James A. Michener
"Vintage Michener" was the review for James A. Michener's Alaska, and that is just what Michener has become to the public, an easy summer reading novelist who delivers bestsellers which thrive for a few months, then disappear with the arrival of the newest summer thriller. Alaska represents the modern day bestseller as America has moved from a reading nation to an entertainment based leisure state. Despite critical reviews, Alaska was able to sell based on a name and the ability to market Michener's renown.
Due to the rise of major corporations such as Random House as well as the rise of an entertainment oriented society, best-selling novels such as James Michener's Alaska, have come to dominate the top 10 lists over critically acclaimed works known as true pieces of literature. From 1980 to 1994, almost twenty-five percent of the top 10 best sellers were written by Steven King or Danielle Steele. Both these mass-producing novelists were able to deliver up to three best sellers in the same year, or an average of one novel every four months. Almost half of all best-selling novels written from 1980 to 1994 were written by seven authors, including James Michener. With the rise of such astounding quantities of writing, the quality was sure to fall. The book market became what the movie market was, a means of quick and simple entertainment. Time Magazine, writing about Alaska, declares "Unhook the phone! Sling the hammock! Cast off all brunches! Alaska, James A. Michener's latest titanic adventure novel promises to transport vacationing readers through billions of years and thousands of scenic miles." Modern day bestsellers have become vacation paperbacks to be read on the beach, on an airplane, or at the family reunion for simple, easy entertainment.
As America moves into a post-modern era, we have become a people of leisure, not having to struggle for basic necessities and therefore seeking other forms of fulfillment. The book industry has marketed this inherent need, and publicized easy-to-read, enjoyable authors, changing the public's reading list and changing their view of literature. A reviewer from the New York Times Book Review calls reviewing James Michener's Alaska like "trying to review some inexplicably venerated national monument." Michener is venerated neither for his literary ability nor for his diverse writing style, but for his ability to create novels to entertain and satisfy the public. In an interview of Michener by the Intelligencer Record, he acknowledges his differences from most of the critically acclaimed novelists of the twentieth century, but seems happy in his role of entertaining the public and selling millions of books:
"At times, Michener regrets being different. He says he would like to have traveled in the literary circles inhabited by Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, who he considers symbolic writers of their generation. But as he talks, it becomes evident he accepts being different. He is proud of what he has accomplished off in his little corner of the literary world. With sales of more than 75 million books, he is willing to let the facts speak for themselves. 'I was deeply moved by an article published within the past two years by a man who had been in charge of bookstores at a wide variety of universities,' Michener says. 'He reported that in those years, in his stores, my books outsold all the others. 'I believe this is true and I'm delighted somebody clarified the record. ... I think this means something.'"
For James Michener, selling 75 million novels is more important than the fame and literary acclaim that Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer have achieved.
Alaska was able to attract the public and reach the bestseller list due to the notoriety of Michener's name and the familiarity of his writing style. With many previous novels on the bestseller's list, Alaska was almost guaranteed success with the signing of his name. Michener received complimentary reviews for several of his earliest works, including Hawaii, which significantly helped to bring along his fame as a storyteller. Reviewers declared "the subject [Hawaii] is so well covered that it may be a long time before anyone essays another major work on the islands." The New York Times Book Review wrote that Michener " is able to penetrate into many cultures with detachment and sympathy," creating novels mixing historical information and riveting tales of human nature. Gaining fame through these initial works, Michener was able to capture an audience, and after a period of time the quality could deteriorate as long as his name was attached to the work. In general, most of his novels are surprisingly similar, describing in detail places around the world through fictional characters. Part of the success of Michener's novels can be attributed to the consistency of his writing, and the fact that readers know going into the novel its basic content. The only differences arise in characters and the places described. The modern reader desires predictability and simplicity in the novel, again going back to the concept of America as a leisure nation. With so many Michener novels already reaching the top 10 bestseller lists, Alaska was almost guaranteed a spot as long as it maintained Michener's usual style and format, appeasing readers worldwide in search of a novel for the hammock.
Many of the reviews for James Michener's Alaska were negative, due both to the critics desire to return best-sellers to more quality literature as opposed to the modern paperback thriller, as well as the fact that Alaska differed little in style or imagination from Michener's numerous previous works. In several reviews, the critics were contradictory, one stating "early on the book is vintage Michener, but the momentum encounters an Arctic chill midway. Final sections are trite, uneven, and overloaded with stereotypes," while Booklist declares the beginning of the novel "a slow start," then says "the action picks up" later in the novel. Most critics agreed that the novel was not literarily acclaimed, but disagreed on where its faults were. One review from the New York Times Book Review even seems to contradict itself, writing "Alaska has all the vivacity, drama, passion and humor of a National Geographic article without any pictures. It begins, 'About a billion years ago,' and surely only a national monument could unblushingly describe in sitcom lingo the eons-long movement of this planet's tectonic plates: 'Anything could happen . . . and did.'" The reviewer compares Alaska to a glorified soap opera, written purely for entertainment while attempting to throw in technical lingo. In the next sentence the same review declares that the novel and sentences are too complex and technical, citing a passage: "'If four different factors in an intricate problem operate in cycles of 13, 17, 23 and 37 years respectively, and if all have to coincide to produce the desired result, you might have to wait 188,071 years (13 x 17 x 23 x 37) before everything fell together.'" Reviewers struggled to define Alaska's faults, but were generally united on the fact that despite its weakness as a piece of lasting literature "Michener fans will demand it anyway" (Time).
One common ground of criticism for Alaska was Michener's lengthy descriptions of pre-history, as well as his long chapters on Alaskan animal life and geographical information. Michener spends pages describing tectonic plate movement, volcanic action in the northern Pacific, Wooly mammoth movement across the continent, and plant life on the tundra. Describing through fictitious stories the history of a landmass that became Alaska, Michener's style and form quickly become tedious and repetitive, and for lack of a better term, boring:
"In this placid, ponderous way, Mastodon lived out his uneventful life. If he defended himself against saber-tooths, and avoided falling into bogs from which he could not scramble free, and fled from the great fires set by lightning, he had little fear. Food was plentiful. He was still young enough to attract and hold females. And the seasons were not too hot and moist in summer or cold and dry in winter. He had a good life and he stumbled his gigantic way through it with dignity and gentleness "(19).
This style is entertaining and enjoyable for a few hundred pages, but reviewers such as the New York Times Book Review are tired of 900 page book after book of the same writing in different forms, tired of reviewing a "venerated monument" that the public adores.
James Michener's choice of Alaska for a topic of his book reflects the changing mobility of America as a nation, and the general increase in vacationing and people's interest in far-off lands. The twentieth century has been characterized by fast transportation, instant communication, and the ability to travel freely around the globe. Michener fed to this rise in travel, writing about exotic and far away places that interested the public. In Alaska he brings out both the good sides of the history as well as the bad, but in general he portrays the country as a mysterious, exciting destination for travelers: "in these remote and formless days little Alaska hung in suspense, uncertain as to where its mother continent would wander next, or what its climate would be, or what its destiny" (4). Over the forty years of his writing career Michener has written entertaining novels to a vacationing nation as we have developed more and more into a transportation society.
Despite the critical reviews and generally average quality of James Michener's Alaska, the novel was largely accepted by the public as an interesting anecdote. The characters Michener uses to recount Alaska's history are entertaining and easily understandable. Michener retells amusing stories that amuse readers, as in the following tale:
"'How did you win your name [Raven]?' asked [the chief], and his captive replied: 'I was trying to jump from this rock to that, fell into the stream. Wet and angry, tried again. Fell again. This time very angry, tried again. Just then a raven tried to pull loose something from a spruce limb. Slipped backward, tried again. And my father shouted: 'You're the raven.' 'The third time, did you make the jump?' [asked the chief] 'No. And the raven failed too. When I was bigger I jumped, and my name remained.'"
After gaining the initial following and fame from his earlier works Michener could write very mediocre works with the same basic tales and same basic plots, and the public would continue to buy. Throughout his writing career the novels he wrote remained entertaining and just plain fun reading.
Though Alaska sold over a million copies in the first few years after its publication, it receives very little attention ten years after its printing. Initially Alaska was reviewed by many newspapers and magazines, but since 1989, a year after its publication, not a single review can be found for his novel. A large reason for this is the fact that Michener, like six other authors between 1980 and 1994, is responsible for almost half of all the best-selling novels. Less than a year after releasing Alaska Michener had Caribbean on the top 10 bestsellers list. Due to the fact that the novel remains an entertaining piece of fiction and not a literary work, the public and the reviewers could move on to the next super-selling Michener novel and forget Alaska, as someone forgets a movie seen and enjoyed.
James Michener's Alaska remains an enjoyable piece of entertainment to be read for fun on the beach or during winter break. It was never extremely favorably received by the critics, and its fame died with the arrival of the newest best-selling Michener work. Alaska and novels like it have come to dominate the bestseller's list: quick, easy reads for pleasure, as America has evolved into a material and leisure based society.
Rev. of Alaska, by James A. Michener. Booklist v84 15 May 1988: 1553.
Rev. of Alaska, by James A. Michener. Time v132 4 Jl 1988: 70.
Cornish, Sam. Rev of Alaska by James A. Michener. The Christian Science Monitor eastern ed.
27 Jl. 1988: 18.
Hinkemeyer, Joan. Rev. of Alaska by James A. Michener. Library Journal v113 Jl. 1988: 93.
Michener, James A. Alaska Random House, New York. 1988
Roosevelt, Archie. Rev. of Alaska, by James A. Michener. The American Spectator
v22 Dec. 1989: 31.