Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cultural Cringe.

Yesterday, one of my workmates expressed incredulity that another workmate had never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s kind of odd to be bringing up A Christmas Carol for the second time in a short while, but that’s what prompted me to compose this post. Or rather, the ignorant workmate’s response, which was a withering refusal, on being told it was by Dickens, to even consider reading “anything like that”, prompted me to compose this post.

This particular book is an especially good example: “scrooge” has entered the English language as a by-word for an unpleasant miser, and the basic plot of the novel has been adapted and repurposed so many times (most recently by Doctor Who a couple of weeks ago) that it has become a trope in its own right. Yet wilful, dismissive ignorance of the novel seems to be not only acceptable to, but encouraged by, the culture I find myself in.

I’m not setting out here to defend Dickens from anyone who doesn’t like him. I myself have only read a few of his works. My problem is not that this person doesn’t like a “classic”. Any honest person who reads enough “classics” is bound to find one he doesn’t like — I don’t care for To Kill a Mockingbird, and I find much contemporary “literature” to be pretentious and near unreadable. Even with works I enjoy, I can see how others might not; Les Misérables is both beautifully written and superbly detailed, but the plot is very obviously an excuse for Hugo to comment on early-nineteenth-century French society. But I recognise the place that To Kill a Mockingbird has earned in the canon. The problem I have is the attitude that because something was released before last year, or written by somebody dead, or in any way associated with tradition, it’s worthless.

Not only are you missing out on a lot of things you might otherwise enjoy, but your enjoyment of a huge number of more recent works is severely diminished if you can’t see on whose shoulders they are building. The Princess Bride is a great story in its own right, but so much of its humour comes from playing with various fairytale tropes. And it’s even funnier if you’re familiar with Les Misérables, as Goldman works in a wonderful parody of the style of that novel.

The sheer incoherence of a culture that sneers so at its own foundations baffles me. Such an attitude can only lead to cultural impoverishment. We can hold that off for a little while by importing things from other cultures — as indeed we do, as foreign cultures are held in much higher regard (in a lot of cases) than our own or its closer relations, if only for fear of offending those who are not yet so postmodern and cynical as to be ashamed of their own culture. But even this doesn’t stop us from losing sight of the giants on whose shoulders we are privileged to stand.

I’m a big fan of multiculturalism, and of cultural progress, and of new traditions and techniques and tropes, but this doesn’t have to mean throwing our own traditions and treasures out if they’re worth keeping, just because they’re old. If they’ve survived this long, it’s well worth asking why. They might not have much to offer us any more, but usually a concept, or a story, that’s lasted has lasted because it is still useful, or entertaining, or enlightening.


  1. I actually find Dickens to be very tedious. Any time I try reading any of his books, I get a couple of chapters in and then put it down so I can read something more interesting. The exception to this is, interestingly enough, A Christmas Carol. It really is quite an easy book to read. Now, I'm certain there are probably classics out there that are more accessible to people of reduced literacy competency, but none really come to mind. Even the books aimed at children would probably be more of a challenge, what with most of them being more than four and a half chapters. I really can't think of any excuse to flat out refuse to read it. I guess some people might say "I saw the Disney version with Mickey Mouse and Scrooge McDuck, and that's good enough for me", but your workmate's apparent ignorance of who Ebeneezer Scrooge is suggests that he doesn't even have that excuse to fall back on.

    The kind of attitude that your co-worker has is one of the reasons why I feel much happier in China. While you might catch Chinese people being ignorant of their literary traditions, you will rarely see them being proud of said ignorance.

    Also, don't be too harsh on modern literature. The problem with modern literature is that literature, like anything else, is 99% crap. Older literature only seems better in comparison because we've had several decades to separate the wheat from the chaff.

  2. I also want to object to your caricature of modern "literature" as being limited only to that which is found in the "literature" section of the local bookstore.

    Consider the respective genres of the following classics:

    War of the Worlds (Science Fiction)
    The Lord of the Rings (Fantasy)
    Gone With the Wind (Romance)
    Oliver Twist (Newspaper serial - basically what people used for entertainment before Neighbours was invented)
    Treasure Island (Adventure)
    The Three Musketeers (Swashbuckling politics with sword fights and intrigue and god knows what else)
    Sherlock Holmes (Mystery)
    Dracula (Horror)

    Shakespeare (Genre varies, but worth mentioning to show that there is a long history of including visual media as well as written media under the umbrella of "classics")

    By defining modern literature so that it only refers to pretentious crap, you're falling into the same trap that your co-worker fell into - that of placing "literature" in a place somehow above the reach of average people.

    Really, modern literature includes the entire corpus of modern media. Perhaps in 400 years time, children at school will be forced to read "the works of Stephen Spielberg" in English Literature class, and be forced to write long and tedious essays about the recurring themes present in Jurassic Park (all the while never getting a chance to see the actual movie).

    The classics of tomorrow will not come primarily from the "literature" section of the bookstore. They will be written by authors like Stephen King, Anne Rice, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, George R. Martin and so on.

  3. Yeah, she was dismissive of any movie version too.

    I don’t see that as an objection, really. The reason contemporary ”literature”, as a genre, is so pretentious and difficult is because of this same perception of the classics (and those who appreciate them) as being pretentious and difficult. There’s also a fair amount of “us and them” around the issue — it’s as fashionable amongst literary snobs to be dismissive of popular entertainment as it is amongst the populace to be dismissive of the classics.

    But one of my main points is that both groups are missing out. The snobs miss out on wonderful new interpretations and uses of their favourite tropes; the hoi polloi can’t fully appreciate anything that acknowledges what came before, which is the majority of (good) popular entertainment. Edgar Wright directs action comedies, but if you have even a rudimentary grasp of Shakespeare you get a few more of his jokes than you otherwise would have.

    You’re quite right about today’s popular culture becoming tomorrow’s classics. Dickens and Doyle were serialised in magazines. Shakespeare’s plays were popular entertainment. We’ll still be reading King and Rowling long after Winton and Courtenay have been consigned to the dustbin.

  4. I object to anyone categorising "literature" as merely that which lives in the "literature" section of the bookstore. The snobs aren't actually doing the classics a favour either, with their attitude. By creating this perception that "real literature" is somehow higher than the average folk, they're just deceasing the number of people willing to read the classics. Rather than just blithely going along with literature snobs who refuse to consider anything aimed at real people as "real literature", I prefer to challenge them directly, rather than just meekly agreeing to their definition of the word literature. I do criticise others for their taste in literature, and I do not take kindly to literature snobs claiming that the books I read are somehow less worthy of respect than the books they read. Now, granted, I've read some pretty crap books, but they were crap because they were crap, not because they were fantasy/sci-fi.

    I also don't really think it's helpful for English teaching. It creates the idea in children's minds that only "literature" should be considered worthy of analysis. Really, we should be analysing every text that comes our way. Hell, take Contest, for example - basically the Schwarzenegger action movie of books. It still has themes running through it. It highlights the fear felt by fathers as they embrace their protective role; the choice of the library as the setting shows how a refuge can quickly turn into a nightmare, and how even in the library, the help of civilisation is denied to the main character, and he must rely only on his wits. My year 8 English teacher would be absolutely shocked and horrified that I ever picked it up.

  5. I agree with that objection — I thought it was clear by my use of quotes that I was using a definition of which I disapprove, or with which I disagree.

  6. I think it could have been read either way. I guess since you were only talking about classics, I was interpreting literature as meaning "literature that snobs approve of", especially since you didn't mention non-"literature" books in your post. I guess that's just part and parcel of the topic you were talking about, but it did leave me with the impression that you were somehow placing classics and "literature" in separate categories from other books.

    *shrug* It could just have been because I was reading your blog at midnight, rather than anything else, though.