This is rewritten slightly from an essay I wrote in the late 70's for a class on the place of art in society. Much has changed since that time, and popular culture has come into its own in ways we never dreamed way back in the olden days. Today you might find me reading a romance or scifi or fantasy novel which lives on the same shelf with Woolf and Faulkner and Rushdie. But I think my argument remains valid, and that there are more pages than we dream of in which we might find pieces of ourselves to examine.
I've long thought that good art is any art in which we recognize something of ourselves.
Literature, for instance, is a hunting story. Or a love story--we met, we loved, we got married or lost each other or died. Or it may be a third grader's essay on "How I Spent My Summer Vacation."
The rest of it is elaboration, telling more and more of the story until you have "Deliverance" or "Anna Karennina" or "Death in Venice." In between we have myth and comic books and True Romance, genre fiction,non-fiction, children's stories and "good books."
A woman reading a romance is responding from more levels of complexity than we may at first believe. She is reading a story about herself. She may be 49, thick, dress her hair in early fifties curls, and wear pastel polyester, but the story of a woman with three lovers and a husband on a haunted houseboat is a story about her composed of myth, the social-historical setting and economics. "Houseboat Horror" speaks to her on several levels.
What happens if we offer her "Orlando," by Virginia Woolf? Is there any place in that book that tells her a story about herself? Is "Houseboat Horror" bad art because it can be read and comprehended by nearly anyone happening upon it? Is "Orlando" better because its layers of complexity appeal to a narrower readership?
The ultimate value of art is not only that it can show us to ourselves, it can also show us ourselves in different guises. It can offer us a choice. "Houseboat Horror" presents hackneyed, sterotyped choices which can only reinforce and perpetuate the society it reflects. And yet what if we readers of "Orlando" find pieces of ourselves in its pages? Pieces that we like. What if the woman with a shelf full of romances catches a glimpse of herself in "Orlando"?
What universes have we yet to discover when we go beyond that which we consider to be good literature? What upheavals in understanding ourselves and others? How can we introduce "Orlando" to the less educated women of the world? More importantly, perhaps, how can we understand the lure of "Houseboat Horror?" I just made that title up and already I want to read it. Surely it's out there somewhere, waiting for me to discover its delights.