It sells millions, but is it art? Often the answer is no


Just because a book is popular doesn't mean it's good - and by good I mean gracefully written, logically plotted and peopled by believable characters who speak in believable ways. But mega-gazillion-sellers like the The Da Vinci Code prove a book doesn't need literary quality to score big in the quantity department. Although Dan Brown's theological thriller boasts a fast-paced, cinematic style, intriguing puzzles and controversial theories about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Roman Catholic Church and women, and the symbolism of major artworks, its prose is pedestrian, bordering on painful, and the plot doesn't make much sense.

But no matter. The book has sold upward of 43 million copies in hardcover. The paperback version came out last month and will undoubtedly sell millions more. The eagerly awaited movie version starring Tom Hanks is set for a May 19 release. It's the latest among best-sellers with literary pretensions that turned straw into gold.

Here are a few other memorable examples:

The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller. He was a photographer searching for covered bridges. She was a farm wife searching for love. And when I picked up this 1992 best-seller, I was searching for writing that didn't make me want to throw the book across the room in frustration, which I indeed found myself doing.

But millions, who were exhorted to read it "with their hearts" - I made the mistake of reading it with my brain - embraced this book passionately, and it went on to become the best-sellingest best-seller of its day. The 1995 movie version, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, is one of those rare films that improved on the book, perhaps because Waller did not write the screenplay.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. This treacly allegory from 1970 used flight as a metaphor for seeking higher purpose and the meaning of life. But where did Bach get the idea that seagulls live only to eat and don't fly gracefully and high? Guess he never visited Cape Cod.

With lots of windy stuff about "It is the Law of the Great Gull, the Law that Is" and passages such as, "For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads, but now we have a reason to live - to learn, to discover, to be free!" this was a well-meaning and, for many, inspirational book. But the writing, alas, was earthbound.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. This 1997 biblical story of Dinah from Genesis, told with a feminist slant, fascinated many readers, particularly women, in a way not dissimilar to The Da Vinci Code. In fact, according to The Boston Globe, "It is tempting to say that The Red Tent is what the Bible would be like if it had been written by women."

Perhaps. But the book's inventive plot and character analysis are burdened with a bad case of Biblical Movie Prose, reminiscent of such flowery flicks as The Ten Commandments. Jacob, for example, introduces himself this way: "Uncle, I am the son of Rebecca, your sister, the daughter of Nahor and Milcah, as you are their son. My mother has sent me to you, my brother has chased me to you, my father has banished me to you. I will tell you the whole story when I am not so dirty and weary. I seek your hospitality, which is famous in the land." A simple, "Hi, I'm Rebecca's boy," would have been enough.

Love Story by Erich Segal. Here is our hero, the rich and WASP-y Oliver Barrett IV, on his first encounter with the poor but feisty Jenny Cavilleri: "I ambled over to the reserve desk to get one of the tomes that would bail me out on the morrow. There were two girls working there. One a tall tennis-anyone type, the other a bespectacled mouse type. I opted for Minnie Four-Eyes."

Tomes! Morrow! Minnie Four-Eyes! Nobody ever talked like that, not now and not in 1970, when the book was published. But this weepy romance with the brittle dialogue, set at Harvard, proved to be a love story for the ages, abetted considerably by the movie version starring Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw. Well, what can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died? That "Love means not ever having to say you're sorry," as the book put it. And that shameless tear-jerkers featuring lovely young women who die of mysterious diseases will always find an audience.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. What to make of a 36-year-old author who lied? His 2003 memoir about fighting drug addiction was first championed and then chopped up by Oprah, and it sold millions of copies before The Smoking Gun Web site revealed Frey had made up much of what he purported to be true.

Careful readers might have grown suspicious when they got to the part about root canals without benefit of anesthesia, and really careful readers would have been deterred by Frey's irritating penchant for upper-casing words that need no capitals: "We pull into the Parking Lot and park the car and I finish a bottle and we get out and we start walking towards the Entrance of the Clinic. Me and my Brother and my Mother and my Father. My entire Family. Going to the Clinic."

With a million other little books out there to choose from, that kind of pretentiousness puts me right off. Still, what grates on one ear may gratify another. Or, as author Gunter Grass reminds us: "Even bad books are books and therefore sacred."

Carole Goldberg is the book editor at The Harford Courant.

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