PBS’ Deathly Dull Literary Reality Series Comes to a Merciful End
The results have arrived. The ballots have been counted. All the people finally stopped screeching as directed by the Applause signs in the cheap hotel ballroom. PBS has announced America’s “best-loved novel” in its absolutely endless reality series The Great American Read.
And after all that goddamn hoopla, all those lame booths at festivals and dull, pompous testimonials by soft-lit actors and authors, they’ve determined that America’s best loved novel is:
Congrats to that scrappy underdog. It will finally get a little recognition.
The whole thing just took so long. Masterchef Junior requires three months to crown a champion. Did you really need five months of pretentious encomiums to the magic of reading to figure out that people like To Kill A Mockingbird? High-school students have been getting that treacly novel stuffed down their gullets for decades. Of course it’s America’s best-loved novel. We all worship Scout and Jem and Boo Radley because they taught us about tolerance and the evils of racism and then we never had to think about it ever again.
There’s a lot to unpack from The Great American Read. I’m going to do that now, just as soon as I’m done scraping my brain off the floor from how sickeningly, maddeningly earnest it all was. Let’s take a look at the rest of the top five: Outlander, Harry Potter, Pride And Prejudice, and The Lord Of The Rings.
These are all massively-popular and excellent books that pretty much anyone can enjoy. No one can say it’s a grouping of snotty elitist choices. William Gaddis and Stanley Elkin don’t bomb into The Great American Read for a guest appearance. No one enjoys reading Francine Prose, not even her friends.
But this is also pretty much a feminized list. How many of these ballots were cast by teenage girls? Did my wife stuff the votes? Was she right the whole time? If guys did most of the voting, you’d probably see something more like: Fight Club, On The Road, Casino Royale, Infinite Jest, and, I don’t know, I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell or something horrible like that. None of those appear anywhere on the list. No one loves poor old David Foster Wallace, alas. A few semi-macho choices like The Hunt For Red October and Lonesome Dove manifest into the middle of the list. Hemingway makes a token appearance. But this Great American Read goes out to the ladies.
The rest of the top 10 are Gone With The Wind, Charlotte’s Web, Little Women, The Chronicles Of Narnia, and Jane Eyre. Again, all definitely classic books, all better than any crap I’m ever going to write. But what do you notice here? The PBS puppet masters absolutely front-loaded the ballot with multicultural choices. The list includes classics like Invisible Man and Another Country, as well as new offerings like The Intuitionist (which no one likes) and Ghost (not the novelization of the movie). Of the top 50 books, only two, The Joy Luck Club and The Color Purple, were written by non-white people. And both of those were, at one time at least, popular movies. So not only does the list lean female, it also leans toward the white ladies. It’s The Great American Book Club.
Beyond that, the list is just kind of weird. Moby Dick finished one place behind Memoirs Of A Geisha, and I don’t care how many boring pages about processing blubber are in Moby Dick, that’s just wrong. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy finished one place ahead of The Hunger Games but the Count Of Monte Cristo finished one place behind The Hunger Games.
So the list seems democratized, but it’s also kind of random. Numbers 14 through 20, in order, are The Book Thief, The Great Gatsby, The Help, The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, 1984, And Then There Were None, and Atlas Shrugged. If you want to stock a nightmare shelf at a mediocre bed and breakfast, those are the books you’d pick. Three of them are indelible masterpieces, and the rest are brain landfill. Do people really love some formulaic Agatha Christie novel more than The Stand, The Catcher In The Rye, or Great Expectations?
Also, what in the name of Gilgamesh was Clan Of The Cave Bear even doing on that list? That book is literally nothing but cave-people fucking. The author named the main love interest Jondalar, for god’s sake! And yet it finished above War And Peace, Crime And Punishment, Catch-22, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and One Hundred Years Of Solitude.
On the one hand, more than four million people cast ballots in this farce. On the other hand, probably two-and-a-half-million of them were fanatical cosplayers or high-school sophomores forced to do it as homework. The list reveals nothing about American literary tastes but everything about which media properties that were formerly novels have the most ravenous fan-bases. That said, Jonathan Safran Foer appears nowhere on it, which gives me hope.
The show did make me want to read, but it made me want to read shitty books that everyone hates. They exist, too, you know. I’m hoping that next season, PBS changes the title to The Worst American Read, and replaces Meredith Vieira with either Terry Crews or Josh Harrison, just like they did on Millionaire. You want to select America’s most-hated novel? I have plenty of candidates.