Friday, March 2, 2018

American Literature's Love/Hate Relationship with Success

by Linda Rodriguez

All my life I’ve been a voracious reader and writers have been important to me. They’ve helped me to grow and mature. They’ve broadened my mind and my outlook. They’ve inspired me to keep going when things looked grim and to aim for ever loftier goals. Sometimes when I’ve been sick or in physical pain or grief-stricken, they have taken me out of my situation for a few hours and given me respite and relief. In so many ways, writers and the books they wrote have been important to me and my life.

Still, I’ve noticed an odd thing—some writers, who may have been hugely successful and famous, disappear from view. It seems that some writers become so successful that the critics and professors who set the canon of literature decide they must not be any good because they're too successful. Who ever hears or sees the name Edna Ferber now? Yet she was world-famous several decades ago for her large novels telling the stories of states or sections of America, such as Cimarron (Oklahoma), Ice Palace (Alaska), So Big (Chicago), Come and Get It (Wisconsin), Giant (Texas), and Showboat (the deep South). Ferber won major awards for her books, which were always bestsellers. Hollywood made huge, successful movies from many of them, and Showboat was also a hit as a Broadway play, and her movies and plays also often won major awards.

Ahead of her time and with a sure eye for the plight of the underdog, Ferber often dealt with controversial issues in her work, such as racism and miscegenation laws, immigration, political corruption, the treatment of women and minorities, issues that you wouldn’t expect to be at the center of such popular books. Millions have found themselves mesmerized by her portrayals of the people, places, and times she portrays, as I have many times. She did extensive research for each book and was, in my opinion, the unsung precursor of James Michener’s research-heavy tomes about states in the US and hot-spot areas of the world and the better writer. Ferber wrote real characters the reader could care about, rather than mouthpieces for the various aspects of history or area controversies as Michener did.

Kenneth Roberts is another writer whose books have vanished into the out-of-print bins at used bookstores and friends of library sales. His bestselling books, such as Northwest Passage, Lydia Bailey, The Lively Lady, Captain Caution, Arundel, Rabble in Arms, and Oliver Wiswell, focus on the periods of American history before and during the American Revolution, and many of them were made into successful films and TV series.

Roberts was famous for his meticulous research into his period, and he told the stories of heroes and mavericks on both sides of that struggle. I think he was the first popular writer to offer the sympathetic portrayals of the Loyalist (usually called Tory) families who had to go into exile once the United States was independent, as well as the families and soldiers who fought for independence. Roberts wrote about the founding fathers and the soldiers who fought for the American Revolution, warts and all, as very real human beings with often conflicting motives and with families and other entanglements that complicated their efforts. When I finish one of his books, I always feel as if I have lived through the period that book covers in a complete immersion experience.

Pearl Buck is one of these once-great and now-forgotten authors who’s getting a new lease on life through the influence of Oprah Winfrey. I know it’s fashionable in literary circles to criticize Oprah, but I believe she provides America, in general, and literary culture, in particular, a real service in encouraging reading and in bringing recognition to forgotten or overlooked works. Look at what happened to Pearl Buck. Even though Buck was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, her bestselling and award-winning books, such as The Good Earth, Sons, A House Divided, Other Gods, China Sky, Dragon Seed, Pavilion of Women, Peony, The Big Wave, and Imperial Woman, had mostly been out of print. The gatekeepers of American literature, professors and critics, had pretty much consigned her books to the ash heap as “not literary enough” until Oprah pointed a spotlight back on her Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Good Earth.

I love what Buck said in her Nobel acceptance speech. She pointed out that, in
China, “the novelist did not have the task of creating art but of speaking to the people.” “Like the Chinese novelist,” she said, “I have been taught to want to write for these people. If they are reading their magazines by the million, then I want my stories there rather than in magazines read only by a few.” Perhaps this is why her stories of people’s lives, especially women’s, are so enthralling. I know they have helped me through times of great physical and emotional pain.

What authors of the past have been favorites of yours and helped you make it through times of illness or boredom or other difficulty? What writers who are out of fashion now would you like to see back in print and in active circulation?

Linda Rodriguez's Dark Sister: Poems has just been released. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel, based on her popular workshop, and The World Is One Place: Native American Poets Visit the Middle East, an anthology she co-edited, were published to high praise in 2017. Every Family Doubt, her fourth mystery novel featuring Cherokee campus police chief, Skeet Bannion, will appear in August, 2018, and Revising the Character-Driven Novel will be published in November, 2018. Her three earlier Skeet novels—Every Hidden Fear, Every Broken Trust, and Every Last Secret—and her books of poetry—Skin Hunger and Heart's Migration—have received critical recognition and awards, such as St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Novel, International Latino Book Award, Latina Book Club Best Book of 2014, Midwest Voices & Visions, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, Thorpe Menn Award, and Ragdale and Macondo fellowships. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” published in the anthology, Kansas City Noir, has been optioned for film.

Rodriguez is past chair of the AWP Indigenous Writer’s Caucus, past president of Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of International Thriller Writers, Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, and Kansas City Cherokee Community. Visit her at


  1. During childhood summer vacations, I remember reading my way through my grandfather's paperbacks, including Pearl Buck, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Josephine Tey. I later pillaged my mother's collection of Helen MacInnes books, plus those of Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney.

    In more recent times, I have a shelf of books I reread for comfort, everything from Donna Andrews's Murder with Peacocks to The Giver, PD James, and Ann Cleeves's Vera and Shetland books. L'Engle's Crosswicks Journals. And of course, Bird by Bird, which I keep on the cookbook shelf in the kitchen with Laurie Colwin's food essays.

  2. What a wonderfully written, thought provoking post. Thank you.

  3. Wonderful list. I recently led a discussion of Pearl Buck's Good Earth for a library group, and we it engaged me and others; it led to very provocative discussion.

  4. Margaret, yes, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Josephine Tey, Helen MacInnes, Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Phyllis Whitney were all fine writers who won awards and millions of readers, but were deemed too popular eventually and scorned. This happens disproportionately to women writers, even Nobel and Pulitzer winners, but as I point out with Kenneth Roberts, it's not only women.

  5. Thank you, Judy, for reading and appreciating it!

  6. Denise, yes, Buck's work makes for great discussions. There's so much in it. She was writing intersectionality long before the term was developed (heck, she was living it most of her life). It's telling that even the Nobel couldn't save her from obscurity until Oprah revived her.

  7. I firmly believe that whatever touches one's soul at a particular stage of the journey is good, but also that most literature is accessible with a bit of help. I had teachers who helped me love MOBY DICK and GREAT EXPECTATIONS and so many more, and with reader's theater and storytelling techniques, I did my best to help my students appreciate and understand the tougher works. Once the office called for a student and I said, "No, he's Ahab and we need him." They left us alone.
    Howard Schwartz would speak of works that should be "saved for college students" because high school classes would just get frustrated and hate them. I'd disagree, and he would say, "YOUR students have you," which I didn't fully understand until colleagues would say those works were too hard for any but honors students -- because they didn't work with the students to bring the text alive.
    I also loved science fiction for a very long time, and now turn to mysteries for escape. For several years, I rationed out the CAT WHO mysteries for times of medical crisis, my own or my mother's, knowing they would get me through waiting and worrying. Thanks to all the writers who help us cope -- we need you more than ever. <3

  8. You are so right, Mary! And accessible is not a dirty word for literature, as so many critics and lit scholars seem to think now. We need to start writing for all the people again, rather than for the tiny privileged academy.