Watch out. The literary pendulum is swinging again. And this time it's cutting the literary community - not Poe's hapless hero - in two.
The issue is fiction. For years America's brightest and best novelists have pressed on the frontiers of fiction with books that focus on language instead of story line. "Metafiction," "minimalism," "opaque fiction" were born. But the enormous success of traditional novels such as Tom Wolfe's "Bonfires of the Vanities," Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove" has many literary-minded novelists rethinking their craft.To begin with, novels that feature strong plots, memorable characters and plenty of action find readers. And that, in turn, leads to fame, fortune and prestige for writers.
The trick - if you can call it that - is to write an engrossing page-turner that also packs the weight of true literature. And those who've used that formula to court the best-seller lists have taken a few lumps from their lofty literary colleagues. Wolfe, Morrison and John Irving stand accused of abandoning intellectual and artistic ideals to write for profit.
And those accusations have been popping up around Utah as well. Take the case of Geoffrey Aggeler, a professor of English at the University of Utah. His historical Western, "The Confessions of Johnny Ringo," sold well in hardback and now has been released by Signet paperbacks in a first run of 50,000 to 100,000. That has raised eyebrows among academics. But Aggeler stands by his novel and believes he's working the best of two worlds.
"The personality of Johnny Ringo is what made the transition from Western dime novel to literature possible," he explains. "Ringo carried the Greek and Roman classics in his saddle bag, for instance, and read them in the original. So it seemed reasonable to play off `The Iliad' and `The Odyssey,' which I've done. There's also a Faustian motif in the book, and some Byron. But you don't need to know those things to enjoy it. I wrote the book to give people pleasure."
Part of the reason Aggeler walks the popular/literary line so well is he does the same with his life. Where many writers try to hide a rough-hewn past beneath the gloss of sophistication, or disguise a first-rate education with folksy contrivances, Aggeler seems comfortable with himself - both the renegade kid who was a horrible student and firefighter as well as the university professor who now teaches Shakespeare. And that two-fisted combination in his work has garnered him thousands of dollars and thousands of readers.
"I think all writers like to be read," he explains. "In fact, I'd like to see more emphasis at universities on writing the kind of novels everyday people want to read. So often there's a conflict between writers who write for small literary magazines and those who write for the high-powered publishing houses.
"I honestly think it's foolish to see writing genre novels (mysteries, westerns, science fiction, etc.) as less important than writing for the coterie."
Needless to say, that can be a lonely position to take. But more and more writers are taking it. People such as Utah's Phyllis Barber.
Barber, whose novel "And the Desert Shall Blossom" won the Utah Arts Council competition last year, writes about the largeness of a government project set against a small hard-scrabble family on the Nevada border in the 1930s. The dance hall scenes and family squabbles could have come from a movie script, and the sweetness of the language often brushes close to Phyllis Whitney, but there's a lot of guts here. The novel may be of the hefty bedside variety, but the literary digressions, careful Western history and what Wallace Stegner calls "the flotsam and jetsam of poetry" make the book a true hybrid.
"I wanted to tell a particular story, but I needed to tell it my way," says Barber. "I didn't want to reach people just sentimentally, but on other levels. It's like music. Songs we hear every day may move us, but a new approach, a fresh interpretation, will broaden our respect for music itself."
The reaction to Barber's manuscript has been mixed. But then that puts her in a fairly elite group. After Tom Wolfe churned out his literary potboiler "The Bonfire of the Vanities," for instance, the lofty critics descended on him. When asked to respond, however, he took a tack no one expected.
He told a talk show host he simply could not understand how academic critics and novelists could resist writing realism, how they could avoid being seduced by the wonders and marvels of the world.
In the end, many of "neo-traditionalists" are simply closing a gap that opened in literature after the Faulk-ner/Joyce/Beckett era. Before the turn of the century even the best writers - Trollope to Twain - wrote to be read by everyday people. True, "Moby Dick" put a damper on some people's enthusiasm and Henry James tended to drive readers to distraction with his serpentine sentences, but the traditional virtues of story, character, sense of place and a worthwhile conclusion remained in place.
In fact, the most famous shotgun wedding between literary brilliance and popular literature occurred exactly 50 years ago with John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath." Now that book is back in print in a handsome new edition and the writer himself seems to be going through a revival. That alone may serve as an indicator for Aggeler, Barber, Wolfe, Irving, Ann Tyler and others that Americans are crying out for great stories told by writers who use language gracefully, powerfully and persuasively. Writers not unlike themselves.