Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)
After 121 publishers had rejected the manuscript of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one editor decided to accept it, primarily as an act of conscience; the book had forced him to clarify the reason that he was in the publishing business. He offered Pirsig a standard three-thousand-dollar advance, noting that it was probably the last payment the author would receive, because such books never made money. To the surprise of many, the book soared to the top of the best-seller lists. Pirsig was besieged with requests for interviews and offers for film rights and foreign publication. What made this unusual book so popular?
In an afterword written ten years after the book’s initial publication, Pirsig explores the reasons for his book’s astonishing popularity. He fits Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance into the category of “culture-bearing books,” books which serve to move the culture forward. Such an effect can never be planned; a book will almost accidentally coincide with a culture’s restless need to change, to challenge old assumptions, and to find new solutions. At the time of this book’s publication, the tumultuous 1960’s had just concluded. Those who had participated in radical group protests against war, racism, and corporate profit at the expense of humanist values now found themselves faced with individual choices: Should they simply enter the work force and pursue material success as their fathers did, or was there another path they could take? Pirsig writes:This book offers another, more serious alternative to material success. It’s not so much an alternative as an expansion of the meaning of “success” to something larger than just getting a good job and staying out of trouble. And also something larger than mere freedom. It gives a positive goal to work toward that does not confine. That is the main reason for the book’s success, I think. The whole culture happened to be looking for exactly what this book has to offer.