I confess, I had a difficult time figuring out what to do with the news of Harper Lee’s new publication. When I got home this afternoon, I tweeted a nice message of support for a local band whose new CD is just pressed–we got our copy through the slot today. The music’s great, and the writer/singer/strummer is a friend and former neighbour. Tweeting support was absolutely the right thing to do.
Except I then decided to figure out why people on my feed were talking about “savages” and “Jordanian”, and after a click or two, my cheery tweet seemed somewhat out of place. Twitter is, of course, that cheek-by-jowl blend of grotesque, mundane, inane, and clever. But it felt odd.
So aside this, I see the news about the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I feel like I’m being told one of those stories about how Grandma got on the roof. Or like Kramer: I’m flippin, I’m floppin, what am I gonna do?
A couple of hours later, after the kids are abed, I look more into the Harper Lee story. We need good news, right? And the news is all good, as seen in this story from the Guardian… right until the comments from Dr. Ian Patterson from Cambridge University (otherwise known as the University of Cambridge) who was reportedly “underwhelmed by the news.” Dr. Patterson gives it the right smug academic snub, deriding Lee’s first published work as “a soggy sentimental liberal novel if ever there was one.” He doubts, it seems, the lasting power or artistic worth of the unearthed treasure that is about to dazzle all the bestseller lists.
And power to him. Bestsellers? They’re a mug’s game. I see from his university profile that he is “writing a book which analyses contemporary literary culture through a hostile critique of Ian McEwan’s work.” Sounds like a really chummy guy. I wonder how many English professors the Guardian had to call before they found one who would go on record kicking the book and its readers to the gutter. (It’s called “balance” in the journalistic parlance.)
But then again perhaps not. I worry that Patterson’s comments are indicative of a posture among academics that sneers at what people love. Perhaps there is less elegant craft in Harper Lee than in Marcel Proust, but it need not be said what multiplier we could add to “hearts touched” in a strict one-to-one comparison. Sociologists of culture–I’m thinking especially of Raymond Williams, Howard Becker, and Pierre Bourdieu–thrill at noting just how constructed the distinction between high and low art is. By diminishing Lee for the Guardian, Patterson seems to be supplying an object lesson in that construction. And it may reinforce for people the idea that the study of literature is out of touch with that which is good, or that “good” in the way the Ivory Tower decrees it is not the kind of “good” most folk would actually want to read.
This actually matters a bit to me, because I’m just about to seal the deal on the ol’ PhD myself and become one of these folk. And it’s true that I read news about Muslims in a different way from many. I might even sigh (true confessions, folks) at their reductive conclusions or the e-mails they pass on to me which someone passed on to them about some horrible and obviously irrefutable practice that happened half a world away and say, “You see?” waiting for me to give my typical liberal lefty defense or throw my hands above my head and say, “You’re right.”
I don’t want to set myself apart from them. I want the conversations I’m implicated in to matter to other people, and I don’t want to give people a stick with which to beat me. Harper Lee may be no Proust, but I’m not sure who it serves to tell people excited about literature that they’re wrong.