Literature and Entertainment

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The classic dichotomy by which we distinguish “high” (or artistic) culture from “low” (or popular) culture holds that the former is educational or uplifting, somehow, while the latter is merely entertaining. This dichotomy is reinforced by the way literature has been traditionally taught; that is to say, literature has tended to mean “texts from the past,” often written according to cultural and stylistic conventions that are alien to us, not to mention difficult and (that most damning of contemporary predicates) boring. Of course, popular cultural studies has long since deconstructed this dichotomy to point out (among other things) that what counts as high culture today was once viewed as entertainment (the novels of Charles Dickens and even the plays of William Shakespeare are excellent examples of this shift). And from Horace to Sir Philip Sidney, poetry (as high art) has been declared to exist for the purpose of delighting as well as instructing (or, to be more precise, instructing by way of delight). After a professional lifetime of teaching both high art literature and popular culture, I find myself contemplating just how important the entertainment component of Literature (with a capital L) has always been (more, I think, than it has been given credit for). After all, the fact that literary criticism—which, one way or another, spells out whatever may be instructive in a literary text—is not only unpopular but is often condemned by nonliterary critics is explained by its lack of entertainment value. The literary artist who can entertain an audience has always had far more readers than the critic or philosopher who can say the same thing and say it more clearly and directly. Thus the study of popular culture, especially with regard to what makes popular culture popular or entertaining, can be extended to the realm of high literary culture as well. Such a study can note not only what sort of compromises the high art writer must make if he or she wants to be published within a profit-driven publishing industry, but also what it is that entertains people generally. I am reminded here of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom. Anointed by the likes of Time magazine as America’s most lauded successor to such other high art writers as Updike, Cheever, and Fitzgerald (all who were able to achieve both critical and popular acclaim), Franzen, rather in the tradition of Victorian novelists, attempts to teach his society lessons about itself in novelistic form. Freedom was especially anticipated in this regard, hailed as a major novelist’s explanation to America of what the first decade of the new millennium was all about. But by choosing to have one major character be, quite literally a rock star, and another an heiress of sorts, Franzen narrowed his focus to a segment of American society so small that it really doesn’t apply to most of America. Franzen’s lead characters run into trouble, in effect, because they have too much money, while what went wrong for the lower and middle classes in the first decade of this millennium is that they went broke, falling further and further behind the upper-middle and upper classes.  The very rich are different from you and me, even if it is only because they have more money, and their lives do not really serve as lessons for the rest of us. But somehow, the rich remain highly entertaining to a large American audience. As I have indicated in several of my Bits posts, this obsession with the wealthy can be found throughout the “texts” of popular culture as well. The same signal is being sent. An obsession with money, and with those who have it (which in entertainment is the same thing), is coming to transvalue all other values in our society. Even when wealth is criticized, the image on the screen or on the page is still a glossy one, and images are very seductive things. At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor in America is widening to a gap as great as in Mark Twain’s Gilded Age, this signal, common to both art culture and popular culture, is a profound one. When Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges is a runner-up for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize while Keeping Up with the Kardashians is entering its sixth season, the signal is the same from each end of culture: wealth and the wealthy are what entertains Americans. It takes a cultural critic to point this sort of thing out, and we all know how entertaining, and popular, cultural critics are.
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.