Monday, March 27, 2006

Intelligent Fools

There is a particular breed of person that has begun to flourish in modern America, one who grates on almost everyone I know: the intelligent fool. This person manifests his existence in several ways, however, he is most likely to appear in one of the two following forms: either the bitchy pseudo-intellectual with a sense of entitlement who works in book stores or coffee shops, or the book critic. There are interrelating characteristics found in both that bear exposure and help one identify the underlying foolishness of otherwise bright people.

The first of these, the whiny store clerk/barista who believes the world owes him something just on the basis of his unrecognized brilliance, is perhaps the most annoying. The average example of this individual is a college dropout who was seen as the “disaffected poet” while in high school; someone who didn’t see how a university education could possibly benefit him and therefore decided to quit school “to spend more time with his writing” (the graduate of a liberal arts program who actually finished his degree, but still has the same sense of entitlement, is usually this person’s supervisor). He sighs when asked questions related to his job, as though wondering why such a brilliant individual must put up with the mundane questions of the commercial sellouts who come into his store. This sigh, mind you, is the predecessor of the snicker he’ll emit to a similar co-worker after the customer has gone in search of his book: the snicker that pokes fun at all literary tastes not in keeping with his own.

The clerk in question must always qualify his occupation with the phrase, “until I finish my [insert art form].” The trouble with this is that nobody who is too lazy to put up with the hassles of completing a college degree will ever have the work ethic necessary to complete a novel. Most successful novelists will tell you that writing is a full-time job; that overcoming a writer’s block requires the mental endurance equivalent to running a marathon. The other trouble is that, although many have talent, they abhor the idea of publishing popular fiction that will earn a living: that, they believe, is selling out.

This idea of selling-out is precisely why I label them pseudo-intellectuals. Most of them buy and read books that may as well have “Sartre-Mimicry-of-the-Month-Club-Main-Selection” stamped on the front cover. They are snobs and obscurants who read difficult works with impressive catch phrases that they then proceed to spout whenever they get a chance (no matter how inappropriate the situation): thus proving, in their own minds, how much better they are than everyone else. They loathe popular fiction, disdaining the capacity of “the masses” in choosing books that appeal to their current situation. Popular fiction cannot be literary in their minds (a trait they hold in common with some book critics mentioned below): if too many people like something, it lacks “artistic integrity,” a meaningless phrase invented to appeal to the pseudo-intellectual mind.

What these people refuse to recognize is that today’s popular fiction, in many instances, will become tomorrow’s literature. Shakespeare was not trying to make life difficult for the modern eleventh-grader; he was trying to fill the seats at the Globe. While linguistic and cultural evolution may make his work difficult for some modern readers, the work is not literary simply because it is difficult; rather, it is literary because the themes within the work appealed to massive numbers of people in his time – some, indeed, still resonate today. Likewise, the same idea applies to novels: most (not all) works of what is termed “classic” literature today were huge bestsellers in their own day. The list is impressive: Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Charles Dickens’s Little Dorritt and David Copperfield, Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native, James Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, and many others. These books appealed to great numbers of people because they addressed contemporary thoughts and issues as well as certain “timeless” themes (for lack of a better word); and as such, they provide modern readers with a glimpse into vanished societies that hold ideas still true today.

In order to feel better about their current situation, the clerk who fits my description will deride all those who enter his limited domain as having no taste. He will mock them for purchasing the latest Stephen King novel; simply because he is jealous that both his customers and the writers they read are happy with their lives. He feels that because he is bright, he should be handed a book contract so that the rest of us can read the drivel he chooses to share with us - in order that his complex and intellectual thoughts can reach the unenlightened masses. He fails to realize that most of us read what we do because it serves some purpose: it illuminates aspects of our lives in an entertaining matter or allows us to escape from whatever difficulties our day has to that point engendered.

Certain book critics share literary tastes with these clerks. They feel the need, as frustrated novelist wanna-bes, to criticize the bestseller lists for lack of taste. Most of them, in fact, do not even consider genre fiction to be literary in the slightest. They will cite a lack of touch with reality or “escapism” as the reason for their derision of science fiction. While they do not share the belief that literature should be difficult, they do believe that lack of reality in fiction automatically precludes its validity as an art form: art, they say, should reflect reality.

Most science fiction readers read their books to escape from reality, to journey into a world wherein good is rewarded and evil, punished. There is, in fact, a good deal of literary tradition that science fiction and fantasy coincide with, although these critics cannot see this. To explain: one of the most common themes in American literature is the orphaned boy, noble at heart, who sets out in a corrupt world to make a life for himself. Along the way, he will experience a direct confrontation with evil (either a person or situation), and end up wiser: he retains his nobility and goodness, maintaining his separation from corruption, while learning how to avoid that corruption. At the end of the road lies the good life.

Instances of this theme abound in our cultural dialogue: Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Deerslayer, and The Great Gatsby will suffice to name some of the literary instances. This theme is also prevalent in the cultural ideal of “The American Dream.” Science fiction and fantasy are merely modern reactions to the idea: they take this story, which doesn’t seem viable in a modern, cynical, uncaring world, and place it in a universe where it can happen. The growing abundance of science fiction following the first and second World Wars attests to this feeling that the story is more realistic in an unrealistic setting. The growing popularity of the genres can denote the modern reader’s need for a hope not found in some “realistic” modern works of fiction. The stories are universally about the triumph of good over evil, something that people want to read about more and more as the prevailing worldview becomes more bleak each year.

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