Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why I Read Clive Cussler

This sounds like a really strange title for a blog post: Why I Read Clive Cussler. Well, maybe you’re wondering why I do read his books, now that I’ve said (almost guiltily) that I do. That remark and this blog post were inspired by an interesting article in the Guardian (UK) by Cormac McCarthy, about bad books and bad writing. He questions whether some of the supposedly ‘good’ writers were all that good in the end. I guess many people who went to college and university have (like me) read just about every ‘good book’ that the English Lit courses had to offer. How many people continued to read those good books after graduation? How many of those people sashay into a bookshop and immediately head for the (Whatever) Prize winners of the year? How many of those same people sidle to the ‘commercial fiction’ section, shelves groaning under the weight of yet another bestseller that the critics have panned but has been flying off the shelves, copies bought by secret (avid) commercial fiction aficionados?


Confess! How many readers have snuck a wonderful ‘bad fiction’ book into their ‘good books’ shopping? I began to think long and hard about what constitutes a good book. A few years ago, while running a personnel agency, I was interviewing a woman who told me emphatically that she never, ever read ‘rubbish,’ and that she only ever read ‘fine literature.’ Shame. Sounds like torture. The problem is, when you consider fine literature like Jane Austen, she wasn’t writing for the literary snobs of the day: she was writing for the readers of the day. So was Dickens. His weekly installments had readers panting for the next chapter in his novels.

I then formulated my theory that a book is as good as its reader perceives it to be. I am not talking about poorly written, badly constructed novels with excruciating dialogue and pathetic grammar, desperately in need of merciless editing. I am talking about popular fiction. The businessman who wants a throw-away spy thriller to read on the plane, the housewife who languishes in the arms of an imaginary Mills & Boon lover while washing socks, the computer buff who craves sci-fi above all else; the kid who devours comics … what they read is good for them because it satisfies a need and makes them happy.

Philistine! I hear the shrieks already. But hear me out. At university my book shelves bulged with the fruits of fantastic writers: Austen, Bronte, Waugh, Poe, Tolkien, Dickens … you name it, I had it, and I still have them now. And yes, I do still read them. My mother was much addicted to frivolous romances (she still is!) and when I would try to persuade her to wade though some tome or other, she would shudder and tell me that at her stage in life she wanted to read for enjoyment. Young and naïve, wrestling with James Joyce and other ‘good writers’ who were actually sometimes completely obscure, I thought she had sunk quite low in the field of literary tastes. Her behavior was made all the more reprehensible by the fact that my mother did English Lit at university and many of my good books were hers originally.

Actually, I have also fallen somewhat from my ivory tower of literary correctness. I love reading Clive Cussler because he tells such ripping good yarns. Of course, being a complete tomboy with four brothers may just have contributed to my loving adventure stories. I now realize that one can have good books that may only be good to an individual. It might be character, plot, or descriptions; whatever counts the most for that reader. My adopted daughter agrees with many opinions that Bella of the Twilight sagas  is annoying. Maybe as a heroine she is, but my daughter has devoured all the books many times over already and the series transformed her from being a reluctant reader into an avid reader. Obviously Edward's charms have made up for Bella's deficiencies...

I have heard J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, and Stephenie Meyer’s writing skills being criticized. Despite all that, they’ve sold more books and earned more money than many a ‘good’ writer. So, how does one measure the success of a writer? Katie Price (er … Jordan, for those not in the know) has published yet another bestselling autobiography. I thought a person could only write one, and that technically it should at the end of a long, meaningful, and fruitful life, but apparently that’s not true. So, if she sells more books than a ‘good’ writer, does that make her a better writer?

The public is fickle. Writers have to give readers what they want. With the evolution of society and the novels that reflect society’s tastes, values, morals (or lack thereof), habits, and desires, more themes are becoming available. The sky is the limit when it comes to topics and, especially since the explosion of print on demand and e-publishing options, people ready to write about them. A hundred years ago it would have been unthinkable for anyone to pen a memoir that included lovers, children out of wedlock, drugs, sensational intimate details etc. That’s why D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was such a literary and social scandal way back then. Not so today. It actually seems rather tame. Reality has become more compelling than fiction, and the adage holds true: truth is stranger than fiction.

Is there a future for ‘good’ books? Of course there is! People want solid writing when they’re in the mood for it. Others want just fluff and escapism. I say give people what they want, but write what you know to be real. Read any good books lately?

This is not a rhetorical question: who has managed to read James Joyce’s Ulysses from start to finish?
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