Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Literary Thrillers and Our Modern World

Today is John Grisham's birthday.  Today, he's fairly well-accepted as an American writer, and one of those wonderful kind of artists who does a lot for the community where he lives.  I wonder if grad students today see him as a good writer.  When I was in grad school in the late 80's and early 90's, he was one of the authors that MFA students liked to sneer at.

I think of an encounter I had with an MFA student years ago, when I was almost done with grad school. He learned that I had literary ambitions, and he asked, "Are you hoping to be good or are you hoping to sell a lot of novels, like John Grisham?"

At that time, I was the only person in America who hadn't read The Firm. I had been finishing my Ph.D. in British Literature, and I hadn't read any literature written by a non-Brit in almost two years. I thought the MFA student offered me a false choice. I asked, "Can't a book be both?"

He said no, and I have to admit that so far, it seems like the rare book that's both beautifully written and compelling to read in the way that sells lots of copies. I have since read several of Grisham's novels, and I think he pulls it off.

I think of that MFA student and the question he was really asking: would you accept boat loads of money for your writing? Of course I would; wouldn't we all?

I think of John Grisham reading Writer's Digest and seeing a formula for building suspense.  He followed it--and he was a strong enough writer that he pulled it off.  He made a book that people couldn't put down.  Not many of us can say that.  I think of him writing The Firm and A Time to Kill as he commuted to his law firm job.  How many people have dreamed of writing their way out of their current job?  And Grisham actually did it.

Thus, the jealousy targeted towards him.

I celebrate anyone who can write a book that lots of readers want to buy--hurrah for that.  And if there are some literary elements, like with the books of John Grisham, so much the better. 

Today is also the birthday of Kate Chopin, who wrote short stories that seem surprisingly modern for nineteenth century American fiction.  I didn't read The Awakening until I taught an American Lit survey class.  Even though I knew the ending, I found the book compelling and suspenseful in ways similar to modern thrillers:  a woman held back at every turn--how will she escape her fate?

Chopin is seen as a feminist writer and she is--but she also explores race in a way that few other authors were doing.  And she sees the issue of class in ways that few others wrote about at the time.  Her short stories are amazing in their analysis of race, gender, and class--she does so much in just a few pages.

Another writer who propelled us towards the future that we're enjoying today was Elizabeth Bishop, who was also born today.  Think about other poets, like T. S. Eliot, who were exploring big topics like how to exist in a world where World War I had changed the landscape both literally and figuratively.  Think about Bishop's poems, how she explored daily life in such beautiful poems.  Many of us are writing poems that are more aligned with Bishop's poetic world view--I might argue that more of us are writing poems that are similar to Bishop's "Sestina" than are writing poems along the lines of "The Waste Land."

You might mourn that development.  You might say that the Grishams and Bishops of the world have ruined literature for the big questions which it should address.  But I would argue that the literature world is big enough for both, that we don't have to choose.  One day I'm writing a poem about the joy of tea and scones on a rainy day, and the next day I'm wrestling with what it means to live during the Holocene extinction.  The world is big enough for both approaches, and everything in between.

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