Years ago I tried reading Ulysses, as many people do. I don’t know how many of those that started reading the book actually finish. Of those friends that have, I haven’t met anyone that considered it a minor endeavor. There are books like that — big books that people grow a little intimidated of. Finnegan’s Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest ... I can’t think of a lot of them right now. But you know what I mean. There are the classics, and then there are those super-dense books that, as a friend put it, “hipsters carry around to look cool, but that they don’t actually read.”
I remember that there was talk at Cornell offering a Freshman Writing Seminar about J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I remember gasps and wide eyes and omgs going around. This was ... I don’t know, maybe two or three years ago. As far as I remember, the class did not happen, and it did not become an option for freshmen to take a writing course about one of the most widely read and purchased books in recent history.
Why not, I ask? Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against James Joyce. But I am more than certain that the Harry Potter series has been read more often than Ulysses has, at least in the past 10 years. It may be more influential for our generation than anything Joyce ever wrote. Why should this influence be ignored?
The Literature versus literature debate is old, I know. But it is, in a way, relevant to present times, since the boundary between the two is being blurred as information itself — important or not — becomes more available. As interdisciplinary approaches are more encouraged, our liberal arts educations seem to be something like an asset (right, right?), and we are faced with the challenge the aesthetics of our time present. It is intriguing, because the line is obviously there. Just as science seems to have a very clear boundary between physics and psychics, there is something that seems to demarcate between Literature and literature. Where is that line?
I see that line, in a certain way. Good literature is easy to recognize. It creates an emotion almost immediately within the reader — an atmosphere that’s clear and can do anything (amongst a myriad of other things. But come on, I can’t go too much into that — I have a word count). But literature that is both good and popular does not always make it to the Literature category. The line is confusing. An (duh) arbitrary line drawn by an elite circle. Not a surprising thing: One does not read and analyze and learn all of this for nothing. It is evident that those who have spent the most time reading what is out there should be able to have a better criterion of what is worth reading.
I don’t always want to equate education with elitism (though it totally is). Because, for one, it wants to make believe that one needs money to be cultured, which is only true to a certain extent (and believe me, I can rant about this for pages on end), especially now, given the access to everything data-wise we have.
The fact that popular literature is enjoyable (and this holds true to music and art and food, etc., as well) almost ... hurts a little. I find myself often caught in the situation where shallow things seem wrong for me to enjoy (by whatever relatively sick moral zeitgeist my dear upbringing gave me) because “I’m smarter than that.” And I’m sorry, I really do enjoy Harry Potter as much as the next person. And I listen to Lady Gaga and dance to it more than to Piazzolla, and may sometimes have more interest in watching Pixar than I do Aronofsky. (I stand corrected. That happens quite often, actually.) And this is predictable, even: Art that is Capitalized, is usually dense, or so we are taught to believe. One cannot have that all the time. The rest, the art that is Not Capitalized, is merely there to entertain (it’s not Art, it’s Entertainment).
There sometimes seems to be this idea that something good should not be popular. As if audiences worldwide were too stupid to hit on something that is actually good. I’m not sure I agree. Something can be good despite its being simple (and sometimes precisely because of it. Read: Coldplay, Phillip Glass, Mondrian or Camus). Furthermore, popularity is essential for the artist’s work to be discussed in the first place. Mozart was his period’s Lady Gaga, as Cervantes probably was the Rowling of his time (I know that is not accurate. Some other guy was. But you get my point).
As more authors get published, the categorizations become blurry as well. I wonder whether the distinction will ever be dropped. Although in several fields it may be happening already. It is refreshing to find that academic pursuits and analyses do not always have to stay in the classics and may enter the wonderful mix of being current without losing depth. I recall, for instance, a literary theory essay that springs from Gossip Girl. Or people in Literature departments that specialize and teach comic books as literature (they are!). Or music that integrates surrealism with humor (read: Zappa), or mix the popular genres to elevate them to Artistic Categories. (Vargas Llosa’s scriptwriter, Pineda Covalin’s designs. Come on, if you don’t know these names look them up. I just gave you a Hopscotch-like paragraph here.)
The question may lie in the possible true universality of aesthetic judgments. Maybe something is good because it happens to be good, period. The medium (novels, essays, grafitti, hip hop, sand painting, CGI) may very well be secondary. We need a broader acceptance of what we let enter our information stream when we consider the sudden rush of information around us. After all, you never know where the next piece of art is waiting.
Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.