Trash and Serious Literature in America: Aristotle Blows the Whistle on Us

The opinion has often been expressed that literary criticism has merely been marking time since Aristotle invented it in his POETICS. This may or may not be an exaggeration. But the venerable Greek provided a couple of insights that are useful in understanding certain trends in contemporary American fiction.

In the century that just fizzled out, Plot was generally the province of trash literature, while Character, Diction and Thought were reserved for the serious stuff. This rift did not exist in the nineteenth century, when the best novelists tended also to be the most popular. Dickens was the prime novelistic technician and psychologist of his day, as well as the greatest myth-maker.

However, by the time Hemingway decided to blow out his brains with a shotgun in Idaho, the discontinuity between art and escapism had become wide as the Grand Canyon, so that even the average citizen couldn’t fail to notice. It required the diseased genius of Madison Avenue to bridge the gap, or at least to stick a Lady Liberty-sized band-aid over it.

And Saul Bellow was right there, with his HERZOG–a book about a man who does nothing but write letters to dead people–to claim the dubious distinction of being the first author whose "novels" were sold to millions but actually read by several thousand, at the most.

Such hype, when exerted upon the rudimentary awareness of a world mesmerized by television, can even go so far as to garner the highest accolades for its beneficiaries. But, unfortunately, it has far less auspicious effects on the development of the work itself. Nobel Prize and multi-million-dollar bank account notwithstanding, Bellow is a classic case of arrested development, in the Aristotelian sense.

Premature recognition, especially in America, where fame brings an infinitude of distractions and temptations, almost inevitably stunts the growth of novelists. It’s the sad story of American fiction, from Mark Twain to Mark Helprin; and Saul Bellow is one of the saddest episodes in that story. At the tender age of twenty-nine, he had his first book published, to the critical coos of his crowd. He realized, while still a tyro, that he was into something profitable. It takes a greater genius than Bellow, or a greater fool, to tamper with the goose that lays the golden eggs–even if the fowl does show the potential of becoming a swan.

"Beginners," says Aristotle, "succeed earlier with Diction and Character than with construction of a story." Bellow was just such a beginner, and a very promising one at that. But, having already amassed most of the money and ego-gratification he could ever hope to absorb, he had no reason to develop beyond his exquisite Diction and Character, and into the Action that could set his works firmly in the collective awareness of the human race.

The result is the unhappy spectacle of a man pushing a hundred, who provides us, every year or so, with a compilation of profound insights, well expressed, but going nowhere–in short, yet another novice work, marketed as a full-fledged novel. He’s not a novelist at all, but an essayist, as the late John Gardner observed.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum wallows Stephen King, who has hawked more words and banked more royalties than any writer in the history of this planet. And the only advertisement his books require is his name and likeness on the dust jacket. The people who buy his books actually read them, voraciously, from cover to cover.

Old reliable Aristotle preemptively blew the whistle on Stephen King as well: "Plot is the end and purpose of tragedy. One may string together a series of characteristic speeches of the utmost best…and yet fail to produce the true tragic effect; but one would have much better success with a tragedy which, however inferior in these respects, has a Plot…. There can be tragedy without Character, but not without Plot."

Presumably the permissible deficiencies extend to the areas of Thought and Diction as well. In his tales of talking cars and cannibalistic toddlers, King is utterly virginal of Thought. And, of course, he eschews the delicacies of Diction so as not to offend the ears of his lowbrow clientele.

But he can tell a story. Why can he do it, and not Bellow, who is his superior in every other respect? The answer is almost certainly genetic, or at least congenital. Various young boys wander through King’s books, effortlessly spouting well-shaped impromptu anecdotes. If they can be construed as self-portraits, we might assume that their creator is a natural-born story teller, a former prodigy in that primeval art form.

Chatterton, Mozart and Picasso notwithstanding, child prodigies are usually the least promising members of any artistic generation. It’s a giant’s step from semi-conscious infantile knacks to considered adult craftsmanship. In the field of music we hear again and again of the actual handicap that childhood genius can be. Yehudi Menuhin had to lay his fiddle aside for a time in adolescence, to give his heart and brain a chance to catch up with his precocious fingers.

Advertising agencies are full of natural painters, musicians and poets, who never mustered the gumption to make that explicitly moral leap into imaginative adulthood. And the bestseller racks are peopled with similarly idiotic savants, the most conspicuous today being Stephen King.

Go to the video shop incognito and rent PET SEMATARY. Steel yourself and observe the close-up of the small boy’s face contorting in agony as the six-inch hypodermic needle is slowly inserted into his jugular vein. And ask yourself: is it possible to accuse Mr. King of being anything but ethically a child–and a very naughty one at that?

And yet he is a novelist, in a truer sense than Bellow, the great "Dean," can ever be.

If one were named dictator of the world tomorrow and asked which author’s work should be set on fire in an attempt to expunge it forever from human awareness, one would be obliged to choose King’s. But the irony is that, once their topicality has vanished in the smog of time, Bellow’s works will be utterly forgotten, while King’s, even if put to the torch, will undoubtedly survive in the more debased nightmares of the working classes and the nasty little jokes hissed around the campfire by pubescents at Boy Scout jamborees.

His works, and the works of other trash writers like him, are symptoms of our civilization’s regression and decline, rather than curative agents which may arrest it. As Joseph Campbell, the late hireling of George Lucas, once observed, the stories which define vigorous societies are created not by the masses, but by the elite: Saul Bellows with moral imaginations and the psychic virility to weld them into mythos.

Needless to say, such a Saul Bellow is not on the scene today–or at least Manhattan has so far scorned his works. That very neglect, that sin of omission, is a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Campbell’s mythopoeic elite are not embraced by nations in the petulant throes of decline. Jesus had a reason for weeping over Jerusalem: she killed all her prophets.

There was a time in the neighborhood of Canaan when Moloch and the wicked Baalim held sway over the people’s imaginations. Then Abraham came out of Ur. And now who commands (at least nominally) the most regiments, Abraham’s god or Jezebel’s? We are aware of the Ammonite practices of temple prostitution and baby sacrifice, but most of us perform less racy rituals on Sunday mornings, our vicarious behavior over the VCR the night before notwithstanding.

The Moloch myth, as currently expressed in Stephen King’s fiction, emerges in the darker moments of human history. It caters to the appetites of vicious merchant civilizations, such as doomed Carthage and the USA of today. The wholesome tales of Miriam and Moses, of Joseph and his brothers, of John the Baptist and his younger, brighter cousin, are not being retold now.

The time is ripe for Abraham Redivivus. He’ll come looming out of the desert and chase away the cannibal pantheon with fresh monolithic insights into the individuated human psyche.

The new Abraham’s spike will be raised over Isaac’s jugular, blunt and gruesome enough to capture the jaded attention of the American people. But when he lowers it, unmoistened with blood, his gesture will be so mighty and beautiful that all who see it will be transformed. And no more forests will be flattened to produce deluxe editions of Stephen King’s works, and Madison Avenue will drop Saul Bellow just as it did the Hula Hoop.

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