Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rae Armantrout & Bestsellers

I am not all that psyched that Rae Armantrout won the Pulitzer Prize, not to impugn her work. I think all that this event proves is how random the prize is. It signals no freeing of sensibilities or whatnot. It simply shows that the gatekeepers on Parnassus can be whimsical.

The list of previous winners is pretty ad hoc, like any such prize. You figure that Wallace Stevens winning in 1955 is being given a lifetime achievement award, as are the many Collected Poems winners. And maybe just maybe Natasha Trethewey won because she was standing nearby when the prize was doled out. This is a contest, I am saying, where no contest belongs.

I also think, crank that I am, that Rae’s prize is more to her publisher Wesleyan than to her. Wesleyan is one of a handful of ‘okay’ poetry publishers, that sell their books and get them into libraries. It is not Rae of the small press that wins the prize. If a LANGUAGEy poet were to win the Pulitzer, I would think Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein, or Lyn Hejinian were more suitable choices, my terms being popularity and influence. I do not begrudge Armantrout, just do not believe that her selection is somehow good news.

But who knows?

The other day, 3 books fell into my hands, 3 romances. They interested me because all three were, apparently, bestsellers.

I had heard of one of the writers, Nora Roberts, and have seen her books around, probably in drugstore book racks. A boy I used to tutor was obsessed by Roberts because his mother would not let him read Roberts’ books. His mother feared that the books were too mature for him. My friend was a voracious reader and immensely curious, and this denial just fired his interest. Not that a book by Nora Roberts fit his taste, he was more like a budding Lovecraft.

Anyway, these 3 romance books. Years ago, while running, I came upon a box of free books that someone left to the world and/or trash pick up. Naturally, I took as many as I could handle, 4, and saluted my benefactor’s house. All 4 books, I found, had covers featuring tall, dark, and handsome in a pirate shirt, and spirited, wild-haired, and bodice-rippable in a flouncy gown: hottie meets hottie circa 18th century England. I read at least one of the books and it was not bad. It was a substantial story, not mere paint by numbers.

All these books declare being bestsellers of different sorts. It is a fuzzy declaration, because a Dan Brown or J K Rowling must have a different sense of bestseller than even does Nora Roberts. Such do I assume.

From what I can tell (stopping at actually reading these books, tho I will not say I won’t), the book that stretches the genre the most is by Debbie Macomber,#1 New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author”, as declared on the cover. I have never studied such lists but you might surmise these lists to be very long to accommodate all the bestsellers roaming the empyrean. I do not know if Macomber is #1 on a romance list, or a general list. To me, that second option stretches plausibility, because she would be up against, say, Stephen King, Dan Brown, and whatever Oprah has signed aboard to.

Macomber’s book bears the title Angels at Christmas. It is in fact two stories, which are “destined to become Christmas classics.” That is not exactly shortlisting the book. The back cover reveals the crux: “Every Christmas, three lovable angels visit Earth.” Uh oh.

The presentation of angels in pop fiction and movies creeps me out. It seems so unexamined and tawdry. ”Once a year,” reads the back cover, “Shirley, Goodness and Mercy are allowed to intervene (or, more accurately, interfere!) in human affairs.” Well, that sounds cute enough, harvested, doubtlessly, from It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s a movie, to be honest, that I have never managed to see, tho of course sublime cultural osmosis has refused to leave me free of its effects.

The two stories in Macomber’s book tally just over 400 pages. A page lists myriad other books, segregated by series, of which there are eight, plus a cook book. Does Rae Armantrout boast a recipe book, hm? Macomber won the 2005 Quill Award for Best Romance, and has “appeared on every major bestseller list, including those of the New York Times, US TODAY,  Publisher’s Weekly and Entertainment Weekly.” Uh HUH!

The front cover of Windfall by Nora Roberts proclaims that it contains “the timeless classics Impulse and Temptation.” Ah yes, due novella, and oh so timeless. And quick reads,too. “The last decade has seen over 100 of Nora’s books become New York Times bestsellers—many of them reaching #1.” That’s impressive in a faux dizzying way. So what kind of sales does Rae Armantrout see? Well, you know that hers, Silliman’s Bernstein’s, Hejinian’s (etc etc) combined is the square root of forget about it. What sort of snigger can one hear when the Pulitzer importantos select a poet to honour? I am sure it was wonderful when the ghost of Ed McMahon knocked on Rae’s door to present her the Pulitzer, but Our team is still losing.

Oh, I forgot to mench that Debbie Macomber “has become a leading voice in women’s fiction worldwide.” In case you did not know, or feel the overwhelming effect.

Summer by the Sea by Susan Wiggs seems like the most substantial book, it being 410 pages for one story. It also boasts blurbs, including three from Publisher’s Weekly and one by New York Times #1 Bestselling author Debbie Macomber, as member of the MoliĆ©re Memorial Symbiotic Back Scratching Association. No big Quill Award win noted here, alas.

Our team is still losing.

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