No Such Thing As Bad Publicity Either, Right? Dept.

The Percy Jackson Problem - The New Yorker

What if the strenuous accessibility of “Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods” proves so alluring to young readers that it seduces them in the opposite direction from that which Gaiman’s words presuppose—away from an engagement with more immediately difficult incarnations of the classics, Greek and otherwise? What if instead of urging them on to more challenging adventures on other, potentially perilous literary shores, it makes young readers hungry only for more of the palatable same?

This is one incarnation of a problem I keep toying with myself — the idea that "any reading is good reading" (to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, himself quoted in the above-linked piece), and that to divide things up into High, MiddleBrow, and Swill is to do everyone involved — readers and creators alike — a subtle disservice at the cost of ennobling the critics.

I gotta lay all the cards on the table here, marked and unmarked alike. I consider myself one of those folks who believes that yes, any reading is good reading, up to a point. Fanfiction makes a good parallel. It's great that some people who would otherwise have never picked up a pencil save for fanfiction are writing voluminously because of it. But getting stuck at that level can be ruinous — not because fanfiction itself is for dolts, but because it's all too possible to learn the wrong lessons from it, wrong lessons that are ruinous in a way that the wrong lessons from other kinds of writing are not.

The same, I think, applies to the "any reading is good reading" line of thinking. It's a good place to start, but defending it at all costs leads one to commit unwitting barbarisms. Chief among them is the idea that one cultural experience is as good as another, or that any attempts to demonstrate otherwise are — cue that hated word — snobbery. I don't think it's snobbery to ask that our popular entertainments, since we must have them anyway, at least attempt to appeal to the thinking adult in us as well as the restless child. I don't think it's snobbery to note that a trip to the museum is going to provide you with a different set of goodies than a trip to the comic store, and that you can't swap the value of those things indiscriminately.

Likewise, I don't think it's snobbery to point out that it's unwise to ask people to accept a denatured version of the real thing, instead of inviting them to step up their game to embrace the real thing. I remember how many kids in my class squirmed when asked to read Chaucer in ye oryginall Englyshe, or rolled their eyes at Shakespeare for the same reasons. But the originals demanded to be met on their own terms; they had the weight of centuries and populations on their side, and you brought yourself to them for the sake of learning something from all that.

What I don't approve of either, though, is the idea that only the past has something to give us of value. The present does, too, but it's all the harder to find what it is because it's the present — the past comes to us through the convenient filter of time. We do need to see what of our current age will outlast its contemporaries because it just plain has that much more to offer people of any age, but the odds seem how that it'll be something pushed to the forefront of everyone's attention because it's so easily marketed. So, again, I'm hesitant.

In Walter Kerr's wonderful book The Decline of Pleasure, there's a line (I'm paraphrasing) where he notes that the best way to "cure" someone of reading one comic book (trashy! lowbrow!) is to hand them five more. The way I interpret his idea, either they end up taking comics seriously — which for all we know could actually lead to a paying career in publishing — or they get burned out on it and put aside childish things to work on their 1040As.

But I think Kerr ignored another possibility: that people could get comfortable with gorging themselves on something, especially when surrounded by a culture that's very good at fulfilling that kind of behavior, and end up neither finding pleasure nor revulsion in it but merely a way to get some remission from the day's hassle. Those in the business of marketing culture are not interested in whether or not it is interesting or transformative or what have you; they care only if it sells. What happens to it, its customers, and the rest of their world, after the material leaves their hands, is none of their professed business. They're only too happy to fill whatever need they see needs filling, and if one of those needs is giving people the Cliffs Notes version of culture, no grousing on anyone's part will give them pause.

So if I have a problem with "any reading is good reading", it's only because there's people thrilled to make a buck off it, and who don't care about what else is getting shoved off the table in the process.

Tags: classics creativity imagination reading

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2014/10/25 10:00.

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