The Incredible Shrinking Sublime: the Battle of the Quotidian and the Spectacular in the War for the Cultural High Ground

Abstract: To say that the literary establishment and the popular mainstream do not share the same aesthetic values is something of a truism. But where do these values diverge? Why do they diverge? And what are the consequences of their differences? Taking verbal and online responses to my own work as a general indicator, I argue that it is the valuation of spectacle that most clearly distinguishes producers and consumers of literary narratives from their popular counterparts. A clear pattern has emerged in the kinds of criticisms I encounter for The Prince of Nothing: those espousing literary values tend to see the spectacular elements of the work as silly or preposterous, while those possessing more popular values tend to find the quotidian elements of the work boring in the extreme. The reason for this, I argue, has far more to do with human psychology than with aesthetic scruples. Since humans seem to possess an innate preference for hyperbolic representations, denigrating the spectacular and embracing the quotidian allows literary producers and consumers to identify themselves over and against the general population. The alienation of popular readers has become essential to literary self-identification. The result, I argue, has been a troubling compartmentalization of our culture. On the one hand, the writers supposedly most invested in challenging readers generally communicate only with those who already share the bulk of their values. On the other hand, readers in the popular mainstream rarely if ever encounter anything that challenges their preconceptions, reinforcing what I call ‘interpretative illiteracy,’ the magical belief that one’s own interpretations are the only interpretations worth serious consideration.


I take it as a given that cartoon reifications are the best that we humans can do when discussing social phenomena: things are always more complicated than our conceptual regimentations make them seem. But this does not change the fact that these regimentations are all we have to work with, nor does it mean that they don’t warrant conditional commitment. Without them, cultural criticism, let alone sociology or any of the other ‘human sciences’ would be impossible.

So when I mention things like the ‘literary establishment’ or ‘popular mainstream,’ I fully understand that the complexity of the phenomena far outruns the simplicity of the terms. But if you genuinely believe that our culture possesses short circuits that require addressing, then no matter what your level of analysis, you have no choice but to pose your simplifications as carefully as you can, and hope that something of the offending dynamic shines through.

The short circuit at issue here is what might be called ‘interpretative illiteracy,’ and how the literary establishment, far from mitigating the problem, actually makes it worse.

It is a fact that outside the natural sciences, we humans lack the cognitive and institutional resources to decisively arbitrate between competing theoretical interpretations. For whatever reason, the further we chase meaning from practical contexts the more volatile it becomes. This is why philosophers can mince and mince, why everyone has “their side of the story,” why every paper presented at this conference is subject to “death by a thousand qualifications,” and so on. Humans are out and out horrible when it comes to the formation and preservation of interpretative beliefs. As decades of psychological research have shown, we congenitally skew and confabulate to convince ourselves–let alone others–of our moral and cognitive rectitude. We are compulsive, self-serving, theoretical bunglers.

Interpretative illiteracy, as I understand it, is simply the assumption that one’s own interpretations are incontrovertibly true, which is to say, that one is somehow immune to the catalogue of cognitive and institutional shortcomings suffered by everyone else of the planet. Interpretative illiteracy, in other words, is a kind of magical thinking, one that victimizes humans in the billions. You literally can’t turn on the evening news without encountering its disastrous consequences. Whether it’s Bush or Chavez, Putin or Musharraf, everywhere you turn you find humans confusing their self-serving interpretations for the interpretation.

Given that interpretation is the business of the literary establishment, you might expect the issue of interpretative literacy would concern its members the way the issue of scientific literacy, say, concerns members of the scientific establishment. But this is not the case. There’s plenty of hand-wringing and head-shaking, to be sure, but unlike the sciences, no one ever asks whether the present state of affairs represents the failure of the literary establishment.

I do. And I blame this failure–in part anyway–on what might be called the “incredible shrinking sublime.”

Let me give you something of a long-winded explanation.

I’m pretty much a one trick pony when it comes to my fiction: embrace a generic form, stuff it full of literary content, then roll the results to the Gates of Troy. The Prince of Nothing is exactly this, an epic fantasy that mixes dark lords with figurative language, sorcerers with an emphasis on internal action, barbarians with ontologically subversive doubles.

Now even though I think this is a good trick, the responses I’ve received have been nothing short of, well, schizophrenic. I knew going in that I would likely encounter resistence on both sides of the literature/genre divide, but I blithely thought that the simple genius of my caper would somehow shine through. I was dead wrong.

Take my reading group, for instance, which consists of five English professors and myself. A year or so ago I made the mistake of suggesting my most recent draft for our next read. As it turned out the consensus was pretty much a verbal corollary of what I had seen in their eyes when I described my work to them in the first place. “How can you write about this stuff? I mean… you’re actually kind of smart!” One of them even sent an email urging me to reconsider my career, saying my talent was wasted on writing that–and this is a direct quote–”fantasy crap.”

The implication was quite clear. If you want to matter, then you have to write for people who mattered. In other words, you have to write–surprise-surprise–for likes of them. So I asked them, why would I want to write for them when they pretty much shared all my values in the first place? I wanted to argue with readers, I said, change minds, maybe even open the odd one here and there, not make cash selling intellectual buzzes to the academic choir.

“You’re telling me to sell out!” I cried.

Now, being an English professor and finding yourself at a loss for words is something like owning a health-food store and finding yourself constipated. Nothing is more obvious to people–be they young earthers or post-structuralists–than the superiority of their values and beliefs. It’s the values and beliefs we already possess that comprise the yardsticks we use to measure different values and beliefs. How can it be otherwise? We’re literally hardwired to confuse agreement for intelligence.

This is why the most effective arguments simply make explicit the inconsistencies found between commitments we already possess. On the one hand, my professorial friends knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned selling intellectual buzzes to the academic choir. If I wrote for them, as they were suggesting, what else would I be doing? There was precious little I could show them that they hadn’t seen already. On the other hand, they still believed the self-congratulatory rhetoric that had sustained them through many long and cold and dark graduate school night: namely, that they were the sworn foes of all things crass and commercial–of selling out. And as a result, they suffered a genuine moment of “cognitive dissonance.” Their voices got all bunged up.


Yes. I actually won an argument with not one, but five English professors.

This has been my question for a long, long time. If you want to use narrative to argue, which is to say, to challenge received wisdom, then why the hell would you write for people who already share the bulk of your wisdom? I guarantee you, aside from getting lucky now and again (like I did with my reading group), all you’re going to do is provide a species of high-end entertainment. If you want to do more than simply entertain, then you have to reach out with your fiction, communicate to readers whose values and beliefs are substantially different from your own.

And I would argue that pound for pound there’s no better vehicle for doing this than writing genre fiction.

Now all this strikes me as obvious. The real mystery, it seems to me, is why the most gifted writers of our age, the narrative arguers extraordinaire, the DeLillos, Morrisons, Ondaatjes, and so on, seem bent on communicating only to those who already share the bulk of their beliefs and values. When you really think about it, this is a kind of cultural tragedy, and a profound one, given that humanity stands upon so many brinks. We need critical insight now more than at any time in human history, and yet somehow we’ve managed to seal all our most penetrating voices in a kind of literary echo chamber. The walls are porous to be sure, but they remain walls nonetheless, and at a time when we can least afford them.

How the hell could something like this have happened?

In any communication breakdown (even a mass societal one with apocalyptic consequences such as this) either there’s a problem with the transmitter, the signal, or the receiver. Since most everyone likes to make themselves the hero of their stories (trust me, the next time I tell this story it’ll be ten English professors in my reading group), it’s no surprise that those on the transmission side have some exculpatory tale to tell. The one I hear the most often is some butchered variant of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument in “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” something about the way standardization in mass market cultural production literally trains consumers to demand more standardization. In this scenario, the problem isn’t that DeLillo doesn’t reach out with his fiction, but that the System slams the door on his literary fingers. No matter how hard he heroically struggles, the corporate anaesthetization of the masses is simply too complete. He reaches and reaches, but the low-brow mainstream lacks the nerves to feel his touch, let alone the vocabulary to comprehend his voice.

I call this the “Myth of the Lowest Corporate Denominator.” The fact is DeLillo does quite well entertaining the educated classes, thanks to the culture industry, and because of the ironic complexity and lyrical density of works like his bestselling Underworld. The problem isn’t that the System is dumbing our society down. This is flattering to believe because it means anytime you write something complicated you can pretend you’re “fighting the System.” But humans have always been stupid. The problem, the real problem, is that the System has found a way to prevent our society’s most critical voices from tempering that stupidity with doubt. The problem isn’t cultural decline, it’s cultural balkanization.

DeLillo is simply broadcasting a signal outside the range of certain kinds of receivers–a literary signal. After a few years of trolling message board topics with titles like “Bakker Sucks Ass!” or “Who hates The Prince of Nothing?” I actually think I have a good sense of which parts of the literary signal are not getting through. For instance, I can tell you that statements like “This stuff is stupid,” and “This is pompous bullshit,” generally equal, “I don’t understand this,” or that, “None of the characters are likable,” usually amounts to, “I don’t know who to root for.”

But among the many literary stumbling blocks my readers complain about, the runaway favourite has to be, “Nothing happens,” which pretty clearly translates, I think, into “Boring.” And this, I would hazard, is the greatest sin in storytelling. You can confuse a reader with ambiguity, frustrate them with unfamiliar concepts, disappoint them with characters that fall short of their sentimental idealizations–you can pretty much do anything–so long as you keep them interested.

Which brings me back to the incredible shrinking sublime.

I personally have no bloody clue just what the sublime is, but like so many things I have no bloody clue about–truth, goodness, knowledge, beauty, and so on–I like to think I know it when I see it, or the appearance of it anyway. When I do find myself grappling for words, I tend to take a turn to the Kantian, and see the sublime as a kind of dwarfing recognition, a bearing witness to the sparks of transcendence that seem to wink in all things great and small. Since I think that epic fantasy is the paradigmatic literature of dwarfing recognition, a kind of ‘scripture otherwise,’ I tried to evoke the sublime in all its guises throughout The Prince of Nothing, from the fantastic enormities of world and history to the mundane nuances of the everyday.

And this, it turns out, was my mistake. My literary readers–what few of them I have–generally find the fantastic enormities silly and preposterous, whereas my genre readers–a good portion of them, anyway–find the mundane nuances boring to the extreme. Save for a happy few, fantastic enormities and mundane nuances, the bloated and shrunken extremes of the sublime, just don’t seem to mix.

To understand how this has come about, we need to rehearse a few unpleasant facts regarding human nature. Humans are prone to make self-congratulatory identity claims (which should come as no surprise given the relationship between status and reproductive success in our past). We all like to think we’re better (I’d like to see you take on fifteen English professors!), and so we find ourselves arguing our superiority across a landscape laid down by the winners of past superiority arguments. In every sphere of contemporary human cultural production you find versions of the same status topography, with various groups bitching back and forth, the low-grounders complaining about elitism and arrogance, the high-grounders bemoaning obstinacy and ignorance–”If only they would open their eyes!”

Now this pattern is so universal, so endemic to human interaction, that it would be a miracle if the literary establishment did not fall prey to it somehow. Of course it falls prey to it. And of course all the various institutional players–professors, reviewers, editors, writers–prattle on and on generally oblivious to the sad predictability of it all. Sure, they armour themselves with obligatory ironic shrugs and self-deprecating remarks, but in the end they genuinely believe their yardstick is the biggest. And aside from the odd encounter with Bourdieu, the inextricable link between status and aesthetic evaluation is usually passed over in silence.

So this is what I think has happened: the late 19th century boom in literacy generated a subtle but continuous social pressure on literary specialists to differentiate themselves from the masses: to avoid identification with what marketers call ‘dissociative reference groups.’ Since education was free, literary specialists could no longer rely on the price of their drinks to safeguard the aristocratic reputation of their establishment. They needed some new selection mechanism. Experimentalism was one such mechanism: since form fidelity is a kind of default value (1 kid plus 1 Finding Nemo DVD equals 100 viewings for a reason) counting its violation a positive becomes a clear cut indicator of distinction.

The same is the case with the sacralization of the quotidian and the corresponding debasement of the spectacular. Spectacle is also a universal default value: for whatever reason the bulk of humanity loves hyperbolic representations of action and reality. Transformed into a negative value, it became a convenient way of differentiating certain literary practitioners from the unwashed masses. Once this selection mechanism became institutionalized at the university level, the process became self-perpetuating. Every writer with a yen to argue learned very quickly–as quickly as I learned not to mention my scribblings in my undergrad literature classes–that the only serious narrative arguments were quotidian narrative arguments.

Shrinkage became the rule among the literary elite. And our all too human penchant for rationalization and stereotyping took care of the rest. Since the lack of communication across cultural blocs was too obvious to be ignored, they cooked up status quo preserving claims that either blamed the blocs not communicated to, or even better transformed both sides of the short-circuit–the one enlightened, the other cretinized–into hapless victims of an invincible System. And since the world is complicated and our brains love to economize, their disdain of spectacle devolved into a kind of automatic reflex, a rule too obvious to warrant critical attention.

All of this, I think, is wonderfully distilled in DeLillo’s famous maxim: “Write for the page.” I imagine many here think this expresses a positive value, which might be paraphrased as something like, “The best writing is writing unconstrained by reader expectations.” Sounds cool, I guess. After all, who wants to be constrained? And if your writing is unconstrained by reader’s expectations, won’t the chances of confounding those expectations be all the greater?

But this simply espouses a myth of compositional purity on a par with myths of motivational purity expressed in such hackneyed imperatives as “Follow your heart,” or “Listen to your gut.” Since your “heart” and “gut” are largely the product of childhood socialization, following or listening to them is bound to produce conventional results. “Follow your heart,” understood in this light, is the way we say, “Do what society expects of you without question,” under the flattering guise of motivational autonomy.

If “Write for the page,” were simply a version of “Follow your heart,” which is to say, a way for literary writers to embrace conventionality under the self-conscious pretense of aesthetic autonomy, then you would expect that DeLillo, despite his declarations to the contrary, would reliably confirm the expectations of his readership–which, he in fact does. Thanks to our compartmentalized culture, one of the most brilliant voices of our age has been reduced to writing narrative apologies–entertaining–while pretending he writes narrative arguments.

To summarize using film as an analogy: what’s wrong with Hollywood isn’t all the car-chases and explosions and superheros and so on, but that these things have been abandoned to the narrative entertainers and apologists. Spectacle is not intrinsically empty or conservative or ornamental–that’s an artifact of our own making. Homer was Hollywood. Shakespeare was Hollywood. Humans will always like things that shriek and boom because we seem to be literally hardwired for the big fat sublime. But somehow we’ve managed to create a literary culture where this, a natural opportunity to argue with people across cultural blocs, has become something that argumentative writers studiously avoid–a culture where, to be taken seriously as a narrative arguer, you have to buy into the incredible shrinking sublime, and so argue with no one at all.

The literary establishment has to be called to account. Its members need to be reminded that arguing is as arguing does, that because their aesthetic values tend to select audiences who already agree with them, their narrative arguments tend to do most of the things that entertainment does, and few of the things that arguments do. They need to understand that their exile from the cultural commons is self-imposed. They need to be convinced that this is cause for deep concern, that when people find themselves in a world where everything seems literal, a world where all the meanings seem mastered, they are prone to think their interpretation is not simply the best among convincing alternatives, but the only game in town.

Stupidity is a given. It’s the conviction otherwise that should terrify us.