As someone old enough to vaguely remember when the whole high/low cultural divide was kind of settled, its vehement revival these days, especially with regard to books, is befuddling.
I mean, I didn't raise an eyebrow when the Library of America published five noir novels by one-time pulp maestro David Goodis back in 2012; I went out and bought the damn thing. So why, say, Christopher Beha is standing up for another Library of America-repped author, one Henry James, in The New Yorker, is a bit mysterious to me. As Mick Jagger says in Gimme Shelter, "Brothers and sisters, why are we fighting?" Didn't high-low get settled around the time Susan Sontag admitted that she also kind of liked the Supremes?
Well, there's the rub, maybe. After various profile writers and personality-mongerers wouldn't let go of the meme of The Highbrow Who Likes Motown, Sontag, whose self-seriousness one might say tended to increase over the years, distanced herself from pop appreciation, complaining that overemphasis on her lack of uptightness tended to make her look kind of trivial, something she didn't appreciate. And these days, it seems, there are two fronts in a cultural war I don't think is worth fighting all that earnestly: The "serious people read serious books" front, in which Beha's New Yorker piece is a stoic dig-in-your-heels effort, and the "don't you try to define my seriousness for me, pal" camp, which, at first glance, has the defensive numbers to counter the opposition's highbrow guns.
I myself have spent much of 2014 of reading long, unwieldy, and sometimes—in the term Robert Graves used to describe his own The White Goddess—"stiff" novels. And yes, "enjoying" is the right word. I don't always take pleasure in what's difficult, but I am not predisposed to be daunted, either. My taste has its roots in affectation, to be entirely honest. I was a weird kid growing up in the '60s and '70s,, and so, I decided to like weird kid stuff. The weird kid market was kind of underserved back then, so aside from mass-market paperback MAD Magazine compilations, and that one Madeleine L'Engle book everyone read (and which I thought was great, too; still do), I also went hard for Burgess, Burroughs, and other weird-adult stuff. (I can't really recommend this in retrospect; reading Genet's Funeral Rites as an eighth grader—I thought the author looked super cool on the cover of the Grove Press paperback edition—messed with me in ways I'm still having trouble unpacking.) Along the way, the affectation stuck. It took me a lot longer to learn to think critically about the stuff I read, and watched, and listened to.
But I came to believe that a lot of the problems people have with "literature" actually have to do with the expectation that reading it is work. As it happened, the first big book I tackled this year, Robert Coover's 1,000-page The Brunist Day Of Wrath, was kind of a mad romp. Coover's one of the biggest of American Lit Postmodernism's big guns, known for diabolical elliptical structures and layers of meta, but for this book, a sequel to his first novel, 1966's The Origin Of The Brunists, he also returns to that book's formal characteristic, which is relatively straight. Imagine Sinclair Lewis with a wicked erotic wit and an exquisite prose style, and that's somewhere in the ballpark of what Coover is up to in this highly charged satire of religious fundamentalism and everyday corruption on and off Main Street, U.S.A. The story is so packed with incendiary characters and outlandish but all-too-believable incident that quite a few times while reading, I thought, "This would make one hell of a miniseries." Postmodernism does make an entrance, albeit through the side door, and in the novel's last fifth; one mightn't even notice if one isn't looking for it. All told it's a shame that Coover's intimidating rep, and the intimidating size of the book, have deprived it of the attention it's due, because honest to God, the thing is a genuine page-turner.
Feeling my oats as far as my reading attention span was concerned, I cast my eyes around my home library for books I should have read as an undergrad, maybe, and homed out John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor. A 756-page 17th-Century pastiche first published in 1963, written by another paragon of American lit postmodernism. And quite a romp, as it turns out, albeit a consistently filthy (in several senses) and often mordant one. Provocative not just in its narrative strategies but its devastatingly droll observations about American exceptionalism and much else, it was, to my slight surprise, a ceaselessly entertaining reading experience. I didn't think "this should be a mini-series" because it so happens it's kind of been developed as one already, although when/if it'll ever see the light of day is beyond me, and if it does, I'll be really curious as to how all the rape depicted in the book is handled (it's not exactly played for laughs by Barth, but let's just say the novel as a whole makes light of pretty much every variety of human calamity).
The Aesthetics of Resistance, Volume One, by Peter Weiss (best known to English-language readers as the author of the once-happening play Marat/Sade), which I read next, is not an inordinately long book (a relatively mere 313 pages) but boy does it fit in the "stiff" category. Paragraphs extending into double-digit pages, no dialogue breaks, and pages and pages of working-class teens in late '30s Germany discussing how depictions of heroism and myth in ancient Greek art both supported and undercut ruling class hegemony. Sample passage from the second half, which, despite moving the locale to the Spanish Civil War, is not particularly action-packed either: "The painter had characterized […] poverty, he had depicted the rat race of drudgery, the inhumane conditions in which the laborers washed and ate, and yet the painting sparked no indignation. Instead it recalled something ineluctable." A look in the book's glossary reveals that its erudite young characters are all based on actual people, pretty much all of whom were dead, shot by Nazis largely, by 1944. And yet the book does not provide the reader reassurance in any "Wow, I'm glad I'm not living under Nazism." Instead, it hammers home the ineluctable. As such, it is not particularly entertaining.
Next: Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, which for a long time I was convinced I'd have to die and come back as a library-haunting ghost in order to complete, is similarly—well no, it's actually more pessimistic. In the first hundred pages, which were as far as I got on the several times I started it since the mid-70s, I sure enjoyed the language, the jokes, and the bananas. Plowing further through it, I was both impressed and disturbed as to how not dated it had become, how pointed and pertinent its apocalyptic paranoid Marxist analysis ("the true war is the celebration of markets") still feels, and how well it dovetails with the slightly more hopeful perspectives articulated by the doomed young Germans in Weiss's novel. The gloom takes on a palpable emotional aspect in the novel's ever-more dense and difficult finale, in which the book's male protagonist, its Dedalus figure, its hero of a number of faces, does not (spoiler alert!) achieve his aim but rather fragments, evanesces.
But Pynchon is not withholding the pleasures of comfortable identification out of a perverse desire to punish the reader. He's doing so to communicate the specifics of the very fallen world of this particular story, this particular vision. If Pynchon's subsequent books have taken a somewhat more antic, lighter-side-of-paranoia perspective and tone, one can hardly blame him. A sustained, day-to-day worldview pitched to Rainbow's vision would be apt to drive one mad.
It is here that we come to an interesting sticking point with respect to the highbrow and/or "difficult." Both Weiss's and Pynchon's works argue, in ways both implicit and explicit, that the pleasure we derive from mainstream culture products is an anesthetic or narcotic. This doesn't stop Pynchon in particular from acknowledging that said pleasure is a real, non-negligible thing in certain respects. As for Barth, the through-line of Factor is awareness that the comforts of white America were/are derived from slaughter, although in his vision bloodthirsty connivers come in every race. In a sense Coover's vision is the one most likely to be most palatable to smart bourgeois readers not particularly invested in messing with the levels in their precious bodily fluids: who among us doesn't like a biting attack on Christer fanaticism? Reminders of our own impotence in the face of the ruling class, the masters of war, and, you know, death? Not so much, maybe.
We tend to take a certain pride at the way culturally diverse groups are now represented in the cultural mainstream, but ought to sober up a bit, maybe, when reminded that these groups merely represent new "markets" to advertisers and programmers. The way I myself process this particular awareness—and you may argue that I'm wrong—compels me to consider a lot of pro-"pleasure" arguments as a little disingenuous. Similarly,the hullabaloo over "adulthood" — whether it's in A.O. Scott's hotly debated New York Times Magazine essay or Ruth Graham's anti-YA Slate piece — seems to me to stem from a paradigm shift not in "the culture," but in marketing, presuming you want to acknowledge any distinction between the two (and I myself pray to God there still is).
The extent to which our nifty choices are still subordinate to a dominant ideology is not something that anyone for whom entertainment value is a paramount consideration is going to be likely to, um, entertain. Which is also to say that anyone who'd prefer to avoid Pynchon and Weiss and Barth for the rest of their adult reading lives hardly needs my, or James Wood's permission. (But by the not-quite-same token, it might be argued, as someone who hasn't, and likely will not, read The Hunger Games trilogy, I myself am not going to be in any position to assess the sharpness of Suzanne Collins's allegorical observations on the society of the spectacle. So it's possible I'm missing something too. But you can't read everything.)
And yet the "help! I'm being oppressed!" cry goes up with startling regularity. When I read Adam Sternbergh's February 9, 2014 New York Times Magazine Riff "All of the Pleasure. None of the Guilt," in which he resolved to stop letting all those meanies make him feel bad about not being a highbrow, I was kind of beside myself. For one thing, he was writing from the perch of Culture Editor for that very magazine.(He has since moved on to New York as a culture writer.)"Dude! You won!" I said, facepalming. Sternbergh concluded, "Can we […] envision a world in which the person struggling through (but enjoying!) Remembrance of Things Past and the person tearing through (and enjoying!) Gone Girl can coexist on the same strip of sand, beach chairs side by side, each feeling pleasure in her solitary rapt world and neither one needing to cloak that pleasure behind the brown-paper wrapper of guilt." How could I possibly object to such a generous vision? Well, I don't, but I also don't believe that Proust needs to be "struggled" through, or ought to be.
Yes, Proust's prose is extravagant, but also, as in Updike's description of Nabokov's, ecstatic, and he can, and ought to be, read as such. The main struggle has to do with expectation. When I read it, installment after installment, in the series of new translations that started appearing in 2003, I found it helped to stop thinking of In Search Of Lost Time as a novel and look at it more as an epic, acute essay on the nature of human consciousness, which is not at all a dull subject. But far too often, insisting that this stuff has its very definite and sustained pleasures is greeted by pop-culture enthusiasts as a snobbish bad-faith pose. (The movie adaptation of Gone Girl contains not one but two jokes in which Proust is a punchline.) Sometimes one feels stuck in the loop that Lester Bangs predicted way back in 1977 in his eulogy for Elvis Presley: displaying "contemptuous indifference to each others' objects of reverence."
And yet I can sincerely say I share Sternbergh's vision. Just last weekend, at my in-laws' home, I shared a sofa with my wife's mom, she contentedly ensconced in The Goldfinch, me proceeding with fear and trembling through the entropic final section of Gravity's Rainbow. We both acknowledged our respect for the other's enjoyment and spoke little more of it. Hell, I respect my mother in law's taste sufficiently that I'd even take a crack at The Goldfinch. Except Donna Tartt is pals with Bret Easton Ellis, and Bret Easton Ellis offends me on multiple levels, and so my attitude at the moment is not just to hell with him but to hell with his friends, too. Very young adult of me, if I say so myself. As for what authentically long read I'll look into next, I'm thinking Marguerite Young's Miss Mackintosh, My Darling, because if one thing's certain it's that I've had a bellyful of white male, entertaining or not.
Glenn Kenny is a film critic and journalist who was a longtime editor at PREMIERE. He recently published Robert de Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, with the Cahiers du Cinema. He blogs at Some Came Running.