What is it about the holiday spirit that moves so many authors to write Christmas stories? Even the cranky H.L. Mencken wrote a Christmas tale for The New Yorker. Entitled “Stare Decisis” when it was first published in 1947 (and reprinted 50 years later in the Wall Street Journal as “A Bum’s Christmas”), the story was turned into a book in 1948.
Is it the heart-warming nature of the season, so filled with the sound of goodwill toward men?
Or is it a desperate need to hear the clank of the cash register?
Judging from the sledful of books with a Christmas theme that I have received this year, I suspect not every Christmas tale writer’s motives are snowy white. I don’t want to sound like Scrooge, but how many “touching tales of love, loss, and the true meaning of Christmas,” the subtitle of Scott Richards’ “Zanna’s Gift: A Life in Christmases” (Forge) do we need? Wasn’t Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” enough?
I guess not. Bestselling authors, like John Grisham with “Skipping Christmas,” apparently have found that the Christmas tree isn’t the only thing green about Christmas. Mary Higgins Clark and her daughter Carol, whose Christmas tales have been bestsellers for the past two years, have gone for a trifecta with a third jointly written holiday tale, “The Christmas Thief” (Scribner). Anne Perry follows up last year’s Christmas-themed bestseller with “A Christmas Visitor” (Ballantine). Meanwhile, Fern Michael’s offers “Family Blessings” (Atria), a Christmas sequel to “No Place Like Home,” her novella about the same Pennsylvania family; Fannie Flagg heads for Alabama to tell the tale of “A Redbird Christmas” (Random House) and Thomas Kinkade and Katherine Spencer go to Cape Light in New England, the scene of all of Kinkade’s other hits, for his holiday tale, “A Christmas Promise” (Berkley).
Tor has issued its 1992 collection, “Christmas Stars: Fantastic Tales of Yuletide,” which includes stories by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson and Anne McCaffrey and other sci fi authors, while Algonquin is offering a new collection, “Christmas in the South: Holiday Stories from the South’s Best Writers,” featuring tales by from Clyde Edgerton, Gail Godwin, Jill McCorkle and Larry Brown (who, sadly, died last month at the young age of 51). And that’s just a sampler.
Although some of these Christmas tales are worthwhile reads (I always enjoy Fannie Flagg and it was eerie to read one of the last Mississippi-based stories written by Larry Brown), too many of them just add to the increasing commercialization of the holiday. As Melanie Archer in “Xmas Excess,” one of 37 essays on the commercialization of American holidays in “The Business of Holidays,” edited by Maud Lavin (The Monacelli Press), puts it, “More and more, the religious significance of Christmas is being pushed into the background as its gift-giving, mulled-wine-drinking, Christmas-tree-decorating characteristics move steadily forward.”
Also, the rush to cash in on Christmas tends to favor the outwardly sentimental (and often badly written) Christmas books over the more subtle tales of giving and getting.
One Christmas tale I found — “Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story“– does manage to avoid the “dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush and treacle,” as its author, Paul Auster, calls it. Prompted by a request for a Christmas story by The New York Times, Auster doubted himself if he could pull it off. But he has, writing a spare and quirky holiday tale that will stay with you long after the holiday. I even like the book’s evocative and decidedly unsentimental artwork by Argentine illustrator Isol.
Can you recommend any books that carry the spirit of the season without exploiting it?
I don’t want you to suspect that I’m already dipping in the eggnog. But my brain tends to go light and fluffy with all the distractions at the holidays, and brevity is the soul of wit — which is why I prefer books such as “Christmas at The New Yorker: Stories, Poems, Humor, and Art.” But my favorite books for the holidays tend to be classic children’s fare, ranging from Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” to Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My 20-year-old copy of “Grinch” has been customized: It’s held together by masking tape at the spine. A keepsake, just like Matt Groening’s “The Simpsons Xmas Book,” with Bart on the cover making the victory sign and saying, “Peace on Earth, Man!”
But enough about me. What’s more interesting is whether publishers are putting their energy in the right place by pulling out new, untested products. Because Christmas is more tradition-bound than any other holiday, wouldn’t they be better off brushing up the perennial favorites on their backlists? A lot of them do this, of course — knowing that word-of-mouth alone will produce customers for books such as Anne Geddes’ “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (Andrews McMeel) and Cleveland Amory’s “The Cat Who Came for Christmas” (Time Warner). But meanwhile, the attempt to put a fresh wreath around this book season seems to be working for some publishers: Note that “The Christmas Thief,” “A Redbird Christmas” and “Light on Snow” all have a spot on the fiction bestseller list. Go figure.
But it’s not this book or that, but the bigger issue that has me concerned. All the new glitter on the reading tree is just one indication of the real conundrum for the book business and retailing in general, which is: how much the book business places its bets on a Christmas miracle. Did you know that booksellers are among the categories that depend on the holiday season for an astounding HALF of their yearly sales? And, according to Publishers Weekly, booksellers have arrived at December 2004 after a notably weak third quarter. The pressure’s on, baby.
After Googling my way through a half-dozen retail reports, I figured out why this huge bubble at year’s end is not only scary for sellers but also buyers: When we consumers have too much to choose from, we sometimes get too paralyzed to buy.
Yes, more is not always better. But how to fight it? Ironically, even the Grinches among us are a targeted market during the holidays. How else to explain yet another category of holiday books: the anti-Christmas tomes.
This year the books that snub the traditional holiday spirit are an especially tacky and tasteless lot. Ruby Ann Boxcar serves up a trailer-park Christmas in “Move Over, Santa — Ruby’s Doin’ Christmas,” with tips on everything from decoratin’ (Pretty up your double-wide with a Seashell Santa or Beer Bottle Reindeers) to cookin’ (Nothin’ says Christmas like Spam Stuffin’). The worst of this genre (or best, if you really are Scrooge) is the (at best) irreverent and (at worst) offensive “Dysfunctional Family Christmas Songbook” by John Boswell and Lenore Skenazy, who have turned Christmas favorites into “O Holy Fight” and “Silent Wife.” The only song I found mildy funny was “We Must Have a Perfect Christmas,” an homage to Martha Stewart, who, as you know, is spending her first Christmas in the Big House. I assume she’s shopping by catalogue.
Holiday Book Glut