Dissing pop fiction – the Chrichton edition

At first I was happy to see an article about Michael Chricton in Vanity Fair. It’s usually fun to read about his wildly successful career.

But not far into the article, the same old tired crap about how he didn’t write Literaure popped up. Quotes dissing Chrichton’s work and vaguer ones supporting it were included, without any evaluation. The article had it both ways, tweaking literature with popular success, and beating a popular writer with the literature stick at the same time.

I’m about to cop to something shocking: I taught Michael Chrichton in university classes. I taught The Terminal Man a couple of times, and his masterpiece, Jurassic Park, at least six times. I also cited Chrichton’s influence in an article in a juried journal about (scandalously) Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, whose first novel, Relic, is modeled structurally and somewhat thematically on Jurassic Park. Its opening sequences especially show how much these writers learned from Chrichton.

To me, it’s never been literature vs. pop fiction. The conversation has always been narrative, and to have any productive conversation, the full range of narrative has to be included. Also, you have to have actually read and seen the narratives in question, something the VF journalist did not seem to have done, to have anything real to say about them.

I taught Jurassic Park as a novel in the Frankenstein tradition, and that is simply fact. It squares off at Mary Shelley’s “I can, but should I?” question, which has only gotten more timely over the centuries. The chaos theory references are not only fun but germane to the argument, and as my undergraduate students and I discussed, the chapters work as fractals of the whole book, a terrific narrative play.

I also taught Chrichton’s autobiographical collection of essays, Travels, in a freshman composition class on the topic of writing about travel. The pieces include life as travel, traveling to exotic places, and exploration of psychic phenomena (with a final analytical essay about his conclusions on the subject).

Students, in my experience, are thrilled to be reading writers they have actually heard of, let alone ones whose movies they’ve seen. We analyzed Chricton’s work for its themes, its structure, its use of description, its handling of source material, and its connections to his fiction. We didn’t give a damn if it was Literature or what, and I don’t now either. It’s interesting. It’s useful. Get over it.

And Jurassic Park is a great read. If you have only seen the movie, you have no idea. Spielberg twists everything to be about happy families, so Grant’s interactions with the kids has to be about his learning to love kids (and therefore being more nermal). Chrichton was dramatizing science. There’s a scene in the book where Timmy (who’s the older kid) asks Grant if he and Dr. Satler are together, and he says no, she’s marrying someone else. Timmy asks who Grant is going to marry (having clearly learned adults are supposed to go in two by two), and Grant says he’s not marrying anyone. Timmy says, “Me neither.” This moment is a reminder that the point of the book is its science speculation, not cutsey resolution. It is as dark and grimly warning as Frankenstein, with a similar body count.

So maybe you’re thinking this is a trivial thing to pursue? Think again. The bludgeoning of students and the average person with the Literature club is done to such an extent that many folk mistakenly think they hate literature, and many superior-feeling (and often rude) readers of litrachure miss out on excellent work and sterling examples.

The narrative discussion needs to be about achievement, not category. Otherwise, it’s another example of the ignorance and false superiority that is too much with us today. So I will continue to argue here and elsewhere.

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