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

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.

3 thoughts on “Trash and Serious Literature in America: Aristotle Blows the Whistle on Us”

  1. if a great writer emerges in this world, we will never know. Publishers, agents, reads looking for 50 shades of anything. Harold Bloom is right.

  2. the night watchman

    “In his tales of talking cars and cannibalistic toddlers ….” (?) “Go to the video shop incognito and rent PET SEMATARY…” (!) I suppose it’s easier to despise an author whose work you haven’t actually read.

  3. the night watchman

    “In his tales of talking cars and cannibalistic toddlers ….” (?) “Go to the video shop incognito and rent PET SEMATARY…” (!) I suppose it’s easier to despise an author whose work you haven’t actually read.

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