Were the old bestsellers really better written than the new? Or were we just young and easily satisfied then?

People in the recycling business know there is high quality and low quality paper pulp. Readers of paperbacks make the same distinction. In the last few months, I had occasion to read and review two large paperbacks, one written here and one abroad, holding no literary pretensions but lavishly promising entertainment on their back covers.

Both were appalling, and I became ridiculously nostalgic for the old pot boilers, such as Airport or The Godfather. Weren’t they all better researched? Didn’t the dialogue in them read better? Didn’t they have plausible characters and hold our attention till the very end? Or were we just young and easily satisfied then? And do we now have thoroughly unreliable memories?

I dutifully scoured the lending library to investigate these questions, but even when I’m pulp crawling I have standards. I turned my back on murder, spy and disaster books. No Jeffrey Archer or Barbara Taylor Bradford stories about people who amass money and wield power. Instead, I picked up James Michener’s Hawaii, which I had never read. If nothing, I thought, I would pick up some potted history.

Michener’s saga runs well over 1,000 pages. It starts when quakes in the ocean-bed first forced the upthrust of land in the Pacific. There is cracking ice, there are volcanoes, and finally what we now know as the Hawaiian Islands take shape. Next come the flora and the fauna. Just when we think we’re going to travel through the Cretaceous and the Jurassic in real time, Michener jumps to Tahiti, whence came the intrepid sailors who colonised Hawaii.

We know these kings and warriors of Bora Bora are only a prologue to Michener’s story. But Michener adds such rich detail about the islands and their people. He gets us into their heads. A small group is exiled from Bora Bora by high priests who want to establish a new god in place of the old, and to strengthen his reign with endless human sacrifices. These exiles, men, women and slaves, sail over a tremendous distance to islands they have heard about, where they think they might make a new home.

Michener dedicates his novel to all the peoples who came to Hawaii. Accordingly, he traces each of these populations forward and backward. The missionaries who came from cold and puritan New England, the Chinese who fled drought and starvation, and the Japanese who were recruited to work on the sugar plantations all shaped the character of the island, as Michener tells it, leaving the Hawaiian dispossessed. He follows all their stories till the end of the Second World War.

For the record, Michener’s novel seemed meticulously researched. The dialogue read true, whether from Tahiti, Massachusetts, Hunan or Hiroshima. There were disasters and money makers, but the characters were plausible, and the book held my attention almost till the end. Michener certainly did not have a post-colonial perspective, so he is cheery about the white man’s impact on Hawaii, but hey, this is pulp. And fiction.


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