Wisdom From Kammbia 2.15: Is Reading A Story Only For the Middle Class?

“The general approach has been that if the middle class likes something, it is bad art. There is a snobbishness on the Left that is rarely noted but is one of the most significant animators of Leftism: a contempt for the middle class, and for middle America, that is essential to left-wing identity. The left sees itself as far superior to the churchgoing, Norman Rockwell loving, flag-waving, Pledge of Allegiance reciting American. So, if the average guy likes it, there must be something wrong with it.” (Dennis Prager)

That quote is from Dennis Prager recently published book, Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph, and in it he posed a question that has been on my mind the past several days.

Is reading a story only for the middle class?

While that quote deals more with a Left/Right or Liberal/Conservative issue than an overall commentary about the arts, I believe there is some truth to it.

It seems to me that reading a story is beneath the elites and artists of our society.  If everybody likes a good story from a Dean Koontz, Stephen King, James Patterson or John Grisham it’s considered low-brow entertainment and not worthy of intellectual discussion.

I must admit that has always troubled me and I don’t if I can articulate it correctly in this blog post.  But it seems to me that there is this sense of anti-entertainment amongst many in our society.

If someone spends seven or eight dollars on a paperback or twenty-five to thirty dollars on a hardback and they get entertained by it, what’s the problem with that? Being entertained is something fundamental to human nature and it should never be relegated to second-tier status or in some cases even held in contempt.

Reading a story is as basic as it comes and people have always wanted stories in their lives.  Whether told orally in ancient times to the print form in modern times and now in electronic form in this multimedia age.   Story is essential to the human experience.

That’s why I have never understood in the fiction world, why would people have a problem with a Grisham or King or Koontz or Patterson or Clancy.  Now, their works could be good or bad and that’s subjective and a different issue. However, because they are popular and the middle class has been entertained by their works, should they be considered as second-tier artists?

So my question to the readers of this blog post is:  Why is a story loved by the middle class considered second rate?

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9 Comments

  1. Hi, Marion. First a caveat—I’m entirely unfamiliar with Prager. My response here is strictly to the particular quote you’ve presented.

    In the opening of the quote is the statement, “The general approach has been that if the middle class likes something, it is bad art.” He then he goes on to say nothing of art except to drop the name of Norman Rockwell. This isn’t a consideration of art. It’s an American Conservative accusation cultural snobbery by the American Left, and it is devoid of any actual consideration of art except by way of reference to an American icon. This is rhetoric of the boring, political variety. This is politics, not criticism.

    The contention between what is often termed “pop-art” and “high art” is very old, has many complexities and particularities, and has very little to do with the morass of under-considered and overly opined dichotomies that is contemporary American politics.

    I think this following excerpt from John Gardner’s Art of Fiction takes a better approach:

    ‘Though it cannot be said of all teachers of literature, it is common to find teachers indifferent to the kinds of poetry and fiction that go most directly for those values we associate with simple entertainment—popular lyrics, drugstore paperbacks and so forth. The reason may in some cases be snobbery, but probably just as often the cause is the sensitive reader’s too frequent experience of disappointment—the boring sameness found at its extreme in the scripts of television Westerns, cop-shows, and situation comedies. Driven off by too much that is merely commercial—often shoddy imitation of authentic originality in the realm of the popular—we fail to notice that popular song writers like Stevie Wonder and Randy Newman, to say nothing of the Beatles, can be dedicated, energetic poets more interesting than many of the weary sophisticates, true-confessors, and randy academics we encounter in the “little magazines,” and that drugstore fiction can often have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class. The result of such prejudice or ignorance is that literature courses regularly feature writers less appealing—at least on the immediate, sensual level, but sometimes on deeper levels as well—than Isaac Asimov, Samuel R. Delaney, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Roger Zelazny, or the Strugatsky brothers, science-fiction writers; or even thriller writers like John le Carré and Frederick Forsyth; the creators of the early Spider-Man comics or Howard the Duck. In theory it may be proper that teachers ignore thrillers, science fiction, and the comic books. No one wants Coleridge pushed from the curriculum by a duck “trapped in a world he never made!” But when we begin to list the contemporary “serious” writers who fill highschool and literature courses, Howard the Duck can look not all that bad.’

    Personally, I tend to think that “pop-art” and “high-art” aren’t useful terms. They have to do with a materialistic, class-conscious consideration of production and consumption and do nothing to bring to light any qualities of an artistic nature.

    Michael Chabon, in his essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” has good things to say about art, entertainment, and quality:

    ‘Maybe the reason for the junkiness of so much of what pretends to entertain us is that we have accepted—indeed, we have helped to articulate—such a narrow, debased concept of entertainment… Therefore I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature.’

    Does the Left despise Rockwell? I don’t know. Since I was a child—one raised as a staunch conservative—I disliked the idealized folksiness of Norman Rockwell paintings. It was only later that I came to identify what I disliked as a very sentimental form of nostalgia. I don’t think that makes me either very liberal, or very elitist. But I also had only a very brief window where I was interested in Koontz or King or Grisham. I don’t care to criticize them. They simply don’t mean much to me and don’t keep me entertained in Chabon’s sense of the word. Neither do the proponents of identity theory or any other -ism that have today taken the place of literary criticism.

  2. Christopher,

    Thanks for your response.

    For Prager’s quote, it was political. His book where I got the quote is a political book and he was criticizing Leftism. I wanted to look deep into that quote beyond his criticism of Leftism.

    Thanks for providing the quotes from John Gardner and Michael Chabon. Those quotes provided a different viewpoint than I expected from writers of their caliber.

    From personal experience, I worked in bookstores for almost 10 years total and I heard that snobbery from people who bought fiction. Grisham, King , Koontz, Clancy, and others like them was always frowned upon and if you didn’t read John Updike, Cormac McCarthy, Richard Ford, Don Delillo, Anne Proulx or Toni Morrison and several others, you were not reading real literature.

    I must admit at that time I started reading those authors because I wanted to read “real literature” and I must admit I didn’t care for any of those authors except Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

    However during that time, I read the Testament by John Grisham and thought the novel was well-done. Grisham told an excellent story about redemption and repentance and it was not preachy or shallow.

    I have read quite a few Koontz novels after that and while there is sameness in a good portion of his work I found his Cold Fire novel his best in my opinion and he told a good story to boot.

    Maybe it’s just my perception…but I thought “story” is so fundamental to human nature and why it should be treated ass second class for our entertainment …when without story, I don’t culture would be as enriching as it has been throughout civilization.

    So I have thought about this perceived bias against “pop art” for many years and wanted to see if other people thought about it as well.

  3. Of the authors of “real literature” which you list, I’ve only read McCarthy. I’ve sampled Updike and found him bland — too bland to make me want more. I do plan on reading Morrison, eventually. My focus isn’t on current writers, though.

    There is a tendency to gravitate towards what will stroke the ego and polish the self-image. This is a thoroughly bi-partisan endeavor. And it has absolutely nothing to do with valid literary criticism.

    Personally, I’m tired of stories that are consumable. Read once and there’s no reason to read it again. I don’t have time to waste on that kind of material. If I find that what I’m reading is a throw-away novel, I’ll throw it away and start on something with more promise. I don’t read for mere story. I read for story, but I’m also always looking for that conversation that runs at a deeper level than “what happens next.” A great book offers an experience that is potent and life changing, even if only in a quiet, latent way. At the very least, a book must delight.

    Something that you’ll find in Dostoevsky, or Seamus Heaney, or George Eliot, or Jorge Louis Borges, or John Gardner is that literature is a mode of thinking. It’s a way of working something out, an idea, or more likely a mixed bag of ideas in conflict. If it’s just a story, it’s not going to last. It’s the something more than story that has story as its backbone that draws me to literature.

    • I do see where you are coming from Christopher.

      However, I do think a good story can last beyond one reading. For example, I mentioned The Testament by John Grisham. I believe that’s a novel that could re-read again.

      Also there is a novel by Jorge Amado called Home is the Sailor. Amado is considered Brazil’s most popular novelist and he was a good storyteller and Home is the Sailor is a story about social status and what is the truth. (I wrote a review on my blog for it as well.)

      I guess what I’m driving that a story can have a depth and complexity as well as simplicity and it shouldn’t be dismissed because it’s only a story. Or only the middle class can read stories and the elites and literate among us can read more complex works.

      Thanks for your responses….it has help me clarified by my own feelings about this and gives me something deeper to think about.

      Marion

      • A story that is about “social status and what is the truth” doesn’t sound like just a story. If a work engages you to think beyond just the action-in-time aspect if itself, it has succeeded in becoming more than mere story.

        In your response you came back to the issue of the perceived conflict between the middle class as some sort of cultural elite. I would point out that the majority of English professors in America are thoroughly middle class. Most of the self-appointed literati are middle class as well. Really, America is the land of the middle class. Our society isn’t so clearly segregated as was European society. We don’t have aristocrats, just moneyed bourgeois, and I think it’s a mistake to conflate class arguments with artistic criticism. It leads to politics and away from art.

        For what it’s worth, I have no college degree. I left college in my first year and floundered from one job to another until I started getting tech jobs. I picked up the habit of reading asking the way.

      • Christopher,

        I would agree that America is mostly a land of the middle class. However, there is a cultural elite in American culture: Hollywood folks, New York and Washington DC media and gov’t and business crowd and I truly believe they look down on the folks in flyover country.

        And a lot of people aspire to be a part of that group. So they will suit their taste to be accepted.

        Lastly, I believe a story can multi-layered and deal with themes like social status or class or racism…etc and still be a story. Look at Jesus’ parables, I consider those stories but he was also talking about the Kingdom of God.

        So I guess we have to define what a story is and what it is not?

      • I won’t deny that snobbery exists, but I do deny that our sophisticates are sophisticated. They are the bourgeois putting on airs, and their mirror image is the anti-intellectual which sees as snobbery that which is merely aspiring to be competent. The touchstones of snobbery (or of anti-intellectualism) may not, of themselves, be guilty of the crime. An author and his story should not be criticized with respect to who claims them as their own. This pollutes literary criticism with politics, obscuring our view of the work on its own terms as it substitutes the terms of the partisans. And often the partisans only care for the work to the extent that they can use it as a bludgeon serving their own political ends. This has little to do with literary criticism. It is the misappropriation of art for the purpose of propaganda, and it should be treated with contempt and revilement.

        But let’s get back to our discussion of “story.”

        OED: story 4.a. A recital of events that have or are alleged to have happened; a series of events that are or might be narrated.

        There are many uses of the word, but those that have to do with our meaning here, the “story” in literature, all fundamentally have to do with this notion of a narrated series of events, what I referred to as “action-in-time,” or more properly “the narration of action-in-time.”

        All novels must be built upon a story—it is, as E.M. Forster puts it, their “fundamental aspect.”

        Here is more from Forster’s “Aspects of the Novel”:

        “It is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence—dinner coming after breakfast, Tuesday after Monday, decay after death, and so on. Qua story, it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next. These are the only two criticisms that can be made on the story that is a story. It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms. Yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels.”

        I highly recommend Forster’s book. It is a brief and charmingly written book. Just take care to note his use of irony, otherwise the humor will be lost. The above quote is from Chapter 2: The Story. The following chapters go beyond this fundamental aspect to discuss characterization, plot (in a sense beyond story), fantasy, the prophetic voice, and the aesthetics of pattern and rhythm. All of these aspects grow out of story. If these aspects are the magical beanstalk taking Jack into the realms of the fantastic or the divine, then story is the ground which received the beans and keep the rooted beanstalk from falling upon itself.

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