American Culture

The Song or the Singer? Trying to Understand the Success of Nicholas Sparks

In the case of a writer like Nicholas Sparks, perhaps it’s that he gives readers a familiar story arc time after time that explains his success…

A Walk to Remember by Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Goodreads)

After reading a couple of superb pieces of literary fiction by J.F. Powers and Shelby Foote, I detoured from the 2014 reading list to take a look at the work of a writer whose success I’ve wondered about for some time.

Yep. That’s right. Literary fiction snob and crusty old professor Jim read him some Nicholas Sparks.

It happened accidentally. Lea and I were doing some book rearranging a few days ago and, as we shifted books from one bookcase to another, we came across a copy of Nicholas Sparks’s third novel, A Walk to Remember, a book Lea received from an aunt several years ago that had languished on our shelves. She moved to toss it into our donation box for the local library, but I stopped her. My words were something to the effect of “I’ve abused this guy’s work without having read it. I am going to read this novel and write about it.”

And so we proceed.

Sparks writes a form of genre fiction, something that is called, I believe, “romantic drama.” This subgenre of romance (a genre I have written about before, albeit in rather different form) always imposes obstacles on the lovers that they must overcome. In the majority (perhaps all) of Sparks’s work, as I understand it, that obstacle is one that one cannot overcome, only become reconciled to: death. In A Walk to Remember, the story of two high school kids who fall in love only to have that love tragically disrupted, one of the characters turns out to be terminally ill (another recurring motif in the author’s work, as I understand it). In most (perhaps all) of Sparks’s works, a main character is coping with a loved one who is dead or dying. This is the case in Sparks’s breakthrough book, The Notebook. And in his second novel, Message in a Bottle. And in a number of his other books.

At this point readers who know my tastes are thinking to themselves that I am being remarkably coy about a writer who clearly uses the “Motown approach” to writing fiction: one creates (or borrows) a successful formula, repeats it until audiences find it stale, then works to revise or refine the formula until it becomes successful again, and the cycle repeats itself. This is certainly true of Sparks and his approach to writing novels. It has earned him many millions of dollars, however, so it is difficult to argue that he shouldn’t do it.

What one must do then is consider each novel as a literary work. This is a fair way to assess Sparks’s work  and to hold him to account for what he achieves – or fails to.

A Walk to Remember is a “frame narrative.” There are a number of famous frame narratives in literary history – two of the most famous in Western literature are Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  In more recent times William Faulkner used the device for one of his most famous works, Light in August. Sparks’s use of the frame is somewhat inconsistent. There is a prologue to the actual story of the characters Landon Carter and Jamie Sullivan which establishes that Landon is recounting for us events that took place 40 years earlier. Then there is a brief epilogue in which we are brought back to “the present” of the novel 40 years after the main narrative. The prologue is clearly denoted and even entitled “Prologue.” The “epilogue,” however (a couple of brief  paragraphs), at the end is indicated to the reader only by some extra spacing at the end of the work’s concluding chapter. One wishes that Sparks had denoted an epilogue at the novel’s end. This would have completed the frame in a consistent way for the reader. It is also interesting to note that the prologue was a later addition to the original manuscript. Why his editor did not suggest to Sparks that he frame the novel with both a prologue and epilogue is puzzling. Why it didn’t occur to the author to balance the structure of his narrative is an even more puzzling question. This sort of careless (or worse, incompetent) technique does not speak well for either Sparks’s skills or for his editor’s perspicacity.

Then there’s the issue of voice. The narrator of the prologue is an appealing voice, reflective as one would expect of an older man (this speaker is 57), thoughtful and managed on the whole skillfully. Had the entire novel been narrated as a “memory piece” by this voice, it would still be a formulaic story of blighted love, but the viewpoint of the older memoirist would have given a gravitas to the story’s telling that it sorely needs.

Sadly, this is not what Sparks chose to do. The main narrative in the novel is told by the prologue’s narrator; in this much Sparks is consistent. But the voice is that of the 17 year old he was 40 years before. In an even more unfortunate choice, Sparks falls into what we might call “the Salinger trap.” Landon at 17 sounds a lot – a lot – like a 17 year old named Holden Caulfield. A side by side comparison illustrates this nicely. First, Salinger’s Holden:

That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.

Then, Sparks’s Landon:

With Jamie, everything was in the Lord’s plan. That was another thing. She always mentioned the Lord’s plan whenever you talked to her, no matter what the subject. The baseball game’s rained out? Must be the Lord’s plan to prevent something worse from happening. A surprise trigonometry quiz that everyone in class fails? Must be in the Lord’s plan to give us challenges. Anyway, you get the picture.

The most unfortunate thing about this is that this somewhat feckless voice reveals quite a bit about Landon Carter’s character. He’s callow, self-centered, immature. While he may be touched by Jamie Sullivan’s saintly earnestness, what operates on him, as he freely admits, is that once her hair is out of the bun she constantly wears and she puts on a little makeup, she’s a hottie.

While it’s believable that Landon would change his opinion about Jamie once he realizes her attractiveness, his falling in love with her comes across as contrived. A serious reader does not for a minute accept that Landon’s protestations of purity in his feelings for Jamie are to be believed given what he’s revealed about himself. Let’s be clear – there’s nothing wrong with Landon being a normal teen-aged boy who discovers that an ugly duckling is a swan. What doesn’t work is that Sparks would have us believe that Landon has a ground shaking emotional and spiritual transformation. Yes, perhaps he loves (or thinks he does) Jamie. But there’s nothing that convinces a reader that it’s more than puppy love.

What this lack of plausibility does in the end is make Landon’s grand gesture – marrying Jamie as she nears death – seem sadly adolescent and preposterous. Perhaps a real epilogue (since Sparks ends the narrative just after the wedding) would have allowed the author to work this out for the reader. But the two brief paragraphs that serve as an epilogue, rather than offering readers a reasonable explanation of how his star-crossed relationship has affected his life, give us only Landon’s protestation of his continuing love for Jamie and his having worn his wedding ring for lo, these 40 years. One supposes that for some readers, this is enough. For readers expecting fully developed characters acting from well explained motivations, it isn’t.

One can discern by this point that A Walk to Remember is a deeply flawed book plagued by weak plotting and careless writing. Yet a check of its Goodreads page shows that the book has nearly 400,000 ratings and over 8000 reviews. Moreover, its average rating is 4.12 out of 5. By comparison, Jane Austen’s Emma has a rating of 3.97; Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has a rating of 3.84; Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest American novel, has a rating of 3.78.

How can such a flawed, poorly written book be so popular and more highly rated than accepted classics of literature?

I think the answer might be found in considering, rather than how Sparks does what he does (the”how” is perhaps the chief concern of literary criticism), what he does (the “what” might encompass the idea of book as consumer product).

What Nicholas Sparks offers the general reader (perhaps we can agree to define “general reader” as one who reads more for pleasure/entertainment than for enlightenment/enrichment) is what the typical TV show (one might think of a successful series like NCIS) offers the “general viewer”: a reliable, predictable product. One knows tuning into an NCIS episode that there will be a crime against a military person and that the cast will solve the crime and save the day. A Nicholas Sparks book is like an NCIS episode – as this writer explains, Sparks recognizes that an audience trained by network television and corporate chain controlled eating/shopping/entertainment will want a product that fits what sociologist George Ritzer calls the McDonaldization principle: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. As I’ve noted above, the similarity of one Sparks book to another meets the tastes of readers trained to accept, even desire, efficiently produced, predictable products with calculable plots that allow them to feel in control.

Whether Sparks became the sort of writer who produces this type of work self-consciously or whether he simply reflects the culture in which he grew up, I can’t say. But his success says a great deal about our culture.

And I don’t think what it says is encouraging for the future of literature.

1 reply »

  1. Mr. Sparks became great because of the lack of readership in his audience If you haven’t read any of the classics, you have no way to compare what is good and what is mediocre.