Pop-Literature vs Classic Novels, How Does One Become the Other?

Christy of A Good Stopping Point wrote an incredibly thought-provoking entry about pop culture’s ability or inability to transcend to future generations of readers. The entry caused me to have some deep moments of reflection on the topic, but when I went to post a comment to her entry, I felt I would be spamming her blog with my inane chatter. And so I’ve written this entry, inspired completely by her’s.

I think I have some of the same struggles as Christy when assessing modern books with pop-culture references. For me it’s hard to look beyond my impression of the modern-day novel as a modern-day reader. I can’t tell if my disgust for some of these reference-laden books stems from the over-saturation of our media in general–what with easy WiFi-Facebooked accesss to everything, including and not limited to the last time my brother had a bowel movement (thanks, btw)–or because the book is actually a poor example of literature.

As I was reading Christy’s entry, 2 fairly recent books sprang to mind: The Time Traveler’s Wife and Twilight. Both novels were pretty explicit, and irritating, in their pop culture references, but the books are extraordinarily different in their value as literature. Whereas Twilight merely served to coddle my 14-year-old self, The Time Traveler’s Wife had far more merit and worth, and focused on some very thoughtful themes.

I think that might be the difference, at least from my perspective. It’s the universality of a novel that speaks to us. Perhaps if I were to read Cranston as the 1850’s version of myself, I might find the references to be irritating. But because the book has some truly universal motifs and was carefully written, I probably wouldn’t’ve hated the book. Cranston has able to transcend the ages. Likewise, if I were to make a guess, I would argue that The Time Traveler’s Wife stands a better chance of attaining status as a classic than Twilight. The vampire-craze will fade, but loneliness and waiting and yearning will always be there for everyone. And yes, teenagers will always be angsty and self-conscious and feel misunderstood, but I doubt that 50 years from now Twilight will be the topic of an AP English test essay.

I guess basically what I’m saying is that first impressions probably are correct. If You Say Tomato had merit to Christy (this is me putting words into her mouth, by the way) beyond bubbly pop-culture brain-candy, she would still be annoyed by the references, but would have felt the novel on a deeper level. In the end it’s the experiences and feelings that are important and universal. And it’s these experiences and feelings that help a book like Cranston retain its appeal, and not Dane Cook’s career and not Rosie vs Donald, because those things just don’t matter in the grander scheme of life.

As I was writing this, I started thinking about what makes other things classic and transcendent. Something About Mary and Wedding Crashers, or even Seinfeld, are hilarious for awhile, but when I’ve gone back to these shows recently, they aren’t as strong or as funny as they used to be. They have faded. But shows like I Love Lucy and Dick van Dyke or even Frasier still make me laugh out loud, even when alone. A joke is funny, but it is the overall human experience that is hilarious and transcendent. There will always be that well-meaning person who’s pride and self-consciousness gets the better of them, but a joke about George Stephanopoulos can only be funny a set number of times before it become irrelevant or becomes another one of those “Oh, yea, I heard that one before, here’s the punch-line”.

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4 responses to “Pop-Literature vs Classic Novels, How Does One Become the Other?

  1. I’m so glad that you continued the discussion into your blog! I remember the references in Time Traveler’s Wife – the husband and wife both liked the same bands – I think the Pixies was one of the bands? It wasn’t one of my favorite aspects of the book. However, I liked the book overall, especially how Niffenegger envisioned time-travel and worked it out in the narrative.

    I don’t remember the pop culture references in Twilight, but then I only was halfway through the first book before I quit. I had other reasons for not liking the book.

    Regarding your last paragraph: Humor is one of the trickiest things to manage in a book, I think, or for that matter, in movies. What strikes someone as funny seems to be very particular. If you ask someone why he or she laughs about something, it could be triggered by a memory (“it reminded me of such-and-such”), empathy (“that’s exactly how my workplace is”) and just taste in general. Some like wit, some like crude humor, some like physical comedy, and so on. Humor seems sooo heavily dependent on context. “You had to have been there” right? I don’t envy writers of comedies.

    • Yea, I was wondering myself about putting in that humor part at the end there. Humor is so individual, but speaking for me, the universal goofiness sticks with me more than just an individual joke.

      As far as Twilight goes… I guess it was more name dropping that occurred than actual pop culture references. Such and such amazing car, such and such music, etc. But it still carried the pretentiousness of most pop culture references.

  2. C.S. Lewis has a really interesting essay called “On Stories” that I just read that this reminds me of. It’s in a collection of essays called “Of Other Worlds”. I highly recommend it if you get the chance.

    • I will have to check it out! I love thinking about reading on an academic level, probably the biggest thing I miss about being in school is the way literature was approached in English classes.

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