Updated: Jan 4, 2019
Writing literature requires a heightened level of narcissism bordering on a god-complex. One cannot build a world in poetry or fiction without this sentiment blending fiction with fact. And the desire of all gods is to impact all sentient creatures. Yet, this desire, undefined in most writers, leads to mediocrity and inanity.
Manifested today, this desires takes the form of writing to “everyone.” How a writer conceives of his audience will shape every piece of the writing. Implicitly, for instance, a writer is writing to the literate “everyone.” Yet we know that what is considered Literate changes. The ability to read a newspaper is categorically different than the ability to read Chaucer.
Like all cultural change, there are numerous if not dozens of causes. What is considered Literate in our society is no different. For our purposes, we will focus on one cause, Pulp. Pulp refers to a soft mass of fibers derived from rags of woods used in paper-making. Pulp magazines exploded in popularity in the 1910s and 20s. They were so ephemeral in nature the only way to make a profit on their short shelf lives was to sell them cheaply to the masses. Thus The Mass Market was born. (Hence later, The Mass Market Paperback.)
This was a profound shift in literary writing, for better and for worse.
Throughout the history of the written word, writing had been aimed at a select few elites in a given society. What’s more, genre literature such as Children’s Lit, did not exist.
Children’s literature was an invention of the late 18th century. To the extent that children had read or been read to they had heard the works of great literary authors, who had intended their work for the best adults in society. Even the fairy-tale writers, The Grimm’s Brothers, did not initially intend their tales for children.
The Brothers Grimm—Jacob and Wilhelm—were philologists. They sent their students into the country side in order to gather popular folk stories from peasant grandmothers. The Brothers then carefully unified these stories under a single language—German. This German work was adopted by the first universal education system in the history of the world: The Prussian System. The Grimm’s Brothers’ purpose was to unite Germany under a singular Language. In this they succeeded.
Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey accomplished the same unification of the dozens of Hellenistic tribes into a Greek nation. Chaucer and Shakespeare in English. Dante in Italian. Cervantes in Spanish. Their use of language united all despite aiming their work at the elite.
The term Pulp in writing is considered to be writing that is “sensational and of poor quality.” This is true, because the aim was “everyone;” meaning, all literate men and women, meanwhile, Literate fell into the gutter.
This effected more than merely the quality of the language, but the structure of story too. Jules Vernes’ editor asked him to alter the ending of Around the World in 80 Days to have a happy rather than tragic denouement. The magazine Le Temps (“The Times”) was aimed at the French Family, both parents and their children. Thus altering the ending was designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. Indeed, in the 1870s, when Verne was published in Le Temps, their circulation grew rapidly.
Imagine, however, the impact to the finale of Gone with the Wind were Rhett and Scarlett and daughter to be happily sitting on their porch as the Carpetbaggers continue to invade the New South. Or in The Tell-Tale Heart the protagonist were to escape justice
This is not to say Vernes’ editor was mistaken. Instead, it is to indicate a difference in focus. The focus during The Mass Media era was on the "literate" masses rather than the artwork itself.
Mass no longer exists. At least not at this moment. (I fear what it could mean were mass to re-emerge). The most popular TV shows today (television being the ultimate in Mass) reach a fraction of what Seinfeld reached at its peak in the mid 90’s. When we say “everyone watched Game of Thrones last night,” we mean “everyone like me.” When people said in 1983 “everyone watched the M*A*S*H finale last night” this was almost literally true.
What is true is this: Everyone owns a television. Everyone owns an advanced mobile communication device; that is, a TV, a newspaper, a recording station, a magazine, a radio, a movie theatre—in their pockets.
This is good for writers.
Rather than appealing to “literate" readers capable of nothing more than the deciphering of labels on their antidepressants, writers can hone their craft for the intellectual elite. That is, the elite, non-academic, who chooses to heighten their senses, their conceptual framework, their integrating faculty and their knowledge of humanity.
Elitism need not be pejorative. It has always meant the best in society. The great tragedy of humanity is that while historically men had been barred from rising to the elite in society by force and economic circumstances, today men and women are barred from rising to the elite, by their own choosing. During the dawn and dusk of the 20th century, our literary institutions did not demand that men rise, but instead lowered every realm of the mind to the garbage heap.
Whereas elite had been a locked door, we must transform it into a stairway.
What we call literary should rise above what we read on a daily basis on cereal boxes, marketing and self-help books, business white papers, and tweets. Whether prose or verse, the language must be imbued with the imaginative. At the very least, we need institutions that consciously seek clarity in heightened language.
The modern Literate man is like the forgotten, betrayed young child of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. After a young boy has been abandoned by his pirate wards on the shores of England, he walks through a blizzard until he stumbles upon a dead woman buried in the snow:
[The] child set himself to sweep away the snow. The neck of the dead woman appeared; then her shoulders, clothed in rags. Suddenly he felt something move feebly under his touch. It was something small that was buried, and which stirred. The child swiftly cleared away the snow, discovering a wretched little body—thin, wan with cold, still alive, lying naked on the dead woman’s naked breast.
It was a little girl.
It had been swaddled up, but in rags so scanty that in its struggles it had freed itself from its tatters. Under it its attenuated limbs, and above it its breath, had somewhat melted the snow. A nurse would have said that it was five or six months old, but perhaps it might be a year, for growth, in poverty, suffers heart-breaking reductions which sometimes even produce rachitis. When its face was exposed to the air it gave a cry, a continuation of its sobs of distress. For the mother not to have heard that sob, proved her irrevocably dead.
The child took the infant in his arms. The stiffened body of the mother was a fearful sight; a spectral light proceeded from her face. The mouth, apart and without breath, seemed to form in the indistinct language of shadows her answer to the questions put to the dead by the invisible. The ghastly reflection of the icy plains was on that countenance. There was the youthful forehead under the brown hair, the almost indignant knitting of the eyebrows, the pinched nostrils, the closed eyelids, the lashes glued together by the rime, from the corners of the eyes to the corners of the mouth a deep channel of tears. The snow lighted up the corpse. Winter and the tomb are not adverse. The corpse is the icicle of man. The nakedness of her breasts was pathetic. They had fulfilled their purpose. On them was a sublime blight of the life infused into one being by another from whom life has fled, and maternal majesty was there instead of virginal purity. At the point of one of the nipples was a white pearl. It was a drop of milk frozen.
(The power of Hugo’s style is that despite a lackluster translation, it shines through). This scene is the epitome of high literary romantic language. It is figurative, imaginative, purposeful, affective. It affects us. Any rational man will feel deep pity for the blight of the young boy who must now choose whether or not to take charge of this tiny infant. All humans must feel sorrow for the loss of this angelic mother, dying to giving her child a source of life, but the elements and circumstance have frozen it into a pretty but useless bauble. The scene establishes the young boy’s character. What choice will he make and how will that determine his future? He is dying himself. How can he, a young motherless boy, take on the responsibility of caring for an infant? He himself was terribly mutilated as a babe. While the infant girl was mutilated by nature, the boy was mutilated by men. His decision will shape his values. The scene is critical to the plot that this boy should find this dying babe and make this decision at this point. It reveals the overall theme of abandonment and the injustices of a supposedly “civilized” society. All this in a few short paragraphs.
The modern literate man is in the same peril. He has been abandoned by circumstances and environment to suckle on a frozen pearl which cannot nourish. We must choose to slog through the blizzard with the infant in our arms.
Writers, I implore you not to write to a mass audience. Write to the select few who can one day rise to a higher level. This does not mean abandon all tradition and do whatever feels good. Write within and without tradition. Understand who came before you and build something unique. Do not cleave all literary history in order to claim “independence.” History is an ocean. We live on the crest of a great wave. Master the past to helm the future.
Write to a genre audience if you must, but do not fear elitism or alienation or the unworthy masses. In our information age, all those who seek to climb may.
Write to the select chosen intellectual elite, to those men and women who long for more than bland newspaper writing but seek the romantic.
Oscar Wilde said “I hate vulgar realism in literature. The man who would call a spade a spade should be compelled to use one.”
Throw down your spade and pick up your pen of might to save the infant.