A well-to-do acquaintance of mine in the last years of grade school had every one of the series. He was allowed to buy each book as soon as it was published, and in his room, in order by year, he lined them on top of the bookcase. There were several dozen volumes by that time, a good yard of shelf, held in place by Roy Rogers and Trigger bookends. Greg let me view the shrine when I visited, but I couldn’t touch the books, much less borrow them. Keeping up with him meant hoping at the library, or asking at birthdays and Christmas, and of course any book I did get was always old news. Greg never was so mean as to give away the plot (or did he never read, just display?), but he made sure to inform me as soon as he got the latest. It was invariably “super.” He was the master, I was the acolyte, and we talked only in titles – The Mark on the Door, Mystery of the Flying Express – and superlatives. We didn’t discuss details: the bad guys, cliff-hanging, sleuthing clues, and the formulaic but extremely satisfying conclusions. The books’ allure was assumed, in knowing jabs to the shoulders, and fed private dreams of becoming someone special, famous for visual acuity, mental quickness, and physical courage. We eyeglass wearers, too, would make our marks in a dangerous and mysterious world.
I didn’t know that the series was entirely manufactured. Franklin W. Dixon was a school of ghostwriters and revisers that spawned hundreds of books in many series, even today. (The same company produces Carolyn Keane, “author” of the Nancy Drew books, but Nancy was of little account in a boy’s world.) This knowledge wouldn’t have made any difference in the rapt hours I spent with Frank and Joe. I didn’t care about authors back then.
That was right around 1960, a time of fading innocence. Two years later, my family left the relative sophistication of Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the lonely plains and stifled hormones of central Minnesota, where the skies were huge and frightening, the towns small and lethal, where the Beatles came to life, and JFK went to death. In those four years on the prairie, I began to read “literature.” I caught up with what the real writers were saying about their worlds.
And now, 50 years later, in spite of a graduate degree in English literature and a lifetime of reading modern novels, I’m still reading detective stories. Or perhaps I should say, because of a graduate degree in English lit and a lifetime of reading modern novels….
No, the state of current fiction is not that grim. I haven’t given up; I still do read living writers of literary fiction, mostly, in fact. But these days you have to choose carefully, because you can’t trust reviewers, because the wrong authors win the prizes (excepting the living saints that even philistines must acknowledge), because the author has fallen in love with himself. And when, in spite of everything, you find yourself reading Don DeLillo – all those people can’t be wrong, can they? Let’s try him again – you find yourself giving up in despair and closing the book and going for two straight purges of Donna Leon.
Yes, I’m biased against any author who sneers at characters, puffs up in wordplay, invents only for the sake of invention, works out neuroses in print, likes the sound of his own voice. Where did these guys come from, anyway? Why are they so contemptuous of the novel? Or, why am I so contemptuous of them?
I need to go back to the prairie years. That’s when I started worrying and wondering about the people writing books. What a marvelous thing to be able to do, create a world, people it, shape it, murder it, redeem it. The bleakness outside was tolerable when Forester provided such Hornblowing adventure, when Hemingway let loose brave Nick Adams into your timid life. But my real awakening came from the great 19th century writers, the perfect elixir for a pimply teen. They lost you in great stories, yet made it clear who was in control. They offered no apology about being both present and absent in their books, instructing the reader, withdrawing from the reader. Their books were stages where sentiment and cruelty, drama and love, mixed freely.
Even in the late 60s and early 70s when I was in college, even as I started to understand what the 20th century meant for art, even as I was taught to think critically as well as feel rapturously, the writer and the work and the reader seemed to be an integrated whole. The enterprise of literature was still a committee, if you will, dedicated to saving the world’s philosophical bacon.
Then I went to graduate school and caught up with what critics were saying. It was the cresting of New Criticism: authors’ intentions; readers’ preconceptions; all biography; any consideration of race, class, or gender; basically all historical and cultural contexts had been banished in favor of the Text. Only the words and their structure mattered, as if they were created out of nothing in a kind of trance and given over to the reader. A novel was self-contained and hardly needed an author once it was transmitted.
This view was terribly seductive for a while (and certainly a boon for departments of English), and terribly understandable in a terrible time. Before the 20th century, the world seemed to have a plan, or at least a rational system, behind it, and a painting or a book was created with some expectation that it, and therefore life on earth, would last. After the jolting and despairing aftermath of two world wars and the Bomb, it became rather harder to believe that. (Still is.)
But the critics soon got bored with purifying the pretext and the context. The Text, too, was full of distractions and authors got the message, or critics became authors, and so, logically, what started to happen in novels was nothing. That was terribly seductive as well, at least for callow readers and beginning writers (I attest: I too tried to write ala Alain Robbe-Grillet, and stories titled “Nocturne in Grey” and the like are closeted deep in a box of my moldy manuscripts). Almost by definition, though, and certainly inevitably, the Nothing trend could not last (RIP, Joseph Heller). What was left to take the place of being and nothingness? New Criticism had hardly improved the world, yet Text was still king, and traditional stories with plots and stuff were worse than lies, they were deemed irrelevant, and the only thing left to idolize, in some kind of substitute religious fervor, was the creator. That’s when the “author” started happening in novels.
Which is worse, no author, or all author? This trend may just be the latest backlash against the New Criticism, but it seems a little more persistent, and I contend that literature suffers from it.
Or so it seems from the books that get acclaim and win prizes now. There is a preciousness and self-reference to much of modern writing, as if only what one person, the author, feels or thinks could possibly have any importance. Like my friend Greg from Michigan, your modern auteurs direct and collect and impress, and do not mind a certain contempt for the reader. Their books feel manufactured, bereft of connections to other people, or to nature. Man-made and natural disasters roll so regularly and capriciously through our times, they say, that novelistic reality seems silly, especially when a couple of fat fingers on red buttons could blow up the whole fail-saved human enterprise. And so the inner world seems as bleak as the outer world, and what’s left but to recount ambiguity and absurdity? Still hung up on existentialism, they think to mirror the meaninglessness of the world by wordplay and sheer protean invention. Very seductive.
But how awful when literature forces me into the same self-absorbed crap that gets people into trouble in the first place!
So here I am, with a problem. To maintain sanity and preserve tradition and stay alive, I must read at least a couple of books a week. This is down considerably and regretfully from those prairie years when my mother had to limit the number of books I could check out of the library. After reading the aforementioned saints and (usually) the latest from the excellent and worthy, after occasionally mud-wrestling with current media darlings and infrequently believing a reviewer about a new author (and setting aside my need to read everything about Maine, my other religion in my retirement), that still leaves a lot of books.
Before I go any further, let’s get the TV thing out of the way. Yes, I do. But my viewing is in the evening when moving pictures are all that keep me awake, and consists almost entirely of soccer and hockey and crime show re-runs on cable, i.e., stories with a beginning, middle and end. Embarrassing enough, I know, but limited in time and commitment at least, and not as toxic as network series, or as drugged as movies by Netflixia. I can stop any time I want.
The eternal battle between good and evil, the winner/loser scenarios, the sense that someone has control of something, if only for an hour (minus commercials), those are my excuses. And that’s why I find myself reading in the tried-and-still-true 19th century again. Those authors were starting to suspect that there was no plan to the world, unless you say Nature itself is the plan; yet they could express common goals and feelings. The author could speak to the reader, direct the reader, yet be consumed by the story and therefore be subservient to the reader. I read these books in the 21st century not just to escape into another world; I read to re-capture the traditions of humanism, body and soul.
I think this also explains why I still read detective stories (that is, those stories driven by character or history – I eschew those with high body counts or preposterous plots, anything Larsson-like, any attempt to be like TV. That’s what the cop shows are for). I like to escape just as much as the next guy, especially in the company of a familiar sleuth. But more pertinently, character and context and history do matter, unlike the way I was taught in graduate school, and these are most easily, if not profoundly, expressed in the black-and-white and sometimes gray world of the detective. Some days I reach the end of the book and wonder if the mindless hours were worth it, but mindlessness is part of the point, isn’t it? The body is an equal partner in our enterprises of reading and living, and the detective knows that better than anyone. That the author is nowhere to be found is a refreshing bonus.
Why do so many literary authors suspect the written story? I don’t understand why they feel they must compete with moving pictures by debasing the story and turning all nouveau and artistic. The written story is completely different from the filmed story, by its very nature: you can look out the window and not miss anything, you can pause after a sentence or a paragraph, and laugh or sob in the imagination. And yet the writing has the power to carry you away, out of your life. You can be as aware or unaware as you dare, a partner, not an acolyte.
I know we need stories to survive, to keep nothingness at bay. When we stop reading them, telling them, watching them, creating them for ourselves, we have reached the end of the race. And so it’s heartening, in the middle of the digital, social-media, video revolution, that the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew continue today. The culture demands brand extension by television series and computer games and graphic novels and websites and talk of a movie, but that’s OK. I’m happy to think about boys and girls enthralled in a book, still longing to get away and re-create, still actively imagining, not passively feeding. This boy is now past 60, and there’s still nothing like a novel’s imaginative permission to examine the reality of an illusion.
About Jim: Jim Krosschell worked in science publishing for 30 years, starting as a 29-year-old production assistant, avoiding the real world until then by grad school, Peace Corps, travel and TESOL teaching. He has mostly retired now, writing essays and a blog One Man’s Maine and dividing his time between Newton, MA and Owls Head, ME. His essays are published in Louisville Review, Southeast Review, Contrary, Southern Indiana Review, The Common, and many others. His book Saving Maine is available online.
 Russell Banks, Dan Chaon, E.L. Doctorow, Jim Harrison, Ian MacEwan, David Mitchell, Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Howard Norman, Per Petterson, Marilynne Robinson, Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Strout
 Julian Barnes, T.C. Boyle, Don DeLillo, the Jonathans (Franzen, Lethem, and Safran Foer), Gordon Lish, Salman Rushdie
 Saul Bellow, Robertson Davies, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Vladimir Nabokov, V.S. Naipaul, Walker Percy, John Updike, Virginia Woolf
 Margaret Atwood, Charles Baxter, Ann Beattie, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Louise Erdrich, Richard Ford, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin
 Jane Austen, George Eliot, Sarah Orne Jewett, Herman Melville, Anthony Trollope, not to mention the Apotheosis himself, Henry David Thoreau
 Alan Furst, Elizabeth George, P.D. James, John le Carre, Donna Leon, Olivia Manning, Henning Mankell, Iain Pears, Ruth Rendell, C.J. Sansom, Jacqueline Winspear