17 May 2005


Over at The Reading Experience, Dan Green says,
In fact, I do believe there's a connection between the popularity of such things as reality television and the relative non-popularity of literary fiction: "most people" have no interest, have never had any interest, in the sorts of things serious art and literature have to offer. For whatever reason, "most people" are incapable of paying attention to the formal and stylistic qualities that most artists seek to embody in their work, the qualities that make art art. In the case of literature, "most people" pay no attention to the "writin'" (as MB puts it) because "most people" are barely capable of using the language well enough just to get by in their own daily lives, never mind being able to appreciate the skill with which some poets and novelists can make the language say things it's never said before.

These are not "elitist" observations. They are simply facts. It is also a fact that literature has never been something of interest to "most people."
I couldn't help but be reminded of e.e. cummings' introduction to New Poems:
The poems to come are for you and for me and are not for mostpeople--it's no use trying to pretend that mostpeople and ourselves are alike. Mostpeople have less in common with ourselves than the squarerootofminusone. You and I are human beings;mostpeople are snobs. [...]

you and I are not snobs. We can never be born enough. We are human beings;for whom birth is a supremely welcome mystery,the mystery of growing:which happens only and whenever we are faithful to ourselves. You and I wear the dangerous looseness of doom and find it becoming. Life,for eternal us,is now and now is much too busy being a little more than everything to seem anything,catastrophic included.

Life,for mostpeople,simply isn't. Take the socalled standardofliving. What do mostpeople mean by "living"? They don't mean living. They mean the latest and closest plural approximation to singular prenatal passivity which science,in its finite but unbounded wisdom,has succeeded in selling their wives. If science could fail,a mountain's a mammal. Mostpeople's wives could spot a genuine delusion of embryonic omnipotence immediately and will accept no substitutes.
Obviously, literacy/education barriers do exist, but I tend to think that a lack of interest in art indicates a narrowness of mind akin to arrogance. (A word like "artsy" is rarely a compliment.) No, I don't think Dan's comments are "elitist," but I do tend to think that "mostpeople" have a capacity for growth that they often deny themselves. The illusion of "security" can have a lot to do with it. Mostpeople don't like being made to feel or think about things they aren't comfortable with. Anything foreign or unfamiliar to their experience is usually treated with suspicion. It is this rejection of anything "different" that reeks of elitism, which is why Flannery O'Connor said,
Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it. We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards.


crocodylia said...

A wonderful post, which will inspire some pondering on my part...

molrendiel said...

Love this post! It makes Dumas immediately spring to mind--in his day, he was the king of serial pulp, read by the masses, and today, we have to kick kids in high school to get them to read about the marvelous Three Musketeers. And Dumas, this "popular" master, is now also considered "literature." (Though perhaps not by everyone).

Makes me wonder if all of it is more relative than we're giving it credit for. God forbid that "Survivor" be "art" in 50 years...or that "The Da Vinci Code" be "literature"...but hey, ya never know...

amcorrea said...

Mol--I think you may have missed my point. Dumas might have been popular with "the masses," but was he ever denigrated as actual literature? Somehow, I don't think so. Many writers of that era (Dickens, etc.) had their novels published as serials.

"Survivor," et al may be seen as campy artifacts of the (pseudo)culture 50+ years from now, but there is no way they will be perceived as "art." And regarding best-sellers--have you ever heard of Rhoda Broughton's Red as a Rose is She or James Payn's Fallen Fortunes? Didn't think so.

I guess my point here is that works that "stand the test of time" don't randomly survive for no good reason. Popular appeal does not an instant classic make.