“Poetry fettered fetters the human race. Nations are destroyed, or flourish, in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish!”
– William Blake
Let’s start with this: an excellent article by Stephen King on Harry Potter and reading in modern society. [Warning: do not read it if you haven’t read the Potter books, because it spoils them completely. And if you think the books are silly or beneath you, you are a silly person. You can understand this post without reading King’s article.]
There’s one quotation from near the end which I particularly liked, and which is the basis of this post.
I began by quoting Shakespeare; I’ll close with the Who: The kids are alright. Just how long they stay that way sort of depends on writers like J.K. Rowling, who know how to tell a good story (important) and do it without talking down (more important) or resorting to a lot of high-flown gibberish (vital). Because if the field is left to a bunch of intellectual Muggles who believe the traditional novel is dead, they’ll kill the damn thing.
And that is the essence of the problem with modern academia and people like the despicable Harold Bloom (who, incidentally, hates both Rowling and King). Not only do they have a terrible idea of what makes a good novel (something as obscurantist and incomprehensibly written as possible, with little to nothing real to say about the world), they also want the novel to be dead. The idea that “no-one reads anymore” and “all the good novels were written in the past” is essential to their understanding of art: that it’s something exclusive that only they and their buddies can understand. If it’s popular (i.e. King or Rowling) then it must be bad. If they had lived in Shakespeare’s times, they (like many others) would have thought him mediocre; they would have said the same about Dickens or Chesterton or Mark Twain or any other great artist popular in his own time.
But people like Harold Bloom aren’t just glorifying a past they intentionally distort: they’re strangling the present. To a large degree thanks to them, the current attitude towards art in our society is deeply unhealthy. It’s not just that some writers get overlooked – that has always happened and probably always will, to some degree. And it’s not just that some academics wouldn’t recognize a great novel if someone hit them repeatedly in the face with it (Harold, I’m thinking of you) – no, even readers think lowly of what they enjoy reading. Millions of people read Stephen King, and there’s good reason for it: not just because his books are often exciting or scary, but because they’re full of wonderful observations of modern society, strong and memorable characters, powerful themes that are relevant and important, and on a sentence-to-sentence level, simply fantastic writing.
But how many of these readers are aware, when they’re putting away It or Duma Key, that they’ve just read a literary masterpiece? Almost none of them. “I know it’s just Stephen King,'” they say, “but I kinda like it.” As if reading something enjoyable has to be justified. As if art must, by definition, be unpleasant to be meaningful. It is one of the best novels ever written about childhood and childhood friendships. Duma Key is a deeply thoughtful work about friendship, fatherhood, the human body, and art. They are also exciting and funny and scary – like a good Shakespeare play.
King makes another very useful observation:
And, of course, the bigheads would never have credited Harry’s influence in the first place, if the evidence hadn’t come in the form of best-seller lists. A literary hero as big as the Beatles? ”Never happen!” the bigheads would have cried. ”The traditional novel is as dead as Jacob Marley! Ask anyone who knows! Ask us, in other words!”
But reading was never dead with the kids. Au contraire, right now it’s probably healthier than the adult version, which has to cope with what seems like at least 400 boring and pretentious ”literary novels” each year.
You see, a great many kids still read. It’s when they turn into adults that they stop. And why is that? It’s because when they’re adults, the books they are expected to read are shit. The critics haven’t applied their disgusting ideas to children’s literature as much (yet) – if only because they don’t take it seriously in the first place. What children read is considered to be mostly stupid anyway, so they have much greater leeway when it comes to reading books they like. But as they grow older, they are taught that the kind of books they enjoyed were stupid, now it’s time to read something boring. Something that no-one but professional critics would really read in the first place; something that people mostly praise because they think they ought to, not because it actually did something for them.
That’s what Harold Bloom and his intellectual bedfellows (like the equally idiotic Theodor Adorno with his hatred of anything modern) are selling us: the death of art. Because what is art if not the ability to reach out and touch people? The ability to talk about the things that make us human, both good and bad? What is art if not imagination and craft combined into something that transcends both?
Art, Mr. Bloom, is not your exclusive boys’ club. It’s a living, breathing entity, a force that is alive now, not just in your silly and outdated idea of a canon. It shouldn’t be populist, but it has every right to be popular. And I hope that one day it crushes you and your accomplices, you stranglers of dreams, because the alternative is too terrible to consider.