The Literary Divide

Feeling dazed after an eventful day this week, I stumbled home and switched on my television. I’d just won an extremely grand book prize, and wanted — pathetically — to see whether one of those electronic tickers might be running the news. An advertisement came on the screen. A girl was reading. She seemed fidgety, disgruntled. She looked up, and said, “This book is so boring.” A voice came on, and said something like: “Feeling really bored? Then watch TV!” The face of a celebrity I didn’t recognize appeared, followed by the opening credits of a show I’d never seen.

This wasn’t my first such encounter with such sentiments: Similarly channel surfing, I once happened upon an angry young man ripping the pages out of a book. He looked up, snarled, and said something along the lines of, “Reading is crap. Watch MTV!” Loud music followed.

Now, I’m pretty sure both advertisements were meant to be ironic. I’m less sure whether the teenaged target audience got the joke. And I’m absolutely certain that there’s a whole category of people who wouldn’t find it funny at all — namely, people who give and receive grand book prizes.

I should know, since I’ve recently been to two literary award ceremonies — this week’s was just an announcement — and both times I’ve lost. Maybe losers bring their own bitter, twisted emotions to their recollections of such events, but I still don’t think it’s wrong to describe the “literary” contingent at both events as, well, bitter and twisted. On both evenings, prize committee chairmen got up to praise the novel or historical work they’d selected, invariably adding a phrase or two about how, in “today’s world” such works are “ever more necessary.” Anyone talking about criticism described the lonely life of a critic; anyone talking about poetry became downright defensive. Most of the winners, in fact, were very brief. It was as if the gap between the nice things being said about them inside the room and the hostility of the world outside was too unbearable to discuss.

I’m not quite sure how it got to be this way — writers of heavy books on one side, mass media on the other — because it wasn’t always so. The great American cultural blender once produced whole art forms, such as Broadway musicals and jazz, that might well be described as a blend of the two. But nowadays, that gap is so wide that I’m not even sure the old descriptions of the various forms of “culture” — highbrow, middlebrow, popular — even make sense any more. Does Edward P. Jones, the Washingtonian whose eloquent novel, “The Known World,” won a Pulitzer Prize this week, even inhabit the same universe as MTV? Does anybody who reads one watch the other?

There are surely multiple explanations, but the main one concerns money: the large amount you make, if you can cater to a “mass market,” the small amount you make if you can’t, and the fact that everyone in the publishing industry knows who is who. Occasionally, this tension emerges into the open. At the National Book Awards ceremony last fall, a special lifetime achievement award was given to the horror writer — and mass-market success — Stephen King. He returned the favor with a slap in the face. In an extraordinary acceptance speech, he claimed that he had been snubbed all of his life by snooty critics; that wonderful writers such as John Grisham were regularly ignored by snobbish prize committees; and that never, ever in his entire life had he written a word for money.

But most people do write for money. How else would we survive? As long ago as the 18th century, Samuel Johnson declared that it would be idiotic to imagine otherwise: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Only people like Stephen King, whose best-selling novels are regularly made into popular movies, don’t need to think about money: He employs an accountant to do that. It’s hardly surprising that he’s resented, even snubbed, by authors like the anonymous, self-described “critically acclaimed mid-list writer” who wrote a long, painful description of her career ups and downs — four published books, good reviews, middling sales, waves of rejections thanks to middling sales and, finally, a decision to take another job — in Salon last month, causing a minor sensation.

There are, it is true, still a few “crossover” writers, mostly writers of excellent popular books about American history, and one or two novelists. But my sense is that their numbers are shrinking, that there’s almost no more middle ground. Popular culture now hates high culture so much that it campaigns aggressively against it. High culture now fears popular culture so much that it insulates itself deliberately from it. As for the rest of us — we’re inundated with the former, often alienated from the latter. And if we write books, we skulk about checking our Amazon rankings, wondering whether CNN might possibly have put our names in tiny print at the bottom of the screen, and feeling dazed — and extremely grateful — when we win prizes.

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