As we make ready to draw up lists of the best and worst of the year now drawing to a close -- as usual, the latter will far outnumber the former -- let me make a modest pitch for recognition of a phenomenon that has thus far gone unnoticed. Perhaps it was mere coincidence, a fluke and nothing more, but during 1987 there was a bracing revival of serious fiction written for, and eagerly read by, the general public; for the first time in years it was possible to look at the fiction best-seller list and not wince in embarrassment at the state of the national culture.
This was, to be sure, a phenomenon of modest dimensions. For the most part the best-seller list in 1987 was its usual self, crammed with clumsily written, overplotted spy stories, horror tales and romans a` clef; the ghost of Jacqueline Susann haunted just about every position on the list, as presumably it will until kingdom come. Yet there were exceptions to the rule that should not be allowed to pass without comment; not merely did two books of unusual quality -- Scott Turow's "Presumed Innocent" and Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" -- make it to the highest reaches of the list, but two others -- Gail Godwin's "A Southern Family" and Toni Morrison's "Beloved" -- sold exceptionally well and achieved highly respectable positions on the list.
Just to make matters even more impressive, for several weeks the four books have been on the list simultaneously -- a combination of quality and popularity not matched in recent, or for that matter not-so-recent, memory. Though there's usually one book of modest merits on the list, holding up the banner of literature amid the alien corn, to have four at once is cause for fireworks and banquets, if not an emergency meeting of the Authors Guild.
Whether any larger meaning is to be drawn from this depends upon whether one views it as a fluke or a trend, but it does offer food for thought. Most particularly, it presents quite irrefutable evidence that, the protestations of the literati to the contrary notwithstanding, it is indeed possible to be both popular and good. Similarly, it presents equally persuasive evidence that, the protestations of the literati once again to the contrary notwithstanding, the traditional novel is anything except "dead"; even in the Age of Anxiety, not to mention the era of minimalism, there is still a legitimate place in serious fiction for character, narrative and capaciousness.
The literary crowd's hostility to popular success is of course longstanding and amply documented; a memorable manifestation of it occurred several years ago when the National Book Award's fiction jury practically crowed with delight over giving the prize to the unknown "Going After Cacciato" rather than the highly popular "Stories of John Cheever" or "The World According to Garp," and similar manifestations occur almost every time the determinedly elitist PEN-Faulkner Award is presented. No doubt this antipathy toward popularity derives in part from a genuine sympathy for the artist who struggles against anonymity and neglect; but in larger part it is quite certainly pure jealousy, as is suggested by the decline in literary reputation that seems inevitably to accompany a writer's emergence from the shadows onto the best-seller list.
So what is going to happen to Wolfe, Turow, Godwin and Morrison now that they are certifiably bestselling authors? The first two are unlikely to care; though "The Bonfire of the Vanities" and "Presumed Innocent" are works of patent seriousness, they clearly were written with the popular readership in mind -- they have literary merits, but they do not have literary pretensions. Godwin and Morrison, by contrast, are well known in writing circles, and up to now have been well respected; now that they have made it in the real world, rubbing shoulders on the Top 10 charts with Tom Clancy and Stephen King, will their friends turn on them? Don't bet against it.
If that happens, though, it will say more about their fickle, jealous friends than about Godwin and Morrison. There is not the slightest evidence that either writer has compromised her work in hopes of placating the lowest common denominator. Their newest novels treat themes every bit as serious as those with which they were preoccupied when they were young and unknown, and their prose is, if anything, even more distinguished than was that of their apprentice work. Their success has been achieved the old-fashioned way: Not merely have they earned it, but they have written books that are accessible to and openly court the attention of readers outside literary circles.
Perhapsall four of these writers will be offended at being described as the authors of old-fashioned books, but I suspect not. Wolfe has gone on record as saying that he wanted to see if it was still possible to write a novel in the Victorian mode that would be pertinent to contemporary themes, and on the evidence of their own work it would seem that the other three are sympathetic to that view. It is a view that runs directly contrary to that of the literary establishment, which places all value on experimentation and indifference to the popular readership, and which has convinced itself that traditional forms of storytelling are somehow insufficient for the issues and conditions of the contemporary world.
The trouble with this view is not that it is wholly wrongheaded but that its adherents are so rigid and extreme in clinging to it. Experimentation is as welcome in literature as in anything else, and a literary culture that discouraged it would soon wither on its own vine; but experimentation is not all, and the new is not the only legitimate or relevant form of expression. Perhaps the minimalist mode is somehow uniquely appropriate to contemporary society -- a proposition that seems to me debatable at best -- but only its most lunatic disciples would argue that it, and it alone, is the only appropriate mode. As Wolfe and Godwin in particular have demonstrated, there's still plenty of life left in the genre that minimalists dismiss as the "Victorian triple-decker novel," and within its conventions there is much to be said about, yes, the way we live now.
The great success of these books is a healthy and propitious development for American literature. They have crossed the divide that has been created between the literary world and the popular readership, and in so doing have provided that readership with novels far superior to what it has become accustomed to. This should encourage pub- lishers to get more strongly behind "literary" work of potential popular appeal, and may therefore have the unlikely result of finding a broader audience for writers now known only, or primarily, in writing circles. But they'll have to write about matters of interest beyond those circles, as Wolfe and Turow and Godwin and Morrison have, if they expect that readership to pay any attention to what they write.