Note to Warren Adler: Literary fiction can’t exist without vampires & zombies.
All due respect to Warren Adler, but his contention that in a galaxy not so long ago and more or less right here adult readers enjoyed a golden age of serious literature is — let me put this delicately — balderdash.
Writing in the Huffington Post, Adler gives us one of those long, Elysian Fields essays, burnished with nostalgia for a better time, which always seems to coincide with the author’s youth. Using himself as Exhibit A, he recalls a world in which children progressed from comic books to Young Adult novels to more challenging grown-up books.
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Adler, a prolific novelist himself, best known for The War of the Roses, shakes his head in befuddlement at the reading habits of today’s adults, who, he says “gobble up” tales of zombies and vampires and other genres once commonly accepted as juvenile fare.
Far be it from me to attack a respected elder literary statesman — Adler was born in 1927 — but he’s simply wrong on almost every point he raises. But — refreshingly, he’s not pedantic about it. He acknowledges the possibility of literary elitism, or, more alarmingly, “Was it always thus?”
Ending on a note of humility, Adler says, “But, please, don’t condemn me for asking. I am open to explanations and enlightenment.”
In what I hope is a similar spirit of humility, let me volunteer for the task: Warren, my friend, it was always thus.
The notion of a recently past time when there existed a wide, enlightened population of general readers is seductive, like the idea popular music was better in my day — whether that was the day of Rudy Valee, Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, or Duran Duran — than the dreck kids listen to now.
“My generation read deeply of the works of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, O’Hara, and hundreds of others, as well as the glorious classics as represented by Dickens, Thackeray, Balzac, Flaubert, Mann, Twain, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Proust and many, many others who form the canon of great works of literature.”
This is such a powerfully attractive assumption that I used to share it myself — until 1990, when I was disabused by one of Adler’s contemporaries, the late, great Rust Hills (1924-2008), longtime fiction editor at Esquire and a winter resident of Key West. Never, Hills told me during an interview, was there a time when the average American sat around reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald in lush popular magazines like The Saturday Evening Post.
“Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, they did publish fiction but they did not publish characteristically literary fiction,” Hills said. “It was a lot of boy-meets-girl stuff, series fiction, men`s fiction, adventure fiction. It was much beloved, but it translated almost one-to-one to TV — as did the general readership for popular fiction in magazines.”
Further evidence can be found in the list of bestselling books of 1947, by which time the 20-year-old Adler had presumably put away childish reading. True, there’s a serious if minor Sinclair Lewis novel, Kingsblood Royal, but most of the titles are mass-appeal pop fiction, like Russell Janney’s melodrama of a selflessly dying actress, The Miracle of the Bells, or The Vixens, a melodrama set in Reconstruction-era New Orleans, by that master of entertaining historical claptrap, Frank Yerby.
One question Adler raises deserves more attention than I can give it here, and that’s the primacy of comic books today. I’ve complained about it elsewhere. This, however, is not so much a literary conundrum as a cultural one. On the one hand, graphic novels are a legitimate art form, while on the other I see no sign they will replace prose reading. But they are taking over Hollywood, to my dismay, and even encroaching upon Broadway (thank God Spiderman flopped!).
Adler’s essay neglects to consider three important things about popular art forms, including genre fiction:
1) The genres can embody a terrific creative energy, even spitting out work of lasting value from time to time. Elmore Leonard, Walter Tevis, Stephen King, Barbara Vine, John Le Carre, P.D. James, Ray Bradbury, James M. Cain — these are only a few of the genre writers whose work will live on.
2) Vampires, zombies, and werewolves, our current monsters of choice, represent and discharge real, grown-up anxieties about an increasingly bewildering world. As Josh Whedon and ur-zombie man George Romero have shown on TV and in the movies, cheap horror can provide rich dramatic metaphorical ground on which to explore the terrors of high school, say, or the dehumanizing effects of consumer culture.
3) It’s better to read anything, even a pre-digested entertainment by, say, James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer, than it is to read nothing at all.
So relax, Warren. Only a small audience ever existed for serious, “adult” fiction. What’s important is that enough of us are still around to entice the best writers to keep writing. And for that to happen, a larger population of people reading strictly for escapism must also exist.
I say, bring on the zombies, vampires, and werewolves, also the spies and superheroes and noble, care-worn detectives, and the sassy-yet-vulnerable young women looking for sex and shoes and professional success in the city. Popular entertainment is the ecosystem that sustains fine art. Long may it reign.