It’s like it ain’t so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it…

In the comments section of the November 14th post on high concept:

My contention has to do with, for instance, (as your link to the Knight Agency page explains) high concept books as “accessible” and “commercial.” A lot of my favorite novels are probably neither.

(Most people I know would NOT call George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for instance, but it’s one of my all-time favorites. And given time, I swear I could write a high concept pitch for it that would remain true to its “quiet” stature.)

So ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is that the phrase “high- concept book” seems…I don’t know…

ANY book could be a high-concept book…because it’s not a matter of what the book IS…it’s a matter of how the book is presented.

Actually, if you read the article, I do not say that any book is high concept, nor that any book that is “accessible and commercial” is necessarily so. I do say that high concept is a somewhat slippery term, as it both describes an innate characteristic of the storyline, and also the way said storyline is described.

Sadly, I haven’t read Middlemarch (I know, shocker), so I can’t whip out a high concept description for you, nor can I make any kind of argument for whether or not it’s high concept, but my understanding is that it’s an ensemble piece about social reform, is it not?

I’m not a fan of books where “very little happens” I must say. (For the modern, trendy definition of “characters don’t learn, don’t grow, and that’s somehow supposed to show the plight of humanity, etc.” — I took that short story class in college, and it was torture.) Even in a “low concept” story (let’s say On Golden Pond, since I’m not familiar with the Eliot and can’t say anything about it), you’ve got a lot “happening” — you’re really showing something about characters in conflict and in growth. But that’s difficult to describe or show the power of in a few short sentences and thus, not high concept. Not BAD, but not high concept.

However, the line is not drawn at “literary.” There are literary books that are high concept, and literary books that aren’t. Literary, as used today, is a genre unto itself, not unlike mystery, or romance, or science fiction. It denotes a certain tone, style, and often, characterization and storyline. Today, “literary” is seen as an intrinsic, objective characteristic of the text.

I don’t like that definition. I believe that what is “literary” is not decided by us. It’s decided by history. What is it about Aphra Behn’s adventures and romances that make them interesting to study today, compared to so many other populist writers of the time. Do we still read Radcliffe because she was the most popular writer of that kind of book at the time, or do we read her because she was doing something that the penny dreadful folks weren’t? And what of Dickens? And what of Dumas, who, like James Patterson, wrote by committee? Nowadays that would be seen as the height of pedestrian and commercialist, but we study Dumas in English classes all over. The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite novels. In fifty or a hundred years, will we be studying Along Came a Spider?

I am fascinated by the way certain books manage to, over time, worm their way into the canon and gain a modicum of respectability. I like how everyone is currently in love with Du Maurier, but her reputation seems to ebb and flow. Sometimes she’s lauded; others, derided. I am fascinated by the rise of science fiction as a highly-respected genre. (In passing, I find it interesting that when we study Orwell, it’s his science fiction, and not his “realistic” character studies or reform novels.) When I read 1001 Books To Read Before You Die, I was surprised that I’d read so few of the novels from the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the ones I had were, in fact, science fiction. I think that is because my taste runs (and always has run) to adventure stories, which are vastly out of fashion with the literary set these days. (Of course, not solely. For instance, I adore As I Lay Dying. Ironically, the title comes from The Odyssey, the most adventurest of adventure stories!)

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. I did, after all, write my senior thesis on Lost Horizon and the social construct of Shangri-la. Hilton’s adventure novel, cribbing together as it did ideas of orientalism, the sublime, cultural reform, and eastern mythology in an unabashadly populist package, was actually the first book published by Pocket, which had been started to print light, popular fiction in mass market paperback form. And it’s also very high concept.

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