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    I Said Mainstream Novels Aren’t Literature. Let Me Explain.

    Literature is an art form that brings you the unexpected. In mainstream fiction, nothing is at risk, a writer says.

    When I was in England in early October, I gave an interview to Empire magazine. I was asked a question about mainstream novels. I answered it. I said that I’ve tried to read a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to novels as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re literature.

    Some people seem to have seized on the last part of my answer as insulting, or as evidence of hatred for mainstream novels on my part. If anyone is intent on characterizing my words in that light, there’s nothing I can do to stand in the way.

    Many mainstream novels are made by people of considerable talent and artistry. You can see it on the page. The fact that the books themselves don’t interest me is a matter of personal taste and temperament. I know that if I were younger, if I’d come of age at a later time, I might have been excited by these books and maybe even wanted to make one myself. But I grew up when I did and I developed a sense of novels — of what they were and what they could be — that was as far from mainstream novels as we on Earth are from Alpha Centauri.

    For me, for the novelists I came to love and respect, for my friends who started writing books around the same time that I did, literature was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.


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    It was about confronting the unexpected on the page and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.

    And that was the key for us: it was an art form. There was some debate about that at the time, so we stood up for literature as an equal to painting or music or dance. And we came to understand that the art could be found in many different places and in just as many forms — in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George V. Higgins and “Pedro Páramo” by Juan Rulfo, in “Black No More” by George Schuyler and “Great Expectations” by Kathy Acker, in “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras and “Ubik” by Phillip K. Dick.

    Or in the novels of Patricia Highsmith — I suppose you could say that Highsmith was mainstream. Or that she was our mainstream. Every new Highsmith novel was an event. To be in a packed room in one of the old bookstores hearing her read “The Talented Mr. Ripley” was an extraordinary experience: It was an event created by the chemistry between the readers and the author itself, and it was electrifying.

    And in a way, certain Patricia Highsmith books were also like theme parks. I’m thinking of “Strangers on a Train,” in which the climax takes place on a merry-go-round at a real amusement park, and “Deep Water,” which I read all night on its release day, an experience I will never forget.


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    Sixty or 70 years later, we’re still reading those novels and marveling at them. But is it the thrills and the shocks that we keep going back to? I don’t think so. The action in “Ripley’s Game” is stunning, but it would be nothing more than a succession of dynamic and elegant descriptions and transitions without the painful emotions at the center of the story or the absolute intensity of Ripley’s character. The climax of “Strangers on a Train” is a feat, but it’s the interplay between the two principal characters and Highsmith’s profoundly unsettling writing that resonate now.

    Some say that Highsmith’s novels have a sameness to them, and perhaps that’s true — Highsmith herself wondered about it. But the sameness of today’s mainstream novels is something else again. Many of the elements that define literature as I know it are there in mainstream novels. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The books are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.

    They are often sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern mainstream novels: agent-tested, market-researched, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.


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    Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the works of Paul Beatty or Janet Sarbanes or Anne Garréta or Robert Glück or Karen Tei Yamashita or Jarret Kobek are not. When I read a book by any of those writers, I know I’m going to find something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with words and ink is going to be expanded.

    So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let mainstream novels be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, mainstream novels are now your primary choice if you want to read something. It’s a perilous time in publishing, and there are fewer independent bookstores than ever. The equation has flipped and corporate online sellers have become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single novelist who doesn’t want to write books for print, to be available for readers in bookstores.

    That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just published a novel as an e-book. It, and it alone, allowed me to make “The Scotsman” the way I needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. I also have a print on demand version, which is great. Would I like the novel to be sold in bookstores? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your book with, the fact is that the shelves in most Barnes and Nobles are crowded with mainstream novels.

    And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.


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    But, you might argue, can’t they just go home and read anything else they want on their e-reader or smartphone or computer screen? Sure — anywhere but on the page, where the novelist intended her or his book to be read.

    In the past 20 years, as we all know, the publishing industry has changed on all fronts. But the most ominous change has happened stealthily and under cover of night: the gradual but steady elimination of risk. Many novels today are perfect products manufactured for immediate consumption. Many of them are well made by teams of talented individuals. All the same, they lack something essential to literature: the unifying vision of an individual artist. Because, of course, the individual artist is the riskiest factor of all.

    I’m certainly not implying that novels should be a subsidized art form, or that they ever were. When the publishing industry was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest novels ever made — in the words of Martin Scorsese, the best of them were “heroic and visionary.”

    Today, that tension is gone, and there are some in the business with absolute indifference to the very question of art and an attitude toward the history of literature that is both dismissive and proprietary — a lethal combination. The situation, sadly, is that we now have two separate fields: There’s worldwide print entertainment, and there’s literature. They still overlap from time to time, but that’s becoming increasingly rare. And I fear that the financial dominance of one is being used to marginalize and even belittle the existence of the other.

    For anyone who dreams of writing books or who is just starting out, the situation at this moment is brutal and inhospitable to art. And the act of simply writing those words fills me with terrible sadness.