Words travel

In my desperate search for a blog topic today I came across this piece in the HuffPost that made me sit up and mouth “Shut up!” at my computer.  Gone with the Wind is a huge hit in North Korea?  WT….

But, as I read the article, it started to make sense in the way that the global bestseller phenomenon usually does.  The other day I was sitting with a client and we were talking about Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.  Our discussion veered into speculation about why that book has been so popular across several generations—the writing is competent but only just, the story one that has been told before and will be told again, and, the characters are not, well, deep.    But the book resonated for millions worldwide, much in the way that E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey has four decades later.

While Gone with the Wind boasts more rarefied literary credentials (it did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1937), it’s still pulp fiction in my book.  The melodrama, the heart-stopping suspense, the fashions….  Margaret Mitchell wrote a gripping story that didn’t let politics or morality  get in the way of a good plot (even though there’s plenty of politics and moralizing going on).  GWTW, like the other two books, spoke to many different people by offering archetypal situations, a thoroughly relatable cast of characters, and a keen understanding of heart-wrenching drama—like the overheated telenovelas I grew up on and that seduce millions in the Latin world, GWTW, 50 Shades, and Valley are all just unbelievably effective escapism machines.   Formulaic? Yes?  Over-the-top?  Of course.  Capable of taking you away from your dreary reality for the duration of your reading experience?  Exactly.

What do you all think of this?  Do you find this puzzling or does it make sense?  And  70 years from now will 50 Shades of Grey be all the rage in another freedom-challenged society?


6 Responses to Words travel

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    GWTW is a classic because in Margaret Mitchell’s day, there were still people who could reminisce about the Civil War, hence it’s vividness-in spite of of the how-dare those-mean-Yankees-come-down-here-and-upset-our-happy-slaves…50 Shades will be forgotten in 15 minutes…

  2. D.C. DaCosta says:

    I haven’t read “Valley of the Dolls”, but GWTW is a book that MOVES. There are scenes and characters that could safely be discarded (and were, in the film) but hardly any extraneous words. Mitchell, being a journalist, knew how to give us the picture in the sparest possible manner. Great literature? Meh. Great writing? Could be.

  3. Katie says:

    I wouldn’t classify GWTW as pulp fiction, nor compare it to 50 Shades of Grey. Just because it has an exciting, fast-paced plot and a lot of drama doesn’t mean it isn’t actually a very well-written, well-devised story with characters that aren’t just relatable, but vividly portrayed. They grow and change like real people do, and they are so individual that you could tell their dialogue apart without tags. It’s not a perfect book and I personally have some ethical issues with nostalgia about life in the pre-war south, but I think there’s some real genius in it, which calling it pulp fiction and comparing it to 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t seem to acknowledge. But maybe it’s just a case of differing taste. I think GWTW is very literary and complex, but there are many books that other people have said that about, and I just don’t see it.

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      GWTW definitely reflects the unpleasant racial attitudes of the deep South of the 20’s and 30’s (read Jimmy Carter’s Hour Before Daylight if you want a real-time view of this place and time, but for all it’s flaws, it’s probably the most vivid recreation of the American 1860’s; as D.C. says, it Moves-“rocks” might be a better term. My attitude about 50 Shades probably stems from all the times I had to walk by the Ellora’s Cave shelf of the romance section while I was working at Borders…What, somebody just discovered erotica?! Heavens to Vatsyayana by way of Petronius on a skateboard with Anne Rice-when did THIS happen!???

  4. EDWARD says:

    The three books mentioned above share a substantial streak of eroticism, to say the least. Margaret Mitchell, not so much, in lieu of the 1937 standards for even admitting to the existence of an interest in sex. Freud still lived on the planet in 1937. But MM found the socially acceptable “plain brown wrapper” for her novel and gave the planet exactly what it wanted. The other two books are more blatantly on point. They, too, became global authors. They answered Freud’s question to his diary, at age 77, “what does a woman want?” (OK, men, too.)
    For comparison, I would like to mention John Gardner’s GRENDEL. Not a runaway bestseller, not a sexual book, it was the reworking of a very old story. Brief, literary, and plausible, it distinguished Gardner as an artist. I guess I could insert a hyperlink here to “Starry, starry night”, but that too is a very old story. Gardner did all the right things, revised compulsively, and published with nothing near the success of 50 SHADES OF GREY. Who is the real winner? Is it possible to compare two separate worlds of writers? It is a very old story.

  5. ryan field says:

    Speaking from personal experience, readers tell me they both need and want escapism. And the sex has to be driven by emotion…love. All of the books you mentioned do that.

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