Kyle Minor over at HTML Giant has a great piece about beginnings, James Michener, and the red-headed step children of literature.
My grandparents had virtually every Michener book ever printed. I know this because it was a point of pride for my grandfather. I totally understand why. To read a Michener novel was to be submerged in a subject, was to be given all you ever wanted to know and more about it. Michener books were fonts of knowledge, guargantuan tomes of historical fiction. Hell, “historical fiction” seems too small a word for it. Michener wrote nothing less than “encyclopedia fiction.”
His novels had titles like Chesepeake, Hawaii, Texas, Mexico, even Space. And they covered the full sweep of those subjects, from the very beginning to the moment when Michener’s fingertips touched his typewriter. As Minor shows, the Hawaii novel literally begins with the formation of the Pacific Ocean and proceeds from there to chronicle the island state’s history. That history is usually told through the intersecting stories of a series of families as their lives, fates, and deaths play out over the centuries against scenic backdrops.
Michener was one of the biggest writers in the world in his day, from the ’40’s through the ’80’s. His books were cultural events. Today, with the possible exception of Tales of the South Pacific (which won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired the musical South Pacific), his books have been consigned to the dustbin of literature. Like airport thrillers, these days encyclopedia fiction is beyond disreputable– even as formerly disreptuable genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and pulp fiction are venerated and led gently by the hand into Literay Valhalla. “Bob E. Howard, this is Bill Shakespeare. You guys might wanna talk about witches and sword fights…”
When I was a kid, I thought Michener books were the height of literature. They seemed almost impossible to me, the way they told the entire history of a place through fiction. I’d find book after book on my grandparents’ dusty shelves and marvel that the same man could have written all of them.
As I grew older, I turned away from them. I discovered actual literature with actually good writing (unlike, say, this sentence) and never wanted to go back. Michener books were corny, cliche, derivative. Research dossiers disguised as fiction.
And make no mistake, Michener was not a great writer. His prose creaks and groans like an old house in a wind storm (like, say, this sentence). But I find myself remembering his books fondly. There’s a geekiness to them, in their completist aim to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the history of Hawaii, through the filter of fiction. Michener was the Wikipedia of his day and part of me wonders if Wikipedia is less the bastard offspring of WorldBook and Britannica than Michener’s books– encyclopedic knowledge filtered through something other than pure fact. If the impulse that leads me (and others) to link surf around Wikipedia for hours was seeded by long afternoons on the carpeted floors of my grandparents’ den, flipping through a dog-eared copy of Texas. Here’s Stephen F. Austin! Now on to the Battle of the Alamo! Where did Davy Crockett get that coonskin cap again?
Part of me wonders if Michener had been born in 1984, he wouldn’t be sitting in a shabby apartment in Humboldt Park right now, wearing Buddy Holly glasses and hacking out encyclopedic fiction novels with titles like Slash Bars or Skeletor!
Minor’s article may be the beginning of a Michener revival. Or at least, an appreciation of him among the indie lit set. If so, it’s deserved. Encyclopedia fiction is a genre I think we geeks could get behind. Michener was very much a man of his time, but he might also be one of ours.