Thoughts on "elitism," "literature," and ethical/social engagement
August 24, 2012 § 5 Comments
Although the above paragraph is somewhat dismissive of certain elements found in that discussion thread, it should be noted that there is something substantive to many of their complaints. I suggested there late last night that perhaps it would be best to try to have a discussion on the underlying issues without resorting to the use of terms such as “elitism,” “elitist,” or “literary snobs” because of the limiting nature of those terms. There is something that could be said about the impact of literature on people without unnecessarily impugning the discerning qualities of certain groups of readers. When one uses willy-nilly terms like “elitist,” s/he most likely is not saying (well, some might, but not in the aggregate) “Larry, your literary value system has created an estrangement between your perceptions of literary quality and import and my own interpretative schema that accounts for other elements.” No, “elitist” is rarely seen as an individual effort but instead as being a mere branch of competing model for determining literary worth.
The majority of the readers who comment within threads such as the one linked to above are less interested in form in comparison to structure. For many of these readers, a “good story” has to “be something,” with a linear plot providing a strong narrative backbone around which the skeleton (subplots, scenes) and muscles (characterizations) and external/internal organs (themes, prose) can be attached to create something that appeals to them. For these readers, an emphasis on form, or how the prose is used to create a moment, a reflection of something ephemeral, is as alien to them as a jellyfish. These prose fictions do not match well with their expectations and thus it is easy to reject them out of hand.
Yet even this created hypothetical dichotomy does not go to the heart of the issue. Few readers are literary ideologues, a point that some did raise within the context of that thread. People can admire the form of Proust’s writing while still enjoying the plot of a thriller or Stephen King novel. For those readers, what is important is not necessarily whether or not there is a “form” or “structure,” but whether or not there is some sort of “engagement” that is taking place within (and outside) the writing that does not leave an “empty,” “hollow” feeling.
Aleksandar Hemon, in his introduction to the just-published Dalkey Archive translation of 20th century Serbian writer Danilo Kiš, devotes part of his essay to covering the issue of ethical/social engagement in writing and how it relates to Kiš’s literary concerns:
Let me start with a complaint: What is absent from much of contemporary fiction, which in the USA is conceived of as middle-to-highbrow entertainment, is the ethical import of literature. As it is, the word fiction largely stands for (deliberately) made-up narratives aiming to entertain the culturally enlightened reader. Literature, on the other hand, is nothing if not continuous ethical and aesthetical engagement with human experience and history; one reads/writes literature in order to confront the hard questions of human existence; entertainment might not be applicable. While the word fiction applies to The DaVinci Code and Remembrance of Things Past, only one of those is literature; the other one is trash. (“Do not argue that all values are relative: There is a hierarchy of values,” Kiš wrote in his “Advice to a Young Writer.”) American populism of the knee-jerk variety requires cringing at the thought of literature (and, for that matter, at any thought that is not confirming what is already agreed to be true), because it is – what is the word flung about by the humble sons of the one percent? – elitist. (Kiš’s advice: “Do not write for an elite that does not exist: you are the elite.”) But literature is inherently democratic, as it is the way for everyone and anyone who can read to enter the difficult and vast field of everything that comes under humanity. “Do not write for ‘the average reader,'” Kiš wrote to the Young Writer, “all readers are average.” (vii-viii, Psalm 44)
Here the argument shifts away from the real and imagined “elitist” groups/institutions and toward a delineation that perhaps bears real consideration. Very few readers are going to argue that Fifty Shades of Grey contains any real merit outside of its “safe” eroticism; one almost certainly will not be highlighting passages from an excerpt of it in a hypothetical Norton Anthology of World Literature in 2050. Some fictions are just superior to others, whether it be through the form or the structure employed. The mostly-false argument of what is “elitist” (myself, yourself, that homeless person under the bridge who keeps a copy of Candide in a tattered coat pocket) pales in comparison of the more difficult question of what constitutes “ethical emport.”
Ethics discussions can make many acutely uncomfortable, as many feel they are having to make a strong stance when they want a bit of wiggle room. Sure, it is easy to say that an Adolf Hitler or a Joseph Stalin were “monsters”; we dehumanize them and make them “other” by labeling them as such; out of sight and out of mind as fellow human beings. It is a different matter (and we can see this in debates such as the one surrounding the execrable Save the Pearls) when the person is alive and whose engagements with certain social affairs may be too close to how you or I may perceive them. Witness all of the prevarications and hemming hawing from the writer, the editors of Weird Tales magazine, and commentators on various blogs and message boards that seem to twist themselves into odd shapes in order to avoid castigating that work as something ethically/socially reprehensible.
Yet these same sort of semantic gymnastics occurs within “respectable” works, whether they be “genre fiction” or “literary fiction.” There, the writers, whether they be “elitists” or “average,” according to Hemon, too often fail to engage the crises of our times:
Bullied by the cryptofascist, consumerist resistance to public thought – or thinking in public – American literature tends to avoid uncomfortable weight: the weight of tradition; the weight of civic and historical responsibility; the weight of language, which needs to be ceaselessly reinvented and reevaluated. The ethical fiascoes of the Bush era in perpetuity unfettered, the catastrophic wars and the insidious fantasies that prepared them and maintain them, the widespread collapse of the notion of a socially-responsible government and the related (reality-based) democracy, the rabid xenophobia indistinguishable from the socially-acceptable practices of American Patriotism, the mind-crushing lies reproducing the belief that capitalism is the best thing ever – all have been pretty much ignored in our contemporary fiction. Not many American authors know how to confront the history we’re living in; few attempt to, even fewer dare to claim an ethically/aesthetically-defined system of thought that would demand from the reader to engage with the difficulties of the early twenty-first century.
Much of American literature has been paralyzed, producing nary a novel that would fundamentally – ethically, aesthetically – question and take apart the Matrix-like reality of what is commonly referred to as America. (viii-ix)
What I suspect that some (not all, but some) of the critics of “literary fiction” are decrying is not necessarily the form nor content, but rather that sense that there is no real struggle to corral these ugly, confusing elements into a form or structure that allows us to engage them and perhaps defeat them. Too often writers (and editors) shy away from these challenges. After all, it is much easier to go with the flow and write something that is small (say the life of a middle-aged, middle class person suffering a small-scale crisis of identity) than something that is large and possibly threatening. The same goes for criticism. Consider again the Victoria Foyt/Save the Pearls debacle. Foyt’s husband, Hollywood director Henry Jaglom, posted a defense of his wife’s work that doubtless will leave a few wavering in their criticism:
The backsliding editor and ignorant publisher of Wierd Tales Magazine
should be ashamed of themselves, the one for condemning a book he
admits to not even having read, the other – more disturbingly – who read
it and loved it and wrote a truly sensational rave review about it, now
taking all that back in the face of some ignorant criticism and hysteria
from a few others who have NOT read it. Unbelievable.
This all reminds one uncannily of the Hollywood Blacklist of the 1950s
when, during the insanity of McCarthyism and The House Un-American
Activities Committee, the movie industry – including all it’s Studio Heads –
destroyed the careers of so many writers and directors and actors under
the slightest pressure to do so from any one of a group of disgruntled
attackers who deemed them insufficiently loyal or patriotic.
If you have read Victoria Foyt’s “Save The Pearls” you know that it is a wonderfully written book,
a deeply moving warning about the very real dangers of ignorant racism,
prejudice and profound climate change in a sadly not-too-distant future,
as well as being a truly touching tale of self-discovery and young love.
How a few disturbed non-readers have been scared off by images on its web-page is a cautionary tale.
There is nothing to be frightened of here, everything to applaud.
I strongly recommend you read it for yourself and see.
You will not be disappointed.
Most who have actually managed to stomach reading the entire book will realize that Jaglom’s description of “a wonderfully written book” is so far off from reality that s/he might question whether he has the acumen to judge a good tale from something that might have been published in Ostara a century ago. Yet there’s something deeper going on within this. Notice the comparison to “McCarthyism” (leaving aside that Joe McCarthy, if alive today, most likely would not be on the side of those who champion greater social awareness/responsibility when it comes to depicting racial/ethnic issues) and the “House Un-American Activities Committee.” Here is a bald attempt to discredit criticisms of a work by making allusions to “censorship” and to “hysteria.” No doubt Hemon would cite this as another stumbling block to having writers (and critics) bring forth for social awareness works that truly challenge the dilemmas of our time. Attempts to challenge the poor, muddled, and sometimes even reactionary social values present in many social and literary writings are just met with the Orwellian sheep bleatings of “Censorship bad!” Never mind that it is through the use of such rhetoric that those who question the state of affairs (and who most certainly want to affect real social/ethical change in both fiction and in quotidian life) are too often cowed into silence. Are there “elitists” or “elitism” when this occurs? Are we left with a hollow argument devoid of real meaning or import? If we (writers, critics, and readers alike) dare not engage with the ethical and social implications of our times in the works we read/write, then what are we doing, pray tell?