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Hype, Literary Anxiety, and Cultural Studies

Bill directs our attention to a pretty hefty MeFi discussion of A. S. Byatt’s rather persnickety thoughts about the popularity of the Harry Potter series among adult readers. Byatt seems, in some utterly inexplicable fashion, to blame “cultural studies” for Potter-mania, suggesting that the “leveling effect” of cultural studies is a result of such scholars being “as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists.”

There’s a lot to argue with there — does the study of the popular automatically suggest a failure in merit? Does an interest in media culture of necessity imply an uncritical celebration thereof? And what on earth does cultural studies have to do with the average Harry Potter-reading adult? — and the good folks at MetaFilter do lots of that arguing. And then some.

What can I bring to the table? First, I have to admit that I have not yet read volume 5, though I did advance-purchase it, and did have a minor conniption fit when I realized that, since I can only receive mail in the office (living in an address-less faculty residence on campus), and since the office is closed on Saturdays, and since we had in fact just moved out of our office and into temporary quarters so hidden from the FedEx guy as to be deemed undeliverable, my delivery would be delayed by Three Whole Days. After some anxious phone calls and some running around on the part of our summer student worker, I got my Harry 5.0, and happily placed it on my desk, where it remains, waiting patiently for me to finish the other reading I’m doing before plunging in.

In short: have it; dying to read it; have not yet done so.

I am, however, a student of hype, as Byatt would no doubt consider me, and find myself just as suspicious of those Keepers of the Culture who take such apparent joy in pooh-poohing the popular as I am of obviously market-driven cultural phenomena. Which is why I was overjoyed to find Charles Taylor’s article, “A. S. Byatt and the Goblet of Bile.” Taylor has the insight to point out that “nothing deserves our respect (or scorn) simply because it’s popular, no matter how popular,” and to suggest that “the literary novelists who get themselves worked up over popular fiction never stop to consider what it is that readers are responding to except, like Byatt, to put it down to the stupidity of the masses.”

These points bear much in common with the argument of my first manuscript, which I recently laid out in part in George’s comments:

The title, at least at the moment, is “The Anxiety of Obsolescence: The American Novel in the Age of Television,” and the central argument focuses on the apparent conviction embedded in the postmodern novel that it is a form under siege, obsolesced by more flashy contemporary media forms.

But what I’m interested in in that manuscript is not whether the anxiety is warranted — whether the novel is in fact becoming obsolete as a cultural form — but rather what discursive purposes the manifestation of such anxiety serves. One such purpose is of course the novel’s own continuation; as John Barth suggests in “The Literature of Exhaustion,” one way to deal with such anxiety might be to write a novel about it. But another such purpose is the intentional self-marginalization of both novel and novelist, such that, as an “alternative” culture, the product and the cultural producer can both benefit from the cachet of edginess — and, not incidentally, appropriate the mantle of marginalization from racial or ethnic or gendered or sexual “minorities.” There’s thus equal parts, in my argument, of nervousness and pleasure in this particular form of anxiety.

Byatt’s somewhat hysterical denunciation of the pleasures of the popular (and, even more importantly, the critical consideration of the popular) suggests that such anxiety might be operative not simply across media boundaries but even within the print form. The “serious” novelist feels obliged to create distance between her own work and that of her more plebeian but also more successful competitors (what Hawthorne famously referred to as “that damn’d mob of scribbling women”), hinting that her more difficult texts are happiest in their position on the margins of our culture because the mainstream reader is ill-equipped to understand them.

Such bald elitism is pretty difficult to take; hence the uproar on MeFi, Salon, and elsewhere. But, as Taylor reminds us, there is consolation to be found in the durability of the popular: Leslie Fiedler, in an interview he gave a few weeks before his death early this year, told of a meeting with a group of “postmoderns” in which he horrified his audience by proclaiming, “Look, let’s be frank with each other: When all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.”


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