to pick up one of these tomes of Satan. In Ibiza it was Khalid The Kite Runner Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns – a book so unremittingly cheap and vile I felt dirty reading it. The only reason I bothered to finish it was wild-eyed hope that the frothing approbations stamped on the faux-tasteful sunset hued cover weren’t lies churned out by illiterate no-hopers. They were.

This should have warned me off Songs Without Words. When the phrase “bestselling author” is used more than once, and offset by supporting quotes like: “you are grateful for [author] Packer’s insight, refreshed and comforted by the depth of her empathy,” any sentient soul should drop the damn thing like a coal and hotfoot it for the nearest copy of The National Enquirer. Literary merit-wise, they’re on par, and at least The National Enquirer doesn’t bullshit. In the sticky Saturday afternoon sunlight, however, Songs seems preferable to re-reading Clive Cussler’s Inca Gold, and so it begins.

Plot-wise it is embarrassingly thin – too palpably an “elevator pitch”. Two 40-something women, best friends since childhood. A is married and dotes on her two kids. B is single and messed up because her mom committed suicide. A’s teenage daughter is depressed, tries to commit suicide. B freaks out and doesn’t call A, who gets pissed off. They don’t talk for a bit, then they do. The End.

A slight plot isn’t a bad thing (take The Old Man and The Sea: Fisherman doesn’t catch anything for a while. Finally he catches a big fish but sharks eat it. The End) – provided the book says something. Songs Without Words, however, is as blank and pitiless as the sun. Three-hundred-sixty-nine pages; each small, neat serif letter a sucking black grain of quicksand.

“Bestselling author” Ann Packer attacks the details of her domestic scenes with the dogged concentration of a novice artist in a life-drawing class. “In the kitchen she began breakfast. She sliced a pear into a bowl of blackberries, unwrapped a loaf of challah and cut it into thick slices.”

The only thing this scene evokes for me is Packer sitting at her computer, smugly pleased at the use of “challah” instead of plain old “bread.” I imagine her mentally ticking the “use specific imagery” box some community college creative writing course left in her head.

It might work if challah had anything to do with the story. If, for example, the family were Jewish, or wished they were Jewish, or had Jewish friends, or someone had a special affinity for challah, or “she” (protagonist Liz, wife, mother and complete moron) had baked it herself, or had gotten up early to drive across town and buy it as a treat, but no, there’s no reason for challah, none at all. It is simply the first of a thousand dead-end descriptions and meaningless details.

Assembled of disjointed fragments of fruitless information, her characters remind me of nothing so much as paperdolls glued to popsicle sticks, pushed around by a bored child. There is Sarabeth who is cast as a creative spinster yet, apropos nothing, drives a Volvo. Joe, the teenage son, is a good soccer player and such a complete cipher he might as well not be in the story. The suicidal teen catalyst for the “action” is Lauren, who mopes over a boy called Jeff, finally swallowing a bottle of Tylenol because she thinks he “smirked” at her. Did he? If so, why? Why does she care so much anyway? Packer never gives a damn clue. Just throws details on the page, never connecting them into a meaningful pattern. Clearly, she has never read David Simon: “the ‘why’ is everything.”

Her only obvious stylistic or psychic debt is to pulpy women’s magazine fiction. And even then Packer can’t decide if she should be writing for Redor Cosmopolitan. “Her bare thigh was near his sheet-draped hip,” clashes comically with, “her silky underwear wrapping around the head of his erection.”

She uses the word “ass” a lot and there is more than one mention of sweat between breasts, as if she harbours a secret admiration for the narrative tone of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.

This would be merely laughable if it weren’t for the Vintage Paperback (imprint of Random House) stamp on the spine and the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and The New Yorker lining up to praise her. If only the Winston-Salem Journal didn’t call it: “one of the best books of the year… a rare find, unexpectedly deep and thought-provoking.”

Do I laugh or should I cry? Did we read the same goddamn book? Songs Without Words gives me nightmares. It brings me face to face with the paralysing thought: I might write like that. The idea terrifies me. I would rather never write at all than write with the witless witless, ugly, self-satisfied leer of a joker’s mask. I dare not touch fiction because I’m afraid of how it would turn out. I see through a glass, darkly, what it should be and how impossibly far away I am. That the world is stupid and gullible enough to swallow pigshit instead of sifting through it for pearls is not a shot at redemption.

All I can surmise is some people think books can just be okay. That as long as they do something they’re justified. I refer these cretins to Franny & Zooey – a literary masterpiece in two acts.

Franny, on poetry: “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful… the ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there… it may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings.”

Prose authors, take heed. If you cannot, for at least a moment, conjure what Hunter Thompson called “a high white noise” then please, stop.

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