Sometimes, when you’ve come to writing through academia, you tend to be starkly aware of how the reading world is divided into many, many camps — sometimes, hostile with each other. By this, I mean what is literary and what is popular. Toss in genre distinctions, and it can get even worse. As in: You like horror garbage? I myself only read Nicholas Sparks. As if Nicholas Sparks is the paradigm of what is good and nourishing. Meanwhile, somebody in an English Department, somewhere, is pointing and laughing at the Nicholas Sparks reader, resting on their stead diet of Milan Kundera and James Joyce. For me, the alleged discord among readers reminds me of my favorite David Lehman quote, and since I’m too lazy to look it up, here’s a paraphrase: The only thing keeping English departments together is the mutual hatred of literature. Sometimes, in my more cynical moments, I tend to think that could be extrapolated to the reading world in general.
But, why can’t somebody, to employ a cliche, have their cake and eat it too. My academic background is in poetry. I realized that, as much as I love genre fiction, I had been missing something by largely ignoring the poetry world for the past four years. But it all comes back to one other thing — words like literary or popular fiction do not matter in the long run. When you boil it down to it’s minimum, “Pop culture” is still a part of culture.
And that’s why I love the following quote so much. Stephen King said this, while accepting recognition at the National Book Awards. It’s a good bit of advice to follow:
But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers, of course, which is us because writers are almost always readers and listeners first. You have been very good and patient listeners and I’m going to let you go soon but I’d like to say one more thing before I do.
Tokenism is not allowed. You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, “Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.” It’s not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.
What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?