So-called Easy Reads should not be confused with Easy Writes. There are no easy writes. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” Roger Angell reminds us in the “Foreword” to the fourth edition of “The Elements of Style,” the lately lambasted as prescriptivist poppycock handbook that nonetheless many still enjoy – but at least this Angell point seems unassailable.
Arthur Krystal’s “Critic at Large” piece in the May 28, 2012 New Yorker (81-84), titled “Easy Writers,” revisits the highbrow impulse to visit the literary gutter. He doesn’t mention “The Elements of Style,” but he might have. The literary gutter is where one finds one’s genre or formula works, potboilers, dime store paperbacks, Classics Illustrated, though Krystal seems to stop short of the romance novels, so even the critic at large granting absolution for partaking in “guilty [reading] pleasures” might still be seen separating the venial from mortal reading sin.
Krystal’s piece is behind the New Yorker paywall, so get it at the library or get a subscription. Krystal writes some choice lines: “Modernism, of course, confirmed the idea of the commercial novel as a guilty pleasure by making the literary novel tough sledding.” White, of course, would have struck Krystal’s “of course” as needless words. And there’s the rub to the whole nexus: Krystal’s audience. Who’s he saying “of course” to? He says, “…intelligence could be a hindrance to writing fiction; otherwise, every intelligent critic would be capable of writing a readable novel,” thus like a boxer at a punching bag left rights with stinging insult both writer and critic at once.
Ibsen said of Zola that Zola went to the sewer to take a bath in it, while Ibsen waded in wanting to clean it. Just so, the general interest reader goes to the literary gutter to play in the mud, not to tidy things up. Feeling guilty for some readers is no doubt part of the pleasure. “Apparently,” Krystal says, “we’re still judged by the books we read, and perhaps we should be.” And who’s the judge? Krystal shares critic Harold Bloom’s testimony against Stephen King, upon King’s winning a medal from the National Book Foundation: “The fact that the…judges [Bloom said] ‘could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.'” Maybe, but does that absolve Bloom of being in denial? Bloom has written a shelf load of critical works and one novel, which he has disinherited.
There are no reading sins, but if one needs to confess something, it might be for not reading anything at all.