Which is why I was listening to the second hour of the Bob Edwards Show on XM. He had a delightfully rambling conversation with Barbara Heller, an architect and urban planner, about the long-overdue repairs to our infrastructure. I actually like our interstate highway system; I was driving on I-476 as I listened to them talk. But it was one of her wonderful ancillary points that really resonated with me.
She had been explaining that when Eisenhower called for the linking of the interstates, the system was built for an excess capacity for cars. Of course we've filled and overflowed that capacity. Similarly, Heller explained, a lot of airports were constructed then, and they too were designed to accommodate a lot more planes and passengers than they had to in the late 50s and early 60s. Again, we've exceeded that capacity.
She said that today, as a nation, we don't seem to want to face the present let alone build for the future. And then she floored me by discussing a column by Tom Shales of the Washington Post about the TV show Father Knows Best. Heller said that the TV shows of the 50s and 60s represented the best of America -- not the best we were, but the best we could be. They were aspirational. Television viewers were meant to try to be the Cleavers or Donna Reed. Shales's column mentions how lily white these shows were, and how the reality for the actors was hardly consistent with their TV lives; I don't think Heller was ignoring any of that when she referred to these shows as designed to show us at our best.
By contrast, Heller went on, TV today is about a lowest common denominator; it shows us people we can feel justifiably superior to. Think about it: We're less desperate than the women on The Bachelor, more polite than Dr. Gregory House, better parents than those on Supernanny, less slutty than the characters on Gray's Anatomy, smarter than the people on Leno's "Jaywalking" segment, and we're demonstrably better in every regard to everyone on Jersey Shore. Heller's point is that TV today allows us to be satisfied with who we are even if we could do better.
I love this point. It's not that TV was better then; without a doubt an episode of House is better scripted, acted and directed than pretty much everything that was on in 1960 with the possible exception of a few episodes of The Twilight Zone or Playhouse 90. What Heller's saying is that back then America wanted to do better, build bigger, exceed capacity, and excel. Today, America seems to want to be stagnant, obstructive, and self-satisfied with the status quo.
But I do wonder about us as readers, whether we celebrate enough the really good books or do we prefer to feel superior to the mediocre ones. Is this the appeal of #romfail, for example? I've not participated in a #romfail session on Twitter, but I gather it involves laughing at a poorly written romance. It may be good fun, but is it good fun the way laughing at the "bad" singers on American Idol is good fun?
Does this phenomenon -- if it exists in the context of judging romance novels at all -- also explain the review of Deidre Knight's Butterfly Tattoo on Dear Author? Jane gives the book an A-, which is why it seems strange the the first paragraph of the review begins, "There are so many blocks against reading this book that I wonder you ever had the audacity to put pen to paper." and ends, "I got to the end of chapter 1 and emailed your editor, Angela James, and said, what the hell have you sent me?" I can understand a D review starting out so negatively, but an A- minus review? Was Jane disappointed that she loved this book?
What about us, the non-reviewing readers? Do we pick up a romance expecting to like it well enough, or hoping we'll hate it? I'd have thought it would be the other way around, that we pick up a romance (by an unknown author, say) hoping it's excellent, but rather expecting it to be just okay. Are we in general impressed with romance authors or vaguely contemptuous, as if they only deserve our admiration if they write one of the great books.
Hey, I'm guilty of this -- I've not been kind to certain authors here. I wonder now, though, if all of this -- the snarky reviews, the antagonism toward people on comment threads when they "out" themselves as authors, the running series of tweets about a book that's causing the tweeter's eyes to roll -- isn't part of the same phenomenon Heller's noticed on TV. We like to feel superior. Hell, we really think we *are* superior. And we're just that extra bit happy when we find evidence of our superiority.
Without a doubt, reviewers and their blogs provide a valuable service and I'm grateful to them for their hard work. In a genre with nearly 5,000 books published each year, it's tremendously useful that someone's sorting the wheat from the chaff; and they can't do that without being willing to say that the bad stuff is bad. I just don't think that means we have to celebrate its badness.
This isn't a rallying cry -- what would I have people do? Keep their eye-rolling to themselves? That's as useful as decreeing how much sexual experience all heroines should have. People are entirely free to read the books they want, write the books they can, and express any reaction they like about those books.
I'm just sad that we don't seem as eager to praise excellence as we are happy to sneer at mediocrity. I don't think aspirations are bad things. I think admiration for a well-written book and its author is a positive force in our community. And I wish we didn't enjoy it quite so much when a book is bad.