An edited version of this essay first appeared in The Chicago Reader.
The last book but one I read was Jacque Derrida’s The Gift of Death, his late-career foray into deconstructionist theology.
To say that you recently finished reading a Derrida book for pleasure is obviously a fairly major throwdown (“Look at my brain!”) It’s also, though, somewhat uncomfortable — what sort of poseur reads Derrida for pleasure and then brags about it, anyway? In my case, the poseur-ness is only compounded by my motivations. I picked up the book because my brother (an English professor) had just mentioned his own Derrida reading, and I was feeling somewhat inadequate. Nor is this anxiety made any less shameful by the fact that the conversation with my brother occurred, not on the phone or in person, but in the comments section of my poncey comics blog. Said poncey comics blog being where I have most of my conversations with my brother these days. And yes, that’s embarrassing too.
Jim Collins, author of Bring on the Books for Everybody, the last book I read, doesn’t talk about Derrida or poncey blogs. Instead, he focuses on (among other things) Virginia Woolf and Amazon.com recommended lists. Still, there’s more than a little crossover. Collins is interested in reading communities — and in that inevitable concomitant of community, social anxiety. Moreover, where earlier cultural critics turned up their Germanic umlauts at the commerce-stained detritus of marketing and non-print-based media, Collins celebrates both in all their pomo pop glory. “What used to be a thoroughly private experience…has become an exuberantly social activity, whether it be in the form of actual book clubs, television book clubs, [or]Internet chat rooms,” he enthuses (page 4) He even goes out of his way to explain that his book was itself inspired by looking at the literary murals adorning the walls of a café in his local B&N. Thus, Collins’ prose is, in itself, part of the new reading culture it examines, amphibiously splooshing from the muck of the chain store pond to the elegantly literary lily pad and back again in an endless ribbit of bliss.
To be fair, getting to that blessed state takes some work. Negotiating between middle and high-brow is, to use one of Collins’ favorite words, “complicated.” Since Collins is a smart thinker and a crisp writer, it’s also, in this case, an enjoyable conversation. In that vein, one of the book’s most entertaining set pieces is Collins’ description of a graduate class discussion he led on the infamous 2001 brou-ha-ha which ensured when Oprah Winfrey chose Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections for her Book Club, and Franzen responded by explaining in public that he thought he was too cool for the room.
Collins asked his graduate students to watch an Oprah Book Club segment, read Franzen’s novel and some of his essays, and decide what they though. And what they thought was, more or less, a pox on both your houses. While they were broadly sympathetic to Oprah’s efforts to promote reading, her actual Book Club taping — with its celebrity guest stars and vapid cheerleading — filled them with disdain. (“This is like watching a Weight Watchers infomercial. It’s all about mutual affirmation and feeling good about yourself!’”)
On the other hand, the students were even less taken with Franzen’s earnest pomposity and knee-jerk disdain for visual culture. To Franzen’s ostentatious boast that he had given up his television, one student acidly commented, “Is this guy caught in a time warp or what? He sounds like the deposed Crown Prince of Modernism, waiting to be restored to the throne.’”
The Oprah/Franzen fight, between literature as mass media self-help for all and literature as resolutely literary self-definition for the few, is the binary that under various guises (New Wave art film vs. Miramax “art” films, Nick Hornby vs. Michiko Kakatuni) structures Collins’ book. And Collins is at his best not just when he (like his grad students) is making fun of both, but when he’s doing so by energetically reshuffling and, er, complicating the terms. The book’s final, bravura move is to show that respected contemporary literary works like Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Diane Johnson’s Le Divorce, and David Lodge’s Author Author are actually best understood as genre literature. Collins names that genre “lit-lit”. Lit-lit books, according to Collins ,name-check dead authors obsessively, and are built around an emblematic epiphany in which one character or other recognizes the transformative power of literature. The Crown Prince of Modernism and Oprah alike turn to literature not for truth or beauty or knowledge, but simply for the cultivation of their own ineffable wonderfulness.
At the beginning of his book, Collins announces, rather defensively, that “if you hope this will be an expose of the Evils of the Culture Industry , or a snappy remix of “I Sing the Culture Electric,” go no further, because this book isn’t for you.” But this is a little misleading. For Collins does take sides. He, like his students, prefers Oprah to Franzen and self-help to sanctimony. If one must have genre literature, Collins prefers to have it without lit-lits “hey, no genre here!” hypocrisy.
So far I agree with him. But why does he make this pretense of neutrality? Why not just embrace Oprah if embracing Oprah is more or less where you end up?
The answer is two words: cultural studies. Collins’ never mentions them, but that is nonetheless where he sits, smack on the fence the academy has erected for itself. From that elevated perch, he can benignly condescend to the great unwashed in all their multifariousness while simultaneously sneering at the gauche sneering of unreformed elitists.
In The Gift of Death, Derrida concludes that literature is an empty space; a parasitic untheology, constantly asking forgiveness of itself for resolutely meaning to say nothing. Ever the tenured radical, Derrida sees this daring revelation as an embarrassment for the Establishment. Cultural studies, though, a more callow establishment than Derrida had anticipated, is not at all put out by having its innards emptied. On the contrary, Collins is “delighted” to find that literary fiction “forms part of the cultural mixes” that modern cultural consumers “assemble with such gusto to articulate who they are, and what is crucially important to them.” The content of who they are or of what is important to them is utterly beside the point. Are they Nazis? Misogynists? Drooling idiots? As long as it’s with gusto, who cares? After all, as Derrida argues, the point of literature and of culture is just to speak, regardless of what is said. Collins is aware that Oprah is witheringly stupid, and he explains quite clearly why the movie version of The English Patient denies cultural difference in a way that transforms the anti-imperialist book into a blankly imperialist apologia. But something (a desire to be complex?) prevents him from actually articulating what his analysis suggests. That suggestion being: some pieces of cultural detritus are morally and intellectually bankrupt and need to be viciously scorned.
For my part, I don’t entirely scorn Bring Back the Books for Everybody. On the contrary, Collins’ analysis of the way literary culture has changed and expanded taught me a lot, and I’m even planning to see The Hours on his thoughtful recommendation. And he’s certainly right that highbrow culture’s longstanding contempt for the proles was and remains a sin. But wishy-washiness is not an expiation. On the contrary, it’s a continuation of the same contempt by other means. Your intellectual endeavors (like mine) may well be tinged with vanity and baseness, but that’s a reason for honesty and renewed effort, not an excuse to pretend to retire to a position above the fray. If academics want to show they’re really down with the rest of us, they need to climb off those high horses and start throwing some punches.