Mockingbird in a landslide
By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 25 2018 01:00PM
Can I get half credit?
As blog readers will recall, last week I predicted (correctly, as it turned out) that Pride and Prejudice, despite making it into the top ten finalists in PBS’s Great American Read competition, would not win.
On the other hand, I picked Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to sweep a field dominated by twentieth-century historical and fantasy epics, and by books most readers encounter in childhood. I was wrong: as PBS revealed on Tuesday night, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird led the voting from the start, winning forty-eight of the fifty states. (In retrospect: duh. What was I thinking?)
Ultimately, P&P finished fourth – coming in behind the Outlander and Harry Potter series, but edging out LOTR – a pretty good showing, all things considered.
PBS didn’t collect demographic breakdowns of its voters, but given years of research showing that women read more fiction than men do, it’s likely the pool skewed female. The makeup of the winners’ circle suggests as much: five of the top ten (Mockingbird, P&P, Gone with the Wind, Little Women and Jane Eyre) are female coming-of-age tales written by women, while in two more (the Outlander series and, arguably, Charlotte’s Web) female characters are the key protagonists. Even the fantasy epics that round out the list – LOTR, the Harry Potter series, andThe Chronicles of Narnia – feature important female characters, although male protagonists dominate.
So: girl power. And I’d still rather be reading Jane Austen. But hey – it’s all good, as long as we’re reading books.
With all of the voting power behind Jane Austen, she should have won. Is there even a To Kill a Mockingbird Society? Oh, there probably is, but not on my radar. I blame JASNA for living in the dark ages and not seeing the incredible benefit of this honor. An email and social media campaign to share the importance of motivating Austen Fans and garnering more members in the process would have done it. It would have been an incredible feather in Austen's cap to be able to say that she is America's favorite novel. Fourth is very honorable, but it does not have the impact of first. Outlander got the votes because of the new TV series. I though Harry Potter would win, but my hopes were with P&P.
I hear what you're saying, but I think P&P was always a long shot. Mockingbird is a book that virtually every American reads in school; that was adapted into a famous and beloved movie; that's written in contemporary, accessible language; that takes place in the US and deals with a perennial, and still topical, problem of American life; and that gives many of its readers a comforting feeling that we're making progress in solving that problem.
We know how fabulous Jane Austen is; she is firmly ensconced in the canon of great literature, and she has a much larger popular-media profile than many comparable classic writers. But compared to Mockingbird, she's a niche taste and demands more effort from her readers. I don't think it's surprising that she lost. PBS hasn't released the voting numbers (at least as far as I know), so it's hard to assess whether an effort by JASNA to mobilize its 5-6,000 members would have made much of a dent. The fact that Mockingbird had such early, consistent, and geographically far-flung support suggests to me that it was always likely to prevail.