Fiction as popular pastime. Danielle Steel's newest easy-reader

Wanderlust, by Danielle Steel. New York: Dell, 350 pp. $4.95. THE promise of widespread literacy has never been without the suspicion of its misuse. The 19th century worried acutely that reading would promote revolution. But the continuing chronic concern about literacy is that popular reading erodes literary culture while fostering moral laxity among the masses.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge blasted consumers of the last century's equivalent of best sellers: ``I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading.''

``Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming,'' he continued, the equivalent of ``swinging or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking; (and) t^ete-`a-t^ete quarrels after dinner between husband and wife....''

Our century inherited Coleridge's irritation about what he called ``reading made easy.'' Contemporary intellectuals revile best sellers as brain candy, manufactured, rather than written, only to make a fast buck. People who don't read them, often contemptuously think best sellers satisfy a shallow taste for adventure, for the erotic, or for trivialized history. That is occasionally true, but seldom sufficient to explain the appeal of an author like Danielle Steel. ``Wanderlust'' is in no sense of the phrase ``a good read,'' yet it has flown close to the top of the paperback best seller list in just a few weeks.

Audrey Driscoll, Steel's heroine, is a dutiful-beautiful, if long-in-the-tooth, San Francisco redhead, who passes the time by caring for her curmudgeonly grandfather and spoiled-rotten younger sister in a servant-glutted mansion the size of an ocean liner. The poor little rich girl inherited her father's penchant for photography and travel, though she has done precious little of either. When she is finally able to satisfy her wanderlust, she travels to Europe and Asia, where she is befriended by other dutiful-beautiful rich people, including the ``incredibly handsome'' man she will eventually marry.

The novel begins with the Depression and ends during the London Blitz, giving Audrey more than her share of generational experiences. She encounters an assortment of Nazis, including Rommel, a few Chinese bandits, Picasso, and Mrs. Sun Yat-sen. Hip to the advantages of the Leica camera before sluggards like Margaret Bourke-White, Audrey takes lots of pictures, which the dutiful-beautiful people and Picasso praise. She's even able to find roll film in wartime China.

A synopsis makes ``Wanderlust'' sound like a real page-turner, yet the novel succeeds precisely because there are no surprises. Plot turns are cushioned and travel is made easier than on a prepaid tour. The extramarital sex is predictably explicit and lamely excused as really all right because, in the end, the true lovers marry. ``America Reads Danielle Steel'' this summer, not for the fantasy or the adventure, but for its uniquely affable lackluster language.

The pleasure of the text of ``Wanderlust'' is the pleasure of your mom's tapioca pudding when you stayed home from school. Steel's best sellers don't teach like those of James Michener or Arthur Haley. There are times when we don't want to hear anything new, so Danielle Steel tells us that Cairo is sandy and that Venice is wet. Her flat language makes the foreign familiar. Sure she's trite, but is she dangerous?

Those weaned on the fertile description of Honor'e de Balzac, the shrewd psychological observation of Henry James, or the verbal pyrotechnics of Vladimir Nabokov - on the canon of what is good and good for us in literature - have a hard time understanding an author whose favorite modifier is ``incredible.'' Until recently, literary culture impugned dullness and repetition. If books don't refine our tastes or sharpen our insights, they must be bad for us. There has been no neutral position.

Now some serious critics consider monotony and want of originality to be seminal symptoms of authentic late 20th-century art. Does that mean that we will soon see graduate seminars devoted to Danielle Steel?

One reason to hope so is that such an enterprise might start to expose the persistently misleading stereotypes about popular books. Best sellers do not, as Coleridge asserted, make readers lazy, vacuous daydreamers. Readers of canonic literature have no historical claim to wisdom. Popular novels and serious prose fiction do not influence each other, nor do they compete for the same audiences. Conversely, they have great autonomy from each other and significant autonomy from market forces. If popular books did not exist, their readers would not flock prodigally back to high art.

Referring to mass reading habits, Coleridge suggested that ``whatever flatters the mind in its ignorance of its ignorance, tends to aggravate that ignorance, and ... does ... more harm than good.'' He could just as easily be writing about those who cultivate a fashionable pessimism toward the pleasures of popular books.

Mary Warner Marien teaches at Syracuse University

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