Literary Worth and Popular Taste

Taking Proust to the Beach

As an academic trained in the study and appreciation of literature, I have spent the better part of my life staunchly defending the ramparts of literary endeavor against the slings and arrows of outrageous pop-fiction lovers. I have steadily despaired of those who read Stephen King, Terry C. Johnston, Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel, and their ilk. I said things like, "If you want a good ghost story, go read Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Edgar Allan Poe can't be beat for a good thriller. A great Western is The Last of the Mohicans." Then I would wait until my companion was out of earshot, switch my radio from NPR to my favorite C&W station, drive home, draw the shades, and curl up with a good Dean Koontz, Robert B. Parker, or Elmore Leonard novel. And I would tell no one about it, for I was terrified that someone might learn that, in my heart of hearts, I preferred schlock to art. After all, as a college professor, I was supposed to be an arbiter of great literature, not an enthusiastic fan of the "easy read."

It took me a long time to come to terms with this, to understand that the problem lay in the elitism in which I had been trained. Like most of my colleagues, I wanted to be an arbiter of artistic worth, but I refused to admit to reading anything that did not have a canonical stamp of approval. I carried this attitude into my choice of other entertainments as well: plays,...

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