Literarily Meritorious: The Highbrow, the Lowbrow, and Why It’s All the Same

As a student of literature–or more accurately, someone who is still in a fair amount of shock that I actually get to make a career out of studying and teaching literature–of often feel the presence of a large tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, Darjeeling-sipping elephant in the classroom: literary merit.

Literary merit establishes canon. It is the reason behind why we read one author but not another; it differentiates between the classics and popular fiction. It’s why you’re more likely to have read Frankenstein or Rob Roy than a penny dreadful. While literary merit is important in distinguishing the voice of a particular society and identifying the authors who most powerfully capture the spirit of a generation, I have a lot of reservations about the merit of literary merit.

For a soon-to-be PhD student, I read an awful lot of what might be described as lowbrow literature. I have a thing for contemporary pop fiction including mysteries, sci-fi, YA, and historical fiction. While I value the artistry, the appeal to the core of the human condition, the themes, motifs, poetry, and general significance of literature that has been dubbed meritorious–both classic and contemporary–I live for the paperback novel, works that value entertainment over a visceral search for truth.

Perhaps literary scholars might grant that as a genre, popular fiction contains literary merit in that it can be indicative of popular tastes, concerns, attitudes, and anxieties. Perhaps they would say that popular fiction is valuable as a group and as a genre, but not because their is confidence that, on their own, the works are able to provide any intrinsic stylistic or thematic inimitability.

The problem with this approach, that is, assigning literary merit to some works and assessing those works individually and in great minutiae, but assigning literary merit to other works only as they belong to part of a larger group of literature or trend, limits what could be valuable insight into works that, while they might not be deliberately artistic, certainly speak to other aspects of the human experience.

Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries series (the series that the show True Blood was based on), is an author who constantly brings me back for more. Most of her works are mystery novels, novels that if you put your mind to it, you could finish in a day. She writes easy-to-read, engrossing novels that feature female leads and narrators. They fit decidedly within the realm of popular fiction–what many would probably call a beach read–and are occasionally very silly (a hunky weretiger who is also an event and party planner?), but when we write them off as pulpy little paperbacks that cower in the shadows of literary “greats” we’re depriving ourselves of the opportunity to study some pretty fascinating stuff.

HBO
Sookie Stackhouse played by Anna Paquin (HBO)

For writing about vampires, werewolves, fairies, and demons, Harris has an incredible knack for capturing the mundane without pretension. Despite the insane and surreal supernatural happenings in Bon Temps, Louisiana, Harris has a true understanding not only of everyday life and a similar understanding of humans, propriety, and social decorum to that of Jane Austen, she also manages to convincingly communicate how a (mostly) normal woman would react to totally abnormal events.

Like so much media that features the supernatural and the more-than-human, Harris, too, asks us what it really means to be human–not just in terms of humans vs. insert-supernatural-entity-here, but in terms of how we define ourselves as humans against the human we were just a moment ago. Harris’ heroines, like Sookie Stackhouse and Aurora Teagarden (amazing names, right?), often start out with a fair amount of Bella Swan Syndrome: they’re so normal and unremarkable that they could be any woman who impresses the nuances of her own personality onto them. Unlike Bella Swan, however, Charlaine Harris’ heroines grow, they fight back–they become willful, defined, and distinct. By the end of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series, which ended in 2013 (RIP), the Sookie Stackhouse we met in the first novel was not the same Sookie Stackhouse we left in the last one. She has both grown into a better person and developed more flaws. She is stronger and more aware of what she wants, but she is also willing to admit what she needs and how she is lacking.

Harris also appears to be fascinated not only by Southern American culture (Harris is from Arkansas), but also by the gender roles and traditions that manifest between the older and younger generations in Southern society. Sookie Stackhouse begins the series as an unmarried pretty blonde virgin, but as the supernatural world begins to creep more absolutely into her life, she discovers herself and her sexuality. Her liaisons often serve as romantic and mildly erotic fodder, but they also show several examples of varying masculinities. Through Sookie’s various beaux, we are invited to examine and be critical of how masculinity manifests itself in contemporary society, how old-fashioned masculinity (portrayed by several of the series’ vampires) can be both grating and refreshing in modern life. It’s a whole can of worms I don’t have the space to open right now.

One of the most evident themes in Harris’ work, especially in the SVM series, is the treatment and tolerance of marginalized groups of people. Vampires announce themselves to the world after the Japanese invent a synthetic blood that allows them to live alongside humans instead of, you know, eating them. And yet, maybe understandably, a lot of humans still aren’t super cool with giving vampires full rights in society, or pleased that they’ve “come out of the coffin” at all. She discusses the deep-seated prejudices inherent in the American South, in humanity in general, by creating supernatural analogies for the underrepresented, for the unfamiliar and subsequently frightening.  She also opens the floor to discussion and change through a cast of characters that are capable of tolerance and compassion as well as heinous evil, challenging us to negotiate the gray space in between.

I’m not here to say that there isn’t such a thing as bad writing, or that every single work of popular fiction is worthy of our critical eye, but surely using “literary merit” as a benchmark for what is worthy of our consideration not only robs us of an excellent literary adventure, it also promotes damaging prejudice that increases affectation and bias in developing literary canon. If to be literarily meritorious we must emulate or be inspired by the likes of Shakespeare, Yeats, Austen, Wright, or other authors of such caliber, would we not only be seeing the world on so lofty a perch? Why in order to have literary merit must an author sit above us? Why not with us?

 

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