One of my friends recently picked up Brave New World, and while we were talking about it she switched tracks midstream and noted that a big part of why so many classics went under her radar is because they got spoiled for her by all the "snobs" in college. Some of them were people with degrees and teaching positions.
What does it mean to be a snob? Most of it as I see it has to do with a kind of cultivated elitism of self-denial. To wit: I don't watch TV; I don't read comic books; I don't do this and I don't do that, because that stuff rots your brain and I'm better than all that anyway.
Let us take a moment to pull the struts out from under the arguments against TV, because they do us no favors. It's always been fashionable to hate TV, so much so that it becomes too easy to throw around wholly spurious arguments against it.
TV is better now than it has ever been. Look at the sheer number of shows out right now that break ground, say something, show us something, and are terrifically entertaining all at the same time. (It confirms my theory that most of the really adventurous work in long-form storytelling went from movies to TV some time ago, because the audience for same has gone there.) The bad in TV has always been the same; the good we get now is quite unlike the good of previous generations, and is starting to sing in notes unheard-of before.
I don't watch a lot of TV, but most of that is practical. If there's a show I want to watch, I can rent it or pick it up from any number of legitimate online sources. I work pretty hard, and so most of what little spare time I have is reserved for writing my book, watching shows I get paid to review, writing blog posts about snobbism,or letting my cats walk all over me.
But I don't skip out on most TV because I want to. It's certainly not because I think TV is a horrible brain-gobbling affliction that will make you a bad writer. The only thing that makes someone a bad writer is their unwillingness to learn from their mistakes, not what their default choice of leisure is.
It was easy to believe in such things once. To declare your contempt for TV was one of a number of ways of drawing easy lines in the sand about your position in the so-called culture wars. After a while, though, it got hard to ignore how much of the contempt for TV was expressed by people who didn't even bother to engage with it in the first place.
It's still fashionable to tell writers to "turn off the TV" or "unplug" or commit to some other variety of hermeticism that disconnects them from the outside world. Some of this is fine, when it doesn't slop into being actively contemptuous of what is happening in your world, including its popular culture. But if you want to write to, and about, the people around you right now, depriving yourself of one of the most convenient ways to take their pulse is not a good idea.
This doesn't mean you have to take seriously what comes out of the tube, or that you have to watch everything. It does mean that pretending TV does not exist will most likely do you more harm than good.
From everything I've seen, most snobs simply swap one variety of brain rot for another. It is just as corrosive to one's spirit and creativity to jail yourself up in a ghetto made of "high culture" as it is to stupefy yourself with TV and video games. Motives matter: if you use the classics to insulate yourself from a world you see as crass and banal, you will find the classics have that much less to tell you about that world in the first place. It is impossible to say something meaningful about the world unless you know something about the way it is currently constituted, and not just about how you remember it, or would like to see it.
There's a little bookstore in Penn Station, well-stocked by a raspy-voiced fellow who recognized names like Robert Musil and Machado de Assis when I waved them under his nose. I spend a good deal of my time in there over on the wall where the black spines of the Penguin Classics stand in shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity. But I also spend at least as much time up at the front of the store, looking at what's captivating everyone's attention. (Right now: Hunger Games and Shades of Grey.) The more I go back and forth between the two, the more I see how our process of moving a work from short-term memory (red-hot bestseller) to long-term memory (Penguin Classics) isn't a cut-and-dried process of drawing a line in the sand and saying, real culture starts here. Works enter the canon for reasons entirely apart from their literary quality, a concept — along with the canon itself — that only came into existence about a century and change ago. We can't ignore that, and shouldn't act as if our job is to build bulwarks against it.
We should quit pretending the world we have, the world of bestsellers and TV, is an affliction to be rid ourselves of, like some variety of cultural cooties. It's the only culture we've got, and we have to work with it and not against it if we want to see anything good come of it.
Other Lives Of The Mind