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Where Have All The Middlebrows Gone?

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Without causing too much fuss, one of the giants of post-World War II American fiction died a few years ago. I don't mean Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud or John Cheever. I am speaking here about Leon Uris, author of such novels as Exodus, Trinity, and Mila 18.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not arguing that Uris is a prose stylist with one-tenth the firepower of any of the names mentioned above. I'm not saying I prefer his work to theirs, or even that I've read all that many of his novels. What I am saying is that I feel his absence, or more accurately that I feel the absence of a certain strata of novelists that he helped to epitomize.

Oh sure, other authors have come along to take his place on the beach blanket and armrest of the airline seat. But most of them are of the eat-and-run John Grisham/Nora Roberts page turner variety. What novelists like Uris and Herman Wouk (The Winds of War, War and Remembrance, etc.) offered was a very different kind of experience. A complete immersion into a highly detailed, (mostly) historically accurate world filled with vivid, warm-blooded characters and their swooping and sometimes exhausting emotional arcs. I recall swiping Wouk's The Caine Mutiny from my mother's travel bag one miserable, gut-churning vacation when I was about twelve and having the stucco walls and smelly carpet of that hotel room just disappear as I got lost inside the narrative.

A-ha! I can hear voices protest from the lofty perches of the New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books. How can you celebrate books by people like Uris, Wouk, and James Michener when truly visionary writers on the order of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and Philip Roth have all published excellent, multi-leveled and frequently brilliant works of historic fiction like Underworld, Mason and Dixon, and The Plot Against America within the last ten years?

But much as I love those books, I'd still argue that reading them is a very different kind of experience. I never for a moment, for a single page, forget that I'm reading the work of a great novelist. And because of that consciousness, the narrative is rarely as much of a total abduction into another world as it can be in the hands of a less distinctive writer, whose style calls less attention to itself.

So why don't they write 'em like that anymore?

Well, for one thing, it's hard. The publishing business - from readers, critics and booksellers on up to the heads of the corporations that own the major houses - all expect most commercially novelists to churn out at least one title a year. That's a near-impossibility for a writer trying to produce a densely-layered, fully-researched, emotionally-involving epic. Those works, when they're well done, take years to write. But when a writer takes too long between titles these days, a general forgetfulness often sets in. When television and the Internet providing instant gratification, who remembers the name of an author who wrote some big fat book you enjoyed five years ago?

Well, so what? I can almost hear Harold Bloom muttering from an ivory tower. Those weren't works of literature anyway. They've been easily supplanted by television mini-series.

I don't think that's true, though. While I wouldn't necessarily argue that Uris or Wouk have the same richness of language or psychological depth as, say, John Updike or Ian McEwan, they do offer a kind of capacious private world for the reader to move around in, a lush mental landscape that can only be found in books. More than that, though, for a time, those kinds of popular novels were part of the larger culture dialogue, something that mature, intelligent men and women could talk about in the way they now sometimes discuss The Sopranos or Desperate Housewives.

That's largely gone, the Great American Middle. Any trip to an airport bookstore will reveal a startling lack of intellectual ambition among most of the mass-market paperback titles, where Philip Roth and Updike used to reside alongside Ira Levin and (God help us) Jacqueline Susan. What's left is a kind of literary apartheid, where highbrow authors are relegated to the slim, more expensive trade editions, mass market is dominated by mostly disposable entertainers, and little fills the gap in between except for the occasional fluke hit, genre breakout (by the likes of Scott Turow and Dennis Lehane) or quality title picked by Oprah.

Perhaps it's inevitable, though, that no one wants to fight their way to middlebrow status. Most people either want Dan Brown's money or David Foster Wallace's respect; no one goes to the Iowa Writers' program these days, trying to be the new Irwin Shaw. On the other hand, not everyone is either a money-machine or a sensitive genius. Sometimes you just want a good story told well by someone with talent. That's enough.