How literary elitism is influenced by social status.
The subject of elitism has long been a divisive issue in literature. I could never really understand the basis on which genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy seems to be thought of as lower than the writing that people referred to as ‘literary’. Looking at the literature, I couldn’t find anything to give weight to the argument for supremacy. Nor could I find any weight to the counterargument that all literary fiction was just obfuscated psychobabble. The common element that I did observe, however, was the people. On both sides there is a baffling amount of parading and peacocking. The trend from literary fiction advocates has historically been to view commercial fiction as ‘penny dreadfuls’ – junk. In the modern day we see a response to this long-established idea, but often enough it is just as histrionic, seeking less to demonstrate security but instead focused on damaging what they see as an enemy. That seems to be the crux of the matter. The big thing that defines the endless farcical war between literary and commercial fiction is mere intellectual insecurity.
There is as much to like in literary fiction as much as there is in genre fiction, there is little reason to put one above the other. What irks me is the delusion held by some who seem to believe that reading one thing or another makes them special. You are not a colossus. You are a bag of decomposing meat, clotting blood, and flickering electricity; and you will be forgotten like the rest of us. Don’t ever forget it.
What is intellectual insecurity? The fear that, if one does not understand something, that one is incapable of understanding it. If one is incapable of understanding that topic that others may understand, then that person may be less intelligent than those people. So if more people grasp the topic then it would indicate that that person is surrounded by gifted people. Except we also know that gifted people are rare. Unless there’s a specific gathering for them, the probability of numerous gifted people existing in one place at the same time is extremely low. The more likely explanation is that these people are of roughly average intelligence. So if they understand the topic, that must mean that the person who does not understand the topic is of lower-than-average intelligence.
But it can also manifest as a fear of being ‘merely’ average. If a group of people grow up being told by their peers and society that they are special, educated, and intelligent, and if they have access to all the right resources and know all the right people, then they are likely to believe that they are, indeed, especially intelligent. If their out-group reflects an extreme opposite of this, they are likely to assume that that is the average person as, for so many people to be part of that mass of people, they cannot reasonably constitute a lower end of the spectrum. If those masses do not have access to education and learning, or the time to pursue anything but survival-oriented tasks, then they may lack the tools or have extremely limited opportunities by which to demonstrate any potentially notable intelligence. None of this will be considered by the privileged group, who will believe that they truly are superior to the common man. Thus they will propose a, largely unfounded, hierarchy around a set of nebulous criteria with their preferred group at the top. But if someone gives the common man the basic tools by which to communicate in more sophisticated ways and, potentially, move up the social ladder, well, then that means that an inferior man can become a superior man. If an inferior man can become a superior man, then clearly there’s not as much, if any, difference between the average member of both castes. Suddenly that assertion of inherent superiority is incredibly unstable. What do you do? You overcompensate, double down, claim that it is the result of divine will. Anything to keep the status quo.
This was highlighted in the late 19th and early 20th century literary scene. Strangely enough, despite all of the intervening years and social progress, the world of literature didn’t move forward all that much. We still have a pervasive sense of the same overcompensation, but given time and with everyone having a voice, a certain amount of tribalism has developed. In literature? Surely not, not us book people. Not them smart folk what reads the words on the pages! Surely, we’re better than that? We’re not. Like any form of art, the divisions are fractal and endless, but the obvious constant divide remains – ‘literary’ fiction versus commercial fiction. The literary insecure types will insist that genre fiction is entirely escapist, vapid, and has no capacity to provide anything of intellectual value. The commercial-oriented insecure types will counter argue that literary fiction consists universally of pretentious pseudo-philosophical posturing and little of real depth, despite the flowery language and allusions to big questions or bits of the literary canon. The two groups highlight the absolutist mindset adopted by the intellectually insecure.
Is all literature for everyone? No. Does that make criticism elitist? No. To claim that all criticism is elitism is to suggest that recognition of quality or analysis and acknowledgement of context, in any capacity, is an act of deliberate ordering based on pre-established social hierarchies. Should all literature be for all people, then? No. That’s literally impossible, anyway.
So how do people decide which people, more importantly which books, fit into which groups and where do they place in this hierarchy? ‘Literary merit’ is a fairly nebulous term that can be interpreted in an equally nebulous manner, but is one way to assign some sort of value to a text. Generally it seems to be broken down into ‘serious’ and ‘non-serious’ literature. ‘Serious’ literature tends towards works that are not mainstream, probably fit into the canon, or anything that has been praised sufficiently in the spheres of reputable academia or literary criticism. In contrast, the ‘non-serious’ literature broadly consists of commercial fiction and non-critically reputable works. It is worth noting, however, that in the shifting world of social values, and easy-access information, that this divide is becoming ever more vague. The modern academic world is accepting explorations and studies into material that would previously have been considered beneath notice. This may drive a follow-on tonal shift in the broader literary world. There is an increasing amount of online content, of good quality and depth, dedicated to the analysis, deconstruction, and criticism of popular media in all forms.
My pet theory is that this is simply the outcome of an increasingly educated population with easy and affordable access to information and the capacity to research, create, and share this kind of work, whatever the medium, to an audience that is always there – the major hurdle is just getting an audience’s attention.
While the world of reading may be slowly abandoning the Etonian-style trappings, literary elitism has its roots in good old-fashioned classism. Because everything comes down to money. Early 20th century intelligentsia generally came from the increasingly defenestrated upper classes and resented the expansion of urban development, the extension of universal education to the lower classes, and the introduction of newspapers to non-elites. They embarked on what seems to have been an attempt to re-establish a hard divide, at least psychologically, between the rich and the poor. To their minds, the upper classes were supposed to dictate what the lower classes believed, and the lower classes was supposed to accept and believe without question. In a bid to distance themselves from the lower classes these intelligentsia adopted an opaque and obtuse writing style intended to deliberately frustrate attempts to read their works by anybody who could not afford their style of private education. Anything to escape the proles.
What denotes literary elitism? Broadly speaking it is the perception that enjoying certain authors or pieces of literature, puts the readers of that literature above other people in some way. There is an implied gating of acquisition – the suggestion that if a person does not enjoy a certain author or book, then there is a problem with them. Literature becomes a filter, providing indicators by which readers can be vetted, identified, and slotted into place on some socio-cultural hierarchy, assimilated into cliques or rejected as necessary. The parallels between elitism and social Darwinism become apparent pretty quickly.
If there is a problem with the reader, then they do not have a choice in their ability to enjoy the book they should have enjoyed. Their enjoyment is predetermined by some abstract measurement of intelligence. If provided a respected piece of literature and you enjoy it, then you are deemed intelligent. You could only have enjoyed that work because you have the minimum level of intelligence. If you did not enjoy the respected piece of literature, you are unintelligent. You did not enjoy the work because you did not have the mental capacity to do so. You do not meet the minimum level of intelligence.
Use of ‘advanced’ vocabulary is not elitist, though it is often pointed to as a demonstration of such. To be fair, sometimes it can be. For the most part, however, we can consider complaints against a slightly abnormal vocabulary to simply represent a public declaration that the person doing the complaining is too lazy to Google the offending word. They’re often complaining from a position of insecurity as the use a word that they don’t know triggers a defensive response in them, indicating that they feel that their intelligence has been questioned. Preferably, a new word should trigger curiosity, but we live in a world where newspapers refuse to adopt language more advanced than that used by a 13 year old for fear of alienating their audience, and crab buckets are encouraged under the guise of being proud of being a ‘working’ person or whatever. As if coming from a lower socio-economic background meant that any of these people were somehow incapable of taking in new information.
Their intelligence hasn’t been questioned. The reason they may feel that way are myriad, but the key thing is that the ability and knowledge to look up that word is completely accessible. If an author is deliberately drowning their prose in a profusion of antediluvian grandiloquence for the sake of ostentatious grandstanding it is usually extremely obvious. Ironically, it generally only serves to make them look like the try-hards that they are. On the other hand, some authors do just like words. The lexicon of these logophiles is a natural extension of their communication. Nabokov is the obvious go-to here. If his prose is a profusion of polysyllabic paragraphs it doesn’t carry the same self-important peacocking of the juvenile pretentious writer.
Back in 2013 someone accused the Paris Review of elitism after a writer dared to use word ‘crepuscular’. It sparked a couple of interesting articles and a brief conversation on Twitter. Eleanor Catton, author of the Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, posed the idea that the source of the person’s ire at finding a word they didn’t know, was rooted in consumer psychology, “The reader who is outraged by being ‘forced’ to look up an unfamiliar word – characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer – is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right.” Honestly, I hadn’t considered the matter from a consumer perspective before. However, I also find I don’t care too much. If you, the consumer, believe that you, the consumer, are always right because a billboard told that it was so, then you, the consumer, are a fucking idiot. Go and pick up a dictionary.
Literary elitism generally tends towards the ‘anti-consumer’ as it has its roots in a selection of people who opposed the consumer, the masses, being educated in the first place. The consumer, therefore, stands in as the lowest common denominator in this framing. The implication is that if the consumer is the lowest common denominator then they are without standards. However, it strikes me that this is a symbiotic relationship between the market and the consumer, and if the consumers have no standards, then industry shares a responsibility in producing, encouraging, and sustaining a lifestyle that demands no standards. If industry tells consumers that they shouldn’t have to meet standards of any sort, and produces products to fit that model, then it will produce lazy consumers. If those consumers are encouraged to feel outrage at being in any way inconvenienced, the chances are that they have not developed much in the way of self-awareness due to a strict limitation on the amount of self reflection encouraged by the absence of obstacles. Should they be absolved of all blame? No. They’re expected to better themselves. If they’re lazy about that, then that’s their responsibility. But at least one part of society doesn’t dare propose that anyone improves any aspect of themselves, because that would interfere with the flow of capital. So we are, apparently, fine as we are. We are, of course, not fine as we are, but that’s another thought for another day.
“But I think that Catton underplays the degree to which our relationship to any given book is also a relationship to its reputation – which is just another way of saying a relationship to everyone else’s relationship to the book,” responds Laura Miller in a 2014 Salon article. Her article examines the social credit element of these objections and in doing so, I think, gets closer to the issue, drawing the conclusion that many of these accusations of elitism stem from insecurity often sparked by experiences that reinforce the idea that there is a ‘socially acceptable’ way to read. Is anybody allowed to publicly dislike Dostoevsky without that dislike instantly being thought of as an indication that that person lacks sophistication or intelligence? Every public figure who wants to be taken seriously, if asked about their reading habits, or anything related to culture, will pull titles and authors solely from the shelf of books that have sunken into the cultural subconscious as being linked with the ideas of ‘quality’, ‘intellect’, or ‘depth’. Nobody needs to even read these books to know what they should think about them, and so whether it’s intentional or not, you do end up with this slightly conspiratorial consensus around what a person should read if they want to be held in high public regard: “Even if I couldn’t explain exactly why I dislike it, I might want to register that dislike because somebody should be speaking out against this hoax being perpetrated on the public by the literary establishment.” On the other hand, if we don’t feel the need to object and register an alternate point of view, we run the risk of normalising a pre-established point of view. People become more reluctant to object, for fear of being rejected. The solid fact of the matter is that someone will claim, with an equal lack of explanation, that a failure to enjoy <that book> is a sign that one is intellectually lacking. Others, not wanting to be found wanting, will side with that condemnation in order to protect their own egos. That is a potential that should worry anybody: the homogenisation and conformity of culture is bad news for any sort of social or intellectual progress.
“It’s usually those with the least faith in their own opinions who become the most outraged when the consensus does not agree with them.” A fair point, but I’d also argue that a lot of the consensus has a fairly substantial social weight behind it. The origins of that social currency and weight, and the reasons behind it, may stem from something entirely different than pure ‘literary merit’ or whatever we’re deciding makes ‘good literature’. But that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that humans are tribalistic and are likely to perceive, however accurately or inaccurately, the assigned currency as an indicator or in-group/out-group values. It’s easy enough to chalk this all up to insecurity and write it off as an individual choice, but dissenting voices are very necessary to curtail the social narrative that it is not acceptable to have alternative responses, books or otherwise.
There’s a weird dynamic permeating culture that views accessibility and quality as being inextricably linked. The logic seems to be that the more inaccessible something is, the higher the quality must be. If something is inaccessible, it’s because its high quality has made it inaccessible, and so it must be the case that if its inaccessibility is the result of being of high quality, then the inaccessibility indicates that it must be sophisticated. So if inaccessibility is associated with high quality, then accessibility must be associated with low quality, the masses and a lack of sophistication. T. S. Eliot, in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, remarks: “There is no doubt that our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards […] destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” Charming.
Steven Petite’s article for the Huffington Post in 2014 strikes a similarly shallow posture. Of genre fiction he writes: “But do they provide a means to stay inside reality, through the trials and tribulations of every day life, and deliver a memorable experience that will stick with you emotionally for the rest of your life? In my opinion, no. On the other hand, works by writers such as David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy, Zadie Smith, Don DeLillo, a multitude of other modern day writers, and all of the twentieth century giants such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Joyce, touch the reader in a different way.” Oh God, it’s like a paint-by-numbers of how to culture-signal to the T. S. Eliot wannabes, claiming that the difference between literary and genre fiction is an “escape not from reality, but into reality.” Are we actually supposed to take that seriously? It’s just posturing. It’s signalling to whoever, that this person is a ‘literary’ type. He’s making his bid. I hope it worked out for him. “There is a sense of accomplishment and fulfilment from finishing a ‘serious’ book,” he continues. That’s just sad. Seriously, reading ain’t that hard. Take your hand off your cock. This is ridiculous. It’s like Little Timmy has discovered masturbation and now he thinks he’s invented it.
Do I remember much about White Noise? It’s been a long time, something about Mein Kampf, a scene outside a church? I remember enjoying White Noise, I plan to revisit it some day, but it clearly didn’t stay with me. Perhaps it’ll have some more impact on me 10 years after the first reading. The Old Man and The Sea didn’t stay with me for days. I enjoyed it, considered it for a couple of hours, allegory about the futility of struggle, the lies one tells themselves in order to persevere, the essential fact that what remains of your efforts will be little more than skeletal in the end. Is that honestly the big new thing for people to ponder over for days and days on end? Maybe in your early twenties when the idea that you’re probably just an average shlub starts to become a distinct reality? Let me save you some time: The universe hasn’t notice you. The universe will not notice you. You are insignificant. You will be forgotten. Deal.
While we’re at it, Blood Meridian is a western. The Road is a post-apocalyptic sci fi. Prove me wrong. McCarthy is a fantastic author, Blood Meridian is one of my favourite books, and one that has stuck with me, but it’s still a western, and I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t in order to assuage the egos of some narcissistic prats.
If quality is not denoted by accessibility, then how do we measure it? Writing quality? I’d agree, that constitutes a good part of it. We are, after all, dealing with the written word, so it seems reasonable. But how do we define writing quality? Clarity? Style? Sophistication? Intertextuality? It seems that literary elitism would suggest that commercial fiction is incapable of containing good writing, following the logic that a bid to appeal to the broadest possible market one must dumb down the content. So we’re back to the rich vs poor, essentially. Therefore do we suggest that literary elitism has its roots in social class divisions? Yep, pretty much. There’s a recurring division of culture into ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’, an awkward phrase these days as it has its roots in phrenology, a 19th century pseudoscience. Do any modern intellectuals actually feel remotely comfortable referencing this? I doubt it. So is the notion of high- and lowbrow now obsolete? Clearly not. I still see it come up, whether it carries the same implications is debatable, but it does cast doubt on the validity of judging something high- or lowbrow, as these terms and views originate in a baseless theory of bio-hierarchal organisation.
On top of all of this, there’s still an amount of uncertainty as to what defines ‘literary’ fiction. Wikipedia defines it as ‘a category of fiction that explores any facet of the human condition, and may involve social commentary’. Which isn’t a bad definition for literary fiction, per se, but is also so broad that it quite literally encapsulates any conceivable type of fiction you could possibly imagine. If there’s supposed to be some divide between commercial and literary fiction, that definition doesn’t supply it whatsoever. So is there anything that might conceivably define literary fiction?
Character-driven narrative. Nope. There is character-driven genre fiction, Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, for example, is character-driven fantasy. Slower pace? Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast would like a word. Social commentary, political criticism and reflections on the ‘human condition’. The entire umbrella genre of science fiction is based on using the setting as a political or social mirror. I’ve never really delved into Star Trek, but – correct me if I’m wrong – wasn’t this exact questioning of social/political/human ideas the entirely point? Likewise, the entire subgenre of cyberpunk manifests around a social inspection of neoliberal laissez-faire capitalist society. J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition is essentially dystopian science fiction – consumer-grade literature. It is also relatively challenging. Under elitist definitions of ‘good’ literature, the mere inclusion of complexity means it has value and, presumably, cannot be commercial fiction. So if it’s not commercial fiction, then it’s literary fiction? For many people The Atrocity Exhibition is an impenetrable mess of fragmented obsessive neurosis, and thus does not contain any value whatsoever. That’s a completely reasonable position. But if it’s both complex, and thus good, and consumer-fiction, and thus bad… well, what is it? Darker in tone. Really? Darker is the wrong term here. Noir, horror, gothic, entire subgenres and series that go out of their way to focus on human misery. For all the ham of grimdark, the entire point of that subgenre is the dark tone. Tangentially, however, one characteristic that stands out to me about literary fiction is a certain reserve in style. 1984 is grim in a way that the vast majority of grimdark fiction will never come close to being able to touch, Blood Meridian handles its fever dream of ceaseless carnage in a similarly spectacular fashion. The difference with them is that, despite their deliberately disturbing content, the writers aren’t standing there shouting and pointing at every single rape, murder, and torture that occurs. They get on with it and let the reader figure it out. What do you know, the books are far more effective because of this detachment. So I have a deep appreciation for this more reserved examination of the unhappy side of the human psyche. But a reserved tone is not the basis for an entire genre. If literary fiction is supposed to be this marker of sophistication, then surely that means that sophistication relies solely on reserve as it seems to be the only defining characteristic. That is absurd and, furthermore, it’s not exclusive. There’s no reason that you can’t apply the same reserved style to commercial and genre fiction.
Literary elitism forever exists in an incestuous gated community, warding itself off from reality with high walls and fingers jammed into earholes. As usual with this kind of fantasy, it relies on hearkening back to an idealised past in which the realities, such as economic constraints on accessibility and participation, are blotted out and the preferred cultural elements are deified until the historical echoes that provided the seeds for the idea, grow into something that no longer resembles itself. These echoes are perpetuated by a kind of self-positioned cultural elite, and aspirants to the position of that cultural elite.
These are people who seek to separate themselves via the medium of any sort of culture or ‘the arts’ etc, but here we’ll stick with books. There is usually very little basis for the elevation of their own position save for a profound sense of entitlement. They simply declare that they are superior and via reading the ‘right’ kind of books declare that their chosen books represent a more respectable class of writing, with no further discussion or evidence necessary. This, of course, echoes the ‘natural aristocrat’ ideal, so beloved of some modernists. In this way literature becomes a form of class war as this is, at its root, concerned with dictating and preserving the strata of culture and society which most benefits them.
At this point it might be suggested that my position seems to suggest that one amorphous blob of homogenised text is the ideal – a dystopian literary communism. That position would be wrong. Diversity, differences of opinion, opposition, is the lifeblood of healthy culture. Variety is not just the spice of (creative) life, it is the thing which enables its continued existence over the long-term. Nor am I attempting to do away with the notion of quality, as also might be inferred. In a similar vein, if one reading so far is that I am attempting to argue that all writing is equal, that would also be incorrect. I am the last person on Earth to declare that all writing should be considered equal. It isn’t.
What I object to, however, is the creation and enforcement of a cultural hierarchy of art, whereby designating something as belonging to a broad category of literature can elevate or detract from that work without creating an impetus to engage with the work on a direct basis. With that said, I accept that it’s not reasonable to expect people, en masse, to engage on a book-by-book basis. Stereotypes are an evolutionary development with a purpose, and to an extent it’s not unworthy of consideration. That consideration, however, must be scrutinised because stereotyping, regardless of context, is a mindless process. The concern, then, is the hijacking of these snap judgements and their expansion beyond their natural usefulness to the point where they become a tool of manipulation in the construction and entrenching of malignant socio-cultural structures.
There has long been a supposition that commercial literature, genre fiction, et al. are inferior forms of writing. While this may not be as overtly prevalent in the twenty-first century, or even be a particularly conscious opinion, it still suffuses culture. The perceived inferiority seemed to be based on the idea that the broad lack of pretension was indicative of a lack of quality; a story not plastered over with allusion or allegory, in favour of plainer motives, was for comparatively inferior people. I’d have assumed this to be a personal psychological projection of my own repressed insecurities, had the Internet not practically made a meme out of rolling their eyes every time yet another literary vs genre argument (round 2,675,409,272,943) erupted on Reddit, Livejournal, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Had Margaret Atwood not uttered the immortalised dismissal of science fiction, had certain sections of the literary world not all but broken out into hysterics on learning that Sir Kazuo Ishiguro was writing a fantasy novel (and the actually hysterical arguments as to why we’re not allowed to consider it fantasy after it was published with people scrambling to redraw boundaries like an American politician with an election in sight). Clearly the cultural totem pole is well and truly there. As an aside, it’s probably worth noting that Margaret Atwood’s current attitude seems less judgemental. In contrast, and perhaps in the wake of the backlash to her space squid joke, criticism from Ursula K. Le Guin, and a typically dystopian novel that seemed to integrate pulp elements, 17 or so minutes into a Channel 4 interview, she notes that she likes dragons, she just can’t write them.
All of this might seem to give the idea that I am suggesting that The Very Hungry Caterpillar is on equal ground with The Remains of the Day, or that The Big Sleep is on par with Crime and Punishment. Again, no. What I am suggesting is that the inclusion of subtlety and nuance – as thin as those words are – in a book does not inherently make those books superior to those with more straightforward approaches. The intent, for a start, is fundamentally different. Instantaneously positioning written complexity above simplicity is to both suggest that complexity is of inherently greater quality, and to tie the very notion of authorial intention, perhaps even intention on a broader scale, to notions of value ascribed on a linear hierarchical scale.
I don’t think that’s reasonable, considering that I’m not sure I can find a justification for buying into, or propagating, those assumptions without reliance on fallacy or just flatly ignoring inconvenient details. The amusing thing being that, in history, when the self-proclaimed elite ran into these very same problems they tended to do just that – ignore them.
The more I think about it, the less I’m convinced that ‘literary’ fiction is a term that can actually constitute a ‘genre’ so much as the terms is more useful as a descriptor of the contents. For the present purpose, however, I’ll continue to treat it as a form of writing in and of itself. The egotism associated with the ‘literary’ might actually be compelled in part by faulty administrative categorisation.
At current we seem to divide fiction by genre and literary, and from there we draw some socially-informed opinions of the content. Fair enough and understandable, although potentially harmful and uninformative to the readers. As I’ve outlined previously, just labelling a book romance, fantasy, or science fiction can influence the decision to dismiss it offhand in the eye of those who have, whether conscious or not, been taught that commercial fiction is ‘lesser’ than literary fiction. This is to write off vast swathes of writing without reasonable consideration. Bollocks, but understandable – it’s a world in which the pace is constantly accelerating, leaving less and less time to go about the basic functions of life between other obligations. It’s not reasonable to expect someone who just wants to red something, to hold and chair a debating society in their own heads before they are allowed to decide whether they need to construct their own personal literary categorisation system before they are, finally, allowed to read a sodding book.
A Trip to the Boneyard is not the same as The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, though you might find them on the same shelf. A Trip to the Boneyard is deliberately more pulpy than LeCarre’s novel, which is considerably more deliberate. At the same time, you might not want to read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold while just trying to ignore the sweat-dampened belly fat spilling over the armrest of the passenger next to you, while you’re hurtling through the air at 25,000 feet in, of all things, around a hundred tonnes of metal. Then again, someone looking for an allegorical reconstruction of the peasant class psyche at the time of the fall of Tsarist Russia, may not be interested in reading either of those books. Yet under the ‘genre’ classification all of these books are effectively the same.
Some of that is just going to be personal preference – I’m very unlikely to read romance, it just doesn’t interest me. That said, I flatly refuse to write off the entire genre wholesale, because while I may be unimpressed by the Mills & Boon ‘two blondes and a banker’ format, which, by the way, sells like lubricant at an anal-sex convention, that doesn’t mean ‘two blondes and a banker’ is the only thing that can ever be produced in the romance genre, nor does it mean there is no merit to the genre inherently. Taking that stance would probably make me a bigot.
What might alleviate this? Considering books not by genre or as ‘literary’, but instead by ‘pulp’, ‘commercial’, or ‘literary’. Under each of these headings we might be able to fit a great number of books by genre while also indicating some idea of narrative complexity or authorial tonal intent. To reiterate, this is not to take the stance that pulp is less than commercial, which in turn is less than literary. The idea here is to put each heading side by side as a system of organisation, deliberately removing, or at least lessening, the socially received and entrenched hierarchies, and encouraging exploration while acknowledging, if nothing else, the efforts of writers and customer expectations. Look, though – this is the output of ten minutes of musing. Someone more dedicated has probably already come up with this, if not something superior. You’ve got to wonder if publishing houses would even accept a change like that – commercial/literary as a divide is an easy sell, while dividing by descriptor and type asks more engagement from a customer, and there’s probably a good argument to suggest that potential customers just won’t engage, favouring a more passive system. Hopefully, that argument would be wrong.
The catch, I think, is that literature isn’t thought of in those terms. It seems like we’re still embedded a system that is stuck decades in the past, developed to reinforce a literary social structuring that is perhaps losing relevance or usefulness. Might this be intentional? Looking at it, the general conception of ‘high’ and ‘low’ brow does indeed have its origins in the preservation and reinforcement of a social hierarchy. Wouldn’t you know it, much of the reasoning becomes increasingly incoherent the more it’s interrogated. Yet the real kicker is how the disseminated delusions of at least a hundred and some years previous, still haunt the conceptions of literary value today. Arguably, this is still deliberate.
It should be noted that most of the people I’m using here weren’t writing with the idea that their words were going to be pulled apart by some guy on the Internet, so it should be acknowledged that there’s every possibility that each has a more considered and in-depth view on the matter than these particular sources would indicate and it would be disingenuous of me to treat them as a formalised defence. Nevertheless, I’ve used them because they represent the easy-use go-to wider arguments that we see trotted out every time this discussion occurs. Views sink into the broader consciousness they tend to lose the reasoning that gave birth to them, while still remaining as the cultural shorthand. The result is a lot of lazy thinking, hand waving, and dismissal, all kept afloat on the untested supposition that if the majority believe it then it must come from somewhere notable and it must be correct. This alone is justification for aggression.
There should be a distinction between a piece of writing that is not mass market and a piece of writing that is ‘highbrow’. Not appealing to the lowest common denominator doesn’t make your book a literary professor’s wet dream. Alongside this, let’s abandon the idea that there is anything, mass market or otherwise, that is for everyone. There’s a difference between popular fiction and pulp fiction, and while both of these might be described as ‘non-literary’, lumping both together is ill-considered, whilst flippantly writing off either category as being entirely without merit is snobbish.
It’s indicative of a defensiveness that a person would go about dismissing everything that isn’t sufficiently literary or highbrow enough as being automatically pulp. It’s also indicative of the same defensiveness, albeit from the opposite end of the spectrum, to dismiss literary fiction wholesale. The term itself is becoming more and more amorphous and meaningless as time goes by, with genre and literary fiction blurring together. Sir Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant had people on both sides of the literary line in delirious apoplexy. One of the modern darlings of the reader’s circuit writing a – shock horror – fantasy novel had the literary brigade checking their social credit scores, while the genre readers viewed his initial hesitancy to classify his book as a fantasy novel with the same unimpressed scepticism that Margaret Atwood received after announcing that she couldn’t be writing science fiction because science fiction was relegated to “talking squids in outer space.” This despite the dystopian science fiction of Never Let Me Go. The critics all rushed to their respective stations, one highly amusing defence insisted that because The Buried Giant used fantasy elements to examine more grounded elements, that it therefore could not be fantasy. Bitch please. To Ishiguro’s credit he appeared to abandon the pretension after enough drama and subsequently didn’t seem to care who was getting bent out of shape. There’s a great conversation between him and Neil Gaiman that is worth a read.
The people who dismiss literary fiction entirely are usually those who have bought into the hype. They’re scared that they won’t ‘get it’. Perhaps they’ve read a couple of The Times best sellers or something from the canon and weren’t left in a puddle of their own juices. If you listen to the zeitgeist the insinuation is that any response short of misty-eyed awe indicates that you have missed something. In response people erect a preemptive guard for their egos against further ‘failure’ so they don’t have to conclude they must be too stupid to get whatever it was that they were supposed to get. Treating books like a zero-sum game is obnoxious, but I guess people must try to find a way to claw themselves up the social totem pole and lecture the other grains on their own importance. This is why nobody should ever pay attention to a crowd. Sometimes that esteemed book on the public pedestal just isn’t your cup of tea. Sometimes it’s just meaningless pseudo-intellectual shit. This is one of the common manifestations of intellectual insecurity: The fear of asking a question based on the assumption that everyone else knows the answer and will look down on you for not knowing, or simply that other people are correct and you are wrong, purely on the basis that the majority of them are moving in the same direction. The sad reality is that people in groups move in the same direction purely because they’re following the other people in the group and just won’t stop to think about it. There have been studies on this. It works for both ends of the spectrum – the ‘high’ and the ‘low’.
Can literary fiction be pretentious pseudo-philosophy? Absolutely, but that potential applies to everything and so doesn’t mean it’s all like that. Ian McEwan’s Saturday, springs to mind as potentially the most relevant example of a book trying to be somewhat more than it is. Starring Henry the neurosurgeon in a reminder nobody needed as to why it is that nobody wants to trawl through every arbitrary thought that passes through someone’s head. As an exercise in writing I’m actually impressed that sixty pages in the bloke is still monologuing away at his window (he’s up before dawn, obviously, because we all know that anybody successful runs on an unhealthy lack of sleep – especially high ranking neurosurgeons) but it’s all very smug. Another rich boy looking down their nose at everybody else, having convinced themselves that people want to listen to them jawing their opinions. Self-indulgent doesn’t begin to cover the greasy attitude with which Henry holds forth on a grating litany of topics amidst his squash games, cooking, and conversations with his poet daughter and his lawyer wife, etc.
You get the idea that we’re supposed to find him profound, but far from expounding on the depths of the human condition, as we’re assured that all literary fiction does, we’re just dragged through a morass of trite upper-middle class tedium before being presented with a ham-fisted conclusion involving Dick Van Dyke after a Guy Ritchie marathon. Of course he’s soundly trounced by the father-and-son tag-team who reassert the correct order of the world before a final condescending Aesop in which the good doctor is rushed away to the operating table to save the life of the guy who just broke into his home and threatened his family. But of course he does, because he’s a doctor, damn it, and somebody has to preach moralising naivetes from a lofty perch in an echo chamber, with which the attendees can use to pat themselves on the back.
Attempting profundity, run-of-the-mill literary fiction only ever manages a dry lack of self-awareness as it peacocks about the page. I’d like to know the ratio of books where the characters navel-gaze from scene to scene like they are trying to find the Delphic Oracle amidst their belly lint. Someone, somewhere, will tell you that this is ‘character driven’, which is fine. Except that when I get into a taxi I expect the driver to fucking well go somewhere. Merely having memories is not enough to make a piece of fiction character driven. If it did then Alzheimer’s would be a deconstruction of literary fiction as a genre. I, too, am guilty of wondering, on numerous occasions, after the sixtieth page of a character wedged up to the neck stump in umbilicus, whether I simply ‘don’t get it’. The idea that highbrow fiction works as an examination of the ‘human condition’ only works if there’s something there to examine in the first place, but plenty of times it’s simply the case that the content is so trivial that I was left wondering weather I’d missed something or if things are really as banal as they appeared. I’ve actually pulled a bunch of books off of my shelves to go back and re-read in order to test whether my original assessments were accurate. There’s got to be some reason that these meandering vagaries of writing win awards besides the desire of their publishers to direct consumer attention and drive sales… right?
It comes down to trying too hard. In a bid to appear notable, the people who want to be seen to be reading something that only a few people ‘get’, create a market for fiction that masquerades as something with depth, but, lacking the skeleton around which to staple flesh, is unable to form the core from which the potential for profundity arises.
There’s an argument in the defence of ‘highbrow’ literature that illustrates precisely the problem I have with the tendency towards spurious elitism in literary circles, ironic in its posturing while encapsulating so many regurgitated microwave-ready responses. Thrown out as if air-tight and unassailable, the old dismissals are, in fact, prone to leaking. This, of course, is the recurrent problem for the kind of people who attempt to use art as a vector to prove some sort of superiority; as John Carrey points out in The Intellectuals and the Masses, the same intellectuals who laid claim to natural superiority over the less wealthy, relying on an appreciation of the arts as their reasoning method, were nonetheless incapable of articulating a sound argument in support of their position.
Kent begins by addressing the idea of intellectual snobbery, “as though the reason for reading and writing the stuff is solely to intimidate dinner guests.” It’s a point I’ve addressed before – which is to say I disagree. Yes, certain types of people do read certain types of literature more or less exclusively as though they are engaged in a lifelong dick-measuring contest. It’s the eternal joke that people don’t buy books to read, they buy books to put on a conveniently prominent shelf, spine out. Except it’s not always a joke. Why do you think there’s a market for young adult fiction in ‘adult’ covers? Why do you think there are so many articles regarding people lying about having read one book or another? It’s that same meaningless social code that drives people to declare their throbbing lust for War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, or A Tale Two Cities, despite their most intimate connection with any of these titles being that they unwittingly passed them in a shop window on the way to the pub last Saturday.
Status is a driver of human motivation that cannot be underestimated. The cultural weight of the classics and the literary canon, while containing great literature and a plethora of books that were important in their grappling with their contemporary socio-cultural values and contexts, has less to do with the writing, less to do with the books themselves, and more to do with the prestige that comes with telling other people that they’ve read those books; often completely ignoring the fact that the history and context are the reason the academic world even considers these titles in the first place. In doing so that person is not making a claim that they appreciate those authors or those books, they are using that literature as a way of marking themselves as a member of a particular tribe from which they will expect to derive a high social value. I’ve always found it interesting that the books people claim are anti-popular or not consumer friendly, are also the books that populations are brow-beaten into respecting, often without knowing why, and only out of a forced cultural imperative than a genuine appreciation. Their weight as a keystone in culture is analytical in value, but I don’t buy the idea that there are that many armchair social anthropologists in the world. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people are consumers first. They are not reading Jane Eyre with the aim of articulating their own interpretation on the novel’s ties to feminist theory – and that’s perfectly acceptable. However, my impression has been that reading Jane Eyre has become an almost mandatory book to invoke if you wish to enjoy reading and support gender equality at the same time. Worse, you absolutely must enjoy it. If you do not then you’re out of the clubhouse. I worry that forcing an agenda on literature deprives it of its appeal as an object of curiosity and limits the potential for novel interpretations of works.
“It’s no secret highbrow can be difficult,” says Kent, but I’d argue that this definition of difficult is faulty and it is the argument everyone hears. Kent ties difficulty to complexity, but ultimately that joining doesn’t stick. People love to throw this word ‘difficulty’ around. They do this because they think it speaks for itself. Justifications are usually just hand waves it with some arbitrary waffle about ‘the human condition’.
As an aside, can somebody expand on the human condition for me, please? I only seem to encounter it as a hand wave when someone hasn’t really thought about what they’re trying to say. This bloody phrase is dragged out in defence of piss-thin reasoning all the time and it has simply lost all meaning. It seems to me that when we want to dive into some potentially uncomfortable or difficult part of our collective psyches but don’t want to spend too long there, just long enough to take a sufficiently philosophy-tinted selfie for our instagram walls (“o hi bbz jus livin’ muh best lyf :winkyface: :plantain:” – Hegel, 2019), we tend to come out with ‘the human condition’.
As Kent repeatedly returns to complexity, I will take that as my marker for the defining characteristic of ‘difficulty’. If difficulty stems from complexity, then most fiction, of any kind, fails. With regards to literary fiction, a sizable chunk mistakes nebulousness for complexity. It is not. Complexity is a lattice of interlocking gears, not the abstractions of tea leaves decaying at the bottom of some cloudy mug water. Complexity contains substance, the depth or breadth of which is perhaps difficult to take in all at once, but which is made up of specific identifiable component parts. It is not any ill-defined concept that may or may not be illustrated. It’s laziness when an experience is outside of easy communication, to simply write it off as too muddy to adequately convey. If it’s not laziness, it’s disingenuous to try and fail to grasp something that actually might be complex, and then present it as if what you’re saying is in any way profound, as opposed to the mere result of spaffing onto a page, in the hope that somebody might mistake authorial befuddlement for hard-won wisdom.
“Complexity exists in highbrow literature because life is complex.” This common response falls under the category of ‘answers that sound meaningful if you say them with enough force, but only as long as nobody examines them’. This is not an answer, it’s a hand wave. A get-out-of-jail-free card that plays well on twitter. It favours convenience over clarity. First, define complexity, and then explain why it is, theoretically, missing from other genres of fiction. That’s not necessarily the case. That’s a deliberate mischaracterisation that seems to have developed into an accepted false equivalence. The argument is predicated on the presupposition that genre fiction cannot contain complexity, but the defining characteristics of complexity are never outlined nor are there any reasons provided as to why it should be the case that genre fiction, as a massive umbrella encapsulating a vast body of work, is somehow fundamentally incapable of complexity.
The implication seems to be that people are objecting to complexity in and of itself. Wrong. That’s a mischaracterisation and the implication therein seems to be that any person who might object to complexity simply can’t handle it. Again, wrong. People read for different reasons. While many do read purely for the sake of entertainment and relaxation, the suggestion that choosing to read a more formulaic clear-cut story is, in turn, evidence of an inability to engage with complexity is downright condescending. Furthermore, this suggests that making the choice to read complex material is somehow linked to a person’s ability to ‘handle’ the complexities of real life, which is flatly naive and somewhat seems to be another indicator of that intellectual insecurity. Finally, difficulty does not equate to complexity. Complexity does not equate to quality. It would benefit us to kill this zeitgeist.
“Not simply character and motivation. No hand holding.” Listen, literary fiction isn’t the fucking Dark Souls of reading and, as above, frequently isn’t actually difficult. Just self-absorbed and poorly defined. There’s nothing difficult about hundreds of pages of trawling through memories and characters who don’t know what they want, like a conveyor belt of photo albums at your grandparents’ house after dementia has settled in. At least your gran might provide tea and biscuits. Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation is difficult; damned interesting, but I’m fairly certain a bunch of it sailed right over my head and perhaps it was only difficult because I wasn’t familiar enough with the underlying ideas. Neitzsche’s Thus Spake Zurathustra is difficult, as perhaps illustrated by the staggering number of edgelords who will proudly parrot how “God is dead”, dutifully missing the point in the process. Nabokov is the obvious go-to author for difficulty, but I don’t think he qualifies in the sense that everybody brings him up in. His difficulty is in his prodigiously girthy logomania – a difficulty that is easily rendered moot by the use of a dictionary. I can’t remember having any difficulty with Pride and Prejudice outside of the sawdust writing so characteristic of the period, nor in everybody’s favourite namedrop – The Great Gatsby.
Don’t misunderstand me, this is not some kind of sad humblebrag, I genuinely believe that we are using the wrong terms and having the wrong arguments as a result. I’m worried that we’re assigning the idea of ‘difficult’ to anything that might inspire the least bit of thought. I thought a whole lot about Fight Club back in my early twenties (because what guy didn’t…); that book has a lot to say on consumerism and the concept of masculinity in the modern era, but I simultaneously assume that Fight Club isn’t going to have the literati in a mass fit of convulsive masturbatory frenzy, nor would I consider it a difficult book. I’m not sure that many books are difficult. As far as I can tell, unless you’re James Joyce, that’s part of the point. The funny thing is that I’ve got a hunch that if Fight Club were written in a different way by a different author it absolutely would be called ‘difficult’ and fuel chains of ecstatic spasms in the chronically insecure. If the claim is that any book that might inspire deeper thought (and comes from the right social background) is automatically difficult, then we are setting the bar embarrassingly low.
From there we have the implication that only highbrow literature can raise questions. Well, that’s bollocks. Kent name drops the obvious – Lowbrow is E.L. James and Dan Brown. Highbrow – but of course – Fitzgerald. I find this to be disingenuous. This is more or less the literary equivalent of virtue signalling. A strawman if nothing else. Science fiction has produced some of the most well regarded and thought provoking literature in the last century. 1984 and Brave New World have examined the political workings of authoritarianism from different perspectives and each provides a valid commentary. Can anybody argue that there is a Freudian examination of masculinity in the character of Richard Wilder in J.G. Ballard’s Highrise – to say nothing of the overt commentary of social class structures and the concept of civilisation. I’d put money on the idea that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, horror though it may be, has more to say about humanity, and cleaner said, than a good number of ‘highbrow’ novels. Do we just disregard China Mieville’s The City and The City because it’s a thriller? Can we just throw away a masterclass in writing like Blood Meridian if we call it a western? Are we only allowed to respect the James Baldwins, Toni Morrisons, and Jhumpa Lahiris of the world? So some insecure prick with a chip on their shoulder can tell themselves they’re superior because they’ve read one book and not another? Fuck that and fuck them. T. S. Elliot’s sacred ‘edifices’ must be ground into dust.
Perhaps this is where the crossed-wires potential ramps up. If I say that Blood Meridian is a western and it is certainly not holding any hands, there’s every chance that a lot of people will tell me that Cormac McCarthy goes ‘beyond’ genre or something. Ishiguro is, perhaps, too obvious by now, having written dystopian science fiction and fantasy, emphasising the implications woven into the genre elements of the stories. They each deal with larger scale allegorical themes. Is this the defining line? If respectability comes from simply resisting the urge to dump all of the information into the readers lap, then someone like Robin Hobb, springs to mind. Though, her books shy away from unnecessary allegory or making grand commentaries on the world, she also tends to avoid the tendency to exposition dump and character actions require some level of interpretation. Does Steven Erikson count, then? Famed for dumping his readers into his worlds and letting them sink or swim, his style has proven quite divisive amongst fantasy readers, with some giving up in confusion early on. Am I required to namedrop Vonnegut? Would ‘letting the reader fill in the gaps’ make Dark Souls the video game equivalent of highbrow fiction?
Why does the defence of highbrow literature always seem to require stringing it up at the top of a hierarchy? It’s as if everything else must be set below to justify its value, and that in turn just seems to reinforce the view that if you’ve got to try that hard to prove the to other people that the thing you’re identified with is some signal that you’re superior to the people around you, then maybe you’re not. If you’re part of a smaller group outside the statistical average (if such a thing applies here) then other people within that group will notice your strengths or weaknesses whether you want them to or not. While we’re here, let’s ditch the idea that being an outsider makes you a special case – it doesn’t. The outsiders already know that.
So why would we tell ourselves this? Perhaps the point of drawing this divide was a misguided attempt to find something to measure against. For one, you can’t empirically calculate literary merit and we seem to be performing a bizarre set of mental gymnastics in order to sustain this cultural status quo. It panders to our egos, we simply have to name drop the correct book title or author name, safe in the knowledge that the shorthand that our listeners receive is ‘I am smart’. It’s been going on for long enough that we believe the shorthand without scrutiny. There’s some implication that merely reading a text means that you have registered and comprehended all of the culturally accepted subtexts, not to mention the potential for a reader to bring their own readings and interpretations to the table.
Surely, if we were truly concerned with intellectual sincerity then we wouldn’t feel the need to rely solely on unquestioned shorthand. In part, the problem with that is that you are unlikely to solve the problem by getting rid of the very shorthand I have just criticised. The obvious outcome is that, instead of breeding a new focus on genuine curiosity or creating fertile ground from which to grow a crop of authentic perspectives, you merely create a new shell for the old problem. The casual name-dropping ends. In its place is an aggressive form of social interrogation. Questions develop about specific pieces of literature, deemed to be ascendant by whoever controls the culture. Over time these questions gain broadly accepted answers that, in one way or another, influence or reflect a person’s status and social credit. In essence, we’re back where we started, only, arguably, we’ve just made the problem worse: It’s just a less passive form of baseless elitism.
As for the idea that ‘highbrow’ literature is a tool against fundamentalism and dictatorships, I don’t mean to be insulting, but that does come across as naive. The people who are drawn to fundamentalism and totalitarianism don’t read ‘highbrow’ literature, unless they’re at the top. With regard to genre, I’ve already demonstrated that genre is more than capable of tackling larger issues, including critiques of culture and political systems. But how can this be if ‘lowbrow’ is fundamentally incapable of profundity or implication? On the more ‘real’ end of that spectrum, I’m not necessarily against the concept of literature as a bulwark against political extremism in one form or another, but ultimately I find myself sceptical. While I may be able to assassinate a dictator with a well-aimed copy of War and Peace, the thing that destroys totalitarian regimes is money. Either a lack thereof on the part of the dictator, leading to a crumbling of their support base on whom they rely; or by enough funding being pumped into opposition groups in the aim of deposing said ruler. Arguably this is over-justification; to bootstrap something onto the nearest feasible higher ideal in order to give it some greater cultural merit. Usually it works as long as nobody looks too close. Admittedly, I’m pissing on my own shoes here, but there are limits to the written word and this might be one.
So whence came all of this insecurity? Having spent so much of their existence in society being assured that they were inherently superior, the ‘elite’ were not receptive to the notion that the ‘natural order’ they have been brought up to believe in, was no longer assured. Fancy that. Their changing circumstances from security via inherited wealth, to a world where even they were expected to earn their place, would dramatically redefine the distance between them and the average person.
So just what is this ‘natural aristocrat’? John Adams warbled on about them in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1813, in which he interpreted the word ‘talents’ so creatively that it left the post code of the dictionary he’d found the definition in. Suffice to say it falls into being one of those broadly unspecified ideas that none of its own proponents could quite figure out. There’s some dispute as to what precisely constitutes a natural aristocrat, what exactly is in the ‘must have some sort of recognised lineage and/or poorly-defined characteristics’ fine print. They generally seemed to agree that it was a non-specifically God-given position, very much desired to stress the ‘natural’ part of the title. As a result, they couldn’t just accept a person with enough dough to gild their bollocks in 24 karats.
Who should be afforded this title? Err, they’re not sure. Though they are all very sure that they should be included in the group. Fair enough, but by what right or qualifications do they lay claim to this theoretical position. Err, divine right. But weren’t these the same people who wanted to argue for rationality and so on? Well, yes. Lacking any hard evidence of divine mandate it looks suspiciously like an argument for a return to feudalism.
This argument doesn’t seem to have changed much for contemporary ‘natural aristocracy’ proponents, who all seem to desire some sort of neo-feudalist social hierarchy, presumably all convinced they will automatically be somewhere at the top. The most common argued method of distinction for the natural aristocrat, across time, seems to be the demarcation of a ‘cognitive elite’. Apparently the natural aristocracy works best in a geniocracy. Old school proponents of the idea would simply have argued for the discovery of a fabled ‘philosopher king’.
Tying social elitism by virtue of IQ, to the right to rule is pretty sketchy. How trustworthy an indicator is IQ? I’m not smart enough to say, but a quick Google search will bring up numerous articles on the subject, which also seems to indicate the topic swings into view every handful of years. I’m also reminded that the people with the highest IQs generally seem to be sceptical – or perhaps that’s just a display of public relations-based diffidence. Some people argue that aptitude for the technical and complex is the mark of the modern natural aristocrat, suggesting that the natural aristocrat status is based on era-dependent criteria. That seems to conflict with the older more hereditary-based concepts. Has it changed in the modern day? I don’t think it was ever fleshed out enough to be capable of meaningful change – the natural aristocrat was a position argued for by people who didn’t want to adapt to a changing world in the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. In the modern world it’s a position argued for by people who want high social status without earning it. So, anybody with egocentric pretensions or delusions of grandeur. Essentially we’re back to arguing for neo-feudalism. Under the illusion of meritocracy propagated by oligarchic plutocracy we’ve got a more complicated version of precisely this. Is this what was envisioned as the natural aristocracy?
However the people arguing for natural aristocracy at the turn of the twentieth century, and the people who would fit the status of the natural aristocracy today have got to where they are by virtue of being born into the right families. It seems like most of the people proposing the natural aristocrat argument in opposition to universal education in the early twentieth century, D. H. Lawrence excepted, came from wealth and didn’t like the idea that their job stability was under threat by some kids from the local estate. This focus on money seems to exclude them from the position of ‘natural aristocrat’ as the idea seems to also be bound up in more nebulous notions of inherent leadership qualities or a kind of animal magnetism.
We can only conclude that the natural aristocrat is the favoured position of anybody who feels threatened by the concept of social mobility. In the modern day we’ve become quite fond of social mobility, despite all attempts to curtail it by anybody anywhere near power. Typically these people go hand in hand with the sorts of people who, whatever the agreed upon criteria, are quite sure that they exist somewhere at the top of the evolutionary tree – upper class Victorian style – and so deserve to be served. So we’ve got a general continuous trend of self-proclaimed ‘superior’ folk, whatever they choose to label themselves, being completely incapable of justifying their own sense of importance when asked to do so. What else is new?
Modern notions of the natural aristocrat seem to focus on a more meritocratic interpretation of the concept, in a divergence from previous interpretations – to paraphrase a bit of research, “he will be well read, with a focus on older an classical works which teach lasting truths, while avoiding modernistic perversions.” Translation: “The modern world scares me. I don’t have any guaranteed inherited power in this system, this egalitarianism that threatens the position I think I am entitled to by dint of an infantile ego. So we should all stop all the progress and go backwards towards something I am naively convinced I would be more successful in.”
Most of these guys are essentially reddit neckbeards. Preoccupied with the idea of ‘rational’ government – ‘rational’ in this case meaning some sort of misty-eyed one-dimensional caricature of the classical civilisations – typically Rome or Greece. Because, of course, to some people going backwards several thousand years and then stagnating in that state, is how civilisations achieve progress.
Other than that, much of the discourse resembles precisely the easy-bake elitism of the early twentieth-century upper class modernists, bitter about no longer being able to sustain themselves through the harsh toil of blathering about poetry at garden parties. It’s all still concerned with the separation of the ‘high minded’ or ‘high spirited’ individuals from the masses, which in the modern day translates to watching Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro videos, and perhaps name dropping The Republic in a Discord channel somewhere. The usual fedora-tippers hearkening back to ossified beliefs about masculinity – masculinity being some amalgamation of Sin City and The Godfather. Lots of emphasis on repression and stoicism, in the colloquial sense, though someone might mention The Meditations once in a while. Everything is always framed in terms of classicism. From this we can conclude that the modern natural aristocrat is something like Seneca cosplaying Al Capone?
Then, as now, the most outstanding feature of the natural aristocrat is that is has none. A self-perpetuating superiority complex leaning on obsolete social structures and pseudo-reasoning, and hoping nobody notices. The target audience for this kind of ideology generally won’t, or if they do they’re overly preoccupied with the fact that this narrative serves as a cushion for their limping egos.
The natural aristocrat relies not on its own merits, but is predicated on the enforced paucity of others. It justifies this position by suggesting this state is the ‘natural’ order. This presupposed natural order is little more than a contrivance designed to handwave or ignore the fact that the perceived lack in the ‘lesser’ people was rarely something they had any control over, nor something that those people had the option to rectify.
Despite the claim to intellectual superiority, the natural aristocrat idea demonstrates a fundamental failure to reason correctly, recalling the errors of ‘phlogiston’. The desired conclusion is reached by comfortably fitting the argument around it, rather than making the argument and drawing the conclusion from the answers. As for the original natural aristocrats, surely if they were so secure in their superiority, then they would have had no problem with an educated public as, being inherently inferior, the masses could never hope to challenge the established and natural order of society. Ultimately the elites were scared of a public that were the least bit educated, the proposed superiority of the natural aristocrat had no rational basis. Given their objections we can only conclude that they were well aware of this. When challenged, they attempted to justify their position, but, predictably, were incapable. Unable to reconcile the self-aggrandising with reality, they fell back on God and divine proclamation, which speaks for itself.
The historical aversion to distributing knowledge to ‘the masses’ by the literary intelligentsia, indicates a pervasive intellectual insecurity in the educated class. The Education Act of 1871, introducing universal basic education in England, received a strong, but not entirely unexpected, backlash from the intelligentsia. T. S. Eliot’s assertion that “There is no doubt that our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards […] destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans,” sounds almost comical in its detached elitism. Between the lines all we find is “they shouldn’t be allowed to read because we read and we like to think that makes us special.” Could it be that reading might provide the potential for self-improvement and start the slow turning of the gears of social mobility? It’s funny how it’s hard to escape the idea that his whining about ‘ancient edifices’ had very little to do with literature or human value, and everything to do with preserving a one-sided class hierarchy.
If the population gets, on average, more informed and educated, then surely the only logical conclusion is that the minimum standards have been raised. I am unaware as to how raising the ground floor of something means the standards for that thing have somehow become lower. Surely it shouldn’t matter one way or another, if these self-proclaimed superior humans are the only ones to truly live and think, as D. H. Lawrence asserted, while the rest of us are mere upright corpses. Also, which edifice is this, precisely? The edifice from which a small number of conniving rich boys manipulate and exploit a large number of people with less money and fewer options than themselves? The edifice where social mobility is absent? The edifice of daddy’s bank account and the landed gentry? The edifice of old white money? The fact that something is old does not imbued it with inherent value or entitle it to undeserved respect. It is often enough the case that ancient things must be destroyed to make way for progress. Tradition is usually one of those things that humanity benefits from the killing of.
Eliot’s comment on media, that the effect of newspapers was to “affirm them as a complacent, prejudiced, and unthinking mass.” Pot, meet kettle. While The Daily Mail has never been a paper that anybody has ever associated with critical thought, or any kind of thought for that matter, does that instantaneously mean that all attempts to inform the public via news media is inherently bad? According to Eliot, it would seem so. A completely irrational position. He simultaneously hates poor people for their ignorance, he hates them when they attempt to inform themselves, he hates anybody who tries to inform them. Well, fuck, m’lord, which is it to be?
It’s obvious that merely wanting something is rarely a good reason to get it – I might want ten double scotches, but it’s not a good idea. There’s a difference between educating and informing. The Daily Mail knows, and has always known, that its audience aren’t going to think critically. It’s what they rely on. The paper will feed and reinforce their confirmation biases, which will fuel a sense of self-righteousness, in which we can combine the misguided conviction of being correct with the emotion of being angry for the perfect ‘make the human happy’ concoction. For other instances of this effect see Facebook and twitter, or just about any other social media platform. The whole basis of these is to spike the ancient bits of our brain that haven’t quite learnt that they’re not standing in an African plain, and that generalisations and stereotyping aren’t the difference between life and death.
I agree that ‘giving the public what they want’ is a bad argument for any media, but this isn’t about what people think so much as how people think. As ever, if news media is going to print inflammatory articles that will piggyback on human negativity bias, then surely the answer is to educate the very people that exploitative bottom-rung ‘news’ media attempts to mislead. When people are educated to think critically, they are more likely to question the things they read. Or is that the problem? We’re talking about a group of people who solidly believed that the peasants should believe what the educated told them and not ask questions of their supposed betters. If we take D. H. Lawrence’s comments as representative, they barely saw the working class as human even, in Lawrence’s case, if they’d come from the working class. So if you teach your animals to question, they might question you. Can’t have that, can we?
Getting back to the point, why might they be against this from the point of view of intellectual insecurity? Well, if you’re trying to distinguish yourself via your intellect and you have these people who you’re used to having total dominance over you’re going to like the concept that they could start competing with you. It doesn’t take an Oxbridge-educated genius to realise that given enough books, some poor people might even out-argue their ‘betters’. In that case, how do you prove your superiority?
But, Francis, you like Nietzsche. You despise group-think. You’re a strange loner with a streak for championing individualism and personal integrity. Doesn’t that seem to suggest you should support the anti-mass sentiment? Wouldn’t you be at odds with Carey’s objections to Nietzsche’s conviction that those belonging to lower economic tiers were part of the masses and therefore inherently less valuable than those from the aristocracy?
No. Individualistic preference does not excuse undeserved arrogance. It doesn’t mean I automatically support the repression of people when they do not present a baseline ‘sophistication’ that is determined by the people making those judgements in the first place, which means it is biased and, given the elitism, cannot be trusted. A completely absence of objectivity means that the answer is always more about putting themselves on a pedestal and less about any real problems related to herd mentality. Find me a person who is not ignorant in some sense. I am sickeningly naive in numerous areas, of that I have no doubt. Ignorance and naivety can be addressed. Wilful ignorance is unforgivable.
Surely, regardless of their opinions, the work of these authors is still worth reading? Absolutely. Harlan Ellison was an awful person, by all accounts, but I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is still well worth reading. T. S. Eliot was a fantastic poet. I don’t like the opinions of Bret Easton Ellis half the time, but I still loved American Psycho. I read an article a while ago about people feeling that they shouldn’t read David Foster Wallace due to his personal politics. I say read on! This insipid notion that we should just ban everyone and everything we don’t like is the very death of the education and researched opinion that an advanced society is supposed to be for. How are we supposed to argue with ideas we refuse to engage with?
Fine, but you’re not exactly a representative for the working class, are you? So why do you feel the need to defend ‘the masses’? I don’t. ‘The masses’ in this instance isn’t related to an economic class. It’s everyone. Also because it’s fallacious to suggest that a person is unable to comment on a group purely because they do not belong to that group. To suggest otherwise is to relegate all human communication to a series of bubbles in which all other perspectives and experiences are conceived of as hostile, off-limits or simply unachievable. That should be terrifying to everybody.
As Carody Culver points out: people love lowbrow literature – hence it sells incredibly well. Nobody seems to want to admit it. Despite the evidence that people like lowbrow, they will hypocritically sneer at it. This is probably the reason the literati threw a bitch fit when Sir Ishiguro wrote a fantasy novel, who then, under pressure from these mugs, denied it was a fantasy novel, after which he had none other than Ursula K. Le Guin call him out. Literature drama, sometimes, is sodding ridiculous.
With regards to other forms of media, people seem far less inclined to conceal their interest in mainstream and commercial products. Does this intellectual insecurity manifest in literature only? There are now innumerable TV and film series that are worth watching. It does seem at times that when directors attempt to tackle ‘heavier’ subjects in a popular format, they do fall flat. Aliens Covenant gave us a laughable attempt at armchair philosophy and existentialism, culminating in a pithy, “yeah, well, I guess you’re just not human” proposed as a serious ‘answer’ to all the clumsy themes and decision making that made up the plot. That isn’t a ‘hooray for humanity’ moment. It doesn’t even qualify as an answer. Then again, perhaps it says something that my favourite Aliens film is probably the third one, though it was considered to be a poor entry into the franchise as it was received as less an Aliens action-horror film and more a nihilistic character exploration.
Video games, in public perception, were relegated to the bedrooms of teenage boys until fairly recently. The industry itself took far too long to get over its awkward desire to step outside of the comfortable, and profitable, women-as-reward machismo-driven power-fantasy, but benefited immensely when it finally did. While juvenile machismo is, arguably, as prevalent as ever, the industry’s broader accessibility and significantly larger pool have delivered the likes of Journey, Brothers, and Pathologic. While these games aren’t going to gain the commercial esteem of Call of Duty or Diablo, they do a fantastic job of highlighting the growing potential of games to provide a more mature attempt at game narratives.
It was interesting to watch the, frankly hilarious, backlash to Netherrealm Studio’s decision to dress their female characters as anything other than bikinis and bondage gear for Mortal Kombat 11. If the rumours are true, this makes everyone an SJW cuck. Or something. Despite the ridiculousness of getting into gender and social politics around a Mortal Kombat game, throwing a full scale tantrum about fewer stripper costumes in gaming seems to indicate more about the playerbase than the industry. The general prevalence of erotic suggestion has never been more overt or ubiquitous and its slight dialling back in gaming media is hardly heralding the end of sexual progress. The general point being that it’s perfectly OK to enjoy titles like Diablo and Mortal Kombat because people don’t seem to project so much of their insecurity onto other forms of media in the same way that they do on literature.
The market for this content is thriving and vocal. The success of the Britain’s Got Talent, the Avengers franchise, Jeremy Kyle and every conceivable form of consumer-template media is testament to the continuous desire for it. Walk into every office, coffee shop, or pub at Bake Off season and you will not be able to escape the sudden wave of people comparing Mary’s blancmange with Susan’s flan or Bob’s log.
If that is the case, then why is literature so afraid of having fun? Because the narrative has been created that lowbrow is indicative of being less intelligent. So, immediately, we’re guilty of a logical fallacy: That enjoyment of commercial literature is only possible if one is stupid, thus enjoyment thereof is a sure sign that one is stupid. It follows that a sufficiently intelligent person wouldn’t be capable of being stimulated by lowbrow literature, which is to assert that there is one singular type of stimulation and that enjoyment is sectioned into predefined tiers accessible under specific conditions. It’s unclear if social class or intelligence is the primary condition for rank or how one is affecting the other. The common person who can be engaged by mass media can’t be considered intelligent due to their choice of media. That media itself is a signal of their low social strata, or as Carver puts it, “The kind of people more likely to name their children North West or Bieber,” enjoy popular artists, mass media music, and personalities – the kind of lowbrow entertainment associated with ‘the masses’ and therefor, in the arena of taste and sophistication, make up the lowest common denominator. Hence the hipster – a poor man’s version of a rich man’s taste.
So it comes back to class. We are all simply attempting to separate ourselves from ‘the masses’, yet the data seems to suggests that we generally are quite happy to be ‘the masses’, just pretending not to be in certain instances. A 2011 study found that 55% of ebook readers had read less than a third of their ‘smart’ print books, while one in ten hadn’t read any. A quarter were embarrassed by their books, and thus the rise in ‘adult’ covers for young adult novels (convincing absolutely nobody, but if it comforts you then knock yourselves out).
From a critical perspective, the entire picture is nonsensical if you exclude the pre-occupation with status signalling. Perceived intelligence is one route to increased social status, hence intellectual insecurity: To maintain social status you must maintain the idea of intellectualism. If you do not maintain that idea then you move down the pecking order. If certain pieces of media are equated with lower intelligence, then to enjoy them is to provide evidence, not only to others but to ourselves, that we are of low intelligence and therefore undeserving of social respect. That’s quite funny considering that, as Carver points out, 50 Shades of Grey is the highest selling book of all time at 125 million copies worldwide by June 2015, which means that the odds of some really smart people reading one specific dumb book are pretty damn high, and thus all of the above is utter bollocks.
I once likened the James Sallis novel Drive to fast food – it’s not necessarily something you’re proud to eat, nor should you only eat fast food, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that you eat fast food because the fast food is tasty not because you’re tying to get some kind of benefit from it. Nobody is equating the existence of tastebuds with personal flaws or deficiencies, yet we seem to have no trouble with making the equivalent argument for literature.
Culver mentions Ulysses. I confess that I’ve yet to read it. I’ve heard the writing itself is very good, but the writing in Naked Lunch is also good despite the book itself being edgy repetitive trash, so outside of some generalised cultural imperative, nobody has provided me with any particular incentive to read it. The most common thing I’ve heard is that it’s supposed to be quite difficult. Ok, but so is masturbating in a blizzard. The inherent difficulty of a thing doesn’t mean it’s automatically worth doing. More important than this, difficulty does not equate to value nor quality. There is, persistently, this weird pressure to treat the two qualities as equals regardless of context or reward. The pressure, as ever, seems to come less from the benefits of reading Ulysses so much as the social credit in claiming to have done so.
Does difficulty automatically equate to cerebral challenge? No. A series of poorly constructed sentences is difficult to read, but that difficulty has nothing to do with the mental process of the reader. If I don’t have any schooling in Lithuanian, does trying to read a book in Lithuanian make me smart? No, it’s markedly idiotic, but it will be difficult. However, if I do have some schooling in Lithuanian and I try to read a book in Lithuanian, maybe the contextualisation and potential benefit to linguistic familiarity will boost my learning of the language, which is both a challenge and a benefit to me. So that would make the reading of the Lithuanian book worth it. The specific book in Lithuanian doesn’t matter so long as I find it challenging and beneficial enough. Whether it’s got cultural significance or the approval of the academy is utterly irrelevant.
It seems that the only real reason for disparaging commercial fiction comes down to an attempt to link our identities with the cultural concepts of sophistication, and thereby associate ourselves with a particular idea or group in order to gain social currency. As a result, the enjoyment of literature becomes less a matter of individual taste, opinion, and reception, but a meter ruler of popularity, if not a tool by which social conformity is entrenched. There’s no small amount of irony in that, considering how often we like to tout ‘challenge’ as a reason to read these books. The outcome is that the conversations and the high-minded ideal of sharing ideas inspired by literature, is set aside or, worse, herded into a boot camp call-and-response loop. Ironically, in a bid to prove ourselves intelligent individuals, we’ve done the very thing that epitomises group think and ignorance.