As someone who studied literature at university, I have been unavoidably aware of the snobbery directed by some against popular literature.* There’s this general idea that if everyone likes it, it can’t be good. It all has to be dense and referential, like James Joyce or T.S. Eliot (both of whom I like, BTW) in order to be worth something. But most of all, it has to be exclusive to be good.
With characteristic reason, good sense and sound judgement, Jeremy Paxman has spoken out, calling for poetry to better respond to and engage with a popular audience. (Read the article here: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jun/01/jeremy-paxman-poets-engage-ordinary-people-forward-prize.) Quite right. Especially with poetry, we have slipped into a kind of snobby, elitist circle. Anyone in the poetry world (not I, I confess, but my partner is a poet and I peruse these things in a casual manner) is aware of just how wanky PN Review, the leading poetry magazine, has become. It seems like you need a PhD in philosophy or literature to publish in it, and you certainly need a PhD in at least one of those to grasp what the damn poetry is on about. The only contemporary poetry I have enjoyed lately is the performance poetry I see in little bars, in bookshops specially opened late, at open-mic events in arts centres. Paxman is right. Poetry has lost touch with the ordinary man. But there’s also the poetry that we don’t appreciate, that passes us by every day, without our notice. Jay-Z’s 99 Problems, the lyrics of Bob Dylan. Poetry used to be set to music. The word ‘lyric’ comes from the classical Roman instrument, the lyre, that accompanied that poetry. But the music we listen to, it’s popular, it’s low-status. It lacks that exclusive high-art appeal of poetry published by isolated intellectuals in a prestigious journal. But my god, I prefer it.
Similarly with the novel. Eloisa James has recently spoken out about the unfair marginalisation and devaluation of the romance novel. (Read it here: http://www.vulture.com/2014/05/romance-novelist-eloisa-james-interview.html.) Here, she talks about the issues of attitudes towards it. Working in academia, she had to keep her identity secret, because writing popular fiction, or ‘genre fiction’ (especially sexy books aimed at women, because we all know this is the most degrading thing possible – don’t get me started) would prevent her from getting tenure as an academic. There are many wonderful and sensitive articles about this by other writers. Amy Boesky has written this wonderful article on her experience of ghostwriting Sweet Valley High books as a graduate student to fund her studies, and the stigma associated with this: http://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2013-winter/selections/amy-boesky-656342/.
Why do we look down on what is popular? What is enjoyed? A wealth of the great literature that survives from the past is literature that was immensely popular and crowd-pleasing in its own time. Ovid’s sex tips, Chaucer’s fart jokes, Shakespeare’s plays – far less intellectual and “high status” than those of his contemporary and rival Ben Jonson – Dicken’s novels, serialised in the penny dreadfuls. We don’t give enough credit to what is enjoyable anymore. I wish we did. Isn’t literature about enjoyment and escape as much as it is about exploring ourselves, and the human condition?
What, from this time, will survive? What art form at the moment is challenging, enjoyable, sparking conversation and debate? I would argue that it is modern television. Breaking Bad, Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, Game of Thrones (I am aware these last two were books first, but they were made into TV cos they were entertaining, not because they were intellectual).
We don’t want poetry and literature to get lost under this fog of desperation for intellectual status. Something can be entertaining and still challenging. Enjoyable but still thought-provoking. Accessible to everyone and yet deep. Let’s value what we enjoy. I know I do.
*(Disclaimer: I studied at Oxford, where this is especially rife, and I am aware that many universities now have a focus on popular literature. This is also not to say that this is the opinion of all of the individuals I encountered there, just a general trend.)