Those Gosh-Darned Popular Authors!

by vinnyhaddad

            The relationship between art and the marketplace has been a dialectical one, even if the “high-art” authors would prefer not to acknowledge it as such. Gift-books, it seems, is a perfect intersection of this dialectic, where the affirmative nature of art becomes undeniably subsumed into material culture no matter who subversive the author intends the content to be. Wordsworth provides such a fascinating launching point for this discussion because of the work he does distinguishing his craft from popular fiction, a task that, as we will all be reading next week, Jonathan Franzen is still attempting to validate as a cultural truism nearly two hundred years later. The argument is delicate, privileging texts that “create a unique distinctive work, but also creates the only criteria by which this work may be judged, valued, or even enjoyed” over those that are accommodated to “the likings and fashions of his day” (Swartz, 484). The necessity for authors like Wordsworth to emphasize such a distinction is that the texts they are selling seem to compete to closely with, or in some cases lag too far behind, the sales figures for more popular authors [(interesting that a frustrated Franzen similarly points out that “the hardcover literary best-seller of 1994, Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, came in at number fifty-one on Publisher Weekly’s annual best-seller list. Number fifty was Star Trek: All Good Things”) Why Bother?].  Wordsworth, therefore, must point out that the appreciation of his work takes more time, that it is historically transcendent and too resplendent for immediate recognition. Yet, of course, the creation of this distinction has, if not is clearly meant to have, the effect of creating a market for texts that purportedly do more “cultural work” based on their closeness to Beauty and disclosure of Truth. What is often most noticeable about such texts is that they require more active participation of their reader in order to attain this Beauty and Truth. As most people like the idea of “the best medicine tasting the worst” rather than the actual enactment of such a philosophy, we have the perfect capitalistic solution in gift-books.

            What the examination of Tennyson’s illustrated gift-book of The Princess makes clear is that the art that is considered to be closest to Beauty and disclose the most Truth (Tennyson after all was the Poet Laureate and required active participation on the part of the reader in order to attain the Beauty and Truth) could easily be subsumed into the marketplace if the materially aesthetic was privileged over the linguistically aesthetic. That the cultural work of a “high-art” text could be re-appropriated into the development of an imagined community where the distinction between the expectations that people should be reading Tennyson and that people should at least own Tennyson is completely dissolved. Glass half full: this system allows for those who have the ability to exchange experiences well to have an occupation to do so until the time may come that the content can once again be privileged over the material (one is less likely to now purchase a gift-book of Tennyson than a poorly-edited e-book or cheap paperback edition). Glass half empty: commodity fetishism merely dupes the collective into accepting this imagined community where owning is the same as knowing, that membership to such a community relies not on a devoted reading experience but by the unraveling of one’s purse strings. What has been historically true (that the readership of serious fiction has never truly competed with that of popular fiction, that the public spheres have always favored a passive relationship with art that affirms their position in society over an active one that subverts it) may just be forever true. The readership that Wordsworth desires to see is still one that Franzen and others are still waiting for, yet that readership has always been one reserved for a small sect of the already small sect of a literate public. As Franzen has accepted the glass half-full (that he has an occupation as a writer) has necessitated that he also accept the glass half-empty that a certain reading of gift-books makes evident (he has accepted the opportunity to write his award-winning novel The Corrections into an HBO miniseries). Dupe away.