Robert James Waller has died.
Robert James who?
Think back. Way back. 1992. Best-selling novel that all the critics hated.
One more hint, please.
Meryl Streep starred in the mov—
The Bridges of Madison County! Robert James Waller wrote the book.
That’s the guy. He just died in Texas at 77.
OK, but why are you telling writers about the passing of a shallow, literary flash-in-the-pan who got lucky?
- I think he’s been badly dealt with by the literati, and
- I wrote his obituary in 1998.
Actually, I spoke it, on Vermont Public Radio. And at the time, it was more a commentary on lit-envy than an extremely early obit. At any rate, here’s what I said nearly 20 years ago …
Not too long ago I broke a strong literary taboo. On this very station, I defended Barnes & Noble. Delicate sensibilities were shocked — shocked!
Today I’m gonna do something even worse. I’m going to praise the book most reviled by authors, reviewers, satirists and literary lights. It’s the most hated book of the decade, maybe of the last five decades. And, of course, the most widely read.
I refer to … have you already guessed what I refer to? That’s right — The Bridges of Madison County.
The Bridges of Madison County. For a full two years after it was published, you couldn’t go to a writer’s conference without hearing it denounced. You couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing it parodied. You could barely visit a bookstore without some clerk in rimless glasses raising his aquiline nose in disdain. I have never seen a book so universally reviled.
I wouldn’t want this to get around, but I liked it. A lot. There, I’ve said it: I liked The Bridges of Madison County a lot. I wish I’d written it, and not just for the fame and glory. It’s a tender love story, and it deals with the most thrilling aspect of attraction, love at first sizzle. What takes Bridges beyond the frying pan is that the heroine is caught in a big-stakes conflict: Does she leave her family for the man she loves, or does she stick it out? Is she true to her heart or to her husband and kids? Tough question. It makes for a very good book.
And a wildly popular one. This little 171-page novel has been translated into 25 languages and sold over 50 million copies worldwide. It sat on the New York Times Best Seller List for three years. In 1995, it topped Gone with the Wind as the best-selling fiction book of all time. Bridges was made into a Major Motion Picture, spawned a sudden influx of tourists to mountainless, beachless Iowa and propelled author Robert James Waller from an obscure business school professor to the most talked about — as well as most vilified writer in North America.
As 50 million book buyers know, The Bridges of Madison County is about a Midwestern farm wife who has a torrid affair with a stranger, a National Geographic photographer, who’s in the neighborhood to shoot, well, the bridges of Madison County.
It’s not exactly a groundbreaking theme. And the book is admirably short. So why the high level of hatred?
I’m glad you asked. I think there are three reasons. The most obvious is its popularity. Any work so beloved by the (sniff) masses must be junk. Chalk this up to literary snobbishness.
Second is this: It ain’t easy for an author who’s been toiling for years on the Great American Novel to discover that some Midwestern B-school teacher already wrote it. In a couple of weeks. Chalk this up to literary envy.
But the third reason for the level of vituperation aimed at Bridges is less obvious. This is a book that has a woman falling for a man. Admiring his camera skills. Knocked out by his good looks. Noticing that he washes before dinner and lowers the toilet seat. Swept away by his quietly confident masculinity.
And these ideas were written by a man! It’s the clearest case of shallow, vain narcissism the literary critics ever saw. Chalk this up to sexual envy. Bad enough, he wrote a book in weeks that’s beloved by millions. Bad enough it’s made into a movie with Meryl Streep. But to write about a male character who sounds suspiciously like the author— well, that’s the straw that broke the bridge!
RIP, Robert James. Rest in Pride.
Jules Older Jules@JulesOlder.com