The idea “began with a cup of coffee and a vacant stare in a strip–mall store in Mishawaka, Indiana,” writes Jim Collins in the introduction to his new book Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture.
Collins, a concurrent professor of English and film, television, and theatre—and winner of the College of Arts and Letters’ 2010 Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award—remembers sitting in a suburban Barnes and Noble, drinking a Starbucks latte, and listening as his daughters argued about which Harry Potter movie was really the best. It occurred to him he was surrounded by incongruities in that cafe: a nearby couple talked about Oprah’s Book Club, while two teenagers complained about having to read A Separate Peace and wondered why their English teacher wouldn’t let them talk about something interesting like the movies Shakespeare in Love or William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet.
Meanwhile, a mural wrapped around the ceiling above the café, showing a tableau of great authors—Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton—all seated together in an imaginary Literary Café Valhalla.
And on Collins’ table sat the course packet for a postmodern narrative course he had to finalize.
“At that moment, I was overwhelmed by the absurdity not of the store’s décor but of my presuming to teach my students anything about contemporary literature without taking superstores, blockbuster film adaptations, and television book clubs into account,” he writes. “Not just as symptoms of the current state of the culture industry but as the sites, delivery systems, and forms of connoisseurship that formed the fabric of a popular literary culture.”
Ironically, the first article in that course packet was John Barth’s 1980 essay “The Literature of Replenishment,” in which Barth argues that postmodern fiction must somehow expand the audience for literary fiction.
Collins contends that fast–forwarding to present day renders the literary world Barth describes moot. Today, writers of literary fiction such as Amy Tan, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Cormac McCarthy have the brand–name recognition once enjoyed by best–selling authors.
“Their popularity depends upon a great mass of reading–addicted television–watchers and a culture industry ready and eager to bring them together through book clubs, superstore bookstores, and glossy high–concept adaptations that have dominated the Academy Awards for the past decade,” Collins says.
He suggests that the once solitary and print–based experience has become a vibrant social activity, enjoyed as much on the screen as on the page. Fueled as well by new technologies such as e–book readers, literary fiction has been transformed into best–selling entertainment.
“I wanted to write a book about that popular literary culture and also look closely at the sort of fiction that is now being written for the people who take their literary experiences at superstores, multiplexes, and on their digital readers as well as in ‘book form,’” Collins says. “It seemed to me that we had to get a better sense of how that world worked for passionate, amateur readers before we could begin to speculate about the future of reading or the nature of literacy in electronic cultures.”
Collins, who is this year’s recipient of the College of Arts and Letters’ Sheedy Award for Teaching Excellence, says this tends to elicit very different reactions.
“Some people find this approach fascinating because they think it tries to account for the ways we take pleasure from reading in the 21st century,” he says. “Other people think the popularization of literary reading within media culture signals the end of civilization as we know it.”