By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
This is not to say that the huge best-sellers of the past two decades didn’t make a serious impression in the market. Few will wax over the style of a Dan Brown, but many who read The Da Vinci Code did so with passion and abandon. Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County was a genuine word-of-mouth best-seller that appealed to readers, almost exclusively women, of all literary interests. And, of course, no discussion of contemporary literature trends would be complete without some acknowledgment of the enormous impact of Oprah, whose love of books, and most notably fiction, is genuine, authentic and infectious. Many booksellers resented the secrecy that surrounded the announcement of the “next Oprah book,” especially in ordering a book blindly by only its ISBN, but few objected to the regularity of predictable best-selling titles.
It is perhaps the predictability factor that perversely most rankled booksellers, critics and book pundits. Part of the joy and pleasure of literary fiction is the surprise of the delivery. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas may be one of the more interesting test cases for the resilience and durability of novels and fiction. Structurally, it is one of the most intriguing novels I know of: Based on the musical “arch form,” it tells its story in a series of pieces that move from the mid-19th century through the present to a time in an unspecified future, then reverses the process, completing the story that began in Chapter One. The voices change with each chapter: Historical novel, quasi-memoir, mystery, humor, science fiction and futurist, and though the language changes with each style, the author’s voice does not. Voices within voices within a single voice. The effect is at once kaleidoscopic and as tightly knit as an Othello, and it produced a book that was both a critical and a commercial success. Mitchell defied predictability, played with formal assumptions and invented new languages. It is the surprise factor, the continuous and continual renewing of the old form, that holds the key to the novel’s endurance and strength, and to why readers continue to buy, digest and recommend to friends literature’s most basic, malleable, individual and vital instrument.
Most importantly, the novel evokes both the bookseller’s and the reader’s most cherished mantra: “If you liked this novel, you might want to try ...”
Doug Dutton recently closed his store, Dutton’s Brentwood Books, after 33 years in the business of selling (and reading) books. The reading continues.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE