June 28th, 2010 by Will Entrekin

Everything Old is New Again (for better or for worse. Usually worse)

Last week, I had a few hours’ break at work. I’m now working at the Equinox gym on 12th and Greenwich, which may well be the premier and largest, most active gym in America; I think we get thousands of members coming through every day. It’s a really nice gym, too; I worked at Easton Gym Hollywood while I lived in LA, and it was a small, private, boutique gym–Equinox has that same private, boutique feel but is probably four times as large.

Working on 12th and Greenwich puts me in the heart of the Village, and so, with a few hours off, I made my way just a bit north and east, to Barnes & Noble Union Square, which is even larger than the B&N at the Grove in Hollywood.

Going there made me think a lot about books. Not just because I was surrounded by them.

Used to be, if I went to a B&N, I couldn’t leave without an armful of books. Last week, I had no inclination to buy any at all, and not just due to lack of fundage. Lots of books getting some buzz: I know I need to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo relatively soon, but otherwise? I heard a lot about The Imperfectionists, but I browsed it and didn’t make it past the first half-dozen pages, after which I gave up out of boredom.

This troubles me.

I used to read a copious amount of books, read books the way some people chainsmoke, beginning a new one even before I’d finished the previous one, letting the last few pages of one blur into the first few of the next.

Lately, I haven’t been so interested.

I worry about this a lot, considering books and what’s out there. Seems like the ones that sell the most copies are rarely that good. I’ve come down hard on Stephenie Meyer, whose books I find deeply disturbing on a great lot of levels, but I find lots of other books and trends just as bad.

The mash-up genre for one. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a great punchline, but adding zombies to Austen’s classic just makes it a gimmick, and none of the other examples I’ve heard of prove exceptions to that. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Android Karenina?

Who’s read Tolstoy, anyway? He’s always struck me as one of those writers who gets a great reputation as gratest novilist evar despite that nobody’s actually ever read anything he wrote. I’ve never met someone who managed through War and Peace.

I’m sure these books are making their publishers a lot of money, but I’m less certain they’re doing anything special for reading or writing or literature or culture. They’re basically fan-fiction, except not as original. Not that there’s anything wrong with fan-fiction, but at least it usually has the good grace to be more original than mash-ups.

Of course, with that I have to confess that Meets Girl is a mash-up. It’s a modern-day, meta-fictional retelling of Faust. It kind of does with fiction (and songs, and movies) what Girl Talk does with music (and if you haven’t heard Girl Talk yet, you must).

It strikes me that the current crop of mash-ups is basically 90s-era Puff Daddy records, one dude rapping (not very well) over Sting and Aerosmith.

It could be more, though.

For example, technically, Shakespeare was basically a mash-up writer. Off the top of my head, I know two of his greatest plays–The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and The Tragedie of Macbeth–were both retellings of then-popular tales. Basically, he took what everyone was already watching performed, added his own genius to it, and went with it. Which I guess goes back to the idea that there aren’t any new stories, only ways to tell them, and maybe I’d be more forgiving of the current mash-up crop if they were any better telling. Shakespeare, when he did it, took something old and made it new by making it something more than it had been; if there were sources for his plays, those sources are never as well known as the new plays themselves.

All the mash-up lit, though? It’s just derivative. Pride and Prejudice will forever stand on its own, with a footnote that some dude once added a few zombies to the original storyline.

***

Am I the only reader who feels like people think I’m stupid? That I can’t handle something new? That the only way to satisfy me is to give me more of the same as before, fill the shelves before me with endless variations on the same basic theme? Do we really need 30 James Patterson novels per year? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think the man’s a machine and I admire what he’s done, as a writer, but there comes a time when playing to public nerve stops being canny and starts being exploitative, doesn’t there?

I’m not against popular fiction; I think the argument can be made that Shakespeare was the most popular fiction writer of his time. His output is meager compared to Patterson or Dean Koontz or Stephen King, but then again how many times have they achieved what he managed pretty much every time out? I’ve taught King at the university level; some of his stuff–particularly his early novellas, but also some of the longer works–certainly achieved something a great deal more important than just “popular”. Koontz’s Intensity is as good a novel as I’ve ever read.

I miss those sorts of books and experiences. Duma Key was not nearly as good as King several years ago. I haven’t read any Koontz since False Memory. I’ve never made it through a Patterson novel.

I used to love browsing books. I used to relish turning pages and getting lost in a story, my only reminder of the outside world the crick in my neck I’d earned finding the novel.

***

This feels, unfortunately, like one of those “Back in my day, _____ was better.” “Back in my day they made some real music, not like the crap you hear on the radio nowadays.” “Back when I was young we had real movies, not 3D gimmickry they’re charging $30 a pop for.”

I don’t know how to change that.

Does there come an age where what is new no longer holds the same sense of wonder as when we were younger?

I’m not sure. I still hear new music I enjoy all the time. I loved Avatar, and many of my favorite movies have come out in the last decade. Truthfully, in fact, I’ve never been one to think that the best had come before; I never liked Hemingway or Steinbeck. I think the best thing Faulkner ever wrote was The Big Sleep‘s screenplay. I always thought, in fact, that fiction–novel-length fiction, at any rate–was young, new, still in its infancy. That the best was yet to come.

I just didn’t realize people were going to think the way to make novels better was to stick zombies in them.

I thought we’d have more fun than that, and be more interesting.

***

Am I the only one? What’re you reading right now? What’re you loving in books?

Comments

2 Responses to “Everything Old is New Again (for better or for worse. Usually worse)”
  1. Will, I think the problem really, sincerely is that everything is marketed for a niche. No book seems to be embraced by the agents, publishers, or booksellers just and for itself (except maybe “The Passage” by Justin Cronin, and even then there’s a vampire angle). The publishing industry is scrabbling to cover its flanks, and in the process it’s losing sight of its core.

    That’s my perspective, though. And I’m with you; I’m feeling very hollowed out lately when I walk into a bookstore.

  2. I think it’s easy to blame it on marketing for a niche but, ultimately, incorrect. I only think this after nearly earning an MBA in it, and I think–and I mean you no offense when I say this–I read a lot of people who blame marketing for a lot of woes but very few who really understand the tenets of it. Maureen Johnson’s anti-branding manifesto is making the rounds these past few weeks, and it’s wonderfully passionate and makes sense as something people can get behind, but really it’s basically anti-marketing marketing.

    I’ve heard about The Passage but precisely nothing I’ve heard has made me want to read it.

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