The New York Review of Books remains one of my favorite publishers along with Melville House, and for many of the same reasons: their editorial staff picks and reissues material that deserves to be brought back into the light of day, the reputation of which is if anything deeply underappreciated. NYRB gave us back many of the ridiculously prolific Georges Simenon's better work; they re-printed Yasushi Inoue's excellent Tun-huang; and they've reissued many SF authors who straddled the literary and the fantastic with ease (Christopher Priest, Jan Morris, Robert Sheckley).
Among their recent reissues is Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, by critic Dwight Macdonald. I have been reading this book non-stop in between bouts of work, and for something whose most recent material was written while Kennedy was still President, it is amazing how relevant it remains. The main essay, "Masscult and Midcult", put Macdonald on the map for many people who had not yet noticed him, and for good reason. It's a sustained blast of vinegar at the way American culture (and, by extension, Western culture) has become a commodity engine — an easy-sounding target, but the way Macdonald attacks it is worthy of detailed discussion. It has more relevance than I thought to what I've been writing about here. It deserves some detail, so here we go.
Masscult, as Macdonald put it, is a) culture for the masses that b) doesn't even have the possibility of being good. The first part is crucial, because the concept of "mass man" — a fresh subject of major debate in the Fifties and Sixties — was to him a theoretical construction which was being realized with disturbing speed. To deal with men as if they were nothing but a herd of abstractions ("an extreme towards which we are being pushed but will never reach") meant to manufacture culture for them which was just as faceless and interchangeable. If you build all those multiplexes, you have to justify filling them with warm bodies, and so we have a movie industry which seems devoted simply to filling empty spaces, and a publishing industry designed to keep books on shelves (real or virtual), and a music industry designed to ensure we never have a moment's silence.
This is not exactly new or startling, which is why most of us don't think very much about it. A big part of that is because the conclusion (mass culture is homogenized and dumbed-down) is so familiar, but few of us bother to go back and trace the skeins of the argument that produced it. What bothered Macdonald most about this cultural material was not that it existed, but that the way it existed in our society systematically forced out or marginalized everything else. It both created and satisfied an appetite, and left little room for people to question whether or not their appetites might either be synthetic or misplaced.
"It is precisely because I do believe in the potentialities of ordinary people that I criticize Masscult," wrote Macdonald, as a slap back at those who would call him undemocratic or, horrors, "elitist". He resented masscult because it created for itself an audience that was either wholly uncritical, or had such debased critical standards that such criticism amounted in the end to a resigned shrug of there being no accounting for taste. The work, in other words, came first, and it assumed there would be the presence of an audience willing to lower itself to its standards. It wasn't just "chewing gum for the eyes" (as Frank Lloyd Wright once called TV); it was processed foods at the expense of fresh fruits and vegetables. It means an atmosphere that is increasingly unhealthy for all concerned — producers, consumers and middlemen alike. It may line the pockets of one party and the shelves of another, but at the cost of a much greater general impoverishment.
I've argued similar points in the past, but I have had to tread lightly around them and make my own refinements. I don't believe that every copy of Fifty Shades of Gray sold means one less classic will be read, because the audiences for the two are totally unalike. But the prevalence of the former makes it that much more difficult for proper appreciation of the latter over time. The problem with Gray is not just that it's bad writing — it's that its success means that much less interest, either on the part of a publisher or an author, to reach people one-to-one. It means that many more authors coming into the market who assume something like this is a good thing to aim for, and who shirk turning their talents to other things. Its success, even provisionally, creates long-term damage that is harder to notice, because it is so pervasive and insidious, and which is hard to blame on the author, reader or publisher alone. They all work together to ensure their own demise.
I need to repeat something I've said before. I'm not a fuddy who thinks all that trash should be burned and replaced with copies of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations of Dostoevsky. I find myself less offended by the works themselves (what age of writing hasn't produced its fair share of junk?) than the way the junk is amplified by the machinery it's piped through. The greatest deficiencies of these books are not aesthetic, but social. Any one of them by themselves may not be so bad, but an entire reading (and writing, and publishing) skein woven together out of mainly these threads smothers the possibility of anything else existing or being taken seriously. The weaver, not the cloth, is the real culprit here, for no one thinks of a scarf as a weapon until someone uses it to strangle another in their sleep.
Next installment, I'll talk more specifically about how this affects the creation and publishing of SF&F specifically.
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Other Lives Of The Mind