when popular is good

There is much lamenting over the widening gulf between prose that is innovative, artistic and what sells. In literary circles there can be heard an audible sigh of frustration flowing out of this discussion. Normally, this turn in a conversation boils down to a fundamental disagreement over taste. There are some authors and books in the world, in fact one such prime example drops into the hands of fans tomorrow, that mesmerize large swaths of readers – pulls them in to a world, a character or a story but in a rather predictable, perhaps imperfectly crafted way.

Not so with The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Here is a work that has enjoyed wide appeal, lavish praise and rose to the ranks of that elusive title – NY Times Bestseller. Bestseller. Oprah Book Club selection. If only all books that reach this pinnacle represented the intersection of great writing and beautiful storytelling. Truth be told, I often stay away from works like this because I often find myself disappointed. As a writer it is hard to be a gracious reader. I find problems. Sometimes the problems needle me in such a way that I can keep going. I close the book and feel sad for myself and the writer. But things get in the way. It feels like a bad relationship, the kind you stay in only because you don’t know what else to do. Everyone gets hurt in the long run.

It all feeds into the argument about truly great works not getting recognition in our society, our crazy marketplace. But here, I hold the weight of the work in my hands and feel something like redemption. Something like hope. People love good stories, all is not lost. This is an incredibly good story. So good, in fact, that I feel sure that this can’t be David Wroblewski’s first novel. Sure, it is his first published work but the mastery he demonstrates shows the kind of skill developed only after a long slog in the process.

I’ll bet he has written something else worth reading. I’ll bet in another time, another age there would have been a different first book – smaller, less complex – that we readers would have enjoyed and waited for more. That is how it worked in the last century. Read Willa Cather’s first book, the bare outline of what amazing works were to come. Every writer builds on that foundation – that first book – fleshes it out and makes it come alive. I miss watching the progression, that development of an artist.

I will go into detail on why I liked The Story of Edgar Sawtelle so much later this week. For now, I just wanted to post about how happy it makes me feel to read a popular book that is also very good.

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