You won't find Richard Bach in the Oxford Companion to American Literature. And he's not on the reading lists for graduate-school seminars.
To find Richard Bach you have to look on the bedside tables of readers who've bought 25 million copies of his books.In the world of literature, Bach - author of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" and "Illusions" - is one of those curiously American oddities: a successful, popular novelist completely ignored by American critics.
Today Bach does most of his writing in tandem with his wife, Leslie Parrish-Bach. She was a disgruntled actress ("L'il Abner," "The Manchurian Candidate") and he a millionaire novelist gone bust when they met 11 years ago. The marriage seems to have revitalized both of them. They were in town recently to promote their latest effort, "One" - another novel that will sell a million copies without causing a tremor on the academic Richter scale.
"The book wasn't written for people who get nervous with intimacy," explains Parrish-Bach. "When we wrote our last book, `The Bridge Across Forever,' we were scared to death. The themes of love, intimacy, commitment weren't popular at the time. But we wrote it from the heart and sent it off. What came back was a flood of love, intimacy and commitment. Boxes of letters; people happy with their marriages, happy with their lives. So we wrote this book for them, too. Our books aren't for cynics or people who pride themselves on being sophisticated."
"One" features the Bachs as main characters again. It is basically a collection of anecdotes held together by a slender narrative thread - the Bachs flying from adventure to adventure in their famous seaplane.
From a literary perspective, the novel feels like a cross between "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Christmas Carol." The couple move back and forth in time, talking to their former selves and meeting with oddball characters - much like Dickens' Scrooge. Some characters are real (Attila the Hun), some are not (such as Tink, who lives in the earth and forges ideas for people).
The un-real folks are usually straight-talking, non-threatening American types, much like the fantasy Midwestern scarecrows, lions and tinmen who people Oz.
The theme of the book is this: For every life there are millions of other lives that could have been led.
The uncomfortable part - for the dry-eyed readers - will be the way the writing cuddles up to the reader.
Even when in danger, the two can't keep from calling each other "Wookie."
"Yes," Bach says with a smile, "we thought long and hard about using that. But we decided - again - that for the people for whom we were writing the book, it would be OK. We know that critics feel our books are precious. But we decided to keep the door to our hearts open."
That softness is a trademark with Bach's books. They have the feel of an afternoon in the pastry shop. When evil appears, for instance, it's usually in caricature - like fairy-tale giants and ogres. Readers know everything's going to be fine. And when virtue raises its pretty head, it usually shows up in clever aphorisms delivered in gentle whispers.
The capsule insights, in fact, often seem to display the quickness of mind that Twain put into Puddin'head Wilson's Calendar. But the Bachs want to make sure the medicine goes down with a spoonful of sugar. Hence the key word in this book: charm.
The way to get people to hear cold ideas, Tink tells the barnstorming Bachs at one point, is to charm them into listening.
"There are all kinds of tendrils to the emotions that come out of otherwise cold ideas," says Bach. "Leslie and I know when we're doing what we want because we'll catch ourselves writing with half-smiles on our faces. That's how we know we've hit something charming. If an idea doesn't charm us, we may hang onto it, but we never use it."
Charm, for the Bachs, also means closing down the artistic distance - the space between the writer's personality and his writing. Their emphasis is on open confession and intimacy.
"In our books," adds Bach, "the writer is never safely distant. How many books have I read like that? I get so tired of it. But if you do away with the distance, then you have to take that extra step and say, `I will allow you to see me as a fool.' The nice thing is sometimes the fool can be a sublime fool."
In the end, trying to discuss the immense popularity of the Bach books in strictly literary terms is impossible. Their appeal isn't there. Bach readers - and the writers themselves - will say there's another element at work; a spiritual connection that transcends the printed page.
There's no meter to measure that.
And no theory of literary criticism covers it.
It's something readers must test and accept or reject on their own.