THE NOVEL By James A. Michener Random House, 64 pp., $23 WHILE many authors of highly esteemed novels wonder why their books do not sell, there is an equivalent body of best-selling writers who feel injured that their books are not regarded as serious literature. While the financially unrewarded think of Milton, Keats, Poe, or Emily Bront"e and grit their teeth, best-selling writers console themselves all the way to the bank with the cheering thought that Dickens, dismissed by some critics as pandering to a popular audience, has endured as a classic fig ure in English literature.
By now, the topic of ``popular'' vs. ``literary'' fiction has been rehashed so often, it's hard to imagine what more could be said about it. Adding his voice to the already-tired discussion is best-selling novelist James A. Michener, author of ``Hawaii,'' ``Caravans,'' ``The Source,'' ``The Covenant,'' ``Space,'' ``Caribbean,'' and more than two dozen other books covering an encyclopedic range of subject matter. Unfortunately, Michener's well-known knack for exploring topics from South African history t o the ins and outs of the space program does not seem to have been operating in the case of ``The Novel,'' which is little more than an echo chamber reverberating with every trite remark ever made about books and publishing over the last half-century or so.
The story, such as it is, is told by four narrators, each representing a special aspect of the world of books. Although one narrator is a 67-year-old Pennsylvania Dutch novelist; another, a New York Jewish woman editor; the third, a 40-year-old homosexual literary critic; and the last, a wealthy and intelligent widow who loves to read, all four voices sound very much alike.
We hear first from Lukas Yoder, ``The Writer,'' a hard-working, mild-mannered man just putting the finishing touches on his latest novel, the capstone to his so-called ``Grenzler Octet'' of novels set in his native Pennsylvania Dutch country. Yoder's first four novels lost his publisher money - they failed to earn back the modest advance he was paid. But ever since his fifth book, sales have taken off. Mr. Yoder and his loyal wife, Emma, have become very rich, while continuing to lead quiet, respectable lives in Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Yvonne Marmelle, Yoder's editor, stood by him and fought for him in the early years before his success and has now seen her belief in him vindicated. Intelligent, hard-working, self-educated, Ms. Marmelle, born Shirley Marmelstein in the Bronx, not only appreciates solid storytelling like Yoder's, but also cares about more innovative writing. Her love for a handsome, brilliant, but ultimately self-destructive writer unable to finish his Vietnam novel forms a counter-theme to her less impassioned, but no less steadfast support of Yoder.
The third person we hear from is ``The Critic,'' Karl Streibert, who, like Yoder, is of Pennsylvania Dutch descent. A ``gangly red-headed Mennonite farm boy,'' Streibert grows up to become a professor and critic of the sort that disparages ``old-fashioned'' writers like Yoder. His values are elitist and avant-garde. Although he has a gift for understanding literature and for inspiring and helping his students, his own attempt at a novel has been dismissed by some readers as lifeless and abstract.
Streibert has a hard time restraining himself from attacking Yoder's novels - even though Yoder's solid sales help maintain the publishing house that also publishes Streibert, and Yoder's generous donations help fund the college where Streibert teaches. (If all this is beginning to sound a little crude and heavy-handed, that's because it is.) Streibert's attitude toward Yoder distresses Marmelle and also upsets college patron Jane Garland, ``The Reader,'' who narrates the book's final section.
Garland's grandson Timothy is also Streibert's prize pupil and the precocious author of what is supposed to be a stunningly original experimental novel called ``Kaleidoscope.'' His grandmother is a little concerned about some of the dangerous ``elitist'' ideas he may have picked up in Streibert's class. Happily, Timothy is a sensible young man, and he has the love of a down-to-earth young woman to anchor him. Her name is Jenny, she wears T-shirts with obscene messages, and she writes what are supposed t o be rollicking good, raunchy novels.
Michener's own novel is set in its slow motion by a weak plot about the threatened takeover of Kinetic (Yoder's publisher and Marmelle's employer) by a German publishing house. Since there is no evidence that the Germans intend any harm, it's hard to see why everyone is so panicked. Sensing, perhaps, that this storyline isn't generating much suspense, Michener throws in an improbable and extremely irrelevant murder toward the end. Without sacrificing what little suspense there may be, I think I can reve al that this crime has nothing to do with the Germans - or with the rest of the novel - and that Michener does such an inadequate job of depicting the grief of the victim's loved ones that the book loses whatever slight sense of verisimilitude it may have had up until this point.
To his credit, Michener tries to be fair to both sides of the literary vs. popular fiction debate. The elitist Streibert is presented as an honest, well-intentioned man who genuinely loves literature and worries about the dangers of commercialism. The position Michener seems to be advocating in ``The Novel'' is that experimental, elitist fiction and old-fashioned storytelling are both legitimate forms for the novel. But practitioners of the former, he warns, must not lose sight of features like believab le characters and involving situations in their pursuit of abstract theoretical ideas. This is sound advice. But an old-fashioned storyteller like Michener should have remembered it himself.