Eleanor Catton debunks the idea that literature is elitist

Eleanor Catton is a very powerful writer. What do I mean by powerful? Writers don’t command armies, head governments or lead major corporations. No writer I know can leap a tall building in a single bound. Many, in fact, struggle to get up from awkwardly low seating. And yet writers do have very great power, when they choose to wield it.

Writers tell the truth.

Having put that there, on its own line, as a baldly contentious statement, let me take a few sentences to unpick it. Which is a good word. Writers unpick the truth. They take a bundle of contradictory and confusing ideas – like a ball of yarn that has got all tangled up – and untangle the threads so we can see them clearly.

Elitism is a tangled mess of ideas if ever there was one. Literature is another mess of often contradictory things. Jumble the two together and you end up with such a dense conceptual mass that very people will be able to make sense of it. Eleanor Catton is one of those very few people. And writing for Metro NZ, in a bare few hundred words, she unpicks the yarn ball of literary elitism so that we can all look at it clearly.

These days, the idea of being a “good reader” or a “good critic” is very much out of fashion — not because we believe that such creatures do not exist, but because we all identify as both. The machine of consumerism is designed to encourage us all to believe that our preferences are significant and self-revealing; that a taste for Coke over Pepsi, or for KFC over McDonald’s, means something about us; that our tastes comprise, in sum, a kind of aggregate expression of our unique selfhood.

Catton begins her short essay by talking about elitism. And the way that complex writing, using “difficult” words like “crepuscular”, attracts accusations of elitism. But it’s when Catton tugs on the thread of consumerism that the issue of literary elitism begins to unravel. We think of writing that we don’t understand as being elitist. But this is only because we have been trained to think of literature as a product of consumerism.

Consumerism, requiring its products to be both endlessly desirable and endlessly disposable, cannot make sense of art, which is neither — not desirable, because an encounter already is, and not disposable, because an encounter exists relationally, in space and time.

Books are not chocolate bars. Books are not fashion clothing. Books are not motor cars. Or blockbuster movies. Literature is not a consumer good. It is, in Catton’s words, an encounter. The most crude and ridiculous sign of treating literature like a consumer good are the 5 star rating systems employed on Amazon and elsewhere.

All a starred review amounts to is an expression of brand loyalty, an assertion of personal preference for one brand of literature above another. It is as hopelessly beside the point as giving four stars to your mother, three stars to your childhood, or two stars to your cat.

Here Catton hands the reader / consumer a chance to think about literature in a quite different way. A book is like a relationsip. You encounter a book in the same way you encounter any person who becomes important in your life : parents, friends, lovers, even enemies. And of course this can only be true. Books come bubbling up from the deep imagination of other humans, they are about the deep emotional experience of being human, of being alive. How can you treat this like a can of coke?

The book in question is evaluated as a product, and because the product has failed to perform as advertised, it is judged to be deficient. These negative appraisals are rarely developed beyond, “If I had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, it would have been better.” I am always tempted to reply: “If you had understood/enjoyed/been interested in this book, you would have been better.”

Here is Catton’s trump card. She may be tempted to say it, I often find myself actually saying it. Literature isn’t there to entertain you. Any more than your friends, parents, lovers or anyone else in the world exists to serve your needs. These are all things that you relate to. And you are responsible for the health of all you relationships.

I highly recommend reading Catton’s essay in full. Then take some time to unpick the complex problem of literary elitism for yourself. Stop thinking about literature as a consumer good, and start thinking about it as an encounter. And then see if what once seemed like elitism, starts to look like something quite different.

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