Good Books That Sell Good

Gore Vidal's "American chronicle" is a roman fleuve that looks beyond Powell's The Music of Time to Roger Martin du Card's Les Thibaults series of the 1920's and 30's, and what it demonstrates is that our assumptions about popular culture are incomplete, if not actually wrong. The notion that commercial success varies inversely with quality may smack of smartness and cynicism, but how else can we account for what we see even in a cursory glance at the best-seller lists? Week after week, the message is clear that universal literacy may not, after all, have been such a good idea.

There are occasional exceptions, odd and quirky careers of good writers who beat the odds (and set up all those innocents in writing programs for a lifetime of heartbreak). It isn't all Danielle Steel and Robin Cook and Robert Ludlum, after all. John Updike makes a good living; Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer prove that, with a little help from the Swedes, one can command a certain degree of attention; Umberto Eco has shown us that, if the stars are in the right conjunctions, one can even force-feed a fair amount of untranslated Latin down the gagging throats of the book-buying public. But the canny publishers prefer the probabilities and go with what works: the tried and true falsities and tripe of Stephen King and Sidney Sheldon.

Vidal doesn't go that way, but he has been flying high...

Join now to access the full article and gain access to other exclusive features.

Get Started

Already a member? Sign in here