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  • Jeff Somers 8:00 pm on 2015/07/23 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , sensational, the da vinci code, the fountainhead   

    Look on My Works Ye Mighty: Once and Future Novel Phenomenons 

    As we we recover from the release of E.L. James’ Grey, which tells the story of Christian and Anastasia’s kinky love affair from Christian’s point of view, it will be interesting to see if Fifty Shades of Grey retains its grip on pop culture. A few years ago, everyone was talking about Fifty Shades of Grey—its sexual politics, the quality of the writing, its fan-fiction origins, women’s rights, and issues of domestic abuse. In fact, many people who haven’t even read a line of the books, or only the ones quoted in six billion think pieces written about them, have extremely passionate opinions about the trilogy.

    James said she wrote Grey to please her fans, and there’s no reason to doubt it. Fans are passionate, and when you’re passionate about a work of fiction it’s not at all unusual to have a drive to know every single facet about the universe you enjoy. This is why companion novels, guidebooks, and character encyclopedias do so well, and why an author can return to a successful universe decades later and still sell oodles of books.

    Judging from history, the chances are good that while Grey may sell a lot of copies, it won’t capture the zeitgeist the way the first three novels did. History has seen a lot of books that hit the shelves like a train on fire, capturing not only readers’ eyeballs but the general attention of every single person in the universe, becoming grist for late night jokes and endless discussions, as bloviators bloviate about why this year’s cult novel doesn’t deserve all the attention. These books burn bright, burn fast, and then settle into a comfortable cultural obfuscation—not precisely obscurity, because they often have incredibly long tails, but certainly a much lower profile than in their initial phenomenon phase. In fact, the history of this sort of phenomenon novel can be traced back to the mid-19th century, and what’s known as the Sensation Novel. And if you’ve never heard the term sensation novel, that’s your first clue as to their eventual fate.

    Causing a Sensation

    The “Sensation Novel” was a phenomenon of the 1860s and 1870s, marked by the publication of novels that were melodramatic, romantic, and written with a modern thrust and sensibility that had never existed before. Largely thought to begin with the publication of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (also considered one of the first mystery novels),they were hugely successful commercially (and published in the first blush of the industrial revolution that made their widespread availability possible), but generally poorly regarded by critics, setting the pattern for the rest of eternity: exciting books that reflected the passions of the times sell like hotcakes, and are universally reviled by the supposed defenders of taste and literary quality. Sensation Novels traded in “shocking” plots that included crime, adultery, sex, and, of course, murder, but were considered sensational more for the fact that they used these plot elements in a realistic way, setting them in the recognizable world instead of a fantastic setting where the reader remained insulated.

    Of the Sensation Novels from the time, the most famous remains Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. In fact, that novel and Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, along with The Woman in White, are likely the only examples of the Sensation Novel that are still discussed widely and remain part of the popular culture to any extent. The rest have faded away more or less completely. Of course you can still discover these books and read them, and very likely enjoy them, but they’re not exactly household names, despite once dominating the pop culture conversation.

    That’s the pattern that remains in force: novels that come out and cause a sensation, whether it’s a mania of people buying and discussing them, outrage over their content, or simply catching a wave in the zeitgeist, the fact is, it has happened before, and will happen again. The books that everyone is buzzing about today will soon be yesterday’s news.

    Which doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. You can learn a lot from the “It Books” of the past, partially from what they can show us about what was considered sensational at the time, and partially from the objectivity that time grants us, allowing us to view them as novels—which can be impossible when we’re in the midst of the phenomenon.

    The Modern Sensation Novel

    Every generation likes to think it’s the most debauched and worldly ever produced, that the things that shock us are orders of magnitude more shocking than the things that shocked our parents. This is largely because our collective memory is feeble, and we forget things so quickly. The Fifty Shades books, with their focus on bondage, submission, and non-traditional romance, got a lot of attention because of their shocking nature. But there’s actually a lot more romance in them than explicit sex, and anyone who bought and read the trilogy for the smut was very likely disappointed.

    The fact is, anyone who thought Fifty Shades shocking likely hasn’t read the liver scene in Portnoy’s Complaint, any random page from Tropic of Cancer, or Venus in Furs, whose author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, actually inspired the term masochism (look to the works of de Sade for the other side of that particular coin). The list of novels that pre-date (and very likely out-raunch) E.L. James is long, which just goes to show that it isn’t necessarily shocking subject matter that makes a book a sensation—it requires the perception of a new low (or high, depending on your point of view). Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t become a sensation simply because it explored a BDSM lifestyle and relationship many people were unfamiliar with, or included some explicit details you don’t encounter in most love scenes. It became a sensation because it framed these shocking moments inside a more traditional romance: a young, inexperienced woman meets a powerful, experienced man, pierces his outer shell of defenses, has the best sex of anyone’s life, and then finds her own power by the end. It’s a pretty classic, just with a more honest look at how people process unconventional desire.

    Peyton Place remains one of the most successful “sensational” novels of the modern age. Published in 1956, it sold in incredible numbers, was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 59 weeks, and was made into a film, and then a TV series. More a sprawling soap opera than an examination of a single sexual relationship, Peyton Place hit all the shock points for 1950s America (many of which remain shocking today), including sex, incest, abortion, adultery, and, just to round it off, murder.

    It’s not wrong to characterize Peyton Place as the Fifty Shades of its time—a book that people read not for the writing, but for the supposedly shocking moments within it, a book that didn’t get much love from critics, which seemed to sell mainly due to its “forbidden” nature. The sort of book that, as the famous line in A Chorus Line goes, people locked themselves in the bathroom to read. Yet 60 years on, Peyton Place is hardly part of the buzzing of pop culture. It’s not exactly forgotten, and remains in print, but no one is writing think pieces about it any more. As Shelley wrote, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.” No matter how sensational a novel is, the time comes when it’s no longer considered sensational.

    Not Always Sex

    It’s a mistake to imagine that the sensational novel is always about sex. Phenomenons are built on other things, but that doesn’t mean they have any more staying power as cocktail-chatter grist.

    Consider the now-inexplicable cultural fury of The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. It’s hard to believe that just over a decade ago, the world was buzzing constantly about this book. People took it seriously as history, actually believing famous works of art contained hidden codes, or that the Catholic Church has a secret organization dedicated to suppressing the truth (well, they certainly did—but at least in the 21st century, those hidden secrets were far less fantastical, and far more troubling). It sold close to 100 million copies, spawned sequels and two film adaptations and a lengthy list of imitators, and turned Brown, whose first three novels had sold poorly, into a superstar. For a while, every conversation that touched on reading had to cover your opinion of, reaction to, and analysis of The Da Vinci Code.

    Today, of course, not so much. Brown continues to sell hella books, and people continue to read The Da Vinci Code and find it to be either a mediocrity, or a fascinating alternate take on history, and a thrilling story. It doesn’t matter where you fall on that spectrum: the fact is, no one is talking about the book any more, and that’s the point—all sensations fade. While they may remain in print, they stop being cultural touchstones, and eventually, they stop making sense as pop culture references.

    Another example of a sensational book—one that has perhaps been most successful at maintaining its place as a topic of furious discussion—is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, perhaps the least sexy book to have achieved sensation status (perhaps the least sexy book ever written, in fact). Deplored by critics, it gained a rising buzz of word of mouth after its publication, hit the bestseller lists, and was a required topic of conversation for years, whether you wanted to discuss the politics Rand barely hid in her story (now considered the first seeds of the modern Libertarian movement), or that rape scene (which Rand energetically denied was rape at all).

    Six decades later, college kids continue to discover The Fountainhead and go through an annoying phase of pressing the book on everyone they meet, insisting it will change the way they see the world. It continues to be an unofficial bible for a certain type of businessperson who conflates their monetary success with some sort of superior intellectual quality they have discovered within. Still, despite its continuing sales, The Fountainhead hasn’t really been part of the pop culture conversation for decades. No novel can remain a sensation forever, no matter how much sex, profanity, or oddball political and cultural theory it contains.

    Does this mean the Fifty Shades Era will pass? Definitely. The books may continue to sell, they might become the foundation of “dirty bookshelves” in houses across the country in the same way The Tropic of Cancer once did in our parents’ or grandparents’ houses. But there will come a time when no one writes about them any longer. A new shocking novel will come out, and even if it isn’t all that shocking, and we’ll spend an inordinate amount of time discussing it, until we’re all hardily sick of it. And so we beat on.

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  • Jeff Somers 8:11 pm on 2015/06/09 Permalink
    Tags: , , the da vinci code, the highest office, the president's shadow,   

    Brad Meltzer’s The President’s Shadow is This Summer’s The Da Vinci Code 

    The phenomenal success of books like The Da Vinci Code proves that readers everywhere love seeing events, people, and concepts we read about in school brought to thrilling life and connected to our modern day. Brad Meltzer’s Culper Ring series has the same bones as The Da Vinci Code—riddles and conspiracies hidden in plain sight, a love of history, and a wildly re-imagined backstory to some of the world’s most famous items and events. But Meltzer brings a level of sophistication to his Culper Ring series that enhances their impact and makes for novels that satisfy as thrillers, as conspiracy tales, and as character studies. Meltzer continues his winning streak with The President’s Shadow, the third in his Culper Ring series about an ancient organization founded by George Washington to protect the presidency—and once again he finds the perfect balance between historic puzzles, tense thriller setpieces, and surprising character interactions.

    The History is Solid
    Meltzer does his research and writes historical thrillers that are rooted in reality. The Culper Ring that Meltzer’s hero archivist Beecher White is a member of really did exist, and really was founded by George Washington, and many of the events and objects that factor into the story are similarly real or based on reality. This is important because Meltzer doesn’t hold back on his plotting—The President’s Shadow involves severed arms, a top-secret military experiment, a secret guild of assassins founded by none other than John Wilkes Booth, and the return of Nico, the insane man who believes it’s his destiny to be the fifth successful presidential assassin in American history. The rock-solid, fact-checkable foundation anchors a plot that seems poised to boil over into chaos at any time.

    The Human Touch
    While The President’s Shadow can be read cold without having read the first two books, it definitely helps if you understand the history between these characters. That’s because, unlike in historical thrillers that focus too much on the puzzles and historical details to the detriment of the characters, Meltzer offers us flesh-and-blood people who have emotional reactions to events and each other, who lie and betray each other, and who stand up for each other. Beecher White’s semi-antagonistic relationship with President Orson Wallace is a great example: White suspects Wallace of a terrible crime committed in his youth, but he also saved Wallace’s life, and the mutual distrust between the leader of the free world and a man dedicated to protecting the office, if not the individual, gives the story a powerful sense of depth.

    The Pacing is Spot-On
    Where a lot of historical thrillers in the vein of The Da Vinci Code rocket along a story that simply pushes the protagonists from discovery to discovery, Meltzer is more patient. The President’s Shadow opens with a stunning image: the First Lady of the United States, engaged in some therapeutic gardening on the White House grounds, discovers a severed arm clutching a totem that links directly to her husbands semi-nemesis Beecher White—but then Meltzer takes his time unveiling the rest of the story, giving us the history of Beecher’s father and his mysterious death (somehow linked to the severed arm) and of several other characters, each pursuing, it seems, a separate thread.

    Masterful Misdirection
    One of Meltzer’s great talents is lulling the reader into a false sense of security and comprehension. As you read The President’s Shadow there are several moments during which the solution to the riddles seem obvious—but as you soon realize, you’re being set up. The true solution to the mystery of the buried arms, the true motivation of every player, and the identity of the ultimate antagonist are surprising—but delightful, because they fit perfectly with the clues, just not in the way you may have expected. When twists comes out of nowhere, they’re frustrating. When they are supported by evidence in the story, they’re thrilling.

    The Final Reveal
    Without giving anything away, you’ll want to read to the last page of The President’s Shadow for the final twist that puts a wholly different spin on the rest of the book. It’s not a cheap surprise; it’s something that bubbles under all of the Culper Ring novels. It’s pretty shocking, and it’s also pretty genius. While other historical thrillers keep their thrills and puzzles securely in the past, Meltzer does them all one better, realizing that all conspiracies and puzzles have to be created in the present before they can become history.

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