Literary Elitism

I realize the article I’m about to discuss is two years old, but I just stumbled across it and it disturbed me a little.

In this article Harold Bloom lambastes the National Book Foundation for awarding Stephen King with the “Distinguished Contribution” award.

It should be said before I go any further, that I am generally not a fan of Stephen King as a novelist. On Writing was enjoyable, his columns in Entertainment Weekly are insightful and oftentimes quite funny, I really liked his short story compilations, but his novels just don’t really do it for me. Never have.

Nevertheless, I think Bloom was overly harsh in that article, and his comments on the state of the humanities in general were disturbing. This paragraph in particular:

“Our society and our literature and our culture are being dumbed down, and the causes are very complex. I’m 73 years old. In a lifetime of teaching English, I’ve seen the study of literature debased. There’s very little authentic study of the humanities remaining. My research assistant came to me two years ago saying she’d been in a seminar in which the teacher spent two hours saying that Walt Whitman was a racist. This isn’t even good nonsense. It’s insufferable.”

Wow. How bold of Mr. Bloom to say “there’s very little authentic study of the humanities remaining.” That is a powerful, bleak, all-encompassing statement, and I can only hope Mr. Bloom was merely upset because he hates Stephen King, and not because he truly feels that way about literary scholarship. And while I agree some teachers attempt to graft anachronistic views onto past writers and literary trends, perhaps Mr. Bloom should have either elaborated on the situation involving his research assistant or left it out, because I truly doubt deluded teachers are a recent anomaly.

He calls Aphra Behn a “fourth-rate playwright.” I don’t even know how to comment on that.

I also found this article by Bloom, which concerned me more than the previous one. I hope you read the article before you read the rest of my assessment, but if you don’t, he basically attacks J.K. Rowling because he finds her writing to be insufferably bad, and in his view “Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?”. Mr. Bloom seems to think it would be better for children to not read at all than to read J.K. Rowling, because if they read Rowling they will probably grow up and read Stephen King, and we all know how bad that would be.

Or put in a simple, syllogistic expression: Reading Harry Potter = Liking bad writing = Reading Stephen King and becoming a moron.

Mr. Bloom’s elitist outlook on literature and on those who read outside his established literary canon is insulting. Just because I enjoy reading a Harry Potter novel in between reading about the emergence of the novel in 18th century England does not mean I have no interest in enriching my mind or spirit or personality. The enrichment of the mind depends upon how a particular mind goes about assimilating the information fed into it. Mr. Bloom fails to acknowledge a discerning mind may be enriched by any number of things, and not just the texts he has deemed worthy of study.

Come to think of it, the first heard the name Agamemnon was in an Incredible Hulk comic book when I was in grade school. I learned about Milton and Emily Dickinson from James O’Barr. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby encouraged me to investigate Norse Mythology. I became interested in Russian mythology because Baba Yaga appeared in a Hellboy comic. Prophecy made me go out and find a decent translation of the The Gospel According to Thomas. And crappy movies like The Perfect Weapon, Firewalker, and Enter the Dragon inspired me to study a martial art, which led me to immerse myself in the centuries old form of Shotokan Karate.

My point? I am a proud product of popular culture. Yes, I have a classical education under my belt. I’ve memorized the beginning of the prologue to “The Canterbury Tales,” and I’ve studied Shakespeare until my head hurts. But I saw The Hobbit long before I read The Lord of the Rings. While I eagerly await the publication of Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, I get equally as excited when a new Spider-Man comic comes out. And in spite of all the faults inherent in the writing of J.K. Rowling I’ll be in line when the new book is released.

So, Mr. Bloom…I recognize your endless contributions to the study of literature and literary criticism. I bow before your insights in the realm of Shakespeare and Shelley. But frankly, when it comes to popular forms of literature (and yes, I consider comics a form of literature) you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Would rather kids not read at all…what a dumb-ass statement.

I invite your comments.

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