Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Austen Conundrum: Why do "popular" and "esteemed" sometimes seem mutually exclusive?

Back in the day, Virginia Woolf had her novels all over the bestsellers list, and at no point in history has anyone (or anyone with a BRAIN, anyway) dared to suggest that her poetry/ prose was anything but revolutionary and inspired. But lately, people like her seem to be more and more of a rarity.
I'm not saying that popular books don't get good reviews, because, of course, they absolutely do; I'm saying that it sometimes seems as if those books are getting intellectuals' approval in spite of the fact that they are popular. As if the fact that many people want to read them makes them somehow less impressive.
The idea first occurred to me on a desperate late-night run for facial cleanser and popcorn. I was in line at my local grocery store and I noticed that the woman in front of me had a stack of novels on the conveyor belt in between her hummus and her frozen chicken. And immediately, I sneered. I sneered because to me, "the kinds of books they sell at the grocery store" are cheap. Groceries an airports trade in books that are cheap, shallow and sensationalist: a gratuitously sexual love story where the characters' names change midway through, "tell-all" exposes written by gucci-clad heiresses. At best they were flat, linear thrillers with conveniently handsome and brilliant protagonists. I glanced at the titles; Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility.  My  trickled down the back of my neck and turned into a tail, which I immediately curled between my legs. Those are three of my favorites.
Filled with the righteous indignation of the secretly humiliated, I wondered annoyedly why a Raley's would be selling Austen's masterpieces. The answer came almost instantly: Because people like them. Stores like this don't make stock decisions based on literary merit, they make them based on perceived demand. This same store sells aged Brie cheese as well as Cheez Doodles. It doesn't mean that they're comparable.
But it wasn't the first time that Austen's continuing popularity has thrown me for a loop. Whenever some one asks me to list my favorite writers, I hesitate to include her. Precisely because she IS so popular. Everybody likes her I think to myself expressing my own admiration will make me seem common.Far better to cite somebody like Anthony Burgess, who NOT everyone loves. I'm afraid that if I admire something that is also widely admired by everyone else, it will make me seem insipid. Jane Austen writes love stories. Yes. And Mr. Darcy is widely regarded as the penultimate romantic hero. But she was also a brilliant social satirist. Her witticisms and parodies of the different types of people and interactions that she experienced in her own life are clever, and ingenuitive. Are these things somehow cheapened by the fact that some girls like to swoon at the description of Darcy's brooding gaze? I don't think it's fair that Austen should have to overcompensate for the fact that something about her work appeals to the general public. I can't see how the stigma could possibly be relevant to the work's literary worth. Not everything that is popular is great, but that is only because the vast majority of work in general is not great. Popularity is not a fair basis for claiming the merit of a work, but nor is it fair to use popularity to discredit a book. Popularity, like the color of the binding or the number of pages a book has, is an arbitrary condition. That means that until we actually evaluate a book itself, we cannot draw conclusions only from the way it is received. Even if it has legions of teen fans. Even if Madonna records a song in response to it. Who knows, one day we might all be wearing t-shirts that say "Team Leopold" and "Team Blazes."

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