Airplane Books, Junk Literature, and the Western Canon: All Novels Are Lies, Some Lies Are Better

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.

Kelly Roberts is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. You can reach him at [email protected].

Madame Bovary is Dead, Long Live Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary is Dead, Long Live Madame Bovary

After trying to marry, dream, spend, sleep, and pray her way out of the crushing ordinariness of her existence, Emma Bovary finally runs out of money and decides to end it all in the most excruciating manner possible — by swallowing arsenic. If only she hadn’t clung so desperately to the expectation that her life was going to turn out like the popular novels she’d been devouring since childhood:

They were concerned only with affairs of the heart, with lovers and their lasses, with persecuted damsels for ever swooning in solitary pavilions, with outriders meeting a violent death on every journey, and horses foundering on every page, with dark forests and agonies of sentiment, with vows, sobs, tears and kisses, with moonlit gondolas, with groves and nightingales, with cavaliers who were always brave as lions, gentle as lambs, and virtuous as real men never are, always elegantly dressed and given to weeping with the copious fluency of stone fountains.

Gustav Flaubert’s masterpiece, a bestseller upon publication, Madame Bovary is a novel about the danger of novels (and fictions in general), all of which are lies, as Plato had it — and what’s worse, lies meant to ensnare. The author is well aware of the irony of his project. To escape the banality of his real life of flesh and blood, Flaubert wrote a novel about a woman who reads novels to escape the banality of her real life, a novel that was written for and is read by an audience seeking (consciously or not) a temporary escape from real life. Although there’s a larger point about the ultimate futility of art, Flaubert was obsessed with creating an exactingly realistic portrait of the middle class (for whom novels had always been written), and is very clear about the effect on Emma of the three-penny fare that seeps into her character from the beginning: If it’s not exactly the root of her shallow, dull, and overly susceptible behavior, it’s the water that makes it grow.

I’m not suggesting that novels of whatever kind (or video games, or TV, or music) can drive a person to idiocy or suicide, or that escapism is inherently bad for the character — I don’t believe either. Whether you’re reading Gustav Flaubert or Nora Roberts, you’re taking a break from day-to-day obligations and personal woes, and presumably you’re enjoying yourself doing it, since free time is not something most of us devote to making ourselves miserable. Some get that enjoyment from what they consider to be easy or fun reads (phrases that arise, interestingly, with the concept of literary fiction); others find it in what they consider to be challenging texts; others enjoy both extremes and everything in between. As Peter Swirski sums up, “Our continued interest in junk fictions… derives from the same source as does our interest in the canon: exercising our faculties for processing narratives, making emotive discriminations, and forming moral judgments.” Avid readers, whatever their preferred genre(s), find a solace and a security, an emotional and intellectual payoff, in the always imaginative act of reading itself.

Photo by Sarolta Gyoker, (from martinamisweb.com)

Card is right that readers expect different themes, characters, and paces from different genres, and that they’re able to make keen judgments on the quality of the writing involved, but do the principles of good storytelling and compelling characterization really change from one genre to the next? I don’t think so. And just because all literature is equally valuable to its discerning readers, that doesn’t mean that all novels are equal, as writers and readers themselves will attest. Robert Heinlein aficionados are much more likely to give The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress higher marks than I Will Fear No Evil, just as William Thackeray fans are likelier to rate Vanity Fair higher than Pendennis. And I’d bet that fans of both authors — I’m one of them — would come to the very same conclusions.

So, while all novels are lies, some lies are better told than others, and some might even be so well told as to “enrich mind or spirit or personality,” bringing to light truths previously obscured. Emma Bovary’s compulsive retreats into fantasyland and the tragic fate that results is exaggerated to bring Flaubert’s denouncement of the bourgeoisie into focus. He lied to get closer to the truth, much like, say, Mary Shelley lied when she created a monster who resurrected a man who became a monster, or like Stephen King lied when he resurrected a devastated father’s dead son, with hellish consequences. King and Shelley work the same ground, so to speak, but there is no universe in which Pet Sematary is a better novel than Frankenstein, as I’ll argue a little later. On the other hand, isn’t it possible that 50 years from now, King’s sci-fi-western-horror Dark Tower series will be taken more seriously — by discriminating readers and academics alike — than Cormac McCarthy’s Western-gothic Border Trilogy?

Tearing the Wizard Away from the Curtain

Educational poster featuring

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are

Tearing the Wizard Away from the Curtain

“Give me a time-tested masterpiece or what critics patronizingly call a fun read, Sister Carrie or just plain Carrie. Give me anything, in fact, as long as it isn’t the latest must-read novel, complete with a prize jury’s seal of approval on the front and a clutch of precious raves on the back.” So begins B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, appropriately subtitled An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose. In less than 100 pages, Myers argues, citing copious examples from the texts themselves, “that some of the most acclaimed contemporary prose is the product of mediocre writers availing themselves of trendy stylistic gimmicks.” The original title of the book (its course to publication in current form has a storied history) was Gorgons in the Pool, referring to this passage from Cormac McCarthy’s National Book Award-winning All the Pretty Horses:

[They] walked off in separate directions through the chaparral to stand spraddle-legged clutching their knees and vomiting. The browsing horses jerked their heads up. It was no sound they’d ever heard before. In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste. Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being. A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.

To which Myers responds, in part:

I can just go along with the idea that horses might mistake human retching for the call of wild animals. But “wild animals” isn’t epic enough; McCarthy must blow smoke about “some rude provisional species,” as if your average quadruped had table manners and a pension plan… And what is a gorgon doing in a pool? Or is it peering into it? And why an autumn pool? I doubt if even McCarthy can explain any of this; he just likes the way it sounds.

It’s what he sees as this willing tendency of “literary” writers—Annie Proulx, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and David Guterson get the same treatment—to fetishize sounds over sense (sometimes to the exclusion of the latter altogether) that bothers Myers, who also takes the critical and literary award establishments to task for their enabling of the disingenuous and condescending practice: “This is what the cultural elite wants us to believe: if our writers make no sense, or bore us to tears, that can only mean that we aren’t worthy of them.” He also condemns the practice of giving writers points up front simply because they have lofty influences and lofty ambitions, when they should be judged like every other writer — based solely on “whether they hit the mark.” Having read a critical mass of the writers Myers picks apart, as well as quite a few he mentions in passing, I’m convinced that he’s right about pretty much everything.

2008 UK Genre Fiction Sales (ft.com)

The Manifesto doesn’t delve into the publishing industry’s involvement in the process, but naturally that’s where it all starts. Over 60 years ago, George Orwell contrasted the “good bad book” (G.K. Chesterton’s phrase) and “escape literature” with “more serious productions” (more than 600 years earlier, Dante sent a pair of lovers to his literary hell for being seduced by a romance), but the number and variety of novels published back then was nothing compared to the trail of dead trees we leave behind now. Swirski estimates that 14,000 books total were published in Great Britain annually in 1955 (Orwell estimated 15,000 before World War II), and in 1995 that number hit 90,000. In 2001, according to Wikipedia, the number stood at 119,001. Now, I’m no math whiz, and I don’t know what percentage of all those totals were novels, but I do know that literary fiction gets a pittance of today’s total take. All this is to say that elevating it on principle from the common lot of mass-market paperbacks — carving it into a unique genre with its specific (and superior) conventions and idioms, touting its next-great-thingness, its prize jury’s seal and (elite) critical praise — is how that pittance is made. I’m not saying the next Flaubert won’t emerge from the ranks of what’s marketed today as serious fiction, only that publishers of serious fiction are just as guilty of spinning their products as publishers of romance fiction.

One of the criticisms leveled at Myers is that he lets readers off too easily, that he isn’t asking them to challenge themselves, but of course that’s not the case at all. He may prefer Larry McMurtry to Cormac McCarthy (if Lonesome Dove doesn’t outlast Blood Meridian, I’ll eat my head), but he is very clear throughout the Manifesto that his ultimate loyalty lies with the authors and titles traced on the spines of the Penguin Classics: “The truth is that a lot of us are perfectly happy with literature written before we were born — and why shouldn’t we be? The notion that contemporary fiction possesses greater relevance for us because it talks of the Internet or supermodels or familiar brand names is ridiculous.” Right again. Great novels are great not because they’re new or because they win awards that have always been poisoned to some degree by politics and big business, but because they speak of all things human to people from every generation, and because they have endured.

When Curricula Collide

When Curricula Collide

The year is 1933, and astronomers have made a terrifying, apocalyptic discovery. Two planets, after breaking loose from a star millions of years ago and far, far away, are now hurtling towards our solar system. One of the planets, the smaller one, is going to pass by our world and take up orbit around the sun. But the big one… is going to smash the Earth into atoms! This is the set up of When Worlds Collide, an unabashedly sensational, speculative sci-fi novel that has been ripped off so many times that you already know what happens next. A brilliant American scientist, his daughter, and the two manly men vying for her affections take charge of a super-secret operation to build a rocket (called the Ark) that will transport a few hundred human beings, animals collected two by two, and all the necessities of civilization to the smaller of the rogue planets, which, naturally, supports life as we know it. The poet-diarist of the crew ruminates on the precious cargo:

What our ships contain might well be samples of our civilization collected wholesale by some curious visitors from another world and taken home in order that their weird fellows might look upon the wisdom, the genius, the entertainment and the interests of men.

Books — of course I was dying to know what made the cut — are mentioned only in passing. We find out that “an enormous and complete library” is stashed on board as insulating material, stuffed between layers of asbestos—“a first edition of Shelley” is the only volume (or volumes) singled out by name. Suppose that we were in the same situation today, and suppose that we didn’t have our digital technology. What books would we bring to the New World to nourish our transplanted civilization? Obviously any and all tomes on engineering, agriculture, medicine, etc. would take precedence, with fictions coming in dead last. And suppose that drama and poetry has been taken care of, leaving only the novel. Think of it as an extension of the Desert Island Classics thought experiment: Instead of deciding which 100 or 200 novels you would choose for your own sake, you have to decide which 100 or 200 you would choose for everyone’s sake. As much as I love When Worlds Collide, it would not be on that rocket — nor, I hope, would anything written by Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, J.K. Rowling, or Cormac McCarthy. Madame Bovary and Frankenstein, on the other hand…

Our Western curricula today, despite the abysmal reality that many will never have access to it, should be designed with that Ark in mind. Has the work endured? Would it endure if it weren’t required reading? Among the hundreds or thousands of outstanding candidates, does it best represent the wisdom, the genius, the entertainment, and the interests of our shared culture — “the best which has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold famously defined it? If yes, then put it on the list. There are, of course, vastly different ideas about what exactly the best is, especially now that moneyed white males are no longer the exclusive beneficiaries and administrators of formal education.

Having said that, and granting that determinations of this nature must be the result of intelligent deliberation, isn’t it posturing on some level to deny that the 400-year-old Don Quixote, considered by many to be the first novel, is also one of the best, and that it has earned its irrevocable spot in the stars? Or that Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels, nasty colonialist warts and all, are representative classics and touchstones of Western culture? Whether they like it or not (I did not), the kids in the local secondary school need to be taught how to read Great Expectations so that they have the means to comprehend irony and satire and motif and allusion, and the ability to negotiate the languages and manners and prejudices of the past, all of which prepares them to read not just one kind but every kind of literature. The truth is that, no matter how charming and irrepressible Harry Potter is, it simply doesn’t do or require the same level of work.

Despite his bursts of insufferable rhetoric, Harold Bloom is right about what’s most important: We should be challenging ourselves as readers, even when we’re no longer required to do so, especially when we’re no longer required to do so. In The Western Canon, he repeatedly insists that “reading deeply in the Canon… will not make one a better or a worse person, a more useful or more harmful citizen,” but in the same breath he insists that reading Shakespeare and company will “augment one’s own growing inner self,” will “enrich mind or spirit or personality.” Well, how exactly does the enrichment and augmentation of our inner selves not make us better people? Reading deeply and widely — from Stephen King to Walter Mosley to Jane Austen to James Joyce — at the very least makes us less dull and more patient, and it happens to be the only way to make informed, qualitative judgments within and across genres.

We will never have time to read everything we want to read — Bloom is poignantly elegiac about that fact — but in today’s general rush to deliver and receive as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, while dismissing the notion that anything thoughtful or meaningful has to be done with it, and with all this wretched talk of post-literate societies in the face of lingering illiteracy, we sure as hell need to try.

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