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July 12, 2011

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

The masses began their appropriation of literary culture during the 1990s with hit films like Emma, The English Patient and Shakespeare in Love, with the popular Jane Austen-riff Bridget Jones Diary, and by the time Michael Cunningham’s The Hours became a film in 2002 (an adaptation of a book that was an adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway, in which a 1950s suburban housewife achieves emotional oneness with Virginia Woolf), the dynamic shift was complete. Why and how this shift came about is documented in Jim Collins’ fascinating, absorbing book Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture.

“Bring on the books for everybody!” was the call from Oprah as copies of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth were distributed to her studio audience, and was the rallying cry in general as digitization began to make reading more accessible. It’s perplexing though, because this popularization is taking place as the decline of reading is lamented, as the book is declared dead over and over again. Clearly, according to Collins, digital culture has not killed the book, but rather the two co-exist and affect each other in unexpected ways.

What was once “the common reader” is now the “avid” or “passionate” reader, an empowered readership with its own sense of authority, their own understanding of just what reading is for, and their own parameters for book discussion. These are readers who read for self-cultivation, the very middlebrow sensibility that arose with widespread literacy over a hundred years ago and sent the Modernists scrambling for literary obscurity (and the Modernists could afford to do so, as most of them were backed by patrons with inherited wealth). Concurrent to this was the rise of English Literature as an area of academic study, an area that was strangely both elitist and populist– though literature was becoming more difficult to understand, it would be through study at university that readers would received the tools to access to it. And with this professionalization of English came about what Collins describes as an anti-snobbery: “The crucial distinction, which an entire institutionalized practice of reading endlessly reiterated, was between those who knew how to read closely and those who merely read, passionately or otherwise.”

How did the latter become so popularized, and so intrinsically linked to consumer culture? Collins puts forth “superstore bookstores” such as Barnes & Noble and Borders as the first explanation, which in their very architecture created a space that is what the library imagines itself as–instead of an “information hub”, a place where people actually sit down and read. Further, these bookstores delivered literary culture to places that hadn’t had any before, which is an effect as significant if not more so than the negative impact these stores have had on smaller independent ones.The second explanation is Amazon.com, which can now deliver books instantaneously (at least the electronic variety), and went from providing top-down content via an editorial staff in its early days to making its pages personalized for users, thus investing them with their own authority immediately, and underlining that authority by making its users books reviews and curators of reading lists.

Concomitantly came about the rise of “bibliophilia”, the idea that loving books brought authority enough to understand how they work, and that reading is for pleasure rather than rigorous study. This fits in well with the ethos of Oprah’s book club, and Collins uses the example of her Anna Karenina episode to explore the culture of Oprah reading. The segment began with her guest Barry Manilow singing the book’s title to the tune of Copa Cabana, her audience wearing their Tolstoy t-shirts, and a discussion with Karen from Will & Grace about how the book creates “a full sense of human nature that is universal.” (And here, Collins cautions us not to poke fun, using Harold Bloom’s point that to read is to “share in that one nature that writes and reads,” so Karen’s not far wrong.)

Collins addresses Oprah’s fine balance as “a literary tastemaker who is both an authority and one of us,” and compares her to Martha Stewart, another figure who has used mass media to enlighten us with taste in finer things. He also unpacks the case of Jonathan Franzen, the self-styled loner who’d given away his TV because of his vision of an apocalyptic world based on images, and had protested being an Oprah’s book club pick. Collins dismisses an opposition between the two with the reaction of his own graduate English students to the Anna Karenina episode and the Franzen debacle– they’d dismissed the book club as light-weight because the book never even factored into the discussion, and yet they didn’t ally themselves with Franzen either, with his old-school elitism (which doesn’t quite concur with his “middlebrow novel”, one of them suggests). Clearly the divide between popular culture and literary culture is more nuanced, less divided than the usual debate might have us understand.

Collins goes on to address long history of film adaptations of books, in particular the British tradition beginning in the 1980s with Merchant and Ivory, whose formula for success would be expanded upon and sealed by Miramax in the 1990s. The former was a niche genre, but became blockbuster formula, and he uses shows how the latter films were marketed in such a way as to appeal to communities of imagined cine-lit lovers. The route to adaptation was not a simple Franzen-esque divide between books good/images bad– Collins cites The Hours as a film that was as good as the book that preceded it, and also actually more complex, and notes that several Woolf scholars appeared in the DVD, that it led Mrs. Dalloway to became a bestseller in America in 2003.

In his discussion of popular literary fiction, Collins notes two trends, the first for the non-literary novel of manners based upon the literary 19th century tradition, and that the underlying use of this kind of fiction is meant to be self-help (not too dissimilar from the self-cultivators of last century). Just what fiction is for remains in question– to be read closely in the professional manner, are we to learn from it (broadening the idea of self-cultivation), or do we read for pleasure? We use the fiction we like to define how we’re seen by the world. And there are countless other points of view, each of them starting from a point no more or less authentic than the other.

The second trend he notes is “the devoutly literary bestseller”, the unabashedly bookish book. Books where characters are members of book clubs, where they write books, where they scorn the idea of fiction as useful until a wildly transporting moment as in Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Books concerned with art and beauty, books with Henry James as a character, bookish books like The Emperor’s Children and Special Topics in Calamity Physics (you know, the type of stuff that people like me suck up through a giant straw). But these more literary books with their “neo-aestheticism” come with their own utility linked with consumerism as a way to show us how to live well, and as evidence as we’re reading them that we’re doing so.

The book begins and ends with Collins in his local Barnes & Noble considering a mural of Great Authors sitting at cafe tables (“Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, and company”), the curious juxtaposition of these artists against the strange marketplace of the book superstore. But it gets less curious– near the end of the book, he provides an anecdote about a young Henry James longing for bestsellerdom. But it only gets more complicated too. A truly accurate mural, he imagines in his conclusion, would have Helena Bonham Carter, Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sylvia Plath, Harvey Weinstein, Jane Austen, Helen Fielding, Michael Ondaatje, several Amazon reviewers…

Collins ends on an optimistic note: our popular culture is richer for having the literary take its place within it. The 19th and 20th centuries are decidedly over, but we’re standing on the cusp of a new literary age.

7 thoughts on “Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture”

  1. m says:

    I have to admit that I only read Mrs. Dalloway after reading The Hours, which I read after watching The Hours. (And the movie, I still believe, was better than the book.)

  2. Kristin says:

    I haven’t read the book, but I think it’s kind of odd that he tracks this phenomenon only back to the 1990s. I can think of many examples of classic books made into popular movies throughout the history of movies. That aspect of making literary culture popular culture is surely older than the last 20 years.

    1. Kerry says:

      Oh, he’s a film guy and goes way into it, into how film companies started making literary adaptations when movies were new in response to charges that movies were vulgar– the literary was used as a civilizing effect. Then he outlines a divide between Anglophiles and Cinephiles in the 60s and 70s, which disappeared with the 1990s, when British-set literary films were blockbusters. I don’t think he misses anything– the movie angle was just less my focus. It’s a really great book.

  3. But, Kristin’s right: “British-set literary films” were popular with the masses as early as the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Think of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939) or David Lean’s adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) and David Copperfield (1948). Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca won the Academy Award in 1940, as did musical adaptations of Pygmalion (My Fair Lady, 1964), Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story, 1961), and Oliver Twist (Oliver, 1968). So, I really don’t see how it can be argued that “the masses began their appropriation of literary culture during the 1990s.”

    Also, the idea that “digitization began to make reading more accessible” is a bit of a chimera: digital books require (at the very least) an Internet connection, and the cheapest eReader will run you more than $100. Hardly “more accessible,” unless you’re speaking from an upper-middle class, moneyed perspective.

    1. Kerry says:

      Seriously, read thebook– everything you mention is in there! And the difference between the 1990s films and the ones that came before was how these were so explicitly literary, erotic scenes of quills touching paper. And his focus on an upper-middle class moneyed perspective is the whole point of his study, how literary culture gets all tied up with consumerism. He’s writing about the kind of people who’d pay $5 for a coffee in a bookshop, or (presumably) $100 for an e-reader, and how this class’s (of which I’m a part, let me note, before I sound really pretentious) immediate access to books has changed the way they’re marketed and understood. Really worth a read– it’s not a polemic. I learned a lot.

  4. Kelly says:

    Thanks for the recommendation–got it out from the library and I’m about 20 pages in!

    1. Kerry says:

      Hope you’re enjoying it! Though I’ll admit I was a bit dubious through the intro– the academic-speak was a bit impermeable. Once the book started proper, however, it was very good.

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