Eight months ago, the books editor of this newspaper motioned to the latest Nora Roberts book, sitting atop a pile of volumes on his desk. "She's very popular," he noted. "Why don't you check her out?"
I didn't get around to Roberts' novel, Angels Fall (Putnam, $25.95), until last month, by which time she had already written four more books. Still, I felt impelled to write about this one, my first foray into NR territory (the initials are trademarked).
Although I had never read a book by Roberts, I knew she was a fixture on best-seller lists. She is often on the hardcover and the paperback lists simultaneously, sometimes multiple times, and this does not include her frequent appearance as J.D. Robb, the name she uses for her series of futuristic suspense novels. Her publicity copy asserts that she has written more than 150 books, with more than 280 million copies in print.
My first reflex was to see this productivity as a bad sign. What I knew of hyper-productive best-selling writers was not good. I had dipped into Danielle Steel and found her trite and tedious. I thought the movies based on John Grisham's and Robert Ludlum's novels were better than the books, which seemed padded with useless information and rhetorical filler. I had some beach familiarity with Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, but considered them quasi-pornographic (not that there's anything wrong with that).
Roberts, however, proved to be different. She is a correct and fluent writer who has good control of dialogue and background detail. In Angels Fall, her heroine is a chef, who while running from a traumatic past takes a job as a short-order cook in a diner. Bits of information regarding food preparation scatter the novel but are never belabored. The setting, a small town called Angel's Fist, outside of Jackson Hole, Wyo., is evoked without the excessive description that some writers feel is necessary when they find themselves in nature. The cast of characters is judiciously chosen - not too few or too many, their strengths and foibles presented with intelligence and economy. Roberts also plots well: The main character has a compelling back story that is psychologically useful to the ensuing events. These are parceled out at the right pace, perhaps the most crucial element in good storytelling.
Anthony Trollope, the 19th-century novelist who produced 47 books (a fraction of Roberts' output, but still considerable), noted in his autobiography that he viewed his writing as a trade, like carpentry. The statement earned him scorn for generations to come. Good writers aren't supposed to be carpenters - their writing is supposed to be magical, not workmanlike. But I think Trollope was getting at what makes popular writing popular. It is solid and dependable, like a chair or a table. Unlike great literature, which is, by definition, subversive, popular literature is reassuring.
To put it another way, popular literature tends to affirm what we already know. Not literally speaking: In Angels Fall (it comes out in paperback in June) one doesn't know who committed the crime until near the end. But there are all kinds of other things that one does know from the beginning. For example: that women may pursue careers, but are still nurturing; that men fear commitment, but will succumb to someone who truly loves them; that people are decent, except the few that aren't - and these are the bad guys. And that the good will be rewarded, and the bad punished, in the end. Such maxims are what we were taught to believe by our parents, teachers and clergy when we were children. Experience has shown that they are not entirely true, but sometimes we want to think they are.
To write good popular literature is not easy. Despite its predictability, it must propel us forward so that we are not bored, irritated, or inclined to want something else. It must incorporate new trends and cultural assumptions (female equality in the workplace, premarital sex, homosexuality, etc.) without jarring or dislocating conventional values. It must conform to what a large enough number of readers from diverse walks of life believe or, at least, wish to be true. I should note that the popular literature of one period may gain stature in another (e.g., Trollope) because the world it describes has receded and what was once familiar has now become exotic.
Great literature is jolting and disconcerting. It helps us see things from a new angle. But popular literature has its uses, too. On a long plane ride, during a day at home with a sick child, or when the mind simply wants to escape from the complications and ambiguities of real life, one could do worse than open a Nora Roberts novel.