Saturday, August 22, 2015

James Michener, and the decline of middlebrow reading



The great middlebrow novels of that heyday of summer reading were often “War and Peace”-lite. My father, his fortunes fluctuating in New Jersey’s volatile postwar real-estate market, lost himself in historical epics of combat like Herman Wouk’s “The Winds of War.” My mother, her modest social ambitions tied to my father’s career, wept over Pearl S. Buck’s moving “The Good Earth,” the saga of a wealthy Chinese family’s slow plummet into penury and strife in the years just before World War I.  
James Michener’s historical epic “Hawaii” and especially his novel about the history of the Jews, “The Source”—along with Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” the twin pillars of many a summer for my parents’ social and religious group—embodied the very spirit of summer reading, with their weighty historical events and colorful characters and incidents. Such works may have been dismissed by the literati as “middlebrow,” but they were superb feats of storytelling.

As the above piece from The Wall Street Journal notes, there was a significant “middlebrow” reading culture that flourished in the U.S. during the postwar era.

James Michener’s novels are mentioned here for good reason. Michener’s novels combined strong storytelling with generous dollops of history. You can’t finish The Source (1965) without expanding your knowledge of history—particularly the history of the Middle East.

There are a handful of heirs to Michener’s legacy who are still writing today. Edward Rutherford and Jeff Shaara come immediately to mind. Few of these authors, however, are as popular as Michener was in his day.

At the same time, there is a tendency today for fiction to veer toward one of two camps:

At one extreme, we have dull, ponderous literary novels. Think: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.

At the other end you have, well….James Patterson and Dan Brown. The light, disposable (and immediately forgettable) thriller.

There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these extremes, mind you. Nor is either extreme new. Ulysses was published in 1922, and plenty of the literary elites loved it. (I found Ulysses to be practically unreadable, but that’s another discussion for another time.) The twentieth century also saw its share of pulp fiction and comics. That’s what 35-cent paperbacks were for.

But there is (or there should be) a market for something in between—fiction that educates as it entertains, without descending into self-absorbed navel-gazing.

That was a niche that Michener brilliantly filled. And no one has managed to completely fill that niche since Michener’s passing.