The Western Canon
The Books and School of the Ages
From Highbrow to Nobrow
(McGill-Queen's University Press)
A Reader's Manifesto
An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose
Readers interested in this subject may also enjoy the PopMatters book, Solitary Vice: Against Reading by Mikita Brottman.
Reading novels wasn’t always such serious business, but today the very act of sliding a title off the shelves is supposed to say something about which side you pull for in the ongoing tug-of-war over the future of literature and, by implication, culture itself.
This is a heavy cross to hang on a literary form that, until at least the first quarter of the 20th century, was derided by classically educated males (i.e. the ruling class) as an intellectually barren and morally insidious pursuit fit only for servants and women. Only in the last 50 years do we come across the systematic, qualitative distinction between popular or genre fiction on the one hand, and literary fiction on the other, much less the idea that only the latter species (with kinship extended retroactively to worthy specimens of the past) can rival or even transcend the literary par excellence once claimed exclusively by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
So what’s all the fuss about? Let me illustrate by way of some recent non-fiction. In 2003, the foundation that bestows the prestigious National Book Award gave the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to Stephen King for, according to the official announcement, crafting “stylish, mind-bending page-turners that contain profound moral truths - some beautiful, some harrowing - about our inner lives.” Yale professor and prolific literary critic Harold Bloom described the decision in an op-ed as “extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” He goes on to call King “an immensely inadequate writer,” dismissing his novels as “penny dreadfuls” that “do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat.” This was nothing new for Bloom, who had previously panned J.K. Rowling’s legendarily successful Harry Potter series (of which King is a fan), concluding that it would not lead younger readers to “more difficult pleasures.” “Why read,” he asked, “if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?”
Orson Scott Card, a writer best known for the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game and its sequels, rushed to King’s defense on his (Card’s) website. “King’s work most definitely is literature,” he argued, “because it was written to be published and is read with admiration.” What the critics were upset about, in his opinion, was that King’s work is not “literature preferred by the academic-literary elite,” who denounce any fiction “that cannot be properly understood unless you have your secret English Department Decoder Ring.” He added that readers of genre fiction are extremely discerning when it comes to a writer’s abilities, and that the literary elite, “instead of reading enough in any of the genres to understand the principles that divide good from bad storytelling in each of them… simply despise them all. This way they only have to learn to understand one very narrow kind of literature and can pretend the others don’t exist.”
There’s no question that popular culture is beginning to be taken seriously, and not only by its buyers and sellers. The argument that all fiction is equally meaningful because it expresses and reflects the values of the people who read it has been fortified and reinforced for decades by the cultural studies department (or equivalent) at a university near you—it is the foundation, recently, of Peter’s Swirski’s 2006 defense of popular and “unpigeonholeable” fiction, From Lowbrow to Nobrow. The once unassailable concept of high culture, on the other hand, with its necessarily undemocratic connotations, is increasingly qualified (“high” culture or “high culture,” so-called high culture) by many contemporary academics and media, if not avoided altogether.
Drama and combustibility abound at both extremes. Bloom laments the passing of the Western Canon and the subsequent spiritual impoverishment of humankind, but as far as I know, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Milton (along with many other heavyweights) are still required reading for English majors, many of whom actually enjoy what they read. I’ve also heard tell that people who never received a “higher” education have been known to enjoy “the classics.” Meanwhile, just down the hall from Bloom or one of his counterparts, another professor is railing against the hegemony of dead, white, European males and demanding a more diverse curriculum, or a curriculum that accounts for popular literature in all its forms, but as far as I know, degrees in Chicana/Chicano Studies, Women’s Studies, the aforementioned Cultural Studies (or even Popular Culture Studies), and many more are now pretty standard and available for the taking. I’ve also heard that there are entire websites, magazines, and various media institutions devoted to the advancement and analysis of various popular and alternative cultures.
What I’m trying to get at is that the arguments on both sides would be literally academic if not for this persisting question of curricular dominance, since those of us who aren’t paying to learn or being paid to teach read what we want to read, be it Crime and Punishment or Presumed Innocent. But that’s sort of the point. What we’re exposed to as students at all ages guides and molds (but never wholly determines) our reading habits and preferences going forward—and that’s why the stakes are so high. If Great Expectations and To Kill a Mockingbird are yanked from the local secondary school’s reading list and replaced with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Secret Life of Bees, what are the implications, if any, to the students involved? I’ll touch on that swampy question in a bit, but first I want to address this idea that some novels are bad for us, and that some are prima facie more important and/or more valuable than others.