Willa Cather wrote an American literary masterpiece - so did Fitzgerald, Bellow, and Mailer - but Clancy's Red storm Rising is just commercial junk.
Take a university English course offered under a summary like "The American Novel" or "A Survey of American Literature" and you find that before the 1930s the great American novel was written by people like Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James - but literary greatness after that period devolved to people like Philip Roth, John Barth, and Paul Auster.
So why is the Life of Pi great literature and Cardinal of the Kremlin just paplum? It's not the writing: Pi is incoherent, characterless, illiterate drivel; Cardinal is literate, complex, coherent, and filled with people drawn from life.
The answer is that the criteria for greatness changed during the 1930s: from a focus on the quality of the work, to a focus on the acceptability of the message - and that message, of course, is not just actively taught in freshman English classes across America, but defines reality for many aspiring young journalists struggling through four years of college or University.
Thus I doubt whether a million Americans could even name three Faulkner novels, but his work provides the canonical democrat, NYT, image of the southern republican - just as the self loathing in Bonfire of the Vanities is foundational to their understanding of the ethical relationships between the urban poor and the nouveau riche in market economies.
Two things seem clear about the differentiation of good literature from bad:
- The rules on which judgments are made about what constitutes good literature allow for a great deal of flexibility, but the rules on what cannot be considered are completely inflexible.
Thus Norman Mailer's personal life compensates for some weaknesses in his messaging; novels about nothing are as acceptable as bad grammar; profanity is expected but not mandatory; talented and well connected white people with the right messaging can be published, and it may still be possible to write literature without an explicit gay scene or authorial lifestyle - but Clancy's positive portrayal of military values is sufficient to place anything he writes so far beyond the pale that recognizing his name is considered a serious faux paux among the educated.
- In great literature race and class count, in commercial junk they don't.
Clancy's characters have nationality and purpose - but in great literature they're black, or jewish, or gay or rich or poor or from carefully delineated classes. The conflicts Clancy's characters face tend to come from their commitments to goals above and beyond themselves: so they fight fear, exhaustion, and each other on behalf of their countries or their ideals, but share their essential humanity, personal values, and character traits. In contrast, characters in great literature are usually conflicted only by the boundaries of their racial and class isolation - generally achieving nothing for anyone in the process of discovering that they're nobody.
Thus Bonfire is literature where Red October is judged worthless because the values in the two books are virtual mirror images: the commercial junk builds involvement in the lives of achievers working through a specific event within a framework defined by personal commitment to truth, honor, and country where the Classic American Novel endlessly revalues the pointlessness of a life isolated from reality by a kind of post stalinist consumer euphoria.
What it comes down to is this: prior to the 1930s, great American literature had a lot in common with today's commercial junk: it was well written; the characters had individual weaknesses but a kind of group subscription to human equality and shared values in which the response to class issues of color, religion, birthplace, and parentage is mainly factual - thus Huck Finn, like Jack Ryan, can tell black from white, but transcends the stereotype to react to the person, not the color.
After the 1930s, however, great literature diverged from this standard: from Hemingway and Steinbeck to Roth and Auster, racial, sexual, and religious lines are sharply drawn and deeply internalized by onanists wishing themselves driving abuse, pity, or apathy across immutable class lines.
Think of the difference as that between a Trump or Sarah Palin rally with its excited, involved, and real Americans; people just like Huck Finn and Jack Ryan - versus a typically scripted Gore or Obama event with the usual deeply committed, and deeply serious, organizers; carefully scripted impromptus; and the nearly complete absence of spontaneity or enjoyment among the Augie Marches bulking up the crowds.
So what's this mean for republicans? The superficial message is this: the fact that millions of Americans devour each new Clancy novel demonstrates an enormous market for republican ideas - but the more subtle message is that the values taught aspiring journalists are dramatically out of sync with their markets and therefore that republicans should first work to get some Clancy novels into the curriculum, and secondly give some serious thought to the likelihood that millions of Americans consider themselves ill served by the news media choices available to them.