Many people seem to think that if a person reads a great deal and studies English, he or she is the prototypical literary snob. This stereotype is the bookworm whose lip curls derisively each time he hears a double negative. But there are really two types of English language people, the literary snobs and the populists.
I am a populist. We are the flipside of the snobs, the fun ones you never hear about. The reason you don't hear about the populists is that we operate underground. We work for magazines like "Mad" or "National Lampoon". We write dirty limericks instead of the Great American Novel, and we occasionally con legitimate news organizations into unwittingly publishing our work. Heck, Dave Barry even swindled a Pulitzer Prize.
Even though the literary snobs think they are better than everyone else, we populists know the truth. Most of us went the traditional route at first. We studied the literary masters (enough to pass finals), wrote scholarly essays (snow jobs), and went to hear lecturers (valuable catnap opportunities). But, somewhere along the way, we parted company with the traditionalists. I prefer to think of it as breaking free.
My own liberation came along when I tried to justify my appreciation for popular writers like Robin Cook, John Grisham, and Robert Ludlum to one of my English professors. I told him that I thought those writers were more likely to survive the test of time than those currently considered "literary". My reasoning was that bestsellers more accurately reflect the popular culture of an era than the deep-thinking literary tomes they pushed on us in Contemporary Lit. As I recall, his lip curled back so far that it obscured his eyebrows.
I believed in what I said then, and I still stand by it today. Language is for everybody, not just those who can recite Beowulf. Populists are adept at pretending to be literary snobs because we needed those skills in order to stay in school. But we always secretly rejected the rules and standards of literature that they taught us. We knew we could rise above the petty distinctions and arbitrary lines the literati so love to draw. We read the funny pages first.
Literary populists and literary snobs do have one thing in common, though. We are in love with language. We listen and read and then think about the words and how they are used. We appreciate a well-turned sentence and pat ourselves on the shoulder when we make a snappy comeback.
The difference between us is a matter of philosophy. Populists want to share their love of words with everyone. We respect varied tastes, educational levels and life experiences. Not everyone can be William Styron, but everyone I've ever met can tell a good story once you get them on their subject.
Literary snobs hoard their love. They seek to exclude the general public and shroud their work in mystery. Ironically, snobs don't know it, but they are guaranteeing their own extinction. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
All one has to do is think of two of the greatest writers of all time to prove out this theory, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Shakespeare was an actor, a disreputable profession in his day. He played to the masses and his works are filled with scenes of murder, romance and infidelity, the tabloid television of Elizabethan England. Dickens' works were published as penny novels and distributed as serials on street corners. He wrote tales of human suffering and triumphs, much like afternoon soap operas.
I doubt very much that the literary snobs of those writers' eras thought those men were creating great literature. But in the long run, whom did history remember, the populists or the snobs?
I think I'll send a copy of this essay to my old college professor, just to prove my point. After all, more people will read this website than read his last dissertation. So there.
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