WHAT WAS LITERATURE? Class Culture and Mass Society by Leslie A. Fiedler

WHAT WAS LITERATURE? Class Culture and Mass Society

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Fiedler, once genuinely, lucidly provocative, now tends to come across merely as a malcontent--and one who (despite all efforts to the contrary) is strangely out of touch. Here he reprises a familiar, oversimplified theme: literature is now utterly divided between a) elitist High Art supported by ivory-tower critics (who regard ""as substandard almost everything which naive and uninstructed readers are likely to recognize as a 'story' or a 'poem'""); and b) popular storytelling--the stuff of best-sellers, TV series, soaps, and comic books. The ""academization of American fiction,"" furthermore, means that ""serious"" literature is destined to be ""finally experienced not as words on the page but diagrams on the blackboard."" How, then, tan we get out of this terrible jam? (Fiedler discusses only one current serious-and-popular writer, Saul Bellow; he seems to think that the bestseller list is the province of ""women, blacks, Hispanics, and other stigmatized minorities""; similar feats of tunnel-vision abound.) Well, there must be a new kind of criticism: ""it must not only confront the popular arts, but deal with them, and the high arts too, in a style consonant with a sensibility altered by the former."" And the basis of such criticism must be, unsurprisingly, Fiedler's favorite fiction-criterion: the ""wide mythic appeal"" that provides ""unearned instant gratification""--whether in great art or soap-opera. Unfortunately, however, Fiedler's example of such criticism here is unconvincing: the miscegenation myth, from Stowe to GWTW to Roots. (Cf., the Kirkus 1980 review of Fiedler's The Inadvertent Epic for a detailed discussion of this often-intriguing but finally overstated argument.) And, throughout, Fiedler's attacks on the high-brow Establishment seem to be coming out of an equally ivory tower: nowhere does he acknowledge the existence of a thriving ""middle-brow"" Establishment--one that, for years, has been practicing the sort of unpedantic, directly emotional criticism that Fiedler sometimes appears to be calling for. To be sure, there are flickers of worthy insight and healthy irreverence here. And the archetype approach to literature has clear value. But, for the most part, this is a bad-tempered, even desperate Fiedlerian muddle--with noisy exaggerations that only highlight the confusion and/or the obviousness of the thinking.

Pub Date: Nov. 15th, 1982
Publisher: Simon & Schuster