I just read The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida's late-career foray into deconstructionist theology. Of course, to come out and say that you've been reading the famously abstruse French philosopher is a major throwdown. ("Look at my brain!") It's also a little embarrassing. What sort of poseur lets it be known that he reads Derrida? In my case, the pretension is compounded by my motivation. I picked up the book because my brother the English professor had just mentioned his own Derrida reading, and I was feeling inadequate. He didn't mention Derrida on the phone or in person, either, but in the comments section of my snooty comics blog, which is where I have most of my conversations with him these days. And yes, that's embarrassing, too.
In Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture University of Notre Dame film, television, and English professor Jim Collins doesn't discuss Derrida at all. He focuses instead on the intersection of Virginia Woolf and Amazon.com's recommended lists. Where cultural critics going back to the Frankfurt School turned up their umlauts at marketing and nonprint media, Collins celebrates both in all their pomo pop glory. "What used to be a thoroughly private experience," he enthuses, "has become an exuberantly social activity, whether it be in the form of actual book clubs, television book clubs, Internet chat rooms." He goes out of his way to explain that his book was inspired by looking at those murals depicting the likes of Hemingway, Wilde, and Whitman that adorn the walls of Barnes & Noble cafes. Thus, Collins himself is part of the new reading community he examines—a kind of cultural amphibian, splooshing back and forth between the chain-store pond and the literary lily pad in an endless ribbit of bliss.
Getting to that blessed state requires some complicated negotiation and analysis. But Collins is a smart thinker and crisp writer, so the trip is enjoyable. One of the book's most entertaining set pieces is his description of a class discussion he led on the brouhaha that broke out in 2001 when Oprah Winfrey chose Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections for her book club and Franzen responded by explaining, basically, that he was too cool for the room. Collins asked his grad students to watch an Oprah's Book Club segment, read Franzen's novel and some of his essays, and decide what they thought. What they thought, more or less, was "a pox on both your houses." While they were broadly sympathetic to Oprah's efforts to promote reading, her actual book club taping, with its celebrity guest stars and vapid cheerleading, filled them with disdain. "This is like watching a Weight Watchers infomercial," one concluded. "It's all about mutual affirmation and feeling good about yourself!'"
They showed even less patience for Franzen's earnest pomposity and knee-jerk disdain for visual culture. Responding to Franzen's boast that he'd given up his television, one student wondered, "Is this guy caught in a time warp or what? He sounds like the deposed Crown Prince of Modernism, waiting to be restored to the throne."
The binary represented by the Oprah/Franzen fight—literature as mass-media self-help for all vs. literature as self-definition for the few—not only appears in various forms (Miramax Films vs. new wave, novelist Nick Hornby vs. critic Michiko Kakutani) in Bring on the Books for Everybody but structures it. Like his grad students, Collins is good at making fun of both sides of the conflict, but he's at his best when he does so by reshuffling and complicating its terms. His final, bravura move is to argue that respected contemporary works like Ian McEwan's Saturday, Diane Johnson's Le Divorce, and David Lodge's Author, Author: A Novel belong to a genre he calls lit-lit. According to Collins, lit-lit novels name-drop dead authors obsessively and are built around an epiphany in which one or another character recognizes the transformative power of literature. The Crown Prince of Modernism and Oprah alike turn to fiction not for truth, beauty, or knowledge, but simply to cultivate their own sense of ineffable wonderfulness for appreciating the appreciation of literature.
At the beginning of the book, Collins announces that "if you hope this will be an exposé of the Evils of the Culture Industry, or a snappy remix of 'I Sing the Culture Electric,' go no further, because this book isn't for you." But this is misleading: Collins does take sides, preferring Oprah to Franzen and self-help to sanctimony. So why the pretense of neutrality? Why not just embrace Oprah if that's where the logic takes you?
The answer comes down to two words: cultural studies.
Collins never actually mentions cultural studies, the academic examination—and, often, enthusiastic touting—of popular culture. But that's nonetheless what makes it possible for him to condescend to the great unwashed while simultaneously sneering at elitists.
In The Gift of Death, Derrida concludes that literature is an empty, parasitic untheology, constantly seeking forgiveness for its meaninglessness. Ever the tenured radical, he sees this revelation as an affront to the academic establishment. But cultural studies is a more callow establishment than Derrida anticipated, and members like Collins don't have a problem with emptiness. On the contrary, Collins is "delighted" just to find that literary fiction "forms part of the cultural mixes" that modern cultural consumers "assemble with such gusto to articulate who they are, and what is crucially important to them." The content of their identities and concerns is utterly beside the point. Are they Nazis? Misogynists? Drooling idiots? As long as they embrace it with gusto, who cares? The point of literature is to make a statement regardless of what's said. By the same token, Collins is aware that, say, The Oprah Show is witheringly stupid and the movie version of The English Patient is an apologia for imperialism—but he can't bring himself to take the next step, which would be admitting that some of the detritus of popular culture deserves to be scorned.
I don't scorn Bring on the Books for Everybody. On the contrary, Collins's analysis of the way literary culture has changed and expanded taught me a lot—I'm even planning to see The Hours on the basis of his thoughtful recommendation. And he's certainly right that highbrow culture's long-standing contempt for the proles was and remains a sin. But his wishy-washiness doesn't expiate that sin. On the contrary, it's a continuation of the same contempt by other means. If academics like Collins were really down with the rest of us, they'd start throwing some punches.