Eleanor Catton on Literature and Elitism
“Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither.”
For several weeks now, the dinnertime conversation in my house has centred on notions of elitism and populism. If a reader doesn’t understand a poem, who is at fault — the poem, the poet or the reader? Which is the more presumptive, when writing a journalistic piece: to use words that some readers may not know, or to assume their ignorance and provide a glossary? Do expressions of taste (“I liked it”; “I didn’t like it”) qualify as criticism? What is the difference between a critic and a consumer? Among whom will you find a broader range of aesthetic judgments: the unashamedly elitist, or the unashamedly populist?
What sparked these conversations was a comment made on Twitter last month in which a Kiwi reader of the Paris Review objected to the use of the word “crepuscular” — a bookish adjective that derives from the Latin crepusculum, twilight — citing the word as evidence of the writer’s self-indulgence, and claiming that the creative essay in which the word appeared was an example of elitist writing.
The implication was clear: by using the word “crepuscular”, the writer in question was addressing an elite few, and forcing all others to look up the word (shamefully, laboriously) in the dictionary. A non-elitist writer, a populist writer, would have used a more recognisable synonym, such as “dusky”, “twilit”, “shadowy” or “dim”.
That an essay published online, with no restrictions of access or requirements of subscription, might be accused of having a selective or exclusionary attitude towards its readership is patently absurd. Everybody who reads the online Paris Review is one click away from a vast number of comprehensive dictionaries; my Google search field provided a definition for “crepuscular” after I had typed the first five letters. So why was this reader so outraged? And why was the accusation so familiar?
The dictionary definition of elitism is fairly weak: it describes the term as merely “the advocacy or existence of an elite”, which in turn is defined as “a group of people considered to be the best”. By this definition, every enthusiast in the world might be accused of elitism, as might every sports team, every artisan, every niche business and every competitive entity.
Clearly the definition needs to be refined, and a distinction drawn between “elitism” and “elite” — for there is a significant difference between being the best, and insisting on a definition of the best: it is the difference between being a good artist and being a good critic, or between being a good writer and being a good reader.
These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.
We are led to believe that our brand loyalties are the result of a deep, essential affinity between the consumer and product — this soap is “you”; this bank is “yours” — and social networking affords us countless opportunities to publicise and justify these brand loyalties as partial explanations of “who we are”.
The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent… to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function.
The reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterising the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising. Advertising relies on the fiction that the personal happiness of the consumer is valued above all other things; we are reassured in every way imaginable that we, the customers, are always right.
The idea that a work of literature might require something of its reader in order to be able to provide something to its reader is equivalent, in a consumer context, to the idea that a cut-price mobile phone might require a very expensive charger in order for it to function.
Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.
At its best, literature is pure encounter: it resists consumption because it cannot be used up and it cannot expire. The bonds that are formed between readers and writers, between readers and characters, and between readers and ideas, are meaningful in a way that the bonds formed between consumers and products can never be. Literature demands curiosity, empathy, wonder, imagination, trust, the suspension of cynicism, and the eradication of prejudice; in return, it affords the reader curiosity, empathy, wonder, imagination, trust, the suspension of cynicism, and the eradication of prejudice.
My loyalty to Levin in Anna Karenina is of an entirely different nature to my loyalty to, say, Paul Newman’s caesar salad dressing, which I like very much: it is not a preference but an affinity, an encounter so genuinely self-revealing that the relationship required me first to work and then to alter. My relationship with Levin cannot be improved upon or reproduced.
I spent some time this week trawling through customer reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, in order to look for trends — paying particular attention to the scathing one-star reviews that inevitably warn all other readers against buying or reading the disliked book. Starred reviews affix to all works of literature a kind of efficiency rating, which over time average out to a meaningless valuation somewhere between the middle threes and the low fours.
King Lear is valued at 3.87; Paradise Lost at 3.74; The Divine Comedy at 4.0. Although there is a great deal of variation in the five-star reviews, the one-star reviews are overwhelmingly alike, even across genres and styles of literature. I noticed the recurrence of three principal objections: (1) this book was confusing; (2) this book was boring; and (3) this book was badly written.
“Confusing”, “boring” and “bad” are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such “reviews” only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place.
The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient.
The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”
Elitism is a standard of discernment that seeks to exclude everything (or everyone) perceived to fall short of that standard. Criticism can be elitist; censorship can be elitist; educational programmes can be elitist; advocacy and propaganda can be elitist; literary prizes can be elitist; communities and clubs can be elitist; bookstores and websites can be elitist.
But literature simply cannot be. A book cannot be selective of its readership; nor can it insist upon the conditions under which it is read or received. The degree to which a book is successful depends only on the degree to which it is loved. All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.
We will never agree on a single definition of “elite”. And nor should we. Disagreement among critics ensures that a diverse range of writers and literary practices are supported and endorsed; what’s more, a polyphony of critical voices requires each critic to define, refine, and defend their criteria for what art could be, should be, and is. Those critics who value transparency in art will disagree with those critics who value sleight of hand; those who value rebellion will disagree with those who value conformity; and so on. The more versions of elitism our critical community can countenance, the healthier our literature will be.
This essay first appeared in Metro, March 2013. Illustration by Donna Cross.