Cultural Criticism in the age of Haters gonna Hate (Update!!)
Update: I seem to have marred my point in this essay by bad writing and/or reputation. There is nothing wrong with liking pop culture and a lot of pop culture. There is a lot of pop culture that I do like. I liked four of the five X-Men movies. Hollywood can and does make a lot of movies that are great art and highly entertaining. I also listen to a lot of pop music. So this essay seems to have come off as being more snobby than intended but I generally stand by my points made.
There is an argument or fight that I see erupt across the internet at least once a year, sometimes more. A critics usually but not always from old-school media will make a comment or write an article about some facet of pop culture. More internet based writers and critics will respond with haters gonna hate. This happened a few years ago when a critic made a remark to Time Magazine about how he was not going to read The Hunger Games because he has plenty of adult books he wanted to read first. Alyssa Rosenberg took to Think Progress to denounce the snobbery. The debate can go beyond the Internet as it does with Jennifer Weiner’s ongoing campaign against the New York Times Book Review for covering 600 page biographies of Woodrow Wilson instead of the kind of books the Jennifer Weiner writes. The most recent version happened when Ruth Graham took to Slate to say that adults should be a bit embarrassed to read YA novels(1) and Noah Berlastky dissented in the pages of the Atlantic(2).
(Disclaimer: I am going to expand on comments I made to the Atlantic using another nom de internet). I attempted to write this essay today but it did not come to me until I read Berlasky’s article.
There are two pieces of writing that come into my head when I see this argument on the Net.
1. There is quote I’ve heard many adults in fandom speak. I don’t remember it line for line but it is a variant on the New Testament line about becoming and adult and giving up childish things. C.S. Lewis added a coda about how one of the childish things he gave up was a desire to be an adult all the time.
2. There is another famous C.S. Lewis called an Experiment in Criticism (3). C.S. Lewis divides the world into literary and unliterary readers. The literary reader rereads for added meaning or to revisit favorite passages. The unliterary reader does not. C.S. Lewis believed that trying to sell a literary book to an unliterary readers was the equivalent of trying to ice to a person in Alaska during the winter. It is simply a product that they did not need or want.
There is wisdom to the C.S. Lewis quote but I think too many people abuse the quote and as a justification for staying in their cultural comfort zones. To be fair, I probably can be equally guarded about staying in my cultural comfort zones of so-called elitist or high culture but this will and has gotten me labeled as snobbery where as it is perfectly acceptable to make fun of Joyce or Pynchon novels as being nothing but a prop for people who want to look intelligent because no one can truly enjoy Joyce or Pynchon, yet alone complete Joyce or Pynchon. People can be scolded for not watching Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Game of Thrones. No one can be scolded for avoiding the Criterion Collection section of Hulu for endless reruns of Doug or Salute Your Shorts. The Internet acts as a vast and all-powerful nostalgia machine with social media being filled with countless articles on the Top 35 signs You Were in Elementary School during the 80s, 90s, early Aughts, etc. My theory is that this is an unconscious vocalization of economic anxiety. Young people are drowning in student debt, uncertain job futures, and anemic job markets. They have nostalgia for their childhoods because it represents a time when everything was taken care of for them and they did not worry about if they would make the rent on time this month.
My other theory is that the Internet simply is built for pop-culture more than sub-culture or high-culture. Many cities have seen their local newspapers and alternative newspapers fold or be severely decimated. The Boston Phoenix is gone. The Seattle Post Intelligencer publishes on a three day a week schedule from the last I’ve heard. The culture pages are usually the first victims of cutbacks. These are the people who could talk about local bands, local theatre companies, local dance companies, local art exhibits, etc. There are websites that try and pick up the slack but they have a hard time getting noticed. The New York Times seems to be the only paper that can justifiably cover local culture and put it on the web or even expand their cultural coverage to other parts of the U.S. and world but even they have their limits. Most Internet sites are going to need to make their coverage about national and easily accessible entertainment to justify the cost of coverage.
I still am more on Ruth Graham’s side of things more than the side of Bertlasky and Rosenberg. There is something to be said about wrestling with a difficult work of art or showing the concentration to be able to sit through a forty minute Mozart symphony instead of a four minute pop song. There is nothing wrong with a four minute pop song. I like a lot of them but there is a special reward for knowing how to appreciate something longer and not getting impatient. We would criticize someone whose diet mainly consisted of comfort food and candy. I don’t know why it is acceptable for our cultural diets to consist of comfort food, candy, and things that just require passive engagement. There is something depressing in hearing someone say they like TV because it does not require much beyond passive engagement.
As to whether The New York Times should cover more popular authors like Jennifer Weiner, I don’t think so. I’ve heard many fan complaints about how the really popular movies get disrespected by the Academy Awards and the really well-selling books get no love from the prestigious book reviews. The problem is that financial success does not equal artistic merit or something for the ages. If this were true, we would hang Thomas Kincade in the Met. This is not to say that the Awards always pick movies that are destined to be classics or even very good. The Academy Award picks plenty of Box Office successes but they tend to be more like Titanic and less like X-Men and the Lord of the Rings and Hunger Games. The problem with the fannish argument is that they want to be covered by the prestigious press but I always get the impression that the coverage most always be of high praise. Critics that dare suggest a fan favorite is not very good are quickly lambasted for not getting it and using the wrong criteria for judgment. I highly doubt that Jennifer Weiner wants a fair assessment by the literary establishment (4).
When I posted about this on facebook, a friend of mean furiously disagreed with my arguments and said that life is too short to waste time on that do not interest you. I agree with this to a certain extent. The reason that I have not read or watched Game of Thrones yet is that I can think of a million things I would rather read and watch before Games of Thrones and this list keeps expanding. Yet to say that Game of Thrones does not interest you is to be a hater and an aristocrat and to say that A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell does not interest you makes you of the people. Perhaps it is time for both sides to declare detente and leave each other alone.