One of my former professors, Paul Morrison, used to say observe that never before has the gap between the books that most people read and the books that we consider worthy of attention in literary critical circles been so great, and of course, he was right. And it is a fascinating gap - if you look at the books people buy, they tend heavily to genre fiction (science fiction, mysteries, romances, chick lit, thrillers, children's literature and the modern sentimental novel of family trauma), but for the most part, literary critics don't pay much (official) attention to these books. In fact, I would argue based on a wholly unscientific sample, that there's never been a greater gap between the books that literary critics read for pleasure and the ones they write about.
After a decade or so floating around various halls of academe, I found that while we all read "Paradise Lost" and _The Waves_, when you poke a literary graduate student or professor, they often can talk with astounding skill about the books that everyone else is reading. That's not to say that we don't love high art - we do. But just as most musicians have high catholic tastes in music, and appreciate its pleasure in multiple forms, before we were literary critics we were all just passionate, obsessive readers, and have remained so. Underneath the post-modernist taste is often a deep knowledge of Star Trek novels, medieval mysteries, Harry Potter or horror fiction. Heck, I knew at least as many professors and graduate students who wrote genre fiction as published poetry, plays or literary novels - I had a professor who wrote _Sweet Valley High_ stories, several graduate students I knew parlayed their deep knowledge of a historical period into a career writing period bodice rippers, and at least two Profs of my acquaintance write the most formal sorts of mystery, complete with plucky young heroine and resolution on the 280th page.
I mention this, because I happened upon an essay by Erik Curren in the electronic magazine "Conserve", in which he critiqued my recent call for peak oil and climate change fiction for showing utopian leanings. Utopianism, he observes is boring. He then launches into a defense of high culture dystopian literature, which he happens to teach. I must say I'm grateful to Curren for giving me an excuse to write more in the genre of my old profession, literary criticism. It gives me a great deal of pleasure to spend some time thinking about what kind of writing we might both want and need to read in the future. You can and should read Curren's essay here:
http://www.conservemag.com/content/2007/03/07/peak-oil-energy/novels-global-warming-peak-oil/. He says,
"Some of us will certainly enjoy reading inspiring visions of how great life can be when every other lawn is a permaculture garden and Wal-Mart is just a bad memory. But if you want to put peak oil and global warming in the classroom – or on Oprah – then maybe you’ll need fiction that’s good literature first and propaganda second."
On this, I agree with him wholeheartedly, but I don't think those are quite the only choices.
There are places where I disagree with Curren, but one of them is not in the claim that Utopian literature is boring. But he mistakes (and really, the mistake is mostly mine - my rather hastily articulated call to fiction may well have given the wrong impression) my suggestion that we offer a vision of what life could be as a call to write utopian political fiction. I can understand why he thinks that's what I'm saying - the juxtaposition of my call to propaganda, the reference to _Little House on the Prairie_ (Which most people have mixed up with the sentimental television show of the same title. Until you read it as an adult you won't appreciate its bell-clear prose and a vision of what childhood is like as fascinating, in its own way as _What Maisie Knew_ - Wilder's books are not nostalgic, except for a lost *family* - that others read them nostalgically is interesting, but much more about reader than writer) as representing a call for utopianism.
But what we're actually talking about is not utopianism, but Romanticism - that is, the genre of literature that represents both a harkening back to an agrarian past and a leftist call to arms to recreate a better society is Romantic literature. Romaticism had traction in just about every Western nation during the 19th century at some point or another - Germany, France, America and England among others all had their Romantic schools. We tend to think of Romanticism as only Wordsworth and Shelley, but in fact it included Gothic novels like _Castle Rackrent_ and _Frankenstein_, American writers like Hawthorne, Germans like Goethe, etc... Romanticism produced really quite lovely poetry, and some good novels too - actually quite a lot of them. It was one of the most artistically productive schools of literary thought in history.
I think Curren is rather quick to dismiss any representations of a meaningful or interesting future as Utopian - the assumption is that envisioning any future other than abject disaster is a vision of a conflict-less monotony. Not only do I think that's not true, I think it is a bad way of thinking about the future of people, much less art. If we can't come up with some meaningful ground between dystopia and utopia, we're going to have a rather nasty future. But fortunately, there is considerable middle ground in romanticism. The move to a *more perfect* (but not necessarily perfect) future, connected to a meaningful past is a real and useful way of putting together two ways of thinking. In fact, it might be helpful for us to think of ourselves as part of a new Romantic movement - romanticisms specifically believe in the possibility of meaningful cultural change - something that most post-modern literature does not. Instead of detachment, romanticism represents engagement in the most literal sense - which is why the romantic writers wrote political tracts, set up new living arrangements, and fomented revolution. All environmental movements are to some degree romantic - and we're no different. If we didn't believe transformation was possible, we'd be getting rich on the other side ;-).
The problem with old-style romantic movements is that they tend to be rather impractical, and their passion is such that one burns out with all that emoting. The 1960s generation has been characterized as a species of romanticism, and after 30, things kind of petered for most of the boomers. So what we need is a literary, and literal romanticism of adulthood - a romantic movement that thinks more carefully and husbands its energies more wisely. Is that achievable? I don't know. I do think, however it might make for some fascinating writing.
Which brings me to the second thing that I found of interest in Curren's essay - that he makes such a powerful contrast between high culture literature and low culture literature. The authors he lists are all full-scale, "official" high culture literature, although Atwood hasn't always had that designation. But she's something of an exception - the rest of the writers he invokes to make me look silly and the ones he actually teaches are high canonical authors. I was left wondering whether Curren's students, who, of course enjoy mulling over the end of the world are ever actually connected to the dystopian fiction that shows up on most people's shelves - for example, do his students read the massive best-sellers, The Left Behind books? They are admittedly dreck, and the dreck of a politics I find nigh-on-unbearable, but they are also important if you believe that literary scholars should have anything to do with the culture at large. If all it is a cataloguing of what constitutes high art, and the reading of those books so that someone will, literary criticism has very little to do with anything other than the preservation of high culture. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for the preservation of high culture. But there is no inherent distinction between "literature" and "what folks read" - and I would think that a class on dystopian fiction would address the cultural implications of the vision that shapes more dystopian thinkers than any other at present.
Personally, I thought Curren's list of books was on the limited side. Margaret Atwood isn't a bad writer, but *two* of her novels? She's not Shakespeare either. And Philip Roth, having not had a book that people really talked about in a decade or two, uses the conventions of...what else...genre fiction to get a book that people will actually read. The same is true of McCarthy. I like both writers very much, but to a large degree what their books do is make high culture writing accessible by taking on the conventions of genre fiction. It happens all the time - when the culture of New York readers stopped being such that there was a large audience for Susan Sontag, she wrote a straight out romance novel, the _The Volcano Lovers_ - nothing wrong with that (some of the best high and low culture literature has a good romance in it) - but again, a defense of high culture dystopian literature is something of a contradiction in terms - good writers are picking up low culture genres for their own pleasure or for expanded audiences.
But if the genres aren't themselves low culture anymore (there was a time when no high culture author would consider writing science fiction), then the fact that mystery, children's literatures and science fiction writers don't get on Oprah's book club or get taught in many lit classes isn't because they aren't good writers (that we'd have to look at on a case-by-case basis) or because genre writing isn't worthy of being taught in some inherent way, but because of our prejudices.
That's not to say that plenty of genre writing isn't dull and stupid - it is. But there's nothing inherently less literary about the books regular folks read that you can discern from where they are shelved in the library - that is, Hawthorne may be a better writer than Laura Ingalls Wilder, but only if you can argue that point out - he isn't a better writer because she wrote for children and he didn't. And he isn't a better writer because college teachers teach him. He may be a better writer - I think he is, although not in clarity ;-), but we shouldn't assume so - we should read them both.
The references I made were mostly to books that people actually read. And I think that's still the right thing - because there is no contrast, despite Curren's implication - between good books and children's or genre fiction. There are good writers in every format and genre, and ones who deserve more attention.. But I do think we should focus on closing the gap between high and low culture - there is no reason that intellectual fiction is not or cannot be accessible - having to work hard to understand what is being said is not the definition of good writing. And if literature is to have any influence, it needs to have an audience - as someone like Roth knows. Writing books that 14 literary critics read may add another piece of art to the world and let another fairy get its wings, but its real impact is about nil. Books matter because they are read, and discussed, and thought about - and the way books become read and discussed and thought about it to be accessible (not easy) to everyone who wants to read. There will, of course, always be a place for James Joyce, and I suspect any new Romantic movement will have its Joyces. But it may be that we need its popular - and interesting - voices even more.