Rohan Maitzen

“Good novels, nothing else”: Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore

What if Jonathan Franzen opened a bookstore, called it “The Good Novel” and refused to carry any of Jennifer Weiner’s books — not to mention Dan Brown’s, Tom Clancy’s, Jodi Picoult’s, or E. L. James’s?

It’s only too easy to imagine the brouhaha that would ensue, with cries of “excellence!” on one side and “elitism!” on the other, with one side proclaiming itself literary purists trying to break the cycle of commercialism that’s leading to the decline of Great Literature while the other side set itself up as democratic champions of the common reader, their store (call it “For Every Taste” ) selling pleasure rather than High Art. Who would be right? Which side would you be on? And, perhaps most to the point, where would you shop?

This is the basic premise of Laurence Cossé’s A Novel Bookstore, though the characters who establish “The Good Novel” bookstore are not set up as smug Franzen-style curmudgeons but as passionate idealists. When they come under attack for their governing principles, their patron issues a stirring defense:

For as long as literature has existed, suffering, joy, horror, grace, and everything that is great in humankind has produced great novels. These exceptional books are often not very well known, and are in constant danger of being forgotten, and in today’s world, where the number of books being published is considerable, the power of marketing and the cynicism of businesses have joined forces to keep those extraordinary books indistinguishable from millions of insignificant, not to say pointless books.

But those masterful novels are life-giving. They enchant us. They help us to live. They teach us. It has become necessary to come to their defense and promote them relentlessly, because it is an illusion to think that they have the power to radiate all by themselves. That alone is our ambition. . . .

We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please.

We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the ‘Go on, I need it for July, and in September we’ll give you a proper launch and sell one hundred thousand copies, it’s in the bag’ variety. . . .

We want splendid books books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it will always be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

Stirring, as I say, and because the founders of The Good Novel are A Novel Bookstore‘s protagonists, it seems pretty clear whose side Cossé is on and wants us to be on too. And it’s tempting, because after all, who wants to be on the side of insignificant books, hollow books, or sloppy hurried books?

But the devil is in the details, of course, or, in this case, in the identification of these unworthy books — in discriminating decisively between the good and the bad. The Good Novel team orders their stock following lists submitted by a secret committee of writers, among whom there are in fact some differences of taste and interest, and all of whom (along with the bookstore staff) relish the opportunity to be advocates for lesser-known novels they believe deserve a wider readership. (One of the treats of A Novel Bookstore is noting the authors and titles that are batted around, many of whom were certainly unknown to me.) They are united against most bestsellers and prize-winners, however. Are they doing readers a disservice by refusing to stock books that, as they point out when challenged, are available by the thousand in every other bookstore in town? Is their insistence on exercising their own exclusive literary judgment heroic or, as one critic argues, fascistic?

This . . . is nothing more nor less than a totalitarian undertaking . . . What does good novel mean? Who are these kapos who have the nerve to place their seal of approval on this book and not that one? Where are they coming from? What gives them the right?

Those most offended, of course, are the excluded novelists as well as those in publishing who rely on highly commercial titles for their profits.  The actual plot of the novel is put in motion when some members of the selection committee are attacked. The investigating officer sums up his theory of who’s behind the attacks and why:

The Good Novel has caused every element of a fairly limited socio-professional group to break out in hives. Far be it from me to suggest . . . that this group represents everyone in publishing, the media, or criticism, or bookselling. They are a sub-faction of people who share the view that a book is a product that can make a lot of money and that literature can be a rich seam.

He goes on to compare the cabal working against The Good Novel to Al Qaeda — there’s not much middle ground in A Novel Bookstore, and that’s actually one reason I didn’t love it the way I expected to. The oppositions seem polarized in a way that suits this novel’s concept better than the novel as a genre, or novel readers.

The mystery plot is one of several facets of A Novel Bookstore: there’s a love story as well, and a number of subplots, really more like anecdotal digressions, about the various characters involved in setting up the bookstore. It all has a certain charm, and it is certainly executed with panache. But without the central debate about the value of ‘great’ literature, it would be a fairly insubstantial book, and even with it, it seemed somehow superficial, the working through of an idea for a novel more than a novel of the kind that The Good Novel would stock.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking about Cossé’s conceptual gambit as I was shopping in an actual bookstore myself yesterday. As I browsed the fiction shelves, I was frustrated as always at the crowding out of backlist titles (or just less mainstream titles) by stacks of the latest releases. What a different experience it is to shop at the London Review Bookshop, clearly curated on different principles! Yesterday I was also plagued by an over-enthusiastic employee who (when he wasn’t badgering me to see if he could help me, which he couldn’t, except by stocking more good novels!) was selling — by which I mean both promoting and taking money for– a lot of James Patterson and Tom Clancy. My inner literary snob cringed at his loud sales pitches even as my better angel (or was it?) reminded me not to look down on other people’s genuine reading pleasures. I wouldn’t be able to find everything I like to read at The Good Novel (yesterday I bought Tana French’s Broken Harbour, for instance), but I’d still rather browse there than at Coles.