I should know. I’m aspiring to be one of them.
Now I should qualify, some are more snobby than others and some not at all. Personally, I work diligently to keep my snobbery to a minimum. To remember that a mere six years ago, I also had never read a work of Shakespeare, let alone Milton, Austen, Bronte, Pope, Swift, Rossetti, or Wordsworth. That while I may know a bit more than the average American about literature, a 10th grader could kick my trash in geometry. However, some English major types do not see the value of living among mere mortals. Instead, they receive great delight from scoffing at the uncultured reading habits of their boorish peers. These reading habits would include: trashy romance novels, unimaginative fantasy, and heaven forbid, Harry Potter. Why on earth would you waste your time and pollute your mind with such filth?
The need for fluffy fiction:
For my English class this week we read several articles arguing the question of Literature. For those of you who are not English majors, this topic comes up repeatedly. What is Literature? (Notice the capital L on Literature. This is not to be confused with literature.) Is it only works by Shakespeare and Chaucer? Or does it include more modern pieces, like Lord of the Rings. The thing is, when it comes to this argument, I find myself torn in two different directions.
I heard last week of a community college offering an English class solely on the Twilight saga. I’m not going to lie; I think this is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard in my life. And I wouldn’t hire someone who took the class to fulfill their GE English credit. That’s not what you go to college for.
However, am I going to think less of someone who’s read this or other similar novels? No. They fall under the category of pleasure reading. Or my pet name for them: fluffy fiction. I love Literature because of how much can be hidden in just a few short lines. I love the themes that can be discussed in Literature, and seeing the social change that texts are a part of. But sometimes, I want to read and not have to work to figure out what they’re saying. I want the meaning to be right in front of my face. I want a good plot and lovable characters. So I turn to fluffy fiction. There is a place for both in our lives.
Fact: sometimes you read books because everyone and their dog have read them. Yes Harry Potter and Twilight fall under this category. But so do most of the classics. The hope is that in reading what everyone else enjoys, you will read something worthwhile. Have you ever walked into a Barnes & Noble? The sheer number of books can be intimidating. So where do you start? You don’t want to spend your money on a mediocre book, or one that’s so philosophical you go to sleep with a headache. You’re there to buy something that will be a release—an escape from reality. So you buy something you’ve heard is quite good and are satisfied when it turns out to be an enjoyable read. Even if it isn’t your favorite thing in the whole world, now you can discuss it intelligently with friends and colleagues. This is called cultural literacy.
Now as I say this, there is a responsibility I am giving to the rest of the reading population that did love the book. Not everyone has to love the book. Don’t make them lie about it. Every novel has its weaknesses. There’s nothing wrong with discussing them. Or just using the text as a segue into broader themes. Include them in the discussion. It’s good to get opposing views, they make things interesting.
A fiction hierarchy:
Apparently I don’t think Twilight is Literature. So what is? Where is the line drawn in the sand? My university offers a class in Tolkien. One I’ve considered taking. Does this make Literature anything still popular after 50 years? A lot of people use this as the definition: “A text that has withstood the test of time”.
But I also studied The Kite Runner in one of my classes, and thought it was one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a while. I’d have to say three things impact the literary-ness of a text:
1. Writing style. It has to be good writing. (If you want to know what good writing is, open up an anthology of literature and just read out loud for about 30 seconds. Regardless of what it says, it sounds amazing, right? That’s good writing.)
2. Themes. You have to be talking about something bigger than a story. Something that applies to life in a meaningful way.
3. Cultural/Historical Implications. Some books make a dent in the pages of history. Works like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It doesn’t matter how well written they are, they are telling us something very important about history that we couldn’t grasp otherwise. This is where the study of authors like Aphra Behn comes in (that statement was pointedly directed toward Howard Bloom’s slight of the Restoration writer). Harry Potter is something for the world. If nothing else, its wide audience is a statement in globalization, so in 30 or more years when the implications of J.K. Rowling’s imagination are clear, I could potentially see it being more integrated into the cannon.
Now, I have a little bone to pick with Harold Bloom who published an article called “Dumbing Down American Readers”.
One of his main points is that, “‘Harry Potter’ will not lead our children on the Kipling’s “Just So Stories” or his “Jungle Book.” It will not lead them to Thurber’s “Thirteen Clocks” or Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows” or Lewis Carroll’s “Alice”. My response is: maybe not initially, but it will teach them something that isn’t being taught much anymore, that reading can be enjoyable. That it is magical, even if you’re not at a wizarding school.
He’s right; I haven’t read any of the books he’s listed. But unlike some people, I got into the reading thing a little late in life. I think I was 14. It’s now been 6 years and I’m making up for lost time. Because Harry Potter helped me develop the ability to read long novels quickly, to apply their themes to my life, and, oh yeah, just like reading a book; I was prepared to delve into thicker works later in my life. I may not have read Alice, much to Michele’s dismay, or Thirteen Clocks, but my summer reading list does include works such as A Room with a View, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Crime and Punishment. And what’s more, after I’ve read my children Harry Potter to wet their appetite, I probably will move on to stories like the ones he listed.
I can see where he’s coming from, Harry Potter is an iconic pop culture thing, and not everyone will follow my path. It is sad. As a whole, our culture doesn’t read. This year the people in the tiny country of Great Britain will read more books than the entire population of the United States. They will read that many books, because it is a part of their culture to be well read. They take great pride in it and so they sustain it. American’s just don’t care. That isn’t a part of who we are unfortunately.
Now, most of the authors of these articles have been teachers for years. And I haven’t even finished college. Perhaps if you were to ask me after a few years I would be just as jaded as they are about the reading habits of our country. But right now, I’m taking it for what it is and will consign myself to a lifetime of fighting against the man. The man that will entice my students to watch the movie instead of read the book. That will tell them that these stuffy old men and women don’t matter anymore. That will attempt to put me out of a job because the humanities become expendable as soon as Americans decide not to care about Literature.
But you know what:
This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far …
And the world will be better for this
That one man, scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable star.
Bring it on.