Trash Lit 101

Trash Lit 101: It's easy to fire spitballs at books that are embossed with the phrase No. 1 New York Times Bestseller. But the lines between bestselling trash and high-quality literature are a lot more fluid -- and self-determined -- than we usually think, Dwight Garner suggests.

Published May 12, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

by now it's practically a tradition: Once a generation or so, a Serious Cultural Critic takes a deep breath, plugs his nose and dives headfirst into that cultural dumpster known as the New York Times Bestseller List. Gore Vidal did it in 1973 for the New York Review of Books, sinking his fangs into both "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "August 1914." Anthony Lane devoured the whole list for the New Yorker three years ago, yukking it up over the latest Michael Crichton and Clive Cussler entertainments.

These pieces are great fun to read, even if firing spitballs at books that are embossed with the phrase "No. 1 New York Times Bestseller" is very much like shooting dead, bloated fish in a barrel. Vidal stares hard at Herman Wouk's "The Winds of War" -- "885 pages of small type" -- and begins to quiver hilariously. ("As I picked up the heavy book, I knew terror ...") Lane has a high old time sticking pins into Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County," observing that it contains not a single phrase that "you could not imagine being sung by Karen Carpenter." Both writers find love amid the rubble (Gore sends a valentine to the pop classicist Mary Renault, while Lane picks up on Sue Grafton's charms), but such moments are few. In general, Gore and Lane whoop it up like guys in pickup trucks doing drive-by target practice on mailboxes.

There's nothing wrong with this, of course. (A good cheap shot can sometimes really make your morning.) But the subtext of Vidal's and Lane's pieces is that the bestseller list is a genuine cultural No Man's Land -- a place so completely cut off from most serious readers' lives that it's impossible to talk about except under the guise of slumming sociology. To a degree, Vidal and Lane are just picking up on what's in the air. There is a massive and unhealthy split in America between the books that get reviewed and talked about and the books (Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, John Grisham) that actually fly off bookstore shelves. And Oprah Winfrey's mighty efforts notwithstanding, that gap is growing wider every day.

Vidal and Lane misstep, though, by not recognizing that most committed readers imbibe a steady, gregarious mix of high lit and greasy guff -- we want the occasional meatball, in other words, even if there does happen to be a serious bottle of Brunello on the table as well. Who among us, stranded at a friend's beach house for a long weekend, wouldn't rather climb into the hammock with one of the best books of Elmore Leonard, Stephen King or Sue Grafton than with the latest 10-ton tome from Ved Mehta, Umberto Eco or William Gaddis? There are pleasures in writers like Leonard, King and Grafton that you simply can't get anyplace else -- namely, the innate ability to spin out a story so deftly and so quickly that you have no choice but to submit.

in the past year or so, I've had occasion to read a high heap of books that have bubbled their way to the upper reaches of the Times' bestseller list. Some I devoured out of curiosity, others simply because I was getting paid to muster up opinions about them. I won't bother to pretend that I didn't occasionally, like poor trembling Vidal, know pure terror. "To be a truly lousy writer takes energy," the critic Clive James once intoned about Judith Krantz, and he wasn't kidding. I felt this most intensely when I recently plucked a still-warm copy of Jackie Collins' new novel from the assembly line. It's called "Vendetta," and it is awful on such an operatic scale that I began to take the title personally. "Vendetta" plunges you into a world where lustful middle-aged women "cream" in their pants (an evocative phrase I hadn't heard since eighth grade). Men scheme to reach "the warm moistness" of their sex objects' "desire." When an angry Italian woman storms into a room, you know exactly what she's going to say -- and she does: "Where you putta my husband?"

Reading Jackie Collins, you're occasionally lit up with a kooky sense of delight at the shamelessness of it all -- "Vendetta" offers an abundance of what Pauline Kael has called "the peculiar rewards of low connoisseurship." The sad thing is that many of the other bestsellers I read -- Danielle Steel's "Five Days in Paris," Clive Cussler's "Shock Wave" -- didn't even offer the cheapest of cheap thrills. Steel continues to crank out the same airbrushed, frictionless class fantasies she always has, and Cussler's nautical adventure book was more tinny and preposterous than a week's worth of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers."

I was particularly chastened by how lame the Cussler novel seemed. I'd cut my teeth as a reader on his best-known novel, "Raise the Titanic," a book I must have devoured 10 times as a zit-spangled preteen. Cussler's recurring hero, Dirk Pitt, was my youthful idea of swashbuckling masculinity: "A man of complete honor at all times and of absolute ruthlessness whenever necessary," the jacket copy on Cussler's books ejaculates. "With a taste for fast cars, beautiful women, and tequila on the rocks with lime, he lives as passionately as he works." (You go, Dirk!) Reading Cussler today, it's all too clear that my youthful imagination -- like his prose -- was blowing smoke.

Having said all that, I also found plenty of pop books to (clandestinely) admire last year, and I gobbled them down like popcorn. Two caught me completely by surprise: Michael Crichton's "Airframe" and Stephen King's six-part serial novel, "The Green Mile." Crichton will never be a deft enough writer to actually get real characters down on the page; he's a technician, and at his best he gets his plots goosed up to warp speed -- they whoosh past like rockets. What I like most about Crichton, though, is that he has an essayist's fetish for facts. I happen to hate to fly, and "Airframe" is choked with easy-to-swallow information not just about why disasters happen, but about matters such as deregulation, unions, the negotiations behind airplane construction contracts, arguments about the FAA's effectiveness, you name it. For someone with a morbid fascination with the airline industry, "Airframe" is a warm, dumb, inviting place to snort around in for a few hours.

Unlike Crichton, Stephen King doesn't take himself too seriously, and that's always been a big part of his appeal. He's got a fine, rangy, loose-limbed style that gives a boost even to his worst books -- you feel like he's blowing raspberries at his own performance even while, in novels like "The Shining," he's scaring the hell out of you. I hadn't read King in years, but I was attracted to "The Green Mile" by the Dickensian, high-wire aspect of writing a serial novel in 1997. I also liked King's aw-shucks intro to the serial's first book, in which he freely admits that (a) he is no Dickens and (b) that he wrote most of the second chapter "during a rain delay at Fenway Park." "The Green Mile" -- now published in one volume -- turned out to be a genuine, if slightly hoary, page-turner. King's laid-back prose gave it the jump-start it needed ("The Trapingus County high sheriff was a whiskey-nosed old boy with a gut like a washtub and a head of white hair so fine it looked like pipe-cleaner fuzz"), and every time I'd stray into a bookstore I'd find myself wandering over to take a gander at the latest installment.

The best trashy novels offer something else that their more high-minded counterparts seldom do: an exacting and often irreverent look at quotidian realities, the texture of how we live today. I felt this most keenly while reading a lapful of pop novels from young black writers such as Benilde Little ("Good Hair") and Yolanda Joe ("He Say, She Say"). Both of these brash, talented novelists are following in Terry McMillan's bestselling footsteps, which is to say that their books steer clear of the depictions of racism, slavery and social pathology that fill the novels of revered black writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Little's and Joe's breezy, sexy novels don't feel like literature -- and that's the point. Their books are aimed squarely at middle-class black readers who are turned off by the relentless high-mindedness of, say, Morrison, and who want to see more of their own experiences and aspirations reflected in the books they read. Morrison may evoke the Song of Solomon, but it takes a different beat to capture the realities of 9-to-5 life in urban America.

What's more, these young writers have, very smartly, taken to deflecting the criticism tossed their way with a dash of old-fashioned humor and self-mockery. One example: In McMillan's latest novel, "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," the title character takes a copy of McMillan's own "Waiting to Exhale" along on a trip to Jamaica. "I don't know what all the hoopla is about," Stella cracks, "and why everybody thinks she's such a hot writer because her shit is kind of weak when you get right down to it." Say it, sister, you want to pencil into the margins. Because McMillan's shit can indeed be pretty weak. But she -- and her young imitators -- have a disarming sass that their peers can only dream of emulating.

God knows, it would kill me (or anybody) to make a steady diet out of books like "Good Hair" and "He Say, She Say" -- or the latest by King, Leonard, Crichton and Grafton. But every once in a while, don't you feel like popping open an Oreo cookie, and scooping out the cream?

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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