The readers are restless out there, and with good reason. The first evidence of the uprising to reach my attention came in a letter a couple months ago from a faithful reader of The Washington Post Book World who also happens to be a published novelist. After examining Book World's pre-Christmas list of the outstanding books of 1982, he wrote:
" . . . I remarked to my wife, apropos of the Christmas selections, how odd and unfortunate it was that a journal of serious book criticism should distinguish between 'Novels' and 'Popular Fiction.' She asked why. I could only answer that the former category presumably referred to books aimed more or less at what Gore Vidal has termed 'the bookchat crowd' while the latter sought its market among intelligent people to whom reading was an important, even essential, component of getting on and getting by in the real world."
The second evidence came in another letter, this from a reader who objected, in a friendly way, to my description of David Butler's novel "Lusitania" as "popular fiction of the very best kind." He wrote: "Would you please explain what the difference is between literature and 'popular fiction of the very best kind'? Where does Barbara Pym fall, and what about 'Confederacy of Dunces'?"
And then there were the amusing fulminations in last week's issue of Publishers Weekly, the book-industry trade journal, by a publisher who is lurching around Manhattan with a very large chip on his shoulder. He is down--to put it mildly--on the book reviewers. "If a literary book becomes a best seller," he asks, "is it no longer literary according to The New York Times Book Review?" And, later: "How is it possible that Janet Dailey, who is America's best-selling female writer, has never been reviewed by the major book-review media?"
Now as it happens this fellow also is Janet Dailey's publisher, so his second question should be taken with a fairly large grain of salt. But the point he makes is the same one, couched in different terms, that was advanced by my two correspondents. With increasing frequency, readers are becoming exercised over what they quite legitimately perceive as the growing distance between the world in which literary reputations are made and the world in which books actually are read--between those books that are somehow "acceptable" to the literary establishment and those that, because they enjoy some measure of popular success, or at least attempt to meet the real or imagined desires of the popular audience, allegedly are beneath serious literary consideration.
Though the recent protests against this arbitrary division within the reading community are something new and noteworthy, the division itself is of course an old and rather tiresome story. It has been axiomatic for generations that the response of the "serious" writer to his failure to find a large and profitable audience for his own work is to hold in contempt the large and profitable audiences found by others. Ignored or rejected by the larger world, the lit'ry folk circle the wagons and declare themselves an exclusive club to which no one on the outside can aspire, or claim, to belong; since they are sometimes intelligent, articulate and vociferous folk, they too often succeed in cowing poor old vox populi into submission.
Thus we have the literary awards, which with the occasional exception of the Pulitzer Prizes almost never go to books that have found popular followings. One of the reasons the good old National Book Awards passed out of existence was that juries in all categories--juries that invariably were drawn from the ranks of the literati or the specialists--took clear and perverse delight in honoring the obscure while ignoring the popular; occasionally this had salubrious consequences (the NBA "discovered" Walker Percy, for example), but more often it was merely snotty. There is some evidence that the prizes now given by the National Book Critics Circle are tilting in this direction; as for the PEN-Faulkner Award, its brief history has provided an unwitting self-parody of the tight little literary crowd.
It goes without saying, I hope, that just because the literati are wrong, the fellow who wants Janet Dailey on the front page of the book section is not right. To say that popular is good is no more helpful than to say that unpopular is bad. But it is lamentably true that, as is suggested in all three expressions of opinion cited above, the word "popular" is now more than ever employed pejoratively when applied to books--or, to put it another way, it is widely assumed by many readers to be a pejorative word when it is used by most book reviewers, book-review sections, English professors and obscure writers.
In the specific case of Book World's Christmas Issue, it happens that the distinction between "Novels" and "Popular Fiction" was drawn with the most honorable of intentions: To make public acknowledgment that a commercially successful novel by, say, Len Deighton has as much claim to a year's-end listing as a novel by, say, Saul Bellow. Some readers will feel that this is an apples-and-oranges distinction--that they all belong in the Produce Department in the first place. Others will feel that apples and oranges are different and must be placed in their own bins, but that both can be very good for you.
It was primarily to accommodate this second viewpoint that the distinction was made; it was not made in order to sneer at "popular fiction," but no doubt readers should be forgiven for feeling otherwise. They have been victimized too often by the prevailing notion that a book is okay only until it finds a large audience and makes its author a lot of money--a notion that has done no one any good except the literary in-crowd that promotes it. This distortion of reality has led serious writers of genuine accomplishment to feel guilt and even remorse when their books have become moneymakers, and it has led some of them to value a pat on the head from a circle of book reviewers more highly than the devotion and admiration of millions of readers who do not have the good fortune to attend the right cocktail parties.
What a terrible pity this is. A book is good whether it finds a dozen readers or a million. The world of literature should exist to include as many writers and books as possible, not to exclude all save those who can meet the peculiar standards established by a ruling clique whose primary motive is self-preservation. It goes without saying that there are distinctions to be drawn between books that seek to entertain and books that seek to illuminate; but drawing distinctions is one thing and passing automatic judgment is another, and it is the latter that the literary interests most often do.