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Thread: Literary Elitism vs. Populism (Is Homer much better than Kerouac?)

  1. #1
    Of Subatomic Importance Quark's Avatar
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    Literary Elitism vs. Populism (Is Homer much better than Kerouac?)

    I'm starting this thread so I can point everyone who wants to argue about this here. It's simply too big of a discussion to have on other threads not specifically dedicated to this question. The question is:

    Is popularity or intellectual benefit a better indicator of a book's value? And, how should benefit or popularity be measured?
    Last edited by Quark; 09-03-2007 at 07:50 PM.
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  2. #2
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    Quote Originally Posted by Quark View Post
    I'm starting this thread so I can point everyone who wants to argue about this here. It's simply too big of a discussion to have on other threads not specifically dedicated to this question. The question is:

    Is popularity or intellectual benefit a better indicator of a book's value? And, how should benefit or popularity be measured?
    that's great, quark. i'll participate, count me in.
    "He was nauseous with regret when he saw her face again, and when, as of yore, he pleaded and begged at her knees for the joy of her being. She understood Neal; she stroked his hair; she knew he was mad."
    ---Jack Kerouac, On The Road: The Original Scroll

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    This is a good question, Quark. (By the bye, of course you know that this scientific term for a subatomic particle has a literary source -- from Finnegan's Wake)
    Initially we would want to say that popularity is not a good indicator of a book's value; however, Shakespeare's plays, especially his later ones, did socko box office @ the
    Globe. Hawthorne, one of my personal "faves" enjoyed rock-star like popularity in mid nineteenth century America. On the other hand, many, many writers who are held in the highest esteem today did not make it in their
    livetimes. The ones who immediately pop into mind are
    Melville, Jack London, Edgar A. Poe, all of whom died in utter poverty. And on the other hand -- I'm running out of hands here -- with the exception of Hemingway, perhaps, the American authors who hit the best seller lists in the thirties, forties and fifties are mostly obscure to us today. I can't remember the names of the novelists who were popular when I was a little kid -- Grace Metalious of Peyton Place fame, for instance.
    By the 1960s "literary" type novelists -- Nabokov, Roth, Bellow, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote -- enjoyed both critical and popular success. But it is the genre novels, especially the crime and occult, vampire stories, which hit the best seller lists.
    When you say "intellectual benefit," I believe that you mean critical success, in which the current arbiters of literary taste bestow their blessings on a writer's work. Right there, we're running into another dilemma. Most critics dismiss the horror-genre books of Stephen King as sheer "schlock," and though his stuff isn't really my cup o' tea, The Stand is a fine novel, with layered meanings beyond the usual plot-driven fare. I was going to get on a high horse and dismiss him also, until one day when I ran across some young adult students studying for their high school equivalency diplomas. Here were high school drop-outs who had been completely turned off by reading all of their lives, now engrossed in reading the works of Stephen King. We see this phenomenon today in the immense popularity of the Harry Potter series. And to a lesser extent, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. What? J.R.R. Tolkien is not "literary"?
    Sorry for the length of this, as I could go on and on. And on. But back to your original question -- is popularity or intellectual content the indicator of a book's value? -- I'm afraid there is no answer. But it certain opens up a whole new avenue of discussion.

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    Artist and Bibliophile stlukesguild's Avatar
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    It's somewhat paradoxical that we can easily accept that certain persons are faster or stronger than others... that a given sports team is better than another (Damn Yankees!) but any suggestion that certain artists are better than others immediately leads some to cries of "elitism"... this in spite of the fact that we all make such comparisons every day when choosing what is or is not worth our time and effort. The "elitism" of art is not an "elitism" of class or education or social status, but rather it is something of an elective affinity. We decide whether we are willing to put forth the effort to gain the understanding and the rewards offered by various works of art. We decide whether we wish to simply follow the pack and buy the latest best seller, seek out some "cult classic", look for a bit of light fluff... or perhaps delve in a little deeper.

    So if we wish to learn more where do we begin. Certainly there are too many books published today to simply hope for the best... let alone to imagine we could read and compare them all for ourselves. I've long held the belief that the measure of the artistic worth of a given work is part of a three-part (if not more) equation where we might turn for some guidance. A given work of literature, for example, is judged by 3 distinct groups: the literary "experts", the subsequent writers, and the book lovers or "common readers" (in Virginia Woolf's terms).

    The first group... the literary experts... are often dismissed by those who take an anti-intellectual position... but really, isn't this just a sort of inverted prejudice? Who exactly make up the art experts with regard to literature? I would suggest that they include literary critics, literary historians, publishers, editors, literary and language teachers/professors, bibliophiles, etc... In other words, persons who have invested a good deal of time, effort, thought and even money into the field of literature. We would not think to dismiss the ideas of a scientist or physician if they do not accord with the opinions of the masses... but one frequently hears the opinions of critics or professors dismissed by persons without anywhere near the same degree of experience. Does this mean the "experts" are always right... or that they always agree? Of course not Does this mean we must accept their opinions without question? Again, no. I can find nothing more useless than reading something that one dislikes just because someone has told you it was "great". On the other hand... the opinions of the "experts" may just be a good starting point and offer a good guide along the way.

    In tandem with this first group we have the subsequent artists/authors. Art is always a dialog with reality... but it is also a dialog with one's predecessors. Dickinson continued to learn from Milton centuries after the fact. Walt Whitman was profoundly inspired by the King James Bible. Thomas Pynchon and John Barth continue to build upon the ideas of Joyce. Brahms built upon Beethoven. Picasso learnt greatly from El Greco and Velazquez. Many times an author who had but a limited following (to say nothing of sales) will profoundly influence future artists. One might think of the impact of an obscure Czech like Kafka impacting Hesse, Borges, Landolfi, Barth, Calvino, Barthleme, and any number of others. I somehow doubt that there are any authors of any real importance who are currently building upon what they gleaned from Jack Kerouac.

    Finally, we have the art lovers. I say art lovers rather than the masses because the opinions of the general public or the masses are largely temporal or fleeting... certainly irrelevant in the long term because they change greatly. What was a phenomenon today (Harry Potter, Jonathan Livingston Seagul) becomes a forgotten embarrassment a generation or two (or less) down the road. Beyond this it might also be noted that only a limited number of people are truly driven to give much thought one way or another about literature outside an occasional bit of entertainment... perhaps a murder mystery or romance novel here or there. But there are those who are simply art lovers... book lovers... those who while not experts in the field do surely put in a goodly amount of time and effort in learning about literature... in reading... the not-so-common "common readers", to use Virginia Woolf's definition. Among these "common readers" some writers continue to retain a status far above what is warranted by their critical reputation or impact upon others. Among these we might include Alexander Dumas (Three Musketeers), Arthur Conan Doyle, and some few others. In these few cases the public maintains an admiration for so long that one almost assumes that the critics and artists might just be wrong. Perhaps Puccini or Rachmaninov were greater than Stravinsky (Actually, I prefer them). The fact that On the Road (like Catcher in the Rye) remains a popular cult classic 50 years later with adolescents making their first forays into serious reading can in no way be imagined as proof of its brilliance.
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    Popularity have nothing to do with quality. It is something that happens by chance during a brief momment of time. In 30 years what is popular may have change, in 50 again, in 100 again ,etc.
    This question does not even really open much debate.
    Intelectual benefict ? Watever it is meant with that, Art is an intelectual activity - so works where the intelect had to perform a great effort of creation and domain of techniques are clearly superior to a simple list of names.

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    Subjective some? I may have more to do with Keruoac from a personal standpoint, and Homer, in an academic sense, or vice versa. You take what you learn from these text and you run with it. I don't think one or the other lends itself more (or less) toward elitism, and or, populism. It all depends on the person really who reads too much into this and just want to show off their literary knowledge in the guise of an obnoxious know-it-all.

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