Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Scholarly Study of John Grisham
As an English teacher, I like to tell my students there are great writers and there are great storytellers. The work of a great writer will generally be considered literature and is worthy of study in the classroom. It's writing that matters, and it has more to it than character, setting, plot, and theme. There is generally a sophistication to the language and structure and layers of depth to the meaning. The work of a great storyteller may be immensely popular, and it will sell widely while engaging its audience. But it may never be worthy of study, it won't stick around for long, and it ultimately doesn't really matter. In this way I tell my students that Dickens and Austen and Fitzgerald and Salinger and Updike and even Franzen are great writers producing literature, while King and Clancy and Crichton and Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are popular storytellers. In fact, I wrote more extensively years ago about the conundrum of the quality of Stephanie Meyer's writing.
So, what to do with John Grisham?
Clearly, John Grisham is a hugely popular writer of thrillers and crime fiction, and he would be the first to concede he is not a writer of great literature. Writing is a business for him, and he writes engaging stories to make money - and he makes lots of it. Grisham has been known to pull in $25-$30 million a year, and his net worth is approaching a quarter of a billion dollars. However, I once read an essay in a study of popular culture that identified John Grisham is the "Dickens of our time," for the richness of his characters and the portrayal of unique sub-strata of society. That certainly challenges the conventional wisdom of the time. However, there may be something to an elevated status for popular writers like Grisham, and that is the focus of John Grisham: A Critical Companion. The book is one in a series about popular fiction edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein of Southern Connecticut State University. Each book in the series begins with a biographical sketch, and then assembles a series of critical essays about the author and body of work. The Grisham series, written by Mary Beth Pringle of Wright State University just might convince you to re-evaluate the complexity and worthiness of John Grisham's work.
Certainly, if you are an English teacher who assigns research projects, you might want to check out the Critical Companion series from Greenwood Press.