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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Why I Went to Sea with Patrick O’Brian

I knew the books existed because I had seen the movie, which seemed like a good action yarn and one of Russell Crow’s best parts. I had no interest at all in looking up the sea tales it was based on.

But one summer I found myself in Oxford, reading through the collection of Mary Renault manuscripts in St. Hugh’s library, and she raved over and over in letters about O’Brian. Now Renault is a writer I trust, and whose early books I especially value, so the next time I was in an Oxfam looking for something to read at night, I picked up Master and Commander, the first book in a long series.

In the first scene two men sit next to each other at a concert in Port Mahon, Minorca. One is a beefy Englishman who annoys the devil out of the little Irishman next to him, so much so that they both take insult and exchange addresses by way of saying they’re willing to duel. When they meet again the next day, though, that is not at all what happens.

It’s the utter weirdness of the books that I love. There are passages that would fit in Tristram Shandy, and ones like fantasy sequences, and ones in which the Scarlet Pimpernel would be at home. There are long letters and journal entries, and a drunken sloth, as well as all the naval battles and weather descriptions anyone could want, and the ancient mariner would have loved them too.

It is his refusal to write just one kind of book that I love.

I have refused to choose between popular novels and literary fiction, I have refused to make students choose one over the other, I have written about Doris Lessing and Stephen King in the same pages, and I have read anything, anything that spoke to me all my life.

Of all the good advice and interesting insights in Natalie Goldberg’s books, there is one passage that saddened me deeply. Goldberg tells how she picked up a Louis L’Amour novel while traveling and was unable to put it down. She did not treat this as a new discovery, but saw the book as having done something to her, controlled her, and she rejected westerns altogether. What a pity she could not hear what that template said to her.

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Missing Lisbeth?

Meet Rita.

Long before Salander and Blomkvist, another pair of eccentric sleuths came to life in Dorothy Dunnett’s series about the seagoing, bifocal-wearing British painter-spy Johnson Johnson and his yacht, Dolly.

His undercover adventures are chronicled in seven books that have the energy of swinging London even in their titles. From Dolly and the Cookie Bird to Dolly and the Doctor Bird, the “birds” are sometimes villains, sometimes victims, and all as quirky as Jay himself.

But it is in Dolly and the Bird of Paradise (1984) that she created a co-detective who’s a precourser to Larsen’s hacker, Lisbeth.

Rita Geddes is “small, tough, Scotch.” She wears a Mohawk, tiger stripes her face, is tiny and thin, and was rejected as stupid by her father and teachers because she’s dyslexic, though she’s in fact more savvy than most. Sound familiar?

The word-blind Rita has become a world-class makeup artist who works both in special effects and for famous clients. It is her skill with makeup that entangles her with Johnson as he recovers from mysterious injuries in his London flat.

When her mentor dies, everyone but Rita believes it’s suicide, and her quest to catch the killer takes her onboard Dolly in the Caribbean for a finale involving a hurricane and an active volcano.

Just read it.

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