Can it be the zeitgeist? Consider the recent careers of three —
really four if you count in Joseph Heller (“Catch 22”) lost to a heart
attack in December — of America’s nominal literary giants. These
iconic figures who, if they are never credited with having brought forth
that mythic “Great American Novel” to date, now appear to have settled
for snoozing on their laurels.
Interestingly, three of the most renowned — one a Nobel Prize
winner, Saul Bellow, and two still-potential candidates, John Updike and
Philip Roth (were Norway’s prize committee not so resolutely politically
correct) — have each produced a new novel this year. And the fourth,
Joseph Heller, left behind a posthumous manuscript, grimly enough titled
“Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man,” (in bookstores this week) which
reads like a kind of whiney, pathetic suicide note. The plot: that of
a celebrated author in his 70s trying to write one last “great” book;
sad and downright embarrassing stuff.
The works of the three living septuagenarians received attention more
polite than enthusiastic, although definitely more approbatory than that
of their late colleague. Actually, Bellow got almost more press —
certainly more favorable — for having fathered a child at the venerable
age of 85 than for having produced another novel. That book,
“Ravelstein,” did stir up quite a little literary hornet’s nest, since,
as Bellow freely admitted, it was a loose fictionalization of the life
of his late friend and former colleague, Alan Bloom, distinguished
author, professor and conservative at the University of Chicago.
The cat that Bellow let out of the bag was the revelation that Bloom
had been homosexual — deeply closeted, true — but homosexual
nonetheless. The conservative community professed shock, dismay and
distress. The press gobbled-up the information gleefully. Actually, as
Christopher Hitchens pointed out in a Vanity Fair article, between the
time the galleys were sent out to reviewers and the actual delivery of
the book to the stores, Bellow had muted some of the more florid
details, including blurring whether or not Bloom / Ravelstein had died
Despite the outing of the late Professor Bloom and the attendant
publicity, Bellow’s book only made it to the bestseller list for one
week. Philip Roth who received even more publicity, for his latest
novel, “Human Stain,” (yes, a title definitely intended as a reference
to that of our president) including a lengthy interview in the New
Yorker by its editor David Remnick — no slouch as an author himself —
wound up only skirting the bottom edge of bestsellerdom before dropping
rapidly from the ranks of contender.
As for John Updike, who is a prolific reviewer of others’ books, he
pulled a prequel, as it were, to “Hamlet,” rather coyly entitling it
“Gertrude and Claudius,” purporting to show that Hamlet’s old man was a
stiff prig and how Claudius awakened Gertrude to all manner of sensual
delight so he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. Sensual delight or no,
folks just plain weren’t interested in variations on the Hamlet theme
and, so, to the remainder tables for Mr. Updike’s latest ware.
Indeed, maybe it is the zeitgeist. People no longer seem to want
“literary” fiction. Check-out the bestseller lists; week after week,
millions of copies of books are sold and about what? The assorted
adventures of young Harry Potter, master wizard, is now heading into yet
a fifth volume with umpteen hundreds of thousands of impatient readers
on waiting lists. And what’s No. 1 on the New York Times’ bestseller
list this week? A mighty curious work: “The Indwelling,” described as
the seventh in series about true believers who confront the antichrist
after the rapture of the saved.
Now, you can figure this marks a sudden spurt of religious yearning
on the part of book buyers — or maybe its plotline merely suits the
taste of those devotees of “The X-Files.” You know: kind of
out-of-this-world, a touch spooky, yet sort of realistic too. Otherwise
the list is strictly thrillers, Harry Potter and an Oprah Book Club
selection — the reissue of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” written
some 30 years back. The one quality book is that of author Michael
Ondaatje — of “The English Patient” fame. You do remember the Academy
Award winning movie? I suspect, however, it only made it to the list
even in its bottom slot (15th) because of the title, “Anil’s Ghost.”
The whole book business is currently in major upheaval, an upheaval
the likes of which the world hasn’t witnessed perhaps since Gutenberg
came on the scene with moveable type 500 years ago. Stephen King put
out his latest book on the Net a few months back, and did folks ever
grab it up. Publishers and authors are in turmoil, if not crisis — not
to mention publicists. How to cope?
Conferences are being held practically every day. Authors are huddling with their agents and lawyers. Publishers hastily develop major websites. And don’t even ask about Hollywood.
Well, now that you mention it, take the case of “Demolition Angel,” the seventh detective novel by Robert Crais. Ads in major papers alert you to his website, from which you can read a really seriously lengthy
excerpt about a Los Angeles bomb team woman, a terribly scarred survivor of an attack that killed her lover. She has taken to drink and drugs and is deeply driven to find out who was behind the attack.
“Demolition Angel’s” been snatched up for the movies, of course, although where they’re going to find a female version of Mel Gibson minus the charm and sense of humor is hard to see. Producer Lawrence Marks (“Jerry Maguire” and “As Good as it Gets”) muses over the likes of Sandra Bullock or Sharon Stone, but those two actresses are gentle tabby cats compared to the hellcat Crais has created. But, then, Crais himself is writing the screenplay, so more of the tabby cat may get worked into the hyper-ballsy heroine.