The Terrible Smallness of “The Great American Read”

There are so many things wrong about PBS’s new TV project, The Great American Read, that one almost feels mean in enumerating them. The sympathetic audience for PBS programming, of which I am a cash-contributing member, is always at pains not to criticize its product, lest it lose more of its funding and we’re left with nothing but commercial broadcast TV and up-channel cable drek. Still, there are some things that even a PBS fan shouldn’t be asked to countenance.

PBS tells us that The Great American Read is devoted to “exploring and celebrating” English-language (though not necessarily American) novels. What a concept: a TV show about, and ostensibly encouraging, the act of reading, which is the polar opposite of watching TV. It’s like opening a bar to celebrate sobriety.

The idea is that PBS, on the basis of a survey of some 7200 people and the judgment of an “advisory panel” of 13 unnamed “literary industry professionals,” has identified what it calls America’s 100 “most loved” novels. From this list, which is comically diverse in genre, familiarity, and (dare one mention it?) quality, we are to select and vote for “America’s best-loved book.” What could be more democratic, more charmingly American – and more antithetical to what the experience of fiction is about?

The show and its PR materials have all the gently pedantic bonhomie we’ve come to expect from PBS, and the production stumbles all over itself to avoid seeming too intellectual or elitist. The ever-approachable Meredith Vieira, standing in the well of the Library of Congress, hosts each episode in a pantsuit of saintly white, and her patter seems pitched to the average middle schooler. The episodes, leading up to the big reveal of the novel we all love most in late October, each take a theme – “Heroes,” “Who Am I,” “Villains and Monsters” – and run it up a very short flagpole for mid-wattage celebrity talking heads to salute in terms that could offend –and inspire – absolutely no one.

Hence we have Venus Williams praising The Help as “not just a story,” Armistead Maupin emoting over the impact that A Separate Peace had on him as a young man, and the Bush twins (George W’s daughters) explicating the nascent feminism of Jane Eyre. None of these commentaries lasts longer than 20 seconds, as though the producers were fearful of losing us to our smartphones at any moment.

Clearly underlying all this pabulum is the laudable goal of promoting literacy and reading per se. A disproportionate number of the show’s book endorsements are provided by people of color, and many of their testimonials relate how this or that book that transformed their lives by introducing them to the magic of reading. The presumably unintended cultural condescension here is squirmingly palpable. No white guests are caught saying that it took a particular book to get them to read.

But still, what could be so bad about a show intended to draw attention to books and – however broadly defined – literature? Quite a few things, actually.

First and foremost, the premise, however smarmily democratic, that the value of a particular novel relative to all other novels can be ascertained by popular vote – is obscene. It’s an insult to writers everywhere, of every genre and era. Sure, we’re all good sports, we’ve happily watched countless whole seasons of Survivor and American Idol, and who doesn’t love a good contest? Besides, we love lists, and people are constantly and often amiably recommending books to one another, and go to book clubs to discuss them (and to drink a lot of wine). This show is just a national book club meeting, right?

Fiction is, perhaps more than any other art, experienced in deepest privacy — that is, inside the head of the reader. By definition, what we read for pleasure, as opposed to what we read out of academic or professional obligation, is entirely personal, and what you find wonderful I might find deadly. It is the precise opposite of democracy, and not subject to a vote. It’s because we believe that what we read shouldn’t require anyone’s approval or permission that we have a Constitutional Amendment about it.

A vote is a collective pretense of objectivity, whereas the individual reader’s experience is utterly subjective, not only as between persons, but for a single reader as between stages of life (I found Moby Dick stultifying in high-school, electrifying in middle age) and circumstances (whether you’ve grown up in the South will greatly affect your reaction to Gone with the Wind).

Moreover, the GAR plebiscite is not even a vote in the democratic sense. It’s a “like” tally. You can vote as many times as you want for as many books as you want by various electronic means (though no more than once a day, lest things get too far out of hand). The exact model for this sort of crowd-sourced aesthetic bullying is of course American Idol, and we all know how well that worked to identify lasting talent.

Then there’s the “top 100” list itself. Not surprisingly given Americans’ tendency to stop reading fiction promptly upon being no longer required to, it’s heavily weighted with high-school assignments like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and 1984, and cliched childhood/YA favorites like The Chronicles of Narnia and, yes, The Hunger Games. When it reaches into the past it’s determinedly middlebrow (Twain and Fitzgerald and Hemingway) but, perhaps due to those “literary industry professionals,” it’s myopically skewed toward recent bestsellers. Over a third of books on the list were published in the last 40 years, yet it somehow manages to omit all the novels of Nabokov, Roth, Updike, Bellow, Mailer, and several other certifiable literary giants of the post-war era.

If it gets little else right, the list pays slavish obeisance to cultural diversity and identity politics, slotting Americanah right next to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and dutifully including such cross-cultural publishing touchstones as Bless Me, Ultima, Things Fall Apart, Beloved, and White Teeth.

But at the end of the day, it’s the relentless ecumenicalism of the GAR top 100 that renders it useless. Any list of a hundred novels that could include both The Pilgrim’s Progress and Ready Player One, both War and Peace and Fifty Shades of Grey, both The Handmaid’s Tale and Left Behind (a series counts as one book) may as well have been put together by a bunch of bonobos as by a panel of literary industry professionals. In God’s truth, the only list that both The Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey belong on is a list of Terrible Books that Nonetheless Made a Truckload of Money. It’s tantamount to no recommendation at all. You might be better off watching TV.

I know, I know. It’s a list of best-loved novels, not best novels. Who can account for love? But if you really care about fiction, you probably couldn’t name the novel you “love” most, and you’d probably refuse to even try. And you certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about the outcome of The Great American Read. Is it harmless?  Maybe. Does it have anything to do with the experience or the love of fiction?  Let’s vote on it.

One thought on “The Terrible Smallness of “The Great American Read”

  1. I missed this coil while I was away, but I strongly agree with it. Reading is a unique experience, a synergistic effect between reader and author which is different for everyone. There is no best book. My best book might be your worst book, but to put a vote to it trivializes our individual experience.

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