Literachoor and the Culture Wars
“It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule, by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least, a decision, afforded, confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”
David Hume, 1757
The assaying of value in literary matters which used to be left exclusively to academics, influential critics, reviewers and well known writers of Mr. Lane’s and Mr. Vidal’s stature, these days occurs in forums of every sort. From monthly book groups meeting in living rooms around the country, to Amazon.com and book blogs, it’s a rough and tumble world of critical evaluation and argument.
Everyone is now entitled to their own electronic opinion and may post their thoughts on innumerable websites frequented by fervent readers of every stripe. At no time during the forty years I’ve been immersed in the literary world have I seen so much democracy at work, so much earnest public debate over aesthetic matters. While academic literary criticism continues to circle off into ever more lofty and airless regions, actual readers are enthusiastically climbing aboard their soapboxes to tout their favorite novel, or express their disappointment in a writer’s latest effort. And on many occasions these discussions and reader reviews show as much insight and passion for a writers’ body of work as many professional reviewers demonstrate. Good for them. Good for all of us.
Although value-driven arguments can be exhilarating and enlightening, ultimately, like it or not, a book succeeds or fails in the marketplace for many reasons other than merit. To try to claim a relationship, inverse or direct, between a book’s success and its worthiness is ultimately futile. One reason, of course, is that the very idea of worthiness is itself so subjective as to disintegrate into fine powder if we stare at it too hard.
Try as critics might to assign some defining empiricism to their judgments, all discussions of artistic value are fatally slippery. Is thinking more worthy than feeling, as Mr. Lane suggests? Is impenetrable complexity more worthy than accessible simplicity? Brooding tragedy more worthy than light-hearted comedy? Is lush, elegant prose more admirable than its plain transparent cousin? Is a convoluted plot better than a simple one? What about characters? Are stock characters really inferior to those so complex that it takes a thousand densely packed pages to plumb their depths? Are Lamborghinis better than Fords? We can have our preferences but there simply is no universal truth in matters such as these.
So how does the critic who slams the bestseller list as demonstrative of the lowest rank of cultural taste explain the presence on past year-end lists of such card-carrying luminaries as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Anne Porter, Mary McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, William Styron, Philip Roth, John Fowles, Pat Conroy, E.L. Doctorow, Chaim Potok, Toni Morrison, Barbara Kingsolver, John Irving, Amy Tan, and John Updike?
For me the answer to that question seems simple enough. American readers have stubbornly democratic tastes. We are looking for entertaining stories and characters who arouse their passions, and to satisfy these desires, we are willing to embrace a broad range of novels, from high culture to low. As James Surowiecki puts it in The Wisdom of Crowds, “ …chasing the expert is a mistake, and a costly one at that. We should stop hunting and ask the crowd (which, of course, includes the geniuses as well as everyone else) instead. Chances are, it knows.”
Dollars vs. Respectability
Leslie Fiedler, one of America’s celebrated literary critics, noted a classic remark by Melville on this point. “Dollars damn me…all my books are botches.” Fiedler goes on to say that “implicit in (Melville’s) melancholy cry from the heart is a belief, as strong and pertinacious as any myth by which we live, that the authentic writer is neither drawn to nor confirmed in his vocation by the hope of marketplace success, the dream of becoming rich and famous, but can only be seduced by lucre, led to betray or prostitute his talent.”
A little later in the same essay, Fiedler neatly summarizes the playing field of modern literary warfare. “For a century and a half, those writers who aspired to critical acclaim and an eternal place in libraries have therefore felt compelled to struggle not just for their livelihood but for their very existence against the authors of ‘bestsellers’ who they secretly envy and publicly despise.”
Speaking of envy, a few years back when Stephen King was honored with the National Book Foundation’s lifetime achievement award for fiction, more than one defender of the literary canon roared in protest. No less than that high-culture lion Harold Bloom called King’s award “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” Book editors around the country weighed in, almost all on the side of the high culture values it is their sworn duty to uphold. In the Washington Post, Linton Weeks posed the argument this way: “The issue: what to make of the gap in our culture between bestselling and well-written literature. The popular and the proper. The slew and the few.”
King tossed gasoline onto this bonfire in his remarks at the award ceremony. “For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future, things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction.”
Well, I hope this book will serve as some small attempt at the construction of that bridge, but I predict that passing freely back and forth between the land of good taste and the province of low brow will always expose one to such cultural snipers as Vidal, Lane and Bloom and literature professors like my own younger self.
It’s clear enough that Stephen King is not alone among popular writers in yearning for a literary prize or two to set atop their mountains of cash, or at the very least a front page NY Times Book Review as some validation of their worth. And while their highbrow cousins might never admit it publicly, I suspect their hankering is just as strong, only the prize they dream of is something closer to a hefty movie deal.
The math of publishing, like that of the music and film businesses, gives us an insight into the dependence of the American entertainment industry on the blockbuster. Roughly ten percent of the books on any publisher’s list pay for the other ninety percent which either break even or lose money. Given this calculus, Stephen King and his trash-writing colleagues deserve more than a few silver chalices. It’s books like theirs that keep the industry afloat. Stephen King and his kind are the lifeblood of publishing. Simple as that.
Much of what we take as the given state of affairs in the book world, including the very existence of the Sunday New York Times Book Review and the well-stocked superstores and Amazon.com and the lofty jobs of book reviewers and publishing giants would be shockingly altered, if they managed to survive at all, without those ten percent of the books which flood the marketplace with tidal waves of cash.
It’s more than a little odd for an industry that depends so much on its most popular producers, to treat them with such disdain. In Linton Weeks’ Washington Post piece on the Stephen King affair, he claims that great novels “…change lives. They challenge our notions and afflict our comfort at the time they were written and for untellable time to come. They cut through time and space, to the hearts and souls of readers.” In other words great books challenge us and are immortal.
To declare that anyone could possibly know a book to be immortal rather than simply of faddish interest is to claim a prescience no mortal can possess. Yes, as Robert Frost observed, on a strictly personal level we can often sense when we read a work of literature that we’ve taken “a mortal wound” and that book or poem will linger with us as long as we live.
But who can say that Peyton Place, or Gone with the Wind don’t meet both those criteria for a great many people? Did Grace Metalious’s shocking expose of the sexual underbelly and hypocrisy of a small New England town not challenge its readers? You bet it did. And it damn well placed itself squarely at center stage for at least a good long time in our cultural history. As did Gone with the Wind and a host of other popular books. Though it might fly in the faces of the high priests of literary culture, my money is on Gone With the Wind over Humboldt’s Gift in the race to last another century or two, because of its hold on so many readers’ imaginations.
When Stephen King says “this is the way it has always been,” he’s exactly right. The tension between popular literature and the high culture has existed since the very birth of the English novel in the eighteenth century.
Though Daniel Defoe (Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe) is now regarded as one of the major progenitors of the novel form, in his age he was scorned by the guardians of good taste. Jonathon Swift was one of many who regarded him with contempt: “One of those Authors (the Fellow that was pilloryed, I have forgot his Name) is indeed so grave, sententious, dogmatical a Rogue, that there is no enduring him.”
Planted in the beginnings of the novel form are the seeds of the current contentious rivalry between high culture and low. Then as now, a large part of what fueled that rivalry was simple class prejudice. Defoe was not a gentleman born, but he aspired to become a gentleman by other means. His novels appealed to a class of readers who, like Defoe, were eager to improve themselves through the accumulation of wealth and possessions and insider knowledge, in short to learn the ways and imitate the habits of their so-called betters.
His eager audience read his roguish tales not just for titillation, but because his stories pointed a hopeful way forward. Many of those early novels were Horatio Algeresque how-to portrayals of lower class heroes and heroines who prevailed over poverty and the enormous obstacles placed in their path by an elite culture indifferent to their problems and contemptuous of their dreams.
Writing in The Guardian in 1713 about the increase in the reading audience that novels were bringing about, Richard Steele sounds a little like his snobbish descendants three centuries later: “…this unsettled way of reading…which naturally seduces us into as undetermined a manner of thinking…That assemblage of words which is called a style becomes utterly annihilated… The common defense of these people is, that they have no design in reading but for pleasure, (my emphasis) which I think should rather arise from reflection and remembrance of what one had read, than from the transient satisfaction of what one does, and we should be pleased proportionately as we are profited.”
These new readers had no other purpose but to seek a pleasurable reading experience! Ye, gads, can the apocalypse be far behind?
From the outset a great many novels were raunchy and rebellious, nose-thumbing tales written and read by nose-thumbing, raunch-loving middlebrow citizens. Although to compress two centuries of literary history into a single sentence is to invite ridicule, it’s safe to say that the schism between the literary novel and the popular one began at the day of the novel’s birth and has continued to widen as academics and scholars and book critics, eager to assert their own usefulness, inserted themselves into the process.
These days a harmless tale like Huckleberry Finn that nearly every twelve year old boy or girl in previous generations read with utter fascination and complete understanding, has been hijacked by the academic establishment and rendered into a sanctioned classic that requires professional exegesis. God save us from the critics who turn simple pleasure into intellectual labor.
When millions of readers, whether they are formally educated or not, have expressed their separate opinions by buying and delighting in a particular novel, there is some larger wisdom at work. It seems self-evident that it would behoove a lover of literature to lower his guard, temporarily put away his Harold Bloom, and ask one simple question. What is it about this or that enormously popular book that inspires such widespread fervor and devotion?
So You Want to Write a Bestseller
Some might wonder if this book is intended to be a primer for writers who might wishwishing to take a swing at writing a blockbuster themselves. To that I can only say that this book is more about why we read them than how to write them. However, it’s obvious that reading and studying books in careful detail—books like the one she wishes to write—should be a central feature of any writer’s apprenticeship. And naturally, if an apprentice in any field wanted to succeed commercially, why wouldn’t they spend at least a little time studying the most commercially successful products of their age?
Of course there will always be those fussy folk who fret that if they pay even the slightest attention to John Grisham or Stephen King or William Peter Blatty their palates would be sullied, tongues befouled. Good gracious, their taste buds might never recover. To those good people I suggest that this book may not be for you.
It is not my purpose to make a case about the “worth” or “artistic value” of the novels under discussion here. Nor is this book an attempt to erase the line between high art and low. If anything I’d simply like to argue that that line is now and always has been a whole lot hazier than my highbrow friends would like to admit.
As Louis Menand, critic at large for the New Yorker, put it in a 2009 article on that metafictionist Donald Barthelme:
“What killed the distinction (between high culture and low) wasn’t defining pop art up. It was defining high art down. It was the recognition that serious art, too, is produced and consumed in a marketplace. The point of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup-can paintings was not that a soup can is like a work of art. It was that a work of art is like a soup can: they are both commodities.”
Robert Kincaid, the sensitive Marlboro Man hero of The Bridges of Madison County agrees whole-heartedly. He finds it to be the same sad slog in his profession, the photography biz.
“That’s the problem in earning a living through an art form. You’re always dealing with markets, and markets—mass markets—are designed to suit average tastes. That’s where the numbers are. That’s the reality, I guess. But, as I said, it can become pretty confining.”
It’s amusing to find a card-carrying literary critic in such firm accord with a character from a schlocky novel. Whether it’s high culture or low, whether it’s in good taste or bad, highly refined or vulgar, like it or not, it’s all for sale.