Thursday, March 10, 2011

A steady diet of kitsch and later.

Today, I suddenly realised that I had been on a steady diet of kitschy books for quite a while. A recent break was Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winner, The Inheritance of Loss. The one huge benefit I got from my erstwhile diet was that my enjoyment of Desai’s novel was that much more heightened. On second thoughts, though, there was no way I could not have enjoyed the book immensely in any event. The main reason for it is personal. I am more than familiar with the historical background against which the story unfolds and find Desai’s even-handed portrayals of the Indian (for that matter, Third-World) “losers” – those who stay back as well as those who break away – something I can empathize with. Of late I also happened to be thumbing through Alfie Thompsons’s Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lover's Guide to Writing a Novel (Running Press, 2006). Thompson is clear about who her guide is meant for: only those wanting to author “popular, an-editor-will-be-interested-in-buying-it, written-for-readers stories”. What she has in mind is the product of what the Marxist art theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called “culture industry”. This happens to be the culture mass-manufactured to satisfy “false” needs created by Capitalism, pandering to what Virginia Woolf designated as middlebrow tastes. Here readers buy books that are on bestseller lists rather than for their intrinsic literary value. According to her view, art, beauty, form, integrity and value don’t matter. What moves the merchandise is the so-called experts’ nod: The Book-of-the-Month Club, the NY Times Top 10 list, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and so forth. If memory serves, Russell Lynes, the erstwhile editor of Harper’s Magazine, made fun of the Woolf hypothesis but nonetheless subdivided her middlebrow category into upper-middlebrow and lower-middlebrow. According to him, the former were art patrons as well as owners and administrators of museums, operas, art galleries, orchestras and publishing houses – in short, all that comprises the fountainhead of consumable culture created by the highbrow set. A member of the lower-middlebrow set would use art to improve her minds as well as her lot in life. Today’s Middle India seems to have a surfeit of these worthies.