Jun 19, 201508:21 AMCulture
Fun and Culture in the Mid-State
Pop Fiction, Art, or Both?
See if you can answer the following questions in your head: Who was the last American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature? Can you name any of last year’s Pulitzer Prize winners? Who wrote Ulysses?
How about these questions: What’s the sexiest book on the market? What is The DaVinci Code about? Who wrote Twilight?
Somewhere along the line, we all know that pop fiction and “literature” parted ways – likely for good. But what exactly is the difference between pop fiction and art? Can a book be both? And outside of money and awards, does the distinction really matter?
What we want to read really comes down to how we want to view ourselves. Books are mirrors.
When we look in the mirror, do we want to see what we’re expecting, or do we want to see what we really look like? Pop fiction photoshops our images; art shows us exactly who we are.
Pop fiction reflects our everyday narratives – the comfortable, relatable and sane. Art unapologetically pursues truth as its primary goal. What are we supposed to make of, say, the chapter in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying which comprises the single uncomfortable, unrelatable and insane sentence, “My mother is a fish”? Artists like things raw – uncut, uncleaned, bone-and-all.
Here’s an example. Fifty Shades of Grey autocorrects. America loves sex. Great sex. We can buy magazines at the checkout counter to learn “50 Hot Sex Moves” or “What He Wants You to Do in Bed.” A book about dangerous, fiery sex sparks the reader’s fantasies and helps her/him daydream about what s/he would rather be doing than reading. No one wants to read a book like The Sun Also Rises whose protagonist is entangled in his attraction to a beautiful woman but – thanks to an unfortunate World War I wound – happens to be missing a penis. You don’t get hot sex in The Sun Also Rises. You get a grown man looking into a mirror and weeping. You get the agony of a postwar generation whose young men are mostly dead in European trenches. No one wants to read that. Unless you like things raw – unless you want art.
Can a book be pop fiction and art? Only if the writer is good at appealing to both camps – and very lucky. Here’s an example: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I had to read this book for AP Literature and Composition in high school, but it’s also popular enough that it became a major motion picture. So why does it satisfy both the artists and the pop readers?
The artists like its cultural and narrative truth. From the beginning of the novel, we see issues like racism and class structure affect the friendship of two young boys, and when the lower-class one gets raped while the higher-class one cowardly watches from afar, their friendship can never return to its innocent state. The narrative is well-paced; the prose is smooth, detailed and down-to-earth. And the story doesn’t pull any punches. The book reminds us that no matter how much time and space we cover, we can never forget our loved ones or ignore the pain we caused them, and we can only find redemption at the very place where we fell.
And for some of the same reasons, pop readers love this book too. The narrative discourse is relatively straight-forward and easy-to-follow, as is the prose. The characters are round and relatable – they fall in love and get married, wrestle with family members and cry when burdens get too heavy. The themes hit close to home. Hosseini appeals to both camps.
Another example – someone who writes to a younger audience – is John Green. Green, too, likes his characters to be relatable, yet they are nonetheless round and surprising. Protagonists like Colin (An Abundance of Katherines) and Pudge (Looking for Alaska) are classic nerdy underdogs who find themselves in the same emotional boats many high schoolers are in, from sexual curiosity to questions of their own significance in others’ eyes. Yet they are far from stock. Colin constantly surprises us with his desire to mathematically generalize his own experiences, Pudge demonstrates striking social flexibility for a scrawny introvert, Alaska (LfA) is quite the deep thinker for the high-school hot girl (sneaking off to drink wine and read Vonnegut), etc. And Green always manages to place them in just the right settings to turn their problems into something thematically significant, like the difference between “prodigy” and “genius” (AK) or how to escape from life’s “labyrinth of suffering” (LfA). Green also somehow balances these big questions with humor and awkward honesty in clean, effective prose. His books are fun reads, but they also bring us face-to-face with the real questions adolescents must grapple with as they grow into a world much bigger than anything they’ve ever known.
So my point is that there will always be writing that tries to autocorrect, and there will always be writing that tries to be as clear a mirror as possible. The latter will probably win awards and land on syllabi. The former will probably make money. And sometimes a writer who is both talented and very lucky manages to do it all.
And I think it’s high time America takes some interest in the mirrors. Everything around us is custom-made to our comfort and sanity, from AC to tracking cookies. Let’s not get so caught up in what we’re used to that we think our own experience is the only one. Read what other people think, even if – or rather, especially if – it seems uncomfortable, unrelatable and downright insane. Maybe it’s just too much like your own mind.