From Pulp To Proust?

by Dish Staff

Does genre fiction act as a gateway to the hard stuff, to Woolf and Nabokov? Tim Parks challenges the conventional wisdom behind the “‘I-don’t-mind-people-reading-Twilight-because-it could-lead-to-higher-things’ platitude”:

[W]hy do the right-thinking intellectuals continue to insist on this idea, even encouraging their children to read anything rather than nothing, as if the very act of reading was itself a virtue? …

What no one wants to accept—and no doubt there is an element of class prejudice at work here too—is that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction. And that consequently those of us who do pursue this habit, who feel that it enriches and illuminates us, are not in possession of an essential tool for self-realization or the key to protecting civilization from decadence and collapse. We are just a bunch of folks who for reasons of history and social conditioning have been blessed with a wonderful pursuit. Others may or may not be enticed toward it, but I seriously doubt if E.L. James is the first step toward Shakespeare. Better to start with Romeo and Juliet.

Responding to Parks, Emily Temple calls out a snobbery she sees as unique to literary types:

We don’t have to argue about the fact that trash is a gateway to better tastes in [television, film or music], we just accept that most people discover Ace Ventura before Godard and Top 40 … before Lou Reed and Wagner. And we don’t have to dissect what it means to continue consuming both — there’s much less of a stigma attached to watching The Wire and The Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Inferno II in the same sitting than there is to reading both Silas Marner and The Da Vinci Code. Literary fiction used to be the province of the people, and somehow, over the years, it has become deeply alienating to many would-be readers.

True, there are music snobs, but the world of literature is uniquely snobby, and the art of literature is elevated to a kind of pedestal that no other entertainment-based art form is expected to reach (I’d put performance art and painting in another category) — hence the alienating quality. But it does early readers a disservice to suggest that once a Twilight reader, always and only a Twilight reader. Such snobbery can turn off or intimidate readers, and despite the fact that, as Parks says, literature is not the key to life, it is a pretty good and important thing. So beginning readers of all sorts should be encouraged.