Talking Down to the Masses

We are swarmed by the Disney culture all around us. Sensual icons of a society that worships adolescence spring out at us at multiple points every day.  Our screens abound with swaggering heroes a moment’s provocation away from mayhem. Amid all these swirls of promises we dare not achieve in real life, I am not surprised when I receive fiction submissions that display a great deal of intelligence shackled to a plot that glorifies our pop leanings. The one aspect flies high. The other, as we all know, is down low.

I don’t believe that literary and mass market books exist in two separate marketplaces. A reader who chooses a schlock book at an airport kiosk may want only light reading in between snoozing on a plane. Yet that same person, once she reaches her vacation destination, digs into the Annie Proulx stories that have  been patiently waiting on her bookshelf. Same reader, capable of enjoying both books. I also believe that in the hands of certain authors, such as John Le CarrĂ©, or certain books, like The Names by Don DeLillo, that a successful blend of the two can be attained.

What I find objectionable is the assumption that pop plot elements can be narrated in an intellectual fashion. Acts of sex and violence have the most force when they are narrated directly. If the narration is contained to a high degree within the lead character’s mind, a certain amount of abstraction is welcome. An ironic point of view can cast a new light on marital sex, for instance. An act of violence told within a matrix of larger causes and effects in the character’s life—how did I end up in this dark alley, anyway?—can provide a new slant on the usual round of punches. The skill required to elevate the narration to this level, however, is well beyond most writers.

The more common linkage stems from an author’s desire to marry high-flown style with common elements that he believes will help the book sell. The writing may have panache, but the narration tends to stray beyond a single enveloping point of view. We jump into the head of a police lieutenant, say, who perforce must continue the same intellectual thoughts—and no police lieutenants have any truck with such nonsense in their profession. Murder or other criminal acts are too serious for abstraction. Even worse, I frequently find that the intelligent author fails to do basic research on such lowly matters as police procedure. Watching the nightly blather on TV is supposed to suffice. 

Schlock novels are written by intelligent people whose aspirations fly only so high. The thoughts of their players rarely rise above quotidian concerns, even when they are revealing character. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you  are smarter than the average bear, you probably should approach common concerns from the inside. Flopping over on cue to scriptwriting mode will just lead to a mishmash.

“Only a person with a Best Seller mind can write Best Sellers.” —Aldous Huxley

Copyright @ 2021, John Paine

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