Old Classics versus New Pop

Here at the A. Lee Martinez Action Force Clubhouse, I’m here to do more than rail against popular culture and extoll the virtues of dinobots.  I’m also answer questions the general public might have about popular culture and the virtues of dinobots.

Today’s question comes from Jimmy via Facebook.

I’m a teacher at a classical school and one of the things the principal has said is “The difference between classical literacy and popular literacy is the inner struggle the hero must endure before the story’s end.” What are your thoughts on this claim?

When I asked for clarification, he followed up with this:

From what the principal stated, Classical literature (in the opinion of who I call the embracers of “high-brow” culture)  does indeed imply this – an emotional depth that does not exist within popular literacy. For example, The illiad and the odessy vs Harry Potter.

It’s an old debate.  What constitutes Literature versus what constitutes (for lack of a better term) a mere Book?

The most common measuring stick seems to be how well-respected and old the story is.  Also, it helps if it’s kind of boring.  From my personal experience, moon monsters and space squid supervillains eliminate a story from literature right off the bat.  Basically, if you have to force a young adult to read the book and a dog is killed at some point, it’s literature.  If it’s actually something people enjoy reading, it’s just a book.

This all goes back to that most basic precept of human nature:  If it tastes good, it must be bad for us.  Or at least not good for us.

As a guy who writes about space squids and slime monsters, it’s obvious how I feel about this assumption.  I like writing fun books that are easy to digest, and I also think that just because they are enjoyable, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re empty of deeper content.  I’ve never been a fan of the notion that unpleasant experiences are innately more meaningful than pleasant ones.  Although this too is human nature.

Most psychology studies show that we innately place more value on negative experiences.  We also are constantly told that reading something difficult shows intelligence, while reading something popular is akin to enjoying cotton candy.  It’s nonsense, and it’s nonsense because it routinely dismisses the emotional depths, joys, and investments of “The Common People”.

And I get where that’s coming from.  The lowest common denominator is a scary place to visit, and it’s difficult not to see the popularity of shows like Honey Boo Boo or Jersey Shore without cringing a little.  There’s little doubt that a lot of people are kind of dumb, and not truly interested in depth or philosophical examination of themselves or their world.  There’s also little point in denying that a lot of fiction is designed to be consumed and discarded without saying much of anything.  I have no problem with that kind of fiction either, though I’ll admit it bugs me when my own books are dropped into that category.  And it bugs me even more when things I enjoy and think are full of deeper ideas are dismissed as fluff.

I’m trying to dance around this idea a bit, but let’s stop wasting time.  The fact is a lot of people seem to think that reading “smart” things makes them smart.  This is just not true.  You can read all the literature you like, but it doesn’t necessarily make you more intelligent or more fulfilled than someone who reads “books”.  Books can have great characters, satisfying character arcs, larger questions to ponder, and even be fun.  A story that reaches the masses is not innately stupid, less worthwhile.

Confession time:  I am not a huge Harry Potter fan.  I haven’t read all the books, and I have little interest in them.  But when I hear people talk about the books, when I see their passion and their joy, I’m hard-pressed to dismiss this as merely fluff.  It doesn’t matter if I get it or not because it isn’t about me.  It’s about their experience, and I’ve heard enough people talk about the depths of Harry Potter to believe that there are depths to be found.  That the books sold millions of copies doesn’t mean they’re meaningless.  Just as if a book sells only three copies this doesn’t make it genius.

The ultimate question above though was the assumption that there is no character arcs or true emotional depths to be found in mainstream books.  That is bull.  Complete and utter bull, and it deserves to be met with a rebuttal.  I have nothing against Shakespeare, and I absolutely love mythology in all its forms, but they didn’t stake the claim to artistic and emotional resonance.  And, really, have you read some of that stuff?  It’s pretty unsubtle at times.  Shakespeare loves having his characters pause and tell the audience exactly what they’re feeling.  Myths are full of characters doing dumb stuff that doesn’t make a lot of sense simply because it’d make a better story.

I’m not saying Harry Potter will stand the test of time, but I’m also not saying it won’t.  Only time will tell that.  But most things don’t.

Also, it seems like too often we’re discussing the form of the story, not the actual merits of the story itself.  It’s like calling Pacific Rim a “dumb giant robot movie”. That says nothing about the content of the story, its character arcs, its choices and execution, and instead only makes an assumption about it based on the subject matter.  It doesn’t bother me when someone dislikes Pacific Rim, but it does annoy me when they dismiss it as shallow simply by existing.

Heck, I’ll admit to falling into that trap on myself occasionally.  I reflexively dislike anything labeled as “literature” because I equate it with stuffy, boring stories.  It’s a prejudice I’ve developed over the years, and one I don’t always conquer.  I don’t like a lot of literature, but I love a lot of books.  I’m willing to admit I’ve probably missed out on a lot of interesting books because of this reflex.

If we could be honest with ourselves, we’d admit that we all have our buttons and if a story manages to push those buttons, it works for us.  If it doesn’t, we only end up seeing all of its flaws, flummoxed that others can’t.  I’ve wasted enough blog entries on Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel to appreciate that, and while I do think those are two incredibly flawed films, I realize that it’s just one opinion.  I doubt either will stand the test of time, but I don’t have a time machine, so my doubts are meaningless.

In my own stories, no matter how absurd or weird or silly they might be, I endeavor to give them depth.  I know they’re about monsters and strange, funny tales, but I strive to make them have some emotional resonance.  All of that won’t matter much to many, who will prefer their depth more somber or dull.

I get it.  I really do.  It’s innate to see something as hugely popular as somehow made for the masses.  As an artist myself, I sometimes even convince myself that my obscurity is less about getting noticed (or lack thereof) and more about my level of genius, and that if I just “dumbed down” my books, I could be a bestselling writer too.  But then I realize that this is mostly sour grapes on my part, and that while there are indeed a lot of dumb, popular books, there are a lot of smart, popular books too.  And we all know this because nobody accuses The Road of being shallow, even though it is a popular story written by a popular writer that got made into a popular movie.  (By the way, not a huge fan of that book either, but again, less about content and more about form.)

But I think when it comes to playing it safe, it’s always easy to claim classics are deeper than modern stories because few people are going to disagree with you, but has the human experience really changed all that much since the Odyssey was written?  Certainly, we’ve changed as a species, but we still struggle with the same issues we always have.  Love, Honor, Hate, Vengeance, Jealousy, Success, Failure, Indifference, etc., etc.  And to say that a story has a better handle on those issues because it is older or more obscure is merely assumption, not a truth.

My ultimate goal as a novelologist has always been to create fun, lively stories with robots and slime monsters that also have emotional and philosophical depths, and like I said before, that can be a tough path to walk sometimes.

I’m probably the wrong guy to ask though.  My favorite literary character is Tarzan, although he’s pretty old at this point so that probably means something, right?  The fifth classic struggle is Man vs. Ape, Lions, and the Occasional Dinosaur, if I recall correctly.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,



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  1. Posted November 6, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    What gets elevated to “literature” status and what doesn’t is a thorny issue. I have no idea who makes these decisions. I can imagine Harry Potter surviving while Twilight falls by the wayside. Like you I read the first Potter and it just didn’t do much for me. In 20-30 years when someone wants to put a syllabus together for early 21st Century literature I suppose it’ll depend on their own experience rather than what was most popular.

  2. Posted November 6, 2013 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    This was a fight I was fairly engaged in in graduate school for writing. As you can imagine, as someone who wrote mostly fantasy, I was advised to tread cautiously, even by my more open-minded professors. I was generally told that genre fiction and literary fiction were different things, and our focus was literary fiction. So I asked for clarification of what that meant, and what the distinction was. The most succinct answer I received was that genre fiction was predictable. If you knew the genre, you pretty much knew how the story was going to go, and how it was going to end. The plucky heroes beat the dark lord in fantasy, the good guy wins the shootout in the western, the couple gets together in romance, etc. In literary fiction, it was argued, this was not necessarily the case. Ergo, literary fiction was less safe and more interesting, because it could go anywhere. I can see the logic in that argument to a point; however, so much of what counts as literary is a genre in itself, notably the “sadness in the suburbs” genre, as I call it. I find that sort of writing gets a lot more of a pass than even fantastic or other genre stories which don’t conform to traditional patterns. Hence, I am not inclined to throw the literary vs. genre out altogether, but I think at the moment that it is far too arbitrary at the moment and needs revision.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted November 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard this reasoning before, but it seems contradictory at best. Most literary fiction is as utterly predictable as genre fiction. It’s just the form of the predictability that varies.

      It’s also annoying because happy endings do not necessarily equal shallower storytelling. Nor do unhappy endings or unresolved endings indicate depth. Once again, it’s less about the substance and more about the style.

      If someone’s argument is that a story is weak because it’s predictable, I always have to wonder if they understand how storytelling is generally supposed to work. A story should be predictable in that all the details are consistent and add up to something. Being unpredictable is incredibly easy and overrated as a storytelling choice.

  3. Posted November 6, 2013 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for answering my question! It’s kind of cool to see my name and question being blogged!

    If we take a look at the classical tale of a hero’s quest – in the Greek and Roman tradition – a typical story goes like this…There is a hero. And in the company of men they embark on a quest. There’s a series of tasks to go through and goals to achieve, and there may or may not be a reason for a task to be completed except to simply get from point A to point B. After the final task is defeated, the men go home. The hero gets his woman and everyone celebrates with cheers and wine.

    This isn’t in and of itself a bad thing. However to call something like THIS more substantial than many of the books deemed as “popular lit” is a weak argument. It all revolves around this idea that classical literacy deals with that inner struggle that stories today simply don’t address. I would argue that the Sandman series of graphic novels does this MORE substantially than anything Homer wrote.

    Being a fan of the Harry Potter series, it’s hard for me to swallow an elitist academic making a claim that it doesn’t belong on the same book shelves in a school because it lacks any kind of substance. It’s something I’m hearing at the school I work at more and more as the days roll forward, and it’s gnawing at me like a dog nibbling at a bone.

  4. Posted November 7, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Well, it’s arbitrary. A “classic” is something read by enough people for enough time, or something that’s sufficiently politically useful to the people who decide what a classic is (in terms of both personal and institutional politics). A classic is a potboiler with an army and navy. Harry Potter has nothing more off-the-wall in it, strictly in terms of plot maneuvers, than the Iliad. If I remember correctly, there’s a chunk of Iliad devoted to Diomedes killing dozens of people in a divine rage, stabbing a god, and trying to stab another.

    In terms of “literary,” I get Jesse’s dissatisfaction — I’ve had to navigate that stupid divide in the academy myself, and I know plenty of other people who have and presently do. I think of literary as a technique (one among many; not the only valuable one), or a mood or feeling, a kind of openness to humanity prompted in the reader, but it’s absurd and even dangerous to insist that this can only happen in stories about depressed cheating upper-middle-class people.

  5. JB Sanders Jr
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Well A, at the time Shakespeare wrote his plays they were considered light fodder written and performed for the common masses and of little literary importance. It took many years for his genius to be recognized. So you still have the chance to go down in history and someday the debate whether you actually wrote your own books or not.


  6. Beau A
    Posted November 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    Having once worked in a book store, and being a fan of perusing used bookstores, it never failed to amaze me how many books were published on a regular basis. Every month there would be new books, and I found it kinda sad that I knew I would never be able to read all the ones that would be entertaining to me. So many lost in the shuffle, that you hope someone finds and reads. Then I realized this had been going on for many and many years, and I wondered how many books have disappeared over the years, that I’ll never know about, and yet they would have been extremely entertaining to read.

    The classics in lit can be entertaining, but the amount of published books in the 20th century is daunting. And personally, I believe the last 100-150 years has produced some of the most entertaining and fascinating reads known to man. And what I would enjoy, may have not been a well known, over popular, NY Times best seller. Some amazing book, that never gained great popularity, but has true mind blowing entertainment value for my own values may be gone for good due to low publication/distribution numbers. It was pulled off the shelves of some bookstore 40 years ago, to make room for the new month’s worth of published books.

    I’ll let the lit snobs enjoy the few books some professor told them they should like, for they do have entertainment value. But don’t expect me to focus too much time on them, there’s too many other undiscovered books out there I still haven’t read. And Oprah can keep her book club.

  7. Phil H
    Posted November 12, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    I’ve long thought that the real distinguishing factor between the classics and the new, in every field, is the time implications of Sturgeon’s Law. Over time, those creations of greater universal value are remembered, and others of less universal value (including those with great immediate popular value – top 10 singles lists from the 70s illustrate this nicely) fade to obscurity. Two big implications of this: 1 Well remembered old art tends to be of higher value than average new art. 2 Any given piece of art, old or new, can fall anywhere on the spectrum.

    Claims like Classical literature … does indeed imply this – an emotional depth that does not exist within popular literacy ignores (2) and pretends that the “average” of (1) is “all”.

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