Jonathan Franzen occupies the cover of this week's Time, and, as the magazine will happily point out, he's the first novelist to do so in "more than a decade." The Franzen cover---and the Franzen headline: "Great American Novelist"---is a pretty transparent bit of attention-mongering. After all, Franzen's predecessor, Stephen King, got only one paragraph in his cover story, and Time profiled Franzen only four years ago. (Both Franzen stories include lots of bird watching and Lev Grossman.) Still, Time could use a boost as much as literature, and it's hard to fault the magazine. In fact, its choice of Franzen provides an opportunity to look back at Time's long history as literary arbiter and evangelist. In The Powers That Be, David Halberstam writes that Time impresario Henry Luce had a powerful sense of what people should read, what was good for them to read, and an essential belief worthy of the best journalist, that any subject of importance could be made interesting. Thus the cover story, the personalizing of issues so that a lay reader could become more interested and more involved in serious reading matter. This same impulse seems to be at work in Time's Franzen cover. (Under the headline it reads: "His characters don't solve mysteries, have magical powers or live in the future.") Franzen himself has remarked on it. In his famous Harper's essay "Perchance to Dream," he writes that "my father, who was not a reader, nevertheless had some acquaintance with James Baldwin and John Cheever, because Time magazine put them on its cover." Franzen ends up arguing that a shift in Time's cover choices—from James Joyce to Scott Turow—offers more proof of America's cultural decline. But just about every interaction between Time and a literary type has been characterized by a waffling between reaching out and selling out that, today, we'd describe as Franzean. Two favorite examples: When Bennett Cerf tried to convince William Faulkner to do a second Time cover, 15 years after his first, Faulkner asked for an estimate on how much it would add to Random House's bottom line so that he could simply reimburse the publisher. In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer---who seems to have married Jeanne Campbell, Luce's former mistress, for revenge as much as for love---recalls Time's offer of "a cover story on the author's reactions to the most prominent phenomenon of the summer season: the extraordinary surge of interest in Women's Liberation." Despite having a movie to promote, Mailer decides that "only a fool would throw serious remarks into the hopper at Time." In 1923, Joseph Conrad appeared on Time's first bookish cover and its sixth overall. The story began: Joseph Conrad, rover of the seven seas, has never set foot in the United States. Now he is coming. At about the end of this month the man who holds probably the most exalted position in contemporary English letters is to arrive here for a visit which it is hoped will last through May. And that's about it. Conrad's entire cover story ran only 425 words, a standard length for early Time articles, and this first batch of literary covers were mostly linked to reviews. Thanks to the magazine's short and punchy house style, these reviews always managed to include some biographical information. (The section on "The Author" came right after the one on "The Significance.") By the 1930s, though, you could see a formula beginning to set -- a personalized opening, a capsule biography, some detailed description (Willa Cather "looks and talks like a kindly, sensible Middle-Western housewife, stout, low-heeled, good at marketing and mending"), and, above all, a few kind words about the author's latest. Given Time's practice of deploying multiple reporters, these profiles were often the most thorough or invasive of their time. (The J. D. Salinger cover story is a good example of this.) Given Time's goal of reaching the broadest possible audience, these profiles also turned their subjects into rather flat characters: Cather the housewife, Hemingway the hunter, and so on. The other thing to say about Time's audience is that, from the beginning, the magazine has paid attention to lowbrow lit. Its cover story on E. Phillips Oppenheim praises his "light fiction" and opens with a mutually flattering comparison to Henry Ford, and this is one of many such examples. In fact, after surveying its literary history, I'm more surprised that Time hasn't put Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer on its cover than that Jonathan Franzen made the cut. (Time did put Harry Potter on its cover for what was essentially a profile of J. K. Rowling.) Below, you too can survey this history through links to the covers and cover stories for each of Time's literary stars. Read them to chuckle at the magazine's weakness for hype (Robinson Jeffers is someone "a considerable public now considers the most impressive poet the U. S. has yet produced"). Read them to get a contemporary perspective on some historical figures (though don't expect the best and the brightest: Lillian Ross's New Yorker profile of Hemingway, for example, is much better than Time's). Read them to marvel at Time's uncanny ability to feature the best writers' worst books. Most of all, read them to watch how this red-bordered cultural institution ferries between the high and the low. The Virginia Woolf cover story is especially good at this, but all of them do it to one degree or another. Even Jonathan Franzen's. Methods Time put 14 authors on its cover in the 1920s, 23 in the 1930s, seven in the 1940s, 11 in the 1950s, 10 in the 1960s, eight in the 1970s, four in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, one in the 2000s, and, now, Franzen in 2010. That adds up to an objective-sounding 83, but I should explain my principles in compiling this list. While Time also likes to revive dead authors---Faulkner, for example, submitted to that second cover in 1964, two years after his death---I included only living authors who wrote primarily imaginative work: novels, plays, or poetry. These criteria still left room for some judgment calls---William Allen White did not make the list because he's better known for his politics and his newspapering (and because White's cover story focuses on his Kansas gubernatorial campaign), but I kept Upton Sinclair and the cover story on his California gubernatorial campaign. Feel free to dispute my choices or to add anyone I missed in the comments. Each entry includes the author's name and, where applicable, the name of the work that prompted the profile. There are also links to a print-friendly version of the cover story and to an image of the cover itself. In fact, thanks to Time's new paywall, the Franzen cover story is the only one you can't read online. The List 1920-1929 Joseph Conrad. "A Great Novelist to Visit the United States." April 7, 1923. Cover image. Israel Zangwill. "Imaginary Interviews: Israel Zangwill, Englishman of Letters." September 17, 1923. Cover image. George Bernard Shaw / Saint Joan. "Saint Joan." December 24, 1923. Cover image. Eugene O'Neill / All God's Chillun Got Wings. "All God's Chillun." March 17, 1924. Cover image. Amy Lowell / John Keats. "Miss Lowell Eulogizes, Analyzes, Forgives the Poet." March 2, 1925. Cover image. Booth Tarkington / Women. "Mr. Tarkington's Ladies." December 21, 1925. Cover image. H. G. Wells / The World of William Clissold. "Wells, Wells, Wells." September 20, 1926. Cover image. Rudyard Kipling / Debits and Credits. "Loud Kipling." September 27, 1926. Cover image. Sinclair Lewis / Elmer Gantry. "Bible Boar." March 14, 1927. Cover image. Michael Arlen / Young Men in Love. "Mayfairian." May 2, 1927. Cover image. E. Phillips Oppenheim / Miss Brown of X. Y. O.. "Number 100." September 12, 1927. Cover image. Eugene O'Neill / Strange Interlude. "New Plays in Manhattan." February 13, 1928. Cover image. Edgar Wallace / People. "Master of Mass." April 15, 1929. Cover image. Robert Bridges / The Testament of Beauty. "Laureate Testifies." December 2, 1929. Cover image. 1930-1939 Willa Cather / Shadows on the Rock. "Amen, Sinner." August 3, 1931. Cover image. Eugene O'Neill / Mourning Becomes Electra. "Greece in New England." November 2, 1931. Cover image. Philip Barry / The Animal Kingdom. "Angel Like Lindbergh." January 25, 1932. Cover image. Robinson Jeffers / Thurso's Landing and Other Poems. "Harrowed Marrow." April 4, 1932. Cover image. T. E. Lawrence / The Odyssey [trans.]. "Scholar-Warrior." November 28, 1932. Cover image. Noel Coward / Design for Living. "First Englishman." January 30, 1933. Cover image. Gertrude Stein / The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. "Stem's Way." September 11, 1933. Cover image. James Joyce / Ulysses. "Ulysses Lands." January 29, 1934. Cover image. Thomas Mann / Joseph and his Brothers. "Great Mann." June 11, 1934. Cover image. Upton Sinclair. "California Climax." October 24, 1934. Cover image. Maxwell Anderson / Valley Forge. "Washington, by Anderson." December 10, 1934. Cover image. Kathleen Norris / Woman in Love. "Golden Honeymoon." January 28, 1935. Cover image. John Buchan. "Canada's New Governor General." October 21, 1935. Cover image. George Santayana / The Last Puritan. "Philosophic Footballer." February 3, 1936. Cover image. John Dos Passos / U.S.A. trilogy. "Private Historian." August 10, 1936. Cover image. Virginia Woolf / The Years. "How Time Passes." April 12, 1937. Cover image. Sidney Howard. "Meat Show Meeting." June 7, 1937. Cover image. Ernest Hemingway / To Have and To Have Not. "All Stones End . . . ." October 18, 1937. Cover image. Holger Cahill. "In the Business District." September 5, 1938. Cover image. Andre Malraux / Man's Hope. "News From Spain." November 7, 1938. Cover image. William Faulkner / The Wild Palms. "When the Dam Breaks." January 23, 1939. Cover image. James Joyce / Finnegans Wake. "Night Thoughts." May 8, 1939. Cover image. Carl Sandburg / Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. "Your Obt. Servt." December 4, 1939. Cover image. 1940-1949 Kenneth Roberts / Oliver Wiswell. "Angry Man's Romance." November 25, 1940. Cover image. Sinclair Lewis / Cass Timberlane. "Laureate of the Booboisie." October 8, 1945. Cover image. Craig Rice. "Mulled Murder, with Spice." January 28, 1946. Cover image. Eugene O'Neill / The Iceman Cometh. "The Ordeal of Eugene O'Neill." October 21, 1946. Cover image. C. S. Lewis / The Screwtape Letters. "Don v. Devil." September 8, 1947. Cover image. Rebecca West / The Meaning of Treason. "Circles of Perdition." December 8, 1947. Cover image. John P. Marquand / Point of No Return. "Spruce Street Boy." March 7, 1949. Cover image. 1950-1959 T. S. Eliot / The Cocktail Party. "Mr. Eliot." March 6, 1950. Cover image. Robert Frost. "Pawky Poet." October 9, 1950. Cover image. James Thurber. "Priceless Gift of Laughter." July 9, 1951. Cover image. Graham Greene / The End of the Affair. "Shocker." October 29, 1951. Cover image. Joyce Carey / Prisoner of Grace. "Cheerful Protestant." October 20, 1952. Cover image. Thorton Wilder. "An Obliging Man." January 12, 1953. Cover image. Ernest Hemingway. "An American Storyteller." December 13, 1954. Cover image. Andre Malraux. "Man's Quest." July 18, 1955. Cover image. Herman Wouk / Marjorie Morningstar. "The Wouk Mutiny." September 5, 1955. Cover image. James Gould Cozzens / By Love Possessed. "The Hermit of Lambertville." September 2, 1957. Cover image. Boris Pasternak / Doctor Zhivago. "The Passion of Yurii Zhivago." December 15, 1958. Cover image. 1960-1969 J. D. Salinger / Franny and Zooey. "Sonny." September 15, 1961. Cover image. Tennessee Williams / The Night of the Iguana. "The Angel of the Odd." March 9, 1962. Cover image. Evgeny Evtushenko. "A Longing for Truth." April 13, 1962. Cover image. James Baldwin / The Fire Next Time. "The Root of the Negro Problem." May 7, 1963. Cover image. John Cheever / The Wapshot Scandal. "Ovid in Ossining." March 27, 1964. Cover image. Phyllis McGinley. "The Telltale Heart." June 18, 1965. Cover image. Robert Lowell. "The Second Chance." June 2, 1967. Cover image. John Updike / Couples. "View from the Catacombs." April 26, 1968. Cover image. Alexander Solzhenitsyn / In The First Circle. "The Writer as Russia's Conscience Headline." September 27, 1968. Cover image. Vladimir Nabokov / Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. "Prospero's Progress." May 23, 1969. Cover image. 1970-1979 Gunter Grass / Local Anaesthetic. "The Dentist's Chair as an Allegory in Life." April 13, 1970. Cover image. Richard Bach / Jonathan Livingston Seagull. "It's a Bird! It's a Dream! It's Supergull!" November 13, 1972. Cover image. Norman Mailer / Marilyn. "Two Myths Converge: NM Discovers MM." July 16, 1973. Cover image. Alexander Solzhenitsyn / The Gulag Archipelago. "An Artist Becomes an Exile." February 25, 1974. Cover image. Gore Vidal / 1876. "Laughing Cassandra." March 1, 1976. Cover image. Alex Haley / Roots. "Why 'Roots' Hit Home." February 14, 1977. Cover image. John Le Carre / The Honourable Schoolboy. "The Spy Who Came in for the Gold." October 3, 1977. Cover image. Mario Puzo / Fools Die. "Paperback Godfather." August 28, 1978. Cover image. 1980-1989 John Irving / The Hotel New Hampshire. "Life Into Art." August 31, 1981. Cover image. John Updike / Bech is Back. "Perennial Promises Kept." October 18, 1982. Cover image. Garrison Keillor / Lake Wobegon Days. "Lonesome Whistle Blowing." November 4, 1985. Cover image. Stephen King / It. "King of Horror." October 6, 1986. Cover image. 1990-1999 Scott Turow / Burden of Proof. "Burden of Success." June 11, 1990. Cover image. Michael Crichton / The Lost World. "Meet Mr. Wizard." September 25, 1995. Cover image. Toni Morrison / Paradise. "Paradise Found." January 19, 1998. Cover image. Tom Wolfe / A Man in Full. "Tom Wolfe Writes Again." November 2, 1998. Cover image. 2000-2009 Stephen King / "Riding the Bullet." "Everyone's A Star.com." March 27, 2000. Cover image. 2010 Jonathan Franzen / Freedom. "Great American Novelist." August 23, 2010. Cover image.
1. The literary world, and I speak here primarily of its online incarnation, does some things really well. We chew on abstract issues like why literature matters, what counts as art, and how to navigate the writing life. What we don't do as well is consider "average" or "real" readers, the people who subsidize most of the book production in the country. This wouldn't be a big deal if we simply left them alone. (Not that I'm advocating this strategy.) But these people come up all the time, if only by proxy: we chuckle at Dan Brown's unit sales or snipe at HarperCollins's "It" imprint, all without necessarily engaging with the readers behind these trends. So, late on a late December Friday, I decided to try something different: I headed to a mall-bound Borders and asked 37 customers about their relationship to books. I realize my approach has its own problems (sample size, anyone?), but it offers something others can't—readers speaking in their own voices. 2. Don't be fooled by the Seattle's Best Coffee and all those overstuffed chairs: Borders is not a great place to talk books, mostly because, in my experience, doing so requires weeks of answering machines and unrequited emails—all to secure the Borders Group's tepid "yes" and a two-hour time limit. At least I didn't have much territory to canvass. In the last year, especially, Borders has flailed about for a business model—like Barnes & Noble, it's now looking to lose its mall locations—and one new initiative has been Borders Ink, a teen-themed sub-store. If the Borders I visited were laid out like the back of a paperback book, the bar code would be checkout area; the author photo would be the coffee shop; and the three blurbs would be music, movies, and Borders Ink and its mass of Twilight merchandise. (Does any celebrity look more like his plastic figurines than Robert Pattinson?) The paperback's plot summary—maybe 30 percent of the space—would be the tables and shelves of books. My first interview ended up being my favorite. Mary Anne, an older woman with red clogs and a kind face, tells me that "reading is a real passion of mine." Her favorite author is Diana Gabaldon, and Mary Anne likes to let the TV hum in the background as she reads (or rereads) 10 to 12 books of historical fiction per week. "Books put me right in the moment," she says. "The story, the characters, the period stuff." (Dan Brown elicits an "eh"—he's "outlandishly far-fetched," in her nice phrase.) I start every interview by asking people what they read, coming across all the names the bestseller lists would suggest: Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, Mitch Albom, Steve Berry and James Rollins, Stephen King ("The cheeseburger of American lit," as one Borders employee puts it), Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, and plenty more I hadn't heard of. (I confess to writing Diane Gabeldern? in my notes.) Bob, an older man in a grubby New York Giants hat, gives the same one-word answer to "What do you read?" and "Why do you read?": "mystery." Another guy admits he reads "whatever's in the airport." Most people, though, classify their reading tastes as "eclectic." Kelly, a young English major, reads Shakespeare and Jane Austen for "inspiration" and "this stuff" (she gestures at the Borders Ink sign) for "relaxation." But where Kelly seems genuinely eclectic, others invoke the descriptor simply because they aren't in the habit of talking about books. "I'll read anything" is the easiest answer to questions you don't regularly think about, and, when pressed for specifics, most of the people I talked to either reaffirmed their eclecticism or settled on a sub-category—yes, romance, that's it. All of them lacked a ready vocabulary for stuff like style, technique, or genre. 3. People were more articulate on why they read, which is also, of course, a genre-inflected question. Beth, a mom loading up on chapter books, reads to learn something. "I didn't pay too much attention in school," she says, "so I like to read about our nation's history." Ted, who sticks to sports, demands books on current events—ideally someone "with a checkered past." Tom relied on Ian Fleming to survive his New York City commute; he's got a different job, now, and "it's been harder to find the time." Renee, a bubbly twentysomething, says she reads "all kinds of stuff"—David Sedaris is a favorite—but also cops to a Twilight addiction. Just don't ask her about the movies: "The books are so much more horrifying. With movies, you can only feel by seeing. With a book, your imagination does the work." This is an idea I hear again and again—the idea that, more than any other medium, books let you "put your own spin on things" and "escape from the real world," in the words of Stephanie, a college student. Leah and Tammy, two moms in the Nicholas Sparks section who don't appear to know each other but immediately begin swapping stories about reading after their kids fall asleep, agree that books offer a unique, imaginative escape. Cheryl, a middle-aged woman, enjoys novels steeped in "criminology and anthropology." Books provide her with "details and depth that the TV shows just can't match." 4. Cheryl also stresses that she tries to remain faithful to her favorite authors. "I just love the way she writes," she says of Patricia Cromwell*. Most of my conversations were similarly author-centric. (At least as it pertained to novelists; not a single person named a journalist or historian.) When I asked people if they attend author readings, though, I got the weirdest stares. I think you could make a pretty solid argument that these readers have a healthier connection to their authors (and to their art) than do more literary audiences. But this brings up another question: How else do the people I talked to interact with the book world? Renee subscribes to Entertainment Weekly and reads its page of book reviews. Beth, a fan of "mysteries and romances," reads the New York Times Book Review "religiously." And... that's it. Mary Anne watches the bookish segments on CBS's Sunday Morning, but she distrusts professional critics because "they don't look at the story, which matters to me. Besides, they're too worried about trends." No one else seeks out any more extensive book coverage, online or off. Those who do surf the web stick to authors' official sites or to those of Borders or Barnes & Noble. Only one woman mentions Amazon; a couple of people bring up used-book stores or warehouse club chains. When I ask how they learn about new books or authors, people point to browsing book stores and seeking out "if you like X, you'll really like Y" recommendations from the staff. (I should add that the Borders staff I talked to, while universally helpful and kind, were not exactly the literary equivalent to the cast of High Fidelity.) The biggest driver of book sales seems to be word-of-mouth. Stephanie is currently reading Gregory Maguire's Wicked because her sister gave it to her. And let's give the last word to Mary Anne: "I always buy books for everyone for Christmas—especially for my six grandchildren." 5. On one of the sinks in the Borders' bathroom, I found someone's forgotten Christmas list, printed out and water-stained: Urban Outfitters gift card Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Where the Wild Things Are Stuff indie rock CDs The list went on for a full page. It even included two books: Chuck Palahniuk's Pygmy and Charles Bukowski's Dangling in the Tournefortia. Point is, the people I talked to might not live for books, but they still live with and through them. *Update: Paul Constant, the estimable Books Editor at The Stranger, emailed to let me know that Cheryl was almost certainly speaking of Patricia Cornwell, the bestselling crime writer, and not Patricia Cromwell, whom I appear to have invented. Sigh. I hope it's clear that my heart was always in the right place. [Image credit: Kevin Dooley]
Lewis Hyde is a poet and professor of creative writing, one of the parties trying to intervene in the Google Books settlement on behalf of public domain, the author of a great New York Times essay on said settlement, and the subject of a recent Times Magazine profile. As that profile points out, he's still best known as the author of The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. If books had a Criterion Collection, The Gift would be one of the first releases. Since 1983, when The Gift came out, Hyde has stayed busy, writing a second book, Trickster Makes This World, and various longer essays, the most recent of which is "Frames from the Framers: How America's Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property." Starting with George Lakoff's idea that conservatives "frame" issues better than liberals, Hyde explains how "the entertainment industry has also been very good at framing its issues." The entertainment industry asserts that downloading an MP3 is the same thing as shoplifting shoes, and anyone who disagrees has to do so in and through their terms. In the rest of his essay, Hyde tries to describe an alternative: "the democracy frame" imagined by Jefferson, Madison, and Adams. Hyde begins at the beginning, tracing the previous "frames" for art and creativity—they're gifts from the gods, a God, a muse, and on down the line. But Hyde really gets going in the early modern period, when people started talking about intellectual property through "land" metaphors like the "commonwealth," the "estate," and "monopoly." Eventually, Hyde works in ideas like civic republicanism vs. commercial republicanism, feudal titles vs. allodial titles, and legal privileges vs. natural rights. It all ties in to the creative commons—it really does—and you should read the whole thing. Why? Because Hyde believes this history matters today. "The intellectual property clause of the Constitution is, after all, embedded in the Constitution itself [Article 1, Section 8], and the Constitution established a republican democracy on American soil. That is the outer boundary of this inquiry, the foundational frame within which our discussions of cultural creations should be held." "Where monopoly privileges were granted," Hyde says, honing in on the creation of American copyright, "they were means toward larger ends"—and toward the largest ends, really, since the Founders framed this in terms, not of private property and theft, but of active citizenship and public life. Hyde ends his essay with a few pages on "how the framers might have approached . . . 'stealing music on-line'" (and note his scare quotes around that last phrase, as a liberal might do with "the 'death tax'"). He begins with the observation that "[children's] learning takes place in the thickets and streams of electronic media. What form should the old model of personal autonomy and civic action take for those who come of age watching 40 hours of TV a week?" Here, you might worry that Hyde is about to go highbrow on us. In fact, he does the exact opposite, citing the culture jam-band Negativland, quoting at length from its website, and, just in general, treating current forms of expression with the same seriousness as he did the Founders'. "If the symbolic universe that contains us now derives largely from the media barrage, then shouldn't its symbols at least be held in common? Shouldn't a community's speech belong to the community?" Or, to get back to the kids: "In a mass media consumer culture, the young are taught a language that is not theirs to own." It's probably worth pointing out that Hyde doesn't oppose copyright. Instead, he opposes the unwarranted extension or appropriation of copyright, whether by Disney or Google or The Author Herself. "If the monopoly privileges that we’ve granted to 'content providers' stand in the way of such citizenship," Hyde writes at the end of his essay, "then the privileges should be called into question." Hyde spends a lot of time talking about John Adams's "Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law," which Adams published anonymously as a young man, before HBO's John Adams even picks up, and I get the feeling that the essay's inconspicuous beginnings are one of the main things Hyde likes about it. "If we are trying to answer the question 'How did the founders imagine intellectual property?' then Exhibit A ought to be the way in which they themselves treated their ideas. In this case, ideas were released directly to the public domain, published in a manner that clearly subordinated self-interest to the common weal." Hyde's point is that Adams's ideas still got out there, still stirred up debate, still made a difference. But I think there's something more to consider—especially in the steaming cultural soup that Hyde describes when talking about MP3s. A culture that lifts up "the private individual" does so not only through copyright, but also through promotion, advertisement, an agent, a brand. Those things might not directly contribute to an ideal republic, but they can prove crucial to helping an idea get noticed. And "Frames from the Framers" may be the perfect example of this. Hyde's is the kind of essay you could see running in Harper's or Raritan or maybe the American Scholar—and the kind of essay you should see getting widely discussed. Since December 13, 2005, when Hyde published it on the Social Science Research Network under a Creative Commons license, "Frames from the Framers" has been downloaded only 746 times. As best I can tell, it never received much attention online, earning only seven Google hits in the past year. It doesn't even rank among the Social Science Research Network's top 10,000 papers! (This year's most popular? "A Quantitative Approach to Tactical Asset Allocation.") All this to say that, while the Founders' ideas still hold relevance, they do so in a much different media landscape, and these differences should play a part in any discussion. "Frames from the Framers" is part of Hyde's book-in-progress, so its ideas will get their due soon enough. Still, it says some timely things in richly historical ways. Hyde's essay deserves attention now—not least because its own reception offers one more thing to consider in our ongoing debate about individuals, intellectual property, and the circulation of ideas. [Image source: Renee]