Sara Nelson Crosses the Great Divide
One of the most pivotal moments in my life as a reader came, embarrassingly enough, about ten years ago when I was already well into my thirties and had been working as a journalist and a book reviewer for some years.
My editor suggested I take a look at a new novel called Body and Soul, that was coming out from the esteemed author, Frank Conroy. Having only a vague idea that Frank Conroy was not Pat Conroy, an author I admire but not one I was afraid was going to be too "literary" for my tastes, or for the taste of my audience at the mainstream women's magazine, I agreed.
I got a galley of the novel, read it and loved it. I remember wirting a review that talked about the epic nature of the story of the little boy who grew up to be a musical prodigy. I remarked on scenes that were terrifyingly accurate about what it must be like to be a kid who goes way beyond the expectations and, frankly, the skills of the parent. I remember noting in my review that Body and Soul was, of course, the name of a melody even extremely nonumsical piano students (like me) had been able to master and I think I even made some comments about how the writing in Conroy's first novel was musical, that it was onomatopoetic, in fact, being musical about music.
It was a pretty good review, I thought, certianly good enough for the magazine's readers who were likely even more clueless about "real" literature, and certainly about Conroy, than I was.
But here's the thing: Frank Conroy had written a memoir years before called Stop-Time and he was a big deal teacher at one of the tonier writing projects: i.e., He was a literary big shot, just the kind of novelist I would have been afraid to review, had I known. Because at that time in my life actually for all of my life up to that time and maybe even now and then since I've thought there were two kinds of novels. Fun ones and serious ones. Or, put another way: commercial ones and literary ones.
Although I had a college degree from a fine institution of higher learning, and although I'd been reviewing for, oh, about ten years by that point, I would never have dared to write about a literary book. I wasn't literary.
I was populist, sometimes proudly and sometimes ashamedly so, but very definitely populist.
So it came as a great and pleasant surprise to me when, a few weeks after I'd handed in my review, some of the big guns weighed in in all the journals and magazines we, wish-we-were-more-literary types, have come to revere. And guess what? Some of them said many of the same things I said in similar words.
The experience made me realize two things: One, maybe I wasn't as lightweight as I thought I was (It's also a possiblity that some heavyweights are lighter than we like to think, but that's another story.) And two and maybe more important maybe there wasn't such a perfectly drawn line between what was readable and accessible and, forgive me, readers of those revered journals, the commerial books that we regular folks actually liked.
There was no Oprah Book Club back then, but I have a feeling that had there been one, the great TV host might well have picked Body and Soul. It has the scope, the pathos, the class issues and, yes, the melodrama that she seems to like. And, unlike me, the woman who "dared" to choose a literary book like The Corrections would be neither surprised nor self-conscious about choosing this one.
Who knows if Frank Conroy would have behaved differently from Jonathan Franzen, the Corrections author who clearly couldn't contain his ambivalence about "crossing over" from literary stardom to populist fame? All I know is that as a reader, I would have been glad, and secretly flattered. Ten years earlier, I'd given up thinking there were two kinds of readers in the world and I'd finally let myself just enjoy reading. Me, I had long since crossed The Great Divide.
Sara Nelson is a senior contributing editor at Glamour and the publishing columnist for the New York Observer. She has also been an editor at Self, Inside.com, and the Book Publishing Report, and a contributor to many other publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.