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

Kelly Roberts
Mort de Francesca de Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta, by Alexandre Cabanel [c.1870]

Reading deeply and widely 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.

The Western Canon

Publisher: Riverhead
Subtitle: The Books and School of the Ages
Author: Harold Bloom
Price: $18.00
Format: Hardcover
Length: 560 pages
US Publication Date: 1995-09-01

From Highbrow to Nobrow

Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press
Price: $65.00
Author: Peter Swirski
Length: 224 pages
Format: Hardcover
US Publication Date: 2006-01-30

A Reader's Manifesto

Publisher: Melville House
Subtitle: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose
Author: B.R. Myers
Price: $9.95
Format: Paperback
Length: 160 pages
US Publication Date: 2002-09-01
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

Next Page

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.