August 2010

Siobhan Neile Welch

nonfiction

Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture by Jim Collins

These days everything literary is all the rage. Suddenly, Jane Austen is getting more play than Britney Spears. From poetry books peddled at Starbucks to Barnes & Nobles popping up on every corner, from Kindles and iPads to box office adaptations of books you hated in high school, “literariness” is permeating popular culture in a way we haven’t seen since people read Dickens in serial form.

This recent book craze is what Notre Dame film and television professor Jim Collins sets out to explore in Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture, an in-depth look at book clubs, book adaptations, Oprah, and more. How did this sudden boom in literary culture arise, and more specifically, how did the once solitary experience of reading become a social activity and even a litmus test for taste? While it’s easy to chalk up the recent proliferation to living in a more digital world, one thing is evident: it’s suddenly become “hip” to read.

Collins begins the book with the image of him sitting at his local Barnes & Noble, drinking coffee underneath a mural of famous writers. “There, in an imaginary literary café a host of great authors sit at their tables: George Eliot cozied up to Henry James who appears to be avoiding eye contact with Oscar Wilde, who stares languidly at the litterateurs below, while Raymond Chandler and Virginia Woolf sit at another table looking fiercely creative.” He muses that these artists are part of the collective consciousness in the twenty-first century, looming from their painted perch at a big chain book store in a Mishekawa, Indiana strip mall.

Literary culture has exploded with an immediacy that’s both prolific and widespread. Where wealth used to be one’s ticket to culture, Collins explains, later, access to culture became possible by means of formal education. Only one trained in the university, it was believed, could pick up a copy of War and Peace and be able to grasp a true understanding of the novel. Now, Tolstoy’s masterpiece is likely to be marketed as a beach read, along with Bridget Joness Diary and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies at your neighborhood Walmart.

While people used to get reading recommendations from their local librarians, these days they’re more apt to rely on the suggestions of “taste mavens,” like Oprah Winfrey or NPR’s Nancy Pearl -- media personalities who have positioned themselves as purveyors of all things literary. That these women come from popular culture and not the Academy (and thus emphasize reading solely for pleasure) builds trust. Most people don’t want reading to remind them of school, and the fact that Oprah’s book picks, which are often classics, call for multiple printings attests to this. Collins further notes that “while Oprah may not actually have any financial interest in the books being read, she does sell the accoutrements for all that reading, [including] a line of reading clothes at her own boutique.”

Corporate media conglomerates have also tapped into this thirst for “culture.” With companies like Miramax Films churning out big budget adaptations of British classics, full of bodice ripping and period-piece eye candy, it’s no wonder these movies get people to add a dollop of Trollope to their Amazon wish lists. What Collins calls “Miramaxing” doesn’t stop at the screen. New films call for new editions of books, complete with glossy new covers featuring the latest celebrity ingénue. In its wake comes other cinematic swag aimed at making a buck from a “community of book-lovers.”

Thus, “literary culture” becomes a commodity of taste, along with being able to distinguish a pinot grigio from a Chardonnay, knowing your foie gras from your rillettes, and having the right mix of indie and jazz on your iPod set list. Collins points to Margaret Atwood’s food column in Bon Appétit as an example of how “thoroughly intertwined the pleasures of reading have become with those other formerly elite pleasures that are now offered throughout popular culture.”

However, the very thing that makes literary culture what it is -- literature as Art, which is to say, a transcendence of materialism, is exploited, and in this way, according to Collins, “literary culture defies its major selling point.” Often, this selling point is packaged and sold as “self cultivation;” it no longer matters what Jane Austen had to saying about the human condition, or even what literary devices she chose to structure the narrative. What matters is how the story relates to the reader’s own life, and how the act of reading can be pleasurable as an act of self enrichment. In fact, any kind of literary analysis that might be deemed too academic strikes this new kind of reader as irrelevant. Pop culture implies that school has taken the joy out of literature, so in turn pop culture has taken literature out of the hands of the experts and into those with a true passion for reading.

A new genre Collins calls “Lit-lit” is aimed at these book lovers and emerged when “authors and publishers began, between 2002 and 2006, to identify an intended audience as a specific type of reading community.” These highly accessible novels are aggressively marketed as “literary”; however, Collins has no qualms with calling these new books genre fiction. Instead of following the formula of a romance or mystery, he points out, these books are centered around a “bookish mise en scene” where “book talk becomes endless recommendation.” Books like Literacy and Longing in L.A., The Jane Austen Book Club, and The Thirteenth Tale don’t strive to be art, but are instead interested in equating the experience of reading as a “highly personal, self-enriching, and even ecstatic experience” only appreciated by those select few who can savor the finer things in life -- good food, good films, (and good literature), especially in this digital age of instant consumerism.

Of course it’s ironic that this fast-paced, electronic culture is what’s giving the literary culture a voice amidst all the pop culture noise. This is what Collins’s book seems to drive at: how these two seemingly antithetical worlds, digital New Media versus a more traditional, print-based past, can be reconciled. Collins suggests that while the two may never be, they can certainly co-exist, and even thrive, while reaching a wider audience -- and that’s a good thing. In closing, he returns to his image of the Barnes and Noble from the beginning of the book, and suggests a revision to the mural that is more dynamic, “complete with soundtrack and music” where the painting not only encompasses the great authors of the past, but the popular writers and movie stars and artists of our present: “Jane Austen would be there of course, but at a table with Helen Fielding, Colin Firth, and Keira Knightley.” Overall, the book is a smart and funny look at this marriage of the literary and digital cultures -- and an easy read, despite being written by an Academic.

Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture by Jim Collins
Duke University Press
ISBN: 0822346060
312 Pages