Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reading Literary Classics

It is taken for granted that there is a vast gulf between the "highbrow" critics who hand out literary awards, write for the upmarket review pages, compose "century's best" lists and decide the curricula of literature courses; and the popular audience which consents to make books bestsellers.

As an adolescent of decidedly "pop" tastes I was at first annoyed by that gulf – by the immediately apparent difference between what was presented to me as capital "L" literature, and what I actually enjoyed reading. (Why, for instance, was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby "Great Literature" while Clive Cussler's Sahara was not?) It seemed at times that critics simply favored work which was old, difficult and lacking in such pleasures as rip-roaring action sequences out of sheer snobbery.

Still, I did make an attempt to better understand that distance. In the process I found not only that critics do have coherent standards, but that on the whole those standards are poorly explained to the broader public (so that views like those I just described were not at all uncommon). This is all the more problematic because what professional critics value happens to be the exact opposite of what popular audiences look for, the popularity of, for instance, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer, making the point quite clearly. These writers have often been criticized for offering flat characters and weak prose replete with triteness and clich̩, for instance. Yet, no one denies that both authors are adept at keeping their target audience turning the pages Рand it is no accident that, whatever their other faults, they accessibly tell stories with an obvious appeal to their respective readerships. To put it bluntly, the average reader Рand many an exceptional reader as well Рcares more for plot and action than for character, an easy and entertaining read rather than technical innovation or beautiful prose or clever authorial games, and sensational drama rather than Great Themes.

This gulf appears especially wide in the case of those older works which critics are likely to esteem as much for their place in literary history (their exemplifying a particular movement, their influence on later writing, etc.) as for their technical accomplishments or the aesthetic pleasures they offer, given the ways in which standards and conventions have changed over time. Our expectation that dialogue will sound "like people really talk," for instance, leaves us ill-disposed to appreciate Shakespearian Mannerism, while today's relatively ruthless editing makes the digressions of, for instance, Victor Hugo (his more than once interrupting Inspector Javert's pursuit of Jean ValJean to offer a lengthy historical essay in Les Miserables, for example) appear impossible trials. The importance of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as a work of nineteenth century American Naturalism is not something the general reader will have the background to recognize, or add much to the story's aesthetic or dramatic interest for them if they did recognize it – this being rather a matter of intellectual interest for literary scholars.

Additionally, the further back into the past one goes, the more pronounced the problem of accessing the work as well, with the plays of William Shakespeare again a particularly obvious example of the problem. A significant portion of his rather large vocabulary has simply fallen out of use ("coign," "orison," "welkin"), while a large part of the remainder has acquired quite different usages and connotations in our time (as with the "brave" in "brave new world"). The repleteness of the texts with allusions to history and literature now obscure even to the best educated (most of those likely to be confronted with The Taming of the Shrew will have heard of Socrates; some will know he had a wife; very few will actually remember her name, Xanthippe) is similarly problematic. Then there is the way in which he brings all these unfamiliar words and references together, in a rather looser, less formalized, more flexible grammar than the one we learn in school today, which Shakespeare takes full advantage of with his wordplay ("it is the unkindest tied that ever any man tied") and his versification, rearranging "normal" phrasing so as to place rhythmic and metric effects above syntactic clarity (as when he inverts verb and subject in an expression like "Goes he"), while the rhyme and meter can distract us as we try to make sense of what is actually being said ("Full fathom five thy father lies . . . Those are pearls that were his eyes").

The result is that Shakespeare's English may not be another language, but it may not be unfair to regard it as another dialect, and it does require a college student (let alone their high or middle school counterpart) to work fairly hard to get the most superficial understanding of the words on the page. And when one does work through the obstacles the labor is likely to take its toll on the prospects for emotional engagement, just as having to explain a joke is likely to take much of the humor out of it.

The pedestal on which Great Literature is placed can serve to make all of this more confusing and frustrating by giving the uninitiated the impression that such works are transcendent and timeless in a way that will instantly impress itself upon all but the crudest of oafs as The Best Thing They Have Ever Read. When they fail to transcend millennia, oceans and the profoundest cultural and linguistic differences within the human experience to do just that, as is far more often the case than we generally admit – even for an alert and able reader putting in the effort (and few are so willing or patient as that) – such expectations are routinely and gravely disappointed.

These issues of differing standards within and between periods and the challenges of accessing these works, with all that this means for the reader's experience of them, and the misconceptions aroused by the accolades, all seem obvious enough. Yet as a practical matter little account is taken of them in discussions of such works. Books are recommended on the basis of Authority – especially when assigned in school, especially below the college level, where serious attempts at explaining why such books enjoy their standing seem nearly nonexistent. The students confronted with these books go along with what they are told to the extent that they have to in order to get the grade that they want. And then the vast majority of them go on to ignore such works, even if they are among the small minority which reads at all – even as they unthinkingly repeat what they have been told about such things as Shakespeare's being the greatest writer the English-speaking world ever produced.

The surprising result is that in this era of postmodernist claims about the blurring of the line between high culture and low, the gap between the one and the other appears to yawn ever-wider, with the particular standards held by celebrators of postmodernism – which can seem almost perversely irreconcilable with the crowd-pleasing stuff – a significant factor in that gap. (Indeed, skeptics might say that the suspicions I held about those standards as a high school student were not all that far off the mark, however simplistic the thinking behind those suspicions may have been.1) Also contributing to the gap is the declining level of print literacy strongly suggested by studies like the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.2 Perhaps, as in Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, we are heading toward a post-literate age – but it certainly would not take anything quite so dramatic as that to make the literature of the past, and the present, a closed book for all but a small cultural elite, much as they were in bygone eras.

1. At a minimum the regard for literary history does privilege older works; the interest taken in literary puzzles, in experimental prose and poetry, and works requiring complex explication does privilege difficult works; and the preference for character, style and theme over plot and action does mean that Capital "L" literature is unlikely to read like a Clive Cussler novel.
2. According to this study only thirteen percent of the adult population of the U.S. was "proficient" at such basic tests of literacy and numeracy as comparing the opinions set forth in two editorials, reading a table of information about blood pressure, age and health, or calculating the price per ounce of an item in the supermarket. Coping with Shakespeare is, of course, far more demanding.

My Posts on Literature
My Posts on Spy Fiction
Reading Sinclair Lewis's Arrowsmith
Review: Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, by Mark Finn
Review: Super Sad True Love Story: A Novel, by Gary Shteyngart

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